This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
This Sporting Life begins with Minna Burnaby, an American married to a Leicestershire landowner. Her diary tells us that in the 1909-10 season she rode to hounds on 108 occasions, falling ten times. Through sport she could experience excitement and danger, the thrills and spills and banter and comradeship denied to her as a female in any other context.
Two hundred and fifty pages and nine decades later we meet Jesminder Bhamra, a Sikh girl and one of the two fictional heroines of Bend It Like Beckham, who finds excitement and emancipation in football.
It is 30 years since the same publisher offered us Richard Holt’s Sport and the British: A Modern History, the first comprehensive and scholarly account of sport in this country. In that time the history of sport has become a substantial academic industry, so one is entitled to ask of a new account what it brings to the discourse. In the case of Robert Colls the answer is clear: he treats sport as an expression of liberty. In order to do so one has to be extremely careful with both words.
“Sport” in its everyday sense now refers primarily to organised games. To many of the organisers of these games, from Victorian headmasters to communist politicians, they have been anything but bearers of liberty: they have been a means of engendering order. But Colls treats sport in a much broader cultural context. Miss Burnaby and Ms Bhamra both learn to deal with those familiar imposters of success and failure through sport. They gain in social skills and self-esteem. In modern jargon we would say that they are “empowered”. But Colls means something much more than this in asserting the relationship between sport and liberty. He means that, though sport may look at times like a caricature of modernity, it has retained elements of its ancient character as a festival of misrule and as an endless Vanity Fair.
In the eighteenth century, holiday football was an opportunity to destroy the enclosers’ fences; now your team’s triumph is a prime opportunity to defy the Covid regulations. Colls points out that even in those engines of conversion of ancient liberties into modern conformities, the public schools, a boys’ culture has survived and been more traditional and violent — and sexual — than official accounts would suggest.
Sport in this sense is the bearer of ancient and local liberties against imposed systems and general principles. In the ways in which Matthew Arnold used those words it is the anarchy which protects us from culture. What Arnold meant by “culture” can be equated with an imposed, classical high culture. What he meant by anarchy can most easily be explained by his remark that everything he wanted to destroy in order to create a new England could be seen at Epsom on Derby Day.
Colls advises us, rightly, to treat this book as a set of themed essays rather than a narrative history. The closeness of the relation between the themes of the essays and sport is very varied. The second, “Bonny Moor Hen”, is largely about the contest over land which modernisation created in England with special emphasis on the author’s (and my) native county, Durham. A reader trying to educate himself or herself in the history of sport might feel that although poaching clearly has sporting dimensions it is not sport per se.
Equally, the chapters on “Home” and “Custom” are about the survival (or not) of pre-industrial custom in general. The main theme of “Home” is the destruction of the multi-dimensional loyalty to the parish as the basic institution of pre-industrial England. The final three chapters — on public schools, the emergence of the idea of a sporting hero and modern sport in general — are closer to what one would expect in a history of sport.
This is both a vivid and a thought-provoking read. Colls has a healthy attitude to the plethora of social theory to be found in the study of sport: it is all ultimately false (in the sense of never capturing the full truth), but it is mostly interesting and occasionally offers real insight.
I would recommend the book to anyone sceptical of the historical significance of sport. And it should be read by our current managerial ruling class, the ideologues of social democracy who dismiss what they do not understand as “populist” or “right-wing”. Yes, Colls can quote Hume and Burke. But he can also quote Edward Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class as being in many respects on the same side.
Still, I accept that the spiritual descendants of Matthew Arnold will never get it. They include Tony Benn, whose diary recorded 30 July 1966 as a day on which nothing happened. It was the day England won the World Cup.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe