First written December 29 2010
(this used to have an ending, but it got lost in one of the computer crashes. It awaits some further inspiration from Ishiguru)
Last week, the boy and I enjoyed a short holiday in Whitby, a seaside town of some merit. The harbour is picturesque and the ascent to the abbey, up steep steps, is rewarded by splendid views back across the town. The boy tolerated these small excursions in anticipation of the more mundane enjoyment to be found amongst the numerous amusement arcades and cafes. After three days, the holiday over, I decided to take a somewhat circuitous return route to the West Riding in order to revisit the scene of former glories. My professional life had included a brief period of medical practice in a North Yorkshire market town, easily reached from the small village where we had a modest residence. In this rural backwater I had the pleasure of turning out at cricket, for a team based at Lord Thorpe’s estate, and it is to here, today, the last Sunday in September, that I have made my pilgrimage, having dropped the boy at a local park.
The ‘Church’ was ever the place to discover news of local events, a traditional hostelry of basic comfort and cuisine, and of fine ale, brewed three miles hence within the lower reaches of Uredale. It was less than a delight therefore, when, as I entered, I failed to recognise these salient ingredients. No more the ‘tap’ with its hearty, if somewhat rustic humour. Gone the uneven stone slabs, bare walls and rickety chairs. Instead, a shiny dining room of ample proportion, replete with reverentially quiet guests, seemingly well disposed to their luncheon.
A polite inquiry of the landlord was not totally successful.
‘I’ve got fixture list, but they don’t drink in here any more. Let’s see. Aye, they’re at home.’
On sunnier days, young men collected here at the roadside, to enjoy a well earned restorative, as most would have laboured on the land throughout the morning. The opposition would then arrive and off we would go to Lord Thorpe’s estate, down a dusty private track which led to the single storey green and white prefabricated club-house. Several cars would have been encountered on this short journey: family members embarking on shopping trips to Harrogate; staff coming and going in the discharge of their duties. The day of my return, however, the entrance and access were ominously deserted, so I retraced my steps, my goal unattained.
I drove along the poplar lined road out of the village and took the Welldale road in an attempt to locate the official entrance to Lord Thorpe’s gardens, North Yorkshire’s most popular and exotic. After parking, I noticed a rather inconspicuous sign nailed to a tree, “Cricketers keep to the end and take the path to the left through the wood”. I dutifully obeyed, wondering at the need for instruction on this rather simple matter, and the rather inefficient manner with which the information was conveyed.
My efforts were handsomely repaid as I eventually found myself at the rear of the club-house and heard the murmur of conversation amongst the batsmen awaiting their turn at the crease, punctuated by the metallic clink of the updated score. Disappointment followed as I was unable to recognise any of whom I came to assume must be the visiting side. This was confirmed without any further elaboration, by the scorer,
‘Lord Thorpe’s team are fielding.’
As it has always been my habit to stroll gently around the boundary, I did so on this occasion, alone, anticipating with dismay a different prospect to the one I fondly remembered. It was with great relish that, after a meticulous review of the landcape, I discerned little or nothing had changed. A circular wooden fence, still in need of repair in various places, enclosed the grass arena, green and sloping in the outfield, level, brown and freshly cut out on the square. Beyond the fence the ground fell toward a pool, home to a small flock of swans, before it gradually rose again to tennis courts, a flagpole upon which flew the union jack, a gravel drive and finally the big house, approximately a quarter of a mile away.
At last someone I thought I recognised happened to take up a position at fine leg, some ten yards or so from where I had undertaken my survey.
‘Alright Dr. Ambler?’
‘Yes I am. Is it young Arthur?’
‘Aye. Few years older now. I remember giving you out LBW and you never forgave me. Not umpired since.’
‘You would have been thirteen or fourteen. How has the team advanced since those heady days?’
‘It went off for a while. John the skipper moved to Scotland, most of the older end retired, so we scratched around for players. Had to join the leagues to survive, but doing well now. Promotion last two seasons.’
