Tuesday, 2 March 2010

The flannelled fools at the wicket...

... or the muddied oafs at the goals. Kipling's 1902 poem The Islanders was written towards the end of the Boer War, which it calls unnecessary while denouncing the sending of ill-equipped troops to fight it. This has some contemporary resonance; perhaps less so, but still worth considering, is Kipling's condemnation in the same poem of a nation rendered complacent by bread and circuses: he was suggesting that excessive devotion to sport twists our priorities and enfeebles us.

Six years later, G K Chesterton took an equally disparaging view of sport, in an essay entitled Patriotism and sport:

...The Englishman with any feeling for England will know that athletic failures do not prove that England is weak, any more than athletic successes proved that England was strong. The truth is that athletics, like all other things, especially modern, are insanely individualistic. The Englishmen who win sporting prizes are exceptional among Englishmen, for the simple reason that they are exceptional even among men.
...The particular kind of evil that arises from our English form of the worship of athletics is that It concentrates too much upon the success of individuals. It began, quite naturally and rightly, with wanting England to win. The second stage was that it wanted some Englishmen to win. The third stage was (in the ecstasy and agony of some special competition) that it wanted one particular Englishman to win.
...The genuine English patriot will know that the strength of England has never depended upon any of these things; that the glory of England has never had anything to do with them, except in the opinion of a large section of the rich and a loose section of the poor which copies the idleness of the rich. These people will, of course, think too much of our failure, just as they thought too much of our success
....But the real historic strength of England, physical and moral, has never had anything to do with this athletic specialism; it has been rather hindered by it. Somebody said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on Eton playing-fields. It was a particularly unfortunate remark, for the English contribution to the victory of Waterloo depended very much more than is common in victories upon the steadiness of the rank and file in an almost desperate situation
....It was absurd to say that Waterloo was won on Eton cricket-fields. But it might have been fairly said that Waterloo was won on the village green, where clumsy boys played a very clumsy cricket. In a word, it was the average of the nation that was strong, and athletic glories do not indicate much about the average of a nation. Waterloo was not won by good cricket-players. But Waterloo was won by bad cricket-players, by a mass of men who had some minimum of athletic instincts and habits
....The difficulty is therefore that the actual raising of the standard of athletics has probably been bad for national athleticism. Instead of the tournament being a healthy mêlée into which any ordinary man would rush and take his chance, it has become a fenced and guarded tilting-yard for the collision of particular champions against whom no ordinary man would pit himself or even be permitted to pit himself. As long as the game was a game, everybody wanted to join in it. When it becomes an art, every one wants to look at it.

Chesterton wasn't actually making the point that the desire to watch sport has become infinitely stronger than the desire to participate in it but he might have been. Much of what he wrote a hundred years ago sounds quaint to us: nowadays we cannot distinguish quite so blithely between the tastes of the rich and the poor, and when he spoke of sport he meant riding to hounds, shooting, rowing and cricket; the idea of a millionaire footballer worshipped as a national hero would have been unthinkable to him.

No comments: