Monday, December 01, 2014

When I was 15

I didn’t do well at school. 
At the age of ten or eleven I still couldn’t read so my Mam paid Albert, a local grammar school boy, half a crown to give me Sunday morning lessons. 
We used to sneak in and listen to Dick Barton, 
Special Agent on the wireless. 
He was the dashing superhero of those days! 
Dick Barton didn’t get me through my 11-plus exam though. Learning didn’t come easy, 
but I did eventually learn to read and 
I was grateful for that.

Like most working-class youngsters I picked up street skills as I grew up, but I also had an outlet through rugby.  
I played at school and also for the best Rugby League team in the world, 
Blackbrook Amateur Rugby Club, 
which beat every team in our age group and cultivated some of the best professional Rugby League players, 
who remain famous in the sport.

Being a clever rugby player wasn’t my game, however. I was a prop forward or a second row forward, but most renowned as a hooker – and a dirty one at that! It was a big macho sport and I was given credibility for my tackling, fighting and getting sent off. I boasted of butting a Lancashire County scrum half so hard that he never played again. I also boasted of hitting my opposing prop so hard, in every scrum, that I could get the loose head, or control of the scrum, without the usual skilful play. Smashing mud into a hooker’s eyes and mouth during the scrum was my speciality. Even now as I write, I am aware that I can, if I don’t watch it, actually enjoy relating all this rather than having an awareness of succumbing to my own macho stereotyping.

But I had to be good at something. If I had been brought up in the East End of London I guess I would have been good at street fighting and thieving, the local street skills, rather than the cultural violence of St Helens. My violence was not obvious law breaking. It was contained within an aggressive sport.

John McVicar is a year younger than me and was born in the East End of London. He was best known as the ‘The Most Wanted Man in Britain’ and ‘Public Enemy Number One’. He made a spectacular escape from the maximum security prison at Durham and, on his recapture, was sentenced to a total of twenty-six years.

Having taken a sociology degree, McVicar has become equipped to evaluate his own childhood and I have learned much from him. Like him, I threw myself into sport and a macho lifestyle, although he differed from me in that he became more anti-authority at school. His education was also far superior to mine and to that of most of the East End young people that I know today.

During these exciting adolescent years I had kept contact with my local Boys’ Brigade (BB) company, which was run by a local man, Clive Rimmer. He didn’t just welcome the ‘nice’ kids, he had street kids as well, the ones who liked sport and a good game of mat rugby in the church hall (mat rugby involved two teams, two mats, one ball and no rules). Even during the days of little or no attendance at BB during my excursions to Butlins holiday camps, rugby training and games, I remained acceptable and accepted at BB. That was flexibility of leadership in action! So often, working-class kids are kicked out of Christian organisations because they don’t have the commitment, consistency or regularity. Clive was the one who put so much spadework in with me and my mates, although I guess without much joy or apparent success.

One night at BB I was pulled into the office.
“Pip, we’ve had so much disruption and trouble from you we’ve got to kick you out - or 

promote you to some position of responsibility in the organisation! 
Other NCOs in the BB tell us that you wouldn’t accept a promotion to lance corporal, 
so we are offering you a promotion to full corporal.”

That was the beginning of leadership for me. 
I was introduced to leadership, 
within structures and with support, 
but nevertheless I was responsible for and to a group of young boys. 
And I was only fifteen myself!