Thursday, 3 June 2010

#30 Penguins Stopped Play, by Harry Thompson (John Murray Publishers)

It’s difficult to review Penguins Stopped Play: Eleven Village Cricketers Take on the World. On the one hand, it’s a warmly funny, knockabout tale of a (very) amateur cricket team and their adventures, which include escapades on every continent.

But after numerous giggles, and more than a couple of guffaws, the postscript by author Harry Thompson, who devised a range of TV comedy shows such as Have I Got News for You and Never Mind the Buzzcocks, reveals that he has been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. And then an afterword, written by Thompson’s wife Lisa, tells the reader that he died not long after completing the book.

The story begins in Antartica, however, with Thompson, who has embarked on a trip at the request of a national newspaper, playing cricket (using an oar as a makeshift bat) on an ice shelf only to have play interrupted by a waddle (I looked it up!) of penguins, not to mention whales and a leopard seal.

The title episode is typical of the rest of the book, with Thompson’s devil-may-care Captain’s Scott Invitation XI embarking on a series of matches against opponents often much better than they are, to the extent that players start to eschew the idea of gaining victory.

As someone who played quite a bit of village cricket, the comic stories ring very true, and it’s to Thompson’s credit that he manages to make them interesting to a wider audience – a funny story to someone who knows all the characters being discussed can quickly become boring to an outsider.

It helps that Thompson’s career path means there are occasional cameos from celebrities such as comedians Griff Rhys Jones and Hugh Dennis, plus a number of professional cricketers. But the book largely rests on the anecdotes and their telling, and these certainly pass muster.

The end, chiefly his death aged just 45, does cause a problem, though. Whether intended or not, it transforms a largely whimsical book about the nature of sport and the travails of those who choose to embrace it into what could be interpreted as a ode, nay elegy, to sporting endeavour in the face of adversity.

Indeed, the day after being told he has cancer, and the day before he is due to start his treatment, Thompson opts to play cricket, and he later requires surgery to remove a section of rib after dislodging a chest drain during some ‘little light fielding’.

The tragedy of death apart, does it matter if you know the author died after finishing the book? It shouldn’t, but, as death often does, the knowledge does alter how you perceive everything which went before.

So, rating time:

#30 Penguins Stopped Play, by Harry Thompson (John Murray Publishers) - 6/10

Next up: Tokyo Year Zero, by David Peace (Faber and Faber Limited)

  • Click here for the full list of books so far, and their rating
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