The Roses Matches 1919-1939, by Neville Cardus. (Souvenir Press, 1982)
I am unsure, when writing about Neville Cardus, how much knowledge I may presume. Although I am willing to be contradicted, my suspicion is that he is, for younger readers, more of a name than a substantial presence, and, perhaps, more slighted than read. The terms most often prompted by his name would probably be “lyrical” or “rhapsodic”. He stands accused of “fine writing” (as opposed to crude writing, or lousy writing, of which there is currently no great shortage) ; worse still, he is suspected of nostalgia.
Puritans of all kinds, from “Ticker” Mitchell to the Leavises, have long found his writing objectionable, and the sophisticated taste used to prefer Robertson-Glasgow, in the same way that it preferred Keaton to Chaplin, or MacNeice to Auden. The reaction set in in earnest soon after his death in 1975, since when it has been obligatory for anyone who fancies themselves as a bit of an iconoclast to have, at least, a side-swipe at him.
Derek Birley (who, I think, sees Cardus as some kind of class traitor) devoted a chapter of ‘The Willow Wand’ to taking a single phrase of his, never meant entirely seriously*, and misinterpreting it. Mike Marquese, in the first sentence of ‘Anyone but England’, refers to him as “that self-made snob Neville Cardus”, which is so gratuitous that he could have achieved the same effect by replacing “snob” with “wanker” or “prick”. More recently there was this outburst by Daniel Norcross, in which he implies that Cardus’s writing is “twee” and like – of all people’s – Lytton Strachey’s (Strachey’s shtick was to debunk revered figures from the nineteenth century, whereas Cardus is usually seen as having been too reverent of them).
A shilling life will give you all the facts of his life (or, failing that, the excellent Wikipedia page)**. He was born in Rusholme, Manchester in 1888 (or 1889), the illegitimate son of a woman who, alongside her sister, supplemented her income from taking in washing by being what Cardus described as a “kind of genteel courtesan” (if he were writing for ‘the Guardian’ today I suppose he would be obliged to describe them as “sex workers”, which seems like a terrible comedown for poor Ada and Beatrice). He rarely attended school and left for good in 1901 (today he would probably have been taken into “care“). After an arduous course of self-education, he obtained a post as Assistant Cricket Professional at Shrewsbury School, then doubled up as the Headmaster’s secretary. When this came to an end, he managed to inveigle himself into the offices of the ‘Manchester Guardian’, initially as a kind of unpaid “intern“.
He was employed as its cricket correspondent, under the pseudonym “Cricketer“, between 1919 (when he was 29, or possibly 30) and 1939. He had originally no intention of writing about cricket professionally, his ambition (fulfilled in 1927) being to become the paper’s music correspondent, but was invited to do so as a way of recovering from some form of nervous collapse (described by him as a “breakdown“), while working as a junior reporter (those aspiring to write about cricket nowadays may envy his ease of entry into the profession).
During this period he published four collections of essays : ‘A Cricketer’s Book’, ‘Days in the Sun’, ‘The Summer Game’ and ‘Good Days’, and an account of the tour to Australia of 1936-7. Having spent the war in Australia, where he wrote his best-selling ‘Autobiography’, he returned to live in London (at the National Liberal Club) and become a full-time music critic. Although he did not abandon writing about cricket altogether, “Cricketer” was retired. He published one new collection (of retrospective pieces he had written for ‘Playfair Cricket Monthly’), as well as further autobiographical writings and a number of new collections, recycling previously published pieces, some already collected, some new.
This habit of recycling older material means that reading Cardus can induce a sense of deja vu (a little like listening to a band such as the Smiths, who produced four or five albums, but whose work has been posthumously recombined in different configurations). He was also, by his own admission, uninhibited about repeating himself, if he felt a point was worth repeating, and always solicitous to ensure that his readers should not have missed out on any of his choicer bon mots. What he rarely recycled, however, were the match reports that he written for the MG (by his own estimation, he wrote 8,000 words a week, or nearly two million in twenty years), so I was interested to come across this collection of reports on the Roses matches of 1919-39, compiled after his death by his “cricket wife”, protegee and literary executor, Margaret Hughes.
