Friday, 11 March 2011


I mentioned in a comment to an earlier post that, for selected sixth formers, our school used to provide an alternative to compulsory games on Wednesday afternoons called "Perambulation". This involved driving out into the countryside with our favourite English teacher (dear old Roy Cross, a cricketing pipe-smoker / pipe-smoking cricketer, whose policy was always "smoke 'em if you've got 'em"), walking around for a bit, then stopping off for a pint on the way back. As I said in the comment, this was probably a more realistic preparation for our prospective lives as teachers and weekend ramblers than chasing balls across grass.

I have always had an ambiguous relationship with "games" as understood by the British; that is, competitive team sports, preferably involving a real risk of physical injury. Despite being a small chap, I have always been improbably strong and foolishly unafraid of bodily harm, and have the sort of natural hand-eye coordination that makes for a decent sportsman. So, unlike many bookish types, I found myself a regular fixture in school sports teams, if mainly low down in the order. But also, unlike most sporty types, I took a fairly ironic and laid-back view of things like "winning".

Chasing girls...
Boys vs. Girls Grammar, 1971
. You'd have to have
known me a long time to even think I'm in in this picture

Although I did play in second-string teams as a rugby wing forward and a close fielder in cricket, my main sporting distinction was that, from the age of 11, I was the goalkeeper of the hockey first XI. Idiots with the kamikaze instinct required by a hockey goalkeeper are hard to come by, and I was talent-spotted early on. "Look, that boy there doesn't seem to mind if larger boys hit hard balls towards him at high velocity -- is he very stupid?"

Goalkeepers are a breed apart in any sport. You dress differently, and you spend most of the game leaning on a goalpost, watching the seagulls flocking over the playing fields or thinking about girls, until there's an urgent shout and you're ON! Muddied oafs (oaves?) are charging towards you, and you have to stop them and/or stop the ball flying past you into the net.

Luckily, in hockey, you're armed with a stick, and have stout pads on your legs and padded kickers over your boots (not to mention a cricket box in your pants). You're damned near invulnerable, so it's "Charge!!" into the oncoming enemy. My speciality was fouling the forwards (preferably stepping on and occasionally breaking their sticks) and then deploying my secret weapons: left-handedness and cat-like reflexes. I could hold a stick in my right hand and save a penalty flick with my left 9.9 times out of ten. It's very gratifying, for a swot, to be pounded on the back and cheered by the sportiest, coolest boys in the school.

But that was only in the Spring term. Come the sixth form, I began spending the Winter and Summer terms with the Perambulators. I recall those outings with great pleasure. Numbers were restricted to about ten, drawn from both upper and lower sixths, so it was a pretty exclusive club. I can't remember how the membership was decided, but it pretty much amounted to that self-selecting handful of boys whose idea of a good time was a walk in the woods with a schoolteacher (hmm, that doesn't quite sound right). The smoking and drinking part was not widely advertised as a feature of the activity, obviously.

Odd as it may sound, I had never been "walking" before. Working class families in the South East of England didn't (and probably still don't) "go for a walk" -- I'm aware it was different in the North. On holiday, we sat on the beach, swam in the sea, or went for a ride. At weekends, we might occasionally go for a picnic, but that primarily involved sitting and eating. Recreational walking, involving special footwear and the use of maps, was something you might do in the Scouts, but was not a recognised family leisure activity. Besides, our parents and grandparents had done quite enough of that in the Army for a lifetime, thank you very much.

I became notorious in our family for always walking everywhere (not so difficult, in a town where you can walk from end to end in less than an hour). To school, to the shops, to friend's houses, even to nowhere in particular all by myself, despite the fact that there was a perfectly decent bus service. It just added to the family sense of my oddness. On one famous occasion I walked the nine miles down the A11 from my sister's new house in Wymondham into Norwich city centre, though I did catch the bus back. I liked the sense of freedom it bestowed -- don't like it here? start walking! -- and came to love the up-close, intimate view of the landscape and roadside that only walkers get. I would often escape into the cold and rain from the claustrophobic inertia of family occasions by announcing I was "just going for a walk".

Spot the reluctant walker
(Well, it is very wet, windy and cold)

A liking for needless walking -- "perambulation" -- and a recognition that walking counted as a valid alternative to formal sports later became an entrée into a certain sort of family life rather higher up the social scale. It meant I didn't laugh hysterically when a bracing walk was proposed on Boxing Day afternoon, for example, or wonder out loud why anyone would want to book a remote cottage in Wales, 25 miles from the nearest beach, for a summer holiday? Thanks to Perambulation, I passed these simple entry requirements when I encountered the Prof's family; why, I could even use an OS map in a high wind.

But walking also has a spiritual dimension, that is harder to describe, and takes a long time even to notice. There's something about the rhythm and the physiological effects of keeping a steady pace over medium to long distances which is conducive to thought and to well-being, and which heightens a meditative combination of self-awareness and self-forgetting (unless your boots are too tight). It's a very health-inducing activity, but some would go even further. The German film-maker Werner Herzog wrote a strange little book in 1978 called Vom Gehen Im Eis, translated as Of Walking in Ice, and published in 1991 by Jonathan Cape in a small, jacketed format very reminiscent of the series "Cape Editions" mentioned a few posts ago.

In a move typical of Herzog, when he heard a friend and mentor -- 78-year old film historian Lotte Eisner -- was dying in Paris, he decided to walk from Munich to Paris, "believing that she would stay alive if I came on foot". It took, in Herzog's account, from 23rd November to 14th December 1974 (about right -- it's 450 miles). The book recounts the journey -- a sort of expiatory pilgrimage -- in the form of a diary.

Whenever I dip into it, I am reminded of the poem "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came", by Robert Browning, in which perfectly innocent stimuli like farm animals and implements become transformed and incorporated into the narrative of his nightmarish personal quest. But much of Herzog's apparent lunacy will be familiar to any walker:
As I walk the word 'millet', which I've always liked so much, just won't leave my mind, the word 'lusty' as well. Finding a connection between the two words becomes torture. To walk lustily works, and to reap millet with a sickle also works. But millet and lusty together doesn't work.
The belief that there is something grounding, centering -- sacramental, even -- in walking is widely held, and you won't hear any objections from me: solvitur ambulando (roughly, "the answer lies in perambulation").

In beauty may I walk.
All day long may I walk.
Through the returning seasons may I walk.
On the trail marked with pollen may I walk.
With grasshoppers about my feet may I walk.
With dew about my feet may I walk.
With beauty may I walk.
With beauty before me, may I walk.
With beauty behind me, may I walk.
With beauty above me, may I walk.
With beauty below me, may I walk.
With beauty all around me, may I walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, living again, may I walk.
It is finished in beauty.
It is finished in beauty.

(Navajo Blessing Way chant)

Lately, though, I've had a little foretaste of old age: painful cramps up my lower legs whenever I walk at any speed above a casual amble. It seems that all those years of walking have taken a toll, not least because of my tendency to wear wellingtons rather than proper walking boots. The podiatrists think they can sort me out however, and today I had a little compensatory foretaste of heaven: two young women in white -- angels! -- manipulating my naked feet as I lay happily on a fancy reclining couch. And all on the NHS.


Mike C. said...

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If this post has affected you in any way with Stevenage-related issues, why not email us direct, where our extensive staff await your call, rather than confusing our 300+ foreign visitors with "Isn't that X in the photo" queries, or, ahem, sarcastic comments on the record poor performance of the Hockey 1st XI in Season 1971/72?

Thank you.

Tony_C said...

Yeah, that's you, coming up fast behind Jane. Getting ready for a pass?

If you still think of him as "dear old Roy", maybe you need to talk to Bruce.

Nothing to say about "joddly", Mike?

Checkword: fierag

Mike C. said...



Tony_C said...

Yes, that was the term of contempt with which you and Alan B used to refer to cricket. Don't you remember your own (Alan's?) mintings?

Mike C. said...

Blimey, no, not at this distance in time...

It's always a matter of amazement to me how vividly we remember what we remember, and how completely we forget what we forget. Recently I was asked for a reference by someone who worked for me some years ago, but I'd completely forgotten about... Had to check the records to make sure they really existed.

Given the prevalence of dementia in my family, I've stopped finding this sort of thing as amusing as I once did, but I think it's normal for 57...


Martin H. said...

Yes, that's you, in those dodgy shorts. I'm just jealous because I only ever got to wear kit that once belonged to the son of a friend of my mother. Even hitched up, they hung at knee-level.

By-the-way, I'm not surpised the guy in the striped vest is wincing. Catching a cannonball, that way, is bound to make your hands sting!

Mike C. said...


This picture is the sole remaining evidence (that I'm aware of) that once I could run from one end of a field to the other without having a lie down...

On the subject of forgetting, this is an occasion I would never have remembered, 40 years later, if I did not own this picture (from the local paper). Like so many photos, it stands in for dozens and dozens of other forgotten things.


Mike C. said...

Actually, Martin, your comment about kit size reminds me that I only ever had one pair of rugby shirts -- a compulsory purchase at age 11 -- which my parents bought several sizes too large to "grow into", as the expression was.

Unfortunately, I didn't do enough growing to necessitate buying another pair... I think my memory is correct that the other one of the pair is being worn by that pretty girl next to me, who, I am amazed to say, was my girlfriend at the time.


Martyn Cornell said...

Hah! I thought she was wearing an Alleynes rugby shirt. Always a trendy trophy among GS girls, I recall.

