Jim Maxwell, in The Weekend Australian 29 October 2016, where the title is “The Pain of Losing My Mate Roebers,”... with emphasis added by the Editor, Thuppahi,
I have lost count of how many times I have cleared my throat and welcomed people to a Test match, but that morning at the Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg I struggled. It was the most difficult broadcast of my life. I can turn on a microphone and talk for hours when the covers are on and the rain is falling, but this was a situation I had never encountered.
I was doing OK, but it was a battle. I tried to shut out emotion and concentrate on the job at hand. He’d have scoffed at me for being so maudlin. I got on with the show.
Ever the internationalist, he disliked nationalism and cheerleading. He was judgmental and decisive in making a point. He took up Australian citizenship. I remember asking what it was like being an Australian. He said: “Being Australian is sitting up the front of the taxi cab, never taking the back seat.” He saw Australia as a country that was striving, vibrant and challenging.
We have all been lucky to share his wisdom, sense of humour, sense of justice … he was complex, caring, brilliant …
And then it was time for the toss and the cricket started again.
You might remember that series against South Africa. Michael Clarke’s second as captain. In the first Test at Cape Town the Aussies had been bowled out for 47 and handed a fearful flogging. I don’t know if I have ever witnessed anything like the second day of that game. Clarke’s team resumed on 8-214 and at the close of play South Africa were 1-81, which doesn’t seem so strange until you realise that we have travelled from the first innings to the fourth at warp speed.
A total of 23 wickets fell that day. When South Africa were batting in the morning one of the support staff went into town. When he returned later in the afternoon he looked out and saw the Australians in the field and assumed the first innings was still going. South Africa chased down the 236 required and won with eight wickets in hand. The game started on Wednesday and ended on Friday. We were stunned, but at least we had Saturday off.
We were all staying at the Southern Sun hotel in Newlands. It’s nothing fancy, just a short walk to the ground, and we had got used to it over the years. Drew Morphett and Geoff Lawson were working for the ABC on that tour and we all got along well. We are easy in each other’s company and have been tight for decades.
Peter was at breakfast on the Saturday morning after the Test with a young lady, a Zimbabwean girl I think, who was engaged to one of the students from his house in Pietermaritzburg. He was in a strange mood, somewhere between excited and agitated. I didn’t think too much of it at the time; you were never sure what you were going to get from Roebers, but on reflection it is possible he did have something on his mind.
Roebers headed out to watch cricket with a friend from the University of the Western Cape, Nic Kock, an Afrikaner from Stellenbosch who did a lot of charity work with a cricket team at the university and who had a bit to do with Peter in this area.
The next time I saw my friend things happened very quickly. One moment things were proceeding as planned, the next there was chaos.
Peter and I were great mates. He was a curious, intelligent, eccentric Englishman, a solid county cricketer who started to come to Australia for the summer and found himself helping out at (Sydney’s) Cranbrook School as a tutor and cricket coach. That’s where I first encountered him. He made an impression on and off the field.
After a few years he started writing for The Sydney Morning Herald, columns that were picked up by the other Fairfax papers. At the ABC we were looking for someone to spice up the coverage, to bring a point of difference, and I suggested we try Roebers.
He set us apart from what anyone else was doing; the television basically calls the game, they were not really editorialising. Peter would dive into an issue. The time he called for Ricky Ponting’s sacking after the so-called Monkeygate Test was a perfect example. That was the price you paid. Peter was great, but he was complicated and could be difficult.
Roebers brought a level of erudition, a breadth and perspective to the coverage that we had never had before. He had an outsider’s take that could provoke listeners, make them reassess what they had always assumed to be true, because Australia was a novelty to him. You needed people like Peter to point out that riding in the front seat of a cab was a reflection of national character.
His work was outstanding. That period was fantastic for us. It made the whole broadcast great to listen to and contributed to people turning down the sound on the TV and listening to us.
I became very good friends with Roebers as we spent more time in each other’s company but ultimately I was forced to admit that I didn’t know him as well as I thought. That is something I wrestled with a lot after his death.
