Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket

Published: 2018
Pages: 384
Author: Fay, S and Kynaston, D
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Rating: 4 stars

John Arlott did his last BBC commentary almost forty years ago. He had been a permanent fixture in the nation’s affections since the first peace time summer of 1946 and, over the years, his reputation and the esteem in which the public held him grew steadily greater. This appeal extended to all ages, and included both of Stephen Fay and David Kynaston, who duly declare an interest. This reviewer too greatly admired Arlott. His principled stand against apartheid and his support for CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) were the major reasons for that. It must have been the case, as Fay and Kynaston point out more than once, that like most freelance operators Arlott didn’t like to turn work done, but he had no difficulty in speaking out against the South African regime at any opportunity, and his liberal values shone through in everything he said and did, and indeed didn’t do.

EW ‘Jim’ Swanton was a few years older than Arlott and, never having looked at an alternative career (unlike Arlott who was a Police Officer in Southampton before the war), had already made a name for himself as a writer/broadcaster in the 1930s. He never captured the hearts and minds of his audience in the way that Arlott did, but was greatly respected nonetheless. As befitted the Cricket Correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, Swanton was a man who certainly had conservative values, and was undoubtedly a snob. That said an abhorrence of racial prejudice was something he shared with Arlott, as well of course as a love of cricket.

In part Fay, a journalist of long experience and former editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly, and Kynaston, an eminent social historian and occasional cricket author, have written a double biography. As such the book was not a straightforward task, both men having previously been the subject of biographies from the pen of the late David Rayvern Allen, and both having written autobiographies. Swanton’s two attempts at the genre (Sort of a Cricket Person and Follow On) were decent reads back in the 1970s. Arlott probably left his too late, and Basingstoke Boy was not well received when, shortly before his death, it finally appeared. In his case however there is also a biography from his son, Tim.

Both of Swanton and Arlott wrote extensively on the subject of Test series, particularly those of the decade or so after the war, and both wrote biographies. In Swanton’s case he covered Gubby Allen and, more briefly, Denis Compton. Arlott wrote lives of Fred Trueman and Jack Hobbs, and in shorter order of Maurice Tate. There were anthologies of work first published in more ephemeral form, rather more from Arlott than Swanton. More workmanlike in his style than the lyrical Arlott Swanton’s work has not aged so well, although it remains eminently readable. Perhaps also Arlott did the longevity of his reputation some good by producing a considerable number of slim limited editions which remain highly collectable. Swanton on the other hand produced but a single such item, although his short essay on his co-author of A History of Cricket, Harry Altham, is certainly one of his better pieces of work.

Fay and Kynaston deal fully with the lives of their subjects. Swanton’s father was ‘something in the city’, albeit not something sufficiently successful to send his son to one of the major public schools. He went to Cranleigh instead. Clearly ambitious however Swanton worked his elbows, got a few breaks along the way and rapidly rose in stature within his profession. His private life was somewhat unconventional. He did marry in middle age, but never had children, and there is more than a suggestion that whilst in the Army he had a homosexual relationship with his batman. As in his journalism Swanton worked hard at progressing a military career after war broke out. Interestingly although he spent what must have been a difficult time in a Japanese POW camp it seems he certainly wasn’t universally admired amongst his comrades.

The impression is created that Swanton was not an emotional person, unlike Arlott. Born and brought up in Hampshire Arlott’s upbringing was within the bosom of his family. He had three sons, from the first of three marriages, and the loss of one of those sons in a road accident in 1965 hit him very hard indeed. It is well known that as well as his love of cricket Arlott had a great passion for wine, a pleasure in which he seems to have regularly over indulged, and his declining years were marred by ill-health, something no doubt made more bearable by close friendships with characters as diverse as Rayvern Allen, Mike Brearley and Ian Botham.

Unlike today’s writers and broadcasters neither of Arlott or Swanton were good cricketers, Arlott in particular being a man whose enthusiasm for the game seems to have far outstripped his playing ability. Swanton, an opening batsman, was at least a decent club player and, in the 1930s, played for Middlesex Second Eleven four times and then on three occasions for the first team against the Universities. Both of course had a thorough understanding of how the game was played.

The biographical elements of Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket are, however, incidental to the book’s main purpose, which is to look at changes in the game and wider society over the years that the pair were in their pomp. The two men, perhaps unsurprisingly, did not get on well and the one photograph in the book that shows both of them is, apparently, the only one of them together that exists, a remarkable fact given that they spent their working lives in the same small world. It is this element of the book where the authors’ skills are so crucial. The way in which the contrasts and similarities in their subjects’ views are drawn out gives a fascinating perspective on the game and how it and English society dealt with the challenges they faced as the austerity of the post war era gave way to the swinging sixties and the economic and social changes that accompanied that era.

No cricket lover can be unaware of the names Arlott and Swanton, although none under the age of fifty will have too many direct memories of them. They are a couple of fascinating people though, and this superbly written book should be read by anyone with an interest in post-war Britain. It is thoroughly researched, well illustrated and an excellent production, although I do wish somebody had corrected the somewhat grating reference to Geoff Rorke.


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