‘He Dipped His Pen in Vitriol’Martin Chandler |
‘He Dipped His Pen in Vitriol’
So said veteran sportswriter Ian Wooldridge of his long time fellow scribe Evelyn ‘Lyn’ Wellings, a man who, over more than half a century, probably ruffled more cricketing feathers than any other writer before or since.
As we all are Wellings was doubtless shaped by his upbringing. He was born in Egypt, where his father was a tea merchant, before joining the British Army and rising to the rank of Major in the Royal Army Service Corps. In time Wellings Senior was awarded an OBE, in 1920.
In common with many in his situation the six year old Wellings, by dint of being born in 1909 just an Edwardian, was packed off to England for an education that began at a prep school in Bournemouth. He went on to Cheltenham College from where he went to Christ Church, Oxford to read classics. Wellings was a decent golfer who was awarded his blue in that sport and he was also a cricketer, an off spinner and useful lower order batsman. Wellings was good enough to win a blue in 1929 and 1931, and his Wisden obituary suggests the only reason he missed out on one in 1930 was due to a personality clash with that year’s captain. In days when most cricket writers were generally just that rather than players as well Wellings’ experience as a First Class cricketer was unusual and, no doubt, a big advantage to him.
In addition to his appearances for Oxford in 1931 Wellings also appeared four times for Surrey that summer, but he enjoyed no great success in the county game and, as so many with his background did, he went into teaching. The role of schoolmaster was not however a calling that Wellings enjoyed and he stuck it for just a single year, at the end which he was successful in his application for a position as a junior sports reporter with the Daily Mirror. In 1938 he moved on to the London Evening News, and despite many clashes there and a break for war service in the Honourable Artillery Company he remained with the paper for the rest of his career. From 1945 he, additionally wrote Wisden’s annual review of cricket at the Public Schools.
The first book from Wellings was his account of the 1950/51 Ashes series, No Ashes For England, in which he took a broad brush approach, blaming all concerned for England’s failings. The players put having a good time before their duty as players, although that was fairly mild compared with the lashing he saved for the selectors, variously accused of facile optimism, sheer lunacy and taking action dictated by prejudice. Despite those and other criticisms Wellings did however demonstrate his support for Alec Bedser, Len Hutton and Godfrey Evans as well as, perhaps surprisingly after some broadsides on the subject of how he got the job, skipper Freddie Brown.
There was only ever one book on a home Ashes series by Wellings, and that had to wait until 1964. He did however produce a pre tour brochure for the 1953 series, Meet the Australians. As an example of how a tour brochure should be put together it is a model publication and an enjoyable read, but probably most notable now for a foreword from John Arlott in which he describes Wellings as having a shrewd and technically expert eye, which suggests at that time there was at least a degree of mutual respect between the two if not friendship.
If the pair ever did get on the amicable relationship did not last as when Arlott died in 1991 and the octogenarian Wellings was asked by The Guardian for a tribute, according to Arlott’s biographer David Rayvern Allen, Wellings’ response included the comment that Arlott was the most evil man I’ve ever met, an extraordinarily strong reaction. The pair’s fundamental difference of opinion over South Africa was doubtless part of the problem, as well as Arlott’s popularity in the light of his lack of any discernable playing ability.
In 1954/55 England, after losing the first Test but famously inspired by Frank Tyson, came back to retain the Ashes with a 3-1 victory and there was another Wellings book, The Ashes Retained. There was criticism once again for the selectors, as well as for the other members of the press, for barrackers, for players trying to pressurise umpires and, despite the handsome victory, for those England players who Wellings felt paid more heed to playing golf than fielding practice. On the whole completely supportive of Hutton’s captaincy Wellings still managed to criticise him for the marginalising of Alec Bedser, whose non-selection after the first Test he repeatedly deprecated.
Wellings’ book on the 1958/59 Ashes series was pointedly titled The Ashes Thrown Away. Having found much to criticise on the previous trip it is not surprising that Wellings was in his element on this one. Australia’s battery of, in the opinion of many, illegal bowlers and some poor umpiring took much of Wellings’ attention, although he still took the opportunity of taking pot shots at the MCC and its selectors, declaring Lord’s to be controlled by crack-brained theorists.
In May 1962 a article appeared in the Evening News under Wellings’ byline with the headline; May and Surrey rumpus – Decision to miss more matches shocks county. The piece that followed asserted that Surrey skipper Peter May had upset the Surrey committee by declaring that he would not be available to play in any away games that summer, and only half of the home fixtures. Wellings concluded that far from becoming the asset anticipated this year May has turned himself into a liability ………..it is clear that May should either change his mind and play regularly or resign the captaincy.
