Chasing shadows : the life & death of Peter Roebuck by Tim Lane and Elliot Cartledge
Melbourne: Hardie Grant Books, 2015 ISBN 9781743790120
What to make of a man's life when that man is careful to shield many aspects of it from his acquaintances? For Peter Roebuck, it seems from this book, had very few people he could truly call friend. Lane and Cartledge have tried - by talking to people who knew him, and by looking closely at the parts of his life where they could manage to find information - to discover what might have led him to throw himself from the window of the Southern Sun Hotel in Capetown in 2011.
The book looks at his upbringing, and especially at his time at Somerset, where he was a successful player almost in spite of himself, but is possibly best remembered there as the man who got rid of Viv Richards and Joel Garner, which precipitated the departure of Ian Botham. Before heading into murkier territory, his work as a journalist and life in Australia and South Africa are noted.
There is no doubt that Roebuck was an intense and odd character. Much has been made of his sexuality, and while Lane and Cartledge have discovered that Roebuck did have at least one important heterosexual relationship, there can be no definitive answers on Roebuck's orientation. However, what seems more important in his makeup is his character. He certainly had strong opinions on what made character, being firmly of the belief that cricket took a major part. This belief led him down a strange path.
The authors paint a picture of a man who, whilst obviously very intelligent, had little social sense. Roebuck seemed to have no innate knowledge of, nor does it seem he was inclined to learn, the social graces and give-and-take that make for solid bonds with other people. Some of those interviewed for the book speculate that Roebuck felt a need to be the leader, the one who people looked up to. This could go some way to explaining both what happened at Somerset, where he acquiesced in getting rid of the players that could challenge his leadership, and in the way he ran his "houses" in South Africa, where he dispensed advice and discipline.
His journalism too, as he progressed in his career, seemed to become more dogmatic and fixed on certain themes, sometimes from an angle that may seem strange to the reader. He no doubt was correct in singling out the corruption in Zimbabwean cricket, but his crusade took little note of the enmities and casualties that he left in his path.
All of which is to bring us closer to the moment of his death. Roebuck has a well-developed sense of persecution, and felt that there were forces out to get him. Initially he felt it was Botham and his supporters, but then even the Zimbabwean government seemed to enter his frame. Lane and Cartledge point out that while these theories occupied Roebuck 99% of the time, for Botham anyway 1% of his time, if at all, was given over to thinking about Roebuck. For a highly intelligent, rational man, this was odd behaviour.
Roebuck certainly thought it was Botham and his cronies who were behind the assault charge and conviction in 2001, which shattered him and haunted him for the rest of his life. However, as the authors point out, this is hard to sustain for several reasons. Firstly, it is clear that he did strike the boys, nevermind the issue of consent, and Secondly it is hard to believe that a man who got a First in Law at Cambridge could fail to understand that pleading guilty to a charge means admitting that it occurred. Yet another occasion where an intelligent man in other ways failed completely to grasp his situation in a social sense.
Despite his anguish at the assault conviction, it doesn't seem to have stopped him from believing that corporal punishment was part of the educative process: as he himself admitted he had "very right wing ideas" about education. It is very hard to get to the bottom of why Roebuck felt it necessary to cane his charges. Testimony from many of them suggests that they themselves chose that punishment, rather than be punished by household chores. Henk Lindeque, one of those who brought the earlier charge of assault, claimed that Roebuck wanted to see the welts, which was where sexual issues come into it. Roebuck claimed he only wanted to see the welts to ensure he wasn't caning the boys too hard.
The picture of Roebuck built up by the authors leaves the reader thinking that it is just possible that Roebuck was looking dispassionately at his handiwork to gauge whether he was going over the top. The tragedy really is that he seems to have had little awareness of how this might seem to Lindeque and to anyone else who heard about it.
Which brings us to his death. Itai Gondo, the man who made the claim of sexual assault that led to Roebuck's death, has been notoriously hard to find, but did make himself available to the authors for interview via Skype. Just as the reader is being led to think that perhaps Roebuck's paranoia might have a grain of truth, and that Gondo's accusations were part of a Zimbabwean government plot, Gondo's testimony sways the mind again, and it seems that indeed Roebuck may have made an inappropriate advance. And yet, Gondo seems to have done very well for himself since the incident, and how did that happen?
There are so many unanswered questions about Roebuck's death that it is hard to know where to start. The authors, I think, put to bed the theory that Roebuck was thrown from the window, and expose the incredibly shoddy police work that surrounded not only the moments of Roebuck's demise, but the subsequent handling of forensic evidence and inquest.
Whatever the truth of Gondo's accusations, it seems clear that Roebuck sensed that the hell that was his 2001 brush with assault charges was going to happen all over again, and that he couldn't cope with it. He had always been a moody depressive man, prone to extreme reactions to stressful situations, and it's possible he took what he thought was the rational route to end the pain.
What we do know by the end of the book is that it didn't have to be that way - Roebuck had people around him that, if he had let them, would have provided him a supportive network of friends, and perhaps even a partner. It's terribly sad that his life ended the way it did, although it is notable that many of the people interviewed for the book felt that Roebuck had been on the path to suicide for some time, if not all his life.
Lane and Cartledge have approached this difficult story with perseverence, candour and some heart. It is more than a book about cricket, and more than a book about the death of someone famous. Worth reading.
Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell