Peter Roebuck with pupils at Cranbrook School
A fellow tutor from the early 1980s at Cranbrook School, Australia, who with his partner, Sue, now lives in New Zealand. Lifelong friend of Peter’s, Toby edited Tangled Up In White, a collection of some of Peter’s most entertaining cricket writings.
Laughing At Life: Peter titled his memoirs Sometimes I Forgot To Laugh. But the laughter-loving man I recall – both from his years in Sydney and through his chatty letters from all over the world over several decades – often did remember to chuckle. He sought and thoroughly enjoyed many kinds of humour, from low farce to high wit (though one kind he didn’t enjoy was the smart Alec type, or ridiculing others for no purpose other than to assert clever Dick superiority).
In the world of cricket and beyond, Peter, as far as life and laughter went, particularly warmed to colourfully eccentric characters, people who found themselves surprisingly out of touch with the ways of the world, or in incongruous situations. People whose appearances, behavioural oddities, unexpected interests or unfortunate predicaments always tickled his funny bone.
For some reason Peter thought it was amusing, for example, when he discovered I had actually read Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. Or that lying on my bookshelf was an unread copy of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. What was funny here? I suppose Peter, knowing who I was, just could not see me in the frame for reading either a trail-blazing feminist tract or a punishingly long work of European literature by an Austrian writer whose attention-grabbing book the author Jane Smiley described as the sort “no one has read but everyone has heard of”. That I should end up working in the world of conservation in Australia, Peter also found worthy of a regular dig. Time and again, he would shoot through cheeky lines such as: ‘Saved any Pygmy Possums lately, Tobes?’
Peter liked to read, write, run, cook, converse and laugh with the best of ‘em.
No writer appealed to his sense of humour more than David Nobbs, especially Nobbs’ fictional anti-hero, Reginald Perrin. Likewise, Tom Sharpe and his fictional anti-hero Henry Wilt always brought endless mayhem and merriment to Peter’s life. It was Peter who urged me to read Sharpe, a recommendation that ought to have come with a health warning. On a plane flight from Perth to Sydney I almost died laughing, in a fit of convulsions, while reading Sharpe’s Vintage Stuff.
Thanks for that, Peter. And thanks for your friendship, for creating and sharing so many laughs, and for carrying on the great English and Australian tradition of laughing at life.
Julia Horne met Peter in Sydney in the 1980s. They eventually realised their friendship was something more and enjoyed a two year romance. Julia lives in Sydney with her family and husband of more than 20 years.
When I first met Peter I knew him as an English teacher who coached cricket at Cranbrook, who for some obscure reason returned to England each April to play cricket. Only later did I begin to understand that his life was the other way around. His real job was as a professional cricketer and for some obscure reason he returned to Australia each September to teach English.
It took a while to accept that I was romantically involved with a professional cricketer. My minimal cricket knowledge was based on a few cricket matches I’d seen as a girl with the likes of the fast bowler Dennis Lillee, the Chappell brothers and the great wicket keeper, Rod Marsh. I was intrigued by Lillee’s moustache and his brashness on the field, fascinated by the brotherly dynamic between Greg and Ian Chappell, and for some reason I cannot remember, enthralled by Marsh. For me, the game of cricket was not really something you took seriously, an attitude that didn’t seem to bother Peter.
Still, he decided to enlighten me about cricket, shaping discussion around what might capture my attention and taking opportunities as they arose. On one occasion I saw the One Day International at Lord’s between England and the West Indies. Peter later gently quizzed me on what I thought of the performances of the great cricketers – Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards, Joel Garner and Ian Botham. I could not tell him.
After all, I was at Lord’s, a legendary place, a site of imperial memory where historic clashes of such magnitude occurred between England and Australia that even I was mesmerised by the possibility of meaning. But not by the cricket. Not even by the reigning West Indies cricket team. Peter laughed, but he understood.
