On Tour With Compton Pt. 2 : How To Deal With The Press

If, as expected, England complete a Famous Victory tomorrow, they may be tempted to let their hair down a bit (except for Monty Panesar, I suppose).  I doubt whether there are many dwarf-throwing bars in Mumbai, nor pedaloes, but, even if there were, my understanding is that the team will be pretty much confined to barracks and their celebrations will have to consist of raiding the mini-bar, pigging out on Quality Street and staying up past their bedtimes playing Championship Manager.

Things were very different on the 1950-51 tour of Australia (which we lost 4-1), as our next extract from Denis Compton’s autobiography demonstrates.  England were captained on this tour by Freddie Brown, described by Tom Graveney as being ‘a very-stuck up individual – at least when he was sober’ (so hardly stuck-up at all).  The English press were more-or-less what we would now call ’embedded’, in that E.W. Swanton would usually have a few stiff ones at the close of play with FRB and could be relied upon to keep shtum about any off-field incidents.  The Australian press, unfortunately, were a different kettle of fish and were inclined to take a mean advantage by putting the worst possible interpretation on events.

For instance, when, as he recounts in his own autobiography, FRB was involved in a car crash on the evening of the fourth day of the Adelaide Test and had to miss the fifth day, there were suggestions that drink had been involved, whereas he had simply been “dining with General Sir Willoughby and Lady Norrie at Government House”, in the company of the tour manager Brigadier Green.  So you can see why Compton might have gone to such lengths to throw the reptiles of the press off the scent, when the following incident occurred:

“It was Christmas-time in Melbourne, and I was at a party at the home of Bill Gluth, an old friend of mine, with Freddie Brown, Godfrey Evans, Cyril Washbrook and Major-General Jim Cassels and others.  It was a pleasant, hot southern summer’s night, and at about eleven o’clock we were all sitting on the lawn.  The drinks were going round hospitably and Bill said to me, ‘Denis, would you like another drink?’ 

I gave a Christmas reply and answered, ‘Yes, please’, and as I did so I half turned towards my host.  Unhappily, just near where I was sitting, there was a tap of the kind which many a gardener has in his lawn for convenience in watering it and the garden.  I struck my right eyebrow on the tap and ripped it open, and very quickly I could feel the warm blood truckling down into my eye. 

Of course Freddie Brown and I had enough experience of the Press … to know that if they got hold of the story that Denis Compton had a cut eye, or a damaged eye, or a black eye, they would very quickly draw the most improbable inferences, from his having been mixed up in a brawl to being challenged to a duel by an angry husband.  We discussed it for a while and decided that I should put on a pair of dark glasses and the next day catch a later plane to Sydney. 

I got to Sydney all right and … in my dark glasses I went unobserved to the hotel and straight to bed.  By this time Keith Miller, who was with the Sydney Sun, had got wind of what had happened and had organised a little surprise for me.

Next morning I had just woken up and was still unshaved, lying in my bed, when somebody knocked at the door, said ‘Denis’ loudly, and then flung it open, and as I turned took a photograph of me.  It was a photographer from the Sydney Sun.

The photograph was front page in the Sydney Sun and in the press in this country.  It is an interesting photograph.  It could correct any over-flattering impressions which certain rather better known pictures in underground stations and other places may have created in people’s minds about how I look.  In this one I looked like a gangster, or a murderer at large.  It’s an adults only picture.”

Unfortunately, news management was in its infancy in 1950 …

“I wasn’t much helped by a statement which Brigadier Green, our manager, decided to make; by the time he’d finished seeing the gentlemen from the Press I had lost any chance of making anyone believe that which I said had happened really had happened.

In a moment of aberration he told them, simply, without circumstance, that Denis Compton had caught his eye on a waterspout.  Because it was higher, he evidently considered a waterspout more credible.

I could see unbelief in people’s eyes: “Waterspout … waterspout indeed …”.

I’m sure that, if anything untoward were to happen tomorrow night, Andy Flower and Team England would be able to put a much more positive spin on it than that.

Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi

I’m looking forward to reading Ed Smith’s new book ‘Luck : what it means and why it matters”, which has been getting some very complimentary reviews (I know this because I follow his Twitter account and he’s been retweeting them all).  

On the subject of luck, I happened to be flicking through the News of the World & Empire News (two Great British institutions that have seen better days there)Two-in-One Football Annual for 1961-62

when I came across this –

I’m not sure whether this is an example of a lucky or a very unlucky juxtaposition of advert and text.  If you can’t read it, on the left we see Days of Disaster – taking in the Munich Air Disaster, the Bolton and Ibrox Disasters (in which 33 and 25 spectators died respectively) and Derek Dooley’s Misfortune (a broken leg leading to amputation).

It also, topically, lists various players who have died in the course of a game – John Thompson, the Celtic and Scotland goalkeeper (fractured skull); S. Raleigh of Gillingham (concussion); James S. Thorpe, the Sunderland goalkeeper (diabetes) and two players killed during the Army Cup Final replay at Aldershot in 1948 (lightning).

Under the heading Curiosity S. Wynne is noted as having scored two goals for each side, although he too later died during a match (cause unknown).

On the right (as some kind of prophylactic against this terrible wave of bad luck) Solomon’s Seal.  The Seal was “carried by three First Dividend winners in the Treble Chance … Beautifully GOLD PLATED this exquisite piece of jewellery also adds a magic touch of glamour to women of all ages … Men usually carry it in a pocket.  Until recently SOLOMON’S SEAL was made in solid gold only for twelve guineas, but leading soccer stars and their wives have been delighted with the new beautiful GOLD-PLATED creation.

SOLOMON’S SEAL is said to attract GOOD LUCK like a magnet.  PROVE IT with this GOOD LUCK TEST.  Look at it … hold it … make a wish.  If you do not enjoy GOOD LUCK within seven days, send it back, and I will refund your money AT ONCE!  Would I dare to give this GOOD LUCK GUARANTEE if I doubted the powers of SOLOMON’ SEAL?”

Newspapers like the News of the World, and magazines such as Reveille and Tit-Bits, used to be full of adverts for good luck charms of this kind (Lucky Leprechauns, the Jesus and Mary Chain and the like), usually in connection with the football pools.  Whether anyone really believed that they worked I don’t know, but they do, at least, represent an acknowledgement of the role of luck in human affairs, as opposed to the denial that Smith identifies in the complexities of risk management and financial technical analysis.

“Denying the existence of luck appeals to the basic human urge to control everything – a neurosis that affects almost every aspect of our lives. It is difficult to accept that we are all, to some degree, victims and beneficiaries of circumstance.”

Not that the scientific approach was unknown to the readers of the News of the World Annual. If only Lehmann Brothers had had acccess to CEDRIC – the wonder draw-forecasting electronic brain!  

We Don’t Look Backwards And We Don’t Look Forwards : The Vision of Kevin Pietersen

After another lengthy interruption caused by a cock-up on the broadband front, let me try to rerail my train of thought and remember (without the benefit of hindsight) what I was going to say on Wednesday.

 So, what was Ian Bell’s View From The Middle, going forward into the Second Test?  The edited highlights were these …

“absolutely gutted … the dressing room really hurt afterwards … bit of a shake-up … we’re going to have to work very hard if we want to keep winning Test Matches … have to try to stay level and not to dwell on it … the key is to have time in the middle … have to raise our game … must not get too carried away with thinking about what happened there … stick together through good times and bad times … enjoy the challenge … chance to bounce back quickly …”

Meanwhile, in an interview in the Metro, Alastair Cook took a similar view (“England moving swiftly on : We have put Dubai to bed“)

“We discussed what we needed to do and we put it to bed … learned from mistakes … all about thinking how we can win this game … always managed to bounce back … characters in the side who do like those sort of challenges … runs are just around the corner …”

But, of course, flagging this up is churlish stuff on my part – shooting ducks and duck-makers in a barrel.  If you had a twelve year old whose side had just lost heavily and unexpectedly, this is exactly what you’d be telling them.  And it’s not as though the feeble column with a cricketer’s name attached is a new phenomenon.

