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Response to Review no. 287

I am grateful to Adrian Smith for a review that is not only perceptive, but also generous and constructive. Indeed, I am tempted to fall back on one of the options offered by the editor of Reviews in History: ‘the author is pleased to accept this review without any further comment’. The only matter on which I disagree fundamentally with Dr Smith is one of fact. It was the International Centre for Sport, History and Culture at De Montfort (in the persons of Mike Cronin and Dick Holt) which organised the important ‘Historians on Sport’ conference in October 2001, not the IHR. But this is a matter of detail. As for the bigger picture, Dr Smith deserves more recompense for the comprehensiveness of his review than simply a quiescent silence.

Much of Dr Smith’s comment concerns what I might term the ‘architecture’ of the book. This was not without problems. Getting the balance right was difficult. The result was perhaps a procrustean compromise between too many short chapters, and too few detailed ones; a superficial survey, as against over-focused detail which lacked panorama. But for a book in which the spirit of Gramsci hovers, it was perhaps appropriate that a degree of ‘negotiation’ should attend its construction. My then editor at Palgrave, together with the reader of the initial proposal, persuaded me that a broader coverage of topics was needed, with a longer chronology. Thus, what had originally been intended as a study of the post-1945 period acquired a longer durĂ©e. With Polley’s book imminent, and Holt and Mason in the offing, it seemed in any case sensible not to overload that particular period, and to offer something with a different chronology. I was only too happy to look back into the earlier years of the century but as Dr Smith rightly points out, this has detracted from contemporaneity. It is probably the book’s weakest feature, not absolved by my protesting that I sought to avoid being ‘whiggish’.

This, though, is a serious point. The danger of present-mindedness is not always absent in the historical approach to sport. It is all-too-readily apparent in the minds of many students of sport, especially those from the so-called ‘hard’ end of the subject. Here, history’s value is frequently misunderstood. At worst it is seen as a dallying with oddities from the past whose contemporary relevance is slight. I well recall, in the mid-1990s, being rebuked by a sports science undergraduate for recommending an ‘out of date’ text; it was Richard Holt’s Sport and the British (Clarendon; Oxford, 1989), published some five years earlier, though clearly regarded as outmoded by someone on the look out for ‘up-to-date’ information and interpretation. At best, in this milieu, history’s uses are justified by their serving to explain the origins of the present state of affairs, as if this is definite, destined to last forever. History becomes a tool of teleology.

Quite apart from the perils of viewing the past in the light of the present, this perspective on history overlooks the great and simple truth that any study of the subject brings out: things change. Thus what exists now will soon itself be history. Be that as it may, I should have been more alert to the contemporary, and especially I now think to web sites, both as sources of information and as objects of enquiry in themselves. My neglect of the internet as a popular pastime reveals me for what I am – a bit of a technophobe who thinks that there are better ways for people to spend their waking hours than fiddling with computers. This, of course, is no longer a defensible position.

The treatment of youth also suffered, and Dr Smith regards my neglect of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll (in print at least) as little short of criminal. Younger readers and some ageing rockers too, have a right to take me to task over this. The reason for the omissions here, however, had more to do with word limit than any predilections on my part about what was and was not important. I decided to focus on the ‘problem’ of youth, a focus which involved thinking about who constructs the problem, and what solutions are brought to it. It is a ‘top down’ approach, I agree, and by no means the whole picture. But is does reinforce what broadly speaking we may term the ‘political’ nature of youth, and at least casts matters of leisure and culture within a context of power relations. In my view the study of popular culture should always do this. What I should have done, had space permitted, was to look at aspects of resistance to attempts from above to shape and control the lives of the young.

On the other hand, I was pleased that Dr Smith felt the chapter on holidays had some value. Perhaps it worked because it was written from the heart. But its presence in the book is the result of Terka Bagley’s good judgement as my editor during the final couple of years. It was Terka who persuaded me that it should go in. Once in, the chapter owed a great deal to John Walton’s research on leisure and tourism. His influence is writ large in the chapter, and I must acknowledge my debt to him.

It is common for writers of textbooks to pretend that their oeuvres are something more than just run-of- the-mill exam fodder. Arguing for inclusion in an RAE submission they often seek to persuade colleagues that they are ‘works of scholarship’. Dr Smith has no such illusions about this book, and perhaps he is right. But, though it began its life as a contribution to one of Palgrave’s textbook series, it ended up a free-standing title. I like to believe, possibly in self-delusion, that it offers a little more than the standard undergraduate text. Dr Smith’s comment that it is ‘discursive’, and that it encourages student readers to ‘think for themselves’, also encourages me. I think of this as a positive, though some readers might think otherwise. But too much spoon-feeding, it seems to me, is not good. If the book prompts students to think, read further, fill in some of the gaps themselves, and use their sources critically, it will have served a purpose. One such purpose is pedagogic. I consciously sought, as far as space permitted, to make reasonably detailed references to key secondary texts, knowing from experience that this is something many students skate over, extracting information without fully grappling with authors’ ideas and arguments. I hope the book provides something of a model for how to deploy such sources, as Dr Smith’s review itself shows how to be critical without being negative.

In the last analysis, and why I believe there is something about it other than textbook-ness, the book flies a kite for ideas about sport, leisure, and culture, and also for how these subjects might be studied. One day, perhaps, I’ll develop my thoughts into something more focused. In the meantime the Introduction and Conclusion have to pass muster on this. The academic study of sport has in the past been plagued by a perception on the part of some historians – should they be called the ‘mainstream’? – of its essential triviality. Compared with economics, health, war, education, and many other aspects of human society, sport and leisure count for little. But this is not always the popular perception of them. They undoubtedly consume much attention and energy among many people, and that, for the social and cultural historian, makes them important subjects.

In this respect, as Dr Smith shows, historians’ perceptions are changing. There is now probably less eyebrow-raising about the subject of sport going on in the trade than there was even ten years ago. The presence at the ‘Historians on Sport’ conference of Brian Harrison and others confirms that. But are perceptions changing in the right ways? Sport and leisure’s significance (and I choose this word deliberately) lies as much in their ideological force – in the meanings they generate in society – as in the structures and practices of the games, hobbies and other activities that make up leisure. What sport means to many (perhaps most) people stems from the ways in which it is represented to them. Of all the many aspects of the historiography of sport and leisure that demand attention and development it is this area – the area of representation, ideology, and meaning – that in my view is the most pressing for the next generation of historians.

The interrogation of the many media forms, past and present, through which notions of sport and leisure have been constructed and decoded, will involve something of a shift of methodology. The traditional emphasis on causation and empiricism might, to a degree, give way to a search for meaning, to a sharper focus on the text, to a keener recognition of history’s fictive nature, and result in a plundering (for historians are great borrowers) of the methodologies devised by students of anthropology, cultural studies, literature, and other disciplines. If this happens, and the old links with economics, sociology, and politics are balanced with new alliances, the future will be bright, and we will get the history of sport we need and deserve.