Monday, January 21, 2013

Service above self

Sam Foster is a nursery nurse at my daughter's nursery in southeast London. I doubt she earns very much and she has a son at university to support but like everyone else who works there she has a wonderful attitude towards her job.

Take this morning. It snowed a bit over the weekend. Not as much as in some parts of the country but enough to make the roads a bit skiddy and to bugger up the trains. For some people this was a green light to bunk off (sorry, work from home), while others had to make an extra effort.

In my wife's case, this involved getting me out of bed at 5am so I could drive her to a Tube station because her train wasn't running. But this isn't about my sacrifice. Anyway, I quite like driving on icy roads. It adds challenge.

Sam usually takes a train to the nursery but they were not running. Most people would have cried off at this point, but Sam pulled on her wellies and decided to walk in. It took her two and a half hours. One of her colleagues gave her a lift home tonight and measured the distance: seven miles.

Sam was not the only hero. Every member of staff was at the nursery by 7.30am. It helped that the council had done their job, even if the train companies hadn't, and cleared the roads but that is still a fine effort. As a result, no parent had to take the day off - and with most children at the nursery having two working parents that is not only a relief for them but a saving for the economy.

Yet when I arrived this morning I found that the nursery owner's six-year-old daughter was also there because the head teacher of her primary school had decided to close on account of the snow, in common with a few other primaries in Lewisham borough.

Almost 5,000 schools across the country were closed today and I'm sure that in many rural areas this was a necessity, but the snow was not so bad in cities that this had to be an option. It certainly wasn't in London. If the staff at a private nursery school can travel seven miles to ensure that their children are looked after and educated, why do our state schools close the gates so easily?

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Fishcakes and coelacanths: how to swear like CMJ and Captain Haddock

I telephoned my wife by accident just before Christmas, having leant on the phone while driving, and left a voicemail that she later played back to me with a fit of giggles.

About 10 seconds of beautiful violin music is heard, punctuated suddenly by a bellow of “indicate, you fucker” as one of London’s many selfish motorists changed direction without thinking to let anyone know. I swear a lot when driving. God knows what my baby daughter is picking up in the back.

Christopher Martin-Jenkins, who died last week, had plenty of misadventures with mobile phones but it is hard to imagine him ever leaving a profane voicemail. One of the delightful repeated references in the tributes paid to him was how creatively unsweary he was. “Fishcakes” was a common euphemism, as was “Captain Carruthers”.

For really bad occasions, he would say “Billingsgate Harbour”, “Bishen Singh Bedi” or “Billy Goats Gruff”. He was also fond of composers. If he ever shouted “Beethoven” things were pretty dire.

And then there was “Fotheringay Thomas”, which I first read in Jonathan Agnew’s tribute in our paper and assumed was an error. “Which **** of a sub-editor didn’t query that?” I probably said in my agricultural way, because, as any fule kno, it was surely meant in reference to Basil Fotherington-Thomas, the school swot in the Molesworth books of the 1950s, right, who is always skipping around saying “hello clouds, hello sky”.

But Fotheringay was how it appeared in all the other tributes and obituaries, so that must have been what he used to say. Odd that CMJ, such a stickler for getting things right, should err a little in his creative swearing.

There is great art in the inventive non-obscenity. The master, of course, was Captain Haddock, Tintin’s crusty companion, who uses 211 different swear words in their 16 adventures together, usually after one too many Loch Lomonds.

“Anthropithecus” is one of many scientific abuses he employs. “Bashi-bazouks”, “Coelacanth”, “Iconoclast”... And then there are the alliterative strings of curses: “Billions of blue blistering barnacles”; “ten thousand thundering typhoons”; “lily-livered landlubbers”.

As someone who grew up on Tintin, I really should have followed Haddock’s lead. There is something quite classy about raiding the dictionary for a good non-offensive swear, which follows on from the minced oaths of yore that were designed to avoid blasphemy such as bloody (by our Lady), egad (Oh God) and zounds (by God’s wounds).

Instead, I tend to eff and blind like a docker, although I have my own elegant variations, usually involving the c word being adjectival (“indicate you c***ing fucker”) or the portmanteau of twunt. I blame my first boss in journalism, the shy and retiring Giles Coren.

Now that my daughter is 2, though, I need to rein it in a bit, otherwise I could have some awkward conversations when she starts school. Instead of calling other motorists fuckers, perhaps they should be philistines; for wanker read Wanamaker; and as for the C word, well there the benchmark has already been set by Test Match Sofa, the amateur online cricket commentary.

Although the Sofa is less sweary than when it started, the language used is still more rustic than the BBC would tolerate. There has always, however, been a blanket ban on calling someone by the most offensive word.

