Purple bruises, raw thighs and freezing knees. Short shorts, no protection for your legs, which either got covered in mud, or took you running as fast as you could away from the others. In contrast to the rugby shirt (not fashionable in those days) and the flapping draughty shorts, the outfit for cricket was far more sensible: long flannels, a sweater for chilly moments. But playing rugby, you were tough, a fighter who ignored the cold. To complain labeled you a wimp or sissy, or whatever they were called in those days. Now, with the coming end of term, the pain would soon be over. Hostilities would cease. Why anyone thought that these simulated battles, these turf wars, were ‘good for the mind’ was beyond me. We were expected to adhere to the moral command of Play up and play the game – whether cricket, rugby or political argument. Isn’t life hard enough without the false dichotomy of Us-vs-Them? Was conflict on the school field a metaphor for life, a battle without end? Do we really need to learn that lesson outside on a freezing grass pitch, opposing our erstwhile friends who are now our foes? Is pitting the collision of bodies akin to pitting our wits? If so, then get in some practice, with the comforting thought of a final whistle and hot shower.
The beginning of the school year was a con, an advertiser’s dream, giving a misleading impression of outdoor fun and games. You are taken in by the pleasant weather of early September. The sun is still warm, the grass luxuriant, providing soft landings. And then the season changed: the wind got up, the chill factor rose, and it rained. The pitch, once trampled, turned to mud, indented with the pocks of a thousand studded boots.
Rugby was compulsory, considered a ‘gentleman’s game’ – though played by ruffians. Being a grammar school, it was deemed appropriate, given its origins in a public school. It was deemed superior to lowly soccer played by plebs in secondary modern schools. And never to be confused with Rugby League, a much more fluid game, but played by Northerners in flat caps and their eeh-bah-gum outlandish accents. No, this was Rugby Union, which had the advantage of involving 15 players, fitting nicely with the nominal school roll of 30 pupils to a class.
It soon became clear that to survive one must play the unofficial version, the game of avoiding involvement. It’s the soft martial art of not being around when danger strikes. Perhaps this is the transferable skill needed for the future. Would you rather get stuck in, shoved, jostled, tackled, brought low, or would you rather engage in something more intellectual – something that the school actually prided itself in providing? Playing the game of not playing the game at least you were less likely to become injured or damaged by the never-ending tackles and scrums. If you were agile and fit, in the elevated ranks of the forwards, you would spend your time running around and passing the ball. Otherwise, you lurked at the back, hoping that neither the ball nor the opposing team would come near you, terrified when a drop-kicked ball bounced into your part of the pitch. Lingering near the goal posts, pretending to be engaged, was a numbing experience.
Now, in April, the rugby season draws to a close, the pitch over-used and needing time to recover, in order to fulfil its role as the outfield of summer term’s cricket. The end of term counts its walking wounded, the boys carted off to hospital with broken collar bones, or dislocated limbs. In some perverse way, this is seen as ‘letting the school down’.
Having hung up my boots for the year, I leave behind the gym changing rooms with the smell of wet concrete, the whiff of lifebuoy soap. In my return to academia the walk along the corridor replaces those odours with the smell of floor sealant and the wood polish on the oak staircase near the Headmaster’s office. Back in the land of chalk-dust, the smell of stale biscuits and stewed coffee wafts from the staff room. It’s time for more intellectual pursuits.
© Peter Young 2015