After a weekend of summer sunshine and heat, almost to the point of oppressiveness, I woke this morning to the comfortably familiar sound of July rain, falling steadily from a grey sky. It took me back to a weekend away in Birmingham, thirty years ago.
Birmingham sounds like an unusual destination for a weekend away. I don’t like the city, and I don’t like the action, but Lancashire were playing a County Cricket match against Warwickshire at Edgbaston, and I never minded an opportunity to visit Nostalgia & Comics (from where I acquired my Cerebus no 1, by trading a complete set of the Claremont-Cockrum/Claremont-Byrne X-Men and still got ripped off) and the still much-missed Compendium Books, the best second-hand SF bookshop I’ve ever visited.
In addition to all this, I had a good mate back then who’d not long since moved out of Manchester to train to become an Addiction Counsellor. He was now working in the Midlands and staying at the Nurse’s Home attached to a hospital in North Birmingham. So we set it up that he would give me directions to find the Nurse’s Home from the A34, so I could drop off my overnight bag and he could lend me a Birmingham A-Z, and I’d find my way back there after the cricket.
I made a bright, early start and was at the Nurse’s Home for tennish, picking up the A-Z and my mate and one of his fellow residents, and driving them into the centre of Birmingham.
Compendium and N&C were handily close together, a walk of less than ten minutes. There can’t have been much in there to interest me because I ended up splashing out on the new Tolkien History of Middle Earth, edited by his son, Volume 5, The Lost Road and other writings, which was something like £20 even then. I tucked it into my shoulder bag and drove on to Edgbaston.
I visited that ground a handful of times in the Eighties, in the first occasion to watch the Saturday of the Third Test against the West Indies, and then a couple of times with Lancashire. Cricket grounds have their own feel and appeal. Old Trafford I love, of course, and despite its several flaws, and I’m not even including the preponderance of Yorkshiremen about, I have always liked Headingley. Trent Bridge has always been a delight, but Lords leaves me cold, too much smugness in the air. Edgbaston is a small, oddly mis-matched ground, no two parts of which look alike and I’m not keen on it.
It was a typical, relaxed cricket day for me, kicked back in the stand, idly diverting my attention between the cricket and my new book, with a bit more time for the latter than I’d really wanted when the rain came over in the mid-afternoon, and the infamous ‘Brumbrella’ was winched out.
This was a unique extended tarpaulin that in the event of rain could be winched out to cover the entire playing field, except for one awkwardly-angled corner. It stretched out prophylactically and I eased back and read.
For a time, I got talking to a couple of home supporters, about their ground, and ours. They were pleasingly loyal to Edgbaston, well aware of its flaws, but content with it because it was theirs, as they should be. They eventually left, but I stayed because I’d travelled all this way to be here, and I had nothing else to do, and I was content to read and absorb the atmosphere. If I have to be somewhere when it rains, a cricket ground is a very pleasant place to be.
By the time play resumed, the ground was virtually empty. I wandered round, looking at the pitch from different angles. In one corner, opposite the Pavilion End, was a high-banked stand and I was at the top of that when Graeme Fowler struck a perfect flat cover drive, straight to the fence below me. It was one of those shots, all along the ground, where the ball hits the fence before the sound of the shot leaves your ears, and the fielders didn’t move because there was not enough time for them to move.
By close of play, the evening had become sunny and dry, and the sky and the air was a rich, warm gold. It was perfect weather for driving in, looking at what was around me, exploring a strange place. If I couldn’t be in the Lake District, at least I was somewhere I didn’t know, and I decided impulsively that, instead of using the A-Z to plot a course back to the Nurse’s Home, I would just point the car in its general direction and set off.
It didn’t take me very long to have no idea where I was or where I was going. In other circumstances, this would have qualified as being lost, but this was practically the purpose of everything. I found myself heading out of the city towards the south west and the M5 and curving back in again. At one point, I found myself driving along Handsworth main street. It was a slow, straight drive, full of people on both sides, and not a white face to be seen.
This was a new experience. I wasn’t disturbed, or angry, or threatened, or resentful, or anything. I was merely curious as to how far I could go without seeing another white face. It must have been at least a mile, of continuous crowds.
