Books | For centuries, life has had its uppies and downies

Review of Hugh Hornby, Uppies and Downies: The Extraordinary Football Games of Britain, ed. Simon Inglis, Played in Britain (London: English Heritage, 2008). Pp. 188, bibliography, calendar of games, illustrations, maps. £16.99 (paper). ISBN 978-1-9056246-4-5.

Modern football match reports, following accepted journalistic practice, place emphasis on the final score. Try as we might in interviews with participants and by accessing online newspaper accounts of the Feb 14 Jethart (Jedburgh) Ba’ Game in Scotland—the annual revival of a mass-participation football match with several centuries’ provenance—we could not discover, with absolute certainty, who won.

British Pathé newsreels offered valuable sources for Hornby’s accounts of Shrovetide games. Pathé cameras filmed the Alnwick, Northumberland, game as early as 1922, and the film from this 1936 edition survived a cameraman’s misfortune. According to Hornby’s research, the photographer became involved in the mêlée and picked himself up “a sadder and wiser man.” (www.britishpathe.com)

Hugh Hornby, author of the comprehensive account of Britain’s 15 surviving festival football games (see schedule), was busy signing books, but says that the Uppies may have prevailed “by an odd hail.” Tam Miller, who started participating years ago in a youth version of the Jedburgh Candlemas game, said he had to check a local newspaper for results in Jedburgh and in games in nearby Scottish Border towns, Hobkirk and Ancrum. But he does not name the victors, suggesting that participation matters more than outcome.

Hornby

Hornby advocates on behalf of these distinctive contests, grouped broadly under the heading “folk football” or “Shrovetide football.” In the book’s conclusion he suggests adding a bank holiday to mark Shrove Tuesday and to help revive interest in the mass-participation football forms. And following the mission of the Played in Britain series, which in past volumes has treated Britain’s swimming centers and the sporting edifices of Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester, Hornby wants to memorialize the sites of the more than 80 such games now extinct.

“I’ve been full-time on the trail of these elusive games for about two, three years,” Hornby says in a Feb 21 podcast. “I’ve spent many cold hours in fields and on the streets following these games, but I have to say I don’t regret any of that time. It’s endlessly fascinating, and they’re all quite different in their own way.”

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