The following book review will appear in the autumn issue of the Musical Times.
Cardus – Celebrant of Beauty A Memoir by Robin Daniels
The Elusive Mr Cardus Letters and Other writings edited by Bob Hilton
Neville Cardus has been a hero for many people for a long time now. From his deprived upbringing in the back streets of Manchester (his aunt was a prostitute); to his way with words which, Palestrina-like, seemed to be in an idiom perfectly formed from birth; to his two intriguingly contrasted yet somehow mutually supporting areas of expertise, he fascinated his contemporaries and continues to dazzle the likes of me, who once, in the pages of the Spectator in 1989, tried to write both the music and cricket columns in conscious emulation. There never was a shortage of people to pay him homage, and here, in Robin Daniels’ memoir, must be the last word in this hero worship. One can only hope so.
What was it about Neville which was so impressive? Whatever it was seemed to work for him from an early age since the Manchester Guardian, under the editorship of C.P.Scott (the All-Father as Cardus later called him), most uncharacteristically took a punt on someone who was just 28 and almost completely untried. I suspect it was a combination of the most intense underlying seriousness of purpose, a ready wit, and no obvious interest in wordly possessions. He disarmed people from the first meeting, and backed up the good impression with prose which in itself could seduce. Michael Kennedy put it best: ‘He had a flair for the telling phrase which caught the fleeting moment and gave it permanence’. And the fact that he could do this in the world of classical music and opera – a world every educated person aspired to – as well as with a mere sport – as his musical friends would put it – meant that he had an appeal across two borders. It was typical of his adroitness that in his hands they could seem linked, each giving perspective to the other. It also meant he could be photographed with desirable international stars like Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, as well as with national icons like Jack Hobbs. It was a unique double-act.
I imagine he was quite careful not to miss those photo opportunities, which must have come his way regularly as, in early life, he shuttled between a county or test match at Old Trafford during day-light hours, and an evening concert with the Halle at Free Trade Hall, his job to review them both. Occasionally he would indulge himself by trying to link the two activities, something normal people would not have tried to do at any period. Apparently he used to enjoy asking people what was similar about a Bruckner Symphony and a Lancashire innings. The answer was that both had their slow movements, with the implication that both needed such a thing. In fact in 1921 he got married during just such a Lancashire innings: having seen it commence he and his bride returned after the ceremony to watch its conclusion. Perhaps he went too far when he referred to Sir Thomas Beecham’s conducting method in a performance of Francesca da Rimini as achieving ‘the best square-cut since Macartney retired. But Sir Thomas should try to get nearer to the ball and over it, while making his leg-glance’, though I admire the daring in it.
Despite this marriage Cardus effectively lived the life of a bachelor, inhabiting the National Liberal Club once he had moved to London; his wife had her own flat. His routines, as described by Daniels, not to mention his extensive travels, would anyway have made a regulated home life more or less impossible. It would not be beside the point to ask a few questions about this marriage and the private life it framed. Cardus certainly liked women – his connection to Kathleen Ferrier was clearly close indeed. He was there on the night she finally collapsed at Covent Garden, and wrote of it afterwards: ‘Whenever I think of that palid evening, and my Kath singing, or attempting to sing…I feel the same shudder of shock and sadness’. He was also close to Kathleen Watkins, who kept him company for fifty years and more. But to give a picture of Cardus as a flesh and blood human being is very far from Daniels’ intentions. It is also disappointingly remote from what is printed in Bob Hilton’s pamphlet The Elusive Mr Cardus, whose title promised better. Both seem so sunk in the ‘Golden Age’ of it all, and Neville’s blameless public profile, that to ask unbiased questions about his make-up has that peculiarly English whiff of being unsporting. By the end of the book Cardus’s wife has been referred to five times whereas people Cardus never met, like Ruskin (30 references) and Pater (28 plus a whole chapter) quickly overhaul her comprehensively.
The present-day enthusiast may be forgiven for feeling that he is entitled to know more about what made his hero tick. I am not asking that Cardus’s childhood necessarily be reinterpreted in the light of Cathy come home; and although there is a theory (aired by Gerald Howat in his DNB entry on Cardus) that his family cirumstances weren’t quite as dire as Cardus himself describes in his Autobiography, they are there to be discussed. It is an even better story to understand how the young man, made seriously ill from malnutrition, overcame his underprivileged start in life and proceeded as he did. Alongside all the successes there must have been mistakes, wrong turnings and disappointments. He himself writes better than anyone about the bare bones of his life; essentially all Daniels adds is gush.
Though it is gush of a particular kind. It might be called gush from outside the box, or ‘and here is another thing which might be of interest’, making the finished book a deeply indulgent repository of ill-sorted information and opinion. Some of the chapters are no more than a page and a half long (‘Education’ comes into this category); others, like the one entitled ‘Walter Pater – the Costly Vision’, are not only 30 times longer but in such a different style that I briefly wondered whether the original author was still contributing. As preparation for the Pater chapter the reader has just left Daniels in typical flight: ‘To the end he lived and loved and wrote in the only way he knew – large and warm (but slim and in need of solitude), full out, graceful, rich in tone and young of heart.’ Then: ‘A few years pass and I feel a faint wary wish to read Pater again. He will teach me many things’. And these pages are not alone in amounting to an exercise in talking round the central subject in showy, verbose terms.
