Portrait of the author as a rugby-playing, rugby-fearing young man
Thanks to education secretary Michael Gove, a man who looks like he spent his entire school life getting bogwashed and is now enacting his own spectacular revenge, GCSE English students will be denied the pleasures of classic American literature. But you already know that; plenty of words have been expended on behalf of those poor 15-year-olds who'll no longer be able to surrender their summer evenings to wondering if Atticus Finch represented a new wave of American consciousness in 1930s Alabama.
I might be out of touch with the current generation of British school kids, but I’m assuming the majority of them don’t care nearly as much about this news as we think they do. Having read many of the soon to be outlawed titles much later in life – and, crucially, in my own time – I can see them for the magnificent pieces of literature that they are. But ten years ago I was far too preoccupied with memorising Eminem lyrics and trying not to sweat around girls to care about the distinction between Steinbeck and Shakespeare.
A child’s wellbeing is always at the crux of these debates, as it should be. However, when I cast my mind back to my own time at school, I’d imagine the mental anguish caused by a lack of Arthur Miller's plays would be easily surpassed by the mental – and physical – anguish brought on by having to play rugby for an entire term every year.
It was an odd thing at school, rugby – a semi-mandatory expose of your physical ineptitude. Despite football being our nation’s favourite sport, my school like so many others tried to elevate its reputation by making us play a game that I can’t imagine anyone actually enjoys. By no means were we forced to play, but there was a certain social advantage to be gained by merely turning up: you could hang out with the year group's highest social caste without it being weird, and sometimes girls would watch. The problem was that if you wanted to impress any of those girls, you had to be good, and being good invariably meant being twice the size of a normal 15-year-old. I was not that.
And so I ended up playing for the worst team: the third XV. The thirds were made up of three types of people – first, there were the ones who actually liked rugby but were too small to make it up the ladder; then there were the maladjusted, violent nutters; and then the rest of us. Training was awful. You could be forgiven for thinking that the members of one team should like each other. Extracurricular rugby allowed individuals to settle their differences legitimately, whether both of those individuals felt these differences needed to be settled or not. The same teachers who would frantically break up fights in the playground would happily look on, arms crossed, as the same individuals beat the shit out of each other on the rugby field.
There's not a great deal of literature about what happens when you combine growing pubescent bodies with the barbarism of "the egg game" but in 2010, Allyson Pollock – a professor of public health – published a study called Rugby union injuries in Scottish schools. It reads like the opening scene of a Tarantino movie. According to her report, a full season of rugby comes with a 1 in 5 chance of getting concussed or breaking your bones. I know people who still suffer from the serious injuries they sustained playing rugby in their youth, and have heard of teenagers in Edinburgh being paralysed from the waist down after a scrum gone wrong.
Finally, then, someone to outline the difference between schoolwork and brain damage. Unfortunately for Dr Pollock, it seems it takes the prospect of kids studying a literary work by Meera Syal to draw the Twitterati's ireful focus, and rugby remains completely legal in this nation's schools.
The matches I played in were a testament to the primeval nature of the sport. We hardly ever lost. We were certainly in the lowest tier of private education and could not have been called "posh" by any stretch of the imagination. However, simply by being a private school we competed with all the other posh schools across Scotland. Being the worst team, we were paired against the other schools' sporting rejects, most of whom sadly had no choice in whether they played or didn’t. These great conscript armies lacked the ingrained madness of some of our guys and in most cases they were simply steamrollered. Wellington described his forces as ‘the scum of the earth”. I guess we were on a similar plane.
Our perceived dominance got thrown to the winds, however, when we were drawn against an unheard of team by the name of Preston Lodge. Just like in the ocean, in rugby there is always a bigger fish. They were that fish. In the shadow of a derelict power station, Preston Lodge's 15 monsters really made us suffer. Our captain was injured in the warm up, treading on one of the many broken bottles that littered the field. It didn't matter. Losing 80 to nothing at half time I recall the game being abandoned for posterity's sake. As we drove away in our bus we saw most of their squad driving away in their respective cars. It was a little suspect for an under-14s game and it was at this point that I thought something roughly akin to: 'Fuck this for a game of soldiers.'
As with many things that prove themselves to be intensely damaging over time, like drug addiction or payday loans, getting out was not as easy as getting in. Like an idealistic volunteer I had joined in the hope of gaining some social recognition that might lead to the prospect of at least getting near a member of the opposite sex. Now, I wanted out. Nothing, not even the attentions of the gorgeous Lindsay Green, could be worth the gruelling weekly torture of playing rugby. Another issue was that we had started to discover drink and the idea of a 7AM meet for a coach to Aberdeen became mysteriously less appealing after a couple of cans.
Unfortunately, the rugby staff were less keen to let us go. It was like a mafia. PE staff, those self-flagellating apes who expose their sporting failure as soon as they choose their profession, exist only to live through the young players they coach. I must admit that due to my cowardice and lack of skill they certainly weren’t living through me, however without me there would be no one for the golden boys to heroically flatten every week. There's something wrong with grown men who push boys as young as ten into gyms to work on their physique. It's the same psychotic disconnect that afflicts a cousin of mine, who loves UFC and so is currently in the process of willing his young son to become a cage-fighter.
Anyway, the staff started getting sneaky and scheduling training during school hours. No longer extra-curricular, absenteeism was akin to going truant. Determined never to set foot on the field again I purposefully forgot my gear in the hope that I would be able to not participate and instead do something more productive with my time, like smoking dope or having a wank, perhaps even pry into some American literature. Faint hope it was indeed as Mr Dixon, the head of rugby, approached and asked why I wasn’t changed.
“I don’t feel well Mr Dixon," I said. "I have a cold."
Mr Dixon hated people like me. I played cello. (Ironically, I only played rugby in order to bring balance to my social status as “the kid with the big violin”, but he wasn’t to know this.) In an instant, Mr Dixon knew I was never going to play again and so decided that my final training should be truly memorable. Instead of breaking me physically, as was tradition with the rugby staff, he would try to break me mentally.
Taking me alone into the changing room, in preparation for an act that would have dreadful repercussions in this day and age, he looked at me and asked: “Where is your tissue? If you’re ill, then where is your tissue?"
I'd been caught lying without the relevant props. I said that I didn’t have a tissue. He repeated the phrase, mock sarcastically this time. I responded in kind. He exploded. Again and again he screamed down those words that will ever be etched in my memory. "Where is your tissue? Where is your tissue? Where is your tissue?" Again and again he bawled at me. I tried to respond but he just rewound and unleashed himself with renewed vigour, until, finally, after five minutes, and to my intense and everlasting shame, I cried. On seeing this, he chuckled slightly. Then he left. I had now been debriefed and released from the rugby world.
Mr Dixon died of a heart attack about a year ago, but while my battle may have been won the war on rugby must still be waged. The moral figureheads of the global game, the mighty All Blacks, have a motto: “Subdue and Penetrate”. It really stands out as an alarming testament to the insane nature of the sport and would terrify me more as a parent than the prospect of a kid not being able to analyse Of Mice and Men at GCSE level. I struggle to see how a lack of certain literature has a more detrimental effect of your intellect than someone stamping on your head with spiked shoes on and I am therefore surprised at Mr Gove’s myopia when it comes to stopping children doing stuff.
After all, Mr Gove attended an independent school in Scotland, so he must know the score. Ah well, small steps Michael; we will get those bastards yet.