Ever Get the Feeling You’ve Been Cheated? (Part 3)

The third and concluding part of this piece. (The first two parts are Ever Get the Feeling You’ve Been Cheated? (Part 1) and Ever Get the Feeling You’ve Been Cheated? (Part 2).)

Sport is not fiction – is sport real? – sport is not a spectacle

You must be able to believe that what you are seeing is real” is, on the face of it, an odd thing to say about sport, and not something it would occur to anyone to say about other forms of entertainment. No-one complains, when watching a film, or reading a book, that it is not real1, although they might complain that the occurrences could not be real (that the plot is “far-fetched”) or that the illusion of reality is not credible (because the acting is “hammy” or the characters “one-dimensional”).

But think of the best match, or the best series, that you can remember (Headingley in 1981 or the 2005 Ashes, or whatever it might be) and ask yourself whether it would be of any interest to you if it were a work of fiction. I imagine that it would not, and that it would be precisely those features that made it exceptional in real life – the suspense, the dramatic turnarounds, the heroic individual performances – that made it banal as fiction.

Or try to think of a successful work of fiction (above a juvenile ‘Roy of the Rovers level) which depends on the description of the course of a game for its narrative ; that is, where the narrative of the book coincides exactly with the narrative of a game. I don’t know of any, and I doubt whether it could be done, which it is not to say that a good novel could not be written about cricket, only that the interest of it would have to differ in kind from the interest that derives from reading an account of a real game. In fiction, anything can be made to happen ; the only thing that makes (say) Botham’s performance in 1981 interesting is that it really happened.

Or imagine that you were to discover that a match that you had enjoyed while you were watching it (not even a truly exceptional one with extraordinary happenings, but a moderately entertaining T20), had been entirely scripted in advance, so that the players had been actors (and actors sufficiently skilled and well-rehearsed to make their performance indistinguishable from reality). Even though the two games (the real game you thought you were watching and the fake) were identical in every other respect, would you then feel retrospectively cheated?

Is sport real?

So, if sport is not fiction, must it be real? It can be both too real and not real enough to be real sport.

“Field sports” (hunting, fishing and shooting), though undeniably real, are not real sports, in this sense, because game can be eaten and (so the argument goes) fox-hunting serves a useful purpose as a form of vermin control : real sport must be gratuitous, an end in itself. They also, of course, end in the death in some of the participants. On a similar, if diminished, note, Simon Barnes, in ‘The Meaning of Sport claims that boxing is not a sport, because “Sport is a metaphor” and “Boxing is not a metaphor. Boxing is a death duel.

Then again, there is bull-fighting, about which (in ‘What is Sport?’) Roland Barthes had this to say :

Bullfighting is hardly a “sport,” and yet it is perhaps the model, the extreme of all sports, with its ceremonial elegance, its strict rules of combat, the powerful strength of the adversary and the skill and courage of the man who fights. All our modern sport can be found in this spectacle from another age, inherited from ancient religious sacrifices. But this theatre is not true theatre, for here the deaths staged are real.”

and Ernest Hemingway this, in ‘Death in the Afternoon

The formal bullfight is a tragedy, not a sport, and the bull is certain to be killed … You would think, then, that it would make of bullfighting a true sport, rather than merely a tragic spectacle, if bulls that had been in the ring were allowed to reappear.”

Like a child that contrives to appear at both ends of the back row in a long-exposure school photograph by sprinting from one end to the other, bull-fighting (for Barthes) both is and is not a sport. For Barthes it cannot be real theatre, because it ends in real-life death. For Hemingway it is tragic theatre rather than real sport because the outcome is fixed (the bull, even if it wins the bout, will still die). It is too real to be sport, or fiction, and both writers use the same term (“spectacle”) to describe this not-sport, non-fiction (the heading (“Espectaculos”) (neither sports nor arts) under which the liberal Spanish newspaper ‘El Pais’ publishes its bull-fighting reviews).

Sport is not a spectacle

If bull-fighting is too real to be sport, then, at the other extreme, “professional2” wrestling is too unreal, but it, too, is a spectacle, according to Barthes :

There are people who think wrestling is an ignoble sport. Wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle, and it is no more ignoble to attend a wrestled performance of Suffering than a performance of the sorrows of Arnolphe or Andromache. Of course, there exists a false wrestling, in which the participants unnecessarily go to great lengths to make a show of a fair fight ; this is of no interest.

The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences ; what matters is not what it thinks, but what it sees … Extrapolated, fair wrestling could only lead to boxing or judo, whereas true wrestling derives its originality from all the excesses which make it a spectacle and not a sport.”

There is, as usual, an element of mischief about this, but there is nothing to suggest that he is not genuine in his preference for a sport which is staged, fictional, a form of theatre, intelligible in terms outside itself. In short, he is not a sportsman, or a sports-lover at all.

Since ‘Mythologies’ was written, the word “spectacle” has escaped from its ordinary language bounds, acquired a life of its own, and has, in some circles, acquired an almost theological significance, as a kind of omnipresent, miasmic force by which “all that once was directly lived has become mere representation3” and every hope of an authentic experience is thwarted by the appearance of an inauthentic doppelgänger. I have difficulties with this theory, but it has many virtues as an accurate description of the psychological effect of an electronically mediated world, and it seems to me to have a particular application to sport.

Any sport consists of an elaborate system of rules that constructs an artificial world within which it is possible to have an authentic experience. As anyone who has watched a lot of County cricket, or lower league football, will attest, that experience is rarely obviously thrilling, or even interesting (it is not spectacular), but, even if it not “real” in the sense that bull-fighting is real, it is and must be known to be authentic. When something genuinely marvellous happens (such as Botham in 1981) it reassures us that miracles can occasionally happen in real life, and not only in fiction.

So, to return to my original taxonomy of match-fixing, the first and third types are experienced as such serious offences against sport because they reduce sport to one thing that it is not – fiction – and have the potential to expose apparent miracles as conjuring tricks. They are, at least, though, recognisable as “cancers” and, as such, attempts can be made to remove them. The eighth and ninth types are not only not generally diagnosed as “cancers” but seen as a sign of health.  But they too, more insidiously, have the power to rob sport of its authenticity and reduce it to something else it cannot be – a spectacle.

The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences ; what matters is not what it thinks, but what it sees …” 

And now, I’ll hand you back to Charlie Dagnall …

1In fact, there are plenty of people (mostly men) who say that they don’t read fiction because it is not real – often those who enjoy sport the most.

2The type of wrestling Barthes was writing about was, technically, amateur, but “professional” in the sense that it was fixed.

3Guy Debord ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ (and his many disciples and imitators).

Pessoa and the Lambton Worms


The Meaning of Sport / Simon Barnes : Short Books, 2006

Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters : Travels Through England’s Football Provinces / Daniel Gray : Bloomsbury, 2013 

For the sake of argument, there are two types of argument about sport (as this piece is going to be structured around collapsible binary oppositions, I may as well start as I mean to go on). So, for the sake of argument, two. The first, which – however heated – has the potential to achieve some kind of resolution, is about matters of detail, or means, by those who assume a common goal. In the second kind, the disputants will always be at cross purposes, and the argument can never be resolved, because their motives for following the sport, and the goals they are hoping to achieve, are quite different and incompatible.

For example, if the point at issue is whether the number of First Class Counties should be reduced, to produce a higher quality of cricket and a more successful England side, two people who follow cricket for reasons of connoisseurship (an informed appreciation of high quality cricket), or national patriotism, will be arguing only as to whether that is an effective means to a commonly agreed end. They may reach agreement with each other, but will never agree with someone whose motives for watching cricket are primarily social (a chance to meet their friends, a sense of belonging), or local patriotism. Cricket is, perhaps, more prone to these intractable arguments than, say, football, because, as well as having a broader emotional range, its followers have a wider range of motives.

This thought occurred to me when the happy serendipity of the charity shop led me to read two books, both ostensibly about sport (they were shelved in the sports section). One was “The Meaning of Sport” by Simon Barnes, the other “Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters” by Daniel Gray. Both are described on their cover as “joyful”, but neither author would, I think, be able to extract much joy from the other’s sporting life. I am not intending to review both books. I enjoyed, and would recommend both, but although the authors are of interest as individuals, I am more concerned with them here as types, as extreme cases of two attitudes to sport, or as polar opposites on a spectrum which I hereby, grandly, dub “the Barnes-Gray Scale”.

