“Which position did you play, Mate?” If I had had a pound for every time I have been asked that question, in relation to rugby, I would be rich!
Heavier now in these later years than when I was younger, I am often asked if I played in the front row. It would be great to be able to say which position I played in. In fact, a few years ago, I was profiled in Independent Nurse, and when asked “If you had not been a nurse, what profession would you have chosen?” I said something like “physiotherapist for England or Wales Rugby squads”. But how much better would it have been to have actually played international rugby for one of those great teams!
In fact, that was never to be. To be honest, I can’t remember what I was like at rugby, as a child in school. If I was anything as bad at rugby as I was at baseball, then that would have been “crap”. Wearing glasses from age 10, and bullied at school for a number of years, I hated all sorts of team sports. When we played baseball, or rounders, or whatever it was called, I would be frightened to wear my glasses in case I got hit in the face by the ball. So I would stand, poised with bat in hand, and as soon as I saw the bowler throw that vicious projectile at me, I would discharge the bat into the air and run the bases! I probably never hit the ball at all – I was gone before it got anywhere near me.
Even in PE, in the school gym – which I equally disliked – I would be hideous at anything to do with climbing or going up heights. If I was expected to run and jump over the “horse”, I could run up to it, bounce on the trampoline, then ‘wimp out’ of actually getting up and over! Strange that, because all these years later, when I was the fittest and strongest I’d ever been in life – with ex-Royal Marine Commando Rob Blair as my brutal personal trainer – he could get me to run up steep hills in Royal Park Greenwich, then I’d turn around to go back down and feel like puking my guts up at being so ‘high’! I usually ended up taking a less inclined route back down, than running (and fear of falling) down the steeper hill face.
In fact, after a totally exhausting workout with Rob, when there would be little energy left in my body hardly to breathe let alone do anything else, he would say “Come on, back up the hills to the vehicles … and I’m on your back!” He was 86Kg and he would make me carry him all the way up and down hills in Greenwich Park. If I thought my heart was going to explode and I was going to drop dead at that very moment, I would let go of him and exclaim “Rob! Get off me! I am dying!”
His long legs would wrap around my waist in some stubborn embrace of defiance and he would say “In your own time, David” … and I would have to carry on, once my lungs and heart felt as though they were post-explosion and that any further resistance was futile!
My dearly departed Mother, Lil, was such a religious and righteous women, she would never lie. So on PE days at school, if I wanted to get out of going to the gym, I would get out of bed and stand, in my bedroom, bent over for such long time that I would have a back ache. Then I could go down stairs and say “Mam, will you give me a letter to get off PE today, please? I’ve got back ache!”
I started senior school, Willows High, Tremorfa, Cardiff, in 1968. That was the year after it opened; 11 years post the Wolfenden Committee Report, and one year since the first partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in the UK, speared-headed by Leo Abse, an MP in Cardiff. I knew nothing of any of this. Kids in school – and I hate using the word “kids” – used to bully me for being a “swot” and being a “spastic” (the derogatory term in those days) for not liking or being fit at sport. Today, young people may bully others by saying “you’re SO gay!” Obviously, say that to me now, and I would happily reply “Thank you! It’s a gift!” But back in the 60s, I’d never even heard of the word “gay” – except for being happy. The term of abuse was “queer”. I didn’t know what that meant, either, but I know I was called it often enough during my high school years, especially if the other boys were implying I was weak, “spastic” at sports, a swot and therefore an easy target for bullying.
One of the nastier things the bully-boys would do would be to lift us recipients of bullying up in the air, in front of the fence that surrounded the tennis courts. They would squeeze the criss-crossed fencing together so it opened up, and put our fingers and thumbs into the gaps. When they let go, the wire would then clamp on our digits and we would be hanging or dangling on the wire fence. Then the bully boys would run and jump on the fence, turning around mid-air, so their backs and butts hit the fence to make it shudder. And we poor “queers” and other “wimps” would just dangle and bounce.
Bullying got so bad towards the end of my time at Willows – I left aged 16, with 2 ‘O’ levels and 5 GCSEs (not that I remember what any of them are now), that I had the head master’s [sic] permission to leave school slightly earlier than the main going-home time. I also had permission to go out via the teachers’ main entrance, not the via the school playground with all the other pupils. I hated that school! The fact I have been a registered student for about 39 years since leaving compulsory education, and spent all but 3 years of my post age 16 in some form of educational institution or other, seems a bit of a miracle, given I loathed school so much.
When I was 16 or so, I was in the Junior Red Cross. Frequently, on Saturdays, I would volunteer to work on a spinal unit at a hospital in Cardiff. There was one patient who had tetraplegia (broken neck and paralysis from the head down). He got it from playing rugby! That convinced me how much of a lucky escape I had from school sports.
During my 3 years at Neath General Hospital for SRN, I used to cycle up and down the heads of the valleys road to my Grandmother, in Aberdare. It was 36 miles up and down those hills, on my racing bike. If I didn’t have time to stay with her for my full 2 days off, I would cycle the 36 miles, there and back, all in one day.
Despite my final report at Willows saying my career option might be “RAF medical”, after 5 years of nursing education, from age 17 onwards, I joined the Franciscan Order (OFM) and spent the first year in the noviciate, at a beautiful archetypical monastery-styled friary, in Chilworth, Guildford, Surrey.
The novice master was an absolute fanatic about football – I hated it! We were a noviciate of 11, so he expected us all to play 5-a-side most weeks: I hated it even more! Then he expected us to play against the local Catholic Seminary at Wonnersh. I hated it more and more and more! The novice master – Fr Cassian – agreed I was so crap at football (which he simply could not understand), that he said I no longer needed to play it again. BUT … there was this one time against Wonnersh when he was short of a man. So he said I should play, but he (a chain-smoking, wheezing, football fanatic) would keep the ball away from me as much as possible. It didn’t work. My nemesis in the noviciate was captain that day and he decided to put me in goals! So, 12 times the Wonnersh team kicked the ball at me in the goals, 12 times I moved to one side and the ball rolled straight on into the net. I’ve not played football from that day to this! But when the others played football, I still went jogging (usually alone) and on most days of the week. Jogging kept me fit, as I no longer had a bike.
In my 5 years at Canterbury, first at the Franciscan Study Centre and then direct entry to year 2 of a 3 years BA(Hons) in Theology at the University of Kent at Canterbury, I still enjoyed the solitary sports, such as jogging, cycling and being alone on the weights in the gym. Saturday evening suppertimes in Rutherford or Elliot Colleges’ dining rooms were a feast to behold! They are magnificent dining rooms, with panoramic windows looking from the top of the hill right down to the Cathedral, in the middle of the city below. But the dining rooms also had internal windows backing on to the main corridors for a dormitory corridors.
Many a glorious Saturday evening the rugby boys would go to the windows facing in to all of us eating supper, drop their shorts, and stick their bare bums on the windows at us – we used to called it “pressed ham”! So how could I ever join such a crowd – especially as I was studying Theology
Have no doubt about it: they were g-o-r-g-e-o-u-s!
At the Franciscan Study Centre, we had this amazing frequent visitor called Willie, who, but for the kindness of the Nuns who used to cook for us, would have been as homeless as he was alcohol dependant. He lived in a caravan in the garden of the convent, and on his sober days would do ‘odd jobs’ for the Sisters. He hated anyone referring to him as “a tramp”.
I used to jog for miles around the Uni and through the local villages. On the back roads around campus were a number of road humps, with the warning sign “ramps in road”. When the signs got muddy and dirty, of course someone would add a big letter “T”. Willie would visit me at the Study Centre, tell me – over and over again – about the “Tramps in road” sign, and say, in his broadest Scottish accent, “Now that’s not nice, Brother David!”
One final vignette on exercise. With Commando Rob, I really did overcome so many of my fears about team sports. One December, with so much snow on the ground I could not drive my car, I jogged 3 miles all the way, without stopping, to Greenwich park. There were a team of us there, and we worked out, in the snow, for five hours solid, with only 2 x 10 minutes breaks. We did an hour on kettle bells, loads of running and hill climbing; Bulgarian bags, tug-of-war teams. It was amazing! My body was in the best shape it had ever been, and I really was carrying a lot of muscle mass. The following summer, I was having a pint in the King’s Arms (gay bar) Poland St. A straight woman came up to me and she said “Your chest is amazing! Do you mind if I touch your nipples!” Then she said, “Can I get my friends to touch them too” Hahaha! Who would have thought!