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Ian Alexander Ross Peebles

Scotsman Ian Peebles was 45 when his first book of any significance appeared. Over the rest of his life there were to be a dozen more, amongst them some of the best on cricket that there are, once more illustrating that the life experience and flair for the written word that make for good writing cannot be taught.

It did of course assist Peebles that, for a time, he played the game to the highest standard. The purpose of this post is not to examine his cricket in any detail, but between 1927 and 1931 leg spinner Peebles played for England thirteen times and, albeit very briefly, it was hoped in 1930 that he might be the chink in Bradman’s armour.

The story of Peebles’ career had begun in 1925 when he was 17. He was an intelligent young man, but academia had not enthused him at school and in the end he had had to look towards a career in banking. Fortunately for him he saved enough money in his first few months at the bank to take a holiday in London where, having paid to visit the cricket school run by the former South African all-rounder Aubrey Faulkner, Peebles decided that banking was not for him.

In the twenty first century the speed of Peebles’ progress appears extraordinary. So impressed was Faulkner that he immediately persuaded Peebles to accept a position as his secretary, a job that he started in January of 1926 and, when spring arrived, he combined that with club cricket under Faulkner’s watchful eye.

By 1927 Peebles had impressed others, including ‘Plum’ Warner and that swung him a late call up for a First Class debut for the Gentlemen against the Players at the Oval in early July. A couple of festival matches followed, not with any great success it has to be said, but Peebles had, despite having a First Class record of just three wickets for which he had paid more than 107 runs each, done enough to be invited to join the 1927/28 South African touring party.

In 1929 Faulkner and Peebles fell out so Peebles decided, with parental encouragement, to read Law at Oxford. He spent a very happy year in the city of the dreaming spires, in which he also enjoyed his encounter with Bradman, but as at school found himself unable to commit to his studies and, offered the chance to return to South Africa with the 1930/31 England side he decided to give up the law. He did however get an additional source of income for the tour as he agreed to write a series of articles for the Evening Standard.

After an excellent 1931 summer for his county, Middlesex, Peebles was never quite the same bowler again as he began to develop shoulder problems which never entirely went away. As an amateur he needed to earn a living and in 1932 he joined Ladbrokes as an apprentice bookmaker. It was another occupation to which he was not suited and after a couple of years, on a recommendation from Middlesex teammate Walter Robins, he joined a firm of distillers and, from there, went on to found his own wine business in 1935.

When war broke out the wine merchant business, which specialised in German wines, was quickly wound down and Peebles was commissioned into the Army. In 1941 he suffered serious injuries in a bomb blast in London. He largely recovered from those but the lingering effect of his injuries meant that he saw out his war in an administrative role.

The war over Peebles took his wine business out of cold storage and combined that with some feature writing for a then well known weekly magazine, Everybody’s. He also wrote for Men Only, not then the soft porn magazine it was to become, before, in 1949, he began to get regular work with the Sunday Graphic. That lasted for four years before, the position of cricket correspondent for The Sunday Times becoming vacant, Peebles took up that role.

In the same year as Peebles began writing for the Sunday Times his first book* appeared, Talking of Cricket. The book is part of a library of books published by the Museum Press under the general title of The Sporting Scene. It is a series of short essays arranged in three parts, Cricket Past, Cricket Present and Cricket Future. There is no suggestion that the book is a collection of Peebles’ previous work but it is difficult to escape the conclusion that he has probably, for at least some of the chapters, reworked previous writings. It is certainly in character with his later work.

Whilst with The Sunday Times Peebles travelled to Australia with the MCC twice, with Len Hutton’s side in 1954/55 and, rather less happily, Peter May’s four years later. There is a book bearing Peebles name from each series the former being entitled Ian Peebles on the Ashes and the latter being part of the long-running Fight for the Ashes series published by Harrap.

In 1958 and 1962 two books appeared from Peebles which were very much in the style of Talking of Cricket. Batters Castle, subtitled a ramble round the realm of cricket, and Bowler’s Turn, similarly subtitled a further ramble around the realm of cricket, both of which were well received. Both were collections of essays on various aspects of the game and there was much humour to be found in an interesting and diverse collection of anecdotes. Bowler’s Turn also included a number of chapters of reflection on the England tour of West Indies of 1959/60, a trip which had been one of Peebles’ assignments for The Sunday Times.

