Odd-Shaped Balls: an extract from my new book

The following is an extract from my book ‘Is There A Pigeon in the Room? My Life in Schools’ which is published by Birlinn today. Signed copies are currently available in Waterstone’s on Princes St, the Portobello Bookshop and Toppings. Herioters might like to buy a signed copy from Typewronger Books on Haddington Place at the top of Leith Walk, which is owned by a former pupil. It’s also available from many online booksellers including Amazon, which also has the Kindle edition. I hope you enjoy this bit, and if you do, will consider buying the book!

Odd-shaped Balls

It’s a very old joke, of course – ‘rugby is a game played by men with odd-shaped balls.’ 

I never completely understood it: testicles are in fact shaped like rugby balls, aren’t they? It was a joke that just revealed the primacy of football among schoolchildren, a primacy ignored for generations in the independent sector of Scottish education, where, for many, rugby was all, and the very sight of a schoolboy playing soccer could cause a fainting spell. It perhaps would be more true to say a rugby ball is a massive testicle, being passed from boy to boy in order to confer manhood. There are a great many men out there, particularly in Edinburgh, for whom their days at Goldenacre or Inverleith or Ferryfield or at . . . whatever Edinburgh Academy’s ground is called, were the happiest of their lives. Forget their wedding day, or their biggest promotion, or the birth of their children, or getting their degree – nothing quite matches the smell of the turned-up ground on a crisp morning, that feeling of being part of a team, or the presence, years and years back, of their dads cheering them on, ecstatic when they won, conciliatory in defeat (after all, you can always blame the ref, and phone the school to complain on Monday).

I have a healthy enough respect for all this. I was always gentle with the Monday calls, if they eventually came to me. Each to his or her own: at least rugby’s not as silly as cricket. However, I had problems, boy and man, with the idea that rugby players were somehow to be singled out for glory, and as a Head I resented the amount of time fellow Heads spent talking about it, as if trying to recapture their own sporting careers and, while doing so, leaving the girls in their schools out of the picture entirely. Of course, when I was twelve and a skinny, late-developing fledgling homosexual, I hated it. 

My apathy was more or less tolerated, because I was clever, and weedy clever boys were objects of curiosity rather than scorn. In my experience, boys who are good at rugby are cheerful and straightforward, often matured by the team ethic – if blinkered by their obsessive training into believing they are doing something great, something right, as if participating in a cult. They wear their broken limbs with pride. But broadly, those of us who were infidels were left alone, if regarded slightly suspiciously in the changing room, from which many of us hurried home in great relief. Why would you do something that involved getting cold and wet, and, worst of all, dirty? I quite liked the look of myself in the rugby strip and shorts – and others too – but I couldn’t abide the mud. My friend Colin and I would stand somewhere near the back of the lowest practice group, fantasising that there was a luxury home built under the pitch, which we furnished and filled with food and drink – Arctic Roll, chips, Fanta – delivered to us by liveried servants. The other fat boys, spares and weeds ran about in front of us, chastened into submission by whichever Chemistry teacher had been suborned into taking that bottom group. If the ball came near us we moved towards it very slowly, only because actively running away from it – our natural instinct – might actually be regarded as revolution. We did not tackle, of course, and feared being tackled. My God, what was it all for? 

So it was with some alarm that on starting to teach at DSMC, I was assigned to a rugby practice. To coach it. To be in charge. This came about after a conversation with Robin Morgan, the Principal, in which, in his . . . straightforward manner, he said that debating (which I knew a lot about) was really for girls and that it would be necessary for me to take a rugby practice. When I said that I didn’t even know the rules, he looked at me rather sharply and said ‘I think you mean the laws . . .’.

The school provided me with rugby boots and with a vivid nylon tracksuit in which my resemblance was less to a rugby player than to a specialist rent boy. And it provided me, more usefully, with Gilbert Parkhouse. Google Gilbert and you will read of his very distinguished career in cricket playing for Glamorgan and England – another great sportsman poached for England, though I don’t even know if there is a Welsh cricket team. Apparently he could ‘on-drive’ beautifully, whatever that means. He had, extremely unusually, also played rugby for Swansea. 

By the time I met him he was fifty-five, but seemed a great deal older. He had been, in one of the Scottish private school sector’s efforts to be the English private school sector, DSMC’s ‘cricket professional’, and now was the librarian. Gilbert’s favourite books were the immaculate collection of copies of Wisden’s annual cricket almanac. He maintained silence in the library, read the paper, then turned to Wisden. He had broken two club records in 1950 but he never spoke to me about his own sporting past. He was a gentleman, and he did his best with little wet me and I think, in the end, he quite liked me. He held court from a chair at the end of the table on the far side of the staffroom, in which anyone else sat at their peril, and he smoked and smoked and smoked.

