THE ONLY SPORTS PRIZE I have ever won was at a sports day held by my primary school in Golders Green sometime before 1960. I was in a relay race. Our team members were awarded a green badge. I have no idea whether we were first or just in one of the three fastest teams. Since that glorious day, my sporting ‘achievements’ have been anything but glorious.
Once, while playing football at the Hall School, which I attended from 1960 to ’65, I did manage to score a goal. The ball was coming my way, I put out my foot, and the ball bounced off it, into a poorly guarded goal. The only problem was that I had scored an own goal. My fellow team-mates were not amused.
I entered my senior school, Highgate School, in 1965, four hundred years after its establishment by Sir Roger de Cholmeley in the final months of his life. On the second day of my first term, I had to take part in a game of football watched by senior boys and teachers, who wanted to assess the playing skills of the boys new to the school. It was a very rough experience. The other players struck me as being very aggressive. Twenty-four hours later, two senior boys, both much taller than me and dressed in the black blazers that only prefect wore, approached me. Very apologetically, they informed me that I was not good enough to play in our house football teams. They asked me to choose another sport instead of football. The choices included Eton Fives, which I had never come across before, and cross-country running. I chose the latter because I had heard of running.
It turned out that I had made a good choice. On most sports afternoons (Wednesdays and Saturdays), cross-country running was unsupervised. I used to change into my school running gear and wander over to the school tuck shop (a confectionery store) to buy some sweets. Then, I used to cross Hampstead Lane and enter the grounds of Kenwood, where we were supposed to run. After a respectably long enough leisurely ramble through the park, eating my sweets and maybe talking with someone else who was ‘going for a run’, I returned to the changing room, and got ready to go home. Showering was unnecessary because I never worked up a sweat nor roamed through muddy parts of the park.
Once a year, our housemaster (pastoral carer), Mr Bowles, took his boys for a run. This was a more strenuous event than my usual outings. We followed him off the paths and into the wilder parts of the park. Once, he stopped and turned to me, saying:
“Yamey, how is it that there is no mud on you?”
“Mr Bowles, I don’t know. Anyway, I thought that the point of this was to get exercise, not to get muddy.”
He took this surprisingly well. Although he was the only teacher in the school not to have a degree from Oxford or Cambridge, he had more common sense that the rest of the staff put together.
Summer terms gave rise to another problem: cricket. This sport terrified me. I was constantly worried that I would be hit and badly injured by a hard cricket ball flying at speed. Also, I was useless at catching balls, hard or soft. So, when the school began recruiting pupils to be umpires, I volunteered. For a few days, I attended umpiring classes. Each of the new umpires was given a small pocket-sized blue covered book of the rules of cricket. None of it made any sense to me, but one thing stuck firmly in my mind: the umpire’s decision is final.
Fully ‘qualified’, I began my umpiring career. One of the umpire’s duties is to count the number of balls that have elapsed in each over of six balls. I had been advised that a good method of doing this was to place six coins in one hand and then after each ball ahs been bowled, to transfer a coin from one hand to the other. The only problem was that often during an over I forgot in which direction the coins should have been passed. Was it from left to right or vice-versa? Usually, the scorers pointed out when I had miscounted. Often, the players questioned my decisions. My response was to withdraw the rule book slowly from my pocket and ask the petulant players:
“Have you read the very latest rules?”
This usually worked. On one occasion, the bowling team shouted “howzat” jubilantly. Without any idea why they did that, I declared that the batsman was ‘out’. This caused an uproar, but I knew that the umpire’s decision is always final, and I stuck to it. Many of my decisions, I must now confess, were based on trying to get the game finished so that I could go home early enough. Had I been more scrupulous and better informed and more interested in cricket, the games that I umpired would have stretched on well after 5pm, which would have messed up my daily routine. At this point, it is only fair that I offer my apologies to anyone who felt aggrieved as a result of my umpiring activities.
Mr Bowles realised that sports was unlikely to do me any good at all. In the last two years of school, he allowed me to visit exhibitions in central London instead of getting in everyone’s way on the playing fields of Highgate. For example, during this period, I visited the exhibition about the Bauhaus three times at the Royal Academy.
When I was about 13 years old, an uncle, who was a keen bodybuilder, gave me a set of weights and a metal bar on to which these heavy metal discs fitted. It was a kind, well-meaning gesture. However, it was not a gift that appealed to me. It lay idle in my bedroom until a friend, who was keen on rowing, asked to borrow them. I lent them to him and was not perturbed that they were never returned.
At University College London, there was no requirement for me to do any kind of sport. So, I did not. While I was doing my PhD, I became good friends with my supervisor Robert and his wife Margaret. For thirty years after finishing my doctorate, I used to visit them at their home near Slough. They had a tennis court in their extensive grounds. Margaret was a fine tennis player, usually winning the finals of the tennis tournament played at the annual Physiology Department sports day held at Shenfield in Hertfordshire.
Whenever I visited Robert and Margaret, I was ‘roped in’ to playing doubles with Robert and Margaret and one other, usually their Irish son-in-law. I was reasonably good at serving and returning, but only if the ball flew towards where I happened to be standing. Margaret told me that I might have become quite a good player if I had bothered to run around the court when I saw where the ball was heading.
One weekend afternoon in early May 1984, while I was on the court with Margaret and Robert, I felt something slip inside one of my knees. As we walked back to the house for afternoon tea, I felt that I could not straighten my leg properly. I did not mention this to anyone for a good reason. It happened a few days before I was about to fly to Yugoslavia to begin a two-week tour of neighbouring Albania. I had been wanting to visit Albania for many years, ever since I was about 15 years old. I did not want to risk seeking medical advice just in case I was told not to travel. I decided that whatever the condition of my leg, I would travel to Albania. I believed that should my leg continue to trouble me, I could seek medical help in the country that had intrigued me for years.
After arriving in Albania and a few alcoholic drinks at various meals, my leg ceased to trouble me. One member of our group fell ill when we were visiting a hunting lodge in rural Albania. This lodge near Lezhë had been built in the 1930s for Count Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law. As if by magic, when the lady on our tour began feeling poorly, a doctor and two nurses dressed in white uniforms suddenly appeared to assist her. I imagine that our tour bus was followed closely by a medical team.
I mentioned the story of my leg because, contrary to all I have been told, I have noticed that sporting activities are not entirely beneficial. During the 35 years that I practised dentistry, I had several patients a week, who entered my surgery limping. Almost all of them had injured their knees or other body parts while attempting to ‘keep fit’.
Now, I do not want you to think that I am a slovenly ‘couch potato’, whose main form of exercise is breathing. I climb up and down the 50 steps leading to our flat and walk two to three miles a day on average. I walk mainly for enjoyment. If walking helps to keep me fit, that is a bonus.
So now, patient reader, you have been apprised of the secrets of my sporting life.
PS: you will be amused to learn that for a long time I thought that a ‘six-pack’ was a package of six cans of beer or lager. Now that I am better informed, I have looked in the mirror but fail to see any sign of my six pack; it remains hidden.