Friday, 14 December 2012

Book Review: The Eccentric Entrepreneur - A Biography of Sir Julien Cahn by Miranda Rijks

Sir Julien Cahn was a man of contradictions, yet in many ways a renaissance man.

He built up a vast fortune as he established the largest chain of hire purchase furniture stores in the country, then spent enormous sums indulging in his hobbies - fox hunting, magic and cricket. In the 1930s he spent the modern equivalent of a million pounds a year on his own cricket team, one deemed good enough to have finished in the top half of the county championship  had they been able to take part. Think Lashings, but with players at their peak rather than old masters. Between 1923 and 1939 they played 621 matches and lost just 19 of them...

He acquired the services of the best players from around the globe and employed many of them in his stores so that they could retain their amateur status, though several qualified and played for counties with great success. His hospitality was legendary, accommodation usually provided at his opulent home, Stanford Hall near Loughborough, which had 170 rooms and 3,000 acres of land. He had a ground of first-class standard there and another at West Bridgford, together with a team fit to grace them.

Cahn played in many of the matches himself and captained the side, yet was a cricketer of ineptitude. He rarely made runs, yet few opposition bowlers wanted to dismiss him and risk missing out on the evening hospitality, which included food, entertainment and women. He rarely took wickets, though few risked hitting his gentle bowling, the surprise value of which was enough to dismiss the legendary Frank Woolley on two occasions.

There were precious few catches either. "Nowhere near me" he usually shouted, as he ignored the catch and thus eliminated the risk of injury. He wore pneumatic batting pads, inflated by a member of his staff to around 23lb of pressure. They were massive, yet he was never given out lbw, their greatest asset being in adding leg byes to the total.

Sir Julien took his team around the world on lavish tours, paying all expenses and introducing the game to distant lands, as well as playing in established cricketing outposts. He built up what was reputedly the finest-ever private cricket library, sadly split and much of it lost on his death. He was a generous benefactor of  Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club, yet cricket was, while his major interest, not the only beneficiary of his largesse. The Nottingham Harmonic Society benefited, as he sponsored appearances by legendary voices such as Gigli, Tauber and Supervia, as well as outstanding musicians like Heifetz and Menuhin. He also bought Newstead Abbey and gave it to Nottingham City Council in perpetuity, but philanthropic gestures ran into the hundreds, perhaps even thousands.

He gave generous support to medicine and to agriculture. As Chairman of the National Birthday Trust Fund, he was instrumental in developing the first human milk bank for premature babies and in introducing the use of anaesthetics in childbirth. He indulged his passion  and talent for magic by buying expensive props for illusions so spectacular that he was invited to perform at the London Palladium Theatre. He built a magnificent art deco theatre at his home and thrilled in puzzling his audiences.

He was a man of commercial brilliance, rising to the top in an era of fervent anti-semitism, amid suggestions that his honours had been bought. He looked after his staff and his cricketers, yet was a complex man with his family, rarely interacting with his children and seeing his wife as a companion and convenience, rather than a friend and lover.

This is a remarkable, delightful, fascinating book, written by his granddaughter and first published in 2008. The subject is presented warts and all and one can only respect the vast amount of research that went into its writing. It is not without fault, primarily of a proof-reading nature, but for anyone interested in biography and social history it will be a pleasure to read.

It is not exclusively a cricket book, but any fan can only marvel at the obsession with the game shown by one of the great eccentrics of the inter-war period, someone who played a major part in the cricket scene of the East Midlands and England as a whole.

I've read a lot of books this year, but there haven't been any that I enjoyed more than this one. I would highly recommend it.

The Eccentric Entrepreneur: Sir Julien Cahn - Businessman, Philanthropist, Magician and Cricket-Lover is written by Miranda Rijks and published by The History Press. It is available from all good book shops, priced £12.99.

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