School for Hard Knocks

So it’s cold, gloomy and, frankly, rather depressing again and that’s just inside my flat. Outside, it’s windy and raining as well and with little prospect of that changing any time today it seems. So, with absolutely no point in going out with my camera this afternoon, I’ve been using my time wisely for a change. I’ve put my washing machine on and, yes, I’ve put stuff in it too. I’ve hoovered, I’ve wandered around for a bit trying to remember why I was wandering around a bit, I’ve had a bath and I’ve hoovered a bit more. I’m not a fan of hoovering, largely because I know at some point the underside of the cast-iron spiral staircase is going to hurt me deliberately and, worse, that its attack will come completely out of the blue. I do love the spiral staircase as a feature but it needs much more space around it than it has. Over the years it’s beaten me about the head several times and, on one occasion, hit me so hard between the shoulder blades I thought I’d been hit by a sniper from the top of the cliff opposite. Unfortunately, as I spend a great deal of time wandering in and out wearing muddy boots and with numerous leaves, twigs and insects still clinging to me, I do need to hoover regularly or my flat soon starts looking like I’m creating an indoor nature trail of some kind. Thankfully, today I managed to avoid any major injuries and the task is complete.

I’ll be honest, it’s not often I get this much done by lunchtime on a Saturday and this is largely because I got up at 9am to watch the rugby. Mind you, I faffed about for ages trying, unsuccessfully, to get it on my computer only to find out during half-time that it was free on ITV. I was livid. I have a shortcut to ITV on my computer but I’d stopped even clicking on it because every time I did there’s been bugger all there to even consider watching. I don’t even know what ITV is for anymore to be honest. Oh no. Wait. Of course. I do know what it’s for. It’s for watching that sporting event I’ve just missed the first half of. Bloody hell-fire. Anyway, we lost to the better side and if our players are coming off the pitch covered in blood you can’t really say they didn’t give it everything they had. That’s assuming it’s their blood they’re covered in of course. Or does it make a difference? Anyway, we lost and that’s that.

The end of the match was followed by a near-flurry of activity as I got all of the above done and, before I knew it, it was time to sit down and do something I hadn’t done for a while. No, not making a list of all the things I think might have been on all the other lists I’ve lost, although it is some time since I’ve done that. No, to sit down and write something. I’ve spent so much time with work, away with work, out with new lens, etc., etc. I’ve not had much time to put pen to paper, or whatever the technological equivalent of that is. Add to that my recent lack of motivation, inspiration and even inclination in some ways, it’s hardly surprising that my literary journey has been winding it’s way quite slowly through a rather barren landscape.

However, the Rugby World Cup reminded me of my own very brief career in school rugby. So, now equipped with some inspiration, some personal experience and with a bit of time to fill, I sat down to write the following:


I went to a comprehensive school in North Shields in the North East of England. It was during what is now called Year 10 that I played in the school’s rugby team. It would have been 1979. I was fifteen years old, tall, skinny and pretty quick at running. I’d been told to volunteer for the left wing (rugby not politics) and had reluctantly agreed, probably because I was too scared of the PE teacher, a tall, bald-headed, mean-looking man called Mr. Dotchin, to argue with him about it.

School tradition dictated that we played rugby only when the ground had frozen sufficiently to guarantee a knock-out if you bounced your head off it. However, the PE staff weren’t completely heartless. On those rare days when it was judged too inclement to play rugby outdoors, usually signaled by the sighting of birds falling frozen dead from the sky, they played an indoor version of rugby called ‘murder-ball’ which, as you can imagine, wasn’t for the faint-hearted. The first rule of ‘Murder-Ball Club’ was, well, there were no rules so there wasn’t a first one. It was, essentially, just a big fight with a medicine ball somewhere in the middle of it.

Now, and to get back to the point, scoring a try as a left-winger entirely depends on the ball being passed all the way along the backs to the very end where you are. If the person inside of you is very good, very selfish or a combination of the two, as was the case in our team, they often don’t need or don’t bother to pass it to the left wing and just score the tries themselves. I’m not complaining though. Not at all. It was a win-win for me. I got to bask in the reflected glory of the team’s victories but also avoided getting injured or, often, doing anything at all of any value really, bar running up and down for an hour, in the right direction whenever possible, and serving as a general distraction to the opposition. Overall, I didn’t dislike it half as much as I thought I would, though scoring some points would have been nice. The high and low points of my single season in school rugby took place in the same match, a match we lost and in controversial circumstances.

I went to a school called Preston High School. It was mid-season, we were towards the top of the table and chugging along nicely, having played and won many of what we assumed would be our more difficult matches. It was close though and our next match was against the formidable Benfield High, a school on the outskirts of Newcastle known to be, let’s say, a bit rough around the edges. A win would put us in the top three, a defeat might put us back down to mid-table depending on how other teams got on.

