Neville Cardus rose to become the most revered cricket writer

Pitch perfect! His mother was a prostitute and he was barely educated, but Neville Cardus rose to become the most revered cricket writer in the world

  • Two beautifully written books reflect on sports and writer Neville Cardus
  • Manchester-based Neville became one of the best-paid journalists in history
  • Born into poverty in 1988, he went on to single-handedly change sports writing
  • The Guardian saw a rise in sales when billboards advertised Neville’s reports 
  • P. G. Wodehouse and Samuel Beckett are among writers who admired his work 

BOOK OF THE WEEK

THE  GREAT ROMANTIC  

by Duncan Hamilton (Hodder £20, 400 pp)

A FIELD OF TENTS AND WAVING COLOURS  

by Neville Cardus (Safe Haven £14.99, 240 pp)

The last days of summer may soon be upon us — give or take an Ashes tour — but, with these two beautiful books, the sky will always be silky blue, the sun shining down, thousands pouring into Old Trafford for a bitterly fought Roses match and Bradman 160 not out at tea.

Duncan Hamilton is already a multiple award-winning sports writer, but it is hard to imagine he will write a better book than this superb, elegaic portrait of the sociable, feted, but ultimately unknowable, man who virtually invented modern sports writing.

Neville Cardus was born, illegitimate, into poverty in 1888. His real name was John Frederick Newsham, but he never knew his father. Both his mother and his aunt worked as prostitutes, and the young Fred Newsham was lightly educated to the age of ten.

Two beautifully written books reflect on how sports writing was impacted by Neville Cardus (pictured) who became one of the best-paid journalists in history

But he was a ferocious autodidact, insatiably curious and a passionate reader. Early on, he took a bewildering variety of jobs — in the family laundry, as a pavement artist, and selling everything from flowers and sweets to insurance.

However, this was Manchester, the city that made him, a wealthy, well-run place with a great cultural tradition — and, of course, its own national newspaper, the Manchester Guardian, where Newsham, by now Neville Cardus (the surname was his mother’s maiden name), got a job in the reporters’ room, with promised outings to cricket matches.

This was the end of the Great War and the first county matches since 1914 were soon being played.

From these beginnings, Neville Cardus became, at the height of his career, one of the best-known people in the English-speaking world and certainly one of the best-paid journalists in history.

In the early Thirties, he was paid £1,100 a year, plus generous expenses equivalent to a comfortable annual income for an ordinary couple. You could buy a three-bedroom house in London for £350 then.

It was Cardus who saw that cricket was more than just a scorecard: it was a metaphor for life, with its beauty and its changing fortunes, its courage (and at times cowardice), its sportsmanship (and at times lack of . . .), its friendships and enmities, its peripheral joys of good company. Above all, the sheer pleasure of being there. As Cardus wrote: ‘To go to a cricket match for nothing but cricket is as though a man were to go into an inn for nothing but drink.’

Single-handedly, he changed the nature of writing about sport, and the words ‘Neville Cardus reports on this match’ scrawled on a billboard outside the ground guaranteed extra sales for the Guardian.

Donald Bradman (pictured with his team mates) became close friends with Neville and shared dinner together while his son was seriously ill in hospital

In these days of ceaseless sport, instant communication, frenzied rushes to judgment and often simple cruelty, you might think the leisurely, artfully wrought prose of Cardus would have no place. In fact, it illuminates cricket and cricketers, people and places, sport and society, in a way that none but the very best can do.

His private life was eccentric. In 1921, Cardus married a teacher called Edith King, a mannish-looking arts lover who fitted easily into the bohemian life of Twenties Manchester.

But it was a rum relationship: ‘We never shared sexual communication,’ Cardus later wrote. Crucially, she tolerated his infatuations with what she called ‘his little girls’. He probably didn’t lose his virginity until his early 40s, with his true love, a woman called Barbe Ede, who was married to another (like Cardus). ‘In my dying hour, I shall remember the radiance which emanated from her,’ he said.

Out of guilt, presumably, Cardus later secured her husband, Elton Ede, a job as The Sunday Times’ cricket correspondent. Ede obviously felt he had done well out of the bargain and would speak warmly of Cardus, the man who slept with his wife.

Cardus’s work was admired by writers as varied as P. G. Wodehouse and Samuel Beckett. Harold Pinter thought him ‘marvellous’ and the poet Siegfried Sassoon was prepared to read him ‘for ever’.

Neville (pictured with Edith) saw his work admired by a variety of writers including P. G. Wodehouse and Samuel Beckett

He sat out World War II in Australia after being invited over by Sir Keith Murdoch (father of . . .) to cover Sir Thomas Beecham’s concert tour of the country for the Melbourne Age.

He wasn’t to return until 1947. His letters showed he was anxious about being away from home, but he did love Australia and the Australians, and they loved him back.

He became a close friend of Donald Bradman — no mean achievement, as The Don could be pretty remote.

By the 1936-37 Ashes tour, Bradman was the most famous and probably most important person in Australia. If he cut himself shaving, observed one paper, it would be front-page news.

Six weeks before the Tests, Bradman invited Cardus to dinner while his baby son was seriously ill in hospital.

He was to die the next morning, but Bradman chose to spend those fraught hours with Cardus. It says a lot about the kindness of Cardus’s character, as well as the fact Bradman trusted him not to dash off and phone in a scoop.

In a brilliant and bold epilogue, Hamilton visits Old Trafford in July 2018 for the latest edition of the Roses matches. Cardus regarded such matches as the ‘greatest of all tussles between county rivals’ and, as a devoted Lancastrian, found it impossible to be impartial.

After one match in the Thirties when, against all odds, Lancashire have won at Headingley, Cardus bumps into a Yorkshireman in the bar at Leeds Station.


THE GREAT ROMANTIC by Duncan Hamilton (pictured left) A FIELD OF TENTS AND WAVING COLOURS by Neville Cardus (pictured right)

‘ “Ah suppose tha’s feelin’ pleased with thissen?”

‘I did not deny it.

‘ “And tha’s goin’ back to Manchester by this train?”

‘Yes, I said, I was.

‘ “Well,” he said, slowly and in measured terms, “ah ’opes tha drops down dead before thi gets theer.” ’

A Yorkshireman with a grievance has always been as much a part of cricket as the stumps themselves.

But now here we are in 2018, and Hamilton is doing a Cardus.

The names are more recognisable — Root and Bairstow, Buttler and Anderson — all making rare county appearances. The cricket moves from dour to drama and, eventually, the sun comes out as Hamilton’s thoughts dance from past to present, to war and peace, and a long life well-lived.

He is asking for the comparison with his subject to be made, and so he should. This is writing every bit the equal of Cardus himself.

To coincide with Hamilton’s biography, Safe Haven Books have brought out a beautiful little collection of the best of Cardus’s writing, with essays on everything from Trumper to Bradman, Hobbs to Hutton, and all points in between.

And, of course, Denis Compton, whom Cardus adored, in the summer of 1947: ‘In a world tired, disillusioned and bare, heavy with age and deprivation, this happy cricketer spread his favours everywhere, and thousands of us, young and old, ran his runs with him. Here . . . was something unrationed. There were no coupons in an innings by Compton.’

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