Q&A with Stephen Hill; Joint-author of Somerset Cricketers 1946-70

Hopefully everyone out there knows by now how highly I rate the series of books on Somerset Cricketers by Stephen Hill and Barry Phillips. I’m possibly biased, given that Steve and Barry are both Inciders, but I think Somerset supporters are fortunate to have all that fascinating information available. I was won over right from the start with the first volume that began with the players from 1882. Anyone who’s already familiar with the first two volumes is bound to love Somerset Cricketers 1946-1970, but I suspect this one will bring in new readers, given that it includes a number of players supporters will have direct experience of, right up to the likes of the sadly missed Dasher Denning or people like Ken Palmer or Roy Kerslake who are still familiar figures around the Cooper Associates County Ground. Instead of including a review where I bang on about how brilliant this one is – and it is brilliant, by the way! – I decided to do a Q & A with Steve.

You can order the book from most bookshops but why not support Somerset County Sports at the Cooper Associates County Ground by buying it there? Steve and Barry will also be signing copies there at the Notts game on 9 and 10 June.

SJ: How would you summarise the series for people not familiar with the books?

SH: I can only really spell out what we’ve tried to achieve. I realise they’ll generally only be read by die-hard Somerset supporters but Barry and I felt they had to be written in a way that would make them compelling to a neutral and more about the ‘life and times’ and social history. If you pass that test for neutrals, then the supporters will hopefully regard them as something much more than a Who’s Who. It’s why the interesting characters get more space, even if they only made occasional appearances. So in the early volumes, someone like George Woodcock (who was just a brilliant person) or Hugo Hood (who was as mad as a hatter) got more coverage than Sam Woods on the basis I know which I’d rather have invited to a dinner party and it wouldn’t have been Sam! I can’t speak for Barry on that one, apart from the fact that I’m confident Arthur Wellard would be the first name on his dinner party list.

SJ: I can see that this one follows the same format as the first two – biography of every first-class player in debut order with life beyond cricket and your usual excursions into quirky facts and social history – but it read a bit differently to me. Did it feel different to write?

SH: Definitely. Instead of finding most of the information from old documents, books or newspaper articles, we were able to speak in many cases either to the players themselves or their families. It really brought it to life for us but at the same time, you feel a responsibility to the families to write fair and sympathetic pen portraits.

SJ: Does that mean you had to go very gently with the subject matter with some of the biographies?

SH: I admit that I ended up being fond of pretty well all the players. They came to be like friends and so I was disinclined to be rude but that was true right from the first ones we did – the guys who made their debuts in 1882. You soon find that everyone has their good points and even the ones who went off the rails – with the occasional exception – were often the victims of circumstance, so you find it easy to forgive them. I suppose it would have been harder for those people on the receiving end, like their wives or kids!

SJ: Coming back to this book, were there any tricky ones?

SH: The one I feared doing most was Geoff Clayton. Barry was quick to delegate that one, when we divvied them up! I’d been told that Geoff was an awkward old sod who wouldn’t co-operate, but I must have got him on a good day because he opened up to me. He’s an interesting character. He’s never written letters or filled in forms in his life. He’s very organised about his betting but everything else is chaotic!  Fred Rumsey used to do all his correspondence for him when he was at Somerset. These days he has a housekeeper who drops in to help out each week. I rang him on her mobile and she had to explain to him which way up he had to hold it, which caused a bit of comedy ….. but once we got going we had a great chat. Hopefully it comes across in the book that I actually became very fond of him, even though he’s still a bit cussed when he wants to be.

SJ: So if not Geoff Clayton, then who was the hardest to do?

SH: The hardest to complete was Bill Dean but for different reasons. As you’ve seen in the book, William Dean isn’t the guy everyone thought he was. He is down in the records as ‘William Henry Dean’ and with the wrong birth date. I rang up the man listed and he was a recluse who lived with his brother. The pair of them had never married and their social skills were non-existent. He said he’d never played cricket in his life and put the phone down on me. So I wrote a polite letter to his sister who confirmed that this was in fact true. The only thing we knew for certain was that the real guy had come down to Somerset from Leeds just for the one match and we had to work our way through everyone called William Dean born at roughly the right time and narrow it down. After weeks of painstaking research and some weird phone calls we had a hunch that it was someone called William Frederick Dean and when I wrote to his daughter, she confirmed it was the case and, better still, she still had some of the old photos. No one could comprehend the relief and elation Barry and I felt on occasions like that unless they’ve been through something similar. The story then got really interesting as Bill was a bit of a rogue who eloped with a farmer’s young daughter. She’s still a bundle of fun and great to talk to, by the way. Bill later got himself into hot water and had to change his name by deed poll to Bill Barrett but anyone who wants to know why will have to read the book.

SJ: Were the family OK about you revealing the details?

SH: That’s a very interesting question. To gain the trust of families we ask them to tell us everything in the certain knowledge that we’ll give them the chance to leave out anything that feels too much like airing their dirty washing in public. There are some things about Bill – and not just him – that are secrets that will go with their families and Barry and me to our graves because we’ve promised not to spill the beans. Barry unearthed another amazing story about bigamy and imprisonment where we had to spare blushes as most of the family didn’t know! It’s frustrating, but on the other hand, without that trust, we’d not have come up with some of the interesting stories that we did.

SJ: Were any of the stories a bit boring to do, if you’re honest?

SH: Not really. Everyone’s had interesting things in their lives. The only concern is those players where you can’t track them or their relatives down or they don’t want to talk. One former player thought I was a scammer and refused to talk. I think the big mistake on my part was that he thought I was going to try to access his money when I asked him for his autograph on behalf a friend who’s been very supportive of the books! (The autograph collector lives in Cornwall and he’s a fan of The Incider, so he’ll know I’m talking about him if he sees your Q & A!) The player’s very old now, so I understood his fears and we found out the information in a roundabout way.

SJ: And were any particularly enjoyable?

SH: It was always a delight talking to the players and their families. Some of them were just brilliant, including people like Mick Hanna or Tony Sutton: both in their nineties but still sharp, although sometimes they needed a few moments to dredge up names. Some of the brilliant conversations were with occasional players. We had great fun for example talking with David Doughty, who’s a real character and Vince Lindo only played once for Somerset but he was great, too. I spent a day with him at Trent Bridge and we were joined by his mate Sir Garry Sobers, so that was a real thrill. Barry and I also both made contact with our old Maths teachers who’d played for Somerset, which was a trip down memory lane. Barry was taught by Roy Smith at Huish’s Grammar and I was taught at Queen’s College by Tom Dickinson, who was a brilliant bowler. He could bowl quickies either right- of left-arm and I remember when I said to him, ‘Sir, I struggle to face left-armers,’ and he switched to his supposedly weaker left hand and pinged down a few in the nets, all of them on a perfect length, until I’d sorted myself out. I’m in my sixties now and I quite like facing left-armers now. Bowling at them is a different matter! Our two teachers were among a group of players who are beginning to lose their memories and I felt pleased that we were able to get everything into print before it was all lost for ever. Sometimes we were just too late. Chris Greetham sadly died just days before Barry was due to visit him for an interview but his wife, Wendy, was incredibly helpful and pleased to preserve memories of her much-loved husband for posterity.

SJ: Will the next one be different again?

SH: I think so. I’m going it alone without Barry this time, as he had another project – a book about Quantock Lodge, but he’ll be able to fill you in on that. Somerset Cricketers 1970-2000 is offering up new challenges. Most of the players are still living and so I hope to track them all down, although a couple are going to be hard to find. My biggest fear is that if one or two don’t want to have anything to do with the project, I could have some embarrassing gaps, but David Gurr [now Secretary of the Former Players’ Association] has been brilliant at cajoling all the former players to help out. The other thing I’m being careful about is to remain fair and balanced, especially over things like the Ian Botham and Peter Roebuck split. I’ll let others judge if I’ve succeeded when that one comes out in a year or so.

SJ: Thanks for talking. Hope this one sells well and I’m looking forward to the next one, too.

SH: A pleasure, Steve. Thanks for being such an enthusiastic supporter of the series and I hope I have to rework the intro for this next one when Somerset win the Championship in 2018!