Mortimer Also – Jo Rice

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I was lucky, I was introduced to books at an early age and was a confident, and voracious, reader by the time I was five and around that time my parents subscribed to the Children’s Book Club which supplied a hardback book every month from a selection they provided in a catalogue sent with the previous month’s book. The book club was run by the famous London bookshop Foyles, at least going by the address printed in the books I still have of 121 Charing Cross Road, there is no mention of the owner of the club in any of the books I still have from them. As well as books reprinted for the club there were also books from other publishers included in the selection and all editions were offered at a significant discount to the listed price. I know I was a member for at least five years judging by the dates of the books I retain and memory of the significant shelf space they took up and this weeks blog subject is one of the earliest from when I turned six years old.

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It was great fun to read Mortimer Also again, probably for the first time in over forty years. Over those intervening decades the only time it has come off the shelf was to be packed in a box and then unpacked again after each house move. It was one of those not reprinted by the book club so this is the 1968 first edition printed by Worlds Work and sadly it would appear to have been the only edition as a search of abebooks and biblio only revealed this version. It seems odd it never got reprinted, the story is well written and beautifully illustrated by David Knight and I’m sure would have found a wider readership if it had been picked up for a paperback reprint, at 21 shillings for the hardback (roughly £18 in today’s money) it was quite expensive if not bought through the book club.

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The story concerns Henry Lester, a leading cricket umpire about to start on his final season before retiring with the highlight being the Lord’s Test Match, The Ashes, England v Australia. Certainly in the 1960’s when the book was written this would have been the standout game of cricket that year however Henry has a problem, his eyesight is failing him and he occasionally has double vision so he is planning on quitting before his career grand finale. He also has another concern which he makes some notes of before going to bed one night and to his surprise finds replies added to his piece of paper the next morning

1. A mouse has taken up residence in the skirting board of my parlour
THAT'S RITE!
2. Clean, tidy, quiet, no trouble at all
THANKS I'M SURE
3. Listens to wireless, only on Saturday evenings
SEE B.B.C. 6:30pm
4. During Summer
WHO PLAYS CRICKET IN WINTER?
5. Sits in entrance to hole - backwards!
YOUR FAULT?
6. Makes strange scratching noises and occasionally twitches tail
SEE 5.
7. The sports page of my evening paper disappears every Saturday night
YOU GET IT BACK ON SUNDAY
8. I am worried
AWRIGHT I'LL GO.

And so Henry gets to meet Mortimer Also, a family name “Grandfather Mortimer; father – Mortimer Too; yours truly – Mortimer Also” a cricket mad mouse who notes the scores down on old bus tickets, hence scratching noises and sitting in his hole backwards to prevent them being blown about, and is also perceptive enough to spot Henry’s secret eyesight problem. He talks Henry out of resigning and between them come up with a plan where Mortimer Also will hide in his hat, observing the game through tiny holes and signalling to Henry what decisions he should make. The story is full of gentle humour with Mortimer reacting to the Australians initially in a highly partisan way especially after the fast bowler sees him on the ground and tries to hit him with a bat. Gradually though he settles down and the plan succeeds in getting Henry through the five days of the game with only a few incidents. In the final few pages where Mortimer Also steps up to defend the ruse to the Lords Committee after Henry confesses all after Mortimer was knocked out by a stray ball are beautifully written and that is probably why over fifty years after I first had this book it is still on my shelves unlike most of my original childhood library.

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The book includes a few very thinly disguised actual cricketers including a large framed Australian fast bowler called Kelly who was probably based on Graham McKenzie and the captains of England and Australia from the early 1960’s, Ted Dexter and Richie Benaud respectively. Dexter is simply referred to as Ted Baxter but there is a quite an accurate summary of Benaud as Henry describes him to Mortimer before the start of the game.

Archie Renaud, Captain; all-rounder; slow spin bowler; lively bat; goes in 6 or 7.

This dates the year that this is based on to probably 1961 as by the 1964 series Benaud was no longer captain. Ah the serendipity of cricket, whilst looking that up I found that the Australian touring team in 1961 included a slow left-arm bowler called I Quick. Although he never played in the Test Matches I love that fact almost as much as I loved reading Mortimer Also, now will somebody please reprint it so that more people can discover this little gem of a book.

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Steve Smith’s men – Geoff Lemon

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The moment you pick this book up you notice the texture of the printed title, it looks and feels like the sandpaper that caused all the trouble and the crash and burn of Australian cricket in South Africa that March day in 2018. Geoff Lemon has covered the team for many years and this is his analysis not just of what happened in Cape Town but also just how did the Australian national team come to be in this mess in the first place. However as Lemon points out at the start of chapter three

This book is not a detective story. It won’t give you every detail of what happened in the Cape Town dressing rooms…

… Only once careers finish will talk begin. Someone can write the comprehensive history then.

What Lemon does do is look deeply at the team and make as good attempt as can be done now as to what happened and why.

For those people who don’t know the background to this, Cameron Bancroft was seen rubbing the ball with sandpaper to roughen it and make it swing more during the Test Match against South Africa. More details can be found on the BBC website here which details the bans given to Bancroft and also the captain Steve Smith and his vice-captain David Warner after this incident.

However this isn’t just about cricket it is also a look at the psyche of a team that formed an effectively closed group and how harmful attitudes were just amplified as there was nobody from the outside to point out how the worst things became normal and then continued on a downward spiral egged on by certain members. As such it can be read as a useful resume of just how groups can deteriorate if left to their own devices. As Lemon points out the team became self selecting, performance on the field became secondary to being mates and being seen to fit the culture that had been created. At times it reads like a real life Lord of the Flies, and just as self-destructive, no matter how good you were you wouldn’t get in the national team unless you were one of the gang and that gang was so tight knit that they rejected all suggestions that things might be wrong.

Things had been going wrong for years and Lemon looks back over that time not just at the team but also at the governing body, Cricket Australia, to try to track why Australia had become the most disliked team in world cricket. Chapter 21 “Australia’s Cricket Culture” starts with five pages of quotes all riffing on the theme that they “never cross the line” meaning that they play hard but not beyond limits, the problem was that the Australian team wanted to set the limits and wanted them further in the distance for them than their opponents. Although stressing that this was a much older problem Lemon decides to focus of the England tour of Australia over 2017/8 to emphasise the build up to the South African debacle. This was a pretty bad tempered few months with Australia emerging the clear victors so they should have gone to South Africa on a high especially given their record in that country, but things started to go wrong soon after they arrived at the first test match. The sledging on both sides was distinctly unpleasant, Warner had taken considerable offence to references to his wife and this had led to a fight almost breaking out after they left the field which unfortunately was caught on camera. That it was Warner, who is probably the nastiest sledger in world cricket, who took offence is ironic in the extreme but that set the tone for what was to come. The Australians claimed that the attempt to alter the ball in the third test was the first time it had been done but nobody believed them so the one caught along with the captain and vice captain had to go, not because of the cheating, but because they were caught out telling bare-faced lies that just kept the story going. If they had just held a press conference at the end of the day and admitted to what had been done then there would have been fines from the match referee but probably not much more.

The book is not only incisive but funny and difficult to put down, the one problem with it getting a wider readership may well be the frequent use of expletives, the ‘f’ and ‘c’ words appear a lot. Now that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Lemon is trying to show where things had got to and on-field abuse hurled at the opposition, known as sledging, is often quoted verbatim and this may put off some readers. I think he was justified in the use of language because of the story he is trying to tell and it is a thoroughly good read.