Footprints: David Foot’s Lifetime of Writing

Published: 2023
Pages: 384
Author: Chalke, Stephen
Publisher: Charlcombe Books
Rating: 4.5 stars

Between 1982 and 1996 it was much easier to talk to people about David Foot, as over those years it was possible to introduce his name into a conversation simply by referring to him as ‘the author of the finest cricketing biography ever written’. Harold Gimblett: Tortured Genius of Cricket was the book concerned and, without ever selling as many copies as it deserved to, it redefined the genre.

But then in 1996 Foot rather muddied those waters by publishing Wally Hammond: The Reason Why. To this day I have never been able to decide which of the two is the better book. One thing I did, to my amazement, learn from Footprints was that the Hammond biography received a single poor review, an Irish lawyer describing it as rather spoiled by slapstick presentation, exaggerated language, unsupported innuendo and outworn cliches – clearly he was not a man who was easy to please nor, I would respectfully suggest, one with a soul.

For anyone who hasn’t read the Gimblett and the Hammond you have a treat in store, but before dashing off to seek those out I would still recommend reading Stephen Chalke’s wonderful tribute to his old friend before you do. Footprints will tell you everything you need to know about the man who wrote those books, and point you in the direction of a few more classics as well.

Foot was born in 1929, and although the world saw many changes in his 92 years he was a West Countryman through and through. Life wasn’t easy for many brought up in the years of the Great Depression, but Foot was clearly a man with a strong work ethic. He served an old-fashioned apprenticeship in journalism eventually becoming a freelancer in 1962. He was never short of work.

After his passing Foot’s diaries, scrapbooks, correspondence and unused or unfinished projects were packed up by his children and passed to Stephen Chalke, who had published several of his books, for Stephen to sift through in order to facilitate the writing of Footprints.

It may be that Footprints started off as a project to put together what would essentially be an anthology. Clearly with Stephen in charge it was never going to be the sort of collection of writings that so many anthologies are, but I do wonder if he started with the intention of writing what amounts to a full biography, albeit one with many extracts from Foot’s oeuvre to illustrate it.

Although Foot himself might well have disagreed, his was most certainly an interesting life. That old style apprenticeship he served together with the times in which he lived see to that. In addition despite being best known for his cricket writing Foot reported on much else besides. In the winter there was, of course, no cricket to write about, so he turned his attention to football, but he was also a theatre and entertainment critic as well as, when called upon to be so, an old fashioned newshound who made himself available to turn out at all hours and report on crime and other items of local news.

As far as Foot’s books are concerned they are in the main on cricketing subjects, but there are exceptions. One of the ghosted autobiographies he wrote was for a television gardening expert, and another for skater Robin Cousins. And then there is one that I had never heard of, but which the extracts suggest might be right up there with the Gimblett and the Hammond. It is Ladies Mile, the story of Victoria Hughes and her time as a lavatory attendant on Bristol Downs, in the course of which she befriended the local sex workers. According to Stephen there is a real possibility that the book may be reprinted. I have no doubt I will not be the only reader of the extracts in Footprints who will be putting their names down for a copy of that one.

There are 26 chapters in Footprints, and all follow a similar pattern. The first part of each chapter is Stephen’s biography, and that is followed by a selection of Foot’s writings. There is one lengthy extract, the entirety of the essay from Fragments of Idolatry on the cricket loving poet Siegfried Sassoon, but while there are passages from most of Foot’s books the bulk of the material comes from more ephemeral sources, and a good deal has never been published before.

One Foot book that never saw the light of day, and indeed was never completed, was a biography of WG Grace. There have been many biographies of Grace, and a not inconsiderable number have been published since the mid 1960s when Foot was planning his. For the first time in Footprints a few paragraphs from the biography are published, and it is certainly a matter for regret that the project never came to fruition.

The choices Stephen makes are wide ranging and showcase the entire range of Foot’s work. Perhaps one small regret is that the review of a play where Foot for once demonstrated an uncharacteristic caustic streak is referenced in the biography but not reproduced in full, but doubtless there is good reason for that.

A favourite piece? To my surprise that is actually a straightforward choice. Nostalgia is a popular thing of course, and Foot’s 2009 piece for The Guardian, bearing the title Pink ‘uns and Green ‘uns is a wonderful slice of that. It is a topic that will mean nothing to anyone under 50, and precious little to anyone a decade older, but those approaching retirement age and beyond will remember the frantic dash to the newsstands on a  Saturday evening in the football season to pick up the last edition of the local paper, complete with all the results, reports and tables.

But no one should think that Footprints is a book only for the grey market. Anyone who enjoys good writing will appreciate this account of the life and work of a cricket writer who had few peers, particularly as it is penned by one of the few who do merit that description and who was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the right man for the job.

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