Home, Sweet Home

Originally published in The Nightwatchman, issue 6, Summer 2014.

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From Glacier Mints to the Mound Stand… Tom Jeffreys casts his architectural eye over Lord’s

In a narrow back corridor somewhere inside the maze of staircases and locked doors of the Lord’s Pavilion hangs an eccentric little collection. As is usually the case with art collected according to shared subject matter rather than artistic merit, many of the works are strikingly ordinary. In this case that is beside the point. Along both walls hang paintings of cricket grounds from across the world. Here is a view of Calcutta in a fusillade of high-key acids; there the spire and arches of Perth’s calm, expansive idyll. Uganda is abuzz with energy and gold-crested cranes; Stoke on Trent part-swallowed by grime and slim smoking chimneys. Graham, my knowledgeable and wryly enthusiastic tour guide, says it’s his favourite of these paintings. Trying to sound knowledgeable, I say that it looks, “very Lowry-esque”. Graham agrees.

Visiting a cricket ground in the off-season is a strange experience. Stranger still is the experience of visiting in the off-season on a guided tour for one. The register of speech constantly shifts between well-practised patter and ordinary conversation. My original intention for this piece was to write a kind of psychogeographic tour of Lord’s, taking in its history and its ever-changing architecture. This kind of writing is characterised by a desire to go against the grain, undermining or overriding the mainstream narrative of authority about a particular place. It requires, I find, a certain state of mind to engage with a place in that way. It helps to be alone. But, pottering around with Graham, it never quite materialises.

Previously, when considering cricketground architecture, I have noted a discrepancy in the aesthetics. On the one hand, there’s the homely thatch-topped pavilion of the English village idyll and, on the other, the glass-steel-concrete edifice of the multi-purpose international stadium, whose primary audiences engage only visually, via the medium of television, from the comfort of their own homes. It is perhaps at Lord’s alone where these two opposing tendencies collide.

Lord’s is a pioneering global stadium – host of the Ashes, as well as real tennis, Olympic archery, and sundry revenue-generating events and conferences. Appropriately, it has a star-studded architectural cast list to match: the Mound Stand, designed by Sir Michael Hopkins and opened in 1987; the 1998 Grand Stand by Sir Nicholas Grimshaw; and, most prominently, the all-seeing Media Centre conceived by Future Systems and awarded the Stirling Prize in 1999 by the Royal Institute of British Architects. It is one of the industry’s most prestigious prizes, awarded to “the building that has made the greatest contribution to the evolution of architecture over the past year”. Quite an accolade for a cricket ground.

It has been something of a personal dream of mine to sit there, up high in the Media Centre, reporting on the ebbs and flows of a Test: there’s the view, of course, and the competitive camaraderie of the press corps, all rushing to file their copy at the end of another enthralling day’s play. Having yet to find a job as a cricket reporter, a personal guided tour is perhaps the next best way in. Because, as striking an edifice as it is from the outside, the Media Centre only really reveals itself once you step out of the lift. It is then that you realise what a bizarre and original structure it is.

Built, famously, in the Pendennis shipyard in Falmouth, the overall form has a distinctive hull-like appearance, but it is inside that the extent of this nautical theme becomes truly apparent. Almost everything has rounded-off edges – ventilator grills, door frames, even the brushed steel door handles. It is as if the primary concern of the architects was for the safety of the world’s cricket journalists should the whole thing pitch violently in a sudden squall. It even has portholes in the doors. Most striking of all, however, is that the entire interior has been painted a mildly disorientating shade of sky blue: floors, walls, ceilings, everything. It’s like standing beneath the ocean or, more accurately, above the clouds.

Along with this award-winning, cutting-edge architecture, there is also another Lord’s: a Lord’s of picnic hampers and geriatric jazz bands, white picket fences and ties fit to spill breakfast on. It is this Lord’s that insists on fiddly white marquee tops to adorn the top of Hopkins’ Mound Stand, and curtails the height of both the Compton and Edrich Stands: the members, I’m told, must be able to see trees from their Pavilion. The cricket match: ever a rural event, even here in the billionaire environs of St John’s Wood.

