GRASS. England's wall-to-wall carpet. The ubiquitous covering of the stages graced by Best and Charlton, Botham and Gower, Faldo and McIlroy.
Grass. A derogatory term referencing police informers, dating back to Cockney coppers of the 1930s – the short form of grasshopper apparently.
And grass, the less than legal substance smoked by less than energetic members of society.
Grass. Such a versatile little word, perfect for ditties and limericks...
“There once was an Elvington lass
Whose garden men did pass
Her lawn was lovely and lush
The men they made her blush
But all they loved was her grass”
From the earliest memories of kicking a ball about with our dads in the back garden, to dreaded wintry school fields where the grass was, in truth, more World War I mud than lush lawn, to the playgrounds of teenage growing up and – for the very select few – the surface upon which unimaginable sporting fortunes are made, grass is the commonest but most special of denominators.
It's everywhere you look. Even today on a wet July evening as I ran back from the garage clutching a load of tumble-dried laundry, I couldn't help but notice pesky invading stalks, surging through my pebbled drive, shoulder to shoulder with the weeds whose names I neither know nor care about. But grass and weed alike, they will all be afforded an hour or so of my plucking this coming weekend, if the weather favours.
Grass, friend and enemy, oblivious to whether you are King Richard III galloping across your rolling acres to a dynastic death, or the luck-blessed Henry Tudor, about to seize the crown on turf that is less green than blood-soaked red. Those millions of indefatigable blades, the sward, as soft and willowy as the steely sword clanging on the battlefield above them were sharp and deadly. From Bosworth field in 1485 and aeons before, they have endured across the centuries, bearing silent witness to man's occasional madness. These days, in England at least, those physical battles on grass are thankfully more likely to involve blokes with oval balls, intent on rubbing their opponents' faces in the grass rather than lopping off their arms or heads.
I was down at Featherstone Rovers' terrific little community Rugby League stadium in Post Office Road recently and it looks a treat. The slope that I remember from matches there is the same, but the surface? Unrecognisable from the rutted and sun-hardened, grassless pitch I recall playing a Yorkshire League final on. I remember my pal, Rolawn Sales and Marketing Director Jonathan Hill relating how the company rode to the rescue when the surface was last re-laid by Rovers. It's as pretty as a picture – cut that grass short enough and you could play tennis on it.
Back in 'the day', before the advent of plastic guided missile systems otherwise known as kicking tees, we goalkickers had to excavate a mound with the heels of our boots upon which to elevate the Mitre Multiplex ball. Rough science. My how things have changed. A few years ago, I captained a journalists' XIII versus a politicians' select as a charity curtain-raiser at Headingley, before a Leeds Rhinos-Castleford game. Faced with kicking off, I began my traditional heel-digging routine. The scream of “Nooooo!” from the anguished head groundsman may well have been audible across the city at Elland Road. He burst from the side-lines like a scalded cat, kicking tee in hand, admonishments about my sacrilege ringing loud. I suspect he resented people running on his pristine green quilt, let alone building turf-castles in it. I fair chuckled.
HAND on heart, I couldn't tell my Bermuda from my Fescue, my common-or-garden from my Kentucky Bluegrass. Is it really greener on the other side? Not this summer it isn't, because thanks to investing in a couple of treatments a year, either end of the growing season, my lawn is looking particularly lush. It's a veritable pleasure to mow. Mrs L does the creative stuff in our nicely sized garden. I'm the shovel and fork wielder, the one who pushes the petrol lawnmower and who, in truth, resents the chore not a jot.
There is something about a freshly mowed lawn that keeps us rooted – pun intended – to our place on this small, fragile planet, that is fundamental in our human condition. It is deeply satisfying.
It can be a pain in the proverbial, yes, when a fortnight's high summer holiday brings you back to something that looks less like Wimbledon on the second Saturday and better resembles a Queensland rainforest – especially those patches where Arthur the Labrador has made his mark during his morning constitutionals and which grow at an exponential rate around their dead, yellowed core. If only scientists could invent something that does the same for the hair of we follicly challenged chaps, that dog urine does to stimulate grass growth – and no, I haven't been tempted to let Arthur take a pee on my noggin just out of curiosity.
While my domestic relationship with grass might be good for the spirit, it is on a professional level that it has been the canvas upon which much of my career has been painted. Less painted than written, actually.
For BARLA GB at The Boulevard Hull 1983.
A self-confessed sports nut, a professional career was always long odds (and no, not just through lack of ability, thank you very much). I grew up a wheezy, asthmatic runt of a kid during the 1960s and 70s, a time before the effective drug remedies and therapies which enable most sufferers to enjoy fulfilling active lives today. My dad had been crippled playing professional rugby league on the grass of Batley's Mount Pleasant ground, and thus directed me towards football, mentally as well as physically scarred by his experiences with the oval ball.
Remember the incredibly harsh winter of 1978/79? I do. We cleared snow from the lines of our football ground to get a cup game on, and it was snow, not grass, that I was left prostrate upon when the opposition right back kicked my left knee cap round the back of my leg. Ouch – I'd gone into shock by the time an ambulance finally arrived. Remember the ambulance service going on strike in that Winter of Discontent? I do. Anyway, there went dad's prejudices about 'safe' sports to play. I was late to Rugby League, but professional invitations to step out on the grass of Wakefield's Belle Vue (and others) followed a modestly successful amateur career.
Rose Bowl 7s, Pasadena 1988.
I often wonder if coincidentally being Sports Editor of a group of newspapers that covered my occasional exploits helped – because I had been destined as long as I can remember to pursue a career in writing. But Wakefield and Hunslet, Dewsbury, Batley and Keighley were easily rebuffed because back in the early 1980s the grass really was greener. Instead of getting my head knocked off for a couple of hundred quid a week on the ankle-deep mud of what passed for rugby pitches before League became a summer game, I spent several years playing Rugby Union in California, on the grass of Long Beach, San Diego, Santa Barbara and San Francisco. I had a beer with Clint Eastwood during one Pebble Beach tournament. Kevin Costner watched us during the annual Aspen gathering. You didn't get that on Bramley's old Barley Mow ground!
Remaining amateur meant I could indulge both my league and union passions on fields from Hong Kong to Halifax, New Zealand to New Earswick (it's in York) before actually playing semi-professional in Perth, Australia. It wasn't a fortune, but it was deeply fulfilling. I went out of my way to revisit the Shirley Strickland Oval and tread that blessed turf again last year, during a flying visit. Forget the hackneyed saying – nostalgia is everything it used to be.
Kicking for Dewsbury Celtic 1989 & GB Masters vs Australia 2008.
My last match in professional competition was fittingly back on dad's old stomping ground, Mount Pleasant in Batley in a Challenge Cup 3rd round tie. It was 1993 and still the winter era. The 'field' was neither green grass nor grey mud – with about 1,000 tons of sand on it, it was like playing on the beach at Blackpool. Even Rolawn might have found that a challenge.
THE rugby has a limited shelf life of course and as with so many reluctant retirees, next came golf. And my, how we golfers appreciate a carefully manicured green, a lush fairway, as passionately as we curse knee-high rough. But as poorly as I have (regularly) played, I have loved, cherished, every opportunity to cast off the office straitjacket and limber up on a first tee, be it Turnberry on a perfect August evening, or a dog-track of a municipal nine-hole in February.
“Carpe Diem”, as Robin Williams's character said while inspiring his young charges in the excellent film Dead Poets Society – “Seize the Day”. The worst day on the golf course beats the best day in the office, every time. And unlike with the rugby, there are few broken collar bones, noses, teeth or concussions.
I've been fortunate – no, blessed – to mix my journalistic endeavours with my hobbies. No boss, not even a co-director or shareholder to satisfy. And every month I am duty bound – no, please don't feel sorry for me – to visit one or more of the fabulous golf courses across the Broad Acres and beyond, to play their 18 holes and write about the experience. There are, I must confess, much worse ways of making a living.
Although I'm well past my rugby sell-by date, I still get to witness some of the planet's greatest athletes and hardest men, creating drama and magic upon the best and most natural theatrical surface in the world – grass.
I need to check my Bible. Does Genesis make mention of which day God made the grass, the hardiest of all perennials, to carpet his Creation? If it doesn't, it should!
Danny Lockwood is the publisher of West Yorkshire weekly newspaper The Press, Rugby League Trade Newspaper, League Weekly and the monthly Yorkshire Golfer.