Mark Godfrey

Craniometrics: Football Phrenology

Mark Godfrey
Craniometrics: Football Phrenology

I arrived late at the Albert Camus Bar on George Street on a foul, wet, black Saturday in the first week of March.

It was early afternoon and I knew I would find Gordon discussing football and philosophy with some of his faculty cronies, and his garrulous and bibulous fraternity. This was their regular Saturday debate. The buzz in the pub was contentious, pugnacious, loud and raucous. Groups of men and women were making all sorts of cranial measurements using sheets of graph paper, rulers, lengths of wood, bits of string, and anything else to hand that could be used as a measuring gauge. Brows were being carefully examined. Cranial angles were being checked. Cheek bones explored. Jaw alignments adjusted.

“Craniometrics,” the barman said to me in answer to my puzzled look. “We are measuring our crania for heading angles.”

Albert Camus, who the bar is named after, is a famous Algerian/French writer who was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1960 for his writings on philosophy. He articulated a philosophy of absurdism in his  fiction and other writings. Camus was born in Mondovi, Algeria, in 1913, the son of a cellarman and a cleaning lady. His father died from wounds he received during the First World War at the Battle of Marne. Camus was happy at school, excelling in intellectual discussions. A prolific reader of French literature, in particular Gide and Malraux, he was also excellent at swimming and  football. He went on to the University of Algiers and founded the Group for International Liaisons, which attacked the ideologies of both the Soviet Union and the USA. Football had a major influence on him and his thinking, particularly the comradeship and shared community of football. He was a goalkeeper for Racing Universitaire d’Alger, which later won the North African Champions Cup and the North African Cup, twice each in the 1930s. He played in the junior team from 1928 to 1930, but had to abandon all hope of a professional career when he contracted tuberculosis at the age of seventeen. In later years, he said of his footballing experiences: “After many years, during which I saw many things, what I know about morality and the duty of man I owe to sport and learned it in the RUA”. His most famous book, The Plague, features a professional footballer and various discussions on football.

Camus visited Edinburgh in the early 1950s at the invitation of Hibernian Football Club when it was enjoying its most successful period. He was present at a game at the Easter Road Stadium in which Hibs defeated the famous Glasgow Rangers by five goals to one, and remarked that he had never witnessed football of such elegance, poetry and speed. He was introduced to the players by manager Harry Swan – the architect of this wonderful club, and a football visionary who took Hibs into Europe before any other British team. The European competition at the  time was known as the Fairs Cup, and Hibs reached the semi-final by defeating Barcelona.

Camus loved the social and often disputatious atmosphere of Scottish bars. He spent hours arguing about football and philosophy in the ancient tavern that became a bank for a while, before returning to its original role as an inn called The Standing Order. In 1998, after France’s victory in the World Cup, and in memory of his visit in 1952, it became the Albert Camus Bar – now a major international football tourist destination. Camus remained a fervent supporter of Hibs until his tragic death in a car crash in 1960. The bar is favoured by French football fans, absurdist philosophers and existentialists, who add to the atmosphere generated by super-lucid REM dream stages, and advocates and researchers of fannabinoid, hopoid and hopamine. Sometimes they reflect on their dream-team of absurdists and philosophers, and their Absurdist Manifesto.

Mike: What is this craniometrics stuff all about, Gordon?

Gordon:  Optimum angles for heading, Mike. Football players differ in their cranial formations. You would be surprised at the variation in cranial formation among any group of footballers, no matter what background they are from – even if they are from the same  family. Do you recall the fabulous Baker brothers, Gerry and Joe, who played for Hibs in the sixties? You may remember that Joe rivalled Brian Clough, and was capped for England. Both brothers were prolific goal scorers. One would score by neat downward glancing headers and the other with explosive power headers that transformed confident goalkeepers into manic depressives. They were equally brilliant exponents of the headed ball. Their differential expertise was, of course, in the fine variations of their cranial angles. I have explored these issues at great length in my book The Cranium and the Header; this one will be published by the esteemed Kenny Dalglish Publishers of Liverpool.

Mike: Where does this come from, Gordon?

The noise in the Albert Camus Bar grew louder as the customers debated the significance of Gordon’s craniometrics among themselves, demonstrating various heading angles by throwing packets of crisps and balls made of crushed paper into the air and performing  brilliant balletic acts of heading as they descended. One customer was playing headers behind the bar with the young barman – winning easily because of the young lad’s bar-room sense of wisdom and propriety. Bottles were being dislodged from the gantry. Nobody except the barman seemed to be concerned.

Gordon:  I have Stephen Jay Gould, the poet of neoteny, to thank for this, Mike. It was Gould who made me aware of the work of the eighteenth century Dutch anatomist Petrus Camper. Camper was also a painter, and interested in beauty; curious, too, as to how the classical artists arrived at the ideal in terms of beauty. He realised that they based their anatomical forms on abstract geometrical principles, and in relation to the skull – the cranium. He thought he had worked out an angle that defined beauty. It’s known as Petrus Camper’s Angle, and is formed at the intersection of one line drawn from the opening of the ear to the base of the nose, and another drawn from the most forward projection of the upper lip to the most prominent part of the brow. He measured this angle in people around him and found it varied between 70 and 90 degrees, but in classical Grecian art it was 100 degrees. I read his book in the original language, Dutch, at Leiden University. His work was later distorted for racist purposes, by other thinkers, but this was not his intention.

At this point, I suggested we refreshed our glasses.

Gordon: Where was I now? Oh yes. Camper was not free of the prejudices of his century, of course, but his primary interest was in the combination of art and science. If we take Camper’s Angle as an index of heading variation we can see that a 70 degree angle makes for upward glancing headers, a 100 degree angle for power forward headers, and a 110 degree angle for downward headers. For side headers we make an angle from the horizontal passing through the centre of the cranium to another horizontal crossing the at the optimum heading point at eyebrow height. This line coincides with the tangent of the curve of the cranium and gives us three variations: the shorter line and more acute angle makes for upward headers or lobs; the longer line and more obtuse angle makes  for  power sideways headers; and the longest line makes for superb sideways downwards headers. This angle we can call Camper’s Optimum Angle, although we have no direct knowledge of his attitude to football.

Mike: You believe he was Passienic, don’t you? Do we also find examples of strikers with more acute Camper’s angles?

Gordon: Yes, Mike. And yes.

Mike:  Who in your opinion, then, was – or is – the  greatest exponent of the headed ball?

Gordon: That really depends on the variety of header you mean, Mike, but if you mean an all-round heading genius then there is only one winner. We have to consider Eusebio, Luis Garcia, Robin van Persie, Willie Bauld of Hearts, and Pele, but my winner is Lawrie Reilly of Hibernian. He was most famous for his power headers from a horizontal diving position, but because he was so successful at this the media downgraded his heading abilities in general. I’m sure he had some extra plasticity or flexibility in his spinal column. Some kind of ability to realign his neck and skull bones. Some kind of unique and radical skeletal adjustment facility linking his body alignment to his cranium…and with some dome flexibility allowing him to readjust his cranial angles according to the trajectory of the ball, no matter from what angle or position or with what force or velocity it came. With Lawrie Reilly there was no quantum uncertainty principle; when he connected with the ball, a goal was scored. The connection between his cranium and Gordon Smith’s right foot was beauteous, mysterious and ethereal!

Mike: Lucid. Can you describe that to me?

Gordon made a fist of his left hand and opening his right hand, palm upwards with fingers drawn together to represent the Smith’s right foot, described the arc of a beautiful right cross from the byeline being met by Reilly’s brow, low inside the penalty box; and then with his right hand as a fist, met the left fist of Reilly’s head, and completed the poetic and sensorimotor moment and trajectory with his right fist, expressing the explosive journey of the ball into the net. He sighed deeply with aesthetic satisfaction at the thought and continued slowly, slowly, with a kind of ecstatic reverence…

Gordon: I say this as a materialist and a scientist; I say this as an implacable opponent of all attempts to undermine a rigorous evidential approach to science and life; and yet, and yet, in spite of this, I say that the relationship between the right foot of Gordon Smith and the brow and left-angled cranium of Lawrie Reilly was one that defies description – a world-line that defies reduction, a continuum that defies discontinuity. It was beyond the transient, the contingent, the relative, and the moment. This was an absolute and numinous relationship…

Mike: You mean of the neotenous bipedal head and the bipedal foot?

Gordon stopped talking, dropped his head and slowly raised it up, up, up and back, until the spoken words were scarcely audible.

Gordon: Yes. This was a relationship, a continuum, which was mystical, beatific and ultimately truly transcendental: two bipedal football  brains, one beautifully angled and articulated cranium, and one perfect, poetic and numinous right foot.

He lowered his head and huge tears flopped onto the wood of the table before us and, finding the grain, spread slowly outwards. He was neotenously happy.

Mike: Um, speaking of craniums, Gordon, I understand that there was a School of Passienic Phrenology formed in Edinburgh in the first half of the nineteenth century. Is that right?

Gordon:  There was, Mike. It was much influenced by the Edinburgh Phrenological Society.

Mike: Is it reasonable to suggest that Passienic phrenology – the study of Passienic structures in the Homo brain, that correlate to football play and lucidic REM wake-dream expression – might draw on the history of phrenology fruitfully?

Gordon:  Naturally, Mike. Why not? The human brain is not a homogeneous intellectual organ of consciousness, of unstructured universal energy processing without difference, and positing unvarying sameness.

Mike: Well, okay. Darwin himself stated that the mind is formed and altered by use. Was he very much influenced by phrenology and the manipulation of practice?

Gordon: He certainly was! And he stated in 1838: “One is tempted to believe the phrenologists are right about habitual exercise of the mind altering form of head and thus these qualities become hereditary”.

Mike: Suggestions of hereditary memes and Lamarck here?

Gordon: Exactly. We now know that the human brain is modular, and that it is also plastic, so the notion of modular divisions of labour in the brain, altered by practice, was valid then and still is now. Darwin was correct about that and, therefore, the shape of the human head – its cranial formation – cannot not be influenced by the practice of thinking and consciousness.

Mike: If consciousness influences neural and cerebral structure, as it does, then it must by necessity alter the form of the brain and therefore its relation to its protective skeletal formation – although not in the way the phrenologists, and Darwin, assumed?

Gordon: Quite so, Mike. Saying that, though, neurology is now correlating human behaviour to precise areas of the brain, such as criminality. (A very dangerous direction of travel, if you ask me.)

Mike: Yes. Imagine being told “We just need to do a brain scan and then we will know if you’re going  to rob a bank”. Nuts! Of course, we know that when one area of the brain is injured or damaged that another may replace it and even recover the original function; that suggests that the brain is modular, but not exclusively so?

Gordon: Yes, as in engineering, when a water tank is transmuted into an armoured vehicle.

Mike: Can you tell me what the history of Passienic phrenology is prior to your own theory and perspectives?

Gordon:  It won’t surprise you to hear it began right here, in Edinburgh. Edinburgh was once the leading European centre for the study of phrenology – a world leader in the science.

Mike:  I didn’t know that. Of course, it was correctly termed a pseudoscience, with respect to the variations of the skull surfaces, but it did correctly posit the notion of variation of units of cerebral function. Who was involved?

Gordon:  The first British society was The Edinburgh Phrenological Society, founded in Edinburgh in 1820 by a physician called Andrew Combe, and his brother George – a lawyer. It was housed in Chambers Street and its members often met with the members of the Scarlett Society in the Homo Ludens Bar. Leading members included Robert Chambers, who wrote Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (a Darwinian type view of natural history), one William A. F. Browne, a leading pioneer in  mental health therapy and the Commissioner in Lunacy for Scotland (he pioneered art and occupational therapy for patients), and William Ballantyne Hodgson, who was an economist and educational reformer. There were more members: John Pringle Nichol, Scottish educator, economist and astronomer; Hewett Cottrell Watson, a botanist and evolutionary theorist; Alexander Dunedin, a  pioneer of the Ragged Schools Movement and founder of the Ragged University, which provided free educational support to university level and encouraged the spread of innovative ideas both within and outwith formal institutions of learning. I think that’s all. I believe this Dunedin fellow was a great friend of Darwin. They were both students here in Edinburgh, you know. And Darwin was much influenced by phrenology, before it fell into disrepute. Funny how it is undergoing something of a modest revival in modern theories of neurology. The idea of Franz Joseph Gall’s – that neural functions such as thought and emotions may be located in specific regions of the brain – is essentially correct.

Mike: Although not expressed by variations on the surface of the skull?

Gordon: As in phrenology. Correct.

Mike: Did Gall, the founder of the science, visit Edinburgh and meet with the Scottish advocates of his theory?

Gordon: No, he did not. But his secretary and assistant, Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, did. It was Spurzheim who introduced the Combe brothers to the theory.

Mike:  Was there any link to the Plinian Society at Edinburgh University where Darwin announced his first scientific discoveries?

