Kenneth Roberts On Rugby

(Circa 1935)



For the benefit of such American sports enthusiasts as consider English athletics tame and namby-pamby by comparison with those of America, I might add that I had the good fortune, one cold December day to see Oxford play Cambridge at Rugby.


There were sixty thousand people at the game, which was played on neutral grounds near London. The stands were covered, and at convenient spots beneath the stands were located those sterling British institutions known as snack bars. A large percentage of the sixty thousand patronized these snack bars before the game; yet, incredible as it may seem, there were no drunks, no fights in the stands, no beating of strangers over the head by overstimulated enthusiasts.


Apparently the sixty thousand spectators had come with no ulterior motive, as is so often the case in America, and were actually eager, not to say determined, to let nothing, not even alcohol, interfere with their enjoyment of the game. This may or may not be an indication that the English understand nothing about pleasure.


The game was played on a Wednesday, that being the day after the universities had closed for the Christmas vac (vacation). Apparently it never occurs to the English to wait for Saturday in order to play big games.  They play when it's convenient, and if their dates don't quite suit the convenience of the public, nobody - not even the public - seems annoyed.


My seats were on what would correspond to the 50-yard line, and cost 7/6 apiece, or $1.87 - and to the best of my knowledge and belief, no football game in the history of the world was ever worth more than $1.87.  The game was scheduled for 2:15. The two teams, of fifteen men each, came on the field at 2:14, hurried to the center of the field and went to playing at 2:15.


They played two 50-minute halves without taking time out or leaving the field.  When the Cambridge captain was injured, he was dragged under the grandstand to recuperate, and his team played on without him.  In ten minutes' time he staggered back and went to playing again.


It was fast and exciting a contest as I ever saw, and more exciting than 90 percent of the big American football games I have seen. It was not, however, regarded as a good game by the football experts of the London Times and the London Morning Post, both of whom intimated that they found it tiresome.


I had always been given to understand that the Oxford and Cambridge man is at all times the perfect British gentleman, who never raises his voice and never, whatever the provocation, permits himself to become excited. My informants however, had not been strictly accurate; for as soon as the game started, all sixty thousand of the spectators began to scream and bellow in a highly emotional manner, and some were indubitably Oxford men. In me immediate vicinity three or four hundred apparent maniacs continued for nearly two hours to shout hoarsely: "oxFORD! oxFORD! oxFORD!" only pausing occasionally to remark in conversational tones, "Well played, Cambridge."



Notes from Skip Grimm


Kenneth Roberts (1885-1957) in his time was perhaps America's most popular historical novelists, writing such classics as Northwest Passage (which in turn spawned the classic movie starring Spencer Tracy as Major Robert Rogers of the American Rangers), Arundel, Rabble in Arms, Oliver Wiswell, and Lydia Bailey to mention a few. The Kenneth Robert's Reader, from which this excerpt on Rugby is taken (p. 160-161), was first published in 1945 and includes twenty-six varied pieces, mainly vivid excerpts from his novels as well as essays from other collections.  Above all, Roberts was a tireless writer in search of historical truth and against prevailing notions and common understandings. The Reader is filled with action, drama, and timeless and far-seeing commentary on modern ills, as well as an ample dose of humor. In short a fitting overview of the work by one of America's finest historical novelists.


As opposed to this obvious praiseworthy commentary on English Rugby, it would benefit the reader to know that in "Concerning Education" and Oxford Oddities" from his 1935 book For Authors Only And Other Gloomy Essays on the whole Robert's pithily castigates and humorously depicts all manner of English snobbery, sexual orientation, child-rearing, and vapidness of the public (read private) education system, and picks apart in a rambling and comical style the much acclaimed (by American educators at the time) the Oxford University system!


For example he writes, "English sportsmanship was not all it was cracked up to be; for although amateur teams and their followers were regarded as the very apex of sportsmanship; the opposite was coming to be the case, and audiences of sporting Englishmen were continually urging players to injure their opponents.  I mention these interesting matters because of another conventional belief widely held in America-the belief that all the results of an English university education are better than anything America can produce.  Since most Englishmen heartily concur in this belief, one doesn't have to be a superman to know there’s something wrong with most conventional beliefs. Neither does one have to be a trained observer to discover that there are a few unpleasant features to Oxford University - features that have no counterpart in any American University. Why is it that these unpleasant features are never mentioned in any of the massive books on education written by all the deep educational thinkers in both America and England, I cannot say. It can't be because the educators don't know about them. Nobody can visit Oxford for more than a day, or talk to any Rhodes Scholar for half an hour, without receiving an overwhelming amount of information on the various brands of viciousness that are scattered through every Oxford college. Books and brochures by Oxford undergraduates are continually mentioning the esthetic young men who rouge their cheeks and fingernails; who chatter in languid, sibilant voices; who attend pajama parties, wear single earrings, and address one another in feminine superlatives.... scores of other Americans and Colonials - Australians, South Africans, New Zealanders - told me, with fascinated disgust, of "binges" they had attended at oxford-binges at which, when the inhibitions of the English undergraduates had been removed by liquor, young men would be discovered on couches and in commodious easy chairs, eagerly embracing and kissing...... I am unable to explain the estheticism of Oxford, nor are Rhodes scholars able to explain it to the satisfaction of a detached observer. Some think it has it origin in the fag system of the English public schools - the system which permits an older boy to give any sort of order to a younger boy and be implicitly obeyed. Others blame it on the fact that English boys of the so-called upper classes are sent away to school at the age of six, seven, or eight, receive practically no home training, and then come up to a hard-drink university where many of them think it smart to drink themselves into a state of semi-insanity and turn to any sort of convenient depravity. Other’s think it is the mark of a decadent civilization.  As a matter of fact, nobody is able to explain the pansyish leaning of English youth… and they probably never will."


(Ironically, to my mind, if writing today Robert's would be describing much of today's male youth...)