Ah, the leagues, so things had indeed changed. Back then on matchdays, the atmosphere had been that of a garden party as cricket clubs from Durham to Leeds vied to send their social sides to this haven of country house cricket. The cow pasture next to the club-house was habitually crowded with cars and people: veterans, youths, current players, wives, girlfriends and parents, all dining al fresco. It was a bubble of fun and high jinks, and far more colourful than this grey game of league existence.
‘How is his lordship?’
‘Don’t see him much now. A bit doddery on his legs.’
I suspected that Lord Thorpe was not a league man.
‘Well lovely to see you, Arthur.’
‘And you, Dr. Ambler.’
As I continued my circumnavigation, I looked back over what I perceived now to be golden years of cricket here at Lord Thorpe’s, and one particular fixture stood out, which oddly, was one of our few away matches. It took place annually against Sir Rodney Peel’s eleven and entailed a pleasing expedition to the top of Uredale along minor roads, a distance of twenty miles. There was intense rivalry between the two peers and it was rumoured that they wagered not inconsiderable amounts of money on the outcome, and as his lordship was on the board of Yorkshire CCC. it came as no surprise to find the county’s then current all-rounder or opening bat in our midst as we embarked.
One year was especially memorable for the bizarre reason that the match nearly did not take place. Lord Thorpe was something at The Home Office, and had a good deal to do with “The Irish Question”, so at times of national emergency he would find himself more restricted than would have been his ideal.
‘Damned Irish are at it again, Ambler. Not sure whether we can get up to Fellfoot Manor this year.’
Whilst we had been asked to keep our diaries free, those of us who collected for a drink on the Friday night prior to the intended day of the Fellfoot game were still in doubt as to whether it would go ahead, a tactic no doubt intended to confuse the Irish battle plan, and it was with considerable interest that we mustered at ‘The Church’ the morning after, wondering what our line-up might be. We were not disappointed, apart from Blackie, our redoubtable slow left arm off-spinner, who had to make way for Jim Lincoln, recently returned-to-form Yorkshire number three batsman and swing bowler.
Skipper made the introductions, ‘Jim’s our guest today, let’s give him a good time.’
Several handshakes and backslaps followed and it was of no consequence that he would be on a substantial retainer.
‘And there’s one to come. Here he is. Major Carlisle from Bray Garrison. I’ve got him down as a batter, so he’ll be opening with you, Dr. Ambler. I’ve also got him down to travel with you, is that OK?
‘Indeed it is. This way Major, its a pleasure to make your acquaintance.’
‘Thankyou, Dr. Ambler.’
I escorted the major across the village green to my car, a somewhat well-used Morris with soft brown leather seats. Bray Garrison, situated in a large space just north of Uredale, contained a considerable number of soldiers and their families, which, when supplemented by the wide scope of its military activity made a significant impact on the local culture and economy.
Whilst Major Carlisle was the latest of a long series or army cricketers to play for Lord Thorpe and therefore not unexpected, I was nevertheless curious as to his selection at this particular moment. As we turned left at Welldale to start our journey alongside the river Ure, I ventured to inquire with which army speciality he was involved, ‘May I ask to which unit you are attached, Major.’
‘Yes, you may, Dr. Ambler. My current assignment is at the hospital.’
‘Ah, a medic then?’
‘Not exactly. More a research post.’
‘Which particular field?’
‘So its psychiatry then?
‘To be precise, my primary qualifications are in psychology.’
‘Ah. I myself am a physician. Which university did you attend?’
‘A redbrick man. I was at “The London” with Sir Sydney Smythe.’
‘The Queen’s physician,’
‘Only one of his many achievements. He’s better known in the profession for his moral leadership, a quite superb model for us all to emulate.’
‘How long were you with him?’
‘Oh, a few years. I don’t recall exactly.’
‘Where did you go after then?’
‘Here and there, junior posts, a modest research project, you know. Is it your usual habit to create a psychological profile on new acquaintances?’
‘Sorry, Dr. Ambler, an occupational hazard.’
