| A sea of green that is Lord’s will remember S.E.A. for Sourav’s brilliant century, as well as a host of cricketing lore that germinated in the grass and among legends
The rich probability of the curator at Lord’s being a gentleman of encyclopaedic sagacity and Dickensian eccentricity is happily realised in Stephen Green. He retires, aged 60, this autumn after 35 years in the post.
One can hardly think of a greater loss to English cricket.
Only in England and only for cricket could such a man exist. The son of an Isle of Wight vicar, he possesses an archivist’s love of small pieces of paper and a tie from the shop at the British Museum. The tie is admired. He looks down. “It would be even nicer if I hadn’t spilt something down it,” he says mildly. “But at least it was the right colour.”
His authoritative view on other sports is exquisitely pronounced. “Like life in the Middle Ages. Nasty, brutish and short.” (There went football.)
His suit is as crumpled as an old paper bag and the pockets curiously bulging, but the Marylebone Cricket Club, presumably, did not hire him for his sartorial elegance all those years ago. S.E.A. Green (“my parents, poor things, gave me those initials. It’s all right now, but it was awful at school”) was employed to be the guardian of artefacts, the font of all knowledge and the keeper of the keys. Such has been his sterling performance in these capacities, he once overheard a stressed MCC receptionist tell a caller: “I’ll put you through to Mr Green, our creator.”
He does not, however, claim omnipotence. There was one occasion when the MCC borrowed some rare and valuable paintings for an exhibition and having installed a fabulous security system, he found he could not get in himself. “I had to phone a helpline,” he admitted. But little else beats him. He has answered, on average, 20 letters of inquiry a day. “I always says it’s like a perpetual game of Mastermind.” Some are addressed to Lourdes Cricket Club (maintaining the ecclesiastical theme) and he is frequently knighted by his Indian correspondents who address him as ‘Sir’ Stephen Green.
He ought to be. Not least for his absolute appropriateness. His passion for the social history of Lord’s reveals itself in his three favourite acquisitions. The first is the portrait of Lord Winchelsea, the great patron of Thomas Lord (hence Lord’s) in the latter part of the 18th century, which hangs in the Long Room. The second is Thomas Lord’s (we think) specially commissioned porcelain punchbowl from China which has the odd inscription ‘Thirxs’ inside it. “It doesn’t make sense,” said Green, who has pondered the meaning for years. “The least improbable theory is that the chap in China didn’t know how to write English characters very well and simply made a mess. He probably meant ‘Thirsk’ where Thomas Lord was born.”
The third acquisition is another painting, this time of a former MCC President (1825), Lord Frederick Beauclerk, who was a right lad by all accounts, not to mention vicar of St Albans. “Anyone less suited to be a clergyman it is difficult to imagine,” said Green, adding, “but he was a very good cricketer” by way of absolute mitigation.
By coincidence a book entitled Ius Ecclesiasticum Anglicanum has since fallen into his hands. “It’s not a very sexy title, I know, but it’s rather fun because it consists of letters of complaint to the Archbishop of Canterbury including some from a very disgruntled ecclesiastic lawyer, who bitterly laments that the vicar of St Albans was playing cricket all day, every day. It’s unintentionally very funny.”
The painting was an absolute windfall, supplied by an admiral acting as intermediary, and all the more delightful for being a treasure for which the MCC had been hopelessly outbid at auction 20 years before.
Green remembers all these details as effortlessly as yesterday. When Jane Austen cropped up in the conversation, he said: “She mentions baseball, you know, in one of her novels.” No one else present knew anything of the sort and they thought they would catch him out by asking which novel. “Northanger Abbey, I think,” he replied promptly.
His love of both cricket and history were inspired in childhood when he collected stamps, autographs (including Sir Donald Bradman’s), scored for the school team and went on to study ‘Greats’ at Oxford.
The modern child would be forgiven for thinking the ‘Greats’ include Kylie Minogue and David Beckham, but in Green’s time at university it involved the classics, philosophy and ancient history.
At the age of 24, he saw an advertisement for the post of curator at Lord’s. “I think my youth was to my advantage. One or two of the applicants possibly thought they could enjoy the late afternoon of their careers with a few gin and tonics in the Committee Room. Perhaps I am being unfair. But, in any event, I received a letter announcing my appointment.” He remembers it particularly, because they forgot to put the stamp on it and he was obliged to pay postage due.
“I’ve kept the envelope.” Of course. “I’ve got it somewhere although it might take me a minute to find it.”
He is not the least abashed by the monumental and reverential nature of his task. To many, Lord’s has the same hallowed ambience as a cathedral, although one where the gods are still in visible evidence. Ian Botham, for instance, looks pretty solid and menacing, cigar in hand, as he gazes down from a large canvas in the museum.
Green is respectful but not soppy. He finds a picture behind glass of the first Lord’s cricket ground. “There we are,” he said airily. “It looks rather like a garden shed.”
Indeed, it is entirely inappropriate to become dewy-eyed about the place when Thomas Lord himself once tried to flog off the outfield to property developers. It remains a matter of pride to Green that a fellow citizen of the Isle of Wight, William Ward, was so disgusted by this threat that he bought the ground outright for pounds 6,000 in 1825, thus quelling one of the greatest threats known to English civilisation.
Was Lord a wide boy then' “An entrepreneur, I prefer to call him,” Green said forgivingly.
One senses Green is retiring with gentle regret, but he has other hobbies to pursue. “I suppose you’d call me a church crawler. I have always been fascinated by historic churches. On the whole the better the building the more remote it is because it hasn’t been knocked around by the Victorians.”
And then there is always a County cricket match.
“It represents a bit of England which is in some ways disappearing. It keeps its stately charm. There is a whiff of childhood about it.”
There is no Mrs Green. “Goodness, no,” he exclaimed. He will make the occasional sojourn back to Lord’s alone, to renew acquaintances or just sit in the sun in the Pavilion, known to his old headmaster as ‘Death Row’.
“It is a considerable wrench to leave but you have got to draw stumps at some stage,” he said, smiling. “And I suppose it’s better while not totally senile.”