This Sporting Life: Sport and Liberty in England, 1760 -1960, by Robert Colls

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Review by Rob Spence

Last November, in the midst of the Covid pandemic, strikes by essential workers, transport chaos, a cost-of-living crisis and the continuing devastation of the war in Ukraine, British newspaper front pages were dominated by the selection dilemmas of Gareth Southgate, the English football manager in the World Cup. Whether Southgate’s decision to stick with a 4-3-3 formation was the correct one is beside the point: the prominence of the coverage illustrates the central place of sport in the national life of the country. This Sporting Life, Robert Colls’s highly entertaining and scholarly account of “Sport and Liberty in England, 1760 -1960” examines the prominent position that organised sport has taken in our national life, placing it within the context of the development of English society and culture. Professor Colls is a leading cultural historian, particularly of English working-class life. He is also the acclaimed biographer of George Orwell. In this book, first published in 2020 and now issued in paperback, he brings his expertise to bear on two hundred years of English history through the lens of organised sport. In doing so, he offers a wonderfully fresh, original and illuminating narrative of the nation’s cultural life. In essence, he presents an alternative history of those two hundred years, touching on matters far beyond the playing field, often idiosyncratically deviating from the central subject matter to chase up some of the oddities of English social life.

The book is organised not as a chronological history, but as a series of eight case studies, which widen out to encompass more general considerations of the role of sport in English society. Thus, one chapter begins with a description of a prize fight in a field in Hampshire in 1860, and broadens to examine how bare-knuckle prize fights developed into professional boxing. Another chapter, “New Moral Worlds” explores the role of the nineteenth-century English public schools in the promotion and codification of organised sport, particularly cricket, football and rugby. The final chapter, “Moderns”, shows how football became entrenched in our communal life, and goes some way to explain its dominance in our national discourse, to which I alluded at the start.

But these bare summaries do not in any way do justice to this book. Colls is an academic, and writes with authority, based on an incredibly varied range of primary sources – the bibliography runs to 90 pages – but his prose is elegant, lively, often humorous, and maintains interest throughout. The book is replete with the usual scholarly apparatus, but even the footnotes are a joy, often revealing some quirky detail drawn from a personal letter, a school magazine, or an obscure regional sporting newspaper.  To take one random example, a single page in the “Moderns” chapter footnotes a history of Newcastle United, The Guardian, a book by former England manager Walter Winterbottom, Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia of 1580, two books on the lives of women in the Victorian economy, and Clive James’s Unreliable Memoirs

The volume is, as one might expect from this publisher, handsomely produced, with some very evocative illustrations. This is an ideal book for “dipping in”: there’s something of immediate interest on every page, and Colls is very adept at holding the reader’s interest by dint of his astonishingly wide range of reference, and playful treatment of his subject matter. A previous reviewer said “even if you don’t like sport, you will like this book.” I concur: this book uses sport as a conduit to the heart of English social life, and does so in a dazzlingly entertaining way. 

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Robert Colls, This Sporting Life: Sport and Liberty in England, 1760 -1960 (Oxford University Press, 2023). 978-0192870223, 391pp., paperback

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