A very brief history of recreation in the modern world

Historians have not always treated recreation very seriously as a topic of inquiry but it has always mattered to individuals in the modern world. Work may structure their day but play makes it worthwhile. Whether a song, a film, a game, a drink or even sex, recreation mattered and matters to people. These were not trivial asides; they were integral parts of people’s daily experience and influenced their outlooks on and understandings of the world they lived in. Yet, both the form and meaning of recreation was structured by the wider social and economic contours of life.

Eighteenth and nineteenth centuries

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, modern recreation was shaped by the experience of industrialization. Efficient production demanded that time be organised and segmented. This meant that recreation too became regimented and bound by time, both hindering and enabling play. Long festivals and festivities went into decline with the coming of industry but new opportunities opened up in the time that was designated for recreation, especially on Saturdays, a day which offered escape from work before the more subdued hiatus of the Sabbath. Furthermore, modern industrial conditions brought rising incomes for the working and middle classes, enabling people to purchase pleasure in their spare time. By the late nineteenth century, people in industrial countries were spending money on tobacco, alcohol, gambling, sport, confectionary, and even holidays.

Of course, the boundaries between work and recreation were never impermeable. People talked, joked and even played while at work, and outside work domestic, family and religious chores and duties could lack the fun that should characterize play. Furthermore, as leisure itself was commercialized to take advantage of the rising demand, one person’s recreation became another’s employment. Similarly, developments like bicycling, which gained huge popularity at the very end of nineteenth century, served as both a means of travel for work and pleasure.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, industrialization may have changed the patterns of play in those communities that underwent it, but there was much continuity in its forms. The pleasures of drink and the escapism of drunkenness were as popular after the industrial revolution as they were before it. Music, dancing and sports were also integral parts of popular culture in both the premodern and the modern worlds. But modernization was bringing rationalization and organization, and it increasingly became the norm for such older collective but informal recreational traditions to be organized into clubs and societies. Competitions and rules became more formalized and the pursuit of pleasure justified by arguments for its moral and physical worth. Nowhere was this is clearer than in the world of sport, where, led by the British and to a lesser extent the French, new rules, competitions, and traditions were established from the late nineteenth century. Sports became part of the building of the character and physique of young men, a tool to ensure national survival in the midst of international tensions and ideas of social Darwinism. The economic and political patterns of a world of empires also took sports across the globe, introducing them to non-industrial territories like India, where they quickly gained a local following, although not always in the spirit or form that their imperial masters had intended.

The rationalization of play was important as recreation increasingly became a contested political and moral space in the industrializing world. Drink had long since attracted religious oppositions but as religion itself was undermined by the spread of education, science and recreation, churches turned their attention to other pastimes that were thought to distract hearts and minds from God. In Catholic countries in particular the influence of the church was strong and this hindered the development of some modern forms of recreation such as formalized gambling. Recreation was also under attack from the growth of rational and scientific thinking that thought time and effort should only be employed on matters that were beneficial to the mind, body and community. Thus while the arts were widely deemed rational recreation, more populist pleasures were not, particularly when there were undertones of violence or debauchery. This was evident in the gradual growth in distaste for pastimes that involved cruelty to animals. However, precise attitudes towards what was socially acceptable obviously varied across cultures, as can be seen in the survival of the bullfight as a popular form of entertainment in Spain nearly two centuries after similar pastimes were outlawed in Britain.

The twentieth century

By the twentieth century technological developments were broadening the range and possibilities of recreation. The most significant invention in the field of recreation was the cinema, an international medium that literally changed the way people saw the world. In the early twentieth century, it opened up horizons and imaginations and had a profound effect on people individually and collectively; lives became less drab, wars and threats overseas seemed more real. It also began the trend of the Americanization of global popular culture and created global stars like Charlie Chaplin. The best films was not all American as, say, the great silent pictures of Weimar Germany or the sound films of 1930s France showed, but, as technologies got bigger and more expensive, it was increasingly difficult for other nations to produce films of the scale, spectacle and sheer impact of Hollywood.

Sport was another global phenomenon. Soccer, in particular, became an obsession that transcended national boundaries, although it was often utilized as a symbol of national and political pride, not least by the totalitarian regimes of left and right. The Olympic Games too became associated with deliberate and incidental exhibitions of national status, despite its initial conception as a celebration of international togetherness. Nonetheless, events like the World Cup and the Olympics did become genuine shared experiences that stretched across the globe.

Of course, not all recreation was communal. The home remained an important site of recreation, especially for women. Reading, embroidery, pets and even sex were things that could be enjoyed in the home of the growing literate masses. The development of the radio after the First World War was especially important in encouraging domestic recreation, although the relative expense of a set meant that it was not until the Second World War, fed by a hunger for news, that it achieved a truly mass audience in Europe. After the 1939-45 conflict, aided by the new rising prosperity, television became the dominant and ubiquitous source of both recreation and information. By the late 1960s it was the norm for homes in Europe, North America and Australasia to have a set. It was simultaneously a private and shared experience: millions of people watched the same programmes but they did so from the comfort of their own homes. The development of satellite broadcasting in the 1960s enabled the live audiences for significant sporting and news events to extend around the globe, while the content of other programming, both educational and trivial, was a mix of the local and the imported.

For all its far-reaching significance in the west, television remained beyond the reach of those in poverty in the developing world. The reach of the globalized popular culture that was at the heart of recreation in the second half of the twentieth century was still limited by the realities of inequalities of wealth. Indeed, even within the west, a lack of access to popular recreation compounded the more fundamental miseries of poverty: poor diet and housing. It is the poorest’s lack of access to modern forms of recreation that undermines Marxist views of leisure as an opiate of the masses, something to distract them from wider political and economic struggles. This is not to suggest that that movies, drugs, alcohol or sport could not have this function but limited access certainly limits recreation’s political influence.

Nor was it just money that constrained modern recreation. Leisure was often highly gendered, reinforcing and reproducing wider female subordinate roles, from simply seeing recreation as the prerogative of only the male wage earner to employing women in brothels as entertainment for men. Racial prejudices too could, officially and unofficially, prevent people from partaking in everything from public dances to world title boxing bouts. Such restrictions eased as the west gradually became more racially tolerant after the Second World War and leisure even became an arena that encouraged such developments. Popular music was key here. Although black musical forms like jazz and the blues were initially widely distrusted because of their racial base, they gradually crossed over into mainstream popular culture, entertaining and influencing white people across the western world. Rock’n’roll in the 1950s and pop in the 1960s were dominated by both white artists and audiences but their roots lay in black musical forms.

Popular music in this era started as part of a new youth culture but, as generations aged, it became part of mainstream recreation. Like much modern recreation, it became a huge global industry in its own right and, even when associated with social and political rebellion, popular music was intensely commercialized. It also encapsulated the nature of global popular culture: strong common threads, structures and forms that absorbed local influences and then transmitted them across national boundaries, a process engendered and driven by the globalized economy and mass media. Recreation was thus not only an integral part of people’s lives across the globe, it was also an arena that made a global culture something more real than simply the abstract flows of economic and political ties.

 

 

The Olympics: Changing Attitudes

Now the thing has actually started there has been a noticeable shift in attitudes towards the Olympics.

Before it kicked off, those with left-leanings were being rather cynical about the ticketing, the commercialism and the flag-waving. Some on the right, meanwhile, were getting cross about all the nation-bashing and calling upon us all to be more patriotic.

Then three things happened. First, a Republican American politician insinuated that London wasn’t ready. This had people leaping to the UK’s defence. It’s one thing for us to be rude to be about the Olympics, it’s quite another when an American right winger does the same.

Then, the Opening Ceremony turned out to be rather good. It was patriotic in an abstract sort of way: proud but never over-the-top, exclusive or even serious. It was also vague, messy and fun enough for most people to like without having to worry too much about whether it represented them and the Britain they lived in.

The fact that it annoyed some on the right helped too. Ironically, it seems that some who were defending the Olympics out of a sense of national pride have now been turned off it because their vision of Britain isn’t the one that is now being articulated. I suspect it is those same people who are moaning about Welsh football players not singing the English/British anthem.

The presence of so many Welsh players in the football side, and their refusal to sing God Save the Queen, has even blunted a little of the resentment of some who object to a football TeamGB in the first place. Amidst all the symbols of Britishness everywhere, anthem-gate has at least reminded some of England that the UK is actually made up of four nations.

Finally, the actual sport has started. Watching sports that we’d never normally see (or care about) is strangely exotic and a distraction from worrying about what it all means and represents.  And thanks to endless digital streams from the BBC we don’t even have to just concentrate on the events the British are doing well in. Who knew handball was so much fun?

Of course, there are still things to moan about – notably the commercialism and the empty seats but at least it doesn’t appear that anyone has been chucked out for wearing a Pepsi t-shirt.

It would also be easier for some of us who are not English to be more positive if it was TeamUK not TeamGB. I’m quite happy to call myself British but I am far more comfortable with the idea of a United Kingdom rather than a Britain. The UK stresses diversity and it’s less associated with the Union Jack flag, a flag which does not have any representation on it of the part of the UK that I belong to.

Such concerns aside, the Olympics are still turning out to be rather fun.  Afterwards, we’ll worry again about the huge cost to the public purse and argue over the legacy. But, as long as we don’t expect the Olympics to fix either the economic and health problems of the UK, we might be able to look back and say it was worth it.

Sport in the Heritage of Wales

A short piece I wrote for Cadw, the Welsh Government’s historic environment service

Sport is a central part of the history and heritage of Wales. It has played an important role in the lives of individuals, communities and the nation.  Indeed, in a country lacking the more conventional markers and apparatus of nationhood, it could be argued that sport is one of the reasons why a strong sense of Welshness has survived in the modern era.

For many individuals sport was an important part of the routine of their lives.  It offered a physical and emotional escape from the drudgery and harsh realities of work and urban life.  Whether through watching rugby at the local stadium, playing football in a park, racing pigeons from an allotment or even just talking over the latest betting odds, sport offered people excitement, companionship and physical and intellectual stimulation. It also accorded people a sense of self-worth and importance, whether through their reputation as performers or through their ability to pass judgement on the performances of others.  Such rewards and pleasures could make life more tolerable and more meaningful.  They embedded sport in people’s routines and made it more than something people just did.

The importance individuals accorded sport combined to make sport a significant part of community life too.  Sporting grounds and facilities were important parts of local landscapes, places where people came together, turning collections of individuals into communities.  Locals assembled there, often in their thousands or even tens of thousands.  Even pub and park games could attract large crowds, as people came in search of free entertainment and to watch their friends and families represent their neighbourhoods.  Being part of those crowds enabled people to assert their local and civic pride.  Moreover, the larger sports grounds helped define the towns in which they stood.  They hosted clubs named after those towns and were known far beyond the immediate communities.  They were as much a civic space and physical symbol of those communities as any town hall, church or pub.

The strength and diversity of these communities contributed to Wales and Welshness having a plethora of different meanings.  Yet, however, Wales was defined, it would be difficult to deny sport’s place in the inventing, maintaining and projecting of the idea of a Welsh national identity in and outside of Wales’s blurred borders, even if the Wales that sport has projected has varied according to time, place and context.  Although the Welsh language, music and Nonconformity have also played their part, few other cultural forms are as well equipped as sport to express national identity.  Its emotions, national colours, emblems, songs and contests all make it a perfect vehicle through which collective ideas of nationhood can be expressed.  Rugby and football internationals in particular have mobilizedWales’s collective identities and passions.  They gloss over the different meanings that the people of  Wales attach to their nationality, enabling them to assert their Welshness in the face of internal division and the political, social and cultural shadow of England.  This put national sporting grounds at the heart of the nation.

Sport needs places to be played and its sites, ranging from national stadiums to pub bowling alleys, are part of the historic environment.  Many may not be unique or architecturally impressive but they mattered to the people who used and lived around them. Some have helped define the nation itself. All are part of our collective heritage.

Aerial shot of The Vetch Field, Swansea, 1959. A football ground clearly rooted in the surrounding community. 

Photograph copyright of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales