Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The Poet's and Peasants' XI

If you have read ‘England their England’ by A G Macdonell you will be familiar with the famous description of a village cricket match set in the home counties during the 1920s. It’s one of those quintessentially English pastimes that has barely changed since the Edwardian era. And I say this from experience.

Back in the days when I barely had a grey hair on my head, my older brother and a good friend decided over a few beers to form a cricket club, despite the fact that neither were particularly skilled exponents of the noble game. However, the idea was enthusiastically put about and within a matter of days, enough friends and friends of friends had expressed a keen interest to join.

My brother, being a lawyer, drew up a constitution which was duly presented to all those who had promised their support, and at the first ever meeting, which took place at The Cheshire Cheese public house in Fleet Street, certain key decisions were put to the vote. As a result, the cricket club was to be named the Poet’s and Peasants’; the official club colours were to be Green (for the grass), blue (for the sky) and gold (for the beer); and most importantly, the club was going to have to appoint a Poet. After much discussion, it was decided that Mr Alan Gibson (now sadly no longer with us), who was at that time writing a regular column for the Times newspaper would be the most suitable candidate to approach on the basis that his pieces captured the spirit of the game and were arguably some of the wittiest to be found in any of the nation’s sports pages. So a letter was drafted, agreed upon and posted to Mr Gibson.

Within a week Mr Gibson responded, and in the most charming terms accepted the honour of having the title Club Poet bestowed upon him, on the one condition that at the beginning of each season, a bottle of the finest malt whisky would be dispatched to him forthwith.

On this basis we had secured an eminent poet even though we didn’t have our own ground, or for that matter, much cricketing nous. Indeed, many of the founding members were professional musicians who were paranoid about their fingers, and refused point blank to field anywhere near the batsman for fear of damaging their precious Phalanges and Metacarpals. One Chris D Freeman, a double bass player, would field the ball with any part of his body except his hands and managed quite miraculously during one memorable game to take a catch between his knees. Needless to say, the poor batsman thought he was seeing things.

We got to play on some truly pretty village grounds. One such ground in Kent was the home of the Coddrington Cobblers. Like the Peasants, they were a very weak but enthusiastic team of delightful individuals, and before the match began one of their players confided that very few of their matches ever continued beyond the tea session. It soon became apparent why this should be, for in place of boundary markers were substantial barrels of local beer which the fielding side could enjoy at their leisure between overs. Seeing that we had plenty of musicians fielding on the boundary, much of the ale was consumed during the course of play (I’ve yet to meet a musician who doesn’t like a jar or five). And as it turned out, the tea was by no means the usual curled up sandwiches and stewed tea. No, instead the wives and partners of the Cobblers had prepared a feast of gargantuan proportions. So it was very much a case of food and drink stopped play.

The Poet’s and Peasants’ went on to enjoy ten consecutive seasons, including three tours in Devon, and during this time many colourful characters had at one time or other played for us.

There was the eccentric and brilliant historian Ronald Hutton (now Professor Hutton); the late John Macleod, a wonderful batsman and baritone who also happened to be the Laird of Skye; the club’s original co-founder, Bramwell Tovey (now the composer and Artistic Director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra), Thos Hodgson, a talented all-rounder (now a distinguished barrister in Sydney, Australia); Jonathan Milner a very fine batsman (now also a distinguished barrister, but over here); Tony Jenkins, our opening batsman and talented golfer who also drove trains on the London Underground; Oliver Heald (now a Conservative MP); Peter Greenhouse (now an eminent consultant in sexual heath); and of course Chris D Freeman who still plays double bass and was in fact the only member of the club to have his name appear in Wisden magazine, thanks to a piece written by our esteemed poet, the late Alan Gibson.

These days, every time I find myself driving through a village on a summer’s afternoon and pass the village green with its men in white flannels and that inimitable sound of leather on willow, I think back to those days of the Peasants, and for a second I feel a twinge of jealousy.

Photograph (from left standing): Stephen Greenhough, John McLeod, Nick Patrick, 
Chris Freeman, Mike Iland (Seated): Alex Pearl, Tony Garrett, David Pearl, Bob Collins, 
Mike O'Donell, Bramwell Tovey

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Friday, 20 January 2012

Not the ideal way to spend Christmas Eve

I was asked recently, while playing one of those silly board games after a couple of glasses of very drinkable Rioja, to describe the most embarrassing situation I've ever found myself in. I imagine we could all dredge up something from the past, but in my case, there were only two incidents that immediately sprung to mind.

The first was when I took a summer holiday job while at school as the mail-room assistant in a fairly stuffy firm of solicitors off Fleet Street. On my first day, having delivered mail to all the senior partners, I distinctly remember, to my embarrassment, hastily making an exit through a rather large broom cupboard. This was probably the funniest thing that those solicitors had ever witnessed, judging from the guffaws and bursts of uncontrollable laughter that ensued. To be the focus of attention for all the wrong reasons feels utterly humiliating if you're a spotty adolescent with very little self-confidence. It was, I have to admit, a horribly embarrassing experience.

But possibly less embarrassing though far more surreal, was the Guy Norris Christmas Eve episode, which took place the following year. Guy Norris was the name of a record shop I used to frequent in Gants Hill where I lived as a teenager with my parents. Unlike most kids who were into The Stranglers or Sex Pistols, I was into Joseph Haydn, and had set myself the hair-brained mission to collect every one of his 106 symphonies on vinyl. And it was over one particular Christmas Eve that I found myself riffling through the record shop's entire collection of classical music in search of the maestro’s early works - a search that turned up very little. So disappointedly, I trudged to the entrance and pulled the door, and in the process nearly yanked my arm off. The door wouldn't budge for good reason; it had been locked and the lights had been left on, along with the Christmas tree lights which twinkled away merrily.

When you are 15 years of age and locked in a record shop on Christmas Eve, you are faced with a difficult dilemma: do you knock manically on the glass window to attract the passers-by who may just think you're part of a rather novel Christmas display, or do you spare yourself the embarrassment and just sit it out until New Year? It was a tough one, but thankfully, I was saved by a third option in the form of a telephone, which sat on the counter.

Having spoken to my father, who then spoke to the police, who then spoke to the manager, who then went in search of the caretaker who was no doubt in his local boozer knocking back a pre-Christmas pint, it took another three hours before I was released from my temporary prison.

Funnily enough, I didn't listen to much Haydn after that.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

A peculiar kind of brand loyalty

We advertising copywriters are often accused of perverting what skills we have to merely flog a load of fairly dodgy merchandise that nobody in their right mind would ever consider parting money for. To some extent I suppose there is a grain of truth here. I have, in my time, had the dubious pleasure of writing ads for real stinkers. I won't name names but suffice it to say that I have written for at least one truly appalling motor car, more than one disastrous investment fund, a pretty horrid soft drink, a particularly unpleasant lager, a fairly unreliable brand of boiler, a telecoms company whose wireless routers are utterly hopeless... I could go on.

But the sad truth is that it isn't just members of the unsuspecting public who have the wool pulled over their eyes. You see, before any copywriter worth his salt can embark on the task of creating an idea and putting pen to paper, or indeed, fingers to keyboard, he has to immerse himself in the world of his client's. This invariably means visiting factories, warehouses or call centres, and experiencing the brand first hand. And, of course, to write convincingly and passionately about anything, whether it be a boiled sweet or a dirty lump of coal, a copywriter has to embrace it wholeheartedly and have utmost faith and confidence in it.

In my case, this has meant buying into the product quite literally. So I can now confess that I too have been gullible enough to believe my own advertising, and for years, have put up with investments that have gone nowhere other than downwards, temperamental cars that have decided to stop working on the North Circular, boilers that have quite literally blown up, and theme parks that, well, even my kids wouldn’t touch with the longest of barge poles.

So the next time someone infers at a dinner party or social gathering that those employed in the shady world of marketing are no better than brainwashers employed by the Moonies, I shall have to point out that some of the world’s biggest victims of advertising, aren’t members of the public, but the poor sods who write the ads in the first place.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds