David Storey’s classic rugby novel, This Sporting Life, speaks to an enduring schism in English culture.
“I went straight for the full-back,” the up-and-coming rugby star of David Storey’s 1960 novel, This Sporting Life, tells us: “and when he came in I gave him the base of my wrist on his nose. The crack, the groan, the release of his arms, all coincided with a soaring of my guts.” Crucially, the sport here is Rugby League, the fast and furious sister of Rugby Union—the latter being what most people would recognize simply as “rugby.” Save for a few rule differences, the two are similar, yet in a thousand intangible ways, many of them to do with the inescapable pall of class that covered English life throughout the twentieth century, they’re worlds apart. Much of the unique power of This Sporting Life, crafted straight from Storey’s personal experience, is in how it shows us these ways.
To look at the history of rugby is to see a long, enduring schism between England’s north and south. For starters, until 1895, there was no “Union” or “League”—only “Rugby football,” reputed to have gained its name from Rugby, the public school (in the English, and therefore oxymoronic, sense) upon whose fields a boy once grew bored during a football match, picked up the ball, and charged headfirst into a sea of opposing players, thus creating a brand new game. That story, apocryphal though it may be, encapsulates the Victorian upper-middle-class notion of sport: a means of channelling the vim of adolescent boys and inculcating the virtues of courage, strength, and fair play, all necessary in youngsters who were expected to one day command an empire. The ideal rugby player was an amateur gentlemen, so much so that practicing was tantamount to cheating: the point of sport was in its test of character and moral fiber.
Such a standard worked beautifully for those who could afford to treat sport as a refining pastime, but for Northern working-class men, who began to participate in team sports in enormous numbers in the late 1800s, playing meant not working, or incurring costs they could not recoup unless the game were to be professionalized. But the administrators who ran the game in the North—often wealthy industrialists who sent their children to Eton, Harrow, and Rugby itself—refused to sully their amateurism. They’d seen what had happened to soccer when it allowed professionalism: it was overrun by laboring grunts on field and off. In 1895, the anti-amateurism proponents defied the establishment and set up their own professional competition. Hence “Rugby League.”
The new version reduced the players on each team from fifteen to thirteen, putting an emphasis on quick reaction, speed, and explosive power. Where union rules required men to bundle on top of one another seemingly at any opportunity—sometimes resembling an orgy gone wrong more than a codified sport—in League the ball would spray across the field like an arrow, from one wing to the other. Most important, different positions had vastly different duties on the pitch, a metaphor, intentional or not, for the rigidity of Victorian England. In Union the forwards were—and still are—the human battering rams, with cauliflower ears, broken noses, and missing teeth and, in rugby’s early years, they were frequently drawn from the lower social orders; the backs were creative sprites, pretty boys with clean shirts and flowing locks who skipped and danced and weaved past tackles, accruing glory as they went—and were almost always from well-to-do backgrounds. The new game, with its emphasis on keeping the ball moving and the game flowing, required all players to be strong, fast, and skilful, thereby reducing the stark differences between the forwards and the backs that had been a hallmark of Union. This was an innovation that the historian Tony Collins sees, plausibly, as an expression of Gladstonian liberalism: a desire to level the playing field, almost literally.
In Rugby League, a sport which encouraged individualism over the team-driven ethic of Rugby Union, men raised to be industrial laborers could let their creative selves flourish for the first time in their lives. League is still venerated in Northern England, where it’s looked upon as a visceral evocation of the region and its values: straightforwardness and dynamism, hallmarks of communities traditionally built around the coal mine, the shipyard, and the foundry. League’s detractors, largely in the south, see it as a barbarous perversion of the greatest traditions of rugby. League’s fans, on the other hand, dismiss union as the embodiment of the worst in the Southern establishment: haughty, snobbish, inaccessible, replete with arcane rules and pointless rigmarole.
Defiant and nonconformist, League became a potent symbol of an English identity that had previously been kept to the margins. Where Union was shorthand for a narrow type of Englishness that seemed presumptuously indivisible from Britishness, in which the monarchy and the traditions of aristocracy and empire were held sacrosanct, league unfurled beneath the floodlights an Englishness forged in the heat of the Industrial Revolution, whose greatest attachments were not to king and country, but to the mythic construct of “the North,” its localities and its people.
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Fitting, then, that League’s depiction in This Sporting Life earned it a prominent place in the Kitchen Sink movement of the late 1950s and ’60s, when, for the first time, working-class writers and artists put the experiences of ordinary people from Northern England at the center of British popular culture. Storey’s novel—and the film adaptation that swiftly followed, directed by Lindsay Anderson and starring Richard Harris—were lauded for their vivid depictions of an arena of English culture usually ignored by the establishment. Skeptical, belligerent, and acidly ironical, it’s a version of Englishness that later generations—everyone from Alan Bennett and Victoria Wood to Morrissey and Arctic Monkeys—have kept alive.
When I first read This Sporting Life, as a fourteen year-old, I found it a revelation. The novel is set in the fictional Northern town of Primstone, and tells the story of Arthur Machin’s frustrated attempts to make it as a Rugby League player, not out of love for the game, but as a means of transcending the drab, meager existence he sees awaiting him. Aside from my astonishment—and excitement—at discovering a novel based around a sportsman, Storey’s evocation of the industrial north of the 1950s seemed like a parallel universe from the end-of-the-century south in which I grew up. Primstone is a stern, unforgiving place in which outbursts of gruesome violence on the rugby pitch are mirrored in the industrial accidents and domestic abuse that punctuate everyday life, and the casual matter-of-factness with which Storey relates those incidents shocked readers of the time. It’s a world of unbending hierarchy and exhausting snobberies that are as petty as they are elaborate; people are scared rigid about the fate that will befall them should they ever forget their place. Machin is very difficult to like: insensitive, self-centered and domineering, yet he’s heroic in his refusal to accept his lot and shut his mouth. Unlike the protagonists of other Kitchen Sink classics such as Room at the Top and Billy Liar, Machin does not hope to use a cultivated mind and a broad vocabulary to escape; his only chance, ironically, is grueling manual labor on the field of play.
However, over the years many Rugby League fans have criticized Storey for reinforcing negative stereotypes of league as a brutish game played by thugs. In the 1970s, for example, a book on the history of Rugby Union spread the bizarre, unfounded claim that Northern rugby, in its savagery, had seen seventy-six players killed on its fields in just two years. True, The Sporting Life won’t do much to dissuade you of said savagery—violence plays a pivotal role in the book, and not just in the rugby sections. It arrives as early as the book’s opening sentences, when the narrator, Arthur Machin, faces a shoulder in his jaw during a match: “It rammed my teeth together with a force that stunned me to blackness.”
His front teeth lost for eternity in the Yorkshire mud, Machin decides that he won’t let an open wound and a trifling concussion prevent him from playing the last ten minutes of a match that is already won. He goes back, ambling, half dazed, and leaden-footed, “to show just how much I care.” Though it’s not the team or the result Machin cares about, it’s his masculine pride and his self-advancement. At times, his bloody-mindedness borders on the pathological. In a subsequent match he surreptitiously rams his fist into the face of a teammate he believes may have disrespected him. Away from rugby, he has kindly, loving parents whose deferential respectability infuriates him, as does the emotional fragility of Mrs. Hammond, the widow with whom he has a grim, dysfunctional affair. Machin is cocksure and hot headed, barely into his twenties and puffed up by his local celebrity and his panel-beaten good looks, and has no way of understanding or dealing with Mrs. Hammond’s complexities, piled upon her by the stresses of grief, motherhood and poverty. He treats her appallingly—“I was just like an … ape with her,” he admits—and their first sexual encounter is shockingly brutal, an elliptically written scene which to me can only be describing an act of rape, though it’s unclear whether Storey intended it to be read as such. In this, Storey’s detractors have argued, Machin perpetuates the nasty southern caricature of Yorkshiremen as obstinate, opinionated, and aggressive, congenitally unable to step back from an argument. But to others Machin, in his violence and silence, reads more like an homage to D. H. Lawrence’s expositions of Northern masculinity, and, perhaps by extension, those of the Brontës’: part Heathcliff, part Oliver Mellors.
