J Jefferson Farjeon was one of the most prolific and underrated mystery writers of the golden age of detective fiction, who frequently dipped his pen in cricket while writing about murder and mayhem. Arunabha Sengupta has already written about two of his works in which cricket is mentioned with the passion of a dedicated aficionado. Now, he is thrilled to have found an authentic Farjeon piece on cricket, with no daggers sticking out of the baronet’s back or strychnine in the coffee to distract one from the noble game.
It is these moments of serendipity that collectors, devotees and connoisseurs live for.
J Jefferson Farjeon was a writer of crime fiction. A prolific one, and, in my opinion, quite brilliant as well. He produced most of his works during the period hailed in the history of literature as the Golden Age of English Detective Fiction.
Alfred Hitchcock made a movie out of his Number 17, one of the several directors to do so. A personality no less than Dorothy L Sayers recorded, “Jefferson Farjeon is quite unsurpassed for creepy skill in mysterious adventures.”
Yet, for all the accolades and accomplishments, Farjeon remains an almost forgotten name today. Martin Edwards, the greatest authority on that era of detective fiction, has mentioned him only in a small footnote in his incredible work The Golden Age of Murder.
However, Farjeon was a superb craftsman of the murder mystery. And in an irresistible concoction, he used the ingredient of cricket in delicious dollops as he stirred some of the best of his plots.
When a county cricketer played a major role in his classic country-house mystery Thirteen Guests, Farjeon built him into the tale with a hand that obviously delighted in gripping the bat handle and thumbing through pages of cricket statistics. Harold Taverley played for Sussex, possessed a perfect off-drive and boasted an average of 41.66. Fielding practice and score cards played decisive roles in the story and the thread of cricket was intricately woven into the fabric of the tale.
When I wrote about the novel in these pages, Martin Edwards validated that Farjeon had indeed been a cricket fan.
Martin, in fact, has played a role in helping the modern generation discover Farjeon. A crime-novelist himself, he is associated with the British Library Crime Classics series as an editor, a project that has republished several of the vintage classics including several of Farjeon’s works. Among them is also The Z Murders, an otherwise unimpressive Farjeon novel that alludes to WG Grace and Fred Spofforth in its pages.
However, for a confirmed addict of crime fiction and cricket literature, these samples do more than delighting. They whet the appetite. A pen as powerful as this, which was dipped with such relish into the vast resources of cricket … what would a pure piece on the game read like when created by this combination? Had he written anything on the game without being distracted by the array of corpses and footprints?
The answer was not so easy to find. The old Farjeon books themselves are rare, apart from the ones reprinted by British Library Crime Classics. And nowhere is it indicated that he indeed wrote anything specific about the game.
For a dedicated seeker, the biblical promise of ‘ye shalt find’ does sometimes hold true. But, I did not really cover myself in glory as a dedicated seeker. In retrospect, it was sheer happy chance that got me what I was hoping for.
Browsing through the catalogues of cricket writing, the eyes did catch Herbert Farjeon’s Cricket Bag. A collection of light hearted essays on the game by Herbert Farjeon, the theatre critic, playwright and scholar. A volume produced after his death.
Well, a wrong Farjeon. But then, one could not help but consider, Farjeon is not really Smith. There are bound to be a limited number of them who have walked across the face of the earth. And was it not curious that literature and cricket formed a cocktail that ran through the veins of two of them?
It was but one small step to discover that they were brothers, Herbert being four years younger than Jefferson.
For some reason, as the sound of fury of life temporarily buried the course of my literary detection under a mundane morass of tax returns and annual appraisals. I stopped at that.
Herbert Farjeon’s book would be a good addition to my collection. Not all the writers chronicling the cricketing events — and concocting their own skewed versions about the game’s history — are blessed with the ability to write good prose. Hence, a cricket book by a genuine writer is always welcome in the shelves. However, it was not a must-have.
Besides, it was not readily available, only a few second-hand book sellers seemed to be stocking it. In an act that amounts to criminal callousness in a collector, I forgot all about it.
It was in the Welsh book town of Hay-on-Wye, in the rear corners of Boz Books on Castle Street, that I discovered it. On another day, perhaps my gaze would have swept past it —especially given the tiny size and inconspicuous location on the shelf. In the said bookshop, there was a small section of cricket books, and I had loitered there by sheer force of habit. And with immense good fortune, my scanning eyes had stopped on this small green volume. Herbert Farjeon’s Cricket Bag with the quaint sketch of a sweater-swamped umpire on the frontispiece.
And then I turned the pages. On page 9 started the ‘Introduction’. The second line mentioned, ‘My brother Herbert’.
With quivering fingers I leafed through the pages till I came to the 26th, where the introductory piece ended and the first part of Herbert Farjeon’s cricketing pieces, titled First Innings, began. It seemed quite substantial, an 18-page introduction to a 159-page volume.
However, that did not matter. Because at the end of ‘Introduction’ the name stood in block letters — J. JEFFERSON FARJEON.
There I had it in my hand. A piece on cricket by the man, with no revolver, no oriental dagger, no arsenic in sight.
The cricketing childhood
The collection of essays, poetry, sketches and a diversion into an one-act play… the different thoughts, some curious, some macabre, all amusing… make the book a splendid volume. However, perhaps another article needs to be penned about the contents penned by Herbert Farjeon.
For now, let me dwell on the introduction, the piece by the Farjeon close to my heart.
The section begins with the words, “I hope this introduction will not be too sentimental.”
Well, let me inform you with immense glee that these hopes were dashed. It reads as sentimental as cricket, the king of sports, demands of its adherents, especially the impressionable ones.
When PG Wodehouse wrote the foreword to The Clicking of Cuthbert, he titled it Fore and added, “[When it comes to golf], I write with my blood.”
In this piece, Farjeon is no different. He writes about the game with his every drop of his blood, every remnant of his soul and every throb of his heart. The dreamy years of his childhood and rosy days of early youth flow back through his senses as he recalls the role cricket played in the lives of the two brothers.
As he confesses, cricket was a colossal fire of a youth that had never left the brothers. And the blaze of the same fire illuminates the 18 pages with a poetic glow that is seldom achieved by the master writer in the more morbid mystery thrillers.
And I must confess myself that while writing about the introduction, neither can I remain unsentimental. Which cricket lover can be when the depths of his passion as a child is revisited in such words?
- Thirteen Guests: A chilling country-house mystery of the Golden Age with cricket playing an important role
“Looking back over half a century, I recapture with almost disquieting ease the excitement of our boyhood passions. The names of WG Grace — yes, we once saw that immortal bat at Lord’s — of Tom Hayward, John Briggs, Ranji, Hearne, Palairet, Sugg (how many today remember Sugg and could name his county?), set our young hearts racing and held more glamour than is exhaled today by any Hollywood star. I do not exaggerate my phrases. I am ready to wager that no close-up of a Loretta Young has ever made hearts beat faster than the close-up of a cricket ball hit by Gilbert Jessop for six!”
The names change with generation. WG, Hayward, Ranji et al become Sobers, May, Davidson … still later Tendulkar, Lara and Warne … but the impressions remain the same. Unwavering.
And, what about Sugg? That Lancashire batsman who played a couple of Tests for England and, to my serendipitous delight yet again, bowled a few lobs? Have not each one of us come across a player, short of the top bracket, for whom we always had a curious soft corner, in spite of the giants of the era who perhaps stood head and shoulders above him? Say a Luckhurst or a Logie or a Sadagoppan Ramesh or a Jesse Ryder?
And about the Jessop-Young conundrum? It makes more sense than ever in this day and age of switching television channels.
Later Farjeon writes about the two brothers championing their respective idols, the great hitter Gilbert Jessop for one, and the curiously unknown Oxford cricketer FHE Cunliffe for the other. This is yet another facet of youthful devotion that rings so true.
Farjeon adds about his brother: “He confessed later [that he] used to murmur, ‘God bless Abel’ in his prayers … he mentioned to me that he also added, ‘God bless Leg-byes’.” Well, I cannot speak about the rest of you, and neither am I going to touch upon Leg-byes (which both the Farjeons later agreed was a trick of the memory), but I do remember as a 10-year-old, looking up the horoscope pages in the Sunday paper, not checking the fortunes foretold for my own star sign but for that of my favourite batsman in the Indian team.
