46 Not Out September 20, 2008

Torrential eloquence, concealed sadness

In his writing Robertson-Glasgow always toiled for the right word and the arresting simile, evoking a world of grace and ease

In his own words, RC Robertson-Glasgow was "doomed to affront those to whom cricket is a quasi-religion". No high-falutin' claims about the game for him while he was correspondent of the Morning Post and the Observer. Press-box colleagues knew him for his blithe spirit, torrential eloquence and reverberating laugh; all three pervade his writing, beginning with The Brighter Side of Cricket (1933).

There was sadness, too, albeit well concealed. A sufferer from bipolar disorder, Robertson-Glasgow had his first breakdown in 1921, a second in 1924, and a third in 1931, when he attempted suicide. He lost hope again when his father died in 1938, and he found the austerity of post-war England an acute hardship. His autobiography 46 Not Out, written as a form of therapy, begins with his learning cricket "in the stable-yard, far away from the house, with a tennis ball, against a broom, under the gilt-handed clock, which had stopped at twenty to nine". He wished for a world where time could be similarly stilled: in objection to a modern world "emasculated by crooning and filed to nothing by wisecracks", 46 Not Out evokes a lost world of grace and ease. But it is as fond and funny as any life story in the game's literature, filled with lines any writer would envy. Charlie Macartney is nowhere better summed up: "He made slaves of bowlers." Lionel Tennyson is visible in Robertson-Glasgow's image: "He received the fast bowlers as the oak receives the storm."

Robertson-Glasgow's weakness as a journalist, it is said, was deadlines, such were his toils in pursuit of the right word and the arresting simile. In 46 Not Out, we have the care, the lapidary descriptions, the flavoursome vignettes, without the angst. He grew up around vivid women like Splendo-smoking, confectionery-coveting Auntie Bug, dabbler in theosophy and spiritualism; and taciturn men, particularly his father, who communicated mainly by correspondence of severe economy: "I see you got a few wickets at Weston-Super-Mare. I lost two fish yesterday." Figures from the writer's education come to rumbustious life, from his suffragette teacher Miss Mona, who "would have made a kindergarten suck up Irregular Verbs like barley-sugar", to his classics master Frank Dames-Longworth with his perfect trouser creases and perfectly caustic tongue. Danes-Longworth once disposed of an incompetent student with a long-suffering air: "Sit down, boy, for heaven's sake, till you can get your sexes right. Women don't beget; they bear; a fact of which you may one day become cognisant, to your cost."

"Stupid figures," Robertson-Glasgow laments at one point, apropos arithmetic. "How I loathed them, and loathe them still. What a mess mathematics make of man, damming his generous currents, frowning on joyous fallibility, pursing the dry lip at admirable error." In fact, Robertson-Glasgow took 464 wickets at 26 bowling brisk medium pace for Oxford University and Somerset between 1920 and 1937, but statistics were to him a mean measure; he described a spell of 0 for 97 from 43 overs, well nigh perfectly, as "much ado about nothing". Cricket was for fun - and if it wasn't fun, it held no purpose. Five years after the publication of 46 Not Out, he stood up in the press box, announced tersely that he was finished, and retreated to the cottage where in March 1965 he took the overdose of barbiturates that finally killed him.

From the book (on Arthur Mailey):
Arthur was a great bowler, with a teasing flight and acute power of spin. He was witty, quiet and easy-natured, and the seriousness required for Test cricket didn't rise naturally in him. He loved casual matches, where he could appear in old sandshoes and give away please-yourself runs to some local mayor or notable.

I believe his early days had been something of a struggle; anyhow, he had a fondness for dead-end kids, and would sign their autograph books with running questions about their private lives and ideas, and draw them comic and simian pictures of himself, with button nose and wide space between it and the mouth. I never saw Arthur bustled or bothered. If he got no wickets or plenty, why, there was another innings or match coming along. If he missed a train, well, someone would find a timetable with another one in it. He had a soft and quizzical way of speech. Of all the Australians I have known, he had the surest understanding of the English outlook and temperament, and the keenest awareness of Australian foibles.

There will often be argument as to whether Mailey or [Clarrie] Grimmett was the great bowler. Grimmett, with his persistent length and lower flight, was the more economical. Mailey liked, and was blessed with, more runs to play with. He would seem to have been collared, then suddenly win with an unplayable legbreak. Of the two, both cricketers of genius, Mailey was the more likely to defeat the great batsman who was well set. Grimmett caused Mailey deep and quiet delight; and Mailey used to relate how Grimmett, a New Zealander, came to him soon after his entry into Australian cricket and asked questions about their gyratory art. Mailey told him all he knew. Years later, when Grimmett had won fame, there was some banquet or reunion at which both were present. Grimmett, probably elated by unaccustomed good cheer, for he was a man of abstinence, came up to Mailey and said in that voice like a ventriloquist speaking through a watering-can: "Arthur, you told me wrong about the Bowzie." Rather as if Virgil had been accused by Horace of giving misleading information on the number of feet in the Hexameter!

46 Not Out
by Raymond Robertson-Glasgow

Hollis & Carter, 1948

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer