Cricket Books – The 100 BestMartin Chandler |
Author: Britton, Charles
Rating: 3 stars
It must, disappointingly I suppose, be a measure of the limited interest in cricket literature that almost 94 years have passed since ‘Charlie’ Britton’s modest effort, and the theme he explored has never been revisited. Almost a century on and the volume of cricket books published having increased exponentially the selectors’ task would also be much trickier now, and perhaps that is part of the reason the task has not been attempted.
The first question is who is author Britton? On the cover of the book he is described as A Collector of Cricketana (Author of Statistical Tables on the Life of Lord Nelson), an interesting and hardly complementary pair of interests. Britton was not a writer, although he did produce one other cricket book, an examination of the career of Gilbert Jessop. Unlike many collectors he was a useful cricketer, and played other sports to a decent standard as well, but he was dogged by ill health and died at 59. His main employment, while his health permitted it, was as a Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths in the West Midlands in the years after the Great War.
The book’s publisher was Cotterell & Co, which is not a name that has any resonance now, but at the time they were book dealers who issued lists of cricket books from time to time, so presumably Britton was a client. Britton’s preface is one of the more remarkable I have read. He begins by writing; It is obvious that this book has no pretensions to literary merit. Subsequently, after acknowledging the help of his publisher, he adds that Mr Cotterell steadfastly negatived any opposition to the work, and must be blamed for adding to the rubbish heap of cricket literature.
There will quite a few readers around today who have a decent cricket library who probably have nothing that dates from before 1929, and although there were plenty of publications around in those days, many were of a fairly ephemeral nature, and there were far fewer ‘mainstream’ books published then than there are now. So did Britton have many difficult choices to make?
He has set himself some parameters, one of which is that nothing published outside the UK is selected. In truth few cricket books were published overseas in those days, but that decision did presumably rule out Australian titles from the likes of Frank Iredale, Frank Laver and George Giffen featuring. That said Monty Noble is one Australian author who does feature twice, the distinction perhaps being that his books were first published in England. Also left out are pamphlets and ephemera, with the exception of a series of five historical pamphlets produced by H. P-T (PF Thomas) in the 1920s, which are certainly worthy of inclusion.
As to how Britton approaches his task that is not entirely straightforward to describe. The simple aspect is that the books are listed in alphabetical order by author, but beyond that entries are variable. The famous multi volume works whose presence is inevitable, the Wisden and Lillywhite annuals and Haygarth’s Scores and Biographies, are all described in some detail and, as he often does, Britton comments on how easy or otherwise books are to find, and gives a rough indication as to their value. A set of Wisden, which would then stretch to 66 editions, is valued at £50-£75 – given that equates to less than £5,000 today the words ‘if only’ will immediately occur to today’s collectors.
In contrast some of the books pick up barely a sentence. The description of Ashley-Cooper’s Gentlemen v Players is simply contains notices of the games with full scores, etc, and all that is said of the vast history of Surrey authored by Lord Alverstone and CW Alcock is Mr Altham states this to be authoritative.
Also largely missing from Britton’s 100 Best are the real rarities of the game, which probably goes to show there has been some recognition that books that are essentially collections of scores and contain very little by way of narrative content should not be considered. Thus there is no place for the names of Britcher, Epps, or Bentley. The classics of the game, such as Nyren’s Cricketers of my Time, and Denison’s Sketches of the Players are included as, rather surprisingly, is a latin poem from 1706, the one item in the book that I have to admit to never having heard of.
As far as an element of subjectivity is concerned Britton clearly favours biographies and autobiographies, virtually all of those that had been published within cloth bindings before 1929 gaining selection. Even Walter Read’s Annals of Cricket finds a place, a book I must admit to having found turgid in the extreme, and even Britton says of it that; the writer cannot explain why, but for some reason he is not much impressed with and cannot enthuse over this book – ‘why select it at all then?’ is the thought that screams out from his reader.
In terms of omissions the notable ones are amongst the tour book genre. Already well established by 1929 there are relatively few examples within the 100 Best, and those that there are are largely as a result of no fewer than eight books by ‘Plum’ Warner being included. Particularly notable for their absences are Percy Fender’s book on the 1920/21 Ashes series, and EHD Sewell’s account of the 1912 Triangular series.
In the 21st century Cricket Books – The 100 Best is simply a bibliographical curiosity, but it raises an interesting question and the results of a similar exercise carried out today would be fascinating. Not if there was just a single selector of course, otherwise I might have a crack at the task myself, but if a large number of those who own reasonable sized cricket libraries could be persuaded to participate, and someone were prepared to co-ordinate their efforts, then the outcome would be well worth studying, even if only for those involved!