By Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author’s program note. Friend, I suspect you are not up on the all-important words and necessary phrases from the world of croquet. That is scandalous, of course, and you should be ashamed of yourself for the dereliction. Fortunately it can be remedied at once by going to the always helpful Wikipedia, where you’ll find an admirable glossary. Go now… and while you’re there be sure to find the original score for the quirky film “Heathers.” (1989). Why?
Because those ever inventive jeunes femmes fatales invent a game (so clever, don’t you know) called “strip croquet”. You won’t play it in your neighborhood; your crusty neighbors would be scandalized… but I can play it in mine, because I live in Cambridge… where beautiful young people abound, glorious to look at but without the sense they were born with. They’d love the inspired innovation. Play the theme music right away. It will put you in just the right frame of mind for this scrutiny of one of the most conspiratorial and vengeful games on earth and where (on the pretext of helping another player with her grip) you can snuggle up without demur…
Lord Reggie learns the power of croquet…
Lord Reggie Pasworthy was in despair. This 7th impecunious son of the impecunious 17th marquess of Unworthington had heard, always on the very best authority, that Lady Pamela Noacres had cast sheep eyes at…… but that couldn’t possibly be… for she was… his… and had once nearly said so. She couldn’t…… she wouldn’t. But it appears she might.
What could he do?
He applied at once to Basil Uppercrust, who knew all but said nothing, so admirably discrete, so clever Basil. “Freddie, old chum, you need to do only one thing to be right as rain with the gel… ” Then he whispered just one word……
“Croquet”…. and immediately wrote his cousin the duchess to arrange a week-end where Lord Freddie might shine amongst the wickets, his admirable figure displayed to best advantage.
Though it has been many years now since that week-end at Castle Allworthy not a thing about it has been forgotten. How Lord Freddie confounded Lady Pamela’s advance with a ball-in-hand.
How Lady Pamela distracted him by proposing a double-bank with her grace. (He won that, too.)
How it all came down to the final hoop… and that unforgettable moment when Lord Freddie took control, determined, insistent, a gentleman no longer but a beast, my dear, I tell you a beast…. Lady Pamela’s temperature rose from tepid to scalding… from polite interest to… riveted… while Freddie ran the hoops until he completed that glorious sextuple peel to roquet her ball spinning down the verdant acres… and when the gallant victor offered his lavendered handkerchief, her fate was sealed…
The engagement was announced in the “Morning Post” just today.
The plight of the World Croquet Association.
Pity the situation and plight of these admirable folks and their invaluable efforts on behalf of croquet. They want us to see croquet in the benign light of demos and beer…. when most of us enjoy the game because of its unabashed elitist, aristocratic nuances played out with insouciance and fine champagne on the most perfect grass we have ever seen, the result of hundreds of years of arrogance and care.
A brief history of croquet.
Ask anyone (anyone, that is, of any intelligence and discernment whatsoever) just where croquet was invented… and, without missing a beat — they’d tell you “Why, old man, in Jolly Old England, what.” And, of course, they’d be wrong… and, such are the ways of croquet, they’d also be right.
Croquet scholars (fastidious and accurate) will tell you the rules of the modern game arrived from Ireland during the 1850s, perhaps coming from Brittany, where a similar game was played on the beaches. A game called “crookey” was played at Castlebellingham in 1834 and, in 1835 was played in the bishop’s palace garden; later that year it was played in the genteel Dublin suburb then called Kingstowne (now Dun Laoghaire) where it was first spelled as “croquet.” There is, however, no pre-1858 Irish document that describes the way the game was played… but the Irish don’t care about such details. They claim croquet and that is that…
…but, of course, that most assuredly is not that, especially if you are of the English ilk, and damn their cheeky assertion.
In the book “Queen of Games: The History of Croquet,” author Nicky Smith offers another hypothesis. Smith says that the game was introduced to Britain from France during the reign of Charles II of England, and was played under the name of paille maille or pall mall, derived ultimately from the Latin words for “ball and mallet.” This is what the “Encyclopedia Britannica” wrote in 1877. But of course the xenophobic Britannica would say so, wouldn’t they?
But at last there is documentary evidence that confirms English inventiveness and croquet paternity. Isaac Spratt is the champion. He created the oldest document known to bear the word “croquet”. He wrote a description of the modern game of croquet and the first set of rules and regulations of a game which became ever more esoteric, obscure, arcane. Just the way the players like it!
Spratt’s contribution came in November, 1856 when he filed his document with the Stationers’ Company in London. It is now in the English Public Records Office. In 1868 the first croquet all-comers’ meeting was held at Morton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire and in the same year the All England Croquet Club was formed at Wimbleton, London. There was absolutely nothing democratic about any of it, and one would have drunk beer, instead of a stirrup cup, at one’s considerable peril.
This result, however, was unacceptable to Ellery McClatchy, dead at 86, in September, 2011 at his home in Pope Valley, California.
If you live in Northern California and are even remotely with it, you will recognize at once the surname, for there (and amongst the politically sentient) it is a household name because of their substantial newspaper properties, not least the major paper in Sacramento, the Bee. As you may imagine, to have such a property, such a position in the largest state in the Great Republic is to have financial resources… and the time and ability to pursue your particular interests. In this case… croquet.
McClatchy was, and this is crucial to the case, an all-American boy; thus he disdained the exclusivities of old regimes everywhere. He had a “desire to make croquet available to people of all ages and to see croquet lawns in a great variety of places,” according to a profile on the US Croquet Association website. He pursued this inclusive objective over the many years he was a ranked croquet player and in 1995 when he was inducted into the US Croquet Hall of Fame.
While we all think highly of his years of effort, democratic (or republican) croquet is not what any of us desires. Which is why our favorite croquet match ever is the one overseen by the Queen of Hearts in Lewis Carroll’s immortal book “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). The balls are live hedge hogs and the mallets are opinionated flamingoes. It is curious, odd, unconventional, the best way to play this marvelous game which puts dull baseball and interminable football in their places. I say “off with their heads” to any with the reckless temerity to gainsay me.