The Light Fantastics

A City Romance (also available for animation)

Meet the Light Fantastics.

This is Lady in Red. This is Green Go-to Guy. They live in two little spaces in a traffic light in the Big City, on a busy corner of Main Street and Crosstown Avenue.

Lady in Red tells people to stop and wait before they cross Main Street.
Green Go-to Guy tells them when to cross Main Street.

They have to wake up early in the morning when they hear the first trucks rumbling down Main Street and be ready for work. Their first walker is always Dust Cart Man. Lady in Red makes him wait. Green Go-to Guy tells him when to cross and sweep the other side of Main Street.

Then come the early workers.

Then come the regular workers.

Then come the schoolchildren. Lady in Red makes them all stop. Green Go-to Guy tells them to cross.

Then it’s the late workers. Some of them want to cross in a hurry, but Lady in Red makes them wait like anyone else, before Green Go-to Guy lets them go.

Then it’s the shoppers. Then the people taking early lunch. Then the people taking regular lunch. Then the people taking late lunch. Lady in Red and Green Go-to Guy tell them all what to do.

Then it’s the schoolchildren and the workers crossing the other way.

Then it’s the people going out for dinner, or to see a play or a movie or a concert.

Then it’s the clubbers. Lady in Red stops them all, Green Go-to Guy lets them cross.

But when the last clubber crosses Main Street to go home, the Big City belongs to the Light Fantastics. They watch the last clubber let himself into his house. They look at each other and slide down the traffic light into Main Street. They stretch… and stretch… and stretch a bit more. And when they are tall enough, they dance… and dance… and dance…

They dance down Main Street. Past all the places where the people work or shop or go to school. But nobody can see them. Through the Big Square with the Victory Arch and the statue of Marshal Law. Past the Town Hall with the statue of Mayor Culpa. Into the park with the bandstand – where they can tap dance. They finish the routine with a big kiss. Then they take a drink at the fountain. And since nobody’s looking they bathe their feet.

Then they walk together, hand in hand, under the stars. They leave the park and walk back to Main Street. This time they reach the part with lots of advertising boards.

Lady in Red stops Green Go-to Guy. She looks at one of the big boards and says “We’ve never seen this one,” and he says “Do you want to try it?” It has a picture of a flashy fast car. An Alfa Pseud. And the two of them jump right into the car – because they own everything in the Big City at night, including the advertising boards and everything inside them.

The picture in the board has the Alfa Pseud all on its own on a long desert highway. Green Go-to Guy opens the door for Lady in Red and lets her drive first. All the way to the end of the highway in the picture. Then they change places and Green Go-to Guy drives it all the way back. Who do you think drives faster? Wrong. It’s Lady in Red. After stopping people all day, at night time she likes to put on a little speed.

Green Go-to Guy parks the car in the same spot in the picture. They get out and jump out of the board back onto Main Street.

“What did you think?” asks Green Go-to Guy. Lady in Red shakes her head and says “It went pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-qweep in sixth gear.”

They walk a bit longer along Main Street and stop in front of another advertising board. This one’s for a big blockbuster movie with the world’s biggest stars – Luke Upward and Stella Cast. But since they own everything in the Big City they jump right into the movie set and Green Go-to Guy says “Luke, my man, do you want to take five?” and Lady in Red says “Stella, honey, would you like to powder your nose?” And the stars leave, so that Green Go-to Guy and Lady in Red can play the big scene themselves. They look at the scripts the stars leave behind.

“You don’t love me any more.”

“I do.”

“You don’t.”

“But I do.”

“Your lips are moving but your eyes are lying.”

“Believe me.”

They give it all they can and then they look at each other and say the same thing. “This stinks.” They call back Luke and Stella and jump out of the board back into Main Street.

They walk a bit further and stop at another advertising board. This one has a tropical beach with nobody on it. They stare and stare at it. They have never seen anything so beautiful in the Big City. Finally Lady in Red says “We deserve a vacation.”

Green Go-To Guy says “We haven’t got much time. You know what happens if we’re missing…”

Lady in Red says “Just a quick swim?” And she takes his hand.

So they jump onto the beach. They kick up a little sand. They look at the clear blue water and run towards it, still hand in hand. But before they can jump in, the whole beach starts to shake. Not just the sand. Not just the sea. But the sky and the sun too. It can only mean one thing. They run back along the beach and look out of the board. It’s the first truck rumbling along Main Street. The Big City will not belong to them much longer. They will not be allowed in the advertising boards – or anywhere else. If they don’t get back to their traffic light in time they could be locked up as deserters.

So they jump back onto Main Street. No more dancing, they just run, and run, and run. Hand in hand. When one gets tired, the other pulls. Run, Lady in Red! Run, Green Go-to Guy! Back into the park… past the fountain… past the bandstand… Past Marshal Law and Mayor Culpa. Past the workplaces and the shops and the schools. They see more and more trucks. Faster, Lady in Red! Faster, Green Go-to Guy! The dawn is breaking over the Big City. At last they reach their section of Main Street.

They can hear the Dust Cart. One final sprint… They reach their traffic light just in time. They help each other up, and shrink again to fit into their little spaces. They are ready for Dust Cart Man. Lady in Red stops him in the usual way. Green Go-to Guy lets him cross in the usual way. He notices nothing different about them and heads down Main Street to sweep the other side.

Lady in Red and Green Go-to Guy watch him disappear. They look round the street. No trucks. No people. They slip out of their little spaces and have one final kiss.

Potential sequels

The plot device in which the two characters inhabit and interact with the images of poster advertising could be used in a series of sequels, with a similar premise at the end: the pair must finish their adventure at daybreak in time to resume their normal duties inside the traffic light. In other possible sequels, Green might have a rival, Bicycle Man, and the two might go into combat using traffic arrows as spears; Green and Red might raise a family of lesser lights; Red could save a child’s life in the busy street (or more exotically, a lost circus elephant); Green and Red could have a peaceful vacation in a remote country township with almost no traffic.

Richard Heller

05. November 2023 by rkh
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A London Romance

Relocating ManhattanMusic by Richard Rodgers Lyrics by Lorenz Hart 1925

Searching on some beach for space
With roughly half the human race
And insects which bite –
Cancel the flight!
In a London maisonette
We two could find a raison d’etre,
So let’s join our names
By the banks of the Thames.

We’ll build in Mayfair
And just to play fair,
Park Lane too
A place where we can be
Chez nous.
We’ll buy up Harrods,
Aspreys and Garrads,
Just for show.
With precious bibelots
And jewels we’ll overflow –
Quite de trop!
Our other shopping
We’ll do in Wapping
In a boat
Then watch the seagulls swoop
And float.
This great big city’s a Hamley’s toy
Just made for a girl and boy
And we’ll turn London
Into abundant

We’ll both go silly
In Piccadilly:
We’ll stroll up Burlington
And if our luck fails
We’ll go for cocktails
At the Ritz,
Amid the glam and glitz
We’ll sip white wine and spritz
And test our wits.
We’ll look at Eros
And hope he’ll steer us
To romance
And then in Berkeley Square
We’ll dance.
The city’s magic can soon employ
The hearts of a girl and boy
And we’ll turn London
Into abundant

We’ll overpower
The grim old Tower
In the spring.
In football stadiums
We’ll sing.
If we feel wealthy
We’ll vithit Chelthea
On a thpree:
We’ll thpend our L-S-D
On fashions wild and free
Thee and me.
Then down in Soho
We’’ll find a Boho
Arts café.
In Ronnie Scott’s we’ll hear
Jazz play.
The city’s simply a wondrous pearl
For one boy to give one girl,
So let’s give London
A mad abundant

We’ll check the night clubs,
Find all the right pubs,
Drink real ale:
Then sleep it off on Network Rail.
In Oxford Circus
We’ll watch the lurkers
Selling tat.
At Lord’s we’ll throw a bat.
At Lock’s we’ll buy a hat
Just like that.
We won’t look shabby
Inside the Abbey.
At St Paul’s
Upstairs we’ll whisper sweet
Love calls.
The city’s charms cannot ever cloy
For this footloose girl and boy
And we’ll make London
Into abundant

01. May 2024 by rkh
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Jailhouse Trump

Another song in honor of the chief Defendant of the United States

It’s incoming day at the county jail
Truck on the way with a loud white male
Thinks he’s a big shot and the people’s choice
But he’s just another loser who loves his voice
Let’s lock
Lock up Donald Trump
Watch his ratings and his money slump
When we finally lock up Donald Trump.

He’s been burning through what’s left of his cash
On top-dollar lawyers talking all kinds of trash
They’re spouting out stuff full of sound and fury
But can’t sell a cent to the judge and the jury.
Let’s lock
Lock up Donald Trump
His ego takes a mighty dump
When he goes down in One No Trump.

He takes himself down to the Supreme Court
Wants them to buy a really crazy thought
A President’s power has no end:
“Hey, I’m only asking for a friend.”
Let’s lock
Lock up Donald Trump
In solitary let him stump
When we finally lock up Donald Trump.

Now this is a man that no one can trust
And every deal he offers is a surefire bust
He’ll rip people off for the very last time
When a judge sends him down for committing a crime.
Let’s lock
Lock up Donald Trump
Shut down his lying pump
When we finally lock up Donald Trump.

Music by Mike Stoller Original words by Jerry Leiber

27. April 2024 by rkh
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The Brightest Daffodils Of Spring

I wandered lonely as a cloud
Amongst the bookshop’s empty tills
When all at once I saw a crowd
A host of golden daffodils:
Like Guardsmen with their stiffened backs,
The piles of Wisden Almanacks.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
On joyous publication day.
Ten thousand saw I, crammed with facts
On cricket’s esoteric acts.

For oft, when on my couch I lie
With Wisden, in a pensive mood,
I raise the volume to my eye
Which is the bliss of solitude.
I feast on stats and anecdotes
And then digest th’Editor’s Notes.

18. April 2024 by rkh
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A storming musical tribute to Donald Trump

Don’t know why
They should find a case to try
From Stormy Daniels:
Now I need a jury full of spaniels.
Who knows where I can buy ‘em?
If they look smart
I’ll have to knock the jurors
Off the panels.
Using all my friends in the right channels.
Not going down for crime (wah-wah)
Not serving any time.

I paid her off to say that she had never met me
Now she’s back and everybody’s out to get me
Now I’ve got to hope that all the courts will let me
In the White House again.

When I’m there
I’ll have a lifetime free of care from
Mattters stormy.
No more legal worries ever for me.
Pardon myself for all crime:
Not guilty and for all time.

Music by Harold Arlen Original words by Ted Koehler

Available for performance, with apologies to the jurors now selected. No implication that you are paid spaniels: I just needed the rhymes. It’s all about Trump.

16. April 2024 by rkh
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The mellowing of Saeed Ahmed

Published in The Nightwatchman 2018

It is not always easy to call on former Pakistan cricket captain, Saeed Ahmed. On my last attempt he spoke to me only briefly in the street, barring passage to his home in Faisal Town, Lahore, as if blocking for a draw in a Test match.

But there was a very different response when I went there a few days ago with the cricket historian Najum Latif. We had to wait in the street for his return from the mosque. We watched him walking slowly home, breaking off to buy a roasted corn on the cob. Then he saw Najum, one of his oldest friends – and broke into a genuine sprint as if taking a short single, although wearing sharply pointed shoes, in the style the English call winklepickers.

He ushered us inside the house and served us a luscious pile of kinnows, all peeled by himself. When the pile disappeared he offered another instantly.
At 80 years old, Saeed Ahmed seems happier and healthier than on earlier meetings over the last five years, although he has become very thin. His eyes sparkle, his gestures are animated: it is possible to recognize the dashing, charismatic batsman who burst into the Pakistan Test team sixty years ago.

Saeed Ahmed scored at least 50 in his first six Test matches for Pakistan, all against a powerful West Indies side. He made over 500 runs at an average over 50 on his first tour of the Caribbean against an attack including Gary Sobers, Wes Hall, Collie Smith, Sonny Ramadhin, Alf Valentine and the terrifying Roy Gilchrist. Then there were more big performances at home against Australia and on tour against India. To this day Saeed Ahmed is the Pakistani who reached 1000 Test runs more quickly than any other.

All these performances were on hard wickets, and he proved fallible on seaming English ones (despite changing his upright stance to a crouch to get a better sight of the ball) and later against extreme pace. But he ended with 2991 runs in 41 Test matches at an average just over 40. His probing off-spin was under-used in Tests but produced 332 first-class wickets. As a Lancashire League professional for Nelson he was actually more useful as a bowler than batsman, taking nearly 200 wickets in two seasons at an average cost below 10. He is especially proud of his first season in 1965 when he helped them to win the League championship and the knock-out Worsley Cup. “Me and Learie Constantine,” he told me: the great West Indian was the only other professional to achieve this for Nelson.

He also cites a performance that year of 85 and 100 (out of 157) representing the Lancashire League against the county side. At this distance, he remembers that Brian Statham (“what a swing bowler he was”) bowled for Lancashire: alas, the scoreboard shows otherwise, but the Lancashire attack was still quite handy.

On my first visit five years ago, it was hard to get him to talk about his cricket career: the interview was dominated by his religious vision in 1978 and its aftermath. I saw no cricket memorabilia in his drawing room.

But this time the walls were lined with cricketing photographs, especially of his legendary cover drive, which regularly thumped the boundary boards before the bowler had finished his follow-through. He was eager to point out his presentation by Hanif Mohammad to the Queen at Lord’s on Pakistan’s England tour of 1967. (Saeed Ahmed is one of that very select band of cricketers, all Pakistani, to have been presented to the Queen of England and the President of the United States. On his fleeting visit in 1959 to Pakistan’s Third Test against Australia, President Eisenhower watched him being caught by Neil Harvey at slip off Alan Davidson for 8. Many of the American reporters blamed the “Ike effect” for his fall: he had scored a fluent 91 in the first innings.)

He took the chance to re-tell – and re-embellish – the story of his private conversation with the Queen at Lord’s in 1967, when the two of them watched Hanif compile some of his epic 187. Most people are overawed in the presence of the Queen, but Saeed was quite unabashed and took the chance to draw her out about her tours of the Commonwealth. He provided an unusual glimpse of her as a quick-witted lady full of snappy one-liners. When he asked her what she remembered about Pakistan she replied instantly: “cricket and horses.” He claims that the Queen gave him an open invitation to drop into Buckingham Palace, which he has not been able to take up during the succeeding fifty years.

A movie buff, Saeed Ahmed was almost as thrilled by his meeting with the great Dilip Kumar in Pakistan’s tour of India in 1960-61. (The social life of that tour was infinitely more interesting than the cricket, in which every single match was drawn.)

Saeed’s conversation bounced around times and places. He paid moving tribute to the early support he received from the founding father of Pakistan cricket, Chief Justice Cornelius. He was almost as generous to his ex-wife Salma, although their parting was bitter and she left a scathing portrait of him in her memoirs. He acknowledges today the support to him and all his family which she provided through her diplomatic connexions.

As a personality, Saeed Ahmed produced strong reactions from those who knew him. Apart from Salma, Mushtaq Mohammad and Imran Khan left poor impressions of him in their autobiographies. But I have heard other accounts of a genuinely fun-loving man who often surprised friends with a generous gesture. Certainly, his later career was full of storms, both cricketing and personal. He coveted the Pakistan captaincy, but his three matches in charge, in the crisis-strewn home series against England in 1968-69, were stressful and unhappy. Fans and the media attacked him for being over-cautious. In the final Test in Karachi, the anger at him for supplanting the local favourite, Hanif Mohammad, contributed to the riots that caused the Test to be abandoned. He was several times dropped and reinstated as a player (once he had to apologize for an apparent assault on the then Board of Control chairman). Finally, he was banned outright by A H Kardar, who accused him of feigning a back injury to avoid facing Dennis Lillie on a green Melbourne wicket. (Few people have ever wanted to face Dennis Lillie on a green Melbourne wicket, and Saeed Ahmed is still adamant that the injury was genuine.)

Outside cricket, he fell on bad times in the early 1970s. He was divorced from Salma. His business interests (derived from her) foundered, as did an attempt at a political career. At one stage he lived in a trailer and had a brief spell in prison for sedition. The fall of Z A Bhutto (and Kardar) allowed him to attempt a cricket comeback at the age of 40, in Peshawar against the touring English team of 1977-78. It failed: Bob Willis was too much for him and the crowd wanted to see local favourites in the team rather than forgotten stars.

At this low ebb of his life, he experienced the religious vision which transformed his life. When I first met him, he took over two hours to describe it, in a torrent of words. This time he was much briefer, but he had the same intensity. After forty years, he told me, the vision has the power to leave him feeling weak and virtually incapacitated.

At the risk of great over-simplification, the vision convinced him that the end of the world is at hand, but will be preceded by a great Islamic renaissance in which all the world’s faiths will be unified. It showed a dramatically new path for him as an Islamic evangelist. His lifestyle, his values, even his clothing were transformed. He gave up parties and nightlife in favour of prayer and very public religious observance. He grew a beard. He abandoned Western fashions in favour of traditional clothing. There is a memorable image of him in 1999, astonishing his regular party companion, Tony Greig, with his new appearance as a preacher. He joined the evangelistic Tabligi-Jemaat and is regularly identified as its first cricketing recruiter. Many sources have suggested that he was a major influence on Saeed Anwar, and on all the other overtly religious Pakistan international cricketers of the previous decade.

Whatever else may be said of Saeed’s brand of religion, he is very tolerant of other faiths and those of no faith at all. He went out of his way in our conversation to praise good and honest Christians and Jews. “Paradise is not just for Muslims”, he added, and attacked the word “kaffir” as a pejorative term for non-Muslims. “I won’t say it and I won’t hear it.”

Saeed Ahmed’s life remains stormy, and he is estranged from his family, especially his younger brother and fellow Pakistan international, Younis Ahmed. He related several harrowing disputes.

Nonetheless, he seemed a far more mellow man than when I have met him before. He said that he wants to write two books, one on cricket and on his vision of the Apocalypse. He offers me the chance to prepare the cricket title: “you will make millions,” he added exuberantly. However, the Apocalypse one is likely to come first, in which he will prophesy that the United States will soon experience nuclear war.

He also believes that he should warn the Queen and may well take up the longstanding invitation to come to Buckingham Palace.

The Queen by reputation has a prodigious memory for people. If Saeed Ahmed does present himself at the Palace, I think that behind the bearded preacher she could identify the handsome, extrovert cricketer who sat beside her at Lord’s fifty years ago.

21. March 2024 by rkh
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Degrading, Futile, Unnecessary: Labour’s Overtures To Donald Trump

unpublished unBowdlerised version

David Lammy, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, is clearly proud of his efforts to build a relationship with Donald Trump. He will have been gratified by their coverage in The Spectator, which contrasted them favourably with David Cameron’s attacks on Trump. In The Sunday Times a few weeks ago he sneered at opponents of his approach as representatives of student union politics and cancel culture.

I accept the sneers. I believe that his overtures to Trump are degrading, futile – and unnecessary. David Lammy is living in a dream world if he believes that he, even in a Labour government, can influence a Trump second term or even mitigate its consequences for our country, the United States and the world. It would abort every one of Keir Starmer’s missions in government before he can even turn the key to their engines on the runway.

Insofar as they have been noticed in the United States, Lammy’s efforts are actually helpful to Donald Trump, and betray all those fighting to stop him, some at high personal risk. They assume that Trump in a second term will after all be a “normal” President who will listen to reason from America’s allies. However marginally, they weaken the incentives for voters to shun him on the very sensible fear that he will be anything but a normal, reasonable President. Again assuming that they have been noticed, they also feed Trump’s devouring ego and the expectation that he will win the November election.

I invite David to observe Trump’s words and behaviour in his campaign for re-election, indeed since his defeat on election day 2020 and find evidence of normality, reason and a basic respect for opponents. On what grounds would he contradict my view that Trump is a swine who accepts no need to pretend otherwise?