In any case, it can’t be denied that League’s punishing physicality—its forceful, free-flowing, lung-busting dynamism—is routinely held up by fans as a sign of its unique brilliance, and distinguishes it from union which, like American football, is replete with stoppages and set pieces. League also prides itself on its frequent displays of astounding bravery—or reckless stupidity, depending on your point of view. In 2012, to give one eye-watering recent example, the Warrington player Paul Wood finished practically the entire second half of a cup final with a ruptured testicle.
Storey, who’s now eighty-two, experienced the punishments of League firsthand, and even during his literary career appeared to believe that the fist was occasionally mightier than the pen: he once walked up to a critic in a crowded room and thumped him square in the face in retribution for a sniffy review. A working-class professional sportsman turned Booker Prize winner—for his 1976 novel Saville—he embodies the North-South divide in a way that nobody has before or since. In his youth, he split his time between the rugby pitch and London’s prestigious Slade School of Fine Art, a double life that even now would be highly unusual; in the 1950s it was almost subversive. As a result, he met with hostility from all sides. “At the Slade I was seen as an oaf from Leeds,” he explained in 1994, “while the Leeds team, mostly young miners, were incredulous at the notion of living in London as an artist. They would pass the ball when there were three men in front of me waiting to get me. It was like going up there to be beaten up every Saturday.”
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When, in 1995, Union finally stepped away from a century and a half of tradition and allowed professionalization of the sport, it was said that all those old snobberies and antagonisms were about to end—that Union would lose its elitism and League its surly righteousness. No doubt, English Rugby Union has grown more diverse, with an influx of new players from a variety of social backgrounds taken by some as incontrovertible evidence that the old divisions are fast disappearing. Under the weight of Union’s growing global popularity, League, the argument goes, will inevitably die out.
It’s a reading consistent with broader ideas about post-Thatcher Britain, what John Major in the 1990s envisaged as the emerging “classless society,” in which traditional markers of identity will have been dissolved by the diminution of heavy industry, the rise of a service-based economy, and the emergence of a centrist political consensus. And yet, to an astonishing degree, regional identity in England and every other part of the UK is strengthening. The power and influence of London has soared in recent decades as never before, spreading triffid-like into every aspect of national life: it is England’s New York, LA, and D.C. combined in one super-metropolis, much to the irritation of the country beyond. The government has responded to the perception of cozy London elites by attempting to create a “Northern Powerhouse,” a region revitalized with a bracing new postindustrial purpose, although what that purpose is remains to be seen.
Storey himself has been living down south for more than sixty years. Yorkshire, he laments,
bears no resemblance now to my memory: an imaginary Yorkshire which no longer exists. Five pits have disappeared, including the two my father worked in, and it’s all been landscaped, you’d never know there’d been any collieries. I’m still engaged by the people, but there’s no congruity between the present and the past.
For these reasons Rugby League has probably never seemed more important to its fanbase. Diehards cherish the fact that League is one of the few distinctly Northern parts of the national culture—it endures as an emblem of not just Northern identity, but also of non-London identity, as a reminder of the heterogeneity of Englishness. The very names of most English Rugby League teams are jolting. They’re smaller towns often otherwise absent from English public life: Wigan, St. Helen’s, Castleford; Warrington, Widnes, Wakefield. Industry no longer thrives in any of those places, but League survives, hurling itself into another set of tackles. It’s a resilience that Storey recognized, and personified in Arthur Machin, who refuses to give up on himself, deeply flawed though he may be. At the end of the novel, Machin is bruised and weary, physically and emotionally; Mrs. Hammond has died after a sudden illness, and he has alienated and upset almost everyone around him. Still, he plays on; rugby is all he has left. In the final passage Machin, pained and disconsolate after a grueling defeat, goes through the old routine, preparing himself for the grind of the world beyond the dressing room: “I had my ankles strapped, got dressed, and put my teeth in.”
Edward White is the author of The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America. White studied European and American history at Mansfield College, Oxford, and Goldsmiths College, London. Since 2005, he has worked in the British television industry, including two years at the BBC, devising programs in its arts and history departments. He is a contributor to The Times Literary Supplement. He lives in London.