People often ask me why I recommend books in the corner of this page, and I have some stock responses.
One is that I aim to please, and I thus steer readers to volumes I’ve enjoyed myself.
Another is the on-again,off-again quest for the book or essay that will serve as a guiding principle, or principle of any type, for my Unified Theory of Sports.
The theory’s hinterland has grown over the years, with diversions into the Satin Jerseys Will Come Back Sub-Theory and the What Male Opposition To Female Sport Really Means Equation, but the main unified theory itself is underpinned by the Non-Inevitable component.
By this I mean the observation that much of what we believe about sport is based on a false belief. For instance, acknowledge that the collective acceptance of sport isaccidental and provisional, and forever under threat (if you’re sports-agnostic) or teetering on the verge of oblivion (if you’re sports-atheistic).
And a recent book provided some ammunition in this regard. It’s The Little Wonder by Robert Winder, the history of Wisden, the cricket bible.
Now I am not a cricket fan, unlike certain friends whose devotion to the sport continues to baffle me, but this book is irresistible. And educational. Paul Rouse of this parish literally wrote the book on sport and history, but I was intrigued by this aside on the development of cricket in 19th-century Britain.
It was “ostensibly a mere shiver, yet its effects on cricket were... dramatic. One of the by-products of the Industrial Revolution was mechanical mowing, which gave England not just a taste for well-groomed lawns but a new way of preparing playing fields.
Until the mid-century a horse-drawn scythe was the best available method, but this was too rough and ready to create anything we would recognise today as a cricket wicket — Lord’s, it was said, was ‘all ridge and furrow’.
“By the same token golf, even in Scotland, was a winter game. Only when frost kept the grass down could a well-hit ball be found.”
There are other dots to be joined. Railways meant mobility, and regulated work hours meant spare time to exploit that mobility. And literacy led to... sporting bureaucracy.
Winder adds: “The advent of the penny stamp in 1840 cracked open an enormous new world of private interaction (its effects not unlike, perhaps, the revolution in social networks on the internet in our own recent years). But it also made it possible to create far-flung fixture lists for sports teams. Cricket, until this period a rustic pursuit, was not slow to join the party.”
Compare, then, the powerful beneficial force that cheap postage rates constituted with the soul-corroding maw of social media.
Go further: if the intersection of various social and economic forces led to the establishment of mass-participation sports a century and a half ago, is the interplay of vastly different social and economic factors now altogether benign?
Graphs don’t necessarily track upwards all the time. It’s an understandable error in sport to see a team or athlete’s eventual victory as inevitable — how often have you heard the expression ‘their name was on the cup’? — but most teams or athletes who are not deluded acknowledge the role of luck, the fineness of the margins.
Similarly, the development and expansion of many sports weren’t inevitable at a mass level but owed much to the way factors such as those above combined at the right time, or in the right order.
And even then, a brief flare of interest isn’t a guarantee of long-term success.
The vagaries of time haven’t been kind to a few sports: last week we learned, for instance, that the International Olympic Committee has frozen planning for boxing in its next Games, in Tokyo next year.
Imagine if you went back a decade and told people that boxing would be less assured of its place in the Olympics than skateboarding and sport climbing?
Another step towards completing the Unified Theory. And a book recommendation for you as well. Win-win.
Dublin oblivious to the match
Dublin for the match yesterday. Dublin!
One simple question: is Dublin a sports town?
In my stroll around the Fair City yesterday I rambled into quite a few zones which betrayed no awareness whatsoever of the three national finals going on in the city centre.
Not a hanging offence in and of itself, but is the capital city simply too big for a sports event to take it over? In many other towns and cities around the country a big game/meeting dominates the landscape utterly, but Dublin always appears resistant to the charm of the big sports event.
It’s not as if Dublin is too big for other forms of entertainment. A few years ago I was at the Web Summit in the RDS — remember that? — and once I got over the sight of half of Godley and Creme in some kind of spangled kaftan it was all about the traffic.
It was apocalyptic. And that was down to a few thousand app developers putting the arm on you to take one of their free tote bags.
It doesn’t seem to happen with sports events, though. Why?
Cork pros, cons, and conspiracies
The proposals to restructure the various county championships in Cork have attracted a fair bit of attention, and little wonder.
Squeezing the last drop of juice out of the calendar is a challenge for GAA officials everywhere, and the county with the highest number of clubs should provide an interesting testing ground.
The proposals put forward by the Cork County Board address the vexed question of inter-county players’ participation in club activity, and it’ll be interesting to see the level of support from Croke Park for those proposals, particularly in light of the GPA’s rejection of the proposals in a statement over the weekend.
I raise this issue because more than one Cork club representative has been in touch with your columnist in the last few days, wondering whether it’s altogether accidental that Cork are taking a lead with these proposals, and whether Croke Park will be encouraging other county boards to copy what’s happening on Leeside.
This is a dangerous step towards accepting a conspiracy theory, one which presumes Cork’s fixture policy is being influenced by GAA headquarters, and that other county boards would be susceptible to pressure from the same source.
An unlikely scenario, surely.
For those who speak the ‘Deadwood’ language
No book here today — see elsewhere on the page — but I note the impending arrival of a Deadwood movie, just 13 years after the TV series of the same name finished.
If you’re not familiar with the series, set in the (very) Wild West town of Deadwood, do yourself a favour and watch the three seasons as quickly as you can, though if your tastes don’t run to swearing as a form of punctuation, your ears may not stand up to the punishment.
Deadwood’s intricate, inimitable dialogue is not for the faint-hearted, particularly the baroque, foul-mouthed stylings of TV’s Lovejoy, Ian McShane, who plays Al Swearengen..
Bonus points if you can identify the language being spoken by the ‘Cornish’ miners. Extra bonus points if you find the Manchester United connection — contact details below for a spot prize.
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