I was fine playing football on the cinder pitches of Tooting Bec Common for my school, St Mary’s, Balham. I’d play at left back, not really getting involved as, even though they were an old pair, I wore glasses.
I’d worn glasses since I was five; my dad established I needed them having spent an afternoon of not picking his chinaman round the back of the garages of the Du Cane Court flats where we lived. I think my dad invented the doosra and was Balham’s answer to Muttiah Muralitharan. I was taken to David Mercer, the optician in Tooting High Street to get fitted with NHS glasses, which had just been paraded at the Paris Fashion Show (not).
When I first went to Bec Grammar School in the Autumn of 1968 I was abruptly introduced to rugby. I’d never seen, let alone try and get one out of a loose ruck, such an odd-shaped ball.
Because of the inherent danger of having a fellow classmate handing me off (this is a rugby phrase and not a euphemism, there were rarely happy endings in my short rugby career) my glasses could easily break, thus rendering my myopia even worse. This was the boy who couldn’t read the large letter at the top of the opticians’ chart with his right eye covered.
Our teacher for rugby (and oddly General Science) was former Bec Head Boy, Bob Hiller. Mr Hiller was, as a former pupil and England’s full back (I thought George Cohen was England’s full back such was my knowledge of rugby), untouchable.
We had two rugby tops: navy blue and white.
Without my glasses I would see three balls coming towards me; it never occurred to me to go for the middle one. Having spent 80 minutes (which seemed like 80 days, there is a ring to a book entitled 80 days round Tooting Broadway) my shirt was still spotlessly white. I didn’t get involved at all. I’d stand, freeing to death, on Fishponds playing fields, like Molesworth’s Fotherington-Thomas; thinking Arcadian thoughts and nothing about rugby. Mr Hiller, in his infinite wisdom, decided I needed to get dirty and forced me to rub mud over my shirt (he was clearly sponsored secretly, in those days of rugby being an amateur sport, by Daz).
I stupidly told my mum.
My mum, in turn, and even more stupidly, wrote to Mr Hiller. No one has the right to make her little Mickey Mouse dirty for no ostensible reason. I was a marked man.
Luckily I redeemed myself in the summer as I was, for a ten-year-old quite a good cricketer and had inherited my dad’s finger-spinning ball skills. I was deemed so good I was sent to play for Wandsworth and to report to Al Gover’s cricket school. However, this was time off school and I never went. I bunked off. I could have been the next Shane Warne; I was never going to be the next JPR Williams.