Great thing about hockey, as you indicate, is the opportunity to create apparently innocent mayhem with the stick. I remember belting "Baby" Nye under the chin because he was foolishly standing behind me as I lifted my stick to strike the ball (as his nickname indicated, he wasn't a big lad, at the time, anyway, and you didn't need to break the old rule about lifting the stick above the shoulder to catch him in the jaw - he grew rather taller later on).

I was hugely shocked to discover some years back that they abolished the "bully off" rule in the 1980s: what's a game of hockey that doesn't start with the merry triple rap of mulberry wood against mulberry wood?

Mike C. said...

Yes, the less worn blue one, of course... You're right, I think she kept it.

Did they really? As you say, it was an attention-getting bit of theatre. Like Prospero, I put aside my staff once our revels were ended.

I see the goalies all wear face-masks now -- I remember talking to a public-school goalie whose jaw dropped when I mentioned my cricket box: a properly-equipped hockey goalie, apparently, wears a thing like a cricket-pad over his entire groin, not a ten bob piece of tupperware tucked into swimming trunks.


Dave Leeke said...

I have spent my life avoiding commenting on sport related issues - much as I spent my time at school avoiding sport. However, I should make some contribution to this posting.

Obviously you older students had some sort of contact with girls which was mostly denied us younger oiks until the advent of joint musicals - well, "Noyes Fludde" anyway.

It's a great photo, Mike, certainly improved by the appearance of JC.

I had no conception of the "Perambulators" or any such group. My experience of the school for the short 5 years I spent there involved me avoiding sport with such verve as to make it an art form. I did, however, enjoy the occasional game of rugby - albeit on wet Wednesday afternoons and NEVER for the team. I was so bad at sport that all the speccy fat boys got picked before me.

I am intrigued with the idea that a certain teacher (I am interested to know who) took the older boys out foe this perambulation. Any teacher nowadays getting involved with students could expect a headlining gig in "The Sun".

A friend had a party in 1971/2 where a teacher came along and had a drink with us, also my Art class was invited to our teacher's flat for a drink and nibbles (Matron!).

But, and it really is a big but . . . if you sang in the Aston choir at Sunday service, Buzzard would give you a lift from the Old Town up to Aston, drop you off at the Marquis of Granby in his Rolls Royce and give you 2/6d for your troubles. Given that a pint of Mild was 11d, Sunday evening was a decent night out. Nothing untoward ever happened - they just needed a choir!

Nowadays, it would be an instant ticket to a stay at Her Majesty's pleasure. Despite what we know, for some of us they were innocent times.


"fierag" conjures up all sorts of images but mostly of poor spelling. And if the Roy I assume you refer to was an English teacher - one of my mates at school got his daughter in the family way - evidently those English lessons were a bit, er, tense shall we say?!

Mike C. said...

Sigh. I despair. Here I am, gamely trying to weave gold out of the straw of a dull life, and you all want to turn it into an Ancient Alleynians blog... ;)

Yes, I'm very pleased to have those photos -- as I said in the comment above, the local paper gave me a contact sheet of the half roll they shot of the match, and it's one of the few photos I still have from back then, so it's like a fossil that stands in for a whole epoch.

Your post, Dave, reminds me forcibly of that great truth expressed by the story of the blind men examining and describing the elephant ("It's like a snake", "No, it's like a tree", "No, it's like ... like ... oh, that's disgusting!", etc. ...) "My" school never included church choirs, fo example, though it did include making a linocut for the cover of the Noyes Fludde programme (I used to be given the run of the art room in my free periods as compensation for being refused to take Art A level...)

Girls did figure very prominently in our lives from the the 5th form on, I have to say. It was like an oasis after a long trek through the desert, and I have rarely been happier than I was back then, getting JC back home by 10:30 (or else) on a Saturday night.

On the off chance you haven't dutifully read your way back through all my previous posts, this one seems apposite:


Martyn Cornell said...

Incidentally, I'll just pop this in while the lady is in the air, and knowing your interest in family history - JC, as I'm sure you're aware, comes from a family that has lived in (the town we're not allowed to mention any more) for centuries; did she ever tell you that up in St Nicholas Churchyard is a gravestone with her name on it? Not actually her name, of course, but another JC from the 19th century …

Mike C. said...


No, somehow we never got around to that conversation, but it doesn't surprise me. Both of my grandmothers married exotic "blow ins", but their own families are similarly rooted in North Herts e.g. the Mabbitts have lived in Baldock and its surrounding area forever.

North Herts was pretty remote, not so long ago -- the Weston Hills might as well have been on Dartmoor in the 19th century, and various ancient pre-enclosure field patterns persisted near Baldock until the 1900s. Families were very large, mobility low, and names much recycled. You quite often get three or four people of the same name in the same cluster of villages -- makes genealogy quite tricky.