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Word of the week: nighthawk

If you follow the game of cricket, you will be familiar with the idea of a nightwatchman, a batsman who comes in at the fall of a wicket in the last few overs of a day’s play. The nightwatchman’s role is to take the pressure off the other batsman: face as many balls as possible, block, defend, try and steal the strike at the end of each over. Nightwatchmen are not established batsmen. Usually they are bowlers who are not expected to score many runs. As long as the partnership is unbroken at the close of play, the nightwatchman has done their job.

Apologies to those who do not watch the game but that definition will make sense to those who do. During the winter, with the England team playing Tests in Pakistan and New Zealand, a new role has emerged: the nighthawk. Just like a nightwatchman, the nighthawk will come out to bat at the fall of a wicket towards the end of a day’s play day. Unlike the nightwatchman, their role is to cause mayhem, try and score runs quickly, disrupt the bowlers. Earlier this month the role was taken by Stuart Broad in a game against New Zealand. David Gower, who retired from commentary some years ago, but appears to have come out of retirement for this series, was new to the idea of a nighthawk. We all are. This new role might be effective and might even replace the idea of the nightwatchman. We’ll wait and see.

I came across the word nighthawk earlier this winter in a very different context, this Guardian obituary of the film-maker Ron Peck. His 1978 film “Nighthawks” “…explored with candour and compassion the frustrating life of Jim, a teacher who spends his days among his colleagues and pupils, and his nights scouring London’s clubs and bars in search of sex, love and companionship”. A headline in Gay News summed up what Peck was looking for when he was making the film, and why: “Director Needs Gays For First ‘Real’ Gay Film.”

“Nighthawks” was released in 1979. I never saw it but I remember reading reviews for it. This was around the time that I first started reading the Arts pages in the broadsheets. Dilys Powell was still writing for The Times, and the great Philip French was reviewing for The Observer. As a straight teenager I was never likely to see “Nighthawks”, nor the following year’s “Cruising” which starred Al Pacino and was set in New York’s gay scene, but I remember reading the reviews for that one too. I did see Peck’s second feature, “Empire State” (1987), at a Film Festival screening. The main thing I remember from that one is Ray McAnally’s extraordinary attempt at a cockney accent.

As l learnt from reading the obituary in the Guardian, “Nighthawks” took its title from the Edward Hopper painting of the same name, and Peck made a documentary about the artist in 1981. You are probably familiar with its depiction of four figures in a diner late at night. If not, you can see it here on the painting’s Wikipedia page. I was unfamiliar with it until I was 21. I first heard about it after waiting for a friend in a near-empty bar not far from Cambridge railway station. When she arrived, she compared the scene to Hopper’s painting. “It’s just like that painting, you know the one, the man and the woman sat at a counter late at night … what’s it called?” I didn’t know then, but I do now: “Nighthawks”.


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