Like you, I have a pile of books on my bedside table, a tottering stack of novels I didn’t get on with and non-fiction I couldn’t get into, some I hardly started, others I never finished. I tell myself I will get back to them one day, when the time’s right. This year, the one on top was Ian Ridley’s The Breath of Sadness. It’s a book about love, and grief, and cricket. Which is why a friend recommended it .“It’s very moving and poignant and beautifully done.” I started, made it through 20 pages or so, and put it down again. I found it too painful to continue with. So it sat there all summer, unapproached.
Ridley wrote about sport for The Guardian and The Observer for years, although I didn’t know him then. His wife, Vikki Orvice, worked for The Sun, and I did know her. We were friends on the athletics beat together in the run-up to London 2012. She was bright and brilliant and in February 2019 she died of breast cancer. She was 56. The way Ridley describes the last few weeks of her life made me think of the last few weeks of my mother’s life. She died of breast cancer in her fifties, too. It was Ridley’s passage about getting up early to find a free parking space outside the Royal Marsden that finished me.
“Racing for free parking was less about saving £40 in meter charges and more about not having to leave the hospital every few hours to move the car and pay all over again. I wanted to be with her the whole time.” It reminded me of the experience of death in the NHS, of sitting, lost for words, in cramped, curtained wards, behind heavy grey doors, off long pastel-painted corridors. They weren’t memories I wanted to return to. Till this week. It was cold and wet, and summer felt so far away, and, all of a sudden, I felt ready to start it again.
Ridley has secondary cancer too, and writes, towards the end of the book, that he thinks he has five years left. There are moments in the book when he asks himself whether he still wants them. “I’m not sure how long I can keep feeling this pain,” he tells his therapist. “Give it the cricket season,” the therapist replies. “See how you feel at the end of that.”
So he goes to Hove, to watch Sussex play Leicestershire, and the Isle of Wight, to watch Hampshire play Notts, and Scarborough, and Lord’s and The Oval, even finds himself sitting in the stands watching the rain fall at Wantage Road, waiting for a T20 game that has no chance of starting. He finds himself wondering what the hell he’s doing. At first he’ is so raw that the air outside his house seems to sting him, and he has to hurry home.
But he persists. And he’s rewarded for it. An afternoon at Lord’s, watching Middlesex play Sussex, after a gruelling therapy session, is a turning point of sorts, “a shift, a staging post”.
There have been a lot of good books written about the 2019 cricket season. But none of them quite like this. It’s a diary of a season, and also a diary of his grief, his pain, his madness even. Ridley is a football man really, but admits “you can’t really think about ideas as essential and deep as all of that at a football match, especially with somebody berating the ref in your ear. In fact the game probably exists to get away from it all. But at county cricket, with its less frenetic unfolding, a person could connect with what really mattered.”
Alone at the cinema he is convinced that everyone else is staring at him. But “the thing about going to the cricket on your own is that it doesn’t matter if you are among fellow loners and losers, nobody affords you a second glance and you don’t feel conspicuous.” There’s company, but there’s also solitude. You can be in the crowd, or alone among it. “Cricket didn’t talk back to me and it didn’t offer advice, it didn’t tell me what to do nor how to feel, like a best friend, it was just there for me, willing to embrace me and allow me to just be, whatever mood I was in.” It gives him peace, space and time, allows him to wallow in the “lassitude of grief”.
I remember how my father, in the months after my mother died, took to watching games on a nearby village green. And I remember that there was a vogue, around that same time, for big, important-sounding books with titles asking what sport can teach us about life. The Breath of Sadness doesn’t make any big claims for itself in the way those books did. But there are some answers here, if you’re looking.
“Suddenly, in the afternoon lull, the utter so-whattery of it all consumed me,” Ridley writes at one point, watching Hampshire bat. Which may be a feeling you’ve had yourself sometime this summer, whether or not you’ve lost someone you love during the pandemic. It is a feeling that will be familiar to anyone who has struggled with depression these last few months.
The “so-whattery of it all” has felt overwhelming, watching sport played in empty stadiums, the game a contractual obligation between boards and broadcasters. It was good to be reminded why it matters so much, by someone who isn’t convinced that it matters at all.