John Arlott

A lover of cricket and life


It is not an empty cliché to say of John Arlott that he was the voice of cricket. In his early days at the BBC, the house style was pukka, formal and, whenever possible, scripted. John brought the eye and tongue of a poet; the accent and timbre of a Hampshire grave-digger's son; and the courage to describe a whole scene, to give a rich game its setting. He knew cricket more in the way of the lover than of the critic, and as such tended to romanticise the performers.

His own disappointed aspirations as player (he appeared for Hampshire Club and Ground in 1937 as an opening batsman) never soured into envy or rancour. He saw professional cricketers, with few exceptions, as honest and likeable craftsmen in a worthy tradition. He regarded the invitation from the Cricketers' Association to be its first president, a post he held from 1968 to his death, as a great honour. In his later years as a member of the Radio 3 Test match team - by which time the individuality and informality, which his own example among others had encouraged, had often descended to triviality and egocentricity - John gave the commentary a needed ballast of objectivity and seriousness.

John Arlott was born in Basingstoke in 1914. He was an only child in a happy family. Hating his sadistic headmaster, he left school at sixteen after failing the School Certificate "spectacularly". He worked in local government; then as a clerk in a mental hospital, calculating the amounts of each item of food needed daily by the wards.

In 1934 he joined the Southampton police force. He enjoyed his eleven years on the beat, but his interests were wider. He must have been an unusual policeman, composing poetry on quiet duties and writing programmes free-lance for the BBC. This led in 1945 to his first job with the BBC, as a staff producer. Soon the opportunity came to broadcast cricket. He toyed with the idea of modifying his country accent but, thankfully for him and the rest of us, was dissuaded. He started, too, his prolific cricket-writing career, which continued beyond his retirement in 1980 from radio and TV until his death.

In 1949, when he stopped off in Sicily on his way home from the MCC tour of South Africa, he was introduced to the local wines. Thus began yet another passion and career, on the fruit of the vine, and on the food, particularly cheeses, to be eaten with it. He always regretted that cricket is not played in the Latin countries.

John Arlott managed to combine qualities that do not often come together. He was both passionate and moderate in his opinions. He was a lover of tradition - policeman, cricketer, historian, collector - and a rebel against many authorities: he was outspoken in his antagonism to the regime in South Africa, and had little time for sports administrators, dismissing Lord's as feudal.

Among all else, he found the time and energy to stand as the Liberal candidate in two parliamentary elections in the 1950s. He regarded his part in bringing Basil D'Oliveira to England in 1960, to play in the Central Lancashire League, as one of the best things he did in his life. As a diplomat and negotiator, he sometimes found that the need for restraint was tested by his sentiment and conviction, but he nevertheless steered the Cricketers' Association towards a constructive role in both the major divisive issues of the past twenty years - South Africa and Packer.

In his personal life, John suffered two untimely losses. On New Year's Eve of 1965 his eldest son, Jimmy, was killed at 21 in a motorbike accident. Then in March 1976 came the death at 42 of his much-loved second wife, Valerie.His son's death changed John's vision; at a deep level he felt thereafter that there could not be any underlying meaning in life. The second loss increased his tendency to lugubriosity. The pleasures of life, of friendship, family, cricket, wine, food, poetry, were real enough, but even the best moments were tinged with an awareness of their inevitable ending. So a claret or an innings became "desperately" good, and those protruding eyes would fill with tears.

He became less healthy. Too much tobacco, wine and food left him with chronic bronchitis. He would emerge panting from his cellar at lunch-time, clutching armfuls of dusty bottles. He became overweight and less handsome. His move to Alderney in 1981 was in part motivated by the need for clean air, though living on a small island also satisfied some longing for solitude, for the rhythm of the sea and no doubt for much else.

Over the last two to three years, John suffered badly from the deterioration in his health, and needed constant care. This he received with steadfast love and patience from his third wife, Pat. Others, too, were tolerant and affectionate, moved by the hints of the person he had been and by the shell that he had almost become. Now he often demanded company and feared being alone. He was also afraid of dying, but the end came peacefully, in his sleep in the early morning on Saturday, December 14, 1991. Pat and his much loved sons, Tim and Robert, were with him in the house and had spent the previous evening at his bedside.

Until the last painful phase, despite the grief and the ill health, and despite the increasing tendency to monologue, John remained immensely generous and lovable. He was a marvellous raconteur, ranging brilliantly over past and present while from time to time shaking his head and hand as if to say: "But what does it all matter?"

And he did feel that cricket mattered not a jot in comparison, say, with the death of one person in the violence of Ulster. He acknowledged that cricket and wine and aquatints are in the last resort marginal, so, recognising this, he would in mid-flow subtly (with, as I say, this characteristic little demurring, self-dismissive, pushing-away gesture with his hand and fingers) undermine the importance of his story before embarking on another.

As to generosity, I think of it as a wide-ranging attitude of thought and of deed. His hospitality was rich. He liked strong foods, pates, smoked eel, meat, matured cheese; he was not bothered about delicacies much - sweets, salads, chocolates. I suppose you could call it a man's taste- with perhaps an apple pie permitted as a robust dessert. He was generous in thought, too, though he could be savage about those he found to be beyond the pale of decency and kindness.

He was generous with his time. In the company of friends, John never made one aware of his other commitments and anxieties; he wanted to talk over a meal and long beyond. I once sat down to Sunday lunch with John, his family and some friends at two o'clock, and we did not get up from the table until ten at night.

On leaving South Africa in 1949, John left blank the section marked "race" on a form provided by the immigration authorities. When an Afrikaner official insisted that the space had to be filled, John spat out: "I am a member of the human race."

Much of this article first appeared in the Sunday Times, and is reproduced with the kind permission of the newspaper.

© John Wisden & Co