Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Sport: a game of two political halves

Hi everyone. Not much from me for the next couple of days. I'm off to London in an hour, ready for tomorrow's conference: Anti-Communism: Literature, Culture, Propaganda at the Senate House. Having worked on Communist literature and culture for so long, I'm getting interested in the right's cultural activities… something else to add to the list of Putative Papers.

This morning I've been thinking about some research my colleague Mike is doing into the political and historical origins of the Youth Hostel Association in Britain (all contributions gratefully received). He has access to their archives and the various publications the produced, but there's very little on the motivations for the YHA's foundation. So it's a matter of tracing the interests of the founders and any public debate on the subject. One potential impetus is the widespread fear of urban youths becoming a squalid, unfit underclass: WW1's conscription revealed widespread malnutrition, TB, polio and general unhealthiness associated with poverty. Another inspiration may have been the various German cults of Youth and the outdoors, from both the left and the right. Green's Children of the Sun records that Parliament sent a delegation to investigate the Strength Through Joy movement, and came back to pass a Physical Training and Recreation Act, and to found a Festival of Youth. Here's a little footage, with some very interesting commentary:


Note that the commentator carefully disassociates these well-drilled youths from the Hitler Youth and other fascist organisations: there's a degree of wishful thinking there. As well as fitness, the formation of organised groups of strapping young people was always going to be political. The Scouts, for example, were explicitly formed to bind young people to God, King (or Queen) and Country, and to produce the next generation's military. Other organisations worried that the urban proletariat were prey to 'cosmopolitan' (i.e. Jewish and/or Communist) subversion and, following the German 'Blood and Soil' ideology, believed that getting them out into the country would reconnect them to the 'real' England, which was held to be the countryside. Physical exercise was better than sitting around, either doing nothing or reading subversive books. The Festival of Youth commentary reminds me of a visit to the Bonn Museum of German History (1946-onwards, rather evasively). One on side, pictures of depressed East German teenagers with information boards explaining that they were 'forced' to join the Pioneers and were little more than slaves. On the other side, photos of cheery West German teens happily marching in Western youth organisation out of patriotic fervour. Truly, the victors write history.

And it's certainly true that all the leftwing people with whom I associate would prefer to read books than play rugby. However, there was a thriving leftwing sporting world. Cycling was always a stronghold of the left, affording cheap transport to pleasant places in the company of like-minded people: the Clarion Clubs formed in Birmingham and Stoke before spreading through the nation (still just about going) merged socialism with cycling.

Hiking was the ultimate leftwing sport: socialists organised the campaign for footpaths and open access, including the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, led by communist Benny Rothman.

Athletics was also a popular working-class sport, particularly the disciplines which required little equipment, such as long-distance running: events were held under the auspices of the British Workers' Sports Federation (largely Communist-inspired) and the British Workers' Sports Association, a centre-left splinter body after the CPGB's authoritarianism got a little too much. The BWSF was a leading light in the Mass Trespass.

As for my sport: very disappointing. Although Karl Marx was an enthusiastic fencer (epée, sadly), so were Mussolini and Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists.

He was a leading member of the British teams, based his shock troops' uniform on the fencing jacket (in black, of course) and used to put on fundraising fencing galas for his Nazi party, with the connivance of other senior fencers and – I suspect – the Amateur Fencing Association. Certainly Charles de Beaumont, after whom the previous national HQ was named, aided Mosley's exhibition matches at the unsavoury Gargoyle Club. Unfortunately, the archives have long since disappeared and there was no newsletter, so tracing the story requires a trawl through the sporting and aristocratic press. One day, perhaps.

Sports' political characteristics tend to divide between team/individual, and be influenced by their social backgrounds. Fencing, mountaineering motor sport and aeroplanes in the 1930s were associated with Fascism: the Übermensch proving his worth as an individual by solo achievement by going higher to look down on us vermin, faster or further (and they were expensive). Rugby League was the preserve of Northern working men. Rugby union split between posh privately-schooled English people and Welsh or Scottish miners looking for a chance to duff up the English without getting arrested. Football tended to be grass-roots and socialist, though many clubs were founded by companies or churches to improve their parishioners' fitness or simply to get them to behave. Tennis was utterly suburban and middle-class: see Sorrow For Thy Sons' damning indictment of social-climbing Herbert who joins the tennis club in his Welsh valley because that's where the (English) managerial class go to escape the grime of the mining village.

Anyway, enough of this: I'm off to That London. More anon.

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