None of the restraints on Trump1 would inhibit Trump2. The full power of the Presidency would fall into the hands of a deranged narcissist, vainglorious, venomous, vicious and vindictive. This threatens the extinction of the United States not only as an ally and protector but also as a functioning civil society. Trump is clearly determined to use his second term to take revenge on every institution, every community, every single person who resisted and frustrated him in his first, especially in the legal system, Congress, his own party, the armed forces and public service generally. All of these institutions he would seek to turn into agents of his personal ego. Does David believe otherwise, and if so, why? Does he imagine that Trump re-elected would look back at his campaign, give a giant wink, and say “Just kidding folks, I was only giving all those rubes what they wanted to hear” and go back to government as usual? Who would have more influence on him – the wise insiders he has been castigating for years or the millions who accepted his own valuation of himself as a Messiah?

On the world stage, I believe that Trump actually prefers Vladimir Putin and other authoritarian leaders to democratic ones, and that the only European politicians he even tolerates are his imitators and flatterers and clients. I believe that Putin has already acquired a personal hold over him and a financial grip on his tottering empire. I am certain that Putin wants him to win, to facilitate his subjugation of Ukraine and his ambitions for territory and dominance elsewhere in Europe. If David believes otherwise, could he say why?

I believe that Trump actually hates NATO, and personally. He hates it not only because of the (fictitious) idea that most members are parasites on American defence spending and not only as a traditional American isolationist who resents any automatic commitment to any overseas country. He hates it personally as a creation of the liberal establishment and because it is full of countries which have made fun of him. Over to you, David, why do you think Trump really loves NATO or that you could persuade him to?

I believe that Trump hates the British Labour party, whoever leads it, and everything it stands for. I would certainly not enjoy being Prime Minister Keir Starmer when he finally gets his telephone call from the President-elect (behind Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and some other European riff-raff) and begs him not to crash NATO immediately but to allow him enough time and money to fulfil his programme. Trump does not care about Starmer’s programme and despises key elements of it. He certainly does not want the British economy to succeed with an imitation of Bidenomics – only as an imitator and client of his own. Green energy, progress towards Net Zero? Certainly not in the Trump playbook. Saving the NHS? Trump hates the NHS and wants to see its extinction, pausing only to sell off its profitable activities to his campaign donors. Over to you, David. Will you be in on that phone call, and how do you think it will go?

A Trump victory would of course re-animate every vested interest opposed to the Labour party and its policies and militant Right-wing groups all over Europe with public phobias and private armies.

Does David still imagine that Trump values the “special relationship” with our country? He might study how Trump and his supporters regularly depict us – as a failed state, collapsing into third-world status, overrun with criminals, illegal immigrants and Muslim terrorists, with a bloated welfare system. Trump’s victory would encourage his British admirers to “cleanse” our country and make it the image of his.

I am certain that David’s overtures are seen as a sign of weakness by Trump, and that he would exploit them in negotiation, of which he claims to be a master on the evidence of his ghost-written book. By committing Labour in advance to pursue and maintain a relationship he risks feeding Trump’s demands for subservience and adulation. We might have to become his cheerleaders in what’s left of NATO (so goodbye to a new post-Brexit settlement with the EU) and sign up for any escalation of conflict or outright war he launches against Iran.

There is simply no need to suggest that Labour could work with Trump. It is helping Trump and doing the party no good with voters here, except a minority who already hate it. It would have been prudent and easy to decline any comment on the US election as not in our national interest. If pressed, Labour might say “We want a good productive relationship with any elected US President but will always put British interests and values first. If Donald Trump were to win the election [note careful subjunctive] that will remain our policy and our relationship will depend on him”. That would actually strengthen our country’s bargaining position, just a little, if the worst happens.

The Spectator did warn that “if Starmer and Lammy go too far in their Trump charm offensive it will be the Labour base who sees red.” I hope so. For me it has gone too far already. Everyone has some political breaking point. Perhaps because I am American-born, with American family and friends, this is mine. I cannot support a party committed to truckle to Trump.

Richard Heller was formerly chief of staff to Denis Healey and then Gerald Kaufman. He has written extensively on American history and politics and reported and analysed six Presidential campaigns.

05. March 2024 by rkh
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A Cricket Bag Of Ideas

Three letters sent to ECB in the wake of the ICEC report in July 2023: no reply to any point received by January 2024

Richard Gould
CEO England and Wales Cricket Board

Dear Richard

I emailed you through the ECB Media office with some proposals for the ECB response to the recent ICEC report. This letter contains some revisions and additions.

Your immediate reaction to the recent ICEC report was rightly welcomed, but you and the ECB now have the devil of a job in making specific and measurable progress on it and within a short time. I have not read the report in full. From what I have read so far, I think that the authors could have done much more to enlist the support and engagement of the existing cricket community of England and Wales, not least in its language, which (in my view as a professional writer) has too much special pleading and sociological gobbeygook. I am strengthened in these views by reading more of the report.

What follows is a collection of personal suggestions to help achieve the high-level objective shared by the report’s authors and the ECB: making English and Welsh cricket truly representative of their whole nations and accessible and welcoming to all potential participants.

They are top-of-the-head suggestions without a strong evidence base (although informed by my experience as a player and watcher of cricket in 20 countries and as a cricket writer and historian). I am certain that the ECB and counties and individual clubs are far ahead of me on many of them, but I jot them all down in case they are of direct value or stimulate further thinking.


The ECB might make and repeat three simple points to the English cricket community, especially those sections who have responded indignantly to the report.

1) Cricket, like all sports, now operates in a very crowded and competitive leisure market. Within such a market it is fatal for any sport to be identified as the preserve of a privileged community, even if there are enough members of such a community to keep it alive. Such exclusion becomes self-perpetuating, the sport disappears from general public view and it fails to attract any new generations or offer them the chance of a professional career. [One could add: its administrators become more and more amateur and cranky.]

2) Thousands of volunteers give their time and often their money every week to provide access to cricket in a safe environment for children who might otherwise be excluded from it. These volunteers are betrayed by every instance of racism, sexism, snobbery and prejudice in the world of cricket.

3) Like it or not, English cricket cannot live solely on the income generated by its participants. For years it has needed outside income. It must be a “product” which outside sponsors and advertisers are proud of. None want their brand associated with racism, sexism, snobbery and prejudice [or indeed bad onfield behaviours].

The ECB and inclusion

4) The ECB should establish a specific Inclusion Unit and set measurable goals for it to achieve in participation in English cricket for all the groups now excluded from it (including LGBTQ and disabled people). It should compare these participation rates regularly with those of other sports.

5) The Unit should administer grants to all clubs and other organizations which achieve special success in promoting inclusivity. It might include automatic rewards for the engagement of children in receipt of free school meals. The prime judges of such grants should of course be from those groups now most excluded.

6) The Unit should encourage the media to promote inclusivity in cricket. I am certain that the Cricket Writers Club would assist this, and promote awards for journalists who report it and also for those who do most to combat racial, gender and class stereotyping in cricket.

7) A small step but the ECB should create extra income and recognition for cricket coaches who can coach in a foreign language, as well as umpires and other officials who are proficient in a foreign language (including Welsh.)

