Bloomsbury's pretty hardback facsimiles of these "timeless" Edwardian health and fitness guides, Swimming, Boxing and Training, are replete with line drawings of men with twiddly moustaches in knickerbockers and original ads at the front and rear for Bovril and Fry's Cocoa ("No better food for athletes"). Originally published just before the First World War they are not, I venture, being reissued because they're "timeless", but because they're anything but. We're expected, I suppose, to snigger affectionately and smugly at their proto-Pythonesque qualities. Well, I certainly did.
Who could resist Montague A Holbein, author of Swimming, opining: "I have often jumped in the water attired in an old lounge suit and swam until tired in the heavy dragging weight. Excellent practice may be had, too, in swimming across a narrow stream with a small boy on one's shoulders." (He neglects to mention whether you should remove the lounge suit for this.)
Or A J Newton, the author of Boxing, waxing patriotic and idiotic: "As a race, the British in particular have bred into the very bone of them independent, and hence on occasion pugilistic, determination... A native of southern Europe in excitement or dispute flies to his knife or dagger. The wild westerner grips his six-shooter, but the Britisher, wherever you may find him, is handy with his fists in an emergency..."
Or Harry Andrews, author of Training, dispensing charmingly Woosterish advice: "I find champagne is practically the only wine of genuine use to the athlete" - well, absolutely, old chap. "About 25 minutes before the finish, half a sponge-cake soaked in champagne, followed five minutes later by a third of a tumblerful of the wine, will, I consider, enable a man to get every ounce out of himself..."
The reason all this is so endearingly silly is partly because much of the advice now appears so cranky (in much the same way that the advice featured in this month's Men's Fitness is obsolete by the next issue), and partly because the class system evoked so assuredly is equally outmoded. These authors all appear to assume that sport is a pastime for champagne-drinking, lounge-suit wearing professionally amateurish gentlemen. Although targeted at middle-class and skilled working-class readers, the books reek of the changing rooms of Eton and Winchester. That, after all, was what "sport" meant back then. In our age of mass rather than genteel leisure, where sport has become both big business and technocratic religion, it all seems so "hilariously" innocent.
We really pride ourselves on our superior knowledge compared to the Edwardians, in the matter of sex. Hence the loudest sniggering arises when we happen across Mr Andrews confiding in Training that he has come to the conclusion that the married state is not the best for an athlete, and that "in all cases continence is essential to success."
He acknowledges that all this celibate vigour might lead to "a tendency to involuntary losses during sleep", but not to worry, he has devised an ingenious solution: "Sew a cotton reel on to the centre of the back of the nightshirt or pyjamas. This will cause them to sleep always on their side, and rouse them with timely warning, if they should turn unconsciously upon their back, as is always the case when the discomfort we are guarding against arises..." Personally, I think chastity and cotton reels in the back are still excellent ideas - and every Premier League footballer should be made to follow them. More sublimation and fewer roastings would do them a power of good. Who cares whether it improves their game or not?
Nonetheless, I'm very much a child of my sexualised age, an age in which men aren't allowed the luxury of wet dreams, since nothing about sex must be unconscious; an age in which sport has become a branch of pornography. So I can't quite stop myself wondering if Andrews's proscription of marriage and wet dreams had something to do with his passion for massage. He recommends a good hard rubbing after sport, before sport, several times a day. He himself is an enthusiastic practitioner of it: "I have no words of praise strong enough to convey my appreciation of what it does for a man." Fnarr!
But my inner Finbarr Saunders has a day out when, writing about male physiques and their relationship to athletic prowess, he declares: "I have had some very fine-shaped ones under me, which, try how I might, I could never get anything out of." I think I need a cold tub followed by a severe rubbing with a rough Turkish towel.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies