As a cricket lover and, of course, a Hamilton lover, I have been very interested in the recent articles about Hamilton’s writing about cricket. Indeed, I have often thought of writing an article upon this theme for these pages, but messrs Revels, Fayne, Haque and Lester beat me to it. I was late on the shot and the ball clipped my off stump, you might say.
Nonetheless, there’s still time left in the game and I think I might have a few pertinent comments to make on the debate. First of all, I reside in the Lester camp. In the descriptions of cricket found in the pages of The Magnet, the solecisms lie more thickly than the leaves of Vallambrosa. It’s not simply that his accounts of the great summer game are insufficiently detailed, so that, for example, we never know if Hurree Singh is bowling inswingers or Tom Merry caresses a cover drive to the boundary, they are simply wrong. No one goes to the nets to do fielding practice, for example.
And while I take Mr Haque’s point that these failing do not perhaps displease the ‘average reader’, there were and are surely a large number of readers who are dissatisfied with the lack of detail in his writing about sport. It is incumbent upon any writer to know as much as he can about a topic before he attempts to tell a wider readership about it. If his classical and literary references had contained as many solecisms as his writing on sport, he would have been taken to task for that too. Of course, he never did, and we like him all the more for it. Whatever little Latin I know, I owe to Charles Hamilton; in this, as in many other respects, he was my tutor.
Knowledge of cricket is, and was even in the 1920s and 1930s, more widespread than knowledge of the classics, and so it is fair to say Hamilton failed to satisfy a broader circle of readers when talking about the summer game than he would have done if inaccurate when talking about Virgil.
It is worth comparing the depiction of cricket in the Allison of Avonshire story by John Brearley that appears in The Magnet in the summer of 1933 with what Hamilton usually writes. The former is far superior, full of detail and insights that give the reader the feeling that he is there on the pitch with young Bill Allison - and that is surely what any writer wants.
However - and it is a very large however - it is still the case, or so it seems to me, that some of Hamilton’s most resonant and nourishing writing has cricket at its core. In this list I include the Da Costa, Stacey, Loder for Captain, Lancaster and Bertie Vernon series, and single stories such as (one of my favourites) Bunter the Ventriloquist from July 1933. Hamilton was able to know little of a subject and yet structure stories around this subject that are completely winning. That is part of his genius.
I am biased, I suppose, as I have always loved cricket. Watching, playing and reading about it has been a love which has not faded, but rather grows more passionate. So I approach the cricket games in The Magnet, on unfailingly beautiful days, with close finishes in the fading light as the old elms cast shadows over the outfield and Bunter finishes a bag of doughnuts in the shade, with unabashed dewy-eyed romanticism. To digress slightly, earlier this year on a gloriously sunny May day, I was in Winchester and happened upon the college cricket ground (which is pretty special, it has to be said) and was delighted to discover the first eleven playing the light blue caps of Eton. Jeremy Corbyn would have had an aneurysm, but I spent a happy hour or two strolling the boundary. I called my father, 91 years old and still a Magnet lover, with the words ‘I’m on Big Side.’
But there’s more to it than my romanticism. Hamilton gets a lot right about the culture and spirit of the game, while he lacks knowledge of the details. Firstly, he knows how important sport, and perhaps particularly cricket was to a school of that era. The manly cult of mens sana in corpore sano was firmly entrenched in England’s public schools and no game was more important than cricket in inculcating the virtues that made Englishmen Englishmen. In Henry Newbolt’s famous Vitaï Lampada, written by an alumnus of Clifton, it is cricket that forges the character of the future doughty warriors of Empire not any other game.
Cricket held, and perhaps does still hold, a unique place in the public schools of England. These days, they are practically the only schools that do still play it. At Greyfriars they play football in the winter, when it is perhaps more likely that they would have played rugby, but neither football or rugby are quite as central to the ethos of such a school and its moral code than cricket. Play up, play up and play the game. Strive with every sinew, but play it nobly and fairly. Even today, we talk of the spirit of cricket as a unique code of honour.