An enthiastic request to the umpire as to whether the ball had carried through to the wicket keeper off an outstretched glove brought me abruptly back to the present. It was so beautiful here, a place for reflection away from one’s normal obligations. As a member of the medical profession, I have often toiled in my mind on the vexing issue of vocation, that sense of calling, that pursuit of a purpose over and above mere personal ambition. It is an unselfish duty, a devotion of one’s life to promoting the well-being of others less fortunate, carrying as it does, a heavy burden of responsibility. At all times one must adopt the bearing and posture of the professional, remote and reliable, suitably attired and benignly accommodating to the foibles that so bedevil the many who seek advice. It is not a superficial veneer, something to be worn when the occasion arises, a handy tool designed for a particular task, like donning gloves on an inclement winter morning. Nor is it acquired through the long hours of listening to lectures on anatomy, physiology, medicine and surgery, useful though they all undoubtedly are. One is born with the need to serve and having entered into an apprenticeship within a reputable teaching hospital, one learns to adopt the appropriate demeanour as demonstrated by the master. Sir Sydney’s approach and behaviour were ever impeccable, even during the most arduous of times. I recall on one occasion having the necessity to request a visit of him well outside his usual routine of ward rounds and clinics. My patient, suffering from a complaint of a cardiac nature, had taken a turn for the worse and I feared she might fare very badly indeed. Sir Sydney was most accomodating, responding to my summons after dinner, immaculately dressed in a three piece suit and bow-tie,
‘Ambler, my dear boy, the woman has sustained a myocardial infarction and has only a short time yet to live. Kindly let her last few hours be made comfortable with adequate doses of opiates. Your assessment of the situation was no more than adequate, and I trust, on the basis of what, if anything, you retain from tonight, that you will manage a similar situation more appropriately in the future.’
One might have heard this as a rebuke, but I preferred to see it as an example of what, in the fullness of time, I might myself achieve, and I’m proud to think that this may have come about in no small way. I imagine my father, a timber merchant’s clerk and a man not dissimilar to Sir Sydney in many ways, would have taken pleasure in my modest success, had he been alive. He was gifted in mental arithmetic and took inordinate pains, in his role of bookkeeper, to maintain tidyness and accuracy, something that also extended to his personal appearance. Like Sir Sydney, he expected certain standards, and had great difficulty disguising his disappointment when I was less than accomplished, particularly when matriculation became somewhat overdue. Indeed, it was the absence of his reproach that led me to assume that by completing the examiner’s requirements satisfactorily and subsequently procuring the necessary funds to attend medical school, that I had caused him to feel some measure of contentment.
Even from an early age, I recall being endowed with modest coordination, enabling me to excel on the sports field with relative ease. As one would be unwise to spend the whole of one’s time on one’s vocation, I have tried to maintain a sporting interest, albeit fleetingly during certain times of my career. My father often alluded to the, in his view, excess number of hours I devoted to both cricket and rugby football. He was always insistent that no worthwhile long term occupation could materialise from the pursuit of any form of sport, the only economically sensible way forward being entry into one of the professions following a necessary and lengthy application to academic study.
It took me almost no time at all, once I had qualified, to understand that rugby football was incompatible with pressures of hospital life, and contrary to Sir Sydney’s demands of his junior staff. Cricket, on the other hand, was altogether more flexible and one could at least attend and watch, maybe of a pleasant Summer evening, even if one couldn’t play. In addition, membership of a suitably located and acceptably hospitable cricket club was the very essence of professionalism, a right and proper place to meet with colleagues, conscious of their status and vocation. Sir Sydney himself was a member at The MCC, though he confined his invitations to Lord’s Cricket Ground to his close peers within the medical fraternity.
