Lately, for a reason that may be coincidence or the result of cosmic forces I don’t understand, there seems to be a renewed interest in a man called John Arlott. An old TV show of him in conversation with cricketer Mike Brearleys was repeated, a documentary about him was on Radio 4 and I even got to mention him in my radio series, in the show about his home town of Basingstoke.
Arlott is especially loved within Basingstoke. This may not be all that flattering as, on the Wikipedia page about Basingstoke, under ‘Culture’, it says “An episode of Top Gear was once filmed in Basingstoke.”
The town has its connections with celebrity. Liz Hurley is from there, and her mum was a primary school teacher. I spoke to someone who was in her class, who told how Mrs. Hurley proudly addressed the whole school in an assembly once, suggesting they all stayed up to watch her actress daughter who was appearing in her first television role that night. So Basingstoke’s 7-11-year-olds all got permission to stay up late, then stared in awe as Liz rolled around topless for a scene or two, after which Mrs. Hurley never spoke of the matter again.
Sarah Ferguson is also from the area, as is Tara Palmer-Tompkinson, so the place is almost a factory for posh useless women.
But even Mrs. Hurley would have to accept that the most compelling character to emerge from the town was Arlott, despite never being a celebrity, and who died 20 years ago in the Channel Islands.
I first encountered him through his cricket commentary, when I was about eight years old, fascinated by his voice, not just gravely but rattly, like a broken lawnmower or a washing machine on the spin cycle when a pound coin’s slipped inside.
In this croaky burr he once replied to a co-commentator who’d said “And as the sun sets in the West I hand you over to John Arlott”, by saying “And you can rest assured that if the sun sets anywhere other than the West, I’ll be the first to let you know.”
There was something in his tone that suggested he was aware with every ball he was describing, he was part of a wider world. It seemed he might say at any moment ‘So England are 125 for 3 and there’s just time to initiate a debate on the Vietnam War before Dennis Lille resumes from the Vauxhall End.”
You might assume a cricket commentator’s role in making an impact on international affairs would be limited. But later I learned of Arlott’s role in defeating apartheid. In the 1960s a South African player, Basil D’Oliviera, was classified under apartheid law as Cape Coloured. Despite, or perhaps because of playing on rugged patches of ground he was a tremendous batsman and bowler, but with no prospect of playing professionally due to the race laws.
So he was advised to contact an English cricket commentator known to be an anti-racist, who may be able to find him a place in the English game. Arlott read his letters and arranged for D’Oliviera to come to England, and secured him a place in the Lancashire League. Eventually D’Oliviera was selected for the England side, so all was cheery until England were due to play in South Africa. In England’s last game before the tour, D’Oliviera was impertinent enough to score 158 so his selection was secured, but the South African government made it clear they wouldn’t waive their apartheid laws to let him play in a whites-only environment. So the English selectors got round the problem by saying they weren’t picking him anyway, as they didn’t think he was good enough.
I’ve often wondered how the meeting went that decided this. “Hmm, his trouble is he tends to struggle when he’s on 158.” “Yes and he won’t be suited to playing in South Africa, coming as he does from South Africa, where the conditions are very different.” “Yes and you can never trust the temperament of a player whose first name is a herb. That’s why we never picked Oregano Duckworth.”
When the news came through that the English selectors had taken the decision to leave D’Oliviera out of the team, the South African parliament erupted into wild celebrations. The English cricket establishment wasn’t just acting out of cowardice, many of them were ardent supporters of apartheid. For example Alec Bedser, later the chair of selectors, became a member of the National Association of Freedom, that campaigned against the boycott of the apartheid regime.
Arlott wrote and spoke with fury about this behaviour, and eventually when the player selected in place of D’Oliviera became injured, the selectors had to pick Arlott’s man. The South African government announced they wouldn’t let him in the country, so the tour was cancelled and South Africa were banned from taking part in international cricket until the end of apartheid over 20 years later.
Arlott’s role in this episode was a reflection of his place as a strident English liberal. On the one hand, his journey through Basingstoke Grammar School, after which he became a policeman, journalist, commentator and then wine critic, suggest he was a dependable member of the establishment.