Gordon:  Certainly, there was. Edinburgh was quite a small city back then, and the members and officers of the Phrenological Society would definitely have known and met socially with members of the Edinburgh Plinian Society; their offices were but a few yards distance from one another. As a matter of fact, members of the Plinian Society often met with the phrenology advocates and members of the Scarlett Society here, in the Ludens.

Mike: Is the Edinburgh Phrenological Society still in existence?

Gordon:  No. It was finally disbanded in 1880, although the building that housed its office and museum of phrenology still remains – in Chambers Street, opposite the National Museum of Scotland. It is now the Crown Office of Scotland. Some of the original artefacts are kept in the University of Edinburgh’s Anatomy Museum. That’s on Bristow Street.

Mike: And the connection to Passienic phrenology?

Gordon:  Oh, yes. Of course. One of the original members of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society was Dunedin, the founder of the Ragged University. Also, a Director of Hibernian FC. He adopted a theory of evolution not so far removed from Darwin’s: it was he that noticed that walking is actually kicking. He wrote that book – something about kicking and the playful history of humanity. He believed that walking was the origin of our success as a species – rather than our intellectual prowess. It was published by the Edinburgh Review, a publication that was unfriendly about the evolutionary ideas circling around Edinburgh at the time. It wasn’t a fully developed theory of H. passiens, but it was certainly a visionary outlook. I’m convinced that Huizinga – the chap who wrote Ludens – read what he wrote and was influenced by it. It was written in Dutch in the 1890s – I’ve viewed a copy myself in the Leiden University Library. As it happens, Huizinga was a keen fan of football; seen regularly at AFC Ajax matches in  Amsterdam, along with his great friend, the surrealist and piscatorial artist Jean Francois Cantona.

Mike: But what happened to the Passienic phrenologists?

Gordon: The same fate as the Edinburgh Society. Their documents and artefacts were housed in the Museum of Phrenology in Chambers Street, and later removed, in 1880 as I recall, to the Anatomy Museum at Edinburgh University.

Mike: Was Huizinga interested in the dream-game?

Gordon: He did not refer to it directly in relation to football. He did say “dreams are more important than census and tax figures” though. That was quoted in a paper delivered to the Johan Huizinga Conference in Groningen in 2014.

Mike: And that connects him to the surrealists.

Gordon: Yes! Very much so. He is known to have been a close friend of the French surrealist artist, Jean Francois Cantona, who came from Marseille, and who knew Breton, Dali, Man Ray, Duchamp and the Romanian surrealist painter, Jacques Hérold. Jean Francois Cantona is known as the “Piscatorial  Surrealist” because he only ever painted and sculpted fish. As a matter of fact, one of his most famous paintings hangs in the Museum of Modern Art here in Edinburgh, at Belford Road.

Mike: Did he play football?

Gordon: Yes he did. He was outstanding in his youth. He played professionally, just briefly, for Olympic de Marseille football club before he became an artist, stating that “two-footed football may never approach the beauty of fish, which can translocate without two legs, and without even one leg”. He believed that the Homo species was originally a marine species, and would eventually digest their legs, and return to the oceans, whence they came.

Mike:  That’s really fascinating, especially because it came so long before Elaine Mitchell and her Aquatic Ape Theory. Was he related to our famous surrealist footballer Eric Cantona?

Gordon: I believe Jean Francois claimed to be his great uncle…and we know that he taught the young Eric to fish in the famous Canal de Marseille, and to play football of such surreal and absurd beauty that late in life the old surrealist artist was heard to mutter under his breath that he may have “made an error in career choice, and I also could have played beautifully for Manchester United”.

Mike: Did he meet Alex Ferguson?

Gordon:  Who? Jean Francois? He did, he did. And there is evidence that he was directly responsible for the surreal REM dream-time phenomenon known as Fergi-Time Dilation – we must talk more about that another day.

Mike:  Plasticity of time is consistent not only with Einstein’s theory of relativity, but also with super-lucid wake-REM dream physiology – and consequently with surrealism.

Gordon: Yes, it surely is.

Mike: Brilliant. I must make a trip out to Belford Road and view Jean Francois Cantona’s fish painting. What is the title?

Gordon: Le Poisson et la Beauté du Football.

Mike: Cool! See you next week.

This feature is an excerpt from Homo Passiens: Man The Footballer by Mike McInnes with illustrations by Matt Kenyon. The book is available from Amazon HERE