Getting fit for the Empire, Caroline Daley

Strong, Beautiful and Modern: National Fitness in Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada, 1935–1960
Charlotte Macdonald
Bridget Williams Books, $50.00,
ISBN 978927131404

In July 1937 the Physical Training and Recreation Act was passed in Britain. A few months later the Physical Welfare and Recreation Act became law in New Zealand. The following year similar legislation was adopted in New South Wales. The Australian federal government passed a National Fitness Act in 1941, as did the Canadians in 1943. Strong, Beautiful and Modern explains why “national fitness” was supported by imperial politicians, what took place under the auspices of the various recreation Acts, and why, ultimately, citizens rejected government encouragement to do their “daily dozen”.

Strong, Beautiful and Modern shares with many New Zealand history books a fascination with the state: with tracing how policies came into being, how they were implemented and why they failed. But it differs from most history books published here by being explicitly a work of “new imperial history”. For those who remember when Commonwealth and imperial history were last to the fore, there is much in Charlotte Macdonald’s latest book that will be familiar.

This is a book that traces the recreation legislation in each country in a careful, well-researched way. The four nations of the sub-title are each afforded a chapter, although the chapter on Australia is, for the most part, about Sydney. Within those chapters, and in the book’s introduction and conclusion, a case is made for imperial as well as national fitness, for a shared understanding of how the State might encourage its citizens through recreation, for an imperial sense of what it was to play up and play the game, and how what it was to be modern had national and imperial dimensions.

The “new” in the imperial focus refers to the overall subject-matter (fitness and recreation, strong and modern bodies) and the ways those subjects are considered.

Women grace the book’s cover and are integral to the story. Maori and First Nations people in Canada, and to a lesser extent Aborigines in Australia, also get to play the game. Class politics are not ignored. Although the British fitness legislation was the first, and influenced politicians and policies in the settler dominions, this book is about the relationships within the imperial world rather than “old” imperial history’s assumption that the centre controlled the periphery.

The “British world” focus means Macdonald is able to draw more extensive parallels and point to more significant differences within the imperial family than those who write histories of a single nation state. Many history books about New Zealand contain references to what was happening elsewhere, and most historians read beyond national boundaries, but it is still unusual for a single-authored book to contain chapters about how the same subject played out in different countries. Macdonald is to be congratulated for carrying out extensive research in four different places. But the costs of doing so are more than just financial.

In the world of academic history, there are self-identified “British world” scholars who will welcome a book that takes seriously four imperial nations. But there are far more historians, and general readers, interested in only one of these countries. Since each country has its own chapter it would be easy for readers to dip in, read “their” chapter, and ignore the rest. But these chapters are not stand-alone journal articles. They are part of a book designed to be read as a whole. The question is, will readers who think in terms of national histories be tempted to read the other chapters?

Had Macdonald adopted a more thematic structure, exploring, for example, the ways fitness and recreation intersected with popular culture in the British world in one chapter, then readers would be forced to confront imperial similarities and differences, and think beyond their national colours. Such an approach would have cut down on some of the repetition inevitable in the current structure and might also have clarified some of Macdonald’s claims.

In the New Zealand chapter, for example, she writes that the local physical welfare and recreation scheme “grew more from an expansive notion of the possibilities of body and mind rather than from an anxiety about their inadequacies”. There is little in the rest of the chapter that justifies this assertion. But more than that, there is no clear sense of whether New Zealand differed from its imperial cousins in this regard, influenced other nations to think about the mind as well as the body, or was taking its lead from the motherland.

In the Australian chapter, modernity is to the fore. Australia (for the most part, Sydney) was all about the Harbour Bridge (1932), surf-lifesavers and bronzed beachgoers, radio and print media coverage of sporting events, department stores, dance halls and movie theatres. The bodies were strong, beautiful and modern. A contrast is implied with New Zealand: in the previous chapter the indigenous sport of marching is described as having an “exuberant anti-modernism” that appealed to post-war society. But it is only an implication.

By the conclusion, a definition of anti-modernism is offered: the idea that a “conservative setting”, such as the countryside, and a modernist pursuit, such as striving for a beautiful body, combined to form a “conservative modernity”, or anti-modernism. But no final words are offered about the relative success or strength of modernity in the different places, nor about whether certain aspects of modernity were better suited to the national goals or imperial sympathies of the fitness schemes.

A history that includes Canada cannot ignore the United States. And a history about national fitness in Canada cannot ignore ice hockey. The Empire Games may have brought Canadians into sporting contact with their imperial cousins, and the Canadian fitness legislation was very similar to the Acts passed elsewhere in the Empire, but the national sport was not part of the imperial “games culture” that Macdonald writes about.

Alongside the new imperial history, academic historians of late have taken a transnational turn, looking at the inter-connections between people and places around the globe. Macdonald argues that the “British world” “comes closer to the kind of transnationalism that was at work” in the world of strong and modern bodies. But the Canadian chapter questions that. Arguably, Canada was already more North American than imperial, its modernist reference point to the south rather than the east.

As Macdonald claims in her conclusion, “interest in fit, strong and beautiful bodies in the 1930s was not the monopoly of totalitarian and right-wing regimes”. Some, having looked at the book’s photographs, will question how beautiful these imperial bodies were. Others will question why Macdonald placed “beauty” in her title, given it was not central to the fitness legislation and is not prominent in the book as a whole.

What is clear is that in Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada the state took a renewed interest in strong and fit bodies in the years immediately preceding and following WWII. Strong, Beautiful and Modern does not explain the “origins of the modern preoccupation with ‘the body’ ”, despite the back-cover claims. Instead it offers a careful, well-researched study of the shared fitness history of four imperial nations. Its aim is ambitious, as befits a national fitness programme. Time will tell whether its approach will lead to the desired disciplinary benefits.


Caroline Daley is Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Auckland.


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