The History of Sport

At first, it was a green field,
better, a meadow. It fetched up, boundless,
on the crest of itself. A frisk
of clover scrambled happily through the long
lush grass of dawn. It led nowhere, it
trampled itself, played its own bo-peep.
It had no horizons, no highways.

Then came the fences. They looped lazily
from pillar to pine-tree, a great skein
looking to lasso each neck of the woods
and lynch it. Men drove great stakes
through the soft swamps, the heartlands.
There was vigour in their heaving arms,
flame behind eyes. Their sinews tautened
and the palings straightened the skylines.

Now there were borders, by order.
Cartographers were carted off, provided
pencils as soft as musquash. They drew
thick lines for farmers with fat tracts.
The preaching was perpetual, a draughtsman's arm
cramped by the vicious voices at elbow.
Wriggling riverbeds were slim solace.

Partitions followed. Maps were frankly random,
the geometry of men with worn, stubbed fingers.
Sand, mud, ice, sea, all were ruthlessly chartered,
regardless of weed or creed. To hold was to have,
to have the upper cut. Crude pseudonyms were carved
on the fancy back of the regulation atlas.
Light was blighted by displays of shade.

The rest follows easily - squads of marauders
outflanking the nomads. Some countries were tossed
playfully between crack teams, feted as trophies.
Great cheers chased champion athletes as they
hooped homelands over assorted pegboards.
Discipline became the manager's province,
tactics tersely recited to a martial tune.
Crowds were segregated on prison islands;
languages were arrested or sequestered;
the boot went in. Linesmen looked very glad
to be busy. The valleys played the highlands,
dominions took on plebiscites like mad.
Parents trained foster-children to impress.
Bullet-belts. Bibles. Stumps. Amputees festered,
and fields were gangrenous, more or less,
rotting horribly when boundaries turned bad.

The referee looked in his notebook, inquiring
whether time was up. But time was perspiring
on the sidelines, and the air was whistle-thick.
The stadium filled with the cries of the sick.
Before curfew, the turf was cut into squares,
and flogged off. The players rehearsed prayers.
One rebel screeched - a guard had just got him -
Is it half-time in Chad yet? They shot him.

From the book Robinson Crusoe's Bank Holiday Monday