As readers will know, I’m something of a sporting aficionado, and it takes little to engross me in a sporting contest. I can pretty much identify the moment when I moved from indifference to all and every sport to a growing passion as being when I was ten. Before I had little interest in the affairs of persons of sport and was less than enthused when asked/forced to participate in organised versions. Indeed those first attempts at organised sports have left indelible memories of various sorts.
At primary school we played football in the winter terms. There was a clear and very unsophisticated hierarchy. If you were keen and had any aptitude i.e. if you swung a boot in the general direction of a ball, and you hit it more often than not, you were a striker. The more strikes the more central your role. Five out of eleven slots were reserved for these gods and acolytes.
Enthusiasm but less aptitude saw you placed in what today is the midfield but back then might be considered the fall back forwards. Three places were found for such water carriers.
If the opposition managed to wrestle their way past such maestros then there was the defence, made up of two Private Perkins (as in the WW1 ‘We need a futile sacrifice, Perkins’). These unsung and much under-trodden heroes were the full backs and expected to lay down their bodies in defence of their team (on the sound principle that there was no point in their using feet or heads because a lack of coordination and an inclination to wince made that form of defence pointless).
And behind then, shaking with a terror that only unwanted individualism could engender was the goalie. There was one requisite for the goalie – size – the more space he filled the less goal there was to be shot at.
I was a fullback of significant terror and little inclination. My fellow full back, Paul was myopic and weedy – his knees were of a normal size; it was just the rest of his legs that were underspecified. The goalie, Dave was more dirigible that dextrous. He filled both his role and the goal to the best that his circumference would allow. I was large, but not as large, rather blubbery in both senses: made of blubber and inclined to blub. I’m not sure how long the games lasted but, to us, they seemed to be longueurs of frigid boredom, interspersed with high moments of panic and either relief (when the ball went back whence it came) or despair and we formed a triumvirate equivalent of sponge pudding in human form: initially invested with hope that we might turn out to be welcome but eventually a disappointment.
Cricket was played in the summer term and I had, back then, absolutely no idea what to do and where, beyond avoid at all costs, the ball. In every other sport I encountered under ten, the balls were pneumatic and while they hurt they weren’t out to maim or kill. Unlike cricket where the ball was a psychotic spheroid that you were expected to avoid with the use of a plank of wood or nimble footwork. Neither came naturally to one such as me. When it was time for the team unfortunate enough to have me as a member took to the field, all I wanted was somewhere where the ball wasn’t. I have a vivid memory of being exhorted to ‘catch it’ at one point. I had seen this done but had not then undertaken such a suicidal mission myself. I raised my hands in the form of a cup – a sort of fleshy grail – and held them in place until my brain registered the ball would actually connect with them. Self preservation is one thing, but merely taking the hands away protects only the hands. My chest didn’t move so fast and took the full impact. It hasn’t spoken to my hands since.
We had games regularly which involved hefting coir mats on to the playground and building a horse before we were exhorted to undertake a set of PE exercises. I don’t recall many save that I was the only member of the class – and that included the planetary Dave – who couldn’t manage a forward roll. Mine began in the approved fashion but by the time I’d spun over myself I was heading at 90 degrees to where I started. No matter how many times the teacher in charge shouted, exhorted and physically forced me, I listed left.
At the end of the summer term there were proper athletics: running, jumping and doing odd things with sacks and eggs. I recall being in a three legged race with Paul. He was a third my size and a quarter my volume. Inevitably we fell and he ended up under me. While that did nothing for his life as an athlete, it helped crystallise his career choice as a shadow.
The tipping point
My brother the archaeologist, natch. I’ve explained how my bone deep envy coloured my relationship in those early years. He was so much better than me at everything. When, in a fit of despair my parents bought me a butterfly net in the hope I might be encouraged to my own hobby, the Archaeologist, having won a full scholarship to the nearest private school found his summer holidays lasting longer than anyone else; thus he took up the net (admittedly, I had shown zip interest in it, but it was mine to ignore) and discovered what was to be one of his top enduring passions. That was it. I was going to find something, anything that I could call my own. It didn’t take long to realise that was sport. He hated sport, even more than I had.
I had found my calling; all I needed was to change shape, learn the rules/laws and develop a set of skills. Pah!
Next time, we will see how that worked out…