This undying privileging of the quaint is closely tied up with the idea of Lord’s as home. “The home of cricket” is the phrase that gets trotted out so often, despite the departure of the ICC to the tax-free skyscrapers of Dubai. The ECB is still based here, though, in an unprepossessing glass block near the indoor school. Regardless of who makes the rules, or where, I’ve always thought there’s something homely about Lord’s. I’m clearly not the only one: the members, for example, feasting on claret and spotted dick; or Andrew Strauss notching up century after century and reminding us, like the name tags in the home dressing-room, that Lord’s is always home to Middlesex before it is home to England.

Many players, however, never felt at home here, and nor do many visitors. My wife hated it when we came to see India in 2011. Shane Warne never took a five-wicket haul at Lord’s. Brian Lara famously never scored a Test century here, nor Sachin Tendulkar or Michael Atherton. Atherton did at least succeed in scoring his first one-day international century at the ground, in a 55-over match against the West Indies in 1995. I was there – my first visit to Lord’s as an 11-year-old boy. I’m sorry to say I don’t really remember much about that momentous innings – my main recollection is of arguing with my friend about who would get to buy the last Gray-Nicolls mini cricket bat from the Lord’s shop. I won. I’m not sure our friendship ever quite recovered.

Since then I’ve visited many times: for pre-season nets in the indoor school; for county matches, drowsing contentedly as Middlesex toil in the summer sun; and for Tests (tickets obtained via my dad’s friend, now sadly dead, an MCC member with an ingenious method of smuggling extra Pimm’s into the ground). I’ve sat through hours of excruciating boredom, courtesy of a Mark Richardson 93, and witnessed the memorable brilliance of Ben Hollioake’s magic-dusted 63 on debut. That innings changed my relationship with cricket from abstract interest to consuming obsession. From 1997 onwards, for a boy away at boarding school, cricket became my home.

Every single trip to Lord’s has been accompanied by a sense of joyful trepidation. Even on this cricket-less visit, the excitement remains, like a long-honed muscle memory or tangled Lockean association of ideas. It’s a bright Saturday morning in March, and I’m taken to see all the famous sights: the Ashes urn and the Long Room, the players’ dressing-rooms and their balconies. But it’s the lesser known gems that I’m more interested in: the bizarre Presidents’ Chair; the brilliantly off-kilter paintings of Dilip Vengsarkar, Bishan Bedi and Kapil Dev by Stuart Pearson Wright; and, perhaps of amusement value only to me, a piece of paper laminated and blue-tacked to a wall on the inside of the Media Centre, of all places. It reads: “If you [in italics] see or hear anything that you think we should know about please contact the ICC’s Anti Corruption and Security Unit [in scarlet].”

Behind the Media Centre, tucked away near the North Gate, stands a stout brick house like a verger’s cottage. If Lord’s is a cathedral (or parish church) then this is where the rector lives. The man responsible for overseeing the painstakingly neat plantings around the ground is the same man responsible for its world-class playing surfaces: groundsman, Mick Hunt. The evidence of his labours is all around on the day I visit: bags of Ongar Loam piled high behind the Compton Stand; long planks of wood balanced on a pair of trestles; a pebble-dashed bollard lying prostrate on a wooden palette, like a patient, anaesthetised and awaiting the surgeon’s attention.

By a kind of circular coincidence, the day that I visit also happens to be the birthday of curmudgeonly former England captain Michael Atherton. Some of the staff are holding a private party in their offices to mark the occasion. Even Iron Mike himself would surely be touched (or monumentally embarrassed) by the heavily frosted little cake awaiting ceremonial slicing.

