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May 18, 2006

Resisting the New Roundheads: On the Corinthian Spirit: The Decline of Amateurism in Sport - D. J. Taylor

Posted by Lincoln Allison

On the Corinthian Spirit: The Decline of Amateurism in Sport
by D. J. Taylor
Pp. 131. London: Yellow Jersey Press, 2006
Hardback, 10

Lincoln Allison - leading academic expert on amateurism in sport and the author of Amateurism in Sport: An Analysis and a Defence - should by rights resent D. J. Taylor's On the Corinthian Spirit: The Decline of Amateurism in Sport. Lincoln Allison's book covers much the same ground, comes to similar conclusions and is much more thorough - but D. J. Taylor's book is likely to receive much more attention. Yet after reading On the Corinthian Spirit Lincoln Allison believes that everyone should read the book.

D. J. Taylor's "book" is little more than an extended essay in hard covers; it is barely 25,000 words long and took me a reader of rather average speed less than an hour to read. It discusses aspects of the "Corinthian spirit", primarily the amateur ethos in sport, but more broadly the public school spirit and its extensions in the army and the city. It contains a good deal of personal reflection and anecdote and marginally more literary quotation (even) than is normal in the writing in this field.

It seems to me that I have good cause to resent D. J. Taylor. My book Amateurism in Sport: an Analysis and a Defence (published by Frank Cass in 2001) covers much the same ground as this, but much more thoroughly (it couldn't be less thorough), but I suspect he's going to get much more attention and sell many more copies. What makes it worse is that he shows no awareness that my book exists. Nor, for that matter, does he show any knowledge of the considerable body of academic writing in this field with the exception of Tony Mangan and Ross McKibbon. I suspect that what we have here is a publisher indulging a successful author: Taylor won the Whitbread prize for his biography of Orwell. The sporting equivalent might be, "As we've already won the championship can I play up front in the last game?" Still, I was once similarly indulged by a publisher, so I can't complain.

If I were to complain there would be a good deal to complain about. Taylor moves from personal anecdote to literary reference to the record of Corinthians FC (and later Corinthian Casuals) to potted history with whimsy rather than logic. His potted histories aren't all that accurate. Even the literary references are sometimes wrong: A. G. McDonnell's England, Their England is not about the Invalids cricket club, only one chapter is. And some of his lengthy quotations, from Orwell and Priestley, for instance, are the most hackneyed in the area.

But, hey, enough of that mean-minded, picky stuff. The guy can write, he has wit, he can pack a weight of moral punch similar to that of his hero Orwell. And he and I are team mates, metaphorically speaking, because we are on the same side. We both take the amateur ethos seriously and believe it makes morally serious claims. It must be understood in terms of those moral claims and not reduced to the trivial-contextual as most academics have tried to reduce it. As the distinguished historian Richard Holt has said, the problem with academics studying amateurism is that they always say it is really something else, usually elitism or snobbery. I'm not saying that it was not, in many cases, a cover for those things, but I am saying with Taylor that those aspects are trivial.

Taylor is very good at unpacking the contemporary aspiration to be a "professional". I particularly warmed to him when he reported (p. 32) that:

One of my most vivid memories of working in the city is of the racked denizens of the Coopers and Lybrand marketing department consoling themselves with the thought that, as one of the assistant managers used to put it, "We are all professionals". No we aren't, I used to want to yell out in the course of these therapeutic conferrings.
He quotes (pp. 35-6) the American porn star, Randy Spears as saying that he was able to develop some attraction for about 30% of the young women with whom he had sex, but with the other 70% "You're just being a professional". He also defends (as I do) the old practice in cricket of an amateur with no "career" being captain, with implications which are much wider than cricket.

Even more importantly, he suggests the irreplaceable qualities of the amateur ethos, that a world which consisted of "professionals" pursuing their "careers" to a set of rules imposed on them would not work, let alone be worth living in. Who do you want to defend you, a gentleman cavalry officer who believes in honour or a "professional" who is thinking about his promotion and pension? Though, come to think about it, don't TV police sagas pretty well always encourage us to be for the independent-minded old-school maverick and against the "by the book" pro?

In dealing with Ross McKibbon's drearily familiar indictment of the "Edwardian mindset" of the inter-war political elite, Taylor writes (p. 101):

In the higher scheme of things, Chamberlain might have been a self-satisfied ass who believed that Hitler was "a great gentleman" even as the Nazis assembled on the Polish border, but set against some of the despots of the age, his own gentlemanliness, sense of duty, determination to do the right thing, can seem like a positive virtue. One can acknowledge that certain Englishmen were "trapped within an essentially Edwardian rhetoric" while believing that its absence would have destroyed a part of England that, in an age of power politics and broken promises, it was vitally important to keep alive. A "professional" politician, after all, would probably have left Poland to its fate.
He also demonstrates effectively that the autobiographies of contemporary professional sportsmen show how keen they are to be seen as Corinthians rather than as ruthless career professionals.

Taylor ends on his familiar Orwellian home ground (pp. 126-7):
It was George Orwell, again, whose instinctual Puritanism can sometimes seem a tiny bit excessive, who remarked that had he lived at the time of the English Civil war he would have been a Cavalier as the Roundheads "were such dreary people". "Professionalism" by which I mean dogged resolve, niggling efficiency, mistrust of "style" came comparatively late to English life. In neglecting the tradition it supplanted, we neglect a vital part of the behavioural cocktail that makes us who we are and what we shall become.
Right on! So it was that I progressed from rather resenting On the Corinthian Spirit to believing that everybody should read it.

Lincoln Allison is Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. He is the author of Amateurism in Sport: An Analysis and a Defence (Frank Cass, 2001).

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