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Crusoe

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As the name suggests Raymond Robertson-Glasgow was a Scotsman, born in 1901. It is something of a commentator’s nightmare, but that didn’t bother anyone after 21 May 1920 when, whilst playing for Oxford University against Essex, Robertson-Glasgow bowled the veteran Essex opening batsman Charlie McGahey with a full toss. Returning to the pavilion McGahey, furious with himself, complained to his skipper, Johnny Douglas that his dismissal had been effected by an old bugger I thought had been dead for two thousand years, Robinson Crusoe.

Crusoe, as he was forever to be known, had an unusual background, and one very much of its time. His father was a military man who subsequently managed a Scottish estate. He seems to have had no interest in cricket or, more generally, his two children and Crusoe’s mother, to whom oddly enough Crusoe was devoted, does not appear to have been a maternal woman at all. In the circumstances much of young Crusoe’s time was spent with his father’s chauffeur, and it is he who fostered the interest in cricket.

Eventually young Crusoe was sent to a prep school in Surrey, from whence it was Charterhouse and then Oxford to read Classics. In each of his four years at Oxford Crusoe won a blue. He was a fast medium right arm bowler who although probably just short of Test class, must have come pretty close to earning an invitation to tour Australia with Arthur Gilligan’s side in 1924/25.

By that time Crusoe had played a good deal of cricket. In addition to his games for the University he was also playing county cricket in the later weeks of each season. His first five wicket haul for the University had come against Somerset and, with no affiliation to any other county, Crusoe was happy to accept an invitation from skipper Jack Daniell to play for them later in the summer.

In 1923, a year in which there were no visitors to England and no winter tour, Crusoe took 108 wickets at 18.33 in the only full season he was ever to play. Teaching kept him occupied for most of 1924, but against Middlesex at Lord’s in only his second game of the summer, in what were apparently benign conditions, he took 9-38 and in the course of that hitting the stumps seven times. A reasonable showing followed on the only occasion he was ever chosen to play for the Gentlemen at Lord’s, but that showpiece fixture turned out to be the highlight of Crusoe’s time as a player.

There was never a proper career path for Crusoe who, as noted, went into teaching after graduating. He taught at his old prep school in Surrey. He also did some writing, and eventually impressed the editor of the Morning Post sufficiently to be offered a post in 1933, initially as golf correspondent. In time he was to move on to the Daily Telegraph, The Observer and finally the Sunday Times.

The black dog of depression stalked Crusoe throughout his life. He had his first breakdown at University in 1921, and it was by no means the last. His recurrent troubles are well known and chronicled in a number of places, but it is a subject that Crusoe himself, perhaps understandably, rarely mentioned. He couldn’t avoid the issue altogether however, and in his autobiography, 46 Not Out, wrote only those who have suffered it know the hell of mental illness. In the more enlightened times in which we now live, where cricketers no longer have the same reticence in discussing mental health, one wonders what he might have added.

The first suicide attempt was in the early 1930s, and Crusoe was left with scars on his neck to remind him of it. Subsequent attempts were overdoses, although on at least one occasion he notified others of what he had done in sufficient time to ensure he was not lost to us. He was hospitalised on several occasions when his mental health broke down.

Crusoe was never, it would seem, what would in those days have been called a ‘lady’s man’ but in 1943 he married Elizabeth, who he had met when she had nursed him in a Northampton hospital five years previously. The alliance was a happy one, although hard work for Elizabeth, who had to look after Crusoe almost like a child. According to his step son Crusoe’s practical skills did not extend beyond boiling a kettle, and despite his career in the press he did not own a typewriter, and all his copy was written by hand.

Only 52 when he gave up the job of cricket correspondent with The Observer Crusoe spent the rest of his life writing from his home in Berkshire on a freelance basis. He had a regular column in the Sunday Times, but that apart was able to pick and choose what he did. His mental health troubles never left him and eventually, in 1965, whilst snowed in at home he took an overdose of barbiturates and this time there was not time enough for him to be pulled back from the brink. The build up of snow prevented the ambulance getting to him as speedily as it might, and although some have suggested that anguish at the severe weather was the catalyst for taking the overdose that does not in fact seem to be the case.

There are similarities between Crusoe and his famous contemporary, Neville Cardus. Both have reputations based on their writing for newspapers rather than in book form, and both their oeuvres stand the test of time very well, but the styles are very different. Cardus’ writing is descriptive and discursive, whereas Crusoe’s has a lightness of touch and economy of words that Cardus never sought to achieve.

