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Duncan Hamilton


The Great Romantic: Cricket and the Golden Age of Neville Cardus

Category: Biography | Published: 2019 | Review Added: 27-12-2019

Rating: 4 - A top read

Besides the obvious one about the overall quality of this biography of arguably England's finest writer on cricket, one other question immediately springs to mind when considering this book. Could it be of any interest to those with little or no interest in that sport? The first point to be made is that Cardus's journalism was not restricted to cricket. According to Hamilton he wrote more than 2,000 reviews and notices for the Manchester Guardian, also the home of most of his cricket articles, on classical music. In fact, when it came to the celebration of his seventieth birthday in 1959 (when he was in reality 71), the world of music was more prominently represented than that of cricket, with the conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent and Arthur Bliss, the Master of the Queen's Music' being among the guests of honour. Nevertheless, it has to be pointed out that Hamilton only devotes limited space to music.

The confusion about his date of birth, due to his extremely difficult origins, relates to one further reason why those without any attachment to cricket might wish to read this book: namely what it reveals about class distinctions in England. Cardus was the victim of the snobbery of his age, which was particularly rampant at the Lord's based Marylebone Cricket Club, full membership of which was only bestowed on the 'great and good'. After many attempts, Cardus only achieved the status of associate member, thanks to the opposition of the likes of Sir Pelham Warner, the England manager on the infamous Bodyline tour of Australia of 1932/3. This was a time when there was a kind of apartheid in cricket between amateurs and professionals, Gentlemen and Players. Bodyline, incidentally, was not to Cardus's taste.

Cardus came from the world of the Players and from the bottom of that. His mother was a Manchester prostitute, whose association with his father lasted a matter of minutes rather than hours. After his formal education ended at the age of thirteen, he worked in a variety of menial jobs, including pushing the hard cart of a carpenter. At the same time, he became an avid reader of what was available in Manchester's Municipal Libraries, while from 1906 the cheap Everyman Classics series allowed him to build up his personal collection. One of the humble tasks he performed, boiling printer's ink, had to do with his true ambition of working for the Manchester Guardian. In 1917 he plucked up the courage to write to its legendary editor C.P. Scott, who eventually took him under his wing and thus enabled his future career. This is a remarkable story which reminds readers, at a time when cuts have wreaked havoc in local government services, how vital institutions such as libraries could be in the nineteen and twentieth centuries for those who sought self-improvement.

Equally unusual was Cardus's private life. He married an art teacher Edith King, six years his senior, something she lied about for the wedding certificate. She encouraged him in his work and shared his passion for the arts but was completely unskilled in domestic matters. She was not a conventional wife either, nor he a conventional husband, when it came to more intimate matters. The marriage was apparently never consummated. Cardus's private life plays only a small part in Hamilton's biography, not least because there is little to write about. He did have a relationship with a Mrs Hilda 'Barbe' Ede, who became a writer on women's cricket. She was married to a church warden, who accepted the situation because in that role he did not want any scandal. In that respect, too, Hamilton reveals something of the age in which Cardus lived.

It is now time to turn to Cardus, the writer on cricket, who, according to Michael Parkinson, quoted on the back cover of Hamilton's biography, 'was the standard by which all cricket writers are judged'. Before him, reports on cricket matches were dry compilations of statistics, complemented by tedious circumlocutions, such as 'the crimson rambler' for the cricket ball and 'custodian of the gauntlets' for the wicketkeeper. He changed all this by, according to Hamilton, painting the scene at any cricket match 'impressionistically and in primary colours' (p.xv). To prove this point, he includes many quotations, including the most famous of all: '“Trent Bridge, a 'Lotus-land' for batsmen, a place where it was always afternoon and 360 for two wickets"'. (p.xvii) A Nottinghamshire wag is reputed to have once added, 'And it's always bloody Notts fielding'. If this is not true (Hamilton does not quote it), it illustrates how 'The Great Romantic' saw cricket in a different, unique light from many others.

It goes without saying that cricket lovers will enjoy this book which concentrates on Cardus's view of the game's great names from the first half of the twentieth century, together with major matches and Test series. Unsurprisingly, towards the end of his life, he had little time for the limited overs variety of the game, which he also thought would also kill off the literature of the game, because there was '“no scope, no material in all the scramble for a writer with a feeling for subtle changes of technique and mood"' (p.293). Today he might well fear that it could kill off the whole game. When opening the Cricket Research Centre at the University of Huddersfield in 2009, the cricket writer David Frith pointed to another change. Whereas previous generations of cricketers had generally been accessible to journalists, this was no longer the case. This was the situation exploited by Cardus, although he did not always concentrate on the most famous. Hamilton singles out the in statistical terms average Yorkshire player Emmott Robinson, for whom Cardus showed great affection and respect. He describes what Cardus wrote about his birth as one of his best lines: 'I imagine he was created one day by God scooping up the nearest acre of Yorkshire soil at hand, then breathing into it saying “Now, lad, tha's called Emmott Robinson and tha can go on at t'pavillion end"' (p.121). Unsurprisingly, Cardus also revelled in the Roses clashes between Lancashire and Yorkshire, which for him embodied the spirit of the North of England.

Hamilton has produced an excellent biography which is far more than a chronological account of the life of one man. Some chapters are even structured around specific topics, for example Roses matches, this chapter being entitled 'Spoiling Every Bloody Bank Holiday', the lament of a Lancashire supporter about the slow-scoring Yorkshireman Arthur Mitchell. Hamilton recounts the story of the bond that developed between Cardus and Mitchell but adds a wonderful anecdote, which encapsulates a certain northern mentality. Mitchell once reprimanded a teammate, who had taken a diving catch, with the following exhortation: 'Gerrup, tha's makin an exhibition o'thissen"' (p.117). Not only Mitchell, but no doubt Cardus as well, would not have approved of the hugs and high fives that nowadays follow such a feat. As this passage illustrates, one of the strengths of Hamilton's book is that he goes beyond reporting Cardus's comments but incorporates them into a wider narrative. Another is the way Cardus's life is always put into the context of the age in which he lived. Thus, it is appropriate that the last chapter takes the reader into the present day, when traditional Lancashire v Yorkshire matches attract sparse crowds but limited over games still bring in the masses. He points out that Cardus would hardly recognise today his beloved Old Trafford. It is even more certain that today's cricket would not be his golden age!

There remains the question of the book's wider appeal. As a cricket enthusiast, I am probably the wrong person to assess this. Nevertheless, I dare to hope that it might speak to the wide audience such a well-written and carefully researched book deserves.

Stuart Parkes, Malta

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