In his introduction, John Arlott writes “He created a style of reporting the game ; and then virtually re-created it in the years of his maturity”. Cardus himself, in his ‘Autobiography’ endorsed this view that there were, as it were, two Carduses (in the way that there are meant to be “two Wittgensteins”).
“It was with very conscious art that I entered into my first and “yellow” period as a writer on cricket … I overwrote, no doubt … My first books, ‘Days in the Sun’ and ‘A Cricketer’s Book’are obviously the “literary efforts” of one who is keeping his eye not so much on the ball as on his pen and style … My later writings … were, as far as I could make them, based first on observation … and even then it was humour and irony that guided the choice. None the less nearly all my critics persisted, whenever I produced another book on cricket, with their old labels about my “lyrical muse”, my “rhapsodies in green”, my “heroics”.”
This was first published in 1947, but is still the case today. It is true that Cardus’s most memorable essays belongs to his earlier period. If I ever feel disenchanted by cricket (which, it will come as no surprise to regular readers, I sometimes do) I return to pieces such as ‘The Summer Game’ and ‘On a Fresh Cricket Season’ to remind myself how watching cricket can sometimes be, and how it ought to feel. To read these is to share the sense of release that Cardus experienced when he first began writing about cricket ; release, apart from his mental affliction, from the physical confines of the Guardian’s “Corridor“, and from overwork and poverty (he notes that his new job brought him an increase in pay to £5.00 a week).
Writing about cricket, though, meant not only a release, but the hope of returning to the happiest days of his childhood and youth, when he had watched the great Lancashire players of the Golden Age (a notion he did much to create) playing at Old Trafford. His most lyrical pieces about individuals in this earliest period are about them, and, turning to his journalism between the wars, we find it, too, haunted by the ghosts of MacLaren, Tyldelsey, Spooner and Brearley. His style also harks back to the previous century : in his more high-flown pieces he writes in the vein of Pater, in his more comical aspect (often when writing about Yorkshiremen) he is Dickensian.
It was his misfortune that the cricket he found when he returned was not cricket as he had remembered it (he is not insensible to the possibility that it never had been). The Roses matches of the inter-war period were notoriously dour affairs (their notoriety partly due to Cardus himself), in which winning the points available for a first innings lead was regarded as victory enough. Both sides could count on easily defeating the majority of the other Counties, so felt free to pursue these matches as a kind of private, fraternal, feud.***
A glance at the table of contents indicates the blissful regularity of these fixtures. Every year for twenty years the Roses matches coincided with the Whit and August Bank Holidays (as opposed to today, when the County schedule each new season bears no resemblance to the last). Every game began on the Saturday, continued on the Bank Holiday Monday and finished on the Tuesday. The Mondays could attract huge crowds (he mentions that there were 45,000 at Old Trafford in 1926), the other days rather fewer (only 2,000 on the – admittedly rain-affected – first day at Bradford in 1929).
The next thing that strikes me is the sheer length of the pieces, which generally run to about two thousand words. Presumably, he had Sunday to write about Saturday’s play, but the others must have been written to tight deadlines. Cardus was naturally prone to prolixity (and resented being edited – in his later years he referred to the ‘Guardian’’s sub-editors’ room as “the Abattoir”), but even he had sometimes to resort to padding (in the early years some unnecessarily long quotations from Shakespeare make an appearance towards the end of his pieces). Nonetheless, to write this much so quickly and so well, and for it to remain readable, is an achievement that I could never hope to emulate.
The pieces fall into roughly two periods : those from 1919 to 1929 or -30 and those of the 1930s. The first corresponds roughly to his “lyrical” period, but there is surprisingly little lyricism, or even much enthusiasm about them. The leading characters were survivors from the pre-war period : Wilfred Rhodes and Emmott Robinson for Yorkshire (Robinson had not made his debut until 1919, at the age of 35, but he belonged to the pre-war generation) and Harry Makepeace of Lancashire, together with newer players such as James and Ernest Tyledsley, who tended to bring out the Dickensian in Cardus, but did not make much appeal to his “un-English aestheticism”.
