Writer and academic Dave Allen shares his twin lifelong loves for local music and cricket, and explains how his own life story has dovetailed with the recent history of Portsmouth.
I’m 65. I find it to be an age around which the past, my past, our past, yields particular fruits. It may be that the distant past is “another country” but the past that I lived through is rather more like the sea off my beloved Southsea beach, as the past and present years flow in and out, and different moments roll or crash onto the shore at different times. Sometimes the past and present seem inextricably intertwined, rolling into each other, cresting then stretching away.
Perhaps past and present feel so intertwined because I live in the same city, Portsmouth, where I was born in 1949. My father was born there too and while he (in wartime) and I (for employment and pleasure) both spent periods away from ‘home’, we lived our whole lives with at least a reliable postal address in the city. Secondly, in retirement, I find myself increasingly consumed by passions that have grown with me through most of my life.
One of my passions became teaching, which is my profession, another is art (painting), which was mostly what I taught and researched. The third, equally creative, is music and specifically popular music, by which I mean not just ‘pop’ and rock, but blues, jazz, folk and all those attendant styles and genres. The fourth is rather different. At the age of ten I fell in love with cricket and the love affair is still going strong. I describe these preoccupations as passions because I have come to recognise my general difficulty with being slightly interested in things.In the words of the Small Faces, for me it’s “All or Nothing”. My first two passions earned me my living as an art teacher/lecturer and now afford me a reasonably comfortable retirement. I was briefly a professional pop musician and for decades an active semi-pro. However, I was never remotely good enough to be a professional cricketer and by contrast with my profession, music and cricket continue to cost me a lot more than they bring in. Maybe that makes them hobbies, but they have become very public hobbies, shared with many people who also have some interest in them. They are not hobbies in the sense of things I do when work is over and never have been. If nothing else, they are always in my head.
My music is public because for fifty years I’ve been a performer and while any dreams of commercial ‘success’ are long gone, I’m still rehearsing a new band with new material. In addition, over the past decade, I have become involved in a project, “Pompey Pop” which explores in various ways the history of popular music in my home city since the war. There have been books, lectures, exhibitions, radio shows and now a growing permanent exhibition in the city’s Guildhall. The focus has generally been on the 1950s and 1960s and as it has developed I have met many people who lived through those years alongside me but who, in some cases, I did not know at the time. This is one way in which “the years flow in and out” – I can be working intently on those materials, with music playing in the background and feel myself momentarily elsewhere – other times, other places.
This became clearer to me recently in my work as Hon Archivist at Hampshire Cricket, the county club with the international stadium off the M27. We have a project there, working with people with various forms of dementia and during my training I watched a video in which a woman slightly younger than me but already struggling with the problem, revealed that when she hears certain songs from her teenage years in Liverpool she is back with her friends in that world that produced the Beatles and Merseybeat. She says that she is not remembering – she’s there.
In my younger days I was a school and local club cricketer and I’ve done a bit of coaching but my performances were unremarkable, while gigs often clashed with Saturday fixtures. Nonetheless I fell in love with cricket, watching England on television and Hampshire on the visits they made to Portsmouth’s United Services Officers Ground in Burnaby Road. They came until the 2000 season but now there is no county cricket in the city and I wonder if my 12-year-old self would have developed the same passion today, given that cricket is no longer live on terrestrial television either?
When I started watching county cricket I developed other activities around it. I read books, magazines and articles, collected autographs and photographs, occasionally kept scoresheets of matches and more frequently compiled statistics. I plagiarised a history of Hampshire county cricket for a school project, which is where this city boy first understood the game’s rural and county roots. In the winter I played and watched football (rugby at school, ‘soccer’ for preference) and recognised that the ‘round ball’ game was essentially a town and city activity – especially at the professional level. Pompey entertained Huddersfield, Leicester or Cardiff – even that lot along the coast – but they didn’t play against county teams of the kind that came to the cricket ground in the summer.
At that point, with the exception of the school project, this particular engagement with cricket was entirely domestic and mainly private. I doubt whether my parents or later, my wife, really knew what I was messing about with or squirreling away, as I developed a more sophisticated sense of cricket’s history. It helped that I taught art history and subsequently cultural history in my professional life because this extended my understanding of professional sport’s role in entertaining the ‘masses’ in modern society but it remained private until about 25 years ago when I loaned some of my more interesting artefacts for Hampshire to display, accepted an invitation to join a Museum Committee and became increasingly involved so that today I am their Archivist and a regular author of books and articles about Hampshire Cricket.
Some people find my equal passions for cricket and popular music surprising. It’s not uncommon for people to like sport and ‘pop’ but the degree to which I immerse myself in both is unusual. Mick Jagger is often seen at Test Matches, England cricketer Graeme Swann sings in a band, but a restrained fondness for one or the other is usually sufficient for most people. Passion demanding daily involvement in both, is less common.
I don’t propose to start digging around for psychological explanations for this, although my wife offers a very plausible astrological account, but there are other commonalities that may be of interest. The obvious link is history and particularly this idea of time being increasingly fluid as I delve deeper into the histories of events that I witnessed and periods I lived through. I can recall where I was at the news of Kennedy’s death, Churchill’s funeral, England’s World Cup triumph and when Hampshire first won the County Championship in 1961. These days I meet regularly with Hampshire’s retired players, individually and at their reunions. They talk willingly and each conversation links the past with the present. But I meet too with the current players, watch today’s games and have one particular cricketing reason to link past and present. In 2001, Hampshire became the only county side ever to abandon their main grounds and move to a brand new stadium on the outskirts of Southampton. As a consequence, the ground has no ‘ghosts’. Unlike Lord’s, Old Trafford or Hove, there are no clear memories of players who played there in the distant past and it is principally down to me to ensure that the memories are preserved and the ‘ghosts’, or at least the spirit of our former teams and players are welcomed to a new home. Again, time slips from the present to the past and back again.
Popular music seems less like this to me, despite the often untimely deaths of many key figures, partly because musicians keep playing long after bodies give up on sporting activities. Fingers get arthritic, voices drop deeper, dancing may be a twist too far and crowds dwindle, but music is still produced and often draws upon or seeks to recreate the music of this past. By their sixties, most cricketers have become watchers or golfers while many musicians continue to perform. Memory and history can enrich both in later years because there is such richness in memory; especially when we avoid the temptation to assert that everything was better back then and rather allowing the past and present to work their magic on each other.
Yet I think there may be one respect in which the past was preferable. When my passions began in the late 1950s it was possible for most young people to dream of a life as a cricketer or musician. The world of popular music was to a large extent filled with aspiring self-taught kids from ‘ordinary’ homes who spent hours in their bedrooms mastering another chord, a new riff, a drum roll or a performing pose. Meanwhile most schools played cricket back then (at least if you were a boy) from which the best kids might dream of a career. Indeed one of my closest school friends played professionally for Hampshire but he came from inner city Portsmouth and it’s a sad fact that these days very few inner city kids play cricket at school and hardly any make it on to Hampshire’s staff. Most of our youngsters now come from rural or suburban areas of the county where the clubs are strongest and many have been educated in the Independent sector.
In 1960, there was a marked difference between cricket’s hierarchy and its professional players. Back then Hampshire’s secretary and former captain came to them via Cheltenham College, Oxford University and war service as an officer. Their captain was an Old Etonian and their committee included retired Army and Royal Navy officers and an Alderman. These days the running of English cricket is far more meritocratic but playing it at the highest levels is far less so.
If the recent ‘James Blunt’ contoversy has any credibility, it may be that popular music (and ‘showbiz’ more generally) is going the same way. Apparently British performers these days are increasingly from the ‘posher’ classes, while the descendants of McCartney, Bowie and the Gallaghers have less hope of fame and fortune.
Oddly, this is happening despite the legitimisation of popular music in home, school and college. In the late 1950s, my Grammar School banned a Jazz Club because the music and its culture were considered ‘undesirable’. They didn’t bother to ban ‘pop’ probably because it seemed unthinkable that we might show any interest in it. But we did. It’s interesting too that in the broader field of popular music, a folk club was allowed in the mid-1960s despite the strong links between the folk revival and various left of centre causes. Perhaps it was ok because it was quieter?
Back then I used to struggle to reconcile my two passions. Most of my cricketing school friends had a slight interest in pop but nothing serious. Most of my ‘artier’ pals embraced new fashions and sounds, went clubbing and with hardly an exception were indifferent to sport. This has remained the case throughout my life but where it once troubled me, I now enjoy the two running into and away from each other, like those currents in the Solent. They are similar in that both bring pleasure to many people, similar in that they enable ‘ordinary’ people to develop a singular skill to a higher level than most manage – while being culturally rather different. They nurture and encourage different emotions, but for me at least they are brought together through the engagement with the history of my time – in my case a pretty parochial history, but one of some depth.
If, in the end, these two interests in their intensity are unusual bedfellows so be it. If that makes me in some slight way, unusual, that’s fine. I used to wonder what it meant and sometimes worry about it. Then I accepted and got on with it. Now I relish it. In the words of a favourite film I’ve really had a Wonderful Life.