(Stolen, shamelessly, from The Guardian's 'The Spin' Newsletter. Sign up for it here. You don't have to like cricket, but it helps
"Not that it matters, but most of what follows is true." That fine line is the first in William Goldman's Oscar-winning script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Screenwriters enjoy a little more licence than journalists, but sometimes we play a little fast and loose too. "My concern with accuracy," as Hunter S Thompson put it when someone pointed out to him that Richard Nixon didn't actually sell used cars with cracked blocks, "is on a higher level than nickels and dimes". The spirit of the story can be as important as the facts of the matter. It hasn't been possible to check every detail in this article. But, for what it is worth, most of this is true too, one way or another.
Let's start with the certainties. We can be sure of these few things, because they were set down in the Wisden Almanack: Bob Crisp played nine Tests for South Africa, the first of them in the summer of 1935, and the last of them in the spring of 1939, 77 years ago last week.
Crisp was a fast bowler, who had the knack of making the ball bounce steeply and, when the weather suited, swing both ways. His 20 Test match wickets cost 37 runs each. The best of them were the five for 99 he took against England at Old Trafford, including Wally Hammond, clean bowled when well-set on 29. Admirable but unremarkable figures those. A few more: Crisp took 276 first class wickets at under 20 runs each, twice took four wickets in four balls, and once took nine for 64 for Western Province against Natal. Impressive as those numbers are, they still seem scant justification for the description of Crisp Wisden gives in his obituary: "One of the most extraordinary men ever to play Test cricket." But then, as the big yellow book puts it, "statistics are absurd for such a man."
Wisden is right, the traditional measures aren't much use. A few other numbers, the kind even Wisden's statisticians don't tally, may help make his case. The first would be two, which was the number of times Crisp climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. The next would be three, which is both the number of books he wrote, and the number of occasions on which he was busted down in rank and then re-promoted while he was serving in the British Army. Then there are six, which is the total number of tanks he had shot out or blown up underneath him while serving in North Africa, and 29 , which is the number of days in which all those tanks were lost; 24 is the number of years he lived after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. And finally, most appropriately for a cricketer, comes 100, which is, well …
In 1992 Crisp, then 81, was in Australia to watch the 1992 World Cup. One of his two sons, Jonathan, had flown him there as a treat. At the MCG, Jonathan bumped into the old England wicketkeeper Godfrey Evans, who he knew through Evans's work as a PR for Ladbrokes. "Godfrey said to me, 'Your father is here? Oh God, I've got to meet him, he's my hero," Jonathan Crisp says. "I said 'Come off it Godfrey, you were a proper cricketer, how can he be your hero?'" Evans replied that Bob Crisp was the first man make a 100 on tour. "I said 'What? How can he be? Plenty of people have made 100s.' And Godfrey said, "No, no, not runs, women, 100 women."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jonathan Crisp and his brother were estranged from their father for a long time. Bob, too footloose for family life, abandoned them when they were still young.
In the mid-1950s Bob's wife, the boys' mother, won on the football pools. It was timely; Bob had just resigned in a fit of pique from his job on the Daily Express, who had told him he couldn't run a scurrilous story about corruption in greyhound racing. Bob took her winnings and spent them all on a mink farm in Suffolk. "He did that, and did it so badly that my mother had to take it over and turn it into a successful business," Jonathan says. "He ran off and got a job as a leader writer for the East Anglian Daily Times, a job which allowed him to live in the style he was accustomed to."
Later, when Bob was 56, he ran further still, all the way to Greece. "He had some friends there who he could live with." Jonathan says. "Or rather, live off." When Jonathan found his father again, years later, Bob was living alone in a goat hut on the Mani peninsula. He had no running water, and no lavatory. But he did have a cravat, and a clipping from a biography of Field Marshal Alexander which read "the greatest Hun-killer I ever knew was Major Bob Crisp". The page had been laminated, and Bob Crisp took great glee in handing it over to any Germans he met in the village. "He thought that sort of thing was funny."
When Jonathan flew to Greece to meet his father, he found him at the head of table in Lela's Taverna. "There were 10 women around him. And it was clear he was bedding all of them. He was 70 at the time." Jonathan says that the lamentations of the local women became a familiar refrain: "You must help me, I am in love with your father." Some of them were in their mid-20s. Some of them were in their mid-50s. It didn't make any difference. Bob wasn't the settling sort.
Lela's was made famous by Patrick Leigh Fermor, who lived in that part of Greece at the same time. The two men, both writers and raconteurs, were friends and rivals. It would have given Crisp enormous satisfaction to read this story by Guardian journalist Kevin Rushby . When Rushby arrived in the village of Kardamyli last year, the locals had little recollection of Leigh Fermor (or, indeed, of another famous travel writer who had passed through, Bruce Chatwin), but could not stop talking about Bob. "What about Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor? You must know about him." asked Rushby. "The old man shook his head. 'No, I don't think so. There was a writer called Robert. Now he was famous – cured himself of cancer by walking around Crete. He was very famous.' [He] leaned back and shouted in Greek to his wife in the kitchen. She came through, cloth in hand. 'Robert Crisp,' she said, smiling. 'What a wonderful man! So handsome!'"
Jonathan was too close to his mother to be that blind to his father's faults, and too appreciative of his father to let those faults obscure his feats. "He was a remarkable and extraordinary man," he says. "An absolute charmer. And an absolute $hit." The drinking, womanising, and gambling, Jonathan points out, "can seem heroic or can seem awful. It depends which side of the coin you were on."
Not everyone had such a balanced view. As George Macdonald Fraser puts it in Flashman: "In England you can't be a hero and bad. There's practically a law against it." One of Jonathan's most vivid early memories is sitting down with a copy of the Eagle comic, only to open it up and find there was a story about his father in it, an illustrated account of his exploits in the war. "It was very odd, but he was that kind of man." He and his brother, who are working on a book about their father's life, are still trying to unravel the strands of his life, to sort, where they can, fact from fiction.
They think it is true, for instance, that just before Bob Crisp was called up for the South African team for the first time, for the tour to England, he climbed Kilimanjaro. The story goes just as he was coming down through foothills, he bumped into a friend of his and said: "It's fantastic up there, have you ever been up?" He hadn't. So Crisp turned right around and they climbed it again, together. Just below the summit, the friend fell and broke his leg, so Crisp picked him up, carried him up to the top, and then carried him all the way down again.
They know it isn't true that, as the elderly Greek man reckoned, Crisp cured his cancer by walking around Crete. He was diagnosed when he was 60, and told it was terminal. "He had always wanted to walk around Crete with a donkey, so when he was told how ill he was he thought 'fcuk it' and set off," Jonathan says. Bob paid his way by selling the story to the Sunday Express. "When he came back he decided to row a boat around Corfu. But the boat sank."
What cured Crisp's cancer, it seems, was an experimental drug, an early form of chemotherapy, which he was given by the Greek doctors. He was told to apply it to his body, but instead he drank it. "It was so disgusting that he mixed it with a bottle of retsina and drank that instead." There was a time, shortly after, when he was flown to England and the USA by various consultant oncologists, who were trying to find out whether he had found some miracle cure in the combination of this unknown chemical and rotgut alcohol.
That was his second death. The first was 30 years earlier. That was in the Libyan desert, the day after he discovered, while listening to the BBC's 9 o'clock news on his tank's wireless set, that he was to be awarded the Distinguished Service Order for conspicuous gallantry. Shell shrapnel hit his head. As he lay crumpled at the foot of his turret, Crisp felt "beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I was going to die. The darkness I was sinking in to was the darkness of the grave. Strangest of all, I didn't care a damn. As I went out into eternal darkness the last thought I had was … death is easy." He survived, thanks only, he was told by the gynaecologist who performed emergency surgery on him, "to the good thick bit of skull" that the metal hit.
So far as anyone can be, Bob Crisp was an honest memoirist. As his son says "like most biographers, while they appear to be critical of themselves they very rarely appear in a light that is totally unflattering". He does write with startling honesty about his mistaken assault on an English tank. He accidentally killed its gunner, "a young lad, red hair, fair skin, freckled face. As they pulled him out, the head rolled side-ways and two, wide-open, empty eyes looked straight into mine. In that moment I touched the rock-bottom of experience." The war moved so fast, though, that he scarcely had time to dwell on what he had done. More cheerfully, Crisp also admits that he once caught crabs after pinching another officer's pair of silk pyjamas to sleep in (and foolishly tried to cure himself by dousing his genitals in high-octane petrol).
