Hamilton is a worthy biographer. Ten years after his fine biography of Harold Larwood, the maligned England fast bowler, this is just as good, and as much sublime writing comes from his keyboard as from Cardus’s pen. His description of seeing Arlott open a bottle of wine in the press box before starting work is an example. “There was a loud plopping sound, like a stone dropping into water, before the gurgle of pouring began,” he writes. “Thin dribbles of wine ran down the side of the glass and he soaked them up with a fist of the copy paper.”
Forty years after his death, he is lucky in his remaining fans. Hamilton is a terrific cricket writer, whose biography of Harold Larwood, the England fast bowler caught up in the Bodyline scandal of 1932–3, is a work of great clarity and humanity. I’m not sure he could write a dull sentence if he tried... Hamilton’s book is a marvel. Within a vaguely chronological structure he wanders hither and thither, forward and back through time, with effortless elegance and confidence. There are no longueurs. He is a wonderfully wry, funny writer, apt to make you laugh out loud in public places.
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.
Instead, where Hamilton really scores is in his candid treatment of Cardus in the years after he won almost instant fame for his cricket writing (followed in due course by considerable acclaim for his music criticism, including teaching the English about the virtues of Mahler). This makes, for his loyal admirers, somewhat uncomfortable reading. Cardus took more than he gave in relation to the women of his life; his conversational tendencies became increasingly egocentric; the charged politics of the interwar period almost completely passed him by; and, going beyond a social inferiority complex – understandable in what was still a very hierarchical and class-based society – he seems to have craved establishment recognition and approval. Though a knighthood in 1967 was very acceptable, in cricketing terms recognition meant above all full membership of the MCC – which, grotesquely enough, was denied to him until 1972, the price of being born not only on the wrong side of the tracks, but to a real-life version of EM Forster’s Jacky Bast.
My late father was a great admirer of the cricket (and music) journalism of Neville Cardus, but barely anyone now seems to remember him. That should all change with this intimate and revealing portrait, by the two-time William Hill Sports Book of the Year winner, of a revolutionary journalist who changed sports journalism forever with his exquisite phrase-making, disdain for statistics, and penchant for literary and musical allusions. Cardus' mother was a prostitute, he never knew his father, and he received negligible education.