“The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton” the Duke of Wellington once said. Actually Google is alive with excited commentary about whether the Great Man himself really did say those words, rather than some anonymous subaltern, the late Dr Johnson or even, no doubt, Elvis Presley. If that sort of speculation is for you you are reading the wrong blog. It sounds authentic and that’s enough for me.
The playing of Games was (and, I am sure, still is) at the heart of the Public School experience, along with fagging, the House and the prefectorial system although I am still somewhat under the spell of having just seen Lindsay Anderson’s If for the fifth time which may be affecting my perspective.
Games, games and more games: mens sana in corpore sano. How else to keep a couple of hundred semi-incarcerated (on reflection omit the semi) boys occupied for 15 hours every day 7 days a week. Only on a Sunday were Games not compulsory and then we usually formed a crocodile and were taken out for a Sunday afternoon walk along the roads around the school grounds.
Brutal then if you were what my daughters used to call, before maturity visited upon them a marginally more politically correct lexicography, a “malco”. Brutal because your destiny would have been to spend a lot of time in THE DISH!
The population of each house, being around 35, yielded, after allowing for those required for school team practices, two teams of 11 players for a house game of the term’s major sport; football, hockey or cricket. The half dozen or so not selected constituted The Dish. These Untouchables were given a ball to kick/knock around or, as long as they didn’t kill each other, pass the time however they liked: nobody seemed to be paying any attention. To have been consigned to The Dish meant becoming invisible for an hour or two.
Day after day this must have been humiliating in the extreme and though I do not hold with the Everyone’s A Winner Non-Competitive Sports Day lunacy that that still informs (that’s irony btw) a lot of educational thinking today, I do not either hanker after the unfeeling crassness that underpinned so much of Life At Ston (see The Food of Love and Grunters for more more examples of same sensitivity applied to the teaching of Music). There has to be a middle way, as Rod Liddle said in this week’s Times, when contrasting his own experience of being blasted by his father for failing to come first in the 100m on Sports Day with the sorry situation at his own child’s school where they sprint the first 90 metres and then wait for the others and run across the finishing line together .
I only remember being in the Dish once, as a new boy, and that was enough. I loved sport and cricket in particular was my game. I lived for the summer term and, once I had made the school teams, for the practices and especially the fixtures. Away matches were the best of course with a coach journey to add to the excitement: drawing cricket whites from matron, cleaning and whitening your boots, oiling the bat and so on (well at least I have spared you the crack of leather upon willow). The only other thing that came near in intensity the excitement of this anticipation was the despair when bad weather required a match be cancelled. Death where is thy sting? On second thoughts finding porridge on the breakfast menu instead of cereal (weetabix, cornflakes, puffed wheat in that order) also came close on the despair front (what do you mean reductio ad absurdum? I was there).
Intensity is what comes to mind when I think of my school experience. Because much of it was dull (chapel, lessons, army, homework) or hateful (separation from home, bullying) the good things (end of term, friendships, exeats, seeing your name on the team list for Saturday’s match) had an intensity that life after Ston rarely delivered.
That’s not disappointment btw I have happily traded away the joys of away games because in return….
I will never, ever have to wake to lumpy, grey, gloopy porridge.