Gerald Howat

Writer of cricketing biographies


Gerald Malcolm David Howat, writer and schoolteacher: born Glasgow 12 June 1928; married 1951 Anne Murdoch (two sons, one daughter); died Oxford 10 October 2007.

You had to be quick to keep up with Gerald Howat. The short, staccato sentences were delivered at machine-gun pace. Usually either as statements or questions. And there were rapid changes of direction. It reflected a fecund and restless mind.

Howat was writer, journalist, schoolmaster, university lecturer, Oxbridge Board examiner, archivist and, for well over 60 years, enthusiastic club cricketer. But it took his autobiography, Cricket All My Life, delivered at breakneck speed in 2006, to bring these parts together. Cricket was a central thread. The subjects of four of his five acclaimed biographies were legends of the game – Learie Constantine, "Wally" Hammond, "Plum" Warner and Len Hutton – and the 70 entries he supplied to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004) during his Associate Editorship, contained many on former players.

Born in Glasgow in 1928, Howat was the son of a Scottish Episcopalian priest. After a childhood in Girvan where he remembered seeing the ill-fated R100 airship overhead on its way to Canada and then in Dundee during the Depression, he boarded at Ardvreck in Crieff where he lost his Scots accent and became head boy. Following the award of a bursary to Glenalmond College, known as "the Eton of the North", Howat met the West Indian cricketer and later politician Learie Constantine and so began an association that had a pivotal effect on his career.

At Edinburgh University, Howat "acquired a wife [Anne, later to become a distinguished consultant psychiatrist], a degree, administrative experience [as press officer and assistant secretary of the Students' Executive Council] and a lot of friends". National Service as a Flying Officer based at RAF Titchfield was followed by a three-year spell teaching for the oil firm Trinidad Leaseholds Ltd (TLL) at their Regent School in Point-a-Pierre where Sonny Ramadhin was the firm's storekeeper.

It was the early 1950s when Britain's grip on its colonies was being loosened. In the prevalent mood of nationalism and on the way to a brief vacation in Tobago, Howat got into hot water when a remark from a complete stranger at the airport was completely misinterpreted by the Trinidad Clarion to mean that he was about to be appointed headmaster of the Bishop's High School, Tobago, in place of the existing local (and black) holder of the position who had been sacked. Learie Constantine, TLL's lawyer and by now a personal friend, came to the rescue, securing a total withdrawal of all that had been written.

Howat returned to Britain to spend five years as head of the History Department at Kelly College in Tavistock, then 14 years at Culham College of Education in Oxfordshire as principal lecturer and head of the History Department. While at Culham, he wrote, undertook a research degree on "the place of history in education" for Exeter College, Oxford, and branched out into publishing. For a time he was General Editor of the Historical Division of Pergamon Press.

He also compiled several school textbooks before accepting an invitation to act as General Editor of a Dictionary of World History, a massive undertaking which came to fruition in 1973 and meant working closely with an advisory board that included A.J.P. Taylor, Max Beloff and Asa Briggs. Not so onerous was a year with Mitchell Beazley editing an illustrated biographical dictionary, Who Did What (1974).

By now writing and literary matters claimed much of Howat's attention and interest, and a period as head of history at Radley was not entirely satisfactory, either for the school or for him. "I was not ambitious to be a headmaster and I came to resent the fact that I never had time to put pen to paper (or, more specifically, to write a book) during my years there." In 1977, a senior pastoral appointment at Lord Williams's School, Thame, provided more leisure.

When Howat "retired" in 1985, he had already written the biography of Constantine (Learie Constantine, 1977) which won the Cricket Society Jubilee Literary Award, and also those of "Wally" Hammond (Walter Hammond, 1984) and Jack Parsons (Cricketer Militant: the life of Jack Parsons, 1980). In the next few years, two former England captains were additions to the canon – Warner (Plum Warner, 1987) and Hutton (Len Hutton, 1988). But the tantalising prospect of writing the life of a third subject born in Trinidad was declined, the radical savant C.L.R. James being perhaps too far "beyond a boundary" for Howat's innate conservatism.

Howat was a member of MCC for over 40 years, but his heart was just as close – if not closer – to what he called MCC2, his local club, Moreton in Oxfordshire, where for almost 50 years he was sometime secretary and president and a keen wicket-keeper who played his last game for the club as recently as 2005.

David Rayvern Allen

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