This is from Bruce Hamilton’s novel Pro, set in the 1920s.  Jim Revill (a sort of Sutcliffe-Woolley figure) is explaining where his money comes from –

And those articles in the Gazette – there’s a lot of money in them”

Do you really write them?”

Not on your life.  They let me have the proofs though, and if there’s anything too damn silly I cross it out.”

What irks me is not so much the thought that the newspapers are palming off some PR fluff as an insight into the minds of Test cricketers as the suspicion that this watery stew of management theory and self-helpisms really is all that Cook, Bell et al. have in their heads and that to be successful, to be, indeed, the Number One Side in the World™, that is necessarily so. 

The deep thinkers (the Smiths, Roebucks and Jameses) can think themselves to the edges of international cricket and then think themselves back out again, the happy animals are sailing off unsteadily into the sunset on their pedaloes, but those who sincerely believe that whatever achieves results is right will inherit the earth (or at least the No. 1 spot in the ICC rankings).

But then again, perhaps it was ever more-or-less thus, and that the reason the players of the past are – to those of us who rely on the written and spoken word for our knowledge of Test cricket – more vivid and three-dimensional than those of the present is that the Woolleys and Rhodeses exist and persist as the creations of writers who really could write, and newspapers that preferred to give space to their writing over the unmediated thoughts of the players.  Rhodes had Neville Cardus to write his lines for him, poor Bell has to write his own (though he could, I suppose, just let his bat do the talking).

Mind you there is one player who can elevate self-help speak to an almost mystical level.  This is Kevin Pietersen, from an interview in this week’s Sport magazine –

“We don’t look backwards and we don’t look forwards, because that’s got nothing to do with what’s happening right now – and I think that’s what Andy Flower and Strauss have brought to the party … what’s magnificent about this squad is the longevity of its happiness.  Off the field, all our doors are open throughout the hotel, the boys are in and out of each other’s rooms playing FIFA, playing cards and talking nonsense …”

Allowing a little hindsight to creep in, though, I wonder whether, now that Dubai seems to have leapt back out of bed – leaving poor Geoffrey Boycott homeless – the longevity of Andrew Strauss’s happiness is likely to be increased by having Kevin Pietersen, locked into his beatific vision of the eternal now, wandering in and out of his room, talking nonsense.

We shall have to see.

Ugly and Silent, Like an Elf, the Secret of the Street

… so, from a rather wet Lord’s, it’s back to the studio – where we have some topical satire for you from G.K. Chesterton. 

(I suspect this is only accidentally topical.  For Fleet Street read Wapping.)


When I Came Back To Fleet Street

When I came back to Fleet Street,
Through a sunset nook at night,
And saw the old Green Dragon
With the windows all alight,
And hailed the old Green Dragon
And the Cock I used to know,
Where all good fellows were my friends
A little while ago;

I had been long in meadows,
And the trees took hold of me,
And the still towns in the beech-woods,
Where men were meant to be.
But old things held; the laughter,
The long unnatural night,
And all the truth they talk in hell,
And all the lies they write.

For I came back to Fleet Street,
And not in peace I came;
A cloven pride was in my heart,
And half my love was shame.
I came to fight in fairy-tale,
Whose end shall no man know–
To fight the old Green Dragon
Until the Cock shall crow!

Under the broad bright windows
Of men I serve no more,
The groaning of the old great wheels
Thickened to a throttled roar;
All buried things broke upward;
And peered from its retreat,
Ugly and silent, like an elf,
The secret of the street.

They did not break the padlocks,
Or clear the wall away.
The men in debt that drank of old
Still drink in debt to-day;
Chained to the rich by ruin,
Cheerful in chains, as then
When old unbroken Pickwick walked
Among the broken men.

Still he that dreams and rambles
Through his own elfin air,
Knows that the street’s a prison,
Knows that the gates are there:
Still he that scorns or struggles
Sees, frightful and afar.
All that they leave of rebels
Rot high on Temple Bar.

All that I loved and hated,
All that I shunned and knew,
Clears in broad battle lightning,
Where they, and I, and you,
Run high the barricade that breaks
The barriers of the street,
And shout to them that shrink within,
The Prisoners of the Fleet.


