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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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