Martin Chandler | 6:52am BST 28 June 2020
This year David Foot, one of the very best of cricket’s legion of fine writers, celebrated his ninety first birthday. Inevitably his health is not quite what it once was but he remains able to live at home in Bristol with his wife of many years, Anne. He is not a man I have ever met, but something about his writing makes me feel I have known him all my life, so I hope he will forgive me if I refer to him by his christian name throughout this post.
David was born in 1929 in the Somerset village of East Coker where his father was sexton. He spent his entire working life in journalism, beginning with the Western Gazette in Yeovil where, in 1945, the 16 year old secured a position as a trainee copy boy.
In time David moved a little way north, to the Bristol Evening World. There he reported on cricket, of course, but he was no one trick pony. When cricket was off season David wrote about Bristol City Football Club. He was also a noted theatre critic and would on occasion happily, and skilfully, turn his hand to general feature writing if required.
The Bristol Evening World closed in 1961 and David was, given his reputation as one of the very best, courted by Fleet Street. In the event however he chose to stay in the West and turned freelance, a status he maintained for the rest of his working life.
David’s cricket watching was strictly local, primarily following Somerset and Gloucestershire. Depending on what source you read he either never reported on a Test match, or alternatively did so just once. Either way it is easy to see why London did not appeal. Of his local workplaces he would say; The press box is kinship; I love the chirpy, companionable aura. Repartee is sharp, incestuous jokes are traded, legs pulled. Whatever the public’s perceptions, we all have a great affection for the game. We drink and eat and talk cricket.
It is something of a surprise that no publisher has ever published an anthology of David’s press writing or magazine articles but, perhaps, that is an oversight that will be remedied in time. As it is those interested in the work of one of the game’s finest writers have just his books to turn to, although they are most certainly a very fine selection indeed.
Prior to the arrival of Marcus Trescothick few would have argued with the contention that Harold Gimblett was the best batsman Somerset had produced. The story of the young batsman who flunked his trial in 1935 and then, called into the side at the last minute when someone pulled out, not only scored a century on debut but one so spectacular it was the fastest scored in England in the entire season, is an enduring one.
Despite the batting genius within him Gimblett was a man whose mental health was fragile and, years before it became acceptable to admit to and seek help for such issues, Gimblett’s tribulations ensured he was only ever capped three times by England. David knew Gimblett reasonably well and, having greatly admired him as a cricketer, when the old batsman suggested that David help him get his thoughts into a book he was happy to agree to do so.
Progress proved slow and when Gimblett took his own life in 1978 David assumed that would be that. It turned out however that Gimblett had left plenty of material for him in the form of a series of tape recordings. Three years later Harold Gimblett: Tortured Genius of Cricket appeared.
The book contained a foreword from John Arlott, which began:-
There has never been a cricket book quite like this ‘life of a great batsmen in torment’. David Foot has written it with compassion, something not far from passion, and sympathy, out of a childhood admiration. It is a remarkable achievement that, in spite of those emotive factors, he has maintained an admirable objectivity. It is not a biography, nor autobiography, nor the data for a psychological study; but something of all three.
The book received universal acclaim. A small print run quickly sold out, as did a reprint, which was followed by a paperback edition. Twenty one years later Stephen Chalke, with Fairfield books then established, decided that the book needed to be made available again. He had three reasons for doing so that which he set out as:-
Firstly there is the story it tells, there is no other like it in cricket …… secondly there are the circumstances in which the book came into being. No other cricket book has such a poignant genesis …….. thirdly there is the quality of David Foot’s writing. There are others among today’s cricket writers with a greater insight into the finer technical details of the game, but none who so vividly capture its character and its enduring appeal.
The Fairfield book is a true second edition in that there are a few revisions to the original text, as well as a final chapter of reflection from David. Therefore whilst the first edition is certainly recommended, the second is perhaps the better one to look for.
Three years after Harold Gimblett: Tortured Genius of Cricket was published Cricket’s Unholy Trinity was Foot’s next look at the lives of those whose interest lay as much in their personalities and their own demons as in their achievements on the field. Three men were featured, two from the West Country and one, Lancashire’s Cecil Parkin, from way beyond Foot country. In terms of his character however Parkin was as much a one-off as Somerset amateur Jack MacBryan and Gloucestershire’s prolific wicket taker, left arm spinner Charlie Parker. The review in The Cricketer described Cricket’s Unholy Trinity as fascinating stuff, and it most certainly is.
As Arlott explained Harold Gimblett: Tortured Genius of Cricket was not exactly a biography, and in some ways breaking new ground does make an author’s task a little easier. It was different with Wally Hammond however, one of the best known of all English cricketers. By the time Wally Hammond: The Reasons Why had been published there had already been two biographies of Hammond, one by Ronald Mason and the second by Gerald Howat. Both are good books, but whilst both looked at the wider picture, particularly Howat’s, neither succeeded in explaining the complexities in the Hammond persona.
David had been talking to people who knew Hammond well for his entire working life and in that sense his was a book with a very long gestation period. In a thoroughly researched account David certainly succeeded in unravelling his subject and explaining what made him tick. He himself summed up the result when, alongside a dedication to his family, he explained: This book is, overall, an affectionate portrait of someone who brought so much joy to the game yet appeared to find so little of it himself away from the crease.
The size of the task that David took on with Wally Hammond; The Reasons Why was formidable and is evidenced by the number of people that he spoke to from outside the game, most notably medical experts, as he sought to fully understand and explain the evidence that he found. David’s well known colleague at The Guardian, Frank Keating, described his biographies of Gimblett and Hammond as imperishable classics in cricket’s canon. It is an assessment which I cannot imagine that anyone who has read both books will not agree with wholeheartedly. Personally I would add just a single rider to that, being that by virtue of the size of the task it undertook, I would suggest the Hammond is the superior book, albeit by the shortest of short heads.
Beyond Bat & Ball was first published in a limited edition in 1993 and then republished by Aurum two years later. David’s introduction begins with the words this is not really a book about cricket. He has to make the point because each of the eleven chapters bears the name of a man, ten of whose names resonate because they were cricketers, and the last of whom if not a gifted cricketer was certainly a cricket lover. But David’s writings are on the subject of the men themselves, and their accomplishments on the field are purely incidental.
The eleven begins with the notoriously cantankerous Glamorgan all-rounder and long time skipper Wilf Wooller. Next up is the one non-cricketer, poet Siegfried Sassoon. An Australian follows, Test opener and later writer Jack Fingleton, the anti-Bradman and a man of forthright views. Bill Andrews, the Somerset all-rounder and remarkable character who titled his autobiography The Hand that Bowled Bradman, is featured as well as a couple of other Somerset players. They are firstly Bill Gresswell, an amateur all-rounder who, in time, suffered similar problems to Gimblett and indeed lived in the same village as Gimblett. The second is Bev Lyon, an innovative maverick of a county captain who ruffled plenty of feathers between the wars.
The stalwart Surrey fast bowler Tom Richardson is another to feature in Beyond Bat & Ball, as is another Surrey man, Andy Ducat, a double international who died at the crease in 1942 at the age of 56. Mighty hitter and fast medium bowler ‘Big Jim’ Smith is also included as is Bertie Poore, a career soldier who found the time to play in a Test for South Africa and score a triple century for Hampshire. Last but not least there is Jack Mercer, a pace bowler who led the Glamorgan attack between the wars and who was an accomplished magician. Once more the book is a look at the human condition as much as anything else, and is a most enjoyable read.
Beyond Bat & Ball was the Cricket Society Book of the Year for 1993 something which, if nothing else, shows just how random awards can be. This is not intended to be a criticism of the way such accolades are handed out, but it must have been a very difficult decision for those charged with choosing the winners for 1983 and 1996 to look beyond the biographies of Gimblett and Hammond.
Fragments of Idolatry was published by Fairfield Books in 2001, and is best described as Beyond Bat & Ball revisited, but with an even more discursive range of subjects. Three of the twelve men featured are not cricketers at all, being Rugby coach Carwyn James, footballer Alec Stock and boxer Ted ‘Kid’ Berg. In addition there are two Somerset men better known as writers on cricket in ‘Crusoe’ Robertson-Glasgow and Alan Gibson, albeit ‘Crusoe’ was a very good seam bowler. All five are fascinating characters as are the cricketers featured who are Horace Hazell, Tom Cartwright, Reg Sinfield, Maurice Tremlett and Alf Dipper from the West Country, together with Middlesex men Walter Robins and, the most familiar name amongst the cricketers, ‘Patsy’ Hendren.
I do not propose to linger for long on any of David’s other books, but only because to do so would make this post unduly lengthy. There are more than twenty other titles that have come from David’s pen. Many of them are cricket books, but not all. Of those that are a number are books that he ghosted for others. Zaheer Abbas and Vivian Richards need no introduction, and two others are Andrews and journeyman Gloucestershire batsman turned top umpire David Shepherd. All are worth reading, as is an essay on Mark Lathwell and Andrew Caddick that was published by Richard Walsh in 1993 in a limited edition of fifty copies.
There are also a number of books on the subject of West Country cricket generally. An early one, from 1980, was From Grace to Botham, which contained brief profiles of one hundred West Country cricketers. In 1986 came Sunshine, Sixes and Cider, a full history of the Somerset club. Later there were two books co-written with fellow sports writer Ivan Ponting. Of those the first was Somerset Cricket: A Post War Who’s Who in 1993 and then, on a similar theme, Sixty Summers: Somerset Cricket since the War, a very attractive 2006 publication from Fairfield Books.
The last book from David appeared in 2006 when, after considerable persuasion from Stephen Chalke and Scyld Berry, he produced an autobiography entitled Footsteps from East Coker. Stephen describes it as a beautifully written book, capturing his life in pre-war rural Somerset and his long career in journalism. David himself later conceded that, of all his books, it was the one of which he was most proud. It was an entirely appropriate way to conclude a very fine writing career.
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