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I originally bought this book for my dad a few years ago. I'm not sure if he actually read it or not but I found it on the bookshelf one day whilst having a nosy and decided to borrow it as a bit of a change from the usual sort of books I read.
The author Harry Thompson was something as a jack of all trades having being involved in the television show Have I Got News For You, Harry Enfield and Chums and Never Mind The Buzzcocks. He also wrote a Booker prize longlisted book as well as an autobiography of Peter Cook and Herge (writer of Tintin).
This book is a lighthearted account of his pastime playing cricket for the fairly inept amateur cricket team The Captain Scott XI, in particular their attempts to play a cricket match in every continent including Antarctica, hence the title. As such it is a cross between a travel book and a sports memoir although the focus is more on telling a good tale than trying to keep within the boundry (no pun intended) of a particular genre. A consequence of this is that much of the book involves the amusing activities of the various team members more than a straight account of their adventures. From the hard drinking and joint smoking half Irish half Malaysian brothers to the frugal Australian who is assisted financially by the author to help him afford the trip. The author then discovers on arrival in Perth that he has used the money to buy a new car!
Although it isn't essential to be a cricket fan to enjoy the book at least a passing knowledge of the game would be useful as there are one or two phrases and accounts of matches that would be fairly incomprehensible to a cricket novice. Although as with the Captain Scott XI recruitment policy having no knowledge of cricket shouldn't put you off!
This is a good lighthearted and easy to read book, it helped pass a few morning commutes for me.
Sadly the author died of lung cancer cancer shortly after finishing writing the manuscript for this work (and was aware of the diesease towards the end of the book). I'm sure he would have had a few more innings and a few more amusing books in him otherwise.
The book is about average length for this type of book and can be bought from Amazon for £6.79.
Firstly, a bit about the author...
Harry Thompson, is the creator of TV comedy series such as "Have I Got News For You" and "Da Ali G Show" and the author of many bestselling novels. He also worked as a producer at Talkback TV. An avid cricket fan, Harry also ran a cricket team called the Captain Scott XI.
The main jist of the story...
"Penguins stopped play" is a semi-autobiographical account of Harry Thompson's pleasure-pain experiences with his infamous cricket team the Captain Scott XI (nicknamed the 'Scotties') over the space of about two decades. The main bulk of the book is written around the crazy decision to travel the world, twice, playing against other teams. Anecdotes of nice team members, horrid ones, exciting games, British Airways service, and other escapades fill this book from beginning to end.
"But I don't know a thing about cricket..."
That does not matter one bit when reading this book, the cricket is just a small percentage of what I believe Harry Thompson was trying to share in this novel. Every liason that Harry Thompson makes is written in heart-rending detail with a large dollop of comedy. I would describe him as a British Bill Bryson. This book is in a category of its own - travel, romance, comedy, history, sport, biography, culture are just a few of the subjects and styles used.
Examples of a few anecdotes from the book.
# Playing a makeshift game of cricket in Antarctica, when the game is suddenly interuppted by a crowd of penguins wishing to join in.
# How the Scotties first started out
# A flat-mate who was hiding an extremely severe mental illness
# The O'Herlihy brothers: larger than life, comical, great sportsmen, lawyers, who love a bit of dope
# An over-zealous American customs official that decided to keep two team members in a baking hot cell with no water
# The horrifying terror of racial-extermination programmes in Buenos Aires
So was it any good?
Yes! I cannot fault this book at all. I picked it up for cheap at a charity shop with not much hope of a good read - I feel pretty guilty for judging a book by its cover now! I found it a page-turner from beginning to end. I have never been into cricket in a big way, but am now inspired to investigate the sport further. I will be forcing this book onto my partner and father now, as being into travel and sport, I have no doubts it will be enjoyed!
I wouldn't exactly call myself a cricket fan as such, but it's a game I do have some experience of. I was at school with Minal Patel, who had a long career as a professional with Kent and even won a few England caps. My old hockey club was based at a cricket club where Middlesex played occasionally and I once found myself at the bar discussing the football results with former England captain Mike Gatting. I even played a game once, getting out for 0 when batting before getting heatstroke in the field later on in the day. Whilst I've enjoyed Kent's success in the quicker Twenty 20 form of the game in recent years, the longer version bores me and I can't trust any game which can last for 5 days and still end up with no winner.
All this aside, I am a sports fan generally and I do like reading the kinds of books that supposedly give true stories of people's amusing exploits. These sorts of books can be a bit hit and miss, though and whilst I've generally enjoyed the works of Danny Wallace and Dave Gorman, Tony Hawks' latest didn't match up to his earlier offerings and I've found very little to either amuse or entertain in the works of Tim Moore. Sadly, "Penguins Stopped Play" falls into this latter category for me.
Thompson starts by recounting an impromptu game of cricket in the Antarctic that gave the book its name, thanks to a pitch invasion by a flock of penguins. He then tells the story of how he set up his own cricket side, the Captain Scott XI after being rejected by his college side. We find out how the side eventually went from strength to strength, after many seasons of not being terribly good at all and of losing out on fixtures by being totally unable to compete against other sides.
Eventually, as time goes by the Captain Scott XI starts touring. Just on an informal basis not often with a huge amount of success, either on the playing side or on the planning side. From this comes the idea of having one final tour that will allow them to play a cricket match on every continent. In keeping with the other tours, this is not without organisational hiccups and there is much to explore in these new countries, as well as cricket to be played.
Despite a fairly light hearted and casual tone for much of the book, the problem is that it gets fairly repetitive and dull quite quickly. Admittedly, cricket isn't exactly the most spellbinding of games sometimes, but in the one day version of version of the game, you can get some quite tight finishes. That does happen here, more and more often as the book progresses, but Thompson doesn't manage to convey the excitement of those close matches terribly well. As a result, reading some of the reports of the matches, which make up a large portion of the book, doesn't come across as being much more interesting than reading the scorecard at the end of a match.
The other problem I found here was that the amusement value promised on the cover of the book was largely nowhere to be found. Perhaps I've been conditioned towards funnier writing by the likes of Tony Hawks and Danny Wallace, but apart from the image of "Have I Got News For You" regular Ian Hislop landing in a puddle of cow dung, there was little here that made me laugh. When things went wrong, as they frequently did with the arranging of the major tour, they're reported in a way that seems to tend towards moaning, rather than extracting the maximum amount of humour from a tough situation, as can be found elsewhere in the genre.
However, the book did have one redeeming feature and it's a major one. Towards the end of the story, events took an unexpected turn. The last few chapters are wonderfully written and the ending is almost heartbreakingly beautiful, to the extent that it has the power to bring tears to the eyes, even for someone like me who was largely frustrated by the whole reading experience up to that point.
This certainly isn't a book I would recommend for purchase, even for the most diehard of cricket fans, as it doesn't really succeed either as a humorous account of a tour or as a cricketing record of the Captain Scott XI, falling somewhere between the two. Even with prices for purchase starting from as little as a penny in the Amazon Marketplace, the cost of postage would make a purchase unadvisable. However, if you can find the book in your library or in a large bookstore with sofas you can sit on to read, I would heartily recommend you read the last ten pages. What is contained there is some of the most emotional writing since some of Mindy Hammond's words in the story of her husband's accident in Richard Hammond's "On the Edge". It doesn't salvage the book enough to make it worth buying, but these pages are definitely worth reading.
Penguins Stopped Play by Harry Thompson
Eleven Village Cricketers take on the World...
Harry Thompson was on an expedition to see Captain Scotts Hut in the Antarctic but facing a long and incredibly dangerous walk from where the boat has to stop Harry and his co-adventurers decide it safest to stay near the boat. One of his companions was a Kiwi and just happened to have taken a cricket ball with him so a game of New Zealand versus the Rest of the World commenced. An intrigued penguin soon surfaced upon hearing the thuds on the ice below and was followed by about 200 of its friends. Hence the title "Penguins Stopped Play".
On returning to Britain Harry Thompson thought it was best that he started his own village team to commemorate Captain Scott and so the Captain Scott XI was formed. This village team were utterly useless but after years of play Harry decided he wanted to do a world tour and play cricket on each of the seven continents of the globe. This seemed like a simple enough idea at the time but actually wasn't a simple idea at all... (From the back...) "And when you throw in incompetent airline officials, amorous Argentine colonels' wives, cunning Bajan drug dealers, gay Australian waiters, overzealous American anti-terrorist police, idiotic Welshmen dressed as Santa Claus, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and whole armies of pitch invading Antarctic penguins, you quickly arrived at a lot more than you bargained for".
This book tells the story of the evolution of Captain Scotts XI and then goes on to tell the story of their ludicrous world tour. It is written in such a way that on every page I found myself laughing (often out loud) and I ended up flying through the book in a couple of days. The characters throughout are absolutely brilliant. Considering they are based on real people you can imagine many of them as people you have met or know. The things they get up to, the way they look, and how they change depending on where in the world they are. "Penguins Stopped Play" is also a fantastic little travel book. Harry Thompson was ever the inquisitive tourist and found himself exploring the world whilst the rest of the Captain Scotts XI were sleeping off their hangovers. Visiting Cape Town, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Buenos Aires, Australia and Barbados to name but a few of the places documented in this novel. I particularly enjoyed his narration on the incompetencies of British Airways and the all too trigger-happy American anti-terrorist police!
Harry Thompson was born in 1960 but died in November 2005 from inoperable lung cancer even though he had never smoked a cigarette in his life. He wrote and produced some of the best known comedies on British television including "Have I got News for You", "Da Ali G Show", "Never Mind The Buzzcocks", "They Think It's All Over" and "Harry Enfield and Chums" to name but a few. He has also written a further five novels including biographies of "Hergé" (the creator of TinTin), Peter Cook and Richard Ingrams. His first novel, "This Thing of Darkness", was short-listed for the Booker Prize.
I enjoyed this book from cover to cover. His sense of humour is quite fantastic. If you enjoy cricket and don't take it too seriously then this is definitely the book for you, if you like sarcastic, quick witted authors then you'll love this book, if you enjoy travel books, or, if you just fancy some light entertainment then I fully recommend this read!
Five out of Five.
A couple of quotes...
"The funniest cricket writing in the game's rich literary history... Crammed with sharp observation, comic and cruel characterisation and a great many very good jokes...Anyone who has ever picked up a cricket bat with hope in their heartand a beer in their belly will find themselves somewhere in these pages, and there is a mass of flintily observant travel writing thrown in top of the pads and gloves" The Telegraph
"It's a wonder, judging by this batty, wickets-for-wits tale of how "eleven cricketers take on the world", that anything as trivial as rain or light stops play. Penguins can queer the pitch much more efficiently: every team should have them." The Times
Published by: John Murray www.johnmurray.co.uk
Paperback price: £7.99
Eleven Village Cricketers Take on the World