When the West Indies team was in Sydney, he tried another tactic. He decided to introduce me to Viv Richards and Clive Lloyd. The team was staying at the Boulevard Hotel, then a new posh hotel in Sydney preferred by visiting celebrities whose fans would often assemble on the pavement outside. On this occasion, we unexpectedly found a large number of women fans waiting in the foyer. I found the sight fascinating. I hadn’t realised cricketers were like rock stars and women roosted in hotel lobbies waiting for favour to fall upon them. Too difficult to brave this mass of eager women, again, my cricket education was foiled.
And so his plan to enlighten me proceeded in more reflective moments. He explained Lloyd’s great captaincy skills and intelligent approach to cricket and tried out thoughts about cricket as a test of strategy requiring personal and emotional strength. Peter would weave together stories of his contemporaries and their approach to cricket and life, the one drawing sustenance from the other, turning the ephemera of sporting contest into insights of the human condition more generally, and through this approach, finally entranced me. It was, of course, a raconteur style that came to be part of who he was as a cricket writer and commentator and much admired by hundreds of thousands, some of whom weren’t necessarily sports fans.
The photograph on the back of his marvellous It Never Rains is of a bespectacled, pale and slightly tormented-looking Peter. It does him no justice. That’s not how I remember him, and I can only think that photo was of a younger, less confident Peter. Some of the pleasure of this website comes from simply flicking through photographs of Peter at various stages and ages, all immensely refreshing after the dose of terrible photos that later made their way into the press. Here, we can see him as many of his close friends saw him.
When I knew him, he rarely wore glasses. He was tanned, not overly so, more a glowing gold colour. He had a longish, friendly face framed by short back and sides, a broadly-shaped mouth and prominent nose. He had a strong English accent, not as it became in later years intermixed with Australian and South African twangs. His was an educated English middle class accent belying his childhood in the West Country, which Australians often confused as Etonian and ruling class entirely misunderstanding his social background. He was tall, broad-shouldered, lean and fit – he had a healthy physique and was neatly groomed. His attire was casual, a Lacoste polo shirt with trousers (never jeans) for special occasions. Once we went to a black-tie event (the Year 12 Cranbrook formal where he was a popular master) and very handsome he was in his borrowed dinner suit. A photo was taken, probably now long lost, but which if found would be an interesting counterpoint to the appalling newspaper photos.
His sparkling eyes captured my attention along with his pleasant and convivial demeanour and a conversational style which confidently ranged across any topic, inviting others to join in, rarely judgementally though not without debate. His conversations covered many angles – the serious, the absurd, the relaxed, the political and the personal. I loved his sense of humour, sometimes self-deprecating, recognising life’s ironies, but also quick-witted.
Both literature and humour were fundamental to his life, a source of both inspiration and great pleasure and something which he loved to share with his friends. He introduced me to the satirists Tom Sharpe and David Nobbs (the Reginald Perrin novels) offering them as humorous yet sharp observers of the human condition. I tried to excite him about Virginia Woolf’s feminist tract, A Room of One’s Own and the writings of Simone de Beauvoir. He thought I’d got the better end of the bargain. But this enjoyment of conversation, sociability, sense of humour and appreciation of irony – along with the idea that books could be good friends – had long been part of my home life, and were familiar, enjoyable and comforting.
At the time I knew Peter he often spoke of the importance of warm relationships as the sustenance of life, the reason why we were all here. He was perceptive about the human condition and genuinely cared for people who were important to him. In some ways, he felt responsible for us, wanted to nourish our souls and minds. But he also wanted to relax with his friends and have fun.
Nonchalantly slumped in a chair yet alert to his surrounds, legs comfortably crossed, possibly a glass of wine nearby, convivial atmosphere, friends, sparking up a debate, enjoying an argument, pleased with his friends’ quick wit, laughing, pleased with his own quick wit, laughter. This is how I remember him.
Peter Roebuck at Cranbrook School
Jonathan was a teacher, colleague and good friend of Peter’s at Cranbrook School, Sydney, Australia, from 1978 to 1986, and thereafter remained a close, lifelong friend.
