The death of Peter Roebuck has brought the name of Harold Gimblett to the fore, with many eulogies linking the manner of the deaths of these two Somerset cricketers. Though well intended, the link is frail.
Roebuck and Gimblett’s paths crossed a number of times, but the causes of their final acts were very different. For many years Gimblett suffered a debilitating mental illness that, according to him, left him “in a tunnel that has no end – and no light…” and where there was “no point in continuing to struggle against the odds.”
If Roebuck contemplated suicide it was in the same way that Dostoevsky might have contemplated it, that is, as an exercise of hyper-rationalism, as part of the same process that made him the kind of writer he was, seeing and relishing drama where others didn’t, finding things humorous which others didn’t.
Peter will have first come across Harold – the focus of this piece – when, as a thirteen year old, he took a chit for an article of clothing to the school shop, housed in a Nissan hit midway between the coach park and the drive leading to Millfield House.
Inside was warm and cosy. A counter ran across its width behind which sat a small slightly rounded man in his mid-fifties wearing a cardigan and slippers, and carefully completing one of those paintings-by-numbers, or perhaps sowing, the silk following a traced pattern on the cloth.
The borders were to be kept and lines followed clearly and precisely. Was this for him some element of keeping to a path in his nightmare journey through a forest where the black dog pounced without warning?
Affability and tranquillity pervaded the shop. A mug of tea steamed on the counter.
Few would have recognised this figure, taking down some article from a shelf, as a former Test match opener, possessor of the record, in 1935, for the fastest century on debut, scorer of 50 first class centuries and over 23,000 runs.
Young cricketers at Millfield, biding their time during the long, long winter terms when there was only the occasional foray to the primitive indoor nets beneath a stand at the Taunton ground, would pop in from time to time to top themselves up from Harold’s deep reserves of warmth, fellowship and understanding.
Why he sat there painting by numbers was never questioned. He was their mainstay against winter, against lost form, against authority, against ‘them’ – by which both boys and Harold meant the administrators and, for him, those selectors who had neither understood nor accepted nor accommodated his genius as a batsman and who had done him down.
As Harold told it, he was dropped from Test cricket for hitting a six before lunch on the first day of a Test. “We don’t do that sort of thing, Gimblett.” Fancy telling that to Marcus Trethscothic! Or Sehwag!
Harold had an England sweater, but the crown and lions were embroidered in black. “They” had refused to give him a new one when his was lost.
He’d taken a plain sweater and a black and white photograph of the crest to a seamstress who had therefore used black thread instead of blue in the design. The sweater was a repeated reminder, a symbol of the self-perpetuating persecution by indignity that he dwelt on each time he put it on.
Peter, who was brought into the 1st XI squad in his first year, would have found Harold supervising one of the nets. Into Harold’s care, by their own choice, went those struggling for form.
As the bat juddered in their hands and mistiming jarred the fingers, Harold would pronounce from 22 yards distance, ‘Good shot.’ Shot after mistimed shot would be greeted with this mantra ‘Good shot.’ ‘Good shot’. ‘Good shot’. Net over, even the most sceptical would leave convinced that, at last it, was all coming together. ‘Thanks Harold.’ ‘Ready?’ ‘Ready.’
He rarely watched matches. The boys never questioned his absence. They were too busy timing the pants off the ball through extra cover across the fast outfield towards the Tor, or off their legs into the tree that then stood partially within the boundary.
On rare and important matches he would be persuaded (with what inducement the boys did not question) to umpire. Ken Palmer and Harold would take the field, their white coats long and flapping over brown polished shoes.
What a luxury to be able to pass the time of day with Harold while taking a turn at the non-strikers end. ‘Am I doing alright Harold? He’s moving it.’ ‘You’re doing fine young man.’
Once, Colin Atkinson, persuaded him to turn out in some mid-week affair, perhaps to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of a local club or in a cricket week. A boy or two joining them would have the thrill of seeing from up close Harold bat.
No wonder he thought every cricket shot was well timed: his were. Effortlessly the ball purred from his bat and he could not help but smile and waddle self-consciously to tap down a spot disturbed by the ball.
Even in the tunnel-without-end-or-light that purring sound reached something within him and gave him a moment of relief from his struggle. Perhaps it was these moments of ability, of ease, of consummate control, of light, that made the long periods of darkness the more difficult to bear.
Harold and his wife regularly visited the Great House and parked their caravan in a quiet spot in the grounds from where they would stroll around the boundary while a match took place greeted by admirers on whom his smile beamed, his jokey way protecting strangers from his inner anguish.
Then he came no more.
“I’m in a tunnel that has no end – and no light. There is no point in continuing to struggle against the odds … The psychiatrists don’t know what is wrong with me and there is nothing they can do in any case. Now I know what my father went through – I inherited it from him. The only thing I could do was play cricket and they threw me back into the first-class game, after my earliest breakdown, before I was ready… I get more and more depressed. The only peace of mind is when I go to bed with a very heavy dose of tablets.” *
* Transcribed from a tape in David Foot’s, Harold Gimblett: Tormented Genius of Cricket