8) The ECB should encourage all cricket clubs to make contact with local faith groups. I say this as a secular atheist, but it is a quick way to encourage access to the game in many minority communities. Clubs will have to take great care in this if they contact groups with exclusionist views.

9) The ECB should encourage all cricket clubs to offer a safe place for children to meet under supervision and carry out purposeful activity, even if it is not cricket (eg a homework club).

The ECB and the education system

Present constraints on public expenditure will last a long time and offer almost no hope of new public provision for cricket in state schools. But the ECB could take some steps to help this:

10) Collect, collate and publish every scrap of evidence that playing cricket is beneficial for children’s general education, character and welfare. All sport achieves this but emphasize what makes cricket so special particularly
– Its unique combination of sequential solo skills (bowling then batting then fielding) with team work
– Its need for so many forms of different thinking (immediate decision making, medium-term tactics, long-term strategy)
– Its demand for empathy with partners and team mates
– Its demands for patience and calm to achieve success (many examples of cricket calming damaged children)

11) A curious unintended advantage of cricket over football is that it is now unfamiliar to many children and success in cricket requires mastery of completely new skills.

12) The ECB might offer a pathway for state schools to get the advantages of specialist sports status or academy sports status through cricket. It could set out approval criteria for such status in school cricket programmes, especially in the participation of hard-to-reach children.

13) The ECB might encourage all major clubs to offer local schoolchildren a complete day’s education through cricket, and to give them a chance of work experience or other regular participation in their activities. I know that your former club, Surrey, is very advanced in this, and perhaps others are too. See Appendix A for further suggestions.

14) The ECB should offer automatic registration as young cricket supporters, for nothing or a minimal fee, to all children of school age, divided by primary and secondary age. I have not thought of a name, and in any case it would be better to invite children to come up with their own suggestions and vote on them. Benefits from registration should include free admission to any county ground except on big match days, discounts on cricket equipment, magazines with appropriate content, some created by children (see also Appendix A), contacts with not only top players but also officials, commentators, writers, photographers, a supervised chatroom (which could promote contact with cricketing children overseas, and a pen-pal service, if today’s children still have pen-pals) and competitions with cricket-themed prizes.

15) Independently of 14) I think it would be an excellent idea if all public cricket nets were free to schoolchildren immediately after school hours during the summer.

Assisting curatorship

16) Many public cricket pitches and facilities are poorly maintained not only for lack of funds but also from lack of specialist knowledge. The ECB, counties and major clubs should offer technical help and advice on cricket curatorship to all local authorities.

Attacking the drinking culture in cricket

I strongly support the idea of an independent regulator for cricket. It is unsustainable to combine this task with promoting the game.

17) It would be a tremendous sanction for a regulator to object to the renewal of an alcohol licence (and/or a gaming machine licence) for any club which had failed to combat racist, sexist and other unacceptable exclusionary behaviours by members, whether drink-fuelled or not. I think that prospect would frighten clubs into combatting such behaviours very quickly

18) There is now a strong competitive market in non-alcoholic beers, wines and spirits. The ECB and individual clubs should make a special effort to attract their makers as sponsors. A possible slogan (illustrated by a top batter): At last I can drink and drive.

19) I am assuming that registered cricket supporters are disqualified automatically for racist, sexist and other offensive behaviours. But just in case this is not the case, the ECB should provide for this and seek names of offenders from individual clubs.

Cricket and politics

20) England is now governed by a cricket-lover. If the ECB wants anything from government, it might want to act now, while he is still in power, rather than take its chances on Keir Starmer, who is a football-lover with no evident interest in cricket. That said, some of the steps above should appeal to him and Labour politicians as much as to the present government.

21) The ECB might wish to emphasize to all politicians the contribution which Afghan refugees are already making to English cricket.

22) A reformed inclusive game would be a very good means of integrating migrant and marginal communities into English life generally. It could also be a fine advertisement for our country in all of the 175 other countries where some form of cricket is played, and a contributor to British soft power. These points should be made to politicians of all parties.

I am at your disposal and that of the ECB if any of the above points are of interest.

I emailed you and Richard Thompson separately about the ICC and Afghan cricket and would appreciate any reply the ECB is able to give.

With best wishes,

Yours sincerely,

Richard Heller
Appendix A

County Cricket clubs and general education

There should be an education hub in every county ground, offering a complete programme of cricket-themed lessons over a day for local schools. With adjustments for the ages of children concerned, cricket clubs could from their own resources offer at least the following subjects:

Written and spoken English: the media office. Children would learn the basics of cricket reporting and commentary (and see below). They would also interview players and staff, and the results would be published.

Other languages: translating cricket materials from English into other locally used languages.

Art and photography: the media office, with help from visiting professionals.

Mathematics, statistics, data analysis: the scorer and any data specialist

History: the museum. Images from the past – changes in players, spectators, grounds and what these show about changes in local society. I am especially keen on this module, as a historian. A sequence of images of the ground in question would be a rich source. Children would be encouraged to look less at the cricket than the spectators. What are they wearing in each generation, and what does it say about them? How much did they pay to get in – and what did this, and membership, take from average earnings? How did they travel to the ground? Of those reading newspapers – what stories were they reading? And so on…

Human relations and psychology: the coaches and captains

Physics: the behaviour of a cricket ball

Biology and chemistry: the ground staff give a master class in soil science and pitch preparation

Domestic science: the cleaners

Maintenance/engineering/lighting: relevant technical staff

Food preparation and hygiene: the catering department

Business studies: the finance department and the administrators

Health: the medical and first-aid staff

And of course, physical education. Under supervision, children would use the nets and facilities.

I think that this too would create lasting relationships between clubs and local children, their families and communities. It could be a source of recruitment.

There should be a contest in each county to find the best under-18 cricket reporter, commentator, analyst, and photographer. I would suggest doing this in two age-groups, under and over 13. The winners would get prizes in cash or kind, but more importantly, their work would be featured by each county in its publishing and media activity, through its match streaming services, and in display and access at each ground. They would each be mentored by a professional in their particular specialism. I think that such a contest would also generate great engagement among local families, communities and schools, and develop new talents in sports media with lasting reasons to be grateful to each county for giving them a start.

Appendix B – supplementary letter of 4 July

I am sorry to trouble you with yet another response to the ICEC report. But I had two further ideas and I hope that they might be of some value to you and the ECB.

A) The ECB should offer to part-fund a Cricket Development Officer working for each local authority responsible for a deprived area. He/she would have broad responsibility for promoting participation in cricket throughout the borough, including the availability of pitches and nets, liaison with all local clubs whatever their scale, and, above all, increasing the connexion of local children with cricket. I hope that the ECB could persuade central government to make some contribution to this (especially under the present cricketloving Prime Minister) and private and charitable funders. Once on offer, this in my view would be hard for any relevant local authority to refuse.

