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  • Strong, Beautiful and Modern: National Fitness in Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada, 1935–1960 by Charlotte Macdonald
  • Jock Phillips
Macdonald, Charlotte – Strong, Beautiful and Modern: National Fitness in Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada, 1935–1960. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2011. Pp. 240.

Strong, Beautiful and Modern is an ambitious and stimulating account of programmes of national fitness which emerged in the United Kingdom and her former settler colonies of Australia, New Zealand and Canada in the late 1930s and 1940s. Although the state had previously been involved in efforts to encourage physical exercise and health among children through the establishment of parks and playgrounds and physical education in [End Page 243] schools, Charlotte Macdonald argues that the measures which began with Britain’s Physical Training and Recreation Act of 1937 were the first occasion in these societies where the state had promoted adult fitness.

Macdonald begins with the wider context. The most obvious was the challenge posed by the highly organised efforts of totalitarian states, especially Nazi Germany and made visible in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. But Macdonald is careful to show that the factors were more complex and politically diverse than this. There was pressure coming from labour unions wanting shorter working hours who argued for the human importance of leisure. And there was the fascinating outpouring of ideas about the value of physical health as the source of inner vitality which was a response to the modern world of cities and industrial uniformity. For women especially, movements such as the Women’s League for Health and Beauty established the idea that spiritual health and beauty no less followed from physical fitness.

The next four chapters document in considerable detail the development and fate of state efforts in Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada. What emerges is that while each was affected by the broader context and each was inspired by others’ efforts, the particular stories were distinct. The UK’s Physical Training and Recreation Act of 1937 established the principles of the movement – that the state would try to encourage people to take up physical exercise through publicity campaigns and the funding of recreational facilities. But the limits of the funding and the strong British commitment to voluntarism condemned the initiative which faded by the outbreak of war. In New Zealand the impulse came from a welfarist Labour government which in promoting the workers’ weekend was keen that the workers use their time constructively. The state took its involvement seriously with the creation of a Physical Welfare Branch. But this expansion of the state awoke suspicions from conservative forces and when the National party came to power in 1949 the scheme was closed soon after. In Australia the movement was bound up with fears that urbanisation was undermining the ‘bush legend’, the outback lifestyle that was thought so central to national identity. After state action in the late 1930s a federal law was passed in 1941 as part of wartime anxieties. Macdonald suggests that the Australian movement lasted longest and was the most effective. Canada came last (with a law in 1943, again with war as a focus) but it was killed by the politics of the Cold War in the early 1950s.

The last chapter of the book pulls together some broader generalisations about the movement as a whole. With its even-handed treatment of the four national stories one might have expected that the study would have presented itself as a piece of comparative history, in which the case study could throw up some generalisations about the distinct cultures of each polity. There are hints of this – the way the Canadian experience is shaped by its exposure to American professional sport and its Anglo-Francophone division, the Australian fascination with the bush, the interest of New Zealand policy-makers in extending the programme to the Māori community, and the British sensitivity about amateurism and individual choice. But Macdonald prefers to explain the different histories by particular circumstances than broader cultural differences, and her interest is rather in emphasising the common character of ‘the British World’. Obviously the common culture of the Empire is important and was vividly expressed in these years...


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pp. 243-245
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