STEPHEN FAY by Stephen Brenkley Being at the cricket with Stephen Fay was a constant delight. We sat alongside one another for 15 or so years reporting for the Independent On Sunday and whatever was on display before us no day was ever dull.
It was perhaps an odd partnership. We were thrown together (thoughtfully, it should be said) by the paper’s exceptional sports editor, Neil Morton. Thanks to Stephen’s generosity of spirit we hit if off immediately. Only one of us could be called Stephen, of course, and it could only be him.
From the early 1990s and well into the 2000s we bickered (that was more me because there was always a high horse to mount), we gossiped (that was more him because he was wonderfully well-informed), we laughed (equally, because we both knew the importance of laughing), we compared notes on the game (and agreed surprisingly often).
It was evident from early on in our alliance that Stephen was simply a great journalist. He had already enjoyed an illustrious career by the time he turned to cricket writing. It had culminated in being deputy editor and briefly editor of the IoS. But that was barely the half of it.
Stephen was born in Lancashire where his father Gerard worked for the Manchester Guardian. The family moved south when Gerard became the paper’s London editor, also establishing a reputation as one of his era’s wittiest columnists.
These were big footsteps to follow but follow he assuredly did and filled the shoes that made them. After a spell in Glasgow, Stephen moved back south and joined the Sunday Times, as feature writer and part of the legendary Insight team and afterwards became editor of Business magazine. In an interview years later, a key member of that Insight squad, Philip Knightley, was asked who was the best journalist of his generation.
“My old pal, Stephen Fay,” he replied. “He was a feature writer with me on The Sunday Times and we often teamed up together on big stories like The Death of Venice. He has an economist’s way of looking at things and brought his analytical financial mind to our collaborations. He had the skills to be an editor, but always seemed to choose the wrong proprietor. Like a lot of fine general journalists who have turned to sports reporting, he now writes superbly on cricket, including the influence it has had on his life.”
The Death of Venice mentioned by Knightley was an Insight investigation they turned into a book. It was one of several books that Stephen had written before penning a word about cricket. They included Beyond Greed, a grim, foreboding tale about two of the world’s richest families trying to corner the silver market; Measure for Measure: Reforming the Trade Unions; and Power Play: The Life and Times of Peter Hall.
That list alone, encapsulating international finance, domestic politics and the British theatre, demonstrates his easy versatility. He went back briefly into the office after joining the cricket fraternity and found time to research and write The Collapse of Barings, a meticulously researched, wryly observed tale about the fall of the institution which led to the financial meltdown in the last decade of the millennium.
Stephen wore his erudition lightly. Never once in our splendid times together did he express any kind of superiority, even when I had to ask the identity of the piece of music that was inevitably playing in the background when I rang him at home.
It was not his way. There were some in the press box who did not immediately welcome a man they perceived to be an interloper, a man whom Private Eye had dubbed Captain Claret. But he loved cricket as much as anyone, probably more. He was an inspired choice as editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly in 2000 when he was 62. And a jolly good one he became, fastidious, encouraging, audacious. In some ways, he saw that now he was part of the cricket family and he was, I think, relieved by it.
He took a perverse delight that Mike Atherton, with whom he forged an extremely tight bond and mutually appreciative friendship, once told him playfully that he knew nothing about cricket. Stephen knew about cricket all right, as Athers also knew, in a different way. Once at Lord’s, he asked me whether Simon Katich, the Australian batsman, was a left-hander or a right-hander. Since we had just been watching the bloke bat for almost three hours this was a touch perplexing. But I do believe I checked Playfair before answering.
Fayser absolutely adored being around the game and those who played it. (Incidentally, he hated being called Fayser and would also answer to Steve only if being addressed by Australians, but sometimes, wanting to make mischief, I could not resist.) One Friday night we were having a nightcap in the Midland Hotel in Manchester when the West Indies captain, Brian Lara, wandered past. Lara recognised one or both of us, sat down and chatted about this and that for half an hour and more. Stephen’s delight (and mine) was perfectly obvious and he asked Lara good reporter’s questions and listened to the answers.
Stephen did not keep a conventional record at matches. At the start of play he would unscrew the top of his faithful thick-nibbed fountain pen, produce a yellow foolscap pad from his satchel and make random notes, usually pertinent, and scribble possible phrases for use later on. The resultant essay, usually 700 words, was crafted with elegance and attention to detail. His writing was crisp, measured and accessible.
At all times, he admirably adhered to the principles of newspaper reporting. He could never understand why some cricket writers turned up their noses at attending the post-play press conference. Banal and routine they might be, but in the banality and the routine, Stephen reckoned there was always some insight to be gleaned.
And a lesson for all young reporters: he was never afraid to pose apparently dumb questions because he was eternally curious, as all reporters in whatever category should be, and sometimes they elicited answers that otherwise might have been elusive or evaded. He was a stickler for the skill of editing. No piece of any kind on any subject was beyond it, he said, and he sometimes despaired at its apparent demise.
The best time we had together – though there was no worst time – was probably in 2005. Well, it would be wouldn’t it? We trailed round the country for eight weeks, from Lord’s to Edgbaston, to Old Trafford, to Trent Bridge, to The Oval. We usually ate together on the Friday night, limbering up for the morrow.
Stephen’s excitement was boundless and by the time the climax approached at The Oval it had been joined by tension. We watched the last glorious afternoon together and when it was all over we walked across the outfield in the general direction of the unbounded joy at the other end, with There’ll Always Be an England booming out by then, and I always like to think there was a tear in the arch non-sentimentalist’s eye.
That summer, he also spent writing his first cricket book, Tom Graveney At Lord’s. Nominally, it was about the year spent as MCC president by the first former professional to hold the post. And so it was, but it was also much more, the story of how the establishment had slowly but inexorably managed to enter the 20th century and be ready for the 21st. At the launch, I spoke to Tom and he said: “What an absolutely tremendous man your friend Stephen Fay is. I have loved every minute of doing this.”
Barely 18 months later in Australia, Stephen became ill in Adelaide. Typically, he immediately struck up a rapport with the surgeon who performed the necessary operation, asked a mixture of dumb and probing questions and was not spared the depth of the bad news. It affected the rest of Stephen’s days but he was indomitable, his zest for life undiminished, his determination to continue writing unquenchable. I marvelled and admired in equal measure. He still loved a glass or two.
It was not all plain sailing between us. He was a tenacious and determined colleague who did not easily give up. One summer, after Mike Atherton had surrendered the captaincy but was still playing we both thought he would be a timely subject for interview.
Atherton was always generous with his time in granting interviews. I went up to Manchester and returned with a perfectly acceptable piece. Stephen, it was obvious, was miffed about this. He did not let it rest and a couple of months later there appeared a humdinger of an interview with Athers in the New Statesman with exclusive musings on when he might retire. Stephen contained his glee but he had made his point and accepted my congratulations with characteristic goodwill.
The IoS changed, evolved some might say, though that is only one way of putting it. The partnership came to an end but by then our enduring friendship was secured. There was to be one last cricketing hurrah. Stephen collaborated with the eminent social historian and cricket lover, David Kynaston, in writing Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket.
It is a great book, as much about the society that forged the protagonists as about cricket and it has surprising conclusions. When it won the CWC Book Award, Stephen’s joy was unconfined and mine barely less so. It meant much to him. What a crowning moment to a wonderful career.
Before writing this, I rang Mike Atherton. He, Derek Pringle and Stephen got into the habit of having lunch together every two or three months. “We would talk about cricket for a bit, but there were always other subjects to explore,” said Athers. “He was pin sharp still and forever curious. I always walked away from the restaurant with a spring in my step.”
It was the most outstanding piece of good fortune to have Stephen Fay as a sidekick for so long. Days of wine and roses.