Leisure Activities of the British people Before Internet

Leisure Activities of the British people Before Internet.The leisure activities of the British people in the present decade offer a revealing guide to the changes that have overtaken their society. One can learn a great deal by comparing a rugby crowd at Twickenham and a soccer crowd at Wembley. The rise in popularity of some forms of entertainment, notably television, testifies to the new prosperity of the working class. The slow decline of interest in some sports and the shift from playing to watching illustrate other changes in the make-up of Britain.

Television is the greatest new influence on the British masses since the education acts of the last century produced a proletariat capable of reading the popular press, a situation capitalized by Lord Northcliffe and others. And the mass attention to “what’s on television,” like every other change in Britain, has social connotations. Among many in the middle class and the upper middle class it is close to class treason to admit regular watching of television. “We have one for Nanny and the children,” a London hostess said, “but we never watch it. Fearfully tedious, most of it.”

Significantly, the middle class, when defending its right to send its sons to public schools, emphasizes that the working class could send its sons to the same schools if it were willing to abandon its[Pg 245] payments for television. This may reveal one reason for the middle-class dislike for this form of entertainment. Television sets are expensive, and possibly the cost cannot be squeezed into a budget built around the necessity of sending the boy to school.

The spread of television-viewing in Britain has had far-reaching economic and social effects. A sharp blow has been dealt the corner pub, by tradition the workingman’s club. Since the rise of modern Britain, it is to the pub that the worker has taken his sorrows, his ambitions, and his occasional joys. There over a pint of bitters he could think dark thoughts about his boss, voice his opinions on statesmen from Peel to Churchill, and argue about racing with his friends. “These days,” a barmaid told me, “they come in right after supper, buy some bottled ale—nasty gassy stuff it is, too—and rush home to the telly. In the old days they came in around seven, regular as clockwork it was, and didn’t leave until I said ‘Time, gentlemen, please.'”

Television also has affected attendance at movies and at sports events. The British have never been a nation of night people, and nowadays they seem to be turning within themselves, a nation whose physical surroundings are bounded by the hearth, the television screen, and quick trips to the kitchen to open another bottle of beer. My friends on the BBC tell me this is not so; television, they say, has opened new horizons for millions and is the great national educator of the future. It is easy to forgive their enthusiasm. But how can a people learn the realities of life if what it really wants on television is sugary romances or the second-hand jokes and antics of comedians rather than the admirable news and news-interpretation programs produced by both the BBC and the Independent Television Authority? The new working class seems to be irritated by attempts to bring it face to face with the great problems of their country and of the world. Having attained what it wants—steady employment, high wages, decent housing—it hopes to hide before its television screens while this terrible, strident century hammers on.

The view that the British have become a nation of spectators has been put forward with confidence by many observers, British[Pg 246] as well as foreign. It is valid, I believe, only if one takes the view that the millions who watch soccer (which the British call football), rugby football, field hockey, and other sports on a Saturday afternoon in autumn are the only ones who count. But there are hundreds of thousands who play these sports. Some few hundred are professionals playing before thousands, but many thousands more are amateurs. Stand in a London railroad station any Saturday at noon and count the hundreds of young men and young women hurrying to trains that will take them to some suburban field where they will use the hockey sticks, football shoes, or cricket bats they are carrying.

Neither soccer nor rugby football is so physically punishing as American football, although both demand great stamina. So the British play these games long after the American college tackle has hung up his cleats and is boring his friends at the country club with the story of how he blocked the kick against Dartmouth or Slippery Rock. An ex-officer of my acquaintance played cricket, and pretty good cricket, too, until he was well into his forties. On village cricket grounds (the British call them “pitches”) on a Sunday afternoon one can see sedate vicars and husky butchers well past fifty flailing away at the ball.

If one adds to these the thousands who take a gun and shoot or a rod and fish, and the tens of thousands more who cycle into the countryside spring, summer, and fall, the picture reveals a nation which does not rely solely on watching sports for its pleasure but which still gets enormous fun out of playing them.