My first encounter with Peter, a tall, lean, scholarly guest in a Cambridge blazer, was in January 1978 at a pre-term 1 dinner party hosted by Mark Bishop, Headmaster of Cranbrook School, Sydney. He was new, as I was. Over the years he came and went with the seasons, coaching senior cricket teams, teaching English, conducting holiday cricket camps, tutoring in the Boarding Houses and supporting the school’s diverse extra-curricular activities. I got to know him well, as did many other colleagues, students and families. This was because he was outgoing and convivial, challenging and humorous, quite strict and, at the same time, good with difficult or tear away kids. And also because Bishop’s Cranbrook ‘Family’ was an interesting and pluralistic community with a very engaged and talented staff, whose strength Peter was quick to recognise. Cranbrook, in the Eastern Suburbs, of Sydney – the ‘bush’ – became the seasonal counterpoint to Millfield, Somerset, England – the ‘counties’ – and he came to love it here, buying a house and embracing the Australian ethos.
I would like to sketch some memories I have and point to some qualities of character he possessed. He was open, generous, witty, often gregarious and supportive of others in times of crisis and tragedy. He admired creativity, individualism, idealism and professional involvement. He disliked self-indulgence, wishy-washy liberalism, especially the Neo-variety, cronyism, self-serving phonies and ‘Yes men’ of every hue. He demanded commitment and self-discipline from his charges. If he felt you weren’t doing your best or had broken a promise, he could be critical, angry, even scornful. As his father said, he could be difficult. Sometimes I saw him prickly, moody, unjustly cold to some people. I also saw him careless with others’ property (a kind of impractical insouciance) and his own (I could give many examples).
I want to redress an imbalance in the commentaries of some journalists and other tabloid drivellers. The positive qualities should be reiterated, and loudly, to drown out the carrousel-like litany of sins like secrecy, solitariness, dark demons, to name some. Charges made before any cross-examinations, public inquest, forensic evidence! And sent around the globe at the touch of a digital button!
So I will enlarge on his ‘large’ qualities with a few anecdotes. I remember he loved getting colleagues and friends together, spontaneously on Friday nights at small ethnic eateries (… just come to the … at 7pm …) in Paddington, Woolloomooloo, Bondi. He avoided Double Bay like the plague. Often they were fledgling restaurants with small menus, laminate-top tables and house wine by the carafe, drunk from water glasses. Once in ‘Paddo’ we were around 20 people arguing about sport, books, art, politics and life in general and very quietly (not secretly!) Peter paid the bill of well over 200 dollars. Saying no big deal – even though someone had stormed out early, having crossed swords over, I remember, Maoism.
His Saturday stews which were legendary around the Boarding Houses – were relaxed, come and go, convivial affairs. Most colleagues and students would sit on the floor in the absence of chairs. Peter needed no luxuries. And I would reply with a roast of lamb.
He was also generous at training. He would bowl to younger teams as well as his own, and at me. And then he would be bowled to by the same! He helped coaches like me to coach and to sniff the battle with delight. He was generous to introduce me to Vic and Anna Marks and to the Somerset team in the player’s room at Trent Bridge and to the post-match drinks with legends like Richards, Hadley and others. Peter had played well that day, facing Hadley doggedly. Another memory I remember is his taking me to the commentary box at Bellerive Oval, Hobart, to meet ‘Blowers’, whom I had long admired as much for his lyrical descriptions of the southern Derwent River area, as for his cricket talk.
Peter, while talking with authority, was also a listener and curious to learn more, music included. He saw the parallels between cricket and music, their demands of a sound technique, of constant practice, of absorption, of surgical analysis and impassioned inspiration and that indefinable, mysterious something – genius. And he was aware of how fragile and unforgiving of mistakes both are. I’m sure he had read Neville Cardus. I remember that in return for his offerings of Marley, Dylan and the Stones, I socked him with Bach, Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, Schumann, Elgar (Nimrod and the cello concerto) and Sibelius (symphonies 2, 5 and 7) and Rachmaninov. We discussed form and themes and atmosphere and in Beethoven and Brahms the sonata form and the emergence of triumph from struggle.
