The day that Samuel Pepys did not play football

Four players (Orhan Pamuk, Naguib Mahfouz, Kenzaburo Oe, Barry Hines) on the New York Times writers’ XI violate FIFA statutes by wearing spectacles. Hines, Jorge Valdano and Eduardo Galeano press forward, treading lightly on a manicured wheat-grass surface embossed with words from Mahfouz: “We play to forget our sorrows.” Nabokov studies lepidopterology texts when play switches to the other end. Download as desktop »

In the whirl of 17th-century London life, diarist and clerk Samuel Pepys (pronounced PEEPS) had too many appointments to indulge in the craze of street football. “Up betimes” provides a familiar start to one of his entries, prefacing a frenzied pre-Twitter routine of hobnobbing about town as well as absorption in correspondence and accounts.

Pepys, whose diaries already have been annotated to exhaustion, has come to still greater notoriety through Pepys’ Diary, the project of Phil Gyford of London, the 21st-century techno-Pepys. Since 2003 Gyford has made Pepys’s chronicles, written between 1660 and 1669, available in blog format.

A liability in the dark days before the Alice Band, Pepys’s coiffure keeps him sidelined. He does earn tidy royalties, though, hawking his diaries among supporters.

London street football was established by Pepys’s day. The evidence is the sport’s long-standing literary provenance, including references from Shakespeare and earlier allusions within eclogues and government proclamations. Balls—actually retrofitted pigs’ bladders—flying through the air come to the purpose-driven Pepys’s attention the morning of 3 Jan 1665. The incident makes enough of an impression that Pepys gives it primacy of place in that day’s jotting: “Up, and by coach to Sir Ph. Warwickes, the street being full of footballs, it being a great frost” (quoted from the Latham and Matthews edition). That is the sum total of Pepys’s exposition, yet the aside has driven a ream of annotations on the diary website.

Editors of the reference edition, Robert Latham and William Matthews, comment that “play would be possible since the streets would be empty of horse-traffic”—all except for Pepys’s coach, presumably. They allude to a Jan 1669 order banning street football but believe that the sport was permitted during this earlier interval, when Pepys served as a Royal Navy administrator during war with the Dutch.

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