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Francis Thompson in  a 1902 woodcut: “A timid irresponsible zealot” but remembered gratefully by cricket-lovers


Certain lines of poetry have the tendency to become detached from their context and resonate more generally. They find their way into the consciousness of people who might be surprised to discover the true origin of what they are quoting. So it is with the often-cited and intensely (if indistinctly) nostalgic line “O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago!” There is perhaps something of the gentleman’s outfitter or more plausibly the model-train manufacturer in the initial impression made by these surnames, but the truth is that they belong far elsewhere.

The verse from which the quotation comes makes just such an incongruous appearance in Ranpur, Paul Scott’s fictional Indian city and railway junction, in 1943. The heroine of The Raj Quartet, Sarah Layton, is returning home, having recently entered what the author circuitously calls her “state of grace”, thanks to the cynical attentions of a superannuated major in Calcutta. On the platform, she bumps into an acquaintance, the even more fictitious Russian Count Bronowski, who is the Nawab of Mirat’s wazir, and who insists that she await her connecting train in the royal coach. Over champagne, he recalls how, as a young man in the south of France, he was approached by an adolescent Englishman, who sought his advice as to how best to make his addresses to a Spanish maid in the next door villa, with whom he had fallen in love. Could the Count perhaps supply him with a French poem? “Why not an English one?”, the older man rejoins. The answer given is that the boy only knows one English poem, and he fears that it is not appropriate. Bronowski bids him recite it, and he does. The suit turns out to be unsuccessful, but the haunting verse has stayed with the now elderly Russian ever afterwards, and he declaims it, in a moment of great sensibility, to his guest in the railway carriage. Then the story moves on.

The poem is, of course, a cricket poem, and Hornby and Barlow used to open the batting for Lancashire. One match in which they did so was against Gloucestershire at Old Trafford in 1878, on which occasion a young man, Francis Thompson, was among the spectators. Theirs was a typical opening combination of carefree mercurial amateur and dour, unflinching professional, aggression and defence, resource and concentration — one of the earliest in the illustrious line of openers which would stretch over the ensuing decades to include Hobbs and Rhodes, Holmes and Sutcliffe, and Hutton and Washbrook; but it is the Lancashire pair who have achieved poetic immortality.
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