Obituary: Christopher Wordsworth

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The Independent Culture
THERE WAS something of the Scholar Gipsy about Christopher Wordsworth, who contributed weekly to the literary pages of the Observer and Guardian for several decades up to the early Nineties. A distinguished and versatile critic with an aphoristic style, he reviewed novels, crime, works on India, the British countryside and virtually anything else that was put his way.

An avid spectator sportsman, as well as an expert fly-fisherman, he also reported cricket and rugby with a fond, sceptical humour.

When he died peacefully at the age of 83, it was in a living room still piled with newly-arrived review copies, and in a house a bare quarter of a mile from his sacred river Tanat, which flows from Powys into Shropshire. That very morning he had gone down to the river with a fishing friend of similar age, and discussed whether it was worth going for the grayling next day if the weather held. More hunter than gatherer, Wordsworth could claim, with no more than passing hyperbole, to have kept himself alive at one stage of his life by shooting and fishing for his supper.

It was always hard to distinguish between the facts and romance of his past. He was born in Calcutta, the son of a senior civil servant who went on to become editor of the Statesman of India. At four he was shipped back to Britain to be educated at a dame school in Aberystwyth run by his godmother, whom he had to address as Sir. He saw his parents only intermittently from there on.

So much is fairly certain. But the story that at five he could speak only Welsh and Hindi is probably best treated with reserve, as was his claim to kinship with Llewellyn the Great, which he would advance just to see how people would take it. But he was genuinely surprised to discover only recently that he was not directly descended from the poet Wordsworth, as his family had always believed.

From Aberystwyth to prep school, then Rugby, and on to Christ Church, Oxford, which didn't detain him long once a legacy came his way. After a year his formal education ended, but he continued to read omnivorously and stock his mind with stories, legends and curiosities which he absorbed during his wartime service in Iraq, India and Malaya. His memory was phenomenal. If you were trying to trace a literary reference, explain an exotic custom, define a term, it was nearly always simpler to ask Wordsworth than to look it up.

The separation of war, and a talent for self-destruction, which he candidly acknowledged, cost him his first marriage. "I did not write to a young wife for nearly three years when posted overseas." Returning to Britain he was gradually drawn for congenial company into a shifting circle of aspiring writers and artists living in north-west Wales.

They suited each other well. Wordsworth could be waspish and quick to take offence, but also witty and entertaining, the centre of the party. He remained an enigma all the same: an apparent bohemian with strong Tory attitudes. Once when he was poaching on the moors he found himself being stalked by the titled landowner; a nasty incident was averted only when each of them saw that the other was wearing an Old Rugbeian tie.

Wordsworth tried to replenish his fortunes by organising the Porthmadog mussel industry, a scheme which plummeted. He managed the cafe at Portmeirion. But his only literary profits came from regularly winning the New Statesman competition. He had "a skull full of rubble and a pen full of tropes".

That quotation comes from an essay he contributed to Underdogs: a symposium of social grievances, edited by Philip Toynbee and published in 1961. Christopher Wordsworth's 11 pages, entitled "The Self-Inflicted Wound", was the means of releasing him from his ruined gamekeeper's cottage on the moors and bringing him to London to work on the Observer. Toynbee, its principal reviewer, introduced him to the literary pages, and to bring his freelance earnings up to a pittance, they recommended him to sport.

In an oblique way he was made for the job. He had a gift for phrase- making and exploring the dramatic and comic possibilities of turning an expression inside out."Fellow songsters," he had written in his Toynbee essay, "with overtones of underdug and undertones of overdog, with whom I shall be kennelled between these covers, greetings! How ashamed we shall be to be seen in each other's company!"

It was he who minted the often counterfeited description (in his case applied to a famously bibulous sports editor) that he was "a legend in his own lunchtime". But for all his successful brilliance with words, he always had a suspicious, arm's-length relationship with newspapers.

He wrote his early cricket reports for the Observer while still living in North Wales and couldn't understand - but didn't ask - why they never appeared the following day. It was months before he discovered that it was only the Scottish edition which reached his neck of the coastline.

His distrust deepened when he found his copy mistreated. He wrote that in a particularly dirty game of rugby, one forward alone had been above reproach, "standing out like a nun in a brothel". This was altered by a bowdlerising sub-editor to "setting an example to every young schoolboy on the touchline". And if it wasn't the subs improving his words, it was the copytakers mishearing them. Once, when he pointed out that the two teams he had been watching would be appearing the following Saturday "in the self-same arena", the last few words came out in the paper as "in the Selsey Marina". He collected these stories and told them with relish, but his relations with the press remained touchy.

In London Christopher Wordsworth met and married Tamara Salaman with whom he had a highly affectionate sparring partnership over the last 28 years. Yet happy though he was to settle back in the Welsh borders, he remained by second nature restless. He loved to be, as he put it, the donor of the feast, and the picnics of smoked salmon and game which he laid on at Twickenham for the Varsity match became legends in his lunchtime. But even at home he rarely stopped long with his guests. He endlessly moved between dining room and kichen, exiting with a series of crisp one- liners, which was how he had lived his life.

Christopher Wordsworth, literary critic and sports writer: born Calcutta 26 December 1914; married first Joan Darlington (one son, one daughter deceased; marriage dissolved), second (one son; marriage dissolved); third Tamara Salaman (one son); died Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant, Powys 15 October 1998.