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Sat 17 April 2021

In his monthly column, John Mitchinson explores the connection between liberty and fair play

In The Lion and the Unicorn, George Orwell’s long essay written during the Blitz, he makes his most concerted effort to pin down Englishness. 

“All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which, even when they are communal, are not official – the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea’,” he wrote.

“The liberty of the individual is still believed in, almost as in the nineteenth century. But this has nothing to do with economic liberty, the right to exploit others for profit. It is the liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time, to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen for you from above.”

This passage is used as an epigraph and navigational aid to a rich new social history by Robert Colls, This Sporting Life: Sport & Liberty in England 1760-1960. It is an exemplary work and one that illuminates with stories rather than numbing with statistics. 

Sport has mattered, and continues to matter, to so many people that finding a way of representing its cultural value is a major challenge for a historian. Colls does it by resisting the urge to abstraction and plunging into what people have said about the sports they played and why. 

The astonishing list of sources he draws on includes the histories of more than 80 schools, 120 local newspapers and journals, and 30 primary source collections covering everything from personal diaries to “boxes and boxes of scraps of paper”. It is an attempt, in his own words, “to explore part of what it felt like to be alive, in England, between 1760 and 1960”.

This gives the book an energy a more conventional social history might lack. The opening chapter on fox-hunting uses personal letters and diaries to explain the vertiginous appeal of a sport where recklessness and ‘good form’ were held in a precarious balance. As a historian, he is more interested in how and why it became England’s most fashionable sport, than condemning it on grounds of animal cruelty. 

His research illuminates the way fox-hunting fed back into how a certain kind of English man and woman understood themselves as rural, free and brave even though hunting culture was based on the ownership of land and having plenty of time and money. His next chapter on poaching – “another word for the sporting life of the rural poor” – and the startling parallels he draws between chasing foxes on horseback and illegally chasing game with a gun makes his political point eloquently enough.

Other chapters follow on boxing (an even more extreme conjunction of violence and fashion) and the rise of cricket and the codifying role played by public schools and universities. But it is when Colls rises to the challenge of his subtitle – “Sport and Liberty” – that the book really soars. His chapter on custom shows how a combination of the Industrial Revolution and non-conformist religion loosened the bonds of parish life and that it was the 15,000 English parishes and their calendars of local customs which had given people’s lives context and meaning: “Whether running a bull, or kicking a ball, or dancing and singing, or bearing rushes… there was a time when all these things reminded the people who they were and where they belonged.”

Colls previous work, in particular Identity of England (2002) and George Orwell English Rebel (2013), established his credentials as a historian on a mission to restore the experiences of the working-classes to the national record – the Jack Tars, pitmen and pugilists – but to do so through hard evidence not special pleading. 

Nowhere is this better realised than in his final chapter on football – a sport he first played in the back lanes of South Shields as a child. It is a masterclass in the deployment of primary research – would anyone else notice that ‘Busby Babe’ Duncan Edwards was a teenage Morris dancer? –  but also allows him to nail his theme. The sporting life that perished in the move from country to town was restored by football: “Football inherited all the old sporting qualities to be played in a way that made liberty out of movement, that required courage and ‘bottom’, that was learnt by custom and practice and continued to happen in places – from pieces of waste to old park goalposts – that were accessible and meaningful.”

What has happened to football since 1960, Colls is honest enough to admit, would require another book. In the meantime, we have This Sporting Life to remind us that ‘we the people’ will still watch and play sport for the liberty it represents and enacts: “It is what it was, it is what it is, people wanting to be free and secure at the same time.”

John Mitchinson is a writer and publisher and co-founder of Unbound, the world’s leading crowdfunding platform for books. He was one of the founders of BBC’s QI

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