To begin with the similarities, both books are accounts of travelling to watch sport over a limited period of time. Barnes, in his then-role as Chief Sportswriter for “The Times”, begins his journey in Portugal in 2004 for the European (Football) Championships, and ends in Summer 2006, in Germany to watch the (Football) World Cup. In between, he takes in Wimbledon, the Olympic Games in Athens, the US Open, the Ryder Cup, the European Cup Final in Istanbul, the 2005 Ashes series, the Winter Olympics (from his home in Suffolk), the Test series in India, and another European Cup Final in Paris. In between, he zooms back and forth, in space and time, from Zambia to Zimbabwe to Japan ; he is menaced by a jaguar, kisses Daryl Hannah, falls off his horse and has frequent misadventures with internet connections.

Gray’s book covers roughly (the chronology is a little vague) the calendar year 2011. He aims, as he turns thirty, to visit the football grounds of those teams who finished first, second and last in the four divisions in the year of his birth, meaning that he ends up in Middlesborough, Sheffield, Luton, Ipswich, Watford, Leyton, Chester, Crewe, Hinckley, Burnley, Bradford, Carlisle and Newquay (sharp-eyed readers may be able to spot a couple of anomalies in that list). His modus operandi (although he doesn’t say so, I think he must have been working from Monday to Friday) is to arrive by public transport on the morning of the match, mooch around town, give us a potted history of the town and the club, have a drink, watch the match, go out on the town (on his own), stay in a cheap hotel, mooch around a bit more and head back to Scotland (where he lives). He, too, encounters difficulties along the way : he is annoyed by some mildly racist old ladies and almost has his notebook confiscated by stewards in Luton, and is accused of “looking like Harry Potter” and being “a paedo” in Middlesborough ; he takes in various pubs and social clubs, a Nando’s, a McDonald’s and the Luton Conservative Club.

Barnes writes like a professional (he describes having to write 600 words in half an hour, and how the ability to do so plausibly is the real mark of a journalist). His book consists of 158 short pieces, each about the length of a newspaper column, and containing at its heart one thought, usually epigrammatically expressed. Some of these epigrams glisten briefly, then burst like soap bubbles ; sometimes the pieces are like an elegant display of Barcelona-style tiki-taka that results in nothing, but usually the thought, once unwrapped from its cocoon of words, is worth having (I realised, on re-reading the book, that I have internalised several of them to the extent that I had forgotten their origin).

Gray (and I mean this as a compliment) writes like a blogger : he rambles, meanders and takes detours as his whimsy takes him ; if he comes across something that takes his fancy, then in it goes into his narrative – talking CCTV cameras in Middlesborough, Benedictine drinkers at Turf Moor, the shops next door to the childhood home of Jarvis Cocker. His writing resembles that of Stuart Maconie (though without the mania for puns) and Harry Pearson (and, if you don’t like either of those, you are unlikely to admire Gray), tinged with a zany, Reeves and Mortimer-style kitchen sink surrealism. Occasionally, an overambitious figure of speech is fired high over the bar into Row Z from thirty yards out (lambs glimpsed from a train are “like white mice climbing ladles in a cutlery drawer”) but, mostly, his style is vivid and droll. A typical passage (and, if you can’t see what this has to do with sport, it might suggest you are a Barnes) might include :

Lambton Worms of two-up two-downs once more take me to a home ground … Ticket office girls, with whom I spend more time on Saturdays than my wife, ignore me at first. They have an important matter at hand : one has pinched a bacon Frazzle from the other. ‘That’s my dinner, ger off.’ … At half-time, one, two, three then four people all sidle along to the gangway and slip on a battered haddock, discarded at the game’s start as its eater cheered Crewe’s goal.

The two writers set out their stall in their titles. “Hatters, Knitters and Railwaymen” (the nicknames of Luton Town, Hinckley Athletic and Swindon Town respectively) is concrete, particular and conveys, concisely, that Gray is interested in the way that football clubs preserve the sense of identity that was once generated by local industries. “The Meaning of Sport” is grandly ambitious, abstract, and, apparently, so pretentious that it could, by any other writer, only be intended at least semi-ironically.

