“A Neronic Piece of Grandiloquence” by J. Neville Turner, from Baggy Green,by Bernard Whimpress, 2016
One of my favourite ties was acquired at Old Trafford, the home of my beloved Lancashire Cricket Club. Its centrepiece is a facsimile of the Pavilion. This is surrounded by the crests of the, then, eight Test playing countries. It was woven to celebrate the centenary of Test cricket at Old Trafford in 1984. The Pavilion at the ground is a handsome Victorian edifice. It is, however, inconveniently placed − at square leg. It is incommodious. Although it contains some priceless texts the Library is arranged in a haphazard way. It is too small to accommodate more than 1000 books. The ‘Long Room’ holds about twenty people.
Old Trafford has undergone some major reconstruction, including a massive hotel which overlooks the ground. No doubt, capacity and comfort for members would greatly have been enhanced if this reconstruction had included bulldozing the Pavilion.
But the celebrated openers of Francis Thompson’s poem, ‘Monkey’ Hornby and R.G. Barlow walked through the very Long Room and down the very steps to the wicket in the 1880s. Ranjitsinjhi ascended them after his mighty debut Test century in 1896. And Joe Darling was sitting on the balcony in 1902 when Victor Trumper hit the first Test century before lunch. I myself was sitting there in 1961 when the usually phlegmatic English captain, Peter May, stood up on that same balcony, and angrily exhorted some of the members below to cease their barracking of Ken Barrington’s slow progress against McKenzie, Davidson, Benaud, Simpson and Mackay in one of the most fateful of all Test matches.
To enter the dressing rooms of the Old Trafford Pavilion is to smell the liniment of Briggs, MacLaren, Brearley, Steel, the Tyldesleys and McDonald. The destruction of this Pavilion would be, to a Lancastrian, as sacrilegious, as tearing down the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican.
It is surprising then that an expatriate Englishman has conceived the same affection for the MCG Pavilion as he felt for that of his native ground. But whenever I enter it I experience a delicious connexion with past heroes and their exploits. The marvellous painting of a serene Bradman and a smiling Ponsford that dominates the stairs as you enter the Long Room evokes that sublime feeling that these legendary figures were not mythical creations but flesh and blood.
I love the draconian sign:
Lounge suits, or sports attire with tailored jacket.
Tie or cravat must be worn and visible.
Duffle coats, parkas, zippered jackets and pullovers
are not acceptable.
Sandals or scuffs are not permitted.
Jacket optional in summer.
Ladies are expected to dress to a similar standard
There are some delicious issues of construction for the custodians of these regulations. What exactly would be an untailored jacket? What are ‘scuffs’? And what, precisely, would constitute a ‘similar standard’ of dress?
In the Long Room is a gigantic stone which bears the legend: ‘This Stone was laid by PRINCE EDWARD and PRINCE GEORGE OF WALES: MIDSHIPMAN HMS BACCHANTE: 4th July 1861.’ It blends perfectly with the décor of the room. How incongruous that would look in a post-modern corporate suite!
To be honest, I favour the anachronistic dress regulations! I love the plush armchairs in which recline superannuated members in front of the Long Room windows. I love the liveried bar steward, the tea urn, the shoe brush and polish provided in the Men’s toilet, the high ceilings, the wooden seats, the portraits of past Presidents. The whole represents a seemliness and seamless web of gracious propriety.
Not being a member, I am only permitted in the Pavilion on Sheffield Shield days, by virtue of my position as President of the Australian Cricket Society. But I would not want to be there at any other time. One knows that among the few members that bother to support first-class domestic cricket the company is likely to be cricket-savant. The conversation will be erudite. The appreciation of the game will be keen.
As Neville Cardus (a sociologist in all but name!) pointed out, the character and calibre of a cricket match takes shape from its surrounds. Despite some crass innovations (of which I regard the noise pollution from the electronic screen as being the most heinous) the Pavilion of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, like the Melbourne, Savage, and Kelvin Clubs, is a refuge from the present − just as cricket itself is a refuge from the vulgarity of the traffic and commerce of early twenty-first century freneticism.
