June 29, 2009

Rolling though picture-perfect hills and fields of maize and barley towards Wembury House, Devon, for the annual Hanbury cricket match. At times it’s a scene from a ‘50s film of a long-ago England, beautiful, tranquil and law-abiding, with glimpses of broad greens, riverside walks and winding country lanes. But then comes the announcement in an English I can hardly comprehend, however hard I try, apologizing about a diversion because of hay on the tracks. “Hay on the tracks?” I ask incredulously.

The bucolic view of beeches and oaks, as well as the armour of decorum, is suddenly replaced by the uniquely British subculture of ritual drunkenness and violence, as yobs and hurried couples carrying screaming, snotty children pile into the first-class carriage filling it to the brim. They, too, have been diverted. They lie down in the corridors, stand menacingly over one’s seat, curse out loud as the train lurches and leans at a donkey’s pace. Welcome to England 2009, and the Great Western railroad, whatever the misnomer.

Mind you, once in Plymouth, after close to six hours of suffering—the regular journey should be three hours 20 minutes—two large cars are waiting for us and we’re whisked to Wembury House where the festivities have already begun. Tim and Emma Hanbury have hosted the cricket fixture for years, but this time, instead of 20-odd free-loaders, there are more than a hundred of us. It is billed as a “Midsummer’s Night Dream,” the gardens, where the tent is already up, stretching to a large wall in the distance where hay bales have been put up as seats around a bonfire. The main event is the cricket match between the Hanbury team, and that of Ben Elliot, substituting for Zac Goldsmith.

Instead of hitting the sack early in preparation for the game and Saturday night’s bash, we begin to drink as if prohibition is coming the next day. There are some very pretty young women, Georgie Wells, Georgie Rylance, the actress, whose father is a high court judge, our host’s two daughters, Marina and Rosie Hanbury, and others whose surnames I never caught because young people today don’t use them. Alice, Willa, Violet and one we christened Uma as in Thurman, as she was a lookalike. (The Uma lookalike, incidentally, was still there on Monday afternoon, along with three other lost young souls, although the invitation was meant to end after Sunday’s lunch.)

Now let’s get something clear. I don’t know what it is that makes me go nuts the night before a party, but obviously there is some pent-up fury that masks years of angst, except I can’t remember those years. I don’t smash crockery over the empty absurdity of man’s fate, I simply get hog-whimpering blind drunk, and fall madly in love with any girl in front of me. And that night the place was spilling over with them. Even more inspiring than the girls was the music. Tom Naylor-Leyland is a brilliant pianist of country and rhythm and blues. He plays and sings like the pro that he is, and is a hell of a wicket-keeper to boot. The evening finished around 7.30 in the morning and at 11 both Harry Worcester and Timmy were in my room ordering me to the cricket pitch. No thanks to me, we had 197 runs by lunchtime, and we would have had fewer without the hangover. After a liquid lunch we fielded like heroes, and Xan Somerset, aged 13, almost got a hat trick for one wide ball. Then it was party time.

Things got out of control straight off the bat. With excuses to Joseph Moncure March, “Blurred faces swam together locked,/ Red hungry lips, closed eyes,/ Rocked./ White slender throats curved back beneath, attacking mouths that chocked their breath./ They murmured:/ They gasped:/ They lurched and pawed, and grasped.” A priest-like boy and a girl-like nun lay deep on cushion, locked as one. And all this was before dinner was served: 150 bottles of vodka were consumed that night, more than 55 magnums of red wine and I was too shy to ask my host about the amount of white wine and champagne.

The announcement of the wedding came almost as an afterthought, following the cricket scores. Timmy, who mumbles his words like no other, said something about his daughter Rosie expecting twin boys and that she will marry David sometime this summer. I happened to be sitting next to David, whose full name is David Rocksavage, Marquess of Cholmondeley, pronounced Chumley for any foreign-born Spectator readers. David is the person who walks backwards in front of the Queen during the Opening of Parliament, but last Saturday night he was one of the few who walked straight.

The announcement caught me by surprise. It was as if my little girl had got engaged, so happy was I. The Hanburys went on Bushido for their honeymoon 29 years ago, a smaller, more beautiful Bushido, and I joined them on it in Greece. I am close to them and their three children, and now I had an even better reason for celebrating.

At one in the afternoon the next day, in brilliant sunshine, I was still swilling from a wine bottle, glassy-eyed, unfeeling, a headachey mumble replacing speech once in a while. A friend dragged me away and as I headed for a taxi I could see the pretty girls still dancing, Tom’s music still ringing in my ears. It was a weekend I wouldn’t have missed for anything.


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