It takes much longer to get to Twickenham ... the slow way
If I’ve learnt anything writing about sport it’s that the story isn’t only on the field
Take the Central line two stops from Bethnal Green to Bank, then the Waterloo and City Line one stop to Waterloo, then, from platform 17, the overground to Twickenham. Five stops.
All the while channel your inner VS Naipaul going to Lord’s in 1963 to watch Frank Worrell, the finest of all cricketers because he was so much more than a cricketer, lead West Indies against England.
Naipaul, owner of a Booker Prize, the Trinity Cross – the highest honour achievable in his native Trinidad and Tobago – and a British knighthood, died in August as one of the most celebrated writers on the migrant experience.
And there he was on a London bus 55 years ago, en route to the cricket with his ears wide open.
“If Collie [beloved West Indies allrounder Collie Smith] did not dead ... He used to jump out and hit [England fast bowler Brian] Statham for six and thing, you know,” Naipaul reported faithfully, along with many other overhearings of his fellow travellers’ views.
Conrad Hunte, whose patience at the crease made Kepler Wessels look like Jonty Rhodes, was part of that West Indies team. Hunte came into my life when he was working with the then-United Cricket Board’s development programme and I was a young reporter. I knew him for just a few days, but he left an indelible impression as a person so decent you felt improved simply by being in the same room as him. He was, I was not surprised to learn, a member of Moral Re-Armament.
It was Hunte who sparked what became my obsession with Worrell. His eyes blazed and his voice danced when he spoke of his skipper. If Worrell could light a fire in someone as inspirational as Hunte, I thought, what kind of man must he have been? I was not disappointed in the answers I found, which lift me up to this day.
As upright and solid as Hunte was as a human being and an opening batsman, he wasn’t always a favourite with the crowd, some of whom (Naipaul wrote) felt he was “taking this Moral Re-Armament a little too seriously. He do not want to hit the ball because the leather comes from an animal.”
That followed Hunte batting for more than two hours for his 44 in that Lord’s Test, which was drawn with West Indies needing just one wicket and England only six runs.
Naipaul, who watched the whole match, and had plenty to think about on the mid-match rest day, wrote: “Day after day I have left Lord’s emotionally drained. What other game could have stretched hope and anxiety over six days?”
I would be at Twickenham for only a few hours to report on the Springboks’ match against England, and I do not fancy myself as any kind of Naipaul. But, if I’ve learnt anything writing about sport it’s that, as Naipaul illustrated so vividly, the story isn’t only on the field.
The three tube stations were their usual, bustling Saturday afternoon selves, strewn with the hither and thither of people on a myriad different missions. Once I was aboard the overground I felt part of a common purpose.
The dress code was caps and beanies (the odd hat), rucksacks, scarves, warm jackets, jeans, and shoes sensible and sturdy enough for grandstand clambering and that you knew could get slopped with beer. “Bollocks to Brexit” a large commercially produced sign read as we eased out of Waterloo, soon followed by “Brexit is bonkers”.
The fella sat next to me, a bearded, bobbed redhead of a 30-something blessed with a spaniel’s face, didn’t notice. He was too busy, between bites of a supermarket sandwich, reading his phone as well as last night’s Evening Standard. Across the way two luminously pasty, shaven-headed Yorkshiremen – they sounded, to me, like Jonny Bairstow – prattled away about work.
“Twickenham,” read the next noteworthy sign, and soon the hundreds on our train joined the phalanx oozing out of the station to become part of the 80,369 who would be in their seat come kickoff.
A roadside preacher armed with a loudhailer – “Confess your sins!” – and a scribbled sign – “Jesus is Lord!” – had about as much effect on the passing parade as the Brexit signs had had on the sandwiching spaniel.
More attractive were promises of “Hog Roast” and “Borough’s Best Burger”, and a place that advertised, simply, powerfully and oddly aptly, “BRAAI”. Only £7 for a boerewors roll. That’s around R140.
The grey mass of the stadium loomed – Twickenham looks elegant from the inside, but from the outside its an ugly block of concrete – along with a bloke from the Democratic Alliance. At least, he was wearing a DA T-shirt.
He had enough gel in his hair to keep the flags above the stands flying as stiff as Cecil John Rhodes’s upper lip. He also had Rhodes’s colonial smugness. Call it what it is: the plastic surgery of privilege.
A black woman wearing an SA flag around her shoulders was about to pass him when he pounced, proffering pamphlets: “Ma’am! Do you live in the UK?” Happily, she had a mean sidestep and left him in her wake, his eyes as stuck as his hair.
And so into the outer shell of Twickenham itself, a confusing tangle of lifts that don’t go all the way to the top floor, staircases hidden behind doors, and concourses that seem to lead to nothing except more lifts and staircases.
“Excuse me,” I asked I don’t know how many stewards, “how do I get to the pressbox, please?”
All of them looked at me as if I had wanted to know the way to El Dorado. More than once, they answered my question with one of their own, accompanied with a look that said they had no clue such a place existed: “Pressbox?” The game came and went in its usual flash – if you’ve reported on a rugby match, chances are you’ve also gone home and turned on the television to find out what the hell happened out there – and it was time to make the return journey.
I had been warned by more seasoned Twickenham reporters that getting back could be an ordeal of trains congested with the most awful kind of English ponces who stink, if you’re lucky, of beer and, if you’re not so lucky, vomit.
“It’s better when England lose,” one of my colleagues said. Of course, England won – with not a little help from the bungling, bumbling Boks themselves. And a referee who deserves to be forced to listen to the man from the DA for at least 80 minutes. The trains were indeed full with sloshed spectators. But no one stank of anything. And the natives, no doubt softened by their team’s undeserved victory, were friendly.
In fact the most interesting occupants of the carriage I was in were two women in Springbok gear. One held dearly a half-litre bottle of cider. The other did the same, and also clutched a beer.
They stood in the aisle, swaying slightly, no doubt because of the movement of the train, and engaging in uninhibited conversation.
“He asked me to get him, like, £20 worth of weed,” one said. “But he’s a ‘leg’ boss – he takes such good care of me.”
She didn’t have quite such favourable things to say about someone else: “That chick! Don’t call me out on my shit and then you dunno how to catch the fuckin’ tube!”
Her companion looked increasingly uncomfortable as the journey wore on, and as Waterloo hove out of the night and into brutally bright view she revealed why: “Right now, I don’t care; I would piss in a bucket.”
Times are different to when people dressed up to go to the cricket, where giants of the age in every sense – like Worrell and Hunte – would perform for our entertainment.
But I had to wonder what Naipaul might have made of what I saw and heard on Saturday. And about what he did see and hear and didn’t write about in 1963.