Sunday, 7 August 2011

Dickens, Disability, Cricket

by Charles Dickens

[Full text with supplementary images]

I KNOW that we English are an angular and eccentric people—a people that the great flatiron of civilisation will take a long time smoothing all the puckers and wrinkles out of— but I was scarcely prepared for the following announcement that I saw the other day in a tobacconist's window near the Elephant and Castle:

On Saturday,
A Cricket Match will be played at the Rosemary Branch,
Peckham Rye,
Eleven One-armed Men and Eleven One-legged
The Match to begin at Eleven o'Clock A.M.

Well, I have heard of eccentric things in my time, thought I, but I think this beats them all. I know we are a robust muscular people, who require vigorous exercise, so that we would rather be fighting than doing nothing. Our youth walk, run, shoot, fish, hunt (break their necks, even, in pursuit of health), tramp the world over, and leave their footprints in Arctic snows and Arabian sands. It is to this outward working of the inner fire that we owe our great circum-navigators, travellers, soldiers, and discoverers. Our English arms have built up half the railways in the world; our emigrants are on every sea; we are the harmless Norsemen of the nineteenth century. We can do (some of us) without working our brains much, but we Saxons must all exert our limbs; we pine if we are pent up at desks and ledgers. We are a race of walkers, sportsmen, travellers, and craftsmen. We are (by our arts and colonising) the peaceful conquerors of the world. The days of the old red-handed conquest being now (as it is generally thought) gone by for ever, here these one-armed men go and caricature the national tendencies.

Such were my patriotic thoughts when I trudged down the Old Kent Road — chiefly remarkable, since the old coaching days, as the former residence of Mr. Greenacre—and made my devious way to Peckham. Under swinging golden hams, golden gridirons, swaying concertinas (marked at a very low figure), past bundles of rusty fire-irons, dirty rolls of carpets, and corpulent dusty feather-beds—past deserted-looking horse-troughs and suburban looking inns, I took my pilgrim way to the not very blooming Rye of Peckham.

Rows of brick boxes, called streets, half-isolated cottages, clung to by affectionate but dusty vines — eventually a canal, where boatmen smoked and had dreams of coming traffic—a sudden outburst of green fields, that made me think I was looking at streets with green spectacles on—brought me to the trim, neat public house known by the pleasant aromatic name of "The Rosemary Branch."

A trim bar-woman, with, perhaps, rather too demonstrative a photograph brooch, stood in front of a row of glass barrels labelled respectively "Shrub," "Bitters," and "Sampson," the latter, I have no doubt, a very strong beverage indeed. Nor did I fail to observe a portrait of the last winner of the Derby over the fireplace, and a little stuffed terrier pup above the glass door leading into the little parlour, where a very comfortable dinner was smoking.

I procured my ticket, and was shown through a deserted billiard-room, and down a back lane, to the cricket-field. I delivered up the blue slip to a very fat man with a child's voice who sat with an air of suffering at the entrance-wicket, and I was in the eccentric creatures' innocent field of battle.

There they were, the one-legged and the one-armed, encamped like two neighbouring armies.

Two potboys, girdled with tucked-up aprons white as the froth of bitter-beer, hurried past me as if to relieve the thirst of men wounded in war. After them came odd men carrying more benches for spectators of the one-armed men's prowess. The one-armed men were having their innings; the fielding of their one-legged adversaries, I could see in a moment, was something painfully wonderful and ludicrously horrible.

Totally indifferent to the mingled humour and horror of the day were the costermongers, who, grouped near the gate, threw a fair-day show over one section of the field. Those mere boys, with hard-lined pale faces and insinuating curls like large fish-hooks on each temple, were totally absorbed in drawing pence from the people of  Peckham now that the bloom, so long expected, was undoubtedly on the Rye. There, were boys shooting down an enormous tin telescope for nuts; there, were men bowling clumsily at enormous wooden-headed ninepins. But the crown of the amusements was that corduroy-sheathed lad who had, with true Derby-day alacrity, stuck four slender sticks into hampers of matted sand, and on those shivery columns poised hairy cocoa-nuts, gilt pincushions, and wooden boxes meretriciously covered. One, two — whiz — whirl; what beautiful illustrations of the force of gravity did those boxes and pincushions furnish at three throws a penny! With what an air of sagacious and triumphant foresight did the proprietor bundle up the cudgels under his arm and gingerly replace the glittering prizes!

