How the 1939 Almanack lifted troops, 2001

A Wisden's war

David Rayvern Allen

It was a cool evening, but not yet sundown. Sitting on a small but steep concave hill, with straggly bits of cloth their only protection against the early dew, were hundreds of men. On a flat area at the base of the hill was a stage of bamboo, covered with matting. In the centre of the stage, and also made of bamboo and matting, was a structure shaped like a huge radio set. A rectangular section near the top had been cut away, and crude lamps burning peanut oil shone through the aperture to give the effect of a lighted dial. Immediately underneath was a round hole covered with hessian - "a speaker".

Behind the "radio set" was a screen, and behind that Major E. W. Swanton and his assistants were at work. It was time for the weekly "Radio Newsreel" at Tarsao, a grim prisoner-of-war base camp in the jungle on the Burma-Siam Railway. Jim was on the camp entertainment committee, and frequently Tuesday night was devoted to cricket. As he began to speak, the already well-known voice warmed the audience. Although weakened by the loss of some four stone to an unvarying diet of broken rice, watery marrow and infected water, he still could be heard clearly. The geographical lie made a natural amphitheatre. With a large number of Australians in the audience, the topic for the evening, "The Life of Bradman", was a sure success.

On different occasions and on different aspects of cricket, that scene was replicated at camps up and down the line. And fuelling all these talks - lectures, as they were often called - with facts, information and statistics was one book: Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 1939, Jim's Wisden. Dog-eared and rebound time and again with gas-cape covers, and glued together with rice paste, it was a treasured item, a fundamental source, which had travelled with its owner around various billets in Britain en route to Thailand via Nova Scotia, the South Atlantic, South Africa and Singapore. "Thumbed by thousands in 12 different camps," according to E.W.S., it was in such demand that a time limitation of half a day became the condition of "a lend". Fortunately for its long-term preservation and short-term protection there was no shortage of available expertise. At the officers' camp at Kanburi alone, there was a body of professional and amateur bookbinders 20 strong.

Never had the "Cricketer's Bible" more literally suited that description. So many found Wisden was the route for escape. For precious moments, harsh reality could be put to one side. The endless days of stamina-sapping humidity and personal discomfort, blasting and drilling rock, digging red clay soil, clearing the jungle itself, the tyrannical regime of their captors and the constant death toll - all of that could be forgotten as the daydream inspired by the Almanack's pages brought back good times in the past and triggered images of better times in the future. In this way, Jim's 1939 Wisden was a saviour. We shall never know how many lives were sustained by its being on call to conquer despair.

David Rayvern Allen is the editor of 'E. W. Swanton, A Celebration of his Life and Work'.

© John Wisden & Co