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Saturday, 10 July 2010

Arnold Bennett: The Religion of Football


File:Teddy Davison in 1913.jpg

Teddy Davison of Sheffield Wednesday in League match against Liverpool, 4 October 1913: photographer unknown

We went on the Grand Stand, which was packed with men whose eyes were fixed, with an unconscious but intense effort, on a common object. Among the men were a few women in furs and wraps, equally absorbed. Nobody took any notice of us as we insinuated our way up a rickety flight of wooden stairs, but when by misadventure we grazed a human being the elbow of that being shoved itself automatically and fiercely outwards, to repel. I had an impression of hats, caps, and woolly overcoats stretched in long parallel lines, and of grimy raw planks everywhere presenting possibly dangerous splinters, save where use had worn them into smooth shininess. Then gradually I became aware of the vast field, which was more brown than green. Around the field was a wide border of infinitesimal hats and pale faces, rising in tiers, and beyond this border fences, hoardings, chimneys, furnaces, gasometers, telegraph-poles, houses, and dead trees. And here and there, perched in strange perilous places, even high up towards the sombre sky, were more human beings clinging. On the field itself, at one end of it, were a scattered handful of doll-like figures, motionless; some had white bodies, others red; and three were in black; all were so small and so far off that they seemed to be mere unimportant casual incidents in whatever recondite affair it was that was proceeding. Then a whistle shrieked, and all these figures began simultaneously to move, and then I saw a ball in the air. An obscure, uneasy murmuring rose from the immense multitude like an invisible but audible vapour. The next instant the vapour had condensed into a sudden shout. Now I saw the ball rolling solitary in the middle of the field, and a single red doll racing towards it; at one end was a confused group of red and white, and at the other two white dolls, rather lonely in the expanse. The single red doll overtook the ball and scudded along with it at his twinkling toes. A great voice behind me bellowed with an incredible volume of sound:

"Now, Jos!"

And another voice, further away, bellowed:

"Now, Jos!"

And still more distantly the grim warning shot forth from the crowd:

"Now, Jos! Now, Jos!"

The nearer of the white dolls, as the red one approached, sprang forward. I could see a leg. And the ball was flying back in a magnificent curve into the skies; it passed out of my sight, and then I heard a bump on the slates of the roof of the grand stand, and it fell among the crowd in the stand-enclosure. But almost before the flight of the ball had commenced, a terrific roar of relief had rolled formidably round the field, and out of that roar, like rockets out of thick smoke, burst acutely ecstatic cries of adoration:

"Bravo, Jos!"

"Good old Jos!"

The leg had evidently been Jos's leg. The nearer of these two white dolls must be Jos, darling of fifteen thousand frenzied people.

Stirling punched a neighbour in the side to attract his attention.

"What's the score?" he demanded of the neighbour, who scowled and then grinned.

"Two—one—agen uz!" The other growled.

"It'll take our b——s all their time to draw. They're playing a man short."


"No! Referee ordered him off for rough play."

Several spectators began to explain, passionately, furiously, that the referee's action was utterly bereft of common sense and justice; and I gathered that a less gentlemanly crowd would undoubtedly have lynched the referee. The explanations died down, and everybody except me resumed his fierce watch on the field.

I was recalled from the exercise of a vague curiosity upon the set, anxious faces around me by a crashing, whooping cheer which in volume and sincerity of joy surpassed all noises in my experience. This massive cheer reverberated round the field like the echoes of a battleship's broadside in a fiord. But it was human, and therefore more terrible than guns. I instinctively thought: "If such are the symptoms of pleasure, what must be the symptoms of pain or disappointment?" Simultaneously with the expulsion of the unique noise the expression of the faces changed. Eyes sparkled; teeth became prominent in enormous, uncontrolled smiles. Ferocious satisfaction had to find vent in ferocious gestures, wreaked either upon dead wood or upon the living tissues of fellow-creatures. The gentle, mannerly sound of hand-clapping was a kind of light froth on the surface of the billowy sea of heartfelt applause. The host of the fifteen thousand might have just had their lives saved, or their children snatched from destruction and their wives from dishonour; they might have been preserved from bankruptcy, starvation, prison, torture; they might have been rewarding with their impassioned worship a band of national heroes. But it was not so. All that had happened was that the ball had rolled into the net of the Manchester Rovers' goal. Knype had drawn level.

File:Somervell Park, Cambuslang.jpg

Somervell Park football ground, home of Cambuslang Rangers, Cambuslang, Scotland: photo by paul c, 2003

File:Loch Park, New Cumnock.jpg

Loch Park football ground, home of Glenafton Athletic, New Cumnock, Scotland: photo by paul c, 2003

Arnold Bennett: from The Matador of the Five Towns, 1912


leigh tuplin said...

Wonderful! :) and those two photographs bring it all back.

TC said...


A pleasure to hear that. I know you've been there (so to speak).

Curtis Roberts said...

I enjoyed finally reading (rather than reading about) some Arnold Bennett. The part about being elbowed in the ribs while climbing to your seat really "reached" me, as did the fantastic photo of Teddy Davison.

TC said...


Ah, Teddy Davison of Sheffield Wednesday, a man for all reasons.

Bennett was on the prescribed list in my English Honours curriculum so for me there was then a bit of the "necessary" in the assignment, which sometimes retards pleasure. But the "set" book was The Old Wives Tale, which I recall as being pretty good. And the Clayhanger series also, which I remember less well.

His area of subject was often the "Five Towns", representing the region where he grew up, the Potteries district of Staffordshire (he was a solicitor's son by the way). There were in fact Six Towns, later amalgamated into one as Stoke-on-Trent. "Knype" here = Stoke.

He lived in Paris a while and worshipped Maupassant his principal influence.

Back in London his ability to get and execute commercial work made him the butt of derision from the Bloomsbury set esp. big bad V Woolf as well as from the Modernists whose opinions followed Pound's. Pound ridiculed Wells, Shaw and Bennett as "the respectable & the middle generation," and called AB "nickle cash-register Bennett". The cynical advice proferred upon the narrator of "Mr. Nixon" in Hugh Selwyn Mauberly reflects EP's contempt.

But the older I get the more I'm open to understanding there are many kinds of good, and I really like The Matador of the Five Towns, extracting from which at greater length was a strong temptation. I cut this passage off just before the hero, Jos, is involved in a bit of heavy contact that results in a fracture. I thought of that further passage all during the savage shin-kicking administered by the Dutch to the superior Spanish yesterday.

Curtis Roberts said...

I was interested to learn about Bennett and the "Five Towns" (which were really six towns). I grew up in a place on Long Island called Lawrence, in an area known as the "Five Towns". I wonder whether the name had anything to do with Bennett's popular series of novels? It's a possibility; the part of Lawrence I grew up in was adjacent to our very own Isle Of Wight and Victorian names abounded. Interestingly, we also had "functional" sixth town (Atlantic Beach) that was never accorded "Five Towns" status, such as it was.

TC said...


It's an interesting speculation: a Long Island real estate-developing Arnold Bennett fan. Given Pound's characterization of "nickle cash-register Bennett", I suppose it fits. Yet then again... the only Bennett I ever heard of making much of a splash back in the American Century was Tony.