David Frith: Facts Are Sacred - Paul Edwards meets one of cricket's foremost historians
Above: Arthur Mailey & Ted McDonald (right) in the 1926 Australian Ashes squad
"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."
I have ambivalent feelings towards the famous opening sentence of L P Hartley's novel The Go-Between. In some respects I agree with it: people thought and behaved differently forty years ago. They had other ways of doing things, other ways of thinking about the world. Yet any debate on Hartley's question is, as it were, a "brainer". As an undergraduate historian I was once trained to understand the conduct of people who had lived 500 years previously; to see how, for all that they were different, they were also the same. In some respects my job was to establish the one from the other.
This was one of the thoughts that crossed my mind as I handled some cricket equipment last Tuesday afternoon. Not just any equipment though; the bat belonged to the Australian Test batsman Archie Jackson, the cap to the Lancashire and Australia fast bowler Ted McDonald and the gloves to this bloke called Bradman. The person who provided these treasures for me to gaze at was David Frith, one of the very best cricket writers and historians of this or any other generation.
"You want to handle them, don't you?" said Frith, as I looked down at Bradman's gloves; and I sensed that I was only the latest in a line of cricket writers who have beaten a path to his tree-fringed Guildford home. He was right, of course. One does want to touch these relics, if only to get a little closer to the time when cricket's most famous batsman pulled them on and went out to the middle in Melbourne or Nottingham. You doubt that any of the magic will rub off. Still......
Over a lifetime in the game, Frith has built up one of the very best working libraries and museums in the world. It includes tapes, cigarette cards, autograph albums, glasses, scrapbooks, videos - both Betamax and VHS, he has two recorders - and books. Thousands upon thousands of books. Frith recently catalogued his massive collection; he needed to buy a more powerful computer to help him do it and the resultant volume would probably break your toe if you dropped the maroon monster. It makes wonderful browsing, though.
The key thing to reiterate about this rich and diverse collection is that it is very much a working resource. The books it helped Frith to write - The Golden Age of Cricket, England v Australia: An Illustrated History, Bodyline Autopsy etc. etc. - are the products of one of the most sensitive, iconoclastic and original minds in the game. Their phenomenally industrious author is also learned beyond the dreams of many in academe. He can make some of his contemporaries appear mere dilettantes.
Let me admit that I can never hope to encompass Frith's career or the wonders of his collection in a single website article. Instead I will return to my theme and the trio of biographies he has written about cricketers whose achievements were substantial, yet whose lives ended in tragic circumstances: Archie Jackson, Ross Gregory and A. E. "Drewy" Stoddart. Frith's books about these players are the products of painstaking research using primary sources such as letters and scrapbooks, many of which he owns.
Reading Jackson's letters, as I did, briefly, in the curtained cricket-room, or leafing through Stoddart's carefully-kept scrapbooks, as I also did, seated at his biographer's dining-table, one can begin to discern the essential humanity of these players: Jackson's generosity of spirit, Stoddart's relish for life. They were different from us and yet, in so many important ways, the same. You see photographs of Stoddart and his players relaxing at Hastings after one of their tours to Australia and, for a brief moment, you laugh with them. The closed years are opened wide.
But inhabiting all of Frith work is the historian's determination to discover the facts of his subjects' lives. While he well understands the attraction of the sympathetic, romantic re-creations of great matches and careers, he is equally dedicated to replacing them with the truth where necessary. "Facts are sacred," he said, quoting C. P. Scott's dictum, and the spirit of the great Manchester Guardian editor runs through the books like an unbreakable creed.
Visiting Guildford is challenging: Frith's knows so much and his views are trenchantly expressed. Yet he is generous with his knowledge and he enjoys purposeful argument. As a result of these two traits, one is challenged to know more and to think more deeply about the game. If a cricket writer can't cope with that, he shouldn't get in contact with David Frith; if he can, he should prepare to be amazed, enlightened and welcomed.
Photo (c) Barratts/S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Sport