Michael Atherton is a former England cricket captain and opening batsman. He played in 115 Tests, captaining England in 54 of them - more times than anyone else to date. (In 1993, against the Australians at Lord's, he was run out on 99. I was there, and wouldn't have begrudged him the extra run he needed for his hundred.) Michael has been writing on cricket for the Sunday Telegraph for 13 years. Formerly a commentator for Channel 4, he is now part of Sky's cricket coverage. He has written a cricket autobiography, Opening Up, and is currently completing a book about gambling. Below Michael writes about Patrick O'Donovan's A Journalist's Odyssey.
Michael Atherton on A Journalist's Odyssey by Patrick O'Donovan
As with most people, I imagine, literature acts as a reference point to various stages in my life. The Catcher in the Rye first made me aware that literature could be 'cool' and Joseph Heller's Catch 22 that it could be funny; Camus' L'Etranger struck a chord at a time when I seemed to be the only boy from the North side of Manchester to attend the 'posh' grammar school in the South; Dostoevsky and Dickens made me realize that great literature is nothing more than great storytelling and that it should never be dull; George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier impressed on me the importance of clarity of thought and of writing; Hemingway's short stories were important to me as I embarked on a 'masculine' career; CLR James's masterpiece Beyond a Boundary became important as that career began to fizzle out and I began to realize there is more to life than whacking a little red ball around; A.J. Liebling's The Sweet Science taught me that sports writing needn't be bad writing; Noam Chomsky and John Pilger opened my eyes to a different way of looking at the world, and Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road made me aware that the perfect novel had been written.
But none of these works actually changed my life. No book, as yet, has done that. All were important to me at the time of reading and have stayed with me. But since it is always the book by my bedside that has most relevance, it is going to give me a perverse kind of pleasure to choose a humble journalist to join the great raft of literary giants that have appeared on this blog. It is a perverse pleasure, too, because the curse of the internet and of blogs is that journalists like the late Patrick O'Donovan are a dying breed.
O'Donovan's A Journalist's Odyssey is a slim volume of 38 pieces chosen from the many hundreds he wrote for The Observer during its golden age, and for The Catholic Herald. The first half of the book deals with his reportage in foreign fields: in the Middle East, in China, in Africa, and in America where he won countless awards for the quality of his journalism. Two pieces in this selection stand out for me. The first is 'A Tale of Two Englishwomen', which recounts two small, seemingly insignificant stories about two Englishwomen's experiences at the hands of the Chinese Nationalist army and Mao's communist army. The cold, clinical efficiency of Mao's army allows Donovan to peer into the future and tell us that something was happening here that would have a more profound effect on history than anyone had yet imagined. The horrific twist at the end of the piece, with a young communist soldier shot for stealing a hand-towel, leaves us with a terrible foreboding of what is to come. In the other piece, O'Donovan finds himself in Sophiatown outside Johannesburg in 1950 and concludes 'that if such an army were camped outside my city, I should fear for the future of my people'.
The second half of this slim volume deals with matters closer to home. O'Donovan suffered a lengthy illness which prevented him from travelling as much as he once had. Many of the pieces deal with faith and death, as this was a man coming to terms with his own end. There is also a brutal analysis of the Irish question - the only time O'Donovan could be persuaded to write about it - brutal because it simply presents the facts and concludes that 'it is the worst thing that a gentle people has ever done to another'. 'God and I' sets out in beautiful prose what his enduring faith means to him, without in any way evangelizing. He is inconclusive about blood sports, but such wrestling with his conscience and honest uncertainty is refreshing in the light of the crass certainty of so many of today's columnists, who have an opinion on everything and are so damn certain about everything. Donovan movingly describes great moments in history like Churchill's funeral.
Why is this short work important now? Firstly, it reminds us that journalism is important. In this internet age people play fast and loose with the facts, opinions are offered without any basis in fact, and assumed knowledge is simply the click of a button away. O'Donovan reminds us of a time when journalists got out and about, talked to people and collated stories in delicious detail. Today, it is unlikely that 'A Tale of Two Englishwomen' would get written or published at all. That is a shame. Secondly, the quality of O'Donovan's prose stands out: clear, elegant and often hard-edged. Here he is describing the diplomatic scene: 'At vast expense, the Ambassadors offered up their livers almost every night in the service of their country.' Thirdly, at a time of much squalid journalism, it is a work that reminds us of the fact that good and interesting journalism can be underpinned by a certain morality.
Here we are allowed to travel with him on his journey, his odyssey; we thank him for the interesting things he has seen and shared with us, illuminating but not proselytizing. What better memorial to a man's life can there be?