You may remember a few years ago a magnificent rebuke issued to Lord Mandelson by Ken Follett, the novelist, whose wife Barbara had crossed swords with Mandelson in her role as a Labour MP. I cannot recall the feline shift of behaviour that caused Mr Follett to issue the rebuke, but he described Mandelson as having done something that was not very “manly”.
Why did this adjective resonate so? The word had a period sheen to it. It was an insult bandied about by our fathers’ generation. It became less frequent with the rise of the metrosexual (a realm of which we might suppose Lord Mandelson to be the king, or queen) and, in an age when it is considered appalling for a man not to have a feminine side that is permanently on display, the word is considered irrelevant. Indeed, to be called “manly” now might be interpreted by quite a lot of chaps as downright abusive in itself.
Yet there was a straightforwardness in Mr Follett’s use of the term that betokened no cruelty in the insult, but merely an aggrieved statement of fact. Men like him — and me — grew up in the postwar generation believing there were certain rules for the way a man behaved. It did not include some of the circuitous conduct for which Lord Mandelson, in his long and distinguished career, became famed.
The word is called to mind by an enormously jolly, and jolly interesting, book that has just been published by Max Davidson, one of our best and most underrated comic writers. From the book’s title — We’ll Get ’em in Sequins (Wisden Sporting Books, £18.99) — it might be thought Mr Davidson has written a book of jokes. It is not so, and the subtitle gives us a pointer to his real mission: Manliness, Yorkshire Cricket, and the Century that Changed Everything. As well as not being a comic book (though it has some marvellous jokes in it) it is not simply a book about cricket: it is a book about life, seen — and why not? — through the prism of the nation’s greatest sport.
You do not need to be a cricket buff to be aware of the legendary place of Yorkshire in the English game. From the 1880s until the end of the 1960s they were one of the most formidable teams on the planet. Mr Davidson chooses various legendary Yorkshiremen to display the idea of manliness and, indeed, its decline. The title itself may need some explanation. At the Oval in August 1902 England were playing Australia. They had needed 263 to win in the fourth innings and at one stage the game appeared lost, with England at 48 for 5. However, Gilbert Jessop came in and scored 104 in one of the great pyrotechnic innings seen in test cricket, and put England in sight of victory.
Yet the ninth wicket fell at 248. England needed 15 to win. Two Yorkshiremen were at the crease, and were all that stood between Australia and triumph. One was George Hirst, England’s leading all-rounder. The other was the young Wilfred Rhodes, a slow bowler of immense talent who would within a few years become a magnificent opening batsman, but in this game was at number 11. It was a moment of high tension: but Hirst allegedly went up to his younger comrade and said: “We’ll get ’em in singles.” As it turned out they didn’t: though they did get them. It was an ultimate display of manliness. A moment’s panic or lapse in concentration, the slightest feeling of fear, and the game would be lost.
Mr Davidson appraises the manly quality of George Hirst. He had all the hallmarks of a professional. As well as his cricketing skills, which were considerable, he was reliable, understated, modest, straightforward and bluff. Although he presented a formidable exterior, he was kind and decent. In those days of gentlemen and players he would never have captained Yorkshire, but he had great skills of leadership. Had he been a fraction younger he would have served in, and perhaps been killed in, the Great War. Hirst displayed the untroubled, self-effacing stoicism of so many men who did. He was of the same generation as Captain Scott, to whom the author also refers, and would have exhibited the same sort of heroism had it been asked of him. (A worthy successor was Hedley Verity, the great Yorkshire and England left-arm spin bowler, who died a hero in the Italian campaign in 1943.)
The Edwardian era is seen by Mr Davidson as some sort of high watermark of manliness — not just because of Scott and indeed Captain Oates, whose sacrifice for the sake of his comrades must count as one of the manliest acts of all time, but because of the other self-conscious attributes of manly conduct that were expected then: the moustache, the lack of effeminate grooming products, above all the determination not to display emotion. However, the next 100 years were to show great changes in the conception of manliness, and nowhere would they be better shown than in the Yorkshire dressing-room.
Slowly, manliness began to lose some of its key trappings. Herbert Sutcliffe, the great opening bat of the interwar years, wore silks and brilliantined his hair. Fred Trueman not only used Brylcreem, he was also flash and boastful, though he had much to boast about, the soi-disant greatest bloody fast bowler that ever drew breath. He made up for it by being a man’s man, which entailed projecting the image of a man who liked a pint and told it like it was. Geoffrey Boycott boasted, wore spectacles — an obvious sign of effeminacy — had difficult relations with women and was incredibly rude. Manliness had been sorely compromised.
It couldn’t get worse, but it did. Michael Vaughan burst into tears at a press conference when giving up the England captaincy. By contrast, Bob Appleyard, a Yorkshire cricketer of the 1940s and 1950s, had come home one day to find his entire family had gassed themselves, and didn’t feel the need to mention this tragedy to anybody. Then Darren Gough, the Yorkshire fast bowler, wore sequins on Strictly Come Dancing — and had ear studs. Public displays of emotion, wearing nancy boy’s clothes — I’d say they’d be taking paternity leave next, but they already have.