Sports of all sorts, either spectator or participant, occupy an important, even a venerated, place in British society. Kipling’s warning against the damage that “the flanneled fool at the wicket and the muddied oaf at the goal” might do to the nation’s martial capacity was never taken very seriously. After all, Britons have been told interminably and mistakenly that Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton. The Duke of Wellington, who commanded the British forces in that notable victory, could recall no athletic triumphs of his own at Eton save that he had once jumped[Pg 247] a rather wide ditch as a boy. The Duke’s pastimes were riding to hounds and women, neither of which was in the Eton curriculum at the time he matriculated. Nevertheless, the tradition remains.

When an American thinks of British sport, he automatically thinks of cricket. But cricket is a game that can be played in Britain only during the short and frequently stormy months of late spring and summer. In point of attendance, number of players participating, and national interest, the game is soccer. Soccer, the late Hector McNeil loved to emphasize, is “the game of the people.” It is also the game of millions who have never seen a game but who each week painfully fill out their coupons on the football pools, hopeful that this time they will win the tens of thousands of pounds that go to the big winners. The football pools are an example of a diversion that has moved upward in the social scale. The British, almost all of them, love to gamble, and the retired colonial servant at Bath finds as great a thrill in winning on the pools or even trying to win as the steel worker at Birmingham does. These days the steel worker has a little more money to back his choices.

To many Americans soccer is a game played by national groups in the big cities and by high schools, prep schools, and colleges too small or too poor to support football. Soccer, actually, is an extremely fast, highly scientific game whose playing evokes from the crowds very much the same passions that are evident at Busch Stadium or Ebbets Field. There is no gentlemanly restraint about questioning an official’s decision in soccer as there is in cricket. The British version of “ya bum, ya” rolls over the stadium on Saturday afternoons. Once I heard a staid working-class housewife address a referee who had awarded a free kick against Arsenal as “Oh, you bloody man!” The English can go no further in vituperation.

Although soccer is principally the game of Britain’s working masses, there are some among the middle class who find it entrancing. But the great game of this class in the autumn and winter is rugby football.

Here we encounter a social difference. Rugby was popularized at a public school and is pre-eminently the public-school game. The[Pg 248] “old rugger blue” is as much a part of the rugby crowd as the ex-tackle from Siwash in the American football crowd. The games, incidentally, have a good deal in common and require similar skills. There is no blocking or forward passing in rugby, but the great backs of rugby football would hold their own in the American game.

In the middle class it is good form to have played rugby or to watch rugby. At the big games at Twickenham just outside London one will see a higher percentage of women than at the major soccer matches. The difference between the classes watching the two sports is emphasized by the difference in clothing. Twickenham costumes are tweeds, duffel coats, old school ties, and tweed caps. At Wembley there are the inevitable raincoat (usually called a “mac”), the soft gray hat, and the decent worsted suit of the industrial worker on his day off.

Rugby crowds are as partisan as soccer crowds but less vociferous. A bad decision will occasion some head-shaking and tut-tutting, but there will be little shouted criticism—with one exception: the Welsh.

The people of the Principality of Wales take their rugby as the people of Brooklyn take their baseball. In the mining valleys and the industrial cities rugby, not soccer, is the proletarian sport. The players on an English team in an international match with Wales will include university graduates, public-school teachers, and law students. The Welsh side will boast colliery workers, policemen, and teachers at state schools. More than a sport, rugby is a national religion. Consequently, the invasion of Twickenham by a Welsh crowd for an international match is very like the entry of a group of bartenders and bookmakers into a WCTU convention. The Welsh feel emotionally about rugby, and they do not keep their feelings to themselves. They are a small people but terribly tough. My happiest memory of the 1956 international at Twickenham is of a short, broad Welsh miner pummeling a tall, thin Englishman who had suggested mildly that Wales had been lucky to win.

There is another break in the pattern of middle-class alle[Pg 249]giance to rugby. A game called Rugby League, somewhat different from the older and more widely played Rugby Union, is played in the North of England. It is definitely a working-class game and a professional one, whereas Rugby Union is, by American standards, ferociously amateur. The English feel badly when one of their players succumbs to the financial lure of Rugby League and leaves the amateur game. The Welsh feel even worse, not because the player is turning professional but because “Look, dammit, man, we need Jones for the match with England.”

