Friday, 14 June 2013

The Flower Show Match

Siegfried Sassoon, as anyone who has read his prose works will be aware, was a great lover of the game of cricket.  Two of his greatest friends, the poet Edmund Blunden and the schoolmaster Dennis Silk, were also enthusiastic cricketers.  In fact, it was through Blunden that Sassoon met Silk, and the occasion of their first meeting is recorded in all biographies of Sassoon as well as in an interview Silk gave to Graham Lampard, which was published in an early edition of Siegfried's Journal.  The young Silk, then playing cricket for Cambridge University, mistook the elderly and rather eccentric gentleman who approached him at that first meeting for a practical joker, put up to it by another member of the team, and was astonished to discover his true identity.

Despite the disparity in age, the two men became close friends and remained so for the rest of Sassoon's life.  Dennis Silk, whose own exploits would fill a book in themselves, is now the President of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship.  This year, on 24th July, the SSF, in association with Matfield Cricket Club, will replay the Flower Show Match for the eighth time.  The original match, described by Sassoon as a turning-point in his childhood, in his first major prose work, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man,  took place at a local fete. 

Our replaying of the match bears little similarity to the original, although it is often graced with the presence of gawky teenagers who impress the spectators with an unexpected level of cricketing prowess.  However, the original Flower Show Match, which in Sassoon's memoirs is described as an experience of his fictional alter ego, George Sherston, actually took place at Brenchley, a neighbouring village, but the annual match between Sherston's XI and  Matfield Cricket Club  is played on Matfield Village Green, and attendance is free.  It is not the large impressive occasion described in Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, but it does have its own cachet.  Matfield boast that they never have difficulty in finding volunteers to play in the match, despite the fact that it takes place on a weekday afternoon.  Another point of interest is the quirky rules, although some effort is made to follow authentic Victorian cricketing customs. 

This does not always make for a decisive result.  Of the seven matches played so far, three have ended in a draw, but, for most of us, the enjoyment of the occasion is not dependent on an exciting finish on the pitch.  There are all kinds of other contributory factors, not least of which is the wonderful tea served up by the Matfield ladies in the pavilion.  Participants in last year's match, however, had to make do with temporary facilities, since the Jack Wish Pavilion of which the club was so proud had been destroyed by fire in September 2011, as a result of a small rodent chewing through electrical wires.  Matfield will soon open a fine new building, courtesy of grants from the Lottery Heritage Fund and donations from organisations and individuals that include the SSF and many of our members.

For most of the match’s history, Dennis Silk, our president, who is himself a former President of MCC and the Test and County Cricket Board, has been an umpire and judge at the annual match.   Those to whom he has presented the coveted Man of the Match award over the years include Ted Miller, the grandson of Edmund Blunden, and Andrew and Jeremy Lawson, great-great nephews of Siegfried Sassoon.  I regret to say that this year Dennis will not be able to carry out his usual duties, because of continuing medical treatment.  However, his doctor is pleased with his progress and we expect to see him back on form in time for next year’s match.  Another eminent cricketer who often puts in an appearance at the match is “Deadly” Derek Underwood, who has in the course of his distinguished international career been President of both MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club) and the “real” MCC (Matfield Cricket Club).

Cricket was one of Siegfried's great pleasures in later life.  He continued to play into his seventies, sometimes representing Downside Abbey, where the community had finally helped him to achieve the spiritual fulfilment he craved.  He wielded the bat but drew the line at running, needing a younger assistant to perform those exertions for him!

Who can forget the iconic photograph of Sassoon, Blunden and Dennis Silk, sitting on the porch of Heytesbury House in Wiltshire, Siegfried's last and longest home, listening to an Ashes Test on the wireless.  It conjures up a picture of life in 1950s Britain that compares with the nostalgia of the prose works Siegfried wrote in the 1920s and 1930s, celebrating his Victorian childhood and youth.  Using cricketing terminology, he told Silk that The Old Century was "a daisy of a book", and many of those who have read it will agree.    We can all relate to that little boy, with his tin of Blanco and his admiration for the senior batsmen who, to his admiring eyes, were the equal of W G Grace.  The Matfield team of today remain men (and sometimes women) who inspire our admiration.

The revival of the Flower Show Match was the idea of the renowned Bob Miller, who last year became only the third person to be honoured with life membership of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship, in recognition of his enormous contribution to the society’s continued success.  It is Bob who recruits players for Sherston’s XI and ensures that the match takes place.   He joins the ranks of those immortals – Blunden, Sassoon and Silk – who personify a love for the game of cricket combined with an appreciation of great literature.  Bob’s post-match readings are always a joy, and help remind us all why we are present by emphasizing the many and diverse ways in which Siegfried Sassoon has been an inspiration.

If you would like to know more about the match and its history, there is plenty of information on the SSF website: http://www.sassoonfellowship.org/flower-show-match.html
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