It was good last week to catch up with Henry Blofeld, relishable old bean and Grub Street comrade from way back. To prime his loquacious enthusiasms for a long, hot (some hopes) summer at the Test Match Special microphone, over a couple of nights we clinked far too many into the bottle-bank hole marked ‘green’ and on Friday Henry wowed a rafter-packed throng in the local school hall with An Evening with Blowers. ‘My dear old things...’ his intimate fruitiness collectively greeted them, and we were putty for the next two hours and then queued well past closing-time at the book-signing session. A single Friday on, and yesterday Henry was due to attend an altogether more historically auspicious occasion. Today marks the bicentenary of the most enduring fixture in any team sport. The schools had been playing each other for even longer, of course, but at Lord’s cricket ground the first Eton–Harrow contest was in 1805 — that is, the first of Thomas Lord’s sporting arenas on what is now Dorset Square; the wily old speculator did not reseed his field at (via a brief stop in Regent’s Park) the present, fabled site in St John’s Wood till 1814.
Everyone at the double-century banquet at Lord’s had played in the match. After the night of fizz and recollection, how many might be wide-eyed enough to focus on the opening overs of the 2005 fixture this morning? (Doubtless Henry will: unless I dreamed it, I swear that once at Headingley when his true-great broadcasting guvnor and head beak of ‘the box’, the late Brian Johnston, noticed a butterfly walking on the pitch during a tense period of play, Blofeld capped the observation: ‘Not only that, Johnners, but, look, it’s walking with a very slight limp.’) Sport itself takes bad enough turns these days with its lack of honour among thieves, but it is indisputable that the whole of what we now call the wide world of sport would have been catastrophically worse, and different, but for the founding missionary fathers from the English public schools. Eton v. Harrow at cricket, and you don’t have to be a toff for a legendary roll-call to trip off the tongue — Harrovians Archie MacLaren, F.S. Jackson, and ‘my Hornby long ago’ (the last Harrovian to play for England was Sussex’s Tony Pigott in 1983), Etonians Tennyson, Gubby, Ingleby-Mac, Bosanquet, Barclay ...and Blofeld. Did you know, by the way, that only three schoolboys ever scored centuries for the Public Schools against the Combined Services at Lord’s? They were Peter May, Colin Cowdrey and Henry Blofeld.
With nice aptness, this Eton–Harrow party weekend falls on the very eve of the Wimbledon tennis global bunfight. Serve, volley, grunts, queues, sweat, ticket-touts, and tasteless Tesco strawberries. Surely Henmania is spent? But does the new Scots kid Murray know what he’s in for? Is Federer the most beguilingly best player tennis has ever seen? When Eton and Harrow were due to play their 72nd fixture at Lord’s, in 1877, members of the newly formed All England Croquet & Tennis Club on Wimbledon’s Worple Road decided to raise funds for a new roller by staging a tournament for all comers, each of the 22 who entered paying an entrance fee of a guinea for the privilege. The tournament was suspended between the semis (on Thursday) and Monday’s final to allow any spectators to be free to attend the London season’s midsummer high-spot, namely Lord’s for the Eton v. Harrow. My dear old things had priorities right in them thar days.