But while I dally here the eccentric game proceeds; so, avoiding the cannon-shot of chance balls, I pass across the field to the little windowed shed where the scorer sits opposite to the signal-post that, with its 4—6—2 in large white figures, marks the progress of the game. Some boys are playing with a bundle of the large tin numerals that lie at the foot of the signboard-post. Inside the outer and open part of the shed sit a row of Peckham quidnuncs deeply interested in the game—a game which, if it were all innings, I hold would be almost perfect, but, as it is, I deem to be, on the whole, rather wearisome. I seated myself on a garden-roller kept to level the grass, and watched the game. A man driving two calves out of the way of the players informed me that the proceeds of the game were for the benefit of a one-armed man who was going in when the next wicket went, down.

The players were not all Peckham men; that one-legged bowler, so deft and ready, I found was a well-known musical barber, a great dancer, and I believe a great fisherman, from a distant part of Essex.

The one-legged men were pretty well with the bat, but they were rather beaten when it came to fielding. There was a horrible Holbeinish fun about the way they stumped, trotted, and jolted after the ball. A converging rank of crutches and wooden legs tore down upon the hall from all sides; while the one-armed men, wagging their hooks and stumps, rushed madly from wicket to wicket, fast for a "oner," faster for "a twoer." A lean, droll, rather drunk fellow, in white trousers, was the wit of the one-leg party. "Peggy" evidently rejoiced in the fact that he was the lamest man in the field, one leg being stiff from the hip downwards, and the wooden prop reaching far above the knee.

He did not treat the game so much as a matter of science as an affair of pure fun — of incongruous drollery, with which seriousness was altogether out of place. If there was a five minutes' lull for beer, when the "over" was shouted, Peggy was sure to devote that interval to dancing a double-shuffle in the refreshment tent, where the plates were now being dealt round ready for some future edible game. When he took his place as slip or long-stop, he ran to his post while others walked; or delighted the boys by assuming an air of the intensest eagerness and watchfulness, putting a hand on either knee and bending forward, as if he had sworn that no ball should escape his vigilance; or when a ball did come, by blocking it with his wooden leg, throwing himself on it, or falling over it: an ineviuble result, indeed, with nearly all the one-legged faction, as the slightest abruptness or jerk in movement had the result of throwing then off the perpendicular. I do not think that Peggy stopped a single ball unless it hit him; he generally fell over it and lost it until some comrade stumped up, swore at him, and picked the ball out from between his feet or under his arm.

The one-armed men had a much less invalid and veteran air about them. There was a  shapely lad in a pink Jersey, who, from having his hand off only at the wrist, merely looked at a distance like a stripling with his hand hidden by a long coat-cuff. But then, again, there was a thickset, sturdy fellow, in a blue cap, of the "one-leg" party, who, though he had lost one foot, seemed to run and walk almost as well as ordinary people. Then, again, on the "one-leg" side, there was an ostentatious amount of infirmity in the shape of one or two pale men with crutches, yet everybody appeared merry and good-natured, and determined to enjoy the game to his heart's content; while every time a player made a run, before the dull beat of the bat had died away, there was a shout that made the Peckham welkin ring again, and all the crutches and wooden legs beat tattoos of pure joy and triumph. And when the musical and Terpsichorean barber rattled the wickets or made the balls fly, did not the very plates in the refreshment tent dance with pleasure!

Yet, really, Peggy's conduct was most reprehensible. In spite of his "greyhound-in-the-leash" attitude, he was worse than useless; he kicked at the passing ball, he talked to it, he tumbled down to stop it, but for all the success he attained, he might as well have been away; why, Wilkins, with the long crutches and swinging legs, was three times as useful, though he was slow. I suppose, what with the beer, the heat of the day, the excess of zeal, and the fatigue, Peggy began at last to be pretty well aware that he was not doing much good, for he took to lying a good deal on his back, and to addressing the boys, who buzzed round him like flies, on the necessity of keeping a steady "lookout" at cricket. I do not know what Peggy had been, but he looked like a waterman.

