The Casual Knack of Living

Later, sleepless at night, the brain spinning

With cracked images, they won’t forget

The confusion and the oily dead,

Nor yet the casual knack of living.”

(‘Survivors’)

In the course of a season, I have the habit of accumulating second hand books, found at those grounds that still offer some for sale (the Friends of Grace Road have a good selection, as does the Supporters’ Club  bookshop at the County Ground, Northampton).  I might leaf through them during the occasional longueur during the game (for these have been known, even at Grace Road), or a break for rain, but generally I stow them away, like a squirrel burying nuts in the Autumn, with the intention of returning to them in the Winter ; quite often, like that squirrel, I neglect to do so. This Winter, like a squirrel gratefully unearthing a long and deeply buried acorn during a lean period, I discovered that I owned two unread books by Alan Ross.

That might imply that I own a lot of books by Ross which I have read, but, in fact, I have read very little of his work, having tended to think of him primarily as an editor (both of the ‘London Magazine’ and the anthology ‘The Cricketer’s Companion’).  In spite of that, I find that I have previously described his writing as ‘elegant’, an impression, in so far as it more than a convenient cliché, that I may have formed from having read his biography of Ranji (some years ago), from his ubiquitous photographic portrait, tanned, suave and half-goateed,

or, perhaps, some ancient memory of reading his pieces about cricket in ‘The Observer’, whose Cricket Correspondent he was from 1953 to 1982.

The first book has the spine-title ‘Cape Summer’, hinting at why I have not read more : most take the form of tour books (or books-of-a-series), of which I have a not unfounded suspicion ; even Arlott, who turned out a number of them, could be said to have written his ‘with his left hand’ ; some less distinguished practitioners of the once-commonplace genre appear to have written theirs with their foot.

Although it is ‘Cape Summer’ (an account of England’s 1956-7 tour of South Africa) that appears on the spine (perhaps to lure readers of the straightforward travel books that precede it in Ross’s bibliography), the first half of the book concerns Australia’s tour to England in 1956, which is best remembered, if at all, for Jim Laker’s having taken 19 wickets in the third test in Manchester. In a very wet Summer, in which four of the five Tests were, to some extent, affected by rain, England won the series 2-1, to retain the Ashes they had won in Australia the previous year.

As with most books-of-a-series, Ross reproduces the reports that he wrote about the five Tests as they originally appeared in ‘The Observer’ (‘revising a phrase here and there, for stylistic reasons only, but neither a mood nor comment’).  I would have guessed that he had employed his editorial skills to iron out a few kinks and wrinkles in the texture of his prose, which is as smooth as a pair of cashmere combinations (from somewhere exclusive in Jermyn Street, no doubt), but he appears to have been gifted with an internal autocorrect which enabled him to eliminate any obtrusive vulgarities as he wrote.  (The first sentence of the book is ‘As I write, in an Autumn that has assumed the better manners of summer …’, and he was a very mannerly writer.)

Ross had first made a small name as a poet, taking as his principal subject his wartime experiences serving on destroyers escorting the arctic convoys, and, like Arlott, his cricket-writing is poetic in the sense that he has a gift for precise observation, rather than employing high-flown diction.  In a poem, he describes a fly that has landed on the paper he is writing on : ‘as if carving a joint / It carefully sharpens its legs’.  In a match report, Harvey, Craig and McDonald ‘brought off magnificent one-handed pick-ups. Thus do Cossack riders at brisk canters swoop from the saddle to snatch handkerchiefs from the sawdust’. 

With television still in its youth in 1956, the presumption was that it was the writer’s responsibility to paint a verbal picture for readers who would not have seen the game, whereas contemporary writers (and, worse, radio commentators) tend, at least subconsciously, to assume that the reader is able to see the match, and be in search of analysis and opinion rather than description.  As a result, I find that I now have a clearer mental image of how the young Cowdrey batted than – say – Dominic Sibley.

In an introduction, Ross explains his ambition to do what match reports alone cannot do and ‘elaborate about … scene or social background … convey a feeling of movement, or the personal discovery of place … a sense of a journey … those marginal impressions that make a summer of cricket what it is’, and my lasting impression of the book (perhaps more apparent in retrospect) is of a vision of England in the nineteen-fifties that contradicts the received view of it as stultifying and repressed, always in ‘monochrome’, dozily waiting to be woken into technicolour by the arrival of the Beatles.  Ross’s England is certainly relieved from the strains of war and austerity, but various, both traditional-pastoral and optimistically modern (there is an enthusiastic portrait of the rebuilt Coventry, which reads oddly now), and offering plenty of scope for stylish hedonism for those with a little money (Ross had married Jennifer Fry, the chocolate heiress, in 1949).

