Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Peter Roebuck the latest "tortured artist" to die tragically

I haven't the slightest interest in cricket so I know very little about Peter Roebuck. To be honest, I had never even read any of his columns. (I had heard of him, though, and had a vague idea that he was respected, eccentric and florid.)

Maybe Roebuck was a flawed genius, as so many people have been saying. But frankly I think that all this fruity eulogizing is just another example of the tortured artist myth, this time applied to sport. Ian Fuge called him "the bard of summer" of all things. And have a read of this turgid piece of purple prose from Greg Baum:

He was social in cricket hours, solitary out of them. When the cricket caravaners headed out at night, mostly he would go to a cafe by himself, sit in a corner and read a book. He had the Pimpernel's ability to absent himself from a party suddenly without anyone seeing him leave.

He was a loyal friend who felt the pain of others as acutely as only the highly intelligent do. But he did not express empathy easily. He was flawed; of course he was. He fought to reconcile himself to his flaws, and it was the central drama of his life. He was tormented as only genius can be. The circumstances of his death attest to it.

Sorry, but that's just silly. The bloke was a misfit who wrote insightfully about cricket. End of story.

What's alarming about that piece (and many others singing Roebuck's praises) is that it airbrushes over the bloke's obvious dark side. While it remains to be seen whether the specific allegations that led to his death were true, there's no denying he had form on this kind of behaviour. In 1999 he pled guilty to 3 charges of common assault.

I suspect that the creepy reverence the bloke is now getting is not just to do with his career as a commentator. It's also due in part to his achievements as a champion cricket player in his youth. 

It all makes sense. Sport -- like singing, acting and other performing arts -- is entertainment, after all. So if you can give the audience a thrill with your deft skill with bat and ball they'll forgive you for a hell of a lot -- and for a very long time as well. 

Not only that; they'll even go out of their way to link -- and even attribute -- your sporting prowess to the violence in your soul. It's a very neat form of self-deception, actually. It enables the fan to maintain his admiration for someone who often doesn't deserve it.

Hell, there are lots of brilliant sportsmen who would never beat a teenager with a cane, and many excellent commentators who would never throw themselves out of a window if the going got tough. That's more than sufficient proof of the falsity of this tortured (sporting) artist myth, isn't it?

Or am I being too harsh? I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this.


  1. Roebuck was a far better writer than most journalists—but that’s not saying much.  He did write fluently and expressively, with perceptive judgements, but he also had stylistic faults (in the columns I’ve read, at least).  For example, he put too little effort into choosing his conjunctions: he used “and” too often to express a contrast or consequence, say, when “yet” or “so” would be more appropriate choices, and he would even use “and” as a subordinating conjunction.  He was also ill-served by his sub-editors: in the last paragraph of his last column, for instance, “ironically” and “however” need to be followed by commas (and “ironically” is used in a journalistic, catachrestic sense):
    Ironically Johnson, a bowler, is the most likely player to be dropped. However the team for the first Test against New Zealand has become harder to predict. Mind you, a lot can happen in a week. It just did.
    The liberal praise of Roebuck as an awesome writer of sublime genius may indicate how poorly read his contemporaries are.

  2. All week I've been comparing the death of Peter Roebuck with the passing of Steve Jobs. Both were comprehensively eulogised and yet both had a dark side that was known to many.
    When Jobs died I got so tired of the Hosannas - the cartoons at the Pearly Gates nearly made me puke - that I Googled 'Steve Jobs is a fucking arsehole', just to see if it produced anything. Thusly did I learn about the time that Jobs shafted his friend and business partner when they were doing work for Atari.
    Both men had light and dark in their natures. The people who talked as if the dark didn't exist look rather silly now.

  3. Deadman, yes, the standard of writing in the Aussie media certainly isn't that high. So if you can write even reasonably well you're out in front already.

    I think his eccentricity helped build his reputation also. I can see how the idea that he was some kind of slightly odd genius took hold in the cricketing press pack. Tribes do like labels.

    An Gregoryno6, yes I got sick of the tone of the commentary on Jobs. I'd heard a bit about his dark side. He did develop what sounded like a cult inside Apple. Outsiders who just visited were looked on with deep suspicion. And he could be amazingly rude in the way he spoke to people, apparently.

  4. Just came across this. You have the right to leap to your conclusions _ and judging by this contribution, your leaping is Olympic class _ but the idea that Peter Roebuck's modest, indeed obscure sporting feats bought him reverence from peers and immunity from their questions is laughable. He was judged as a writer and commentator, and by those who knew him a little, as the man they knew. Neither the judges nor the judged were perfect.