Anyone can fly to Africa to see elephants. Anyone can trek to Machu Picchu. But not just anyone can go to Paris to watch an Ashes cricket match being played in Australia. No, it takes a special kind of idiot for a challenge like that.
Our journey began at ‘Europe’s Longest Champagne Bar’: Searcy’s at St Pancras International. I would have been happier with ‘Europe’s Cheapest Champagne Bar,’ but longest would have to do. Beer would have to do too.
As we walked through the rush hour throng to the Eurostar we noticed that the Dulwich Raider and I were the only people wearing cricket whites and blazers. Odd. Didn’t they know the Ashes were about to kick off in Australia? It looked like Wear Black Wednesday. Suddenly we felt special. People kept a wide berth, as if we were totally naked, which, underneath, we were. We resembled ghosts, mingling with the living, but having a better time, like Randall (Deceased) and Hopkirk (Also Deceased).
A train journey softened by red wine and yellow beer ended at the Gare Du Nord where we met Spider, our pal who lives in Paris while trying to learn how to draw girls in the nude. God knows what he tells his mother. Spider had forgotten his cricket whites but luckily we carried a spare umpire’s coat and England cricket cap so he wouldn’t feel like such a fool.
To steel ourselves for an evening of begging barmen in a non-cricketing country to put on the Ashes, we went straight to Chartiers for some French nosebag, or sac de nez. The queue was enormous, but the doorman stepped out and immediately ushered us past it to a nice table. These whites were magic.
Next was the real test: Finding cricket. Surely if anywhere in Paris were to show the Ashes it would be Café Oz?
‘What cricket, mate?’ Said the manager. ‘The Ashes? Yeah, we showed it in the summer. It’s finished now, isn’t it?’ We demanded to see his Australian passport and promised to report him to the Australian Embassy for not being Australian enough, something that in other circumstances we might applaud.
As we trundled out, disappointed, he called after us: ‘Noice outfits, guys!’ Outfits!
Bar after bar turned us away. ‘What are zees Ashes?’ asked a barman.
We were happy to tell him, but mention cricket to a Frenchman and his eyes glaze over. It’s like we’re speaking another language.
“You ’ave no ’ope,” he said, sounding uncannily like a French Glenn McGrath.
With the first ball at The Gabba approaching, we had one last try – an Irish bar called Corcoran’s. Friendly, affable and more French than Irish, they had no problem putting the cricket on, but they would close at 2am, which was an issue when the game was being played 10,000 miles away in Queensland with its 10 hour time difference. At least we would see the start of the series in a bar in Paris. Some people would say that is not mankind’s finest achievement, but then some people can go fuck themselves.
As we were in a noisy pub full of Parisians, there was no chance that they would turn the music down and let us hear the sound of willow on leather, or Beefy being a bellend. So we watched the opening ball to the sound of Led Zeppelin.
We were delivered one beautiful moment before closing time when Stuart Broad, who even without sound we knew was being roundly booed in Brisbane, got Rogers to edge a catch to the slips for 1. The three of us left our seats in a hearty roar, kicking off a Mexican wave of Gallic shrugging. The Paris Ashes were Go.
Part of me didn’t believe I could be turfed out of a bar one hour into a seven-hour sporting event. But then part of me couldn’t believe that seven-hour, five-day sporting events existed. Test cricket is the ultimate gift to the time-rich.
We had no choice but to go back to Spider’s garret to watch the rest of the day’s play on Spider’s big screen. The Raider and I had two demands for our stay: A big screen and something to keep us awake. Naturally, neither demand was met. We had to watch the biggest game in the world on the smallest screen in the world. Even the irony was unacceptable.
Still, we woke the neighbourhood with each tumbling wicket and retired happy, as the sun came up, having seen Australia reduced to 273-8. Stuart Broad had shown he had cojones the size of footballs, taking a five-fer.
Day two began hazily, We’d got to bed at 7am, after 14 hours of supporting our boys through the medium of booze. We decided to have breakfast, lunch and dinner in one before heading to the British Embassy to demand sanctuary and live cricket. What we hadn’t taken into account was that it was Beaujolais Nouveau Day. That meant, as we understood it, that we were obliged to try the new harvest by law. After a few free samples of soft, fresh, red plonk we met the charming Miss Vicky at Le Repaire de Bacchus. Miss Vicky is a well-known brand of wine in France, but she is also a lady; a wine writer who puts her name and silhouette to a range of wines. We sampled, we purchased and Spider added a little detail to Miss Vicky’s silhouette with his mucky pen and mind. She liked it and we fell a little bit in love with her.
