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Who will see the sea first?

19 July 2022

Nothing evokes nostalgia more than a trip to the seaside. In My Sand Life, My Pebble Life poet, playwright and broadcaster Ian McMillen captures those magical coastal memories. In this chapter, he recalls an epic game of beach cricket...

Vintage photo of children playing cricket on the beach

Steve’s raring to go; he’s only just arrived at my mother-in-law’s caravan in Cleethorpes and he’s raring to go. The rest of us are having a cup of coffee and a biscuit from the tin under the bed but Steve is getting the bat and the ball and the stumps out of the car boot. ‘Come on! Beach cricket!’ he says. We say we’ll meet him on the dunes and he sets off with my grandson Thomas, pushing my little granddaughter Isla in the buggy, which would be ‘a bit of a tow’, as we say round these parts, once they get to the sands. Me and my wife and Elizabeth, who is Isla and Thomas’s mum and Steve’s wife, have another biscuit and then Kate, my other daughter, and her husband Mark arrive so the kettle goes on again. Then it goes on again when my son Andrew and his partner Ben arrive. The caravan windows steam up and there are archipelagos of crumbs across the floor.

Steve texts Elizabeth. ‘He says are we coming. He says where are we?’ We decide to set off for our epic game of beach cricket that we’ve been promising ourselves for weeks. ‘Are you coming, Mam?’ my wife says. ‘Of course I am!’ she replies, reaching for her stick. It’s not that warm out there so it takes us ages to get our coats back on and then we set off, like pilgrims, to the beach.

Steve is ready and he’s got Thomas bowling to him. Isla is asleep. In a couple of years’ time Steve and I will be at Headingley watching Ben Stokes defeat the mighty Australians on his own at that epic test match, and because I get tremendously emotional when I’m watching sport, I spend much of the time with my head in my hands trying not to look; and what is swirling around in my head as Steve shouts ‘Look, man! We’re witnessing history here!’ is that beautiful game of beach cricket that seemed to be built from love, and sand, and sea breezes and shared jokes, and strong family ties.

Steve’s ready. He picks me. Thomas picks Mark. Steve picks my wife. Thomas picks his mum. Steve picks Kate. Mark picks Ben. Steve picks Andrew. Isla wakes up. Mark picks Isla. Steve bowls to Mark who knocks the ball far away, into the sea, which is very far away because this is Cleethorpes. A distant dog’s bark appears to be built from scornful laughter. ‘You can’t knock it that far!’ my wife says. ‘You’ll lose the ball!’ my mother-in-law says. So we agree that the strokes will be more gentle, more skilful.

I trickle-trundled across the vast sands just before dawn like a chess piece moved by a player who knows that the game is already lost

I stroll every morning and I do exercises so I think I’m fit; the year before, in our cottage in Beadnell on the Northumberland coast, I announced to my wife that I was going to go running each morning, even though I never ran anywhere unless it was to a bus stop to catch the X19. It was a serious mistake. Running for exercise is very different from running to the bus stop. I trickle-trundled across the vast sands just before dawn like a chess piece moved by a player who knows that the game is already lost. I limped back to the cottage; if I had been a character in the Beano, the word OUCH would have been hovering over my head like a drone. My wife shook her head; I would have made a smart-alec reply but I was in too much pain although I realise that you don’t talk with feet. It was just that the pain was dancing all the way from my feet to my head.

So that is why I’m a little cautious when it comes to my turn to bat in the glorious festival of improvisation that is beach cricket. Thomas is ready to bowl at me; Thomas is in his early teenage years at this point and he’s a good cricketer who takes lots of wickets at Darfield where the enthusiastic sledging of the youth teams is a joy: ‘He’s got more leaves than a tree!’ one of them will always shout as a batsman lets a ball glide by. ‘Be gentle, Thomas!’ my wife shouts, noticing the gleam in Thomas’s eye. ‘I’m ready for owt!’ I shout, with vim and braggadocio, or the Barnsley equivalent of braggadocio which is brussenness.

Thomas takes a long run-up that takes him almost to Freeman Street Market in Grimsby, where my mother-in-law buys eggs and vegetables from a stall, and where, with her mate Margaret, she haunts the charity shops. (My mother-in-law is called Margaret too. Their shopping trip is a Margaret duet.) He pounds towards me across the sand.

It’s a clear day; sometimes a cravat of mist hangs around Cleethorpes and sometimes reading the far horizon is like trying to read the bottom line of an optician’s chart but that isn’t the case this morning. The two forts, Bull Fort and Haile Fort, built to keep German shipping away from the Humber in the First World War, gleam in the sun. A huge ferry seems to walk across the surface of the water so slowly as to seem to be hardly moving at all.

Cricket gives you sublime moments, like that time at Headingley that I hardly dared to watch, and like these sublime moments on that beach with Thomas about to hurl the ball at me. He releases the ball and it zooms towards me with, as they say in the sports pages, ‘unerring accuracy’. Usually the ball is a blur, a hyperblur, an uberblur, but this time the ball seems to be moving slowly through the salty air. They say this happens to elite sportspeople all the time; the football, the cricket ball, the rugby ball, the snooker ball seem to begin to travel like snails so that the elite sportsperson (in this case, me) can have plenty of time to decide not only what they want to do but also have a rummage through the free basket outside one of the charity shops on Freeman Street and come back with a grapefruit spoon.

I step forward into the shot and hit the ball as hard as I can and it flies high into the air and all the family watch it rise; my mother-in-law, my wife, my children, my grandchildren, all the people who help to define who I am and who I’d like to become.

And here’s a thing; because the coast is a magical place where amazing things can happen between the turning of the tides and in the clink of a charity shop teacup, the ball never comes down. We wait, and we wait, and we look into the sky and the ball doesn’t appear and so we walk back to the caravan to make a list of fish and chips orders, every now and then glancing upwards.

My Sand Life My Pebble Life

Extract from My Sand Life, My Pebble Life: A memoir of a childhood and the sea by Ian McMillan. Published by Adlard Coles and out now (Hardback: £10.99)

Ian McMillan portrait by Bob Hamilton

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