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Sport and Liberty

This Sporting Life: Sport and Liberty in England 1760-1960 by Robert Colls, Oxford University Press, 2020, pp. 391, £25.00.

This Sporting Life begins with Minna Burnaby, an American lady 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. In the name of sport she could experience excitement and danger, the thrills and spills and banter and comradeship which would be denied to her as a female in any other context. Two hundred and fifty pages and nine decades later we are reminded of Jesminder Bhamra one of the two fictional heroines of Bend It Like Beckham, the 2002 film in which a London girl of Sikh heritage finds excitement and meaning and emancipation in football. The parallels are undeniable.

It is thirty 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 and in that time the history of sport has become a substantial and respectable 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. To do this one has to be extremely careful with both words. “Sport” in its everyday contemporary sense refers primarily to organised games. To many of the organisers and protagonists of these games, ranging from Victorian headmasters to Communist politicians, they have been anything but bearers of liberty; rather they have been among the means of repression and the establishment of order. Much contemporary sport looks like a caricature of rational-legal order. But Colls treats “sport” in a much broader cultural context and a much longer historical span.

Ms. 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; they are liberated in that sport gives them much more of what they need to deal with life. In modern jargon we would say that they are “empowered”. But Colls means something more than this – arguably, much more – 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 (more in Bunyan’s sense than Trollope’s, but a bit of both). In the eighteenth century holiday football was an opportunity to destroy the enclosers’ fences; right now your team’s success 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 nearly always survived and has been much more traditional and violent – and sexual – than official accounts would suggest. (I am unlikely to disagree since mine is one of the voices he is quoting on this subject.)

In general sport in this sense is the bearer of ancient and local liberties against imposed systems and general principles. In the ways in which Mathew 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 one, for example, “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” (4) and “Custom” (5) are about the survival (or not) of pre-industrial custom in general. The latter does contain a very interesting account of how outsiders and the rising middle classes put paid to bull-running in Stamford in Lincolnshire in a long struggle in the first half of the nineteenth century. 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 the public schools, on the emergence of the idea of a sporting hero and on modern sport in general – are much closer to what one would expect in a history of sport.

Not all academics write well, but Colls does and this is both a vivid and a thought-provoking read. The author has a tendency to pile up the examples sometimes, using thirty where three would have done. This is an expression of his scholarship and his enthusiasm; it has a panoramic and even poetic effect, but it can obfuscate the argument. He has, in my view, a very 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. There are, incidentally, a very many typographical errors; one involves me so I was bound to notice. I offer this not as a comment on the author, but on modern publishing: technological advance seems to make things worse rather than better.

I would undoubtedly recommend this book to anyone sceptical of the historical significance of sport. I would also want it to be read by the contemporary our current managerial ruling class, the Whig-descended ideologues of social democracy who tend to dismiss that which they do not understand as “populist” or “right wing”. Yes, Colls can quote Hume and Burke as parallels to his argument and might also have quoted the Tory historian Sir Arthur Bryant whose portrait of England in the first half of the nineteenth century was of a nation in decline. 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 Mathew Arnold will never get it. They include Tony Benn whose diary recorded July 30th 1966 as a day on which nothing happened. Except that England won the World Cup!

Lincoln Allison 01/09/20

(This review was published in Times Higher Education in October 2020.)