From body blow to bodyline: a week to rekindle memories: Sporting defeat and political crisis? It's deja vu all over again for Charles Nevin

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The Independent Online
HIGH temperatures; sporting disasters; a faltering government with a colourless leader, dogged by economic difficulty and internal dissent. Welcome to Britain, June 1950.

The dies horribilis was Thursday, 29 June. In a forerunner of last week's 2-0 defeat by the United States, the England football joint favourites lost 1-0 to the US in the World Cup at Belo Horizonte, Brazil. By the Sunday they would be out of the tournament, beaten 2-0 by Spain.

At Lord's, the West Indies won their first ever Test in England, by a thumping 326 runs, and were on their way to the series, 3-1. Nowadays, newspapers get exercised by this sort of thing: some embark on an exhaustive analysis of what it means for the country; others decide who is to blame, depict him as a root vegetable and demand his resignation.

But things were different then. Life was tougher. There was rationing. The week before, a guardsman who fainted in 92F (33C) heat was given five extra drills, not as a punishment, the War Office explained, but as 'remedial treatment'. The papers did not get too excited about England's shame.

'It was a bad day yesterday for British sport,' was the most the Daily Mirror could muster, devoting more of its front page to the visit of Frank Sinatra. The Times had a three-paragraph report on the sports pages from Reuters, which shrank to two paragraphs for the World Cup exit, below the usual beating for the British Lions in New Zealand.

The Daily Express tried a little harder, saying the American defeat 'marks the lowest ever for British sport'. The Daily Mail said that 'England played ridiculously badly'. But no one reached for the turnips, even though there had been muttering about leaving out Stanley Matthews.

The Mirror roundly condemned the beginnings of a campaign against Billy Wright, the captain. 'England's day will come again,' wrote Tom Phillips, 'but not if we yap and jeer at our boys.' When the England team returned, 'hatless but wearing rueful grins' according to the Express, the manager (not supremo), Walter Winterbottom, offered no excuses. Matthews said the trip had been 'uneventful'.

It was the same with the cricket, where R E S Wyatt, chairman of the selectors, remained unharried despite all manner of problems with his selections against the West Indies and his hunt for the necessary amateur to lead England against Australia in the winter. Norman Yardley and George Mann turned him down before he secured the services of F R Brown, who took over for the fourth test and lost by an innings and 56 runs.

The newspapers seemed genuinely delighted by the success of the West Indies, who had Weekes and Worrell in awesome form with the bat, matched by the precocious 'spin-twins' Ramadhin and Valentine, who took 59 wickets in four tests. 'There will no doubt be a calypso about it all,' said a Times leader.

James Leasor, in the Express, identified a wider malaise: 'miserabilism'. Frank Sinatra was up to it, with songs like 'I'll never smile again,' and then there was T S Eliot with The Cocktail Party, Arthur Miller with Death of a Salesman, Orwell with 1984, and more, all miserable. Leasor invited nominations for miserabilists. Sir Stafford Cripps, Chancellor of the Exchequer, architect of austerity and rationing, took an unassailable lead.

Cripps was an ailing member of an ailing government, broken by the economic crises that had battered Labour's plans and visions and unity. Attlee, the Prime Minister, had survived a move to oust him in 1947 only because Ernest Bevin didn't want the job. Cripps had been forced to devalue in 1949. Labour's majority was cut to six in the general election of February 1950. But when Cripps finally resigned in October 1950, there were generous tributes in the Mail and the Express; the Times leader didn't even mention devaluation. By the next autumn Churchill was back in power.

F R Brown and his team lost the Ashes in Australia that winter 4-1. A manufacturer was warning about the folly of exporting machine tools to Russia. Churchill outlined his vision of Europe, his belief that national sovereignty should be diminished 'for the sake of all the men in all the lands finding their way home together'. In September, a blue moon was visible from south-east England.

Norman Fox, page 26

(Photographs omitted)