Managing Editor Matt Thacker makes his selection from the Autumn 2017 issue. We publish one article from each edition on the website, but you can see the rest if you subscribe or buy a single issue or four-issue bundle. Matt has opted for Simon Barnes’ piece on the genius of John Arlott.
When we sent out word that we were producing a Test Match Special issue of the Nightwatchman to mark its 60 years, the response was astounding. And the name that kept coming up was Arlott’s. Simon was one of those who wanted to write about him and I had no hesitation in giving him the nod, pretty sure we’d be in for a treat. I was not mistaken.
Matt Thacker, September 2017
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The conscience of cricket
Simon Barnes on the Basingstoke Boy who knew the difference between life and sport
A childhood memory: the smell of fresh-cut grass, heady as a drug. Sun, so bright the world went pink when you closed your eyes. The rattling of an unengined lawnmower, silent between shoves as the mowing man watched narrowly the dancing motes of grasshalms. And in those rhythmic silences a voice.
It seemed to be the voice of the cut grass.
It was John Arlott’s voice, as much a part of summer as the swallow, and as welcome. I knew that then, whenever it was, for the memory of time and place has long gone. It was almost a promise: of what summers would bring me when I was of an age to appreciate them.
And the time came and the promise was fulfilled. Summer, cricket, the endless tension, the disappointments, the rare times of success, the white figures on the green fresh-cut grass as I attended county matches at Edgbaston with my grandfather, the monochrome gavotte on television.
His name was Irwin Ferry. Glasses, a moustache, rather prominent teeth, at which I was trying not to stare. He was the executive editor of Surrey and South London Newspapers, and he asked me, as if aware that the question revealed his own brilliance: “What is your fantasy of yourself as a journalist?”
“I’d like to be John Arlott.”
I had never for one second considered being a sportswriter of any kind. Why was my mouth saying these words, then? And surely they weren’t words Irwin Ferry wanted to hear. So I told him I really wanted to be a war correspondent.
Not true, that last bit, but it was the right answer. Anyway, he gave me the job. A couple of years later I shifted to the Redhill sports desk, so I could try out the John Arlott scenario, at least to an extent.
At the time, what I loved most in Arlott’s work was the bravura quip, the perfectly evolved witticism that celebrated both the scene described and the person doing the describing. These set-pieces are much quoted, the umpire signalling a bye – presumably a slip for leg-bye – “with the air of weary stork”; Clive Lloyd hitting the ball “like a man knocking off a thistle-top with a walking-stick”; Asif Masood running up to bowl “like Groucho Marx chasing a pretty waitress.”
Some people said these extravagant little masterpieces weren’t entirely spontaneous, that Arlott saved up good lines for later use. That never worried me: preparation seldom harms a piece of work. We all rehearse our ad-libs, and some of us are better at it than others.
That’s just professionalism. Professionalism is minimum standards, basic stuff, never praise anyone for professionalism. The point about professionalism is that it allows you to make the most of the talents you possess. So that was a useful lesson: one of many.
Tell me, did Arlott ever say: “That ball went through Boycott’s defence like a bullet through a hole in a Henry Moore?” Or was that some one else’s pastiche? Either way it’s pretty good – but Arlott went a good way beyond these almost showy-offy bits of imagery. He was on commentary when David Gower faced his first ball in Test cricket. It was bowled by Liaqat Ali and Gower insouciantly cracked it for four.
“Oh, what a princely entry!”
Gower wasn’t the only one who nailed it at that instant of time: with that single adjective, Arlott did the same. Could anything else have caught Gower’s nature so perfectly? That presence, that languid air of being above and beyond the stuff that troubles the rest of us, that immense if slightly embarrassed awareness of his own talent: all caught in the one phrase. It was as if Arlott knew what Gower would go on to be.
Much earlier, before I was born, the young Arlott, aged just 34, was on commentary when Don Bradman played his last innings in Test cricket. And was out, of course, second ball. You’re probably familiar with the gist of what Arlott said, but here it is in full.
“I wonder if you see a ball very clearly in your last Test in England, on a ground where you’ve played some of your biggest cricket in your life, and where the opposing side has just stood round and given you three cheers, and the crowd has clapped you all the way to the wicket. I wonder if you really see the ball at all.”
I’d be pretty damn pleased with that if I’d written those two sentences and polished them up in the course of the day before delivering it to my newspaper at stumps. To catch a great sporting moment with such perfection, and to do it in the very instant of its passing, is genius, nothing less. And not a showy-offy word in it. Reticence and understatement were also aspects of Arlott’s talent.
Add to it the voice. Which is more complicated than it first seems. Arlott’s voice in his earlier radio-work was still strong with the accent of Hampshire: but it was sharper, edgier, more a townie voice than the rich, rolling, vinous, bucolic voice that it became in maturity.
How beautiful that voice was. It’s my contention that Arlott was a broadcaster of genius – and also a very decent writer. His writing always reads better than the bare words he wrote, because we can’t help but read it in Arlott’s voice.
The voice gave meaning to the most ordinary passages of play. “He turns again, runs past umpire Fagg, bowls a slightly quicker one – and the ball goes through to wicket-keeper Knott. No run.” As you read that to yourself with Arlott’s voice echoing in your mind, the words become frozen, a stolen moment of perfect beauty, standing out of time like a great haiku… but read them with my or even your voice (unless Mikey Holding is reading this) and it’s, well, nothing special.
But that voice was more than just a pleasant evocation of tumbling grasshalms. It was also defiance. It was a declaration that Arlott was not a man of privilege – and more importantly, he wasn’t trying to be or pretending to be. He wasn’t part of the club; and crucially, he had no wish to be considered for membership.
Hard to explain what that means these days. We are more egalitarian now, at least on the surface. When Arlott first started broadcasting it was customary for commentators – and practically everyone else in public life – to imitate the accent taught in the public schools. “Game, set and metch,” as Dan Maskell – incomparable tennis commentator, born Fulham, educated Everington Street School – used to say.
Arlott did no such thing. He was born in Basingstoke, you have a problem with that? He called his autobiography Basingstoke Boy. He was a copper for 12 years, reaching the rank of sergeant. And when a mixture of circumstances and talent brought him into broadcasting, he was damned if he was going to pretend to be someone or something he wasn’t.
Such stubbornness reminds me of my grandfather. He too was jumped-up, he too was unashamed of it, he too had a firm moral view of the way life should be conducted, he too was a churchgoer, he too had an instinctive dislike of those who presume on privilege, he too was politically to the left, he too loved cricket – and in the same sort of way.
There was, it often seemed, a match being played out in the commentary box as well as on the sward beneath. It was represented by Arlott and his values on the one hand, and by Brian Johnston on the other. Johnston was another brilliant broadcaster, but he represented a different moral universe.
Johnston acted his silly-ass persona with great élan: life was wonderful, cricket was wonderful and nothing else in the world mattered. “Mr Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale,” wrote Evelyn Waugh, a line carried for years on the Penguin editions of PG Wodehouse. Johnston’s commentaries took us all back to Blandings Castle, to Bertie’s London flat… and perhaps also to Nazi Berlin. That was where Wodehouse gave his infamous wartime broadcasts. There was a sinister side to Johnston, as there is to all clowns. They have nowhere to go when things get serious.
We need not go through the entire D’Oliveira story again: just remember that it was Arlott that D’Oliveira approached when looking for a chance to play cricket outside apartheid South Africa, and Arlott who got him fixed up. And as the whole business of South Africa and cricket hotted up, the Wodehouse tendency saw nothing wrong with apartheid. After all, privilege was their stock-in-trade.
Arlott thought otherwise. He declined to work for the BBC commentary during South Africa’s coming tour of England, and wrote in favour of its cancellation. Many believed this was letting the side down. An act of disloyalty, treachery even. Spoiling things for the idyllic world of cricket. Which was all that mattered.
“What do you think about the South African tour?” my grandfather asked me innocently.
“Well, I’m very much against it, I’m afraid.”
“So am I! I’m so glad you agree…”
The tour never took place of course. Before it could do so, South Africa refused to play against an England cricket team that included D’Oliveira. South Africa had been forced into the open, and many people regretted the fact that this happened. Cricket mattered, you see, cricket mattered far more than apartheid. Many people were pretty angry with Arlott. He had, you see, let the side down.
Arlott had no compunction about letting the side down, not if he believed the side was morally wrong. He wasn’t part of the side anyway. He was an outsider, a Basingstoke Boy. He valued his friendships with Dylan Thomas and John Betjeman, and had no ambition to be taken for a member of the elite. He didn’t crave acceptance from the people who wore meaningful ties. He wanted to do what was right.
His rolling voice was cricket’s conscience, and like most consciences, it was bitterly resented, and deaf ears were turned to it whenever possible. “They’re doing a wonderful job in the townships,” his co-commentators would say, for years afterwards, never for a second suggesting that a system that established and maintained townships might be open to question.
“We take life too lightly and sport too seriously,” Arlott once said. Perhaps he was thinking of his colleagues as he did so.
If sport matters, it matters because it doesn’t really matter at all. That’s a notion I have grappled with in many years of writing about sport. I learned it from listening to Arlott’s commentaries, not because he spelt out this truth, but because everything in his world view and the way he expressed it made that uncompromisingly clear.
There won’t be another Arlott. They wouldn’t let him through the door these days. The commentary boxes are reserved for those who played the game at a high level. You want to be a commentator? Show us yer medals. We have found the answer to CLR James’s overwhelming question: those who only cricket know can, apparently, tell us everything we could ever want to know. Some do this extremely well.
But these days all sports tend to be presented without perspective, without irony, and mostly without humour, save that of the changing-room variety. Everything you watch is the most important thing that ever happened in the history of the universe. No one is going to suggest that a batsman played a stroke “like an old lady poking her umbrella at a wasp’s nest.”
Behind the stately humour there was a terrible sadness about Arlott. He knew that life was no idyll. He knew that we all have to face terrible things in the course of our lives. The death of his son, at the age of 21, meant that forever after, life was more a thing to be endured than to be enjoyed. But cricket always helped with the enduring, and so did a glass of wine.
I didn’t fulfil my brief fantasy of being John Arlott, but I got to write of cricket and other big-time sports – and I attempted to do it with humanity and generosity and irony and perspective and intelligence. And a little humour. Both my grandfather and Arlott were important influences in that ambition.
I never met Arlott, alas. We narrowly failed to overlap. By the time I was covering big cricket he had retired to Alderney. By the time I was honorary president of the Alderney Bird Observatory, Arlott was long dead. I have never acquired taste for those tanniny clarets that Arlott loved – they seem to me to taste of old lead pencils – but all the same, how fine it would have been to be on Alderney and receive the phone call that his occasional neighbour Ian Botham took so many times: “Come round. And bring your thirst.”
I spoke to him once on the telephone; I was just beginning, and was writing a piece about commentators at the time. Arlott cut short my explanations: he had read me, he said, and added a couple of generous words, the sort of thing that you treasure more than any award.
And we talked of sport and commentary and so forth. We discussed his influence, his legacy, the barriers he broke down, the sense of style and meaning he was able to give to the trivial business of sport. And then I asked – journalists ask that sort of question – if there was anything about his legacy he regretted.
“Oh yes. Plenty.” “For example?”
“All that shouting. It’s not really all that exciting, is it?”
* * *
Issue 19 of The Nightwatchman, is available to order in both print and digital formats.