The boring bits

Explaining the rules of test cricket to someone unfamiliar with the game – especially to someone who comes from a country in which cricket isn’t played – is certainly a challenge, but a most entertaining one: one can but relish the look of increasing bewilderment and incredulity on the listener’s face as one expounds not merely the rules, but also the various subtleties and nuances; and little can match the delight when, finally, one sees their jaw drop when you tell them that a match can last for five whole days, and still not end with a decisive result.

I am not, I must admit at the outset, a particularly avid fan of cricket. I enjoy it right enough, and, back in those days I always reminisce about here with a misty eye, I remember enjoying the live broadcasts of entire test matches on BBC. But these live broadcasts of cricket are only available now on subscription channels, and I really am not so keen a fan of sports that I’d be happy to fork out for these: not that I have anything against cricket, and  not that I wouldn’t have watched it if it had still been on BBC, but I frankly have other priorities I’d rather be spending my money on. Of course, I can still see the highlights at the end of each day’s play, but it’s not the same. So, over the years, I have rather got out of the habit of watching cricket (and other sports); and, since one cannot really follow what one does not see, I am fast losing interest in sport altogether. But the five-day test match used, I remember, to be wonderful way to waste a few days.

The attraction, I say as I try to explain, is not really of the excitement of the moment, but, rather, of tension building up over long periods. And over time, this tension is cumulative. This is why a mere hour’s worth of highlights doesn’t quite hit the spot: yes, you see all the wickets, you see the most spectacular shots, the best pieces of fielding, the most brilliant deliveries; but what’s missing is the element of time; what’s missing is the pacing of the game, the shape of the thing, some idea of how all the events unfold over time. The difference between watching a full test match and watching the highlights is like the difference between reading a well-crafted comic novel, and reading a joke book from cover to cover. In the comic novel, not every single line is funny, and nor is it intended to be; but in the end, it is a far more satisfactory read than the joke book.

But surely, I am asked, aren’t there dull patches over the five days of play? Aren’t there “boring bits”? Yes, there certainly are, I say. But – and here’s where I am most certainly courting downright disbelief – it’s part of the package. When you see something unfolding over a stretch of time, there are, almost inevitably, boring bits. But if you try to take those bits out, you end up with something like the “twenty-twenty game”, which is a radically simplified version of cricket, and where the purpose appears to be nothing more subtle or sophisticated than hitting each ball as hard as one possibly can. And, since the batsmen have to play aggressively, there are more wickets. So yes, it’s thrills and spills all the way, and, not surprisingly, it’s a sure-fire money-spinner. But ask any seasoned cricket fan what they prefer, and they’ll tell you with a virtually unanimous voice: it’s the five-day Test match that’s the Real Thing. That’s the form that gives the greatest satisfaction, boring bits and all.

Now, I appreciate I am set myself a hard selling job here in trying to convince readers that cricket actually benefits from having in it some boring patches, but I hope I have carried at least some of my readers so far, for now I’m going to go one step further, and claim that “boring bits” are part of the package not merely in test cricket, but also in works of art – in novels, plays, films, operas … in anything, indeed, that unfolds over time. Now, before you call for the strait-jacket, please let me explain.

By “boring bits”, I do not mean passages that are slow. Some works – comedies, say – generally require a generally fast tempo, while other more contemplative works generally require a slow tempo; but, regardless of whether the underlying tempo is an allegro or an adagio, what makes for boredom is not the pacing in itself, lack of variety in the pacing. A work that is relentlessly fast without variation can be just as tedious as a work that goes to the other extreme. So the problem is not necessarily a slow tempo, as such: the problem is when the chosen tempo isn’t justified by the material. And yes, it may be counted a flaw.  But it can crop up in some of the very greatest works of the human imagination. We do not, after all, judge a work by how free it is from flaws: some of the greatest works, we often find, are flawed. Indeed, given how great the artist’s ambition had been in these works, it is hardly to be expected that they could be executed to perfection: perfection tends to be a quality one finds more often in works where artists have set their sights on more modest ends.

Consider King Lear, for instance. I know of no greater work of art in any medium, and yet, one does not need to take a microscope to it to see that it is riddled with dramatic flaws. But really, does it matter? Similarly with Don Quixote. Once again, it’s one of the great pillars of western culture, but can one honestly say that it doesn’t have flaws?

I really do not know how often I have read or seen King Lear over the decades, and the flaws have frankly never bothered me. And yes, Don Quixote most certainly has its longueurs, but I have read that book from cover to cover four times now, and not once did I consider skipping those “boring bits”. Because when something unfolds over time, I want to get a sense of its pacing, I want to get a sense of the shape of the thing. So a genius like Cervantes misjudged it from time to time: so what? I’m happy to stick with the misjudgements of a genius than with the piddling perfection of some mediocrity. And if that seems like idolatry, so be it. As far as I am concerned, the odd bit of boredom is a small price to pay to get close to the mind of a genius. As in test cricket, it’s all part of the package.

We may look at various other works too of the highest artistic merit. Can even the most ardent Wagnerian, or the most avid Mahlerian, really put their hands on their hearts and say there are no “boring bits” in a Wagner opera or in a Mahler symphony? Can even the keenest fan of Andrei Tarkovsky claim there are no boring bits in, say, Solaris, or in The Sacrifice? Is it reasonable for even the most sympathetic reader to maintain that Moby-Dick is free of all longueurs? Of course not. But here’s the curious paradox: taking those “boring bits” out won’t improve the work. Indeed, I’d go as far as to argue that such an excision would have quite the opposite effect.

The wonder of these great masterpieces is not that they are flawless – they clearly aren’t – but that they exist at all, and that they are so very great that the flaws simply do not matter. In the end, they are all, essentially, “part of the package”.

16 responses to this post.

  1. I agree with much – and probably all – of that.

    In the opposite direction, an example of a work that seems to me to be wonderful and perfect is Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides Overture” (about which Hans Keller wrote “with whose development Mendelssohn seemed, for objectively incomprehensible reasons, dissatisfied”), but then it is only ten minutes long. (Albeit I think Mendelssohn struggled with it: I have a memory, which may be false, of once hearing an earlier version which was inferior to the final version we almost always hear today.)

    Also tangentially(?), I am not persuaded by Aristotle’s view that “perfect” means “complete” (“nothing to add or subtract”): I think some (perhaps not many) things could be added to or subtracted from the “Hebrides Overture” and it would still be perfect, albeit maybe a different piece. In fact, I have more sympathy with the view of Empedocles, who I had never heard of until I read the following a few minutes ago (to check what Aristotle thought):
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfection#Term_and_concept

    An example of a short excellent work which is not perfect because it may be scientifically inaccurate is Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”:
    https://suliram.wordpress.com/2011/10/06/national-poetry-day-2011/#ozymandias

    Cricket

    On explaining cricket to someone unfamiliar with it, coincidentally a week ago a chain of events prompted me to look up Wikipedia articles on the history of football, which in turn led to reading about football variants played at English “public” (ie private) schools, which led to this article:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winchester_College_football

    After reading it, I emailed the link to an online friend (a retired electronics engineer academic from UCL, whose first degree was in Physics – he’s originally from Italy, and I suspected might not be all that familiar with the rules and tactics of cricket), adding the following:

    Reading it, I became more and more tempted to think the article was a parody, because the rules seemed to become more and more obscure and incomprehensible as I read on: the only thing that stopped me thinking it was a parody was my knowledge that English “public” school jargon can indeed be obscure and incomprehensible!

    I suppose I ought to add that whilst I am fairly familar with the rules of, and field placings, and types of shot and bowling, in cricket, I suspect that to an outsider cricket might seem nearly as incomprehensible as Winchester College Football. I say nearly, because for now I am persuaded that the latter takes obscurity up to and beyond eleven!

    Two days ago his reply was:

    I read about it but I am none the wiser. Under “tactics”, taking account of the wind makes sense and, as a golfer, I can at least feel some empathy. But as far as obscurity is concerned, it beats cricket hands down!

    To which  I replied:

    The importance of the wind was about the only thing I got from the article, but I don’t think I even had an inkling of why the wind direction was important. Reading the article I fairly quickly gave up trying to make any sense whatsoever of the rules and especially the tactics of the game, and just read on to the end to see if anything became even vaguely understandable: it didn’t, and – like you – I am still none the wiser!

    Reply

    • Hello Colin, and first of all, apologies for having taken so long to respond.

      Your story about the rules of Winchester College Football reminds me of another (possibly apocryphal) story about a judge who says to a barrister after the summing-up “I am afraid I am none the wiser”. To which, quick as a flash, the barrister replies “Perhaps not, my Lord, but at least you are better informed”.

      I didn’t, in my post, get involved in definitions. Perhaps I should have done, as most (perhaps all) arguments depend on how one defines one’s terms. And, as the Wiki article you link to demonstrates, there are a great many complications involved in defining “perfection”. I think Aristotle’s definition is perfectly valid, by the way, but, if we do accept that definition, we quickly see that perfection is not in itself a criterion of merit.

      Generally, boredom tends not to be a problem in shorter works, as there is simply not much space to accommodate any “boring bits”. But that reminds me of another anecdote: a clergyman, after delivering a sermon, asked Samuel Johnson what he thought of it. “It was brief,” Johnson said. “Yes,” said the clergyman, “I like to avoid being tedious.” “But you were tedious!”

      Reply

  2. Posted by alan on August 19, 2019 at 12:18 pm

    How does one effectively indicate the passage of time, without passing time? I think I’ve seen it done well but I can’t remember where. I have seen it done badly.
    Thomas Mann certainly believed in passing time. I wonder how many people have actually read his books.
    I suppose the advantage of cricket is that the ‘action’ proceeds without the observers’ attention. Beer and conversation with ones fellows is not necessarily prevented, unlike with reading.

    Reply

    • The question of how one depicts the passage of time in fiction is an interesting one, and possibly deserves a new post on its own. Merely saying “Three years passed” will give the reader the necessary information, but won’t convey a sense of three years passing. But Chekhov could convincingly give a sense of that time passing in just one hundred pages (in his short novel Three Years). I think the trick (if you’re skilful enough to pull it off, of course) is to convincingly depict changes that can only occur over time. And of course, that takes immense skill.

      A related question is “How do you depict boredom without being boring?” I think I’ll save that one till later…

      Reply

  3. For sure! I also feel that it’s quite impossible to produce a work that is outstanding in every inch of it. I wouldn’t wish that on an artist of any kind. Mediocrities add to the work, they are in preparation and in building of the great parts.

    Reply

    • Well, it ,em>can happen, sometimes: Mozart’s Le Nozze di figaro or Cosi Fan Tutte are perfect. But it’s rare. And, more to the point, it doesn’t matter! Greatness isn’t measured in terms of jhow free from flaws a work is!

      Reply

  4. Posted by Inge on August 19, 2019 at 1:06 pm

    I assume that you have read the hilarious account of a cricket match in A.G. Macdonell’s ‘England, their England’

    Inge

    Reply

  5. Your cricketing analogy works well.

    You need an all-or-nothing approach to appreciate Test cricket. Take the example a sudden flurry of runs or wickets that brings a result to what looked a certain draw. It’s all the more is exciting in the context of what went before. I can think of few things more boring than the smash-bang-wallop of 20-20. It’s hard to disagree with the opinion that 20-20 is for people who aren’t really interested in cricket.

    With the two composers you name, an all-or-nothing approach is the only way of truly appreciating them. I have yet to identify a single boring bar of music in Parsifal or Die Walküre, but Mime’s whining in Act 1 of Siegfried really does try my patience. Yet the opera would be all the less without it. The same goes for the longueurs in Meistersinger – awful though Beckmesser’s lute songs are, they’re essential to the drama, although I don’t think the opera would suffer from cutting David’s explanation of the Masters’ rules in Act 1. I say this as someone who loves Wagner, so I’m biased, of course. Still, I always advise anyone who approaches him for the first time to treat the music as a whole rather than expect it all to be like Ride of the Valkyries, because if they do they will be disappointed. In other words, treat it as a Test match rather than 20-20. Probably it would be boring if it was all bouncing brass and Ho-jo-to-ho!

    Are there any boring bits in Mahler? Parts of 5 (third movement) and 7 (last two movements) can outstay their welcome to my ears, but I wouldn’t class them as boring.

    I defy anyone to find any boring bits in Le Nozze di Figaro, arguably the most perfect opera ever written, and I say that even though I sometimes get impatient with the recitative!

    I’ll end with what I hope is an apt quotation, and one of my favourites: “Very nice, though there are dull stretches.” Antoine de Rivarol (1753 –1801) on a two-line poem.

    Reply

    • I must confess that Mahler’s 3rd symphony, especially, seems to me to have longueurs. But then it also has those trombone solos, so I’m not complaining! And with Der Rosenkavalier, the 3rd act is often a case of “wake me up before the trio”. Yet, given a choice between listening to the whole thing and merely listening to highlights, I’d go for the whole thing every time.

      But longueurs occur in the most surprising places, I find. Even in La Traviata, while the tenor is losing his head and his baritone father tries to calm him down with that “Di Provenza” aria, I do find myself saying “Oh, do get on with it!”

      Reply

      • I’ve never seen the point of the Bimm Bamm movement in Mahler 3 – but at least it’s short and does provide a moment of relaxation between the ethereal Nietzsche song and the almost sacred final slow moment.

        With you all the way on Rosenkavalier. That’s possibly the only opera where I’m happy to stick with the highlights; unlike many operas which have a few boring bits, this one has a few interesting bits (of sublime inspiration, admittedly). I also find the story and most of the characters insufferable. I far prefer any other Strauss opera you care to name – including Guntram and Feuersnot!

      • Didn’t Staruss himself describe Capriccio as “Der Rosenkavalier without the boring bits”? 🙂

  6. Hooray for the boring bits! Where would art be without them?

    Reply

  7. PS And to anyone who says Test cricket is boring, I’ll say just two words: Ben Stokes!

    Reply

    • And I’m old enough to remember the famous “Botham test” in 1981. I was a student back then, and saw it on a small portable b&w television I had in my bedsit. And also the 2001 Kollkata test between India and Australia, where India followed on some 270 runs behind, but batted through the 4th day without losing a single wicket, got a massive score (650 odd runs), declared, and then bowled Australia out. I’m not really much of an Indian patriot, but I admit I was that day!

      Reply

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