I don't understand sport at all. It's a complete mystery to me. I'm already dreading all the dullness that will accompany the impending Olympics. I'm bewildered by the amount of excitement sports generate in people when they watch it, not to mention the violence and aggression. You never see police in riot gear outside theatres or libraries. Personally, I can't follow the plot of a sports match and always find the characterisation weak. The sets are pretty dull too. As for playing sport, I'll certainly never understand that one. That is truly insane. If you're that bored try reading a good book. Libraries are full of them. They're good for you too.
My parents disliked football. I think they thought it was common. They were avid cricket viewers and occasionally entertained tennis on the television. Cricket seemed to me to be a bizarre exercise in boredom. Lots of men stood round in a field for ages, occasionally one of them ran a little bit and the score made no sense. The very noise of it irritated me and if it was on the television I'd be in another room.
Age seven I decided I wanted to join the scouts. This was purely because one of my friends went and I liked the sound of making cocoa, getting a cooking badge and learning how to perform acts of arson using only twigs. My mum got me the full uniform, she believes in being properly attired. The first week we were made to go to church which disgruntled me. The second week we were made to play football which horrified me. I'd never seen a football match or attempted to play the game and quickly became an object of ridicule. The scout master was incredulous that a boy of that age didn't know how to play football and ridiculed me in front of the other boy. In retrospect, what's more incredulous is that grown men want to dress like oversized schoolboys and hang about with pre-pubescent boys in their spare time. I was very affronted by this incident and refused to go back to the scouts. My mother and I entered one of our battles of wills.
"I've paid for that woggle, you're going!" I didn't go back, a rare victory and a return to reading and playing "Single Mum" with Whiskey the cat.
I always hated running about. It seemed so undignified and unnecessary. I also hate being shouted at, having whistles blown at me and getting dirty or sweaty. There's no call for it in this day and age. Secondary school came as a terrible shock when I realised that we had to do two hours a week of Physical Education. So began the misery and my first encounters with the man I still to this day hate more than any other person I've met. I shall call him Mr Fiend (not dissimilar to his real name), the sports teacher.
I was a skinny child with as yet undiagnosed terrible eyesight. I have one eye which is long sighted and needs a bottle bottomed lens and another which is almost normal. I was (and still am) very uncoordinated and sports presented a problem. I was also timid, nervous and hated pain. My naturally reaction on seeing a solid leather cricket ball hurtling towards my face or genitals at high velocity is to run in the other direction. Likewise, a big boy charging at my shins with a wooden hockey stick presents a similar desire to flee. I think this is called common sense.
Mr Fiend must have been in his late twenties and was a big hulk of a man. His inane toothy smile and dead eyes spoke of a man of little intelligence and his lack of pants under a nylon tracksuit spoke of a man who was proud of his large appendage and had no idea how to dress or behave around children. In short, he was a walking cliché: a sadistic P.E. teacher. I think they have a special fast track program for just this type of man and they become sports teachers or psychopaths, often both. He wasn't impressed by a delicate 11 year old boy who weighed less than one of his thighs.
I decided to be enthusiastic and try hard, initially. It didn't work. I couldn't kick a football, hold a racquet properly or enter a rugby scrum, but I tried. Sports lessons became a weekly torture and I would get worked up and agitated as they loomed over me. I would begin to tremble and fret as they came nearer. For one year we had double sport on a Monday morning and I would try everything to get out of it. Sunday nights would be miserable and hateful as I felt the bowling ball growing in my stomach.
Initially, Mr Fiend tolerated me and this was in part due to my ability to run. I'm built for running, apparently, but I choose not to. I was superb at cross country running but hated it with a passion. I think that running away from boys at school shouting "Gaylord" taught me speed and endurance. The problems began when Mr Fiend suggested that I represent the school at long distance running. I naturally laughed and said no way. I had more interesting things to fill my time. He resented this and his brief tolerance of me stopped from then on in. I became known as "Poofter" from this point onwards.
He decided it would be fun to critique my performance at sport from therein. I was pulled aside at the end of each feeble attempt at sport and made to stand in front of the class.
"What was that all about Poofter? Were you even present today? You're a waste of space."
He had a good vocabulary though. He also knew the following names for me: big girl's blouse, shirtlifter, woofter and poof. He used these names at every opportunity. Initially I felt humiliated and shamed. The other boys weren't too keen to have me on their teams either and I was always the last to be picked, which gave me an obtuse pride. I was chosen after the very fat boy with asthma and psoriasis. This acceptance of the bullying didn't last and I was a plucky if nervous little thing. I managed about a year of putting up with the insults. My school reports were all A or B scores apart from a blot by Sport where I got an A for effort and an E for attainment. This soon changed along with my attitude and my discovery of dumb insolence. I quickly attained an E for effort. I was very proud.
I decided to fight back the only ways I knew how: deceit and passive aggression. I managed to skip at least a quarter of the lessons by either feigning illness or simply hiding somewhere. I was good at deceit. One trick I had was to get my mum to write a note in April saying I had severe and crippling hay fever. It would read
"Dear Mr Fiend, Please excuse my son from Physical Education classes until the Winter as he cannot go outside due to his severe and crippling hay fever." I dictated these letters and she was glad to oblige for a quieter life and a lot less tears and tantrums from me. I got to sit in a room and polish trophies (until his back was turned and I read my books in peace). This plan fell through on rainy days when the horrors of badminton, indoor volley ball and basketball befell me. I had a scheme for badminton and volley ball. We all had to sit on a bench and move along one place at the end of each game. My trick was to just run round back to the end of the bench and never actually play. That ball really hurt my hands and I could no sooner hit a shuttle cock, with my eyesight and coordination, than I could do a handstand. I also began doing the opposite of what was expected of me at all times. If the ball came near me I'd walk fast the other way, I never ran. It's undignified. If everyone ran one way I'd stroll the other way.
Mr Fiend wasn't happy. I fondly recall his bright red face shouting insults at me as he stood impotent with rage. I was both terrified of him and full of gleeful hatred. If he hated me anyway then let me make it easier: I could make him really hate me with a passion. He did. The insults flowed. I remember one basket ball game when I wasn't quick enough to flee the ball. It struck me on the shoulder and I gave the loudest "Tsk!" that I could muster and glared at it archly. He was a little bit cross. He began to take me aside and speak to me alone after the lessons. Obviously he still shouted at me in front of the class first.
"What's wrong with you, you freak? Were you not bounced enough on your dad's knees? Are you some kind of retard?" The "bouncing" thing was something he often mentioned. I think he read a child psychology book once or was read it by someone.
"You were terrible as usual. Would you rather go and do country dancing with the girls or a bit of embroidery?" This was said with a glance at the other boys and a pause for the laughter which didn't come.
"Oh yes please, Sir! That sounds like fun!" I said smirking. The boys laughed this time. I was funnier.
The teachers had a period of working to rule and striking. Everyone went on strike, it was the eighties. It's what people did. They all refused to write comments on our school reports one year. Mr Fiend made a decision to break the strike, especially for me. I was touched.
"C has shown a complete lack of effort and a bad attitude. He is physically feeble and weak and has absolutely no stamina. He avoids all physical contact and is a disruptive influence on the class." Nice. This sat amongst my glowing A's and B's. I decided to embrace this report and see it as a positive. My parents didn't care about this blot on my records. It was only a mindless, pointless subject anyway, according to my often sensible dad.
My lucky break came on an icy February morning aged 13. We were made to go outside in our skimpy nylon clothes to play football. I wasn't looking forward to an hour of embarrassment, discomfort and humiliation again. I was standing with my arms folded.
"You! Unfold your arms now! You're not a fishwife off Coronation Street." He was witty too. I didn't unfold my arms. I looked up with a tilted glance (I learnt this off Princess Di and the women from The Human League) and glared at him. He glared back, seething. He began to turn pink as he lost control of himself. He hurled the frozen football at my face from 4 feet away and I didn't have time to move fast enough. The impact was agony and my eyes smarted with the pain. I wasn't about to cry in front of him so I walked off. Stumbling over the pitch in my football kit I ignored the frantic shouts for me to return and the warnings as to how much trouble I was in.
It was a long walk to my house and I cried all the way, shivering in the cold, my studs clacking a rhythm on the pavement. My mother emerged from her stupor when she saw the mess I was in and the bruise appearing on my face and set about calling the head teacher. I spent the whole evening in my bedroom, lying on my bed crying, unable even to concentrate on "To the Manor Born", a favourite program of mine.
The meeting with the head teacher was daunting but went well. I got over my initial fear once I realised that my facial bruise gave me the winning hand. Mr Fiend's pallid sweaty face told me straight away that I was in charge. I never played sports again. Embarrassingly two other teachers were friends of the fiend. The pock marked History teacher and the drunken French teacher both saw fit to mention the "running off" incident in their classes that day, quite inappropriately. I was mortified. Mr Fiend wasn't suspended or even told off to my knowledge. There was no apology. We accepted this. It was the 1980's after all. It was a prime result for me though. No more sport, this was something I'd only dreamt of, previously. I had an extra two hours a week to read and do homework. I still had to face Mr Fiend weekly and he'd glare as he sat me in the foyer of the sports hall. I'd glare back but we entered an entente cordiale. We kept our hatred of each other to ourselves. He didn't have to teach the surly boy with no talent for sport. I could read a book. We were all winners.
To this day I've never been in a gym or shopped in a sports shop, never seen a sports match either live or on television and never exercised at all. It all makes me shudder. I don't intend to start doing any of these things either. You can keep them. I even hate the noise of sport in the background and the hideous sportswear people wear makes me want to vomit. I'm lucky in that I'm naturally thin and quite toned but when I start to get fat I'll simply eat less and walk more.
I did see Mr Fiend a few years later when I had left school and was working in a shop. He came to the checkout and on spotting me, greeted me warmly, appearing to have the memory of a goldfish. I looked away and rang up the sale. He left. I still hate him to this day.