Literature was crucially important for him. Anytime at all, he would start discussions and ask opinions. Shakespeare for him was like Bach for me, and we would discuss Austen, Conrad, Orwell, Koestler, Sassoon and Owen. I would see him on weekends, on and off duty, walking around the school in T-shirt and shorts with bare feet and later straw hat, with a copy of A Man for all Seasons in his hand. He would quote his favourite lines, usually the ironic ones. And often he would ask a boy what he was reading at that moment and then talk about it. As with other common friends, Peter introduced me to Tom Sharpe’s comic novels.
He also organized theatre visits. In 1984 roughly, it was for 15 or so pupils and teachers to the Stables in Kings Cross. The play was Essington Lewis – I am Work, which he raved about. He preferred modern and non-main stream plays in small theatres. He also came to House and School drama and was supportive of stressed-out pupils and teacher-directors. I remember he was amazed at John Purnell’s production of the musical Oliver with pupils and staff, as well as the full fancy-dress party in 1985 or 86. Both were, for him, a culmination and affirmation of Mark Bishop’s Cranbrook. (alas, soon to change, as Peter also experienced).
Another positive aspect was Peter’s sense of privacy – which in a media-crazy world was nothing more than English reserve, traditional propriety and discretion – oops, what does that mean? – combined with an awareness of how the gutter media operate. Also he had a respect for the privacy of other people. I remember that once he played a game of tennis with Viv Richards on the school’s tennis courts at 6 am one weekday. He didn’t tell anyone, because if word got around, hundreds of boarders would have come down to watch. He told me well after the event, which speaks for his modesty and his reticent sense of privacy.
Of course there were some negatives I noticed, but they were fairly harmless, even ridiculous. I saw him furious at school negligence in not thanking Kerry Packer for donating thousands to the school for cricket nets. I saw him angry with smug tutors and slack students. I saw him angry with himself! But I never heard of him beating a pupil in all those 8 years, although it was permitted up to 1986. A tongue-lashing was enough. (It was rare at Cranbrook, anyway, compared to other schools, particularly the Catholic ones). Also, I remember him being aloof towards people he didn’t know or want to know, and not being very adventurous when it came to new constellations of people. He was not really interested in nature or its protection, or in saving whales or in bush-walking, or in visiting mainland Europe for non-cricketing reasons.
He was also often careless in his own writings. I think here of his frequently funny and picturesque vignettes of friends and colleagues when he let a too glib insouciance intrude to the point of distortion, although things could be partly true. Peter was usually well-meaning but he wouldn’t let strict historical accuracy stand in the way of a good story that he could dine out on!
Back to his ‘largesse’. His Bondi house, his preparation for his philanthropic visions of community oases for talented, poor students to be given ‘a fair go’, at his expense, under his conditions. Visions which did not always go to plan. I used to visit his house in South Bondi up to the end of the nineties. I forget the precise last time I saw him, as my base has been Hamburg since 1996. His house was a buzzing example of communal living, full of cricketers, friends, ex-Cranbrookians, neighbours popping in and out, no worries mate. I remember one Summer calling out through an old screen door – the front door was usually open or unlocked. All doors and windows were open, to facilitate ventilation along the long and narrow hallway and back rooms, on to which he had added extra rooms and a covered but open patio. I remember the smell of cooking, the sound of Dylan, the warbling of birds in the tall trees at the back. I could whiff the salt from the ocean. Peter’s house said ‘Welcome, friend and stranger’.
So I think he deserves better than he got. At least a proper inquest with a higher standard of applied justice. I’m no lawyer but I was taught that one untouchable rule of British law was a person is innocent until proven guilty ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ in a court of law. So let justice get on with it!
These were just a few memories I have. Many others have many more. I would like to see a book where writers and friends contribute, writers from England, Oz, India, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, West Indies, England and every place on planet earth where his very special virtues were and are appreciated.
One favorite line of Peter’s I recall had to do with a school report. Unfortunately, I can’t use it in my French and German reports because it doesn’t translate so easily, it runs…’His English comprehension is good, but he understands nothing’.