Mud, sweat and tears

28th July 2006 at 01:00
"There's a breathless hush in the close to-night Ten to make and the match to win A bumping pitch and a blinding light An hour to play, and the last man in."

Perhaps because I didn't go to a Hogwartsian school in the 19th century, my memory of PE (and what a horribly medical term "Physical Education" is: it sounds like you might need to wear latex gloves) was rather different from Sir Henry Newbolt's.

Everyone remembers the mud and the cold of games lessons. Until Year 9 our pale, fragile selves were taught how to rugby tackle on the Somme-like playing fields. In January, while passers-by shivered in coats and hats and mittens, we'd play hockey in shorts and T-shirts and chip each other's teeth with the sticks, and try to spot an escape route as we were jogged round the cross-country course. When you're 12, that sort of muckiness is not unattractive.

My problem was that I wasn't very good. Kicking and scrumming are harder than they look, and any hopes that my parents may have recklessly harboured of me playing for Yorkshire were crushed with the first school report. I was, it said, "always very nicely turned out". A sweet gesture, but we could all read between the lines. So, as any teacher knows, a bad attitude meant relatively little effort was put in and consequently relatively little got out. I muddled along, but never felt the thrill or passion or drive that beer adverts and Newbolt talk about. There was no "desire for a ribboned coat", no jammed Gatling gun, no lions (let alone three) on a shirt, no, as the French might say, esprit de corps.

Consequently, I never saw the point in it all. Exercise? Don't be silly.

That's for middle-aged people and rotund American kids who have Big Macs for breakfast. And yet - and here's the point I've been indolently meandering towards - in the last week before we broke for study leave, school offered up one last lesson. We'd gathered at lunch on the Stray, the strip of parkland that runs through the middle of Harrogate, for a game of rounders. I was batting and, to snorts of "fluke!", somehow socked it fairly well. With a "clop!" it soared, beyond the fielders, beyond the path, twisting and arching in the summer air. Forrest Gump would have been impressed as I ran, skipping over rucksack bases. This was about winning.

And yet, one rounder tagged, hitting second base on the second lap, the burning in my heart and my stomach for the victory - which I'd never known in Harrogate grammar school's scarlet kit - was met by a new burning in my lungs for air. What on earth was wrong with me? Could I possibly be unfit? A lad in our year is about to enter the London Triathlon, comprising of a one-mile swim (yum, Thames water!), 25-mile bike and seven-mile run.

Another, who left after GCSE for professional football, is training for the Iron Man: two and a half miles swimming, an insane 112 miles cycling, rounded off with a relaxing full marathon home. I'm hardly obese, and yet here I was paying the price of two years of physical idleness, only running to catch trains and answer phones.

Putting shots and chasing rugby balls had seemed pretty aimless at the time, but then the purpose came coughing to me in the June sun. So, here it is in black and white on finest TES newsprint: I'm sorry I was so unkind to PE. It stops you getting heart attacks on the wrong side of 35, and that is a pretty good thing. Suntanned, tracksuited teachers, wear your whistles round your necks with pride. Work those children hard. As Sir Henry would say, "Play up! Play up! And play the game!"

Matthew Holehouse has just left Harrogate grammar school. His column continues through the summer. Email:

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