Instead, they use the word Bradman, in the hope that overuse will eventually lead to the great Australian batsman’s name becoming similarly unusable in polite company. “Indicate, you Bradman” will be my new roar of the road. Or perhaps, in extremis, “indicate, you Ponting”.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Memories of CMJ

I first met Christopher Martin-Jenkins in April 2005, although like hundreds of thousands of listeners of Test Match Special I already felt that I knew this voice of summer. I had been at The Times for almost four years by then, but my relationship with cricket was still that of a fan and our first meeting was not in a press box but at his former house in West Sussex, which he wanted my help to sell.

Having started on the paper's gossip column, I had moved to join our new property supplement, Bricks and Mortar, where I wrote features about people and places. In early 2005, the property editor got a very polite, slightly sheepish email from our then cricket correspondent, whose house had been on the market without offers for some time. Could we help to give it a nudge? Knowing that I liked cricket, she sent me down to speak to CMJ.

“Quintessential English gem” said the sales particulars. It was not clear whether that referred to the house or the man. CMJ was English through and through, from his elegant manners and precision with language to his upper front teeth, splayed like stumps after an encounter with Glenn McGrath.

He was a poet, but an effortless one. I wrote in my piece on his house that he was the sort of commentator who would describe a batsman as taking to the game “like a mallard to a mere” rather than a duck to water, presumably a phrase I had heard him use. He never burbled or waffled, unlike some in the box. If he ever mentioned a pigeon, there would be a damn good reason for it.

The property was enormous. A red-brick Georgian eight-bedroom house with sash windows and wisteria up the wall, set in 44 acres with an avenue of lime trees, a cricket net and a ten-hole pitch-and-putt golf course. “I had too much room for just nine holes,” he mentioned, without pretension. He and his wife wanted to downsize before his retirement from full-time cricket-writing.

Naturally, we talked about cricket and perhaps my recognition when he casually mentioned in front of a portrait of Alfred Mynn that his wife was descended from the mid-19th-century Kent all-rounder helped us to strike a rapport.

It is well known that the teenaged CMJ wrote to Brian Johnston for advice on how to become a cricket commentator, but I had not seen what Johnners replied so asked him. “He told me to go and practise on a tape recorder,” CMJ said. “So I used to hide myself in quiet spots of the county ground and make commentaries. I would also commentate on games between myself and my brothers.”

It paid off: by the age of 28 he was cricket correspondent of the BBC and spent 40 years commentating on and writing about his greatest love.

But downsizing came with a price. I remember the sadness in his voice when he showed the garage where boxes were filled with a couple of hundred cricket books that he was having to sell because of lack of space in the new house. Ian Botham's Don't Tell Kath was top of the pile. Maybe he had a second copy.

Many young journalists have written on Twitter today about how CMJ had helped them early in their careers, but I can't recall having the guts to ask him for advice that day. However, by that summer I had started a process of moving across to the sports department.

After helping out with some of the fiddly bits of coverage of that year's phenomenal Ashes series – the statistics panels and suchlike – I was semi-poached from the property section, first for a couple of days a week and then full-time.

For a while, I was just on the subs' desk, where I remember CMJ's phone calls to check his copy – always polite, but always quite rightly firm when someone wanted to “improve” his words. I recall one incident when he had a strop because someone had amended a reference to Paul Collingwood being “cabined, cribbed, confined”, arguing that if it was good enough for Shakespeare it was more than good enough for The Times.

When I got out of the office and started to cover home Test matches I found him always a delightful, charming, intelligent man. We were in Dubai for England's series against Pakistan and I think the last time I saw him was when he was shopping with his wife in a souk.

He talked about how as he got older he insisted that she went on tours with him so that they could spend more time together. They were friends since university and had been married for more than 40 years. Alas, it was on their next overseas trip, a holiday in St Lucia, where the cancer that killed him was diagnosed.

We last communicated by email in November, when it was clear that the illness was terminal, but the tone of his message was still upbeat. A strong Christian, he found his faith comforting during what must have been an awful time for him and his family.

Everyone has a story about CMJ's scattiness, poor timekeeping and technophobia and Mike Selvey has shared some brilliant stories, but I remember one occasion when he was not only punctual but actually early. It was the annual Times over-40s v under-40s cricket match in Coldharbour, near Dorking, and CMJ arrived at the ground before almost every other player.

Proud of his punctuality, he went to his car as the pavilion was being opened... only to discover that he had left his kit bag at home. Chastened, he headed back down the hill towards Horsham and eventually arrived, as always, after the toss. It did not seem to put him off his stride: despite his age, CMJ bowled an impeccable length and took something like five wickets for eight runs.

The only other occasion when I recall him participating in a Times sports event was the annual correspondent's golf day. For a bargain price, our golf correspondent had arranged breakfast, a round of golf at Sunningdale and lunch afterwards. CMJ managed to get there by lunch – and only just. But he stayed and ate with us, hearing all our dull stories about duffed chips and missed putts while he apologised for being five hours late.

Cricket has lost a lovely man today. It was a pleasure and privilege to know him a little.