Jumpers for goalposts

Genius though it evidently is, the cult science-fiction classic Red Dwarf is not widely recognised for its philosophical value.  Yet the books in particular certainly have their moments.  In explananing the twenty-first century advent of ‘Genetically Engineered Life Forms’ sporting entertainment (Gelf sports), the book Better Than Life strikes an interesting chord.  In a world where the human race had “got so good at war, it couldn’t have one anymore”, sport, and eventually mutant sport provide the answer.  For as the book’s authors suggest, “sporting events were, in their way, little wars”.[1]

Should we, then, understand sport as a form of war?  Arguably not, at least not with vehement vindication.  Sport is undeniably a competition, in a way that a war might be understood as.  It equally might be considered a form of managed conflict, a crucial outlet for both cultural and biological urges.  But the Red Dwarf analogy is better understood as a dig at the human penchant for war rather than as a legitimate explanation of sport’s cultural importance.

Sport and war have, nevertheless, often existed in close proximity to one another, nowhere more so than in Britain during the Edwardian period.  Sport was arguably the significant factor in English and British cultural identity.  As early as 1864 the Clarendon Commission, set up to investigate the educational standards of leading English schools, asserted that school sports fields “are not merely places of amusements; they help to form some of the most valuable social qualities and manly virtues”, and held “a distinct and important place in public school education.”[2]  By the outbreak of the First World War, this dedication to recreation had arguably become a relatively consistent national ideology, to the extent that typically British habits frustrated her French allies.  In particular, the British notion of ‘sporting spirit’ was interpreted as a “too calm…who-gives-a-damn attitude”, leading to the popular phrase l’égoisme anglais – the selfish English.  Even in war, the British attitude seemed wedded to ‘the game’.

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Or, indeed, especially in war.  For its many advocates such commitment to sport was akin to European conscription, the British method of effectively conditioning her mass populace.  This “healthy athleticism”, so thought the author of Seaward for the Foe, made “all young Britons soldiers now-a-days, in spirit if not in drill”.[3]  This assessment was, however, not universally accepted.  Critical Edwardian commentators saw Britain’s love for sport as a dangerous obsession, a sign of national decadence and degeneracy, and an undermining force against effective military preparation.  Such distraction was not confined to the mass populace, but was often represented through governmental social excesses.  In the early stages of Robert Cole’s The Death Trap, the Prime Minister is playing golf at a course in Scotland, wilfully ignoring several emergency telegrams informing him of a German ultimatum.  As he “hit the small white ball over the turf…the fate of the mighty British Empire trembled in the balance.”  The scene is clearly deliberately absurd, revelling in the premier’s “diabolical…neglect of duty” and the “utter disregard” displayed for the safety of his electorate.[4]  It illustrated, nevertheless, a genuine concern that Britain had become “a nation at play”.  The writer Arthur Shadwell might have been criticising Cole’s fictional Prime Minster in his assessment of this idea,

“Work is a nuisance…to be shirked and hurried over as quickly and easily as possible in order that we may get away to the real business of life – the golf course…or some other of the thousand amusements which occupy our minds”.[5]

Those who celebrated such vices as facets of Britain’s ‘spirit’, it seemed, were justifying their own irresponsible recreation through a narrative of national identity.  But as Under the Red Ensign complained in Bismarckian language, “Sport and amusements do not cement an empire, but blood and iron.”[6]  If, as the amateur playwright Bernard Townroe feared, a “nation in arms” threatened invasion, the ‘nation at play’ they would meet offered no hope of effective resistance.[7]

The authors of invasion-scare fiction, in general, fell in to the second of these groups, holding sport as a wholly negative influence on contemporary Britain.  One particularly contemptuous illustration of this belief was The Fourth Conquest of England by Allen Upward.  The work is a nightmarish vision of a Catholic reconquista of Britain. While the House of Commons gradually falls prey to the growing number of Catholic Members, the public at large are conveniently distracted by sporting matters.  Church disestablishment, for example, is largely subsumed in national interest by a wildly unpopular tax on footballs.[8]  In a similar form, as Edward VII is disposed and the Stuart pretender Mary III crosses the Channel, the public is placated by the appointed of C B Fry as the new Secretary for Sport.[9]  Crowning such ridiculous imagery is the behaviour of the Pope during his visit to crown the new Catholic Queen:

“By an unfortunate contretemps the Papal fleet anchored in the Thames on the day of the Cup Final in Hyde Park.  With consummate tact his Holiness declined to place himself in competition with this absorbing event, and postponed his landing for a day…The Pope’s wise action was rewarded by the winning team proceeding in a body, attired in the manly costume of their game, to greet him on board his galley, an honour never before paid to any sovereign”.[10]

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Sport has thus divided contemporaries for over a century.  Indeed, modern critics might point to the excesses of professional football as a sign that our obsession continues to grow.  Yet until the visit of a foreign delegate (or conquering Pope) is re-arranged to cater for the FA cup, we will not have reached Upward’s vision of a truly sports obsessed society.


[1] G. Naylor, ‘Better Than Life’, Red Dwarf Omnibus, (London, 1992), p489.

[2] Eksteins, Rites of Spring: the Great War and the birth of the modern age, (London, 1989), p121.

[3] Seaward for the Foe, p136.  In his book Association Football and English Society, 1863-1915, Tony Mason quotes in length from an 1895 edition of the Sheffield sports paper Football World, as it welcomed the new season with a remarkable claim,

“an eminent German military authority…recently offered the opinion that it [football] satisfies a craving which renders conscription unnecessary in this country.  It does not make trained soldiers of our young men, it is true, but it enhances in them a spirit of pluck, opposition, competition…which tends to the greatness of our national character.  Long live football!” p225.

[4] The Death Trap, p37.

[5] G. R. Searle, A New England?, (Oxford, 2004), p529.  

[6] Under the Red Ensign, p489.

[7] A Nation in Arms, p46.  Other authors took this idea further and suggested that Britain’s love of sports could be used against her.  In When William Came, a conversation between German army officers concerning Anglo-German social relations under the occupation is framed in this light.  Dismissing British talk of resistance as empty, Von Kwarl asserts that “one or two sportsmanlike Germans in a London football team will do more to break down racial antagonism than anything that Government or councils can effect”, p91.  It is also worth noting that Townroe’s fear of a ‘nation at play’ did not stop him from using a sporting analogy in presenting his case for conscription within the play’s introduction, “In a football team it is necessary to have a defence, however strong the forwards may be”, p16, the ‘forwards’ being the Navy.

[8] The Fourth Conquest of England, p27.

[9] Ibid., p55.

[10] Ibid., p62.

Images: Top – ‘Safe over the Line’, 1912-13, from W. J. Reader, At duty’s call, a study in obsolete patriotism, (Manchester, 1988), p83.

Bottom –  1911 cup final, from T. Mason, Association Football and English Society, 1863-1915, (Brighton, 1980), p118-119.

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One Response to Jumpers for goalposts

  1. Simon says:

    Very interesting article, Harry. It made me think, the most lucid definition of warfare that I have ever come across is provided by Clausewitz who draws an analogy with sport: ‘A picture of [war] as a whole can be formed by imagining a pair of wrestlers. Each tries through physical force to compel the other to do his will’.

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