Beaujolais Nouveau Day had diverted us from our holy quest, but paradoxically filled us with unearned confidence. Surely the Embassy would recognise our plight and take us under their wing? They must have some divine feed splashed on a giant screen, surrounded by bowls of unlimited Twiglets, with commentary from the Queen and whoever the Prime Minister is. We simply had to get inside.
Despite being dressed as gentlemen, something about us didn’t inspire a great deal of trust. Perhaps it was that the umpire wasn’t holding any bowlers’ jumpers. Or maybe it was the bottles of Beaujolais poking out of his giant pockets. We demanded political asylum from French disregard for the Ashes. They told us to go the tourist office. The nerve.
The tourist office seemed like a rational idea, so we ignored it and went to a dingy bar for desperate gamblers. Everywhere we went we were welcomed, except at the cricket-hating Embassy. It was tempting to get imprisoned just to get them off their arses.
The Metro was an adventure. Strangers would strike up conversations with us. Old men sang sea shanties. A woman stopped in front of us, farted then vomited what I presumed to be Beaujolais. It was like being in Newcastle.
I won’t mislead you into thinking the following hours were characterised by great clarity, though claret did come into it. But we heard the Barmy Army sing Jerusalem and watched Australia get out for 295. Then something awful happened. It was as if me, Raider and Spider had been sent in to bat. England collapsed like a fading phallus. Someone had taken off Mitchell Johnson’s blindfold and got him to sling it very fast at our boys.
It was as if our batsmen were entirely unaware of the sacrifices we had made to make this day special. In our profound disappointment we began to bore ourselves to the point where we actually longed for French company. Spider did have a French girlfriend but she has an American accent when speaking English, so, really, what is the point? We were skittled out and Australia built a lead of 224. It was over already.
Our tender heads made a decision in the morning. Cricket would become the c-word and was not to be mentioned. The previous day the c-word was a different word and had only been acceptable in conjunction with Shane Warne, where it was compulsory.
Half-heartedly we approached The Bombardier, a British pub in the Latin Quarter. I’m not a fan of going abroad to find England, but this was different. This was a mission. So, we asked if they would put the c-word on. They wouldn’t. Thank cunt for that. Day three was going to be even worse than Day two. Australia tonked the ball all over the Gabba to set England an impossible target.
So, how to face the inevitable on Day four? Naturally we thought of the trenches 100 miles or so to our north. Could we face the barrage with the courage of those brave Tommies who went over the top to certain death? No, was both the short and long answer.
But to cheer ourselves up from the endless misery of our Ashes battering, we decided to visit the mass graves and WW1 battlefields. Spider wanted to find the last resting place of the Oldham Pals, the legendary trench diggers from his hometown. Of the 170,000 British dead or wounded in the first 13 days of the Somme Offensive, none were from the Oldham Pals. That meant they were either bulletproof or standing at the back. Either way, they were Spider’s heroes.
Raider hoped to find the final resting place of his Mad Uncle Cyril, who left the family mustard fortune to a French prostitute named Fifi.
After a nip from the hip flask, we managed to reach the German lines without any great difficulty, which we attributed to Raider’s previous trench fighting experience as an extra in Paul McCartney’s Pipes of Peace video. He doesn’t like to talk about what happened out there and still shudders at the mention of ‘on-site catering’.
Underneath Arras lie miles and miles of tunnels dug by the British and her friends; a cave city that hid 25,000 troops right under the noses of the Jerries, who were using the beautiful town for target practice, a bit like Mitchell Johnson with our batsmen’s heads. There, among the poignant memorials to lost friends scratched into the walls was something to cheer us even now. One of our brave boys had drawn a woolly mammoth. A gag among the horror that would make people smile long after his flesh had become France.
That night, as we watched the fourth and final day of the First Test massacre in our hotel room at Arras, we spared a thought for the dreadful, senseless waste of young talent. Not forgetting the silent dead of war either.
A version of this article was published by Sabotage Times in December, 2013.