Between games Ross motors between grounds, at a time before mass car ownership or motorways, when motoring was an activity that could still be undertaken for pleasure (it is not until page 100 that he reveals he is driving a convertible, but I think that might have been assumed) :

‘Making my way out on the Buxton road, the evening was as clear as a bell.  A week earlier I had been sitting in the warm, riverside darkness of the Trout at Wolvercott, fireflies cruising the banks, and the crowned lion on the island thrusting through the poppies at the marauding peacock.  In hot sun, the hood down, I drove out of Oxford northwards through Warwick and Lichfield, skirting the sunken and smoking areas of the Potteries …’

and on until shadowing the Australians’ itinerary has shown him, as he says, ‘more of my own country than in all the other summers put together’.  A striking thing about these landscapes (and, as his allusions to Claude and Poussin suggest, he was a connoisseur of them) is that they are largely unpeopled : the few human beings who do stray into view are as voiceless as figures in a landscape.  Most travelogues depend for their colour (or ‘social background’) on chance meetings with interesting characters, or overheard conversations ; Ross’s is an interior, if not introspective, monologue voiced over exterior views.

His points of reference, when describing the cricket, sometimes glance backwards to the war : (at Headingley) ‘a cold wind blows up at us as sharply as over the bridge of a destroyer’ ; ‘One felt the bridge telegraph ringing down for more speed, and Lindwall hurled down several at Cowdrey.  The pitch softened them like a head sea …’ ; ‘far from forming the spearhead, they [Tyson and Statham] had ambled up like Base majors just in time for the champagnes of victory’ – allusions, which eleven years after the war had ended, will have been familiar to many of his readers.

Fewer of them will have had first-hand experience of quite the way of life implied by his other points of reference, which are those of a more intellectually sophisticated, less brutish, James Bond (Ross’s friend Ian Fleming later awarded him a cameo appearance (promoted to ‘Commander Ross’) in ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’, in which he was fed to crocodiles). 

‘Rain had toned up the pitch, acting on the close-cropped, fawn stubble rather in the manner of an after-shaving lotion’ (probably from Trumper’s, and exotic for 1956) ; Graveney’s batting ‘disseminated an air of the Burlington Arcade’ ; ‘a gentleman in white waiter’s jacket who looked as if he ought to have been dispensing Martinis rather than delicately brushing the wicket’ ; ‘fifty-nine runs, as reviving as a Bloody Mary to the appetite, came in the forty-five minutes play’ ; ‘A lot rested on winning the toss first – a simple roulette gamble, but the wheel stuck in mid-spin for a while …’ ; ‘Cowdrey and Richardson … played with such ease of attitude that they might have been club members reclining in favourite chairs, whisky and cigars to hand’ ; ‘one has become accustomed now, at about the aperitif hour, to this ritual procession to the Test match wickets …’ (I would have put the aperitif hour at not earlier than 5 o’clock, but Ross appears to be referring to the scheduled start of play).

The cricket, however vividly and scrupulously observed, features in the narrative only as a part of a civilised, and, apparently, enviable life, and reading the first half of the book offers an opportunity to take a cheap holiday in someone else’s happiness.  One might have expected (and Ross might have been hoping) that this post-war idyll would continue when he followed the England touring team to South Africa the following Winter, but, from the outset, his pursuit of pleasure is undercut by a creeping sense of unease.

The voyage out takes in a (largely) pre-tourist Las Palmas (‘the seedy and depressed-looking port’), passing Dakar two days later, encountering dolphins who are ‘unhindered by the hangovers and accidie of shipboard life’.  In a portent of changing times, he notes oil tankers diverted from their normal route by the Suez crisis (which, as readers of ‘The Observer’ would have been aware, had flared up between the two series).  He arrives at Cape Town twelve days after leaving the Canaries: ‘it has been an overcast and heavy trip, on which all bar records for the line have been broken. One felt oneself gingerly all over every morning and assessed the damage’ … ‘We tie up, and within the dusty howl of the wind, the heat is like an oven’. 

Ominously, before the first Test, ‘Hot Steam, a much-fancied runner in the Johannesburg Summer Handicap, broke a leg and was destroyed an hour after I had backed it.  Its owner-trainer suffered a simultaneous heart attack, as well might I have, as well might I.’ 

As in his account of the Summer, the narrative between Tests is mostly taken up by journeying, though the distances involved are greater : he travels from Cape Town to Pretoria by train, a distance of 999 miles, taking twenty-seven hours, mostly through semi-desert, but, luckily, the catering is well up to standard (‘Meals are six-course and admirable and the bar in the Observation Car sells you almost anything, including sherry at 9d. a glass, and gin at 1/-‘).  The African landscapes are more spectacular, and less unpeopled, glimpses of the native population adding colour to the flora and fauna :

‘The encircling mountains give off a bluish powder, low stony ridges lying like recumbent sphinxes under the afternoon glare.  Beneath occasional eucalyptus, groups of Africans are stretched out asleep.  I lunch on sweet melon, Cape Lobster and Chicken Maryland …’.

Although his natural inclination is to enjoy the sybaritic lifestyle available to English visitors, while painting picturesque word-pictures of the scenery, he cannot ignore the figures at the margins of the picture :

‘The Africans again are conspicuous by their absence, more noticeable sprawling at the roadside on the outskirts waiting for buses to their locations than in the heart of the capital.  They are, or have become, an unobtrusive people.’

Having quoted at length from an editorial in ‘Africa South’, probably by the soon-to-exiled Ronald Segal, written at the time of the ‘treason’ trials (his inverted commas) which coincided with Christmas and the Johannesburg Test, he concludes, with a hint of reluctance :

‘One can no more avoid, if one is a sentient human being, being involved in what goes on day to day than one can avoid being involved in the weather.  One may lunch in the Rand Club, play tennis in the afternoon, bridge in the evenings, and discuss over endless whiskies anything under the sun, but the shadow remains, the issue returns.  Moral problems have a way of refusing to be shelved.’

Although the shadow can never quite be lifted, it can be lightened by good food, drink and other pleasures, even cricket : as he says of the fourth Test (a South African victory) ‘a thrilling Test match has miraculously squeezed some of the poison out of South African life’.

His most memorable journey was a drive of nine hundred miles from Johannesburg to Cape Town, in his new car (a Nash Rambler), as the ‘speedometer needle dances between eighty and ninety’, embarked upon having stayed up all night (‘suddenly it was not worth going to bed at all’) to celebrate England’s victory in the first Test : he observes that ‘its charm, for those of a contemplative nature, is that, for the first eight hundred miles, there is precisely nothing to see.  Nothing, that is to say, which could commonly be called spectacular.’  This ability to derive and convey pleasure from contemplation for its own sake, rather than any inherent interest in what is observed, was to come in handy during the Test series, which contained very little that could ‘commonly be called spectacular’.   

The series was mainly notable for low, and slow, scoring.  Peter Richardson’s century in the First Test was, at the time, the slowest recorded, taking eight hours and eight minutes.  In the third Test, Hugh Tayfield bowled fourteen consecutive (eight-ball) maidens (nine of them to Trevor Bailey).  The fifth Test was the slowest in history, with runs coming at the rate of 1.40 per six balls. (Ross was either unaware of these records, too indifferent to statistics, or too mannerly to mention them.)  Later that year, restrictions on the number of leg-side fieldsmen were introduced, perhaps by someone who had witnessed the defensive bowling to a packed leg-side by Tayfield and Goddard that had stifled England’s batting. 

Ross contemplated Richardson’s innings with the same equanimity as his long desert drive : ‘bare as the Karoo though his innings had been, it was a fighter’s innings and even such spareness had its beauty’.  Bailey’s was of more a test of his patience, and provoked a rare example of Ross expressing overt disapproval, albeit with a lovely image :

 ‘The batting after tea was terrible in its listlessness and passivity.  Not only was no attempt made to score, but it seemed to be a point of principle to avoid runs.  Tayfield was encouraged, rather than allowed to bowl 14 maidens in a row, 9 of them to Bailey … For a whole hour Bailey neither envisaged nor made a scoring stroke … the sharp single had been discarded as a youthful frolic : the hypnotic maidens of Tayfield had become as soothing and necessary to Bailey as opium to a mandarin’.

As for the last Test, he is generous enough to lay most of the blame on the ‘ludicrous’ pitch.

At least at the beginning of the series, Ross was able to spin a silk purse out of this unpromising material, studded with sparkling observational gems.  As the tour progressed, and the length of time away from home increased (he arrived in South Africa on 5th December, and left on 11th March), his mind seemed increasingly to wander from the cricket and on to other matters, the nature of which we can only guess at (the reports on the last two Tests, which England lost, having won the first two, are, by his standards, a little perfunctory). 

On the drive through the Karoo, he had described lizards startled by the sound of his approaching car as ‘shooting into fresh positions with the alacrity of hotel guests surprised in unauthorised bedrooms’ ; from the air, some kopjes appear to him ‘as perfectly formed as the breasts of a Maillol woman’ ; Endean ‘had been on view four hours, and a stationary Follies’ nude does not bear contemplation without greater show of animation for a quarter that length of time’ ; after a burst of scoring, a difficult target becomes ‘like the desired wife of another … an unlikely, but faintly permissible dream’.

In the plane, on the first stage of the journey home with a selection of players from both sides, ‘Nobody has much to say.  Everyone, I think, has had enough, a little more than enough’.

On the cover of the other book I have found I had acquired, ‘Coastwise Lights’, it is hopefully trailed by the publisher as a volume of autobiography, an impression the author corrects in his preface, admitting that it is only ‘incidentally autobiography’.  Although it covers the period when he was the Cricket Correspondent of ‘The Observer’, the subject of cricket makes only a fleeting appearance, but then so does the author. 

The book opens with Ross staying in a shabby hotel in Paris : on a hot night he discovers that, by standing on the lavatory seat and looking through a ventilation grill, he can observe the occupants of a neighbouring flat : three middle-aged French people, mostly naked because of the heat.  By his usual method of close observation and vivid description, he makes their domestic doings fascinating, for a few pages. It seems apt that he was to go on to write for ‘The Observer’.

Looking back at his early book about a trip to Corsica, with the painter John Minton, he writes :

‘For some reason, perhaps out of genuine diffidence, I decided that ‘I’ or ‘we’ should not figure in the narrative, that Johnny and I should be invisible travellers, observing, experiencing, recording, but not intruding.  It was the result, perhaps, of too literal an obeisance to Christopher Isherwood’s method in ‘Goodbye to Berlin’, though his ‘I am a camera’ technique did not preclude his own considerable involvement in the lives of his characters. … The best travel books are nearly always as interesting for what the traveller tells us of his own experiences and feelings as for what he says about the country he travels through.’

Although he claims to think this self-effacement a fault, there is little sign that he is willing, or able, to overcome his extreme reticence about too much unmannerly self-revelation.

The book is in six sections : one about the painters Keith Vaughan and John Minton (and his travels with them) ; a British Council trip he made to Iraq ; various ‘drinkers and dandies’ he has known ; being sent by ‘The Observer’ to cover the war in Algeria in 1958, when their regular correspondent ‘went off his head’ (it is hard to imagine Vic Marks being pressed into service in similar circumstances) ; his time as Editor of ‘The London Magazine’ and publisher of London Editions ; his life, friends and neighbours in  Sussex and, finally, anecdotes from his time as a racehorse owner.

Ross seems to have known, or encountered, a remarkable number of well-known writers ; a tribute to his talent for making friends and connections, or, perhaps, the smallness of English literary life.  On a flight to Baghdad, he sits next to Agatha Christie (‘noticing her quiet assurance and fat legs’) ; he rents a villa in Ischia next door to one owned by Terence Rattigan (who ‘only wanted to talk about cricket’) ; John Betjeman (who was Godfather to his son), Stephen Spender and Anthony Powell were friends (originally, I think, of his wife) ; Derek Walcott and Laurie Lee signed his visitor’s book, alongside Len Hutton and Keith Miller. Looking for an illustrator for a children’s book he has written, he is introduced to a young Raymond Briggs.  His chief companion watching cricket at Hove is Jeremy Hutchinson QC (defender of Christine Keeler and Lady Chatterley, amongst others).

In a conventional autobiography this might seem like name-dropping, but in Ross’s it seems more of a ruse to avoid having to talk about himself.  And, rather than the great names, he devotes the most space to more minor figures who had been entertaining drinking companions, my favourite being Bernard Gutteridge, an advertising copywriter and poet :

‘Bernard was an unusual drinker.  He would be sitting happily beside you in a restaurant and bar, seeming to have drunk not very much.  Then, when it was time to go, he would turn rather guiltily and say ‘I’m sorry, my dear, but I’m not going to be able to get up.’  Nor could he.  He would have to be carried out.’

The book does shed a little retrospective light on the composition of the English section of ‘Cape Summer’, which seems to have been a less sunny time than I had supposed :

‘I drove about the country, mainly on secondary roads, trying to see it as if it were abroad … the attempt to write about England through a stranger’s eyes led me to all kinds of places I would never otherwise have seen.  Apart from the cricket it was a solitary, reflective time ; I drove alone through all kinds of weather and stayed in small country pubs when I wrote up the day’s journey.  At the end of it I felt I had learned something about England and something about myself.’