What is notable, for the period, is the absence of moralism (Cardus was an interesting example of someone who was, by conventional standards, almost entirely amoral but also almost entirely benign). The Yorkshire sides of the 1920s were notorious for their bad behaviour : sharp practice, abuse of the opposition, even (as against Middlesex at Sheffield in 1924) insinuations of physical violence on the field (Dudley Carew claimed that they sometimes seemed to be “playing under the skull and crossbones”). Of this, there is no hint in Cardus, certainly no disapproval.
The Yorkshire crowds, too, were known for their hostility (particularly those at Bramall Lane), for barracking both the opposition and their own players and, when especially frustrated or bored, pelting them with orange peel, cinders and other detritus. But again, there is no disapproval from Cardus ; his reports come most to life when he is relishing their partisan vehemence and only become critical when they seem subdued. He is sometimes accused of being excessively “pastoral”, but he was really the laureate of the old North at its dirtiest, as in this description of Bradford (which he didn’t much like) in 1923 :
“ ‘Cricket in hell,’ said a South of England man today, as he saw the Bradford field for the first time … From noon till evening the place has been like some vast underworld, discordant, ugly, uncomfortable. Even before noon the ground was full and the gates locked. Some 26,000 souls were inside making writhing congested ranks, and surely torment was their lot, what with the sun and the heavy air. Outside the unlovely field gloomy chimneys sent out smoke that curled into the summer sky sulkily … The crowd had little of the fluid humour of a Sheffield crowd: it was dull and seemingly a little stupid from its own bulk and unwieldiness. As the day passed on, the crowd broke bounds and overflowed on to the playing piece. Mounted police were called in to drive the derelicts back, and then we saw the green edge of the field littered with rubbish – it was as though a dank tide had gone out, leaving behind its scum.”
This may be “lyrical”, but it can hardly be accused of being “pastoral” or “twee”.
In fact, although the writing sometimes flares into life (for instance when he describes Ted MacDonald bowling to a young Herbert Sutcliffe), and there are many nice phrases (many of which he gives us another chance to read), the first half of this book can be a little dull. Cardus was very aware that, for his readers (‘the Manchester Guardian’ was very much a local paper in those days), the Roses Match was the most important of the season, and would be relying on him to provide a detailed narrative of what had occurred. To begin with, he did so lengthily and conscientiously, which would have been interesting at the time, if he were the only source of information, but is less so today. At times he even resorts to statistics.
Even during this first period, Cardus sometimes has difficulty in suppressing his frustration at what he is watching. As early as 1920 he is describing “a day of spineless cricket” at Bradford. At Old Trafford in 1921 he notes that the game was “living, like too many institutions in these days, quite definitely on its past”. At Old Trafford in 1925 the cricket was “futile and hardly worth discussing”. At Bradford in 1926 he complains of “lethal dullness” and the “worst exhibition” he has ever seen by a Lancashire side. By 1928, “the dregs of disillusion were slightly to be tasted in our mouth”. He is, however, still capable of relishing these contests, in a half-ironical way, as exhibitions of character, and seems to be writing as a frustrated, but still hopeful, romantic, rather than one who is decidedly disenchanted.
By the turn of the decade, however, the tone of his writing changed, as he entered his forties, and became actively satirical. The pre-war generation were fading away and being replaced by a new one that did little to fire his admiration (it did not help that Lancashire were now much the weaker side, and – Eddie Paynter aside – he hardly has a good word to say about them). As for Yorkshire, he is strangely unimpressed by Hedley Verity, left cold by Maurice Leland, only respectful of Hutton and has grown disillusioned with Herbert Sutcliffe, with whom, like Hammond, he had a complex relationship, mixed of respect for his ability with a dislike of what he thought he represented (for want of a better word, modernity).****
Sometimes his satirical intent is wittily expressed. The pitch at Old Trafford in 1930 was prepared “under the most modern anaesthetics”, and “humour certainly came in by reason of the contrast between what the crowd was hoping to see and what they were actually getting. The afternoon’s charm and pleasantry were increased by a wind which caused dust and grit to get into the eyes and mouth”. An innings by Gibb was as “post-war as a petrol station”. There is something like this on every page, much of it occasioned by the obdurate Arthur “Ticker” Mitchell, who became his muse, much as Frank Woolley had been in his greenery-yallery youth. “When Mitchell was smothering the ball with his legs I felt a screen ought to have concealed him from from the public gaze” ; “at ten minutes to one, Mitchell’s score [he had opened] moved uneasily in its sleep and went from eight to ten” ; “Mitchell reverted to type and ceased perceptible action”.