The early months of Crisp's war were spent carousing in Alexandria, singing and dancing for his dinner (typically escalope Viennoise and a bottle of white wine) in the local cabaret clubs. He seduced a local showgirl, Vera, who he had to leave behind when he was sent to Greece. He writes so tenderly of their relationship that he almost persuades the reader he really was in love. Until he describes their final kiss: "I knew that I would always think of that last, innocent contact – and that if I ever missed her it would help me to remember how her breath always smelled, just a little bit, of garlic."
Greece was little more than a rout, one long retreat from the border with Yugoslavia back to the bottom tip of the country. Along the way Crisp had three tanks blown up underneath him, hijacked a New Zealand officers' Mess lorry, and shot down a low-flying German Heinkel bomber with a burst from his machine gun while it was in the middle of a strafing run. The beating he took seemed to fuel his thirst for action. He found it at the battle to lift the German siege of Tobruk, where he fought continuously for 14 days, on an average of 90 minutes sleep a night. He won his DSO at Sidi Rezegh , where he led his tank in a single-handed charge across an airfield that temporarily checked an advance of 70 German Panzers.
Crisp later told the cricket writer David Frith that his courage was a "reaction to the shame he felt at being afraid". But his modesty concealed a darker truth, as he once confessed to Jonathan. To his shame, Crisp admitted to his son that he actually "loved the war. He enjoyed it. He thought it was fantastic".
MacDonald Fraser, who also served in North Africa, writes brilliantly about men like Bob Crisp. They epitomise, Fraser says, "this myth called bravery, which is half panic, half lunacy". After the attack on Sidi Rezegh, Crisp seemed to catch a fever for fighting. The next day, stranded on foot, he commandeered a signals tank whose crew had "never even fired their gun before", let alone been in battle. Crisp hauled their officer out of his turret, and with a cry of "Driver advance! Gunner, get that bloody cannon loaded!" led them in a surprise attack on a group of German anti-tank guns. Afterwards the driver was so shell-shocked by this startling turn of events that he started running around in small circles with a wild look on his face. The poor chap hadn't the faintest idea where he was or what he was doing." Crisp cured him with a "tremendous kick up the backside".
Jonathan Crisp says he has it on "very good authority from a lot of different people" that his father was recommended for the Victoria Cross, but Field Marshal Montgomery refused to allow it because Crisp was so ill-disciplined. He was demoted three times. But then he was also mentioned in despatches four times. Crisp was awarded the Military Cross instead. He was presented with it by King George VI, who asked him if his cricket career would be affected by the wound. "No sire," Crisp replied. "I was only hit in the head."
In fact Crisp was too injured to play cricket again. After the war he went back into journalism, and, almost a footnote in his life this, founded Drum, the radical South African magazine for the township communities. He fell out with his fellow editors there. "Like a lot of rogues," Jonathan says. "He was very charming and entertaining until things started to go wrong." So he came back to Britain to work on Fleet Street, and fell back in to his old friendships with two fellow rakes, Denis Compton and Keith Miller.
Having survived the war, and cancer, Bob Crisp finally died in his sleep, at home, in 1994. When Jonathan found his father's body in the morning, there was a copy of the Sporting Life in his lap. The only thing Bob Crisp left in the world was a £20 bet on the favourite in that year's Grand National. "It lost," says Jonathan. "Of course."
There is a line in Big Fish, Tim Burton's movie about how we can never really know the lives of our parents, which goes: "In telling the story of my father's life, it's impossible to separate the fact from the fiction, the man from the myth. The best I can do is to tell it the way he told me. It doesn't always make sense and most of it never happened … but that's what kind of story this is." Well, Jonathan Crisp knows that most of his father's story really did happen. And if there are a few exaggerations and fabrications along the way, well, the story is truer for their inclusion. "One of the most extraordinary men ever to play Test cricket," says Wisden. If there's someone out there who tops him, I'd like to hear their tale.