Other chapters stand out as equally indulgent, but with a genuinely eccentric content. The Appendices are good for this. The first one gives a list of what might have applied at Cardus’s Board School. Here we learn for example, under the heading Dunce, that ‘slow learners were made to stand on a stool, in a corner of the room or at the back of the class. They had to wear a badge (or armband) with ‘DUNCE’ written on it; and on the head a tall, cone-shaped hat, made of old newspapers and featuring a large and incriminating letter ‘D’’. I could not find any source for these defining charateristics of 19th century schools, where entertaining detail and more or less complete irrelevance go hand in hand. After two further appendices dedicated to the leading Writers for the Manchester Guardian during C.P.Scott’s editorship and Notable Cricketers 1920–60, Appendix Four consists of a list of desirable ‘Qualities of a Music Critic’, the first of which gives suitable warning of the vision in what is to follow: ‘knowledge of music theory’. But in case it be thought that lists may acceptably be compiled only in Appendices, there are other moments where Daniels suddenly feels the same urge in the middle of a chapter. In a short chapter entitled ‘The Critic as Artist’ there is a list of aphorisms by Oscar Wilde (of the highest quality), bumped in with this introduction: ‘Here, in the words of Oscar Wilde, is the protein of Neville’s own prose style.’ OK, Daniels showed this list to Cardus and they discussed it, but none of these principles is applied in a properly analytical way to anything Cardus himself wrote.
My favourite Cardus story is the one about how he went to review a visiting organist, who travelled with his own instrument. Cardus was unimpressed by the performance and wrote a review in the Guardian which read in its entirety: ‘Mr So-and-so gave a recital at the Free Trade Hall last night on the organ that he travels around with. It weighs eight tons.’ After the publication of the piece C P Scott summoned Cardus to his office and asked him if he positively intended to be offensive. Cardus said he did, whereupon the Editor decided to back him against the complaints that were coming in. A few years later the same organist returned to Manchester. Cardus wrote: ‘Mr So-and-so gave another recital at the Free Trade Hall last night on the organ that he travels around with. It still weighs eight tons.’ Here surely is another side to the endlessly urbane, considerate writer of myth and legend; and one which instantly intrigues.
Yet a further side – quite different but equally unexamined – is hinted at in the simple sentence ‘Cardus drew the line at atonal music’. This immediately put me in mind of a later observation in Daniels’ book: ‘In sports, his only bête noir, towards the end of his life, was the hit-out compulsion of one-day cricket’.The idea that atonal music and one-day cricket are two sides of the same coin – and equally offensive to your golden age traditionalist – is delicious; but there is an important difference between them. Atonal music was being performed throughout Cardus’s career as a critic. To draw the line at it was to exclude from his work the single most important innovation in his subject: hardly something to boast about and certainly not a topic for the nudge-nudge jokes which follow in Daniels’s account. One-day cricket was born in 1963, when Cardus was 75. He might be forgiven for not adapting to something new at that age, though if he really was as sharp a thinker as we are told he was, he might have done a bit better than reject it outright. After all, the one day game is closer to the origins of competitive cricket than Test matches are; and the advantages of this form of cricket were surely felt widely enough to be of interest to any responsible critic.
Ultimately the most disappointing aspect of Daniel’s book – which is doubly unsatisfactory when one remembers how resourceful a writer Cardus himself was – is that unalloyed praise becomes highly repetitive. To be told on page 414 – in the penultimate chapter – that ‘few critics have been so finely endowed. Neville was a combination (plus something more – an X factor) of intelligence, sensibility, wide reading, creative energy, gift of friendship, and hope’ is hardly the magisterial summing up Neville deserves. And this paucity of vocabulary is evident despite the fact that these pages are peppered with quotations from all and sundry, whether germane or not, but certainly full of distracting thoughts and idioms. In their plenty they invade the footnotes as much as the main body of the text, everywhere jostling the expression of Daniels’ thought.
But one realisation did come to me as I read these pages: that in the last analysis Cardus’s contribution to music was less than to cricket. Daniels doesn’t say this outright, though it would hardly have weakened his stance to have pointed out that someone as widely-read and gifted as Cardus really could have written about anything. That it happened to be cricket and music was an accident of circumstance. If someone had thought to take him to the Whitworth or Manchester Art Galleries at the age of ten instead of letting him spend his time earning the odd penny as a pavement artist, his story might have read differently, though I suspect not very differently: he was always going to say important things about serious endeavour. But there were good music critics already in place – Samuel Langford of the Manchester Guardian, to whom Daniels devotes a chapter, was one of them. His words are not remembered now, and, frankly, nor are Neville’s. Neville is remembered for having been present on the big occasions, knowing the principle players, and writing about them as part of his autobiography. His writing about cricket is better remembered because there is so little else to remember on this topic to compare with it. Here he was an innovator, going beyond mere description. And in this world too he was reliably present on the big occasions and knew the principal players. Although he was honoured by the musical establishment – not least by the Halle – he never achieved the same status in music as he did when he served as President of the Lancashire County Cricket Club; and surely he was knighted for having become something of a national treasure. This is the usual reason.
Without an up-to-date appraisal of how a man lived and thought it is hard to enter fully into the praise he has attracted. When Cardus wrote, after countless hours reading in the local library as a boy: ‘I adored Beatrix Esmond, fell in love with Tess, got sensuously intoxicated with Isolde, and, in imagination I had a long affair with Carmen. This was a good preparation for the real rich-blooded pleasures and experiences to come’ some questions are begged. We hear little of rich-blooded pleasures that came, and nothing of those reviews in which what he saw as a genuine attempt to raise standards were considered by their readers to be ‘arrogant and insensitive’ (Howat). We need to have such questions answered, which may be an easier task for somone who didn’t know Cardus as well as Daniels did. Cardus kept a lot of people under his spell.