The Great Romantic

Published: 2019
Pages: 370
Author: Hamilton, Duncan
Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton
Rating: 5 stars

At the end of his prologue to The Great Romantic Duncan Hamilton quotes a rhetorical question that, when he was a young aspiring writer, John Arlott put to him on the subject of Neville Cardus; can you imagine how the literature of cricket would look without him?

In the context of the conversation Hamilton and Arlott were having no answer was given, nor was one necessary. Perhaps one should be given now however, and that answer is that it would be a great deal less interesting. Cricket reporters would still write in the manner of Pelham Warner, Sir Home Gordon and EHD Sewell. There would be no Arlott as we know him, and Hamilton himself might well have chosen to confine his journalistic ambitions to football.

Cardus has never been all things to all men, and he does and always has had his critics, some quite vociferous at times. But it is probably fair to say that he has always been most things to most men, and that no one has influenced cricket writing to anything like the same extent he did. In addition even the detractors cannot dispute that, whatever brickbats they throw, Cardus was certainly a man who led an interesting and unusual life.

Hamilton on the other hand, despite it would seem having been somewhat nomadic in the past, gives the impression of having a relatively conventional existence. Assuming that is the case it at least demonstrates that there was no causal link between the Cardus eccentricities and his genius as a writer, because while his strengths may be a little different Hamilton is, realistically, every bit as compelling in what he writes as Cardus was.

The problem with Cardus stems from the fact that over the years so much has been written about him by so many, and by no means the least of the ‘many’ was the man himself. Given Cardus’ own willingness to, on occasion, depart from the whole truth where it suited his purpose, or his not marshalling his facts as thoroughly as he might have, this does cause some confusion amongst those, like this reviewer, who have read widely about the man.

The Cardus story has been picked over many times. From humble beginnings, the son of a prostitute, Cardus had little formal education but succeeded in spending the greater part of his working life as the pre-eminent cricket writer of his time as well as a music critic of great renown. He also lived a strange life. A happy and seemingly mutually fulfilling marriage endured for over forty years despite the spouses generally living apart and having no physical intimacy.

In 1947 Cardus published Autobiography, a book which sold very well and in which he told the story of his life. Three years later another volume of autobiography, Second Innings, appeared. Almost at the end of Cardus’ long life, in 1970, Full Score appeared, effectively a third autobiography. Cardus was 86 when he died in 1975 and three books that can fairly be described as biographical have appeared since then, as well as many articles and memoirs in various newspapers, magazines and journals.

As all Cardus aficionados know very well our hero was not above a bit of embellishment from time to time. It is a potentially serious offence for any writer charged with a duty to report facts, although Cardus is exculpated by his motivation to improve his reader’s experience. It is not something that he brought to his writing about himself, but his other ‘flaws’ of not being overly diligent in relation to matters of detail and particularly statistics do affect his autobiographies, as well as his occasional drawing of a veil, usually with good reason, over some matters of details.

The result is that despite having read much of the available literature published by and about Cardus, and therefore knowing a good deal about his life and times, I had never really understood a number of aspects of his story. In particular the background to his stint as an assistant professional at Shrewsbury School and his spending the duration of the second world war in Australia had always escaped me. In addition whilst the fact of the extra-marital relationships I understood and is not something that has ever been a secret the identities of and any details about the ladies concerned had never really sunk in.

Hamilton has clearly read everything about Cardus that I have read, and in addition a great deal more. He has gained access to many archives and in doing so had sight of many numerous letters written and received by Cardus from a wide range of correspondents. He has even tracked down a couple of old television programmes about his subject as well as, sadly, confirming the existence of others which now appear to be lost.

Thanks to The Great Romantic I can now say that I am able to put everything I previously knew about Cardus in its proper context. I have been assisted by learning plenty of new snippets of information but, and for this I am particularly grateful to Hamilton, I now understand what made Cardus tick, something I had started the book with no real idea of. Such knowledge usually comes at a cost in terms of time occupied and mental energy being expended, but not this time. As anyone who has read his biography of Harold Larwood will know Hamilton is a wonderful writer, whose prose is a delight to read and very difficult to put down.

In terms of attributing a rating to The Great Romantic I was going to give 4.5 stars, just shy of a maximum to reflect a slight disappointment in the illustrations, a goodly number of which I had seen before. That said I understand that as a man who died the best part of half a century ago and who left no descendants the likelihood of new images coming to light, particularly of a young Cardus, is pretty remote, and I was still mulling over that issue as I approached the last chapter.

The closing pages of any decent biography will, naturally, contain the author’s reflections on his subject, and The Great Romantic is no different, although the way Hamilton approaches that task is certainly a new one on me. He does it in the context of his attendance at last July’s Old Trafford Roses match, which just so happened to be the scene of a remarkable bowling achievement. Saying goodbye to Cardus amidst a description of a cricket match that featured Haseeb Hameed, James Anderson, Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow is a masterstroke, and means a maximum for The Great Romantic.

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