Be honest – if you were asked, with a week’s notice, to replace the main guest speaker at your cricket club’s annual dinner, would you do it? All those faces, hoping they won’t be bored shitless; you, hoping not to offend.
Suppose you were to agree to the “twenty minutes or so” request, would you think: ‘you know what, I’m going to do it in verse. I’m going to write a poem about the season…’?
No, didn’t think so.
Rewind to 1999, Moddershall CC Dinner. We have just completed the most successful season in the club’s history, winning four trophies out of five – we might have completed the set had Iain Carr and Jon Addison (and me, but I had a broken elbow, so don’t quite count) not gone skinny-dipping in Black Lake at 6.30am the night/morning before the (narrowly lost) Staffs Cup quarter-final at Knypersley. Might.
As it was, we had to settle – in order of prestige – for the Premier League, Talbot Cup, Stone Charity Cup (at the midpoint of which, between innings, I broke the fat end of my fubula), and the Barney McCardle Trophy.
Given this glut of success, the club really pushed the boat out and invited the late Arthur Fisher to give the after dinner speech. Unfortunately (or otherwise, depending on your point of view), he dropped out the weekend before the meal at the Stonehouse Hotel and so, as I say, I was asked by then-chairman, Gerald Williams, to step in.
I can’t say the idea for a poem came immediately. Why would it? Even if it had, I wouldn’t have set out to write one so dementedly long, one that would eventually take me fully 45 minutes to recite. As with almost everything else I’ve done, finishing it was a caffeine-fuelled eleventh-hour affair, involving pretty much an all-nighter on the Friday. I actually penned the final full stop some time between the desert course and cheese and biscuits, after which I had twenty minutes or so to compose myself and then up I stepped, heart pounding. I mean, I hadn’t even read it back to check it wasn’t total cac, while some of the handwriting toward the end – as I furiously plucked facts from memory and couplets from a deep well of cliché – would probably have been pretty illegible, not ideal for a public recital. Still, no turning back now.
To this day I can recall the chuckle of laughter from the dear and departed Vic Hawkins, genuine and unaffected in that lovely manner he had, and the nerves were instantly settled. I’m happy to say that no-one moved for the entire 45 minutes, although I did have to put my foot on the gas after around twenty or so. British licensing times are inconvenient, eh?
Did I say no-one moved? Well, not quite no-one... Not a man to leave himself exposed when it came to ensuring he had ale to hand, Keith Ellis was good enough to slip to the bar and stealthily bring me over a pint of the amber nectar, which was greatly appreciated.
Anyway, here it is. It is far from prize-winning fayre. It was always supposed to have a narrative flow rather than be some highly ornate poetics.
After the dinner, I had it published for posterity, writing a preface – also dementedly long – that dwelt on the notion of team spirit, waxing philosophical on what it is, how it’s built, and how it’s maintained. More than that, having talked (in rhyme) for 45 minutes exclusively about on-field matters, in the preface I paid belated tribute to the tireless, selfless work of so many volunteers – the film crew, if you like, to our performers – without which no club could function. Lastly, I finished the text with a short dedication to the late Jane Myatt, at that stage past the point of no return with her cancer, evidently suffering a lot, and yet brave enough to attend (even apologising for her wig) and help participate in the celebration of an incredible season in the way that her general kindly air helped pamper us players. She was a magnificent woman and, while tinged with sadness, it was good for all of us to see her for a final time.
Here, then, is the poem that became known, after perhaps not quite enough deliberation, as ‘Moddershall: a Team of Four Cups’.