Monday, July 23, 2007

Football Dodgems: How to be cool in school - TonyEllis

Sports do not build character. They reveal it.
Heywood Broun (1888 - 1939)

Children as a social group are not very imaginative, so the ways to advancement in the playground hierarchy are fairly limited. In fact, there are only really three.

Method 1: Being Hard. The adult world might have problems in quantifying this, what with WBC, WBC, IBO etcetera, but there’s only one Hardest Kid in the School (well, two I suppose, as the girls had their own category). Unfortunately, this was far from being me, handicapped as I was by a morbid fear of pain. My father, desperate for a real boy, paid for me to have classes in Pushido, the ancient Japanese art of shoving and scowling. Not even this could overcome my basic cowardice.

Method 2: Getting in Trouble. Since a necessary corollary of this method was being rulered, slippered, caned or otherwise thrashed, I was again hamstrung by my algophobia, along with my uncanny ability to maintain a lie in any situation. The latter skill might have earned me a degree of respect, had I been able to claim it publicly. However, as my refusal to confess had led to one or two mass detentions, any boasting would have put me in a difficult situation (see method 1).

Method 3: Being Good at Sport. I think I could have been a contender in this category were it not for two early traumas. The first of these, aged 9, was overhearing my father describe my first appearance in the scouts’ football team to my mother. “I was so embarrassed - he was staggering around on those skinny legs like a new-born foal.” Yet far worse was to follow. In a last-ditch attempt to awaken my masculinity, I was sent to a boarding school. Here I was introduced to every cowardly weakling’s nightmare: Rugby.

My pathetic build should, by rights, have kept me safe from this appalling blood sport. However, in an ill-conceived attempt to appease a disappointed father and a psychopathic Welsh Sports Master, I won a hundred yards race for my house. The brief, warm glow of victory was quickly replaced by an icy terror: “Well, well, boyo, who’d have thought it? You’re very small, it’s true, but quick, mind. Right Wing. Saturday.

I really thought I’d got away with it. Eighty minutes of running up and down the wing and not a scratch or a bruise to show for it. My method was simple: if there was no-one near me, I could make a serious attempt to catch any passes that came my way; if any of the other team was within tackling distance, I would fumble the ball, making sure I fell into the nearest mud patch in my desperation to reach it. I even received a few hearty pats on the back from my team mates - the other side, weary of wasting their energy on an obvious non-combatant, had decided to focus their efforts on more worthy opponents, thus leaving me free to score the winning try.

There was no fooling Mr Roberts, though. ‘Beaten for cowardice’. I’ll never forget those words. At our school, we were made to fill in the punishment book ourselves.

While this last experience may have broken some people, it was the making of me. First of all, it gave me an appreciation of irony far beyond my years, according to Mr Wright, our English Literature Master. Secondly, I lost my terror of corporal punishment. In fact, had I known how much this service was going to cost today, I’d probably have made more of the opportunities afforded by a minor public school. In short, I was now primed for success. Who knows what I might have made of myself?

Back in Wanstead, however, events dictated otherwise. My father had run away with Laurie Webb, the bucket and sponge man for Clapton Orient, and next half-term hols I was introduced to Uncle Frank, mum’s new friend from the local Labour Party. Uncle Frank was a car worker and Trotskyite infiltrator, so, rather than being put on the train with my tuck box, I took the bus from our council house in Dagenham to Burton’s, a comprehensive in Rainham.

Drippy ex-public schoolboy goes to state school in Essex; you wouldn’t give much for my chances, would you? Yet this was 1970 and, for the first time in my life, I was perfectly placed to stake my claim for coolness. While uniform rules had been ruthlessly enforced at my previous school, the headmaster had a love for the Romantic poets which meant that hairstyles were largely left to our parents. Uncle Frank had done away with the holiday tradition of dragging me off for a short back and sides, so I started my first day with one of those floppy basin cuts you’ve probably seen in films starring Rupert Everett; a style which coincided perfectly with Essex youth’s segue from skin to suedehead. Although my crossed ‘t’s gave rise to accusations of homosexuality, a public school accent was perfectly suited to the baiting of teachers whose pathetic attempts at flagellation were now as flea-bites to me. The discovery of Uncle Frank’s stash moved me up rapidly through the playground ranks, but I didn’t reach the top until I invented Football Dodgems.

This game inside a game required one always to be where the ball was not, accurately judging the trajectory of each pass so as to be able to run away from the target area. Great skill was necessary, since the rules stated that neither the players of the official game nor the overseeing sports teacher should become aware of the game within. Each unwilling touch of the ball would earn a minus point, and the loser had to ask Jenny Dobson to go out with him.

At first there were only three of us. Still, by now it was possible for even tossers to be cool, as long as we had long hair and a collection of records by groups nobody else had ever heard of. We began to attract more players. As our numbers grew, the skill required became more demanding and we had to make some changes. Jenny Dobson’s schoolwork was suffering, for one thing. For another, maintaining some kind of flow became increasingly difficult as the number of genuine footballers went down. This last factor nearly saw the death of the game. Mr Owen, our psychopathic Welsh Sports teacher, finally noticed that something was amiss; difficult not to, really, given that the only person grimly hanging on to the outmoded football was the school captain, Kevin Bernard. As Kevin was being forced screaming into the ambulance, Billie Gover, the school grass, whispered something into Mr Owen’s ear.

My expulsion was, it seemed, a matter of formality. However, since that formality involved a meeting with Uncle Frank, Head of the Board of Governors, it was a chastened Mr Owen who took the early bath.

The rest is history. Uncle Frank became Minister for Sport under the premiership of Red Robbo and championed Football Dodgems as an antidote to competitive sport. It may only be a demonstration sport in China, but by 2012 it’ll be right up there with synchronised swimming, hopscotch and origami.


PW75 said...

Ah, the horrors of being forced to play rugby and getting sat on by fat bullies. Even worse, I went to a state school so said bullies had honed both their talent at mindful violence and their fatness over years of minor riots on the local estate (the since demolished Roundshaw estate in Croydon). God, I hate rugby.

Inventing your own sports was also good fun. I became zen master of Chaos Pool in the Sixth Form, although I didn't really have the hair or records to carry it off.

hannibalbrooks said...

Good piece. I enjoyed it muchly.

I ended up playing a season and a bit for Liverpool U-18 RU team, aged just 15 and never had the faintest idea what I was supposed to be doing for my entire time on a pitch.

But what sticks in my mind is that the tackles, the elbows, the scratchings, the stampings, the kicks and the fingers in the eye didn't hurt at all, which I think was due to the fact that you were always expecting to be hurt and the so the body's supplies of adrenalin took care of it all.

Breaking my foot, ankle and leg in my last game hurt though, hurt like hell infact. Yet what I remember most clearly is some ex-public schoolboy-bank-manager-tosser standing on the touchline in a club tie and blazer as I was writhing in agony shouting 'Charecter!! ... Charecter Liverpool!!' ... and all I could do was manage to vomit without getting any on my rugby shirt ... which I thought took 'charecter'.

DoctorShoot said...

loved it

the confessional, the management, the striving and the fantasydome ending...

"beaten for cowardice" a fine eye for irony indeed...

not always easy being where the ball isn't of course, especially if you are forced to play fullback...

offside said...

Good to have you back, Tony, thanks for that one, enjoyed it immensely. More please.

marcela said...

ha, ha. lovely!

the universals of the playground tyranny - the supremacy of the athletically gifted and the naughty... wonderful triumph of resistance. :)

plus i learnt a condition which afflicts me too has an actual name: 'algophobia'.

so many thanks.


Anonymous said... , see you!!

tony said...

Thanks for commenting, all. Might we look forward to a piece on Chaos Pool soon?
HB - You're beginning to sound like your hero. I think my body's supplies of terror cancelled out the adrenaline.
Doctorshoot - fullback was no problem for me; I was a utility player.
Offside... it's good to be back. I think. My obsessive nature has to be controlled as I am quite capable of doing nothing else for weeks on end.
Marcela - thanks very much. When I first googled that word, I thought it meant 'fear of something', which sounds like something an amnesia might have...

bluedaddy said...

Will have yet another go at posting on this ace piece. I fear the wains have been at the keyboard.

I wanna be in your gang TonyE. Hated rugby, liked being naughty, but not too naughty. My route to safety was Year Forger - get out of PE letters, homework diaries signed, dentist appointments - I was your man.

bluedaddy said...

As I seem to be back in business, can I also add to the praise for the tone and style of this TE. Really natural, revealing and rings true, but not sickly or self indulgent or, worst of all, dull.

Thanks TonyE.

What of the Hammers this season? This has got to be the biggest season in Curbs' career. Last season was a nothing to lose number, but now he's got to show if he can handle expectation and money. I think there will be plenty willing WHU to fail.

I am not too sure what to think myself. I can't be doing with Lucas Neill, but have a soft spot for that Hammers love of stylish football, and the raucous crowd. A siege mentality might be the making of this team (Hmm, where have I seen that tactic used before?).

tony said...

BD thanks for your very encouraging words. Kids eh? Can't shoot 'em, can't even thrash 'em thanks to this nanny state...

I think I'm looking forward to this season. As long as I've followed West Ham, they've been most people's soft spot and I can't wait to see what it's like to be as hated as Manu or Chelsea (well, I suppose that will only come if we're successful). I have a feeling it'll be Europe this year - Freddy will fit in in beatifully. As for Neill... I'm embarrassed to say that I only really follow Spanish football and the Hammers these days, so I don't know anything about him. I'll start googling now...

chelseaexile said...

Tony, was the minor public school Bancrofts, by any chance?

MotM said...

Is writing evocative stuff like this "How to be cool in Pseuds' Corner"?

A while ago, JG Ballard wrote about airports being one continuous World City and I know what he was getting at. But isn't the school playground that one continous World City?

tony said...

sorry, chelsea, I've promised never to tell. Do they sound similar?

Cheers, Mouth. You can take the boy out of the playground but...

Zeph said...

Great piece, Tony, loved it. Given that so many PE teachers were psychopathic it's a wonder that any of us grew up able to tolerate sports at all - is it still the same, I wonder? Are there still women out there who delight in making teenage girls stand around in below-zero temperatures until they turn mauve? Running up and down the wing used to work quite well in hockey, though.

tony said...

Hello Zeph - don't think it's the same since they sold of the sports fields. Did you ever play hockey dodgems?

file said...

bloodyhell TonyEllis, this is like a movie of my childhood too!

Really well shot, personal and vivid, myself I ended up being an anti-competitionalist, though 'Pushido' did wonders for me

totally sympathize with this, including the 'baby-foal' experience, the 15 minutes of fame as a 100 metre dasher, sadistic sports teachers (that's how I escaped from single-sex, public school hell but that's another story) as well as that difficult move from Pub to Comp, though I probably didn't last as long as you

great piece, really well told, thanks for sharing! You're not alone!

Zeph said...

Tony, I was playing a one-girl version of hockey dodgems, but never found anyone else to join in, the others were too scared of the evil PE teacher with the strange frizzy hair.

Anonymous said...

just stopping by to say hello

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