The grand old man of English cricket, Sir Alec Bedser, died on Sunday. The obituaries have been extensive and properly reverential, so it falls to me to tell one of my all-time favourite stories of misunderstanding, featuring Bedser and his international teammate, the sublimely named Jack Crapp.
In 1948, the pair had played against one another in a county match, so travelled together up to a hotel in Leeds where they were due to join the rest of the England party, prior to a Test match at Headingley. When they got there, the receptionist didn't realise that they were England cricketers, and wondered whether they were checking in for an overnight stay.
"Bed, sir?" she enquired of one of them. "No, Crapp," he replied. The receptionist didn't bat an eyelid. "Through them doors and first on t' left," she said.
It is a true story, so I am assured, but I suppose there's also a whisker of a chance that it might be an urban myth. The best tales so often are, although it's much better to tell them as though they really happened and hope that nobody decides to deconstruct them. After all, would a hotel receptionist, even in 1948, really say "Bed, sir?" rather than "Would you like a room, sir?" or "Are you checking in, sir?"
Probably not, although I like to think it holds just enough plausibility – which is perhaps more than can be said of another of my favourite stories, said to have happened here in the Welsh Marches, and consequently, if untrue, a rural rather than an urban myth.
It was on the England-Wales border, apparently, that a Welsh traffic policeman, whose efforts to suppress his antagonism towards the English were not always successful or even particularly diligent, stopped a car with London registration plates.
"You know why I've stopped you, don't you?" he said in an Abergavenny lilt.
"I've really no idea," replied the driver. "I know I wasn't speeding, and out here in the sticks there aren't any red lights to crash."
The policeman sighed. "No, sir," he said, "it's because you're driving an Audi Quattro."
The driver snorted. "That's ridiculous," he said. "Even in Wales it's not a crime to drive an Audi Quattro."
"It wouldn't be normally, sir," countered the policeman, "but I couldn't help noticing that there are five of you in the car, and if it were a vehicle intended for five, it wouldn't be called an Audi Quattro, would it?"
"You're having me on," replied the driver. "Tell me this is a wind-up." The policeman assured him that it wasn't. "Then in that case," the driver said, his anger mounting, "I demand to speak to your superior officer, to register a harassment complaint."
"No problem at all, sir," said the policeman, insouciantly. "But you'll have to wait a few moments. He's just up the road there having a right old barney with two English bastards in a Fiat Uno."
Now, I think we can safely file that story away under gags or rural myths, but what is perfectly true is that I told it a few years ago when I was giving an after-dinner speech to a roomful of senior policemen at a hotel near Chester, and at the end of the evening a tall, rather lugubrious-looking fellow came over to me and said, "I enjoyed your story about the Audi Quattro." I thanked him. "I should introduce myself," he added. "I'm the chief constable of Gwent. And can I just ask you: did you by any chance get that officer's number?" To this day I don't know whether he was joking.
This evening, the handsome Theatre Severn in Shrewsbury stages the world premiere of Tales of the Country, the play by the Pentabus Theatre Company adapted from my book of the same name about moving from the city, which in turn was loosely inspired by my columns in The Independent. When Orla and John, who run Pentabus, came round to propose the adaptation to me a year or so ago, I hardly imagined that our discussion would end with tonight's premiere, and I'm thrilled, if mildly astonished, to report that it's a sell-out – although any pride I might feel was pricked yesterday by a text from a friend of mine, who is inclined to mix his words up. "Can't wait," he said, "for tomorrow's world matinée."