CP Snow, born October 15, 1907, was a renowned novelist best known for his ‘Strangers and Brothers’ series of novels. Arunabha Sengupta recounts the many close and touching ways that cricket played a role in his life and works.
The Bradman Class
The location was Fenner’s, the cricket ground of Cambridge University. Physicist CP Snow, later to become the celebrated author of the Strangers and Brothers series of novels, was walking across the turf with the visiting mathematician GH Hardy. By then Hardy had left Cambridge for Oxford.
Their conversation dwelt on men of science, particularly the great Albert Einstein. And Hardy presented the following analogy. “In my lifetime there have been only two men in the world, in all fields of achievement, science, literature, politics, anything you like, who qualify as the Bradman class”
According to Hardy, the level of excellence of Don Bradman was achieved only by some rare people in history ― William Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy, Isaac Newton, Archimedes and maybe a dozen others. In his own lifetime Hardy identified only Lenin and Einstein as eligible for this elite club.
We come to know of this discussion from CP Snow’s later work Variety of Men. And it is not surprising that the conversation between him and Hardy used cricket as an instrument of analogy. Both the men were crazy about cricket.
Hardy was a keen cricket fan and cricketer himself. He had been introduced to a problem on population genetics which would later bear his name by geneticist Reginald Punnett, and the two scientists had come to know each other while playing cricket. As for Snow, he was crazy about cricket and had two brothers who were deeply involved in the game.
A detective at Lord’s
Snow, a man reputed to have an astounding memory and a lifelong love for cricket, started his career as a scientist. Having achieved a first class degree followed by a Master of Science, he won a studentship in 1928 and researched at the famed Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. He gained his PhD in physics specialising in Spectroscopy and in 1930 became a Fellow of Christ’s College.
However other interests soon took over. He wrote scientific articles for Nature and Spectator. By 1932 he had published his first novel Death Under Sail ― a complicated novel of crime and detection.
Later Snow would move on to serious novels, starting the eleven novel Strangers and Brothers saga in 1940 with George Passant. He also became the technical director of the Ministry of Labour and served in that capacity from 1940 to 1944. After the end of the World War, he took up the role of a civil service commissioner responsible for recruiting scientists to work for the government.
While pursuing his vocation as a novelist, in 1959 he delivered the famous lecture The Two Cultures, in which he expressed his disappointment at the gulf between scientists and literary intellectuals. He was well placed to speak from both points of view.
While being concerned about the differences between science and literature, he also did quite a bit to bridge the gap between literary pursuits and cricket. All through his life, towards the end of which he was made a peer — Baron Snow of the City of Leicester — his passion for the game remained unabated.
In his first novel, Death Under Sail, cricket crops up at multiple and rather unexpected junctures. It is as if the young novelist cannot quite keep the game away from his work, even though there is no connection between cricket and the plot.
The story centres around a murder that take place during a yachting party. Roger Mills, the Harley Street cancer specialist, is shot to death. And at that time, he happens to be wearing a cricket shirt.
When one of the party asks why they always end up listening to the loud and uninteresting wireless programmes, the answer another provides is “Tradition my boy, like MCC and Public Schools.”
The sleuth is a rather curious character called Fenbow, and he declares at the outset that if he had not been called to work on the case, he would have spent the day watching Beds play Bucks. “Minor County cricket is the only sort of cricket a man of taste can see nowadays. Since First-Class cricket got brighter, it ceased to be cricket.”
When a doctor at a London city hospital is introduced, he is described to be ‘like a heartier sort of cricket captain trying to put some life into the game’. Later, in order to think clearly, Fenbow takes a taxi to Lord’s and sits in the empty ground. ‘Since cricket became brighter a man of taste can only go to an empty ground, and regret the past.’ He sits at the corner of the ground between the tavern and the pavilion, the sunshine pale and melancholy, the big scoreboard blank and hopeless. Cricket bright enough to make it unsuited for a man of taste, and the publication date of the novel is 1932. One wonders how Fenbow would have reacted to Twenty20.
And Fenbow adds, “I once saw Woolley make 87 on this ground. After that any innings that could be played is an anti-climax. There is no point in trying to repeat perfection. Cricket, having been created and evolved, has achieved its purpose, produced one lovely thing, and ought to die.”
Later he makes his own Chinese tea and says, “Drinking the best tea in the world in an empty cricket ground, that I think is the final pleasure left to man.”
Strangers, Brothers and Cricketers
Even when he branched off to serious novels, cricket played a part.
The first novel(chronologically) in the Strangers and Brothers series is Time of Hope. When it begins, the narrator Lewis Eliot is a boy of about nine. It is June 1914, and conditions are not ideal for the Eliot household.
Even while he struggles with severe financial problems, Mr Eliot senior asks his son to go with him to a county cricket match at the Aylestone Road ground. Leicestershire is playing Sussex.
It is a Saturday, and the two watch Cecil Wood and John Herbert King bat for the home county. And turning our attention to old scorecards, we find that Snow did not succumb to the lazy excuse of ‘not letting facts get in the way of a good story’.
Indeed, the match had started on Thursday, Sussex had been bowled out for 224, and Leicestershire had lost two wickets in the late afternoon. Friday’s play had been washed away by rain, and when the match had resumed on Saturday, Wood and King had indeed resumed the Leicestershire innings.
Considering that the novel was written in 1949 shows a scrupulous adherence to facts that many fans would do well to emulate. Snow was a cricket tragic.
Eliot, in the novel, picks Wood out as his hero, even though he is not as spectacular as Gilbert Jessop or Johnny Tyldesley. “But I told myself he was much sounder. In actual fact, my hero did not often let me down. On the occasions when he failed completely, I wanted to cry.” He is almost scandalised when Wood plays England bowler Albert Relf with, “a clumsy, stumbling shot that usually patted the ball safely to mid-off but which this time sent the ball knee high between first and second slip for four”. He is scornful of those who greet this stroke with claps and say ‘Pretty shot.’
Father and son sit through the match as the home side hang in for a draw. “After the last over the crowd round us drifted over the ground.”
The father decides to wait until the rest of the spectators have left. Eliot watches the pavilion windows glinting in the evening sun, and the scoreboard throwing a shadow half way to the wicket. It is at this juncture that his father tells Eliot that his small factory has failed and that he is filing for bankruptcy.
Loosely autobiographical, Strangers and Brothers also has Martin Eliot as the brother of Lewis, a physicist at Cambridge. Martin’s character is based on Phillip Snow, the brother of CP, colonial administrator, school bursar and a most dedicated cricketer.
Phillip Snow captained the Leicestershire Second XI for two years. When he was posted in Fiji, it was as Aide de Camp to Governor Sir Harry Luke, a fine cricketer himself. He set up the Suva Cricket Association and also captained the Fiji cricket team on a trip to New Zealand.
The tour is described in Phillip Snow’s book Cricket in the Fiji Islands. The book included a preface by Sir Pelham Warner and received warm reviews from men like Neville Cardus and John Arlott. Later Phillip Snow was appointed as the permanent Fijian representative in the International Cricket Conference.
Snow’s other brother was Edward Eric (EE) and he gained fame as a cricket historian. EE Snow documented the History of Leicestershire cricket and wrote the account of the colourful touring cricket side Sir Julian Cahn’s XI.
A cricketing biography of a Mathematician
Later in life Snow wrote other novels as well as the biography of Anthony Trollope. Alongside he penned a volume called The Physicists, in which he analysed the lives of several men of science.
If there is one piece by Snow that brought the literary flair, the knack for biographies and the immense love for cricket together in an amazing composition, we have to go back to the man with whom we started the discourse — GH Hardy.
Snow’s lengthy foreword to Hardy’s sparkling autobiography A Mathematician’s Apology is quite well-known. The piece we are referring to appears in a lesser known publication called The Saturday Book, Eighth Year. In this volume published in 1948, a few months after Hardy’s death, Snow wrote a 4000-word essay analysing Hardy’s love for cricket.
The piece starts with the words: “Above all, G. H. Hardy was a man of genius. He was one of the great pure mathematicians of the world: in his own life-time he altered the whole course of pure mathematics in this country.”
And then it goes on to say, “He was also a man whose intelligence was so brilliant, concentrated, and clear that by his side anyone else’s seemed a little muddy, a little pedestrian and confused. No one ever spoke to him for five minutes without feeling that, whatever genius means, here was one born with it. And no one ever spoke to him for five minutes — not even serious-minded Central European mathematicians — without hearing a remark about the game of cricket.”
