1997

Alan Gibson

ALAN GIBSON always struck me as the academic who got lost on his way to the cricket ground. He wore his scholarship proudly and at times rather too prominently. He couldn't resist sprinkling classical allusions into his conversation, match reports and radio commentaries. As I found to my cost, he could also be momentarily scathing over a pedantic point of syntax. `Foot, old chap, you could do better than that if you tried - you're always in too much of a hurry.' He may have been inclined to be a cultural snob but there were also the decidedly matey days when he switched from Defoe, Hazlitt and the Romantics to talk about Real Ale and to chuckle over memories of the Demon of Frome (Colin Dredge), a title bestowed by Alan, and even to reminisce about big Jack Chisholm, one-time legendary defender at Plymouth Argyle.

At Queen's College he gained a First in history and was president of the Oxford Union. The university lecturing that followed offered a meagre living and in 1948 he applied to the West Region for what amounted to an audition. It was the start of a long and varied career in broadcasting: everything from parochial features and religious programmes to voice-overs and lively, unscripted editions of Good Morning (full of dreadful jokes and endearing badinage with fellow compère Derek Jones) that predated the era of the disc-jockey.

And then there was Alan's sport. He did hundreds of reports, from Plymouth and then Bristol, on cricket and rugby for regional programmes like Sport in the West and Sportspage. He would arrive in a taxi straight from the ground, scribbling notes and impressions during the journey. He was happiest of all off script, although his written pieces - on the arts, archaeology and West Country history, for instance - were beautifully rounded. He wrote in short sentences, and he had the advantage of an excellent voice, never hurrying or failing to gain the maximum nuance from a particular adjective.

It was 14 years before he was awarded a Test match. He became, on merit, a member of the TMS radio commentary team. He steered away from frivolities and cliché; he would come up with a valued insight and had a sound technical knowledge. He also had, alas, a thirst. There were several warnings. On one occasion, the producer was so concerned that he called up a head of department and asked him to listen. That was the Headingley Test of 1975.

Gibson was discreetly dropped after that. No letter was sent to him. The psychology was that he might feel less hurt if nothing was said officially. In fact, he was greatly upset, though for the most part he bottled it up. There were moments of honest self-analysis when he confided that his dismissal had been partly self-induced. `But the umpire's finger went up too quickly,' he used to say. He was burdened by guilt - about his drinking, his anger, his failure twice at matrimony, and probably his rejection of academia - and yet, whether as broadcaster or journalist, he needed his bottle a day.

He didn't much like the press-box, but frequently tapped me on the shoulder and whispered: `There's a double waiting in the Stragglers' Bar.' Maybe he wanted a companion; he couldn't stand the sycophants and county cricket's eternal bores who waylaid him at every curve of the boundary. There were rows as well as wickets for him to record. In fact, he didn't write too much about the cricket. He did devote several paragraphs to the black eye he once received.

That brings us to his quirky, distinctive writing style. He began his match reports - latterly for The Times, earlier for the Sunday Telegraph and The Guardian- in late afternoon. Out would come the expensive fountain pen, when he could find it. Usually he had his back to the play, and his glass was never empty. He might, oddly, tell readers who had won the toss: then he was off, in a discursive and peripheral account of his daily thoughts. They must often have confused and irritated sub-editors, pragmatically obsessed with matters of space, rather than erudition and eccentricity.

Alan wandered off into local geographical reminiscence. At Gloucester he complained bitterly in print about the lack of ice to put in his Scotch; at Cheltenham, he huffed amusingly about the primitive plumbing in the gents'. He would sit in the Hammond Bar at Bristol and make regular cryptic references to GRIP. This turned out to be `The Glorious Red-headed Imperturbable Pamela' who supervised the drinks there. Most of all, of course, he wrote about Didcot station. His adventures on the railways were interminable. Often he seemed to take the wrong train, ending up at Didcot in the early hours of the morning. He gave Didcot immortality in loving, poetic terms, and Betjeman must have been envious.

Over the years he showed kindness and encouragement to many; he could also give you a thoroughly hard time. In one memorable, noisy scene at Taunton, his favourite ground, he wrongly accused me on his late return from the bar of having taken his seat. When once he was hitching a lift home with an ex-player and was insisting on a few alcoholic stops which were not welcome that evening, I tactfully suggested our mutual friend had a date and needed to get back to Bristol. Gibson rounded on me and viciously accused me of having no taste. I reminded him that I knew the former cricketer well and he wasn't in the least offended. `But I am!' Alan exploded. I have, however, much for which to thank him. In the late'50s I was hauled out of the press tent at Glastonbury to do my first broadcast, ten minutes of commentary, when Alan failed to turn up. And when he had more or less left the BBC and was doing a stint for HTV, I was privileged to be asked by him to be his partner. `Let's make it a pleasant conversation,' he said.

Alan, father of four, died in a Taunton nursing-home on April 10, aged 73. There were earlier mental battles in his life; he spent some time in a psychiatric hospital and more than once contemplated suicide. In his time, this son of a Baptist minister was a lay preacher, Liberal candidate, president of the Cricket Writers' Club, and a genuine Voice of Cricket. He left us with a fund of stories and many cherished memories.

© John Wisden & Co