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The Four Umbrella Sketch
(with thanks /apologies to Monty Python)

Behind the clean, efficient counter of the lost property department at Euston Station lurks a dense jungle of paraphenalia left by passengers, including mobile phones, sunglasses and purses.

And a vast and assorted collection of umbrellas.

The office has been closed for hours, and the last train has long left the station.

All is quiet – until four of the department’s, hopefully temporary, residents break away to the furthest corner and engage in earnest conversation.

The first umbrella, a Liberty print ladies version, opened the debate by stating that “you won’t believe how I ended up here. My owner brought me from North Wales on a shopping trip. By early afternoon she had accumulated designer bags from Harrod’s, John Lewis, Harvey Nichols and many other high end stores. She turned down the offer of a bag to put me in, as it was raining steadily outside at the time, and I was called into immediate action.

I had a premonition even then that, in the panic and confusion that was bound to accompany the train’s arrival at Crewe for her connection, I might be left behind. And so I was, though I did get an extra trip back to London.

I suspect the half bottle of Prosecco she drank on the journey didn’t help”.

A foldable child’s Peppa Pig design replied “mine was a young mother with two kids, both with their own umbrellas. I “belonged” to her five year old daughter, and the six year old boy carried one in the shape of a particularly ugly frog. Their mum had brought them to London for the day from Hemel Hempstead to visit the Natural History and Science Museums.

The day was going well until it was time to catch the train home. As they gathered their belongings for the return journey, mum discovered that one of the umbrellas was missing and harangued her daughter for leaving it somewhere, the precise location and timing being a total mystery at the time.

Well, I can exclusively reveal now that I was left in the ladies’ loo opposite Platforms 1 and 2.

Oh, and by the way, that blasted frog survived the ordeal”.

At that point, a multi-coloured beach brolly interrupted, insisting that “they’re both conventional ways of being left behind. My abandonment was much more interesting. They brought me, along with their two teenage boys, from Watford Junction on a day trip to the seaside. I spent five hours on Viking Bay Beach at Broadstairs, shielding them from the whistling wind and intermittent drizzle, I blew inside out at least twenty times (fortunately my spokes are strong and I didn’t suffer any lasting damage), and how did they repay me?

Left me to go round the entire Circle Line three times, being pushed from seat to seat (I nearly gone thrown onto the platform at Shepherd’s Bush Market), before a kind commuter picked me up and brought me here”.

A large, black, Ministry of Defence affair with hand carved ash handle had been listening to these laments with increasing irritation. He could not restrain himself any longer and haughtily exclaimed “that’s all very interesting but incredibly boring. My owner is a senior civil servant currently employed on top secret government business. It is as highly stressful as it is well remunerated, and requires high intelligence and discretion. He needs to relieve himself – literally – on occasions or it would all become too much.

So, his Tuesday afternoons are set aside for visits to a professional lady along the road from here at King’s Cross. To cover his tracks he always walks from his office in Whitehall and, due to today’s inclement weather, I was recruited to join him. We arrived at the appointed time and he promptly disappeared to carry out his business. At least he had the good grace to prop me by the door to the flat rather than condemn me to witness the proceedings from the inner sanctum.

At the customary time of four in the afternoon, the door opened and, as immaculately attired as he had been when he arrived, he took his leave. However, with the sun strenuously trying to penetrate the tattered curtain in the lady’s bedroom, thus restricting his vision, he omitted to collect me on his way out.

So how did I get here, I hear you ask?

It transpired that, rather than, as I would have expected, she resided in the hovel that hosted the afternoon’s divertissement, the lady in question actually commuted to her place of work on a daily basis, just like the office workers and retail staff that frequent the concourse here from the early morning until midnight.

After attending to three more gentleman callers, she duly took the 18:57 to Birmingham New Street, but not without making a short detour to this establishment to place me in its safe custody.

I must say I was surprised, but equally gratified, to learn that the entertainment industry is as subject to gentrification as any other these days.

It makes one proud to be British”.

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One of the iconic images of the great British seaside holiday of the fifties and sixties is of happy families playing beach cricket.  Everyone joined in, playing with children’s bats, balls and stumps that reduced fathers who fancied themselves as Dexter or Sobers to the same level of competence as their seven year old sons, non-sporting wives and even the family dog (when they were still allowed on the beach between May and September). Truly, we had “never had it so good”.

Sadly, the advent of the foreign package holiday, breakdown in traditional family structures and expansion of alternative leisure pursuits, all contrived to render such a scene virtually obsolete.  Over the past weekend, therefore, I embarked upon a one man (at least for now) campaign to revive this venerable but floundering tradition, pitching up on Ramsgate Main Sands with my wife at 2pm on Sunday for an impromptu game.

I say impromptu because my planning had left something to be desired – a brief glance at the tide times beforehand would have revealed that this was the worst time of the day to start.  Nevertheless, after twenty minutes inspecting the fast diminishing slither of sand along the bay, I found a strip that was marginally more playable than the Rose Bowl.  It quickly became clear, however, that if the game was to be remotely watchable, or attract other participants, it was pointless bowling anything other than full tosses because once the ball had pitched, it was firmly plugged into the sand.

“Sticky dog” wicket aside, it proved a batsman’s paradise as the leg side boundary shortened sharply with the onrushing scum brown tide, ensuring that the merest of flicks resulted in a boundary.  That said, the smacking of  my extra cover drives against the sea wall was more satisfying.  Frank Keating once wrote that Ian Botham played a net “as if he is on Weston-super-Mare beach and the tide is coming in fast”.  I’d like to think that if you substituted Broadstairs for Weston, that might accurately describe my batting on this day.

Public interest was negligible, evidenced by a succession of families, oblivious of the sacred nature of my work, plodding across the wicket at regular intervals.  It reminded me of my primary school football pitch which had a concrete public footpath running diagonally across it, constantly trodden by young mothers with prams during vital matches against our bitter rivals from the adjoining parishes of Luton, Delce and Arden.  Understandably, dribbling was a skill particularly valued at Glencoe Road.

But back to the summer game.

Human indifference was not mirrored in the reaction of the indigenous bird population. An improbable infield of gulls occupyied short square leg, silly mid on and extra cover loitered, more, I suspect, in anticipation of the next tasty titbit thrown up by the thrashing waves than hovering in hope of a bat pad.  Their noisy sledging would have done justice to any Australian test team in history. Eventually, with the wicket completely submerged, the players were forced to dash from the square to the nearest ice cream van.

Undaunted, I resumed my missionary work two days later with a game on the much larger and more suitable Viking Bay beach in Broadstairs.  Low tide was scheduled for 2.04pm but, conscious that the tide came in a lot quicker than it went out, I decided that play should get underway an hour earlier.

An early inspection of prospective wickets revealed not only a soft, dune-like sand texture inconducive to a meaningful contest, but also an unmanageable abundance of people, deckchairs, windbreaks and bouncy castles, along with the ubiquitous volleyball court, populated by hordes of young Latino youths, led me to cancel plans to play there.  However, we rounded the bend at the end of the beach to enter Louisa Bay which, a full hour before the scheduled start of play,  sported a vast expanse of dark, compacted sand. Only sporadic handfuls of spectators scattered around what would serve as the boundary.

My excitement was heightened by the sight of  TWO sets of wickets already pitched further along the beach.  This was promising.  Our game got underway and soon acted as a magnet for every bored child on the beach.  Questions such as “can I play?” and “can my brother / sister join in?” (only the absence of the suffix “mister” reminded me I had not been transported back to 1960) were music to my ears as I suddenly found I was setting fields for TEN kids of assorted ages and having to remember in what order they all batted and bowled to avert tantrums.

The majority displayed more willing than competence, all wanting to field at mid wicket for some unaccountable reason (maybe the proximity of the tea hut and toilets had something to do with that), but uncomplainingly hared after every ball, regardless of how far and in what direction it had been despatched.  Falling into a rock pool or getting entangled in the profusion of seaweed were no barriers to their enthusiasm.

On a more serious note, it was heartening to learn that you could still play an innocent game in public with a group of children that you had never met before, without being accused of wanting to take salacious photographs of or, worse still, interfere with, them.  In fact, the parents seemed content to allow them to play, even the mother who was called upon to console her ten year old when he retired hurt after being struck on the left thigh by one of my rising eighty mile per hour inswingers.

The most poignant moment arose when one small boy advised me, with evident pride, and in hushed tones, that the reason his brother was scoring so freely with quasi-classical strokeplay and bowling off a run up that appeared to start just to the left of the Goodwin Sands, was because “he PLAYS cricket”.

The game lasted nearly three hours, interrupted only by obligatory lunch and tea intervals, dictated more by my need for regular rest than by the tyranny of the clock.  Each succeeding resumption of play appeared to draw even more players until the relentless waves washed the wicket away completely.

So beach cricket is alive and flourishing in the cradle of the game, not quite the High Weald, but still in God’s own county.  It can be no coincidence that shortly after this pilgrimage, I moved to Folkestone which boasts one of the firmest wickets on the coast at Sunny Sands.

