The other week, I had the great fortune of visiting Trent Bridge cricket ground in Nottingham. I had been invited to the unveiling of a new plaque on the Pavilion, commemorating the Voluntary Aid Detachment hospital, which had operated at the ground during the First World War. It was an amazing, magical day in so many ways, but it got me thinking in particular about past, present and future research lives and how these often intersect in weird and unexpected ways. Going to Trent Bridge – and seeing Learie Constantine’s cricket bat – made me think about research I will be doing soon on cricket, empire, and how it shapes identities in the UK, including the Highlands.
The wonderful Heritage Group folks at Trent Bridge had asked me to come along because they had used my book, Women and the Orange Order, to inform their research and to create an exhibition in the members’ Pavilion. Now, you might ask, what has a book on the Orange Order got to do with how Trent Bridge was used during the war?
Well, one of the delights of researching this book was discovering the unexpected ways in which women members of the Orange Order were involved in facets of broader British politics and culture. So, while trying to understand what these women got up to during WWI, I came across evidence of Orange Order support for a Red Cross and Voluntary Aid Detachment Hospital in Nottingham. It turned out that this hospital was established in the Pavilion at Trent Bridge and was funded largely by donations from the Orange Order. In addition to the main ward (probably in the Long Room at the Pavilion, as the Heritage Group volunteers established), there was an ‘Orange Ward’ (now the players’ dining room) and an ‘Ulster Hut’ for recreation, specially built behind the old Ladies’ Pavilion at the ground.
The Heritage Group at Trent Bridge had created a wonderful exhibition at the ground and the day was full of interesting talks with those involved in the project, from the volunteers, to members of the Red Cross, and the magnificent Librarian, Peter Wynne-Thomas.
For me, though, the moment that created a wormhole from my past research life to my future one, was when I was standing alone in the Pavilion’s Long Room, gazing up at some of the ancient cricket bats from all the famous players who had performed at the ground over the year.
Along with bats used by the likes of W. G. Grace and Victor Trumper was one of Learie Constantine’s, the great West Indian all-rounder, who became one of the most famous sportsmen in Britain during his time as the professional at Nelson Cricket Club, in the Lancashire League, during the 1920s and ’30s.
The bat is a great material symbol of Constantine’s approach to the game. ‘Connie’ was exciting and adventurous in all that he did on a cricket pitch, from bowling lightening fast (he was a keen proponent of ‘Bodyline’ during the early 1930s), to displays of immense power-hitting as a batsman, and fielding with a supreme athleticism. As you can see in the picture above, this was a bat of someone who enjoyed hitting the ball hard, properly hard. Despite being significantly younger than those either side of it, Learie’s bat is held together with some robust bits of tape, suggesting some serious ball-striking, right in the sweet spot.
Constantine’s bat is also material evidence of my current research interests and the subject of this blog – the impact of Empire at home, here in the UK.
One of the key arguments in my Orange Order book is that this was an organisation shaped in and by Empire, and that it provided an important mechanism by which members felt a sense of connection to their Orange sisters and brothers across the globe. The ‘Orange Ward’ and ‘Ulster Hut’ constructed as part of the Red Cross and VAD hospital at Trent Bridge was funded by Orange men and women throughout the Empire, from Canada to Singapore.
These Orange activities, then, demonstrate how empire shapes here in Britain. But Learie Constantine’s bat also functions in a similar way, an object which gets us thinking about how the British Empire worked in domestic, metropolitan settings such as Trent Bridge cricket ground.
Historians such as Hilary Beckles have long understood cricket as a site of colonial resistance. But this anti-imperial application of the game has often only been analysed in geographically distant spaces of colonial rule, such as the West Indies or India. Through the likes of Constantine and the great West Indian cricketers who played in the UK (from the first black captain, Frank Worrell, to Viv Richards and Malcolm Marshall, and all the rest), these acts of resistance could take place just as easily here.
On cricket pitches from his adopted home in Nelson, to touring the Highlands and playing at Inverness, or playing at Trent Bridge itself, Constantine used cricket to demonstrate the ability, character and, above all, the humanity of black cricketers. Constantine then took this approach from cricket and applied it to his extensive career in public life and politics, from working as a Ministry of Labour welfare officer in Liverpool for West Indians during WWII, to becoming High Commissioner of Trinidad and Tobago in London.
Jeffrey Hill’s new book on Constantine does a great job of analysing the diverse ways in which Learie both challenged and upheld the racial status quo of the British Empire. Hill is rather more skeptical, though, than many commentators in his assessment of Constantine’s intellectual and literary legacy. However, I would argue that Constantine was, if not at the heart of the black radical tradition (explored in previous weeks’ posts on this blog), at least someone with a close connection to it. Through his writings, his public and political work in the UK, and his friendship with the likes of the great Marxist, C. L. R. James, Constantine was part of an intellectual Black Atlantic that sought to change the relationship between Britain and its colonies.
And Constantine also expressed elements of this black radical tradition on the cricket pitch, using the old bat that now hangs at Trent Bridge – where empire also echoes in the experience of the VAD who worked in the ‘Orange Ward’ and ‘Ulster Hut’ during WWI and whose legacy is now commemorated so splendidly on the Pavilion’s new heritage plaque.