Squealing

Ian Buruma

  • Gower: The Autobiography by David Gower and Martin Johnson
    Collins Willow, 256 pp, £14.99, September 1992, ISBN 0 00 218413 3

David Gower was this year’s most popular victim, the English underdog, the handsome knight sacrificed by knaves. But good news is at hand: the hero has announced a brilliant season full of runs. In the tradition of General MacArthur, David Gower has announced his return. I hope he succeeds. But success is not the only thing that makes a hero. I have a nagging suspicion – no more than that – that his current popularity has something to do with his having been pulled down a peg. The humbling whiff of failure never goes amiss in an English idol. Gower’s return, at any rate, will be heralded as a return of class.

They do it everywhere, of course, but the popular sport of pulling the rich and famous off their pedestals is played with special relish in England. It is not an edifying spectacle. But then neither is the squealing of toffs when they feel put upon. Only the other day, Charles Moore (Eton, Cambridge, Spectator, Telegraph) compared Old Etonians to persecuted Jews.

Both the pulling and the squealing point to a society in distress, to a sense of national claustrophobia, to a place where too many closed doors promote envy instead of ambition. The great unwashed resent the privileges the toffs are terrified of losing. Like every other country in the world, Britain is changing, but in few developed countries do people have such a strong feeling that every change is for the worse. Britain is plagued by a mood of cultural pessimism that brings to mind France of the 1870s. Every event – a nasty murder in Liverpool, the death of Bobby Moore, a Royal tryst – is sucked into a nightmare vision of a society spinning out of control, or at best, sinking into a state of supine decadence.

Take the cricket tour in India and Sri Lanka: a disaster which spilled over from the sporting pages to those normally reserved for political editorials. Gooch’s failure, it seemed, was yet another indication of England’s ruin; his unshaven scowl a symbol of national decline. The interesting thing to a semi-outsider such as myself was how virtually all the commentators tried to explain the troubles in India by evoking a rigid, old-fashioned image of England. Over and over, the historical clichés raised their exhausted heads: Roundheads v. Cavaliers, Officers v. NCOs, Gentlemen (Mr D.I. Gower) v. Players (Gooch, G.).

Conservative writers invariably use these commonplaces with nostalgia, as though the root of English problems were the erosion of the class system, or the defeat of the Cavaliers. William Rees-Mogg, in the Times, rather wittily compared the Gooch and Gower saga to a romance of the Great War. Gruff Sgt Gooch can’t stand dashing Lt Gower, but when the Hun tosses a hand-grenade into their trench, the dashing lieutenant saves the gruff sergeant-major’s life by pluckily hugging the grenade to his breast. The conclusion is most touching: with golden curls pressed to tear-streaked stubble. Lt Gower dies in the arms of Sergeant Gooch. When it’s really time to go over the top, Rees-Mogg appears to be saying, the different grades of Albion will come together in Victory. Gower will return this year to make a century against the Australians, and Gooch will escort him off the field, brawny arm wrapped around delicate shoulder.

Simon Heffer, in the Evening Standard, wrote a more ill-tempered piece, in which he deplored the fact that Mr M. Atherton (Manchester Grammar and Cambridge) was frozen out of Gooch, G.’s secondary-modern circle. The likes of Gooch – the dependable sergeant majors – have their uses, but said Heffer, a Cavalier/public schoolboy, or ‘a gentle touch of the Jardines’, as he put it, ‘is urgently needed as Gooch’s commanding officer.’ He, Simon Heffer, would like to see a body of men. ‘playing proper games, and drinking pink gins and finding pigs to stick in their spare time.’

Take but degree away, untune that string
And mark what discord follows.

Heffer, Rees-Mogg, et al, are not the first ones to yearn for the hierarchies of olde England, nor the first to fret about the discord that follows when people no longer know their places. Edmund Blunden wrote Cricket Country in 1944, desperately worried that the war would break down English class harmony. His idea of harmonious bliss was the squire playing village cricket with the blacksmith and the parson: England as a vast island of Gentlemen and Players, changing in separate dressing-rooms but playing the same game. He quoted G.M. Trevelyan’s English Social History; ‘If the French noblesse had been capable of playing cricket with their peasants, their chateaux would never have been burnt.’ It is a fine conceit, and chauvinistic nonsense – as though the civilities of cricket would have stopped the French state from going broke, or the nobility from refusing to pay higher taxes, or the Paris rabble from hitting the streets. And, incidentally, did village cricket prevent the events at Pelerloo?

