There was a time when I regularly travelled on commuter trains in and around London. When you do that you occasionally see people that you recognize, even if their period of fame or notoriety pre-dated your own life.
When, on a couple of occasions, I saw Peter May, I knew exactly who he was.
In thinking about great English batsmen the other day, my thoughts turned to Peter May. Not because I remember seeing him play – his first-class career ended more than two years before I was born – but because he tends to be the player most readily named when people talk about England’s last truly great batsman.
This may or may not be right. It’s a matter of opinion after all, and I favour David Gower, a player I certainly did see and whose style is simply unmatched by anyone in the world these days. But, if you examine the figures and read and listen to the testimonies of those who watched him, it’s obvious that May was a very, very good player.
And whenever I think of Peter May, because I don’t have any memories of games or innings to sustain me, I think of a time in the late eighties and early nineties when, for a couple of years, I commuted into London from the suburbs to go to work and to college.
Apart from the day of the Clapham Junction disaster, I have few lasting memories of the journeys which I took then. However, on a number of occasions, I saw Peter May.
He worked in the City and lived somewhere in Surrey or Hampshire. He wasn’t a regular on my line but one day something went wrong with the trains and I noticed that he was sitting in my carriage.
When we arrived at Waterloo Station and the train emptied, May remained seated in the corner, seemingly happy to wait for it to be completely empty before he made his departure. Although I considered making an approach I realized that there would be little I could say beyond the banal. All I knew was that he was Peter May, and some of the broad details of his career. I didn’t remember anything of his playing days and so had no personal context (apart from some of his later eccentricities while an England selector) in which to place the encounter.
But at least I knew who he was. To everyone else he was just another nondescript commuter, and I was seized with a strange desire to tell everyone that this was a man who had once made 285 not out in a Test match.
But I didn’t. They wouldn’t have been impressed, and May, who gave off an almost tangible air of reticence – a sort of reverse charisma – would just have been embarassed.
I left the train.
On another occasion I was in an upstairs bar at Waterloo when May walked in, ordered a drink and stood at the bar in complete solitude and silence while he drained his small glass before thanking the barman and turning on his heel. This was obviously a man who felt that he had received enough applause and attention in his life. The lowest of low profiles suited him.
Some years later I was in Australia watching England when May’s death was announced. He was remembered with affection there and the flags at the MCG, where, precisely forty years before, he had made 91 to set up Australia for Tyson’s demolition, flew at half mast.
I don’t think he would have enjoyed the attention.
Different Shades of Green, 28th February 2012