It was cold and misty on the day of the game, the pitch was a quagmire but the game was to go ahead. The Benfield High minibus arrived at about 4pm. Half an hour later we were lined up outside the back door to the ‘Away Team’ changing rooms where, in accordance with another stupid tradition, we got cold waiting to greet our opponents as they emerged. Naturally, they only emerged once their coach was certain that any warming up we’d done previously was now long-forgotten by our muscles.

Finally, the door opened and their team jogged out in single file. They were the usual motley collection of opponents and I’m sure they thought the same about us but we all tried to look intimidating, furrowed our brows menacingly and stared at each other, mad-eyed, as best we could. That is until we saw their hooker (the number two if memory serves).

As I looked along the line I saw him coming. I could also see my team mates on the right staring up at him, open-jawed, as he went passed them. He was bloody huge. I was fairly tall for my age, around five foot ten inches I think, but this ‘man’ must have been six foot two or three at least and probably seventeen or eighteen stone. You could just tell that everyone on our team, all the players and the PE staff, were thinking the same thing: there’s no way he is under sixteen. Absolutely no way.

This was many years before the’Shrek’ movies but had the term existed, this is what we would have called him. Not because of what he looked like facially, I don’t even remember what he looked like if I’m honest, but more because of his sheer size compared to us. If he was fifteen or so like the rest of us, then there was something freakish if not monstrous about him. Worryingly, I remember seeing our forwards looking at each other, shaking their heads and mouthing their probably negative sentiments silently to one and other as they jogged on to the pitch.

Our only hope lay in the possibility that this giant kid or, ‘fully-grown bloody adult’ as they are sometimes known, would be slow, easy to bring down with the right numbers and worn out in no time dragging clumps of us around the soggy pitch. We would be the pride of lions, ruthless and organized. He would be the water buffalo stuck in the mud, caught alone and exposed, powerful and yet defenceless. No doubt he would be brave and steadfast despite the futility of his position and the certainty of his fate. No doubt he would go down with glory but go down he would. Victory would be ours. There’d be buffalo for dinner tonight, probably with chips and peas and a bit of gravy. Sadly, that all turned out to be bollocks.

It was clear from the off that ‘The Beast’ had been thoroughly coached. I think the coaching conversation went something like this, “See this? This is a ball. When you have the ball you have to run with it until you get to that line over there. If anyone gets in your way you have to flatten them. Got it? Sure? Oh and if anyone asks how old you are look them in the eye, say ‘numbers make my head hurt ‘ and walk away.”

We lost almost every scrum in the first half and once The Beast got moving with the ball he proved almost impossible to bring down. His arms and legs would flail around, flinging to one side anyone who strayed close enough. If you can imagine half a dozen skinny donkeys being thrown at a wind turbine, you’ll get the picture. Carnage.

Close to half time there was a scrum near to their goal line. Suddenly, from a pile of bodies on the ground the ball popped up and was directly in front of me about ten feet away. As it rose to its zenith, I started to run towards it. I could see its trajectory. I could see the catch. I could see the pile of bodies below me as I soared over them, ball in hands. I could see myself landing beyond the goal line and throwing myself to the ground. I could see myself rising to my feet roaring in victory like the lion I so clearly was. Five points! I would be a hero! Girls, even good-looking ones, would suddenly be interested in me. I would probably make the school’s newsletter. I might even get a mention in assembly. It was going to be life-changing at least.

Sadly, I was so busy seeing all these other things that I didn’t see three of their players converging on me all at the same time. As I hung in the air only inches away from the ball with my arms outstretched and my hands fully open, ready to seize my prize, I was hit by all three from slightly different angles. In an instant, I found myself folded up into something resembling a large paper clip. My big chance had gone, along with all of the air out of my lungs, and I fell into the mud with a wet thud, the sort of sound that has ‘loser’ written all over it.

The next thing I remember was being lifted up to my feet by Mr. Dotchin. Fearing the amount of paperwork he’d have to do if I’d been badly hurt, he and the other PE teacher, whose name time has allowed me to forget, had started running towards me as soon as they saw the tackle. I also remember Mr. Dotchin looking at me in the eye and asking me if I was okay. When I muttered that I was he just winked, smiled and ruffled my hair with his hand. I remember it vividly because it was the first time I’d ever seen this particular teacher show any kind of concern for one of his pupils. He was a hard man and never seemed likely to have anything even approaching a soft centre. It was, in hindsight, a misjudgment that may have revisited me a couple of years later, but with a twist.

Anyway, fortunately for all of us, I was just winded and, it being close to half time, they left me on the pitch but made me fullback so I could avoid any chance of being folded up again, origami-fashion, out on the wing. I did recover over the remainder of the half and was fully back to my senses by the time the second half started although I stayed in the fullback position for the second half. This change of position, unbeknownst to me at the time of course, would prove to be pivotal in my snatching a personal victory from the very jaws of defeat and to my leaving the field a hero, of sorts.

