“It Is The Electric Chair For You, My Boy” : England Skipper In Near Death Experience

Your correspondent must admit to feeling a little under the weather *sniff* at the moment (and what bloody awful weather to be under).  But what better way to raise the spirits and blow away those Winter Blues than another gallivant down memory lane with Lionel, Lord Tennyson?  (“Almost anything” – the Plain People of Leicestershire.)

Tennyson was remarkably prone to what we would now call “gaffes” and unfortunate misunderstandings.  For instance, according to Jeremy Malies “at a fancy-dress ball in the 1920s, having won the booby prize of a pumpkin for his representation of Judge Jeffreys of ‘The Bloody Assizes’, he threw his trophy at Sir Home Gordon, missed, and knocked the Mayoress of Folkestone out cold” and “at the height of the Spanish Civil War he nearly caused a riot in Gibraltar by wearing an MCC tie, its colour scheme being an exact match of the Spanish Royalist flag.”

But his most serious – and potentially life-threatening – misunderstandings tended to involve him finding himself – quite innocently – in what might have appeared – to the suspiciously inclined – to have been compromising situations with other men’s wives.  (We have already seen how one such misunderstanding led to him having to make a hasty exit down a rose trellis during a pre-War tour of South Africa.)

This anecdote is from his account of a trip to America, from which he managed to return with a wife of his own (his second), pictured with him here aboard s.s. Empress of Great Britain in 1938

With my reputation?

With my reputation?

“From Lake Forest I went to another smaller town in the neighbourhood which, for reasons which will be appreciated, I will not name.  During my stay in it I had a rather startling adventure, which, I insist, was through no fault of my own.  I had first met the beautiful lady I am going to write about at Palm Beach where she was on a visit.  There I often went out and danced with her.  Having heard that I was staying in the region of her home, she invited me to go and see her.  Her husband, I must mention, was a business man in Chicago and away at his office practically all and every day.  My last morning in the neighbourhood this gentleman, who had stayed at home instead of going to business as usual, suddenly made his appearance as I had come to make my adieux and without the slightest warning pointed a revolver at my head.

“Get out of here,” he bellowed, “What the hell do you mean by playing around with my wife?” His face was purple.  His eyes were red with rage (or, as I afterwards discovered, excess of alcohol had something to do with it) and his finger trembled on the trigger as the muzzle waved up and down about four yards from my head.  The lady shrieked and fainted and I, after a second or two of stupefaction, exclaimed “What the hell do you mean?”

“I have heard all about your doings in Palm Beach,” yelled the infuriated man, paying no heed to his insensible wife. “Your last hour has come: I am going to shoot you dead.”

“Don’t be so damned ridiculous,” was the best answer I could think of.

“I am,” hissed he, “so prepare to meet your God!”

“Well then,” replied I, opening my coat and hoping the revolver was not loaded, “if you are determined to shoot, shoot here,” and forthwith I pointed at my heart. “Make a clean job of it, and if I understand the laws of your country it is the electric chair for you, my boy.”

The madman was too far off for me to rush him and I spoke thus as a bluff, trying to look as cool as possible, though I was really far from feeling so inwardly, since he seemed quite insane and capable of anything.

There came a loud bang.  The revolver, which had been travelling in a semi-circle in his wavering hand during the conversation just described, had gone off and by an extraordinary piece of good luck had done no more damage than make a hole in the wall behind me.  The explosion seemed to sober my inebriated friend.  For a moment he stared stupidly at the barrel and then collapsed into a chair.  This was the moment for action on my part.  In a second I was at him, wrenching the weapon from his fingers and stood over him with it.  After a heated argument he rang the bell for whisky and soda, subsequently despatching half a dozen whiskies in about as many minutes.  Meanwhile his wife had recovered from her swoon and was screaming and praying, so it was not much good trying to make a formal adieux to either of them.  Being due to play a round of golf, I left the house without any more words, thankful for such an extraordinary escape.  Strangely enough I played afterwards the best round of my life.  That just shows you, as I have already remarked, what a queer game golf is.”

A queer game indeed.  Once again, I feel I must ask whether if – say – Ian Bell were to find himself in such tricky circumstances he would conduct himself with such admirable sang-froid?  I’m not sure that we could.