Unfortunately I’m unable to join them. In the afternoon, my wife and I are having a few drinks to say goodbye to our friends before setting off to South America for the next five months. I’m missing almost the entire season of my village cricket team, not to mention Tests against India and Sri Lanka. I’m in Buenos Aires now, in a Modernist apartment of cool concrete, as I contemplate Lord’s and the places that we cannot choose but call home. It’s those homely touches that spring to mind as I type: the lovely flint wall of the Harris Garden; a lady in a bottle-green cardigan carrying a large silver trophy towards her car; the Fox’s Glacier Mints piled high in a pair of MCC-liveried Royal Doulton ashtrays stowed away on a sideboard in the Committee Room.

The most memorable image of all encapsulates the competing tendencies that underpin the unique identity of Lord’s. At the base of one of the £2.7 million retractable floodlights – the first of their kind in the UK – is one of the most gloriously pernickety pieces of planting that you could ever wish to see. A severely neat array of privet, a solitary daffodil and an immaculate lawn have been marshalled into action to conceal the vast vulgarity of this metal imposition. What could be more suburban? And like the Victorians apocryphally covering the legs of their pianos, such efforts tend inevitably to draw attention to that which they wish to conceal. To me, that’s the glory of Lord’s, right there.

The day I visit also marks the start of the £21 million redevelopment of the Warner Stand. My guide is keen to tell me about it. Designed by Populus (the same firm behind the 2012 Olympic Stadium), it will improve viewing conditions for MCC members and friends. What he’s less keen to discuss, for obvious reasons, is the long-rumbling controversy surrounding the far larger redevelopment proposal entitled, with ominous blandeur, “A Vision for Lord’s”. In 2012 contemporary artist Marcus Coates released a performance-film entitled Vision Quest – A Ritual for Elephant & Castle, in which he examined many of the issues surrounding the demolition of the notorious Heygate Estate in south London. In it he highlights the way in which that word “vision” is beloved of both developers and mystics alike. It hides so much. Here at Lord’s we see the same choice of language, the same indefinite article, and the same faux-humility of that little “for”. It all makes for a masterstroke in developer-speak concealment.

Without getting into the details, which I’ve long since lost track of anyway, what interests me is how the whole masterplan – originally mooting an increase in capacity by 10,000 and the construction of 275,000 square feet of residential property in five tower blocks – relates to the idea of home. There are few places about which we feel more strongly than those we call our home, and perhaps that is why feelings have run so high on either side: both those who wish to secure the future of the ground – “keeping Lord’s world-class” was one slogan being bandied around – and those who fear it will be ruined in the process.

What also strikes me is the sometimes strained relationship between public and private that has marked the whole affair. Home is a place of legally instituted privacy (under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights) and these discussions have taken place in large part behind the closed doors of various committee rooms. But they have also taken place in public, in the stark glare of online forums and dedicated websites, national newspapers and Private Eye.

I feel this tension between the public performance and the private in my conversations with Graham. In my desire to write something unusual I keep interrupting him to ask about some false ceilings, or the high chairs in the Committee Room. Or stopping to note down another trivial detail: a code in the Media Centre (04a-S02.07); the maker of the retractable floodlights (Abacus of Nottingham); the colour-coded “recycling stations”; or the beer taps in the Grand Stand bar, cowled in plastic like a row of penitent monks. All of which puts Graham sporadically off his rhythm.

Part of the problem is that I’d thought I might be able to have some time to myself – to wander around the ground and let thoughts crystallise and settle, or evaporate, of their own volition. A crackling call on Graham’s walkie-talkie soon tells us otherwise, and my initial plans for an under-the-radar bit of psychogeography begin to unravel. It was probably never going to make for a particularly interesting analysis anyway.

And besides, Lord’s has its own ideas. The 200th anniversary is, of course, the main event and when we’re joined by another member of staff (extremely friendly for somebody at work on a Saturday morning), I’m told all about the forthcoming celebrations: an MCC v Rest of the World match, the Pavilion opening to the public for the first time since the 1960s, and all sorts of other fun and festivities. Graham, meanwhile, is keen for me to write about Derek Randall, his favourite cricketer, who is brought into the conversation at every available opportunity. It makes me wish I was older and had seen him bat and field. Instead of all these things, I’m here in Buenos Aires writing about Lord’s, and home.

 
 


Image credit: Hobbs Luton