Farewell to a chronicler of cricket's lesser-known tales

The story of Fairfield Books, the cricket publishing house that was Stephen Chalke's labour of love

David Hopps
David Hopps
Author Stephen Chalke at the launch of his book at The Oval, London, April 28, 2015

With the books he published, Stephen Chalke kept alive the characters who graced county cricket in the post-war years  •  PA Photos

One of English cricket's most redoubtable cottage industries has reached the end of its story with the publication of what has been presented as "the 42nd and last volume from Fairfield Books" - the small-scale publishing company that dared to chronicle some of cricket's lesser-known stories and somehow survived to tell the tale.
The imprint might yet survive thanks to the interest of at least one larger publisher, but at the very least Through The Remembered Gate marks the end of Stephen Chalke's remarkable stewardship of a company that survived in defiance of changing times in both publishing and the game itself.
When Chalke failed to find a publisher for his first book, Runs in the Memory: County Cricket in the 1950s, he formed his own company, shortly before his 50th birthday, and Fairfield Books was born. Six years later English county cricket staged the first T20 tournament and the game began to chart a course that would have little in common with Farfield's gentle world of reminiscences from cricketers of yesteryear.
If Through The Remembered Gate occasionally lapses into self-indulgence, Chalke can be forgiven: it is his farewell innings, after all. Here was a publishing company that survived thanks to a loyal mailing list and with the help of hundreds of speeches at cricket dinners, societies and funerals up and down the land. His subjects certainly gave him ample material and some of those stories are swept up here for a final time.
Against the odds, Fairfield Books won eight national awards, five of them going to Chalke himself, whose final recognition came late last year when he was the recipient of the Peter Smith Award for Services to Cricket from the Cricket Writers' Club.
Many worthy cricketers have been able to tell their stories thanks to Chalke's absorption in the game he loves. No Coward Soul - the Remarkable Story of Bob Appleyard and Tom Cartwright - The Flame Still Burns were both Wisden Books of the Year, and both revealed much about two of the most singular cricketers ever to play the English game.
Chalke did cricket a great service, too, via some of the other journalists who accepted Fairfield Books' small advances and non-viral sales figures. A shining example was the bard of the West Country, David Foot, who followed his study of one of Somerset's greats - Harold Gimblett - Tormented Genius of Cricket with his own beguilingly gentle autobiography.
All are dwelt upon as Chalke walks through the remembered gate. Together, they form an imaginary cricket XI to whet the imagination: alongside the cussed determination of Appleyard, who took 200 wickets in his first season and later fought back from the tuberculosis that was expected to kill him, sit dressing-room characters such as Bomber Wells and Fred Rumsey, and more meditative enthusiasts such as the former Sussex captain John Barclay.
Cartwright, who played five England Tests in a 26-year first-class career, was concerned about one description in his book when he dismissively compared England bowling coaches to the St John's Ambulance, suggesting, "you're pleased to have them at the village fete, but they aren't expected to perform heart bypass operations are they?" As the book neared publication, Chalke tells how Cartwright repeatedly reflected that the comment was unfair and best removed.
"I think it's fine," Chalke says. "These coaches are earning a lot of money. They should be prepared to take criticism."
"Oh, it's not the coaches I'm worried about," Cartwright responds. "It's the St John's Ambulance."
Through The Remembered Gate bonnily sweeps up countless such loose ends.
The most successful books in Chalke's collection sold little more than 4000 apiece, and the least successful made little impact beyond family and friends. If you suggest that even this limited market is shrinking, Chalke would not demur.
The best of Fairfield's collection, however, will remain as long as second-hand bookshops survive. If you don't buy Chalke's farewell then perhaps flick through the full list of publications at the back of the book and allow yourself to drift into mellower times by seeking out one of the titles you missed.
Through the Remembered Gate
Fairfield Books
288 pages, £16

David Hopps writes on county cricket for ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps