Added: 27 October 2019
Within the crowd at The Oval for the sold-out last test match of an Ashes summer, nobody takes much notice of a poet. But as the ‘Test Match Poet’, Zaffar Kunial was gathering material for a poem that marks the place of this ground in our sporting history.
Zaffar spent time in the pavilion, the corporate hospitality zones, the media centre, and on the ground itself. He talked with former primer minister Sir John Major, with Radio 5 Live’s Eleanor Oldroyd, and perhaps most valuably of all with The Oval’s team of ground-staff. He also spent rather a lot of time trying to explain cricket to Paul Farley, a poet raised in Liverpool on an undiluted diet of football. (When we last heard from Paul, he was tracking down Shane Warne videos on YouTube, making up for lost cricketing time.)
This was a different kind of reisdency for Places of Poetry. Paradoxically, it is tricky to do public engagement when you are one poet in a crowd, so we focused less on workshops and readings (as at our other sites) and more on raising the profile of poetry about sporting heritage. When planning the project, we always wanted a sports ground, because sports matter to the cultural life of this country, and because ‘heritage’ is so much more than old buildings.
Indeed some of us invest a lot of our lives, a lot of our emotional selves, in sporting places. And we have been delighted in the latter months of Places of Poetry, doubtless in part influenced by Zaffar’s work at The Oval, to receive some wonderful poetry of sporting place. We have had swimming poems, golf poems, rugby league poems, and most impressively quite a number of football poems. Some poems have recorded memorable games, or maybe just that weekend’s game. (See, for example, James Bridgewood’s ‘The Toast Of All’.) Others have found fresh ways to register the experience of being a fan. (I especially like Oliver Comins’s ‘Geese above Highfield Road’ and Sharon Jones’s ‘Anfield’.)
Zaffar wondrously overproduced, managing to write and publish, through Faber, the pamphlet Six between February (when we enlisted him to Places of Poetry) and September. The six poems of Six provided a neat calling card for Zaffar, as he met journalists and dignitaries. But they also raised the stakes; as a non-poet myself, it was fascinating to watch Zaffar gather experiences and perspectives over the course of the match. His Oval poem had to be something distinct, something special to the place.
‘Oval Time’ is a bit of a triumph. It thinks from the soil outwards, embracing in the process the match we watched, the history of the ground, its place in London, and the heritage of The Ashes. Having been myself infamous as a cricketer for chaotic running between wickets, I especially love the way it comes to rest on
behind that held-up, white, skeletal glove.
NO. STAY THERE.
The O of that palm, creased like a river.
So that’s how it’s done.