I was speaking with my younger brother last evening and he was telling me that he had visited Roundhay School just before they rebuilt it. He went into the paved area below the school where the changing rooms and store rooms were, and he was struck by the spectre of the sound of hosts of boot studs clattering over the paving. As he told me this I too heard the sound of aluminium studs like a volley of gun fire rattling over the stone and the scrape as some boys chose to slide along the surface as if they were on ice. The purpose was reputed to be to sharpen the studs or wear the surface off and thus provide a weapon against any opposition. I can’t say that it was intentional, but after a few woundings, the checking of studs became commonplace and offenders were forced to remove any dangerous studs.
It is not only the sounds that come back, but I have to pause as suddenly the pinging sound of the table tennis balls on the tables under the opposite side of the undercover area makes an appearance in my memory, it is also the smell. This area had a number of distinct odours. In summer it was linseed oil from the cricket bats, in winter the odour of Denco Rub and similar liniments that were supposed to warm up the muscles. Over all of these were two quite distinct aromas. One was sweat and the other testosterone and both came as a shock when one started the school as a Year One, but soon just became the norm as we developed and contributed to the spirit of manliness at Roundhay.
There is something about the male nature that greater effort will be put into avoiding something, than it would require to carry out the task. As examples, I give you washing your hands after going to the toilet and brushing your teeth. Both of these take only a minute or two, but somehow they are abhorrent to the male psyche. I would go to the loo and then run the tap for a while, even move the towel on the rail to create the appropriate sound effect, rather than actually do it. Similarly with teeth, the tap would be run, tooth paste would be squeezed out, but rather than on the brush, onto the finger and a minute amount smeared about the lips, so that a cursory check from a mother could be passed. You may well think that this is just my issue, but after teaching for forty years and having four boys of my own, I can assure you that this is common.
In light of this you can image the nature and depth of odour that emanated from the changing rooms and toilets at Roundhay. In defence of the toilets, and certainly this was the case of the toilets at the Mansion building, the stench of urine was overpowered by the thick, acrid fog of cigarette smoke that billowed out whenever the door opened and a shadow would appear like a zombie out of the graveyard mist. I might add here that there was a similar experience when the staffroom door opened and staff exited into the corridor leaving the haze behind.
I digress, but male hygiene was also present in the baths and later showers. There was the odd piece of cracked and dirty soap lying around, but it was seldom used and showers were water only affairs and did little but remove clods of mud off the skin. There was the odd boy, but not many and we were always a little suspicious, who had their own cleaning provisions and they would leave changing after sport with a totally unnatural bouquet of fresh flowers. I do wonder what happened to them. Of course the ambience was not assisted by the fact that we didn’t have many changes of clothes. Laundry was a weekly affair and some of us didn’t possess many school shirts, socks etc and so would wear them for much of the week. To add to this, we spent every break and lunchtime playing soccer and would work up quite a sweat, the results of which would remain with us the entire week.
Luckily for us, the male attitude towards cleanliness and godliness was not shared with the majority of the female species. Even walking past the girls’ school one could detect a completely different atmosphere. It was a pleasant experience and one that didn’t almost make you gag. Some though did take this too far and one such teacher applied so much perfume that she could be followed up and down the corridor. She left such an impression on me that the villain in my first novel, Wickergate, shared the same attribute. I won’t mention her name, but I am sure that there are those who will know to whom I refer. In one of life’s coincidences my wife was taught by the same teacher in Stoke on Trent prior to her arrival at Roundhay.
Now one of life’s amazing puzzles is why the teenage females of the species, who have such good habits, should find the teenage boys, with their bad habits, irresistible. This trait must have been an evolutionary imperative or the human race would have died out long ago. Something must have made girls’ brains malfunction for a number of years, so that spotty, pimply, smelly and uncoordinated teenagers appear like Brad Pit or some other Adonis. Clearly this stage doesn’t last long as when married the female spends the rest of their lives trying and, often failing, to change the habits of their mate. Unfortunately, some men manage to retain their natural urges and state, to remain true to keeping themselves as far away from godliness as possible.
I’ve finally got there! Sport! Roundhay was nothing if it wasn’t a school where sport was valued and it was seen as a major part in creating men who could be leaders. Of course there are relatively few of us who actually become leaders, but why let that stop anyone? Make everyone suffer for the few who would lead. After saying this, I enjoyed sport on the whole and was moderately capable, but I have always felt for those who hated it and suffered the cold, the humiliation and the boredom of watching others chase a ball, bat for more than the one delivery. Those who were always picked last when teams were chosen and faced the ultimate humiliation of being refused at the end and told to play for the other side. I wonder what they learnt about teamwork and compassion? This brings back the memory of the sport master and the soccer game in Kes.
The one activity where this was most obvious was cross country. At school I wasn’t a great runner, but not the worst. It could have had a great deal to do with smoking, but be that as it may, cross country season came in winter. The ground was often frozen and the teachers must have been happy not to get changed and referee rugby. As a result, the year group would be escorted onto the Soldiers Field and then set off on the run. A hundred or so boys would spring into life like startled rabbits and sprint like mad things down to Oakwood, cross the road and then head back up to the top of Hill Sixty. I say sprint like startled rabbits. In truth this was only some. At the back were the unfortunate sufferers. The doomed ones who were disliked by the sporty types and hounded by the staff, with calls such as, “You call that running, boy? I’ll show you running if I catch you!” They plodded on in torment, cold and abject misery.
The greyhounds at the front were soon learning the error of their ways and the somehow impossible ability to pace themselves. Those with the talent strode out with fluid ease, whilst the others clutched their throats trying to catch their breath and casting glances back to the stragglers far behind wondering if theirs wasn’t the best choice. The large horde was by now a snaking line and the front runners disappeared into Roundhay Park and within minutes passed the teachers stationed at the steps near The Mansion. The ones at the front knew the route and headed into the gorge and soon were sprinting back towards school before those at the back were reaching Hill Sixty. I was probably about a third of the way back from the front and I took particular note of IRKS in his sheepskin coat chatting to other teachers, fag and pint of beer in hand as I struggled past. I can’t really see why the staff smiled so much when it was cross country season. No checking of names took place, just the odd cursory glance, sarcastic comment or complete indifference as the boys went past.
On entering the gorge we were out of view of any of the teachers and some would make a very quick stop, the fags would come out and we would emulate our betters and chat over a smoke. After the quick break it was hard to get moving again, but we did. Unless it was the cross country competition, we headed back towards school, across the Soldiers Field, through the gates, along the drive back to the changing rooms. Our positions were spasmodically checked to make sure we had returned, but otherwise usually the stragglers were just left to their own devices. I wonder if there are still any out there, forever cursed to plod the trail and never finishing, a bit like Sisyphus? Nowadays duty of care would mean that there were much more stringent checks. I must say that I do remember Joe Wareham donning his shorts and striding out with the runners, which is more than can be said for most.
The funny thing from all this is, that I have spent most of my adult life as a runner. I started in 1981 and completed my first half marathon the next year. I have never been great at it, but for some reason I enjoy it and it has probably helped to keep me alive as I have bad genetics when it comes to hearts. I still run every day and it is a great way to reduce stress, think and enjoy living.
Parts 1 to 13 of Blaze as an audiobook can be listened to on the player below.