In games, we played Murderball, a prehistoric form of rugby with very few rules. There were two blue crash mats, two teams facing off against each other and a large brown peeling medicine ball. The aim was to move the weighted sphere to the opposite end and it didn’t matter how this was done. No laws of engagement existed, until one day, we weren’t allowed to play at all. A fellow pupil broke his collarbone, having been flipped mid-tackle.
We all failed the selection test at eleven and our fate was to attend an all boys secondary school. We were to be toughened up, like cattle fattened for slaughter.
Apart from compulsory classes such as English and maths, the main focus was on vocational subjects. We were destined for the army or factory floor. There was never any suggestion that we should consider an office based career. Nor was the importance of child rearing or house keeping mentioned.
During careers, expectations were low. Apart from the normal jokes of becoming an international playboy, ambition was ruthlessly suppressed. One boy, who was eager to get into retail management, was told not to overstretch himself. He was setting his expectations too high apparently.
Our school was challenging. There was bullying and fighting. You could get in trouble for looking at someone the wrong way. The bus ride home was always precarious. After one bad experience, I walked the three and a half mile journey.
I had a close escape. At the back of the bus, one bully threw copper coins at my head. He taunted, singling me out for special attention. I had no friends, no one to stick up for me. So before my stop, I rushed to the front and convinced the driver to let me off early. When the bus pulled away, I could see the bully’s face, pointing at me, smiling, a promise that we’d catch up another time.
I changed my routine. At three fifteen everyday, I rushed out of the class as the bell rang. I ploughed through the mud and water of the playing fields, the brown gloop sticking to my shoes and trousers. I ran to get away from the other boys and I ran to escape the bully’s attention. Once I reached the housing estate at the other side, I allowed myself to slow down.
I would normally walk the rest of the way home, spending this time in reflection. I had no idea what I wanted to do with life. I was unhappy. I never fitted in, certainly not with the expectations imposed upon me by the school.
As the weeks went on, I started to feel safe. When I thought about my cowardly dash off the bus, I wondered who the other victims might be. I wondered who had taken my place, glad that it wasn’t me.
I was wrong to feel safe.
Near the end of term, I walked through a field littered with bonfire wood and smashed beer bottles. I was surrounded by five boys, some of whom were two years older. Without any exchange, I was told I’d be taught a lesson. I was quickly on the ground, protecting my face and head from a cluster of kicks and punches.
It didn’t last long but as I lay there helpless, time stretched into eternity. A boot landed on my stomach and for a moment, I lost the ability to breathe. My attackers panicked and ran off, perhaps shaken by the possibility of having done permanent damage.
Eventually, I gathered myself together and made my way home.
Over the following days, I was unable to really explain what happened, as if I was somehow to blame. Nothing could justify my two black eyes and bruised ribs. I started to lose faith in the outside world but began to develop an interior one.
I fitted into my own shadow. I sought out unknown places, rebelling against all the limitations I felt. I met disembodied voices in the second hand record stores and bookshops. I found Aimee Mann singing about being with stupid. I found a poem by Denise Levertov, talking about female genitalia, in a way I never heard a woman speak before.
Two weeks before my exams, during a bout of chickenpox, I refused to revise. Instead, I read about the 'Thought Police' in Orwell’s 1984. I began to understand about the violence in my life. Thinking about Murderball and the impact this had on the boys, I realised why most would eventually accept the arbitrary rules placed upon them. Thinking about the bully and how I was beaten up, I understood the attraction of wanting to be part of something bigger, of wanting to be part of a team or a gang.
I accepted neither of these things. I questioned everything.