The Cricketing Family EdrichMartin Chandler |
Author: Barker, Ralph
Publisher: Pelham Books
Rating: 3 stars
Ralph Barker was a master of the written reconstruction of a cricket match, and his essay on Harold Gimblett’s debut century in Ten Great Innings is one of the most evocative pieces of cricket writing it has been my pleasure to read. He also wrote a companion volume called Ten Great Bowlers that Archie enthused about here, and two other books, Purple Patches and Innings of a Lifetime adopted a similar approach and are also wonderful books. Despite those successes Barker did not write a cricket book in the last quarter of a century of his life (although he continued to publish on matters military), and this 1976 effort was the closest he came to writing a biography.
Most cricket lovers with any feel for the history of the game have heard of Bill and John Edrich, both capped many times by England and, as their careers overlapped for just a couple of seasons in the late 1950s, the first part of the book is largely devoted to Bill’s pre-war career, and the last to John’s in the 1960s and 1970s. Sandwiched between is a third part of the book, that deals with Bill’s post-war career, John’s early years, and the stories of Bill’s three brothers, Eric and Geoff who played for Lancashire, and Brian who played for Kent and Glamorgan. John was a cousin to the other four.
The Cricketing Family Edrich was one of the first cricket books I ever read and was certainly one of the most enjoyable. If I had been asked to review it twenty years ago I might have thought about an award of five stars, and it certainly wouldn’t have been less than four, but that was then, and now is now, and the biographical landscape is not the same as it once was.
But times have moved on, and the expectations of the reader of a biography, even a sporting one, is not the same now as it was in 1976. David Kynaston is a professional historian. His book Austerity Britain 1945-1951 received huge critical acclaim. He has also written three cricket books, concentrating on men and matches a couple of generations before the period covered by his day job specialism. Those titles include a biography of Bobby Abel that Archie reviewed here. The Abel story spawned a second edition in 2007, albeit with just a small print run of 150 copies, and that new impression included an interesting digression on the changing face of cricketing biography.
Kynaston noted that traditional cricketing biographies had a tendency to be unduly reverential, rarely exploring the darker sides of subjects, and often failing to present the full story. He expressed the hope that a trend he had identified towards much fuller and more rounded accounts of cricketer’s lives would continue. Recent biographies of Jack Hobbs, Harold Larwood and Fred Trueman amongst others have seen his wish fulfilled.
Which brings me back to The Cricketing Family Edrich which falls fairly and squarely into the old-fashioned school of sporting biographies. All of the five men whose lives it showcased were alive when the book was written, and that may well have had something to do with Barker’s approach, but I suspect that in truth the main reason for the way the book was written was simply because it followed the manner of the times.
Taking Bill first. He was a 24 carat war hero, piloting bombers in the European theatre for more than three years. The odds on Squadron Leader Edrich DFC surviving at all must, bearing in mind the number of missions he flew, have been very long indeed. What we do know is that, six marriages being packed into his adulthood, his peacetime view of how life should be lived was far from conventional. Barker too served in the RAF, at about the same time, so would have had precious insights which could have helped him fully examine Bill’s changing personality and character traits.
And as for Geoff what a life he had – three years as a prisoner of war of the Japanese, and then on his return to England he found his wife had been in receipt of a widow’s pension for years, and had rebuilt her life in the knowledge that she wouldn’t be seeing her husband again, nor their young son his father. They did live together again, but not immediately. What happened there, and how did that affect Geoff mentally? To go through what he endured and then face the prospect of it all being in vain must have been a nightmare of the worst kind.
The full stories of Eric and Brian would also make interesting reading. Eric didn’t go to war. I suspect that he was in a reserved occupation but the whole reason is not clear – how did he feel about that given the service his brothers gave to King and country? Did he just go to Lancashire with Geoff to keep an eye on his younger brother? And why exactly did he leave when he did? All are interesting areas but none are fully explored. And then there was Brian, youngest of the brotherhood. He did serve his country and, like Bill as a pilot, but he flew transports in India – would he have liked to have been one of the death or glory boys, or was he content with the contribution he made? What too of his cricket career? His stats suggest that he really wasn’t good enough, particularly in his years at Glamorgan, but he still played professional cricket for a decade – why?
I will be less critical where John was concerned as, after all, the most controversial incident in his career – that Saturday evening at Old Trafford when Clive Lloyd’s first fast bowling dynasty appeared to be trying to blast him and Brian Close out – followed on a few months after the book was published, but there is still very little of a combative nature in the writing, and the real John Edrich does not really emerge.
So I no longer feel able to rate The Cricketing Family Edrich particularly highly, although I should make it clear that the book is extremely well written and, as far as it goes, is an interesting story that is very well told – its only problem is that in the 21st century an exacting readership wants rather more from its biographies. Here is a story that is crying out to be re-told – perhaps Mr Kynaston would like to volunteer to pen it?