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Peter the Lords Cat and other unexpected obitaries from Wisden is a collection of the more obscure, humourous or noteable obituaries of cricketers through the years.
Start in 1882 by John Wisden, Wisden is a yearly book characterising all the games played at a competitive level in England for the year before. It also covers any England overseas tours and any other games played in England at representative level that year such as last years three tests between Pakistan and Sustralia played in England. It has articles, reviews on all the counties, cups and an in depth review of any test played by England in the previous 12 months. It also has an obituary in which any player who has played a first class game will have an obituary looking at their lives, impact and importance to the game.
This book is a collection of the more anecdotal, humourous or down right bizarre means of leaving this planet. The book is a slender 147 pages and is bound in the characteristic yellow hard back cover for which Wisden in famous. The front covering has a black and white etching of the cat mentioned in the title looking at a game being played in front of the Lord's pavilion.
The obituaries are all catergorized in alphabetical order from A to W, presumably no one with a surname starting with X, Y or Z has yet to have a humourous death.
The book is a strange one to read, on one level it is in places amusing or at least quirky, people dying whilst fielding or have a back story making an obituary worth reading. On another level it is a book about people dying, so when you read about an 18 year Pakistan youth player who died whilst wicket keeping because a ball hit the stumps and ricocheyed into his heart then yes curious and quirky but sad as well.
So here we encounter Doctor Who's nemesis, PG Wodehouse, a man who played precisely one first class game which was rained off and therefore counts as a man worthy of an obituary. ALong with these are the obituaries of some of the greats off the field such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Edward the VII. One of the most amusing things is the entry for Doyle in which it's hard to notice any mention of his successes away from the cricketing field but much about what he did on it. Only a very slight reference to literary success gives the game away in terms of why he's there in the first place.
This is a tricky book to review because the topic is a niche of a niche, cricket books and lovers of such are very much a minority even in the sporting literary field. Lovers of the dry wit attached to Wisden's obituaries are perhaps a monority even in the cricket loving field and I suspect most enjoy the obituaries found in their new Wisden every year and most years the book will perhaps have two or three to read given over 250 such obituaries even the most ardent fan might start to lose interest in the subject.
I guess all in all, this is a slice of English cricket love for the game, a rather morbid slice but one which nevertheless makes for engaging reading. I guess this will never be the most popular of books but as a piece of social and sporting history it is perhaps worthy of an occasional perusal.
"Peter the Lord's Cat", as I shall refer to this book to save a great deal of unnecessary typing, is a fairly small (slightly under A5 size) and fairly slim (148 numbered pages) hardback book. In it are collected a sample of 250 of the more than 10,000 obituaries that have appeared in Wisden Cricketers' Almanack, the "Bible" of cricket, since that august publication began to include such things in 1892.
Although the book is published by Aurum, their arrangement with John Wisden & Co has allowed them to produce it in a style which fits in nicely with that of the Almanack itself. It has a matt yellow-and-black cover, with a woodcut-style design of the eponymous Peter watching a game at Lord's. It's elegant and understated, and I think very attractive. The actual board covers inside are also (plain) yellow, and unlike most books nowadays this still looks quite nice with the dust-jacket removed.
The book is edited by Gideon Haigh, one of the finest of modern-day cricket writers, which is quite a coup. He provides a short but interesting introduction: straightforward rather than quirky, and calm rather than provocative, but none the worse for all that. As befits a Wisden publication, it is also quite learned, though not off-puttingly so: amusingly, he ends his introduction with the words "Vita brevis, to be sure, but cricket longa" - an adaptation of Hippocrates' aphorism "Ars longis, vita brevis" ("Art is long, life is brief").
There is then a short but important note to the effect that "[s]ome mistakes in the original entries have been silently corrected". As anyone who has undertaken cricket research will know, while the Almanack obituary is a tremendous source of biographical information it is - in its earlier years especially - not always absolutely reliable, especially statistically. The presence of this note thus adds reassurance that Haigh has done more than simply gather together a pile of cuttings, something which with the advent of the internet has become all too common a feature of "collected highlights" books.
The rest of the book consists of the obituaries themselves. As far as I can tell these are always the complete articles as they appeared on their original publication, which provides some interesting insight into what was considered appropriate language for an obituary at different periods - and there is not all that much difference. For example, a page or two but nine decades after "Edward VII, H.M. King" (of whom "it cannot be said that he ever showed much aptitude for the game") we find Gavin Buchanan, a poet who wrote "lyrics of wry nostalgia" on the game.
In earlier years especially everything was subservient to cricket, and something of this attitude has continued through to more recent years: Lord Silkin of Dulwich, who died in 1988, was Attorney General for five years in the 1970s, but this is not mentioned until the penultimate sentence of his obituary. More ink is expended on describing his achievements for his public school and university. Similarly, the piece on Conan Doyle has until late in the article no word of his non-cricketing fame other than "the well-known author". This feeling of a self-contained cricketing world is part of Wisden obituary tradition, and gives this collection the distinctive flavour found in the source Almanacks.
And this eclecticism is the glory of "Peter the Lord's Cat". As with most collections of its type, it is not a book to read from cover to cover, but rather one to dip in and out of at random and - in so far as can be deemed appropriate given the subject matter - with enjoyment. Some stories are simply sad, such as that of Donald Eligon, who died aged 28 from blood poisoning occasioned by a nail in his cricket boot. Most, though, have other dimensions to them: Ted Drake, better known as a footballer but also a considerable first-class cricketer, "married the girl he met at the gasworks dance", while Edward Rae "introduced the game into Russian Lapland".
And what of Peter himself? He remains the only non-human to have been immortalised in Wisden's obituary section: a black cat who made Lord's his own in the 1950s and 1960s and could often be spied wandering across the field by TV viewers. He wins a place in this volume where the likes of W.G. Grace do not. In fact, no Grace does; one of the slight disappointments is that the obituary of Martha Grace, mother of W.G. and for many years a lone female interloper in a Wisden uninterested in women's cricket, does not appear here. Still, it's a minor complaint about a well-produced book. As for Peter, you will of course find his entry under C... as in "Cat, Peter (the)".