Dancing with the Dashing Keith Miller, Brighton 1943May 28, 2015
Alan Butcher, courtesy of ESPNcricinfo, where the title is “Keith and Marjorie”
The lady sitting opposite me with clear blue eyes and smooth unlined skin was once a very attractive young woman. I know this without having to look at the photographs of her younger self spread out on the table between us. In fact, I knew it even before I arrived at my mother’s house to meet her neighbour Marjorie Evans for the first time. How did I know this about the 93-year-old I was now sharing a cup of tea with as I enjoyed her reminiscences of the past? Well, in 1943, as a member of the Auxiliary Training Service, she was posted to Brighton and placed in a “hush hush” unit. While there, she, along with some colleagues, attended dances at the Grand Hotel Brighton.
The RAAF organised dances for their men. The ATS girls were invited. The men liked to have girls to dance with, and the ATS girls… well, they liked to dance with the men too! At some stage during one of these dances Marjorie Rowe, as she was then, attracted the attention of the cricketer whom venerated writer Neville Cardus called “an Australian in excelsis: then a pilot, he was that renowned ladies man Sergeant Keith Miller of the RAAF.”
“Oh he was very handsome, very dashing,” Marjorie tells me with a big smile. Did I detect a glassy faraway look in her eye? She giggles. “No, of course not. It was so long ago. All the girls were very jealous, though. ‘Ooh, Keith asked you to dance. Lucky you, he’s very good looking,’ they said.”
“Keith” then was already well known to the girls of the ATS – both at Preston Barracks and the Kings Hotel, where Marjorie ran the Orderly Room. She tells me that Miller was stationed in Brighton too, but there is no record of this and it seems more likely that they met when he was making guest appearances for Sussex at Hove or playing against the county for the United Services.
“I never saw him play cricket. There was a war on, remember, and my job kept me very busy. I was also made physical training instructor mainly because I trained as a dancer, did gymnastics and played lots of sports. Oh, I was very unpopular with the 50-year-olds – getting them up early to run along the front!”
“Oh, jerry would fly over the channel and machine-gun the front. People make such a fuss of things nowadays. You just heard the engines and got out of the way. Simple really. You just got on with it. No choice really. Had a machine gun bullet through the office window one day.”
Marjorie’s war ended in 1944 while she was at home on leave. On January 14 at 8.50pm, a German bomb fell on the Davis Theatre in Croydon High Street, killing six and injuring 25 of the 2000 people who were in the audience. Marjorie, who was among them, was left with a severely damaged back that led to her being invalided out of the ATS.
“Luckily the bomb didn’t explode or it would have been much worse. I was desperate to see that film and it hadn’t even started!”
Over the next three years their lives took different paths. Miller became a sporting glamour boy thanks to his exploits with teams representing the dominions, overseas armed forces, and in the Victory Tests. Miller thrilled thousands by day with his outrageous strokeplay and unpredictable fast bowling, and rampaged through London with his great pal Denis Compton by night. Marjorie, by contrast, had a lonely slog to regaining fitness and mobility. Three days a week for three years she took the return journey to London for physiotherapy. “Oh, that bus ride was very uncomfortable with a bad back. But what could I do? I just had to get on with it.”
And so she did, despite that injury and other setbacks, and became a piano teacher. Many of her pupils found their way into prestigious orchestras, and she even taught a deaf and dumb person to play. She became director of the Croydon Music Festival from 1972 until 1986. She has also thrown herself into charity work; the day before I spoke to her she had taken part in a charity walk around Keston Ponds and raised over £500 for St Christopher’s Hospice.
“I don’t feel too bad today,” she told me, “but three miles is about as much as I can do nowadays.”
A suitably shamed interviewer had one more question for this remarkable lady.
“So do you have any regrets about Mr Miller?”
“Oh, good gracious, no. We danced a few times. Had a couple of walks along the seafront. We couldn’t go on the beach. It was mined, you see, and covered in barbed wire. We had one kiss and then he was posted somewhere else. That’s how it was during the war.”
Alan Butcher is a former Surrey captain and England opener who later coached Zimbabwe