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Sporting Notions  —  £ 2.99

Go to the eBook Shop Edited by his daughter, Alice, and published in 1908, two years after his death, here are 19 of Martin Cobbett's articles originally written for the Sunday paper "The Referee", under his pseudonym "Geraint".

Cobbett was the finest Sports journalist of his time and was the only English correspondent present in Australia in 1883 when the Ashes were handed over for the first time.

I defy anyone to understand all the references to contemporary personalities and the issues of the day, nevertheless, this is a fascinating read. Please see the extract below, for the contents and first article.

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Notes

Many sports are covered in this book as well as controversies, new laws, rule changes and regret that some things were better in the old days. The joy of boating on the Thames in summer, despite occasional disagreeable 'yachtsmen', the danger of swimming in 'jersey costumes', the inconsistent 'gaming laws', gratuitous blood sports etc. etc.

Cobbett says it is not worth cycling to Portsmouth, because of the problem of Hindhead - just over 100 years later, the by-pass is finally open! He regrets the potential commercialisation of Cricket because 'suggestions of wrongdoing, such as crookedness in play, are so scarce – in fact, practically unknown'.

Not confining himself entirely to sport, he also comments, for example, that the 'Sheraton' chairs now being manufactured in the Hackney Road will be indistinguishable from the real thing by 1950.

The cover of my original is faded and grubby, with a vaguely embossed racehorse, so I made the one above with similar colours and layout, adding a few of the subjects covered.

Extract

The text and any images below are identical to the eBook; however, depending on the typeface, etc., that you select, they may not display here exactly as they do on your eReader. Also, pages turn as normal, rather than the scrolling effect seen here.

 

Contents

Chapter I
Sport and "sport"

Chapter II
Boxing

Chapter III
Boxers

Chapter IV
Racing Remarks

Chapter V
More Racing Remarks

Chapter VI
Horses

Chapter VII
Some Racing Portraits

Chapter VIII
Cricket

Chapter IX
More Cricket

Chapter X
In Fresh Water

Chapter XI
Putney and the Clubs

Chapter XII
Rowing at Putney

Chapter XIII
On London's River

Chapter XIV
Molesey to Datchet

Chapter XV
Up to Henley

Chapter XVI
In the Off Season

Chapter XVII
Pedestrianism

Chapter XVIII
War Games

Chapter XIX
Country Diversions

Sport and "sport"

