Chapter 1 of Seasons in the Sun starts with a stroll through the media on the day that the Labour government was formed on Monday March 4th 1974 after a period of uncertainty following the indecisive result of the general election the previous Thursday. It is impossible to go through all of this media selection and ask how accurate a picture it paints. Now arguably, this material can only be true, it is a snapshot. But the role of the historian is not that of the keeper of a scrap book. It is to analyse, and go beyond repeating what was in the papers that day.
There are of course fine histories that rely on reporting voices from history. I enjoyed and I had my eyes opened by Mary Abbott’s Family Affairs (London: Routledge, 2003) that consists of reporting a variety of testimonies on family life in England from 1920 to 1990 without any commentary. But like a swan, you know that the outward grace is accompanied by a furious paddling out of sight. Similarly, Peter Englund’s The Beauty and the Sorrow (London: Profile, 2011) shows that a history can be written through giving the sources a voice in which the author all but vanishes.
The problem I have with the beginning of this chapter is that the news stories here, the media snippets, don’t seem to represent anything. So you get references to Z Cars without any idea of what Z Cars might be if the reader does not know. (Seasons, p5)
I will examine just one of these examples to show how it signifies nothing. I chose this one simply because it one I know something about and for which it is easy to supply a little context. The story of the England cricket team (or rather quaintly, the MCC team as it was still called). Dominic writes that “For those who saw sport as a reflection of the nation’s fortunes…. the England cricket party’s dismal ten-wicket defeat in Barbados felt a bucket of water in the face.” (Seasons, p5) There is no evidence that it felt like a bucket of water in anyone’s face. And there is an implication that this is another sign of national decline.
Dominic then goes on to quote an unnamed and un-referenced news reporter saying that this was an awful England batting line up, and no further comment is made. The question for the historian is whether this instant judgement was true, and whether it signified anything.
The first thing to point out is that this was a warm up game in the MCC’s five game tour of the West Indies in 1973-4, not a test match. Many teams lose these matches, they do not field full strength sides, they rest valued and in-form players, some members of the squad don’t try too hard. England finally drew the series 1-1 losing the first test and wining the last. (ref: http://static.espncricinfo.com/db/ARCHIVE/1970S/1973-74/ENG_IN_WI/)
There was a feeling at the time that this was a poor England batting line up (as is often the case, everyone looks back at a golden age gone). The Times report on the game looked back to the glories of England’s recent past, pointing out that many towering figures of the preceding years, Les Ames, Colin Cowdrey, Jim Laker and others were at the game as spectators and, by implication, still better players. More interestingly, however, the report continues highlighting the problem that the previously reliable Geoff Boycott was struggling to score against the short-pitched pace bowling that the Bajan bowlers were serving up. (The Times, 4/4/1974). In the test series itself the teams were evenly balanced, England scored seven centuries, the West Indies five. Denis Amiss averaged 83, and four more England batters averaged in the 40s (which is not too bad for those of you who don’t do cricket stats). The weakness was the bowling, which for England was highly reliant on Tony Grieg who took 24 wickets (http://static.espncricinfo.com/db/ARCHIVE/1970S/1973-74/ENG_IN_WI/ENG_IN_WI_JAN-APR1974_AVS.html), but beyond that there was no depth with England’s pace attack of Chris Old and Bob Willis never being fully fit. The following summer a very similar England team beat India 3-0 and had the better of Pakistan in a 0-0 draw in a three test series (England would almost certainly have won 2-0 if the last day of two games had not been entirely rained off). (http://static.espncricinfo.com/db/ARCHIVE/1970S/1974/PAK_IN_ENG/). Anyone reading the essays in the following year’s Wisden is filled with a sense of over-all gloom in English cricket emerging for the year’s games.
Oddly, the bigger story is not mentioned in the book. When the West Indies came to Britain in 1976. England’s (South African) captain, Tony Grieg, famously announced that England would make the West Indies “grovel”. The reply was famously the imperious batting of Viv Richards, and the disciplined hostility of the pace bowling of Andy Roberts (although the West Indies were a few years off their truly great pace attack). West Indies won 3-0 in the 5 match series, England did better in the last 2 drawn, more balanced games, but it is the utter drubbing of the first 3 games that will be remembered. (And notably, the West Indies lost some of their warm up games.) (http://static.espncricinfo.com/db/ARCHIVE/1970S/1976/WI_IN_ENG/)
I think that the activist and writer Darcus Howe is right that there was something deeply political about this. (See for example, http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2007/mar/04/cricket.features3).
There was certainly an element of post-colonial revenge about this, and it was also a point that united Britons of Afro-Caribbean descent with pride. His assertion that this gave youth in Notting Hill the courage to stand up to the police is more contentious, but it is a credible claim. But this big story passes Dominic by in the light of a defeat in a warm up match which fits easily with the narrative of all not being well as Labour stepped into office.