A Seat on the Stands – A conversation with Neville Denson

“The boast of heraldy, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave”

What thoughts, if any, must the sight of these lines inscribed on Neville Denson’s wall, have moved in the minds of power hungry local politicians visiting his office?  They come from his favourite poem, Gray’s Elegy, and they are a marvellous illustration of the perspective he brought to his work as Copeland Borough Council’s first Chief Executive.

He had previously served as Clerk of Ennerdale Rural District Council, with Roy Todd as his deputy, and remembers with particular pleasure the atmosphere of that council.  It was possible to get on with important and necessary business, like the implementation of sewage schemes, in a spirit of co-operation.  On Copeland Council he felt things affairs were riven by party political conflict, which he regretted.

Not that the management of councils was his first ambition.  He has as a boy dreamed of becoming a journalist, and could have imagined nothing more satisfying than being paid to sit at Old Trafford cricket ground in the summer and Old Trafford football stadium in the winter and write reports on the matches that were played there.  It was his mother who brought home a sense of realism when she warned that it would not start like that and that his first job would be purely menial, filling ink wells, in the days long before reporters had computers.  Not relishing that prospect, he moved into local government, and what did he find himself doing?  Filling ink wells!

In a way it did not matter, because to Neville there was always something more important than work, whether as office boy or chief executive.  His delight in cricket is evident in the copies of Wisden that line the walls of his study, and he is sad that Lancashire waited till he had given up his membership of the club before winning the county championship.  In his day he was no mean cricketer himself,  having played for Woodhouses CC, the same club as Michael Atherton, though  not, he hastened to add, at the same time or with the same distinction.  Even deeper is love of books, particularly poetry.  That gives him a seat in the stands above the fray of the cricket match or the political debate.  He loves the poems of John Betjeman, and shares with him a relish of irony, which the judicious use of rhyme can bring home so effectively.

A lovely example of the effectiveness of his own use of rhyme to puncture human vanity is his own poem, ‘Panache on the Prom':


“He strode along the prom with style,
The wind lashed at his rugged face,
It whipped and stung him all the while,
Yet not a hair was out of place.  

Once down the prom and back again
His huge frame leaned into the gale,
His sun-tanned skin repelled the rain,
Tight hair defied the Beaufort scale.

He sauntered from this seaside terror,
Slid in the low-down, sleek coupé,
Glanced smugly in his rear view mirror –
He’d been test driving a toupee.”


He has also partly fulfilled his boyhood ambition by having a number of witty articles published in The Guardian, a paper which he has cherished since its days as The Manchester Guardian. The articles include a satirical view of dentistry, “All Right on the Bite”, and he has also written a yet unpublished novel.    He brought a rich and cheerful experience of life into his public work, and renews and develops that experience in his retirement.


Oh, by the way –


Just after our report on the distinguished career of Copeland’s former Chief Executive, Neville Denson, featuring his love of cricket and poetry, had been printed we received the following email from him:

“Gweneth expressed her surprise on reading your piece to find no reference to the Ronnie Corbett reading because she knows how proud I was, not to have him reading my work, but for it to be read before such a distinguished congregation in an even more distinguished setting. And I would have known nothing about it but for friends who’d seen a report – one in the D.Telegraph & one in The Times – & got in touch. I was away on holiday at the time & was amazed when they sent me the cuttings. The event, by the way, was a service of thanksgiving for the life of Colin Ingleby-McKenzie, captain of Hampshire & head boy of Eton – in his day.

I’ve attached a copy of the appropriate page from the order of service which will tell you what the verse was. I heard nothing from Ronnie Corbett or his agent & can only assume he picked the verse up from a book called ‘A Breathless Hush…’The MCC anthology of cricket verse. So there Iam, amongst some of the greats…There are poems by John Betjeman, Ted Hughes, John Masefield, G.K.Chesterton, A.A.Milne, Lord Byron, William Wordsworth etc., etc. I was fortunate enough to go to the launch in the Long Room at Lords. What a thrill & what an honour!”

Although it is true that life is not a rehearsal and gives us no chance to correct mistakes, websites come to our aid when we make glaring omissions in publications.

His very fine poem thoroughly deserves its place in “A Breathless Hush”, and deserves to be quoted in full:

Cricketing Compassion

by Neville Denson


He runs the village pub, at drink
And food works long and hard
Yet every Wednesday in the nets
He comes and takes his guard;
He turns his arm a time or two
He’ll chase balls wide and far,
Then back he’ll go at nine o’clock
To ‘keep’ behind the bar.
He’s way down in the averages He’s slower in the field,
He would have been out-leg before If someone had appealed
But everyone took pity on
This ageing number seven
Though on his form he wouldn’t make An under-nines’ eleven.
His bowling was atrocious He couldn’t hit the sticks
He’d sixteen no-balls, fourteen wides And none for ninety-six.
But everyone took pity on
This ageing man of spin,
And said that dropping him would be A shame, a crime, a sin.
Such is the heart of cricketers, Compassion won the day;
We’ll nurse him till his form returns Oh yes, and by! the way,
Our feelings are not influenced By the fact – let’s make it clear –
That after games he treats both te&ms To dinner and free beer.

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