First of the Summer Wine

Published: 2022
Pages: 327
Author: Pearson, Harry
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Rating: 4 stars

Harry Pearson has written a number of books, albeit just three on cricket before this one. Two of those previous titles have won awards one of which, an excellent biography of Learie Constantine, I reviewed here. I have yet to read the other feted book, Slipless in Settle, but can also attest to the quality of the third, Trundlers, a homage to the game’s great medium pace bowlers.

The balance of Pearson’s oeuvre seems to be books on the subjects of either football or travel, and he has had a long career as a newspaper columnist and feature writer to go with the books. This time round he has returned to cricket writing and his native Yorkshire, albeit in view of the splendid title he has come up with that much is obvious.

As far as what type of book First of the Summer Wine is it covers a couple of genres. The starting point might be to say that it is a triple biography of that great triumvirate of Yorkshire all-rounders George Hirst, Wilfred Rhodes and Schofield Haigh, but at the same time it is something of a history of Yorkshire cricket between 1891 (when Hirst debuted) and 1930 (when Rhodes finally exited his First Class career).

Throughout the book the main subjects are referred to by their familiar names, so it is ‘George Herbert’, ‘Wilfred’ and ‘Schof’, rather than Hirst, Rhodes and Haigh. The result is an affectionate and highly readable portrait of three very fine cricketers and interesting men. It is nothing like the full biography of Rhodes that recently appeared, but perhaps for some will be a stepping stone to that one. Somewhat surprisingly, particularly in the case of the former, neither Hirst nor Haigh have been the subject of a full biography before.

However gifted a wordsmith a writer might be they are still going to struggle, certainly in a non fiction context, if their research is not good enough. As a result of the task he undertakes there is much scope for Pearson coming unstuck there but I doubt he has done so, given that he successfully avoids three particular traps I kept my eyes peeled for.

Any detailed consideration of Rhodes’ role in Yorkshire cricket history demands some mention of his predecessor, Bobby Peel, which in turn raises the question of the cause of Peel’s sacking by Yorkshire in 1897. Contrary to a number of accounts Lord Hawke did not apprehend Peel urinating on the pitch and Pearson accurately sets out what actually happened. Similarly the events behind Herbert Sutcliffe’s appointment as Yorkshire captain, and his subsequently withdrawing his acceptance of the offer are often misunderstood.

For the reality behind the Peel and Sutcliffe stories we have much to thank the painstaking research of Irving Rosenwater for. That is not the case for Arthur Gilligan, a former England and Sussex skipper who is often pilloried for his fascist beliefs. Gilligan finds his way into Rhodes’ story by virtue of his leading the 1924/25 Ashes party, which was managed by another man with fascist leanings, Frederick Toone, long time secretary of Yorkshire and a man with whom Rhodes did not enjoy a good relationship. Pearson, unlike many writers, draws the important distinction between the British Union of Fascists and the organisation that Gilligan and Toone were members of, the short-lived British Fascists, who Pearson entirely appropriately describes as little more than an adult version of the Boy Scouts.

The research may not be perfect however, although that is not an ‘accusation’. Pearson writes, in the context of the historic we’ll get ‘em in singles partnership between Hirst and Rhodes in 1902 that the tension at the Oval was such that a member in the Surrey pavilion chewed through the handle of his umbrella. That one is a story I had only previously heard in the context of the famous Oval Test of 1882 which started the Ashes legend, although that is not to say that it may not have happened again twenty years later.

First of the Summer Wine is a book that, I have no doubt, will be there or thereabouts when the various 2022 sporting books awards get handed out. There are two reasons for this belief. The first is the simple fact that, like Pearson’s previous books, this one is beautifully written. The second is, in its way, rather more prosaic. By being neither one thing nor the other (full biographies or a full history) Pearson is free to skate over the more tedious moments that his subjects throw up, and on the other hand gets to be discursive when, as he often does, he encounters men or moments along his journey which take his fancy, even if they are of limited relevance to his main themes. The fascinating chapter, The Trouble With Mr Toone, is the best example of that.

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