But one peculiarity of Britain’s history is the empire was justified as a method of exporting the British sense of fair play and justice to its colonies. This was a dubious claim, as if the whole project was undertaken to teach manners to the natives, but throughout the upper levels of the education system, from Grammar schools to Eton, some students took this at face value. For those like Arlott, if ‘fair play’ was flouted, they saw it as their duty to speak out and put it right, in the manner of the uniquely defiant English middle class rebel.
In Arlott’s case he became an official Liberal, campaigning for the party from his youth onwards. This may be why three programmes were made for the BBC in the early nineteen-eighties, in which Arlott and England captain Mike Brearley sat chatting aimlessly to each other while drinking wine in front of a pile of dusty books. Brearley had joined the SDP, the new party that broke from Labour, and at one point launched into a question that lasted around three minutes, along the lines of ‘Given that the hitherto perceived impregnable structural divisions in society…….. and reappraisal of…. advancing towards revised orthodoxy……., is this an apt moment, in your view, for a new party such as the SDP?”
Arlott stared into the middle distance for a moment, swirled his wine round his glass and said slowly “Chateau Mouton 1958 – very good wine for politics.”
He could employ a similar disdain in his cricket commentary. For a while he was on television, and seemed to work on the basis that as you could see what was happening there was no point in him saying anything at all. Once, when a player was bowled, the batsman walked off the pitch, was replaced by a new batsman, and Arlott said nothing. He said such nothing I was convinced the set had broken and started haranguing my mum to call the repair man and tell him the sound had gone. Then, as the new batsman was about to receive his first ball, came a barely audible gruff sound – ‘That’s bowled him’.
But if there’s one story from his life that by itself summarises his character, it may be the one I came across while reading his biography ‘Basingstoke Boy’ as research for the radio show. Arlott was asked, in his mid-forties, as a prominent broadcaster, to speak at a Basingstoke Grammar School Old Boys’ Dinner, and toast the health of his old headmaster, Mister Percivall.
Arlott was a little surprised, as he’d always expressed a dislike for his old master, and describes him as “A man who enjoyed caning, carrying his heavy bamboo cane, thick as his thumb and three feet long, down the hem of his gown. He would survey the offender through partly closed eyes, then order ‘Get down’, then administer three or four powerful strokes. Most victims would fall forward, staggering through the fifth-form room, where friends would run water over their heads or hold them as they vomited.”
But the secretary of the Old Boys’ Association was aware of Arlott’s feelings, and said “We’d like you to say what you thought of him.” So this was his toast, delivered to a packed room over dinner….
“Gentlemen, allow me to recall a single moment in the life of the subject of this toast. One day in 1929 I was sent to his room to receive the inevitable. In cowardly fashion I hid behind the coats. After a few moments I saw a frail, timid, twelve-year-old named Woodcock come into the room. It was clearly his first time. Presently Percivall’s asthmatic wheezing could be heard, and the door shook in its frame as he came in and slammed it shut.
He saw Woodcock and said ‘Why have you been sent here’?
‘Then we shall have to teach you not to talk, shan’t we, Woodcock?’
‘Get down, Woodcock’.
The boy got down, Percivall gave the cane a few preliminary swishes and brought it down. Woodcock stood and the cane hit the back of his legs. ‘That didn’t count’, Woodcock, get down again’.
He got down and this time the cane landed squarely across his ass. Then more strokes across this wisp of a boy, who lay on the floor, weeping.
‘Stand up, I’ve told you already, that didn’t count’.
Eventually Percivall turned him over gently with his foot. ‘Get up Woodcock, you fool’.
I remained unseen, which meant unpunished. And that, gentlemen, is an accurate eye-witness account of a happening that, until now, neither of the people concerned were aware was seen by anyone else. That may remind you, gentlemen, of the headmaster whose toast is now proposed, Charles W Percivall.”
Arlott adds “The toast was drunk in a mutter, Mr Percivall did not reply, left hastily and never returned.
And at close of play England were 187 for 5.