During the course of a long and arduous career in the service of King and country I have had the honour in the name of freedom and natural justice to slaughter and maim men (and women) of countless creeds and races.
Fuzzy Wuzzies, Boers, Chinamen, Zulus, Pathans, Huns, Berbers, Turks, Japs, Gypos, Dagos, Wops and the odd Frog or two – all of them, no doubt, decent chaps ‘in their own way’.
Who is to say, for example, that the Fuzzy Wuzzies don’t have their equivalent of our own dear John Inman and the delicious Delia Smith, mother of the two Essex cricketing cousins, Ray and Peter.
I have no doubt that the Dagos have their counterpart of our Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth, and I am perfectly certain that the Wops, just like us, have lady wives with hairy legs, loud voices and too many relations.
Indeed it is my firm opinion that all the victims of this carnage and slaughter were just like you and I – apart from their disgusting table manners and their revolting appearance.
Poor chaps, they had only two failings – they were foreigners and they were on the wrong side.
Now as I approach the twilight of my life I look back with pleasure and pride on those campaigns which have brought me so much comfort and fulfilment – crushing the Boers at Aboukir Bay, biffing the living daylights out of the Turk at the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, massacring the Aussies at The Oval in 1938.
Enter the Brigadier.
Peter Tinniswood’s second memorable character, who would become better known by far than Uncle Mort, in his field of operation, had made his debut on Radio 4 in 1980, in the voice of Robin Bailey (ironically, Uncle Mort in I Didn’t Know You Cared on TV), in a series of thirteen ten minute monologues. Tinniswood had thought long and hard about whether to turn the Brigadier into a prose character, but as soon as he did, the character became a phenomenon.
Tales from a Long Room are cricketing stories, or perhaps you might call them fables: fantastic, preposterous, completely unbelievable. The Brigadier rambles on about astonishing implausibilities: the first and only M.C.C. Tour of the Belgian Congo in 1914, or Queen Victoria’s potential career as a First Class Cricketer, or Himmelweit, the only former German Prisoner of War to play County Cricket, or Scott and Amundsen’s game on the Polar Icecap, en route to the South Pole.
The tale of the Groundsman’s Horse has a particularly well-disguised final line.
By themselves, these dotty accounts would be worth the reading, but Tinniswood more than doubles the humour in the narrator.
The Brigadier is in his latter years, a devotee of the beautiful game. He has served his country in distinguished manner in areas of this world whose horrendously primitive and underdeveloped lands are compounded by having them crawling with Johnny Foreigner. His is devoted to fine claret and Vimto, to chilled Zubes (a now-obsolete throat sweet) and escaping from the blasted lady wife and her confounded Bedlington terriers. He lives in a world of muddle where the famous of similar name are inevitably related, no matter how disparate. Through his discourse we learn of the feats of the most improbable of cricketers to have wielded the willow or caressed the crimson rambler.
In short, this is a book for cricket aficionados who have a bloody good working knowledge of the history of the game and not merely its famous but several of its less widely-celebrated names. Hell’s bells, even I don’t get all the references!
The Brigadier is a crusty old soul, a Little Englander enough to make Nigel Farage look like a candidate for the Socialist Worker’s Party, a mass of prejudice in every respect and a buffer of the third water living in a world of his own that crosses with our own only accidentally, and with the frequency of a ‘maximum’ by Mr Geoffrey Boycott (and you’ll need to know a bit about cricket just to understand that gag).
So, basically, if you’re not into cricket, forget it. But if you are, you’ll probably find this hilarious, because the jokes – which achieve the density and texture of Tinniswood’s best work with the Brandons – come thick and fast, and they are the kind of jokes that are only possible from someone who knows and loves his subject, and loves it with the clear, pure, and abiding love of someone who can take the piss out of it unmercifully without ever once going soft.
There are thirteen tales herein, representing series 1, which would go on to be adapted for television and retain their purity and fantasy. Not all the tales are of a standard. ‘Cricketers Cook Book’ lacks a developed narrative strand, though it is replete with a series of effortless foods punned from cricketers’ names, as does ‘The Ones that Got Away’, a series of spoof Wisden obituaries. These reek a bit of barrel-scraping, but the Brigadier is on strong ground when he has a story to be told.
The book is a classic, but it’s a classic that was a product of its time. Its contemporary cricketers are probably known now primarily by the degree to which they have become Sky commentators and experts, and thirty years on, the archaic references to music hall, light comedy and early radio stars that dot the descriptions will probably pass over the head of a majority of the audience.
But if you have the knowing, as it were, this collection is still very funny. It gave Tinniswood tremendous cachet, and marked him, for the rest of the decade as a cricket writer. As we will see, though, it wrenched his career off-balance, and the rest of his work would be substantially affected.
Not at first, it seemed.