Crackling on the page, Colls’s prose elucidates and amuses in equal measure and with equal sharpness. We are informed that, at her retirement party, Miss Jacques, the “Gymnastics and Games” teacher at King Edward VI High School for Girls in Birmingham, “remembered the names of 398 out of 400 girls” – “Pity the two she forgot”. The Revd Edward Thring was headmaster of Uppingham School from 1853 to 1887. When his maid “gave birth in the kitchen during the night … Thring made it his business to pack the father (‘a little lad of seventeen’) off on the train and take mother and baby round to the workhouse. He thought it was a terrible affliction for them both. But by God’s grace he and his wife would see it through”.
Historians often do their best work after 60, because it takes decades of reading just to begin to understand a period. This Sporting Life displays exhausting quantities of erudition, sometimes within a single sentence. The prose is lively even in the footnotes, though the occasional passage of Joycean free association can be confusing. Still, there are jewels on every page, such as the footballer Nat Lofthouse rising at 3.30am on Saturdays in 1943 to work a full shift in the coal mine, before playing for Bolton Wanderers in the afternoon. There is more life in these pages than can be explained, or needs to be.
The book is at its strongest and most thought-provoking when drawing these sorts of smart, subversive connections. Colls is a freewheeling cultural historian whose previous work has spanned everything from Orwell to English folk tradition to the trade union movement. Perhaps that broad scope has equipped him with a certain talent for the comparative: between the severe and the trivial, the right to play and the right to protest, different forms of liberty, different forms of violence. Colls even manages to put a fresh twist on a time-worn tale: the rise of football, which he compares to hunting in that it “involved a kind of roving liberty with intent to kill”.
In his conclusion Colls makes a passionate argument for sport’s centrality to English history. It may seem trivial, he says, but “it is woven into almost everything else we do”. Sport is not just a question of kicking a ball: it is about “playing the game, enjoying the land, sensing the liberty, respecting contestation, valuing home, showing a bit of heart, recognising it in others, knowing that not everyone is political, or has to be, that not everyone knows what they think or (whichever comes first) how to say it, and understanding above all that sport is an enduring part of our liberty”. After reading this glorious book, nobody, not even the most bloodless sports hater, could disagree.