“Another century by Arthur Mitchell made our second fixture with Middlesex memorable, but something else made it more memorable still, George Macaulay reappeared in our side after a long absence. Rheumatism had been crippling him, but he fought against it gallantly, and I shall always picture him making that speedy, resolute run to the crease, and his fighting face as he watched for the result of his medium pace bowling that fizzed the ball like a boy’s top.
It was the first time I had played on the same side as “Mac”. His savage appeals for lbw echo in my ears to this day : poignantly, I may confess, because he had a fatal illness during the war, during which, like the Essex fast bowler, Kenneth Farnes – ill-fated too – he became an airman.
A rough diamond and a demon at the same time – that was George Macaulay, England cricketer in his glittering prime, but always the Yorkshire “Tyke” through and through.” (Len Hutton)
Five cricketers who represented England died on active service in World War 2. Best remembered is Hedley Verity, who died as a result of wounds sustained in action in Caserta, Italy in 1943. Geoffrey Legge, who died in a flying accident in 1940, was an amateur who had played for England on tours to South Africa and New Zealand. Maurice Turnball, another amateur, was a double international who also played Rugby Union for Wales, and was killed shortly after the Normandy landings of 1944. The others were two of the most intriguing, but somehow elusive, characters of the inter-war generation : George Macaulay, who played for Yorkshire between 1920 and 1935, and won eight England caps, and Ken Farnes, who appeared for Cambridge University and Essex from 1930 to 1939, and was capped eighteen times.
Neither played a leading role in the story of English cricket between the wars, but they hover around the edges of a lot of narratives. Macaulay has never had a biography, though the blogger Old Ebor has recently done much to remedy that in a series of posts. Ken Farnes both wrote a memoir (‘Tours and Tests‘ ) and has had one written about him (‘Ken Farnes : Diary of an Essex Master‘, by David Thurlow) (neither of which I have managed to read).
Death can make strange bed-fellows (as a glance at any page of newspaper obituaries will reveal). Macaulay and Farnes may have been at different poles in terms of temperament, but they had some things in common. Both were serving as Pilot Officers at the time of their deaths : Farnes was killed when his plane crashed during a night-flying exercise over Chipping Norden in Oxfordshire on 20th October 1941 ; Macaulay is reported to have died of pneumonia at the naval base at Sullom Voe in the Shetland Islands on 7th December 1940. Both, one imagines, died in darkness.
Though Farnes played as an amateur and Macaulay as a professional, neither fitted the stereotype of the toffee-nosed dilettante or horny-handed son of toil (by the 1920s, few players did). Farnes grew up in Leytonstone, Essex, the son of the Company Accountant for Truman’s Brewery and was educated at the Royal Liberty School in Gidea Park (a Grammar School that had been established in 1921). Macaulay’s Mother (his Father died when he was young) owned a hotel in Thirsk and sent him to board at Barnard Castle (a recently established minor public school). Both had spells working in banks : Farnes unhappily, Macaulay more successfully (his chucking-in of a promising career in banking, at the age of 23, to play professional cricket seems to have been an early example of his life-long propensity to queer his own pitch).
Macaulay was primarily a bowler, though precisely what kind of bowler he was is hard to picture, belonging, as he did, to a type that is now largely extinct. He is usually described as bowling off-spin, though he began as an out-and-out paceman. In his prime he seems to have bowled seam with the new ball, then switched to medium pace off-breaks. On drying wickets he could be devastating, and returned some startling figures, particularly against the weaker counties. Despite this, he seems to have been more memorable for his character than his bowling.
Macaulay flits in and out of Neville Cardus’s accounts of the Roses matches (which I discussed in my last post) like some kind of evil spirit :
“Moving bitterly along as though a battleaxe and not a cricket ball were in his grip … the image of lean enmity … bowling like a fury crowned with snakes … his left hand wore a bandage, which somehow added to his customary aspect of lean, joyless antagonism … consistently agile and hostile … again did Macaulay make a ghoulish catch … antagonistic … his third ball was blocked by Iddon ; Macaulay pounced on it and threatened to run Iddon out ; Iddon was a foot behind the crease … Macaulay fielded with a ghoulish brilliance and threw the ball in and narrowly missed striking Hopwood in the small of the back …”
(To avert any suspicion of Lancastrian bias, Cardus’s Yorkshire equivalent, J.M. Kilburn, described him as “antagonism personified” and “malevolent”.)
The most startling description occurs in ‘Express Deliveries’, by Bill Bowes, his Yorkshire team-mate in the latter stages of his career :
“George Macaulay was devilish. From a few feet away he was devilishly good-looking, too – but, coming closer, you saw lines and wrinkles which should not have marred the face of a man of his years. His wit, always devilish, had a razor edge which sometimes cut deep into his victims.”
These recurrent descriptions of him as “devilish” or “demonic”, coupled with the references to his dark good looks and wit, make him sound like some flannelled Byron, scornful, cynical, defiant, with, perhaps, a touch of Heathcliff (on his first meeting with Jack Hobbs, his reaction was the Heathcliffean “I’ve heard about this Master. Well I’ll show him who’s the Master!”).
Bowes goes on to say :
“As a bowler there was no harder trier in the world, but he expected no less from his fieldsmen, and when he sent them into suicidal positions they had to choose between their fear of sudden death by decapitation or Macaulay’s tongue. They preferred sudden death, but never experienced it – at least not from Macaulay’s bowling.”
and recounts an anecdote to illustrate Macaulay’s sense of humour. Bowes was fielding at mid-off to Macaulay’s bowling. A half-volley was driven off the meat of the bat, hit him on the forehead and briefly knocked him out.
“I saw stars and after spinning round sank gracefully to the turf. When I sat up I saw Arthur Booth convulsed with laughter as he chased after the ball. As he bent to pick it up, having tears – the unsympathetic sort – in his eyes, he accidentally kicked the ball over the boundary. Mac also found my discomfiture amusing.”
The bowler was so amused that he was still convulsed with laughter when he came to deliver the next ball, so much so that it slipped from his fingers and trickled towards the batsman, who hit it for four.
“Mac was still laughing. “It’s all very well laughing,” remarked Bill Reeves, “but supposing it had been an inch or two lower – it might have hit him in the glasses and blinded him.” Mac came to earth with a bump. He suddenly remembered that it ought to have been a catch … The laugh vanished. His eyes narrowed. His jaw became taut. “Hit him in the glasses!” he said feelingly, “it ought to have killed him! And sither,” he shouted to Arthur Booth, “get that grin off thi face, an’ get fieldin’ them.”
None of the other illustrations of his wit (though everyone remarks on it) seem much more amusing. For instance, Herbert Sutcliffe, in ‘For England and Yorkshire’, writes “If I had kept a record of Macaulay’s “cracks” on and off the field there would have been a most amusing book to be written. Macaulay has a readier wit than anyone I have ever known …” but offers, as an example :
“Another story has to do with a game in which he was the victim of some indifferent slip-fielding. Catch after catch was dropped off him. Macaulay, exasperated beyond anything, at length cried out: ‘I’m going to make a present of a set of slips to Madame Tussaud’s.’”
The two most flattering descriptions of his character came from R.C. Robertson-Glasgow and Dudley Carew (both, admittedly, written soon after his death, in the days when it was considered unseemly to speak ill of the recently deceased). After admitting that “he could be subtle or violent”, “Crusoe” goes on to say :
“As a man he was an original ; fiercely independent, witty, argumentative, swift to joy and anger. He had pleasure in cracking a convention or cursing an enemy ; an enemy, I mean, in the sense of someone or something which stood in the way of what he had set his heart to achieve. That hostile object might be great or small, human or inanimate. A batsman was being obstinate at the wicket, and Macaulay would rake his own armoury for every new weapon to surprise, lever, trick or blast the enemy away. A cricket-bag came between him and his blazer hanging on a peg ; and he’d kick it and tell it a truth or two, then laugh. He was a glorious opponent ; a great cricketer ; and a companion in a thousand.”
