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  • The Work of Play:Anger and the Expropriated Athletes of Alan Sillitoe and David Storey

"At the same time that factory work exhausts the nervous system to the uttermost," Karl Marx observed in Das Kapital, "it does away with the many-sided play of the muscles, and confiscates every atom of freedom, both in bodily and intellectual activity" (422). Nowhere has this observation been better exemplified than in the English novels of working-class life since the late 1950s. Whether toiling at lathes like Arthur Seaton in Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Arthur Machin in David Storey's This Sporting Life or at a milling-machine like Smith's in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, the protagonists of such fiction typically find that their actions soon became automatic, reducing them as workers (and, more importantly, as human beings) to mere operative extensions of the factory's machinery in exactly the way that Marx described. For virtually all of these working-class protagonists, the body and its pleasures provide refuge from the workaday monotony, fragmentation, and dreariness of factory-bound life in a class-ridden world. At the end of the week, having received their pay packets, they leave behind the factory with its noise and smells, eager to have "the effect of a week's monotonous graft in the factory . . . swilled out of [their] system[s]" in the "cosy world of pubs and noisy tarts" (Sillitoe, Saturday Night 7, 33) for which such novels are renowned. For many, however, sports provide [End Page 35] an equally vital source of such pleasure—and, for those who play the pools or frequent the betting-shops, the prospect of supplementary profit or loss as well. To some fans, such as the narrator of Sillitoe's short story "The Match," a team's dismal fortunes on the playing-field even presage a crisis in the day-to-day relationships of family life; to some athletes, such as the narrator of This Sporting Life, a team's collective endeavors provide a welcome release for the frustrations and pain that such personal relationships involve. Even to those who no longer play the game, like the middle-aged sportswriter who is the central character of Storey's novel Present Times (1984), the world of sport—with its clear rules and its unambiguous outcomes—provides a haven from the various cultural upheavals and controversies that rive the modern family as well as contemporary society as a whole.

For spectators and participants alike, the importance of the "game" extends far beyond the vicarious enjoyment of fans' team-loyalties and the athletes' personal accomplishments. Yet, as characters in Sillitoe's The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner and Storey's This Sporting Life and The Changing Room come to recognize, sport, play, and even the body itself have been expropriated by exactly the social "establishment" from which they are alienated. Turned into the "work" of professional rugby for Storey's characters and into officially mandated "games" in Sillitoe's novella, "play" and sport become dehumanizing, no longer fulfilling their original and essential recreational functions in the way that they did in earlier times. Although in both authors' works the characters' participation in sports affords them a certain personal satisfaction and fulfillment that life in the "real" world cannot provide, the fact of the athlete's expropriation not only provides a crucial symbol for the causes of the characters' alienation and anger but also has implications well beyond their particular time, class, and society.

Almost invariably in such fiction, the protagonist is repeatedly described as being "big"—a standard image of the worker in twentieth-century art of all forms, of course, from Soviet Socialist Realism to the murals of the W.P.A. Yet, as Sillitoe has pointed out in one of his essays in Mountains and Caverns, such a portrayal of a working-class protagonist had particular importance in England in the mid-1950s when

working men [who were] portrayed in England by the cinema, or on radio and television, or in books were . . . presented in unrealistic terms . . . behaving in the same jokey but innocuous fashion. They lacked dignity in...


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pp. 35-47
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