Flawless and felicitous
Even though 60 years have passed since its publication, I think it is safe to say that no book that deals with cricket has been more beautifully written than Autobiography. That is not to say that Cardus was the best cricket writer: he was too subjective, too free with his use of objective reality, for that. But he was the best writer of those who have written about cricket.
The book deals with his extraordinary life, which began in the 1890s. Or rather, with a novelist's touch, Cardus makes it seem to us extraordinary, more so perhaps than it was. He gives no more than a sentence to his wife: she probably wasn't extraordinary enough for his tastes. But he is very ready to embroider the truth when it suits him. Cardus was the assistant professional coach at Shrewsbury school before the First World War. The number one coach was Walter Attewell, a very modest bowler who played a handful of games for Nottinghamshire. But Cardus turns him into William Attewell who had a very long and distinguished career, for England too, to give his book a greater presence.
Some schoolchildren in India, in their English exams, have been given a chunk of Cardus' book to read and analyse. Every page is flawless; there is not an ugly or clumsy phrase. He wrote it during the Second World War, in Sydney. He emigrated to Australia, thus managing to avoid both World Wars, but it can easily be argued that this book is far more valuable than anything the myopic Cardus could have done for the war effort. It will forever remain a masterpiece of how English should be written. Felicitousness is all.
He writes about music and cricket as the two main themes of his life. And if there is a high point, a subject about which he writes best of all, it is surely his years as the pro at Shrewsbury, no matter who the chief coach was. As a taste, this is the passage where Cardus takes the train in his native Manchester - the grimy capital of cotton as it was around 1910 - to travel to Shrewsbury and his new job:
From the book
At four o'clock, or thereabouts, the train moved out of the station; I still had the compartment to myself. We passed under the bricks and mortar of Manchester, through a Nibelheim of clanking noises; then we emerged into the sunshine of May day, yellow slanting gleams piercing the miasma of smoke and grime. Looking down through the window in my solitude I saw from the height of a bridge - I saw like one of God's spies - the Manchester that had nurtured me since I was born; rows and rows of dismal houses, with back yards full of old cans and bedsteads and torn oilcloth; long vistas of streets with lamp-posts and corner shops. I saw a council school with an asphalt playground and spiked railings. I was leaving it all; tonight I would sleep out of Manchester, not in a house in one of those endless streets that stretched away in a static lean dreary hopelessness. I was on the way to Shrewsbury, an old town with a market-place in it.
by Neville Cardus
Scyld Berry is the editor of the Wisden Cricketers' Almanack