The first faint intimations of this year’s cricket season have started to appear. The Wisden Cricketer have sent me a calendar, featuring “some of the U.K.’s loveliest cricket grounds” (including a couple – Sidmouth and Bourneville – I’ve visited).
Leicestershire have sent me last year’s annual report and financial statements – “The club has had what can only be described as a disastrous financial year …” – and the agenda for the A.G.M.. The main item is to “increase the age limit of a director from 70 to 80”.
But it is these little signs of life that keep us trudging on hopefully through the winter gloom.
E.V. Lucas put it nicely in his 1909 essay “Winter Solace”:
“During the snowstorm in which I write these lines the unlikelihood of the sun ever shining again on my flannelled limbs is peculiarly emphatic. It is a nightmare that pursues me through every autumn, winter, and early spring. How can there be another season? one asks one’s self; just as years ago, a fortnight before the holidays, one was convinced that the end of the world must intervene. The difference between the child and the middle-aged man merely is that the child expects the end of the world – the man the end of himself.”
This is no exaggeration – the fear of dying in the close season is a well founded one. At the beginning of every season at the county ground there is usually one familiar face missing, and, at the end, some of those who wish each other “winter well” know that they will not live to see the Spring.
The same appears to be true of more celebrated lovers of the game. The following all handed in their dinner pails in the dead of winter:
John Arlott – 4th December
Brian Johnston – 5th January
E.W. Swanton – 22nd January
Neville Cardus – 28th February
On a brighter note, E.H.D. Sewell dedicated his last book “Well hit! Sir” (1946) to “Professor de Wesselow and all the doctors and … Sisters and Nursing Staff of St Thomas’ Hospital who had charge of my case, without whom …” and, in it, said “if I am destined to see Donnelly scoring almost at will for Middlesex in 1947 I shall drink in the savour with as keen a relish as anybody”. He was not destined to see Donnelly, who did not play for Middlesex in 1947, but he did live to see the classic and glorious season of Compton and Edrich. He expired – presumably a happy man – on the 20th of September, three days after seeing Middlesex, as Champion County, defeat a Rest XI by an innings, with a century from Edrich and a double from Compton.
On a much darker one, R.C. Robertson-Glasgow cut his throat in a snowstorm on the 4th of March (if only he could have held out for another month …).
And then there’s Alan Gibson. Gibson died on the 10th of April 1997, the first day of that season (if you count University matches). But it’s doubtful how much interest he was taking by that stage.
He too had once found the thought of a new season an incentive to pull himself out of a deep Slough of Despond. In 1985 he had, according his son Anthony* drunk himself into the Bristol Royal Infirmary (at the rate of at least a bottle of whisky a day) and from there to “a hospital at Ham Green, which specialised in treating alcoholics on their last legs, as Alan was presumed to be.” He perked up enough to write a piece, unpublished at the time, which begins –
“Christmas in hospital (this was my fourth) is always a bit of a struggle … The most relaxed of my four Christmases was in a mental home: a case, I suppose, of sancta simplicitas.”
but moves on to regret that he had not received a game of OWZTHAT in his Christmas stocking and ends –
“For I am confident of being at the Bristol ground next summer and probably even more at Taunton and an assortment of other places as well. When I came into hospital, I was quite unable to walk, even to rise from a chair. But you should have seen me, after a week or two, dashing down the ward on my trusty zimmer. On Christmas Eve I graduated to a stick; muttering proudly to myself, OWZTHAT?”
The moral being, I suppose, don’t lose interest in cricket and go easy on the whisky.
* Quotations from “Of Didcot and the Demon”, a collection of Gibson’s writings with reminiscences from Anthony Gibson, published last year by Fairfield Books (available here).