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I was born with cricket in my blood. My father was an enthusiastic if modest club performer who played for a team that, where once it had consisted largely of doctors from the local hospital from which it derived its name, and had been one of the strongest in the Medway area, had declined by the early sixties into a dad’s army of clerks, TV repair men and shipwrights (not to denigrate those trades but rather to demonstrate the disconnection over time from the medical profession).

My father’s skills were confined to a stubborn resistance to giving his wicket away easily (though, despite himself, he invariably did), and an aptitude for both pocketing slip catches himself, and occasionally by redirecting the ball from his commodious stomach into the hands of more agile teammates in the vicinity.

The team was my extended family – every player was an “uncle”, though not in the biological sense of the word, and I revered them, despite their limitations on the field. At the age of ten I graduated from mascot and scoreboard operator to become its official scorer. I fulfilled this role for the next five years, spending summer afternoons in cramped, rotting wooden sheds, invariably sat alongside grizzled, gap-toothed septuagenarians with a life long chain smoking habit.

But I loved it.

It wasn’t just the game that captured my young heart, but the environment surrounding it – the rickety double decker bus journeys through the Kent countryside, the team being forced to change on the bus if it was behind time, the sing-songs on the journey back (my party piece for some reason was Wouldn’t It Be Loverly from My Fair Lady) and the regular stops at pubs such as the Chequers at Loose and the Five Bells in Snodland. “Home” games at the Civil Service Sports Ground and Langton Playing Fields in Gillingham did not generate the same romance but were, nonetheless, events to be savoured. And then there was Tuesday night net practice, when I spent two hours building up a fearful sweat scurrying to retrieve balls that had been clubbed hither and thither (funny how they never managed it at weekends), was bliss.

At fifteen I made my own “first class” debut at Blue House Marden, a short walk from the Stile Bridge Inn and, “batting” at number eleven, notched a magisterial 0 not out in the customary crushing defeat. My other memory of that game was landing in a jungle of nettles, vainly chasing an edge down to third man. I could not sit down at school for the next three days.

And then there was the county side, on the cusp of its glory years of the seventies. Club commitments limited our outings to the Nevill, Garrison, Mote, Crabble, St Lawrence and Bat and Ball grounds, but my father and I managed a handful of days each season, courtesy of his Association of Kent Cricket Clubs pass.

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My greatest thrill came when our annual holiday to Folkestone in August coincided with the traditional Cricket Week. My parents would deposit me at the Cheriton Ground around ten o’clock in the morning and went off for a day of beach, bingo and Bobby’s shopping, allowing me to indulge in my busman’s holiday of scoring every ball of both matches and haring after Cowdrey, Knott and Underwood for their autographs as they left the field at lunch, tea and close. It was an era when, aside from newspaper photographs and occasionally black and white television coverage, we only saw our sporting idols “in the flesh” – yet they were more accessible for that.

Of course, I was playing cricket too at school, on both playground concrete and playing field grass. At Glencoe Road primary school I was the proud custodian of the chalk required to repaint the wicket on the wall at each break, lunchtime and long after the bell sounded to send us home. The only spectator sport that could compare were the regular fights outside the school gates at home time.

Although, unlike football, we did not play against other schools, I opened the batting in games at the Maidstone Road recreation ground in Chatham. My finest cricketing hour in those pre-eleven plus days was, however, imbued with tragedy when having, like Hutton at the Oval in 1948, carried my bat in a pathetically low team total, I arrived home to be informed by my mother that my pet dog, Patch, had been put down. I suppose the events of that afternoon taught me the value of treating those “twin imposters” of triumph and disaster equally.

Moving to Sir Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School I was converted in my first year from an opening bat into a medium quick (for a twelve year old) bowler with a capacity for late swing – an pubescent Jimmy Anderson if you like. After flirting with the styles of Fred Trueman, Wes Hall and the mercurial Alan Brown, I began to model both my bowling action and fielding demeanour, if not my batting, which suffered in the process, on the mighty John Shepherd (though there was still the occasional Wes Hall whirl of the arms for variety).

My school had always been strong at cricket, competing successfully with teams from the Judd School, Skinner’s, King’s School Rochester and Dartford and Maidstone Grammar Schools to name but a few. At under twelve, thirteen, fourteen and fifteen levels I was a prolific wicket taker, with regular six and seven wicket hauls. My proudest moment, and I suspect my father’s too, was when he slipped away from work early in London one evening to watch me play for the under fourteens against Chatham South Technical School. I took eight wickets for three runs in eight overs and we won by ten wickets. I don’t recall him coming again – perhaps he just wanted to cherish that moment always.

