The Game and the Rules

Grant Allen

[Chapter VII from the book, Post-Prandial Philosophy, published 1894 in London by Chatto & Windus]

A sportive friend of mine, a mighty golfer, is fond of saying, "You Radicals want to play the game without the rules." To which I am accustomed mildly to retort, "Not at all; but we think the rules unfair, and so we want to see them altered."

Now life is a very peculiar game, which differs in many important respects even from compulsory football. The Rugby scrimmage is mere child's play by the side of it. There's no possibility of shirking it. A medical certificate won't get you off; whether you like it or not, play you must in your appointed order. We are all unwilling competitors. Nobody asks our naked little souls beforehand whether they would prefer to be born into the game or to remain, unfleshed, in the limbo of non-existence. Willy nilly, every one of us is thrust into the world by an irresponsible act of two previous players; and once there, we must play out the set as best we may to the bitter end, however little we like it or the rules that order it.

That, it must be admitted, makes a grave distinction from the very outset between the game of human life and any other game with which we are commonly acquainted. It also makes it imperative upon the framers of the rules so to frame them that no one player shall have an unfair or unjust advantage over any of the others. And since the penalty of bad play, or bad success in the match, is death, misery, starvation, it behoves the rule-makers to be more scrupulously particular as to fairness and equity than in any other game like cricket or tennis. It behoves them to see that all start fair, and that no hapless beginner is unduly handicapped. To compel men to take part in a match for dear life, whether they wish it or not, and then to insist that some of them shall wield bats and some mere broom-sticks, irrespective of height, weight, age, or bodily infirmity, is surely not fair. It justifies the committee in calling for a revision.

But things are far worse than even that in the game as actually played in Europe. What shall we say of rules which decide dogmatically that one set of players are hereditarily entitled to be always batting, while another set, less lucky, have to field for ever, and to be fined or imprisoned for not catching? What shall we say of rules which give one group a perpetual right to free lunch in the tent, while the remainder have to pick up what they can for themselves by gleaning among the stubble? How justify the principle in accordance with which the captain on one side has an exclusive claim to the common ground of the club, and may charge every player exactly what he likes for the right to play upon it?—especially when the choice lies between playing on such terms, or being cast into the void, yourself and your family. And then to think that the ground thus tabooed by one particular member may be all Sutherlandshire, or, still worse, all Westminster! Decidedly, these rules call for instant revision; and the unprivileged players must be submissive indeed who consent to put up with them. Friends and fellow-members, let us cry with one voice, "The links for the players!"

Once more, just look at the singular rule in our own All England club, by which certain assorted members possess a hereditary right to veto all decisions of the elective committee, merely because they happen to be their fathers' sons, and the club long ago very foolishly permitted the like privilege to their ancestors! That is an irrational interference with the liberty of the players which hardly anybody nowadays ventures to defend in principle, and which is only upheld in some half-hearted way (save in the case of that fossil anachronism, the Duke of Argyll) by supposed arguments of convenience. It won't last long now; there is talk in the committee of "mending or ending it." It shows the long-suffering nature of the poor blind players at this compulsory game of national football that they should ever for one moment permit so monstrous an assumption—permit the idea that one single player may wield a substantive voice and vote to outweigh tens of thousands of his fellow-members!

These questions of procedure, however, are after all small matters. It is the real hardships of the game that most need to be tackled. Why should one player be born into the sport with a prescriptive right to fill some easy place in the field, while another has to fag on from morning to night in the most uninteresting and fatiguing position? Why should pâté de foie gras and champagne-cup in the tent be so unequally distributed? Why should those who have made fewest runs and done no fielding be admitted to partake of these luxuries, free of charge, while those who have borne the brunt of the fight, those who have suffered from the heat of the day, those who have contributed most to the honour of the victory, are turned loose, unfed, to do as they can for themselves by hook or by crook somehow? These are the questions some of us players are now beginning to ask ourselves; and we don't find them efficiently answered by the bald statement that we "want to play the game without the rules," and that we ought to be precious glad the legislators of the club haven't made them a hundred times harder against us.

No, no; the rules themselves must be altered. Time was, indeed, when people used to think they were made and ordained by divine authority. "Cum privilegio" was the motto of the captains. But we know very well now that every club settles its own standing orders, and that it can alter and modify them as fundamentally as it pleases. Lots of funny old saws are still uttered upon this subject—"There must always be rich and poor;" "You can't interfere with economical laws;" "If you were to divide up everything to-morrow, at the end of a fortnight you'd find the same differences and inequalities as ever." The last-named argument (I believe it considers itself by courtesy an argument) is one which no self-respecting Radical should so much as deign to answer. Nobody that I ever heard of for one moment proposed to "divide up everything," or, for that matter, anything: and the imputation that somebody did or does is a proof either of intentional malevolence or of crass stupidity. Neither should be encouraged; and you encourage them by pretending to take them seriously. It is the initial injustices of the game that we Radicals object to—the injustices which prevent us from all starting fair and having our even chance of picking up a livelihood. We don't want to "divide up everything"—a most futile proceeding; but we do want to untie the legs and release the arms of the handicapped players. To drop metaphor at last, it is the conditions we complain about. Alter the conditions, and there would be no need for division, summary or gradual. The game would work itself out spontaneously without your intervention.

The injustice of the existing set of rules simply appals the Radical. Yet oddly enough, this injustice itself appeals rather to the comparative looker-on than to the heavily-handicapped players in person. They, poor creatures, dragging their log in patience, have grown so accustomed to regarding the world as another man's oyster, that they put up uncomplainingly for the most part with the most patent inequalities. Perhaps 'tis their want of imagination that makes them unable to conceive any other state of things as even possible—like the dog who accepts kicking as the natural fate of doghood. At any rate, you will find, if you look about you, that the chief reformers are not, as a rule, the ill-used classes themselves, but the sensitive and thinking souls who hate and loathe the injustice with which others are treated. Most of the best Radicals I have known were men of gentle birth and breeding. Not all: others, just as earnest, just as eager, just as chivalrous, sprang from the masses. Yet the gently-reared preponderate. It is a common Tory taunt to say that the battle is one between the Haves and the Have-nots. That is by no means true. It is between the selfish Haves, on one side, and the unselfish Haves, who wish to see something done for the Have-nots, on the other. As for the poor Have-nots themselves, they are mostly inarticulate. Indeed, the Tory almost admits as much when he alters his tone and describes the sympathising and active few as "paid agitators." For myself, however, I am a born Conservative. I hate to see any old custom or practice changed; unless, indeed, it is either foolish or wicked—like most existing ones.