Cricketing success would be held in high esteem as well. The most gifted players of all would be venerated by their fellows, much more so than Mark Linley or Dick Penfold are venerated for their ability in class. Stacey, the mysterious Machiavellian figure in one of the best of all Magnet series, is lionized by the Remove for his astonishing cricket, and Wharton’s dislike of him is attributed by most to simple jealousy of his cricket. The mighty men of the fifth and sixth are respected and held in awe by the juniors if they are mighty cricketers, while Larry Lascelles is an especially popular master because, in part, he’s a great cricketer. Hamilton knows this and gets it right.
Perhaps even more importantly, cricket in The Magnet unfolds over the course of an entire long summer day (there are never any interruptions for rain of course) rather than 90 minutes or 80 minutes. This gives Hamilton the opportunity to weave his narrative in and around the events of the cricket field, wherein the game becomes another stage in the drama. It’s like Alan Ayckbourn’s Home and Garden, events in one setting juxtaposed and throwing into relief events in the other.
So, for example, Stacey can bowl brilliantly in one innings, then receive news his horse hasn’t come in first and he’s a tenner in the hole to Bill Lodgey, crumple up completely and allow his nemesis Harry Wharton to take centre stage and bat superbly. Or for Smithy to receive an unjust detention for the first half of the day, be granted a reprieve and score a century and take multiple hat tricks in the second half of the day.
In some of the best single issues of The Magnet, a grand game of cricket dominates proceedings, from the opening chapters when the days dawns sunny with expectancy in the air and no-one wants a detention through to the final chapter when the shadows are lengthening and the game comes to an exciting and fulfilling conclusion. No other game gives the opportunity for such rich interplay between game and participants.
There’s poetry here too. Cricket is a richly poetic, aesthetically pleasing game, rooted to the rural landscape of England rather than to towns. Above all games, it has inspired great writing and to this day newspaper correspondents are more ruminative and their prose richer than their counterparts writing about other games. Hamilton is nothing if not a romantic writer, a creator of an idealised England, and cricket is ideally suited to exemplify these attributes. Everything is at it should be and how we want it to be; other games are not so well suited to such lyricism.
Finally, cricket both tests and reveals character more than any other game. I write in the week in which Alastair Cook announced his retirement from England, and, in the many tributes paid to him, the qualities of characters have been stressed time and time again. The ability to face the new ball, innings after innings, and the capacity to bat for hours, sometimes days on end, is a test of technique but it is also a test of character.
Cricket is a game played as much in the mind as with bat or ball. I have played cricket with a bunch of well-meaning and variedly talented blokes for the past 15 years, and, I feel I know them as much through the way they play cricket as through their conversation or actions. Cricket is a window to character, and this is a godsend to a writer.
One feels that the tortured Arthur Da Costa will in the end come good as he plays the game of cricket with such grace and purity. It is in these moments that he forgets his plots against Wharton and is focused entirely on the game. Or one feels that the conflicted Lancaster will eventually throw over safe-cracking as he plays cricket so nobly. Equally, Stacey, Iago to Wharton’s Othello, must be a dreadful rotter as he deliberately runs out the latter in a form game, an act of trickery that is too dastardly for simple, honourable Bob Cherry to grasp.
Hurree Singh is a masterful, cunning bowler, Cherry a big hitter, Johnny Bull a redoubtable stone-waller, Smithy a flashy but occasionally brilliant bat. On the few occasions he gets to play, Lord Mauleverer throws off his mien of aristocratic languor and is both reliable and courageous. As for poor Frank Nugent, he’s carrying the drinks. And so on-field attributes both reflect and underline strengths and their weaknesses. Once again, only cricket affords these opportunities to a writer.
So, while Hamilton lacks real knowledge of the game and I’d like to know more, I still love his writing about cricket. He understands the spirt of the game, the place it held in schools of the day, and the wonderful opportunities it afforded a writer. That’s enough.