B) Does the ECB hold any information about why people leave cricket as players or officials or other regular contributors? I suspect not and none is cited in the ICEC report other than those who volunteered testimony that they left cricket after encountering racism, sexism and other bad behaviours. A properly structured survey of this issue could be immensely informative and guide future policy. It would be especially revealing to track this in depth for different ages, genders, racial groups, classes, and playing abilities. All respondents to such a survey should be asked whether after leaving cricket they gave the same energy and time to another sport or leisure activity – and if so what attracted them to it?

As an exercise I went through all the first-hand quotations in the report. I would say that over two-thirds of them gave a negative view of English cricket. Some were exceptionally hostile. Nearly all the remainder could be described as neutral. Until the reader reaches section 9.7 he or she will not read a single first-hand tribute to English cricket. I think that this is a serious omission.

Section 9.7 refers to efforts to promote diversity and inclusion in English cricket, especially for children. It is hugely outweighed by the evidence of barriers to inclusion and diversity, especially those arising from systemic racism, sexism, economic bias and personal snobbery. The ICEC’s own figures suggest that hundreds of thousands of people of all ages participate regularly in cricket who are poor, female, or of minority ethnic origin or from other groups under-represented in cricket. But it has not produced a single citation from anyone in those groups who enjoyed cricket and whose life was transformed by it. This is a great gap and it is hard to reconcile this with the report’s title of A Mirror To Cricket. It is a mirror which shows only warts and blemishes. The ECB should seek out urgently and publicize its own evidence of the power of cricket to raise human potential. This is copious, and extends to all participants regardless of class, race or gender.

Section 9.7 deals only with initiatives organized centrally by the ECB or counties or charities such as ChancetoShine. It has not described any local initiatives by clubs and individual volunteers, or their benefits, especially to clubs in terms of playing results, membership and income. This is a great pity because others are not inspired to imitate them. That strengthens my earlier suggestion that the ECB should give money and public recognition to such efforts.

I do not mean to nit-pick about the report, but I feel that it is dangerous for cricket to beat itself up too much. The general public and commercial interests alike will desert any sport which is identified as racist, sexist and snobbish and reports itself as such without giving any counter-evidence of its public benefits.

Hunting might give a warning to cricket. Like cricket hunting had deep historic roots in our country and a rich cultural heritage. It had a strong following and created local employment and activity. But it was perceived as cruel and snobbish – and was therefore legislated out of existence. Cricket (one hopes) would not face such an outright ban. But it could certainly lose all hope of public provision and intervention. Cricket would be told to stand on its own feet and run itself as a purely commercial business.

Appendix C supplementary letter 5 July

I am sorry to trouble you yet again about the ICEC report, but I found one statistic so striking as to be worth interrogating.

4.3.6 For children, this trend was mirrored with those from less affluent groups being least likely to play. In addition, the survey also revealed that whilst 16.8% of children at private schools were playing cricket once a week during school hours, [my emphasis] only 7.2% of children at maintained state schools and 6.2% at academies were doing so (during the academic year 2021-2022).

The bold figure seems very low to me. It means that six out of seven children at private schools do not play cricket. Their parents or carers are paying substantial fees for their education: for them money is no barrier to playing the game. I think it would be worth examining why they are not. Do they (or their parents) prefer other sports? Do schools prefer to teach other sports? And if so, why? One possible explanation may be the recent intake of foreign pupils from non-cricket countries. But I have met a few of these who became enthusiastic cricketers: why are there not more of them? Private schools often boast of their value to British exports of goods and services: if so, why can they no longer export cricket, as they did in Victorian times to Britain’s political and commercial empire?

Since I have written again: one further good point about modern English cricket, unremarked in the ICEC report, is the growth of age-group cricket for older people. There are more and more over-70 sides and I have heard of over-80s as well. It would be worthwhile for the ECB to produce some figures on this to show to policymakers in national and local government. Cricket does offer the chance of long involvement in an outdoor activity. I will celebrate my own “platinum jubilee” next year. One of the great advantages of not being any good to begin with is that you do not notice so much decline.

24. January 2024 by rkh
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J E P McMaster: the hero of zero

Published in Scoreline magazine, Pakistan, 2018

At the time of writing (2019), 687 players have represented England in 1004 Test Matches since 1877. (By comparison Pakistan have used 233 players in 416 Test Matches.)

I think I have watched every English Test performer since 1954, including many great ones. At the beginning were Len Hutton, Peter May, Fred Trueman. More recently were Alastair Cook and Jimmy Anderson. Along the way were such as Geoff Boycott, Graham Gooch, Ian Botham and David Gower. But none of these are my favourite England player.

That honour belongs to number 67: Joseph Emile Patrick McMaster.

He faces stern competition from number 221: John “Jack” Crawford William MacBryan. He is the unluckiest man ever to play Test cricket for England. He was chosen as a batsman in the Old Trafford Test at home to South Africa in 1924. As sometimes happens in Manchester, it rained a lot. The whole match lasted only 401 balls. MacBryan did not bat or bowl and he did not take a catch. He was never picked again. MacBryan’s father, incidentally, had the distinction of being P G Wodehouse’s model for the forbidding psychiatrist (“loony doctor” in Bertie Wooster’s description) Sir Roderick Glossop.

But I think readers will agree that he has to take second place to McMaster.

“J E P” was born in Gilford, County Down, on 16 March 1861, in what was then a united Ireland and then after independence and partition in Northern Ireland. He went to Harrow but did not get into the first XI. He then went to Trinity College, Cambridge to read law. He played no major cricket matches at Cambridge, but won a blue at the new-fangled sport of lawn tennis in 1881.

He qualified as a barrister in 1888, but then disappeared on a daring adventure, the private cricket tour of South Africa organized by Major R G Warton. To say the least it was a mixed party, with five England Test players, four county players, and six like J E P with no cricketing record. One was a comedian called Cameron Skinner, chosen to provide entertainment for the party although I can find no record of his best gags.

Major Warton’s party were genuine pioneers, enduring rudimentary transport and accommodation, and sometimes in danger from outlaws and wild animals. Political tension was building in South Africa between the English settlers and the Boers, of Dutch origin, which would burst into war a decade later.

Warton’s team played twenty matches but 17 were at odds, against local teams with between 15 and 22 players.

J E P played in thirteen of these. A sponsored history of the tour was published by Charles Cox of the Port Elizabeth Advertiser, describing him as “Mr Emile McMaster, moderate bat and fair field,” and summarizing his record as “fairly successful.” But he scored only 107 runs in 17 innings, average 7.2. His top score was a “carefully compiled” 34 not out against XXII from South-Western Districts.

Two of the matches were against 11 players representative of South Africa. To the fury of some cricket statisticians, these were given Test Match and therefore first-class status retrospectively (like England’s first two Tests against Australia). J E P got his chance in the second of these, through injuries. His captain was a young Monty Bowden, himself substituting for the injured C A “Round-The-Corner” Smith, a Sussex amateur bowler, who later became better known as the actor Sir C Aubrey Smith and founder of the celebrated Hollywood Cricket Club.

