Since removing myself from the Bromley suburban rat race after a three decades ‘before the mast’ in a career I loved, I have been living in the quiet hamlet of Climping in West Sussex along with Mrs Elkins, our two cats Reg and Samantha, and my treasured collection of Victorian cricketing memorabilia.
I cannot disguise the fact that, compared to the heady days of yore, these days we live in somewhat reduced circumstances but, contrary to the bemused presumptions of our friends, we contentedly fill our time with our respective projects of special interest. Mrs Elkins’s eighteen-year-and-counting quest to complete and publish her comprehensive anthology and study of Eric Gill’s erotic sculptures is now thankfully nearing completion, whilst I occupy the bulk of my time with researching WW1 battlefields and organise occasional guided tours of the Ypres Salient.
Some three weeks ago I received an email from a fellow contributor to the National Rust, Robert Tickler, announcing that yesterday he would be travelling to Chichester in order to view the Underwood collection at the Pallant House Gallery and would I like to join him there and afterwards go locally for a spot of lunch?
Besides the potential joys of an opportunity to meet a fellow Ruster for the first time, I was also intrigued to have the chance to go to Chichester – a cathedral city that I visit all too infrequently, despite living so relatively close (but that’s the way of the world, isn’t it?) – and see an exhibition of the work of one of my favourite sons of Kent.
Nobody who has ever followed Kent cricket will forget the great players of yester-year. If you go back far enough – there are fewer and fewer who can these days, of course – you can cite Frank Woolley, Leslie Ames and Doug Wright. Those of my vintage would refer to Godrey Evans, Colin Cowdrey (of course), Alan Knott, Brian Luckhurst, Asif Iqbal no doubt … and of course the nonpareil bowler on sticky English wickets – ‘Deadly’ Derek Underwood, who will be celebrating his seventieth birthday in three months’ time.
As long as they live, those of my own vintage will naturally remember as vividly as if it were yesterday the Fifth Test at the Oval in August 1968 when, on a nightmare of a pitch badly affected by rain, Kent’s finest took 7 for 50 to skittle Australia out for 125 in their second innings to take England to victory and square the series 1-1. I was watching on television at the time and I very much doubt that I have ever enjoyed an English sporting occasion as much. When Underwood, paddling in with his feet pointing at ‘ten to two’, got the measure of a pitch, especially a wet one, he was virtually unplayable – and sure enough, Messrs Redpath and Ian Chappell were soon back in the pavilion, plumb LBW, before you could blow your nose.
Thus it was with a mix of adrenalin and anticipation that I took the train to Chichester yesterday and found my way to the Pallant House Gallery by the appointed hour. Upon my arrival I was informed by the lady on reception that ‘the gentleman in the wide-brimmed hat’ had himself arrived about ten minutes previously and had swept upstairs.
This information was borne out by the coincidental sound of a stentorian bass exclamation coming from the upper reaches of the building: “Christ! Twenty-one guineas for that! She must have been mad!”
It turned out, as I sped up the stairs as fast as my arthritic hip would allow, that Robert Tickler was already halfway through the rooms occupied by the Ruth Borchard Collection. Though we had never met previously, this flamboyantly-dressed boulevardier with the florid complexion greeted me as if I was a long lost friend and indeed the only person in his life that he wished he had kept in touch with.
What ensued was the cultural experience of a lifetime. Tickler is one of those attractive characters one occasionally comes across – a man of strong tastes and opinions who is instantly remembered by everyone who meets him. When I say ‘attractive’ I mean in the sense that a moth is attracted to a flame – like Icarus, despite welcoming the warmth of his undoubted charm and charisma, one also senses that too long in his company might potentially be dangerous to health, if not limb.
He took me on a rapid guided tour of the gallery, explaining that Borchard, a writer, had set herself a limit of 21 guineas per piece in acquiring her collection of work of young Pop Art, Euston Road School and Neo-romanticism artists coming out of the 1950s and 1960s.
I had been hoping to see a case containing the match ball from the Oval game in 1968, or possibly the bat with which he scored his maiden century (111 at Hastings in his 618th first class innings after going in as a nightwatchman) signed by the man himself, but I soon discovered that the Underwood concerned was not Derek but a Leon Underwood – exponent of fine sketches, etching and paintings, plus African and South American-influenced sculpture.
I shall draw a much-needed veil over the rest of the day which was spent first in the Hole In The Wall pub, then Murray’s restaurant at The Ship … and then some drinking den off North Street that I did not know existed.
Suffice it to say that, once I had made it back to Climping and taken a taxi home, I could remember little of the afternoon – all paid for by Tickler, incidentally, at his insistence – which perhaps may be just as well. Mrs Elkins was not speaking to me this morning and, since my last image of Robert was of him disappearing into the night – “Just walking this little popsy home, old boy …” this may be just as well.