Martin Chandler | 12:22am GMT 24 November 2019
It seems like a long time ago now, but the early 1980s was when I started to take a serious interest in cricket history. Before that I had always had access to my father’s collection of post war Wisden, so I knew a good deal about the modern era (1946 onwards), but rather less about the inter war years, the ‘golden age’ or the game’s formative years.
What sparked my look backwards was the fiftieth anniversary of the ‘Bodyline’ series, a subject about which I read voraciously although not, at the time, Ronald Mason’s contribution to that debate. It wasn’t long before I started on Mason’s work though, his retrospective account of the 1921 summer being one of the first books I read.
I certainly recall enjoying Mason’s book. It was not a dry account of a long distant summer, but a vibrant and interesting account of a series that was played out at a time when Mason was just nine years of age. He was not therefore one of those who followed the tourists around the country, but he did live through the series, and followed the careers of all those who were involved.
Back in the 80s I knew nothing about Mason, and I don’t know a great deal more now, but over the years I have read and enjoyed each of the seven books that represent his contribution to the literature of the game.
What is clear from all sources is that Mason was educated at King’s College Wimbledon. The one obituary of Mason that I have found online, published in The Guardian and referenced on Mason’s Wikipedia page, describes him as a man who entered the inland revenue by competitive examination, and for over half of his adult life he was a member of the staff of the old estate duty office, employed in the “impressment and collection” of death duties.
In 1960 and 1962 respectively Hollis and Carter published a couple of biographies of Mason’s, Jack Hobbs and Walter Hammond. The dust jackets of both books refer to Mason being a barrister. In the Hobbs volume he is said to have been called to the bar in 1931, which seems improbable, and the implication is that he did practise law. Two years later the Hammond gave the date of call as a much more realistic 1935 and, unlike its predecessor, refers to his professional work being done in a Government Department.
Moving on to the next stage of his life Mason was a mature graduate of the London University securing, according to the Hammond, a first in English. By 1970 he was described as Staff Tutor in the Extra Mural Department in London University. It is difficult to know exactly how Mason’s career unfolded, but the reasonable conclusion seems to be that he was an intelligent man who rose to a senior if not entirely satisfying role in the Civil Service which led to university, a degree, and then a second career in academia.
That Mason fancied writing is clear from his history. He wrote four novels, two published in 1939 and two in 1946. They did emanate from a well known publishing house, Sampson Lowe, but enjoyed no critical acclaim nor, given that there is a total of only three copies of them on AddALL at the moment, would they appear to have sold very well.
There were no further works of fiction from Mason, but eight more books. The first, in 1951, was a critique of the work of Herman Melville (author of Moby Dick) which at least can be found on the second hand market, and indeed it would seem ran to a second edition in 1972.
But it was when Mason decided to write about his greatest passion in life that his work was noticed and, even if he is largely forgotten today, there are plenty of copies of all his cricket books still available. The first was Batsman’s Paradise, finally published in 1955 when former Surrey skipper Errol Holmes had a look at it and helped Mason secure a publisher. The sub title, An Anatomy of Cricketomania, seems to have been what appealed to Holmes.
There have been many fine cricket writers, John Arlott and Irving Rosenwater to name but two, who were very ordinary cricketers indeed. Mason was a Surrey man through and through and played for many years for Banstead and seems to have been a decent player, his understanding of the game’s techniques attracting praise from no less a technician than former England skipper Bob Wyatt.
Batsman’s Paradise itself begins with a useful summary of what it represents; this work is not a spiritual or intellectual autobiography, but one man’s record of a lifetime’s fascinated interest in a single rather complex activity; and in the context of that activity alone, we found by the time we arrived at the mature age of 16 or so that we were beginning not only to know what we liked but also very positively to know what we didn’t like, and among the items listed in the second category was sitting in the shilling seats at the Oval. Note the 86 word sentence, very much a Mason foible and, I don’t suppose, by any means a record for him.
Amongst its quirky and autobiographical elements Batsman’s Paradise also had a nod towards the future with long essays on Hobbs and Hammond as Mason readied himself for those two biographies. The pair were undoubtedly England’s two finest batsman of the inter war period and both had previously lent their names to ghosted autobiographies as well as other books on the game.
Any twenty first century reader who wants to know more about Hobbs and Hammond would be well advised to look first at Leo McKinstrey’s life of The Master, and David Foot’s vivid portrait of the complexities of Hammond, but Mason’s books were lauded in their time.
In the case of Hobbs Mason’s book was reviewed by Gerald Martineau in The Cricketer, who wrote that the work has been carried out with the literary skill, industry in research and observant sympathy demanded by a hero whose greatness was clothed in such modesty as our age of loudness can scarcely comprehend. I haven’t been able to find the review, so glean this comment only from the dust jacket of a later Mason book, where it is also said that no less a writer than Neville Cardus described Walter Hammond as the best cricketing biography he had read.