We were well behind on points at the start of the second half. We were still well behind on points at the end of it. This was largely because the coaching staff had decided at half time that they didn’t want to risk any more injuries as players grew tired and,as a result, had made a lot of substitutions. The substitutes, having seen The Beast in action, were actually rather looking forward to just being substitutes for the remainder of the game so lacked any real motivation to get stuck in and reverse our fortunes in the second half. Instead of victory, thoughts turned to retribution where it could be found discreetly. There were high tackles, low tackles, elbows, knees and fists. One of their players emerged from a scrum barely able to breathe and in tears claiming he’d had his nipple horrifically twisted. The look on our hooker’s face suggested it was true. Clearly, the gloves were off. It was ‘Lord of the Flies’ but with a ball instead of a conch.

Late in game the literal mist had literally descended and I could barely see the far end of the pitch. Suddenly, I heard my name being called. I looked up from my position just in front of one of the posts and saw the ball, high up in the sky, spinning and tumbling back to Earth right in front of me. Then, I spotted a figure emerging from the gloom and running directly towards me. It was The Beast. He was maybe twenty yards away and didn’t look like stopping. It seemed no-one on my team had felt it necessary to get in his way. I remember gulping and glancing back to the ball. Judging that it was coming over my head, I took a few steps back and glanced at The Beast again. He was now ten yards away and closing fast. My heart rate must have been through the roof but I stood my ground. The Beast was perhaps only a yard away when I snatched the ball from the air in front of him and stepped to my left.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw his disappointment as he realised I’d caught the ball. I recall the horror etched into his face as he realised just how close to the post he was. I watched as his brain did the maths and successfully worked out that there was no way he was going to avoid hitting said post. I heard the awful sound his face made as it hit the post. I listened as that awful sound reverberated around the pitch. I even saw the top of the post still quivering some twenty feet above the point of impact.

I tried not to smile but gave up after a quarter of a second and, grinning broadly, started my run back up the pitch with the conch … I mean the ball. I even imagined just running all the way to the goal line and scoring a memorable try. It was not to be. The referee  who, frankly, had been keeping something of a low profile up to this point, blew his whistle. I guessed it was because The Beast was holding his face and screaming a bit but as it turns out it was not. Instead, he was blowing his whistle to send me off for ‘unsportsmanlike behaviour’. He reasoned that I knew full well that the post was immediately behind me and, therefore, that I had deliberately side-stepped the player so as to knowingly cause him to smash his face off what was basically a skinny tree trunk. To be fair, he was right on both counts and I didn’t complain. I left the pitch to pats on the back off all my teammates, well those that still had the use of at least one arm anyway. Rightly or wrongly, the feeling was that The Beast had got what he deserved. The water buffalo was finally down and the lions had won a moral victory, if not an actual one.

It was the finest moment of my brief school rugby career and I didn’t play after that season. Why? Well, I had discovered alcohol, etc. and girls. I was in top set for everything and down to get good O Level results but I started to miss school in favour of playing truant and getting up to no good instead. Mr Dotchin had been made a Deputy Head and lived just down the road from me. I was frequently in his office during my final year and although I did get my O Levels, I didn’t get any Grade As and I left sixth form college after just one term. My trajectory was very much downwards. Looking back, I was very definitely hanging with the wrong crowd. In short, I was heading nowhere and was going to get there quickly.

Then, just before Christmas of 1982 someone popped a Christmas card through our door. It had my name written on it but no address and no stamp. I remember the picture was of an oil lamp and some baubles. You know the kind of thing. Inside it read:

‘Happy Christmas Billy. Don’t waste your life. C.’

I remember reading it again and again and again. I remember getting angry and tearing it up. I remember throwing the bits into my bedroom bin. I remember taking the bits back out of my bin and reassembling them so I could read it again. I remember Sellotaping it all the bits back together again and sitting on my bed in tears just looking at it. I turned my brain inside out trying to work out who ‘C’ was but I just couldn’t.

I remember the impact it had too. Whoever ‘C’ was they were right and it hit me like the proverbial sledgehammer. Within just a few months I had enrolled at college and started in September, 1983. I left the in-crowd, rejoined the Scouts, spent my time walking, camping and kayaking. From college I went straight to University in 1985 and the rest, as they say, is history.

It was only many years later when I was talking to my dad about something when he happened to mention someone called Charlie that he’d bumped into again recently. “Charlie who?” I’d asked. “You know. Dotchin. Your old PE teacher.” he replied. Hmm. To this day I don’t know for sure and I doubt I ever will. Suffice to say, whoever it was, they changed my life, possibly saved my life, with just those seven anonymous words.

After the match our PE staff made a complaint but The Beast’s school were adamant that he was under the age of sixteen and, therefore, entirely eligible to play. It seems he was just one of those human outliers, one of those folk who lie well outside of the average for humans in one way or another like Gerard Depardieu for his nose, Robert Wadlow for his height, Kayne West for his ego or Donald Trump for his sheer f***ing nerve.

Incidentally, The Beast made a full recovery from the facial injuries he suffered. In fact, many of his friends said he actually looked better afterwards and that was even before the swelling went down and the bandages came off.

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