Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 512

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This Sporting Life is not only Storey’s first novel but also the first of three successive books which he organized around a unifying concept. Here, a minimum of biographical information is in order: Born the son of a miner, Storey studied at London’s Slade School of Art and, to subsidize his student years, played for four seasons with the Leeds Rugby League Club. In a November 28, 1963, interview with The Times, he indicated the directly autobiographical use of these unusually mixed experiences in his initial novels:

  I . . . conceived a sequence of four novels which would constitute a sort of campaign for reintegrating myself. In the first I tried to isolate and come to terms with the physical side in the footballer Machin.

In Storey’s second novel, Flight into Camden (also published in 1960), he has another first-person narrator, this time a woman, designed to represent the spiritual, feminine side of his nature. In his next, most ambitious novel, Radcliffe (1963), he brings his two halves into an incompatible encounter through the troubled, homosexual relationship between Leonard Radcliffe, an impoverished aesthete of genteel background, and Victor Tolson, a vigorous workingman. Storey has projected a fourth novel, “the key work,” in which he intends to unite the body-soul conflict in one protagonist’s mind and personality, though he has followed Radcliffe with a number of plays and then novels with differing themes.

Issues of class stratification dominate This Sporting Life, as they do Storey’s other writings. Arthur Machin is a gladiator not only on the playing field but also on the bleak, sooty terrain of northern English society, where the working class he represents is never at ease with the upper class. As a sports star, he can afford a Jaguar, but he dare not take it to work because it would cause resentment among his “mates,” and Mrs. Hammond requires three weeks of persuasion before she will consent to sit in it. When he takes the Hammond family to a fancy restaurant, Mrs. Hammond refuses to enter its plush cocktail bar, the waiter is condescending toward Arthur, and he, in turn, forces the waiter to check the bill’s accuracy three times. Mr. Weaver and Mr. Slomer buy, build up, or sell their plebeian players like boys playing with lead soldiers. Mrs. Weaver compliments Arthur on his football prowess: “It raises you above the general level, don’t you think?”

The novel exhibits Storey’s talent for acutely realized visual and auditory imagery, whether in rendering the desultory banter of the football locker room, the muddy savagery of the rugby matches, the heated feelings exchanged in tidy, self-contained working-class kitchens, or the sudden exhaustion Arthur experiences in his late twenties as he yields to the drab ethos of a dull provincial town. This Sporting Life renders devastatingly the pained, empty, uncentered lives of people without fixed moral anchors, unable to achieve any lasting satisfaction in their lives. Storey’s England is no longer a sceptered, mighty isle, but a reduced, worn-out little land filled with people stumbling through sad, desolate, ravaged existences.