Cricket Books

In a parallel universe, this weekend should have seen the start of the English cricket season. I have a rather heavily mediated relationship to cricket – I read about it, sometimes (less so since the retirement of Mike Selvey as The Guardian’s correspondent), listen because it’s good background noise, but rarely watch it ‘live’ on TV or, well, live. I used, long ago, to play. Not anymore.

I went through a phase, a few years ago, of culling books, a phase which I now somewhat regret (not because I need to read those discarded books again, but because books make good furniture, and also, because I tend to forget what I have read unless I can physically see the evidence). The exception to this regret is cricket books, which I’m always quite good at getting rid of. I keep acquiring them thinking that they are likely to be better than they turn out to be, and then disposing of them. It turns out that, unlike dogs, cricket books really are often just for Christmas.

Sometimes, reading cricket books can be actively unpleasant. A few Christmas’s ago, I read Cricket at the Crossroads, by Guy Fraser-Sampson, which sounded like it might be an incisive narrative of the intersection of cricket, class, race and politics at the end of the 1960s through the mid-1970s, but which was actually a rather reactionary ramble through umpteen England Test series, which ends with the bizarre suggestion that the ascendancy of the West Indies under Clive Lloyd after 1976 – one of the few sports teams to have attained the heights of political cool – marked the start of a new ‘dark age’ in international cricket (and not in an ironic way). Lloyd ends up being compared to both Henry Kissinger and Nazi war criminals. Reading this book was like being transplanted back to The Daily Telegraph editorial page, circa 1984 (I’m less familiar with its stance these days).

I carry a certain sort of shame about my attachment to cricket. I can’t help it if an important part of my own reading history and selective bibliophilia has involved cricket books. My first sustained engagement with the world of libraries was in the summer of 1980, riding to and from the library in East Grinstead every couple of days, working my way through ‘autobiographies’ by John Snow, Tony Greig, Derek Randall, Mike Proctor, Zaheer Abbas, Barry Richards (the books by South African cricketers all had, as I recall, an interesting generic quality, revolving around protected white boys learning how to get along in the multi-racial worlds which they found themselves in once they left home).

Part of the shame probably has to do with cricket being associated with, amongst other things, a certain sort of dorkishness which also served as part of its attraction. At the same time, books are important to the forms of defence that dorky boys have against that very shame. It’s often claimed that cricket generates lots of great writing. This is nonsense, of course. Most cricket writing, perhaps especially much of the lauded ‘literary’ type, is terrible: lots of flowery adjectives does not add up to great literature.

Another line of defence is also supported by cricket’s written archive – this is the “what do they know of cricket who only cricket know” line of defence, a line particularly appealing to young twenty-somethings doing PhDs on more-or-less-Marxist sorts of topics in a more-or-less-Marxist milieu, while also opening the batting a couple of times a week wearing a silly hat.

There are plenty of ‘academic’ cricket books, or cricket books by academics – writing by Derek Birley, Ramachandra Guha, and Ashis Nandy for example. Mike Brearley’s On Form, an odd hybrid of reflection from the perspective of two professions, cricketer an psychoanalysis, would count too. Andrew Hignell’s Rain Stops Play is full-on cricket-climatology. On the other hand, there is a whole genre of low-level pseudo-intellectual writing about cricket (which can you get you the job of selecting the England team).

Cricket has an affinity with baseball for attracting a certain sort of middle-brow literary-like snobbery. On the other hand, I can think of few cricket books which are quite as smart as Stephen Jay Gould’s Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville or Mark Kingwell’s Fail Better (It is one of the constitutive conceits of English cricket that baseball is a lesser, vulgar relative. But baseball is much more traditional, and a lot less corrupt. It is also subject to a more serious, sometimes profound, degree of over-intellectualisation than cricket).

Anyway, all of this is just an excuse for another list, not so much of my favourite cricket books, not even of books I would necessarily recommend to others as good books, but of cricket books that I couldn’t imagine ever getting rid of because of the resonances they still have for me, personally. For example, Mike Atherton’s Opening Up may or may not be just another standard sports bio, but I cherish it for reading it all in one sitting on an 11-hour flight from Johannesburg to London in 2004, and remember it as a genuinely tragic narrative of unfulfilled potential fully acknowledged, and as the single most incisive critique of the parochial nationalistic vanities of English cricket culture in the 1980s and 1990s (I also have a weak Kevin Bacon-esque less-than-six degrees of separation to part of Atherton’s story, but that’s a very dull story about how my finest cricketing achievement was to not score any runs for a very long time).

Here, then, is my list of five books about cricket that I can’t imagine getting rid of:

1). It’s a cliché to have CLR James’ Beyond a Boundary on a list of must-read cricket books. Quite right too. My copy is actually a US edition, bought in the long-lost second-hand store of Oxford Books in Atlanta, and it has a great introduction explaining cricket to the uninitiated.

2). Anything by Gideon Haigh, which is also a bit of cliché I guess, but Haigh’s writing is devoid of sentimentality and full of critical distance in a way that is almost unique in cricket writing. And his book about club cricket might be the closest cricket writing has come to anything as profound as Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. I’ve also had an almost sublime book-buying experience with one of his books – in the summer of 2005, quite by accident, in between the 3rd and 4th Tests of the famously tense Ashes series of that summer, I went on a week’s holiday to Rhodes (booked without any thought of cricketing schedules I should add), and in a weird laundrette-bookshop found the perfect book to get me through that week, a copy of Haigh’s Mystery Spinner, which is another tragic cricket story. Come to think of it, there are a few of them – Chris Ryan’s Golden Boy is one of the best ever books about cultures of toxic masculinity, for example.

3). Mike Marqusee’s Anyone But England. This expresses almost perfectly the dynamic of repulsion and attraction that sustained my own interest in cricket throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

4). My own attachment to South African things was in large part shaped by the weird status of South Africa in the public culture of English cricket in the 1980s. There’s a whole book to be written about this issue, of what ‘South Africa’ has meant to Englishness – I could envisage a kind of cricketing variant of Bill Schwarz’s historical account of ‘overseas‘-ness in post-war English culture. Bruce Murray and Christoper Merritt’s Caught Behind is one entry point into a small but sustained tradition of South African scholarship and journalism that puts the romanticisation of lost generations and rainbow readmissions into proper perspective. 

5). The Wisden Anthology 1978-2006 (sub-titled ‘cricket’s age of revolution’) is a rather wonderful expression of the shift in cricket culture, traceable in the changing register of editorials from curmudgeonly reactionary Toryism to a rather more pluralist perspective across that period. I read it while buried in the first few weeks of new-parenthood in the winter of 2006-7, and remember it as being a book about a culture that I had been a witness to, and sometimes a participant in, over almost exactly that period.

I could go on. I still haven’t got round to reading my late mother’s copy of David Sheppard’s Steps Along Hope Streethe was something of an idol of hers, I think, without her ever quite sharing many of his avowed values. But I should stop. I don’t even really like cricket anymore. I just know about it.


Lunch with Harold Wilson

In the early 1990s, when I was a graduate student, my parents would sometimes visit and we’d go to lunch, mostly on Sundays. On more than one occasion, we found ourselves in the same restaurant as a much larger family party: kids, parents, and grandparents, one of whom, it turned out, was Harold Wilson.

I have remembered these passing encounters because I have been going through more family stuff, most of which is material from the time my parents spent overseas in the early part of their marriage, from 1958 to 1965. I have been piecing together the precise timeline of their movements, and those of my sisters born back then – I’ve always known they lived in Rhodesia, after Cyprus, were out of Rhodesia before UDI, and in Zambia for a bit, then came back to the UK, but the precise timings have all been a bit vague. Now, with an archive of my mother’s scrapbooks from this period, 100s of photos, cinefilms, their passports, a couple of their books (Ian Smith’s autobiography; the 1000 page history of the Rhodesian Air Force, 1920 – 1980….), plus a bit of googling, it’s becoming a little clearer. 

My father went to Rhodesia in 1959 (closely followed by my mother), when the British delivered the first of 15 Canberra bombers to the Royal Rhodesian Air Force (RRAF), then the air force of the Central African Federation. He had transferred his RAF commission to the RRAF, signing up for a ten year stint (the precise motivations behind this decision, how the two of them negotiated this barely a year or so into their marriage, is well and truly lost to the mists of time). But the Central African Federation (CAF) was already in crisis at this point. Pressures for independence for Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland were generating the counter-movement that would lead eventually to the Rhodesia Front regime in Southern Rhodesia declaring independence unilaterally to forestall any further moves to black majority rule, or indeed anything even approaching it. Founded in 1953, considered by its supporters as a noble experiment, the CAF was described by Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia Shall be Free simply as ‘ugly’ – suspected from its foundation by African nationalists as an effort to effectively gerrymander the region to guarantee continued authority for Southern Rhodesia’s white minority.

When the CAF was formally dissolved in 1963, serving members in the RRAF were given various options, laid out in a pamphlet kept in one of my mum’s scrapbooks: ‘Dissolution of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland: Royal Rhodesian Air Force – Options Available to Officers and European Members’. Some stayed with the RRAF in Southern Rhodesia; others, including my old man, transferred back into the RAF, but in his case on condition of serving a two-year secondment with the soon to be Zambian Air Force, initially the Northern Rhodesian Air Wing (it being clearly underlined in the paperwork, otherwise focussing on pension issues, that this meant transferring to a military service where “all units must be non-racial in character”). So, my parents lived in Zambia for two years, either side of independence, and came home with both sisters at the end of 1965 (the tickets and boarding passes for the trip home are amongst the souvenirs my mother kept – flying with Central African Airways, it involved flying from Livingstone to Lusaka, onto Ndola, then to Nairobi, and then finally to London. She also kept a set of the in-flight cutlery, of which only a small fork remains). 

I have not really considered before just how intense a period of geopolitical tension they lived through – it didn’t seem to be an aspect of their own recollections of this period. When talked about, their time in Rhodesia and in Livingstone was mentioned in terms of seemingly endless tennis, and regular brais, two Alsatians. But air power was pretty central to the crisis around the CAF, Rhodesia, and UDI throughout the 1950s and 1960s – white Rhodesian identity centred on notions of being ‘the most loyal of the loyal’ in their service to the Crown, primarily enacted and re-enacted through the close links between the RAF and Rhodesia, back to the second world war at least, and the Rhodesian air force was thoroughly integrated into post-war British imperial and then Commonwealth defence strategy – that’s why they were flogged the Canberras in the first place. And in turn, this meant that ‘the winds of change’ set in motion by changing British colonial policy in the early 1960s ran straight into the very significant obstacle of white-Rhodesian air power. In the deal done to dissolve the Federation, in 1963, under a Tory British government, the Southern Rhodesians got all the good planes – the ones which could do all the damage – as the same pamphlet explains: they got Hunters, Vampires, Canberras, and helicopters, amongst other things.  The Zambians had to settle for a handful of ageing transport planes: 4 Dakotas and 2 Pembrokes. Oh, and my dad, and some of his mates. This arrangement (not the bit about my dad, the bit about the planes) caused consternation amongst black African nations at the time – it’s at this moment that Zambia effectively becomes a ‘frontline’ state.

Smith, in The Great Betrayal, describes this allocation in the following way: “It had been accepted before the conference [in July 1963 where it was agreed to dissolve the CAF] that the armed forces would come to Southern Rhodesia en bloc. This was vital to us because both army and air force were highly efficient, and constituted the most proficient fighting force in sub-Saharan Africa, other than South Africa’s. The British had made it clear that they did not wich any of this to fall into the hands of the two Northern territories”.

