Books: The cricketer, writer and politician who was both of his time and ahead of it

C B Fry: An English Hero by Iain Wilton Richard Cohen pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
C B Fry was a great celebrity in Edwardian England, and his fame lingered for decades after that. I remember, just after the war, my father being asked by immigration officers who had looked only idly at his name whether he was any relation to C B Fry, the cricketer. But he was more than that: Fry was the greatest all-rounder in England's sporting history. In his first year at Oxford, he was chosen to play football for England. As an undergraduate, he equalled the world long- jump record. In 1899, he opened the England innings with W G Grace, and he was England's captain in 1912; Fry scored 94 first class centuries, averaged 50.22 in first class cricket - no mean feat - and a few of his records are still listed in Wisden.

But Sir Neville Cardus called Fry "a great Englishman", and there he may be stretching a point. He was active enough outside sport. He helped his wife run HMS Mercury, a naval training school; at the bidding of his friend and fellow-cricketer the Prince of Nawanagar, also known as Ranjitsinhji, he was a member of the Indian delegation at the founding of the League of Nations in Geneva; he was three times a Liberal candidate in the 1920s, and was considered (though it may have been a hoax) for the throne of the kingdom of Albania. Fry was also the author of an influential book on batsmanship, edited his own sporting magazine, and was an informed and entertaining newspaper columnist; he was also an accomplished ballroom dancer.

Yet he died, aged 84, an anguished old man who talked too much (after one harangue, Cardus said, they had known about C B Fry, now they knew all about Fry BC). He was barely recognised by the grandees of MCC, and died without even an OBE to his name. To explain such neglect, Wilton writes: " `If only' is an expression that repeatedly springs to mind." If only he had had more money - his debts at Oxford were pounds 300, a forbidding sum in the 1890s - he might not have married the mistress of an heir to the Hoare bank fortune who set her up in HMS Mercury, which she ran with a cruel fury. If only he had been elected a Liberal MP. If only he had not gone mad in the late 1920s. If only he had not been too tolerant in print after he had discussed youth movements with Adolf Hitler in the 1930s.

Ian Wilton was a speechwriter for Michael Howard and John Birt, so he knows about the fragility of public reputations. He tell us that, to get the book published in 1999, he resigned from the BBC. Clearly, Fry had become an obsession. Nothing is left to chance. Nothing is left alone. (Wilton goes to diplomatic history to challenge Fry's claim that he caused Mussolini to quit Corfu in 1923.) Nothing is left out. We seem to learn as much about Fry's schoolboy cricket at Repton as we do about his seasons at Sussex.

By the time we get to his life as a public figure in the 1920s, we know Fry well enough to realise that he will be quite undone by his weaknesses. When this does happen, his life drives the narrative on, and a biography becomes more like a thriller. We fear he will go mad (he has already done so in his last term at Oxford). So he does, suffering from paranoid delusions, and having electric shock treatment for a decade. We suspect that his wife's behaviour will deteriorate, and it gets so bad that her son is afraid to introduce his fiancee. We are fairly sure there will be a sexual mishap of some kind, and so there is when Fry rediscovers a lost mistress (his wife had a child at the age of 48 to see her off). It was 25 years since they last met, and she died of cancer two weeks later. We share his disappointment when others do not share his wonderful opinion of himself. Fry went to Hollywood in the 1930s, confidently expecting to become a film star; the best he managed was a role as an adviser on a cricketing scene in Goodbye Mr Chips.

Fry was both of his time and ahead of it. He was public school and Oxford, fluent in Latin and Greek, and he was prominent when sport was still infused by amateurism, dominated by Oxbridge, and inspired by the Corinthian ideal, though Fry himself committed some dreadful fouls as a full-back on the football pitch. He was a snob (he arrived at cricket matches in a Rolls- Royce, bringing his own champagne and finely cut sandwiches); he was an amateur who made good money writing about cricket while deploring the growing professionalism of the game. ("All this Ray, Ron, Doug, Art and Ern business.") His analysis of batting was criticised in a leader in the Times because it was too scientific at the expense of romance, but Bob Woolmer, South Africa's excellent cricket coach, said in 1998 that he still used Fry's Batsmanship, because it was so far ahead of its time.

Wilton is mournful, though truthful always, about his hero's multiple failings, and he takes great delight in his hero's triumphs. (He says that only Damon Runyon short stories and the list of ticket holders in the Irish Sweep could sell as many copies of the Evening Standard as C B Fry.) This labour of love is a definitive biography, and they are not as common as reviewers would have you believe. Iain Wilton has written all anyone wants or needs to know about C B Fry - perhaps even a bit more.