C. Blythe, Spin Bowler
Twists and turns.
Known universally as Charlie, strong Cockney accent, left school before turning thirteen, joined his father in the engine workshops at Woolwich Arsenal.
Creating the Centena
I suppose my journey to the writing of this piece began in 1981 when, as a twelve year old, I first fell in love with cricket.
There was a famous Ashes series played that summer in which Ian Botham kept rescuing lost causes and propelling England to unlikely victories. There was an epic, to and fro quality to the game that I’d never quite found in football, my sporting obsession up to that point.
But it wasn’t only that.
Before the test matches started, I’d bought a second hand copy of an old Wisden’s Cricketer’s Almanack and soon discovered that cricket offered other elements that, for me, football lacked: there was the odd appeal of the statistics – dense, arcane, but essential – but also the sense of a game with a love of its own history (and history is a subject that has fascinated me for as long as I can remember) plus a strong tradition of fine writing.
So I’d long been aware of Colin ‘Charlie’ Blythe, the brilliant but fragile, violin playing, Cockney-accented left arm spin bowler who died at Ypres in 1917.
This project, though, has given me the opportunity to learn more about his intriguing and in some ways contradictory story, while indulging my fascination for both cricket and the unbearable poignancy of the so called Great War.
I have had tremendous assistance from Robert Illingworth (a surname with fine cricketing pedigree) of Kent Libraries. He has brought a vast amount of archival material to my attention while expressing understandable puzzlement as to how I could concentrate all of this information into 100 words.
My shamefaced answer, of course, is that I couldn’t really, but I can use these 500 words to touch on some of those poignant back stories:
– the contemporary newspaper and sporting magazine reports on the seizures that posed such a challenge to Blythe’s cricketing career
– the conductor of Tonbridge Symphony Orchestra, himself an ex-Kent cricketer, describing Blythe as ‘the nimblest player in the orchestra’ following a performance of the final movement of Mozart’s Sixth Symphony
– the Tonbridge Advertiser, reporting on the initial military posting of Blythe and his comrades to Woodlands Depot in Gillingham, describing him as ‘the life and soul of the party’
– another former first class cricketer, Walter Cave, apparently waiving his fee to carve Blythe’s memorial monument for Tonbridge Parish Church.
In some respects, the distance between Kent and my home just outside Edinburgh has been frustrating, but on the other it is perhaps a blessing: seeing some of the artefacts and materials used to gather information for this piece might almost have been too powerful an experience.
Indeed, I’m not at all sure I would ever want to visit the St. Lawrence Ground, Canterbury and see those wallets or – especially – that photograph of his wife Janet, retrieved from his inner pocket after that shell exploded near the Ypres railway line on which he and his comrades were working on November 8th, 1917.
Lives of the First World War.
You can find out more about Serjeant Colin (Charlie) Blythe here at Lives of the First World War.