The next book from Mason’s pen was, perhaps, inspired by Cardus. Sing All A Green Willow appeared in 1967 and is, in the manner of Cardus, a collection of essays. Those on the subjects of Herbert Sutcliffe, Eddie Paynter, Learie Constantine, Percy Fender, Tiger O’Reilly, Bodyline and ‘The Truth About Cricket’ had already appeared in The Cricketer. In addition there were several other more varied pieces. Perhaps foremost amongst them was the now celebrated story of Frederick Hyland, a Hampshire player who never batted or bowled and whose entire First Class career lasted a mere two overs. The Hyland story impressed John Arlott who, in Wisden, praised Mason’s literary approach and observed that he is at pains to avoid the usual cricketing cliches.
The first two of Mason’s books that I read appeared in 1970 and 1971. Both celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the summers they chronicled. I enjoyed both books immensely. The first was Plum Warner’s Last Season (1920). It is a marvellous story. Warner was 46 and finally led Middlesex to the Championship after a remarkable run of victories in their closing matches.
The following year looked back on Warwick Armstrong’s Australians. Within its 150 or so pages I read for the first time about the intimidatory pace bowling of Jack Gregory and Ted McDonald. It was fascinating stuff, the more so when I got to the end of the book and first learnt about that famous match at Eastbourne when a scratch side of students and veterans led by Archie MacLaren recorded a famous victory over Armstrong’s men under the watchful eye of Cardus.
Aged 59 when Warwick Armstorng’s Australians was published that seemed to be it until, in 1983 and the appearance of Ashes In The Mouth, one of a number of books that appeared then and cashed in on a burst of renewed interest in the 1932/33 ‘Bodyline’ series. It is worth pausing here to reflect on where ‘Bodyline’ was at this time. In truth it had barely been mentioned for years and keen cricketers such as me knew nothing more than it seemed to have been a rather shameful episode in English history.
The first book I read on the series was Harold Larwood’s reissued 1962 autobiography, followed by a similarly repackaged new edition of Douglas Jardine’s account of the tour. Both were, naturally, exercises in justification of the tactics used albeit very different in approach. I was hooked and very soon came to the conclusion that the pair were two of my favourite English cricketers, and that both had been shabbily treated in the extreme. None of the many thousands of words I have read on that series have ever changed those views.
There were some new books on the series as well however and foremost amongst them two by English writers, Mason and History teacher Laurence Le Quesne. The Bodyline Controversy was Le Quesne’s only contribution to the literature of the game and was a superb account of the series. It was thoroughly researched, balanced in its analysis and, until David Frith’s Bodyline Autopsy came along the recommended read for anyone who just wanted to read one book on the subject.
It must have been 20 more years before I finally got round to reading Ashes In The Mouth. It is not as comprehensive as the Le Quesne book, and perhaps it came out a little later and/or was not as well advertised, but in fact the two books are very similar and, not unnaturally given his Surrey background, the chapter on Jardine in Mason’s book is an excellent tribute. As things turned out Ashes In The Mouth was a valedictory offering and was the last we received from Mason’s pen despite his living on into the new century. Mason died at home in Banstead in 2001 at the ripe old age of 89.
Mason’s books have been enjoyed by many and are certainly recommended by this writer, although it would be right to say that he was not universally popular and in particular he had the misfortune not to appeal to the maverick historian and owner and editor of The Cricket Quarterly, Rowland Bowen. The Major began an excoriating review of Sing All A Green Willow with the words, readers will know that we think Mason cannot write, although I should perhaps add that despite looking for it I have not been able to find any earlier comment.
Bowen went on; if Mason had had a literary editor with a taste for English, if he had known rather more about his subjects, if he had eschewed the trite and the artificial he could perhaps have offered an interesting and amusing and worthwhile book because the ideas which gave rise to his essays are often well conceived, but despite that small piece of positivity the ultimate verdict was to consign it to that sadly growing pile of rubbish, followed by some harsh words for the price of the book and its illustrations.
Three years later Plum Warner’s Last Season found its way into the Quarterly’s in tray. Its proprietor was no keener on this, criticising a lack of research, accusing Mason of being careless about detail and condemning his use of the English language. In that latter respect Bowen became unnecessarily personal when, remarking upon Mason’s occupation, that his job amounted to marking papers in correspondence courses. Overall his verdict was; it is not a good book and we wonder who it can interest.
I have located one other commentator who was less than impressed with Mason, an ACS member named Gordon Tantalos who penned an article on Bodyline that was published in the ACS Journal shortly after Ashes In The Mouth was published. Tantalos was not reviewing the book, and indeed was not unduly critical of it, but his comments on Mason generally were certainly ‘Bowenesque’;-
First I must say a few things about Ronald Mason. I have read a few of his books and find his style burdensome. He prefers to use 10 words instead of one, and takes paragraphs to come to the point. Reading him reminds me of my only experience of walking through a peat bog where my walking sticks sank in a foot every step ……. he is no historian and no researcher.
It should however be stressed that, as far as I can see, Bowen and Tantalus are in a minority of two, and it is appropriate therefore to conclude this post on a rather more upbeat note. Another cricket historian who was not always easy to please was Rosenwater, who reviewed Mason’s biography of Hammond. Early in the review he compares author and subject favourably, writing that Mason unlooses in these pages an artistic grace quite as comparable with Hammond at the crease, and concluding with the observation that, from his position of supremacy Hammond becomes a fitting subject to write about, and those who know Ronald Mason’s power as a word artist will know that proper justice is dispensed in these pages.