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Perfect Leisure and Peter O’Toole

As academics, we tend to look at the summer with both anticipation and dread.  Of course, we love the time away from the classroom, the time to (ostensibly) think, read, and write – as well as find various diversions of the non-academic variety.  Indeed, it is those diversions that makes the summer also a minefield of regret.  In general, I tend to be productive during the summer, though I often find myself letting hours, and days, and (far too often) weeks slip by without a manuscript anywhere near completion.  Add the various service and committee duties that seem to colonize the summer, even for faculty like myself on nine-month contracts, and it is very easy to wake up one morning and realize that it’s mid-August and (at least here in the US) time to head back into the classroom for another round.

In any event, as part of the navel-gazing class, I got thinking about the academic summer, and letting things slip, and the idea of productivity, and an existential “what does it all mean” thing that, in the quieter moments, we have the luxury to consider. This, at least for me, means a fair amount of daydreaming and reading of books which often have little to directly do with the day job. And, being middle-aged and rather comfortable at that, my daydreaming and reading often leads me to long for something approaching perfect, uncomplicated leisure.

Recently, two pieces of writing provided a glimmer of what perfect leisure might look like and, of course, both involved cricket. I have a deeply romantic attachment to cricket that is in no way based in reality but, rather, reflects some strange, nostalgic vision of what summer in England ought to have been like (and, probably, summer in rural southern England at some unspecified point from the past century).  In any event, the first came piece of writing came from The Guardian last week . The article beautifully describes the joy of a serendipitous summer weekday, in this case the unadulterated happiness that comes from an unplanned outing, particularly when it means a break from other things that one “ought” to be doing (like work, school, and writing publishable, high quality international research…for example). Indeed, I wish I could have been at Lord’s last Monday, when the test went from leisurely to dull to exciting to magnificent in just a few hours.  Though, again, I think it was just about having a perfect summer day, without obligation, that didn’t require scheduling and planning and some forced version of “down time.”

The other came from the obituary section of the 2014 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. Normally I skim this section, reading only the obits of the infamous, the young, or the noteworthy.  However, this year I took a closer read and, thankfully, didn’t skip the obit of Peter O’Toole.  Of course, I knew that O’Toole had passed away in December and, being a great admirer of his work, I read many of the obituaries about him in the press.  However, I was intrigued that his obituary should appear in a list of cricketers.  I think I knew he might have played, and I imagined he may have been a fan, but it was still a surprise to see him listed.  What made me link him with something of time, and timelessness, and the academic summer, and leisure, and all of those things that I’ve been thinking about lately, is that cricket appeared to be an escape for him, from work, and perhaps from other aspects of his life.  In many ways, it reminded me also of this excellent essay, written by an American, about why test cricket is so appealing – it is so much different, so separate, and so beautifully anachronistic, to the rest of our contemporary lives.   O’Toole, one of the greatest actors of his – or, really, any – generation, and it appears that he was most comfortable, or perhaps found the most joy, in cricket:

Peter O’Toole grew up in Leeds, and recalled sitting in packed pre-war cinemas cheering newsreel footage of Len Hutton’s 364 in 1938; Hutton became his first cricket idol. He would seize any opportunity to introduce cricket to film sets, improvising games with Omar Sharif in the desert while filming Lawrence of Arabia, and teaching the basics to Katharine Hepburn during the making of The Lion in Winter. 

He was frank about his own limitations as a batsman and off-spinner: “I have a delivery which is really, really special. It does absolutely nothing.” But, when he had a son at the age of 50, he took coaching qualifications. “The only thing I’ve ever been interested in teaching anyone in life is cricket,” he said in his final interview.


Anyway, enough daydreaming for now. I must get back to the academic summer, lest I face an August of regret.

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