Future England Captain In Assault On Man Of The Century

This week saw the 48th anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill (the first public event I think I can remember).  One aspect of Sir Winston’s character that is seldom remarked upon is his love of cricket, mainly, I think, because he had none.

Stanley Baldwin was married to a useful cricketer, sometimes sported an I Zingari tie and liked to employ cricket as a metaphor for his own (in retrospect) benign brand of conservatism: ‘Lord’s changes but Lord’s remains the same’  he said poetically ‘how unchanging is each phase of the ever changing game.’  On the other side of the House, Clement Attlee (supposedly) kept a tickertape machine in his office so that he could keep up with the cricket scores and was complimented (well, I’d say it’s a compliment) by Aneurin Bevan on bringing to ‘the fierce struggle of politics the tepid enthusiasm of a lazy summer afternoon at a cricket match‘.

But (though I’m willing to be contradicted) I can find no evidence that Churchill ever expressed any enthusiasm for the game, ever employed it as a metaphor or even attended a game. Why was this?

Well, he clearly got off on the wrong foot in relation to the game. (Is that a cricketing metaphor, by the way? I’m not sure.)  As a schoolboy at Harrow he fagged for both F.S. Jackson and the (always ‘autocratic’) A.C. MacLaren who, when asked by an interviewer what Churchill had been like, replied “a snotty little bugger”.  There are also (unsourced) claims on the internet that one of his earliest memories was of hiding behind a tree while the other boys threw cricket balls at him.

But even after this prejudicial start I believe the Great Man might have come to appreciate the Great Game had it not been for a later incident involving a third Future England Captain, which may well have been enough to put him off for life, or even end it.  Step forward Lionel Tennyson, in another extract from ‘Sticky Wickets‘.

“One friend of mine at Eton was Duff Cooper, who later became Under Secretary for War and our Ambassador in Paris, and husband of the beautiful Lady Diana Manners.  They and I and other Eton friends and their sisters were more than once guests together at Taplow Court, the home on the bank of the Thames of the late Lord Desborough.  Those were happy days and they give me another link with then and now.

One lovely summer evening during the session of Parliament, Mr. Winston Churchill had come down from London still attired in what was then – as in contrast with now – the usual Parliamentary costume.  He wore a top hat, frock coat, stiff shirt and collar.  Standing on the bank of the Thames, which runs past the foot of the garden, before the dressing bell rang, Mr. Churchill was talking to Lady Desborough.  The sight of him orating and gesticulating in those clothes so near to the water was too great a temptation for us to resist.  Charging altogether from behind him, a few of us sent him flying with a mighty splash into the river.

He was very sporting about it.  When he came ashore, soaked and without his hat, he interceded for us with Lady Desborough in an address which I have never heard excelled for humour and the arts of advocacy.”

A good job Churchill could swim, of course, otherwise – thanks to Tennyson – we might all be speaking German now.

Some Incidents In The Life Of Lionel, Lord Tennyson : In Earliest Youth

Time, I think, for another excerpt from Lionel, Lord Tennyson’s second autobiography ‘Sticky Wickets‘.

For those who aren’t familiar with this Tennyson, he captained (‘Happy’) Hampshire between 1919 and 1932 and played nine times for England (three times as Captain). He is probably best remembered for taking on the fearsome Gregory and MacDonald (literally) single-handedly at Headingley in 1921

Lord Tennyson

(scoring 63 and 36) and the match against Warwickshire in 1922 when Hampshire were bowled out for 15 in the first innings but went on to win by 155 runs (thus winning a £10 bet he’d made with the Warwickshire skipper Freddie Calthorpe).

He was also the Grandson of the great Victorian Laureate. This was both a source of pride (he once bet the fellows in his club that his Grandfather had written Hiawatha) and something of a burden.  Although in other respects they were quite unalike, like Lytton Strachey he chafed at the bonds of Victorian respectability. In ‘Sticky Wickets’ he describes the atmosphere in which he was brought up by his own Father, Hallam, and how he, at a very early age, first managed to land himself in the soup.

“It was an atmosphere of veneration, indeed, that was almost religious, and anything that tended even in the slightest degree to impair it he visited with the severest disfavour.  His observations frequently began with the words “My father said” or “My father thought”.  In fact, he seemed to refer all questions of importance to that past oracle, so mighty in its own day, and may be said never to have wholly emerged from the Victorian age.

Such devotion, like all things on earth, had its opposite and inconvenient side.  My father never realized, I feel sure, that it was impossible for the Farringford tradition to be preserved for ever without change, or that, so far from exercising much restraining influence on myself, it rather tended, by the law of contrariety, to emphasize my natural aversion to a highly solemn view of life.

My grandfather, however much I may sometimes have suffered on his account, was a great Englishman, and not altogether so solemn, I fancy, as some people believe.  Certainly he could crack a bottle, and tell a good story after dinner almost to the last day of his life.

Only one incident of my association with him survives the passage of years, and that one an occasion on which, regrettably enough, I disgraced myself.

At that time the phonograph, an early form of the gramophone, had just been invented by Mr Edison, the great American. who died in 1931, and he had sent, as a present, one of the instruments to Farringford.  On receipt of this gift, and for the interest and edification of posterity, the Laureate was persuaded to make some records by reciting a few of his poems.

One must reconstruct the scene more or less from imagination – the family circle gathered in the room where the experiment was to take place – my father, grave, filial and attentive – my mother, bright, eager, active and anxious to help the old poet in every way, for she was a great favourite of his – my grandmother assisted thither from her invalid couch – and lastly myself, aged about two years.  For – and this was the reason for my presence – it was thought only right that I should be there, if only to be able to say in after years, whether the experience stuck in my mind or not, that I had been one of that select audience which heard the great poet declaim for the benefit of future ages.

Everyone in the room (one must suppose) stood hushed to attention, and then after the necessary interval of preparations came the poet’s great voice booming and rolling sonorously forth the majestic harmonies of his verse to be recorded for ever on the sensitive wax.  But even as the listeners waited entranced, and his organ voice went rolling on, suddenly the whole thing was brought to a disastrous close – by me.

I had emitted some infantile noise that entirely ruined the record.

Though I have not actually heard it myself, I believe this record is now in the British Museum, and that my ill-timed interruption is faithfully reproduced.  Owing to some lack of care in preserving the wax-cylinders from damp, however, I am informed that both this and the other records made at the time are lamentably indistinct.”

Tennyson recorded eight poems in all, so it’s not clear which one it was that Lionel ruined.  The most famous, and the only one I can find on the internet, is this recording of The Charge of the Light Brigade.  The BBC’s Poetry: Out Loud site has this to say about the recording : The knocking halfway through remains a mystery. Perhaps Tennyson was providing his own sound effects.’

Well, perhaps.  Or perhaps what we can hear is the sound of the infant Lionel knocking his tiny bat in.

An Innocent Misunderstanding : On Tour With Lord Tennyson

All these extracts from Denis Compton’s autobiography may have given the impression that getting drunk is the only way for England cricketers to enjoy themselves on tour.  Far from it.  A little light adultery also helps to take the mind off events on the field, as this extract from Lionel, Lord Tennyson’s second autobiography ‘Sticky Wickets’  suggests.  He is writing about the 1913-14 tour of South Africa (the last before the outbreak of war, in which Tennyson served with some distinction).  I’m not sure whether the dialogue indicates that the subtitles in silent films were more realistic than is usually supposed, or that Tennyson was employing a little poetic licence.

“It was one evening when things were at their blackest that the absurd adventure occurred to which I have alluded.  The City [Johannesburg] was under Martial Law [because of a strike in the mines] and everyone required a pass to be out after 8 p.m.  Having proposed to dine with a married couple I had recently met, who lived two or three miles away in a suburb of Johannesburg, and not wishing to disappoint them, I obtained a pass and went out to their house.  I was somewhat surprised when I arrived – rather late as usual – to find the lady alone.  She explained that her husband had been called out for duty at the Mines and it had been impossible to get any other guests to meet me.  Would I mind if we were quite alone together?  Being, I trust, the essence of politeness, and as she was very good looking, I, of course, replied that though I deplored the husband’s call to duty, the prospect of an evening without him did not utterly displease me!  My hostess suitably acknowledged my compliment, we went into dinner, talked still more pleasantly together and finally felt as if we had known each other all our lives!  It was a very hot night and for greater ease I sat in my shirt sleeves, my kind hostess waving [sic] all ceremony.  Neither of us noticed, however, that time was creeping on.

Suddenly our pleasant conversation was violently interrupted by a tremendous knocking at the front door.

“Oh! My God!” cried my hostess, turning deathly pale. “We are lost.”

“Why, what on earth’s the matter?” said I, startled.

“It’s my husband,” whispered she, looking as if she was going to faint.  “You must fly – fly at once.”

“Fly!” I exclaimed. “Why?”

“Don’t linger for God’s sake,” exclaimed she.  “You don’t know how jealous he is.  You and I together at this time of night!  It would drive him mad.  And he has his revolver too.  You are a dead man if he finds you here.”

The banging at the front door continued more violently than ever and, alarmed by the lady’s distress, I hastily snatched up my hat and coat and began to look for the most suitable means of exit.

“Not that way!” said she in an agony of apprehension.  “Upstairs!  It’s your only chance.”  Upon which she half-pushed me up the staircase and opening a bedroom window at the rear of the house told me to make my way down a very unsafe looking trellis-work covered with rambler roses.  By the time I reached the ground my clothes were torn to shreds and I was bleeding from dozens of small lacerations all over my body.  In fact I had to knock up a doctor on the way back and get him to dress my wounds.  On the occasion of my next appearance on the cricket field, my fielding in the deep was greatly praised by both spectators and Press.  Their praise would have been even higher had they appreciated the physical difficulties under which it was done!”

It’s hard to picture any of the current England team getting up to these tricks, but, if the camera happens to reveal that Monty Panesar – say – is covered in small lacerations when he next takes to the field, I think we’ll all know what he’s been up to.

Nature red in tooth and claw : Alfred, Lord Tennyson

 I’m sure that most readers of this blog are familiar with Lionel Tennyson, that inventive Captain of Hampshire and England

but what is, perhaps,  less well known is that his grandfather, Alfred, was quite a well-known poet.  Lionel was immensely proud of his grandfather’s poetry, though his knowledge of it was a little shaky.  According to Jeremy Malies he is said to have “laid all-comers 10 to 1 that his grandfather had written Hiawatha” at a Gentlemen v Players match.

I was reminded of Tennyson this week by references made by the chap in the punk rock t-shirt on Springwatch to “Nature red in tooth and claw”.  This is, of course, (or not of course if you don’t happen to know it) a quotation from Canto 56 of Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H.

At this point I have to hold my hand up in the manner of the unfortunate Robert Green and admit that I have not read the whole of In Memoriam (not all 133 cantos of it).  Dipping into it is a little like wandering around a vast overgrown Victorian cemetery. 

It was written over the space of seventeen years, was published in 1849, and was intended as a memorial to his great friend Arthur Henry Hallam.  Though it was published several years before Darwin made his theories known in On the Origin of Species, among the questions posed by the poem is why it is that those fittest to survive are often the least attractive (cockroaches, for instance, or some Victorian industrialists) whereas the likes of his friend Hallam, whom he considered the best of men, faced extinction.  

In these cantos (55 and 56) he considers the question of extinction in relation to the fossil remains of dinosaurs (“Dragons of the prime”).


The wish, that of the living whole
   No life may fail beyond the grave,
   Derives it not from what we have
The likest God within the soul?

Are God and Nature then at strife,
   That Nature lends such evil dreams?
   So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;

That I, considering everywhere
   Her secret meaning in her deeds,
   And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,

I falter where I firmly trod,
   And falling with my weight of cares
   Upon the great world’s altar-stairs
That slope thro’ darkness up to God,

I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
   And gather dust and chaff, and call
   To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.


“So careful of the type?” but no.
   From scarped cliff and quarried stone
   She cries, “A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.

“Thou makest thine appeal to me:
   I bring to life, I bring to death:
   The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more.” And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
   Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
   Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
   And love Creation’s final law —
   Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed —

Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
   Who battled for the True, the Just,
   Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?

No more? A monster then, a dream,
   A discord. Dragons of the prime,
   That tare each other in their slime,
Were mellow music match’d with him.

O life as futile, then, as frail!
   O for thy voice to soothe and bless!
   What hope of answer, or redress?
Behind the veil, behind the veil.