To celebrate the England football team’s performance at the World Cup, the BBC web-site has a feature by slang lexicographer Jonathon Green:
The cliché has it that the Inuit have 52 words for “snow”. That originates from a 1911 book by Franz Boas. However, thecanadianencyclopedia.ca disputes this, and suggests a proper count is nearer just ten. Just as the Inuit may know the right (and wrong) types of snow, so the English should know precise terms for levels of defeat suffered in any sport which they claim to have invented.
I believe that the first international sporting fixture may well have been played at Leith in 1682. The Duke of York (later James II) and John Paterstone represented Scotland against two English milords, and trounced them (trounce being the 63rd word Green should have found). SO the English sportsman should be inured to set-backs.
How to segue from that to the next thought?
Well, we might ponder on the English addiction to irony and self-mockery. It is, for sure, expiating our inner prejudices and guilts. Through the likes of George Macdonald Fraser’s magnificent gargoyle, Sir Harry Paget Flashman VC KCB KCIE. he was fun, and only as the joke soured did the political-correctors get in on the act (Fraser did a piece on just how this developed). By the same token, we have just had a small susurration about the sexism of the Samantha redouble-entendres in I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue (check some choice examples here).
So, for the antidote to political correctness, in a sporting context, allow me to reintroduce you to Peter Tinniswood’s Brigadier, and the very first chapter in his first outing:
During the course of a long and arduous career in the service of King and country I have had the honour in the name of freedom and natural justice to slaughter and maim men (and women) of countless creeds and races.
Fuzzy wuzzies, Boers, Chinamen, Zulus, Pathans, Huns, Berbers, Turks, Japs, Gypos, Dagos, Wops and the odd Frog or two — all of them, no doubt, decent chaps ‘in their own way’.
Who is to say, for example, that the Fuzzy Wuzzies don’t have their equivalent don’t have their equivalent of our own dear John Inman and the delicious Delia Smith, mother of the two Essex cricketing cousins, Ray and Peter?
I have no doubt that the Dagos have their counterpart of our Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth, and I am perfectly certain that the Wops, just like us, have lady wives with hairy legs, loud voices and too many relations.
Indeed it is my firm opinion that all the victims of this carnage and slaughter were just like you and I — apart from their disgusting table manners and their revolting appearance.Poor chaps, they had only two failings – they were foreigners and they were on the wrong side.
Now as I approach the twilight of my life I look back with pleasure and with pride on those campaigns which have brought me so much comfort and fulfilment — crushing the Boers at Aboukir Bay, biffing the living daylights out of the Turk at the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, massacring the Aussies at The Oval in 1938.
But of all these battles one remains vividly in my mind to this very day — the Battle of Root’s Boot.
The incidents pertaining to this conflict occurred in 1914 during the MCC’s first and only tour to the Belgian Congo.
Who on earth had the crass stupidity to give the Congo to the Belgians in the first place is quite beyond me.
I am bound to say that I consider the Belgians to be the most revolting shower of people ever to tread God’s earth.
Eaters of horse flesh, they let us down in two world wars. They’re hopeless at golf. They drive on the wrong side of the road, and they’re forever yodelling about their blasted fiords and their loathsome fretwork egg-timers.
Is it any wonder they made such a confounded mess of running the Congo?
When we went there in 1914, there was not one decent wicket the length and breadth of the country, and the facilities for nets were totally inadequate.
And, if that weren’t enough, during our matches there were at least two outbreaks of cannibalism among spectators, which I found totally unacceptable, and which I am convinced were responsible for the loss of our most promising young leg spinner, M.M. Rudman-
He was sent out to field at deep third man in the match against an Arab Slavers’ Country Eleven, and all we found of him after the tea interval was the peak of his Harlequins cap and half an indelible pencil.
But of these setbacks we were blissfully unaware as in high good spirits we set off from Liverpool in April 1914 aboard the steamship, SS Duleepsinjhi.
The party was skippered by the Rev. Thurston Salthouse-Bryden, a former chaplain to Madame Tussauds and a forceful if erratic opening bat who distinguished himself in 1927 playing for the Convocation of Canterbury by scoring a century before matins in the match against a Coptic Martyrs Eleven.