The Pavilion at the MCG is not as old as that at Old Trafford, or, for that matter, Lord’s. But it is seventy-three years old − not far short of one-third of Australia’s colonial and post-colonial history. It is also not only conservative English cricket administrators that have zealously guarded their heritage. Amid the huge reconstruction of the Sydney Cricket Ground the Pavilion and Ladies’s Stand have survived.
In a sense, the proposed redevelopment of the Melbourne Cricket Ground is an international issue. While Lord’s is the ‘spiritual home of cricket’ it is by comparison to the MCG, an ill-equipped resting place. The Museum and Library of the MCG are immeasurably superior to those at Lord’s, the artefacts alone surpassing those at St. John’s Wood in quantity and quality. The Library must surely be the largest − and best managed − cricket library in the world. The number of volunteer tour guides (160) testifies to the immense interest of visitors in the colosseum of stadia.
Apart from Eden Gardens, Calcutta, (where a large proportion of spectators must stand) the MCG is the largest, and most imposing, cricket stadium in the world. Blasé as Melbournians are about it, the MCG draws gasps of astonishment from overseas visitors who see it for the first time.
The Silence of Subterfuge? What is disturbing about the processes by which decisions on the proposed redevelopment of the ground are being taken is that they seem to be being conducted sub silencis. Not even members of the Melbourne Cricket Club (MCC) were consulted until the proposals were presented to them as a fait accompli.
In the April 2001 MCC Newsletter under the heading ‘Your President Reports’, there was a truncated transcript of a forum of members. It had been summoned to allow members ‘to have their say during an eighty minute question and answer session following a comprehensive presentation by the feasibility study’s design team’. In the whole of this reported debate, and in subsequent newspaper reports, the interests of cricket were hardly mentioned.
The pretext for completion of the development − the Commonwealth Games of 2006 − is specious. It would be perhaps churlish to classify these Games as a ‘Mickey Mouse’ event. They can, however, be described as an ugly sister of the Olympic Games, a relic of the British Empire.
The most recent Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur resulted in a farcical win to Australia. Only about 30 countries competed, including such mini-states as Vanuatu, the Maldives and Cayman Islands. Some commentators from former British colonies in the Third World regard them as a form of post-colonial neo-imperialism. Speaking at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival in August 2001 Amitar Ghosh, the Calcutta-born author of The Glass Palace, deplored the Commonwealth itself as an institution. There is no justification for a massive reconstruction of a stadium for an event of such minimal importance. Possibly Melbourne, like Manchester, is intent on glorifying the Commonwealth Games, after losing their Olympic bids.
The only world event that would justify massive expenditure is surely the World Cup (of Association football, of course). It surprises me that no serious discussion of this possiblity seems ever to have been entertained. Australia is far better equipped to host this wonderful competition than South Africa, which made a bid for 2006 that was only marginally unsuccessful.
The Cost; The Federal Government has offered $90 million for the staging of the Commonwealth Games. Every cent of this sum is ear-marked for the reconstruction. This largesse from a Government that is one of the meanest in the First World in its donation of foreign aid to Third World countries is a classic example of misplaced generosity.
The Interests of Cricket: The interests of cricket have not assumed the slightest importance. It is certain that the inconvenience to cricket over the years of construction will be great. At a recent seminar of the Australian Cricket Society I sought an assurance that the Boxing Day Test would not be disturbed. The reply I received from MCC management was that it was unthinkable that any worker would want to work on Boxing Day. This facile answer erred in three respects: First, it failed to acknowledge that a Test match can last five days. Second, it failed to take into account that not all Australian labourers are cricket-lovers. Third, it appeared to discountenance the possibility of an overtime ‘holiday’ rate of pay as an incentive.
My experience of the noise pollution from cranes and hammering that marred a Test match in Brisbane during the reconstruction of the Gabba (mainly for the benefit of the Brisbane Lions Football Club) leaves me unconvinced by any assurances of non-disruption. It is beyond question that domestic cricket will be transferred to another ground or will be greatly marred for several seasons by building works. In fact, it was conceded that there would be little cricket played during the 2005-06 season (i.e. after construction). The reason given was that an athletics track will have to be installed on the playing surface, which requires the complete flattening of the MCG as the track cannot be laid on a sloping surface. Does this mean that there will be no Test match?
