Generally speaking, when I was a boy I used to like playing sport, especially football and cricket even though I was never especially good at either. At school, when we were lined up against the wall and team captains made their selections I suppose, generally speaking, I would be in the second wave of call ups in between those who were considered to be the best (those who everyone wanted on their team) and those who were completely hopeless and who were considered to be a liability. I suppose you would describe me as average, as with everything else in life.
School sport at Hillmorton County Junior School was really just about having a bit of fun, P.E. in the playground, a gentle game of rounders and French cricket at the nearby recreation ground and the annual Sports Day at the end of each Summer Term.
But in 1965 when I left the Junior School and went to secondary education at Dunsmore (now Ashlawn School) all of this changed and the whole thing took on a new unexpected dimension and became altogether more competitive and serious. Dunsmore was a school that was proud of its sporting pedigree and achievements and expected all of the pupils to play a full and active part. Because I was going to school in Rugby this meant Rugby Football and this was a whole new terrifying experience for me.
Before turning up on day one in September some during the summer holiday I had to be kitted out with the new school uniform and all of the appropriate new sports kit from the school outfitters, J M Squires at their shop in Sheep Street in the town. The claret and blue reversible rugby shirt was made of a heavy cotton, the navy blue shorts were baggy and voluminous and the socks were too big and itchy. To complete the kit there was a big pair of old fashioned ankle length boots made of stiff leather with nasty cork studs nailed into the sole. As well as the winter sports kit we had to have P.E. kit of sky blue doublet, white shorts, ankle socks and white plimsols.
First year sports afternoon was on Friday and so at the end of the first week I packed all of my kit into my duffel bag and looked forward to being on the playing field. Naturally I was a bit apprehensive because although I had never played rugby before, or ‘rugger’ as people used to call it (presumably to differentiate it from the place) I knew that it had a reputation for being a bit rough and some of the other boys were alarmingly bigger than me.
The changing rooms were at the back of the playground and smelt permanently of stale sweat and carbolic soap. They were functional and stark with rows of pegs for our clothes and wire baskets for our shoes, no lockers in those days and any valuables had to be handed in for safe keeping. As soon as we were changed and ready we were required to line up for a kit inspection before being released through the blue double swing doors and out onto the playing field.
For the very first lesson we were given some basic instructions about the rules of the game and the general principles involved. Not all the rules of course because there are a lot of them and they are quite complicated and then the games master, Wynn Morris, split us up according to size and his first judgment on whether we would make rugby players or not. Morris was a rugby fanatic and walked and talked with an arrogant swagger that struck fear into us boys. It must have been obvious to him that I was most unsuitable for the scrum and with little spindly legs he probably didn’t think I had the pace for the wings so I was in the group of potential scrum halves, that’s the poor chap who puts the ball in the scrum and then gets jumped on the minute it comes back out again.
After about thirty seconds I knew that rugby football wasn’t my thing but for the entire first term until Christmas every Friday afternoon was a miserable two hours of being bellowed at by Wynn Morris and being tried in a succession of different positions to see if we could find one that was suitable for my non existent talent for the game. I hated it and as the winter wore on it got colder and wetter and muddier and when it got colder and wetter and muddier the kit quadrupled in weight and I barely had the strength to lug it around the field without the added burden of picking up an odd shaped ball and running with it. Finally however, after what seemed an eternity, the whistle would thankfully blow and it was all over and there was a mad undignified dash for the warmth of the changing room and the communal hot shower.
When we returned to school in January 1966 we all changed and trooped out as normal but today there was a surprise because Morris called all the first years together and amazed us with the question, ‘right, hands up all the boys who want to play soccer?’ (it works best if you can do this with a thick Welsh accent and say the word ‘soccer’ with a distinct sneer of disapproval for such a pansy game); of course a forest of arms went up into the air and he looked scornfully at us all and said, ‘right, all the boys who want to play soccer, go and stand over there’ and he dispatched us contemptuously to the touch line.
There was real exhilaration and anticipation about this development because at least it seemed certain that we would be playing our preferred choice of Association Football. This excitement started to wither away however as we were kept waiting on the touch line while Morris spent half an hour or so with the rugby boys as he prepared them for the afternoon’s sport. This was completely deliberate of course because it was cold and wet and we just stood around getting damp and miserable. It was obviously a well rehearsed routine that he would stage every year and I bet all of the other teachers knew about it and were probably watching from the staff room window and pissing themselves laughing.
Finally the rugby match got under way and Morris strutted over to us with an evil leer on his face and things were about to go from bad to worse. ‘Right’, he said, he always started a sentence that way ‘all you boys who want to play soccer (pause for effect) ‘you’re going on a cross country run…’
And so in full rugby kit and football boots we were sent for a couple of laps of the field and then through a succession of farmer’s muddy fields, along the Grand Union canal tow path and back to school along the Kilsby Road. I had never been on a cross country run before and found the going quite tough at first but gradually I started to pull ahead of most of the others and I started to enjoy it. I finished in the top six and decided that cross country was a whole lot better than getting roughed up on the rugby field and the following week elected to do it by choice. This meant different kit of course more appropriate to running and a pair of suitable running shoes and no doubt my parents were delighted by another trip to J M Squires and the additional expense.
It was worth it however because finally I had found something (apart from Religious Education that is) that I was actually good at and fairly soon I was in the under 13 school team and every weekend representing Dunsmore in inter school races. Actually we had a brilliant team and in 1968/9 the under 15 we had an exceptional season and the school magazine for that year reported:
‘The U15 team yet again had a very successful season winning the Town Championships, the Newbold Road Relay and as usual all their league matches, thus once again retaining the League Shield.’
I was so good at cross country running that I even went on with a couple of the other boys to represent Rugby Town in County and District events and the best thing about that was that I never had to play rugby football ever again.
In addition to sports afternoon every week we had a couple of sessions of Physical education (P.E.) in the school gym. In addition to Wynn Morris the sports masters were David (Molly) Sugden and Taffy Thomas who used to put us through our paces doing sit-ups, press-ups and climbing the wall bars, a lot of which would surely contravene health and safety regulations these days.
What would almost certainly contravene all regulations these days was the punishment regime regularly handed out. I think it was about toughening us up but Wynn Morris in particular used to enjoy spanking boys with a slipper. This was much worse than the cane because you couldn’t take double underpants precautions in advance. In fact you couldn’t take any sort of underpants precautions at all because we weren’t allowed to wear them under our gym shorts and we had to do P.E. with the vulnerable bits of our anatomy flapping about almost completely unprotected.
Punishment could be for anything really, mostly trivial stuff like not getting changed fast enough, having untidy kit or looking at the master in a funny way. Once selected for a slapping all the other boys were sent off to the gym to warm up and the victim had to stay behind. Morris would fetch the worn white plimsol that he would use for these occasions say ‘bend over’ and then whip down our shorts and apply two or three slaps to our exposed bare buttocks. Nobody seemed to think there was anything wrong about this it was just an accepted part of the Dunsmore sports routine.