Friday 23 October 1987

…Last day before half-term.
We had a special assembly for Diwali.
We also had to do a cross-country run that was one-and-a-half miles.
I did a cross-country walk…

One-and-a-half miles seems like nothing now. I could run it faster today than I could had I bothered to try 25 years ago.

I’m afraid there was a degree of obstinacy at work here. I also resented being made to do what, to me, seemed an activity intended to humiliate rather than exhilarate. As such I took a warped pride in being the last one to finish. And on that note I ended my first stint of education at secondary school.

Monday 5 October 1987

…We had to do some mathematical investigations.
We did one called Frogs, but it’s difficult to explain what we did, so I’ll just say that
it was pretty hard.
But that was better than PE in the gym, which is always boring and
a waste of time…

Yes, that’s right: I preferred doing something difficult to something boring. But understand that the difficult thing involved sitting down in a dignified and quiet fashion behind a desk, while the boring thing involved running about making a fool of myself.

Which would you have chosen?

Wednesday 1 July 1987

…Another morning at Woodbrook for the induction, and it began with us having
to do some French.
It was actually quite good.
I have learned “Je m’appelle…”
This doesn’t mean “Seems like hell” but “My name is…”
Then we went down to the science labs for some science with Dr Something Or
Other, it sounded a bit like Dr Zopatzo.
The entire subject of the lesson was how a Bunsen Burner works.
Unfortunately then it was time for PE which was boring and afterwards we were
Except I “forgot” my towel…

Yes, the tried-and-tested bogus memory lapse. But there was no way, absolutely no way, I was going to go into a communal shower with a load of strangers. It was enough of an ordeal being around them fully-clothed.

Later in the year, when I was at secondary school for real, the post-PE shower was enforced more rigorously. A teacher would patrol the changing room, drawling a little-too-enthusiastically: “Come on boys! What are you, nancies? Drop that towel! I don’t know why you’re shy, I’ve seen it all before!”

He’d also threaten not to return our valuables, which we’d had to hand over before the lesson to his tiresomely unoriginal cry of “Baubles, bangles and beads!” and which he kept in a Tupperware container.

If absolutely everyone had been forced into the showers, and absolutely everyone had shared the indignity and embarrassment, it might have been a little less unbearable. But the cheats cheated, the skivers skived, the bold ones answered back, and the remaining minority of us did what we were told and just felt even worse.

Wednesday 24 June 1987

…Last ever PE lesson at this school.
Down the years it has always been deadly boring, taking in
commando rolls, hockey, basketball, gymnastics, flopping about,
messing around and loads more things.
I shall not miss it…

PE is the one primary school subject that humiliates you twice. If you’re not very good at, say, maths or English, it’s only your brain that gets punished. You can sit behind a desk and fail mentally. But if you’re not very good at sport, it’s your brain and your body that is given a drubbing. You are judged to be a failure both mentally and physically. And that is an immensely crushing experience, even to a child as young as six or seven.

But worse is to come. If you’re no good at PE at secondary school, you’re humiliated three times over: mentally, physically and psychologically. Your shortcomings on the football pitch or running track are branded not merely the product of a lack of stamina or poor brain power, but of a “bad attitude” or of “not trying hard enough”. And you can try harder, you can try as hard as you like, but if you simply can’t kick a ball straight, hold a racket in the right way, or run fast enough to avoid finishing last, the humiliation is unending.

I wasn’t headstrong, I wasn’t haughty; I wasn’t fat, I wasn’t thin. I just wasn’t very good. Yet a procession of teachers of all ages and genders deemed my inadequacy to be all my fault, and hence nobody ever tried to help me get better.

It did end, of course. But one of the curses of adolescence is the sense that everything that is bad is unending, and everything that is good is over too quickly.

(And here are some of those sports I’d been made to do at primary school: shinty; crab football; short tennis; non-stop cricket; ball skills; Olympic gymnastics; basketball; eight-a-side football; and running around in circles.)

Monday 25 May 1987 (Bank Holiday)

…The first of two days off school for half-term.
I am feeling much better.
I’ve been up all of today and have eaten and drunk a few things.
Listened to Cat’s Whiskers this morning, which are radio programmes for
children that are on every holiday.
My ear is still blocked up,
but Mum has already said I won’t have to do PE this week…

Now there’s a tonic to make anyone feel better… although obviously not too much.

Wednesday 8 April 1987

…Last PE lesson this term today – last basketball lesson, last gymnastics too.
Because of this, everybody was messing around, especially the 4th years.
[Our teacher] got cross.
He said: “It was a sad note to end the term on,” but it’s not really the end of term
so he got that wrong.
He also said: “With a sour taste in my mouth…”
Afterwards he went off in a sulk and ran round Southfields Park by himself
goodness knows how many times…

I’d have treated such an admonition with more gravity were it not related to sport. But going off in a sulk is always a bad move on the part of a teacher. It subtracts, not adds, credibility. Especially when it culminates in behaviour that, to our 11-year-old eyes, seemed slightly loopy.

Tuesday 31 March 1987

…[Our teacher] grabbed me and Edward this afternoon and virtually
threw us into the staff room.
He gave us a talking to about sport and our attitude.
He said he wanted to be fair with us.
The results are that swimming will be made a lot easier – we won’t have to be in
the top group anymore.
However for PE we are now going to be expected to help teach the infants
as well as doing our usual lesson.
That increases PE to THREE HOURS A WEEK!
How is this fair?…

Imagine my fury at being compelled to do this, and just days after moaning that the rest of my class gave the impression that all they wanted to do was play sport. Yet here was I getting landed with more PE, while the rest of my peers just carried on as before!

Worse – my “attitude” was supposedly to benefit from helping five and six-year-olds learn to catch a ball.

Had I taken the long view I would have wryly accepted this silly arrangement, knowing it would all be over in three months when I left primary school for good. But I wasn’t good at the long view 25 years ago, and instead merely raged inwardly at having mounting attention drawn towards my inadequacies.

Naturally, none of this improved my “attitude” towards PE one bit. I’d been doing it for seven years and still hadn’t found a sport I was a good at. Surely I’d suffered enough?