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A new survey of seven northern England cricketers is also an exploration of British culture, history and manners in the 20th and 21st centuries
April 8, 2012
A boy growing up in the south-east of England during the '60s and '70s had to rely on the media and sport to enable the formation of a mental image of the north in general and Yorkshire specifically. The "Four Yorkshiremen" TV sketch was written and performed by three Oxbridge graduates and a man who began his working life at the funfair in Margate when he was fifteen. There were Kes, Emmerdale Farm and Last of the Summer Wine.
Then there were, among many others, Brian Close, Fred Trueman, Norman Hunter, and Geoffrey bloody Boycott. All of this to a soundtrack of brass bands and Eddie Waring. They weren't like us up there. They were tough, stoical, industrious in both work and play, and at least 50% of them were absolutely, categorically manly. Alan Knott v David Bairstow in a fight? No contest.
One of the several joys of We'll Get 'Em in Sequins is that it is simultaneously a cricket book and not a cricket book. Its overarching theme is what Max Davidson repeatedly refers to as "manliness": what the word means, how the concept has changed over a century and more, and how it has been lived and exemplified in Yorkshire, which just happens to be one of the world's great cricket territories.
Davidson's method is brilliantly simple: a chronological survey of seven Yorkshire cricketers forms a framework within which his mind and pen range far and wide across British culture, history and manners in the 20th and 21st centuries. If this sounds like serious stuff, it is, but the writing is unfailingly entertaining and there are frequent flashes of humour. For the cricket lover there are also insights into the seven main subjects and then many others, with anecdotes both familiar and, to this reader, newly discovered.
The touchstone figure is George Hirst. The first main chapter of the book is about him, and Davidson's warm reverence for the man and the cricketer pervades the book. Quite apart from his prodigious cricketing talents, Hirst was "yeoman", "salt of the earth" and "unpretentious". "He was virility made flesh," writes Davidson. That a boy who grew up above a pub near Huddersfield and left school aged ten went on to coach at Eton for 20 years elicits admiration in both author and reader.
Herbert Sutcliffe comes across as an early Denis Compton in his personal grooming and enjoyment of female company, though certainly not in his batting method. Davidson admires Trueman and Boycott, while drawing acute comparisons between their respective personalities: Trueman a more nuanced character than his public persona, Boycott even more brutally honest (especially in his private life) but complex with it.
Inevitably, in a book which largely covers the 20th century, war looms large. The chapter on Hedley Verity rehearses the familiar story of his death in Sicily, but provides insights new to this reader. Verity foresaw the war at least two years before it came, and prepared himself for it as studiously as he did for his cricket. Davidson speculates on what Verity might have done had he survived the war, and sees him, intriguingly, going into politics, representing his constituents as loyally as he did his county and country.
The last two chapters concern Darren Gough and Michael Vaughan, who for Davidson represent how notions of manliness have developed over the last 20 years. Davidson's grasp of history, politics and culture enables him to make some fascinating links. In June 1967, for example, Boycott scored 246 not out off 555 balls against India at Headingley, and was unceremoniously dropped for the next Test. Davidson draws a contrast between the speed of Boycott's batting and the pace of events 200 miles south. A month later Parliament was "sweeping away centuries of discrimination against homosexuals as if swatting long-hops over square leg for six". The velocity with which the bill passed through the Houses "was the parliamentary equivalent of a Twenty20 match".
Davidson would appear to be as complex a thinker as some of the men who populate his pages. He embraces, even relishes, the progressive developments in notions of manliness and Yorkshireness, while harbouring conservative views about aspects of social circumstances in the 21st century. In one remarkable passage he paints a scathing picture of the centre of Verity's home village of Rawdon in 2012, "such a shrine to 21st century life at its most girlishly vacuous that a man of Verity's generation would run screaming down the road to Leeds".
The same passage contains a sentence that demonstrates one of the aspects of Davidson's writing that gives so much pleasure: "There are three hairdressers so close to each other that they resemble a cordon of Yorkshire slip fielders."
The title and cover design of this book do it a disservice. The first half of the title refers, of course, to Hirst's apocryphal declaration of intent to Wilfred Rhodes at The Oval in 1902. The last word refers to Gough's appearances on Strictly Come Dancing. A casual bookshop browser might assume that this is another of that plethora of books, many of them very entertaining, that have used cricket as a vehicle for humour or wry autobiography over the last 15 years. We'll Get 'Em in Sequins is considerably more substantial than that in both intention and accomplishment, at the same time as being a compelling read.
Twenty five years ago I left the south-east to live and work in Yorkshire. I soon discovered that the stereotypes formed in my impressionable years were just that: stereotypes. I've known some Yorkshiremen (and they are men) who have sought to perpetuate the image, nearly all of them Leeds United supporters. But by and large, the range of men and cricketers can be found anywhere and everywhere. Davidson, in his chapter on Gough, quotes JB Priestley: "As a lover, the Yorkshireman cuts no great figure, but he shapes well as a husband and, best of all, as a father".
Nonsense. There are good men and fathers everywhere, and bad men and fathers everywhere. It's just that, generally speaking, the bad ones tend not to love cricket.
We'll Get 'Em in Sequins
by Max Davidson
Wisden Cricket Writing
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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