It is characteristic that he is too reticent to tell us openly quite what it was that he learned about himself.  Even when it comes to the more dramatic events in his life, he is the soul of indirection : although he apparently suffered from debilitating bouts of depression (perhaps caused, or exacerbated, by his wartime experiences), the only reference to this (in this volume, anyway) is in connection with Ian Fleming having featured him in ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ in return for giving him ‘only too familiar details about ECT’.  His only allusion to his wife having had the obligatory affair with Cyril Connolly is even more oblique (Connolly had given up the editorship of ‘Horizon’, then claimed that he wanted it back when it was offered to Ross) : ‘this was, alas, a typical Connolly reaction, often demonstrated in his relations with women, as I came to know to my cost’.

Occasionally, an observation about a friend leads to a personal admission : having reported Keith Vaughan’s feeling that he was being ‘superseded’ by newer styles of painting, he is prompted to reflect :

‘He was not alone in this feeling.  Like most others of my age, for whom the war had been the central experience of our lives, I too felt myself cut off, before I had even started, from an emerging generation for whom the war was an irrelevance and Britain’s imperial past, on which I had been brought up, an obscenity.’

Hints at this feeling that the world he had known was about to be swept away are sometimes detectable in his account of the South African trip, perhaps triggered by having witnessed Frank Tyson ‘rock’n’rolling’ at a party in Durban given by the Comptons (Ross’s bag was more in the way of blues and jazz). 

Ross had a natural cosmopolitanism, and a classical frame of reference, that was becoming unfashionable in the later nineteen-fifties (the time of ‘The Movement’, decolonisation and the kitchen sink) : like Paddy Leigh-Fermor and Lawrence Durrell (two writers who inhabited a similar mental universe), he had been born in India (and spoke Hindustani as a first language), although, unlike them, he was not actively anglophobic, tethered to England by, if nothing else, his love of cricket, and able to write as lovingly about Hove as they were to write about Greece.

Ross’s obituary in ‘The Guardian’ said of his poetry that it was ‘oddly impersonal’, and the same might be said of his autobiography, but, at a time when self-revelation is hardly in short supply, I find his reluctance to indulge in it more of a relief than a frustration : it is unusual, these days, to finish a book wanting to know more, rather than less, about its author.  Nor do I regret the lack (for all his intentions) of socio-political context in his writings : we are hardly short of that either.  Ross was a fetishist of the particular, a mind too fine to be violated by ideas, and the substance of his writing lies in brilliant images, rather than sustained argument (which is why, as you may have noticed, the best way to illustrate it is by extensive quotation).  So, as a farewell, here is his own farewell to South Africa :

‘But in the end, it is not the problems that one takes away : they are for those who remain, though inevitably in what one writes and thinks and says elsewhere, one carries on the act of identification. There are many sides to every South African question, but problems of behaviour are the same the world over, however unique their context. 

Rather do I think now, with the rain dripping from the plane trees and the mist softening the harsher outlines of mines and suburbs, of that quality of light and landscape which is peculiarly African : the red, grass-brushed earth running away into the purple-blue of the mountains – colours that are indefinable and which do not travel in painting – the flat-topped hills and kopjes, green and curled in Natal, dry and dusty in the Transvaal, the grey-green watered silk of the sugar cane, the terraced vines of Constantia in the Cape that have produced, among a dozen admirable wines, one spectacularly good dry white one, the Residence Montpelier Riesling, from Stellenbosch ; the coast north of Durban, with its pines and rocks and sand firm enough to inscribe with messages between tides, the fresh-scented beginning and end to day in the Karoo, the palm-divided sundowns over Johannesburg.  It is out of these that we make our private image of Africa, these are what sustain the long vibrations and distant drum-beats of the heart.’

I now know whose works to look out for next season, to lighten a dull moment at Grace Road (should there to be any).

2 thoughts on “The Casual Knack of Living

  1. Yes, I guess Alan Ross is another of the post war cricket writers that is in danger of being forgotten.Many years ago I bought three of his books at a ‘Bruce French’ benefit auction, and I think that ‘Through the Caribbean’ is my favourite. He must have been a decent cricketer, a war time blue who once played for Northamptonshire at Barwell. I had never heard of Coastwise Lights, which sounds interesting and a bit different from my usual reading matter.

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    • I’m afraid that most cricket-writers of the past are read less and less, which is a great pity. Reading them is a way of making cricket’s past come alive again. I knew he’d played a wartime game for Northants. When J.L Carr was trying to persuade him to publish ‘A Season in Sinji’, he was worried Ross might be put off by its being ‘a book about cricket’ – Ross reminded Carr he’d played a game for his adopted county. ‘Coastwise Lights’ is very entertaining, though – as I’ve suggested – not mostly about cricket.

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