Saturday, November 19, 2011

Whatever the truth, Roebuck's suicide was a terrible, lonely death

For one with not much more than a passing interest in cricket, I have found myself pondering the fate of Peter Roebuck rather more than I would have expected.

I hope it is not pure ghoulishness. Rather it is the combination of how the story has unfolded and the struggle of a media that likes people to be monsters or angels either to know what to say about someone who may have been a bit of both.

On another day I might not have even clicked the button to read the reports of his death. I remembered his role as Somerset captain in the 1980s and his part in the controversy over the Richards/Garner/Botham departures and vaguely aware that he had gone on to become a cricket writer. But beyond that he hadn't much permeated my consciousness and it was intriguing to learn of this brilliant but tormented soul, whose suicide somehow didn't completely surprise those who knew him.

But there was more than that. However tactfully, most obituaries and tributes referred to his 2001 conviction for caning three 19-year-olds whom he was coaching. This is the sort of information that once known permanently colours one's perception of anybody. An open-minded person might reflect that the history of sport is littered with charismatic coaches with odd methods, and consider that this may have been an error of judgement for which Roebuck was righly punished, but which should not be held against him for all time. Yet it is hard to avoid agreeing with the trial judge's reported comment that: 'It seems so unusual that it must have been done to satisfy some need in you'.

When those who had spent the day of his suicide with Roebuck reported that they saw no sign of what was to come, one sensed the grim inevitability of unpleasant revelations explaining his apparently sudden decision. And so it proved: his leap from a sixth-floor window was triggered by his imminent arrest on a charge of sexual assault.

This leaves judgement on his life and reputation in a strange state of limbo. Any fair-minded person would avoid judging the motivation for his suicide. It might have been fear of his guilt being exposed. But equally, even if innocent he would have known that his reputation would never quite recover. Even if not convicted there would be a sense he had 'got off' rather than been exonerated. The later accusation, combined with the earlier conviction and his charitable work helping young men through university would be combined to create a picture of a sordid predator. Already you don't have to look far to read an article about Roebuck written as if an accusation is proof of guilt and indeed of serial wrongdoing.

All of which might amount to an argument for defendants in cases of sexual assault or rape to be given anonymity, along with the victims. Who knows whether Roebuck, if innocent, would be alive today if there was a chance he could have cleared his name without facing trial by media also?

But issues around anonymity are not that straightforward and that wasn't really my purpose in writing about this. (And for avoidance of doubt I should add that sexual assault is an appalling crime and the police should assiduously investigate any report of it, however talented or philanthropic the alleged perpetrator.) Rather it is just a sense of the cruel vicissitudes that attend the human condition.

Perhaps a young man hoping for a way out of poverty and a new chance in life found himself suffering a grotesque sexual assault at the hands of his supposed benefactor. Or a brilliant but troubled man faced the horror of a false accusation when they were merely trying to do good. Either on its own is awful enough, but whatever happened led to a terrible, lonely death. Whether Roebuck was guilty or innocent, one would need a heart of stone not to feel a profound sense of sadness at the whole story.

PS: Clearly plenty of people have felt troubled by this story. I have also read these very measured pieces by Howard Jacobson and Geoff Lemon.

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