The most publicly acclaimed performance was seven for fifteen against Faversham Grammar School. The school headmaster, a fine club cricketer himself for, I believe, Linton Park, who umpired a number of the age group games, announced at the school assembly on the following Monday morning that my spell had been the finest he had ever witnessed by a schoolboy of my age.

My exploits caught the eye of the Kent under fifteen selectors and I played in a handful of trial games, including the final eliminator for the county team. Playing for East against West Kent, I chose that match, however, to misplace my customary accuracy and spray the ball continually down the leg side of Graham Clinton who, when he managed to reach it, clipped it to fine leg for four. He made the Kent team, and forged a strong county career – I did not.

But I didn’t fade into cricketing obscurity – yet. In the second of three years in the First XI at “the Math” I took forty nine wickets, falling just three short of the all-time record. I followed this with a couple of highly successful seasons at university, and subsequently – albeit briefly – played at a decent level in both Yorkshire club cricket and around south east London in the late seventies and early eighties, where, oddly, I reverted to being a middle order batsman who bowled a little.

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My playing is now limited to fielding the occasional ball on the boundary at the St Lawrence or Nevill Ground, and the beach (I recommend Sunny Sands in Folkestone and Viking Bay at Broadstairs). I wonder too if I’m alone in strolling around the ground in the breaks between innings or along the seashore in the hope of being called upon to pouch a skier or pounce on a straight drive from one of the ever diminishing number of impromptu games.

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You may be familiar with Mr Jingle’s assessment of Kent in The Pickwick Papers: “Kent, sir – everybody knows Kent – apples, cherries, hops and women”. Although the abundance of the first three may have been diminished in recent times (being a happily married man I could not possibly comment on the fourth), this still holds true to a great extent.

An alternative definition that I would subscribe to might be “coast, countryside and cricket”.  It is certainly a triumvirate of glories that make me a proud product of its soil. That pride has been rather dented over the summer months with the dismal displays, both on and off the pitch, of the county cricket club. The cradle of the game, home to some of its greatest ever players and with a tradition of playing cavalier cricket in front of large festival crowds in beautiful surroundings, now reduced to a laughing stock in the cricketing world.

Rising debts, the result of a succession of poor financial decisions, a stalled ground redevelopment programme at its Canterbury headquarters, poor communications with its members and supporters and woeful performances on the field leaving the team second bottom in the county championship, all combined to make the season one of the worst in the modern Club’s distinguished 141 year history.

And in the past few days, the coach and two of the senior batsmen have all departed, leaving the team desperately short of both numbers and experience. With doubts remaining too over whether the player of the season will get the new contract that he deserves, that situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.

But in the past week, I have sought solace in some of the county’s many other delights – country walks through the full to bursting apple orchards of haunted Pluckley and the beechwoods and meadows of handsome Harrietsham, a stroll among the bookshops in civilised Tunbridge Wells, and Kentish beer and seafood at the Broadstairs Food Festival, overlooking the packed beach of Viking Bay, basking in the baking October heat and looking like a scene out of the nineteen fifities.

Though I currently live in the “compost heap” of the “Garden of England”, I am no more than an hour and a half, by car, bus or train, from any of its attractions – the castles of Hever, Scotney, Leeds and Rochester, the gardens of Sissinghurst and Emmetts, splendid houses like Groombridge Place, Finchcocks and Knole and what J.M.W Turner called the “loveliest skies in Europe” along the Thanet coast. Throw in two world class animal parks dedicated to conservation, the White Cliffs of Dover, otherworldly Romney Marsh, the rolling North Downs and atmospheric Wealden woodland – the list goes on (my apologies to any favourites of yours that I have missed out).

I count myself lucky in having been born, educated and, after a brief but largely loveless affair with other parts of England, lived in this wonderful county. I’ve been equally fortunate to have grown up hearing and reading  of the exploits of Woolley, Ames and Freeman and watching Cowdrey, Knott and Underwood in their pomp.

But whilst the experience of the cricket, at least at the professional level, has sunk in the past couple of years, there are still those other two features, and much more, to fall back on in the coming months.

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One of the iconic images of the great British seaside holiday of the fifties and sixties is of happy families playing beach cricket.  Everyone joined in, playing with child-size bats, balls and stumps that reduced fathers who fancied themselves as Dexter or Sobers to the same level of competence as their seven year old sons, non-sporting wives and even the family dog (when they were still allowed on the beach between May and September).

