Roundhay School was nothing if not created as a Grammar School clone of the traditional public school. The buildings were imposing and its traditions were overbearing. The masters were still living in a time when it was normal to wander the school like ravens, black and satanic, and they could be cold and merciless. Gown attired, their sleeves flapped like giant birds ready to fall upon any unsuspecting boy who had broken a written, or assumed, rule.
The floors were bare boards, the walls unadorned and the air thundered with the noise of eight-hundred boys, as they beat their way like Attila’s Hordes down the staircases and corridors in between lessons. The only force that could stand in their way was the gown draped masters who strode against the tide, parting the flow like Moses. It was a harsh, unyielding environment, which did not cater for the gentle or lacking in confidence. It was a male domain, designed and run to produce men, at a time when men still dominated England and the Western World. It is interesting to note that there were nearly twice as many places for boys in Grammar Schools than for girls. Roundhay Boys had eight hundred and the Roundhay Girls six hundred. The curriculum varied between the two genders. Boys had a wider choice of science subjects than the girls and the girls had more of an Arts focus. I believe I had to choose only one subject from History, Biology, Economics, Art, Music, Woodwork and Metalwork, to do at Ordinary Level. Whereas I think we had to do three Science subjects.
As a Grammar School, sport was seen as essential for creating men who could be leaders, and the only real sports were Rugby Union, Cricket, Athletics and, of course, Cross Country Running. I think it was probably based on the idea that if we were physically exhausted then we would not bother too much with the girls on the other side of the boundary bushes between the playing fields. Maybe I am being unjust as I am sure they felt team work, leadership and perseverance could all be gained from participation in the above sports.
I was delighted to arrive at Rounday and find that we could do real sports. Roundhay had changing rooms and it was a thrill to change in a room that was not the classroom. There was a strong smell of sweat and old linament, mixed with linseed oil, leather and what I later discovered was testosterone. It was a challenge to get changed without anyone seeing you naked, but somehow it was achieved. Blue Kelvin rugby shirt, black shorts, boots, socks and a little nervousness saw us ready for our first house sports. It was a cold afternoon, with an icy breeze that shot up the legs of the shorts and dampened any enthusiasm. Arms wrapped around our bodies, we listen to Joe Wareham show us the basics of how to pass a rugby ball, how to pass it backwards and how to move it along a line as we advanced down the field. The first session was not too thrilling, but it was real sport. The second skill was tackling and this was much more exciting. ‘Keep your head to one side, take them round the ankles,’ was followed by the lie, ‘Go in hard and you won’t get hurt!’ Needless to say, some of the smaller boys were paired with some of the bigger boys and they put paid to such a lie. Some went into the tackle with real enthusiasm and came out concussed, but some chickened out and just dived anywhere, apart from at the legs of the advancing player. I am sure that a note was made of these boys’ names and they would be made an example of at a later date.
It became very clear, in a very short time, who had the makings of rugby players and who had not. As this is a sport where brawn is as important as skill and I was one of the tallest at this age, I was quite successful and thoroughly enjoyed it. Muddy, bruised and some of us not quite aware of our surroundings, we traipsed off the field and entered the changing rooms. Now, this was the first real challenge of the day. In the mid 1960s someone still thought it was a good idea for teenage boys to strip naked and sit in a two-foot deep large square bath. The bath was big enough to hold about thirty and the steaming waters were a seething mass of naked flesh, often scraped and bloody, clods of floating earth and lumps of soap. Was it a bonding experience? I can’t really say. It was just the way it was. There were some showers, or did they come in later? I’m not sure. What I do remember was one or two of the teachers stripping off and joining the throng. Nowadays, that would be totally a ‘No No!’ and would result in police charges, but then it was not unusual and from my experience, an innocent, if embarrassing regular part of sport.
Over the time we were taught the rudiments of the game and trained in our houses, Kelvin, Nelson, Scott and Gordon, working towards our first house matches. The teachers distributed positions depending on your attributes, or lack of them. I was sometimes a hooker, wing forward and scrum half. I never liked being a hooker. You were in the middle of the scrum and rammed head first into the other team’s pack. Breathing could be difficult, as was avoiding brain damage. Due to my natural cowardice, or common sense, I worked hard as a wing forward/scrum half, and became half decent.
For those of us, like me, who have moved to warmer climes, we have probably forgotten just how cold a Leeds winter could be, but believe me it could be bleak. Winter sports were played whatever the weather and I believe this was part of the ploy to make men of us. Snow, rain, sleet, fog, nothing stopped us. Now if you were good at sport, then it could be bearable, you could maintain some body heat by running around, but if you were one of the timid ones who avoided the ball at all costs then the weather must have been torment. I have only recently discovered that my brothers and I have a condition where the blood leaves our fingers and toes in cold weather, and they turn a whitish yellow, look like they have died basically. I just thought it was normal to have to wait about half an hour after being outdoors for you to be able to use your hands to hold a pen and write. Winter sport never helped this. One real concern I had though, was the loose maul. When the ball was loose then bodies would dive on top of it trying to get possession. Piles of boys would form a pyramid, with some poor soul underneath them all. I know from experience how hard it was to breathe and, without the referee pulling boys off, death was just a few moments away. On a good day, with a thick covering of grass this was bad enough, but in winter when there was a mass of mud and puddles then it really was dangerous. You could find yourself face down in the mud or puddle as others dived on top. Panic really does set in when you have had the wind driven out of you and there is water over your mouth and nose and you need air! Again, I think health and safety would prevent such experiences today.
Even worse than the puddles was when the mud froze and rock hard ruts covered the playing surface and the puddles had a layer of ice on top. Real injuries could, and did occur when playing on such concrete hard surfaces. By the time sports sessions were over, you were soaking wet, covered in mud and blood and numbed by the cold. The hot baths were manna from heaven, but it was only when you warmed up and feeling returned to your body, that you realised how you had been injured. With the thawing came the pain. Fantastic times!
Our team was beginning to shape up and the first house match was quite an event. It was looking a little like rugby and less like a riot and some boys really shone at the game. These were the ones who could run through the opposition with boys flying off in all directions, like drifts from a snow plough. I remember one boy doing this and when he was about to pass a friend of mine, the friend shot out his arm. I believe it was a reflex action rather than deliberate, but the straight arm was at head height and the running boy’s head hit the arm and he was felled, as if hit with an axe. Whilst he was lying stunned on the ground the teacher used this as an opportunity to teach us that such tackles were banned. The victim must have survived, but I don’t remember any great concern being shown for his wellbeing.
I guess it must have made a man of him and, strangely, many of us grew to love rugby and really looked forward to playing. The next stage was playing for the school, but that is another tale.
First seven parts of my audiobook, Blaze. Free to listen to on the soundcloud player. A new part is added each week.