Play up! play up! and play the game!
A note for my North American reader: All mention of ‘football’ in this tale refers to soccer, and ‘hockey’ to field hockey.
There were somewhere near 2500 boys and young men aged between 15½ and 20 at RAF Halton, and Sport played a major part in keeping them occupied and out of mischief. All apprentices paricipated in football, rugby, cricket, and hockey teams, plus individually in swimming, athletics, fencing, and boxing.
You would think that would be more than enough athletic activity to keep us occupied, but it was common practise for a barrack block to be rousted out on a Sunday afternoon for a road run on the little used tracks and lanes which criss-cross the Chiltern Hills.
We would run, three abreast, in coveralls and hob-nailed boots – a hundred steel shod boots hitting tarmac at the same time made one hell of a din.
Many a courting couple, carnally entwined on the back seat of a car in leafy lay-by, received the shock of their lives as we thundered past, hollering and whooping at the lascivious behaviour of the startled pair.
It was coitus interruptus in the extreme — the experience probably left them with severe sexual problems for the rest of their lives, although it did afford many apprentices their first demonstration of the sex act, albeit through a glass darkly, or more often than not a steamed-up back window.
I ask my reader to bear with me as I spend some little time detailing my sporting prowess before I joined the RAF.
From about the age of eight I played football for my primary school in London; Oxford Gardens Junior Boys, aka the Ladbroke Grove Cloggers.
I played on the right wing and modelled my play on the then famous and illustrious Stanley Matthews. My teammates said I played more like Stanley Laurel – the young can be extremely cruel.
Not long after I had taken the 11+ Examination my family moved from London to the North East of England. The result of a pupil’s 11+ Exam determined the type of school attended for their secondary education.
A ‘pass’ meant going to a grammar school and a ‘fail’ to a secondary modern school. Somehow I managed to ‘pass’.
I should mention Grammar schools played rugby during the winter whereas Secondary Modern schools played football -- it was a class distinction thing.
The first secondary school I attended was John Smith’s Grammar School in Hartlepool. The move from London to Hartlepool, which is situated at the mouth of the River Tees in what was then County Durham but is now Teesside, was something of a culture shock for both me and my new schoolmates. However, the young are very adaptable and it wasn’t long before my ears became attuned to their regional, sub-Geordie, accent and they became accustomed to my Estuary English, which they erroneously described as ‘Cockney’.
After six months, when I was well settled in my new surroundings, my family moved again. I was sad to leave Hartlepool; John Smith’s School was unusual for the era in that it was a co-educational establishment, and where I first became aware of the opposite sex; lasses, as young women and girls are known in those parts.
My next school was Archbishop Holgate’s Grammar School, York. Unfortunately, the school was an all-male seat of learning, and my burgeoning knowledge of females came to a grinding halt – no pun intended.
The school’s games master quizzed me as to which code of rugby, League or Union, I had played at Hartlepool, a town whose citizens have a reputation for aberrant behaviour as the townsfolk once hanged a monkey.
The games master was concerned that the eccentricity of the town might also include the playing of Rugby League, a game played by professionals, whereas — in those far off days — Rugby Union was all amateur and non–payment, and never the twain could meet on the same pitch. I had no idea there were two codes of rugby, and in fact had never played rugby of any code whilst at Hartlepool. The few times during the winter when the pitches were playable, i.e. not under three foot of snow or suffering permafrost, the fog rolling in off the North Sea stopped any play as you couldn’t see your hand behind your back.
“Err — I don’t know, sir. I never...”
He interrupted me impatiently. “Were there thirteen or fifteen players in the team, boy?”
Rather than go into a long-winded explanation of the weather conditions prevalent at the mouth of the River Tees in winter I quickly picked a number. “Err — thirteen, sir.”
The games master’s face paled with shock, inadvertently I had chosen the number of players in a Rugby League team. He reached into his desk drawer and withdrew a bell, which he hung about my neck to warn the rest of the school I was unclean.
Okay, so I’m exaggerating and no bell was produced, but I was banned from playing Rugby Union in case I contaminated the other pupils with rugbyleagueitis. So instead of taking part in bloody and bruising games of ‘rugger’ I went cross-country running with the other freaks, misfits and weirdos in the school — who weren’t as daft as they appeared.
Fortunately, after six months in York my family moved again. I will not bore you with the reasons for our frequent moonlight flits.
Our next abode was in a small village in the depths of Lincolnshire, a largely rural county, and in those days the second largest in England.
Despite its size the county was not known for prowess in any kind of sport, although Tony Jacklin was born in the county, and Scunthorpe United Football Club once had Kevin Keegan and Ian Botham on their books, even if not at the same time.
The village where I lived was in the catchment area of The King’s School, sixteen miles away in the small town of Grantham, although the city of Lincoln was nearer. No problem; the hour long journey on the round-all-the villages-juddering-shuddering-Lincolnshire Road Car Company omnibus-to school each morning allowed me to catch up on my homework, although not improve my handwriting.
No one at Grantham asked about my previous schools, or what code of rugby I had played. It was assumed I had played rugby union, and after a year of secondary schooling I would be aware of the rules of the game.
The vast majority of the pupils at the King’s School had never played rugby until entering the hallowed portals of the school, and were taught the rules and techniques of play in their first year of secondary education.
I joined these experienced boys in the second year as a complete tyro, but even so not long after my arrival I was representing the school in the Under 15’s rugby team, which shows the level of skill at the establishment as I didn’t have the slightest grasp of the rules of the game, and still don’t.
I couldn’t get my head around the fact that you ran forward but threw the ball behind you – now where’s the sense in that?
There was no games master as such at Grantham. The junior French master took any training sessions held, and his one, and only, game play was ‘tackle them low – they can’t go anywhere sans legs’.
Which is true, but diving at the lower limbs of some girt big lad, running like a steam train with his legs going like pistons, one stood a good chance of having a knee in the face, or somewhere equally painful.
What our school teams lacked in technique and expertise was made up in berserker bloodlust. Our headmaster judged how well a player had performed in the arena — I mean on the field of play — by the amount of mud and blood on the player’s jersey. If the majority of the blood was from an opponent then that was a bonus.
I maintained a pristine jersey for much of my playing career at the King’s School and was never voted Player of the Year.