Barnes is often accused of pretension ; unfairly, I think, in that he does not pretend to a level of intelligence, or a breadth of cultural reference, that he does not possess. What makes him unusual is that he sees no incongruity in writing about sport in the same way that he approaches high culture, and, therefore, has no sense of the potential for bathetic comedy in doing so (he seems genuinely puzzled and pained by his frequent appearances in Pseuds’ Corner, for instance). He is aware that his habit of selecting a national classic to accompany a tournament, like a gourmet selecting a fine wine to accompany a meal (he takes Pessoa to Portugal, Seferis to Greece, Sei Shonagan to Japan) will strike some as absurd, but he cannot understand why.

Most writers about sport, however high-browed, have, lurking somewhere at the back of their minds, a minatory chorus of stick-giving mates (from the terraces, or the Rugby Club bar), who must be placated with, at least, one layer of self-deflating irony. Barnes, on the other hand, seems to worry that his literary friends will think he is wasting his time writing about sport at all, that he is not being pretentious enough. This is partly, I think, because, unlike Gray, whose first experience of sport was the entirely typical one of being taken to the football (in his case, at Ayresome Park) by his Dad, Barnes seems to have discovered sport by himself, and comparatively late in life. He is not, even subconsciously, worried about what his mates at the football will think, because he never had any. And this, I think, takes us back from the particular to the typical, and my putative Barnes-Gray Scale.

Barnes, as I have suggested, is interested in sport in the abstract, and in, as well as professionally obliged to write about, all sports (if I wanted to risk a trip to Pseuds’ Corner myself, I might suggest he sees particular sports as the phenomenal manifestation of the noumenal essence of sport itself). This does not mean that he likes them all equally (he thinks golf is “silly” and hates boxing). At one point he lists the fifty greatest sporting events of his life : eight are from football, six athletics, five cricket, four from rugby, horseracing and tennis ; there are also entries from basketball, American football, equestrianism, sailing and boxing. What he dislikes is what he terms the “monoculture” of English sport, the “notion that only football matters”. It is possible that Gray is interested in sports other than football, but there is only a passing mention of them in his book ; I am sure he does not believe, as Barnes alleges, that “to admit to a liking for any sport other than football is a confession that you are homosexual”, but I doubt he thinks of any as more than a temporary diversion from the main event.

Other sports do intrude rudely, once, into Gray’s monocultural world in the shape of the 2012 London Olympics. For Barnes, the Olympics represent the apex of sport, the essence of sport, because it is, variously, “a feast of really big fuckers” (an allusion to Hunter S. Thompson’s attorney), because it attracts “10,000 journalists … 10,000 artists, all trying to grapple with beauty and immensity”, because it is “the greatest of all sporting events” and so on (his veneration for the Olympics is one of the leitmotifs that weave in and out of his narrative).

For Gray, “watching handball at midnight suddenly seemed like a rational activity. In itself, that was fine. Delightful, in fact. Then they went for our sport.” He quotes Geoffrey Wheatcroft writing of football as a sport “which sometimes looks like a game owned by crooks and despots and played by racists and rapists” and responds that Wheatcroft is “writing of top-end Premier League, of multi-millionaire players. That is not my game … It is not the football that unites post-industrial towns when so much else is lost to them … Neither is it the football that acts as a social lubricant when I am at a wedding or in the workplace … Rowing and equestrian, incidentally, are none of these things. Yes, I can do class prejudice too.” (Given that “rowing and equestrian” are two of Barnes’ favourites, this might be a rare example of their two worlds colliding.)

The Olympics are only the biggest of the “really big fuckers” that Barnes writes about : in the space of two years he does not seem to have watched any sport below the level of one of the bigger Premier League games. Gray, on the other hand, spurns the one opportunity he has to watch a top-level game : when his schedule should have taken him to Liverpool, he decides, instead, to visit (of all places) Newquay (“ending with a Premier League game would be like finishing a happy, wholesome, happy marriage with a cocaine-fulled orgy”). Whereas Barnes is, in the most benign sense of that vexed term, an elitist, Gray is not only indifferent to elite sport, but actively hostile to it.

It is possible that Barnes was only contractually obliged to write about the great events and spent his days off watching Ryman League football, but I doubt whether he would see the point, or be able to find any meaning in it. For him (and this is another leitmotif) sport is about greatness, or, as he puts it (in a passage that teeters on the brink of self-parody):

It [a tennis match between Sampras and Agassi] was the clearest possible demonstration of the difference between very, very good – and great. And, as I seek constantly a good tale to tell, so I seek – almost for private reasons, for personal rather than public gratification – greatness, I seek an understanding of greatness. I seek, perhaps, the highest thing of all, to write greatness : and write it true. But, above all, I seek to be where greatness is.”

or, again :

Greatness is a great word in sport, a great concept. In a sense, sport is all about greatness : the search for greatness, the falling short from greatness, the rare, rare achievement of greatness. Greatness is elusive of definition …”

and so on. Whatever Gray is looking for when he travels to Burnley or Crewe, it cannot be greatness ; in fact, he rarely makes any comment on, or even seem to notice, the quality of the game he has come to see.

For Barnes, greatness is an individual quality. When he writes about team games, he boils them down, reduces them to the stories of individuals : “at the heart of the story of the Ashes was the story of Andrew Flintoff : the Man Who Changed” ; Liverpool won the European Cup Final because “One man refused to accept the things that were happening before him. Steven Gerrard didn’t like reality … so he changed it.” When he tries to sum up what sport is all about, discover its quintessence, he gives it the name of an individual (the rower, Steve Redgrave).

Redgrave is not only a person. Redgrave is a quality. Napoleon would ask of his generals “has he luck?”. I ask of athletes “Has he Redgrave?”.”

Gray has so little interest in individuals that he does not once name the players in the matches he sees (which he could have discovered by buying a programme). I can work out that Sheffield United’s “beanstalk forward” who will “end the season in prison for rape” must be Ched Evans, and can have a stab at one or two others, but otherwise they remain anonymous. It is not, though, that he is interested in the team (as in team-work, team-spirit or tactics) ; he is interested in the club. The team is a particular collection of individuals at a given moment in time ; the club is a collective entity that transcends time (always changing, always mysteriously the same) and (as any football fan will tell you) it is the fans that make the club. A team is a managerial entity ; a club a social one.

Barnes repeatedly, and deliberately, distances himself from any notion of belonging. The first section finds him in a cafe in Portugal, reading Pessoa’s “Book of Disquiet”, in the company of “men with very little hair and very considerable bellies. This evening England play Croatia : if they (should I say we? Definitely not) win or draw …”. At Wimbledon, at the height of Henmania, he concedes that “I am no more like these tennis followers than I am like the football people I scowled at in Lisbon”. He explains his dislike of golf by his “media-pinko” parents’ “dislike of suburban values … and clubbability : no. Not my way”. “I wasn’t brought up with the nation of supporting a football club … Perhaps fanship is like acquiring language : it has to be done at a certain, and very young age, or it simply doesn’t happen” ; “Do I sound like an Arsenal supporter here? I am not. I am a supporter, I suppose, not of Juventus, but of juventus …” and, a phrase he repeatedly employs,My patriotism for the nation of excellence …”.

If Barnes is, in his own eyes, the cat who walks alone (all teams are alike to him), for Gray the search for a sense of belonging is the whole point of football, the whole meaning of sport. In his conclusion, he writes :

Away from the jaded cynicism of its highest reaches it [football] remains a social movement I am honoured to be part of. Down in the provinces, it is affordable and accessible. Contrary to my fears, young people are still catching the bug. No computer game can beat the thrill of … being an active part in a bustling community of interest … in an England of flux, where no job is certain, families break up or live far apart, community or church is loose or weak, football is more important than ever. It breeds belonging in an uncertain world.

What is striking is how mutually exclusive their two worlds seem. Barnes spends 365 pages looking for the meaning of sport, and never thinks of looking where Gray finds it, either physically (in Crewe) or mentally. Sport, in all its 158 Barnesian aspects, scarcely seems to exist for Gray, except as a pretext for something else. Although Barnes nods to the contemporary pieties about race and gender, he is essentially apolitical : Gray is political in the both the obvious sense (he is an ex-member of the SWP, he is angry about Hillsborough and Thatcher, he writes about the Chartists and the post-war Luton riots) and the more radical sense that he discovers the meaning of football in the civic, the social, a matter of the polity.

You might, I suppose, extrapolate from this a divided nation, and there is certainly an aspect to their differences which is to do with regionality and class. Barnes (a middle class product of the South London suburbs) is an authentic example of a minority who are genuinely globalised, individualistic, floating free from inherited attachments and historic resentments : Gray, self-consciously working class and Northern (his family “miners turned bus drivers” from Teeside via Yorkshire), sees football as a way to cling to them.

But that, I suspect, is a rather weak correlation (there must be many working-class Barnses and middle-class Grays), and most of us are neither purely Barnes nor Gray, but somewhere on a scale between the two. Surprisingly, perhaps, I would place myself somewhere nearer Gray’s end (I am mostly indifferent to sports other than cricket, football and rugby, often irritated by the Olympics, not overly preoccupied by greatness (which is just as well, given the teams I support), more attached to clubs than individuals, and am less interested in sport for sport’s sake than as a pretext for other things (though those other things are not quite the same as Gray’s). I do, though, exhibit more of (to use his formulation) the quality of Barnes when it comes to cricket, the sport I know and care about the most.

If you have a moment, you might find it amusing to try to place yourself somewhere along my scale.

Nick’s Roughs Run the Coventry : the Spirit of Cricket in 1788

Having traced my cricketing lineage as far back as my Great-Grandfather, can I beat on any further back into the past?  The simple answer is no. (It could be objected, before proceeding, that I might as well simply trace the evolution of cricket in the Midlands without positing the putative presence of some ancestor, but I find that, as with most sports, having a dog in the race makes things a little more interesting.)

George Mustin’s Father John, as we have seen, was a stonemason who had moved to Hinckley (via a spell in Birmingham) from his birthplace, Temple Grafton in Warwickshire.  His own Father (Thomas), also a stonemason, had spent his whole life in Temple Grafton.

"A picture postcard England that never was" Temple Grafton c. 2005

“A picture postcard England that never was” Temple Grafton c. 2005

His Father before him, also Thomas, lived in the same location and, it seems safe to assume, was another stonemason.  By this circuitous route we have arrived at a Mustin who might conceivably have been  present (as a “Warwickshire” supporter) at two matches between Leicester and Coventry in 1788-89 that have gained a place in histories of the game, the first because of the violence that resulted from it, the second because it led to a clarification of the Law regarding “hit the ball twice” (as well as some more violence).

In those early days matches between sides from different provincial cities were infrequent, initiated by an exchange of challenges in the pages of local newspapers and, usually, followed by  an exchange of insults afterwards. Relations between Leicester and Nottingham were particularly poor ; a match at Loughborough in 1781 had ended in the following circumstances (according to the Leicester Journal) –

“At the conclusion of the first day’s play, the Leicester Club went in against 50 notches only [i.e. they only needed 50 runs to win].  The Nottingham Club then began to bowl what are called Sheffield Bowls [probably deliberate wide balls], which every lover of the game have complained of as unmanly in the extreme.”

Following an obscure dispute, in which the Leicester umpire gave the Leicester batsman in and the Nottingham umpire gave him out, Nottingham (their time-wasting tactics having been rumbled) refused to play on and the match was abandoned.  Another proposed match was aborted before it had started (the Leicester players having already travelled to Nottingham) following a dispute about eligibility.  At this point the Leicester Club gave up on Nottingham and issued the following broadside in the Leicester Journal:

“After the Gentlemen of the Nottingham Club had repeatedly refused playing according to agreement, they were informed that the Leicester Society would from that Time consider them as too much below par, ever to merit their future notice.  This sufficiently accounts for the Spirited Challenge as above and further induces us to coincide with the general opinion (even of their own town) that they are almost without exception, meprisable.”

The author of this piece is likely to have been one John Nedham, described by E. E. Snow as “a capable writerand [who] as a satirist had no equal in his day in Leicester.”  He also seems to have been the prime mover behind the Leicester club and their usual Captain.  The club met in the White-Heads Inn ; the bulk of their players  being drawn from the Parish of St. Nicholas, they had acquired the nickname “Nick’s Roughs” and their likeliest occupation at this time would have been framework-knitters.

After their experiences with Nottingham, Leicester seem to have stuck to playing more amicable matches against other sides from Leicestershire until 1787, when a match was arranged against Coventry at Hinckley.  Hopes were high, as Nedham (presumably) wrote in the Leicester Journal :

“This match being made for 100 Gns. and each party in full practise, great expectations of a high treat were formed by the lovers of this manly diversion.  The laurel was also contended for by two distinct counties and prior to the commencement of the play each party entertained the highest opinion of each other’s characters as players and gentlemen.”

Unusually, the game seems to have proceeded without any serious dispute, Leicester (13 & 132) beating the visitors (23 & 77) by 1.00 on the second day.  Unfortunately, it all seems to have, in modern parlance, “kicked off in the pub afterwards“, as some of the visiting support (apparently miners from Bedworth and Nuneaton) turned nasty :

“Great animosities, we are sorry to say, seem to have arisen between the parties.  The Leicester youths having left the field of honour and retreated to the Bull Inn to regale themselves after the fatigues of the day, to their utter astonishment a large body of colliers made their appearance in the Market Place, using every gesture that was hostile and alarming.  The inhabitants of Hinckley became exceedingly alarmed and were obliged to have recourse to blows for their own defence .  About 4 o’clock there seemed but one alternative; the Hinckley shopkeepers having shut their windows, a scene of bloodshed ensued, scarcely to be credited in a country so entirely distinguished for acts of humanity.

At length the colliers were worsted, and several left upon the field of action to all appearances in the most dangerous situations ; the remainder were driven to the boundaries of their county.  At present we have not heard of any lives being lost, though the weapons used in the contest were the most dangerous and alarming.”

Perhaps surprisingly, a return fixture was arranged for the next year, this time at Lutterworth, when Nedham was at the centre of another dispute.  It is difficult to disentangle truth from propaganda here, as the Leicester Journal and the Coventry Mercury gave conflicting accounts, but what seems to have happened is that, towards the end of the first day’s play, Clarke, a Leicester batsman, prevented a ball he had previously hit from hitting his stumps by playing it again.  The Coventry Umpire gave this out and the Leicester Umpire, perhaps puzzled, did not protest.  At this, Nedham abused his own Umpire so badly that he resigned and decamped to Leicester, taking his “notcher” with him.

The next morning, having arranged for what he hoped would be a more amenable Umpire to take the other’s place, Nedham reappeared at the crease with Clarke.  When the Coventry players refused to play on and Brown (the new Umpire) declined to play ball, Nedham (according to the Coventry Gazette) abused the pair of them, shouting

“Clarke, keep to your stumps; damn ye Brown, why do you not call play?”

Yet another match appeared to have reached stalemate and it was decided to refer the matter to “the first reputed Cricket Society in the Kingdom“.  Fully four weeks later, the Society having given their opinion, Clarke was allowed to resume his innings and Leicester won the match by 28 runs (according to the Leicester Journal anyway – according to Derek Birley, Coventry walked off when they realised they were going to lose and tried to sue to get their original stake money back).

Such was cricket, then, at the end of the eighteenth century.  Can we, I wonder, detect any sign of the Spirit of Cricket here, that Spirit which, advanced opinion holds, is a mere hypocritical sham foisted on to a rough rural pursuit by proponents of the post-Arnoldian public school ethos?   (Some might think, in any case, that, given some of the aforementioned shenanigans, a little more gentility would have not have hurt).

