This Sporting Half-Life
Sport, ageing and a novelist’s grudging acceptance of mortality
There’s a song by The National – “Mr November” – the refrain of which, both wearily resigned to and furious at the passing of time, repeats: “I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders.” I saw The National at the American ambassador’s party at Winfield House last summer. The band were greying and florid, middle-aged men shuffling about the stage erected above the parquet of a grand entrance hall. When they launched into “Mr November,” the ambassador let out a cheer, beamed, explored the liminal space between nodding and headbanging. I bounced my way to the front of the crowd and sang along to that wistful chorus, a note of ironical distance in my voice. How much younger, more vital, less grey-streaked and life-worn I was than those ancient shades on stage, how far from such nostalgic excesses. As they played, I felt my way into their American skins, constructing Friday Night Lights-tinted visions of their youthful triumphs, sliding down the lead singer’s gristly baritone to floodlit football fields, to home runs that spiralled up, up, up into perfect summer skies, to Ivy League lacrosse games and victorious keg parties in pennant-bedecked dorm rooms.
I left the party, taking a Ferrero Rocher from the pyramid by the front door, and, humming “Mr November” to myself, hailed a cab home. When I got back, on a late-night whim, still slightly drunk on ambassadorial bourbon cocktails, I looked up The National on Wikipedia, and, with creeping Edgar Allen Poe-ish horror, noted their ages. It was as if I’d glanced in the mirror to find myself grey and wizened, my teeth time-filed to stumps. They were my age, you see, and far from some pogoing ingénue at the front of the stage that evening, I’d been part of their melancholy nostalgic construct all along, a balding dad desperately trying to hold off the coming of my middle years. The loss of my youth hit me with a warp-speed whump and, sitting rigid at my kitchen table, I could feel entropy taking place, my consciousness delving down to the cellular level where I was losing battle after microscopic battle. I pulled at the skin of my cheeks, of my throat, checking for the onset of jowls. I ran my hands through what was left of my once-thick locks, looking down to see, clinging to my clammy palms, dozens of strands of hair which had given up the job of adhering to my increasingly visible, cadaverous scalp.
Life is a series of expulsions; some we embrace, others are thrust upon us. Some happen without us even knowing it, and we only recognise the fence that has been erected between and us and some once-familiar place when we try to gain access. As I sat up that night, wallowing in my crise d’age, I thought back to my own childhood triumphs, trying to draw a link between the bespectacled, balding schlemiel I’d become and that distant dauphin to whom everything had come easily, sporting success most of all. I saw myself breasting white finishing tapes, felt the weight of trophies, of victores ludorum, of parental and professorial expectation; I remembered sevens tournaments and football cups and cricket tours and always, there in the centre, the gangly boyish figure looking through the curtains of his hair, bewildered at his own facility.
Love first came to me through cricket. Her name was Sally, soft-skinned, white-blonde Sally. Sally sat under trees frothy with blossom at her school – Christ’s Hospital – and watched as I knocked off a 50-ball 76 on an early summer day of intense heat and impossibly blue skies. In her uniform – a long black robe with white collar – beside the scorer’s hut, she looked like a sexy monk waiting for confession. When I’d finally skied one to mid-on, she was there applauding and, after raising my bat to my teammates, I took her off to some bosky nook and covered her pale tender places with kisses. Even now, walking out to bat for the creaking gaggle of dipsomaniacs with whom I play cricket, I look for Sally on the boundary rope, wonder at the impossible other life in which I’d treated her better, and was still able to kiss that pale, soft skin, to breathe in the scent of her, to have her to felicitate, or more often commiserate, as I took the long walk back to the pavilion.
I wasn’t cut out for school. Probably any school, but particularly the one I was at. I’d won a scholarship, otherwise I wouldn’t have been there at all, and, while I believe it’s better these days, back then it was populated with the clotted crème de la crème, the sons of belligerent men who’d made fortunes in vinyl flooring and reproduction furniture. The teaching wasn’t up to much, my fellow pupils broadly unsympathetic and the sports field was my only escape, a place where I could step outside of my melancholy teenage self, where the overwhelming concerns of being 15 or 16 receded and I was able to live in the moment of movement, in the pure teleology of sport.
It wasn’t enough, though, and my year in the fifth, when the 30 or so sixth-form girls were suddenly visible and available, ditto a bitter and lurid amphetamine that was sold under the sobriquet of ‘pink champagne’, I went off the rails. There was something reckless, wilful in the way I went about ensuring my expulsion. I lived a giddy few months of daring bolts through girls’ windows at a duenna’s monitory knock, midnight dashes through echoing cloisters lit with sad orange light, sinister assignations at the roundabout by the leisure centre in town. I stayed dutifully sober and slept well on Tuesday and Friday nights, mindful of the exigencies of midweek and weekend sport on the morrow. But otherwise all was excess and subterfuge and the frantic pursuit of the next hedonic hit. Then the allure of unravelling became too much. I was caught and caught again, hauled in front of the head, my housemaster hunched disappointedly beside me. A hard Victorian regimen of 6am cross-country runs and early bedtimes was imposed upon me. I still remember the sponginess of the downland beneath my feet on those aurorean runs, the mist that rose from the fields in the day’s first light, the noise of my breath in silent air as I made my solitary way along the long crests of hills.
Then, with preternatural cruelty, the school’s powers proscribed the one comfort that had kept me from the dangerous edge of things. I was told that there would be no more sport until my behaviour improved. It was the summer term, and all I’d lived for were nets after supper, the concentrated mindfulness of the well-built innings, the ritualised fallalery of cricket: the pads, the bats, streaks of red on white trousers. Worse still, I was made to score on Saturdays – locked in a dim hut beside some glaucous-skinned pansy to watch my comrades fight on without me. It’s a unique form of torture, as a batsman, to see a bowler who fancies himself a bit serve up half-volley after half-volley, the occasional long-hop that just begs to be launched into the lap of some long-necked lower-sixth beauty in front of the pavilion, and to observe the batsman who’s taken your place in the order nervously blocking, feathering an ineffectual nudge here, patting respectfully back to the bowler there. I’d duck my head beneath the table and light a frustrated cigarette until the scorer’s hut was fogged with smoke, my reluctant companion spluttering and gasping at his Ventolin.
My punishment continued after the summer holidays, which I’d spent in the US playing and watching baseball, getting drunk on South Street in Philly and horrifying my parents by coming home with a tattoo and a pierced ear (the latter removed, the former hidden). Back at school, I was made to run the line in football matches, trotting half-heartedly alongside the play, rain blurring my vision and soaking my tracksuit. I gave deliberately controversial calls, flagged the opposition offside when they weren’t, made myself as refractory and rebarbative as possible. It wasn’t just adolescent pique, though. Without sport, I could feel something within me dying: it was like a glass wall had been built between me and my friends, and watching them play a game I loved, watching long limbs chasing down a ball, shaping to shoot, watching the unfettered jouissance of the goal, all of this tied wire around my heart, throttled all that was best and brightest in me. I dreamt of sport, dreams that seemed to dwell only just below the surface, so that I’d wake gripping an imaginary cricket bat or with my duvet kicked to the floor by the churning of frantic feet.
In the end, I gave in. Or rather, I took my sinful proclivities deep underground, buried them in the depths of night, became solitary and shifty where I had once been companionable in my debauchery. I only let myself loose in the wide open spaces of half-term and exeat weekends, when there were no checks on me and I’d run wild in London, clubbing in Soho with a group of attractively disaffected Hampstead kids. We’d go back to their parents’ grand houses overlooking the Heath and smoke until dawn. I fell in love with a girl called Jo and we had one of those tragic, secretive, destructive relationships that people write about. She was Sally’s dark mirror and we made each other terribly unhappy. Just writing her name makes my heart stretch like it’s reaching out for something.
My outward submission to the school’s remedial regime worked, though, and in the Lent term I was allowed to play rugby. I remember the joy of walking out onto the field for that first game, at home, under the long arc of a white, heatless, winter sun. I remember the dimpled leather of the ball in my hands and, early on, a gap in the opposition’s defence which I made for with that surging, agonised feeling that comes with the prospect of a try or a goal or a six, a feeling that is on the verge of tears and fills the chest and tenses the face. I remember the wind pouring through the sky, the burn of breath in my lungs, the sense of being in a state of selfless, superlative flow.
Whether it was the weeks spent scoring, smoking, trotting apathetically up and down touchlines, I can’t now say. All I know is that when I tried to accelerate into that gap, sending out those familiar synaptic commands that had won me so many races, left so many lumpen defenders staring heavenwards, scotched a thousand would-be run-outs, nothing happened. It was like one of those nightmares where the world is rushing by but you’re like an oil-soused gull, your limbs monstrous and useless. I felt danger drawing in around me. The gap was closed, the ravenous pack descended, I looked wildly for a teammate to whom I could pass the ball. With the sound of a melon being dropped from height onto a concrete floor, eight or nine of the opposition landed on me. While the rest of me curled into a cowardly ball, one leg was still gamely going for the try line and took most of the force of the hit; it buckled, ligaments twanging and popping like a firing squad taking aim at my sporting life.
They let me out of hospital that night, on crutches, my knee heavily bandaged. It could have been a good deal worse, the genial doctor said with a chuckle, but you’ll be laid up for three months at the very least. I didn’t speak to my housemaster as he drove us back from the hospital through the dark and empty suburban streets of Worthing, Sompting, Lancing. I remember the echo of my crutches as I crossed the quadrangle to my house, hobbled unspeakingly past those shadowy, sympathetic characters who congregated in the corridors, making each other toast with Marmite and mugs of tea, and into my room. I threw myself down on my bed and sobbed until I felt empty and calm and resigned. I was expelled three days later.
I was about to say that the sportsman in me never recovered from that setback. It was as if I’d somehow adopted the authoritarian association between sport and sin, and was punishing myself for the fuckery and failure. Even when my knee was well-healed, I didn’t take up the (distinctly more limited) sporting opportunities at the comprehensive to which I’d been exiled. I played some cricket at Oxford, turned out for my college at football, for the Cowley Cowboys in rugby, but sport had become an afterthought, a snatched pleasure between the more dependable distractions of books and girls and drinking. It was no longer the organising obsession of my life. In London I got fat and bald and could go months without picking up a ball or a racquet or a bat.
It is only since the arrival of what the Germans call Torschlußpanik – fear of the shutting door – that sport has gained a poignant, belated importance. It’s partly that, as I close in on 40, I feel the melancholy appreciation of the soon-to-be-lost, like the hero of John Cheever’s The Swimmer – “he might have been compared to a summer’s day, particularly the last hours of one.” It’s also that I have found a replacement for those dazzling feats of individual skill, the selfish glories of my youthful game: the love of a team. In cricket, with the Authors XI, and with my gang of 19-year-old toughs in the West London Sunday League (I, a benevolent, and thus-far undroppable, paterfamilias), I have surrounded myself with friends whose triumphs I celebrate as if they were my own, whose joy in my own small successes makes me feel, albeit briefly, as if I were in that nostalgia-drenched song, carried in the arms of cheerleaders.