When I close my eyes and think about school sports, I envisage myself on the hockey pitch, stick in hand, a luminous gumshield locked on to my chops and a bandana across my forehead. (Bandanas were all the rage back then.) Boys are watching. I can also hear the booming voice of Mr Markham, our fierce but undeniably fanciable coach, urging us all on. The other Mr M in my life (father and also coach) is on the sidelines, and I’m desperate to impress him most of all. My knees and knuckles are badly grazed from the astroturf, my shins are battered and bruised from the bully-offs. But my focus is on winning and making sure that my hair — fashioned into a slick Sporty Spice ‘up do’ — is just right. Did I mention the boys watching?
Hockey was my favourite: I was captain and proud. But all good things come to an end, and hockey ended with the Christmas term. The following term, we had to play netball. People say netball is like basketball with all the fun bits taken out. I’d tend to agree. You can’t run with the ball and only two members of the team can shoot. You spend most of the time playing a complex version of piggy-in-the-middle, except the piggies are a pack of vicious girls. My petite physique enabled me to nip and tuck my way past the bigger-chested girls. Elbows always helped; as did the derriere for defence (my ‘chest’ hadn’t developed back then) and a bit of shoulder-barging here or there. It was brutal, but turns out to have been very useful practice for handling the media in later life.
Some of my fondest memories are of school sports day. I recall the odd personal mishap: forgetting the baton in the 4 x 100m relay race, dropping the shot put on my foot and treading on my brother with a spiked running shoe are three that spring to mind. There was always a stray dog that would defecate in the long-jump pit and the high-jump mat was always soaking from either rain or tears. Best of all was the mothers’ and fathers’ race — a fiercely competitive event which brought about more injuries per contestant than any other.
On the subject of mothers, I must touch on cross-country — one of the most gruelling compulsory school activities, along with public speaking. Unlike many of my friends who ‘suddenly got the flu’, we Middleton girls were always at the starting line — albeit reluctantly — fuelled by Lucozade tablets and bananas. Rain was inevitable and we’d get caked in mud from head to toe, in our tiny athletic shorts, white Aertex and all.
To really rub our faces in it, the teachers would wear fleeces, gilets and waterproofs. I was born more of a long-distance runner — something to do with my endurance and sturdy ‘piano legs’. On one occasion I recall being in second place, and as I passed my mother on the perimeter, I was feeling quite proud of myself until she called out, ‘Run faster, Pippa, run faster!’ What did she think I was trying to do?
The real horror — far worse than netball or cross-country — was the swimming gala. Everyone had to walk around sheepishly in tight Speedo bathing suits and streamlined swimming caps. And with swimming, of course, came the nightmare of the pool changing rooms: those awkward communal showers, the lingering scent of chlorine and adolescent body odour.
But all the hot weather of the last few months brings back cheerier memories of playing rounders. When batting, I always took pleasure in hitting the ball into the stinging nettles. Fielding was usually boring, unless I was bowling or at 3rd base, where all the action is.
On Saturday afternoons, after rounders matches, I’d go off to watch my brother playing cricket. I recall one match when he got the yips trying to bowl spin, and kept being no-balled. He gave away so many runs that his team eventually lost the match. I was so embarrassed that, rather than rallying to his support, I hid behind the scoreboard and missed out on match tea. Family, eh?
From the Spectator’s Independent Schools supplement September 2013
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 7 September 2013