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When I was a kid I used to walk past the house in which WG Grace spent the last years of his life on my way to and from school. It got to the stage where he practically became my imaginary friend, something I wrote about in The Nightwatchman recently.
‘Gilbert’ is a book about the twilight years of WG’s life that he spent in south-east London. I’ve written it from his point of view, putting thoughts in his head and words in his mouth, so it’s not exactly a biography. In fact I wasn’t really sure what it was until Andy Bull described it as a ‘novella’ in a frankly blush—inducing write up for The Guardian. A novella! Get me, mister fancypants.
Grace is one of those characters whose extraordinary image, fame and achievements mean we know him intimately yet don’t know him at all. In this book I’m trying to get beneath the trademark beard and the girth whose diameter approached the turning circle of a family car to present a version of WG Grace that has often been overlooked in cricket’s rose-tinted, icon-feting nostalgia – the human being, with all his frailties, flaws, hopes, dreams, delights, fears and foibles.
We start at Lord’s on Grace’s 50th birthday and visit him at various moments over the remaining seventeen years of his life until his death on October 23rd 1915.
I’ve also made a documentary for BBC Radio 4 that goes out on 24th October and will be appearing with Emma John from the Observer and Jonathan Rice, compiler of Wisden on Grace at this swanky soirée on October 20th.
But hey, enough of my yakkin’, here’s the official blurb put together by publishing eggheads Who Know About These Things:
There are few more instantly recognisable figures, from any era, from any walk of life, than W.G. Grace. With his enormous height, beer-barrel girth and immense beard he was – and remains – a caricaturist’s dream. Too much so, in many ways. Arguably the finest and most influential cricketer who ever lived and one of the first true celebrities Grace became a persona rather than a person, racketing up unprecedented amounts of runs and wickets while slowly vanishing behind an increasing swirl of myth and apocrypha.
Gilbert is the first examination of Grace to dig beneath the surface, blow the fog of fable and explore the man himself, the human being, and ask what he might have thought and felt. Who, in effect, was W.G. Grace?
In the year that marks the centenary of Grace’s death, Charlie Connelly charts the final years of his life, from his fiftieth birthday celebrations in 1898 to his death at the age of 67 in 1915, through the eyes of Grace himself. In an unusual take on this most eminent Victorian and extraordinary pioneering sportsman, Connelly draws on contemporary documents and accounts to imagine Grace’s progress through his final years.
It was no quiet dotage either: he played cricket until a year before his death, captained the England curling team and remained an enthusiastic golfer and shooter to the end. He also dealt with bereavement, ill health and was greatly troubled by the gathering clouds of war. He was, in short, a human being as much as a sporting colossus.
Combining facts and imagination, Gilbert is an affectionate and beautifully written account of the Champion’s later life that comes closer than ever before to giving a sense of the real W.G. Grace behind the mythology; the perennially childlike soul saddled with the weight of genius.
To the public he was The Doctor, The Champion and W.G., but to those who knew him best he was simply Gilbert. This is a book about Gilbert.