Editor's Note: Test Match Special, Lake Como with George Plimpton and Hugh Trevor-Roper's Peterhouse blues

Jason Cowley reviews the current line up on the Test Match Special, remembers a discussion on the greatest essayists with George Plimpton, and speaks at the famously right-wing Peterhouse College in Cambridge.

I had the good fortune to spend a couple of days at the Lord’s Test, during which Australia lived down to expectations by being abjectly defeated in four days. During the Test I listened to BBC Test Match Special (TMS) for the first time in a while, not least because our columnist Ed Smith is now part of the commentary team. There has been some grumbling of late, to the effect that TMS is not what it was in the days of Brian Johnston and Christopher Martin-Jenkins, not forgetting John Arlott, whose gift for poetic phrase-making and resonant rural Hampshire accent complemented so well the high-bourgeois, public-school sensibility of his co-commentators.
 
The main accusation against TMS is that the barbarians have taken over the commentary box. Certainly the range of accents is much more varied – from Henry “Blowers” Blofeld’s pantomime posh and Phil “Tuffers” Tufnell’s Jack the Lad cockney to Geoffrey Boycott’s shouty professional Yorkshirese and Michael Vaughan’s cocky northern demotic – and the scholarly journalists of old, such as the late Martin-Jenkins, are being inexorably replaced by retired professional cricketers.
 
The TMS commentary box used to divide along class lines: public school versus grammar school. Even as a young boy I understood that the Yorkshire journalist and autodidact Don Mosey resented Johnston’s upper-middle class ease and confidence.
 

Johnston tea party

 
Johnston was a Peter Pan-like character, trapped in a kind of perpetual early adolescence (perhaps this was so because he’d seen service during the Second World War). He turned the TMS commentary box into something resembling a prep-school tea party, with its cakes and nicknames, and this tradition has been continued by Jonathan “Aggers” Agnew. He worked under Johnston and has since become a commanding frontman in his own right. His voice is un-affected, he never seems to be under strain and, though he played cricket professionally, if never as successfully as he would have wished, he has a good journalist’s instinct and acumen.
 
The default position of the reactionary through the ages is to lament the decadence of the present moment: change and decay in all around I see. But I enjoyed listening to TMS as much as I ever did. The Australian contributors – Jim Maxwell and the former Test great Glenn McGrath – were first rate and interesting characters kept dropping by: David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Chris Patten and members of the pop band Keane, who sang a couple of numbers. How this variety contrasts with the dour, narrow professionalism of the Sky Sports commentary team. They are former cricketers every one and, with the admirable exception of Mike Atherton, seem to know little of the world beyond the cricket pitch, the golf course and the wine cellar. Listening to them, one thinks of C L R James and his celebrated rhetorical question: what do they know of cricket who only cricket know?
 

Heinz means talks

 
In the late 1990s I was invited to a “conversazione” hosted by the heiress Drue Heinz at her house on Lake Como. Our discussion on the cultural history of the essay was chaired by George Plimpton, the gadfly and belletrist, and among the participants was Paul Johnson. We were asked to talk about a favourite essay. I mentioned E B White’s “Once More to the Lake”, which recounts the rituals of a family summer bathing expedition and ends quite unexpectedly with a chilling reminder of mortality. Johnson chose “Dream-Children”, from Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia (1823), in which the author wistfully and poignantly addresses the children he would never have.
 
I was reminded of the Lake Como conversazione as I was editing and making selections for The New Statesman Century, a 250-page collector’s edition of the magazine, featuring some of the best and boldest writing we have published over the past 100 years. Included in the volume are some of our finest essayists and political writers, Christopher Hitchens, George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, Bertrand Russell, J B Priestley and John Maynard Keynes. Don’t miss it.
 

Scrapbook from Peterhouse

 
I was a recent guest speaker at the annual dinner of the Peterhouse Politics Society. Peterhouse is the oldest and smallest of the Cambridge colleges and it has a strange, conspiratorial atmosphere. It was also until recently the most conservative of the colleges, and it was there that the “Peterhouse Right” flourished under the historian Herbert Butterfield, master from 1955-68, and then Maurice Cowling. Cowling was chief among those who led the internal resistance to Hugh Trevor-Roper when he was master (1980- 87). It was during this period that Trevor-Roper was humiliated for his blundering role in the so-called Hitler Diaries debacle, which delighted his detractors.
 
I began my after-dinner speech by reminding guests, who included the present master, Professor Adrian Dixon, that my name was Cowley and not Cowling, and that I worked at the New Statesman and not the Spectator, whose books pages Cowling once edited. I mocked old Peterhouse’s reputation for abrasive illiberalism and vicious infighting, and ended by reciting a limerick about Trevor-Roper (aka Lord Dacre), for which I am grateful to Vernon Bogdanor:
 
There once was a fellow called Dacre,
Who was God in his own little acre,
But in the matter of diaries,
He was quite ultra vires
And unable to spot an old faker.
 

Brit of a joke

 
Does anyone seriously believe that Chris Froome, winner of this year’s Tour de France, is British? He was born in Kenya, was educated in South Africa and lives in Monaco. If he lived and paid tax in Britain, I might accept his claim to British nationality more easily. As things stand, he should get on his bike and stay on it.
 
Correction: this article originally stated that Don Mosey was a Lancastrian - this was incorrect and the piece has been amended accordingly.
Test Match Special hosts Geoffery Boycott and Jonathan "Aggers" Agnew. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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