I don’t know if it is just my memory or whether it is a fact that we seemed to have some lovely summers whilst I was growing up in the late sixties and early seventies. I know we had some hard, grey, icy cold winters, but summer meant the arrival of summer sports and these made a welcome change to rugby and cross country. There were two summer sports and they were cricket and athletics.
There was something almost magical about the ritual of cricket. It was played wearing whites which never made a lot of sense as grass stains and red off the cricket balls always challenged my mother’s washing. Initially we played wearing shorts which must have looked fairly comical as we struggled in oversized pads, with straps that cut into the legs as we ran, but as we grew older we were allowed to wear long whites. Cricket involved equipment that other sports didn’t require: pads, gloves, bats, and the unmentionable cricket box. The equipment at Roundhay School was old, well used and threadbare and everything had a particular smell. It was an aged odour that was probably a mixture of sweat, linseed oil and pad whitening. Whatever its origin I can still smell it today. For those unaccustomed to the box piece of safety equipment, the box was a plastic, avocado shaped cup that protected a man’s ‘crown jewels’. Initially they were not deemed necessary for young boys, but once puberty arrived they became essential. It only took being struck in the groin by a hard leather cricket ball once to make you ensure you used one in the future.
As an aside, there is something about the male psyche that finds endless mirth in seeing another struck in the nether regions. Professional cricketers and novices all share the same delight in witnessing the discomfort of even their own team member writhing in agony, wondering if they will ever be able to have children or stand up straight again. That moment of, ‘There but for the grace of God’, adds even more sniggering, whilst trying to offer support to the player bent double, hands clasped about their genitalia, seems to bring out the two extremes, sympathy and glee.
The cricket pitch in front of the school had a square in the middle, but we youngsters never got to step on it unless it was to gather the ball that had been hit for a four or six. Our strips were on either side and were less manicured and levelled, but allowed for us to learn and play house matches. Cricket is so unlike the strenuous sports of rugby and cross country as so much of the time is spent doing nothing. Either you are observing whilst your side is batting, or you stand around waiting for the ball to come somewhere near you. The best players get to do the most and the others stand around daydreaming until that moment when the reverie is broken and your team are all shouting at you to ‘catch it!’ Usually the ball has been skyed and you dither underneath it, the weight of everyone’s attention focused on you, and the knowledge that if you drop it you will be lambasted and ridiculed for your lack of skill and attention. You see the ball, remember instructions; watch the ball into your hands, remember to have soft hands and to cup the ball, move smoothly into position still watching the ball at all times. Sweat appears on your brow. You wait what seems an eternity. The ball falls and smacks into your palms, bounces out onto the sward, and there is agony in the hands and, in the heart, sheer embarrassment. The rest of the players are either shouting abuse or rolling about on the grass in hysterics. What is even more humiliating is when you do all the right things, but the ball lands a yard to the side of you. I have experienced both of these and I was a reasonable cricketer. Goodness alone knows what the least able or interested boys experienced. They suffered so many degradations during lunch and playtimes when teams were being chosen and they were always the last picked and sometimes not even wanted by either team at the end. That must have fostered an absolute loathing of sport and organised games. I wonder if they exacted their revenge on sporting Adonises when they held positions in industry and the professions and interviewed candidates? Did they look at the sporty ones and think to themselves, ‘I’ll choose you last’? You couldn’t blame them if they did.
Cricket is one of those few sports when you only get one go. If you are out first ball when batting, that’s it for you. Worse is when you don’t even get one bat and you are run out from the other end without facing a ball. Again I have experienced the unfairness of that. I suppose it is a bit of a metaphor for life, which is part of the beauty of the game. The shame is that living in Australia, I see the ugly side of cricket. We played with fairness and good sportsmanship was paramount, unless someone was hit in the groin or dropped a sitter, whereas children in Australian schools are taught to sledge the opposition mercilessly and to win at all costs. That may have made them the best in the world, but tarnished them with a hideous reputation as louts and cheats.
The other sport was athletics and this had an even more free and easy feel as often we just lolled around the pole vaulting pit, the long jump or high jump pits and lounged away a lovely sunny afternoon. Not so, unfortunately, in the first year. At these times we were drilled with a new range of activities that were not on the primary school calendar. Who can forget about forty boys in a long line running up to the throw line, lethal aluminium javelins raised above their shoulders and hurling the blessed things and watching them soar through the air like a scene from the film Zulu? We weren’t allowed to run and retrieve our javelins until the master in charge gave us the all clear. The difference between the shortest and the longest throws was quite marked and sometimes I wondered if the shorter throws were deliberate as the boys responsible had a shorter distance to go and retrieve them. It really was quite a sight and merely carrying them back to start again was quite a challenge to avoid being stabbed in the leg or the eye with a boy carelessly carrying their weapon without full control. Health and safety would surely have a thing to say for such lax attention nowadays. I actually enjoyed javelin throwing and spent quite a few evenings practising for the athletics days. Unfortunately there were always one or two better than me.
Another event that would have raised the ire of health and safety would have been the discus throwing. We had no nets around the throwing circle and wayward discuses shooting out in any direction was an everyday occurrence. Runners on the track had to keep a sharp eye out for javelins, discus and shot puts raining down on them. I suppose it was all good training for the battlefront, which my generation mostly missed out on. But at least we were prepared!
For those of us who survived intact there were other challenges ready to cripple the unwary and those who did not know of the Darwin Awards. High jump! Sounds safe enough, but not when you were being taught and had to land on a sand pit with the give of a concrete slab. At first stage we were taught the scissor kick and most managed to land on their feet, but as we progressed the Fosbury Flop offered the approach of twisting and passing over the bar backwards and head first. There was no other way to land than on your neck and shoulders. How many of us are complaining about bad backs and have no idea why? Well maybe the answer lies here. I remember landing mats being introduced and this helped as the mat meant you only fell a shorter distance and it was cushioned. The drawback was it gave you a false sense of security and accidents were common when you missed the mat and landed on the grass.
As I grew no taller after the age of twelve, this was not to be my sport. However, I found an even more dangerous activity to try my hand at. The pole vault was something that I thought a daredevil ne’er-do-well should have a go at. For some reason it was not a popular event and was in its infancy. The store room was full of poles, mostly bamboo with a growing number of aluminium ones. The carbon fibre bending poles were certainly not available at Roundhay and most of us put up with the bamboo ones that were left. Now these were fairly serviceable when hurtling along the runway, jabbing in into the receiving hole and suddenly lifting oneself up to a reasonable height and dropping over the bar and landing on a sand mound. Four or five feet seemed quite safe, but as we developed our skill, power and speed I saw a number of them break. I never saw an injury, but that was more by chance and good luck than anything else.
As we progressed the aluminium ones were much safer and we reached quite presentable heights. The danger then was falling down onto sand where the wind was driven out of you and for a split second you wondered if you would ever walk again. Even that wasn’t the real danger as that was the concrete edging that ran along the runway. If you didn’t make the jump and fell back towards the runway or sideways then there were several hard objects lying in wait to break your fall and possibly your back. We just laughed at each other’s misfortune and injuries and carried on challenging each other to jump higher. You may well be asking about the supervision, but often there was none. As we got older we just collected the equipment after school and set about practising and returning the gear when we had finished. We got pretty good at it and due to the lack of numbers foolhardy enough to take part, I won my only medal at the school athletics day in the pole vault. I still have it somewhere and I will see if I can find it.
These were halcyon days and I guess I was lucky. I know that not everyone enjoyed school and even my experience was mixed but, on balance, I loved it and I think it was my primary schooling at Harehills in particular that led me to become a teacher.
For those interested or already listening the first 15 parts of my audiobook, Blaze, is availble to listen to on the Soundcloud listener below. It costs you nothing but time. It is a fantasy novel.