In the delectable article, Snow goes on to recollect his first meeting with Hardy.
“As we sat round the combination-room table after dinner, someone said that Hardy wanted to talk to me about cricket… I was taken to sit by him — never introduced, for Hardy, shy and self-conscious in all formal actions, had a dread of introductions. He just put his head down, as it were in a butt of acknowledgement, and without any preamble whatever began: ‘You’re supposed to know something about cricket, aren’t you?’
“Yes, I said, I knew something.
“Immediately he proceeded to put me through a moderately stiff viva. Did I play? What did I do? I half-guessed that he had a horror of persons who devotedly learned their Wisden’s backwards but who, on the field, could not distinguish between an off-spinner and short-leg.
“I explained, in some technical detail, what I did with the ball. He appeared to find the reply partially reassuring, and went on to more tactical questions. Whom should I have chosen as captain for the last test a year before (in 1930)? If the selectors had decided that Snow was the man to save us, what would have been my strategy and tactics? (‘You are allowed to act, if you are sufficiently modest, as non-playing captain.’) And so on, oblivious to the rest of the table. He was quite absorbed. The only way to measure someone’s knowledge, in Hardy’s view, was to question him. If he had bluffed and then wilted under the questions, that was his look-out. First things came first, in that brilliant and concentrated mind. It was necessary to discover whether I should be tolerable as a cricket companion. Nothing else mattered. In the end he smiled with immense charm, with child-like openness, and said that Fenner’s might be bearable after all, with the prospect of some reasonable conversation.”
Snow goes on to recount Hardy’s fascination for Fenner’s.
“He made for his favourite place, at the Wollaston Road end, opposite the pavilion, where he could catch every ray of sun—for he was impatient when any moment of sunshine went by and he was prevented from basking in it. In order to deceive the sun into shining, he brought with him, even on a fine May afternoon, what he called his ‘anti-God battery.’ This consisted of three or four sweaters, an umbrella belonging to his sister, and a large envelope containing mathematical manuscripts, such as a Ph.D. dissertation, a paper which he was refereeing for the Royal Society, or some tripos answers. He would then explain, if possible to some clergyman, that God, believing that Hardy expected the weather would change and give him a chance to work, counter-suggestibly arranged that the sky should remain cloudless.
“There he sat. To complete his pleasure in a long afternoon watching cricket, he liked the sun to be shining and a companion to join in the fun. But he was never bored by any cricket in any circumstances; he was fond of saying that no one of any vitality, intellectual or other, should know what it was like to be bored. As for being bored at cricket, that was manifestly impossible. He had watched the game since, as a child, he had gone to the Oval in the great days of Surrey cricket, with Tom Richardson, Lockwood, Abel in their prime: as a schoolboy at Winchester, an undergraduate at Trinity, with WG (Grace) in his Indian summer and (KS) Ranjitsinhji coming on the scene: through Edwardian afternoons, when Hardy was already recognized as one of the mathematicians of the age: in the Parks at Oxford after the first war, the serenest time of his whole life: and now in the ’thirties at Fenner’s, his delight in the game as strong as ever.”
Hardy also had a few favourite aphorisms, which are recounted with considerable relish:
“‘Cricket is the only game where you are playing against eleven of the other side and ten of your own.’
‘If you are nervous when you go in first, nothing restores your confidence so much as seeing the other man get out.’
‘After a pogrom, the Freshman’s Match is the best place to see human nature in the raw.’”
In the end of the lengthy piece, Snow tells us about Hardy’s last days: “The last conversation I had with Hardy was four or five days before he died: it was about Vinoo Mankad: was he, or was he not, an all-rounder of the Rhodes or Faulkner class? It was in that same week that he told his sister: ‘If I knew I was going to die to-day, I think I should still want to hear the cricket scores. Each evening that week before she left him, she read a chapter from a history of Cambridge cricket. One such chapter was the last thing he heard, for he died suddenly, in the morning.”
The piece of writing can be called the cricketing biography of a great mathematician. And it was penned by an author who knew both minds, that of the scientist and the cricket tragic. Above all, he loved the noble game.
If the cricket enthusiast with a bent for literature decides to read just one work penned by Snow, it should be this one. It spreads like soothing balm on the soul, like the sweet sound of willow on leather.