Managing editor Matt Thacker makes his selection from the Spring 2023 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 chosen Richard Beard’s
essay on one of the shortest books ever written..
Richard Beard likes playing – with words, with form, with opening bowlers. And he also won the PEN Ackerley prize for memoir in 2018 for the extraordinary and heart-breaking The Day That Went Missing. When he told me he had come into possession of a 250-word book about a catch the playwright Harold Pinter once took and that he wanted to write about it, I knew it would be a bit different. And when it came in, I was blown away. It’s brilliant.
Matt Thacker, Autumn 2023
Catch me if you can
Richard Beard savours every word
In 2003, a short book, a very short book, was published by Evergreen Press entitled The Catch. The book’s only reviewer Stephen Moss, in Bodyline Books: Catalogue of Cricket Literature, says it took him about a minute and a half to read. I’m not sure what took him so long. The main body of text amounts to 266 words, all of which I intend to quote in this piece, with additional commentary on the pauses: The Catch is a correspondence between “Alan Wilkinson” and playwright Harold Pinter.
As background, Pinter once took a slip catch while playing for the Gaieties Cricket Club. This event may have been notable in itself. Captain from 1972, chair until his death in 2008, the non-bowling Pinter’s highest recorded score for his wandering Sunday side was 39 runs. His catch, however, or this particular catch, he elevated to legendary status. He encouraged his friends to say: “Now, Harold, talk me through that catch,” and was quick to spread news of a letter in which his correspondent had never seen “a better catch at any level of cricket”.
For Pinter, the subject of this book isn’t the catch. It’s the Catch.
In his plays, from The Room in 1957 to Celebration in 2000, Pinter’s stage characters cherish their personal myths, and there’s no more Pinteresque character in Pinter than Harold Pinter on the cricket pitch. His dreams have not come true – his hero: Len Hutton; his highest score: 39 – but he dreams them nonetheless, while honing a curt line in dialogue for his fellow close fielders. The actor Stephen Mangan, making his debut for the Gaieties, remembers encouraging the opening bowler after the first ball of the match, to be asked by Pinter: “Are you going to do that all day?”
The Catch, which Moss called “a strange, unclassifiable artefact”, was printed in limited editions. I’ve recently come into possession of 416/500 of the Standard edition, and inside the outfield-green covers are 20 unnumbered pages of high-quality paper the cream-colour of classic cricket flannels. The book is a series of questions and answers – “Wilkinson’s” questions in italics, Pinter’s answers in bold:
Who was the bowler when you made that catch?
The bowler – Ossie Gooding.
“Alan Wilkinson” seeks, above all, to preserve an accurate record of Pinter’s cricketing miracle, and in a brief letter included at the end of the book Pinter admits that initially he misremembered the bowler. “It was not Clive Senior but Ossie Gooding. Ossie was very fast in those days.”
Of course he was. I’ll return to Ossie Gooding, but Pinter’s end-pages letter also recalls the location: Stokesley CC in north Yorkshire, where the London-based Gaieties used to tour. In the main text “Wilkinson” doesn’t consider it important to ask where the catch happened, and in terms of the memory he’s right. The catch was taken at Stokesley, but also and always on any green pitch in the fondly sunlit region of an English summer.
Who was the batsman?
Opposition number 3.
The dialogue interrogates the detail, and details famously matter to Pinter’s stage characters (to Pinter) as they do inside most cricket-mad, cricket-maddened minds. Pinter’s catch was significant in the context of the match, as any regular player will recognise. He snaffled his catch off the edge of the opposition’s best batter. This is the cricketing subtext, and Pinter had a deep and genuine love for both subtext and cricket. When his personal letters were archived after his death, his earliest correspondence was found to be largely undated. The pre-1960 letters, however, could be placed by their many references to first-class cricket matches.
How fast was the ball travelling?
It probably was. The bowler Ossie Gooding was rumoured to have been a Barbados Colt and once played second XI cricket for Hampshire. In his later years he turned out for the Gaieties, among other nomadic clubs, and against the top order of a Yorkshire league team he may well have been bowling quick. In fact Ossie was the most valuable of ringers – a high-class player who knew when his class was required, which wasn’t always, and it seems Ossie could apply this delicate judgement equally in social situations. There’s a photo of him at a cricket lunch looking comfortable with his plate of cold buffet standing between Pinter and Salman Rushdie. Pinters, Rushers and Ossie Gooding, somewhere in the post-absurd theatre of an English amateur cricket season.
Did the ball touch the batsman’s glove, or was it an outside edge?
A glove would have dulled the speed, while off a genuine edge there’s no such thing as an easy slip catch. Did Pinter mention the ball was travelling?
How many slip fielders were there when you made that catch?
The detail is not in doubt: it permanently fixes the event to the memory to the
legend. After each clipped response Pinter also implies a pause, I feel, as frequent in
his writing as in a cricket match: the pauses between balls, between overs. The
pause of the bowler after marking out a run-up, and of the batter before re-setting a
stance. Pauses for lunch and tea, and for the weather; cricket’s many insistent
pauses for reflection.
Were you first or second slip?
I was second slip.
One of today’s specialist amateur ringers, a twenty-first century version of Ossie Gooding, once told me that the most competent slipper should stand on the outside of the cordon, last catcher along. On the other hand, in Sunday cricket the most senior player traditionally has the privilege of first slip, largely safe from the action. As club captain and future Nobel Laureate, Pinter made the decision to place himself at second, the more heroic of the day’s two slips. There was life in the old dog yet.
Was it your favourite fielding position?
Pinter was prepared to make sacrifices, for the team. His favourite fielding position has never been divulged.
Did the wicket-keeper and/or the other slip fielder also lunge at the ball?
The moment is all about Pinter. Other fielders had nothing to do with it, and Pinter’s impatience with this line of questioning begins to make itself felt. He wants to progress to the catch. There he was, crouched at slip, knees aching, hands cupped, waiting for his opportunity. Here it comes, and Pinter at second slip is ready.
Did you dive for the ball and fall to the ground as you caught it, or did you catch it standing up?
I dived, caught it, fell.
Here it is, a cricketing memory that will not fade, available ever after in a loop like Pinter’s famous cricket poem. I saw Len Hutton in his prime/ Another time/ Another time. This catch too is both past and present, repeatable “another time” and another, remembered at will as a reliable source of strong emotion, no less precious because the strong emotion is based on cricket.
Pinter dived, he caught the ball, he fell. Again. He dived, he caught the ball, he fell. “I’ve never seen a better catch at any level of cricket.” I did that, he thought, me, Harold Pinter did that.
How close to the ground was the ball when you caught it?
Was it a one-handed catch?
The best and most unlikely catches are one-handed. It’s the only way to be at full- stretch, whereas the double-handed catch suggests a further effort of athleticism was possible, but not on this occasion necessary. Diving, close to the ground, one-handed, “Alan Wilkinson” invites Pinter to relive the detailed excellence of his catch. “Alan” is bowling dollies, he’s tossing up pies, and the question/answer form is a good fit for a cricket book, echoing the interaction between bowler and batter, batter and fielder, back to the bowler.
Did the ball remain firmly in your hand?
Ball firmly in right hand.
But who is this mysterious “Alan Wilkinson”? In his review Stephen Moss was sceptical: “Why do I have a sudden pang of doubt as to whether this person really exists?”
How many overs had been bowled with that ball before you caught it?
The ball is new, hard, the tactile centre of first the experience and then the memory. “Alan” is asking soft yet perfectly flighted questions, just as Pinter might do if he was choosing the prompts himself.
Was the ball slightly moist from the wet grass?
If “Alan Wilkinson” isn’t Pinter, he’s certainly a cricket lover, attuned to the significant particulars of the game. And let’s face it, cricket would be a lot less fun as a solitary pursuit. It’s a team game, and a game dependent on partnerships. Alan Wilkinson exists. I know he does. I tracked him down and sent him an email.
How many runs had the batsman made before you caught the ball?
Alan Wilkinson, like Harold Pinter, was a cricket fanatic from an early age. “I was mad about cricket in 1954–55,” he tells me, “in the Lower School of (Bishop) Ridley College, St Catherines, ONT. near Niagara Falls”. This is not a part of the world commonly associated with cricket, but in those days Ridley College was one of four private schools in southern Ontario where cricket was preferred to baseball, and Wilkinson was captain of the cricket team. He won a Len Hutton bat for the highest batting average, meaning he and Pinter shared the same cricketing hero.
Was the light good or fading?
The light was good, the light of incorruptibly pleasant memory. Wilkinson and Pinter came into sporting contact, as far as I can make out, through tennis with Lady Antonia Fraser, but neither of them want to distract from the cricket. Not now. Not when it comes to the book, the catch, the catch.
Was the batsman in any doubt that he was out?
Batsman in no doubt that he was out.
Pinter confirms the basic facts, for posterity. The fairness of his catch was undeniable and with cricket, right and wrong remains in play as surely as in and out. These are the big subjects of literature, and although by profession Wilkinson is a retired art historian, he tells me that of all his publications – on Moore, Hepworth and others – his favourite among his books is The Catch.
How many spectators saw you make that catch?
Cricket on Sundays is rarely heroic, worthy of the public record. To be honest it’s more often mock-heroic, and Pinter’s solemn deadpan becomes increasingly funny. After his death, A Tribute to Harold Pinter was staged in the Long Room at Lord’s, and The Catch was performed by the actors Jeremy Irons and Samuel West in the style of a Pinter two-hander. Of all the performances on the night, Alan Wilkinson writes, “The Catch got the most laughs”.
Was the catch a turning point?
As in a Pinter play, a moment that appears ephemeral is in fact enduring, no matter how many people were watching or where it took place. This kind of realisation – creeping up on the audience if not the characters themselves – is what I understand by “Pinteresque”, though the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan defined Pinter by his “gratuitous obscurity”. Which brings us back to cricket.
Did you win the match?
We won match.
Is winning a cricket match important? It helps, even on Sundays. To most of the country’s recreational players, Sunday cricket is cricket.
Did anyone capture your catch on film?
Without audio-visual evidence the memory remains pure, a treasure of the inner life. Perhaps the catch didn’t happen exactly as represented in The Catch – the bowler was not Ossie Gooding and the batter was a tail-ender and the ball was slow and gloved to Pinter alone at slip, a position he loved, though the wicket-keeper lunged as he caught the ball high up with both hands, fumbling it slightly, a soft ball many overs old and wet from being hit into the long grass by a well-set batter who in fading light disputed the catch and was booed by a decent crowd even though Pinter’s catch didn’t change the match which was lost.
Though this wasn’t how Pinter remembered it.
Did anyone “google”?
Not a soul googled. But all fielding side applauded & 1st slip said: “Great Catch!”
Alan Wilkinson’s final question, which finds Pinter at his most loquacious, requires some explaining. In those 2003 pre-Google days, Wilkinson’s playful “google” came from a cricket-based entendre in Pinter’s 1975 “memory play” No Man’s Land. This is arguably the most cricket of his plays, because the four characters are given the names of first-class Golden Age cricketers – Hirst (Yorkshire), Spooner (Lancashire), Foster (Warwickshire) and Briggs (Lancashire) – and they spend their time on stage, not unlike amateur cricketers, swapping “questionable reminiscences” (I Googled).
Pinter’s reply – “not a soul googled” – means, I think, that this was a straight catch taken seriously. No messing about. It was a great catch worthy of the memory and of the written record, a sharp chance on a cricket field that stuck in high summer, the ball dry and the light good, a catch that diving, falling, one-handed, sticks always inches above the ground.
Cricket provides equivalent memories to each and every one of us who has taken our place on the field, and each and every one of these exploits deserves its own short book. If only someone could be encouraged to ask.
The Catch is copyright Harold Pinter and Alan Wilkinson, 2003.