What did the scourge of cricket authors of the 1960s think of Peebles? Perhaps wisely after Bowler’s Turn Peebles did not write a book for some time so avoided Rowland Bowen’s attention. That said in a retrospective look at tour books Bowen did notice The Fight for the Ashes 1958/59, a book he describes as worth having, and of Peebles he wrote he is a good writer.

Bowen’s first opportunity to review a book of Peebles certainly enabled him to display his irascibility. The Watney’s Book of Test Match Grounds (1967) was described as a very bad, abject book which will bring discredit to author, publisher and Watneys, although he is not totally dismissive of Peebles, adding; the text is far below Peebles usual rather pleasant standard.

In 1968 Peebles published a book I much enjoyed, Straight From The Shoulder. In announcing the book Bowen made the comment; Peebles can usually, but not always, write nicely, but has he researched enough in the past for this book, which is alleged to be a history of throwing?

The review that Bowen produced in the next edition of the CQ was, predictably, a damning one. At the same time it extended to almost three pages and is extremely detailed. As his earlier comment suggested might be the case Bowen did not like the fact that Peebles did not go back to the dawn of the game in order to fully analyse the history of throwing. He also didn’t like Peeble’s suggested solution. His conclusion; this is a bad book, and grossly overpriced, is somewhat harsh and his own solution to the problem of throwing, to legalise it subject to certain provisos, seems distinctly unattractive.

In truth the ferocity of Bowen’s review was probably self-inflicted as soon as Peebles chose his  subtitle Throwing– its History and its Cure. A much more measured opinion of the book came from Frank Tyson in The Cricketer his comments include, in style the book is impeccable, that it is a work of dispassionate logic and finally I welcome such an scholarly and objective approach to the question.

Not having previously written a biography in 1969 two from Peebles were published that year. The subjects were two giants of the game, Woolley: The Pride of Kent and Patsy Hendren: The Cricketer and His Times. Unusually for men of their era both Woolley and Hendren had written autobiographies. It is also surprising, in light of their impressive achievements in the game, that neither have been written about at length since.

I recall that when I read the two books, many years ago now, I enjoyed both. In Wisden John Arlott was his usual measured self, although he did suggest that, Hendren and Peebles having been teammates, that the Woolley lacked the warmth of the Hendren.

Reviewing the Woolley book for Playfair Cricket Monthly Gordon Ross was enthusiastic; I found this book absorbing – there is always much charm in Peebles’ writing.  For a blunt appraisal it is however always worth consulting the Cricket Quarterly. Bowen was not impressed by the Woolley. He begins his view by highlighting a stream of errors some of which are, it has to be admitted, pretty basic. After doing that he concludes:-

We cannot be bothered with this kind of careless rubbish, before going on to describe the book generally as; thoroughly bad with anecdote after anecdote missing, and notable feat after notable feat ignored as though the author had heard nothing about it. Bowen is not entirely negative however, offering Peebles a crumb of comfort with the observation; why does not Peebles write about what he knows about? He does very well then.

A few months later Bowen, effectively, reinforced the Arlott view when, of the Hendren, he commented; this is one of Peebles’ better books in which blatant error is small and poor writing hardly noticeable beneath the evident love that he had for this most likeable of all cricketers who ever played for England.

Two years later, in 1971, Peebles produced two more books. The first was a, in relative terms, short biography of Denis Compton. Like the book concerning Hendren it is a warm and affectionate memoir of a former teammate. Many fuller and more detailed accounts of Compton’s life have been written subsequently.

The second 1971 book from Peebles was a much weightier affair and a collaboration with Lord’s curator Diana Rait-Kerr. The result was a history of Lord’s that followed on from the conclusion of Pelham Warner’s previous history, one which had taken that story to 1945, so another quarter of a century was added. It is a full and well written history but, with so much competition in its field, not the best history of the game’s most hallowed amphitheatre.

After a long wait, seven years later in 1978, the last of Peeble’s books was published. It is certainly one of the, if not perhaps the best cricketer’s autobiography ever written and a fine example of why David Frith, writing Peebles’ obituary in 1980 after his death at the age of 72, described his oeuvre as a succession of books in style such as few could have matched for felicity of attitude and delectable construction. Spinner’s Yarn is a book that Tim Dale Lace reviewed for us here.

*In fact strictly it is the second, an instructional booklet, How to Bowl, having appeared as long ago as 1934

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