Arlott, (Leslie Thomas) John
- David Rayvern Allen
(Leslie Thomas) John Arlott (1914–1991)
Arlott, (Leslie Thomas) John (1914–1991), writer and broadcaster, was born at Cemetery Lodge, Chapel Street, Basingstoke, Hampshire, on 25 February 1914, the only son of William John Arlott (1883–1959), cemetery registrar, and his wife, Ellen (Nellie) Jenvey-Clarke (c.1884–1975). He was educated at Fairfields School and Queen Mary's Grammar School, in the town of his birth.
Police and poetry
Having left school of his own volition after a dispute with his headmaster, Arlott worked for a time at the local town planning office before spending three and a half years as a diet clerk, calculating food allocations, at Park Prewett Mental Hospital. In August 1934 he joined Southampton police force and during the next eleven years progressed from being on the beat to screening aliens with special branch during the Second World War. On 18 May 1940 he married Dawn Rees (1917–1998), a hospital nurse, daughter of Claude Samuel Rees, a factory inspector. They had two sons: James Andrew (b. 1944) and Timothy Mark (b. 1950).
After his formal education had ceased, Arlott acquired a love of learning for its own sake and read voraciously, but it was not until 1940 that he opened a book of poems, to find 'it said more to me as a human being than anything else did' (Allen, 53). Encouraged by John Betjeman and Andrew Young, he began to write his own poetry which found an outlet in several literary magazines, including Horizon. A collection of his work appeared in book form in 1944, Of Period and Place. Other publications around this period included Landmarks: a Book of Topographical Verse for England and Wales (1943) in collaboration with Sir George Rostrevor Hamilton and Clausentum (1946), for which Arlott composed twelve sonnets to complement drawings by Michael Ayrton of Bitterne Manor House.
Throughout the war years Arlott had corresponded constantly with significant writers, poets, and artists—Richard Aldington, Edmund Blunden, Cyril Connolly, T. S. Eliot, Osbert Lancaster, John Piper, and Vita Sackville-West. Contact with such savants stimulated an enthusiasm for collecting which over the years incorporated diverse subjects such as aquatint engravings, Gladstoniana, Sunderland glass, and Himalayan herbs, and led, in the first place, to the building of an enviable library of books which reflected his catholic taste. Pursuing another interest, Arlott had also, during his time with the police force, given lectures in Russian history up to the Bolshevik Revolution to service officers and Workers' Educational Association classes. It was Betjeman who recommended the young detective's poetry to Geoffrey Grigson, a BBC west of England producer and a poet in his own right. From there it was a short step to broadcasting on various feature and talks radio programmes until, in the summer of 1945, Arlott was selected for the post of literary programme producer in the BBC's overseas service. The position had formerly been held by George Orwell. One of Arlott's last engagements for the police was to represent the force in the broadcast Tribute to the King on VE-day.
Arlott's BBC production career, from September 1945 to the beginning of January 1951, was to be based on the long-running series Book of Verse which ranged widely and randomly from seventeenth-century ditties through Rossetti, the imagists, translation from the Chinese, the complete Shakespeare cycle, to modern runes. Book of Verse enabled Arlott to engage the literary lions of the day, including Dylan Thomas, Stephen Spender, and Cecil Day-Lewis. In 1952, after much difficulty, Arlott wrote what was to be his own last poem, 'The Master', in honour of the seventieth birthday of his cricketing idol Jack Hobbs. His total prosodic output amounted to between forty and fifty poems; the content naturally reflected the experiences of his early maturity and whereas the early work was thought to be in his mentor's mould—'a little sub-Betjeman' remarked Kingsley Amis (private information)—the later offerings displayed a talent for collectiveness and portrayal of local colour.
In 1951 Arlott moved to another department within the corporation as an instructor in the staff training unit, a position he held for two years. Extraordinarily, since becoming an employee of the BBC, he had combined the roles of producer before becoming an instructor, and also that of freelance broadcaster and commentator. This together with activities as a journalist and writer inevitably resulted in conflicts of priorities, and he resigned his staff appointment with the BBC on 31 March 1953.
Arlott's love of cricket, however, was the catalyst that had thrust him into the national, and even international, consciousness. Soon after joining the BBC a chance opportunity to broadcast on the Indian cricket tour to England in 1946 had led to an appreciative response from the subcontinent. The next year he was to be found commentating on the tour of the South African side to the United Kingdom and also on county cricket, and he quickly became an indispensable part of the BBC commentary team. For more than thirty years—until his retirement in 1980—Arlott was the quintessential voice of cricket broadcasting. He brought his distinctive Hampshire burr to the microphone, in an era where received and often affected pronunciation was the norm, and it became the passport to immediate recognition. Allied to acute powers of observation finely honed during his time in the police, and a gift for striking metaphorical phraseology, was an innate sense of timing: his silences complemented his speech. Moreover, he had the art of encapsulating the spirit of a cricket match. No matter that his listeners were far flung and could be far removed from a knowledge of the game itself, for here was a natural broadcaster who was never more 'at home' with his audience than when having to fill in time while rain stopped play. His aphorisms were legion and his character judgements pithy. In what was something of an autumnal golden age for English cricket, he heightened public expectations of the game.
Arlott commentated, too, on football, though not with such great success; his writing on that game is, however, knowledgeable and full of insight. He also broadcast frequently in fields other than sporting and undertook an enormous amount of work in print. As a journalist he had a column in the Evening News and at different times during the 1950s and 1960s wrote for the Daily Mail, News Chronicle, The Observer, The Times, and The Guardian. In 1968 he was appointed cricket correspondent of the latter newspaper in succession to Sir Neville Cardus and Denys Rowbotham. Thereafter his daily journalism was solely for The Guardian. Most of his output in books concentrated on cricket—the game's history, studies of play and players, and accounts of tours. He also produced a series of monographs in booklet form, mainly contemporary Hampshire cricketers as well as dissertations on variform topics such as English Cheeses of the South and West (1956) and The Problem of Infantile Paralysis. Arguably his most compelling work was a biography of F. S. Trueman, entitled Fred: Portrait of a Fast Bowler (1971), which contained almost psychological discernment of his subject; this was the result of lengthy discussions and concentrated writing over a period of approximately two weeks. Arlott could devour work at an incredible rate, yet never appeared to be in a hurry.
Liberalism and wine
In 1948 Arlott had been a founder member on the panel of the long-running radio programme Any Questions? In a broadcast in 1950 he likened the South African Nationalist government to a Nazi one and expressed his abhorrence of the structured apartheid system, which he had witnessed at first hand during his visit to the dominion when commentating on the 1948–9 tour by the MCC. The resulting furore reached the highest levels and effectively meant that he was no longer required on the programme for some three years, although he was not officially banned.
Arlott's Liberal roots ran deep. His maternal grandfather had sat at Gladstone's feet as he outlined proposals for elementary education, and he himself as a child had had tea with Lloyd George when in the company of his mother, who was secretary to the Basingstoke constituency Women's Liberal Association. He twice stood as a Liberal candidate for Epping, in the general elections of 1955 and 1959, and increased the vote on the second occasion by over a third to nearly 12,000. His platform was pacifist, opposed to the H-bomb and to capital punishment. He was not by nature a political animal and therefore on the eve of the polls was considerably relieved to find that he was in no danger of being elected and put in the position of having to apply for the Chiltern Hundreds: 'I should hate politics to be my career, I should hate my income to depend on politics. I am in politics because I believe in Liberalism and that reason only, I am a completely unrepentant Liberal' (private information).
The civilizing influence and sensory pleasure of wine had been discovered during stays in Sicily and Bordeaux in 1949 and 1950, and at the invitation of the editor of the London Evening News Arlott began to write articles on the grape. Some two decades later he was appointed wine correspondent of The Guardian, a job for which he was eminently suited since he was 'the compleat imbiber' and owned a magnificent and extensive cellar at his home in Alresford. Rather than indulge the trade lingua franca, Arlott would convey his pleasure in drinking to his readers, and his down-to-earth approach was typified in his series Honest Bottles. In 1978 he was named Glenfiddich wine writer of the year.
The Arlott household hospitality was legendary, particularly at the Old Sun in Alresford, a converted drovers' inn where the original landlord's retreat became the dining-room, a focal point of wondrous conviviality and refreshment for many a gathering. Arlott would be in his element. Sitting at the head of the long dining-table, surrounded by invited friends and unexpected visitors, expanding on national affairs and listening to village gossip, encouraging everyone to refill glasses still three-quarters full, foraging in the cellar for even more bottles, and eating delicious food prepared by an exceptional cook, he hosted memorable evenings relished by all who were there.
Arlott's gregarious side disguised a private man. Inherently and overtly emotional, he never allowed passion to cloud his intellect. He enjoyed polemic for its own sake and would, especially with friends, contest a view fiercely, whereas in print he would never criticize any individual, believing that the rankle caused could never be repaired. His first marriage ended in divorce after twenty years. In July 1960 he married his secretary, Valerie France (1932–1976), with whom he had a son, Robert (b. 1963). Three tragedies blighted his later life: the death after a few days of a baby daughter of his second marriage, Lynne; the road accident which killed his twenty-year-old elder son, James; and a fatal brain haemorrhage which struck his second wife in 1976. In the face of such adversity, lugubriosity often became his public demeanour.
Arlott was appointed OBE in 1970 and given honorary doctorates of the University of Southampton and the Open University in 1973 and 1981 respectively. He was also sports journalist of the year at the British press awards in 1979 and sports presenter of the year chosen by the Television and Radio Industries' Club in 1981. The greatest honour in his own mind was to be elected as the inaugural president of the Cricketers' Association in 1967, a position he held until his death. The deed which gave him the most fulfilment was to be instrumental, in conjunction with John Kay, in finding an opening in England for Basil D'Oliveira, a designated ‘Cape coloured’ under South Africa's race laws. In 1970 he was vocal in his support of the same player in what came to be known as the D'Oliveira affair and refused to commentate on the forthcoming South African tour, which was later cancelled.
When Arlott gave his final test match commentary, in the centenary test against Australia at Lord's in 1980, the game stopped while players and public gave him an ovation, an overt demonstration of the affection in which he was held. He had become something of an icon—the very identity of cricket—and his bons mots were treasured and passed gently around like the fine wine he enjoyed so much. If Test Match Special had become a British institution, it owed its success to Arlott as much as to any other participant.
Having sold the bulk of his cricket collection, Arlott moved to Alderney in the Channel Islands with his wife, Beryl Patricia Hoare (b. 1929), whom he had married on 6 April 1977; she had worked as a secretary at Lord's in the late 1940s and subsequently in Paris, Rome, and Geneva for the United Nations. In Alderney he continued to write, notably his autobiography Basingstoke Boy (1990), which probably suffered from having been started too late, when his energy had been depleted by the afflictions of ill health. The self-imposed decision to record throughout in the third person was a conscious effort to reduce the egotistical implant of autobiography and conceivably a subconscious attempt to distance himself from some of the events of the past. There were calls for him to return to commentary, though wisely he refrained from doing so. He did, however, undertake a lecture tour of the UK in 1983.
John Arlott died at his home, The Vines, Longis Road, Alderney, on 14 December 1991. His wife survived him. Essentially, he was what could be termed ‘a people person’ and the most human of human beings. He meant much to many and needed them as much in return. The inscription on his gravestone in St Ann's churchyard, Alderney, is a quotation from his poem to Andrew Young:
So clear you see these timeless thingsThat, like a bird, the Vision sings.
- personal knowledge (2004)
- J. Arlott, Basingstoke boy: the autobiography (1990)
- D. R. Allen, Arlott: the authorised biography (1994)
- M. Brearley, ‘Tribute’, Wisden (1992)
- b. cert.
- m. cert.
- private information (2004) [K. Amis, Dawn Rees, Pat Arlott, Tim Arlott]