Howard Jacobson: The futility of trying to escape one's destiny

 

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Last week the cricket writer Peter Roebuck died.

He is said to have thrown himself out of a hotel window in South Africa. Why Peter Roebuck's death affects me beyond the passing sadness of a shared humanity – every man's death diminishes me, etc – why I feel quite so diminished by it when I didn't know the man personally or go out of my way to read his articles on cricket, mainly published in Australia where he'd chosen to live – I am unable to explain. But I cannot stop thinking about it.

Could it be because some men carry their destiny around with them, show their fatality in their faces, are cruelly marked not only by who they are but what is destined to happen to them, and if that's so, then free will is an illusion?

It's easy to be wise after the event, but didn't Tony Hancock always look as though he was going to die before he was 50 with a bottle of vodka by his bed and amphetamines in his fist? Amy Winehouse ditto. In their beginning is their end. And the end of them is written not only on their faces but in their work – the jokes too black, the songs too self-lacerating, in Roebuck's case the too stern caution, not only of his batting (he captained Somerset before he turned to journalism) but of his precise, never quite animated prose, his stiffness – as it's reported, even by those who got close enough to care for him – both on the field and off it, and the doom-laden complexion of his thoughts.

"To a greater and lesser degree all sportsmen die in hotels," he wrote after the mysterious death of Bob Woolmer in Jamaica in 2007. "That night Woolmer went back to his room with its silences and accusing walls, an isolated figure trying to come to terms with futility."

As a rule, sportswriters overwrite. You will get some of the best journalistic prose on the sports pages of serious newspapers, but you will also get some of the most flowery. You can bet your life that every cricket writer in the business had a go at rendering Woolmer's last hours, but Roebuck's account has the authenticity of someone who knows loneliness well.

"All sportsmen die in hotels" might have been a florid line, but it isn't. Those "accusing walls" could only have been described by a man who has felt accused by them himself. And "futility" is a shocking word in that context. The sentence sets us up to expect "loneliness" or "defeat". "Futility" doesn't merely darken the canvas, it wipes it out. This isn't the cliché of another suitcase in another hall, the futility encompasses sport itself and, by implication, life.

There's a touch of this educated pessimism in all the best sportswriters and in cricket writers most of all. You go to Cambridge if you're Atherton, Pringle or Roebuck, you go to Oxford if you're Vic Marks, and then you give the next 20 years of your life chasing a little ball. Futility is bound to be a word that crops up from time to time, whether the hotel walls accuse you or they don't.

The walls clearly accused Roebuck more than other men. What they accused him of is immaterial. If you're at all complex as a human being, you will feel yourself to be guilty of every crime and omission in the book. Look at photographs of the young Roebuck and you see a shy boy uncomfortable in his skin. Shyness leaves a legacy even when it's overcome. You know your soul to be an awkward thing and you can never forgive it for that. The reason you die in every hotel room you wind up in is that death is all you've ever thought you deserved. I can't imagine Botham, with whom Roebuck famously fell out, lying in his silent hotel bed, trying to come to terms with futility.

Peter Roebuck was too lonely. I never met him but I know he was too lonely. I could tell it from the straw hat he liked to wear, tied, for God's sake, under his chin. A close companion, of either sex, would not have let him leave the house wearing a straw hat tied under his chin. "You look a prat, Peter," he or she would have told him. And if he'd persisted, they'd have left him. (Perhaps that was his intention.)

The persona of his articles, too, was inflexible and out of reach. Conversational his style was not. Among the reasons Australians took to him was that he told it like it was, that he had abandoned England and used the word "us" to mean the Aussies not the Poms, but I think they also sniffed the loner in him; for all their overt gregariousness, Australians understand isolation. There was some interior quality in his writing, beneath its pedantic authoritativeness a suggestion that the person he was keeping to the mark was himself.

Roebuck was charged with assault a decade ago. He caned some young men he'd been coaching at his own expense. Discipline, he had warned them, would be part of his regime. It doesn't detract from his philanthropy that it cloaked a strange eroticism. Nobody is purely one thing. The tragedy is that eroticism, for him, had to be cloaked.

A fresh assault charge had been made the night he died. He must have felt the old, accusing futility catching up with him. It's a desperately sad tale.

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