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Cricket in fiction

Class (struggle) is permanent

Overshadowed by greater writers, Dudley Carew and Bruce Hamilton wrote cricket novels set in the old world but with contemporary concerns

Gideon Haigh  |  

Today the word "professional" in sport is banal. Everyone is. Everything has to be. Yet no word in cricket's everyday lexicon has had such evolving significances and connotations. A hundred years ago, to be a professional was to form part of cricket's majority second class, the "players"; amateurs, the "gentlemen", ruled the roost, socially, economically and psychologically. From our remove, the cricket world of the past can look a little like a flannelled Downton Abbey. But in two remarkable novels of the 1930s and 1940s, the boundaries are more porous, manifesting also the concerns of their respective authors.

Dudley Carew, author of The Son of Grief (1936), and Bruce Hamilton, author of Pro (1946), had more than a little in common. Born within a few years of each other, both came from comfortable backgrounds, watched their formative cricket at Hove, and gravitated towards the life of letters in the 1920s; both were strongly shaped by intense and ultimately bitter relations with writers of far greater literary repute, Carew with his Lancing College contemporary Evelyn Waugh, Hamilton with his younger brother Patrick. From different angles, their cricket novels are concerned with a vaguely similar kind of figure: the professional cricketer who does not quite conform. Yet they are not purely sociological documents, containing as they do intriguing autobiographical glints.

Born July 3, 1903 in Haywards Heath, Carew could claim a certain distinction from being Waugh's first disciple. He was awed by Waugh's intelligence and poise; he was shocked and intrigued, as a clergyman's son, by Waugh's nonchalant atheism. They were successive editors of the Lancing magazine, and members of various world-weary student societies - the Dilettanti, the Corpse Club, the Bored Stiff Club. They holidayed with one another's families, Carew revealing in his memoirs that one remark in The Son of Grief - "If a man knows the Bible, Shakespeare and Wisden, he won't go far wrong" - was a dictum of Waugh's father.

After failing to emulate Waugh in obtaining an Oxford scholarship, Carew commenced his literary career by spending 3s 6d on The Writers and Artists Yearbook and marked those publications that "took article on subjects about which I felt not too wildly incompetent to write". Literary London was newly jolly. Society London was just beginning to hear of dashing and dissolute "bright young things". Carew joined the circle of the Mercury, JC Squire's weekly for the "representative Englishman, with an equal feeling for sport and the arts, cultured, tolerant, a man of the world as well as letters", and became a regular in Squire's cricket team, The Invalids, famously immortalised in AG Macdonnell's England Their England (1933). When Bodley Head published Carew's first novel, called The Next Corner (1924), a rather tepid romance, in which a father and son fall in love with the same woman, Waugh, still to publish his first novel, designed two dust jackets for it (neither of which were used).

There is no mistaking Carew's love of cricket, but his main character gave free rein to an abiding weakness in his fiction for the cloying melodramatic aside

Two other relationships gradually grew more significant. In 1926, after a period as assistant editor at a church weekly, Carew struck a bond with the Times, with specialities in sport and film, if never all that remuneratively: as Carew put it, the Times then believed that "payment was a kind of pocket money to men who, since they were on The Times, automatically must have private money of their own". In 1927, at a ball, he danced with "an exquisite golden girl", fell "madly in love", and only cut the evening short because he had to catch a northbound train to report a cup tie between Huddersfield Town and West Ham; from his digs at Huddersfield's George Hotel, he wrote to Anthea Gamble, daughter of the Dean of Exeter, proposing marriage; they wed the following year.

The relationship with the Times lasted half a century, and involved his contributing what he estimated as nine million words. The relationship with Anthea, best friend of the scandal-racked, drug-ravaged socialite Brenda Dean Paul, was brief and volatile, rather like Waugh's with Evelyn Gardner. Likewise in The Son of Grief is the main character, Oxford Blue Allen Peveril, effectively estranged from his class and playing as a professional allrounder for Downshire because of the repercussions of an unhappy marriage to a socialite that has left a "curse across his nature, a gangrene streak which would turn to corruption all that came into contact with it".

Peveril is a highly strung young man who once had literary aspirations, having published a modestly successful novel ten years earlier, "full of romanticism and idealism and purple patches". Now he pulls beers in a village pub, the Goat and Compasses, whose mysterious owner Petzenheuffer, bedridden upstairs in a book-lined room "acrid with the smell of snuff", has become his patron and protector. Peveril's hybrid identity, observes Petzenheuffer, is inherently unstable: "You are neither fish, fowl, nor good red herring. You are a professional who happens to be a gentleman, you are intelligent and… you make a fool of yourself when you drink." Peveril's periodic reflections on social relations also cause some perturbation in Downshire's professional dressing room.

Without thinking what he was saying he spoke out loud: 'In a hundred years, less than a hundred, our economic system will seem not so much fantastic as criminal.'

The balcony turned round in astonishment, and he realized what he had said. 'Don't mind me boys, don't mind me. Just watch our Sammy hook Patmore for six.'

Dudley Carew's career was closely linked with that of Evelyn Waugh (above), who, among other things, designed two dust jackets for Carew's first novel that were never used

Dudley Carew's career was closely linked with that of Evelyn Waugh (above), who, among other things, designed two dust jackets for Carew's first novel that were never used © Getty Images

By this time, Peveril's equilibrium has been further jeopardised by the appearance of a former flame, Miranda Lawrence ("I'm 27 now, and I want to do something, and I think we might do something together"). He wrestles, rather repetitively, with the temptation essentially of rejoining his former social cast ("I want to sleep with you terribly, but I shall have to get drunk first"; "Oh my dear I do love you but I know it's no good"; "I know, but it's no good, Miranda… I'm, oh, I'm sort of doomed").

He put his arms around her and drew her to him, and Allen and Miranda ceased to exist and he was clinging, a lost being, to a symbol of his own lovely and desperate past. 'My own kind, my own kind,' something chanted exultantly within, 'after this long, empty wilderness of time, my own kind…'

Also coaxing him back across the social divide is his Cambridge-bred amateur captain, Phillip Lake ("Look here, Allan, why don't you chuck it all and come back? You can't get away from our type of person, as you call it"). Then Peveril spies a wedding notice for his ex-wife, and his resistance crumbles, although not to Miranda, but to what can only be described as a cricket groupie: Felicity Jones, comely 30-year-old widow of a wealthy northern businessman known as The Radish King, who has been following his career intently from the vantage of her mansion and yellow limousine ("I'm not clever and I'm common, but for the last year or two I've had an idea about you. I can't put it properly, but I felt that you and I would come together"). Felicity is drawn to his affinity for the common man ("You said that the community of the village was the one thing left in a barbarous and insensate world worth fighting for") and offers her common self ("I'm not clever and I'm not a lady… but I would make you a good wife"). Their climactic tryst takes place after Peveril has taken Wessex for 167, is congratulated on his feat by the hotel clerk at the Magniloquent, and throws respectability out the ornate bay window ("My name is Smith and I want a double room and private sitting room").

Having set up this rivalry for Peveril's soul, Carew then seems unable to resolve it, and the end has a clumsily allegorical, even vaguely supernatural feel. But in the meantime there has been a satisfactory amount of cricket, written with some feeling and insight: a nicely observed net session in the village, effective match action and dressing-room vignettes. There is no mistaking Carew's love of cricket, which he considered "by so far the greatest game in the world that all others are less than nothing in comparison", but his main character in The Son of Grief gave free rein to an abiding weakness in his fiction for the cloying melodramatic aside ("I cannot come to terms with the world. I am an outcast, for I cannot understand its ways… The buying and the selling and the hard, secret way men rule their lives").

Bruce's tragedy was that he also had literary aspirations with nowhere near the talent of his brother Patrick, and supported himself through a career of patchy thrillers by working as a teacher

Carew was destined for the shadow of other literary reputations, which at times he welcomed: the titles of The Son of Grief, of his later collection of cricket essays To the Wicket (1946) and novel The Taken Town (1948) are all lines from the poet AE Housman. But his association with Waugh ended acrimoniously, when he took exception to the novelist's description of him in A Little Learning (1964) as "a boy in another house" whom he had "fascinated and dominated". Always modest about his talents ("I place myself in the second league of mediocrity, just above B, just below A"), Carew resented Waugh's modesty on his behalf, sold his sizeable cache of Waugh's correspondence to the University of Texas, and wrote a piqued memoir entitled A Fragment of Friendship (1974) - which proved, perhaps gallingly, his most successful book. He enjoyed, at least, one distinction Waugh did not: an obituary, five lines, in Wisden, page 1195 of the 1982 edition.

Nothing is ambiguous about the conclusion of Bruce Hamilton's Pro, of which readers are forewarned by the subtitle An English Tragedy. And in tragedy, his family was well versed. His and Patrick's childhood was dislocated by the financial ineptitude and heavy drinking of their father, a barrister who preferred writing windy historical novels that never sold, while their mother later committed suicide. The County Ground at Hove, Bruce would say, was something on which he and his brother looked back "as a lost Elysium where… so many golden days had been spent".

Patrick's life was then full of disappointments: he suffered gravely from chronic alcoholism and sexual dysfunction; he was badly injured in a road accident and anguished over his disfigurement. He became wealthy from two hugely successful plays, Rope (1929) and Gaslight (1938), adapted to the screen by Alfred Hitchcock and George Cukor respectively, was critically acclaimed for his fiction, including the superbly bleak Hangover Square (1941) and The Slaves of Solitude (1947). But this proved to be Bruce's tragedy, for he also had literary aspirations with nowhere near the talent, and supported himself through a career of patchy thrillers by working as a teacher.

One cause united them. Both brothers were convinced Marxists, agreed on Britain's rottenness and enamoured of the Soviet Union. Bruce Hamilton's second novel, Hue and Cry (1931), is a peculiar blend of conservative sport and radical politics: minor provincial footballer Tom Payten gets drunk after a bad game and kills the club's sadistic fascist president who has been persecuting him. After a series of fugitive nocturnal adventures in London, Tom is spirited away from the country by a young writer with socialist sympathies. The following year, Hamilton betook himself to Leningrad for several months, and remained so impervious to the purges and show trials following the Kirov assassination that his novel The Brighton Murder Trial (1937) was a bizarre apologetic for Stalinism set in a Britain "under capitalist dictatorship".

Family fondness for cricket was first outed in Patrick's eccentric satire of the British bourgeoisie, Impromptu in Moribundia (1939), which begins with a peculiar allegorical cricket match echoing lines from Newbolt's "Vitai Lampada". With Patrick's encouragement, Bruce then commenced a cricket novel. Although by now teaching in Barbados, he had no difficulty casting his mind back to the County Championship either side of World War I and had finished the manuscript by December 1942, although World War II delayed its publication for nearly four further years. Nor was it much of an earner: the £50 advance from Cresset Press was a hundredth of what his brother would shortly be offered for the film rights for Hangover Square.

© Cresset Press

The story opens with Albert Lamb, a reliable, well-liked pro with fictional Midhampton in the late Victorian age, who wants better for his son - indeed, he wishes Teddy, showing signs of cricket prowess, "to be a gentleman" if he can: "He saw that the game was going to become even more commercialised, bringing a spirit of competition and ruthlessness which would allow no mercy to those unable to stand the pace." Albert's own career becomes a cautionary tale: he invests the pennies from his hard-won benefit in a doomed mining speculation, then dies like an exhausted ox in the shafts while bowling against Essex. And alas, Ted is not quite clever enough to obtain a scholarship to a public school: it's the professional dressing room for him.

Midhampton is rather more various than Downshire. In the players' ranks are Lamb's school friend Cecil French, who doubles as a professional footballer, allrounder Bill Lumley, who has deeply Labour sympathies, and batsman Jim Revill, a grammar schoolboy "clearly a grade or so higher in the social scale than his colleagues", who, like Peveril, blurs the distinctions:

An officer and a gentleman, he expected to be treated as such. He consorted with the amateurs, not exclusively and without arrogance, but with an easy assumption of equality which no-one cared to challenge… He was not a snob. Just as he paid no particular deference to amateurs, so it never occurred to him to assume any superiority over his professional colleagues.

Counterpart of the pro mixing readily with the amateurs is the amateur mixing readily with the pros, county captain Arthur Meadows, who blends the social mix into a "very happy side":

He had a real affection for the men who played under him, an affection that was warmly reciprocated. Though his outlook was simple, essentially feudal in fact, he never gave an order in a brusque or peremptory fashion; he hardly ever seemed to give in order at all. He had a sympathetic insight into people's states of mind which transcended mere cleverness, knowing by intuition when to encourage, congratulate or console, always unobtrusively, with no parade of tact.

In neither book is there any character that resembles a star of cricket - a towering, charismatic or legendary figure, no Grace, or Hobbs, or Hammond, or Bradman

After the war, Midhampton needs a bowler in the vein of Albert Lamb, and the nearest equivalent is his son - providing, his club's gentle president Dr Littlehampton says, he hews to a temperate path: "You're the only man in sight who's going to do our bowling for the next 15 years. There is no reason why you shouldn't work up to the same position as your father, if only you live carefully and keep yourself fit." He takes the advice, although he is also impressed by the savvy of Revill, who is clever enough to make money from commercial deals - bat contracts, product endorsements, signed columns, coaching assignments with "Dukes and Jews and Rajahs and big pots generally who want to get their boys into the Eton eleven". Lamb himself then becomes "a celebrity" by devising a new species of attack: a leg theory with an on-side catching cordon dubbed "Q-bowling".

The Daily Mail came out with a full front page photograph of his bowling arm, illustrating his grip. Tom Webster drew cartoons depicting him as a genial wolf in lamb's clothing. Interviews, or articles under his name, on 'How I Do It', or 'Why I Do It', or 'How I Thought of It' appeared in dailies and weeklies. The words 'Lamb again' occurred and recurred on the evening posters. A rush of applications for coaching descended on him, mostly from players who fancied themselves as exploiters of 'Q-bowling' on Saturday afternoons. The climax was reached on his appearance at Lord's for his county in July. Newspaper publicity came at its full height; crowds surrounded him on his way to the practise wickets; little knots of gapers recognised and followed him as he walked to St Johns' Wood Station at the end of a day's play; he was greeted, when he came out to bat, with an applause beyond anything he had received before.

With this new commercialising culture come new agents, and it all gets rather Marxist. As the benevolent Littlehampton and Meadows move on, their replacements are respectively the reactionary Colonel Thornborough, who thinks the professionals "spoiled and soft", and martinet Oxford Blue Nigel Le Mesurier, who wields a "new broom". Tensions boil over during the General Strike, when Le Mesurier insists that the professionals join the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies. "This isn't a civil war," protests the Labour man Lumley. "It's a struggle by the working class to keep what it's got." His captain retorts: "That's the sort of Bolshevik twaddle I'd expect to hear from you Lumley."

Lamb takes the strikers' part, but that, says Hamilton, makes him an exception, due to his comrades' false consciousness: "The professionals in general did not regard themselves as having any affinity for the working class. Their social habits removed the possibility of sympathy with them, while the very smallness and precariousness of their economic superiority prevented them from taking a broad view." Lamb's lack of control over his means of production then means that he has no recourse when Le Mesurier proscribes "Q-bowling". "You're taking away my bread and butter," Lamb complains. "This leg theory is spoiling the game," retorts his captain. "England hasn't gone Bolshevik yet, thank God."

