In “Fox Tossing,” British documentary filmmaker Edward Brooke-Hitching compiles the many cruel, dangerous and inexplicably goofy sports and pastimes that humans entertained themselves with in the past, from wolfing to phone-booth stuffing.
‘Fox Tossing: And Other Forgotten and Dangerous Sports, Pastimes, and Games’
by Edward Brooke-Hitching
Touchstone, 264 pp., $24
Centuries from now, archaeologists are likely to uncover video of American professional football circa 2016 and be appalled by the brutality of the game. If they are lucky, they might also find a copy of a book explaining that, in the grand scheme of things, football and other contact sports weren’t so bad after all.
British documentary filmmaker Edward Brooke-Hitching has written such a book about amusements past. And while “Fox Tossing” is meant to be an entertaining look at the way things were, the inescapable conclusion is: Thank God these so-called sports were quickly consigned to history’s ash bin.
As Brooke-Hitching goes through a range of forgotten sports, from aerial golf to the particularly bloodthirsty wolfing — the royal sanction of hunting wolves into extinction in medieval England and Scotland — the overriding theme that emerges is the amount of cruelty that humans inflicted on animals in the name of providing themselves with entertainment. It’s enough to make you sick.
Such decadence, of course, did make others sick, a prime reason the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was formed in the early 19th century. Birds, bears, cats, dogs, foxes — indeed the entire animal kingdom — owe a tremendous debt of gratitude.
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But if we weren’t killing animals, we often were killing ourselves. And not just in the medieval period, a time when some of the rougher sports were considered to be foundations of military training. Brooke-Hitching cites many a sport that didn’t catch on even in the 20th century, largely because the game was an invitation to a premature death.
Cruelty and danger are two of the three categories that catch Brooke-Hitching’s eye. The other is ridiculousness. Fox tossing, the 18th-century German “sport” from which the book takes its name, could reasonably be considered for all three. “Played by both men and women, the aim of the game was to launch the unsuspecting animals in the air as high as possible,” the author writes. When they came back to Earth, the grim reaper took over.
There are some problems with organization in this book, namely the author’s decision to list the sports in alphabetical order. The effect is to jump around from the ancient period to the Middle Ages to the modern era, leaving the reader not quite sure what people-throwing in the 18th century has to do with phone-booth-stuffing in the mid-20th century. Answer: not much, except the ridiculousness of it all. And when did phone-booth-stuffing become a sport, rather than a stunt?
Yet although “Fox Tossing” seems at times like scrolling through Wikipedia, give Brooke-Hitching some credit. Even though blood sports still exist, what he’s really accomplished is to make us aware, in vivid detail, that the mass killing of animals just isn’t cricket.