The pair did, of course, know each other. Did they get on well? It is clear from the writings of others of their time that Crusoe was popular and well liked amongst his fellow writers, whereas Cardus was perhaps more respected than genuinely liked. The pair seem however to have got on well. In Second Innings Cardus described Crusoe as enriching the press box, and that he was charged with brain and wit as much as anybody. Crusoe’s view of Cardus, in typical style, was that he made cricket readers of many who would not cross the road to see a stump fly or a ball driven against the sight screen.

Neither Cardus nor Crusoe ever wrote up a life of anyone other than themselves. Like Cardus Crusoe only ever wrote one cricket book on a single subject, and indeed it was the same subject, an Ashes tour of Australia. Unlike the book Cardus wrote on the 1936/37 Ashes series however for a variety of reasons although Crusoe’s on the 1950/51 series was completed it never appeared.

The first book Crusoe published had appeared in 1933 and was titled The Brighter Side Of Cricket. It contains some poetry, a bit of fiction and short pieces concerned with all levels of the game.  In the words of Alan Ross its contents are what cricket is really about, its jokey comedy, its rich nostalgia and fantasies.

The best known Crusoe titles appeared in 1943 and 1948, Cricket Prints and More Cricket Prints. These are, in large part, collections of player profiles that first appeared in The Observer, more in the nature of vignettes than essays. They are universally excellent, and to give a flavour of what any reader can expect the following are extracts:-

On Yorkshire and England opening batsman Herbert Sutcliffe;

…. the sort of man who would rather miss a train than run for it, and so be seen in disorder and heard breathing heavily.

On the majestic Kent left hander Frank Woolley;

….. he was easy to watch, difficult to bowl to, and impossible to write about. When you bowled to him there weren’t enough fielders and when you wrote about him there weren’t enough words.

On the unconventional Surrey all-rounder and captain Percy Fender;

….. he hated the dull finish, the formal declaration, the expected stroke, the workaday over.He rescued treasures of cricket from dust and oblivion, snatched off the covering, and showed them to an astounded and delighted public.

On Kent and England leg spinner Doug Wright;

… the art of which Wright is so fine an exponent, is a mysterious thing. We may envy it, bat fleetingly against it, observe it from close quarters or through telescopes, but I doubt if we ever quite understand it well enough to become fully qualified as critics.

On the Middlesex and England batsman Bill Edrich, on the subject of his bowling;

His bowling at times is genuinely fast. His run up is of only eight or nine yards, but he covers them as if he had seen a sudden opening in the defence at White Hart Lane, and he hurls the ball with a full swing of back and arm.

On Edrich’s ‘twin’, the brilliant Denis Compton;

Enjoyment , given and felt, is the chief thing about Compton’s batting. It has the ease and freshness which the formality of the First Class game has not injured. It is a clear flowing stream; a breath of half holiday among work days.

and finally, on the greatest of them all, Don Bradman;

…. was that rarest of nature’s creations, an artist without the handicap of the artistic temperament, a genius with an eye to business. In the commerce of cricket he was the best salesman that the game has yet seen.

And that, realistically, was the end of Crusoe’s ‘serious’ cricket writing. There are three more books, but they are more akin to The Brighter Side Of Cricket than the two Prints books. The first was Rain Stopped Play, a slim 96 page volume comprising as many as fifty short pieces culled from the pages of The Observer. A few pieces at the end are short articles about individual players, but there are only five of those.

The penultimate cricket book from Crusoe’s pen was All In The Game, which appeared in 1952. Another collection of fillers from The Observer it is much the same in scope as its predecessor and both books, and indeed The Brighter Side of Cricket all appear in Padwick in a section entitled Anecdote, Humour and Satire. There is some serious stuff in All In The Game however, in particular a memorable and moving tribute to Harold Larwood, from a good opening bowler to a great one, to mark Larwood’s migration to Australia in 1950; Boys ask, “How fast was Larwood” …… the answer is, about as fast as a human being can bowl, and as straight.

The last contribution to cricket literature from Crusoe is listed in the same part of Padwick, and was published in 1962, How To Become A Test Cricketer. I do not own the book so cannot comment further, but Crusoe’s great champion Ross draws a veil over it, expressing the view it contained nothing that Crusoe had not already done better in the past.

It is tempting to leave the last word on Crusoe to Ross, who collected together all of Crusoe’s best work in the finest anthology the game has produced, Crusoe on Cricket, in 1966, but in the end I thought I would leave that to West Country writer David Foot, who turns 90 this year and who wrote compellingly about Crusoe in his Fairfield Books published Fragments of Idolatory in 2001; Wonderful, cheerful, felicitous, sad, eternally paradoxical Crusoe.

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