Carew wrote of the Yorkshire team of the 1920s that they “sailed under colours that had something suspiciously like the skull-and-crossbones about them … They gave no quarter and asked for none, and, if at times their tactics verged on the questionable, the character they brought to their buccaneering almost redeemed its lack of scruple. [They were] not so much a team as a kind of commando unit” and identified Macaulay as a prime mover in this :
“Macaulay … was capable of using a turning pitch, and the whole, spare body of the man would stiffen like a pointing dog when a ball did something unexpected. Round the wicket Macaulay would go then and bowl his off-breaks to a short-leg field – and magnificently hostile and aggressive his attack would be. The whole man was highly strung, not nervous exactly, for he had too tough a kernel for that, but impatient and abrupt with repressed energy. He did not suffer fools gladly, and could be devastating with a glance and an unacademic phrase, but he was a grand friend and a man who could do things other than play cricket. He had a passion for gramophone records, possessing a fine singing voice, and knew the Gilbert and Sullivan operas backwards – and he had other curious and unexpected accomplishments.
No one seeing Macaulay bowl could mistake him for a man of lazy tolerance and insufficient guts. He seemed to project not only the ball but his whole combatant nature down the pitch ; there was a threat in the very way he picked the ball up, and what a field he was to his own bowling!
I remember one instance of it which was the more shattering for the contrast the violence of the act made with the surroundings. It was in the Parks at Oxford on one of those days which make May a summer month. …. there was no particular crisis in the game, and one of the Oxford batsman, Hill-Wood, I think it was, played forward quietly. It was a gentle stroke in keeping with the ground and the afternoon, and the batsman must have followed it up a step or two. The peace was shattered with a violent abruptness. Macaulay, leaping down the pitch with agility and concentrated, vindictive presence of mind, seized on the ball, hurled it at the wicket, knocked the middle stump out of the ground, and yelled an appeal that sounded like an expletive.”
In his account of this incident Bowes adds that Macaulay, as a “send-off”, added “You can laugh that one off in the pavilion!” (Hills-Wood, or whoever it was, had earlier provoked him by laughing).
A final witness for the defence is Macaulay’s team-mate and friend Herbert Sutcliffe, who described him (while he was still alive) as “one of the game’s most remarkable personalities. When he is all out, he gives so much of himself to his task that, at times, his opponents have misunderstood his actions after the ball has been delivered. I can assure all Yorkshire’s opponents that our great bowler never has any ill-feeling in his work. He is a militant type of bowler and all the better for that ; but he is quite harmless. Meet him off the field and you will soon discover what a charming fellow he can be, and what a sharp-pointed wit he has.”
(In other words, he was all right when you got to know him.)
The feeling remains that there is some mystery about Macaulay that goes beyond his behaviour on the field. He is not the only bowler to have thrown the ball dangerously near batsmen in a bid to run them out, have a few words with them on their way back to the pavilion, speak harshly to fieldsmen who have dropped catches off his bowling, or use bad language (judging by scattered references to his “cussing”, a few expletives have been deleted in his reported dialogue). The same could be said of Steve Kirby, or even James Anderson, and neither would merit the description “devilish”, “demonic” or “ghoulish”. For the moment, we must leave him decently cloaked in euphemism.
If Macaulay was the demon of inter-war cricket, Kenneth Farnes was its angel, although of the exterminating rather than the ineffectual variety. No-one seems to have had a bad word to say about him. Hutton describes him as “tall, strong, handsome, and brainy”, Carew as “one of the nicest, gentlest and most modest of men”, Gideon Haigh as “a gentle and charming man hard to rouse to aggression”. Robertson-Glasgow, having paid tribute to his “generous nature and his quiet but humorous talk”, has this to say : “his temperament, except when aroused by some strong party antagonism, was easy and serene. In the blood fights of cricket he excelled, and then his rivals faded from comparison”.
Farnes was (according to Carew) “England’s best, not to say only, fast bowler when Larwood’s greatness was ended by injury”. 6’5” and exceptionally fit (he was interested in “physical culture”, and had a party trick of rippling his abdominal muscles)
“he had, although so different in style, the same penetrative power, the same ability to make batsmen play the involuntary, reflex stroke. But, and it is a considerable but, only on occasions. He was like some engine of fabulous gear which only on rare occasions could wind itself up to its full might. In these moments of inspiration he was a devastating force with that great height, that long, accelerating run-up, and his arm coming over high. The good length ball would get up abominably, and the slips lived in a perpetual state of expectation.”
One of those “rare occasions” was the Varsity Match of 1933, when Farnes, bowling for Cambridge, gave an English crowd their first opportunity to observe ‘bodyline’ in action. On the truncated first day, bowling to a field that included four short-legs, he failed to take a wicket, but did hit David Walker, the Oxford opener, in the ribs (‘The Times’, unimpressed, dismissed his opening spell as “an arrant waste of time”). On the second day, employing the same tactics, he had Viv Jenkins caught down the leg-side and struck the fast bowler Richard Tindall a nasty blow, then yorked him next ball ; the Oxford no.11 Oldfield was bowled first ball by a delivery that had deflected off his jaw. On the last day, Farnes “ripped through Oxford’s top order”, hitting the opener Townsend in the neck, with the result that he collapsed on to his stumps.
E.W. Swanton later reminisced “I can still hear the ball thudding around Pieter van der Bijl’s ribs and Pieter giving great groans. You could hear him in the Tavern.” Farnes admitted, amiably “My bowling relied to a certain extent on intimidation”, but that he could see “little reason not to try to use a method that had proved successful on an MCC tour”. (This exhibition did something to change English opinions about the legitimacy of fast leg theory.)
A year earlier, playing for Essex at Scarborough (when it is likely that his path crossed with Macaulay’s), his intimidatory tactics had met with less success. On the first day, Essex had made 325, and, according to Herbert Sutcliffe, had seemed unusually unconcerned at being bounced by Bill Bowes. In the evening session, according to Sutcliffe
“It was deemed inadvisable for us to open with the usual pair, and our skipper sent in Arthur Mitchell and Verity to face the bowling. I don’t think I shall ever forget the pasting Arthur, who took most of the bowling, got from Nichols and Farnes – Farnes in particular. They bowled well enough to get three or four wickets, but Mitchell, who, as I have told you before, is a rare fighter, set his teeth into his work and he stayed”.
The next morning, “Ticker” (who could never be accused of a lack of physical courage)having been prised from the crease, along with Verity and a second nightwatchman, Maurice Leland joined Sutcliffe, and, in response to another assault from Farnes, they went on the offensive. According to Sutcliffe
“We let it go and it came off for us. Over a hundred runs were taken off half a dozen overs … of course it was a sheer “blind”. On another day Farnes would have had our wickets before we had got going – reckless efforts such as those only come off once in fifty times.”
That evening, Bill Bowes recalled
“I saw Farnes in the Spa Ballroom … he was not dancing but was sitting lonely and miserable in the foyer. I sat beside him. ‘Now, Ken’ I asked, what do you think of county cricket?’ He looked away. ‘I shall never make a bowler’ he said slowly. ‘Did you see how they hit me?’ And in his great disappointment he took out his handkerchief and cried.”
In spite of this setback, Farnes went on to have many good days, particularly, as Robertson-Glasgow says, in the “blood fights of cricket”. He took ten wickets on his debut against Australia in 1934, 6-96 at the MCG in 1936, and made two memorable appearances for the Gentlemen against the Players. In 1936, he bowled Gimblett, Hardstaff and Hammond in quick succession to reduce the Players to 36-4, and, in 1938, he took 8-34 and 3-60 to secure the Gents their second win since the First War. He also knocked Bill Edrich out : as Edrich remembered it
“ I tried to play back, a defensive back stroke while turning my head and lifting my hands. The next thing I knew someone was saying smoothly ‘Have some water, there’s no hurry’”.
After graduation, Farnes worked as a schoolmaster at Worksop College and was only available to play in the school holidays. Like Macaulay, he was a man of “curious and unexpected accomplishments”, whose mind was rarely entirely on cricket. His obituary in ‘Wisden’ noted that his interests included painting and music ; Gideon Haigh, in his suggestive essay ‘Fast Action Hero’, traces his increasing preoccupation with poetry and esoteric philosophies (as I have previously observed in relation to Tyson and Snow, fast bowlers are often the most poetical of creatures). Among his interests, according to Haigh, were the orientalist poet James Elroy Flecker, the Irish novelist George Moore, the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore and J.W. Dunne.
Dunne was an extraordinary character, who began as a pioneer in aeronautical engineering, made some important advances in the art of fly-fishing, before devoting himself to speculation about the nature of time. Inspired by his experiences of what he took to be pre-cognitive dreams, he developed a theory of “serial time”. His theories, first and most famously, expressed in ‘An Experiment in Time’, met with a muted reception from philosophers and scientists, but found a more receptive audience with imaginative writers, most obviously J.B. Priestley, but also his friend H.G. Wells, Tolkien and Lewis, Borges, Nabokov and, apparently, Ken Farnes.
Farnes was inclined to what Haigh refers to as ‘a kind of muted mysticism’ which made him capable, even, of experiencing a mild epiphany while fielding at Leyton :
“It was there too that a day’s fielding in the late summer heat brought about in me an amazing evening’s contentment. I cannot explain the reason – just positive well-being really. I had not done well myself, for Kent had thumped our bowling, but it was just the end of the season and I still remember the glow of pure contentment that I felt that evening.”
In his diary he recorded five objectives for the tour of South Africa in 1938-9, none of which related to his bowling, but included :
“To remain conscious of my inner, natural, more realised self instead of being overcome by successive and accumulative environments experienced on tour.”
(Ben Duckett might usefully have done something similar before touring Australia.)
He also admitted to feeling ‘detached’, ‘disgruntled with myself’ and aspired to ‘a subjugation of self’ that would enable him to achieve ‘the required metaphysical state’. Haigh goes on to say
“As well as an expression of patriotism, then, Farnes’s enlistment in the Royal Air Force at the outbreak of war smacks of a continuation of a search for fulfilment, for a transcendent cause or duty . In ‘Gitanjali’, Tagore asks : ‘On the day when death knock at thy door what wilt thou offer him?’. Farnes, perhaps, wished it to be more than wickets.”
He appears to be hinting that Farnes had some sort of death wish, or, at least, a highly developed desire to ‘slip the surly bonds of earth’. He volunteered to train for a role as a night-flyer, at a time when night-fighters, heavily-armoured but cumbersome planes designed to combat enemy bombers, and with a poor safety record, were in their infancy. Within a month of returning from training in Canada, he crashed his, while apparently attempting a landing, and was killed.
Ten months earlier George Macaulay had met his end at Sullom Voe
The young Len Hutton had been present at the end of Macaulay’s career, in 1934.
“The other happening in the Maidstone match was the unexpected dropping out of George Macaulay after the opening day. He had been stricken during Sunday by a recurrence of the serious illness which kept him out of cricket for so long : and, as it sadly proved, although nobody knew until later, this was for him really the beginning of the end. Adverse fate never ceased to haunt him thereafter.”
Macaulay had always seemed susceptible to self-sabotage. In making him ‘Bowler of the Year’ in its 1924 edition, ‘Wisden’ ended by noting “His fault is that he is apt to become depressed and upset when things go wrong’, and this accusation, together with the perception that he was something of a wet track bully, dogged him throughout his career. Not just depressed, of course, but angry. His precise role in the notorious game against Middlesex at Bramall Lane in 1924, which led to Middlesex temporarily suspending fixtures between the two counties, is not clear, though it seems to have involved abusing the Umpires and the opposition, as well as inciting crowd trouble. It led to Lord Hawke pronouncing that “he had only himself to blame” for being left out of the side that toured Australia that Winter.
Macaulay’s performances declined as the decade progressed. He had a resurgence in form towards the end of his career, which saw him recalled to play for England in 1933, but he was increasingly prone to injuries and plagued by rheumatism (like Maurice Leland’s lumbago, this sounds a vaguely comical complaint, but it clearly caused him a good deal of pain). His benefit in 1931 raised only £1,633 (less than any of his Yorkshire contemporaries, suggesting that he was not a particular favourite with the crowds). In line with the protocol instituted by Lord Hawke, when he discovered that most of his old professionals had spent the proceeds of their benefits on drinking themselves to death, the capital from this was invested and the player received only the interest on it.