Now, a lad who lost his leg when a baby, as a bystander told me, took up the bat and went in with calm self-reliance, and the game went forward with the usual concomitants. Now come the tips, the misses, the by-balls, the leg hits, the swinging blows that intend so much and do nothing the echoing swashing cuts, the lost balls, the stumpings-out, the blocks, the slow treacherous balls, and the spinning, bruising roundhanders; not that our friends of the one leg and one arm swaddled themselves up in any timid paddings or bandages; they put on no india-rubber tubed gloves, no shelter-knuckles, they don no fluted leggings. What is a blow on the knuckles to a man who has lost a leg or an arm, who has felt the surgeon's saw and the keen double-edged knife? Yet all this time there was rather a ghastly reminder of suffering about the whole affair, to my mind. I could fancy the game played by out-patients in some outlying field of Guy's Hospital. I could believe it a party of convalescents in some field outside Sebastopol. Well, I suppose the fact is, that men don't think much of misfortunes when they are once irretrievable, and that these men felt a pleasure in doing an eccentric thing, in showing how bravely and easily they could overcome an infirmity that to some men appears terrible. After all, one thinks, after seeing such a game, one-legged and one-armed men are not so miserable as people imagine. Nature is kind to us in her compensations.

And all this time my eye was perpetually wandering to that blue bulbing dome and the two little pinnacles, that, though from here no larger than a chimney-piece ornament, is, I have reason to believe, Saint Paul's, some five miles distant as the crow flies. How delicate and clean cut its opaque sapphire—how pleasantly it crowns the horizon! That view of Saint Paul's from the Peckham meadows I can strongly recommend to landscape painters as one of the best, because one of the nearest, suburban views of Saint Paul's. I know it, a little blue mushroom button from Banstead Downs, just cropping up above the grey rim of the horizon, where the dark brown cloud ever lingers to mark out London; I know it, a great palace of air from all the winding reaches of the Thames, but I think I never saw it before so beautiful, so unreal, so visionary, so sublime. It seemed more the presiding'genius of the busy, turbulent, uneasy city. I felt quite a love for the old blue monster; the sight of him moved me as the sight of a great army moves me, or as the sight of a fleet beating out to sea, with their white wings set all one way.

And now looking again to the game—the excitement has become tremendous. A man with crutches is in; he props himself artfully up, while he strikes the ball feebly and with lacklustre stroke. A one-armed man with a wavering sleeve, bowls with his left hand, and makes a complicated business of it: the ball moving in a most eccentric orbit. At the opposite wicket Peggy is enthroned: his attitude is a study for Raphael—intense watchfulness, restless ambition, fond love of glory slightly dashed with inebriation, slightly marred by intoxication, visible in every motion. Alas! the first, fell ball comes and damages his wicket. His perfect disbelief in the reality of such a catastrophe is sublime—it typifies the dogged constancy of a nation that never knows when it is beaten.

The one-arms are rudely exulting as Peggy stumps off, not that he ever made a run, but that the look of the man was so imposing. The one-legs droop, the one-arms throw up their caps, or dance "breakdowns," to give vent to their extreme joy. The outlying one-arms skip and trip, the one-legs put their heads together and mutter detracting observations on the one-armed bowling. "There was no knowing what to make of them balls;" "There was no telling where to have them balls;" "They were a spiteful lot, the one-arms, so cheeky, so braggy;" "But the one-legs knew what's what, and they are going to do the trick yet."

Now the clatter of knives and forks and plates in the refreshment tent grew perfectly alarming; it was like a sale in a china-shop. The players, heedless of such poor sublunary things as boiled beef and greens and the smoke of flowery potatoes, played more like madmen than sober rational cricketers. St. Paul's danced before my eyes as if I was playing cup and ball with it, so dazzled did I get with the flying red ball. The leaping catches were wonderful, the leg-hits admirable, the bowling geometrically wonderful, the tips singularly beautiful; the ball smashed at the palings, dashed into thorn bushes, lost itself, broke plates in the refreshment tent, nearly stunned the scorer, knocked down a boy, flew up in the air like a mad thing. As for Peggy's balustrade leg, had he not occasionally screwed it off to cool himself, it would have been shivered into a thousand pieces. You would have thought, indeed, that the bowler mistook his unfortunate "stick leg" for the wicket, he let fly at it so often and so perversely. But in vain all skill and energy; the one-legs could not get at the ball quick enough, their fielding was not first-rate, the one-arms made a gigantic effort, forged fourteen runs ahead, and won. Peggy performed a pas seul expressive of hopeless despair, and stumped off for a pot of stout.

All the Year Round (October 5, 1861), pp. 33-36

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