L.Like you, I have a pile of books on my nightstand, a staggering pile of novels I couldn’t get along with and non-fiction I couldn’t get started, some I barely started, some I never finished. I tell myself I will get back to them one day, when the time is right. This year, Ian Ridley’s The Breath of Sadness was the one at the top. It’s a book about love, grief and cricket. That’s why a friend recommended it. It’s moving and poignant and beautifully done. I started, ran it through about twenty pages or so, and put it back down. I thought it was too painful to continue. So it sat there all summer, not approached.
Ridley wrote about sports 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 knew her. We were friends at the track and field competition together leading up to London 2012. She was smart and brilliant and in February 2019 she died of breast cancer. She was 56. The way Ridley describes the last weeks of her life reminded me of the last weeks of my mother’s life. She also died of breast cancer in her 50s. It was Ridley’s passage about getting up early to find a free parking space outside the Royal Marsden that finished me off.
Racing for free parking was less about saving 40 in meter charges and more about not leaving the hospital every few hours to move the car and pay all over again. I wanted to be with her all the time. It reminded me of the experience of death in the NHS, of sitting, lost for words, in cramped, draped rooms, behind heavy gray doors, next to long pastel-colored corridors. They weren’t memories I wanted to return to. Until this week. It was cold and wet, and summer felt so far away, and suddenly I felt ready to start over.
Ridley also has secondary cancer and writes towards the end of the book that he thinks he has five more years to go. There are times in the book when he wonders if he still wants them. I’m not sure how long I can keep feeling this pain, he tells his therapist. Give it 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 see Hampshire Notts and Scarborough and Lords and the Oval play, but he even sits in the stands watching the rain fall on Wantage Road, waiting on a T20 game that has no chance to start. He wonders what 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 is rewarded for it. An afternoon at Lords, where Middlesex plays Sussex, after a grueling therapy session, is a kind of turning point, a shift, a staging.
Many good books have been written about the 2019 cricket season, but none of them really like this. It is a journal of a season, and also a journal of his grief, his pain, even his madness. Ridley is truly a soccer player, but admits that during a soccer game, you can’t really think about ideas as essential and profound as those things, especially if someone scolds the referee in your ear. In fact, the game probably exists to get away from it all. But in county cricket, with its less frenetic unfolding, a person could connect to what really mattered.
Only in the cinema is he convinced that everyone else is staring at him. But the thing about going to cricket on your own is that it doesn’t matter if you’re between fellow loners and losers, no one gives you a second look and you don’t feel conspicuous. There is company, but there is also loneliness. You can be in the crowd or alone. Cricket didn’t talk to me or offer advice, it didn’t tell me what to do or how to feel, like a best friend, it was just there for me, willing to hug me and just let me be, in whatever mood I was was in. It gives him peace, space and time, makes him wallow in the weariness of grief.
I remember how, in the months after my mother died, my father started watching games in a nearby town square. And I remember around that time there was a fashion for big, important-sounding books with titles asking what sport can teach us about life. The Breath of Sadness doesn’t make big claims for itself like those books did. But there are some answers here, if you’re looking.
Suddenly, in the afternoon break, the utter of everything consumed me, Ridley writes at one point, looking at Hampshire bat. That could be a feeling you had yourself this summer, whether you lost someone you love during the pandemic or not. It’s a feeling that anyone who’s been dealing with depression in recent months will look familiar.
The abundance of all this felt overwhelming, watching sports played in empty stadiums, the game as a contractual obligation between boards and broadcasters. It was good to be reminded why it is so important by someone who is not convinced that it matters at all.