Gentlemen and Players

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

A review of Stephen Fay and David Kynaston's joint biography of two legendary figures in cricket commentary.

For the thirty years from the end of the war to the early eighties the big debate, for cricket enthusiasts anyway, was were you in camp Arlott or camp Swanton. Today John Arlott is remembered as a musical Hampshire accent attached to a grumpy personality, poetically describing England losing another test match, E W Swanton has been all but forgotten, though for close to half a century he was the nation's foremost cricket writer.


This book describes with admirable fairness the life and times of two 'difficult' men with the ability to make enemies as easily as they did friends. A story that will fascinate both cricket lovers and anyone with an interest in how Britain managed the social upheavals of the post war decades.


In their origins they were both very different, John Arlott was a gruff former police sergeant with a fondness for wine and poetry; and E W 'Jim' Swanton was an upper middle-class product of a minor public school. What united them, though their relationship was at various times distant and even antagonistic, was a shared love of cricket. That and a determination to make a living writing about the game.


You don’t need to be an armchair psychologist the work out that both Arlott and Swanton were, as self-made men often are, haunted by a fear of being somehow found out as being not quite good enough. Something they hid behind public personas that were frequently irascible and sometimes downright boorish.


 Published as a poet whilst still pounding the beat in wartime Southampton and able to list John Betjeman and Steven Spender amongst his friends Arlott fronted well received arts programmes for the BBC, yet you get the sense he always felt out of place. Like an amusing provincial who has been taken up by the metropolitan elite on a whim and could be dropped on one too.


For E W “Jim” Swanton despite looking and sounding like a scion of the establishment the sense of being ‘not quite the right sort’ seems to have lingered and rankled. A feeling reciprocated, at least early on in his career anyway, by the people he was so keen to impress seeing viewing him rather as Nicholas Soames, allegedly, saw fellow Tory MP Michael Heseltine as the sort of chap who bought his furniture, meaning ever so slightly beyond the pale.


Fay and Kynaston approach writing a twin biography to two such challenging, to modern sensibilities, characters with clarity and admirable fairness. Finding beyond the prickly outer carapace the wounded person inside. Arlott had had to struggle his way into a literary and journalistic career over what were then impenetrable class barriers, his later years were saddened by grief for the son he lost to a car accident. Swanton survived the horrors of a Japanese prisoner of war camp because he had an eye for the main chance and, when necessary, sharp elbows. There isn't, as they rightly point out, any suggestion that his behaviour was anything less than proper; but to have survived at all required a toughness that is seldom pleasant.


They are blessed in having as their subject the lives of two men who had ringside seats as cricket moved away from the village green towards being a global sport. At the start of their careers the game was still divided between upper class 'gentlemen ' and lower class 'players', and followed the glacial pace of the county game. By the time they retired one day matches and television had expanded the cricket's audience, with, as they saw it, the cost being a coarsening in its character and the style of play.


Arlott and Swanton were key figures when it came to shaping how their audience understood what were often alarming changes to a sport that venerates tradition more than any other. To their credit both were early and vocal opponents of racism, speaking out against the apartheid system in South Africa.


They also took strong positions on other issues, like the introduction of one day games, advertising and players infringing conventions around how they dressed that make etiquette at the court of the emperor of Japan look relaxed in comparison. To a modern reader these seem by turns reactionary and downright baffling.


How they sided is, maybe, indicative of their respective characters. Arlott was inclined to be dubious about the pace of change, tending to favour the status quo; Swanton was more accommodation towards modernisation, in play at least, woe betide any player bounder enough to take to the crease wearing the wrong cap though. Fay and Kynaston take care to show that for all their tendency to see cricket through a romantic lens as an extension of morality both men were pragmatists, accepting of controlled change as necessary for the survival of the game that gave them a living.


There was, of course, more than a little self-preservation in their pragmatism, a modernising game would need journalists to write and broadcast about it. Again, Fay and Kynaston show how their subjects made a place for themselves in the new world of sports broadcasting.


The status both men attained at the height of their careers is remarkable and, for modern hacks most likely impossible to emulate. Arlott’s was the voice of Test Match Special, an oracle of knowledge and tradition mixed with a knack for spinning something poetic in even the most uninspiring passage of play. Swanton was lauded for his writing for the Daily Telegraph and his television summaries of a day’s play at Lords or Edgbaston were only half-jokingly referred to as ‘sermons’; with brother Jim in the pulpit the churches might have been a lot fuller.


Although written by two authors who had their formative experiences to a soundtrack of the eccentric majesty that is TMS in full flow while their subjects were in their pomp, they are unflinchingly honest about their failings away from the microphone. Arlott being curmudgeonly in real life was a lot less engaging than when he was doing it in the commentary box; Swanton could be a boor and a snob. It is a fair point to say that prickliness was protection in both cases, but the excuse can only be taken so far.


Age and success mellowed them to an extent, as, for Swanton, did marrying in late middle age and making it into the cricket establishment with membership of the MCC and several plum committee positions. For him the closing overs were an enjoyable experience, Arlott had a less easy time of it. He retired too soon and spent his last years on the Isle of Wight wallowing in a marinade of fine wine and regret.


This book tells with care and candour the story of two remarkable men and the times they lived through and recorded through their journalism. The question is would they have approved of the current state of cricket?


Talk about a tough ball to play, the best swipe I can take at that particular googly is yes and no. They would have been appalled by the way money calls so many of the shots, with players rushing to the IPL and elsewhere to fill their flannels with cash and been saddened to see the game absent from terrestrial television. What would have cheered them up is the fact that this most eccentric of games is still played, watched and loved by so many people.

Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket

Stephen Fay and David Kynaston





Submitted: May 25, 2020

© Copyright 2022 A W Colclough. All rights reserved.

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