I left Handsworth behind me and motored on, still relishing the driving conditions. This couldn’t last forever and, after something not far short of two hours of wandering, I reluctantly decided that I couldn’t carry on like this forever. I looked for a quiet place where I could pull up, out of the way, find myself in the A-Z, and work out the route home.
There was a turn up ahead. I pulled round to the left, started to slow down, and then burst out laughing. I recognised this road. I had driven down it this morning. The hospital was about a quarter mile down the road, at the bottom. All that driving around, amusing myself, had ended with me getting where I wanted to be, as if by dead reckoning!
We didn’t do anything that evening. I remember sitting around in a bit of a group, including five or six of the nurses, and chatting. One of them in particular I remember, because although she wasn’t the prettiest, and she said very little, a couple of years my mate married her, and they had three children.
We didn’t sit up too late, and I went off to my room and went to bed.
In the morning, I woke about sevenish to the sound of rain. Steady, heavy, unceasing rain. I lay in bed, listening to it for some time before going and looking out of the window. It was falling unchangingly, into the trees dotted around the gardens. There were no gusts, no winds, no bursts, just a long hard fall, and the sound of it was a constant bass note drumming outside the window.
We had no plans, and I didn’t know where my mate’s room was, so after a while I dressed and lay on the bed, reading Tolkien and listening to the rain. It went on and on, for hours, without changing. It must have been after midday before there was a knock on my door.
The rain meant there was nothing to do, so after a drink, and a bit of lunch, I was going to make a dart for it. very few people were about, just one of the nurses that hadn’t been with us last night, and we invited her to join us.
I was working full-time as a Solicitor then, and relatively flush with cash, and thus quite happy to buy a round of drinks, especially as the young lady was quite pretty (not that I had any hopes, let alone expectations). My mate warned me against it: the nurses were badly paid even that far back, and didn’t tend to accept rounds as they couldn’t buy them themselves, and had their pride.
We stayed an hour at the pub. It was still raining, now at least six hours, without any variation in its intensity. I wondered whether there’d be any effect on the drive north, but I got home without incident, taking things slowly and easily. The rain was calming and stilling, the driving easy.
It seemed that the rain was a purely local phenomenon. In London, at Lords, the MCC Bicentennial match, and a Rest of the World XI, had gone on uninterrupted, and the BBC News had an item from the game that I watched with interest, apparently an amazing run out. Given that this was the famous instance where Roger Harper ran out Graham Gooch, it was actually deserving of mention as a news item, and when it came up on screen, I was in awe and disbelief.
Harper was a West Indian cricketer, 6′ 6″ tall, whip-thin and one of the most athletic and agile fielders the world has ever seen. Unusually, he bowled offspin, approaching from the left at an acute angle, almost hopping into the crease and delivering the in an astonishing arc that saw it come out of virtually the small of his back and over his head. After releasing the ball, Harper fell away, quickly, to the left.
Gooch was well-set, with over 120 runs under his belt. He came down the wicket to the ball, played a crisp ground shot, with forceful pace to the right of the bowler’s wicket, his momentum taking him about two yards out of his ground. In ordinary circumstances, the shot would have flashed past the stumps and raced to the fence, with no fielders in position to intercept it. Gooch was already slowing down, secure in another boundary. Except.
Except that Harper spun out of his movement left, shot across right, bending double, his right hand trailing the ground, taking the hard-hit ball in his palm, lifting it up to his shoulder in a single flowing movement and hurling it back down the pitch towards Gooch’s stumps. Gooch, seeing this, knowing he had no chance to get back, was turning as if to throw himself back, diving into the path of the throw, but it was two fast for him and he was still turning when Harper’s throw flashed past him and hit the stumps.
It was an unbelievable moment. If I’d been at Lords to see it, in real time, it would have been like the time, six years later, when I saw Shane Warne bowl THAT ball: it would have been two fast, too furious to comprehend, and I would have needed to go home to watch the TV replay, to understand what I had seen.
And that was my weekend in Birmingham, when it rained for hours unbrokenly, like the rain with which I began this morning, summer rain in the best British fashion, going about its business unfussily, just pouring it all down.