Peter was definitely a strange character. Unique. He wasn’t like anyone else you met and he was, well, socially awkward. Overseas we went out for dinner a bit, but at home he had his own company and people he knew in various cities as the cricket caravan moved around the country. Roebers shared everything he had, but he didn’t have much and never paid much mind to physical possessions, apart from real estate and shares. His clothing was unique. He would arrive in India with a battered empty suitcase, collect his pay from the Indian newspaper that owed him some rupees, find the cheapest tailor in town and get a couple of pairs of trousers and jackets made, which would soon be torn, stained and ragged — but they would last him much longer than they should have.
We had dinner together occasionally, but he liked his own space — or you could say that he was uncomfortable in other people’s space. He used to come around when we had dinner parties at home and his behaviour was extraordinary: he would get up after the main course and say ‘I have got to go now, I have some work to do’ and he would leave.
He was more comfortable when it was just me and my first wife, Madonna. He would get into her ear about something and chew it off for hours — sometimes you couldn’t stop him.
I didn’t know all of him; I knew only some of him, and maybe some of it was a bit superficial, because you could get only so close.
I can only conclude now he was a disturbed person; he wasn’t at ease with himself. Kerry O’Keeffe had a good description of him — he said he was a fumbler, and it was true. He sort of bumbled through life, juggling things. He was brilliant, but never urbane or assured.
You only got so far with Roebers and then he wouldn’t let you any further. He was open about his frustration with vague things that were going on in his life, without being literal about what brought it on. He could get into a tizz about little things, like crowds or queues, which he didn’t like at all.
On reflection, our friendship was a bit superficial, and that hurts a bit. I don’t think I got inside his head, but he probably got into mine. We used to talk a lot about aspects of living, we used to talk a lot when I was going through my separation and divorce. He was very good at counselling — that was the schoolteacher in him. He couldn’t form a relationship himself, but he seemed to be wise from a distance.
In the last four or five years of his life he took to calling me for no reason at all, just to have a chat. I guess he was lonely and wanted to have a sounding board for what he was thinking about. He would talk about cricketers or the life he had with all the students he was supporting in South Africa. It was almost as if you were listening to a conversation he was having with himself. He had usually made his mind up about what he was going to do. He just liked to talk.
I knew he had family, but he never talked about them. I thought his mother had passed on. He would say “my family is in Africa’’.
Those students he supported there — and there were scores of them — became his life and he was in constant contact with them. After he died we learnt he did genuinely communicate with his mother, his sisters and brother, but you wouldn’t have known that there was any relationship at all.
And then he jumped out that window.
He did give warning of it many times. He said he would never again go through the humiliation of what happened in England, where he had been charged with common assault in 1999. The details of that case (are) murky, but it seems he had beaten some young men with a cane as part of some strange disciplining. They were staying in his home and playing cricket. He was their coach.
He said the lawyer told him he had to plead guilty to the lesser charge and he probably wouldn’t have a conviction, but the judge came down on him like a ton of bricks and gave him a suspended sentence, saying his evidence wasn’t to be trusted and there was a sexual element to the beatings. From that day on he became the person who jumped out the window. He was a ticking time bomb.
That whole situation was classic Peter. He would show charity and support to these young men, open his house to them, then go too far. Overstep the boundaries by disciplining them with a cane.
In Sri Lanka a month or so before his death he was full of regret that a friend — an African student — had committed suicide. He thought that if he had read the tea leaves, been in the right place at the right time, he could have stopped it.
Anyway, it turned out that in Peter’s final days he knew that a young man had gone to the police alleging he’d been sexually assaulted by him in the hotel where we were staying. This had been going on behind the scenes but none of us knew anything about it.
I just think when the police came to arrest him he had one of those moments. I don’t know whether he wanted to kill himself, so much as he just thought “I am out of here’’. Unfortunately, he was on the sixth floor. He was like that. He just wanted things to go away, like he wanted the earlier court case to go away.
After I saw him at breakfast that Saturday morning I went for a drive with Drew Morphett … down to Hout Bay, a beautiful little spot about 20km to the south of Cape Town. We got back to our hotel around dinnertime.
I was in my room when the phone rang. “You have to come, you have to come.’’ It was Roebers and he was in an absolute state. His room was down the corridor. There were two policemen in the room. I think one of the policemen, a detective, met me at the door, told me they were taking Peter away to charge him with a sexual assault, but he let me in for a minute or two.
Peter was sitting in the corner by the window, away from the door. He was beside himself. In an absolute state. Agitated and alarmed. He was just blithering. It was awful.
I asked him if he wanted me to call someone back at home, The Sydney Morning Herald or somebody, and he said “they’ll know soon enough’’. I can still remember him saying that.
(The detective) said that Peter had been arrested, he would be taken to the lock-up and he would face court on Monday.
I was a bit shaken by the whole thing and I went to Drew’s room, which was near mine, and was telling him about it in the doorway when (the detective) walked into the hall again. He was on the phone and then I heard him say there had been an incident, that someone had gone out the window and then he broke off into Afrikaans.
Drew and I just looked at each other. I didn’t want to believe it was true.
And it went from there.
It took a while before we actually learnt what had happened, but we suspected the worst. “Henry” (Geoff Lawson) rang and said he had heard a thump. He was a couple of floors below us on that side of the building.
For a long time after that I kept thinking that I shouldn’t have left the room.
It was such a strange night. What do you do? I rang his colleague from Fairfax, Greg Baum, who was at a restaurant at Sea Point with fellow cricket writer Peter Lalor, and he said they would come straight over.
At first the police couldn’t find Peter’s body, because it had landed on an awning above the entrance of the hotel. Then the paramedics were working on him.
At one point I remember they asked me to come up to the landing and help them with some information. His body was still on the awning and that was how they were accessing it.
I think that was when we found out Peter was dead. We all sat downstairs in the lobby of the hotel, all five of us — me, Morphett, Lawson, Baum, Lalor — just trying to sort this out in our heads. There was a police counsellor, who was very nice and helpful. Everybody was. We sat there until the early hours of the next morning. The hotel manager offered us drinks, but for once nobody had much desire to drink.
It was late in South Africa but early in the morning in Australia. We tried to work out what to do. We rang various people, including Mike Coward, who was close to Roebers, and then spread the news a bit further.
The police had said to take my time and give a statement when I needed to. The bloke wrote it all down long hand and the first question was: ‘Did you know that Mr Roebuck was a homosexual?’ I was a bit thrown by that. What did that have to do with anything, whether or not it was true? I didn’t know, and in my mental state I wasn’t sure what I knew anyway.
They were difficult days. Two days later in Johannesburg I remember I did a piece with Ginny Stein on The 7.30 Report, because this was big news in Australia. Ginny asked me how I would remember him.
“There was a sense of justice about everything he did and that was the sort of world he was trying to ensure. That’s how I am going to remember him. And as a friend unfortunately I no longer have.’’
This is an edited extract from The Sound of Summer by Jim Maxwell, published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $39.99. On sale now.
AN APPRECIATION FROM MICHAEL ROBERTS
I cannot recall when I first got to know Peter and appreciate his knowledge of the Sri Lankan cricket scene and cricket in general. I remember having meal with him when the Lankan team led by Mahela and coached by Moody were in Adelaide town. Among other facets he began to reveal to me n dettail the tale of how Sanath Jayasuriya had been approached in Sharjah by an ex-Pakistan cricketer to throw his wicket away and had firmly shown the man the door. It was a tale I was already privy to, but I doubt if many Aussie commentators (other than Tony Greig) would ever have picked up such information.
Thereafter, Peter and I exchanged information and comments, however briefly, on the odd occasion. I was taken aback by his decision to end his life — saddened as well as exasperated at my loss: for he was a RESOURCE as well as a PAL, a guy with whom i could readily exchange views and debate both cricketing and political issues. I have kept his gmail box open because that site’s excellent methods –till very recently– enabled one to retrieve mail. My vague intention has been the idea of deploying that data as an ODE TO PETER at an appropriate moment. Google Mail’s recent format reform has dynamited that route. Jim Maxwell’s testimony is part compensation. Thank you. Jim.
Blast you, PETER man! You are missed by one elderly Ceylonese as well. Why did you leave us bereft! Michael
for Peter’s BOOKS, visit http://www.peterroebuck.com/books
for EULOGIES vsit