When West Country journalist and author David Foot died in 2021, he left behind a treasure trove of writings, some published, some not. Fortunately, for him and for us, Stephen Chalke has compiled an anthology of the best of David’s work and woven it together with the story of his life.
There can seldom have been such an excellent literary marriage. Stephen Chalke writes with a warm humour and an eye for telling details. These are qualities that David Foot himself possessed in abundance and displays constantly in his own writings.
Some potential readers of this collection may feel that they are already familiar with David’s work. Others could be discovering him for the first time. Thanks to the empathetic and thorough way in which Stephen Chalke has gone about selecting and editing, both groups are likely to be pleasantly surprised.
For those who have only previously encountered David Foot the cricket writer, there will be quite a few revelations. It is true that, in addition to writing match reports and other cricketing articles for The Guardian, he authored books that featured giants of the game including Wally Hammond, Sammy Woods and Patsy Hendren, as well as compiling the story of the tragic life of Somerset’s Harold Gimblett. But alongside those masterpieces (for that is what they were) stands a whole range of other work on different topics.
On the sporting front, David Foot wrote many articles about football – match reports mainly about the Bristol teams but also profiles of soccer personalities. It is because of David’s words, quoted by Stephen but previously unpublished, that we now know that legendary football manager Bill Shankly, when assistant at Carlisle United, used to darn the players’ stockings. Also that he would insist to the landladies of players that there should be a chamber pot in each bedroom, on the basis that players might catch a draught if they had to walk down the hallway to the toilet on a Friday night.
David also wrote about many other sports, amongst them boxing, table tennis and horse racing, all faithfully represented in this anthology.
Then there were encounters with public figures in other walks of life. David Foot was good friends with actor Peter O’Toole and was the first person ever to review a play by Harold Pinter. His account of taking a waitress friend to a garden fete and meeting Conservative politician Harold Macmillan is a small gem. He reports the reactions of all concerned, including the future Prime Minister himself, with typically sly, self-deprecating humour.
The book is also a fascinating social history of the West Country from the late 1940s to the early years of the current century. For example, David ghosted the reminiscences of Victoria Hughes, who was for many years a lavatory attendant on the Bristol Downs.
Based on the extracts selected by Stephen Chalke, it is clear that we have strayed a long way from the genteel world of cricket, though the slightly seedy gentlemen with whom the good lady came into contact certainly had an eye for a fine leg (or preferably two). We meet, all too briefly, some of the girls who were pursued by the men – Running Mary about whom it was said that “you can’t see her ass for dust when the Law is about” and Molly the snob who thought she had met her dream partner and went to live with him, only to find he was a married man from Bradford with six children. Neither Stephen nor David make it clear whether the deal breaker was the marital status, the six children or the Bradford origins.
There are too many other delights to document them all here. Who would have known that David would have commandeered a car and directed the driver to take the lady in the back seat to a bistro in Hotwells? There he bought her a Dover sole and a gin and tonic whilst getting the interview that he was fearful of missing. The lady in question? Lauren Bacall, of course. And he had to bring the meeting to a close so that he could go on to his next planned interview with Bristol City star Gerry Gow. A man must get his priorities right.
And so I could go on. The book’s index tells its own story. It shows author Jeffrey Archer juxtaposed next to tragic jockey Fred Archer, Somerset cricketing legend Bill Andrews alongside broadcaster Eamonn Andrews. Best of all, maybe, is the fascinating trio of Millers – Music Hall comedian Max, playwright Arthur and Australian cricketing all-rounder Keith.
Such was the rich and diverse life and career of David Foot.
If you are interested in life in the West Country over the last 60 or 70 years, if you like sport, especially cricket and, most of all, if you simply appreciate good writing, this book surely deserves a place on your shelf or bedside table.
Footprints – David Foot’s lifetime of writing by Stephen Chalke, published by Fairfield Books.