Bruce Hamilton's famous playwright brother Patrick (above) encouraged him to write a cricket novel - which eventually became <i>Pro</i>

Bruce Hamilton's famous playwright brother Patrick (above) encouraged him to write a cricket novel - which eventually became Pro © Getty Images

But the capitalist oppressor is not Lamb's only nemesis; as in The Son of Grief, cherchez la femme. Lamb transacts a disastrous marriage to Desiree Molitor, secretary to elderly City plutocrat Sir Maurice Reeves, and a scheming succubus: her material cravings denude her husband's savings, while she also covertly remains Reeves' mistress. As it is for Allen Peveril, personal crisis and peak performance combine. On the day Desiree stomps out, Lamb makes his first hundred. But he is dogged, Hamilton insists, by "that ill-luck, which lies in wait for all who look at popular sports for their living". He joins a Caribbean tour to replenish his finances, only to suffer a bad injury. He is given a benefit game, but shortens it by taking five slip catches, none of which he can drop. At last the vindictive Le Mesurier sees to the termination of Lamb's contract, then his place on the first-class umpires' list, leaving him "a small, hunched figure, without dignity", and without money, property, skills or future either. Lamb commences a drift down the social scale through ever barer rooming houses.

Got a job in a shop for a week or two - Blakers. Couldn't make out the bills quickly enough, though - I was never any good at arithmetic. Then there's post office work at Christmas, and sometimes in summer a little Saturday afternoon umpiring - you know, five bob and a cup of tea. Got a day a week coaching too - prep school. But it's been pretty bad lately - the cold's started early this winter. I've spent most of the days in the Public Library - first to come, last to go. They don't let you smoke there - stops you wasting money on cigarettes.

Pro ends the only way it can, with down-and-out Lamb poring over his old scrapbooks trying to make sense of it all preparatory to gassing himself in his room, although the last flourish is for the true fan: a Wisden obituary for him nicely pastiching the Almanack's style while gliding over all his tribulations.

It might be a slight problem with the whole novel that it relies on a familiarity with its milieu rather than fully exploring its rich strangenesses.

The Son of Grief and Pro are now period curios, descriptions of a lost world, of which only vestigial traces remain. Yet they remain in some respects quite venturesome

"Am I right in saying that you let yourself go, and enjoyed yourself enormously?" Patrick wrote his brother. "My criticism is that you have let personal things and memories - childhood, Brighton, cricket grounds - Barbados - personal happenings - that you have written down these things without really and painfully trying (as an artist must) to convey them vividly to a reader who has no such personal memories."

Yet Pro is also hugely readable, getting along at a T20 clip. The cricket passages are convincing, especially those where Lamb toils in the nets with Peveril to perfect "Q-bowling", and the dialogue is brisk and understated. John Betjeman in the Daily Herald called it "a subtle character study", while an unsigned reviewer in the Observer thought that "the Wisden public will be enchanted", even if Wisden actually failed to review it, and also failed to acknowledge its author's 1974 death. Bruce Hamilton would by then have emulated Carew in making his most successful book his last, a memoir of the reputation that had haunted him: The Light Went Out: The Life of Patrick Hamilton (1972).

The Son of Grief and Pro are now period curios, descriptions of a lost world, of which only vestigial traces remain. Yet they remain in some respects quite venturesome. Their politics, Carew's woolly liberalism and Hamilton's terse Marxism, are frank. Their characterisations of professional cricketers are shaded, their evocations of the game's workaday routine effective. Women are influential, even a little scary, to men accustomed to their own society, unless it's Jim Revill in Pro, a mordant ladykiller. And if the sharp class distinctions are archaic, the books' concern with another kind of class, that determined by ability, is decidedly contemporary.

In neither book is there any character that resembles a star of cricket - a towering, charismatic or legendary figure, no Grace, or Hobbs, or Hammond, or Bradman. Carew's Peveril is "just about the best all-round county cricketer in England", while also acknowledging that "somehow or other I just lack Test match class"; Hamilton's Lamb is "sound and by no means unattractive in method, but without any glimpse of genius". They are settled in the middle, where the bulk of cricketers still fall, doing their best. And perhaps in their sympathy with such figures, the strains and strivings, the glimmers of success and the fallings just short, the novelists revealed something of themselves.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer