Through The Remembered GateMartin Chandler |
Author: Chalke, Stephen
Publisher: Fairfield Books
Rating: 5 stars
I was asked recently, not for the first time, what my favourite piece of writing from Stephen Chalke was. It is one of those questions that is impossible to answer because there are so many candidates. If push came to shove I could of course produce a response, but if the question were repeated daily it would be several weeks before I came up with an answer I had already given.
There is however a related question that I can answer, that being which is Stephen’s most memorable piece of writing. For me that has always been the short feature that Stephen was kind enough to allow us to run alongside my review of The Way It Was. It is an evocative account of Wally Hammond’s final First Class innings, which you can still read here.
The word to describe the feature is undoubtedly bittersweet, and I was instantly reminded of it when Through the Remembered Gate came through my letterbox. Reading that has been another bittersweet experience, albeit on a very different level. I have greatly enjoyed reading all of Stephen’s books and an unprecedented five of them have attracted five star reviews on CricketWeb. The joy of Through the Remembered Gate is the appearance of a new book from a favourite writer. The sadness is the knowledge that it will be the last.
At that point however the similarity with Hammond’s final innings ends, as I am pleased but in no way surprised to advise that unlike the great Hammond the great Chalke has bowed out at the top of his game, and Through the Remembered Gate is right up there with Stephen’s best work. It is five stars again, at a canter.
The book is an account of the life of Fairfield Books and the 42 titles it helped into publication between 1997 and 2019. It is an entirely appropriate way to mark the retirement of the Fairfield imprint, and a publisher that will be sadly missed. In that respect the writing of it is, almost by definition, a new departure for Stephen but at least he is on the most familiar of territory.
I had expected the book to be an explanation of how Stephen became a publisher, the hurdles that he had to overcome in doing so and a look at all the individual projects that make up Fairfield’s output over those 22 years. In that assessment I find I was correct, although in fact Through the Remembered Gate is a great deal more than that. It does begin with an explanation of how Runs in the Memory came to be written, and thereby gives the impression of being a strictly chronological journey, but there are many digressions along the way and ultimately the reader does end up with what amounts to a full autobiography from a man who has no rival as a chronicler of cricket in post war England.
Dealing firstly with the books themselves Stephen deals with how these came to be written and gives a fascinating commentary on his relationships with his subjects. Occasionally there is the odd story that, for various reasons, ended up on the cutting room floor, but in the main the various chapters concerning his books are simply reflections by Stephen on those he wrote about. This is particularly important because his raison d’etre in writing the books in the first place was to allow cricketers to tell their own stories, so there is absolutely no duplication here, Stephen not previously having taken the opportunity to provide the sort of judgments that ‘standard’ biographers inevitably do.
There has been, of course, more to Stephen than simply writing books. He has done much other writing for magazines and newspapers, some of which was has been gathered together in Fairfield publications, but much of which has not. There is therefore a good deal of material featured from those smaller projects and, inevitably, along the way there have been a few plans which never came to fruition.
But what of Stephen’s own life? Is that an interesting one? I suspect he probably thinks not, which is why he is weaves it into the story of Fairfield books in the way in which he does, but he would be quite wrong. Coming from the vanguard of the ‘baby boomers’ his is a remarkable generation, or perhaps I should say ‘ours’ given that I seem, by definition, to come from the fag end of it myself. It probably helps that Stephen’s values and outlook on life are very similar to my own, and that we both suffer from having a younger brother whose cricketing talent exceeds our own, but an age difference of a dozen years is a curious one. When you are in your 20s or 30s it is a huge gap, but by middle age you have gradually become contemporaries. In any event I much enjoyed reading about Stephen’s life, one which has certainly not been entirely straight forward but, at the end of the day, one way or another, he has spent all of it improving the lives of others.
Through the Remembered Gate does not need a positive review from me, or anyone else, in order to sell well. I cannot imagine that anyone who has previously bought and enjoyed Stephen’s books will do anything other than buy it. I sincerely hope nonetheless that some have read this review who are not familiar with Stephen’s work. If they have, and they have got this far, they have a treat in store. Stephen Chalke’s oeuvre is a fine example of a gift that goes on giving.