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The Art of Leaving London, without leaving London.
Robert K Cooper
on the lure of an afternoon's cricket

Sounds impossible doesn't it? Those who have visited London will know the overwhelming nature of the Big Smoke. You certainly know you're there and that feeling can remain well after you have left. For those of us who live, or have lived there, will have felt the urge to get out for a while, sometimes more often than not, and with several miles to travel before reaching the rest of England's green and pleasant land, it's almost too much effort to bother.

I have had the best of intentions of a weekend away, a visualising process that starts occurring towards the end of a hard week. The smell and taste of fresh air; the space to roam; the colour green; and the simple sight of the horizon offer their almost aphrodisiac delights, and one's hopes begin to rise. Only to be dashed by waking up mid-afternoon on Saturday with no recollection of the night before and a head that feels like you must have had a freak run in with Mike Tyson. Bugger!

The solution for me, as most good things do, occured quite by chance a few years ago and I have not looked back since. This thing is Cricket! Now, nothing evokes two more opposite reactions from people. At the mere mention of the word, I can expect to hear deep groans and an exclamation of "what on earth do you play that stupid boring game for!" This is often said with a look of such disgust that they might just have accidently eaten an earthworm.

The second response is infinitely more understandable. It is the passionate, excited response of someone who harbours an intense desire for the game. The mention of the 'C' word evokes warm memories from an earlier more impressionable and carefree time in their lives.

So on Sunday afternoons, fairly safe from the ravages of hangovers, I make my casual way down the road to Dulwich Village. Although being set in the heart of south central London, it is actually amazingly like - well - a village. A quick right hand turn into what looks like someone's front drive to (a fact I relish, like Batman taking his secret entrance back into the Batcave) and suddenly tucked well away from view, a sea of green lies before me. I can see more than twenty yards in front of myself and my eyes have to adjust, now being able to focus on the far distance.

The Dulwich Green

Very soon our team of misfits, and a usually far superior looking opposition, start arriving in a relaxed dribble, often looking slightly bewildered - like a dozen Charlton Heston's arriving on the planet of the apes, such is the shock of the sight before them.

I know of no sport or activity that such a mixture of people enjoy simultaneously, in one place, at one time: white; Indian; black; upper class; middle class; working class; writers; supermarket managers; photographers; car dealers; students; and retired men all united in one common pursuit for the afternoon. I feel that it is in moments like these that we can forget our troubles; the jobs we hate; the list of seemingly important things to do; and just for a while, everything is ordered and time slips by at its most natural pace - neither too fast or too slow, just passing.

Do we need the hustle and rush to allow these beautiful moments to exist? Is there a completely opposite composition going on right now, with long periods of banality and inactivity, occasionally relieved by frenzied and harrowing activity? Possibly, and maybe it's not important how the order goes or where it takes place, but for a moment we can see things differently, through some contrast that provides a new window to look through. What I have learnt of people from this I cannot sum up easily, suffice to say I am not much the wiser for the conversation and topics discussed, but deeply enriched from being around such different people and having an overall feeling for their character.

The whole is indeed much greater than the sum of the parts. When the game is over and I feel proud of my half century of runs scored (honest!), or gutted about the duck I scored (more likely), I return to the pavilion to look across the field and the distant tree line that meets blue sky (or black cloud). For a moment I could be in the sleepy village of Hambledon, the home of cricket as the distant tennis players turn to sheep nibbling, busy and oblivious, and the cricketers out in the middle, flicker to and fro. Then I take a deep breath and feel bathed in the warmth of having left London, without leaving London.

© Robert K Cooper 2001

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