Thursday, May 9, 2019

Lawrence Durrell's Cricket by the Book

The smugglers, at their risky work, were waiting at the rendezvous, an obscure harbour with an old abandoned jetty. Some slept, some darned socks, some played cards. But the skipper was consulting the Bible.

In Lawrence Durrell’s lesser-known novel Judith, begun in the early Sixties but not published until 2012, his old sea-captain Isaac Jordan is often seen with his Bible, making notes. He has been through it twice, ‘but without actually reading a word’. This is because he uses the holy book to play a form of pencil-and-paper cricket:

‘He had contracted a schoolboy passion for playing county-cricket in this fashion, letting each letter stand for a number of runs scored. The life of each batsman was determined by the emergence of the letters “O” (out), “B” (bowled), “C” (caught) and so on. . . . He was in the middle of Judges now. It looked as though Surrey was going to beat Kent.’

Durrell’s character is an engaging rogue: a decorated Royal Navy Great War veteran, he now runs a desperate old ship smuggling contraband, but also arms, through the British blockade, for Jewish settlers in Palestine. As the novel begins, the crates he loads in the deserted bay prove to contain more than he expected: in two of them are hidden refugees rescued from Nazi Germany, including a religious scholar, and Judith, a scientist with important knowledge.

Durrell had originally written this as a screenplay for a film to star Sophia Loren, but the actor thought the title part was too intellectual for her audience’s perceptions of her, and the plot was refashioned by other hands. He then turned his idea into the novel.

This brief vignette of Isaac at his book-cricket, learnt or devised in prep school days, conveys a lot with beautiful succinctness. For one thing, it suggests the character’s insouciance in a time of danger. But it is also a neat hint by Durrell that Captain Jordan cannot quite shake off, despite his rather raffish, exotic existence, his English origins.

The author himself, born in colonial India, lived most of his life abroad, either in the Greek islands or in France, and used to refer to his ostensible homeland as ‘Pudding Island’. But there were many aspects of his character which kept their English traces, and he is perhaps obliquely alluding to that in his portrait of old Issac. The irreverence of using the Bible for this playful purpose would also have appealed to the pagan and freethinking Durrell.

There were various forms of cricket in England that did not involve a bat or ball. Schoolboys used dice or six-sided pencils to score, and a popular trade version of this, Howzat!, offered specially-designed metal dice. It is possible to play cricket using playing cards: the novelist and literary scholar Timothy d'Arch Smith once sent me a version, which he used to devise matches between teams of decadent poets.

Pub or inn sign cricket, played on long car journeys, awards runs for the number of legs (eg four for the Red Lion, two for The Green Man), but other types of sign mean the batsman is out. There are also rumours of a sort of chess cricket, perhaps originating in the cathedral city of Lincoln, the home of The Circular Chess Society.

A simpler form of book cricket is apparently still current among young enthusiasts in India and Pakistan, where it involves a sort of bibliomancy. A book is opened at an unseen random page-spread and the page with even numbers is consulted. In these games, though there are probably all sorts of local attributions to the numbers, they might typically be as follows. Numbers 2,4 and 6 count as those number of runs, 8 counts as 1 or as 0 (a ‘dot ball’, no run) and 0 means out. In some versions, to make 6 less likely, as it is in cricket, it has to be scored twice in a row before it counts.

But Durrell’s version of the game is different. It does not involve opening the book at random nor scoring with page numbers. It relies on working through a book from beginning to end and deriving outcomes from the letters, either one by one or at given spans (eg every sixth one). This game was reportedly outlined in an issue of the boys’ magazine The Eagle in the Nineteen Fifties, and that will have made it better-known, but most likely it had been played for some years previously in various versions known in particular schools, clubs or youthful gangs.

Its virtue is that it more closely approximates to the actual run of play in a cricket match than all the other types of games outlined above, which are apt to be (no doubt intentionally for bored young spirits) both quicker and more eventful than the real thing. To achieve this, the rules can have an almost algebraic complexity, roughly aligning the frequency of letters in English to the likelihood of outcomes in a typical four- or five-day cricket match.

Hardly surprisingly, Durrell does not interrupt the thrilling beginning to his book to give a full account of the rules of this ‘cricket by the book’, which could of course equally be played using any other book. But he gives perhaps just enough information for us to work out how it could proceed, so that we might if we wish try to emulate his disreputable skipper in his unusual devotions.

Mark Valentine


  1. "Pub or inn sign cricket, played on long car journeys, awards runs for the number of legs (eg four for the Red Lion, two for The Green Man)" ...and The fox and Hounds scored...? Or was it a declaration?
    What happened to your promised post on "Tuan Jim" by Petronella Elphinstone? It sounds like aninteresting subject.

  2. I love the bit about Tim having matches between decadent poets. What a treasure he is!