     We are blessed in King Edward VII. with a monarch whose tastes in pastime have always been in unison with the nation’s. His adherence has been of priceless value. It behoves us to seriously recognise the real benefit we have so derived, and to do all possible to make sporting pastime worthy of a continuance of his favour by respecting its traditions and keeping it clear of abuses. We start with a splendid record, built up during her late Majesty’s reign. All very well is it to write and talk about the good old days. In most branches much of what was passed as en règle, and so considered correct, or at least permissible, when Queen Victoria came to the throne would be condemned now. The spirit of fair play was always predominant: so much I am fain to believe; but our ideas on that same have gradually been enlarged. Public opinion has grown into a stronger and gradually mighty power, and the voice of the people has, year by year, decade by decade – you may say, in view of the late Queen’s four-score years, generation by generation – been operating towards cleansing and purifying the country’s manly amusements. Schools have arisen professing a morbid-minded humanitarianism, working hard to interfere with the liberty of the subject to divert him or her self as seems fitting in his or her eyes. These, greatly misguided in the main, have not been without good uses, in that there is occasionally a substratum of truth in their indictments. From these, wise controllers of our amusements have profited, making reforms from within, and one can claim with confidence a gradual all-round advance in the right direction. In some departments we have made wonderful strides – none more remarkable than in the last thirty years.
     The greatest step has been in amateur athletics, which to a great extent have absorbed the classes who previously found their only opportunities as professionals, or at least in competing against those who pursued sport as their chief means towards earning subsistence. We may – in fact, we have beyond dispute lost supremacy we held in some respects. That is matter for regret in a way, but not altogether, because in the first place we used not to enter often into direct competition with aliens, and almost always where we have been beaten defeat has come from representatives of our old, our own stock. I make bold to assert that during Queen Victoria’s reign the nation has been improving more and more in and through sport, and has attained a far higher average in efficiency and proficiency. Why would we not, when, instead of looking askance on the young man whose tastes and qualifications led him to seek distinction in foot-racing, boxing, swimming, and other ways, Society, more particularly the working section in business and profession, warmly encourages athletics, and excellence in that same makes for advancement in the serious business of life, instead of being, as it incontestably was, a powerful if not a fatal, drawback. Whether we may in the next few years have to recognise that in some respects athletics – I use the word in its comprehensive sense – have been overdone and taken an undesirable trend, since a considerable percentage who, in their way, go in for sport limit their association to being spectators rather than exponents, we shall be told as the pendulum swings. But that by the way. Such details correct themselves, and such a detail does not count against what I take to be fact: our advance consequent on physical education in games and concurrent cultivation of the true sporting instinct which has been a notable characteristic of the great reign.
     For many years I have not had liberty to attend a London Athletic Club dinner, an occasion of very great importance in the year’s calendar of amateur sport, and exceedingly grateful to old hands because of the opportunity it affords for meeting veterans not often brought together. But as each anniversary comes round and I read the list of the company, always with great pleasure in marking the number of sound oldsters who gather, manifesting their still fresh love of athletics, and take the speeches at second hand, I feel that the speakers representing the club fall somewhat short of doing the institution justice, failing because of their modesty to claim its due. Anyone who knows anything of the early history of amateur athletics is aware that the London Athletic Club grew out of the Mincing Lane Athletic Club, and was, taking it with its parent stock, what for want of better words I may call the pioneer of reputable amateur athletic competition, outside school and college sports. While the London Athletic Club was young, the West London Rowing Club paved the way for the change brought about in the business. I ought, perhaps, to give the West London Rowing Club precedence as the earlier apostle, but we will pass its merits in this direction by just now.
     What I want to point out to the present generation is this – that amateur athletics, as they are now, were rendered possible, thanks mainly to the formation of the London Athletic Club and the influence it brought to bear on the great middle classes. This I am not doing now for the first time – I am aware of that – but a mighty upheaval tremendous enough to affect the nation’s way of thought and life is worth reference more than once. “Respectable” can be made a very snobbish word without calling in as instance its definition in the Weare and Thurtell trial, where the murderer was so classed on account of his keeping a gig. “Respectable,” however, is a Grundyism, and Mrs Grundy, who, in the connection to which I allude, had with her Mr Grundy and nearly all the elders, male and female, of that hard-to-please, dangerous-to-cross, widely-distributed, large family, used to hold public competitions in running or walking, boxing, swimming, and rowing outside a few clubs (‘Varsity and, generally speaking, scholastic), as so far unrespectable that the whole clan had, not to put too fine a point on it, its knife into athletics. Respectability’s knife was always kept sharp, and was dug in with great freedom and vim, so that, instead of talent on the path or in other cognate direction being, as is now the case, a help towards a young man getting on in life it frequently cut off his chances of working up. When Tom, Dick, or Harry, fine young fellows all, came up for discussion, or their characters did, and the said useful lads were openly guilty, or only suspected, of aspiring to earn distinction, as say, runners, a very nasty “but” was the conjunction between an admission of their good qualities with commendable application of the same and this same dreadful reprehensible tendency: Sticks to work well, and all that; no fault to be found that way, “but” – here was the make-weight which bumped the scale against the unfortunate innocent culprit – I am told he is fond of foot-racing, and you know what that means, was the way the amateur athletes character was summed up. It meant among the sapient, well-meaning folk that his favourite path was by no means straight and level, but a very broad one, all down hill, with a facile descent to perdition.
     Seems almost incredible, does it not, to read this not-so-far-away history by modern lights? True all the same, though, as lots of old athletes will testify. Before the London Athletic Club brought athletics into good repute, of two equally well-qualified lads, applicants for a berth in a business house, one who had gained a little notice as a runner outside college and school races and that sort would scarcely hold a thousand to one chance against the non-athletically minded rival who, because he could or, at any rate, did not run races, must be the steadier and more respectable. The Club, by virtue of the powerful support it received from good City men, led the way towards abolishing this pernicious nonsense. and gradually made the road easy for successive decades of our generations who have in great measure to be thankful for the opportunities they now enjoy. It has been a grand popular educator whose work brought about a reform affecting hundreds of thousands.
     Mr Walter Moresby Chinnery’s career may be taken as an epitome of this alteration’s history. With great regret I heard of his death, in Mardi 1905, at his beautiful place in Surrey, Hatchford Park, some mile and a half from Church Cobham. A fine all-round man was W. M. Chinnery, and a power in the land of athletics, for which he did very much indeed. Dickens tells us how, when he was small, he used to look at Gadshill Place and promise himself that some day, when the ship came home whose keel was scarcely laid down as yet, he would buy the quaint old house, with a garden on the other side of the Dover road, and made up his mind to work hard to that end. How the boy’s hopes were realised all of us know. Often when passing Mr Moresby Chinnery’s lovely holding on the edge of the big heath that runs up to Wisley Hut on the Portsmouth road I have in fancy brought to it youngsters athletically inclined and told them how they might some day own such a charming country seat as this if they would be good athletes and work hard. Without a word of exaggeration, the great Stock Exchange House, Chinnery Brothers, was built on athletics, and the edifice given an easy start, thanks to their credit and renown, the one first as a runner, the other, H. J. Chinnery, with boxing as his forte, but both devoted to all sorts of hearty pastime. The brothers came out just at the right time, when Mrs Grundy’s husband, who was something in the City and had replicas by the tens of thousands all over England who thought just as he did (which was the same as Mrs Grundy), was about to be converted from profound distrust of pretty nearly all manly pastimes. “No good” were young men who practised these pastimes after they left school, unless it was while they were at college, for athlete and black sheep were in respectable people’s eyes pretty nearly exchangeable terms in those days.
     However, transition set in at the period alluded to, and instead of proficiency leading downwards, it shortly came to mean – given worth and business nous, as well as ability to row, run, walk, box, or what not – a remarkably fine introduction for getting on and up in the world. Such men as the Chinnerys were lent a mighty lift because of their celebrity as amateur exponents of pedestrianism and sparring. They went on and prospered. With their prosperity they came to be quoted by such as favoured sport and pastime as set-offs against the old foolish anti-athletic schools, and without doubt their success in the serious business of life brought emancipation for thousands of decent-class young men. Before the tide was turned, in the days when W. M. was a great runner and St James’ Hall was crammed on the occasions of H. J.’s boxing – he and Ned Donnelly used to have rattling fine bouts – you ran risk of getting a bad name if you devoted even your spare time to athletics. You must bear in mind too, that up to the period indicated, public racing was very much monopolised by professionals, and if a likely hand did not compete with them, he would get very few opportunities indeed of doing anything in the line.
     Prejudice once overcome against athletics and a few amateur clubs launched, things went with a rush, though the start was difficult to engineer, because, as I say, business society rated the coming man “with foot-racing in his head,” as I have heard the cult put, on about the same platform with the hanger-on at sparring booths. To illustrate this there can be no possible suggestion of disrespect for Mr Chinnery nor offence to the family in my repeating here my true little story of a happening to myself. Once upon a time I came across an old Mincing-lane gentleman who was seeing round the Ripley neighbourhood, and had come on there through Church Cobham, Hatchford, and along to Wisley. “The most beautiful part of all,” he said, “is” – and then he described the house and grounds which Mr Chinnery had recently purchased from Mr McKenzie’s executors. “Who lives in that lovely place?” he asked me. I told him Mr Chinnery – Mr Walter Moresby Chinnery. “Impossible,” he replied – “at least, unless there are two of the same name exactly, and that is little likely. Are you certain?” Certain I was indeed, and told him so. “Well,” the old gentleman said, “I suppose you must be right, but I can scarcely credit it now. Why, would you believe me that when Mr Chinnery was a youngster in our office he was always fidgeting on Saturdays to get through and away early to running grounds?”
     The Chinnerys, keen as they were while actively engaged in athletics, did much to forward pastime after they retired, and kept up connection with their old clubs: but while W. M.’s views on the benefits of such pastimes remained unchanged his brother’s altered a great deal. That came after they so generously donated some thousand pounds it was, I think, or more to encourage sculling among professionals, and, I regret to say, found the endowment of regattas for this purpose pretty much waste of good money. Still, it was a fine sporting act to put down so large a sum, and almost unique. Perhaps the race in which W. M. Chinnery was concerned which caused most excitement was his duel with John Scott, who I have seen described as a Cambridge man. The two ran in very different styles, Scott erect and Chinnery with his head forward. There was a very high wind on the afternoon of their mile race at Lillie Bridge, when half the Stock Exchange turned up and gambled freely between the two opponents, plenty going against the “House’s” representative. Against the breeze Chinnery made the better weather, but it was a fine race. Mr Scott was one of the few first-rate athletes hailing from Sussex till recently Shrubb, from Horsham, and the Brighton amateur walker, G. E. Larner, of the Brighton and County Harriers, gave the county’s credit a hoist Mr Scott has for a long time been abroad somewhere in America, but visiting the old country every four or five years. He was another who benefited greatly through being good at sports, a unit in a number who can be cited to show how the same qualities which tell in play score in work.
     Now, in connection with sport’s popularisation, and particularly with its international relations which constitute a departure without precedent, there are ugly tendencies which no one who loves the grand monosyllable and desires to see it kept clean and bright ought to ignore. Take our present extraordinary craze for planting our own defeats in the face of the world. Of course this is partly a revulsion from the too self-satisfied old-time sentiments – an inevitable swing of the pendulum: and I affirmed full faith in that remorseless mensurator’s seeing everything come to its proper level sooner or later. All the booming in the world cannot secure permanent celebrity, which is more like notoriety beyond the people’s own assessment of merit and importance. Still, time is required to strike average, and waiting for the right time to come we may see incalculable harm done. Here we are, through what ought to be our teachers and leaders – the Press – holding ourselves as being held up to the world as exactly the sort we used to quote as our very Antipodes. John Bull at bottom always cherished a mighty good opinion of himself and never showed his bumptiousness more offensively than when he went about, as we may put it, clothed in the pride which apes humility, labelling himself, as it were, “Not for exhibition,” and managing to convey a clear hint that the reason he stood out was because he was sure to take all the prizes if he did go in for the show. All the same, if he had not so much of the virtue he assumed so ostentatiously, he did make out to be modest. Where is our modesty now? Friends, readers, and fellow-citizens, let me ask you a little question, you good sorts. Did you ever in your lives see or hear of such conduct as ours was (on paper) during that terribly serious international contest between England and her South African enemies? I get into the way of reading everything through sporting spectacles, and not a bad way either, I fancy. Let us consider the matter that way. How did – good gracious me, how did we not go on while England was playing the great game of war in Africa? A large proportion of our Press, especially the “contents bill” and “headings” departments, carried themselves like the scummiest of the prize-ring crowd. Never did I think to see the days when, with a match not half over, our corner – the presumably respectable partisanship – would screech and yell and call down the opposition because a bit of a lead was gained, or blackguard its own representatives if they got a setting back. There it was, though, just on all fours with the worst behaviour of a fighting mob. We, through our self-constituted mouthpieces, displayed most excruciatingly bad form. And, mind you, all the while the people themselves were right enough. Dear, dear! how would you, dear reader, like to be in the company of the Boer contingent now in England if present at a poster exhibition giving the history of the Transvaal War as indicated through those advertisements and the daily set-forth headlines. Blush! – blush is no word for it. The other side were worse? Perhaps they were; if so, they must have been awfully bad indeed; and what they did makes no excuse for us, who, at any rate, ought, as “a nation of sportsmen,” to have known better than to make ourselves out such bad winners and worse losers as, on paper, we did. On paper, you say: our army lost and won in a real sporting spirit. True for you; there would indeed be something rotten in the state of Britain otherwise; but the stay-at-home ought to have behaved better. The form, or want of it, was shocking; and in the handy cant phrase, there was too much of it altogether.
     Too much! We are living in an atmosphere of too muchness, rendering sport often unwholesome – almost unwelcome – and we are bound to suffer accordingly. Over and over again the Referee has pointed out how international competition may carry far more harm than good, because of imported unnatural excitement and interest putting games on much too consequential a platform. We and our friends who engage with and against us need to be left alone a little more. Given less interference, the latent risk, now pretty patent, of costly differences arising through what are after all only trivial disagreements might be put aside. As it is, with every small hitch fully advertised and magnified and fomented to a degree persuading actors concerned that a trumpery debatable point must be of the most serious moment, real danger stares us in the face of most weighty troubles arising sooner or later. I have studied the situation and possibilities for years, and cannot get away from this conclusion. At home, while we play among ourselves, trouble is ahead because some sport has developed to unwieldy dimensions. Too much money is in it, and too much money required to carry on many of our pastimes, or games counted as such – that is to say, mere amusements. We will not talk about them now; I am looking at the Imperial aspect – a very unpleasant, unpromising one.
     You see, I have again and again expressed somewhat unpopular sentiments of most pronounced Chauvinist type on International athletic competition and altruism. Great, glorious, and all the rest of it do some folk call such proceedings as our men going abroad to coach aliens in our sports and pastimes. “The true sporting spirit illustrated by pure-minded sportsmen,” this kind of suicidal mania is termed. Coach them, what for? We want to beat all comers so long as we can. Our games are good, jolly good, in their way, and not the least of their merits is the character they lend us quite incidentally for excelling over other nations as athletes, while perhaps – most likely, in fact – we owed our high standard of excellence in comparison with others to our going in for pastimes to which those others are strangers. Is it wise policy, then, to gratuitously be at pains and expense of various kinds in educating foreigners into form, warranting the heretical faith in their being man for man as good as we are – or a bit better?
     Pardon me, readers, for growing a trifle warm once I start preaching from the text which at one time and another we have discussed, but what I say wants saying. Now and then I grow very sore and feel almost equal to doing something desperate watching us Britishers standing idly by or, as frequently happens, paying, actually paying freely to have all manner of aliens exploited at our folks’ expense. Hundreds, thousands of pounds, I might say, have we subscribed in the last few years to inform all the world that any mortal import – Rooshun, Turk or Greek, or Prooshun, any nationality will do that a True Born Englishman ought not to be tempted to belong to – is too good for Johnny Bull. That is the new patriotic line of sport, with altruism a sweet decorous thing, and proper pride in your country of no account at all. Dear, dear! how did we, in our Rule, Britannia, Britannia-rules-the-waves, old-time, cock-of-the walk mood, use to handicap the foreign nations! Modestly enough, we lumped two skinny Frenchmen and one Portugee, and told everybody that one jolly Englishman can lick ‘em all three. That was about the size of it. And now our people hire themselves out to let alien wrestlers beat them at so much per night or day till foreigners must have pretty well wiped us off the map, as efficients in strongmannism, and by consequence as individuals of importance, militarily speaking. Hideously, repulsively wicked is the idea of English wrestlers making a trade of acting as foils to travelling showmen from abroad. And when the same kind of tradesmen – all of them English champions, of course, on the bills – go touring in other lands, wrestling chopping-blocks for star artistes, when – well, when I see what goes on I feel mighty mean.
     Think of the moral force conveyed in these pitiful exhibitions. Could a better, surer way to lower our athletic and all other status in the eyes of nations be devised than this? Fancy William the Masterful letting Teutons perform at so much a night in alleged trials of strength, their side of the contract lying in being beaten to order by, say, French or Russian trained star performers! Or just try to imagine that potentate smiling on Germans so keen on a sport in which the Fatherland stood out by itself that they must compass sea and land to give away the tricks of the trade. What rivals can take we can’t help going out of our hands; but give! I am a bad sportsman – at least, so I must be if some of the prominent amateurs are built the right way. Still I see my side of the argument, and honestly I wouldn’t set any man or company right who might be going a longer way than was necessary round to meet my representatives. Not by any means would I tell him or them wrong if asked the best way to go, but of my own motive not an inch would I save for the opposition.
     Another undesirable symptom is the exploitation of sport for wholly alien – not to put too fine a point upon it, trade – purposes; to which international competitions seem peculiarly liable; and which would seem by definition to take such entirely out of the category of genuine sport. The English-American sailing-matches make a shining light of example and warning in this direction. I could take no interest in them. Beyond that I want our side to win always, and never do subscribe to the sentiment and toast, “Let the best win,” except on a certain understanding, I never cared a twopenny damn which took the Cup or which got most out of an unhealthy struggle overloaded with advertisement. This business is just the very exact spit, cut, clip, sample, specimen, or what you please to call it, of the realisation of my idea of sport gone wrong. Such nasty, unwholesome, epidemic, overdone, feverish, artificially-manufactured excitement, miscalled enthusiasm, is good for nobody except those who roll logs and get their ends served. To me the affair has the wrong ring, being an open bid for notoriety, with a cash value hanging to it – such latter consideration to be made, with a little suggestion and encouragement, the main motive of such enterprise, and sport merely a necessary vehicle. Taken at its very best, and putting the “performers” out of calculation, such fireworky high-pressure is no good to sport, and never was. In most walks of life a boom is followed by a slump – almost surely if the former is procured, and mostly with certainty if evolved from natural conditions, also, in our pastimes always. We of the Referee do not admire this brand of commercial sport, and booms in pastime make us uneasy because they are not good for the community at large. Now, there is commercial sport, also some quite other under the same heading, and with the institution’s welfare at heart one can welcome some of moderate dimensions while objecting to greater. Let me make an example. The practice of tradesmen donating prizes of their wares for local athletic sports makes for good. First, because of the committee being aided so materially to attract competition; again, since the donors are almost bound to come to take interest in the meetings, no matter how they (the givers) began, and further on account of the small benefactors’ favourable attitude encouraging certain classes. So far so good. Sport comes first – though other interests are served, they do not overlay it. But when you find meetings got up entirely by one firm or person, or racing conducted on like lines, you, while you can’t counsel abstention to those who might benefit from going in for the prizes, do not sympathise with the promoters as sportsmen, though free to admire their business perspicacity.
     What riles me is the forcing an estimable pastime into carrying unduly weighty issues. Apart from the “ad.” features, too much is made of the business, and that latter comes to be the word where amusement used to fit exactly. I am a stickler for rules to save chance of disagreement, and hard-and-fast observance of the code, whatever it may be; but due regard for regulations need not involve the sort of suspicious, seeing-that-you-are-not-bested spirit in which, according to reports, each owner’s dealings with his craft were watched.
     An old-fashioned yachtsman would probably have said, under like conditions, “If we are to be as particular as all that, I do not care to bother about the game.” I never have been quite able to express in words the feeling I have about these businesses. When you do wet-blanketing, as I seem to do now, it appears that you kick against pastime that ought to enlist your sympathies. The feeling I have anent the yacht race has been stirring in me for a long while about other competitions, and I do not know how to record it on paper. I lament what ought to rejoice a fervent lover of all sport, and that is the hold it takes on what I beg to call, with all hope of avoiding giving offence, outsiders – people who are not concerned in the battles save by way of clannishness or patriotism. I cannot write as I would wish. I cannot even rehearse satisfactory formula to myself. At each turn I can see myself challenged and beaten by an objector who may quite legitimately pin me down to a categorical statement All the same, the faith that is in me says that somehow much of international sporting competition is a mistake, a dreadful mistake, and that the enormous growth of home pastimes is, in a way, unhealthy. Such a lot of party feeling is imported into games from those who are only partisans, and who invariably take the place of the oft-quoted barrister who, holding a weak brief, abuses opposing counsel, only here both lots – the outside bearers-up for plaintiff and defendant – play the same way. The issues of international sport are made too big, and the loser’s corner are too partisan and too bitter. The principals seldom make the bother. But bother there too often is. The trouble comes from the crowd, who, without practical knowledge make a personal matter to themselves of alleged unfairness.
     The long and the short of it is, that this “Mammoth” sort of race does not appeal to me as would a match between a couple of Thames sailing club’s little yachts, not to mention for a moment a set-to between a couple of row-boats. It strikes me as being too artificial, and not redeemed by the party most concerned being an absolutely active factor in the fighting. If you ask me whether I object to builders and riggers and sailmakers and all getting higher and higher in the development of their arts and crafts, what can I answer but “No.” What have I to say against the best part of a hundred picked mariners being engaged to do the laborious part of navigating a craft which, if she were a cargo-carrier, would be worked by about three men and a boy? What have I to say? Nothing, absolutely nothing. Cross-examined as to whether I hold with rich men spending their money on this sort of business, I must reply that it is calculated to do many people good. Do I allege any suspicion of the unsportsmanlike in making ships faster in themselves and sailing them to the greatest advantage. How should I? You might make out a long schedule of examining queries to which I must return answers always cutting the ground from under my feet and clearing away the platform on which I stand. And yet I, though quite willing to be convinced, or to convince myself, can’t help being of the same opinion still, just as I am about cycle racing.
     There is such a confounded lot of artificiality in it. In the old days I would go to much trouble to assist at cycle racing, but now I would scarcely cross the road to look on at a championship with a result depending more on the pacing than the principals’ pedalling. I was reminded of some of these through seeing notices of the Keen testimonial now being organised. His were the good times of cycle racing. We have gradually gone back since Keen and Cooper were in their (racing) prime, and I do not for a moment expect that we shall ever get back again. As the times have been reduced, so has the tone. Can professional cycle racing ever regain its popularity? I do not think we can hope to see such gates as were taken in the Midlands – at the Old Molyneux Grounds, Wolverhampton, for instance, the manor house domain now mostly appropriated by the football Wolves. Thousands and thousands would gather there, and all well-behaved, too. A wonderfully fine spectacle they made ranged on the terrace and about the hillside. At first sight I took a great fancy to the professional cyclists of those days. They must strike one as mostly men of superior gifts, not only as athletes devoted to this particular branch, but with an inborn turn for mechanics, and frequently the inventive faculty strong in them as well. There was the thoughtful look of the eye and the peculiar form and action of the hand you may note in clever people of the engineering order, for instance. Many of them got on wonderfully as manufacturers after the amateur crowd came and spoilt professionalism as a profession. Most were bound to do so, because they started on a booming business with inner knowledge of the manufacture of the article and its user’s requirement. Some, as I say, did well; some were unlucky. John Keen was one of those who did not take their good luck when it came their way. He never lost his friends, but he didn’t make money.
     John Keen – “Happy Jack” – I was pleased to number among my friends. He was a fine athlete in his line, an amiable, good fellow, plucky and clever, a born mechanic, who, had fate moulded his lot so as to throw him into the company of a hard-headed business partner, strong in the qualities in which John was weak, might have been a rich man indeed. A beautiful rider Keen was in the earlier era of cycle racing, and certainly as knowledgeable in the art and mystery of construction as contemporaries who, taking fortune at the flood, ran up with it to fortune, while he, somehow, seemed to steer only into slack water and eddies, and was to great extent left. A student in physiognomy must see in Keen the peculiar traits and tricks of feature and hand marking the inventive faculty which Charles Dickens caught so perfectly to picture Doyce of Doyce and Clennam, in “Little Dorrit.” What Papa Meagles made Mr Doyce out to be – i.e. necessarily an indifferent man of the world and business, because he happened to be an inventor – might have been written word for word as a faithful letter-portrait of my friend, who used to dispute with Fred Cooper for the cycling championship. That sort of racing appeal to me far more than does its succeeding developments. The man did the racing then, before banked tracks and pacing were introduced, and the public found the sport far more attractive than they have since – at least, so it seems to me.
     In Keen’s palmy days occurred some of the most wonderful athletes to be cited from any generation, and all with him to be associated with the Surbiton district Keen himself was what country folk call careful in his habits, and went to work on lines you would say were best calculated to enable a racer to do himself full justice. But with the others – Cortis, W. G. George, and Fred Elborough, whom professors best qualified to judge declare to be the finest runner at his distances that ever might have been, if only he would have trained, accomplished wonderful feats, living in style to break the heart of a professional trainer – who can say whether their happy-go-lucky methods suited them better than following conventional systems. George will forgive me for mentioning him in this way – what I write only goes to prove how marvellous a runner he was – did once consent to put himself in expert hands, though he mixed it a bit History tells the result The world has not yet produced the equal of his mile record. Maybe his 4 minutes 12½ sec., set up at Lillie Bridge in the memorable match against Cummings, may be pegged back. Bests do get cut as more water flows under the bridges, but George’s has stood so far, and will need a power of beating. Splendid as it was, he then failed by a good bit to run up to his trial form, which I believe made him do a mile in some 4 minutes 9 sec. In the Referee office is a tradition that George would not have gone on to make his classical performance so brilliant as it was but for our good confrere, whose loss we still mourn, the big-hearted all-round sportsman, Mr H. B. Bromhead, who ran up to the Worcester champion (who was easing after Cummings stopped, played out) and told him how little more he had to do to cut world’s record.
     Some few years ago, reading a report of International inter-‘Varsity sports, I came across the following somewhat remarkable passage. “It was a pity that the grounds were not more private, as several hundred people saw the sports from outside without paying a sou.” Now if one, who by virtue of position is quite the opposite of the pro., said, “Fortunately for a great many who (probably) could not afford to pay, several hundreds saw the sports from outside, and the performers were very pleased to be able to give them a treat gratis,” I could go with him. I will be hanged if I can see where an amateur ought to grieve because outsiders got some sort of a view for nothing. My experience is that almost always the folk who lay themselves out to go on the cheap would be put to it considerably if no mean between Hobson’s choice and evasion of toll were impossible, and my notion of amateurism as a worthy condition would include the gentlemen’s being glad to find poorer brethren in the fun somehow. Amateurs and others with a keen eye to gate often worry themselves quite unnecessarily. By no means does it follow that because you plug up a peephole in the fence the peepers will consequently pay to go inside. They get something for nothing, those who must be satisfied with “seeing the ‘oofs of the ‘orses,” or “words to the effect,” under the circus’s canvas. Not being able to get crumb they go for the crusts, but would much prefer being well enough off to take crumb at the market price.

 

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