Since sport requires leisure time and a surplus of money to spend on it, we can thank the Industrial Revolution for our weekend off to watch football, motor racing, tennis or rugby; and for the money to buy the necessary ticket or TV subscription. The 1850s were the crucial decade, when mills in northern England started to close at 2pm on Saturdays. According to A.N. Wilson in The Victorians, Wordsells of Birmingham was one of the first factories to give its workers Saturday afternoon off. It is no coincidence that the 1850s were the time when large scale sport really began to develop. Horse racing grew hugely in popularity with sixty two new horse racing meetings added to the calendar. Meanwhile, rugby and football were evolving rapidly into the games we know today. And as sporting events became established, trains were available to take people to them, thanks to the boom in railway building.
A century later we come to David Storey’s This Sporting Life, a novel about a factory worker who gets signed by a Rugby League team in a 1950s northern town. This Sporting Life might be set a hundred years after the Industrial Revolution kickstarted sport, but it is clear that sport and industry still go together. Rugby League is a kind of sporting heavy industry. This is a game played in vast stadiums by big men who have specialised jobs on the field, just as they follow specialised trades in their factories. Rugby, a sequence of systematic, repeated moments, is in effect a mill for producing sporting excitement, with sparks flying on the pitch as clouds of steam from nearby cooling towers drift overhead.
Even so, there is still a sense in This Sporting Life that Rugby League strives for something beyond the daily grind. The players are seen as heroes by local sports fans, reminiscent of those Greek heroes who took part in running and chariot races in Homer’s Iliad. The town’s gods – wealthy industrialists rather than deities on a mountain – run the club. Just as in Homer, the gods support some heroes at the expense of others, using their influence to trip up or push forward individual athletes as they see fit.
This Sporting Life is really a study of what it is to be one of these modern sporting heroes. Seemingly living lives beyond those of ordinary mortals, they are admired wherever they go, receiving free stuff and fan mail. Yet, a famous player also seems something less than human. The narrator and central character, Arthur Machin, often remarks on feeling like some sort of ape man who doesn’t belong in normal society. One of his lady admirers actually calls him Tarzan. The contradiction of popularity and a feeling of exclusion causes havoc with Arthur’s personal life. In his gruff way he loves his landlady, the widowed Mrs Hammond. This troubled young woman becomes interested in Arthur when he makes the metamorphosis from ordinary factory worker to sports star. At the same time she is unable to view him as a normal man she could be with. She always seems worried that Arthur will be off with one of his many female fans. Nothing Arthur can say will convince Mrs Hammond otherwise. Arthur’s fellow players Frank and Maurice are fortunate in having wives who treat them as normal men.
This Sporting Life is a study of professional sport and the celebrity it brings. Published in 1960 it is an uncompromising tale, interesting in the context of sport history, and in its prescience about the kind of developments that would follow in sport and celebrity culture generally.