On 21 January 1947, Christopher Isherwood came back to London. He had been away in the US for eight years, and now found his old city “powerfully and continuously depressing”. It wasn’t the bomb damage, shocking as that was, but the shabbiness of the place, the peeling plaster and faded paint, the tattered wallpaper at his club, and the bare walls at the National Gallery.
London “remembered the past and was ashamed of its present appearance”, he wrote. Amid all the rictus grin-and-bear-it cheeriness, “several Londoners I talked to at that time believed it would never recover. ‘This is a dying city,’ one of them told me.”
In modern London, life was never bleaker than it was that winter. Isherwood’s friends promised him it was worse then than it had been during the war. “The situation couldn’t by any stretch of the imagination be viewed as a challenge to self-sacrifice or an inspiration to patriotism; it was merely hell.”
The winter of 1946-47 was the worst in 50 years, one of the coldest and most miserable the country ever weathered, and there was nothing left with which to fight it, no fuel to burn, no food to eat. Labour shortages led to coal shortages led to power cuts. The factories shut and unemployment shot up over 300% in a month.
There were soldiers in the streets melting snow drifts with flamethrowers. Gas was running at a quarter pressure, electricity was restricted and there were jail sentences if you were caught using it. Newspapers were made to cut pages, television and radio to reduce programming and all outdoor lights were turned off. People worked by candlelight, wore greatcoats indoors, slept in balaclavas. And everything was rationed – “from eggs to minute pieces of scraggy Argentine meat”, wrote Isherwood’s friend John Lehmann, “from petrol to bed linen to ‘economy’ suits”.
And sport, too. That February, the government banned midweek horse and greyhound races and football matches. It was a wildly unpopular move, even with the left-wing press: “The government must give us some light in these days of austerity,” said the Daily Herald, “football and the dogs have been some of that light.” But there was no light to give. In the spring the thaw came and floods followed, three quarters of a million acres of farmland were swamped, tens of thousands of acres of wheat and potatoes spoiled, thousands of sheep and cattle drowned. Unemployment hit two million.
“Are there to be no fruits of victory?” asked Lehmann. In his history of these years, Austerity Britain, David Kynaston quotes a Mass Observation interview: “Worse than the war mate ain’t it? At least you knew wot was ’appening then.”
The football season was extended into June and there was talk, too, that the cricket season could be affected. In the Commons the Tory MP Gurney Braithwaite pushed Clement Attlee for an answer on whether that summer’s Test series against South Africa would go ahead.
Attlee’s own cabinet papers show the Home Office had two meetings with the MCC to talk about rearranging the fixtures. In the end it was decided they would be played as scheduled. It helped that Attlee was a devoted fan – “nothing of a bowler and an uncertain bat”, according to his biographer Michael Jago, but a dedicated reader of Wisden.
The decision was right. The public asked for light and that summer they got Denis Compton.
Compton had been away in Australia, playing in the Ashes. England lost 3-0. “We read the dispatches of these happenings, cabled for inclusion in newspapers still emaciated by paper rationing,” Eric Midwinter wrote. “The sombre tidings arrived during dismal winter mornings, with home and streets still dark and chill. Spluttering coal fires, barely yet alight, were the lot of most in those stone-cold houses, as cricket lovers took stock of the relentlessly bad news.”
Still, Compton and his England teammate Bill Edrich had wintered well. They’d had sunshine and, since rationing was more generous in Australia, an abundance of food, too.
It showed. That summer Edrich and Compton broke every batting record, they made run after run after run against all-comers, Edrich made 3,539, Compton 3,816, with 18 centuries. There never was, never would be, another season like it. And the floods gave way to drought, “the summer settled into one of scorching intensity”, wrote Midwinter, “day after day of cloudless sky”.
The crowds came in tens and then, by the end, hundreds of thousands. Everyone, everywhere watching Compton and Edrich, listening to Compton and Edrich, talking of Compton and Edrich. Attlee followed their progress on the new ticker-tape machine his press secretary had installed outside the Cabinet Office.
It wasn’t just the weight of scoring, it was the way they scored – happy, reckless, and carefree. “The exuberance of Compton’s batting and personality became a symbol of national renewal,” wrote Wisden years later. A knot was pulled tight between the game and the public that summer, and it’s never quite slipped loose. There’s still, always will be, a latent love for it, it’s a minority pastime that’s also a national sport.
“Never have I been so deeply touched on a cricket ground as I was in this heavenly summer,” Neville Cardus recalled, “when I went to Lord’s to see a pale-faced crowd, existing on rations, the rocket bombs still in the ears of most folk – to see this worn, dowdy, crowd watching Compton. The strain of long years of anxiety and affliction passed from all hearts and shoulders at the sight of Compton in full sail, sending the ball here, there, and everywhere, each stroke a flick of delight, a propulsion of happy, sane, healthy life. There were no rations in an innings by Compton.”
Cricket has never mattered quite so much again as it did in those few months but still, now, the game the English turn to for succour and comfort. Soon, we will again.