Wednesday 7th August 2013
‘DIED of a heart attack on Saturday,’ wrote Christopher Martin-Jenkins, of cricketer Tony Grieg, in an obituary for The Times. ‘It was probably a merciful release because the late stage of any cancer is often hell on earth.’
He was speaking from experience and, having filed that final piece, CMJ made his own way up the pavilion steps the following Tuesday, 1st January 2013. This summer’s Test Match Special commentaries are like a string quartet missing the viola player.
I met him courtesy of a dear friend, the late Humphrey Carpenter, who invited me to put on a number of lively events for the Cheltenham Festival of Literature. He’d been a contemporary of Christopher’s at Marlborough College.
“A brilliant mimic,” Humphrey told me. “Within an hour of the end of Speech Day, he’d have a huge crowd in stitches with his satirical take-off of the Master. Who else shall we get?”
Dickie Bird, Jack Russell, Tim Rice; Gower, Atherton, Agnew, Frindall… we had them all. It became my favourite annual gig: a packed Town Hall and the pleasure of interviewing some of the game’s most popular figures.
Christopher appeared at the festival thrice. He was charm personified.
“How’s the poetry going? I gather you had a lively slam last night. Sorry I couldn’t get here yesterday.”
His repertoire was most impressive: from gruff Yorkshire pace bowlers to loud Aussie spectators to melodious Caribbean taxi drivers. He alone was able to capture the precise, wine-soaked tones of John Arlott.
CMJ’s first live broadcast for the BBC was a report on a day’s play at the Oval.
“Jim Swanton had advised me they might want thirty seconds or two minutes, but as long as I had my notes and knew how I was going to start, it would be fine. So, all the way back to Broadcasting House on the tube, I kept repeating to myself, ‘I’ve just come back from the Oval where Surrey are playing Yorkshire in a vital championship match. I’ve just come back from the Oval, where Surrey are playing Yorksh…’
“In no time at all, feeling very nervous, I arrived in the studio and was sitting in front of the microphone, headphones on, awaiting my cue. The red light flashed on and I heard the voice of the presenter in my ear: ‘Over now to Christopher Martin-Jenkins, who’s just back from the Oval, where Surrey are playing Yorkshire in a vital championship match.’”
The tale told with the timing and grace of a flowing cover drive.