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
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The NHS's sustainability is under threat if more isn't done to look after its staff

More work is needed to develop the health service's most precious resource.

As the NHS nears its 70th anniversary, the time is ripe for a workforce rescue plan. Staffing worries, even more than funding pressures, are the biggest cause of concern for NHS trust leaders. There are not enough trained health workers in the UK to meet today’s needs, let alone those of the future.

Demands on hospitals, mental health and community trusts, and ambulance services are growing. More patients need treatment. Increasingly, they require complex care, with specialist expertise. This is not just about numbers. We need a clinical workforce that is skilled and equipped to work in new ways to deal with the changing needs of the population it serves. 

That means improving the supply of people coming to work for the NHS, and doing more to develop and motivate them so they want to stay. These problems are not new but the scale of the challenge has reached a tipping point which threatens the future sustainability of the NHS.

Ministers rightly point out that the NHS in England has more clinical staff than ever before, but numbers have not kept pace with rising demand. The official "shortfall rate" for nurses and midwives across England is close to 10 per cent, and in some places significantly higher. Part of this is down to the recognition, after the events at troubled health trust Mid Staffordshire, of the importance of safe staffing levels. Yet for successive years during the coalition government, the number of nurse training recruits fell.

Far from being a problem just for hospitals, there are major nursing shortages in mental health and community trusts. Between 2009 and 2016 the number of district nurses employed by the NHS in England fell by more than 40 per cent. Just as the health service tries to accelerate plans for more treatment closer to home, in key parts of the workforce the necessary resources are shrinking.

There are also worrying gaps in the supply of doctors. Even as the NHS gears up for what may prove to be its toughest winter yet, we see worrying shortfalls in A&E consultants. The health service is rightly committed to putting mental health on an equal footing with physical health. But many trusts are struggling to fill psychiatry posts. And we do not have enough GPs.

A key part of the problem is retention. Since 2010/11 there has been a worrying rise in “leaver rates” among nurses, midwives, ambulance staff and scientific technical staff. Many blame the pressures of workload, low staffing levels and disillusionment with the quality of care. Seventy per cent of NHS staff stay on for extra hours. Well over a third say they have felt unwell in the past year because of work-related stress.

Add in cuts to real basic pay, year after year, and it is hardly surprising that some are looking to other opportunities and careers outside the public sector. We need a strategy to end pay restraint in the NHS.

There is also a worrying demographic challenge. Almost one in three qualified nurses, midwives and health visitors is aged 50 or older. One in five GPs is at least 55. We have to give them reasons to stay.

NHS trusts have made important strides in engaging with their workforce. Staff ratings on being able to report concerns, feeling trusted to do their jobs, and being able to suggest improvements are encouraging. But there are still cultural problems – for example around discrimination and bullying – which must be addressed locally and nationally.

The NHS can no longer be sure that overseas recruits will step in to fill workforce gaps. In the early 2000s many trusts looked beyond Europe to meet nursing shortages. More recently, as tougher immigration and language rules took hold, a growing proportion came from the EU – though not enough to plug the gap.

Now we have all the uncertainty surrounding Brexit. We need urgent clarity on the status of current EU nationals working in the health and care systems. And we must recognise that for the foreseeable future, NHS trusts will need support to recruit and retain staff from overseas. The government says it will improve the home-grown supply, but that will clearly take time.

These problems have developed in plain sight. But leadership on this has been muddled or trumped by worries over funding. Responsibility for NHS workforce strategy is disjointed. We need a co-ordinated, realistic, long-term strategy to ensure that frontline organisations have the right number of staff with the right skills in the right place to deliver high quality care.

We must act now. This year's long-delayed workforce plan – to be published soon by Health Education England – could be a good place to start. But what we need is a more fundamental approach – with a clear vision of how the NHS must develop its workforce to meet these challenges, and a commitment to make it happen. 

Saffron Cordery is the director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers