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.