DAVID FOOT 1929-2021
David always said that writing was the only thing he was any good at. It wasn’t true – he was the best of friends, warm-hearted and generous, and a most caring family man – but my word, what a special writer he was. He developed a style uniquely his own, a rare gift, and it throbbed with his humane, compassionate values. He was not frightened to look at the darker side of life, but he always did so with sympathy and with wisdom. And, like so few in our fast-moving world, he stayed true to his roots. With his talent he could have become a name in Fleet Street, but he preferred to stay in the West Country which he knew so well and instinctively understood. I admired that about him.
Born into the pre-war feudal life of the Somerset village of East Coker where his father was an estate worker, he won a place at grammar school in Yeovil, leaving to become a copy boy on the Western Gazette. For several years, interrupted only by National Service, he cycled the lanes of Somerset on his three-speed racer, a period of his life that he captured in loving and humorous detail in his semi-fictionalised memoir Country Reporter, a breathtakingly good and much too little known book. Keith Waterhouse was employed to turn it into a television series, Channel 4’s answer to James Herriot’s tales of the Yorkshire vet, but alas the project was scuppered by television politics. An opportunity lost.
Then came Harold Gimblett, the free-hitting Somerset opener who had been an early hero of David. Not yet ready to start the writing, David asked Gimblett to record his memories on tape, which he did, often in the middle of the night when he could not sleep. Then came the news that Gimblett had committed suicide.
The project was dead in the water till one day David took a call from a relative, offering him the tapes, and Harold Gimblett – Tormented Genius of Cricket was born. Still voted one of the best cricket books of all times, it broke new ground in cricket writing. In the words of John Arlott in Wisden, ‘There is no other book like it in cricket literature; no one else has ever gone – or honestly attempted to go – down into the pit with a cricketer. It is fine, compassionate and wise. Mr Foot deserves the admiration and thanks of all who care for human truth in a game which does not always face facts.’
John Cleese, a fellow Somerset man, came close to creating a one-man stage play based on Gimblett’s story but, like Channel 4’s Country Reporter, it did not happen. Another opportunity lost. David simply smiled and carried on. Deeply imbued with the rural values of his upbringing, he never seemed bothered about personal glory.
Cricket increasingly took centre stage in his life. He contributed articles to Wisden Cricket Monthly and covered matches for the Guardian. He wrote a delightfully entertaining history of Somerset cricket, Sunshine, Sixes and Cider, he explored the lives of three ‘controversial and irascible’ characters of the inter-war years in Cricket’s Unholy Trinity, and he took on the daunting task of solving the riddle of Wally Hammond’s mystery illness, picked up in the Caribbean, in Wally Hammond – The Reasons Why, which was short-listed for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year.
He was never a writer with an eye on sales figures or commercial success. He followed his own star, pursued the subjects that interested him and wrote them up in his own way. For those who loved him, that was the charm of his work. He was at his very best writing biographical essays of four or five thousand words, notably in the two collections Beyond Bat and Ball and Fragments of Idolatry. There are not enough essay-writers in cricket, with many books too long for the material they contain, but David’s work was never padded out. He got to the heart of his subjects with a prose style that combined insight, atmosphere and not a little mystery. Robertson-Glasgow may be the supreme writer of the 700-word profile of a cricketer but, in that slightly longer format, no one comes close to David.
Beyond Bat and Ball had a profound influence on me, just as I was about to start my own journey as a cricket writer. He was bringing alive the old cricketers as people in a way that I had not previously experienced in cricket books. It was about so much more than runs and wickets; the humanity that ran through the writing was so powerful.
When I was self-publishing my first book, a nobody in a world that was new to me, David was most generous with his time and advice. Three years later, when I was launching my book with Bomber Wells at the Cheltenham Festival, he told me that he was working on a sequel to Beyond Bat and Ball, and I asked him who was publishing it.
He had not found anybody, he said. Without a thought, carried away with enthusiasm, I said, “I could do it if you like.” In that moment I became a publisher not only of my own but other people’s books, and I could not have had a better person to start with: beautifully written copy, photographs all ready for use and always a pleasure to deal with. We only argued once – when I told him what I proposed to pay him. “No, no, no, you can’t pay me that much,” he protested. “I won’t accept it.” That was so David.
Robin Marlar’s Cricketer review of Fragments of Idolatry hit the nail on the head: ‘The real attraction of David Foot’s writing is that he is attracted to the loveable without being alarmed by the mysterious. Both he chronicles faithfully as essential features of the whole man.’
I published three more of David’s books, his last three. We put together an updated edition of Harold Gimblett. With the support of Ivan Ponting he compiled a set of profiles of all Somerset’s post-war cricketers, Sixty Summers, which won the Cricket Writers’ Club Book of the Year award.
Then in 2010, when David’s confidence was starting to drain away, Scyld Berry and I, together with his son Mark, cajoled him to write a memoir of his life, Footsteps from East Coker. I cannot put into words how proud I am to have published it. It contains a moving portrait of that pre-war feudal world of his childhood, followed by rich tales of his years in journalism, all in that unique style he had developed. On one of my last visits to him, I asked him which of his book he was most proud of, and I glowed when he replied, ‘Footsteps from East Coker’.
He was a great friend, a great encourager, to so many people, and he leaves behind a unique body of work, ground-breaking and inspirational. He certainly inspired me. It was a privilege to know him.
He moved up to Bristol, to work on the Evening World, where amid much else he reported on football, wrote theatre reviews and interviewed visiting stars. He befriended the hard-living Peter O’Toole, memorably describing the Yorkshire-born actor’s encounter with Brian Close when both were too star struck to speak. His piece about an obscure play, The Room, staged in the university’s drama department, has turned out to be the first ever review of a Harold Pinter work. Among his fellow journalists on the Evening World was Tom Stoppard, who soon moved on, and it amused David greatly that many years later an American student published a postgraduate thesis ‘proving’ through textual analysis that Stoppard had continued to write for the paper under the nom-de-plume David Foot.
How hard he worked in those years, especially once he opted to go freelance. His son Mark recalls a Bristol Rovers game when David was in charge of the ground’s music and announcements, was providing regular updates for Radio Bristol and, with the help of Mark and the old Gloucestershire wicket-keeper Andy Wilson, telephoning copy to 13 different newspapers, local and national. Yet he was happy, at work and at home with wife Anne and children Julia and Mark, and his writing went from strength to strength.
On top of all this he started to write books. Several were on Bristol topics, notably Ladies’ Mile, in which he ghost-wrote the memoir of a woman who had been a lavatory attendant on the Bristol Downs. Her graphic tales of the seedy nocturnal life of the Downs in the 1930s appealed greatly to David.
His first ventures into cricket books were as a ghost – to Bill Andrews, Viv Richards and Zaheer Abbas. The collaboration with Andrews, the larger-than-life Somerset bowler who had briefly been the village pro at East Coker, was a demanding one, culminating with the highly-strung Andrews ringing at 5am on the day of its printing. Beset with worry, he wanted to “scrap the bloody book altogether”. David had to jump into his car and drive to Weston-super-Mare to calm him down.
Stephen Chalke pays tribute to a much loved and widely revered member of the Cricket Writers' Club, who sadly died this week
David as a younger man with Victoria Hughes, whose story he ghost-wrote. She was a lavatory attendant on the Bristol Downs in the 1930s
David with his wife Anne and their two children Julia and Mark
Published: May 25, 2021