Sadly, the advent of the foreign package holiday, breakdown in traditional family structures and expansion of leisure pursuits, all contrived to render such a scene virtually obsolete.  Over the past weekend, therefore, I embarked upon a one man (at least for now) campaign to revive this venerable but floundering tradition, pitching up on Ramsgate Main Sands with my wife at 2pm on Sunday for an impromptu game. 

I say impromptu because my planning had left something to be desired – a brief glance at the tide times beforehand would have revealed that this was the worst time of the day to start.  Nevertheless, after 20 minutes inspecting the fast diminishing slither of sand along the bay, I found a strip that was marginally more playable than the Rose Bowl.  It quickly became clear, however, that if the game was to be remotely watchable, or attract other participants, it was pointless bowling anything other than full tosses because once the ball had pitched, it was firmly plugged into the sand.

Pudding-like wicket aside, it proved a batsman’s paradise as the leg side boundary shortened sharply with the onrushing scum brown tide, ensuring that the merest of flicks resulted in a four or six.  That said, the smacking of  my extra cover drives against the sea wall was more satisfying.  Frank Keating once wrote that Ian Botham played a net “as if he is on Weston-super-Mare beach and the tide is coming in fast”.  I’d like to think that if you substituted Broadstairs for Weston, that might accurately describe my batting on this day. 

Public interest was negligible, evidenced by a succession of families, oblivious of the sacred nature of my work, plodding across the wicket at regular intervals.  It reminded me of my primary school football pitch which had a public footpath running diagonally across it, constantly trodden by young mothers with prams during vital matches against our bitter rivals from the adjoining parishes of Luton, Delce and Arden.  Understandably, dribbling was a skill particularly valued at Glencoe Road.  

But back to the summer game.  

Human indifference was not mirrored in the behaviour of the indigenous bird population. An improbable infield of seagulls occupying short square leg, silly mid on, mid wicket and mid on loitered, more, I suspect, in anticipation of the next tasty titbit thrown up by the thrashing waves than hovering in hope of a bat pad.  Eventually, with the wicket completely submerged, the players were forced to dash from the square to the nearest ice cream van.

Undaunted, I resumed my missionary work on Monday with a game on the much larger and more suitable Viking Bay beach in Broadstairs.  Low tide was scheduled for 2.04pm but, conscious that the tide came in a lot quicker than it went out, I decided that play should get underway an hour earlier.

An early inspection of prospective wickets revealed not only a soft, dune-like sand texture inconducive to a meaningful contest, but also an unmanageable abundance of people, deckchairs, windbreaks and bouncy castles, along with the ubiquitous volleyball court, populated by hordes of young latin youths, led me to cancel plans to play there.  However, we rounded the bend at the end of the beach to enter Louisa Bay which, a full hour before the scheduled start of play,  sported a vast expanse of dark, compacted sand and only sporadic handfuls of spectators scattered around what would serve as the boundary. 

My anticipation was heightened by the sight of  TWO sets of wickets already pitched further along the beach.  This was promising.  Our game got  underway and soon acted as a magnet for every bored child on the beach.  Questions such as “can I play?” and “can my brother / sister join in?” (only the absence of the suffix “mister” reminded me I had not been transported back to 1960) were music to my ears as I suddenly found I was setting fields for TEN kids and having to remember in what order they all batted and bowled to avoid arguments. The majority exuded more willing than competence, all wanting to field at mid wicket for some unaccountable reason, but uncomplainingly hared after every ball, regardless of how far and in what direction it had been despatched.  Falling into a rock pool or getting entangled in the profusion of seaweed were no barriers to their enthusiasm.

On a more serious note, it was heartening to learn that you could still play an innocent game in public with a group of children that you had never met before, without being accused of wanting to take salacious photographs of, or interfere with, them.  In fact, the parents seemed content to allow them to play, even the mother who was called upon to console her ten year old when he retired hurt after being hit on the left thigh by one of my rising 80mph inswingers.

The only poignant moment arose when one small boy advised me, with evident pride, and in hushed tones, that the reason his brother was scoring so freely with quasi-classical strokeplay and bowling off a run up that started just to the left of the Goodwin Sands, was because “he PLAYS cricket”.

The game lasted nearly three hours, interrupted only by obligatory lunch and tea intervals, dictated more by my need for regular rest than by the tyranny of the clock.  Each succeeding resumption of play appeared to draw even more players until the insistent tide washed the wicket away. 

So beach cricket is alive and flourishing in the cradle of the game, not quite the High Weald, but still in God’s own county.  Next stop on the campaign trail is likely to be the East Cliff Sands in Folkestone, a firm wicket similar to the one played on today, though that  may have to wait until later in the summer.

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