Masturbation and Muscular Christianity: A Brief History of English Football’s Anxiety – Part 1

The essence of the relationship between fancy foreigners and doughty Englishmen was captured by Sir Walter Scott in his novel The Talisman, written in 1825 and set during the 3rd Crusade.

The key moment comes when English king Richard the Lionheart meets Muslim hero Saladin. They proceed to show off their martial skills. First, Richard hefts his giant, glittering broadsword high overhead and smashes an iron bar in half with one mighty blow. Fantastic stuff! Saladin responds in a thoroughly un-English manner: he places a silk cushion on end, then deftly slices it into two with his scimitar.

Richard is impressed, but he says he’ll stick to what he knows best: ‘Still, however, I put some faith in a downright English blow, and what we cannot do by sleight we eke out by strength.’  No more concise definition of English football exists.

– David Winner, Those Feet.

What could be more ancestrally English than St. George’s red cross tunics and chain-mail? It is unfailingly sighted in the stands of England international matches, adorned by proud English match-going individuals. Often accompanied with a flourish of face-paint and a gut full of obstinacy, these symbols are still a valid projection of age-adhered Englishness and an uneasy contempt for foreigners. In life as in football.

Siege mentality.

Muscular Christianity

International competition is great, as it allows us to reinforce cultural differences and legitimise xenophobia.

– David Squires, The Illustrated History of Football.

Every World Cup campaign has been exactly that, a campaign. A recreation of Britannia’s failed siege to reclaim what is rightfully theirs. An attempt to recapture lost glory. In the middle ages, the holy mission took the form of the Grail of Christ. In the modern age, England find themselves trying to wrestle the World Cup out of the grubby hands of whosoever has it. Despite being humbled by Argentina, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Brazil, Poland, Romania, USA and Iceland, entitlement rears its ugly head every time an international competition draws near. English football is steeped in religiosity and the corresponding historical baggage.

Edwardian England was in decline in 1870s. Embroiled in a figurative pissing contest with Germany’s naval force, saw the island’s industrial growth suffer. The loss in the Boer war and secession of colonies left the nation with a phantom feeling of limpness. Amputation, even; something which David Winner (bless him and his books) describes so brilliantly in Those Feet. English society looked inwards, often through windows to judge. The blame of the British state of affairs was deemed to be solipsism. The church saw the window of opportunity to make itself relevant again. The full brunt of the systematic failure of the Empire thusly fell on its people, who were obviously the cause since they have strayed from the path of Christ.

History of English football - Cross-dressing gents of Victorian, England.
Cross-dressing gents of Victorian England.

The act of masturbation was considered self-indulgent, debilitating, thus anti-national. The church said so. They must be right. Society’s response was to look out of their windows and turn to football pitches for its sweet release. The conventional alternative of relieving oneself was thought to be immoral and Un-Christianly. And most football teams being church teams, complied and benefitted from a boom in participation.

Public schools, like the ancient snake, Ouroboros, fooled themselves into consuming what they preached. Reverend Edward Thring declared that masturbation led to ‘early and dishonoured graves’. Dr. John Paget called it ‘unmanliness despised by man.’ George Mikes, a Hungarian humorist politely cackled out something in the lines of how ‘Continental people have sex lives, and Englishmen have hot-water bottles’. ‘The only part of an Englishman’s body that was allowed to be stiff was his upper lip,’ joked Harry Enfield, in the self-deprecating manner expected of an Englishman. It was a time when the Prime Minister of England, the most powerful man on earth, used to go on nightly rounds of London street corners preaching to prostitutes.

Brothel owners joined the cause of the church against masturbation. They hired full-time pamphleteers. On their hands were 200 pages worth or more of propaganda citing how the affectation ‘wasted essential bodily fluids, perverts natural inclination, destroys conjugal affection and any hope for a healthy posterity for the great country of Britain.

In the late 19th century, while the rest of its neighbours were panting, sprawled on satin sheets, experiencing sexual-awakenings; England had its hands clutching its knees, keeled over, swaddled in the mud in cold, wet, wintry Wednesday nights at Stoke. J.A. Morgans declared football as a necessary form of military education. Football, therefore, was as much an exponent of muscular Christianity, sexual anxiety, and an identity crisis as the crusades were. Both fighting invisible gods. It was good for business and national morale.

The Alliance of Honour, a conservative Christian group, went a step further. During World War I, soldiers on the front line were sent hefty pamphlets ascribing to the path of football and national service so as to save themselves from distraction. Indulgence is murder” the fonts shouted. It’s uncertain if those thick pamphlets were kept in their life-vests for protection, but I would think, it’d have made the bullet feel embarrassed having gone through them.

As in football and in life, England was fraught with unintended humour. At the prestigious Harrow, one of the founding schools of football, pockets were being sewn up in 1895. In Rovering to Success, a life-guide book, written, no, penned by The 1st Baron Baden-Powell (also a goal-keeper for Charterhouse school) in 1922, had the lines, ‘Young man, take yourself firmly in hand’, on it.

Ex-tray, ex-tray, read all about it.

George Orwell wrote ever so tactfully in Decline of English Murder on the mind-boggling national obsession. Sexual perversion resulted from its repression. And repressed perversion meant murder. It was an era of sexual fear and Penny Dreadfuls. Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Sherlock Holmes were best-sellers while tales of Jack the Ripper caught the sodden imagination of a nation. James Wookey’s Human Wrecks sold 150,000 copies. It had garish first-hand accounts of deathbed masturbators, ‘young boys going mad or stupid.’ He made it all up, obviously. A tradition of baseless lies and voyeurism that is upheld today by tabloids and in the knows. 

When England played their first international match vs Scotland, the scribes made bets expecting the English to prevail purely on the basis of their claim, stature and solemness. They were wrong until 1966 when England won the World Cup. And then, they kept being wrong some more.

Jonathan Wilson, the author of Inverting the Pyramid spoke to Football Paradise to explain further how the ‘Lionheart complex‘ shaped British thinking: “English football is a working-class game. The ethos that prevailed there, was the ethos of the factory. It’s the people who work in the mines, who work in the shipyards, or work in the textile mills. There’s no place for slacking off, no place for being clever, no place for bright ideas – you just do your job, over and over, and over again – and if you work as hard as you can, people respect you for it. That’s the ethos that governs English football.”

Cogs in a wheel.

The precedent was set. The English were bereft from having a sensual relationship with the ball that the libertines (Brazil, Netherlands) had. Expression wallowed in the mire. Football was not tended with care, but hoofed clear. The virility of imagination was seen with the suspicion reserved for Tijuana bibles. Individuality was seen as an affront to the team ethic and undermined the empire, and therefore undesirable. Pillow-talk and cushion-slicing were left for the foreigners.

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
Which was rather late for me
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

– Philip Larkin.

Next issue: It’s Bad Manners To Be Clever!: A Brief History of English Football’s Anxiety – Part 2

Jimmy Greaves.
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Srijandeep Das

Managing Editor and Poet. On a mission to elevate Football Writing to an art form.