by Eric Midwinter
This is a shortened version of the talk which Eric would have given after the ACS AGM on 21 March 2020, which had to be postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The sharp-eyed will notice that I swiftly changed the title from ‘My Life in Cricket’, which had an ostentatious and misleading ring for someone who has gained more from cricket that he has contributed.
Such slight contribution falls into two discrete phases. From the age of five in 1937 the watching and, gradually, the playing, ever at a moderate level; until 1975, when I moved for professional reasons from the north to the London area, where it became watching and writing. I never played after nor wrote before 1975.
Had I been giving a talk as planned, I would have regaled the assembled multitude with one or two colourful tales of ‘rough’ cricket before dwelling on the more serious business of cricket scholarship, but that must await another occasion.
There is just one pre-1975 issue I would raise, for it affects the whole of this account. As the first grammar school/university product of a working-class home, I owe a huge debt to my father who inducted me into two major interests, which had, primarily, the effect of keeping me firmly fixed in my cultural roots and closely linked with my happy domestic setting.
Sport, especially cricket, was one. The other was light entertainment, as in the variety theatre, seaside summer shows and the like. Thus, as well as playing/watching cricket, football and rugby very regularly, I was watching lots of variety and also, from the age of fourteen, involved in an amateur youth concert party and then other such activities, inclusive of cabaret, revue and pantomime for many years.
On moving to work in the metropolis, I resolved to widen the scope of my authorship which, to that point, had been taken up with conventional history and educational themes. It was somehow easier in London to do this and I began with a book in each genre: Make ’em Laugh: Famous Comedians and their Worlds and W.G.Grace: His Life and Times.
Both titles hint at my approach. In the company of both cricket and music hall researchers, I make the same plea, not least for the pragmatic reason that in both fellowships I am the least knowledgeable on the subject per se. As a 19th and early 20th-century historian by trade, I describe myself as a social historian with an interest in cricket or comedians, rather than as a cricket or theatre historian/researcher.
I was delighted when, in his review of the Grace book, John Arlott wrote that it was the first time anyone had treated WG as an historical figure in his own right. I thought, ‘Well, that’s two of us who know what I’m trying to do.’ Similarly with the comedians.
The more I read and thought about both topics, the more convinced I became of their sheer importance in popular culture and national life. Whether it be Max Miller or Jack Hobbs, I believe their significance historically is just as profound as many who people our history text books. One boast I shall risk. No one surpasses me in my credo that cricket – and comedy – is of the utmost importance in our national society’s narrative.
So for 45 years I have seesawed between the two interests, always with this urgent sense of their sheer fundamental importance in mind. I have written sixteen or so books on sports, principally cricket (three of them courtesy of the splendid ACS), and some ten books on light entertainment, principally comedians. I was swiftly drafted into reviewing by the humane figure of Christopher Martin-Jenkins, and into profiles and articles on entertainers for New Society. I have ‘done’ a dozen comedians and about the same number of cricketers for the New Dictionary of Biography. In the 1990s I answered the challenge of Richard Hill’s remarkable Cricket Lore with 86 articles, a self-education in itself. For ten years, 1997-2006, I edited the MCC annual/yearbook; for eight years, 2002-2009, I chaired the judges for the Cricket Book of the Year Award, and, coming closer to home, I was privileged to be President of the ACS for seven years, 1997-2004. I have written articles for the Cricket Society and, of course, the ACS journal, and I have done the same in something like the same quantity for Call Boy, the quarterly of the British Music Hall Society, which, with a membership including many ardent and devoted researchers, is a sort of theatrical ACS.
Frankly, it was only when I plotted the preceding paragraph that I became aware of the close parity in typology and volume of the two strands. And in all these activities my central, while not exclusive, purpose has been to urge a proper place for cricket and comedy in the annals of history.
Many of you will note the proximity of cricket to comedy – and perhaps I may be permitted to sign off with one of the yarns I would have spun at Derby had the dreaded virus not intervened.
George VI invited me to be a soldier for a couple of years, and feeling it would be discourteous to refuse, I found myself on National Service in the Army of Occupation in Germany not long after World War II. In my first summer there I played a lot of cricket, turning out, for instance, for the Royal Signals Regiment to which I was attached.
One colleague, Lance Corporal Langridge, was related to the Sussex family of that famous name, but, alas, he was not of so high a stature. Often he would find himself unselected and consigned to umpiring duties. I opened the batting and was going along steadily enough, with fifteen or twenty runs to my name, when a ball struck me high amidships. Neither bowler nor wicketkeeper appealed, but there was a faint desultory whisper from long leg and Lance Corporal Langridge gave me out.
Whilst never more than ordinary by way of skill, there was one cricketing piece of artistry that I had perfectly mastered. This was the brisk and immediate march from the wicket in gallant acknowledgement of the finality of the umpire’s decision, coupled with the slightest facial indication of surprise, perhaps even the hint of a raised eyebrow, in recognition of the palpable incompetence of said umpire.
He must have picked up on this and approached me timidly at the tea interval. ‘You were definitely out, sarge,’ he pleaded. I shook my head in disagreement. I think I may have added that it wouldn’t have hit the bloody sightscreen, let alone the wickets. ‘No, no,’ he replied, ‘it would have just nicked your leg bail.’
Who would need a television review system were the human eye capable of such microscopic precision? I had a word with the second lieutenant who captained the side. Please include him in the team, I urged. He will do less damage.