A forum for the discussion of biography in the 21st century.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography conference with DMU’s International Centre

April 4th, 2012 | Posted by Adrian Smith in Discussion

At Leicester’s De Montfort University on 30 March the International Centre for Sports History and Culture hosted a joint conference with the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) on the theme of ‘Sport and Biography 1993-2013: Challenges, Approaches and New Developments’ . The ODNB’s research editor Mark Curthoys opened procedings with a very full and illuminating account of how and why sport has enjoyed such a high profile within what is probably the most successful of all Britain’s supposed Millenium projects. Leading sports historian and ICSHC stalwart Richard Holt complemented the first speaker in also going back to the origins of the project in 1993, and reflecting upon his role in establishing which of the sports-related individuals recognised by Lesley Stephen’s late Victorian initiative, the multi-volume Dictionary of National Biography, a century later warranted retention in either an amended form or as a wholly fresh entry. Dick Holt reflected upon the informal categories of sportsmen (no women) in the original DNB, observing how the prominence of leading huntsmen reflected the continued centrality of the traditional landed classes to public life.

Conference organiser, the ICSHC’s Jean Williams, drew on the lives of East Midlands women Olympians to illustrate how, notwithstanding impressive athletic achievements, they returned to near anonymity, devoid of formal biographical record: her involvement with the ODNB has enabled a significant number of sportswomen to be rescued from Thompson’s ‘condescension of posterity’. Tony Collins, head of the ICSHC, offered an entertaining but nevertheless insightful commentary upon the all too familiar failings of sporting autobiographies, identifying the ghost writer as a key determinant in the success, credibility, and verisimitude of what often these days proves to be a succession of memoirs – a creative ghost writer can prove remarkably successful in forging ‘the truth’, to the point where the ‘author’ eventually translates fiction into proven personal experience. The third of the ICSHC’s chairs to speak, Dil Porter, used the Edwardian amateur footballer the Rev. Kenneth Hunt as an avenue into reflecting upon the problems of describing the sporting achievements of a subject unrecorded on film. He suggested that creating a persuasive portrait of skill and natural talent was a formidable challenge for the biographer, highlighting David Kynaston’s genuinely evocative description of Bobby Abel’s batting as a rare achievement. I rounded off the day by talking about the research network, and the perceived crisis in biography discussed so fully at the last symposium in Nottiungham [hear the podcasts], before complementing Mark Curthoys remarks by highlighting how too often in the past the sporting preoccupations of figures in public life have been ignored by their biographers; in fact to gain a truly rounded view of the individual one must acknowledge the centrality of sport to his or her’s day-to-day life – my examples ranged from Kaiser Wilhelm II’s obsession with tennis to Clement Attlee’s passion for cricket [paper available on request: as5@soton.ac.uk].

The conference acknowledged two decades of close collaboration between British sports historians and the editorial staff of the ODNB, with all three editors [Colin Matthews, Brian Harrison, and Lawrence Goldman] recognising the need to record – and to keep on recording online – how vital the lives of a myriad of sportsmen and sportswomen have been to British life from medieval times through to the present day. That acknowledgement reflected how the history of sport has grown over the past thirty years from an adjunct of social and cultural history to a widely recognised and respected branch of academic history, not least thanks to the efforts of the ICSH conference contributors and their colleagues (of the latter in particular the doyen of football history Tony Mason, who through illness was unable to deliver his lecture, but who hopefully will soon be fighting fit again).

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  • Jean Williams says:

    Thank you Adrian for your summary of this event.

    There are two things I ‘d like to add to your generous comments. I suppose one of the often overlooked aspects of the International Centre for Sport History and Culture’s work that we were trying to highlight through the day conference was our teaching. Given that this is a specialised research centre, our teaching role is not always so well known but it is at the core of our collaborative activities. The link between biography as a multi and inter-disciplinary activity has led us to develop a new module called Sport, Writing and History on the distance learning MA we offer. This caused a lot of discussion because I mainly approached this from my previous incarnation as a teacher of English and the majority of Centre personnel from the point of view of historians. Building on the pioneering work of Jeff Hill and John Bale in Britain and the likes of Michael Oriard in the US there has been a growing interest in sport and literature and we are encouraging our students to engage with these different kinds of media in the widest sense. I mentioned some PhDs who are working on single biographcal studies and others who are incorporating life writing, oral history, autobiography and so on into their work. At several levels of study then, and across time, organising the event gave pause for thought about what and how we teach and where biography fits in with other Centre activities. One of the things that the feedback highlighted on the 30 March, was that your paper, and that of Mark Curthoys, made us think about how a person becomes known for certain accomplishments and how a focus on that can distract from their other interests.

    The second point is that small events are always good opportunities to discuss what people have been reading, or watching, or listening to as well as to discuss what people are writing. We talked a bit about Senna and the ethical aspects of showing the final crash. I also took your advice and am about 35 pages into The Ghost Runner by Bill Jones. The book has the compelling subtitle ‘The Tragedy of the Man They Couldn’t Stop.’ The reader would not have to have an Alf Tupper fetish to find this an underdog story heavy with bathos. Little wonder that it was shortlisted for William Hill Sports Book of the Year in 2011. In the terribly addicting way that online booksellers have of offering related titles, I also bought Chrissie Wellington’s A Life without Limits in which she too presents herself as something of an amateur even while winning her first Ironman World Championship in 2007 as a professional. The narrative arc sees her rise from ‘an unknown thirty year old from Norfolk’ having left her job as a Whitehall civil servant only nine months earlier. The hypocrisy that shaped John Tarrant’s career, didn’t really allow him a rise to triumph before his tragedy: there’s not much redemption, nor eventual reward. Having been banned from amateur running associations after to taking £17 expenses when a boxer aged 19, Tarrant made protest appearances without a number. Using what would now, no doubt, be called ‘ambush-entry’ to race events, his determination makes for an oddly compulsive read without being in the least hagiographical. But Wellington’s story made me also reflect on the endurance of the story of ‘the natural’ whose latent talent reveals itself, given the opportunity. So the ‘idea’ of amateurism has an appeal, even while its ideals often hide other motives and attitudes. Anyway thanks for recommending the book and for talking about it.

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