A sunset in Barbados, where Ed Smith stayed over the election campaign. Photo: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
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The Pietersen poll delusion, reading the election, and a tour of Tony Cozier’s Barbados

I had a splendid election campaign. I left England for the Caribbean.

Final proof of the abject failings of Britain’s polling industry: the Kevin Pietersen affair. A survey conducted in March by YouGov “demonstrated” that England fans were split 43 per cent to 43 per cent on whether he should be picked for England. Hmm. Meanwhile, the best two pundits on the election, Matthew Parris and Peter Wilby, mostly ­ignored the polls. They sensed a deeper current in the electorate.

Here is my attempt to gauge the cricketing mood, polls notwithstanding: most real fans are sick of the whole issue. They would refuse to talk to a pollster, vote on a website or join a Twitter storm. They are the silent majority. A good number would love to see KP play for England again. Yet most feel not anti-Pietersen but weary of Pietersen. In the long run, he may realise that he is indeed a victim – not of “the establishment” but of exploitative, attention-seeking “friends”.

On BBC Radio 5 Live’s Breakfast programme the other day, I did something that I had never done before on air. I lost my temper. The presenter asked me a routine question about English cricket being “split down the middle”. I cut her off with a version of the argument above. Then, as if to prove the division, she read out a text message from a listener. It suggested that Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss (England’s captain and the director of cricket, respectively) were pathetic failures, cowardly nobodies and losers, men of no achievements. (Between them, they have scored 47 centuries and won 37 Tests as England captains.)

We all know the convention when confronted with a vox pop buffoon: “I absolutely hear what you’re saying and you have a total right to think that. I want an open and frank debate that gets to the core of your legitimate and deeply held concerns,” and so on. Instead, I heard myself saying, “That text was written by an idiot.” There was a gasp. Propping up the delusion that every issue can be solved by an online referendum, pandering to the mob and pretending that it represents everyone, is to delude ourselves that there is always a popular and easy solution. If we in the media don’t challenge that methodology, we are accomplices in infantilisation on a massive scale.

 

****

I had a splendid election campaign. I left England for the Caribbean (I was commentating on cricket) when it began and returned to vote on 7 May. I did not consume any British TV or radio, nor pick up a single newspaper or magazine. I returned feeling sprightly, looking forward to the story, in contrast to friends wearied by political overdose.

Hold your opprobrium. I still read a lot about the election while I was away. But that was the only medium: the written word. I downloaded newspapers and periodicals on my Kindle. Unlike the iPad, my Kindle can’t really handle graphics. I absorbed all my news through words. I read the articles from beginning to end. I was not led by cleverly chosen photos; I did not prejudge the writing by decoding images; I did not track the daily news cycle without bothering to confirm first what had happened.

The aesthetic dimension of editing is, without question, central. Yet there is a danger that we impatient readers cede too much power to the people who frame the page and lead our eyes. I relished the Luddite e-reader. How ironic it is that the most analogue-feeling reading experience comes not from the printed newspaper page but from a grainy digital screen.

 

****

I love hot weather and especially humidity. The trick to enjoying the tropics is to use dawn and dusk. I would wake at 6am and take sleepy walks on the beach, prolonging the creative torpor of half-sleep, half-wakefulness. Then I’d jump into the sea before heading for the espresso machine. What a delicious juxtaposition: the thick weight of tropical humidity set against the black, treacly fuel of espresso. The comforting froth of milk is for temperate weather.

On days off, I’d write in bed. There is a simplicity to living in hot weather. Clothes are a waste of time and appointments a ­terrible hassle. A writer’s dream: an empty hotel room and a pared-down life.

 

****

In my hotel room in Barbados, a note is waiting at the door, insisting that I call a local number. The voice is unmistakable to all cricket fans: warm, amused and beating to a subtle calypso rhythm. It belongs to Tony Cozier, now 74, who has commentated on West Indies cricket for more than 50 years.

“Edward, you need to see Barbados’s east coast. I’ll pick you up at your hotel at 2pm.” Cozier’s life has mirrored the story of West Indies cricket, its rise and gradual decline. He was already a journalist when Frank Worrell became the first black cricketer to be appointed captain of the West Indies for a series in 1960. Now that Christopher Martin-Jenkins and Richie Benaud are no longer with us, Tony’s mellow tone on the airwaves belongs to a fading tradition.

Accompanied by the ex-England spinner Graeme Swann, we set off. There, the Atlantic Ocean; here, a gorgeously isolated club ground; back there, Tony’s former beach house. Every vantage point – by extraordinary good fortune – was opposite a rum shack. The rum and the stories flowed. Tony described an era when players and journalists were friends and (generally) trusted each other, when the game was defined by a sense of adventure as well as professional advancement. What a contrast with the trench warfare of the Pietersen debacle.

As the sun set, I realised that I had been on a tour of Tony’s life, not just of Barbados. As much as I relish travel, what thrills me most is discovering new places through people – and vice versa.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

Photo: Getty
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The Home Office made Theresa May. But it could still destroy her

Even politicians who leave the Home Office a success may find themselves dogged by it. 

Good morning. When Theresa May left the Home Office for the last time, she told civil servants that there would always be a little bit of the Home Office inside her.

She meant in terms of its enduring effect on her, but today is a reminder of its enduring ability to do damage on her reputation in the present day.

The case of Jamal al-Harith, released from Guantanamo Bay under David Blunkett but handed a £1m compensation payout under Theresa May, who last week died in a suicide bomb attack on Iraqi forces in Mosul, where he was fighting on behalf of Isis. 

For all Blunkett left in the wake of a scandal, his handling of the department was seen to be effective and his reputation was enhanced, rather than diminished, by his tenure. May's reputation as a "safe pair of hands" in the country, as "one of us" on immigration as far as the Conservative right is concerned and her credibility as not just another headbanger on stop and search all come from her long tenure at the Home Office. 

The event was the cue for the Mail to engage in its preferred sport of Blair-bashing. It’s all his fault for the payout – which in addition to buying al-Harith a house may also have fattened the pockets of IS – and the release. Not so fast, replied Blair in a punchy statement: didn’t you campaign for him to be released, and wasn’t the payout approved by your old pal Theresa May? (I paraphrase slightly.)

That resulted in a difficult Q&A for Downing Street’s spokesman yesterday, which HuffPo’s Paul Waugh has posted in full here. As it was May’s old department which has the job of keeping tabs on domestic terror threats the row rebounds onto her. 

Blair is right to say that every government has to “balance proper concern for civil liberties with desire to protect our security”. And it would be an act of spectacular revisionism to declare that Blair’s government was overly concerned with civil liberty rather than internal security.

Whether al-Harith should never have been freed or, as his family believe, was picked up by mistake before being radicalised in prison is an open question. Certainly the journey from wrongly-incarcerated fellow traveller to hardened terrorist is one that we’ve seen before in Northern Ireland and may have occurred here.

Regardless, the presumption of innocence is an important one but it means that occasionally, that means that someone goes on to commit crimes again. (The case of Ian Stewart, convicted of murdering the author Helen Bailey yesterday, and who may have murdered his first wife Diane Stewart as well, is another example of this.)

Nonetheless, May won’t have got that right every time. Her tenure at the Home Office, so crucial to her reputation as a “safe pair of hands”, may yet be weaponised by a clever rival, whether from inside or outside the Conservative Party. 

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