[Spoilers ahead] I’ve just finished Harry Thompson‘s ‘Penguins Stopped Play‘, a book about cricket and travel, in that order. Most of you will like one and not the other of these two subjects (no prizes for guessing which). But, as with so many things that are lovingly made, intelligently crafted and passionately expressed it has a significance beyond its deceptively simple approach. In this case, it is as much about what it means to live than an account of a team of amateur cricketers who decide to play a match in every continent. This is partly because Thompson died shortly after finishing the book, at only 45.
I knew before reading the book that Thompson had died and I suppose I had some kind of mawkish interest in what happened to someone so young, an age I’m approaching. I found it almost impossible to pick it up and not turn to the final pages, where he writes without sentiment (but with a touching metaphor of the slip fielders lining up waiting to catch him) about his inoperable cancer. In a final chapter his wife briefly writes about his death and funeral. She hears the thunk of a cricket ball land in his coffin, dropped there by the members of the team he captained: entirely appropriate, she tells us, as she had already placed a bat in his hands.
But rather than sadness in the pages that preceded those I found a joyous affirmation of someone living as they wanted, fulfilling their passion, squeezing some of the zest from life. The death of one of the book’s many colourful characters, a beloved cricketer who passes at the batman’s crease just as he is about to score his hundred, foreshadows Thompson’s own life cut lamentably short. And inevitably, as the pages thin out and stop, we turn attention upon ourselves and our loved ones and remember, too, that our lives will end. And as we do, we remind ourselves of how we should try to make our lives as happy, loving and passionate as we can, just as Thompson appears to in this unlikely book about cricket and travel, in that order.
For me, Thompson has become one of those writers you want to call by their first name, as if you know them. Thanks, Harry.