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In Honour of Peter Roebuck: A Book in Search of the Man

December 20, 2015

David Hopps, courtesy of ESPNcricinfo, where the title is “In Quest of Peter Roebuck” … commenting on Chasing Shadows: The Life and Death of Peter Roebuck  By Tim Lane and Elliot Cartledge, Hardie Grant 298 pages, £12.99

Four years after the death of Peter Roebuck when he fell from the sixth floor of the Southern Sun hotel in Cape Town, a praiseworthy attempt has been made to explain the circumstances – indeed, the life’s journey – that led to his demise. Chasing Shadows will not entirely succeed in ending the conjecture surrounding one of cricket’s most private figures but it is a well-balanced and responsible study of an ultimately tragic existence and, as such, for many of those disturbed by the events leading up to his death it will bring both reassessment and closure. By that measure alone, this is an important work.

AA--PETER Peter Roebuck: a fine cricket writer with a closed personal life © Getty Images

Roebuck, a diligent county cricketer but one who never played for England, gained more approval as an outstanding wordsmith. But both his cricket and his journalism play secondary roles in Chasing Shadows to the analysis of the events leading up to his death. What led this closed-off, concealed individual to fall to his death? And how much truth really lies behind the charges of sexual abuse that were made against him – latterly by a 26-year-old Zimbabwean man – and were the cause of a knock at the door by Cape Town police shortly before his life ended?

The debate over Roebuck’s life, put simplistically, splits into two camps. His most virulent critics regard him as a serial abuser, sexually repressed, his neuroses concealed behind a mask of respectability. His staunchest supporters will read what, superficially at least, are damning implications and suspect a deliberate attempt by his enemies to entrap him and so destroy the reputation of a man who had spent a considerable amount of his life – and money – seeking to do good.

It has taken two authors and a fine editor, in Christian Ryan, to allow those views to find context. Roebuck has had few peers as a writer when it comes to revealing the character of cricketers through the game they play, but never allowed much intrusion into his own personal life, so it might be viewed as apt that some of the theories propounded reveal more about the people making them than Roebuck himself.

To some Roebuck could be rude, aloof and socially gauche, but many – especially from his playing days – also knew him as amusing and diverting company, a quirky one-off, inquisitive, well read and brimful of political and social convictions

There are, though, new insights for most of us, most notably in the presence of Julia Horne, now an academic and historian, who might fairly be viewed as the only love of Roebuck’s life. She met him in Sydney in 1981 when she was studying at the University of New South Wales; two years later he invited her to dinner (her relationship and his wavering causing the delay), and then returned with some reluctance to England to continue his career. There ensued much correspondence in which he regretted his peripatetic lifestyle, and after Horne made a none-too-successful visit to England during the cricket season, the relationship fizzled out, Roebuck choosing to remain cloistered in a man’s world. Horne’s admirable willingness to tell her story perhaps reveals how highly she regards history, correctly told.

In that moment, Roebuck’s life changed. His mind turned increasingly to education and the nurturing of young men. This was marked by a highly personal and fanatical philosophy of character-building for men in the first throes of adulthood based on a combination of discipline, in particular a belief in corporal punishment, and affection. His generosity to young cricketers staying with him in Taunton came with such a methodology attached. It ultimately brought about his estrangement from England when, in 2001, after a complaint from a cricketer under his care, he was persuaded to plead guilty to a charge of common assault, and received suspended jail sentences. He left England convinced it had become a weak-willed, politically correct nation, no longer fit for purpose. His intellect came with the hubris to continue his educational beliefs elsewhere and an ambitious scheme to house Zimbabwean orphans in South Africa was born.

Roebuck’s reference in one of his letters to Horne to his inability, or so he suspected, to commit fully to “warm” relationships seems to be central to his life. I was not interviewed for Chasing Shadows but I remember a revealing conversation I once had with him on tour in Australia about the importance of warmth. He expanded upon it with conviction. At that time, it was central to what he felt he could offer the young men who increasingly dominated his non-cricketing life. Warmth was what they needed, he said; more important in their personal development than sex, girlfriends or fast cars.

It all thrusts attention upon the question of his own childhood. The Roebuck family also contributed to Chasing Shadows and by doing so they may have influenced the message. Their insistence that Roebuck’s relationship with his family remained strong does not bear the slightest scrutiny. Analysis of his problematic relationship with his father is limited, and his mother’s staunch reluctance to believe he committed suicide – believing the South African police investigation to be flawed – sounds as much a matter of family honour as of a deep understanding of her son. That he leapt from the window because he could not face the social stigma he knew would follow was entirely in keeping with his state of mind.

The balance of probability suggests that at some point his male bonding had developed an increasingly intrusive sexual element. To what extent, or how unforeseen, remains unproven. Those who bandy around words like paedophilia – and beyond the boundaries of this admirable book they do – really should look up the meaning of the term. His final accuser, after all, was 26. To term Roebuck a repressed homosexual is a convenient and perhaps simplistic label for a complex mental state, but it remains a convincing conclusion.

Less so is the off-the-peg suggestion that he displayed aspects of schizoid personality disorder, an unconvincing gambit that thankfully is not pursued too vehemently. To some Roebuck could be rude, aloof and socially gauche, but many – especially from his playing days – also knew him as amusing and diverting company, a quirky one-off, inquisitive, well read and brimful of political and social convictions that were all the more interesting because they rushed both from left and right.

By the end of his life Roebuck had sold his beloved Straw Hat Farm, his extended home in the hills outside Pietermaritzburg in South Africa, and moved to a cheaper property in town. He had more than 20 young men living there, predominantly Zimbabwean orphans. Discipline became a form of ritualistic control. The vast majority spoke in glowing terms about him even after his death, just as those who came under his protection in England and Australia had done before. But expenditure was out of control, he was absent for a large chunk of the year, and fully-fledged adults were showing no signs of leaving, knowing a good thing when they saw one. Then came the allegations and the blackmail. Roebuck would not be the first intelligent, largely detached individual to suffer from hubris, but his educational experiment ultimately brought about his downfall.

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