Thursday, 3 June 2010

John Wilson

I mentioned a while ago that an old friend was struggling with a brain tumour -- an optimistic portrayal of what was in reality a much bleaker situation. Today, after a rapid decline which by all accounts he bore with a relentless, unreasonable and inappropriate cheerfulness, John Wilson died.

You almost certainly never knew John, never bought anything from his bike shop in Walton Street in Oxford, or played cricket against Eynsham Cricket Club, where he was Player of the Year as recently as 2007 . But, if you were lucky, you too will once have had friends who now inhabit your personal Dream Time; no matter how much time passes or how infrequently you meet, such people have shaped you in ways that make them your true family. The loss of one of these mythical beings is an enormous sadness.

I last met John last year, when I took my son up to Oxford to the university open days. While he was off being given the scholastic sales pitch, John and I had our sandwiches in the quadrangle of Balliol College, where we had been undergraduates together. We amused ourselves watching college life carrying on, as if 30 years had not passed. More than ever, he seemed like a force of nature in shorts and fingerless cycling gloves; impossible to imagine that within a year he would be laid so low.

These lines are from what is allegedly the only good poem ever written about cricket, a game I never understood but which John loved. Its sentimentality (and the fact that its author was an opium addict who couldn't get it together actually to attend the famous Lancashire v. Middlesex match he describes) would have made him roar with laughter.

For the field is full of shades as I near a shadowy coast,
And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost,
And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host
As the run-stealers flicker to and fro,
To and fro:
O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago!

At Lord's, Francis Thompson (1859-1907)