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

In an entertaining digression on the design blog StrangeHarvest, Sam Jacob, architecture editor of Contemporary magazine, theorizes that association football may have incorporated aspects of the festival games’ attitude toward space (“Folk Football: Landscape, Space, and Abstraction,” Feb 5).

Pitches have an extraordinary beauty that has evolved from chaotic vernacular origins. Somewhere in that minimalist arrangement of rectangles, circles and dots is a trace of the landscapes of folk football: centre circle as lake, penalty area as village gateway, and goal as church. This makes football—perhaps more than any other sport—a kind of essentialised urbanism. A far more totalizing spatial game than say Rugby or Cricket.

With technological advance, disputes over the right of way between festival players and traffic became another means of controlling the games. The Highway Act in 1835 gave local authorities license to fine football players who used public carriageways. Games did decline in the 1800s, although Harvey disputes the extent to which this happened. Hornby says the main factor, rather than the advent of spectator sport, was urbanization. Rural recreations did not transfer to the urban centers—Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool—and games in the far-flung outposts, such as the Shetland Islands, died out. Even tiny Fair Isle, home of the famous knitting tradition, contains a remnant Baa’ Green, although writer Malachy Tallack says little memory exists of traditional Yule Day scrambles.

Many factors have helped preserve the 15 matches that are still contested—ranging, on a map of Britain, from the Cornish hurling games on the southwest coast through the Midlands up to the Scottish Borders, and on to the robust Kirkwall contest in the north-lying Orkneys. Urbanization creates a problem, but, as Hornby points out, one nevertheless requires a critical mass of personnel:

There seems to be a greater chance of survival in a smaller community, because obviously the big-city games of this kind were known in London and Manchester and so on—they’ve all gone. It does seem from researching the book that the optimum size is actually what Jedburgh is, a few thousand people: probably between five [thousand] and ten thousand population. And a number of the surviving games happen to have a population of that amount. Ashbourne is the same, and St. Ives, Sedgefield and one or two other places. Only Workington in Cumbria is significantly bigger. It seems to me that you require a certain level of support for the number of people in a town to keep the games going without reaching a level where the game becomes too damaging to property and disruptive to traffic and therefore likely to be suppressed.

Enthusiasts for the annual sport, from various periods, have outmaneuvered attempts at prohibition partly due to knock-on effects of war. In the Scottish Borders, Hobkirk players could continue these romps during the Napoleonic period as a justifiable distraction from the sacrifices of conflict. In Jedburgh and other Roxburghshire villages, where tales of Reivering and defense from English incursion remain prominent in historical memory, the ba’ games celebrate strength, guile and a warrior spirit. Smuggling of the ball, sometimes aided by motorized means, is looked on with favor in Scotland. The use of subterfuge, Hornby says, along with the grappling in scrums, interpassing and cross-country pursuit, constitutes a legitimate tactic and demands a poker-faced player who won’t give away that the small moss-stuffed leather ball is squirreled away in his pocket. Players have integrated cell phones and text messaging, sometimes to call in reinforcements.

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