Monthly Archives: May 2013

Twinkle, twinkle, little star…..


Sometime during the last thirty years there has been a huge seismic shift in the concept of sport. Certainly, growing up in England in the 70’s, the focus of sport was entirely masculine and limited to Saturdays. In general newspaper coverage was merely a couple of pages at the back of the broadsheets and you could tell the season by what was being featured, soccer and rugby in winter, cricket in summer and Wimbledon in June. Journalists writing sports reports for The Times were allowed a maximum of 250 words per event, and that even applied to the 1966 World Cup! There were very few celebrities, and certainly no hype, except on those rare occasions when there was a scandal.


Nowadays sport creates icons where once such glitz and glamour were the reserve of royalty or movie stars. Why this need to put sportspeople on a pedestal? Is it their superhuman agility and ambition which inspires those who are less able? Is it because we gain a sense of taking part by celebrating their achievement? Or perhaps there is a need to understand the basis of their talent?


The Sport’s writer, Mihir Bose, offers the theory that, “with increasing lack of trust in politicians, men of science and letters, and even church leaders, sports stars have filled the vacuum. Sport has also become a rare source of trusted news in an intensely sceptical world; a sporting result is a fact about which there can be no argument. And sport can also be understood by all, regardless of language or culture or intellect.”


Modern sport likes to show it has morality at its core, that it abides by a given set of rules. But this concept of modern sport has its roots in the nineteenth century and was arguably inspired by a work of fiction. Thomas Hughes semi-autobiographical novel about his days at RugbySchool in the early 1800’s – Tom Brown’s Schooldays – was written as a means to ‘preach’ about the virtues and vices of public school education. The tale begins with a game of rugby…..and ends in a game of cricket.

“I’m beginning to understand the game scientifically. What a noble game it is, too!”

“Isn’t it? But it’s more than a game. It’s an institution,” said Tom.

“Yes,” said Arthur – “the birthright of British boys old and young, as habeas corpus and trial by jury are of British men.”

“The discipline and reliance on one another which it teaches is so valuable, I think,” went on the master, “it ought to be such an unselfish game. It merges the individual in the eleven; he doesn’t play that he may win, but that his side may.”

“That’s very true,” said Tom, “and that’s why football and cricket, now one comes to think of it, are such much better games than fives or hare-and-hounds, or any others where the object is to come in first or to win for oneself, and not that one’s side may win.”

“And then the captain of the eleven!” said the master; “what a post is his in our School-world! Almost as hard as the Doctor’s — requiring skill and gentleness and firmness, and I know not what other rare qualities.”

Hughes portrayed the school’s headmaster, Dr. Thomas Arnold, as a selfless man who deemed sports an essential aspect of a ‘gentleman’s education’. The book became extremely influential, selling half a million copies by the end of the century, and it was responsible for Pierre de Coubertin’s ideology for reviving the Olympic Games.

One of the reasons de Coubertin first visited England in 1883 was to study Thomas Arnold’s teaching methods, he passionately believed the system of education Arnold applied at Rugby was responsible for Britain’s industrial and imperial achievements of the 19th century. Thomas Arnold, the leader and classic model of English educators, gave the precise formula for the role of athletics in education. However Pierre de Coubertin’s viewpoint was decided by Tom Brown’s fictional world.

Hughes admired Arnold and wanted his book to illustrate the practical dimensions of ‘muscular Christianity’ in Victorian education. The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well. But however convinced he was by the physical benefits of sports de Coubertin was critical of its class distinctions. He wanted all sports for all people. While he did not believe in paying athletes he thought that they should be provided with money if they came from a social background which meant they could not fund themselves. He publicly denounced English rowing contests, arguing that its specific exclusion of working-class athletes was wrong. And Thomas Hughes would most likely have agreed with this attitude because after attending OxfordUniversity (where he played first class cricket) he became a prominent social reformer. One of the important institutions he founded was the Working Men’s College in London and he helped establish some of the earliest trade unions.

Thomas Hughes, Thomas Arnold and Pierre de Coubertin all shared the belief that the kind of ‘back-bone’ cultivated by sports not only developed the physical stamina to defeat an opponent but also formed the moral courage and will-power to fight evil. But for these eminent Victorians there was never any question that sport could be taken up as a career. They would probably find it reprehensible that sport, as opposed to moral duty, has come to dominate the media in the twenty-first century. And earning money from sport, well that would be immoral.




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Love Affairs – Part Three

We’ve just returned from a trip to London. It’s been ten years since our last visit and knowing how easy it is to become diverted the day was carefully planned, however, had we thought to take passports we probably wouldn’t have even got to London. Arriving at the new international station at Ebbsfleet, near Gravesend in Kent, is more like coming to an airport terminal than a railway stop. And it’s a mere 19 minutes to St. Pancras on this high speed connection but had we been travelling in the opposite direction we could have been in the Gare du Nord, Paris in just two hours. Tempting!


When I grew up in Kent most school trips were spent in Calais. We’d cross the Channel by ferry and those not recovering from sea sickness could spend a couple of hours exploring ‘foreign’ culture before it was time to gather for the return sailing. What delights that cultural journey would have presented if a day trip led us to Paris?


I began my first proper job when I was fifteen years old. My father’s uppermost ambition for his eldest child being that she became a Personal Secretary I didn’t question his decision when he signed me up as a ‘temp’ with a secretarial agency for the duration of the summer holidays and I trundled up to London every morning on the 0630 train. So began years of wasting four hours a day ‘commuting’. If I pushed through the crowds I might squeeze into a seat where I could read a book but nine times out of ten the whole journey was spent in standing packed like a sardine with other regular commuters. To discover that same journey now takes 19 minutes is mind blowing.


London has changed but not beyond recognition. One of the reasons for this trip was to research the Tudor city. Obviously the river and the medieval Tower of London haven’t changed so we began by walking along the riverbank and crossing London Bridge where we managed to discover the pub where Shakespeare is believed to have performed his first plays, except nowadays The George Inn belongs to The National Trust. Its terraced courtyard lies just across the road from Southwark Cathedral where the bard’s brother Edmund Shakespeare was buried in 1607 after he died from the plague. We discovered that same year a John Harvard was christened at the church. John’s mother owned another famous bawd house called The Queen’s Head but John obviously felt no ties with the place because when his mum died because he sold it, for £600, and took his fortune to Boston. I did mention I was easily diverted.


In Tudor times there was only one bridge crossing the Thames and it stood in virtually the same position as the London Bridge of today? But one of the many reasons the Shakespeare boys favoured Bankside was its utter lawlessness. This wasn’t just a den of iniquity seething with bear pits and bull rings it was an area that positively flaunted its position outside City law. Before the Reformation even the Bishop of Winchester had a ‘licence to provide’ 400 whores in his parish between Southwark and Lambeth. He also controlled ‘The Clink’ the sordid gaol that incarcerated anyone who displeased his grace. Notorious to this day the lower rooms flooded at high tide so few long term prisoners survived. It comes as no surprise that the reconstructed Globe Theatre is in the same street as The Clink.


When I worked in London there was never time to enjoy the city and although I appreciated its history I didn’t seek out the past. It’s exciting to discover that despite all the changes over five hundred years most of the old streets remain because South Bank wasn’t destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666. Recently the foundations for the Shard revealed a wealth of archaeology now on display in the Museum of London, our next port of call. A purpose built museum near the Barbican it offers an excellent introduction to the city’s history but I felt my research was more grounded in the actual buildings and streets of London than in carefully sanctioned displays of artefacts. But the coffee and cakes were excellent.


Our final stop was meant to be the Temple Church. Built in 1185 it’s the Mother Church of English Common Law. It proved difficult to find in the warren of Inner and Middle Inns of Court and unfortunately we finally arrived at the same time as her majesty the Queen. The security forces made it clear we would not be allowed to enter the building but luckily we had a day in hand and with the high speed connection making the journey easy we decided we must return the following day. 


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Love Affairs – Part 2


English mountains and hills possess a rare form of grace. They dominate the landscape of Cumbria like gigantic beasts, asleep and content. The prospect of rolling hills and soaring mountains arouses deep emotions and, to my mind, encapsulates the perfect rural habitat. When times are bad we are told to look upwards, to seek inspiration from beyond our confines, and perhaps that is why some people are drawn to leave cities and towns to make the countryside their home. I know I am privileged to inhabit such a landscape.


The lane passing my house leads to a viewpoint where I can experience the full drama of the Caldbeck Fells, hills once claimed by Queen Elizabeth I to be ‘worth all England else’. On fair weather days I even have the bonus of Skiddaw’s peak piercing the sky behind. And when I turn back towards home I see an opposing panorama of patchwork fields spread wide across the Solway Plain. The scene is bounded to the east by a sweeping profile of dome topped Pennine’s and to the north, rising above the tidal waters of the Firth, the span of Scottish hills the Scots call Lowlands. My heart soars at this view. The plain overflows with history and makes me mindful of those who came before me, the generations who survived Romans and Reivers. This land has long been home to a race of free-thinking, independent souls. It encapsulates the breath of Borders tenacity. But ten years ago this complex, beautiful countryside was ruined by an arrogant line of industrial white turbines which stretch their mechanical wings like bunting across the plain. And because they stand barely a mile from my viewpoint they intercede with the horizon. A perspective broken is a perspective spoiled, ask any artist.  


I’ve only recently discovered that a large wind turbine has now been approved in the next village, Thursby, named by the Vikings for Thor. I wasn’t given any opportunity to raise my objections because it falls outside the boundaries of my ‘parish’ and the authorities are not obliged to make me aware. However this turbine will stand barely three fields from my home and cast its long shadow across my neighbour’s land. Those who cannot live with this monument to ‘progress’ have already begun their exodus; they refuse to endorse the spoilage. It seems to me The Reivers are back, except they are wreaking a different kind of chaos, one that attacks our ideas of what countryside represents.


And so to my real concern. There is a new proposal to build three of the largest wind turbines yet constructed ‘on-shore’ in our village, at a farm called Carwath. Even the title has been invented to deceive because the village is called Rosley and even locals fail to recognize the location of this project. These 150 metre turbines are to be sited in the heart our village, less than 1000 metres from the village primary school, community centre and church. They will stand a mere three fields from my home in the opposite direction to the Thursby turbine. When considered alongside a smaller turbine at nearby East Curthwaite and a wind farm being proposed in a village further east there will no longer be an unsullied view of the horizon whether you look north, south, east or west. We are able to raise objections to the proposed site but apparently, in the twenty-first century, the council have no authority to prevent a wind farm on the grounds of desecrating an unblemished panorama. Me….I blame the national curriculum. Thirty years of educating the mind without engaging the spirit and we’ve nurtured a generation of vacuous number crunchers. Do they even comprehend the concept of beauty?


“I love all beauteous things, I seek and adore them,

God hath no better praise, And man in his hasty days,

Is honoured for them.”

Robert Bridges

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