Ugly and Silent, Like an Elf, the Secret of the Street

The ghosts of Fleet Street past : Three Printers by Wilfred Dudeney

Another statue.  From a distance, given its location, it looks a little like the Tomb of the Unknown Yuppie, but it’s really something quite different.

"Three printers" by Wilfred Dudeney

This is situated in a garden where I sometimes eat my lunch – the Goldsmiths’ Company garden.  It was originally commissioned by the Westminster Press and stood just off Fleet Street.  When the area was redeveloped it was removed and ended up in a scrapyard in Watford.  It was rescued by the writer Christopher Wilson, who persuaded the Goldsmiths’ Company – who owned the land on which it had stood – to relocate it to their garden.
The name is misleading, as only the figure on the left, as you look it, is a printer.  He is a compositor, and his “stick” spells out the name of the sculptor (“stick”  being the technical printer’s term for the, er stick that held the type that he was about to set up).  (My grandfather and his father before him – on the more literate side of the family – worked as comps incidentally, and both, no doubt as a result,  were dab hands at Scrabble).  The slightly simian figure on the right is a newsboy and the one in the middle is variously described as an editor or a proprietor.
The compositor has, of course, been rendered obsolete by the march of progress, and so too – since the Evening Standard became a free-sheet – has the newsboy.  I wonder how long it will be before the editor joins them?       
I haven’t been able to discover a great deal about Wilfred Dudeney, apart from the fact that he was born in Leicester and was the son of a journalist.  His other famous work is Boy Riding a Ram, which is to be seen in Derby. 
(Every time I insert spaces between the paragraphs in this post, some unseen hand removes them again.  Perhaps some ghostly comp taking his revenge?)

Incensed Mum

One small, but significant pleasure in my life is reading local newspapers.  I make sure to take in my Harborough Mail every Thursday.  If I visit a town I always pick up a copy of the local paper to get a feel for the place and I have sometimes had the fancy to take out a subscription to a local paper from a randomly chosen town elsewhere in the country.

I sometimes think that we would all have a much saner – less anxious, less paranoid, more balanced – and happier view of life if our only news was local.  We do, in a sense, as people say, live in a world where  children – very occasionally – kill each other, where using Facebook leads to being murdered, where the mentally handicapped are harrassed to death by youths, but most of us, most of the time live in the world of “French market on way to town” “School gets a ‘satisfactory’ report”” “Host of pre-war cars on display” and “A love of animals inspires sisters” (to take a few headlines from this week’s Mail). 

It is true that life in Harborough in less obviously dramatic than elsewhere in the country.  When I lived in London I used to take the Hackney Gazette and with that you had to get through a few pages of ‘orrible murders before you got down to the real business of the guinea pig shows and the diamond weddings.

Another pleasure of reading a local paper is the soap opera aspect – I mean the way that the same characters crop up week after week until simple familiarity becomes part of the enjoyment.  In the case of the Harborough Mail, for instance, you used to be able to rely on appearances from Inspector Mick Norman of the Harborough Police, Jean Bird of Harborough Animal Action and – of course – the mighty Johnno, who seemed to preside like some benign spiritus loci over the doings of the town.

This doesn’t seem to be quite as much the case as it used to be – Inspector Mick Norman, for instance, seems to have hung up his whistle and his successor seems to be more reticent about speaking to the press.  I think some new characters are needed, some new blood.

One promising character, I think, is “Incensed Mum” who makes what I think is her first appearance on this week’s front page.  She is clearly a woman of strong opinions about matters of local interest:

“An incensed mum has lambasted the state of cleanliness at Harborough Leisure Centre’s pool-side changing rooms … livid mum-of-three … said she reached her wit’s end last Friday … ‘It was such a disgusting sight … there was human hair everywhere, it was like a Yeti had been attacked.  They were a disgrace … I feel very strongly about this … I’m now considering joining a gym in Northampton”.

If she can keep this level of ire up on a regular basis I look forward to hearing more from her in the future.  Surely she could be asked for her opinion each week about some issue of day – what does she think about the French market (“overpriced!”) for instance, or the ‘satisfactory’ school report (“not good enough!”).  It is crucial that she is always referred to in exactly the same way, of course.  Concerned Mums are ten-a-penny, but an Incensed Mum is a quite different matter, and to be cherished.

The full story is here – Incensed Mum (she does look a little familiar, by the way – Rebekah Wade?  Mary-Ann Sieghart? Jane Morris?)


This pomegranate's disgusting!!!


And for another view from the Harborough blogosphere – Liberal England.


Nancy Banks-Smith

A brief – and belated – doff of the hat to the woman I’d say has consistently been the best writer for the national press for more years than I care to remember* : a happy 80th birthday to Nancy Banks-Smith, TV and sometimes Radio critic for the Guardian.  I was pleased to see that the dear old MG itself paid her an appropriate tribute, which is here – http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/2010/feb/04/nancy-banks-smith-40-years

She is, I think, proof that it’s possible to write in a light (and, in her case, heavily Wodehousian) style about apparently trivial subjects and still go deeper than some of the windbags heavyweight commentators on the centre pages.  I have no idea how she does it, and I’m in awe. 

Nancy Banks-Smith

*Reading this back the next day, there is an element of post-alehouse hyperbole here.  Perhaps “Most underrated prose stylist” would be nearer the mark.  She is very good though.

Yours truly, Angry Mob – or Mr. Pooter joins the commentariat (reprinted)

This week’s hot topic in the quality prints and elsewhere seems to have been mobs – hashmobs, flashmobs, hatemobs, lynch mobs.  You can take your pick of the articles, though Dominic Sandbrook, writing in the New Statesman, offered a historical perspective –  Mob rule.

I threw in my two pennorth last week – Gately, Moir & Fry. (I see this morning that Mr. Fry is at least considering cutting down on the Twittering, by the way – Fry to nix Twitter? – because of all the “unkindness and aggression”. Wouldn’t  blame him one bit).

I thought it might be worth reprinting my own first hand account of how one innocent citizen found himself caught up in a virtual lynch mob.  This was one of the first things I wrote on this blog (back in mid-May) and I doubt whether anyone read it at all, so I trust I’m not boring my loyal readership, if any.

I learnt my lesson, incidentally, and have never been near Comment is Free again.



In which I make some amusing remarks and find myself caught up in a lynch mob

Curious experience a couple of nights ago.  Tiring slightly of my  backwater I decide to venture out into the mainstream (or trickle or torrent, whatever the technical term is) of the blogosphere.  I decide to give the world the benefit of my views on a couple of subjects via the medium of one of the better known blogs.

Put soberly and rationally (and I wasn’t perhaps entirely the first of those, at any rate) the point I was intending to make was that I was surpised that the revelations concerning MPs’ expenses had caused quite the furore they have as compared to all the other things that they have done collectively over the last thirty years or so, and how very likely it would always have seemed to me that they would get up to those kinds of tricks.

I first of all try the BBC news website where, as you might imagine, there was already a considerable body of comment on this subject.  I make my point (aware as I am doing so that I am wildly exaggerating my strength of feeling on this question) and post it.  I then realise that the post won’t be published for several hours, if at all, so decide to head off in the direction of the Guardian’s Comment is Free to try my luck there.       

There I see Alexander Chancellor’s article about Stephen Fry’s alleged comments on the matter on Newsnight (which I managed to miss, but it’s fair to say aren’t going down particularly well) so I decide to throw in my two penn’orth there.  Having got a taste for it now I look around for another blog to comment on and my eye falls on an article by Polly Toynbee “Brown must go now”, or something along those lines.  I find that this has attracted so much comment that it has been closed: I then spot another, newer comment by Toynbee saying that once Brown has gone, in line with her instructions, Alan Johnson must be appointed forthwith.  For some reason I find this quite enraging and post a derisive message, in which I say that in 35 years of reading the Guardian I have never managed to finish one of her articles.  This cannot possibly be true, although it is true I rarely even begin to read the ones she writes currently (the ones under the cartoon).  I then return to my comments re. Chancellor, Fry and the expenses and add an even more provocative comment saying that I think MPs should actually have their expenses increased.

