How I enraged xenophobes, Christians and devotees of both rugby codes

It is not an easy trick to write a newspaper column and simultaneously open a can of worms, but I appear to have pulled it off with my reflections a week ago on Peter Howard, captain of the England rugby union team in 1931, who was engaged by Oswald Mosley to crack heads, when it was deemed necessary, as leader of a bunch known as Mosley's Biff Boys.

It is not an easy trick to write a newspaper column and simultaneously open a can of worms, but I appear to have pulled it off with my reflections a week ago on Peter Howard, captain of the England rugby union team in 1931, who was engaged by Oswald Mosley to crack heads, when it was deemed necessary, as leader of a bunch known as Mosley's Biff Boys.

A barrage of e-mails compels me to return to the subject; after all, I can't think of any previous occasion when in fewer than 800 words I have provoked raging xenophobes (how odd that they read The Independent), committed Christians (who took issue with my description of Howard's beloved Oxford Group, which became Moral Rearmament), fans of rugby union and devotees of rugby league, into writing letters to me ranging from the calmly informative to the offensively irate.

A Mr Bond went at me hammer and tongs for criticising Howard without setting his support for Mosley in some historical context. When he'd stopped condemning me as "disgraceful" and "contemptible", and wondering why I hadn't similarly exposed some Irish rugby star who perchance supported the IRA, he more temperately explained that "right-wing ideas were very popular among many members of the Establishment as a way to defend the country against Socialist revolution." Which is true, but still it seemed worthy of comment, I replied, that an England rugby union captain led Mosley's Biff Boys. And presumably it was possible to swing to the right without swinging with the right.

Most interesting of all were those letters from rugby league fundamentalists who said it did not surprise them in the least that an England rugby union captain should have joined Mosley. Several of them quoted George Orwell, although it is also said to have been Philip Toynbee, who wryly observed that a bomb placed under the West Stand at Twickenham would set back the cause of British fascism by 50 years. A larger number cited South African rugby union in the age of apartheid, and French rugby union during the Vichy regime, as further examples of the sport's tainted record in what might rather provocatively be termed human rights.

I was told that, to further acquaint myself with the history of rugby in Vichy France, I should read a book called The Forbidden Game, by Mike Rylance. I contacted Rylance himself. He told me about the campaign known as Refaire l'Unité du Rugby Français, which in 1940 resulted in the Vichy minister for sport, the former Wimbledon singles champion Jean Borotra, effectively signing rugby league's death warrant for the duration of the Second World War. To this day it has not recovered its pre-war popularity, which eclipsed that of rugby union.

The professionalism of rugby à treize was considered ethically unsound by the Vichy French, although of more significance, Rylance explained, was simply that many collaborationists in positions of power were union men, not least Colonel Pascot, Borotra's deputy and later his successor, who had been an international in the 15-man game and resented the fact that it was on its uppers while rugby league was thriving. So rugby à treize was declared illegal, and its assets, including its Paris headquarters, were seized. It recovered sufficiently to win a Test series against the mighty Australians, in Australia, in 1951. But the revival was short-lived, and efforts continue to force the French rugby union to make reparations.

To return to the late Peter Howard, I was mildly troubled, having rather questioned his character and implied that he fought for Franco (which he did not), to discover that his son is the eminent Times columnist Philip Howard, himself the father of a guy I was friendly with at university. I duly talked to Philip, who was the soul of kindness and clearly feels deep ambivalence about Peter and his convictions. He did tell me, however, his father had been born with a disability, a withered left leg, which in his international rugby career he used to conceal with copious bandaging. But once, when he was running in an English try at Cardiff Arms Park, the bandaging came undone and, according to Philip, "was flying behind him like a Jack Russell chasing him", much to the crowd's delight.

It was good to get a more rounded portrait of a somewhat flawed hero of English rugby union. I hope the worms can now be considered back in the can.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

The young are the new poor

Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

Greens on the march

‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

Through the stories of his accusers
Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

The Meaning of Mongol

Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible