Boys' own hero. C B Fry had everything: sporting brilliance, good looks, contacts and literary flair. So why is he remembered as a glorious failure?

C B Fry: An English Hero

Iain Wilton <em>Richard Cohen Books, 512pp, £25</em>

A hundred years ago this summer, two men pottered down the Trent Bridge steps to open England's innings against Australia. One was W G Grace; the other was a multi-talented newcomer called Charles Burgess Fry. Both were famous: Grace was simply Grace, but Fry was the hot new thing. He had already played football for England and was a notable athlete, joint holder of the world record in the long jump. He was unusually handsome and a first-class classical scholar. The ageing master, who was by then extremely portly, took one look at the dashing whippet on his left and warned him to be careful. "Look here, Charlie Fry," he said. "Remember I'm not a sprinter like you."

It was Grace's last match for England, and Fry's first. Grace has since passed easily into the myths and legends of the game (partly because he looks so exactly like an icon). But Fry, despite a dazzling and varied career, has in recent years slipped into obscurity. These days he features mainly in pub quizzes as one of England's handful of double internationals. Iain Wilton's exhaustive biography helps explain why. Fry was a walking Boy's Own cartoon, an outrageously talented man who did not know what to do with his exceptional gifts, except boast about them. Swaggering through Britain's imperial heyday, he affected the manners of an aristocrat (dishing out champagne in his box at Lord's), while struggling to make ends meet. He stood for parliament three times as a Liberal while professing no real taste for politics: he once accused his party of failing to support ballroom dancing.

So he seems, with his distinctive mixture of rare abilities and apathy, like an archetype of the empire Englishman: arrogant yet uncertain, handsome yet bashful, at once reckless and diffident. It can't have been easy to accommodate such an array of natural gifts at a time when they had little earning potential, and Fry seems to exemplify the emptiness of sporting celebrity. He was something of a braggart, even a charlatan, and as a gentleman among players he was selfish, haughty and unreliable.

He was, of course, also unique. He won 12 blues at Oxford, was a world-class sprinter, played rugby for Blackheath and the Barbarians, captained England at cricket, scoring 94 first-class centuries, and played in an FA Cup final for Southampton.

He launched games and wrote books about them, ran a naval training ship in Hampshire for 50 years, dabbled in the cinema, wrote a novel and a memoir and shot panthers in India. He appeared in advertisements for Robinson's barley water, Craven cigarettes and Sanatogen tablets. He was friends with Max Beerbohm, Noel Coward and Hilaire Belloc, all of whom spoke highly of his intellectual brilliance; at the age of 76 he still took stairs four at a time. He was once even invited to consider the throne of Albania (responding, with superb pomposity, that he was "willing to become the king of any willing nation") and was part of an enthusiastic delegation that went to Germany to visit Hitler (whom he liked and admired). He was willing to take almost any plunge.

Wilton has worked hard to expose the many contradictions that lay behind this parade of accomplishments. Fry's best friend was Ranjitsinjhi, yet during his years of mental illness he expressed a horror of Indians. He was a Liberal candidate who admired Hitler, a classic English patriot and a captain in the Royal Navy reserve who spent the second world war boring people with stories of a great innings he had played 50 years earlier. He was a sharp, epigrammatic writer (of Trumper he said: "he has no style and yet he is all style") but was also capable of the most galumphing rubbish. His novel included the following priceless dialogue:

She: "It must be splendid to play for England."

He: "And with my mother looking on."

There are those who have wondered if Fry was a suppressed homosexual, but this is no more than a convenient metaphor for the truth that he was clearly twisted by some inner torment - he had something like a nervous breakdown in his twenties and electro-shock therapy in his sixties. In his youth he made a grave emotional mistake, marrying a woman who was in love with someone else; the marriage curdled into distaste.

His wife Beatrice presided over his naval training ship, the Mercury, with semi-sadistic zeal. Anyone who thinks that child abuse is a modern invention will he sobered by the passages describing her rule, a harsh regimen of lashings and floggings. One boy died during training; another wrote, on joining the Royal Navy proper, that after the Mercury it all seemed "rather lax". Beatrice was famous for her pyjama inspections: the boys had to open their trousers so she could check for signs of "self-abuse". Wilton bravely defends her as merely "formidable", but she sounds ghastlier than that. In 1933 Beatrice even summoned the young woman who was engaged to their son and declared: "I hear you want to marry my son. He's no good. He's just like his father."

Fry's solution - the story of his life, perhaps, and the story of his times - was to travel widely and pretend that life was simply spiffing. It's a compelling and sad story. But if anyone needed evidence that biography is a game of two halves, then here it is. Iain Wilton has produced a small miracle of research. He indefatigably picks at the loose threads hanging from the hagiography, removing the varnish from the Boy's Own myth, but he tells us that "one has to make allowances" for Fry's more boorish characteristics (such as his Nazi tendencies). Wilton concludes that it was, all in all, "a life worth living". It's a crying shame. He has assembled a remarkable portrait of an astoundingly gifted but vexed and unhappy man - and then gone and painted a silly smile on it.

Robert Winder is a columnist for the "Independent on Sunday". He writes monthly in the "NS"