This Sporting Life: Sport and Liberty in England, 1760–1960 by Robert Colls - review by Emma Griffin

Emma Griffin

Before the Offside Rule

This Sporting Life: Sport and Liberty in England, 1760–1960


Oxford University Press 400pp £25

It may not have been the most devastating consequence of the coronavirus pandemic, but it was nonetheless among the most striking. Overnight, lockdown brought the closure of sports grounds, an end to a busy schedule of sporting fixtures and the rapid disappearance of sports coverage from our airwaves, screens and newspapers. Yet as anyone whose daily exercise took them to a public park may have noticed, lockdown did not bring about the end of all sport. On my walk one warm evening to a very large local park, I observed people walking dogs, running, cycling, playing informal games of cricket and football, practising yoga and enjoying a most definitely non-socially distanced sparring match, as well as a young family playing a game best described as rounders with a football. Both sexes and all ages were engaged in a range of solitary and communal recreational activities. The scene was a very vivid reminder that the mostly male competitive sports that tend to dominate our media are but one small slice of the far more varied forms of recreation that fill our everyday lives.

It is into this terrain that Robert Colls’s new book, This Sporting Life, ventures. His gaze too extends beyond formal sports to the informal and unstructured play of the kind I witnessed at my local park. Utilising a wide array of sources, many hitherto unused, Colls has woven together a

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