As the decade progressed he became quite startlingly scathing. “The Lancashire and Yorkshire match is becoming an eyesore and a nuisance ; it is a pity we cannot somehow get rid of it.” “The Yorkshire tail played stupid, nit-witted cricket.” “As to Lancashire and Yorkshire, I am tired of their annual exhibition of ‘dourness’, or – to give it the proper name – its solid witless tedium.” “Saturday’s stupefied assemblage … watched the dreary action in silence, as though at the unveiling of the Cenotaph.” “The Lancashire and Yorkshire match is a dreary fraud, and nothing less.” “As soon as the game was over the weather brightened, like the rest of us.” “Cricket at Leeds is like cricket in a penal settlement.” And (cruellest of all) “the occasion might as well have been Lancashire v Northamptonshire”.
By June 1938, it is clear that a crisis was approaching. This is the opening paragraph of his report from Bradford
“Once again a Lancashire and Yorkshire match has been a public nuisance and a bore. I have seldom suffered tedium as dreadful as this. And on top of it all discomfort and shabbiness. The accommodation for the press at Bradford is inadequate, not to say inhumane ; galley slaves are better off than the tortured souls who this afternoon have tried to make a truthful record of an event which ought really to have been forgotten at once. If the good fairies granted me one wish I should ask for freedom to stay away from all Lancashire and Yorkshire cricket matches for the remainder of my days. I never expected to endure tribulation such as Saturday’s – not at any rate in this world. The cricket caused aches of boredom ; the environment in which it was played suited the stunted drabness of it … Whitsun in the North – stupid sport and a crowd silent and dejected. The Lancashire and Yorkshire match should be played in camera, with the players the only spectators : they deserve no better fate.”
By the time of the last Roses match he covered, from 5-8 August 1939, he must have known that the good fairies, in the shape of Adolf Hitler and the Wehrmacht, were about to grant him his wish. On his last day, recapturing that early elation of release, he signed off with “I have seldom seen a day of grander cricket”. As far as I know, he never covered a Roses match again, or not under the compulsion of employment.
Although this would not be the book I should recommend as an introduction to Cardus, Margaret Hughes did us a great service by collecting these pieces. If nothing else, they confirm that it is easier to write entertainingly about poor cricket than good cricket, which, to one who tries to write about Leicestershire, is a source of comfort. For another, very few of these frank expressions of disenchantment were included in the pieces Cardus himself chose to preserve.
It is said that, if women could remember childbirth, they would never have another child, and it is possible that, if we could remember how awful many of the games of cricket we have watched were at the time, we would never watch another one. So, when next season approaches, I shan’t be re-reading my own accounts from last year, but turning to Cardus’s ‘On a Fresh Cricket Season‘.
“Nothing can go wrong with him on this blessed morning …”
* Cardus’s ‘Autobiography‘ is the only one of his books that seems to be unambiguously in print. This gives you not only the facts, but a certain amount of fantasy. ‘His Own Man‘, by Christopher Brookes tries to distinguish between the two.
** There is a certain style of self-ironising, provocative, pretentiousness that Cardus often employs which seems to be peculiarly Mancunian. You can also see it in the work of Factory Records and Les Dawson, amongst others (the title of Dawson’s unpublished ‘”serious” novel, ‘An Echo of Shadows‘ could have served equally as the title for a Durutti Column LP or a piece from Cardus’s “lyrical” period). As a Yorkshireman, Birley perhaps misinterprets this.
*** Of the 1233 matches Lancashire and Yorkshire played between the wars, they won 585 and lost only 126. There were only two seasons when Lancashire finished lower than sixth ; Yorkshire never finished lower than fifth, and were first or second 14 times.
**** He has this to say, for instance : “Sometimes Sutcliffe’s cricket, so eternal and complacent and English middle class, reminds me of the Albert Hall“. Perhaps this is what Marquese meant by “snobbery“.