I then go back and read the other comments on Toynbee’s article.  These make my jeering sound like a model of sweet reason.  She is getting the bird in no uncertain terms.  Collectively we make up a virtual lynch mob.  I then realise that this article is one that is due to be published in the next day’s paper, and that it has already managed to attract over a hundred hostile comments. 

Why is it, precisely, that we are all so angry?

  • Some are genuinely angry about the expenses scandal.
  • Some are genuinely angry about the way that Nu-Labour has traduced the better traditions of the Labour Party.
  • We are mostly frustrated that our various points of view have no effective representation in the mainstream of political life.
  • But also, I would guess, we are angry (if only subconsciously) that the much-vaunted democracy of the blogosphere does not mean that our views are given the same prominence as P. Toynbee.  If she says that Brown must go, or Johnson must come in then she expects to be taken notice of.  If we want to be taken notice of then it is a question of strength in numbers, swarming like angry bees.

Still, feel slightly (very slightly) regretful and atone by leaving a message of thanks to Frank Keating for a nice mini-memoir of Colin Milburn. 

Perhaps I’m better off in my backwater after all.

Vale O thelondonpaper

So, farewell then, thelondonpaper. 

For those who haven’t encountered it, it was a free evening newspaper available in the London area which – rather surprisingly – has been shut down. Its last issue appeared on Friday.

On the face of it, there were several good reasons to dislike it.  It was owned by Rupert Murdoch (and I’m part of a generation old enough to have qualms about this), it must have generated blizzards of waste paper and some felt that the distributors could be a little over-zealous in their approach.  Oddly, I’ve become rather attached to it, and I’d go so far as to say that I shall miss it.

Oddly, because I’m clearly not part of the target audience.  It was explicitly aimed at a readership who were young (18-35), urban and diverse.  I’m too old, too rural, not diverse enough.  I think, though, this was partly why I did enjoy it – I felt it  gave me an insight into a world that is now as foreign to me as the world of People’s Friend or Horse and Hound.

Inevitably it was light on news, heavy – though not on heavy as you might expect – on celebrities : everything I know, indeed, about the doings of Miss Pixie Lott, I owe to thelondonpaper.  A lot of it, though, was made up up first person columns which were really slightly more polished versions of blogs. The best known of these -the City Boy column – achieved enough attention to make it into book form, and no doubt some of the others were hoping to make the same transition.  Instead, though, since it became known that the paper was closing down, they have been writing about their own imminent unemployment.  Interestingly, though, they are all intending to carry on writing in the same vein on their blogs.  From the blogosphere they came, and to the blogosphere they shall return.

The paper’s most popular feature, I’d guess was the Em cartoon.  It’s hard to describe this without making it sound like the kind of thing any sane person would leap over tall buildings to escape, but I found it began to exercise a peculiar fascination.  I think it’s something to do with the facial expressions.  For the past few weeks, it’s been advertised that it will continue online at Em cartoons, which I’m sure it will, but it has also been rescued at the last minute by Uncle Rupert, and will also be appearing in the Sun.  

I’m sure it must be significant in some way that if the regular contributors were to be transferred to one of the other News International titles, they would probably fit – with a little tweaking – equally well into either The Times or The Sun. 

I can’t help observing that – wherever they are available – these free papers are rapidly obliterating the paid-for versions.  In my workplace, for instance, only two out of fourteen of us read a conventional daily paper – everyone else reads the Metro, if anything.  When it (the Metro) was given out at Harborough Station in the morning, I was once the only person in a waiting room of 12 people who wasn’t reading it.

It used to be possible to use newspaper readership as a shorthand for a particular set of political and social attitudes – Telegraph reader (spluttering into pink gins in Tunbridge Wells), Guardian reader (sandals and muesli), Mail reader (house price-obsessed suburban xenophobe) and so on.

I supect that this is rapidly becoming obsolete, and we are becoming a nation of Metro readers, and one notable thing about the Metro – and indeed thelondonpaper – is that it is totally apolitical.  Nowhere in either paper is any hint of a political (let alone a party political) opinion, and neither of them have so much as a suggestion of a political complexion.