Travelling with Tinniswood: Witney Scrotum


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Slakehouse is an elderly gentleman of obvious Northern extraction who lives in our village under an upturned zinc bath in the back yard of the cricket bag repository.
What other village, I ask you earnestly, would tolerate the presence in its midst of a wizened, moth-infested, fetid, belching, terminal inebriate with congenitally unbuttoned flies and a yellowing tongue encrusted with what appears to be a full set of aged rusting mountaineers’ crampons?
Who is he?
What is he?
No, he is not an ITN newscaster ‘down on his luck’.
No, he is not a former financial advisor to the Duchess of York.
No, he is not a younger version of Mr. Ned Sherrin.
The answer is far more potent and pungent – he is, dear readers, a sportsman.
And thus he is welcome in our village.
How and when did he arrive in Witney Scrotum?
On the matter of date we cannot e precise.
But neither can Mr. Raymond Illingworth be certain of the date on which he last captained Yorkshire from his bath chair.
And Sir Geoffrey Boycott is in a sea of total confusion concerning the date on which he is to have the next mammogram on his wallet under local anaesthetic.
There were four years between Winston, and Witney Scrotum, a far cry from the prolific Eighties when Peter Tinniswood was producing two Brigadier books a year. Not that he had eased up on his workload: in the Nineties, Tinniswood’s energy was directed towards Radio 4, to Winston serials and a plethora of well-received plays.
Witney Scrotum returns us one last time to the village and the world of the Brigadier, forever unchanged. I was concerned at the lack of imagination in the book’s title: we had already had Tales from Witney Scrotum, and this latest volume was confusingly close in name.
What can I say? It’s the Brigadier, and by now we know all there is to know about what we’ll be reading. Tinniswood changes the formula in no whit, save to include references to cricketers who have come along since the very Eighties era of the Brigadier’s creation: thus we have the shy Reverend Michael Atherton and those cheerful vandalisers, the Tufnell Twins, but apart from a handful of throwaway references, we might still be back where England were thrashing the Aussies in 1981.
The major difference between this and other Brigadier efforts is that I can’t find anything funny in it. It’s not simply a case of once too often to the well, though the sheer familiarity of the format is discouraging. It’s more that, whilst previous works have seemed to be effortless, too effortless as I have remarked, Witney Scrotum is constantly striving for effect.
Paragraphs droop with the density of improbable, incongruous adjectives. Tinniswood tries to cram in more and more detail into each moment, oversalting the fantastic elements. It’s the perils of any kind of eccentric or exaggerated humour: the writer continually has to overtop himself, to the point that the exaggeration ceases to be of real life, but of the previous level(s) of exaggeration. At some point, it snaps.
What’s worse is that Tinniswood is running out of sustainable ideas. There a couple of chapters that are made up of letters written by the Brigadier, with no genuine connection between them that would sustain a viable chapter. They are pressed into contiguity simply because the individual ideas are limited in length.
And the book ends with a Cricket Quiz that, in terms of humour, falls flat on its face. There are pages and pages of questions, followed by pages of answers, all serious and factual, save for the odd comic one thrown in to drown. The level of the humour can be demonstrated by the section on cricketer’s middle names, about one in every three of which is John.
It’s desperately sad to see a book like this published by Tinniswood, who was by now well-ensconced on Radio 4. It’s a pale reflection of his gifts, and a sad justification for his complaint, late in life, that he had spread himself too thin, accepted too many commissions to do his best work. In books, at least, it was far behind him. And one last utter disaster awaited.

Travelling with Tinniswood – Tales from Witney Scrotum


I was about to search the baskets of the Bedlington terriers in pursuit of an old bone to suck when the lady wife threw open the door and said:
“You have a visitor. And would you please remove that gilbert dangling from your moustache.”
I did so immediately and into the room was ushered Miss Roebuck of the dog biscuit shop.
The lady wife glared at us.
“If you’re thinking of hanky panky, I beg you to think of that fine old English precept which has kept this nation pure and great over the centuries of our stirring history – do it out of sight of the dogs.”
She slammed the door behind her.
Miss Roebuck blushed.
I am bound to confess that to this very day I am still not certain as to Miss Roebuck’s comprehension of my true marital state.
I am a happily married man.
My wife is everything a man could desire in a consort – she is an avid member of the Folio Society and has been on many of their coach trips to the seaside, she knows how to work the new electric kettle and is a more than competent fielder in the leg trap.
Yet on this morning Miss Roebuck had obviously and patently made an effort.
She was dressed in a brand new pink angora twin-set and a kilt of the Black Watch tartan.
She wore a diamanté brooch in the shape of Mr Richie Benaud’s mouth.
She had applied a brand new dressing of Polyfilla to the acne spots on her chin, her eyelids fluttered free and painted behind her rimless spectacles and she had doused herself liberally with after shave lotion.
“Shall we go for a walk?” she said. “I’ve put my flatties on special.”
And again.
Tales from Witney Scrotum was Peter Tinniswood’s eleventh book in only seven years, and the seventh of these to feature The Brigadier. As such, there’s again not much to say about it, except that the book is about the Brigadier and not by him. For the most part it is narrated by Tinniswood, in propria persona, in his capacity as official scribe of the Bi-Centenary.
Because the conceit of this slim volume, published in the year of the MCC’s 200th Anniversary, is that Tinniswood – usually addressed openly as Vileness, or occasionally Emaciated – has been instructed to cover the year of the celebrations of the Bi-Centenary of Witney Scrotum Cricket Club. Which is actually older than the MCC due to a stationery oversight not rectified for forty years.
So Tinniswood comes down to Witney Scrotum, sleeping on an uncomfortable camp bed in freezing condition with nothing but a half-sucked zube, concealed in the ticket pocket of his thermal blazer against such an exigency. He mingles with the Brigadier, takes in the minutiae of villge life in this hidden Somerset village with its… unusual… but strangely familiar inhabitants as they prepare for the arrival of the hairy and unwashed Australians for the great day.
Though the book is only 125 pages in length, that’s still too many to stick with the theme throughout, and we get diversions on such subjects of the MCC Mole, the despairing life of Phil Edmonds, married as he is to ‘that woman’ and Tinniswood’s thoughts upon his own Half Century.
It’s more of the same, dense with puns, allusions and deliberate misunderstandings, and as usual Tinniswood is sharp and crafty. He’s built an entire world up and the characters of his, or rather the Brigadier’s imagination, are consistent components of it, sketched caricatures that remain faithful at all times to their designation, and which are brilliantly painted by reference to the originals.
But this is the seventh time, in as many years, and the twists are but small ones that do little to conceal that this Universe has fixed and ultimately narrow boundaries, that are incapable of breach or expansion.
There would be no Tinniswood book in 1988, and the gaps between books would begin to expand, with only five more yet to be published over the next decade. What expanded to fill their place was work for radio. Tinniswood was already established on Radio 4, but from this point his work would begin to proliferate. He would be a stable component of the Radio 4 schedules throughout the Nineties.
The effect of this new phase of his career would begin to show when he next returned to print.

Travelling with Tinniswood: The Brigadier in Season


I am sure there was something else we celebrated, too.
What the devil was it?
Ah, yes.
I remember.
It comes back to me now. It was the visit of the Pope to Witney Scrotum.
I confess that when it was first mooted I had “my doubts.”
Would it bring on another of Prodger the Poacher’s strange “turns” and set him off once more exposing himself in the mobile library?
Would the sight of all those handsome, single, unmarried, bachelor priests be “too much” for Miss Roebuck of the dog biscuit shop?
What would be the reaction of that ranting, raving vitriol-tongued preacher, Doctor Jones-Jones-Ontong-Wooller in his tin hut chapel of the Church of the Third Wicket Down Redemption?
One thing was absolutely and totally assured – the Commodore was incensed.
“What do we want with a gang of Wops in the village!” he thundered.
I explained as patiently as I could that the Holy Father was of Polish extraction.
The Commodore glared at me silently for a moment, grinding at the stem of his self-lighting bulldog pipe.
And then he said: “That is as maybe. But I will wager you one silver half crown that the blighter’s almost certain to be a bloody Catholic.”
Ok, what is there to say about this? It’s another Brigadier book, the fourth in succession, the fifth in three years. It’s funny, inventive, dense with jokes, puns and allusions. The Brigadier and his lady wife are back home and a new cricket season is about to begin. We are back to the tales of far-fetched cricketing times and places. But, as may be expected, there is nothing to say about this book that hasn’t already been said about its predecessors
Tinniswood progresses his world a little. There are many opportunities for the Brigadier to call on his neighbour, chum and fellow devotee of the ‘summer game’, dear old “Bruce” Woodcock of The Times. (The joke here being, as I have just had to look up, that the well-known Times Cricket Correspondent was John Woodcock, whilst Bruce Woodcock was a boxer).
And among the denizens of Witney Scrotum, there is a greate emphasis upon the amatory intentions of Miss Roebuck of the dog biscuit shop towards Somerset medium pace bowler, Colin Dredge.
I saw the book one Saturday afternoon in London, having travelled down to attend the bi-monthly Westminster ComicsMart and see some of my friends in fandom. I bought it of course, read it on the train back to Manchester, thoroughly enjoyed it.
But my immediate reaction was unease at yet another Brigadier book, turned out so soon after the last one. Even then, I was dismayed somewhat at the speed with which this part of the canon was expanding. It made it feel as if what Tinniswood was writing was too easy. I don’t know the level of effort that actually went into writing these books: the free-wheeling flow from one idea to another was, in all likelihood, nothing like as easy to attain as it was to write.
But the point was that the profusion, allied to that sense of anarchy as to the Brigadier’s thought-processes which made every tale so wholly unpredictable, made the works feel as if they were easy, first draft work that just came naturally.
I liked The Brigadier in Season, laughed at it then, laugh at it now. But I wanted something more from Tinniswood. Something of more substance.
The jackets of these last three books had each indicated that Tinniswood was writing another Brandon family novel. Thankfully, that would come next.

Travelling with Tinniswood: The Brigadier Down Under


“Who is this?”
The barman smiled smugly.
“Stone the crows, you must be a stranger,” he said.
“Of course I’m a stranger,” I said. “It’s the only way to cope with living in this godforsaken country. Now who the devil is this creature?”
At this the barman spoke two words, which were to engrave themselves indelibly on my heart and change the whole course of my stay Down Under.
“Kingsley Kunzel,” he said.
Kingsley Kunzel!
In the annals of Wisden his name reigns supreme.
I quote:
“Most centuries scored whilst drunk…  Kingsley Kunzel… 17.”
“Most inebriated batsman to have been given out ‘seen the ball twice’…  Kingsley Kunzel.”
Kingsley Kunzel!
How well I recalled the Australian tour of ’21, when, after the luncheon adjournment in the match against Derbyshire at Chesterfield, he was given out “sick hit wicket…33.”
With what pleasure I conjured up memories of the opening match against Worcestershire, when, despite suffering most grievously from the effects of Ansell’s Tummy, he was able with the aid of three runners and an auxiliary stretcher bearer to score an undefeated double century before opening time.
And, joy of joys, there he was lying at my feet blithely sipping a quadruple gin and lung tonic.
The third Brigadier book was again written both as a series of monologues and for publication, which followed fairly rapidly. What distinguishes The Brigadier Down Under from its predecessors is that it follows a constant theme, wrapped up in contemporary events, namely the England tour of Australia in the winter season of 1982/3 (won 2-1 by Australia).
It’s all because of the blasted lady wife and her confounded Bedlington terriers, and her decision to go to Australia and search out her long lost brother, Naunton. Which coincides with the Ashes Tour, led by Colonel ‘Mad’ Bob Willis.
The Brigadier is not mollified. The lady wife fails entirely to understand that one doesn’t watch cricket in Australia, one listens to it. At a cold, grey dawn, in the depths of an English winter, on the talking wireless. Nevertheless, the lady wife is insistent. Australia is a long way away. It is a foreign country, a ‘land of ravaged desert, shark-infested ocean and thirst-racked outback.’
Most of all, though, it is full of Australians. And especially Richie Benaud. The Brigadier is not a prejudiced man, but…
Well, actually he is, as we are very aware by now. And forthright of opinion to boot, especially when it comes to the subject of Australians, who he treats with his usual disregard.
The England team also come in for some rough treatment, though there’s a distinct degree of affection in the military titles the Brigadier vests in this motley party. As well as Colonel ‘Mad’ Bob, there’s burly Sarn’t Major Botham, Lt. the Hon David Gower of the 4th Leicestershire Lancers, Bombardier Fowler, dear old ragged Sapper Randall and more, names to arouse memories of a cricketing past.
Not to mention the sacerdotal calling on Monsignor Tavare, he of the quiet demeanour and portable confirmation kit, though my favourite line in the book, and possibly the entire Brigadier series is when Vic Marks is described as having the ‘familiar expression of someone who has just been told he is to spend the rest of his life as a junior lecturer in soap technology.’
It’s more of the same, focussed upon a different atmosphere: still full of inexhaustible jokes, puns, misunderstandings and malignments. It becomes increasingly clear why Richie Benaud never found the Brigadier to be funny, whilst Michael Parkinson would definitely have neded a sense of humour and a degree of humility (which no-one has ever described him as possessing) to accept his portrayal.
And it is no doubt due to Clive James’ unAustralian complete lack of interest in cricket that he did not take offence at his inclusion in these pages.
Tinniswood’s range of invention in this admittedly-limited sphere reaches either a peak nor a nadir on page 60 of the paperback edition when he lines up six prominent cricket writers/editors/broadcasters into one horrendous pun on a once-famous Sixties pop band.
As the sleeve photo to the hardback volume demonstrated, The Brigadier Down Under was written in close collaboration with the England touring team, Tinniswood having toured Australia to ‘research’ the book, though his account is distinctly different from any of the others I have read about that tour.
It’s more of the same, only different, and the same advantages and drawbacks to the previous books apply in equal measure. But it was very popular then.

Travelling with Tinniswood: Tales from a Long Room


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.