Review by Peter Wilson
For this reviewer, there can be very few things more enticing than a book about one of the finest writers on cricket and classical music. What more could you want but a warm fire, a glass of excellent malt whisky or bottle of claret and Neville Cardus? Bliss.
Well, no. In fact, to get through Robin Daniels’ so-called memoir, Cardus: Celebrant of Beauty, you’d need a whole bottle of malt whisky. I cannot have been so disappointed in a book in all my life. This isn’t so much about Cardus, but an intellectual trawl through the history of musical criticism.
Calling a memoir somehow defies the Trades Description Act. Indeed, Cardus at times doesn’t even feature. You can go whole chapters with his name barely being mentioned.
It is quite clear Daniels was a friend of Cardus, but that gets lost in his history and analysis of musical criticism. Yes, let us know what influenced such a fine writer on music, but 32 pages on the critic and essayist Walter Pater, for instance – someone who died when Cardus was six – is a bit over the top.
If you add the 10 pages on Samuel Langford (yes, I know that Cardus wrote 14 pages on Langford in his own memoir, Full Score, but it was not accompanied by pages and pages of Langford’s music reviews which is the case in this book), nine on Ernest Newman, both predecessors to Cardus as music critics for the Manchester Guardian, then you get the gist that much of the book is not directly about Cardus. As Daniels didn’t know any of those three, a big chunk of the book is not a memoir at all.
Indeed, big chunks of the book are not even written by Daniels. His quotes from other publications tend to go on so long that you can forget what the point was. One chapter, Emerging, might be only two pages long, but both pages are taken up by quotes from Cardus’ own work, Autobiography. There is not even a preamble to lead you into the quote. The footnotes also seem to go on forever and I’m sure I spotted a footnote for a footnote. In fact, I know I did.
There is inside this book a biography of Cardus fighting to emerge. The early part of Cardus’ life is engrossing: his unmarried mother and her sisters “supplemented the family finances by prostitution”, Daniels tells us. But even then you are not given any insight into how this Lancastrian boy, brought up in such difficult circumstances, managed to pick up a vocabulary that in later years would make you shiver when you read the words on the newspaper pages or in his many books.
It is after that when the book loses focus and Daniels’ own passion, and be sure that this book is certainly a labour of love for its author as was quite clear when I spoke with him, takes over. One has to say that he had a very generous editor. Perhaps he should have written two books: a literary biography, like Norman Sherry’s three-volume work on Graham Greene or Peter J Conradi’s marvellous life of Iris Murdoch, and one on musical criticism.
If you want to read Cardus or about Cardus, there is plenty of work available by the man himself. If you want to read about musical criticism, this is the book for you.
Cardus: Celebrant of Beauty. A Memoir by Robin Daniels (Palatine, £25)
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