January 30, 2014

In praise of Margaret Hughes

The first woman to write to a high standard on the game was treated a bit like a circus freak when she appeared on the scene

Margaret Hughes: her love of the game shines in every sentence she wrote

If cricket's female players have long been undersold, the women who have written about the game are subject to even greater historical neglect. The English writer Margaret Hughes stands out like no other. First published in 1953, Hughes' semi-autobiographical debut book, All on a Summer's Day, was said by her friend and confidant Neville Cardus to be the first book about first-class cricket written by a woman, or as Cardus put it, "not written by a man". Most of the short obituaries after Hughes' death in 2005 quoted that line but not Cardus' follow-up, that Hughes "gives evidence of points of view and prejudice different from those jealously held by men".

Cardus offered Hughes the friendship and support so lacking elsewhere in the male-dominated confines of cricket writing. She once lamented of her colleagues on the circuit, "Ever since I wrote my first cricket book I have been treated as a freak, rather like the fat lady at the circus."

As Hughes sat in the Lord's press box, gawkers were brought around to have a look at her, "the same way they might be taken to see the Albert Memorial." The imposition was bracing. "That's the girl", they whisper in a hushed voice in case anyone might be listening, "who writes on cricket". The reaction is always the same," said Hughes. "What on earth can she know about cricket?" or "How odd! A woman interested in cricket!"

Cardus was aware of the hurdles Hughes faced and noted that All on a Summer's Day was "bound to be rather startling to the ordinary male spectator, who might even discover another grievance in a woman's knowing so much". Though Cardus was 30 years her senior, Hughes endured a lifetime of gossip and rumour surrounding the status of their relationship, a point eventually made in her Wisden obituary. Still, as Rob Steen noted, "to focus on the Cardus connection is to diminish the courage, persistence and literary worth of Hughes".

Hughes' cricket-loving father had actually hoped for a third boy and the beginnings of a family team of his own. Ironically, and contrary to many accounts, his daughter would be the only child in the family who ended up with any more than a passing interest in the game. She also had a sports-loving role model in her mother, who bucked the family trend of watching rugby in winter months by taking herself off to Arsenal games.

Hughes was a free spirit. Signed up for secretarial college by her father, she worked overtime during cricket's eight-month off season and then skived off to the cricket for the rest, signing herself in to college in the morning and not returning until late in the afternoon. It became the template for her entire life, "real work" for the bulk of the year and nothing but cricket in summer. By 17 she had taken a job at the Star in Fleet Street so that she might "see the cricket scores before the general public". Not for the last time, she was the only woman in the office.

Upon her return from service as a Wren during World War II, Hughes reignited her love affair with cricket. Sitting as a spectator at Trent Bridge during Australia's 1948 Ashes visit, she was aggrieved at being encouraged by the ground announcer to offer the tourists a hearty applause. "As if we had not been ordered around enough during and since the war, were we now to be told when and whom to clap at the cricket?"

The summers that followed form the bulk of the material in All on a Summer's Day. It finishes with "Alice at Lord's, 1952 (With apologies to Lewis Carroll)", a five page mash-up of memoir and fan fiction that sticks in the mind long after reading. Upon arriving at Lord's, Alice is advised by the cat to "visit either end. The people are all mad." Alice approaches a Cardus-like figure wearing glasses and carrying a book on Wagner, telling him it's the stupidest place she's ever visited and that she'll never return. "Yes you will," he counters, "You won't be able to stay away now that you've come."

I remember buying my copy of All on a Summer's Day as a kid. It was among a job lot of 1950s cricket books being sold by a friendly old lady and when I unpacked the books from their box I was struck by the fact that one was written by a woman. All of the other cricket books I owned at that point were written by men, as most still are now. I remembered that the lady had made a point of noting that the books had belonged to her and that her husband had no interest in cricket. At the time I probably took it as idle chit-chat but I've since wondered how she must have felt first reading Margaret Hughes all those years ago.

In the wake of that debut book, Hughes also became the first woman ever to report on an Ashes tour for a daily newspaper, Frank Packer's Daily Telegraph. Her missives from the 1954-55 Ashes series in Australia were the last by a woman until Chloe Saltau covered the Ashes for the Age in 2005, the year Hughes died. From that '54-55 tour came her second book, The Long Hop.

From the day she saw Harold Larwood at Trent Bridge as a young girl, Hughes' life was filled with cricket. Her love of the game shines in every sentence she wrote. Later she was a contented spectator at Lord's, where rather than a sideshow she became a permanent fixture, a lifer. As Hughes said herself, "cricket lovers are exceptional people. Theirs is no passing interest."

Russell Jackson is a cricket lover who blogs about sports in the present and nostalgic tense for the Guardian and the Wasted Afternoons. He tweets here