History / Sport

Denis Compton’s English magic

Every Boy’s Book of Sport 1951
edited by Denis Compton
(Clerke & Cokeran, 1950)


With Super Thursday now behind us, the Christmas book deluge is on. Celebrity autobiographies, mass-market novels, and of course the hardy annuals.

It is one from the latter category, albeit sixty-eight Yuletides ago, that I have delved into. We live in a world where Denis Compton’s grandson has retired, but it is the original Middlesex and England opening batsman (who would now be 100 had he not been dismissed in 1997 for 79) who remains the foremost bearer of the surname, a Brylcreemed icon of a lost era.

Now, for many cricket fans, the coloured clothing, bursts of pop music and fireworks of the modern T20 game are anathema, but in fact it was the aforementioned traditionalists’ favourite who laid the ground more than fifty years ago. The swashbuckling Compton arranged for the International Cavaliers to play a series of televised one-day games, attracting the kind of crowds that classical first-class matches had been increasingly failing to do.

Compton by then had long retired as a player for a media career, something he had begun while still wielding a bat. That takes us back to 1950 when Compton was at the height of his fame not just as a cricketer, but also as a winner of that year’s FA Cup with Arsenal football club. Sporting wages then were not what they are now, and as well as being the face (or hair) of a certain hairstyling product, Compton was already working in journalism. Thus Every Boy’s Book of Sport for 1951.

There was a Girl’s equivalent, by the way, political correctness being, like the poor, always with us. Though not, as we will see, in the Compton-edited pages of the boy’s book, brought to a grateful nation by the good people of Clerke & Cokeran Publishers Ltd, 72-78 Fleet Street.

Compton opens the book with some advice for reaching the top in sport, warning ‘we must not fall into the dangers of over-coaching’, and emphasising physical fitness and the honing of technique (cheers, Den). We are now quickly into the many features that fill the book, with no author’s bylines but presumably not all tapped out on the future Sir Denis’s typewriter in between net sessions.*


Those features are a mixture of star profiles (‘The Story of Len Hutton’), behind-the-scenes looks at the game (‘Choosing England’s Soccer Team’), technical advice (‘You Can Play at Wimbledon’), sporting history (‘The County Championship’), more fun features (‘Danger! Men at play’ about sport in Africa) and fictional stories (‘The Stolen Yacht’).

That things were different at the start of the 1950s is hardly a revelation, but the very selection of sports underlines that. Today, football would dominate, what with it being the best of all sports, and maybe of human inventions. But there are only three soccer features in this book, with strong competition from cricket, Highland Games, shooting, tennis, rowing, motorcycle speedway, cycle speedway, TT motorcycling, boxing, ice hockey and athletics – grit rather than glamour.

And despite the celebrity editor, this is not the stuff of sporting stars. The first football article is ‘choosing England’s soccer team’, an in-depth look at the Football Association’s International Selection Committee, an earnest panel of ‘seven famous legislators’ (not named) who picked the national XI:

We may think we could sit down and choose the team that would walk away with the [British Isles] International Championship, and beat all the foreign teams into the bargain … [it] is not as easy as it seems.

It seems one must pick the top players who could best combine into a team, and the author is in no doubt ‘The Selection Committee do a grand job of work’. Which is why, unmentioned in the article, and indeed in the whole book, England had been humiliated by the United States in that year’s World Cup, a theme that was to continue until 1966, the first major tournament in which the team was picked by the manager (Alf Ramsey), rather than by committee.

The ignoring of the World Cup is no coincidence, and not just because the competition in Brazil wasn’t the satellite-broadcast behemoth of the 2014 equivalent in the same nation, but because in a pre-televised era, sport was very much about attending live and participating, which indeed were the only options.

Hence the article on ringcraft, which notes approvingly that former British and Empire champion Len Harvey ‘maintains that every boy should take up boxing’. The conclusion is as unremarkable for the children of 1950 as it would be inconceivable today:

One last point – never give in. You may feel tired and a little dazed after a particularly hard round, but remember your opponent will also feel fagged.

Putting aside the then-unentendred phraseology, the advice that even if you feel a little, let’s say, concussed, you still have every chance of inflicting worse damage on your foe would be unlikely to get past the health and safety culture that has left us with the Britain we have now – one in which it is much less dangerous to live, work and play.

There is also an apparently happy endorsement of crowd trouble, and of an equally robust response, in the exclamation-mark-heavy sidebar ‘Frantic Fans!’, as baseball’s Ty Cobb takes exception to some barracking:

At last Ty could stand it no longer. He went up into the stands to find his critic, and while thousands cheered he crowned him with a baseball bat!

We can only assume the ‘critic’ was not maimed. It goes on:

At many sports fields there is now a restriction on the sale of bottled drinks, because the empty bottles are so often regarded as excellent missiles to be thrown at erring players. Paper cups are being issued instead – much to the disgust of some spectators!

Those of us with a nostalgic bent to our sporting interests will have our hearts warmed not only by the encouragement of schoolboy boxing, but also by the tale of the motorcycle speedway ‘Cinder Ashes’, the then annual contest over the shale** between England and Australia. Speedway still exists, and Britain boasts its first three-time world champion in Tai Woffinden, but the sport is now largely exiled to a few heartlands like the West Country and East Anglia; then it was booming in the capital, the parade of stars celebrated in the article representing such long-defunct promotions as Wimbledon, Stamford Bridge, Harringay, Crystal Palace and Wembley.


