Rational recreation

By the 19th century, respectable culture, now viewed as beneficial to health, was bestowed upon the lower classes. It became important to find ‘improving’ activities for the working classes whose work and leisure time were clearly segregated by industrialisation. Public spaces that still seem to stand for a shared culture – public libraries, museums and parks – were established to provide ‘rational recreation’ for the lower orders (although no games or sports were allowed in municipal gardens.) The genteel philanthropists and self-improving artisans who founded mechanics’ institutes or branches of the YMCA set out to draw skilled workers and urban clerks away from the pubs and the music halls: culture for the people should be different from popular culture.

This was the age when society might be nourished by what Matthew Arnold infamously called “sweetness and light” (a phrase filched from sardonic usage by Swift). Such Victorian impulses had a long life: they were still present in the Reithianism of the early BBC, which explicitly set out to uplift popular culture. Arguably, they were also key in the shaping of postwar British cinema, particularly through censorship policy. It was not just prudishness behind this, but anxiety about the influence of this brassy medium. (In 1950 up to one third of the British population were going to the cinema at least once a week.) In the 20th century, high culture drew energy from an antagonism to popular culture.

As John Carey’s Intellectuals and the Masses (1992) documented, much of modernism in art and literature grew from a revulsion for mass culture (including mass literacy and mass political enfranchisement). Indeed, the idea of the masses, suborned by cultural technology, replaced that of ‘the people’, clinging to vulgar traditions and pastimes. The very phrase ‘popular culture’ signifies a later development whose effects are still with us.

From the founding of media studies courses in the 1950s to Christopher Ricks lecturing on Bob Dylan, one tendency has been to rescue popular culture for serious discussion. What was once low can be raised: Pilgrim’s Progress, the poetry of Burns and Hollywood film noir have all become high culture. Yet the phrase also belies the fact that much of ‘popular culture’ may appeal strongly to everyone, regardless of class or education.

As the fearful 18th-century excoriators of the novel realised, ‘high’ and ‘low’ – Bach and Big Brother – can be appetites of one individual. In the cultural pages of this newspaper, high and low seem happily to inhabit the same space. Maybe, as some giddy postmodernists have declared, this means that cultural hierarchies are meaningless – that we live in a cultural Disneyland, where everything is parody and nothing can be better or worse. The history of popular culture lets us see that this is not so. On the contrary, some of the life of culture is in the very crackle of antagonism between high and low. Before the ideal of high culture for paying consumers was invented, popular genres were available to the most elevated of writers and artists, who were able to enjoy the clashes (and sometimes unexpected affinities) between refinement and vulgarity. Why should we not do so too?

Candidate pro-active involvement in linking functional origins of major activity profiles, eg. field sports and hunting instincts and food. Characteristics of popular recreation, eg. localised, rural, occasional, etc. applied to activities not detailed later, eg. combats such as the prize ring. Candidate comments on whether these characteristics still exist today. Sources: Davis et al. PE ; the Study of Sport, Chapt. 22. Harcourt Brace. 2000 with associated CD-Rom. 2000.

Davis,RJ. A Teachers’ Guide. History of Sport Part One, Popular Recreation Wymer,N. Sport in England. Harrap. 1949. (Extracts from RJD) 2. Pre-Industrial characteristics: Candidate review of conditions in rural England from a rural festival video or slide. Characteristics of pre-industrial Britain, eg. feudal lifestyle, limited transport, changing religious attitudes to sport, etc. Candidate comments on changes today. Sources: as above. PE & the Study of Sport, Chapt. 22 & Teachers’ Guide (Part One). Brailsford,D. Sport in Society. British Sports, A Social History. Lutterworth. 1992.

3. Popular Aquatic activities: Candidates review riverside town slide to assess popular sports, including fishing rowing, shooting and sailing; rambling and use of water meadows for festivals and games. Bathing as a popular activity, cleanliness, recreation, survival and competitive festivals. Candidates to note reasons for changes today. Sources: as above. PE ; the Study of Sport. Chapt. 22 ; Teachers’ Guide (Part One). 4. Traditional Sports Festivals: Candidate review of Dover Games slide and regatta scene. The development of festivals before in rural Britain, including ethnic sports occasions, pedestrianism and wakes together with cultural influences, such as church attitudes. Candidates to identify changes today.

Sources: as above. PE & the Study of Sport. Chapt. 22 & Teachers’ Guide (Part One). Marples,M. Shanks’s Pony. (extract from RJD). 5. Early Target and Mob Games: Candidate review of early cricket slide. Explanations for the early development of cricket. A study of mob football as it reflected popular characteristics and the cultural influences on this. Candidate assessment as to the reasons for some versions of mob games remaining today.

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