The match, at Newlands, Cape Town, was played on 25-26 March 1889.

England won the toss and batted first. McMaster came in at Number 9, with the score at 287 for 7, when the renowned Bobby Abel of Surrey was bowled by “Gobo” Ashley for 120. Was J E P disappointed to go in Number 9, three places below the wicket-keeper H Wood? Did he get nervous in the pavilion, watching Abel’s long innings against the persistent Gobo Ashley on a difficult pitch?

No doubt J E P had to wait for the applause for the Surrey professional’s century. He took guard against the left-arm medium Ashley – and was out first ball, caught by Rose-Innes at slip. He took the long walk back, perhaps murmuring an apology to the next batsman, Hon C J Coventry, now facing a hat-trick ball.

The golden duck was the zenith of his career. He fielded out two South African innings in which they were routed for 47 and 43 by Lancashire’s slow left-arm genius Johnny Briggs. He was not required to bowl his rare leg-breaks. He took no catch, as Briggs hit the stumps 14 times in a match analysis of 15-28.

J E P never played another major match. This lone appearance therefore represented his entire first-class career, giving him a record which is impossible to beat. One ball faced, no runs, no wickets, no catches. He is a cricketing Yarborough. That is why he edges out MacBryan from my pantheon of failure. MacBryan had a worthwhile first-class career for Cambridge University and Somerset. He was a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1925. (He was also an England hockey international, and, for a while as a 90-year-old he became England’s oldest living Test player.)

At least J E P was not denied the retrospective glory of an England cap, and at least he knew about it, unlike poor Monty Bowden. He died of fever in Umtali only a few years later, buried in an improvised coffin made of whisky cartons which had to be guarded from marauding lions. (The genius Johnny Briggs died even more tragically in a mental asylum, but Hon C J Coventry survived a premature report of his death and was able to join his own funeral celebrations in his home village).

I like to imagine J E P in later life, toiling at the Bar, bored out of his mind in Chancery. He replays his fatal stroke over and over and turns it into a spanking boundary, the springboard of a career in cricket’s Golden Age. Each year he buys Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, to view his entry in the Test players list.

I think of him playing club or village cricket, with the permanent aura of a Test player, a cherished wicket for opposition bowlers. Deliriously happy schoolboys would tell their mothers “I got McMaster out, the England player!” By contrast, opposing batsmen would pat back his slow half-volleys and long-hops, for “You don’t take chances with McMaster, the England player.”

Pakistan has no McMaster among its Test players. But when I began to research its cricket history, I was often struck by the number of players who made one first-class appearance and then vanished. I especially enjoyed meeting two of these, Brigadier M T K Dotani (who appears on the scorecard as Taimur Hasan) and Mr Shahid Javaid Khan (recorded as Javed Khan) – survivors (with one run between them in four innings) of the Dera Ismail Khan team who set an unsurpassable record of losing a first-class match in 1964 to Pakistan Railways by an innings and 851 runs. They told me a vivid, touching story of a provincial team, mostly of schoolboys and college students, who played for fun on the local parade ground, doing battle against one of the best teams in Pakistan.

But I have seen many more scorecards, particularly from the 1950s and 1960s, where players make one appearance, bat low down the order, score few if any runs, do not keep wicket or bowl, and do not take a catch. McMasters all, and I would love to hear more of their stories.

03. January 2024 by rkh
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The rewards of mediocrity

Published in the Journal of the Cricket Society December 2023

Some are born mediocre, some have mediocrity thrust upon them but some achieve mediocrity only after a lifetime of hard work.

That is the central message of my intended autobiography as a bowler. It is to be called Six And Out, after the role I was usually asked to fill on the school playground of inducing the retirement of the best batter who kept hogging the strike. Over the roof… no need to waste a review there.

I did not get where I am today (no mate, yours is Pitch 94 on the other side of the Marshes, this is Pitch 67) by just rocking up and turning my arm over. It required days and weeks and years of constant practice, sometimes in nets empty of human life, before audiences of bemused bees abandoning their search for nectar in discarded sweet wrappings. At a very rough estimate, I have attempted 18,347 deliveries in some setting or other. These do not include the dead balls resulting from the low roofs of many public nets, which are responsible for the death of flighted spin bowling in our country, but I certainly count my the experimental deliveries on either side of the Equator in the Arcadian Atlantic archipelago of São Tomé e Príncipe. I fully intend to reach 20,000 next year, which will represent my Platinum Jubilee in our summer game.

Of course all these deliveries were self-taught. It would be cruel not to say defamatory to attribute them to any coach.

Another calculation suggests that I have given close to a year of my life to those deliveries. They therefore carry a huge opportunity cost, a term I remember from the rare attention I gave in my old Oxford college to the Economics section of my course. Had I used that time differently, I might have completed the Great Novel whose detailed plot and notes were lost on the memory stick which my cat used as a plaything, or possibly ingested as a snack. In either case, he has yet to return it.

My bowling career had a number of formative events.

The first ended the early career of flighted orthodox legspin. It was the fielders’ collective mutiny by my team mates when I purveyed it on a small rural ground. After only the fourth six they declined to hack through any more nettles and brambles or climb over any more barbed wire to retrieve any others. If I wanted to continue it would have to be in another style. This experience converted me into a workaday slow-medium (well, with a following wind) dibbly-dobbler who could (punches cliché button) “keep an end going” until the captain thought of something better.

After many years in this style and visits to several continents I reached the summit of a mediocre career and made an important discovery. Batters out of form are best served, in the recovery stage, by reliably mediocre bowling. This is far better for technique and confidence-building than feasting on lollipops or facing totally random dross. With this discovery, I had built up a small part-time business as a batting therapist. The therapy consisted simply of bowling at the customer and letting him or her discover that with concentration and appropriate shot selection my deliveries could be hit very hard at or above me. With young customers I made a point of pretending that their straight drives really stung my hands when I tried to catch them or intercept them. (I learnt this from an inspiring early coach of my own, a ”resting” actor who eventually came to permanent rest as a games master. I recommend this to others. Just remember to control your language when the sting is for real.)

This phase was ended by an onset of the Yips, the mysterious and deeply depressing condition which strikes not only at cricketers but also tennis players and golfers, a total memory loss of how to perform a normal but routine action. In my case, the ball simply refused to leave my hand, as if in terror of abandoning its sanctuary. When finally compelled to, it went absolutely anywhere, sometimes at my feet, sometimes backwards imperilling the umpire. For two (punches cliché button) wilderness years, I bowled nothing to any real batter, only in rehearsal to my image in the long mirror at home. No memory of better things returned, and I eventually gave that long mirror to the local poor. It has since assisted a long line of dapper dossers.

This nightmare was ended by unusual means: having a stroke. It was not much of a stroke, more a push to midwicket and a scrambled single than a lacerating square cut, but a real scoring stroke nonetheless. On recovery I discovered that I could bowl again, although far slower than in phase 2. My consultant suggested that the stroke had wiped out the part of my brain which had told me I could not bowl and that I was now using another part which had no memory of this. This is a drastic remedy for the Yips, and has yet to appear in any sporting manual.

I began a third and final phase of slow flighty stuff, taking the opportunity to invent a series of new deliveries. In imitation of Shane Warne’s supposed mystery ball, the zooter, I gave them all names beginning with Z, thus the zombie, the zamboni and the zorker. I am at work on the ultimate mystery ball, the zarathustra. I achieved a new summit of mediocrity and was able to resume my part-time career as a batting therapist. The zombie, the zamboni, the zorker initially flummoxed some customers, especially young ones, until they realized that they need not bother to decode them and that simply getting to their pitch would empower the same satisfying straight drive.

Through all the phases and their plateaux and summits each delivery has required a mighty whirl of the right arm through 540 degrees, about 1 ½ times the normal maximum. Pro-rata, compared to a normal bowler, I have attempted 27,521 deliveries, rather than the officially recorded total, while my right shoulder is consequently 114 years old compared to the birth age of 75 ½ for the left.

Were they all worth it? Yes, on watching one of my recent customers, grandson 2, now aged 11, compile 30 in a competitive match before being compelled to retire (a problem which has never affected me). His innings included several straight drives

Prodnose (the pedantic tormentor I have inherited from the great Beachcomber): No, no, these were surely no ordinary straight drives?

Myself (chastened): So sorry. (Punches cliché button) Several booming straight drives.

I was able to murmur to other admiring onlookers “I taught him those.” I did not of course reveal my methods.

18. December 2023 by rkh
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No Agent, No Baubles…

… and no sale either, when this was offered two years ago

I have been dismissed by my literary agent. Politely but unmistakably, and I was glad to be spared the usual flummeries: pressure of demand from other clients … feel unable to present your work with conviction… never known markets so hostile … None of all that, just goodbye.

This has happened many times in the past fifty years, and it really should not give me such a jar, no more than being hit for more than ten in my solitary over in a cricket match or the swift exits from the room, even by the portly and infirm, when I start to play the piano. But all these events still have to power to jar, indeed to discombobulate me. Some years ago in my cricket career, I suffered from the phenomenon known as the yips, a total loss of control over my bowling. The ball would go anywhere at all, sometimes backwards. Much better bowlers than me have also been victims and many have reported the same symptom. The ball eventually refuses to leave the hand. It becomes virtually a living creature, saying “Don’t let go of me, you know it will not end well.”

Writers can get the literary yips, and the loss of their agent is a regular trigger. It gives them a bleak message: “Nothing you could conceivably write (forget anything you actually want to write) will ever yield me a percentage.” I have the yips now. Everything I have written and was hoping to sell, everything I thought of writing next, is saying “Don’t let go of me. Leave me in the cupboard, the computer’s memory or even that small creative part of your brain. If you release me anywhere it will not end well.”

It is always an ordeal finding a new agent. The painful search through the dwindling list of agents willing to consider a new submission. The elimination of those whose existing clients I cannot stand or (more likely) have never heard of. Trying to persuade the surviving possibles that I would be the perfect addition to their stable (I have written some of my best fiction for this purpose.) Waiting for at least three months before daring to send them a reminder.

Writing is the occupation with the highest opportunity for jealousy and paranoia. Those months of silence always lead me to believe that agents have warned each other that the Heller account is looking for a home again, and that they are arguing fiercely, as in long-ago selection meetings on the school playground: “I had him before. It must be your turn.”

Even without such a sinister conclave, I know that it will be hard to find a new agent at … at … (punches cliché button) oh, all right, at my time of life. He or she will not be expecting a long association in which to develop a mutually profitable career, and is likely to think, well, if this writer is still undiscovered at 73, perhaps there was nothing to discover.

Do writers really need an agent? Alas so, to achieve their ultimate goal. Recently I re-visited George Orwell’s famous essay “Why I Write”, in which he listed four motives for being a writer.

One: sheer egoism. “Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death.” Well, indeed, I feel that too.

Two: aesthetic enthusiasm. “Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement.” Absolutely so, particularly for me after one of my very best jests or even a mere apophthegm.

Three: historical impulse. “Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.” Well, yes, although in my case this impulse has been channelled largely into uncovering the careers of obscure cricketers.

Four: political purpose. “Desire to push the world in a certain direction.” Yes, that too. I have devoted much of my writing to what I thought were good causes, latterly saving pangolins from extinction and replacing them with Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.

Orwell was an austere and principled man, and for him those four might have been enough. But for the rest of us, certainly for me, he should have added Five: “To acquire the baubles of vulgar success.” For these, agents are the gatekeepers. Without one, a writer has almost no chance of reaching the markets of vulgar success. This is especially true for a screenwriter. For a studio or individual film maker, an agent offers a basic guarantee that a submitted script is the original work of the writer he or she represents, and if they make it that they will not get hit by an embarrassing and expensive plagiarism suit. Things are a little easier for novelists or non-fiction authors, but not very much. Ever fewer publishers of any size are willing to look at a fresh writer without the wrapping of an agent.

The baubles of vulgar success should not be confused with the baubles of vulgar wealth. When guests at my salons ask directions for the loo, it would be fun to imitate Jeffrey Archer and reply “Turn right at the Picasso.” But this is not essential to me. I ask only for enough vulgar wealth to fund a new upright piano and a Hammond B3 organ.

The baubles I really want are these.

A cheesy photograph of myself in a fashionable eatery with an even cheesier signature, as it might be “To Elena, thanks for the best Negroni in town!”

Autograph hunters.

Countless free samples, even of things I cannot stand.

Good causes begging for my name, not just my money.

Being told by cab drivers about the other Famous Person he had in the back of the cab that day and what a mean sod he was and doubling the tip to avoid figuring in the next version of the story.

Invitations from strangers. I would be only too happy to present the prizes at Market Snodsbury Grammar School and I would not get lit up like Gussie Fink-Nottle.

Requests to sign photographs of children or pets who are “just like you.”

Requests to read the manuscripts of children or pets which are “just like your stuff.”

Intense speculation about the contents of my next book.

Offers of free trips by ghastly governments, to be contemptuously refused.

Requests for interviews with ever more desperate promises of control over the published copy.

Only an agent can secure any of these. After I have enjoyed them all to the maximum, only an agent can lift me as a writer through the ranks of media obituary. The summit would be RICHARD HELLER DIES: I have become a household name. The next level down would be RUBATO AUTHOR DIES: one of my works has become big enough to draw readers to the story, even if I have not. Quite a way below this would be FAMOUS AUTHOR DIES: readers need a sharp nudge to attract their attention.

Without an agent, I am condemned to the lowest section, when only the circumstances of my death, tragic, violent or simply bizarre, create the story.


04. December 2023 by rkh
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