Magazine article The Spectator

'Fox Tossing, Octopus Wrestling and Other Forgotten Sports', by Edward Brooke-Hitching - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Fox Tossing, Octopus Wrestling and Other Forgotten Sports', by Edward Brooke-Hitching - Review

Article excerpt

Fox Tossing, Octopus Wrestling and Other Forgotten Sports Edward Brooke-Hitching

Simon & Schuster, pp.258, £12.99, ISBN: 9781471148989

Scholarship for its own sake has rather gone out of fashion, although I'm sure Spectator readers would be the last people to worry about that. But what of scholarship for barely any sake at all? A book like this, the result of enormously diligent library ferreting, doesn't have any pressing reason to exist, but I am glad it does. Its pointlessness is its pleasure. Edward Brooke-Hitching has subtitled his work 'The Most Dangerous & Bizarre Sports in History', but what actually characterises these 90 pastimes is that no one plays them any more, usually for good reasons. Some of them were simply too cruel.

Sports such as eel-pulling, pig-sticking, cat-headbutting and fox-tossing all fall under this purview: these 'games' are senselessly brutal, but to players of the era they were merely light pre-supper entertainment.

Others were too dangerous. Waterfall riding and firework boxing might have seemed like good ideas at the time, but they introduced slightly too much deadly peril into the lives of their participants to thrive for long.

And some doomed sports were simply too ridiculous to survive. Boxing on horseback failed for every reason you can imagine, and one or two others. Brooke-Hitching, whose surname actually sounds like one of these sports, has a particular fondness for ski ballet, a lycra-clad combination of ice dancing and stunt skiing that was chosen as a demonstration event at the Calgary Winter Olympics of 1988. By the turn of the millennium the sport had ceased to exist. People kept breaking bones, and it looked idiotic.

Fox-tossing, or Fuchsprellen , didn't have many rules. The aim of the game, which was played by both men and women, was to toss your fox as high in the air as possible. You did this with a strip of netting or fabric laid on the ground. There would be two of you, one at each end; the foxes would be released into the playing area; and you would then wait. When a fox foolishly wandered onto your netting, Whoosh! into the air it went. When you had run out of foxes -- casualty rates were high, as no one thought to catch them on the way down -- other animals would be let loose to keep the fun going. At the end, competitors would 'finish off the wounded with some hearty clubbing'. Augustus III, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, was a keen fox-tosser: in 1747, his parties saw off an aggregate of 414 foxes, 281 hares, 39 badgers and one wildcat. …

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