There are survivals of the old attitude toward professionals in sport in the English (but not the Welsh) attitude toward rugby football. Soccer football, like baseball in America, began as an amateur game and at one time was widely played by the middle class. But middle-class enthusiasm and support dwindled as the game became professionalized. Of late there has been a revival of interest in the amateur side of the sport, but basically the game is played by professionals for huge crowds drawn from the industrial working class. However, thousands in the crowds also play for club and school teams.

Yet here we encounter another contradiction. Cricket, considered the most English of games, is played nowadays mostly by professionals, as far as the county teams (the equivalent of the major-league teams in baseball) are concerned. But many English approach cricket with something akin to the Welshman’s attitude toward rugby. Professionalism is no longer looked down upon, and the old distinctions between Gentlemen and Players are slowly vanishing.

John Lardner once mentioned how difficult it was to explain the extraordinary ascendancy that baseball assumed over Americans in the last half of the nineteenth century. It is equally difficult to explain the hold that cricket exercises today on a large section of Britain. More people watch soccer, but that game does not seem to generate the dedicated, almost mystic attitude displayed by cricket enthusiasts. Cricket is an extraordinarily involved, delicate, and, at times, exciting game. But it cannot be merely the game itself[Pg 250] which brings old men doddering to Lord’s and rouses whole families in the chill cold of a winter morning to listen to the broadcast of a match played half a world away in the bright sunshine of Melbourne.

Part of the hold may be explained by cricket’s ability to remind the spectators of their youth and a richer, greener England. To that nation, secure, prosperous, and powerful, many thousands of the middle class return daily in their thoughts. Cricket—village cricket or cricket at the Oval or Lord’s, twin sanctums of the game—represents that other England. For a time they can forget the taxes, forget the unknown grave in France or Libya, forget the industrial wasteland around them, and return to the village green and the day the Vicar bowled (struck out) the policeman from the next village.

It is a peaceful game to watch. The absence of the noise, the strident criticisms and outbursts, of the baseball game has been noted by enough Americans. In addition, there is a soporific atmosphere about cricket. Men sit on the grass and watch the white figures of the players make intricate, shifting patterns against the bright green of the grass. Their outward show of enthusiasm is confined to an “Oh, well hit, well hit indeed, sir” or applause when a player makes fifty runs or is bowled. There is no need to hurry or to worry about anything more important than saving the fellow who is on. The pipe is drawing nicely, and later you can meet old So-and-so at the club, or the pub, for a chat about the match. “I go out on a summer evening to watch them play,” a Londoner said. “Sort of rests me, it does.”

The influence of cricket on the middle class that follows the game has been and is remarkable. Cricket terms have become part of the language of this class. Such phrases as “hit them for six” and “batting on a sticky wicket” pepper the speeches of politicians. As cricket was played originally by amateurs who were presumed to be gentlemen, it assumed an aristocratic tone. Anything that was “not cricket” was not gentlemanly.

Many Britons in World War II showed a tendency to think of the war in terms of cricket. This was discouraged by the tougher-minded commanders on the sensible grounds that war is not cricket.[Pg 251] But no one could stop Field Marshal Montgomery from promising his troops they were about to “hit the Germans for six.” This introduction of a sporting vocabulary into a fight for survival is one of the reasons why many Continentals regard the English as a frivolous race. I remember still the look, compounded of awe and disgust, on the face of a Norwegian, lately escaped from his homeland, when in the summer of 1940 he found that the newspaper-sellers on the street corners were writing the results of each day’s fighting in the Battle of Britain in cricket terms. “Here they are,” he said, “fighting for their lives, and I see a sign reading ‘England 112 Not Out.’ I asked the man what it meant, and he said: ‘We got 112 of the ——ers, cock, and we’re still batting.’ A strange people.”

If soccer is primarily a working-class sport and cricket the central sporting interest of the middle class, horse racing is the attraction that transcends all class distinctions. In Britain, as in America, great trouble is taken by those who administer the business to clothe it with the attributes of a sport. But essentially horse racing is a means of gambling, and the British, beneath their supposed stolidity, are a nation of gamblers. I do not recall during my childhood buying a ticket for a sweepstakes on the Kentucky Derby. But in Britain boys and girls of ten and eleven customarily buy tickets in “sweeps” run by their classmates, and the more precocious swap tips on horses.

A tremendous amount is bet each day on racing in Britain, and it is estimated that more money is bet on the Epsom Derby each June than on any other single horse race in the world.

Derby Day at Epsom is one of the best opportunities of seeing contemporary British society, from the Queen at the top to the London barrow boy at the bottom, en masse. Inside the track are the vans of the gypsy fortune-tellers, the stands of the small-time bookmakers, scores of bars and snack bars, carousels and other amusement-park attractions. Across the track are the big stands filled with what remains of the aristocracy and the upper middle class of Britain carefully dressed in morning coats, gray top hats, and starched collars. Its members may envy the great wads of bank-[Pg 252]notes carried by some of the prosperous farmers and North Country businessmen across the track, but on Derby Day anything goes, and there are champagne and lobster lunches, hilarious greetings to old friends, and reminiscences of past Derbies.

Queen Elizabeth II’s love of racing endears her to her subjects. An interest in racing has always been a passport to popularity for monarchs or politicians. Sir Winston Churchill, who divined the wishes and thoughts of his countrymen with uncanny ability during the years of crisis between 1939 and 1945, had few interests in common with the people he lectured and led. He cared little for soccer or cricket. But when, after the war, he began to build up a racing stable, he acquired a new popularity with the people. Naturally, this was the last thing in Sir Winston’s mind. He had made some money, he was out of office, and racing attracted him.

Racing is an upper-class sport in the sense that only the rich can afford it. But the true upper-class sports that survive are fox-hunting, shooting, and fishing, known in upper-class parlance as “huntin’, shootin’, and fishin’.” Shooting is bird-shooting—pheasant, grouse, partridge. Fishing is for salmon or trout. As Britain’s sprawling industrialization has gobbled up land, the field sports have become more and more the preserve of the rich or at least the well-to-do. George Orwell once noted the dismay of British Communists who learned that Lenin and other revolutionary leaders had enjoyed shooting—shooting birds, that is—in Russia, a country teeming with game. They thought it almost treasonable for the Little Father of the masses to engage in a sport that in Britain was reserved for the capitalists.

Fox-hunting, chiefly because of its close connection with the cult of the horse, takes social precedence over shooting and fishing. But here again we encounter a change. Death duties, taxes on land, and income taxes have impoverished a large number of rural aristocrats who formerly supported local hunts. Their places have been taken by well-to-do farmers and professional men and women from near-by towns. Some of the better-established hunts, such as the[Pg 253] Quorn and the Pytchley, try to maintain the old standards of exclusiveness.

The attention paid the cavalry regiments in the old Army, the middle-class conviction that children must be taught to ride because it is a social asset, the aristocratic atmosphere of fox-hunting and show jumping are all expressions of the cult of the horse which flourishes in one of the most heavily industrialized nations in the world. This, too, may express an unconscious desire to return to the past and a secure Britain. Here, too, we see the newly emerging middle class sending its sons and daughters to riding schools where they will meet the sons and daughters of the established middle class.

Golf and tennis are two games that Britain spread around the world. Golf is every man’s game in Scotland and a middle-class game in England. I well remember my first trip to St. Andrews in 1939 and my delight at watching a railroad worker solemnly unbutton his collar, take off his coat, and play around one of the formidable courses there in 89. The incongruity was made more marked by the foursomes of expensively outfitted English and Americans who allowed the Scot to play through.

Tennis in Britain, like tennis in America, retains aristocratic overtones. But today it is a middle-class sport; membership at the local tennis club is ranked below membership in the local yacht club or the local hunt.

In both games British representatives in international competitions are at a disadvantage because there is not in Britain the urgent drive to develop players of international ability which exists in the United States and Australia. British cricket and rugby football teams, on the other hand, have enjoyed a number of brilliant successes in competition with Commonwealth teams since the war, and English soccer football, after some lean years, has begun to climb back to the top of the international heap.

In this land of paradox which was the birthplace of the modern “sporting” attitude, the original home of “the game for the game’s sake,” we find that the most popular sport is soccer football played[Pg 254] for money mainly by professionals; that rugby football can be a middle-class game in England and a working-class game one hundred miles away in Wales; that cricket through the years has acquired the standing not of a sport but of a religion among one important class in society; and that shooting and fishing, two proletarian pastimes in both the United States and the Soviet Union, are the domain of the wealthy, the well-bred, and the middle class in Britain.


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