Farjeon continues along the same lines, writing about every facet of a cricket loving child’s life that we all know, almost as if he has peeped into our rooms when we were young. He writes about his brother: “In later life he regarded Shakespeare as the greatest writer of all time. As a boy he plumped for Lillywhite and Wisden, whose annual cricket almanacs, with perhaps JC Snaith’s cricket classic Willow the King, were the most treasured and constantly read volumes on our bookshelves.”
Don’t we know the feeling? The cricket magazines dominating our reading matter, even as the literature to pursue became either mandatory or fascinating or both. I personally remember being a 14-year-old, the period of constant tussle between the excellent, although short-lived, World of Cricket and the newly discovered thrills and joys of Crime and Punishment.
And then Farjeon discloses something about his brother that brings back memories of all the different teams constructed in the early days of adolescence, the introduction to the All-Time XIs of different varieties, and the countless matches played by flipping open books and noting the page numbers — that boundless joy known as book-cricket.
“There were three years —1898 to 1900 — when Bertie [Herbert] compiled cricket annuals himself, playing county championships with dice and recording every score of the imaginary seasons. I assisted in these productions, which gained strong disapproval of our father when he discovered them. They were, of course, a glorious waste of time. But we continued with them firmly when no real cricket was available, and the nursery window was cloaked with yellow fog, shaking the dice-cup softly and in secret, lest too loud a rattle would bring forth further parental wrath. Boundaries scored by stealth…Lillywhite, Wisden and Farjeon all produced cricket annuals in the last years of the last century.”
The near-forgotten days of childhood brought to life with remarkable vividness. No picture can be more accurate.
Then there were the first real games of cricket: first between the two brothers, with the older Farjeon a superior sportsman with his advantage of four years over his younger brother and his additional experience of scoring a duck in a match on the green in front of Royal Crescent, Margate.
Then there were the teams: “Our older brother and sister, Harry and Nellie, emerged temporarily from their field of imaginative pastime into the more manly field of sport, and now, instead of having two teams of one player each, we had two teams of two. Each team could talk of a first man and a last man out, if it could not boast of a middle.”
And sometimes, when the weather was uncooperative or the parents strict, the games continued in the bedroom passage. “Here we played with a tennis ball, hairbrush, and a certain unmentionable article of bedroom crockery. If the hairbrush failed to keep the ball out of the bedroom crockery, the batsman was dismissed.”
There were also the dreams of the youthful cricketer as one hits balls bowled by friends and family past the clothesline into the nearby bush. “If we scored no centuries (for Harry and Nellie never bowled overarm and what can you do against underhand sneakers save inward writhing?), we could dream of them when we sent a lucky one over the hedge for six, and we could wonder, in that glorious future that lay ahead of us, whether we should ever be chosen to play for our country.”
There follows the description of the first visit to Lord’s, the scramble for the best seats and the purchase of the match scorecard. “‘Cards of the match!’ was lovelier than any line of Keats.” There is the passionate perusal of the scores of the respective heroes, the exchanges with an old spectator, there is even a description of Albert Craig, the famous cricket rhymester.
No, it is not an exercise as a successful writer of pompous self-importance deigning to indulge himself and oblige cricket readers with his ramblings about the game. Farjeon left that for other writers, those perhaps too important to keep their prose within the boundaries of the game. With all the success of his pen, when he wrote about the days of yore when the two of them were children fascinated by the game, he returned to being a child himself.
Farjeon wrote about the cricketing past as a means to return to his happy, precious days, when in the company of his late brother he formed a duo of cricket crazy kids, living for the game. And therefore are his memories read lively, eloquent, true in spite of the obvious romanticising. Yes, there is romanticising, as he himself admits:
“As I indulge in this orgy of the past, seeking to discover the scenes and sensations of those early days, when all the red letter-boxes had V.R. on them, and the buses were drawn y horses, and war was a mere theory like China and old age, and Arthur Shrewsbury’s average was 38.1, I know that I am idealising the past; but I also know that it is worth idealising, as are the men and women we love. For what, after all, is reality but the attitude we bring to it? Each moment that we live goes on into the future, dimmed or illuminated by our new experiences.”