T. S. Eliot wrote an essay called ‘To Criticise the Critic.’ Michael Henderson surely considered calling his book To Criticise the Cricket, but then he would have been limited to talking about cricket. That Will Be England Gone – a title cribbed from another poet, Philip Larkin – is a book with little concept of limit or restraint: it arraigns everything from the modern Scouser to latter editions of the BBC Proms. If it’s new, it’s fair game, and duly hammered beneath the crushing density of Henderson’s prose.
For That Will Be England Gone is a very dense book, in a certain sense of the word; and though its page count stops at 296, an extremely thick one too. Once you attune to Henderson’s way of “thinking”, there are depressingly few surprises, apart from how he manages to draw the wrong conclusions from the right premises. He justly laments the near-disappearance of cricket from the state schools, but, in Henderson’s world, this just argues the need for private education. The chapter in question – nominally about Derbyshire – ends on possibly his smuggest crescendo, reporting the (alleged) words of one Andreas: “We Germans are educated to be obedient…You English are educated to be independent”. One has the impression of reading a platoon address from Captain Mainwaring.
But of course, the English nation does not represent the end to Henderson’s tribal loyalties. He oh-for-the-days when Yorkshire Cricket Club could only select players born within its county borders: no racism scandals back then, one can almost hear him reasoning. He is suspicious of (now former) England captain Joe Root, who “doesn’t talk like a Yorkie. Players to him are ‘the guys’, a word that [Len] Hutton never used in all his born years. He smiles easily.” And worst of all, Root is suspected of taking more pride in his England than in his Yorkshire victories. Yes Joe, how dare you be pleasant and pluralist? You need a good stint down t’pit, a smack around t’ead, and then you’ll appreciate God’s own country a bit more.
One almost admires Henderson’s bloodhoundish ability to sniff out malaise in every corner of contemporary Britain while patting himself and his generation on the back, which he obviously loves keeping firmly to the wall. Another moment of regal tone-deafness: “It is certainly true that English English has more layers of meaning than American English. [But] Irony, sarcasm, understatement and wordplay do not belong exclusively to us.” Reading That Will Be England Gone, one really feels obliged to cross out that word “exclusively”. Kevin Pietersen, who left South Africa to make his name as one of England’s greatest batsmen, was apparently hamstrung by “his inability to understand English humour”. Henderson, naturally, has a devastating command of English humour, and proves this by finding some back-cover endorsements from Michael Parkinson and Sebastian Faulks, both of whom appear between the covers as well, in glowing terms. Oh Hendo, you card.
The thing is, he’s preaching to the choir. I am a cricket lover, the only type of person that would ever pick up a book like this. And he makes some valid points, whether on The Hundred, the England Cricket Board’s £300 million gimmick; on the dilution of first-class cricket, and on his favourite hobby horse, our ever-dwindling attention spans. There’s at least a grain of truth in much of what he says; the problems are a) he says it so gracelessly and b) so little of it needs pointing out, at least in a book like this. Premiership football “is run for the benefit of foreign billionaires who have no emotional attachment to the clubs they have bought.” Well yes, but I didn’t pick up a book subtitled The Last Summer of Cricket to be lectured on the moral bedevilments of another sport; still less on the shortcomings of the modern Church of England, which Henderson sees as dumber-downer in chief.
But that’s indicative of a general lack of structure. Each chapter is vaguely ubicated in a particular area of England, where Henderson tootles through a list of local historical greats, cricketing or not, and picks fights with just about anything more recent. A mid-volume excursus on northern comics eventually winds its way back to the cricket, but it’s only a matter of time before he goes off in pursuit of some perceived evil. Opera directors, why not? Many of them “have the gall to imagine they know more about the work than the writer or composer. Humility…is essential”. Hmm, quite. Of all the things to dislike about That Will Be England Gone, perhaps the main one is that Henderson seems to imagine himself an authority on everything. In the acknowledgements, he thanks one (possibly the aforementioned) Andreas for having “persuaded me to write this book”, even though nothing therein suggests that he needed much persuasion. And is this really the book that the obedient German proposed, a book about everything and nothing?
Storm Henderson does eventually blow itself out, and the latter chapters achieve some sort of serenity, though hardly the “smooth and satisfying prose” that Faulks seems to find somewhere. Anecdotes about the cricket-loving Harold Pinter are well received, as the tone drifts into the melancholia embodied in Pinter’s tiny poem: “I saw Len Hutton in his prime / Another time / another time”. This new timbre works well for a twilit coda on Hardy’s Wessex, and on the gifted and (self-)destructive cricketers and cricket writers that the West Country produced. But it’s too late: by this point, Henderson will have shed just about all the readers who gave him a chance.
That Will Be England Gone is published by Constable and is available here.