Bloomsbury Reader is absolutely thrilled to be publishing Zen and the Art of Donkey Maintenance this month. It follows the story of Robert Crisp, a man who thrived on excitement and adventure who, at the age of fifty-five, was so tired of mundane life he decided to disappear from all who knew him and travel to Greece, where he was stationed during the Second World War, in search of a simpler life. But Robert never liked things too calm, so living through the rise of the Junta, surviving cancer, trekking around Crete with a donkey and a near fatal solo boat trip around Corfu seemed like perfectly normal things to do.
To mark the publication of Zen and the Art of Donkey Maintenance, Peter Crisp talks about his father, and the process of compiling the articles written by Robert originally serialised in the Sunday Express under the pseudonym Peter White, creating this charming book.
My Father – In Focus
By Peter Crisp
I’ve heard and read lots of stories about my father, Robert Crisp; adventurer, war hero, cricketer, journalist, gambler, scoundrel and now the author of Zen and the Art of Donkey Maintenance.
I believe most of the anecdotes to be true. One of my favourites concerns the time, towards the end of his life, when he was a frequent guest at my big brother Jonathan’s country estate in East Anglia. After roughing it in Greece for so many years, he enjoyed the en-suite facilities and the attentions of the household staff. He certainly knew how to make himself at home.
At that time, Jonathan was a high-flying businessman, and when he made a rare visit to his house in the country, he was somewhat taken aback that someone had gone through his cellar of vintage champagne. It wasn’t hard to work out who it was.
“You’ve drunk all my vintage champagne!” he protested.
“I thought it was for me,” came the placid response.
Not surprising for a man I once overheard say: “It’s past noon. I want to hear the sound of corks popping.”
Another time, there were about ten of us sitting round the long black table where my brother liked to entertain his guests. Father had to wear a hearing aid and Jonathan was often nagging him to turn the thing on.
“You’ve got your hearing aid turned off again, haven’t you?”
“Switch it on, please.”
“So you can join in with the conversation.”
“No, thank you. I’m communing with myself. Much more interesting.”
The truth was that he had developed a huge appreciation, bordering on obsession, for food and drink. This is true for many old people but maybe was more pronounced in him after living on £10 a month for years. He just didn’t want any idle chitchat to come between him and his meal.
Mind you, he had many other sides to him besides being the loveable rogue. He had exceptionally high standards and was very difficult to please – especially by his younger son. I remember a visit he made to my family in our cottage in the country.
Now, photography has long been a hobby of mine and over the years I’ve received many compliments on the quality of my pictures. (They can’t all have been humouring me, can they?) So I thought I’d show him an album of my latest work. He took a quick look through and made only two comments. The first was: “Meaningless.” The second: “Out of focus.”
For years, this became a running gag between my wife and I to sum up any of the projects I would conjure out of my fertile imagination. So when Jonathan commissioned me to write a biography of Robert Crisp, I quailed at the idea. I could just picture the spirit of my deceased father, looking over my shoulder at the stuff I was writing and intoning: meaningless, out of focus.
However, in the course of doing my research into his life, I visited the Newspaper Library in Colindale and examined every page of every issue of the Sunday Express from 1967-1974. The articles he wrote under the name of Peter White about his life in Greece and Crete appeared sporadically and often in different sections of the paper. So I couldn’t miss a single page.
By the end I had amassed a sizeable collection of pages. When I began typing them up and putting them in order, I began to feel that they would make a classic little book in the tradition of Robert Louis Stevenson. Not only did I feel this strongly and believe in it wholeheartedly, it would also get me out of the epic task of writing about his entire life with that disapproving spectre hovering at my shoulder.
My brother took some persuading and not by me, but by the many friends to whom he sent the manuscript. They all agreed it was a little gem. It was around this time that the article by Andy Bull appeared in The Guardian setting off a flurry of interest in “the most extraordinary man ever to play test cricket.” It came to the notice of Michael Foster who loved the legend of Robert Crisp and wondered if there might be a story of his life out there somewhere. He urged Bloomsbury to get in touch with his sons and find out.
I am, of course, thrilled and delighted that Stephanie Duncan and the good people at Bloomsbury Reader have produced this elegant volume of my father’s writings. I also recall that he had it in mind for many of his latter years that his Greek and Cretan adventures would make a good book. I can almost imagine him looking down on me with that roguish twinkle in his eye and a smile on his lips, as if to say: “Meaningful. In focus!”