However that slightly self-indulgent meander is a diversion from the issue that may well be, I guess, in the back of your mind when considering a book from 1950. Especially one written by Compton, a fan of Apartheid-era South Africa, who was once openly described by Michael Parkinson as a ‘racist’. (As a Middlesaxon, like Compton, I put this all down to him coming from a different era, a culturally relativist excuse I would not allow anyone from Surrey or Essex.)

A hint of a different time comes in the athletics feature ‘Records and more records’. Discussing the progress of the best time in the 100 metres:

At Los Angeles in 1932, Eddie Tolan, one of American’s brilliant dusky runners, set up a new record of 10.3 seconds … Then came Jesse Owens, another superb dusky representative of the States.

Quaint language, perhaps, rather than truly offensive stuff, even if the writer could have done with a racial-epithet thesaurus. But what really makes a 2018 reissue for school libraries a non-starter is one of several short fictional stories within the book’s pages, ‘English Magic’.


Tony Baker had come straight from school to be assistant district commissioner among the Huranis in Africa, and the first task he had set himself was to teach the native policemen his beloved game of soccer. They had taken to the game eagerly – more eagerly than Tony knew. For in that strange, dark land of witch-doctors and of secret magic carried out of the white man’s side, Tony’s football had been adopted as local ju-ju. [writer’s italics]

See, Tony’s footballing skills were dubbed ‘English magic’, and his tricks were ‘beyond the power even of Sergeant Ali, the most intelligent of the police’, leaving Baker’s men unable to play the game as he had learned it at ‘Westchester College’. Instead these simple locals would kick the ball as hard as they could, meaning Ali especially could not realise his promise as ‘a dark Stan Mortensen’.

Unfortunately, a spot of local trouble, combined with a bout of malaria for Tony’s boss Raven, means Baker and Ali are needed to attend to duties, though our hero is warned:

‘It mustn’t come to shooting if you can possibly help it. Remember we’re here to keep the peace, not chuck our weight around with machine guns and things. The river villages are always squabbling, and it doesn’t usually mean much more than a burst of high spirits and love of a scrap. But this time it’s more serious … it might develop into a first-class little war!’

Sgt Ali gets ‘everything in apple-pie order – rations, water, rifles, ammunition. And one football!’ He explains this to Tony: ‘It is our English magic. Without it we shall be unlucky. In the villages are many powerful ju-jus. But with this English magic you can overcome them all.’ (So that’s how we got the Empire. Not the Gatling gun after all.)

Baker chuckles this off, but on their way through the jungle, a rampaging elephant is distracted in the nick of time when Ali waves the football, leaving the beast ‘mesmerised with fear’. The sergeant explains: ‘English magic keep me safe.’

That gives Tony an idea, and he when they reach a clearing in between the two warring villages, Baker has his men mark out a football pitch. ‘Now I’ll give ‘em some English magic,’ Baker declares, ordering Ali to round up the local chiefs.

When the two parties ‘armed with rifles … far outnumbering Tony’s little band’ turn up, Tony starts to display his football skills. However, when he orders the chiefs to desist from war, he is told although they have ‘heard of your English magic and know its power’, their men are ‘thirsty for blood’.

No problem. ‘With a sudden movement Tony flung the ball. And the two groups broke and fled with startled shout.’

Baker is now in charge, and orders them to play soccer, explaining that the ‘ball is possessed with the spirit of many wise men who have died’, and that therefore whoever wins is clearly in the right. They agree, and the following day ‘little black boys come tiptoeing through the trees to take a secret peep at what was happening’. In case we are not clear of the natives’ race, we hear of ‘oil-smeared black skins’, ‘brawny black legs’ and ’22 black heads nodding in unison’, while wily Tony uses the match as a distraction so his men can capture the rifles from rival camps and dump them in the river.

In any case, the game ends in a draw, Baker declaring: ‘The English magic has truly decided between you.’ Everyone shakes hands and although there is a warning of further quarrels to come, a solution is found. ‘Leave with us the English magic so that it may settle our quarrels for ever.’


A heart-warming tale of the English bringing a measure of civilisation to some far-from-sketchily-characterised savages. And indeed no one can doubt that if there is anything likely to calm tensions between neighbouring communities anywhere in the world, it is football rivalry. Apart from the odd scuffle between Honduras and El Salvador. And the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Aside from the unsettling racial attitudes, the upbeat, and entirely uncynical tone of the volume makes the world of early 1950s sport seem – dare I say it? – slightly more fun than the breathless glitz of the Twenty20 code.

Assuming you can overcome your disappointment at missing the deadline for the ‘Prize Competition’. Correctly guessing the team the MCC picked to play the (very undusky) South Africans in the first cricket test of 1951, and explaining why (in not more than 200 words), would have put you in line to win a Young Sportsmen’s Outfit of a bat, football boots, a football and a pair of boxing gloves. Plus ‘FORTY consolation prizes of ONE GUINEA for runners-up.’


* The area where cricket batsman practice is known as the nets, folks.
** The dirt upon which speedway races take place, folks.

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