Jim - The Life of EW Swanton

Warts and all

Matthew Engel
Matthew Engel reviews Jim: The Life of EW Swanton by David Rayvern Allen

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Ernest William "Jim" Swanton has only been gone four years. But it is already hard to recollect the power he wielded in English cricket from the Second World War until the end of the millennium, a period of more than half a century.

From 1946 to 1975, he was cricket correspondent of the Daily Telegraph. And for much of that time, he had a quasi-monopoly at the posh end of daily journalism: the Independent was unborn; the Guardian was still a Manchester paper; and the Times, until 1966, insisted on its correspondents' anonymity, which rather muted their opinions.

Swanton was never anonymous nor muted. He also commentated on TV and, throughout that time, gave a radio summary at the end of each day's Test Match Special. He was also the power behind the Cricketer, the dominant, and sometimes the only, cricket magazine.

And even when he retired from the Telegraph, he did not give over. For the next quarter-century he still had space in the paper, ruled the Cricketer with an iron fist (whoever was technically called editor) and wielded yet more influence as an MCC committee man. Beyond his 90th birthday, he was still a force in the game. Certainly, the editor of Wisden in the 1990s had to factor in Jim's response when contemplating even the smallest innovation. How did he achieve such authority? He was not a great writer, like Neville Cardus, nor a great broadcaster, like John Arlott, and certainly not a great cricketer (he played a handful of first-class matches). He was not born to command: his father was a small-scale stockbroker ("a marvellous chap in his way," Jim wrote, as if discussing the butler, "but not at all distinguished"), and sent his son to a public school, Cranleigh, that was then more fourth-rate than second-rate. Jim missed university completely.

And Swanton certainly didn't charm his way to the top. He was snobbish, high-handed, meddlesome, disputatious and irritable. These are not the judgements of an enemy; those who loved him accepted these traits with a sigh. And one of the great strengths of David Rayvern Allen's well-balanced and thoroughly readable biography is that he lays bare Jim's less agreeable character traits, but never loses the tone of genuine affection.

So what was Swanton's secret? He got to the top because he was pushy, a wonderful skill to possess in a diffident nation like Britain. He stayed there, for a reign almost as long as Queen Victoria's, because he was exceptionally good. His self-importance was a factor - the cricket correspondent of the Daily Telegraph became a quasi-papal position because he made it so - but it would not have been sufficient by itself.

He could read a cricket match quickly, accurately and authoritatively and sum it up clearly. He also saw the big picture. Jim cared deeply for cricket and in a voice that was as sonorous in print as it was in person, used his position to insist on high standards, of technique, of decorum, of entertainment. At the same time, he never lost touch with the changing game. He was forthright (boy, was he ever!), and though he regarded the Lord's establishment, in general, with holy reverence, he was never shy of taking them on.

He grew older without losing a cell of his phenomenal memory, and became a great deal less disagreeable. His marriage, on his 51st birthday, was wonderfully mellowing: the generosity, which was always there, became more evident, allied to the occasional hint of self-mockery.

To those who knew Jim, there is probably nothing here that will come as a complete shock, though some elderly Telegraph readers might need the smelling salts. Rayvern Allen has one well-attested example of a homosexual attachment, though he rejects the notion that Jim's marriage was any kind of sham. There were clearly two views of Swanton's behaviour amid the privations of wartime capture by the Japanese: "an extremely brave officer" according to one source; "a coward" and "a shit and a sponger," according to others.

Both versions may well be true. Human beings are complex organisms; those who did not endure the Burma Railway had better not be condemnatory. Again, Rayvern Allen is very fair-minded. Throughout the book, he captures EWS in all his glory, and otherwise.

Unfortunately, he does not always have Swanton's meticulousness and clarity. It is a more informal biography than is wholly appropriate for such a punctilious subject, and the reader can get confused about chronology. And though Rayvern Allen was dead right to present the evidence about his character and leave us to decide, I wish he had been more judgemental about some other aspects of his life. I still don't know how good or bad a cricketer Jim was.

And one thing gnaws at me. At his funeral Lord Runcie remarked that "Jim was not a man plagued by self-doubt" and drew prolonged laughter. Indeed, it is a recurring theme in the book. But I wonder. On cricket, he certainly had no doubts. But he came from a buttoned-up generation. On his religion, on (as we like to say now) his sexuality, on his bravery or otherwise, on his place in English society, I think Jim Swanton might have had more insecurities than he ever let anyone know.

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The paperback edition of this book is published on September 12, 2005 priced £8.99