As for the loss of Cavalier spirit in English cricket, this complaint is almost as old as the game. After attending a match between Hampshire and All England in 1823, Mary Russell Mitford wrote a letter denouncing the Gentlemen and the Players for their style of play, ‘making a business of the thing’. And she loathed their dress – ‘cricketing jackets’, gloves and silk stockings – as much as modern commentators hate the track-suits currently in fashion. She contrasted the modern style – ‘silent, solemn, slow’ – with the ‘glee, the fun, the shouts, the laughter, the glorious confusion of the country game.’. Everything, she said, anticipating more than a century of similar grumbles, ‘is spoilt when money puts its ugly nose in. To think of playing cricket for hard cash!’

For a real dose of cultural pessimism, however, one should turn to C.L.R. James, the Marxist writer from Trinidad. In his masterful book Beyond a Boundary, he sets the rot of English cricket in 1932, with Douglas Jardine’s (remember Heffer’s ‘touch of the Jardines’) Bodyline tour of Australia. To recapitulate very briefly, Mr D.R. Jardine (Winchester and Oxford) devised a tactic to stop Donald Bradman’s run-machine by ordering two fast bowlers (Larwood, H. and Voce, W.) to bowl at his left shoulder. The batsman was forced to preserve his health (and often his head) by using his bat as an inadequate shield, which resulted in dolly catches at short-leg. This, at the time, was emphatically ‘not cricket’, and it caused a diplomatic row between Britain and Australia.

At any rate, James believed that a new era had begun. Gone were the palmy days of stylish, Cavalier, aristocratic adventurism; this was the time of Bradman’s businesslike accumulation of runs and Jardine’s ruthless warfare to stop him. ‘Bodyline,’ James wrote, ‘was not an accident, it was not a temporary aberration. It was the violence and ferocity of our age expressing itself in cricket. The time was the early Thirties, the period in which the contemporary rejection of tradition, the contemporary disregard of means, the contemporary callousness, were taking shape.’ Like Gooch, Jardine was a cussed sort. The difference between them was that Jardine wore a Harlequins cap (thereby annoying the Australians) and not designer stubble.

Ever the reader of Zeitgeist, C.L.R. James called his chapter on Bodyline ‘Decline of the West’. In 1957, he wrote an even gloomier assessment of the state of cricket, and the West, called ‘The Welfare Slate of Mind’, in which he defined the blight of modern cricket as ‘security’. Boring, Cromwellian, professional cricket, he said, was the typical, specialised game of ‘functionaries in the Welfare State’. Strong meat from a lifelong Marxist. But not so surprising, really, for James was a romantic, whose real enemy was not the plutocrat, but bourgeois mediocrity.

Bourgeois England certainly is, and in many respects mediocre too. But how much does this have to do with class? What about David Gower? He is bourgeois, a Gentleman by education (King’s College, Canterbury), and Certainly not mediocre. But neither were Dennis Compton, Freddy Trueman or Ian Botham, or indeed Graham Gooch, and they were (are) all very much Players. In his autobiography, breezily ghost-written by Martin Johnson, the joker of the Independent’s back page, Gower plays up his Cavalier image for all its worth. And he makes no bones about his contempt for the ‘soccer-manager style of bullshit’ that has been brought into the game by Stewart, M.J.

‘Fun, style and excellence’ are the three words Gower would like to have on his tomb-stone. So he tells us on the first page of his book. All three certainly apply to many of his innings. Gower’s sense of fun off the field, shared, by the way, by such mates of his as ‘Lamby’ and ‘Both’, is, however, more questionable. His pranks have no doubt afforded him much personal pleasure, but they are also the main reason for his current residence in Coventry (Johnson’s spinning phrases are catching). The NCOs, Players, Roundheads, soccer-managers presently in charge of the England team do not share Gower’s sense of fun. They prefer team discipline, early nights, plenty of push-ups and not too many jokes.

Given the recent results, they would be well advised to lighten up. But this does not mean that Gower’s relaxed, Cavalier manner, his larking about, if you like, makes him a better leader of men. Gower thinks it does, but his book did not convince me. His endless tales of drinking bouts in foreign hotels, dallying with stewardesses in swimming-pools (with the press watching and his angry fiancée on her way over), and so forth, become tiresome in the end. And they take the mystery out of one of his main complaints, which, in my opinion, damns him as a captain: whenever there was a big change afoot, in selection, or team policy, Gower was always, he says, ‘the last person in the dressing room to know’. Surely it was his business to know. If he didn’t know what was going on half the time, his mind was not on the ball.

The trouble with his book is that he squeals too much. You can hear the same anguished lone as that of the persecuted Old Etonian, or the man who longs for leaders who stick pigs. I, too, would like to have seen Gower play in India this winter, but after reading his own account of personal screw-ups I find it hard to lake him seriously as a perpetual victim of soccer managers, or the Zeitgeist. And although Gower is definitely a Cavalier, I am not sure how much class had to do with this.

Players are not naturally Roundheads or disciplinarians and by no means all Gentlemen are Cavaliers and funsters. Gower’s story about Geoffrey Boycott (‘Boycs’) on the Indian tour of 1981-82 proves that much. When Boycs, the roundest of the Roundheads in the puritanical and often tedious rectitude of his batting, got bored halfway through the test in Calcutta, he decided it was time for a game of golf and walked out of the match. As for discipline, it was hard to be tougher than Douglas Jardine, the first captain who actually forbade his team to fraternise with the other side.

Or take that consummate Gentleman, C.B. Fry (Repton and Oxford). Fry was such a believer in discipline that he went through a phase of admiring Adolf Hitler. He was in favour of organising exchanges between British Boy Scouts and Hitler Youths (or Hitler Boys, as he called them). Ribbentrop struck him as a ‘keen, wide-awake and resolute man’. Fry considered German training methods (‘more of a training, less of a game’) superior to the more relaxed British ways: ‘Nothing excellent in corporate effort can be achieved without discipline, and no discipline is as good as the best.’ This is why he liked what he saw in Germany: ‘No one was running about doing what he was not wanted to do; everybody knew his allotted place and went there when called. Remember that this was the Spring 1934.’ even Stewart, M.J. might find this a little too trenchant.

Still, at the end of the day, as soccer managers like to say, class surely has something to do with the malaise in English cricket. Like trade-union leaders. English professional sportsmen lend to look bad in comparison with their foreign counterparts. They speak sloppily, behave gauchely, are ignorant of foreign ways and travel badly. In this, alas, the players are much like many of their fans, particularly in soccer stadiums.

India is of course a slightly special case. Toffs tend to love it, partly perhaps because Indians love English toffs. And the non-toffs tend to feel awkward when cast in the sahib’s role. But it is also true that England is divided by education. The poisonous envy that results from this infects just about every collective enterprise, and purely professional or temperamental differences are instantly put into the context of class war. I cannot, for example, imagine the equivalent of a Gooch-Gower feud occurring in the Dutch or Danish soccer teams, most of whose players speak at least two foreign languages, and generally behave like international businessmen. Of course they have rows, but their battles have nothing to do with class.

So, all in all, the temptation is strong to join the Heffers and Rees-Moggs and use cricket as a mirror of the nation’s sad state, and take England’s defeats in India and Sri Lanka (Sri Lanka, for God’s sake!) as signs of rot in the national fabric. Then you can hanker after a Golden Age of harmony and degree; or plead for better management or a more equitable education system. I would favour the latter. Yet the temptation should be resisted. For spoiling success cannot be an accurate yard-stick for the state of the country. Only two years ago England thrashed India, Was the country in any better shape then? If sports were a mirror, the two most successful nations of the 20th century would be East Germany and the Soviet Union. Long may both rest in peace.