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How the nation learned to sport again During coronavirus, we've rediscovered the old meaning of outdoor — and indoor — recreation

Citizens sporting in Greenwich Park. Credit: DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images

Citizens sporting in Greenwich Park. Credit: DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images

August 24, 2020   5 mins

Up to the beginning of the 20th century, ‘sport’ was as much a verb as a noun, and the number of ways in which you could sport, or disport, was as many and various as the number of ways you could have fun. Nowadays, the dictionary definition classifies this use as ‘archaic’, but there was a time when the word was young, and vital, and prone to showing off. Sport in the time of Coronavirus has gone back to these older meanings.

It’s quiet today because it’s raining, but all through our serial lockdowns, my local park has remained lively. While Leicester’s professional sporting venues — Grace Road (cricket), King Power (football) and Welford Road (rugby) — stand empty, park life has sustained the sporting life of the city after the old, archaic meaning. From toddlers pushing baby walkers to old guys on the trot, from kids walking the plank (arms-out), to teenagers sullen on the swings (arms-in), from some pretty serious Indian fast bowling at one end to some pretty unserious English tag rugby — both sexes, not very distant — at the other. I could go on, but you’ve all got a park and you know what I mean. There are more ways to sport than playing football for £290,000 per week.

It has been calculated that “green infrastructure” provides Britain with £34.2bn benefits every year. I don’t know how they know that, and even if they do, it all sounds a bit sterile to me. The good that municipal parks do is there for all to see, and never more self-evident than in recent months.

Victoria Park used to be Leicester’s race course. Fashionable punters would disport their way up New Walk to get there. Racing ended in 1882 and the park opened in 1883. Old Aylestonians Rugby Football Club was founded in 1919 and has played Saturday afternoons here ever since. Club headquarters is The Old Horse. Quite sporting for a one-year-old, my grandson thought it fun to drop his arm straight down a player’s pint.

Rugby, football and cricket dominate according to the seasons, as the park changes too, from bright verdant mornings in the Spring, to inky pinky sunsets in the Winter. Keep fit apparatus runs around the perimeter, which is clever of it, as do families on the Saturday morning fun run. Over by the playground, the park thickens with bushes and a wildlife pond, perfect for a bit of (never to be under-estimated) nature-watching and finding what parks have always offered, relief from the town.

Every May the Caribbean Carnival swivels its way through the wrought iron gates, and it was here that local band Kasabian played to fans in 2016 — the year in which Leicester supporters (and a very big Italian contingent) covered the park in blue. When the team arrived with the Premier League trophy, 50,000 people sang Volare to Ranieri the manager while he conducted as if they were a great opera chorus, which of course, in a way, they were.

There used to be a croquet and bowls club but I can’t find it. It seems to have been swallowed by a builder’s yard now morphing into a meadow. And dominating the entire skyline is the University of Leicester. Founded in 1919 as a war memorial, its motto is Ut Vitam Habeant. Which they do.

All this popular amusement used to be a big part of what sport meant. Blur’s 1994 hit Parklife captures it perfectly. “All the people”. “So many people”. “And they all go hand in hand through their parklife”. “Know what I mean?” Certainly do, Phil.

Apart from the grass cutting, none of this costs much. It’s a state of mind: cheap, amusing and near to hand — which is, as my book explains, exactly how the English used to sport in their old parish wakes, or at their Shrove Tuesday football, or in all those mad games and festivals which at least once a year denoted liberty and belonging to all who took part. Stamford used to run bulls and it took the NSPCA, Lincoln Assizes, the Home Office, the 14th Dragoon Guards, the patronage of Queen Victoria and a big dollop of the Metropolitan Police to stop them.

Sport in the time of the virus, though, is not just outdoors. While elite sport founders in its billions looking as deracinated as it really is, our lockdown world has taken up those fine old British indoor sports of kitchen curling (aka cleaning the floor), skittles (tins of baked beans), balloon tennis over the sofa (an old favourite), and keepie-uppy with a toilet roll.

C. B. Fry (1872-1956) was a world class athlete who did it all. He scored a century against the Australians. He won a Cup Final medal with Southampton. He played right back for England. He held the World Long Jump record, wrote thrilling sports stories and declined the throne of Albania. But his favourite sport cost nothing and was performed entirely indoors — an amusing party piece where he’d jump up onto the mantelpiece from a standing position. Backwards.

I started writing This Sporting Life thinking the history of sport was important, but not that important. I finished it seeing the sporting life as one of our great civil cultures expressing our deepest national instincts.

I’ve stressed the custom and belonging aspects because they are most apposite to life in the time of the virus. But the book deals with other elements as well, including an equestrian world that says everything you need to know about the gentry, a prize-fighting underworld that stood for what we might call the plebeian side of national honour, local festivals that reflected how people saw their freedoms, and all those sports and games that flowered in schools and colleges as distinctive ways of being young. Then, of course, there was Association Football: England’s gift to the world. Football slipped its village moorings and became not only modern but modernist.

William James once said that the first demonstration of free will is to believe in free will. Football works against all determinisms. Every match involves absolute freedom of movement within set limits, which, come to think about it, is about as near to an everyday expression of liberal freedom as we can get. You could privatise the land to deny the people their sport, but you could never privatise the social solidarities that sport embedded. Where parish wakes ended, football took off. Sometimes a football crowd on the move can look like the parish on a war footing.

Historically, people had little choice in where they lived or who with. They had to get on with it and like it, and being for the most part excluded from educated opinion, they found their own forms of expression. They didn’t call sport patriotism and they never called it nationalism. They were simply tapping-in to what was available.

Eric Hobsbawm famously remarked that the nation, comprising millions, “seems more real as a team of eleven named players”. This is fair enough as far as it goes but it misses the larger and far more untidy point that it works the other way as well. Patriotism in Britain has never really been about the great and the good as about faith in each other. Nobody ever cheered a national team for being better than them. They cheer it for being part of them, a piece of the main.

This is something intellectuals such as Fintan O’Toole and Pankaj Mishra, who portray the English as the upper-class gullible led by the lower-class stupid, do not understand. They like to claim Orwell, but not the Orwell who suddenly realised that if the working class was patriotic, it was patriotic in its own way, after its own heroes. ‘The great and the good’, lest we forget, is strictly ironic. Royals and politicians always look like fish out of water at Cup Finals because, deep down, they know it’s not about them. It’s about us.

I started in Victoria Park Leicester. In a piece for Literary Review, Sean O’ Brien cites Pearson Park in Hull as “the centre of imaginative operations” for England’s greatest poet Philip Larkin. On that park, no different from thousands of others like it, Larkin looked from his high windows on the kids and the football, on the fog and the litter bins, and turned what was ordinary into moments which, taken together, have entered the nation’s soul.

Here’s to This Sporting Life.


Robert Colls’ This Sporting Life. Sport and Liberty in England 1760-1960 (Oxford University Press) is published on Thursday.

Robert Colls is Professor of Cultural History at De Montfort University, Leicester.

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