I had the honour to be vice captain and OC ablutions, and among the notable players in our midst were the Staffordshire opening bowler, Thunderton-Cartwright, who was later to become rugby league correspondent for The Lancet, and the number three bat and occasional seamer, Ashton, F., who was later responsible for the choreography of the Royal Ballet’s highly acclaimed production of Wisden’s Almanack, 1929, featuring Alicia Markova as Ernest Tyldesley.
Of all the players in the party, though, the one who made the profoundest impression on all who met him (and some who didn’t) was the all-rounder, Arthur Root, a distant cousin of the Derbyshire, Worcestershire and England player, Fred Root, of the same name.
Root was what we in the ‘summer game’ call ‘a natural’.
During the voyage he kept us constantly entertained with his reading in Derbyshire dialect of the works of Colette, and his rendition on spoons and stirrup pumps of the later tone poems of Frederick Delius.
Root had charm, wit, erudition and the largest pair of feet it has ever been my privilege to encounter.
Indeed on the outward voyage they were directly responsible for saving the life of a Goanese steward who fell overboard seven nautical miles sou’ sou’ east of Ushant.
The poor wretch was applying linseed oil to the Rev. Salthouse-Bryden’s self-righting lectern when a freak giant wave washed him overboard.
With the lifebelts being in use for a rumbustious game of deck quoits, Root with great presence of mind threw the only object available to him into the sea — to wit, his right boot.
The dusky Indian steward clambered into the pedicular container and was instantly hauled aboard by the boot laces.
Little did we realize then how vital that boot was to be to our safety and well-being many many months later.
We disembarked without incident at Matadi and set off forthwith for the interior.
What a noble sight our native bearers made as they trudged along the primitive jungle trails carrying on their woolly heads the essential paraphernalia of our expedition — sight screens, portable scorebox and heavy roller.
The capital city, Leopoldvilie, was reached in three weeks.
How strange it was to our English eyes — no tram conductors, no Bedlington terriers, no Ordnance Survey bench marks.
Our only consolation came when Root discovered the local branch of Gunn and Moore’s where we bought leopard-skin cricket bags, scorebooks bound in genuine okapi hide, and the Rev. Salthouse-Bryden purchased an object warranted as a Bantu baptismal love token, but which to my untutored eyes looked more like H. M. Stanley’s left testicle.
We won each of our four matches in Leopoldville by an innings and ‘a substantial margin’, the Belgians ground fielding, as we had anticipated, being of a typically abysmal level.
A nation of congenital butterfingers, the Belgians.
We then set out for what was to be the most difficult and dangerous opposition of our entire tour — three unofficial Test matches against the Pygmies.
We left Leopoldville on a sultry August morning and did not reach our destination until late November 1914.
During the long and onerous trek we had the misfortune to lose three members of our party:
Evans-Pritchard, E. E.: stung by scorpion.
Leakey, L. S. B.: trampled by buffalo.
Attenborough, D.: retired hurt.
It was a nuisance to lose two wicket-keepers and a ‘more than adequate’ middle order batsman in that fashion, but nonetheless our party was in good spirits, when we arrived at Potto Potto to be greeted by officials of the Pygmy Board of Cricket Control.
The chairman, a gnarled, wizened little creature, who, incidentally, bore a marked resemblance to the distinguished light comedy actor and chanteuse, Mr John Inman, made us most welcome, offering us victuals and a choice of his most beautiful wives.
‘Just like playing for Derby against Notts at Worksop,’ said Root, and one and all joined in his hearty and innocent laughter.
On the advice of the Rev. Salthouse-Bryden we declined the feminine offerings but accepted the victuals which were served in the great adobe, thatched pavilion by elderly matrons of the tribe.
It was during the subsequent revelries that the first hitch in the proceedings occurred.
By prior arrangement we were to provide the balls to be used in the match, and, as a matter of courtesy, our baggage master, Swanton, presented a box of same to be examined by the Pygmy officials.
Imagine our horror when the minute, dark-skinned fraternity passed the balls from hand to hand, sniffed them, shook them and, with expressions of sublime delight, ate them.
Worse was to follow when the severely truncated tinted gents offered us the balls they wished to use — row upon row of small spherical objects, gnarled, matted, wrinkled and pitted.
For a moment we gazed at them in stunned silence.
Then the Rev. Salthouse-Bryden exclaimed:
‘Saints preserve us — they are shrunken heads.’
What could have been the very severest of fraught situations was saved by our ever-genial giant, Root.
Picking up one of the heads in his massive fist, he examined it briefly and then said:
‘Don’t worry, skipper. We’ll use this ‘un. It should be just right for seaming after lunch.’
The day of the first unofficial test dawned bright and clear.
The Pygmies won the toss and elected to bat.
The two Pygmy openers made their way to the wicket to the accompaniment of the howling of monkeys and the screeching of gaudily feathered parakeets, and as I watched them take the crease from my vantage point at deep extra cover, it was for all the world like looking through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars at a dusky wee George Wood and an extremely sunburned Mr Harry Pilling.
Our opening bowler, Thunderton-Cartwright, came bounding to the wicket to deliver the first ball of this historic match.
It whistled from his hand at ferocious pace.
But all to no avail.
On the puddingy and unresponsive pitch the ball thudded mutely into the turf and rose no more than six inches from the ground.
‘Bouncer,’ yelled the Pygmy opener.
It was a cry taken up in unison by the masses of minuscule spectators packed in dense masses in what was, I believe, their equivalent of the Warner Stand.
An ugly incident seemed certain to ensue.
But at that moment, totally unexpected, came the crackle of small arms fire, and across the distant river burst a column of native Askaris.
As the Askaris waded across the river, firing indiscriminately from the hip, the Pygmies fled as if by magic.
As bullets whistled past our ears we flung ourselves to the ground, only to hear the following words which plunged an icy dagger to the depths of our hearts.
‘On your feet, Englische Schweinhunds!’
We looked up to see three white men, dressed in khaki drill, with shaven heads and leering duelling scars upon their cheeks.
‘Huns,’ we cried in unison.
Indeed they were.
Why hadn’t MCC informed us that war had been declared?
Why hadn’t the Test and County Cricket Board notified us that marauding parties of German colonial troops were rampaging through the territory?
Why was there no news in The Cricketer of the conflagration that was to rewrite the map of Europe and suspend for four years all Test matches between England and Australia?
Such thoughts flashed through my mind as we were bound by the straps of our cricket pads to the portable scoreboard, and the Askaris lined themselves in front of us in firing squad formation.
It was then, as death stared us in the face, that we were addressed by our skipper, the Rev. Salthouse-Brvden.
‘Oh, Lord,’ he said. Thou hast in Thy wisdom decreed that our innings shall be closed.
‘It is pleasing to Thine eye that in that great score-book in the sky it shall be written of our party, “Death stopped play”.
‘So, Lord, give us the strength to face the long walk back the celestial pavilion like men and members of the MCC, or whichever is more appropriate.’
It was at that moment that I noticed that Root was improperly dressed for the occasion.
His right boot was missing.
Before I could speak he motioned with his eyes towards the distant river.
An amazing sight met my eyes.
Floating silently in the current was a large right cricket boot.
And in it, paddling silently, was a war party of our erstwhile Pygmy opponents.
The Huns and Askaris, totally unaware of the approaching sporting footwear, paused to gloat over their triumph.
It waas to be their undoing, for in an instant the boot touched the river bank, the Pygmies sprang out through the lace holes and, screaming like dervishes, unloosed their poisoned arrows against them.
It was all over in seconds.
The Askaris and their vile Teutonic masters lay dead at our feet.
The match was resumed the following morning.
We had the good fortune to win, when Root took the last three Pygmy wickets with the last three balls of the match.
Years later he was to maintain that this was only possible owing to the slight inconsistency in the second new ball, which caused him to produce prodigious variations in swing and bounce.
And with a smile and a gentle nod of his genial head he would say:
‘I reckon it were the duelling scar in the seam what done it.’
That may require foot-notes for the younger fellows.