Leslie Thomas, as ghost-writer, got close to his hero, sharing his lunch and waiting on his punch lines
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Some years ago several cricket bats were in circulation, each of them said to be the one with which Leonard Hutton scored his record 364 in The Oval Test against Australia in 1938. Nobody knew which was the real one which might, at that moment, have been in the cupboard under the stairs at Hutton’s house.
One of the bats came into the possession of Reg Willis, editor of the Evening News in London. He was one of the great generation of Fleet Street editors. He wore red braces which he twanged with élan on occasions. They were twanged when I went to see him about a job on his paper as a reporter in the late 1950s. He was not welcoming me but about to show me the bat. “Len Hutton used this against the Aussies in 1938,” he said. “I’ll pay you 20 a week. Pounds.”
It was not guineas, then, which were sometimes used for salaries in those days. But I took the 20 and a couple of summers later I became ghost-writer of the most famous opening batsman in the world – Len Hutton.
By that time he had retired, become Sir Leonard and now and again told me what to write in a column headed “Sir Leonard Hutton comments”. My name was never mentioned.
In fact I never met him until I had written his thoughts on the first day of a Worcestershire v Pakistanis match in 1962. He did not turn up until tea, wrapped in a heavy, trailing overcoat. “It’s my back,” he said. I showed him the column he was supposed to have written and he looked at it fleetingly: “That’s what I would have said.”
Before too long I learned that he was the most unusual man; he had astonishing blue eyes (like Sinatra) and he would take a pause of perhaps 10 seconds before coming out with a pithy remark that you grew to wait for. When he signed the contract for me to write his thoughts, he was paid £10,000, so they said, and given a posh car. (I was getting £30 a week.) He inspected the vehicle, then asked the editor. “Are there any wash leathers?” Some people took him seriously.
I soon learned better. The expression might be set and his words carefully serious but I began to realise that there was a joke behind it all – even if it were a private one. You could scarcely detect it in those eyes.
On the Friday of the first match we wrote about together Len was eyeing a bag of crisps that constituted my lunch. “Those crisps look all right,” he said. I offered him the open bag and he accepted. “Better with salt,” he said after disposing of a handful. “Ah, there it is.” He found the salt and distributed it. By the time he had finished there was little left of my lunch.
“You can finish them if you like,” I suggested. “Oh no. You eat them, lad, they’re your crisps.” That’s what he used to do – always with a serious expression and his pause before the conclusion. He rarely smiled.
I told him that, as a national serviceman about to be demobbed, I had written to MCC offering to get myself to Australia (from Singapore, where I was) to act as a baggage assistant on a forthcoming tour. The offer was not taken up. But Len thought about it seriously. “You would have made a good tourist,” he said. “It’s a pity you can’t play cricket.”
At that moment I was batting with a rolled newspaper against his bowling a paper bag. A group of England players, including Fred Titmus and JT Murray, had gathered to watch and Len demonstrated how he had countered the Australian Ernie Toshack by backing away several feet to square leg and letting Toshack bowl at the wickets. By the look on the England players’ faces they believed him.
Years later I was talking to Len at Lord’s when Irving Rosenwater approached us, bursting as he always was with cricket facts and figures. “Did you know,” he said to Len, “that your younger son played only one first-class match?” Other people gathered round. “East Africa v MCC, Nairobi. Scored 51 runs and took 2 for 47.” Sir Len looked dumbfounded. There followed the pause and the look around as if someone else might know better. Then he said: “You never know what your kids get up to.”
It was almost impossible to tell what was coming next from him. The narrow face was brown and fixed, the eyes blue and likewise. Once I was driving him through a town in the Midlands. It was a Saturday and the market was in energetic process. We were in slow-moving traffic when Len spotted an old lady on the kerb. “She wants to cross the road,” he said, “go and help her.” My protests were no use. I climbed from the driver’s seat and went to the lady. She did not want to cross. I went back slightly disgruntled to Len. “’esitation,” he muttered. “That’s how run-outs happen.”
I gave up trying to work him out. Once I inquired what his score was at stumps during his 364. He had no idea. I then asked him what he did on the Sunday of the match. According to him the team went down to Bognor and played cricket on the beach. The last time I saw him was in Sir Paul Getty’s box at Lord’s. “I’m not well,” he said. I tried to cheer him up by saying, by no means insincerely, that I thought he was one of the greatest men in the world.
He gave me the look. There was the long pause. Then he said: “You could be right.”
Leslie Thomas is a British author with over 30 titles to his name including The Virgin Soldiers which has sold in excess of four million copies globally