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23 September 2020

Sport and the English identity

From fox hunters to football hooligans, sport is England’s way of showing what it thinks it is.

By Jonathan Liew

For more than 600 years, between the early 13th century and the 1830s, the residents of Stamford in Lincolnshire would enact the ancient custom of running a bull through the streets of the town every 13 November. Whooping and screaming, looting and urinating, intoxicated and bloodthirsty and high on life, they would lead the bull into the town square and bait it mercilessly. If the bull showed a little fight, they would triumphantly tip it into the ­River Welland, before feasting upon it later in the evening. If it did not, the ­townspeople would set their dogs upon the wretched beast, who would tear it to pieces.

Why did the people of Stamford do this? Because – according to Robert Colls – they had always done so. Or rather, because it was part of their fundamental birthright as Englishmen: a birthright that, in a sense, existed only insofar as it was embodied. “For the bull runners, custom was who they were, the common life, the constitution in its most literal form,” writes Colls in his quirky and strikingly original social history of England through its sports, games and pastimes. And as grim and gory as it was, the annual running of the bull was Stamford’s way of articulating itself, of being itself. As surely as Eton had its wall game, Hambledon had its cricket and Liverpool has its football, this was Stamford’s sport.

What constitutes a sport? Do snooker and darts make the cut? What about chess or e-sports? What about capoeira or breakdancing (the latter of which has been provisionally approved as a sport for the 2024 Paris Olympics)? Most attempts at a workable definition have fallen apart at either the semantic or the practical stage. In 1847 Sporting Life chose yachting, fox hunting and horse racing as the national sports. The Chambers Dictionary in 1908 defined sport as “frolic and amusement”. The Council of Europe’s definition of sport is “all forms of physical activity which, through casual or organised participation, aim at improving fitness and mental well-being”, which when you think about it covers a pointlessly broad range of human actions, from walking the dog to group sex.

And yet, for all the manifold attempts to characterise the idea of sport (often from above), to delineate and ring-fence it, sport has always been one thing alone: whatever the people of the day decide it is. This is the first real lesson of Colls’s book, which in its choice of subject matter and emphasis on the popular rather than the codified, reminds us that the notion of sport has always been fluid and organic, innately subjective and innately tied to personal ­liberty.

“Sport confirmed that in England, you could do as you pleased,” he writes, and to this end he takes us on a dizzying journey from the bull-runners of Stamford to the public school cricketers of ­Uppingham, from the militaristic pomp of the fox hunt to the bloodied bare-knuckle heroes of the prize-fighting ring, from the Peterloo ­massacre of 1819 to the stirrings of modern football.

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Along the way he tries to make his case for sport as one of the most significant influences on the civic and cultural life of England, “woven into almost everything else we do”. Across eight loosely related essays, Colls sets about charting the relationship between the English and their sport: one tied not simply to liberty, but ultimately to power, and not just political or economic power, but the power to define cultural norms and set the boundaries of taste. Nowhere is this more evident than in the story of the Stamford bullards, whose annual bovine rampage meets an abrupt end in the late 1830s when it encounters the handkerchief-waving metropolitan disgust of the early Victorian reformers: evangelicals, humanitarians, the animal rights crowd, all haughtily pontificating about “morals” and “decency”.

“Nearly all English popular taste had a propensity to stray beyond what was considered boisterous into what was considered shameful,” Colls writes. You can still frequently glimpse this in the present day: this concept of popular sport as a form of collective misbehaviour, of flippancy and wilful vulgarity and a need to push at the boundaries of the acceptable, whenever large groups of English football fans travel abroad. That sense of identity and belonging is all the more vital when society affords your voice so few alternative outlets.

“Custom was valued by those who had fewer ways of managing change or opposing it,” writes Colls, and somehow when the Stamford bull run was finally abandoned in 1839, it felt like part of a larger, tectonic shift: of a gradual draining of power and individuality away from England’s towns and parishes – a new vision of England in which everywhere would feel much like everywhere else.

Fox hunting, too, was a sport with its own innate inequities. For the landed gentry of 19th-century England, the wildly popular seasonal hunts were an indelible fixture of the social scene: fashionable, exhilarating, sexually charged and, with their strong military flavour and nod to existing hierarchies, redolent of how the English ruling class liked to imagine itself. And yet, while killing foxes was sport for the landed classes, for the poor it was classified as poaching, a criminal offence punishable by hard labour, transportation or worse. Or, as Colls puts it: “Legal hunters went out by day. Illegal hunters went out by night.”

The book is at its strongest and most thought-provoking when drawing these sorts of smart, subversive connections. Colls is a freewheeling cultural historian whose previous work has spanned everything from Orwell to English folk tradition to the trade union movement. Perhaps that broad scope has equipped him with a certain talent for the comparative: between the severe and the trivial, the right to play and the right to protest, different forms of liberty, different forms of violence.

Colls even manages to put a fresh twist on a time-worn tale: the rise of football, which he compares to hunting in that it “involved a kind of roving liberty with intent to kill”. The 1858 Form of By-Laws legislation stipulated a minimum space of ten by 15 feet at the back of a dwelling, and in these yards, lanes and alleyways were born the successive generations of street footballers that would ultimately establish the game as the pre-eminent national sport.

In many ways, street football spoke to the character and instincts of the nation as a whole: a game limited by strict natural boundaries, governed by unwritten but generally understood rules and constitutions (rush keepers, captains picking teams), and yet defined above all by personal liberty, the freedom to dream up and do whatever the hell you wanted.

This Sporting Life is beautifully and inventively expressed, witty and bawdy in places. And even if it occasionally drowns a little in the richness of its research, gets bogged down in ephemera, disappears down one whimsical cul-de-sac too many, then perhaps this is partly intentional: a reflection of our free-form, spontaneous relationship with sport itself. “Even as we know sport to be trivial, we know we are trivial. . . and so, ergo, are some of the histories we write,” Colls declares with his tongue, you suspect, planted firmly in his cheek.

Above all, you realise that like the adult gap-year hooligans that follow England abroad, the people of Stamford weren’t running the bull every year out of some ­noble expression of civil pride, or as a sort of ritualistic two fingers to the establishment. Mostly, they did it because it was absolutely legendary banter.

And for all the big ideas and grand unifying theories, perhaps the most impressive ­element of This Sporting Life is its light touch, the way it never quite loses sight of the fact that at its heart, sport is fun. By way of illustration, Colls shifts his focus to the present day, and how, as coronavirus brought the apparatus of big sport clanking to a halt, the “fun went on”, whether in the form of nonsensical challenges or backyard gymnastics. This has always been the gift of sport: its shapelessness and malleability, its ability to be whatever you want it to be, a canvas as rich and dynamic and sundry as the nation itself. 

This Sporting Life: Sport and Liberty in England, 1760-1960
Robert Colls
Oxford University Press, 416pp, £25

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This article appears in the 23 Sep 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The autumn of discontent