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

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.