Ceci n’est pas Une Batte

Ceçi n’est pas une batte by Chris Green

Not many people realise that the surrealist painter, René Magritte was a big fan of English cricket. He discovered cricket by accident in a newspaper article in the 1930s. Although he had a reasonable command of English, the unfamiliar language baffled him. Innings, runs, overs, wickets, stumps, and bails. There were no equivalents to these in his native Belgium. The game was not played here. He was amused too by the names of the fielding positions, short leg, silly mid-on, gulley, backward point, first and second slip, etc. And the rules of the game were not only complicated but surreal.

He learned that there were two sides of eleven men, one in and one out in the field. Each man on the in side went out to bat and the fielding side tried to get him out. When he was out, he came in. Then the next man went in until he was out. When he was out, he too came in. When they were all out, the side that was out came in and the side that had been in went out and tried to get those coming in out. In addition, there were many ways in which the fielding side could get the batsmen, namely bowled, caught, stumped, run out and leg before wicket, whatever this was. When both sides had been in and out twice, the game finished. The team with the most runs won, unless they had not had enough time to finish because of bad light or rain, in which case it was a draw. Runs were made by the two batsmen that were in running between two sets of stumps after the one on strike had hit the ball and the ones in the field had not stopped it. Games lasted for three or five days.

René felt he had to experience this theatre of the absurd first hand. It sounded a lot more interesting than hockey or volleyball. He took a trip to England to watch a local weekend game at a village on the Kent coast. Although he had a little difficulty understanding everything that was going on, he felt it was an entertaining way to spend an afternoon. He was hooked. He began to make regular trips across the Channel to watch Kent play County Cricket at Canterbury. With his dark suit and signature bowler hat, René fitted in easily with the well-to-do spectators in the Members’ Enclosure and the hospitality tents. As he chatted away to his fellow fans, most did not realise they were in the presence of a famous artist.

He gradually got to know the Kent cricketers. As luck should have it, Kent’s captain, Bryan Valentine was a keen amateur artist and knew who René Magritte was. Bryan was aware that new art movements were springing up in Europe and eager to keep up with developments. René became a regular guest in his quarters, where they discussed the connections between art and cricket long into the night.

As cricket looked so much fun, it was only natural for René to want to have a crack at it. He bought all the kit and arranged for a few sessions in the nets. With a little coaching from the Kent players, he mastered some of the batting strokes, the cover drive, the hook, the sweep and the late cut. They told him he was a natural. Encouraged by this, René persuaded Bryan to let him play in a Sunday charity match.

The only reservation René had was in the game’s presentation. If, as he hoped, cricket was ever going to take off in Belgium, this needed a little tweaking. It would need to drop some of its formality. To add a little humour, instead of the standard cricketing cap, he wore his trademark bowler hat for the charity match. Although this was greeted with puzzlement at first, the boozy Sunday crowd soon caught on. It would not be appropriate for regular county fixtures, but once in a while, it was good to break with tradition.

With her husband disappearing regularly, Georgette Magritte began to suspect he was having an affair. The explanation for his absences that he was watching cricket was an unconvincing one. She insisted the next time he went on his travels, he took her along. René tried to put her off. He explained that the shopping opportunities in Canterbury might fall short of her expectations. It was not exactly London. She would be better off going to the department stores in Brussels for her frocks. But this did nothing to convince Georgette. She was going with him and that was that.

René was right. Georgette did not enjoy their wet week in Kent in early September one bit. Canterbury was something of a backwater. It was completely lacking in culture and had no dress shops. The weather made it worse. The sight of twenty-two men sitting around in white trousers and sweaters waiting for the rain to stop seemed to be the ultimate pointless activity. The rain was clearly not going to stop. What could it possibly be about cricket that so fascinated René?​ When she put her mind to it, Georgette could become the incredible sulk. A model of passive aggressive manipulation. René had no defence against this. He capitulated. They returned home early.

September marked the end of the cricket season, so to keep his enthusiasm for the game alive over the winter months, René embarked on a series of surreal cricket paintings. He felt these would help to promote the game in Belgium and who knows, perhaps even France. He used all of his signature themes, cricketers in bowler hats, cricketers with green apple faces, cricketers with bowler hats and green apple faces. Cricketers with fluffy clouds as faces. A picture of a cricket bat with the title, Ceçi n’est pas Une Batte. Sadly, few of these paintings have survived. The ones that have are in a private collection belonging to the reclusive Sebastian Bose-Harrington at Harrington Hall, where the public cannot view them. These were originally a gift to the less reclusive Colin Bose-Harrington, a senior Kent Cricket Club board member in the days leading up to World War 2.

With the outbreak of war, cricket in England came to an abrupt halt. Even had it continued, the Nazi occupation of Belgium would have made it difficult for René to travel. His last cricket painting is believed to have been completed in early September 1939, just days before Belgium fell. The Nazi occupying force considered his work to be degenerate art and destroyed this one along with many others.

It is not clear why René did not resume his passion for cricket after the war, but artists are restless souls. Change for them is a driving force. This versatility, in turn, adds kudos to their work. If, for instance, Picasso had had just one period, he would surely not have stood the test of time. We would no longer be talking about him in such elevated terms today. Similarly, through Magritte’s ability to re-invent himself, his paintings have increased in value logarithmically over the years. His Le Principe du Plaisir recently sold for 27 million dollars in New York. Because of their rarity, the six surviving cricket paintings in the Bose-Harrington collection might expect a similar return should they ever come onto the market. In the meantime, be comforted that the great Belgian painter was once a big fan of English cricket.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Hitman

hitman

Hitman by Chris Green

You don’t expect to see hitmen at English village cricket matches. But the man dressed in black with the Moscot sunglasses on the bench on the other side of the ground is Cosa Nostra. Sophie and I are sure of it. He is wearing a gun beneath his dark suit. We could tell he was armed as soon as he got out of the black Mercedes with the tinted windows. He parked by the sight-screen and walked slowly over to the seat with the olive skinned lady in the red floral dress. She is clearly his cover.

Little Dissing are playing Over Snowey, the combined population of both villages is less than three thousand. Why would a Mafioso have an interest in what is going on here, we wonder? I think of mentioning it to PCSO Trescothick but I can see there would be no point. He is three sheets to the wind. There was a lunchtime session at The Butchers Arms before the game and everyone went out of their way to buy him a drink so he would overlook some minor misdemeanour or other. I look around for Ken Bicknoller the manager of the village gun shop but he seems to have disappeared. Probably gone off to shoot some flightless birds.

You did pay your income tax bill in the end, didn’t you?’ Sophie says.

The day before the deadline,’ I say. And I moved on that money that was resting in my account.’

Perhaps the lunchtime celebrations were a mistake. Wickets are tumbling. Rob Mullis is out to a reckless sweep shot to a ball he should have left. Little Dissing are now 29 for 4.

Aren’t you supposed to be doing the scoreboard?’ Roy Tackler says. ‘It’s still saying 13 for 0.’

Sorry,’ I say. ‘I got distracted. What do you make of those two sat over there, Roy?’

Probably holidaymakers,’ Roy says.

But why are they sitting over there? Why not come over here where the refreshments are?’

I’m sure there’s a good reason. Perhaps they want some privacy. They might be talking a few things over. You’re married, George. You know how these things work.’

They don’t look like they’re here for a cosy little chat. He is a hitman, Roy. I’m certain.’

Look! You missed it,’ Roy says. ‘29 for 5 now, mate,’

What happened?’

Ugg White charged down the wicket, missed the ball completely and was stumped, first ball. Pissed as a fart, I’d say.’

Oh dear. Ugg is not a hitman then.’

Ha, ha. You need to pay attention, man, instead of going off on these flights of fancy.’

Duggie Douglas and Wayne Bridgewater are dispatched in quick succession without adding to the score. I add the numbers to the wickets tally on the board. The man in the dark suit and his friend sit impassively the other side of the field. They offer no applause when Slogger McNally hits the ball skyward and there is no interaction with the boundary fielder when he takes the catch. 29 for 8. These are not cricket fans. They are here on some nefarious mission. Before the day is out, someone from these parts is going to be sleeping with the fishes.

Sophie’s friend, Mandy comes over to us and asks if we know who the two strangers on the bench are. Mandy has been organising the catering in the hospitality tent and wonders if she ought to take something over to them.

They are not from around here, are they?’ she says. ‘But they look so left out over there. They are probably too shy to come across. And it’s such a hot day. I’m sure they would like a glass of something cool. Perhaps I could take them a plate of sausage rolls and vol au vents too. Why don’t you come, Sophie? We could ask them over and introduce them to everyone.’

They do look as if they might want to be alone,’ Sophie says. ‘George thinks the fellow might be, well, I suppose there’s no other way to say it, from the Mob. The Mafia, you know.’

Oh, don’t be silly. Come on, let’s go and see who they are. …. Oh, that’s a shame. They seem to be leaving.’

I look up and notice the Mafioso and his companion are slowly making their way back towards the car. His gait is definitely the gait of a gangster. You can tell he is armed to the teeth, weapons hidden all over his person. Is it my imagination or is he whistling the theme tune to The Godfather? He is probably going off to make someone an offer they can’t refuse.

From a safety point of view, I should be pleased that the pair are leaving. But in a sense, I am disappointed. I will miss them. Very little of any consequence ever happens in Little Dissing. Graffiti appearing in the play-park is a bit of an event here. We look forward to the fish and chip van calling every second Thursday and the annual cricket match with Over Snowey is on a par with Glastonbury Festival or the World Cup Final. There is a cheer from the crowd now as Ed Lock tries to hit the ball back over the bowler’s head but misses it by a mile. Oblivious to the cricketing shenanigans, the visitors quietly get into the parked Mercedes.

Who on Earth were they?’ Tony Ostler the racehorse trainer from Nether Dissing asks.

I don’t know, Tony,’ I say. ‘But if I were you, I would check on your horses when you get home. Or at least before you and your good lady go on up to bed.’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved