Answering The CallMartin Chandler |
Author: Akeroyd, Paul
Publisher: JW McKenzie Ltd
Rating: 4.5 stars
The general description of a book as a biography covers a number of possibilities. The story of those who have long departed this mortal coil mean that an author’s research is his most valuable asset, especially if his subject died so long ago that all who knew them are gone as well. If the subject is still around the challenges are different. Sometimes those who are being written about and their nearest and dearest clam up completely, and the challenge is then more akin to a historical work.
But sometimes the subject of a book is happy to co-operate, but then again the outcome is uncertain. Sometimes the subject will try and exercise some sort of editorial control, effectively making their co-operation conditional on that, and by its nature his or her input is rarely going to be unbiased. It is also possible that an author will start off, or perhaps become, so enamoured of the person they are writing about that the book turns into a hagiography, lacking much in the way of objective assessment.
And then there is the situation you have here, where the writer has as much access to the man he writing about as he wants, gets his undivided attention during that time, and is then left to write up what he learns without any constraint on what he says. This latter scenario is not of itself a guarantee of the quality of the finished product, but is the best possible start for a biographer and the scenario that faced first time author Paul Akeroyd when he was offered the opportunity to write a life of the iconic WestIndian fast bowler of the 1960s, Wesley Hall.
There was a ghosted autobiography from Hall in 1965, Pace Like Fire which, for a genre of books that in those days tended towards the bland and mediocre isn’t actually too bad, but there has been nothing else and, given the pre-eminence Hall enjoyed as a cricketer and, subsequently, as a politician, minister in the Pentecostal Church and cricket administrator, Answering The Call is long overdue.
Akeroyd, a man who spent his working life in the world of high finance, made four trips from his Surrey home to Barbados to visit Hall and his family and it is estimated he spent more than 100 hours with him. That the two built up a considerable rapport is clear from Akeroyd’s narrative, as is the fact that whilst the inexorable march of Anno Domino might have diminished the magnificent Hall physique, it has clearly done nothing to dull his memory.
It is usually wise to start a book at the beginning, but I am inclined to suggest that those picking up Answering The Call for the first time could do a great deal worse than read chapter 16 before going back to the beginning. That chapter marks the final one of the first part of the book, that dealing with Hall’s cricket career, and from then on the book looks at his many post playing achievements. The significance of chapter 16 is that it is entirely Hall’s own work, and his tribute to the three Ws, Frank Worrell, Clyde Walcott and Everton Weekes. The essay perfectly demonstrates Hall’s wisdom, humility and generosity of spirit.
Overall the Hall story is an inspiring one. He came from humble beginnings to secure a scholarship at one of the leading colleges on the island of Barbados, and proved to be a more than useful wicketkeeper batsman. Remarkably he seems never to have bowled other than in the nets until, at 17, he was asked to do so by a captain in difficulty. Less than two years and just one wicketless First Class appearance on Hall was on his way to England in 1957 as a member of a West Indies touring party.
That one was a dismal tour for the West Indians who lost the Test series 3-0 and were between a rock and a hard place in the two draws. Even so Hall could not force his way into the side, 15 First Class matches bring him just 27 wickets, albeit at the not unreasonable cost of 33.55. He learnt his lessons well however, and after that Hall had the best part of a decade at the top of the game before injury reduced his effectiveness and it was at the relatively early age of 33 that he bowled his last in First Class cricket.
The way in which the book is written is inevitable influenced by the man who edited it, Stephen Chalke, whose skills are best summarised as his ability to facilitate through his own writing the expression of the memories, thoughts and motivations of his subject. That is not to say however that Akeroyd is simply a clone of the master, as he has taken on a different sort of project to anything Stephen has ever done, and brought some his own ideas to bear as well.
So Answering The Call is anything but the sort of biography that could have been assembled from other sources by a writer who had never met Wesley Hall, and indeed the narrative regularly relies on Hall’s own contributions both in relation to his playing career and his many achievements after that. The second part of the book is in some ways even better than the first. Of course many cricketers have moved into the game’s administration, but far fewer into politics or the church, and in embracing all three Hall is surely unique, and therefore so is this splendid biography.
Well designed, superbly illustrated and a fascinating read the question must be why does Answering The Call not quite manage five stars? The reason is that there is one slight disappointment. Hall’s first opening partner was Roy Gilchrist, one of the fieriest and most controversial fast bowlers in history, and his best known Charlie Griffith, the man who was dogged by allegations of throwing throughout his career.
There are lengthy passages on both Gilchrist and Griffith and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Hall is supportive of both. Akeroyd does cross examine his man on the subject of the pair, but to continue the language of the courtroom a goodly number of ‘exhibits’ are not put to him, something which was a slight disappointment, although I have to concede that it may well be that these were two directions in which Hall was not willing to be taken any further.