Simon Rae's report

The Main Event: The Wall

The major challenge was the provision of a suitable piece of text for the end wall of the building overlooking the Pershore Road. Renn & Thacker had already established that the central artwork would be the tripartite depiction of the world, familiar from a thousand school atlases. This simple but evocative image was to be displayed across a background of terracotta tiles, and it was my job as poet to find words to complement this powerful image. As a starting point, I was helped by the project's working title, 'A Red Ball Spins'.

My first contribution was to challenge the initial idea of having the poem as a single piece of continuous text running down the left hand side of the artwork, looking simply like the blown up page of a book. It seemed to me that the text should play a more active role in the overall picture. One of the most exciting aspects of the project was the opportunity to work co-operatively with visual artists, and from the outset, I was on the lookout for visual/spatial ways of capturing the essence of the game. One that particularly excited me was the waggon-wheel' drawn up to show where a batsman's scoring strokes were hit. In an innings of reasonable length, this will produce a pattern of radial lines emanating from the two points representing the two wickets. The resulting image can be seen in a number of ways. For instance, it might suggest the rays of the sun, and it occurred to me that this might be an appropriate design model for the lines of the poem. They would radiate out from the either side of the central image, enhancing it as an abstract visual statement.

The waggon-wheel pattern is also suggestive of the lines on a sundial, and when I came to work on the poem, the sense of time marked by the turning world overlooked by the sun was one of the strands I tried to incorporate into it. Another was the idea of continuity, both in the long term - one century of cricket leading into another (an appropriate thought as we neared the Millennium) - but also in the short term - one day following hard on the heels of another, with the all the possibilities for continuous cricket that that implies.

By this stage, my suggestions as to how the overall design might be modified had been accepted. It was agreed the text should flank the central image, though practical considerations meant that the lines could not radiate out at different angles. Initially it was thought that there should be eight lines on either side, and so I started on a sixteen-line poem in which I hoped to encompass the themes outlined above. In addition, I wished to portray what I see as two very different - but by no means mutually hostile - approaches to the game: the traditional, English one with its gentle pastoral pace, flowing confidently out of its centuries of history; and the new, more vibrant, one-day game of coloured clothing, vociferously partisan crowds, floodlit matches etc that has sprung up in the wake of Packer and has taken such vigorous root in the Indian subcontinent.

I wanted to present these two very different cricket cultures in balance, perhaps with the implicit suggestion that the latter holds the key to the game' s future in terms of attracting younger players. The idea was also to reflect the culture of many of the minorities based in the immediate vicinity of Edgbaston.

The early draft of this poem was as follows:

A red ball spins, a swallow's flight

Succeeding generations follow

From willow's earliest rituals

First acted out in meadows

To carnivals in cricket's citadels.

The grandstand's lengthing shadows

Usher the fielders in at close of play

But darkness hurries through the turnstile


Into a new day's brilliant light

Walled in by cliffs of sound:

Flags, fanfares, passionate cacophonies,

All eyes following a distant dot,

Airborne, earth bound, never still

Until in a crescendo of euphoria

The last ball is bowled and one side wins.

Around the world the red ball spins.

The initial response was reasonably enthusiastic, though doubts were raised at the sophistication of some of the vocabulary ('cacophonies'). It was also decided that instead of eight lines, each side should in fact have only four. Back to the drawing board.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found distilling the contents of a sixteen-line poem down to eight taxing in the extreme. Basically, there wasn't enough room to get it all in, so I ended up producing half a dozen drafts or so, each of which represented a variant on the themes explored in the longer poem. Here's an example:

A RED BALL SPINS

A red ball spins and in its timeless span

Gathers everything since time began

To smile on those who cast their antique shadows

Across the earliest wickets pitched in meadows.


As night clicks through the turnstile into day

So century follows century and the play

Continues in its ancient disciplines.

Around the world the red ball spins

The response to this and others in the same vein showed that I was much further from the mark than I had imagined. From a position where no one seemed very sure of what they wanted the poem to be and do, we had reached a point where it was much clearer what it was they didn't want it to be.

For a start, a much younger audience than the one I seemed to be writing for was envisaged. The poem should be more direct, more energetic, simple, enticing, a clear mission statement for the building itself. Shorter lines, and a significantly more straightforward form were obviously called for.

This was a much clearer brief and after a further draft or two, I came up with the text that is now displayed resplendently above the Pershore Road.

A RED BALL SPINS

Spin swing or seam

Block hook or drive

Forward or back

Defend or attack


All over the world

Wherever they play

Stars of tomorrow

Are starting today

As a poet, I was naturally more excited by the complexities of the earlier versions than by the stark simplicities of the final text. However, I fully accept that Warwickshire CC should have the final say on what goes up on their wall, and will feel satisfied with my efforts if the Club are happy with what they have.

Workshops: Making Terracotta Tiles

Another element of the placement was my participation in adult workshops which echoed the terracotta theme of the main artwork (which in turn picks up the use of terracotta elsewhere in the city).

Two workshops, each lasting two days, were scheduled early in August, to be followed by four Youth Workshops. In the event there was take-up for only one of the adult workshops, but this was highly successful. About fourteen members of the Balsall Heath Asian Women's group (along with one other woman who turned up on the day) attended the sessions, which started with a poetry workshop in the Committee Rooms. This was jointly led by me and Sian Hughes of the Poetry Society, and revealed an encouraging amount of enthusiasm and willingness to work hard and imaginatively at the various activities offered.

This upbeat attitude continued into the afternoon session when, after a tour of the ground, the group returned to the MAC and took over the pottery studio. Led by Dawn Ashman supported by Paula Woof, the participants were soon sketching out designs for their terracotta tiles, and by the end of the day, most had started experimenting with the material itself.

The following day, everybody set to with gusto and worked steadily to complete their artwork. I took part like everybody else, and produced a piece called Frontier, representing the crease as a conflict zone between the opposing forces mustered by batsman and bowler. Ravi Deepres took photographs of this and other tiles, some of which were included in the Autumn/Winter edition of Raw Edge magazine. It was a great pleasure working with such an open and enthusiastic group, and I also got to take the two small boys who had accompanied their mother off into the park to play cricket (Rain stopped play!).

Although not involved in the Youth workshops that followed, I did subsequently see some of the work, and was again impressed at how the cricket theme had inspired those taking part. It seemed a thoroughly worthwhile venture, andl hope it will be possible for some, or indeed all, of the tiles to be displayed at some stage in the future.

Finally, I should say that throughout the placement, relations with both the Club and the artists involved in the project, have been open, friendly and relaxed. Dennis Amiss has been most generous with time and hospitality (I watched my first day-night game from the Committee balcony, sustained by an excellent dinner), while Phil Macdonald has been unfailingly courteous and helpful - as indeed have all the other people I have come in contact with at Edgbaston.

The same can also be said of Mark Renn & Mick Thacker, who have conducted the project with drive and efficiency, along with all those involved, however peripherally, at the Midlands Arts Centre.

- Simon Rae