Sunday, July 1, 2018

Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket

In the same package as this year’s Wisden, there arrived Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket, co-authored by Stephen Fay and David Kynaston. The book is part biography, and part history of post-war English cricket. 
John Arlott and EW (Jim) Swanton were the two most influential cricket writers and broadcasters from the forties to the seventies.  Arlott didn’t miss a home test for the BBC from the 1946 series against India (for which he was borrowed from his role as poetry producer on the grounds that he would pronounce the names of the tourists without causing offence in the lead-up to independence) until the Centenary Test of 1980. From 1968 he was also cricket correspondent of The Guardian.

Swanton occupied the correspondent’s seat at the Daily Telegraph for thirty years, like Arlott combining writing with broadcasting. By the time I came across him in the sixties he was delivering close-of-play summaries with a gravitas that made news reports of death in Vietnam and Biafra appear frivolous by comparison.

Fay was the last editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly in its previous incarnation, but has a cv as a journalist of which cricket is only a small part. David Kynaston is a historian best known for his work on post-war Britain, but has written about cricket too, including Archie’s Last Stand, an account of MCC’s 1922/3 tour of New Zealand. Also on the shelves of the library at Scorecards Towers are two volumes of Kynaston’s excellent Tales of a New Jerusalem series in which he uses a vast range of sources to recreate life in post-war Britain. 

A similar approach is taken in this book. The writing and (where recordings exist) broadcasting of Arlott and Swanton are used to tell both their own stories and that of English cricket in their time.

It would have been interesting to know how Fay and Kynaston divided their labour, but they choose not to tell us. Certainly, they have achieved a continuity of style that makes it impossible to tell who wrote what. They refer to themselves as the older (Fay) and younger (Kynaston) authors, in the manner of the Mr Graces in Are You Being Served?

I didn’t learn much new about Arlott, which is more a measure of how much I have read about him than any omission on the part of the authors. For readers coming to him fresh, there is plenty to amuse, and to help them understand why Arlott in such affection by those of us who heard and read him (but particularly heard) at the time. For example, his irritation at hearing a repeat of his first broadcast. “They’ve got this country chap reading it”, he told his wife. “That’s you, fool”, she replied.

I have not yet read David Rayvern Allen’s biography of Swanton, so learn more from the material that Fay and Kynaston take from it, particularly his horrific experiences as a prisoner of war of the Japanese, where he was the subject of “animosity and ridicule” from his fellow prisoners. 

The idea that a social history of the post-war game could be written balancing the different perspectives of Arlott and Swanton is appealing. Arlott, the self-educated radical contrasted with Swanton the establishment man, though Swanton was more petit bourgeois than the impression he gave the world. These authors give his birthplace as Forest Hill, though another source says this was Swanton’s preferred description of Catford[1]. His public school, Cranleigh, was distinctly minor, founded as recently as 1865 “to provide a sound and plain education, on the principles of the Church of England, and on the public school system, for the sons of farmers and others engaged in commercial pursuits”. There was no university education for the man who became so fond of reporting the varsity match. 

But as this book points out, the differences between the two were less straightforward than the stereotypes. As many of us can attest, being to the left politically does not preclude conservatism in cricketing tastes, or vice versa. Few of those behind the Hundred will be voting for Mr Corbyn, any more than Kerry Packer would have. 

Both Arlott and Swanton were traditionalists. From 1964:

Knock-out cricket can never be real cricket. It is a contradiction of that game when the fielding side do better to confine their opponents to 100 for no wicket than to bowl them out for 101.

That’s Arlott. Swanton’s view was pretty much the same. 

More surprisingly, they were much closer than might be expected on the issue of South Africa. Arlott announced in 1970 that if the tour by South Africa went ahead he would not commentate on it. I didn’t know that Swanton had not covered MCC’s tour of the Republic in 1964/5 because of his “distaste for apartheid”. However, in 1968 he worked behind the scenes to save MCC’s tour of the Republic after the late selection of Basil D’Oliveira led to its cancellation.

I tried to fulfil, but with scant success, some sort of catalyst function between the Establishment and its critics.

By this stage of his career, this was probably not self-aggrandisement, though earlier on Swanton was prone to over-estimating his importance. He went to his grave believing that Bodyline would not have been as ugly had the Evening Standard sent him to cover it.

Earlier in 1968 Swanton had written to his own newspaper a condemnation of Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech:

If ‘Enochism’ were ever to win through there would surely be a migration from this once-great nation of white as well as black.

This would have provoked breakfast-table harrumphing across the shires. Swanton was to enrage them further two years later by calling for the cancellation of the tour by South Africa in the sports pages while the opposite line was being taken in the leaders. He took this position more because it would be unseemly to play cricket behind barbed wire rather than any moral objection, having got nowhere with the politically naïve suggestion that South Africa send a multiracial team. 

That he was able to be so contrary to the Telegraph line says something about his status, though his editor’s opinion of his worth was unlikely to outstrip that of Swanton of himself. I recall a TV interview he gave to Tony Lewis during a rain break in an early season one-day game at Canterbury in the late eighties. The issue was coloured clothing. He pronounced that he was willing for there to be a trial of coloured piping on white clothing, but did so with a tone that the Pope might adopt if announcing a Vatican-branded range of contraceptives. Lewis and the other interviewee (possibly Chris Cowdrey) suppressed giggles.

Fay and Kynaston understandably do not touch much on Swanton’s role on the Kent committee in retirement. In Clive Ellis and Mark Pennell’s Trophies and Tribulations: Forty Years of Kent Cricket Swanton is the chief villain of the story of Kent’s eighties decline. They relate that in 1996, when Matt Walker was approaching Frank Woolley’s Kent record 270 at St Lawrence, Swanton entered the dressing room, demanding a declaration so that his hero’s record would stay intact.

Arlott spent his retirement in Alderney, away from the game but making the occasional television or radio appearance. The last of these that I recall was a TV programme on an Aboriginal touring team visiting Alderney sometime in the late eighties. They met Arlott. By that time the famous voice had become a high-pitched parody of its former self, but the wit was still there. “My word”, he said “in those baggy green caps I might have mistaken you for the real Australian team if only you hadn’t been so damn polite”.

Fay omits a story from his own obituary of Christopher Martin-Jenkins in The Independent. There he says that when assistant editor of The Cricketer, CMJ’s football reports for the Daily Telegraph had to be written under the byline Christopher Martin in order to avoid Swanton’s decree that no staff member of the magazine should ever write about football (or association football as Swanton would have called it—football was played with an oval ball, as he spent many winters reporting). A good story, but if true it would have been a disappointment to Swanton that both Tony Pawson and Bryon Butler were regular contributors to The Cricketer at that time while being among the country’s leading football journalists. 

It is a well-known part of Arlott’s story that he reported football in print (only a last-minute swap meant that he was not on the plane that crashed in Munich carrying the Manchester United team in 1958) and gave full-time reports for Sports Report. I discovered only recently from BBC Genome that Arlott had also commentated on football, initially in the late forties then again in the early sixties, in the latter period usually in partnership with his friend Maurice Edelston, presumably from south coast grounds. How wonderful it would be if examples of those commentaries were to be discovered an attic somewhere. How did the measured delivery, the wit and the pauses adapt to the faster pace and looser structure of the soccer field?

Here and there, there is a little avoidable factual imprecision. The authors say that it was “probably by the early 1970s that he [Arlott] was starting to scale down the frequency of his twenty-minute spots on TMS”. This occurred from 1973, when he went from six commentary stints to three so that he could focus on his Guardian report (and, no doubt, work his way through a couple of bottles of red) for the rest of the day. BBC Genome verifies this, listing three ball-by-ball commentators (Arlott, Johnston and McGilvray) throughout the 1972 Ashes, but always four from the following season. 

They say that Brian Johnston “joined the radio commentary team in the early 1970s”. Johnston moved to radio full-time in 1970, but had alternated between radio and TV for tests since 1966 (see BBC Genome or CMJ’s Ball By Ball). As cricket correspondent he had been commentating on county games for the radio on Saturdays when there was no cricket on TV since the fifties. Johnston himself related the switch as being more sudden than it actually was. 

In researching this piece I came across extracts from Arlott’s last day of commentary, on the Gillette Cup final of 1980, providing plenty of evidence that he left while still better than everybody else. 

Both authors declare themselves Arlott men, but that writing the book has increased their admiration for Swanton. I am certainly an Arlott man, and though I can’t say that reading this book has provoked any admiration for Swanton, I will blow the dust of a couple of his books that I have.

[1] Hugh Massingberd, reviewing the Rayvern Allen biography in 2004 for the Daily Telegraph. A defender of Swanton, he nevertheless says “he could be overbearing, pig-headed and a bit of a bully. He was a shameless looker-over-the-shoulder and a fantastic snob”.

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