A Man Out Of Me 3: Agents Of Fortune

Where were we? Ah yes, I remember…

In the cold, dark, dismal, wet and wind-swept days of winter, there was no escape: it was football (infrequently) or ‘rugger’ (far too often). The latter took up the whole of an afternoon, as we were taken by bus across town to the dilapidated pitches, with their ancient wooden changing rooms and filth-encrusted facilities. Out on the field, ankle-deep in mud, the thugs and bullies were in their element, egged on by teacher-referees bawling orders and braying abuse at the recalcitrant; and commands like “Mark your man!” seemed to be synonymous with “Maim him!”

"What kind of character-forming is going on here?” I wondered, in the gloom and mayhem of those miserable afternoons.

My mind was made up one Wednesday.

I had somehow got hold of the ball, with no opponents between me and the touchline. I didn’t really know what to do, but my team-mates were urging me to run with it. Off I went, ready to cover myself in glory. Just as I was about to pass the referee, he stepped in front of me and stiff-armed me in the throat. Collapse of small party.

It took me a couple of minutes to recover and get up out of the mud. Still struggling for breath, I asked Ron (for it was he) why he’d done it. “You were coming at me hard, laddie!” “But you’re the referee!” He smiled sardonically. “The other team were losing, so I decided to play on their side.” He walked away, still smiling. “Play on!”

But surely, he wasn’t typical of games teachers, was he?

Yes, he was. That’s what they were like, in those days.

Take Taffy, for instance. He never taught me, I’m glad to say, but I saw him in action.

I was trotting along the canal towpath once more, on a cross country run, heading towards one of the markers. Nobody needed to be told which way to go, but these youths had turned up with sick notes excusing them from games: so, they had been sent to stand at various points along the route, supposedly to see that everyone went all the way round - but in reality to teach them not to skive off sports.

This one was enjoying a quiet smoke as he stood there. He didn’t see the car pulling up at the end of the lane, and he didn’t hear Taffy step out of it and stride towards him, and I wasn’t near enough to warn him. Stockily-built and sandy-haired, Taffy berated the boy for a few moments. I paused and pretended to be tying my laces, unwilling to have any more to do with the man than was absolutely necessary.

"Well, boy,” he barked, “do you want to take your punishment from me - or from the Headmaster?”

"Oh, er, er, from you, sir!”

I suppose he expected a detention or some such traditional punishment. What he got, without a word of warning, were Taffy’s fists: three blows in quick succession, two to the chest and the last one to the abdomen, leaving him doubled up in pain. Taffy stood there for a moment, fists still raised, as if he expected a counter-attack. Then he turned on his heel and walked back to his car.

Whether it caused that young man to see the error of his ways, I couldn’t say: but it certainly taught me a lesson. How many times had I passed by the staffroom as the door had opened for a moment, and seen the air blue with cigarette and pipe smoke, with most of the sports staff among the offenders?

And then there were others. I am not, as you might have supposed from the above, against corporal punishment - no, not at all. Nevertheless, it was disquieting to discover that Carter, the “beating deputy” (i.e. the one who administered canings at the behest of the Head) was also keen on refereeing rugger matches… and insisted on using the same facilities as the young men in his charge, at the same time, before and after matches, despite there being separate and more salubrious arrangements for staff…

And what of the teacher who from time to time stood at the head of the changing room showers, telling us that he had had complaints - highly unlikely - from parents about boys going home and needing a bath to remove the mud from their persons? “So I am am going to stand here and make sure that each and every one of you has a proper shower before you get dressed again!”

I will not repeat the comments of my companions, as they clutched their towels ever more tightly about themselves...

"Mens sana in corpore sano?” Or, as parodied in the Bonzo Dog Band’s “Mr Apollo”, “Everybody knows that a healthy body makes a healthy mind…”? No, it didn’t seem to be that way to me. I can still hear my mother asking me why I couldn’t be more like my cousin Michael, who was good at games, and “always so smartly turned out!” “Because he’s an uncultured oaf, he Brylcreems his hair, and he’s as thick as two short planks, I suppose,” was my usual reply.

Perhaps I should be grateful to the reprobates above, and to others too numerous to mention. Unwitting agents of fortune, they closed out any interest I ever had in sport: and they have saved me a great deal of time, effort and expense over the intervening years. Not bad going, for a bunch of half-wits, humbugs and perverts.

Well, then: what did make a man out of me? Are we getting to the moral of the tale, and to something spiritually uplifting, at long last?

Alas, no.

Some of you are ahead of me, aren’t you?

In the immortal words of Handsome Dick Manitoba And The Dictators…

Rock and Roll made a man out of me,

Rock and Roll made a man out of me,

Rock and Roll -

Made a man out of me!

But not necessarily a good one.

To be continued...