In the event May played in as many as 17 of Surrey’s 28 fixtures and sued for libel. May later conceded that he accepted that Wellings had submitted his article in good faith on the basis of information received from a normally reliable source but, palpably untrue, his employers wisely decided not to contest the case and a settlement was reached and an appropriately worded apology tendered.
Wellings again spent the winter of 1962/63 in Australia and, on his return, his book on the series was entitled Dexter v Benaud. The review of the book in The Cricketer, unusually, got its own headline, Grouse out of Season!, and the reviewer went on to say whereas well and fairly aimed criticism can be interesting and instructive, there comes a point when too many grouses about almost everything and everyone becomes tedious. This book contains a grouse on almost every page. This is the tour where England were managed by the Duke of Norfolk, whose rank certainly did not render him immune from the acid pen of Wellings and the two men most certainly did not get on.
The following winter England toured India. The team selected was some way below full strength and the side badly affected by illness. All five Tests were drawn and watched by Wellings, reporting for the Evening News. There was no book on the series but, for the only time, Rowland Bowen decided to mention Wellings. Both being men who held trenchant views fireworks might have been expected, so Bowen’s comments are worth setting out in full:-
This leads us on naturally to our newspaper writers most of whom showed that they did not know how to behave in print: they let us down badly with one notable, and to many people surprising, exception. This was EM Wellings whose sourness, so often noted before, seemed wholly absent: his comments were sympathetic and his criticisms valid. He did not parade his ignorance of Indian conditions as did all the others (maybe he is not ignorant of them) and proved to be the only one consistently worth reading, the only one who did not indulge in either snide or vulgar remarks on the country he was visiting, and on its inhabitants.
We mention all this at some length because we know that Wellings is not the best liked cricket writer – often through his own fault. The Indian tour has shown that he can write moderately and with pleasure and that it may be we can look forward to a more benign, and less carping approach from him in future: it would be cricket’s game as well as Wellings.
After the side’s return there was a home Ashes series to contest and it was a disappointing one. Australia, weakened by the retirements of such luminaries as Richie Benaud, Alan Davidson and Neil Harvey were still good enough to beat England and, despite Bowen’s expressed hopes, in his book of the series, Simpson’s Australians, Wellings reverted to type. His conclusion says it all:-
So much was wrong with English cricket that it is difficult to know just where the rulers ought to set about putting things right.The first essential is to recognise that the fault lies with the players and not the game. The spirit of our cricket, once bold and challenging, has become timid, the emphasis placed firmly on defensive safety.
But if those who ran the game thought that for once they were avoiding Wellings’ ire they were to be disappointed as he continued my criticism of the administrators is that they have done too much in unnecessary directions and too little to check undesirable tendencies.
There were no more Ashes books from Wellings after that on the 1964 series, although he did not attend his last Test match as an Evening News journalist until 1973. He went to Australia again in 1970/71 and watched Ray Illingworth’s side bring back the Ashes. There was much sympathy in the press box for the man who missed out on the captaincy, Colin Cowdrey who, as Illingworth’s deputy, did not have a happy trip. Wellings was an exception, and despite sharing a public school background with Cowdrey was entirely supportive of Illingworth, the gruff Yorkshireman.
As a retiree Wellings and his second wife initially took themselves off to Spain, David Frith recalling that that was to the amusement of those who had always accused Wellings of standing, politically, somewhere to the right of General Franco. Wellings did return however and an older but not noticeably mellower character started to write the occasional feature for Frith’s Wisden Cricket Monthly, and he also produced an interesting book, part autobiography and part appreciation of the great players of his youth, Vintage Cricketers. What had certainly not changed were his views on one day cricket, overseas players in the county game and poor technique.
Frith, not a man himself who generally panders to the feelings of others sums up Wellings rather well. As far as his writing is concerned his view is that he was not a pretentious writer, no lyrical Cardus. He dealt solely in fact and considered opinion. As a man Frith wrote he (Wellings) seemed to relish swimming against the current. He detested pomposity, intrigue and bad cricket, and instinctively lashed out against those things.
Lyn Wellings died in 1992 at the age of 83. His last wish was for his body to be cremated and his ashes scattered at sea before any announcement was made. There was then a funeral with just five people in attendance including the minister who conducted the service, Wellings’ widow and Frith, who was asked, as he walked in to the ceremony, to give a brief eulogy. Cricket writing has never really seen Lyn Wellings’ like again, which might be just as well – quite what he would have thought of T20 and ‘The Hundred’ I dread to think.