Last weekend I went to watch polo. Not my normal cup of tea but as someone told me on the eve of setting out for an extended stay in the US: “Don’t pass up any opportunity to go somewhere new, no matter how unpromising it sounds.” Wise counsel. I did not and had not a moment of regret. So with picnic hamper and folding chairs in boot, we set off for the Beaufort Polo Club in the heart of the Cotswolds. Glass of Champagne in one hand and a crumbly quiche in the other, I sat back to enjoy the entertainment, trying to ignore an unseasonably biting wind, and to watch the beau monde at play. At once, I cursed my oversight in failing to bring a pair of binoculars; most of the action seemed to be taking place miles away on the far side of the field. I was reminded of a waggish comment from the Shed at Kingsholm, home to Gloucester RFC: “Oi, come and play over ‘ere. We paid our money just like them over there!” Occasionally, the knot of wheeling, panting horses deigned to switch its focus of attention to our side of the field and I could take a closer look at what was going on. Naturally enough, much escaped my attention, as it would with any novice to a new game, but I was immediately struck not only by the superb level of horsemanship required but also by the difficulty and therefore the skill in hitting a small moving ball with a club on such bumpy and cut-up terrain. “Bit like playing golf at 20mph,” remarked a neighbour.
My attention then moved to the crowd. There was a crowd certainly but the word seemed not to fit the bill – onlookers, fans, spectators, supporters, devotees? In view of a certain Argentinian component in the teams, perhaps ‘aficionados’ would be more apt. The composition of our fellow picnickers and enthusiasts was entirely white, prosperous and middle-to-upper class. “Not a black or brown face to be seen,” I remarked to my friend. “You’re wrong,” he told me, “There’s one over there.” Fair enough. There’s nothing wrong in a particular, even exclusive, group of people indulging in their pastime, provided the exclusivity is not deliberate nor enshrined in any club rule. We are all tribal. Football attracts its own brand of followers, rugby too. The same could be said of hunting, horse racing, motor racing, golf, cycling, gymnastics, even ferreting. Yes and cricket too. The world of music, art, theatre, dancing, yoga, rambling, sailing and whatever grabs your fancy will be no different. I would imagine that white faces are in the minority at the annual Bollywood Dinner Dance, the Punjabi Versi Concert, the Ramadan Souk and the Notting Hill Carnival. So what? Chacun a son gout.
Then while the spectators were encouraged to walk around the field during a break in chukkas to tread in divots caused by thundering hooves (a practice sadly no longer permitted at our cricket grounds during intervals), my thoughts turned to the ICC Champions Trophy, in which England were doing rather well, before saving up for their usual occasional car crash, this time against Pakistan in the semi-final. A talking point has been the swathes of empty seats at some of the venues, particularly in Cardiff, even though the matches had been sold out...allegedly. Why would anyone pay in excess of £50 for a ticket and not turn up? One theory put forward is that large numbers of tickets had been bought by Indian fans who were simply not interested in watching England v New Zealand or Pakistan v Sri Lanka. If so, what a shame. Can such supporters be called true lovers of the game? In 1990, Norman Tebbit, nicknamed the Chingford Skinhead for his forthright and uncompromising views, famously insisted that many Asians were not truly loyal to Britain because they failed to support the England cricket team if their own side weren’t playing. This became known as The Cricket Test.
We are now in 2017 and have things changed? In many ways, yes, of course they have. Currently, two players of Asian blood, Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid, are in the England side. Do the majority of their countrymen of Pakistani origin flock to support England when they play anybody but Pakistan? Probably not. Do they fail The Cricket Test? Norman Tebbit might claim they do. Does it matter? Good question.
My mind returned to polo. I wondered whether the British during the Raj went to watch local Indian teams when they played polo on their own fields, where even commoners could play, as long as they had a pony. I should imagine the members of the Calcutta Polo Club, the oldest in the world, watched their own countrymen, not the natives. Similarly, the Calcutta Cricket Club’s membership was initially restricted to Europeans only. The white rulers would have failed the Maharajah of Chingford’s Cricket Test – easily.
So, let everybody, every group, every nationality take its recreation where and how it likes and let’s not get too snooty about it all. The Beaufort Polo Club was as peaceful, genial and benign an occasion as you could wish to encounter, a quintessentially English scene. My stomach lurched for a moment when I saw two armed policemen on the prowl. Westonbirt in Gloucestershire did not seem to be likely place for Islamic terrorism. But the explanation soon became clear. Prince William was playing. He managed to blaze one high, wide and handsome from outside the box, “caught on the breeze,” as the commentator kindly put it. Actually, there is no penalty box on a polo field but there are plenty of boxes, horseboxes, alongside.
Let not snobbery therefore, either inbred or inverted, spoil our pleasure and relaxation. We have enough to worry about with the dread spectre of terrorism. O that we are spared such depredations.