Macaulay had originally been a joint partner in Herbert Sutcliffe’s very profitable sports equipment business, but had quickly tired of it and allowed Sutcliffe to buy him out. After retiring from cricket, he set up a business selling a patent rheumatism cure that he claimed had helped him with his own complaint. When this failed, he opened a sports shop on his own account. When this failed too he was forced to declare for bankruptcy, in 1937.
During his bankruptcy hearing he went down fighting : he complained bitterly that his businesses would not have failed if he had received the proceeds of his benefit, was forced to deny that he spent his time “drinking in public houses”, and had to admit that he had never kept any accounts. In a last show of wit, he claimed that his rheumatism cure had been a failure because it was too successful, and managed to alienate the Official Receiver in the same way that he had once irritated Umpires, batsmen, his team-mates and Lord Hawke :
Macaulay : May I speak, Sir?
The Official Receiver : If you get across with people it is not going to do you any good in life. Don’t say anything which is going to spoil your future.
Some good advice, which had come too late. His arguments were rejected and he was declared bankrupt ; his offer to amend his will (and that of his wife) so that the proceeds of his benefit would be paid to his creditors after his death was accepted. Reluctantly, in spite of his rheumatism, he returned to playing cricket professionally, for Ebbw in Wales, and later in the Lancashire League.
When I originally thought of writing this piece, it seemed to me, as I have said, that there was some mystery about Macaulay, and something unexplained about what had driven him to what must have been a cold and lonely death in mid-Winter at Sullom Voe. His motives for joining up seemed quixotic : 41 at the outbreak of war, he would have been under no obligation to do so. In fact, with professional cricket suspended for the duration, and his businesses failed, it may simply have been the need to make a living. He must also have been hoping for a posting slightly nearer home.
Oddly, and in a way that might have interested J.W. Dunne, between beginning writing this piece and reaching the end, a solution to the mystery of Macaulay’s last days has been offered by ‘Old Ebor’. Macaulay, he has discovered, did not die of pneumonia, but of ‘cardiac arrest brought on by alcoholic toxaemia’. He had, apparently, been drinking heavily over a period of ten days and had been admitted to the sick quarters in a comatose condition, where he died ; the medical officer who signed his death certificate was of the opinion that he had been a chronic alcoholic for ten years.
‘Old Ebor”s researches show that Macaulay’s role was that of ‘Messing Officer’, which would have meant that he was in charge of the squadron’s supply of alcohol. One pictures him, cold, in pain, oppressed by darkness, and, as Hutton said, “adverse fate“, drinking his way through the lot, in a final act of je m’en foutisme. He must have begun on about his birthday, on the 7th December, and may have been planning to have finished it off at Christmas.
These facts emerged when his unfortunate wife, Edith, who had already signed away what should have been her inheritance to pay her husband’s debts, applied for a military pension but was refused, on the grounds that he had not died on active service. His creditors, presumably, received the lump sum from his benefit on his death. As a grim, subsiduary, irony, the measure that Hawke had paternalistically intended to discourage his players from drinking themselves to death seems to have helped to drive one of them to do precisely that.
I call this a solution, but it is no solution, and, perhaps, there is no mystery, beyond the everyday mysteries of the human heart, and the futility of biography. The bottle may have been Macaulay’s chosen means of self-destruction, but the demons that drove him to rage against the surly bonds that Farnes yearned to rise above remain as unknowable as they did at the beginning. I doubt whether either, for all Macaulay’s wit and Farnes’s philosophy, ever quite knew themselves.
Gideon Haigh’s essay on Farnes was published in ‘Silent Revolutions’ (Aurum, 2007) and is available online here – Fast Action Hero
‘Old Ebor”s posts about Macaulay begin here
Books quoted from include :
Express Deliveries / Bill Bowes. (Sportsman’s Book Club, 1958)
To the Wicket / Dudley Carew (Chapman & Hall, 1950)
For Yorkshire and England / Herbert Sutcliffe (Edward Arnold, 1935)
Cricket Prints / R.C. Robertson-Glasgow (Sportsman’s Book Club, 1951)
The Roses Matches 1919-1939 / Neville Cardus (Souvenir, 1982)
(The title is borrowed from Harold Brodkey’s ‘This Wild Darkness : the Story of my Death’.)