Letters from an autocrat

Gubby Under Pressure: Letters From Australia, New Zealand and Hollywood by Brian Rendell
(ACS Publications, 106pp, £12.00)

Gubby Allen, the autocrat of the Lord's Long Room, was known as "Gubby" because his initials were GOB. His family knew him as "Obie"; that is how he signed letters to his mother and father written when he was England captain during the Ashes tour of 1936-37.

That series was won by Australia after they had lost the first two Tests, and it is probably best known for Allen's response when Walter Robins dropped Don Bradman: "It has probably cost us the rubber, but don't give it a thought," he said. If the catch had been dropped in the third Test, Allen's cruel jibe might have been true, but Brian Rendell tells us that the exchange took place in the second Test, which means it had no decisive bearing on the outcome of the series.

But the remark is authentic Allen. Rendell's slim and revealing volume shows Allen as a master of self-pity, quick to complain about having to make too many speeches and not being free to attend parties given by his Australian relations and their posh friends. He was a control freak who insisted that he chose and ran the team and then moaned when they lost. "I think we were a rotten side," he concluded. He seems to have been happiest when he left the team behind and partied with film actors in Hollywood at the end of the tour.

Rendell tells the story of a fascinating and frustrating tour plainly and well, letting details from the letters bolster the narrative. This leads to some duplication but the full text of the letters does Allen's posthumous standing no good. He describes the aboriginals at station stops on the Nullarbor Plain: "They really are a ghastly sight and the sooner they die out the better." They have lasted rather longer than Allen's reputation.