On term time Mondays, for two years, Gilbert would drive me to Inverleith to take the bottom practice in Second Year, a group which varied in size according to how many of them managed to skive on any one occasion, but which peaked at about fifty, being all the boys not in the top four teams, which were left in the hands of more experienced teachers, some of them actually qualified. Gilbert probably knew more about rugby than the rest of them put together, but, in the way of great sportsmen, he hirpled about, his hips and knees having ‘gone’, and thus became what he described, nobly, as my ‘assistant’. As we drove, Gilbert, having seen that any effort to engage me in learning about rugby was doomed, talked about his favourite things – red wine, good steak, travel and, on occasion, pretty women. I am sure he never actually strayed from Mrs Parkhouse, but he was always encouraging my interest in one or other of the female staff, and I did not think it wise to enlighten him that I played for the other team in that particular stadium. His chat was great, he shared my interest in gossip, and there was time for two Bensons each before we got there. One when we set off, prior to actually starting the car, and one when we reached the lights at Telford College, when he would force another upon me. In winter, we arrived, smoked, and this, as you can imagine, set me up very well for the afternoon’s running about ‘coaching’ the sweet-natured, plump, skinny, very clever, extremely stupid, girly, sensible, weird children who found themselves in the apartheid slum of the bottom practice.

I had very little idea of what I was doing. I grasped some basic notions – the ball could not, for some reason, be thrown forward, even though the entire object of the game was to get it forward; it was not manly to stop someone by heaving at their body, but it was manly to throw yourself at their feet; scrums were dangerous, so you put a hooker in the middle, and then everyone pushed their faces more or less against everyone else’s bum. Of course most of our boys, just like Colin and I ten years before, didn’t want to do any of that, and I couldn’t blame them. But Gilbert stood smoking at the side of the pitch, occasionally having changed into a tracksuit of great antiquity, but most of the time in a black jacket and club tie, his library uniform, and we were all a little afraid of him so we did what we had to do. I had made him accept one condition of my servitude as a novice rugby coach – if rain fell, we stopped play. So it was that on many a Monday my enormous squad of sporting refugees hurtled back to the changing-room because of a little moisture, unmanly but happy. 

Gilbert had a whistle and I had a whistle. Broadly, he stayed still and I ran about, maintaining a semblance of control. On many occasions, however, Gilbert was unable to control his irritation at the wholesale parody of his second favourite game which I was allowing to happen. He would blow the whistle and, smiling, say ‘Mr Wyllie, I think you may have missed a knock-on [I had no idea really what one looked like] about three minutes ago’. One time, excited by the gathering clouds, and particularly wheezy due to the combination of tobacco and incipient asthma, I failed to notice that the two teams had, on Gilbert’s instruction, changed ends. The Reds touched the ball down, behind what was, in fact, their own line. ‘Try to the Reds!’ I shouted, authoritatively. 

The Blacks, not unreasonably – well, those of them who gave a toss – gathered around me noisily, complaining. While I tried to make sense of what they were saying, Gilbert more or less ran from the side, and shoved the complaining Blacks away, bouncing some of them off the ground.

‘Penalty to the Reds, penalty to the Reds,’ he declaimed, cuffing the back of some child’s head. ‘Blacks arguing with the referee.’

Silence fell.

‘Boys, under no circumstances must you ever argue with the referee, do you understand?’ 

Then he took my head in an armlock, and leaning down, whispered with affection, ‘even when he is a bloody idiot’.

And then he laughed and laughed.

Gilbert is long dead. When I think of him I think of the glow of a cigarette as the first dark fell in the autumn, a gold tooth glinting as he smiles at yet another terrible sporting solecism performed by useless skinny me, and I thank him.



  1. Congratulations on getting the book published – I’m delighted for you and off to buy a copy x

    Sent from my iPhone



  2. Thar extract truggered a few uncomfortable echoes of my own fairly pathetic scrummaging and dodging at Goldenacre mid week afternoons in the early 60’s…thank you (?)….


  3. rugby was dire, I did 2 years of athletics then we got to finally play football in 3rd year “coached” by Cliff Porteous. Congratulations on getting the book out though!


    1. and should also add that when I came home one day and discussing the day at school I told my dad that our games teacher was Gilbert Parkhouse he asked if it was THE Gilbert Parkhouse as he’d seen him playing cricket many years before.


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