John Arlott: A Memoir

In the name of the father

Arlott wasn't perfect and this book, by his son, readily admits so

David Frith

August 16, 2008

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The author, John Arlott's own son, was given a rough time by several smart-arse reviewers, big-timers who saw themselves as more significant figures than Tim Arlott and who pretended they had known John better than they had. Tim was pilloried for revealing the less attractive side of his famous dad. But it was actually an act of courage to create such a realistic profile, for he truly loved his father. And it is not widely known that a few other publishers had already rejected the manuscript on the grounds that it didn't "dish any dirt". The finished work still rose high in the bestsellers lists.

It remains an intimate portrait such as no outsider could have constructed. Tim lived under the same roof as the Most Famous Voice in England through childhood, adolescence and early manhood. They loved each other. But who in his right mind would kid himself that JA, any more than any other husband and father, was quite perfect? If this revelation of his imperfections - especially in the face of cruel bereavement and the suffering in old age endured by John Arlott - should make for too disturbing a read, then alternative material should be sought.

There is good-quality, moving writing here, often with the touch of Arlott senior, with some vulgar snippets tossed in. It begins with the tragic death of John's 20-year-old son Jim (Tim's brother) in 1965, which destabilised Arlott senior for the remaining 26 years of his life, and it ends with a description of John's physical and psychological disintegration such as might make some readers weep. In between flows detail of the family background: JA the poet, JA the policeman, JA the unlikely (for that time) BBC literary figure, the tyro cricket commentator who became the dream performer once his voice slowed and deepened (how poorly served are listeners and television viewers today by comparison). He was, too, a prolific writer, an energetic Liberal Party activist, collector of aquatints, and a wine buff with a peerless capacity for consumption. Then comes the blunt, harrowing displacement of his first wife by his second. He could not stop himself: "The seventeen years my father was married to Valerie were the happiest of his life." Even Tim could not begrudge his father this.

A revealing quote comes halfway through the book: "That wasn't a row, that was a discussion," explained young Tim after a session with his father. John could indeed be robust in a dispute, but always there was the glass or two to soothe. There are laughs here, and profundity - and a stirring story of how JA beat up a soccer thug on a train. Then came another grievous blow when Valerie died at 44. I remember the intensity of his grief. We thought we were about to lose him.

Damaged yet again by family tragedy, John eventually resumed something vaguely resembling normal life, removing himself and his adoring and supportive new wife Pat to the island of Alderney. The last mainland friend to go there, I drove him down to the wild shoreline, where we sipped cognac from outrageous polystyrene cups. He whispered that he would not live much longer, and died a few days later. Tragedy was the thread that ran visibly through this wonderful man's adult life, and his son has charted it immaculately - alongside all the sophistication and the fun.

From the book
"Dad went round the house collecting Jim's belongings to give them away or burn them. He waded deep into the grief, the only way his personality could handle it. The police gave him back Jim's wallet with a couple of blood-stained pound notes (the policeman had known Jim, so Dad had not needed to identify him). Driving home at night from football matches or engagements in the months following Jim's death, he would charge his car at hapless lorry drivers, swerving away at the last moment. If a lorry driver had not been working on New Year's Eve, Jim would have been alive - so run the irrational thoughts of bereaved parents."

John Arlott: A Memoir
by Timothy Arlott
Deutsch, 1994

David Frith is an author, historian, and the founding editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly

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