On the other hand, this division is seen rather differently from a Zambian perspective:

“Zambia’s treatment at independence in the case of the two Rhodesias may probably go down as one of the greatest injustices ever to occur in the sharing of goods and services between states previously in a federal system of government. This was particularly evident in the sharing of the military arsenal between the two Rhodesias. Northern Rhodesia was the richest territory in the federation, despite the federation’s capital being in Southern Rhodesia. One would therefore have expected the sharing to have been in favour of the highest contributor to the purchase of that equipment—or, at the least, an equitable distribution. This was not to be. Southern Rhodesia received the lion’s share, leaving the new state of Zambia with some old and out-of-service aircraft four DC-3 Dakotas and two Pembrokes) and little of anything else. In addition, the new state of Zambia did not have its own indigenous officer corps—all officers were from the British Army and the British Royal Air Force, or from the ‘white’ settler communities from both Southern and Northern Rhodesias (now Zimbabwe and Zambia respectively) who had decided to cast their lot with Salisbury—another distinction for Southern Rhodesia.”

This is all well enough known, and part of the standard story about the lead-up to UDI is the idea that in 1964 and 1965, under Wilson’s newly elected Labour government, the British did not go down the route of military intervention because of the strength of the Rhodesian military, particularly it’s air force, and also because of the close personal and professional ties between the British and Rhodesian military meant that the government could not depend on the loyalty of the RAF or Army. It’s a line, for example, repeated by Denis Healy in his autobiography.  

So now, you see, I’m suddenly struck by the odd idea that Harold Wilson once sat around strategizing about how to deal with Ian Smith by making judgements about the loyalty of men like my dad – by this time, 1964-5, serving again in the RAF, on secondment to the Zambian Air Force, having spent 4 years in the RRAF.

Now, it turns out that this line about the problem of getting the British military to engage in hostilities with their white Rhodesian ‘kith and kin’ might not have been quite so central to Wilson’s decision-making and that of his government as is often made out – it might have been a convenient excuse: “the British government rejected the option of using force because it was engaged in a desperate struggle to limit its military liabilities for economic reasons […] but publicly it was prudent to argue that the use of force was neither militarily feasible, nor desirable because of popular sympathy for Rhodesian ‘kith and kin'” (Watts, C. 2005: Killing kith and kin: the viability of British military intervention in Rhodesia, 1964-5. Twentieth-Century British History 16, 382-415).

(By the way, another thing I have not done before is actually read Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence – it’s reproduced in Smith’s book. It’s a most remarkable political document – it’s like a long whinge from a recalcitrant child, a geopolitical version of taking one’s ball home because the bigger kids wouldn’t let you have your way).

I now realise how, whatever their motivations, my parents had gone to Rhodesia for more than the few years they ended up staying, 5 or 6, but had intended at least to be there for 10 – their coming home, having enjoyed being part of the final colonial generation, and an event that shaped much of the subsequent emotional ‘shape’ of my family’s life as I have known it, was both premature and forced on them. Bill Schwarz has written about how the memory of empire was critical to the ways in which British domestic politics unfolded in 1960s through to the 1980s, focussing on the central role of Enoch Powell’s  ‘proconsular social vision’ in articulating a racialised vision of order and disorder that had been most clearly developed ‘overseas’, and not least in places like Rhodesia before and after the dissolution of the CAF. Well my parents were hardly ‘proconsular’, but they certainly bought back home not just a memory of an orderly world but one which was experienced as upward social mobility, comfort and the good life of a sort that returning to married quarters in provincial England might not have immediately substituted for. My mother stopped scrapbooking when they got back to England – the very last thing pasted in is the paperwork allocating them their married quarter at RAF Honington, in December 1965.

There is a distinctly Rhodesian variant of what J.M. Coetzee has called ‘white writing’, in books by writers such as Alexandra Fuller and Peter Godwin, recounting the pleasures and losses of growing up in Rhodesia in the 1960s and 1970s. My mother read these books, but this was not quite the period of her own experience. I should admit too that I gave her Smith’s autobiography, with some reservations of principle, and I think she finally worked out that he really was ‘a nasty piece of work’.

None of this ever came up when we sat across the room from Wilson, just a few years before his death, in a restaurant in Oxford.