Last Updated on May 17, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1547
Alan Ross’s retrospective, Blindfold Games, is an unusual autobiography. The author, a noted poet and travel writer, uses verse at the end of prose chapters for a fuller development of his themes and motifs. These poems illuminate the four major sections of Blindfold Games, each of which centers on a time of change in his life: his experience as a child growing up in Calcutta, India, at the end of the British Raj; his forced move to England, early school experiences, and his growing love of the game of cricket; further educational adventures at St. Andrew’s School and his successful years at Haileybury Public School; and finally, his years in the Royal Navy during and after World War II.
Ross’s earliest reminiscences concern a lost India. He recalls an ease-filled time when his young life was presided over more by his ayah (nanny) than by his parents. Other memories follow in leisurely succession: the two-storied, porticoed house in Calcutta where he lived, the glimmer of Asian eyes, hair, and saris, rickshaws speeding through streets, and the Hooghley River, mysterious and majestic in its unhurried flow. Deliberately forgotten, he admits, are the ovenlike heat, the mosquito hordes, and the squalor and misery of Calcutta’s street residents.
Ross’s time in India was quite brief, but India remembered shaped the remainder of his life, its potent images haunting his imagination and dreams: “What I left behind I came to understand less and less, but all the more to need. . . . Through those boarding-school years [in England] what was most loved and familiar was oceans away.”
The second part of Blindfold Games focuses on boarding school in Cornwall and the playing of cricket as an escape from ennui and homesickness. One detects a great distance between the author and his parents (particularly his mother), who shunted him off to a Cornish school after unceremoniously yanking him out of India. He recalls a father who led the ordinary life of a successful Anglo-Indian merchant. His mother, who disdained the Indian people for their “pagan” religion and odd customs, was nearly equally estranged from her own son. Ross says remarkably little about her and manages few comments about her which lack astringency. Ross communicates his sense of alienation from her and the frustration born of it, as well as the emotional deprivation he suffered. She represented the fifth generation of an Anglo-Indian military family, and on her side of the family tree were members of the famed Bengal Lancers; nevertheless, she harbored the same narrow beliefs about India and its people that her husband stubbornly held: “Outside, people prayed and plotted and mated and died on a scale unimaginable and uncomfortable.” She also committed the sin of abandoning her son at the time of his greatest need, leaving him with a farmer’s family in a strange rural district in Cornwall while she went about her pursuits elsewhere.
In Cornwall, Ross made the best of a hard situation. At Belmont House school, still reeling from the shock of abandonment and loss, he learned to play rugby and cricket with Ralph and Billy James, sons of the uncouth farmer with whom he stayed. His liking for cricket turned into love, and the observing and playing of the sport has since been at the center of his existence.
The book’s second section opens with his arrival at St. Andrew’s School in East Grinstead, Sussex, at a time when cricket was undergoing a renaissance there. What helped propel Sussex cricket to national eminence in 1932 and for a number of years thereafter was the presence of Indian players, who, given Ross’s intense nostalgia for things Indian, earned his instant respect and admiration. The ten-year-old Ross found new romance in the exploits of such Sussex greats as J. H. Parks, Alan Melville, Hugh Bartles, and John Langridge. More important, he made enough progress in his own playing to become team captain at St. Andrew’s.
Following St. Andrew’s came a happy period at Haileybury School, one of Great Britain’s preeminent “public” schools, where Ross spent years of productive study and steady sexual frustration intensified by watching screen sirens at the local motion-picture theater. Haileybury in the middle to late 1930’s avoided the extremes of wealth and social cachet found in other notable English schools such as Eton or Harrow. Although he found it philistine in outlook, Ross liked Haileybury very much; if his fellow schoolmates were uninterested in the charms of poetry, they took no offense that he found verse a fascinating diversion. Here he discovered the power of British twentieth century poetry as well as his gift for writing poetry of his own, much of which had cricket as its subject. Always the romantic searching for glimpses of the ideal, Ross also found much to celebrate in his college’s soaring domes and Ionic porticoes and its lush landscaping. Accenting his sense of the loss of yet another home was the awareness that war was on its way.
Immediately after Haileybury came Ross’s two-year stint at the University of Oxford, before the war interrupted his studies in 1942. At Oxford, Ross found many fellow students who shared his interest in the reading and craft of poetry. Nevertheless, the university’s influence on his personal and artistic development was far less than that of Haileybury.
Section 3 of Blindfold Games is the story of one Englishman’s experiences at war on the high seas. As it was for many servicemen, World War II was for Ross a formative experience. The sense of the inevitability of death, the casual, behind-the-scenes horseplay, the equally casual bursts of heroism, and the numbing boredom of war—all of these left their mark on Ross. During his long hours in the North Atlantic Ocean, he had time to write poetry and dream of a civilian writer’s existence.
The dread Murmansk Run of convoy ships, quite possibly the most feared assignment a British sailor could receive, became familiar to Ross, and, like so many on the Run, he came to know what a total lack of security means. His account of the naval war with Germany begins in the middle of things as he recalls how he gaped at a huge hole in the side of his ship, the HMS Onslow, made by the guns of the German ship Hipper, as fires burned out of control in the bridge area. Looking back, Ross is able to judge just how unlikely was his survival. The Hipper could have easily sunk the Onslow had the former not had to defend itself from the guns of HMS Obdurate, Obedient, and Orwell. Moreover, Ross’s ship could have been detected by the powerful pocket battleship Lutzow, which came within two miles of the Onslow.
The Onslow was saved from being scrapped, then was repaired, and, years after the war’s end, would be found by Ross in a dockyard at Bombay, bearing the name Tipu Sultan. It is curious that the Onslow, so pivotal in his life, should end up in the country that in many ways formed him.
Subsequent war experiences passed quickly, and Ross found himself having to deal with a defeated enemy on its own soil. Part 4 of Blindfold Games, evoking the twilit strangeness of Germany in the postwar years, begins with Ross’s appointment as a rear admiral’s flag officer, an assignment which took him to the base of German naval operations, Wilhelmshaven. He includes a poem titled “Stateless Persons” which encapsulates his feelings about his life as a wanderer and an exile. In his account of occupied Germany Ross observes in his usual imagistic fashion the ruins, the bad odors, and the pitiful war survivors, so ragged and hungry. Yet he also speaks about the other postwar Germany—a Germany of peaceful, unspoiled rural areas where life went on much as it always had. His duties in Germany included sifting through reports concerning an underground Nazi organization, inspecting the remains of pillboxes and other fortifications, and supervising the entry of Germany naval officers into civilian life.
More significant, he joined with other officers with literary interests and assembled a services-oriented journal, The Pied Piper. In it, he and his colleagues took a lively and sometimes malicious look at the Germans with whom they were dealing. This journal allowed Ross a useful period of apprenticeship before he was allowed to leave the navy for a civilian career.
When Ross left the Royal Navy, he entered into a writing and editing career at a propitious time, for there were few survivors of the old school of British letters, which had had its heyday prior to the war’s onset. He, like others with talent who had come through the war full of experience and youthful vigor, sought to fill the void in the literary world.
In his postscript, Ross offers the reader not so much a summary of his early life as a sampling of his most vivid memories: of the fragile boy “wracked by undissolved fears and fevers who landed from India on a farm in Cornwall, the adolescent consumed by a passion for cricket, the undergraduate and the poetry-obsessed ordinary seaman, the twenty-three-year-old staff officer taking his first steps in a ravaged Europe.”
Last Updated on May 17, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 38
London Review of Books. Review. VIII (January 23, 1986), p. 25.
Massie, A. Review in The Listener. CXV (January 30, 1986), p. 25.
Oakes, P. Review in The Times Literary Supplement. February 21, 1986, p. 201.
The Observer. Review. January 5, 1986, p. 43.
The Spectator. Review. CCLVI (January 18, 1986), p. 22.