Zen and the Art of Donkey Maintenance

Zen and the Art of Donkey Maintenance

Robert Crisp

“I go now in search of a place in which I can live out my dream. I want four walls and a roof. It must be near the sea and have a beach for beachcombing. It must have an acre of land and some running water on which I can attain the self-sufficiency I seek. And I hope the sea has some fish in it and that I can catch them.”

Robert Crisp



A Note from the Editor

Prologue: A Hankering for Pericles Smith

Part 1: Greece

Chapter 1: The Pattern of My Magic Carpet

Chapter 2: Rich Beyond the Potency of Wealth

Chapter 3: An Enormous Contentment

Chapter 4: A Small Piece of Warm Bread Dipped in Hot Olive Oil

Chapter 5: Money Itself Was Becoming Meaningless

Chapter 6: This Unlikely Foreigner

Chapter 7: It Was All Going a Bit Too Well

Chapter 8: I Could Have Happily Wrung a Million Speckled Necks

Chapter 9: What I Was Really Looking For Was a Miracle

Chapter 10: A Feast to Assuage Any Sort of Hunger

Chapter 11: Operation Whitewash

Chapter 12: My World Was Full of Spectacle and Conundrum

Chapter 13: Mugs Like Me

Chapter 14: Water, Water Every Where, Nor Any Drop to Drink

Chapter 15: Profuse Green Hands of Thanksgiving

Chapter 16: A Wiser and Better-Equipped Man

Chapter 17: I Was Due to Be Haunted

Chapter 18: I Taught the Children of Gythion a New Game

Chapter 19: Sounds of the Sea and the Sky and the Earth

Chapter 20: The One Signal Failure of My New Career

Chapter 21: I Knew I Had Come Home

Chapter 22: Eat, Drink and Be Merry

Part 2: Crete

Chapter 23: I Liked to Think of Myself as a Leader

Chapter 24: My Travels with a Donkey

Chapter 25: It Seemed Like the Savoy Hotel to Me

Chapter 26: An Ignorant Alien Who Didn't Know an Ass from an Elbow

Chapter 27: An Explicit Manifestation of a Trackless Waste

Chapter 28: I Had Seldom Felt More Alive

Chapter 29: No Place to Take a Donkey for a Walk

Chapter 30: Heraklion Lay Behind Me and All of Summer Lay Ahead

Chapter 31: A Tradition as Old as Crete

Chapter 32: Where Sea and Sky and Earth Blended in a Haze of Infinity

Chapter 33: A Scene Straight from the Bible

Chapter 34: I Was a Successful Experiment

Chapter 35: The Ultimate Peninsula

Chapter 36: The Crowd Shouted Their Approval

Chapter 37: A Hell of a Day

Chapter 38: A Mixture of Sadness and Joy

Chapter 39: Donkey for Sale – Speaks English

Chapter 40: Dammit, I Wanted to Be Recognised

Chapter 41: I Was on This Small Floating Paradise

Chapter 42: I Took the First Strokes of My Odyssey

Chapter 43: I Became Sensitive to Such Imperceptibles

Chapter 44: I Was Strangely Happy

Chapter 45: The Civilising Presence



A Note on the Author

His Final Message


The life of the most extraordinary man to play Test cricket

From Kilimanjaro to war escapades, via Fleet Street and a wild century, the remarkable story of Major Robert Crisp, D.S.O, M.C.
©Guardian News & Media Ltd 2013

“Not that it matters, but most of what follows is true.” That fine line is the first in William Goldman's Oscar-winning script for
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
. Screenwriters enjoy a little more licence than journalists, but sometimes we play a little fast and loose too. “My concern with accuracy,” as Hunter S. Thompson put it when someone pointed out to him that Richard Nixon didn't actually sell used cars with cracked blocks, “is on a higher level than nickels and dimes”. The spirit of the story can be as important as the facts of the matter. It hasn't been possible to check every detail in this article. But, for what it is worth, most of this is true too, one way or another.

Let's start with the certainties. We can be sure of these few things, because they were set down in the
Wisden Almanack
: Bob Crisp played nine Tests for South Africa, the first of them in the summer of 1935, and the last of them in the spring of 1939, 77 years ago last week.

Crisp was a fast bowler, who had the knack of making the ball bounce steeply and, when the weather suited, swing both ways. His 20 Test match wickets cost 37 runs each. The best of them were the five for 99 he took against England at Old Trafford, including Wally Hammond, clean bowled when well-set on 29. Admirable but unremarkable figures those. A few more: Crisp took 276 first class wickets at under 20 runs each, twice took four wickets in four balls, and once took nine for 64 for Western Province against Natal. Impressive as those numbers are, they still seem scant justification for the description of Crisp
gives in his obituary: “One of the most extraordinary men ever to play Test cricket.” But then, as the big yellow book puts it, “statistics are absurd for such a man.”

is right, the traditional measures aren't much use. A few other numbers, the kind even
's statisticians don't tally, may help make his case. The first would be two, which was the number of times Crisp climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. The next would be three, which is both the number of books he wrote, and the number of occasions on which he was busted down in rank and then re-promoted while he was serving in the British Army. Then there are six, which is the total number of tanks he had shot out or blown up underneath him while serving in North Africa, and 29, which is the number of days in which all those tanks were lost; 24 is the number of years he lived after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. And finally, most appropriately for a cricketer, comes 100, which is, well …

In 1992 Crisp, then 81, was in Australia to watch the 1992 World Cup. One of his two sons, Jonathan, had flown him there as a treat. At the MCG, Jonathan bumped into the old England wicketkeeper Godfrey Evans, who he knew through Evans's work as a PR for Ladbrokes. “Godfrey said to me, ‘Your father is here? Oh God, I've got to meet him, he's my hero,” Jonathan Crisp says. “I said ‘Come off it Godfrey, you were a proper cricketer, how can he be your hero?'” Evans replied that Bob Crisp was the first man to make a 100 on tour. “I said ‘What? How can he be? Plenty of people have made 100s.' And Godfrey said, “No, no, not runs, women, 100 women.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jonathan Crisp and his brother were estranged from their father for a long time. Bob, too footloose for family life, abandoned them when they were still young.

In the mid-1950s Bob's wife, the boys' mother, won on the football pools. It was timely; Bob had just resigned in a fit of pique from his job on the
Daily Express
, who had told him he couldn't run a scurrilous story about corruption in greyhound racing. Bob took her winnings and spent them all on a mink farm in Suffolk. “He did that, and did it so badly that my mother had to take it over and turn it into a successful business,” Jonathan says. “He ran off and got a job as a leader writer for the
East Anglian Daily Times
, a job which allowed him to live in the style he was accustomed to.”

Later, when Bob was 56, he ran further still, all the way to Greece. “He had some friends there who he could live with.” Jonathan says. “Or rather, live off.” When Jonathan found his father again, years later, Bob was living alone in a goat hut on the Mani peninsula. He had no running water, and no lavatory. But he did have a cravat, and a clipping from a biography of Field Marshal Alexander which read “the greatest Hun-killer I ever knew was Major Bob Crisp”. The page had been laminated, and Bob Crisp took great glee in handing it over to any Germans he met in the village. “He thought that sort of thing was funny.”

When Jonathan flew to Greece to meet his father, he found him at the head of table in Lela's
“There were 10 women around him. And it was clear he was bedding all of them. He was 70 at the time.” Jonathan says that the lamentations of the local women became a familiar refrain: “You must help me, I am in love with your father.” Some of them were in their mid-20s. Some of them were in their mid-50s. It didn't make any difference. Bob wasn't the settling sort.

Lela's was made famous by Patrick Leigh Fermor, who lived in that part of Greece at the same time. The two men, both writers and raconteurs, were friends and rivals. It would have given Crisp enormous satisfaction to read this story by
journalist Kevin Rushby. When Rushby arrived in the village of Kardamyli last year, the locals had little recollection of Leigh Fermor (or, indeed, of another famous travel writer who had passed through, Bruce Chatwin), but could not stop talking about Bob. “What about Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor? You must know about him.” asked Rushby. “The old man shook his head. ‘No, I don't think so. There was a writer called Robert. Now he was famous – cured himself of cancer by walking around Crete. He was very famous.' [He] leaned back and shouted in Greek to his wife in the kitchen. She came through, cloth in hand. ‘Robert Crisp,' she said, smiling. ‘What a wonderful man! So handsome!'”

Jonathan was too close to his mother to be that blind to his father's faults, and too appreciative of his father to let those faults obscure his feats. “He was a remarkable and extraordinary man,” he says. “An absolute charmer. And an absolute shit.” The drinking, womanising, and gambling, Jonathan points out, “can seem heroic or can seem awful. It depends which side of the coin you were on.”

Not everyone had such a balanced view. As George Macdonald Fraser puts it in
: “In England you can't be a hero and bad. There's practically a law against it.” One of Jonathan's most vivid early memories is sitting down with a copy of the
comic, only to open it up and find there was a story about his father in it, an illustrated account of his exploits in the war. “It was very odd, but he was that kind of man.” He and his brother, who are working on a book about their father's life, are still trying to unravel the strands of his life, to sort, where they can, fact from fiction.

They think it is true, for instance, that just before Bob Crisp was called up for the South African team for the first time, for the tour to England, he climbed Kilimanjaro. The story goes just as he was coming down through foothills, he bumped into a friend of his and said: “It's fantastic up there, have you ever been up?” He hadn't. So Crisp turned right around and they climbed it again, together. Just below the summit, the friend fell and broke his leg, so Crisp picked him up, carried him up to the top, and then carried him all the way down again.

They know it isn't true that, as the elderly Greek man reckoned, Crisp cured his cancer by walking around Crete. He was diagnosed when he was 60, and told it was terminal. “He had always wanted to walk around Crete with a donkey, so when he was told how ill he was he thought ‘fuck it' and set off,” Jonathan says. Bob paid his way by selling the story to the
Sunday Express
. “When he came back he decided to row a boat around Corfu. But the boat sank.”

What cured Crisp's cancer, it seems, was an experimental drug, an early form of chemotherapy, which he was given by the Greek doctors. He was told to apply it to his body, but instead he drank it. “It was so disgusting that he mixed it with a bottle of
and drank that instead.” There was a time, shortly after, when he was flown to England and the USA by various consultant oncologists, who were trying to find out whether he had found some miracle cure in the combination of this unknown chemical and rotgut alcohol.

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