David Kynaston is an independent historian most famous for his work on post-war Britain (Tales of a New Jerusalem) which makes extensive use of first person testimonials of ordinary people. He is also a cricket historian and W G’s Birthday Party tells the story of the 1898 annual Gentlemen versus Players match at Lord’s, held that year in honour of the fiftieth birthday of W G Grace, arguably the first sports superstar.
Kynaston is an engaging storyteller and, whilst the core of the book is concerned with recounting the highlights of a remarkably close and exciting cricket match in some detail (those who attended the First Ashes Test in Cardiff in 2009 will know what I mean here), Kynaston uses it as a way of opening up a perspective on late Victorian society. This was an age when cricket had become a symbol of English values in an age of empire. It was also an age when Gentlemen (upper and middle-class amateurs) and Players (working-class professionals)n were segregated. Of course, this happened in other sports too, not least Rugby, which led to the split between the amateur Union and the professional League along regional and class lines (at least in England).
In short, this is a wonderful book, well-written and well-informed, using sport as a window onto a much wider social history. One thing Kynaston does, through his description of cricket in the closing years of the nineteenth century, is give the reader a real feeling of inhabiting that very age and a genuine insight into the attitudes and hierarchies that characterised it. The reader simultaneously feels that they are witnessing the twilight of an era, whilst at the same time much is still oddly familiar. This is a picture of Victorians at play, caught informally unawares, in contrast to the stylised and formal way that the late nineteenth century is usually presented to us through family portrait photographs and the like. And of course, those tensions still resurface in cricket today.