Book: The teenage chain-gangs of Eton

MANLY AND MUSCULAR DIVERSIONS: Public Schools and the Nineteeth Century Sporting Revival by Tony Money, Duckworth pounds 18.95
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In 1240, 60 knights died in battle near Cologne. This was not part of a long campaign in a medieval war but a mock-skirmish with fellow countrymen. They were not kebabbed on the sharp end of each others' lances: weapons used in the tournament were blunted. The poor souls were suffocated from being de-horsed and tumbling on top of each other.

These Knights of the Blunted Lances were neither English nor public schoolboys but they would have fitted happily into the English public school system. Terry Jones and Michael Palin were only just joking in their "Ripping Yarn" which described a "School Hop" (that's hop as in one-legged) from which no contestant had ever returned alive. You could always recognise the sporting heroes at my school: not necessarily because they were intellectually challenged but because they were shrouded in bandages and plaster of Paris like extras in The Mummy's Curse.

The cover of Manly and Muscular Diversions is decorated with what at first sight looks like photographs of teenage, whites-only chain-gangs, some of whom are actually clad in striped pyjamas. The book celebrates the centuries of flannelled fools, rugger buggers and oikish oarsmen. Is the title intended as a Pythonesque jest? Probably not. Tony Money is billed as the "Archivist" of Radley College, an athletic public school, and his work is dedicated to "all colleagues ... who on pitch, court [and] river have devoted so much time, energy and enthusiasm in the service of physical education and good sportsmanship."

No one can object to good, healthy sportsmen (and, presumably, sportswomen). But one needed to blow the whistle when an oarsman was automatically admitted to the Oxbridge college. I narrowly survived an admissions policy which, according to mythology, involved not an exam paper but a rugby ball chucked at the applicant by the Senior Tutor; if you caught it, you got a place - and a scholarship if you drop-kicked it into the wastepaper basket.

The author mentions that in the first half of this century an Oxbridge Blue could walk into a good job in the Empire. The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan was referred to as "a country of Blacks ruled by Blues." This does not seem to bother him particularly. He might question the justice of the arrangement if he imagined a world in which the cricket boot was on the other foot: Britain as a subservient nation of the Egyptian Empire and the Radley region governed by a Sudanese opening batsman.

Yet Manly and Muscular Diversions is more than an Old Boys magazine writ large. It traces the teachers' attitude to sport over the centuries, from veto to reluctant acceptance, to adoption as a crucial part of the curriculum. It delves back into the dim past when the world had to muddle along without the leadership of the public schools. A statute of Henry V inflicted a swingeing fourpenny fine on anyone playing footer instead of practising the archery skills, which would - a moot point, I should have thought - inflict more damage on the hostile French.

There is some interesting raw material here. Unfortunately Mr Money has dribbled around with it, his scrum has collapsed and the ball has trickled into touch. What the subject now needs is an author who can pick up his fascinating research and charge across the line. Preferably someone who gets out of bounds more and is aware of the world that lies beyond the beaks' common room. For a start, the passages quoted here would gain from severe pruning. Some amount to little more than "Eton rowed manfully", writ long. The illustrations, though, have a charm of their own. My favourite shows an Eton-Radley match in a sport which, since no teams are actually visible, can only be guessed at. The line drawing shows merely the spectators. These reveal, by their wild enthusiasm, that someone must be in some sort of pain.

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