Both my sister and I went to the local state primary school in north Tonbridge in Kent. It was, and still is, a good school, but with some undeniable drawbacks. When I was there in the early 1980s, some classrooms had been built as temporary buildings but had ended up being retained as full-time classrooms. These caravan-style trailers, standing on bricked-up stilts, stood next to the playground, reminders that the money had dried up.
There were some playing fields at the back of the school, but we didn’t use them much. A little bit of rounders in summer, an occasional football match, a yearly athletics competition. There was a weekly PE class in the assembly hall. Taken together, it was probably no worse than the average sporting education in a 1980s primary school, perhaps even a little better.
There were no matches against other schools, not one. And I never picked up a cricket bat at primary school. The most competitive activity I engaged in was playing marbles in the playground.
I’m not sure how we were supposed to develop a serious passion for sport. Most kids played no sport at all. At home I was playing sport non-stop — not only with my parents, but also against my sister.
Though I was always the more focused about sport, it was my elder sister Becky, not me, who was the better runner and swimmer. She was also fiercely competitive. As she was three and a half years older than me, the result was a lot of defeats for her younger brother. I would lose at every game we played — from Monopoly to Swingball.
What happened to the sporting development of my talented and fiercely competitive big sister? That story starts with schools. At secondary level, our educational paths diverged. She went to the state grammar school (Kent is one of the few places that still has grammars). I went to the independent school.
Why the apparently unjust discrepancy? It was decided by pure chance and opportunity. My dad taught at the independent school, which was boys only, and the fees were effectively waived for the teachers’ sons. My parents couldn’t afford to send either of us to an equivalent fee-paying school. I was lucky enough to get an independent education as good as free. My sister didn’t.
Her grammar school was full of clever girls. She was one of them, and went on to study English at Oxford. Where she felt let down was in the rest of her education — the drama, the music and, especially, the sport. Becky dropped out of competitive sport as soon as she could. The brilliantly competitive eleven-year-old played no organized sport for the next two decades. Once she stopped playing sport at school, she stopped playing sport anywhere.