Lost Souls

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Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket, by Stephen Fay and David Kynaston : Bloomsbury, 2018.

Four pages from the end of this 355 page book, the authors conclude that “the great biography of Arlott has still to be written”. A surprising assertion, given that John Arlott was primarily a broadcaster and journalist on the subject of cricket, and that, in addition to their own work (a joint biography with that of E.W. Swanton), he has already been the subject of a 377 page authorised biography (by David Rayvern Allen) and a full-length memoir by his son Timothy, not to mention his own half-autobiography, ‘Basingstoke Boy’. It is difficult to imagine any contemporary cricket broadcaster being thought worthy of a single biography, let alone it being suggested, nearly 40 years after their retirement, that two and a half had not been enough to do them justice (and, if the readers of c. 2070 are to be presented with – say – a joint biography of Alison Mitchell and Simon Mann (to select two of the more competent), it is unlikely that anything as grandiose as the “soul of English cricket” will be invoked in the title).

The ideal reader of Fay and Kynaston’s work would be unfamiliar with the earlier biographies of Arlott, and Rayvern Allen’s unauthorised, but surely near-exhaustive, biography of Swanton : I suspect, though, it will mostly have been read by those who, like me, are old enough to have fond memories of Arlott’s broadcasting, and are already familiar with his life-story. Perhaps one reaches a stage in life when – like small children – it is comforting to hear the same story repeated again and again. As I have read all three, I learned little that was factually new about either of its subjects, although I cannot fault the way in which the authors have selected from the earlier accounts and interwoven their subjects’ stories.

 

Although they admit, in their bibliography, that both of Rayvern Allen’s biographies “have been invaluable for our purposes“, elsewhere they are curiously grudging about him, describing Timothy Arlott, for instance, as “the more observant and unsentimental of his biographers” : (Allen, by implication the more unobservant and sentimental, saw, as a friend and colleague, Arlott at his best : as his son, Timothy Arlott also saw him at his worst). They also give some of Rayvern Allen’s more gossipy digressions short shrift : they are clearly less tickled than him by the perfectly plausible suggestion that Swanton was essentially homosexual, for instance.

Perhaps, their conclusion is a simple admission that half a book is not enough to do justice to Arlott, who was, by general assent, a more substantial figure than Swanton : it is Swanton, whose story is less well-known, who rather comes to dominate the book, as, with his stature and “booming”, he tended to dominate any room that he entered. He must, surely, have been the more entertaining to write about, offering considerable scope for the kind of unintentional comedy that arises from the gap between his not inconsiderable self-estimate and the way that he was perceived by others.

Swanton also provides more support for the thesis that the authors propose at the beginning of their book, but only half-heartedly pursue : that Arlott and Swanton embodied two opposed factions within the world of English cricket, and in wider society, and that that division was class-based.

“In those post-war years, England’s class system had a slot for almost everyone. Men and women were identified by where they came from, what they read and how they sounded. Within a few minutes of the start of a conversation about cricket, it would be possible to identify the speaker as an Arlott Man or a Swanton Man, and to make a good guess at the speaker’s education, occupation and politics. Because of their strong personalities and convictions, each had a loyal following.

I am not convinced that the second part of this is true (were there ever “Swanton men” in quite that sense?), and Arlott’s own career suggests that England’s alleged “class system” was by no means systematic : on p. 38 he embarks upon a career as a police constable in Southampton, by p. 43 he is spending the weekend with John Betjeman, and by p. 45 he is hob-nobbing with Constance Lambert and Margot Fonteyn, (although I can accept that hearing a provincial accent on the radio (other than that of Wilfred Pickles) might have seemed more revolutionary when the authors first listened-in in the 1950s than it did to those of us who were growing up with Jimmy Savile and Dave Lee Travis).

Arlott, it seems to me, was too singular an individual to be forced into representing any wider grouping : Swanton, on the other hand, seems quite consciously to have devoted his working life to representing the Voice of the Establishment, although, as the authors reveal, this self-caricature as “patently, a crusted reactionary” was frequently belied by his actions and opinions. It is true, though, that he continued to mount some self-parodic hobby-horses throughout his career, such as his preoccupation with the way in which cricketers dressed (as early as 1961 he was complaining about the standard of dress in the Varsity match –

“One wonders whether it is some strange neurosis or just common-or-garden lack of respect for their elders and betters that is responsible for this cocking of a snook at tradition”).

A game of word association with “Swanton” would immediately throw up “snobbish” and “pompous” (additionally, both Arlott and John Woodcock described him at various times as a “shit”, “Lobby” de Lotbinière, his first producer at the BBC, described him as possessing “an unattractive personality” and Henry Blofeld thought he was a “bully”. Some, but not all, of those who knew him in the Japanese prisoner-of-war camp (as unearthed by Rayvern Allen) were even less complimentary. Fay and Kynaston observe that “in office politics [and elsewhere] persistence was Swanton’s main weapon”, although, unlike Rayvern Allen, they do not have the space to reveal the full extent of his manoeuverings and manipulations (his other main weapon was to go straight to the top – when it was proposed to reduce the number of Tests he commented on he subjected the Director General of the BBC to a relentless stream of letters until he relented).

Inevitably, his self-importance and solemnity about small matters attracted the attention of satirists and pranksters. Brian Johnston delighted in pinging his braces while he was preparing to deliver one of his ex-cathedra summaries of the day’s play on TMS (something he would not have dared try with Arlott) (“always fourth-form, Johnston” chided Swanton). Peter Richardson, the Worcestershire and Kent opener, was not only responsible for holding up play until an off-putting “booming noise” from the direction of the commentary box could be traced (Swanton’s voice), but continued to vex him by submitting accounts of the doings of fictitious public schools to ‘The Cricketer’ and comically blimpish letters in praise of Swanton to ‘The Daily Telegraph’.

He did, though, have his admirers. Arlott found Australia uncongenial, and his charm tended to be lost on Australians : he was consistently at odds with Alan McGilvray, for instance, who doubted his knowledge of technique and was impatient with his more fanciful turns of phrase. Gideon Haigh, though, wrote a notably appreciative piece when Swanton died, seeing himself, perhaps, in the same role as Ciceronian consigliere to Australian cricket in its imperial phase as Swanton had sought to play with regard to England in the 1950s.

When it came to the larger issues, although Swanton’s heart may have been on the conservative side of the question, his attitude (as Fay and Kynaston illustrate well) tended to “if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”. He was, for instance, famously preoccupied with defending the principle of amateurism, and, in particular, amateur captaincy, but when the possibility arose of a professional captaining England’s tour to Australia in 1950, his attitude was equivocal. The obvious option would have been to to opt for a senior professional, but Swanton offered a choice between two successful county captains, the amateur Freddie Brown and the professional Tom Dollery, of Warwickshire (Arlott’s preference, by the way, was for the amateur (or shamateur) Wilf Wooller, a personal friend), concluding

“Good judges and students of cricket who are by no means prejudiced against a professional captain, as such, may well ask themselves whether this particular moment is the time to experiment in this direction.

Swanton, the careful reader will deduce, was a good judge and then was not the time.

In 1952, when the choice seemed to lie between Len Hutton and David Sheppard, Swanton devoted several lines of his choicest periphrasis to implying that a professional would still be unsuitable, while declining to endorse Sheppard either :

Whether it would be altogether fair to him or in the selectors’ best interests in the long run, is the issue for debate.”

When Ray Illingworth was appointed to lead the 1970-1 tour, Swanton, having made it plain that would prefer Cowdrey, posed another of his less open questions :

“Whether the right choice has been made in preferring a man who has been, frankly, a failure on two tours to one who has succeeded on nine only history will show.”

Although he could always be relied upon to deliver a pontifical pronouncement on any subject, he did not reliably take the obviously conservative position, and he was quite capable of contradicting himself (or, to be fairer, changing his mind). In 1961, his reaction to Cowdrey walking when three short of a century against Australia was whole-hearted approval :

“Such is the excellent habit of the modern cricketer. The episode, of course, was completely in character.”

By 1966 he was agin it, as this piece demonstrates. https://backwatersman.wordpress.com/2013/07/20/de-ambulatione-e-w-swantons-1966-encyclical-on-walking/

One question about which Swanton did not affect to equivocate was the introduction of one-day cricket (obsessed as he was, like most of the “establishment” during this period, with the promotion of “brighter cricket”). When the MCC first proposed such a competition (in 1957), he threw his hat in the air

“Hurrah! For the blessing given to a knock-out competition among the counties … the only sad thing is that it apparently cannot be arranged until 1959.”

When it came to the largest issues, Arlott and Swanton tended to take similar positions. Arlott has long been awarded kudos for his vocal public opposition to apartheid : Swanton’s was less demonstrative, but no less sincere (prepared even to make the supreme sacrifice, for such an inveterate social climber, of jeapordising his friendship with the Duke of Norfolk).

Both were deeply apprehensive about the advent of Kerry Packer’s circus, suspecting, correctly, that it threatened damage to the fabric of cricket that would prove irreparable. Arlott’s chief concern was that the affair should result in an improvement in the lot of the average County professional (never a primary concern of Swanton’s), rather than a deterioration : Swanton brought his full armoury of rhetorical questions and behind-the-scenes manoeuvring to bear on preserving as much of the status quo as was salvageable.

Perhaps another reason why Swanton is the main focus of the book is that, for older readers, he presents the more encouraging example. Although he retired from his role at ‘The Telegraph’ and from regular summarising in 1974, he sailed on blithely into old age, still pontificating and meddling, apparently not much troubled by doubt, before dying in 2000, at the age of 92. Shortly before he died he had voted for women to be admitted to the MCC. Arlott, the younger by seven years, retired later, in 1980, but died earlier, in 1991. Even before retirement, a note of the “long melancholy withdrawing roar” (or burr) had entered his writing, and he was painfully conscious of failing powers

I can’t do it any longer. I’m not as I was. Haven’t thought of something new to say for ages.”
“As you get older, your techniques get better, but you begin to run out of fresh ideas. It’s time to give other people a chance.”

He did not disappear completely from the public consciousness (his last broadcast words in his lifetime may well have been “it’s a lot less bovver than a hover“), but occluded himself in Alderney, where he seems to have succumbed to a general accidie, exacerbated by ill-health, some of it self-inflicted (apart from his drinking, he had once been a heavy smoker (of cigarettes, rather than the St. Bruno he had advertised)). If one of Swanton’s strongest instincts was for self-preservation (as he had demonstrated during his time as a prisoner of war), Arlott tended more towards self-destruction : immediately after the death of his son, as Rayvern Allen relates

“John would keep his foot firmly on the throttle in the face of heavy traffic when overtaking. Several lorries found the only escape route was by way of a ditch.”

By the time he came to write the story of his life, he had already begun to lose interest in it.

Of the two, it was Arlott, the deep-feeling romantic, who was less able than Swanton, the conservative pragmatist, to adapt to changing times.

“Could they have adapted? Arlott, surely not; Swanton, the great adapter, perhaps. By and large, they were fortunate to live their lives in their own lifetimes”.

I hesitate to guess what a younger reader, unfamiliar with the period, would make of this book, but I imagine that they might be less struck by the strangeness of the general social landscape (which is only lightly sketched) than by the changes in the world of cricket since Arlott and Swanton walked the earth : that they could (in Arlott’s case, at least) have become well-known public figures by broadcasting about cricket on the BBC and writing for newspapers must seem fantastical, as would the seriousness with which their opinions were delivered and received. As for the idea that English cricket might have a “soul” (not so far, after all, from that “spirit”, which is now automatically sneered at), that might seem equally puzzling, confirming the authors’ implication that the two men were not so much struggling for control of the soul of cricket as fighting, in their different ways, to save it, and that it was a battle that they both, with varying degrees of regret, eventually came to recognise that they had lost.

4 thoughts on “Lost Souls

  1. That provides some interesting perspective on a book that I found underwhelming, but about which I’ve only heard glowing reviews – even from the most sceptical of friends. Much of it read to me as an historiographical exercise – the organising of sources – rather than an original exercise. Its value to readers may be that it manages to demonstrate that cricket and its reporting really mattered not so long ago.
    Best wishes
    Chris

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    • Thanks, Chris. I didn’t mean to sound quite so negative, but, by the time I got round to writing about it, all the obvious complimentary things had already been said by other reviewers. It is very much as you describe, although I suppose I forget how long it is now since the earlier books were published : someone coming to the story afresh would find the new book a useful introduction. At this stage I doubt whether there are too many “original sources”, in the sense of people who knew A & S well left. How true about cricket mattering in the recent past.

      Best wishes, Nick.

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  2. I was ‘underwhelmed’ by the book as well; though I would regard John Arlott as being first and foremost a radio commentator rather than a writer, I have enjoyed dipping into his diaries of the cricket seasons. I listened to him and Learie Constantine commentating on the televised ‘Cavalier’ Sunday matches in the late 60s. Perhaps it was a shame that the third great broadcaster of the era, Brian Johnston was not included. He may have been considered lightweight by the other two, but as the complete broadcaster he would have been as comfortable with cricket in 2018 as in 1946; embodying the enjoyment, enthusiasm and companionship that is the game of cricket.

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    • I think the best of Arlott’s writing is very good indeed, but it does lose something without the voice. I dimly remember watching the Cavaliers (or Rothmans Cavaliers) on TV too, though I was too young to realise I was listening to Learie Constantine doing the commentary. I think people tend to be dismissive of Johnston these days, but he was crucial to the success of TMS in those days – he provided the lightness to Arlott’s weight, or darkness – a glass of champagne, as opposed to a couple of bottles of claret.

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