AA ThomsonMartin Chandler |
There are not many people who are known only by their initials, but perhaps cricket, thanks to the way the scores of the game are presented, has more than its fair share. Even then however most enthusiasts know that WG Grace was christened William, and that CB Fry was Charles. A few generations on MJK Smith was universally known by his initials but even then was, occasionally, referred to as Mike.
I have on my shelves copies of all the books on cricket that AA Thomson wrote. In his pomp, for the fifteen years before his death at the age of 74 in 1978, he was one of the most popular cricket writers of his era, yet it wasn’t until I did some research for this post that I found out his given names were Arthur Alexander.
Of Scottish heritage Thomson was born and brought up in Harrogate, a town in the West Riding of the Broadacres that many Lancastrians of my generation pay a somewhat back handed compliment to by describing it as ‘Yorkshire Nice Part’. Thomson was educated at the local grammar school and then at Kings College in London. He, apparently, at one time, had ambitions to join the teaching profession. The Great War ensured he never did so.
Joining the West Yorkshire Regiment Thomson spent the war in France and Mesopotamia. What he did there is not entirely clear, although in the introduction to one of his cricket books he states that he spent most of the Second World War, by which time he was in his late forties, in rather more dangerous places so it sounds unlikely he was on the front line. They must have been interesting times, though other than that he came through both conflicts seemingly unscathed I can shed no further light on Thomson’s war service beyond the observation of his Wisden obituarist that in the second his employment was first at the Air Ministry and then as a lecturer with the Ministry of Information.
Between the wars Thomson spent some time in the civil service. He was a drama critic for ten years, wrote for Radio Times for a dozen years and his work appeared in a Sunday newspaper for two decades. He also wrote plays and poems. In addition there were upwards of 25 novels and 15 non fiction books on various subjects, so Thomson was clearly a busy man. His abiding passion was cricket however, although he wrote nothing that could be termed a ‘cricket book’ until 1953 when a friend suggested that he publish a collection of the many cricketing stories he had picked up over the years.
The success of Cricket My Pleasure was such that after it’s release Thomson gave up writing fiction altogether, and most of the remaining books that he had in him were about cricket. In 1958, at 64, he joined the press corps and his day job was for The Times, cricket in summer and rugby union in winter. He wrote one book on the subject of the oval ball game in 1955, the unimaginatively titled Rugger My Pleasure.
In its obituary of him Thomson’s former employer observed that no other cricket author since Sir Neville Cardus in his prime had a closer following. Comparisons are frequently drawn between the two, coming as they did from opposite sides of the Pennines. Both wrote lyrically about the game and were, perhaps, not overly consumed by the importance of accuracy. In addition Thomson was very much a cricket lover rather an analyst and he never subjected the techniques and tactics of the game to a great deal of scrutiny in his writing.
The debut release contained an introduction from Len Hutton in which he describes the book as enthusiastic, good-tempered and very amusing. There follows a foreword from one of Thomson’s earliest heroes, George Hirst, who makes the astute observation on the book that I think the man who wrote it enjoys watching cricket nearly as much as I enjoyed playing it. Thomson begins with an account of a remarkable Gentlemen v Players match at Lord’s that he attended in 1950. There were a couple of Yorkshiremen on show, although neither achieved anything of note. After that the stories do slip back to pre war days and the ‘Golden Age’ and the county of Thomson’s birth feature a great deal. John Arlott described the book as taking an enviably high place in the literature of the game.
In 1954 the Thomson offering was Cricket My Happiness and, effectively, more of the same, with most of the content focussing on Yorkshire. An introduction was written by the octogenarian CB Fry, who wrote it is a pleasure to meet with a book which at once delights the literary faculty and pleases the reader who knows the game. Arlott told his readers that the author had a feeling for character and for cricket, and that a professional integrity in his prose make Mr Thomson the happiest of cricketing writers.
There was no cricket book from Thomson in 1955, although he did publish that book on his winter sport, Rugger My Pleasure. He was back on the subject of cricket the following year however. As Australia found themselves Lakered by England in 1956 Thomson produced Pavilioned in Splendour, another collection of essays on familiar topics, some of which had been published before, albeit not in book form. Thomson dedicated Pavilioned in Splendour to Neville Cardus.
In 1957 there was a new departure for Thomson as his cricket book for that year was a biography. The Great Cricketer, of which a second edition appeared 11 years later. It is a biography of WG Grace. The book received considerable acclaim and although, in common with everything Thomson wrote, it did not seek to expose the character flaws and less agreeable aspects of his subject’s personality it is nonetheless an excellent read. For a time it was generally recognised as the best biography of the grand old man, HS Altham observing that never before has the whole story been told in such compelling intimacy and charm, nor the status and the personality of the champion been so arrestingly analysed and revealed.
Effectively there was another Thomson book in 1957, Happy Go Johnny, the autobiography of the mercurial Yorkshire left arm spinner Johnny Wardle which, at a time when ghostwriters were seldom acknowledged, added on its title page as told to AA Thomson. As a result of publicly criticising his county captain Wardle was sacked by Yorkshire the following year and consequently deselected from the England side that toured Australia in 1958/59. Had Thomson still been writing the book it would have been interesting to see how he would have dealt with the attendant controversies, the sort of subjects normally rather outside his comfort zone.
Odd Men In: A Gallery of Cricket Eccentrics was released in 1958. As the title suggests this was an ideal subject for a man with the lightness of touch and innate humour that Thomson had. Particularly entertaining is his writing on the subject of ‘Hex’ Hesketh Prichard a man who, amongst other intrepid overseas trips, once travelled to Patagonia in pursuit (unsuccessful) of the giant sloth.
Two men who Thomson idolised, and who were playing in the first cricket match he ever watched in 1904, were the great Yorkshire all-rounders George Hirst and Wilfred Rhodes. In 1959 he published Hirst and Rhodes, a double biography, perhaps surprisingly the first full study of either. Remarkably a few months later another full length biography of Rhodes appeared but, strangely, no writer has attempted another look at either since. Swaranjit Singh reviewed Hirst and Rhodes for us here.
Following a blank 1960 there were two Thomson offerings in 1961.The first was Cricket Bouquet, sub-titled Comedy and Character in the Counties. It is something of a whistlestop tour, the longest chapter being the concluding one on Yorkshire, and the book is very much in the mould of its predecessors. Cricket: The Golden Ages was a little different, amounting to a history of the game from Thomson, based on the premise that each generation has a tendency to look backwards for what it considers a ‘golden age’ and suggesting that perhaps the 1950s had been another.
Another double biography flowed from Thomson’s pen in 1963, this time Hutton & Washbrook. There have been many books written by or about Hutton but, other than an autobiography that was published in 1950 Thomson’s effort remains the only narrative account of Washbrook’s career.
A year later and there was another Thomson offering, although a very different one this time. When I was a Lad is a short sixty page offering that is, essentially, an autobiography that deals with Thomson’s childhood. There is a young boy depicted on the cover who is holding a cricket bat but the game plays a fairly minor role. The book’s opening is; Beware of nostalgia. Beware especially of an elderly gentleman who buttonholes you and begins: ‘When I was a lad ……’, as true today as it was in 1964.
In 1965 Thomson published Cricket – The Great Captains, a survey of the game’s great leaders. The subjects are predominantly English with a smattering of Australians and a few men from elsewhere. Thomson suggests that he felt the best of all was Donald Bradman, and he clearly rated Len Hutton highly but interestingly the man who gets the closing chapter to himself is Frank Worrell.
There was no book from Thomson in 1966, but he made up for that with two in 1967. The first was Cricket: The Wars of the Roses, the subject matter of which is obvious. There is a similarly titled book that gathers together Neville Cardus’s match reports on the classic encounter, but Thomson’s book is rather different in presentation. It is a wide ranging and discursive story of the history of a cricketing contest that dates back to 1849.
In a nod backwards to John Nyren and the earliest days of cricket literature Thomson’s second 1967 book was titled Cricketers of my Times. He divided the book into three eras. He began with the years between his first match in 1904 to the outbreak of the Great War, the interwar period, and finally the postwar years. As always the stories of the players are told with affection and, not unusually for critics, whilst appreciative of the later years it is clear that Thomson’s fondest memories are from his youth.
When Thomson died in June 1968 he was working on his next book, Vintage Elevens, an expansion of a series of articles that had been appearing in Playfair Cricket Monthly. The format of the book was that Thomson chose what he considered the greatest team, by year, from each of the seventeen First Class counties, thus the 1936 Derbyshire side, that of Essex in 1897, and so on. At the time of his death Thomson had completed fourteen chapters and his friend and fellow writer Denzil Batchelor completed the book with chapters on the Warwickshire side of 1911 and Worcestershire of 1964. As far as his beloved Yorkshire was concerned Thomson had, presumably, left behind nothing to indicate what choice he made and, perhaps wisely, Batchelor ducked the task of nominating a particular team and concluded the book with an overview of the White Rose’s distinguished history.
As a cricket writer Thomson had much in common with Neville Cardus. Both relied much more on the evidence of their own eyes and their imaginations. Neither was particularly strong on technical examination nor likely to getting bogged down in historical research and, important on a practical level both wrote books that sold well to the general public. Beyond that however Thomson is largely forgotten today whereas interest in Cardus and his work seems as strong today as it ever was.