Such reports as have been disseminated do not give rise to any sanguine prospect of a successful objection to the project. The Victorian Government has already acted in defiance of the heritage status given to the stadium. The National Trust is justifiably appalled by this cavalier disregard for its status.
Amusingly, MCC president Bruce Church in a purported assurance to members that the ‘dignity’ of the club would be safeguarded, referred to the ‘enormity’ of the project. The word was well chosen. It is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘extreme wickedness; an act of extreme wickedness; a serious error’.
Lack of Debate: At both the Members’ Development Forum and the Australian Cricket Society’s meeting the presenters seemed unusually reluctant to allow free debate.
What is the reason for this coyness? At the Members’ Forum, one member argued that the Members’ Pavilion gave the ground character, a ‘uniqueness for future generations to enjoy’. He was subjected to a rejoinder by the architect, Daryl Jackson, that he had not understood the key point; that it would be undemocratic to retain the Pavilion for ‘sentimental reasons, largely for visitations with history’. As I understand Mr Jackson’s answer (which admittedly is rather garbled in transcription), it is that if the Pavilion alone is retained, and the Olympic and Ponsford stands are replaced, it will give an elitist block of 3200 seats, thus militating against the fundamental egalitarianism of the MCC. It seems somewhat bizarre that an exclusive club that requires a twenty year wait to join should be masquerading as a custodian of egalitarian values!
Mr Jackson went on to say that his plan would assist those who go to the stadium ‘to see football’. (No mention of cricket!) In his words, ‘members have reallyto make up their minds whether they’re going on in the twenty-first century or whether they’re staying with a 1928 Pavilion’. Such views represent an affront to history that appears to be shared by the proponents of the development. To move into the current century is a cliched apologia of all those who wish to demolish and devalue the past.
John Carroll’s arguments: This point was well made in a perceptive essay by sociologist John Carroll, unfortunately headed ‘Despoiling Footy’s Sacred Site’. He may not be aware that originally footballers were not allowed on to the Melbourne Cricket Ground at all, and for a time, only as a matter of grace, on rare occasions. Despite the faux pas, Mr Carroll’s article was persuasive. His arguments were, in summary:
- The proposed redesign sacrifices character for comfort.
- If the Pavilion is removed from the ground what remains is a ‘featureless uniformity’.
- The Docklands Stadium (‘politically incorrectly’ dubbed the Colonial Stadium) illustrates the homogenous anonymity that would result to the MCG.
- The uniformity exemplifies characteristics of the ‘corporate bureaucratic mentality’ that favours ‘order, regularity and symmetry’ at the expense of ‘oddity, anachronism and unfashionability’.
- The proposed new MCG looks like some ‘monster flying saucer and reeks of computer modelling’.
- It is paradoxical that a Labor leader should be delighted at helping to undermine Victoria’s richest sporting treasure.
The paradox referred to, however, is by no means without precedent. Leaders of all political persuasions have sought to glorify their achievements by abiding monuments. The Roman Emperors are a classic example but there are other issues at stake.
A Social Issue – The Misspending of Moneys: Thus far I have expressed my opposition to the proposed development in my capacity as a cricket writer and president of the Australian Cricket Society. However, I am also a Life Governor and a past President of a Melbourne children’s organisation — Oz Child.
In that capacity I am qualified to state unequivocally that a large proportion of children are suffering from poverty and the draconian policies of both federal and state governments. Indeed, the parsimony of moneys spent on education amounts to a breach of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The requirement on parents of children at State schools to pay a ‘voluntary levy’ (a euphemism for an involuntary tax) is a blatant breach of Article 28 of the Convention which requires, in effect, that primary and secondary education is free.
Social hardship could be greatly alleviated by the $480 million that it is estimated will be spent on this proposed redevelopment. Of course, not all of that amount will provided by governments. But if the AFL and the MCC and their members have money to spare I would suggest that they would be serving the future of Victoria more effectively and compassionately by donating it to children’s causes than on a White Elephant.
In so doing they would be sparing the MCC from an anti-historical, superfluous, grandiose, grandiloquent folly which only a modern-day Nero would build.