Just get on with it
Not a Games Person
Julie Myerson Yellow Jersey Press, 115pp, £10
Julie Myerson's new book is warm, witty and perhaps a little sad, but it is also a little pathetic. I, too, was not a games person at school. I swam brilliantly, having lived three years in Singapore, where social life revolved around the swimming pool and the sailing club, but at Bath Convent there was no pool, and very limited opportunities to use the municipal one. Instead there were hockey, netball and tennis. I was too short for netball, too small-wristed for the weight of my tennis racket and too slow a runner for hockey.
I never took sport seriously, would escape it if I could, and was only too grateful when entry into the sixth form removed the awful activities from my life. Disaster threatened to strike when I went to Birmingham University and discovered that sport was compulsory in the first year, but I learned to ride and thus discovered a source of pleasure that remained with me until I entered parliament.
The modern craze for exercise leaves me cold. I regard gyms as places of torture and cannot understand why otherwise perfectly sane people spend their lunch hours there instead of having lunch. You can wear anything out with too much use and that must surely include muscles and bones, which is probably why there are so few geriatric athletes.
So I should have sympathised with Myerson, who endured the misery of the swimming pool and the sack race when I did not. The wimpish tears and perpetual plaint first irritated and then exasperated me because this book is not really about sport at all: it is about competition and the author's hatred of it. At its climax, she describes how she stopped in the middle of a sack race to let someone else go past her and then was baffled by the incomprehension of both adults and children. I think at this point we are meant to reach for our handkerchiefs and weep with admiration, whereas all I did was snort "silly ass" and reach for my whisky and soda.
Yet there is more to this book than just a lament about competition. If you remember the Sixties and Seventies, you will love the reminiscences: the lower fifth, French penfriends, the miners' strike, letters about periods and verrucas to get you off swimming, satchels, rose-hip syrup.
Then we enter the frappuccino age, in which Myerson's daughter is vastly more down to earth. Yes, she says, she does want to be best in the things that matter. Yes, she is interested in winning, but if something doesn't matter, then winning is not important. Obviously the daughter could teach the mother some common sense, for surely none but the most obsessive and insecure needs to win in everything, and none but the truly careless dismisses excellence as always unimportant.
It is important, Myerson tells her daughter, to be a good loser. This is not, however, what the book is about. It is not about trying and failing with good grace, but about losing deliberately or losing because one is indifferent to achievement.
The truth of this book comes on page 75. It was not just sport Myerson was afraid of, but school itself, where children could be made to look fools, shamed in front of their peers, singled out for ridicule. Mum responds by putting some familiar perfume on a handkerchief to remind the small quaking infant of home and, yes, that did make me angry, because no child should endure such a misery of fear and isolation at so early an age.
Myerson might have been a happier child had she been born today and en-countered a more sympathetic approach to schooling, a gradual introduction to the experience, teachers who encourage as much as they demand. Perhaps. Certainly she would have been at ease with the current distrust of competition, the insistence that all are equal, the belief that all must have prizes.
Most people reading this book will identify with the uncertainties of childhood, of simultaneously wanting and not wanting something to happen, but most will also feel a tinge of impatience. Oh, do get on with it. Stop agonising. It's only a sack race, for heaven's sake.
Most people will also smile, sometimes with amusement but sometimes sadly. You do not have to be a games person to look the world in the eye with confidence.
Ann Widdecombe's novel Father Figure is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson