Sport has innumerable social functions. Joseph O’Neill’s book Netherland described the rough-and-ready New York immigrant version of cricket. But what about cricket as a duty for public schoolboys, as necessary and unavoidable as end-of-term exams and places at Oxbridge? Here Jon Hotten – who also blogs as The Old Batsman – recalls youthful encounters with Old Money.
Watched a nice documentary recently about Sunningdale prep school, where boys as young as seven are sent to board by both old and new money in the hope that their offspring will go on, as most of the intake do, to Eton, Harrow or Westminster.
They were nice kids for the most part, excepting one who might well have been a robot. He’d persuaded his parents to allow him to relocate from Shanghai on his own so that he could attend (at the end of the first term, he was asked what he’d learned and he said, ‘to be more independent’. More independent than he had been a few months previously, when he’d decided to relocate from Shanghai by himself as a nine-year-old, that was).
It took me back to the days when I played cricket the most seriously, as an Under-17. The club I played for had a strong side for the first half of the summer, and an even stronger one in the second, when all of the public schoolboys turned up. They’d roll down the driveway of the ground in the crumbling Volvos and ancient landrovers owned by their parents, dressed in terrible clothes, dragging cricket bags that looked like they’d been in the family for generations. It was an old money, empire thing. The shabbier they looked, the richer they were, generally.
They were all good lads, and good players too, well schooled. We won a lot of matches together. We even got a game against the club first XI, the midweek team admittedly, but they had one ex county player in the side, and it was a decent match, from what I remember.
What was interesting, and what yesterday’s film reminded me of, was their acceptance of their fate. In its way, it was as forcefully apparent as it is at the more desperate end of the social scale. While some of us held woolly ambitions to play cricket as a career (including me – at least until The Day Of The Pig), they were resigned to their progression from public school to Oxbridge to middle-ranking position in the city or the family business (one guy used to refer to his father, somewhat dismissively, as “a shopkeeper”, which was true after a fashion – he owned a chain of supermarkets). My best mate amongst them had the sad air of a man whose life held no surprises at all ahead. He had already met the friend of his father’s who would be employing him for the next forty years, and been shown around the office. I think of him now and again and hope that he decided to drop acid and start a commune but I doubt it. The sense of duty was bred into him and into all of them.
Their kids might well be playing by now. The seasons roll on.