Fellfoot CC. lies some way from Sir Rodney Peel’s house, midway between it and the local village of Ewesgill which provided a number of its players, in the curve of the river where it starts its long journey down to The Ouse at York. The local elevations of Blacktop Moor and High Mount create a natural bowl, within which the cricket field sits at the valley’s very bottom, and as such is often flooded during winter’s rainy months. A grey black wooden hut, with porch, serves as the pavilion, sanitary enough to dispense afternoon tea, but in need of some renovation. It was here, around midday, that Major Carlisle and I arrived all those years ago. We’d discussed a little of this and that to no great depth and I did not discover anything further about his research, but the conversation was an agreeable enough compliment to the journey.
The skipper won the toss and elected to bat, following which Major Carlise and I padded up and walked out to the middle. We were to bat for ten or so overs, take the edge off their bowling attack whilst endeavouring to score at least three an over, and then we were to accelerate the scoring rate or one of us was to get out to allow Jim Lincoln to the crease. In the event, Major Carlisle was dismissed, clean bowled, in the second over, playing around a straight ball which simply required a straight bat. His address and composure at the wicket looked sound enough, but the shot selection at the time of his dismissal was, I fear, a little wayward. This facilitated the arrival of our star man, much anticipated I fancy by the team, if not by the handful of spectators sat on the pavilion porch who had somehow learned of the fixture despite the security precautions.
Lincoln played within himself and still scored at a run a ball, and I began to wonder whether His Lordship had too strong a hand for Sir Rodney. I shared this observation with Lincoln at a mid-wicket conference between overs, ‘Nay, Dr. Ambler, we can’t afford to get cocky just yet. You won’t know this, but you see yon fellow at deep square leg? Well that’s Ronny McBride.’
‘The Derbyshire left hander?’
‘Aye, and their keeper’s a minor county player with Durham. So keep your hat on.’
It was to be a batmen’s afternoon. Pity the major had got out so cheaply. Play was then temporarily curtailed by the arrival of a helicopter which took some five minutes to negotiate a landing down at deep third man, close to the river. Lord Thorpe subsequently emerged from the cockpit below the whirling rotors, to be met by Major Carlisle and Sir Rodney. Soon after the helicopter’s departure, I was fortunate enought to glance to leg and enjoy the small accolade that greeted my fifty. Sadly, concentration at the crease has never been my strongest cricketing asset, particularly at the attainment of a relatively rare milestone and it was with a shake of the head that Lincoln witnessed my predictable LBW three balls later. I was happy on the one hand, having been personally proficient, whilst concerned on the other that Lincoln would have sufficient partners for the team to amass an adequately competitive score.
My fellow cricketers applauded as they stood waiting for my return to the pavilion, and sitting with cold drink, having taken off my pads, I was joined by Lord Thorpe and Major Carlisle.
‘Ah, Ambler, there you are. Jolly good show. Haven’t lost the knack. Particularly strong around leg stump. Jolly good. We’ve got the beating of these, eh, what do you think, old man?’
‘Indeed, my lord. Thankyou. I suggest we have an even chance.’
‘I say, Ambler, did I hear you were originally from the West Riding? Are you one of the Stoneley Amblers, the shipping people?’
‘No, my lord. My father was in the timber business.’
‘Oh, really. Just thought I’d ask. Having lunch with one of the blighters tomorrow. Must be off now and spike Rodney’s guns.’
‘Very good, my lord.’
Major Carlisle offered his hand, ‘Yes, well batted, Dr. Ambler. I’m ashamed to say I offered no support. Far cry from Lords, isn’t it? The lads have been telling me how you used to be a regular up there.’
So this, you will now understand, is how I came to play for Lord Thorpe on his country estate, a most congenial of ways for a medical practitioner to unwind after long days and weeks attending with patients.
‘I must say, Dr. Ambler, you’re always dressed up to the nines.’
‘I’m not sure what you mean.’
‘The three-piece suit and the bow tie. Even in summer. Must be sweltering.’
‘I can assure you that I am not in the least discomforted. Quite the opposite. I choose my outfits purely for their ease of wear.’
meets lord thorpe at the end ]what tehe devel arae you doein ghere ambler, gerof off home an d enhjoy yousreftd
why do you play cricket – to keep fit