Saturday, May 29, 2010

Of Didcot and the Demon, the cricket journalism of Alan Gibson

Even before the jetlag had worn off on my recent trip to the frozen north, I was off to Waterstone’s to buy Of Didcot and the Demon. It’s a delight.

The bulk of the book is taken up with Gibson’s reports in The Times of county matches from the mid-sixties to the mid-eighties. I’ve spent many days at the cricket that were less entertaining than Alan Gibson’s learned, funny, elegant, idiosyncratic reports on them in the following morning’s paper.

On-field events were not necessarily his main focus. Plenty of reports in this collection make no mention of the game until several paragraphs in. A Gibson report would often begin with an account of his journey to the ground, an often tortuous one at the hands of British Rail, leaving him stranded on the platform of Didcot station at about the time play was due to start.

He had a fondness for the game’s spear carriers, and seemed to prefer to write about what was going on near the wings than what was happening downstage centre. His favourites were identified by the names he chose for them, and their achievements would be assiduously recorded, however insignificant they might be. Chief among them was the eponymous Demon of Frome, Somerset’s medium-fast bowler Colin Dredge. A Dredge 34 not out against Surry in 1982 took up half the report, Viv Richards’ 181 not out a few lines.

The stirring deeds of tail-end batsmen generally were a pleasing weakness of Gibson’s. On Dredge again:

Dredge, looking every inch a Frome opening batsman, was bowled, although he had played one stylish stroke which staggered the infield and produced four byes.
He was good on boring batting too. PJK Gibbs, the Derbyshire opener, was a regular target:

The evening was enlivened by a characteristic innings from Fireman Gibbs, who had scored one in half an hour when I stopped counting.
As befits a man with a first (in history) from Oxford, he was not afraid of scattering literary and classical allusions around:

This morning was commandingly, but, as it turned out, delusively attractive, like a fairy woman of the Hebrides, or a call by Boycott.
But his writing was much more than a collection of one-liners. His profiles of cricketers past and present showed not only a deep understanding of cricket, but also the ability to discern the character of men through the way they approach the game. His piece on the Graveneys, Ken, Tom and David, is the best of these.

A Yorkshireman by birth, Gibson spent most of his adult life in the west, and places that I know well crop up throughout. At the start of the book we find him newly married to his second wife, a young woman from the BBC, and living in Queen’s Court, Clifton, the big, sweeping building that resembles an ocean liner aground on the Victoria Rooms.

In the late seventies the Gibsons moved to High Littleton in north Somerset, and the village pub, the Star, began to feature regularly in his reports:

I left High Littleton with some reluctance, for the Star were due to play the Butcher’s Arms in the final of the Chew Valley shove-halfpenny competition.
For seven years my route to work took me through High Littleton, past the Star. I would always think of Alan Gibson and fortify myself for the unequal daily struggle with the youth of north Somerset by recalling some of his best lines.

Alan Gibson was also a radio commentator, one of the best. My ideal line-up of Test Match Special commentators would be Gibson, John Arlott and Don Mosey, troubled men all. His radio career came to an abrupt end at the Headingley test of 1975, when he turned up worse for wear for a late afternoon commentary stint.

And there’s the problem. The impression you get of Gibson from his writing would be that of a genial, contented man, and that could not be more misleading. He was an alcoholic, prone to serious depression. His eldest son Anthony Gibson, who put this collection together, writes a narrative at the start of each year’s selection. It is an affectionate, honest catalogue of his father’s decline, which by 1985 found him back at Queen’s Court, but now alone and living on whisky and tinned corned beef.

I last saw him either that year or the next. He was in his early sixties, but looked twenty years older as he shuffled on the arm of the catering manager from the Hammond Room at the County Ground, Bristol (he preferred writing in bars to press boxes) to his taxi. The business of reporting was almost beyond him (and the exasperated sub-editors of The Times) at that stage, but he could still turn out a memorable line, such as this about one of his regular cast members, Rev Andrew Wingfield Digby, bowling for Dorset against Somerset in the 60-over knock-out competition:

Wingfield Digby looked much the same, with those long legs consorting so oddly with his short strides in the run-up, like an evangelical curate approaching a session with the Bishop of London.
The beauty of the writing is matched by the book’s presentation, 315 large-format pages on high-quality paper, superbly designed with a fine selection of photographs. This is the work of Stephen Chalke’s Fairfield Books. Chalke has done more than anybody to maintain cricket’s literary tradition in the face of the digital revolution, and deserves thanks and admiration for returning the words of Alan Gibson to print.

Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket

In the same package as this year’s Wisden , there arrived Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket , co-authored by Stephen Fay ...