Sunday, 5 July 2009
Sport and Class.
As Wimbledon and Henley approach their respective annual climaxes of champers and strawberries this seems like a good time to ponder that most English of obsessions, sport and class. At first glance it all looks pretty straightforward. Polo for the toffs, tennis for the middle class and football for the proles is surely just a reflection of the expense involved in participating in each of these sports and anyway with more money sloshing around in a single Premier League club than it takes to stable the world population of polo ponies , isn't all this a bit dated? Professional and amateur, gentlemen and players seem like concepts as old fashioned as the belief that victory at Waterloo really was assured on playing fields on the outskirts of Slough. Even the class division between league and union is not what it was. But don't let anyone tell you that class is irrelevant in modern sport. It's just that the distinctions are no longer quite so clear. Anyway, as in so many areas of life, it's in the margins, on the cusp, the interface of this and that, here is where the interesting stuff is to be found.
The truth is that sport has always crossed class boundaries. Two examples where the upper and working class have shared a common love of a sport disapproved of by the middle class are found in boxing and horse racing. Not that this shared love of ring and turf has led to any kind of equal relationship; far from it. In the case of boxing it was in the old time prize ring that the nature of the relationship was at it's most transparent. The aristos did the backing and the workers did, and received, the beating. In the multi-million pound industry of racing one class owns the racehorses while the other cleans the stables for the minimum wage. The stable-lads all hope to make it as jockeys, but of course few do. The two sports come together in the annual stable lads boxing tournament when the young lads perform for the entertainment of owners and trainers. I say "young" lads because the term is used to describe stable hands of any age; much like the colonial and Southern States "boy".
Rowing is usually perceived as a posh sport, and so it is but less well known is the strong working class tradition that has always existed in the sport. This tradition had it's roots in the tough world of Thames Watermen and Lightermen and these men might have been good enough to act as Royal Bargemasters but no way were the toffs going to have them competing at Henley. Just to be on the safe side the Amateur Rowing Association defined as professional anyone who worked at all. This led to the establishment of working class rowing clubs ( the clue is in the names, Putney Town and Thames Tradesmen for example) and a National Rowing Association that ran a parallel world of rowing totally segregated from the one dominated by the public schools and the universities. To give you a flavour of this I will just mention that an old mate of mine who was for a long time captain of one of these clubs once started his annual report in the club newsletter, "Dear Comrades"
This state of affairs continued until the 1950s when the ARA finally relented and allowed working class rowers to take part in the "official" sport. It was a merger not without incident. The story is still told on the river of the first time that Putney Town competed in the posh Molesey Regatta. The public school types were having fits as the oiks romped home in race after race. Finaly the Putney Towners set off to the committee tent to collect their prizes only to find, as the ultimate snub, the trophies standing on a table in an otherwise deserted tent.
Playing fields of Eton or not, they don't like it up 'em.