Well, although no-one involved in these contests was a Gentleman in the technical sense, the rhetorical ideal of “gentlemanly” and “manly” sporting behaviour, not to mention the mock-heroic tone, could have come straight from the pen of the Rev. Pycroft himself.   And, although perhaps I have been watching too much non-league football recently, if we broaden the scope of the Spirit to include the whole of English sport, there is something very – perhaps all too – familiar here about the fierce local patriotism, the clubbability, the booze and – above all – the ineradicable need to appeal to some ideal, however ill-defined and one-eyed (even cock-eyed) in its application, of sportsmanship, of what it means to be a sportsman.

But, as the more percipient participants must have known, this rough idyll was not to last.  It is impossible not to notice that all these matches began on Monday, the “Saint Monday” that craft-workers such as framework-knitters (and probably stonemasons too) took off work and reserved for recreation, and that they often extended into Saint Tuesday.  The first knitting machine in Leicester had been exhibited by “an ingenious mechanic from Scotland” in 1773, but had been seized by a mob of stockingers and smashed to pieces.  An attempt, in 1787, by a Mr. Whetstone, to introduce a mechanical worsted-spinner led to more serious disorder which resulted in the reading of the Riot Act and the death of the Mayor, but these were mere delaying tactics.  John Nedham himself died young, though not – as far as I know – by the bat or ball of an enraged opponent.

By 1846 the Spirit of Cricket had evolved sufficiently for the Leicester Journal (by then a Tory paper) to publish an anonymous poem (to be sung to the tune “Gipsy’s Tent“), whose last verse is as follows :

Should a neighbouring club wish with us to engage

In very best feeling we’ll take up their gauge,

For our brothers and friends we are certain they are,

While winning and losing’s the least of our care.

We’ll win if we can, but if that may not be,

We’ll play them again by the old oaken tree;

And when the game’s over how friendly are we,

The victor and vanquished in merry marquee.”

I’m sure the ghost of John Nedham would have sung lustily along, had he been able.

(Much of this has been borrowed from : A History of Leicestershire Cricket, by E. E. Snow ; A Social History of English Cricket, by Derek Birley ; The Men in White Coats, by Teresa McLean and The History of Leicester in the Eighteenth Century, by James Thompson.  Thanks also, as always, to my unknown family historian relative.)

Leaves from the Sporting Calendar : the Boat Race

Boat Race

And so the sporting year progresses to the Boat Race, which, as you can see from the date on this poster, is, like Easter, a Moveable Feast (in 1913 it was early, this year it seems late).  I don’t think I could explain why the date varies, any more than I could explain the timing of Easter, except that I imagine both have something to do with the moon and the tides.

It is not a sporting event that anyone would now invent, if it did not already exist.  I don’t have the impression that the small number of people who take a serious interest in rowing rate it that highly and there cannot be enough people who have a direct connection to either University to make it more significant these days than the “Varsity matches” in other sports.

In its heyday the importance of the race itself was overshadowed by the Night that followed it, which was a significant event in the police calendar as an occasion for drunken, violent disorder.  This was partly between rival parties of Varsity bloods: Bertie Wooster, for instance, famously spent a night in the cells for pinching a policeman’s helmet; on a more elevated level, T.E. Hulme was sent down from Cambridge for “over-stepping the limits of the traditional license allowed by the authorities on Boat Race night” in a brawl.

It was also, in the days before football hooliganism really took off, an excuse for “cockneys” (i.e. ordinary Londoners) to divide themselves into rival factions, watch a race that was, unlike most sporting events, free and then have an excuse for a punch-up afterwards, whether that was intra-cockney or cockney v toff (in 1984, for instance, an elderly “prole” reminisces fondly to Winston Smith about fighting a Varsity man who’d tried to push him off the pavement on Boat Race Night).

That aspect of the event must now, I imagine, be a thing of the past.  There will no doubt be drunken disorder in London tonight, but no more than on most Saturday nights.  There are few cockneys left in London and the large crowds the race continues to attract will, like the population of London itself, be made up largely of corporates and visitors from overseas, attracted to the Thames by an exotic spectacle, in the same way that they are by New Year’s Eve firework displays.

Finally, I think, the Boat Race falls into that officially unpopular and diminishing but – to my mind – necessary category of things that we do because we have always done them, and for me, in particular, it means that if the Boat Race is here can the Cricket Season be far behind? It cannot.

Come on Cambridge, by the way. Rah rah rah!