John Major's battle on the playing fields of Britain

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I SUSPECT that a fair few of us, given the opportunity to spend a couple of years in Number 10 Downing Street, would take our lead from the current Prime Minister: that is to say, we would work like mad to eradicate the things that really bug us. Mr Major doesn't like traffic cones; I would get speed bumps built into our road. (All the other roads around here have them, so it's only fair.) I would also ban a couple of sitcoms - off the top of my head, I would say May to December and Keeping up Appearances, although this is an important piece of legislation and I won't be rushed on it - and I would peg the price of football programmes at pounds 1. This newspaper, famously, would get rid of dog mess and reduce the price of compact discs, and my sister would, I can tell you exclusively, ensure that the caper and the anchovy never darken our doors, or our pizzas, again. (My wife, on the other hand, would do all sorts of things about the NHS and homelessness. I don't think she's got the idea at all, and I predict immediate political oblivion.)

So much to do, so little time. Why, then, is Mr Major wasting the few weeks or months that remain to him worrying about organised school games? This, unlike my May to December purge, or the dog mess initiative, is a vote- loser, not a vote-winner: hardly anybody likes school games. Teachers hate them, pupils who hate sport hate them, even pupils who like sport hate them - it's usually the wrong sport, in the wrong weather, with the wrong teacher, at the wrong time. Only those in the school team, six, 11 or 15 people in each year, depending on the sport, have any kind of enthusiasm for them at all, which is as close to a definition of tails wagging dogs as one could hope to find.

First of all, let us demolish the myth that compulsory school sports are good for you. They are not. On the contrary, they are very bad for you. They are bad for morale: most of us are crap at sport and do not wish to be reminded of this every Thursday afternoon. They are also bad for your health: standing motionless and freezing in a muddy field, waiting for someone to sit on your head or drill a ball into your midriff, is of no medical benefit whatsoever; catching pneumonia or athlete's foot or worse from a cold communal shower with no drainage is positively harmful. (At my school we were slippered if we had forgotten our games kit, and this practice,

too, I would argue, has little to recommend

it, holistically speaking.)

Then there is the terrible old nonsense about team games being character-building. If team sports are character-building, then it stands to reason that those who have spent their lives playing them should be bowed down under the weight of their own moral courage, self-discipline, decency and all the other qualities that constitute 'character'. It is difficult to find much evidence for this. There's Paul Gascoigne, of course - he's a character - but there's also Graham Gooch, Nigel Mansell and Trevor Brooking, who are all patently decent men, but hardly the sort

to lead Britain boldly and imaginatively into the 21st century.

At the shambolic, semi-competent level most of us have played sport, you discover things about yourself you would rather have left buried: you hate your own goalkeeper, because he's useless and moans about being in goal the whole game anyway; you hate the ref, because he's the reserve for the other team and he's obviously cheating; you hate the other team because they're the other team; you hate yourself for being unfit and slow; and you hate half of your team-mates for not giving you the ball . . . What possible good is supposed to come from any of this? The spirit of camaraderie and loyalty that sport is supposed to engender was, I found, much more readily apparent in communal smoking, and nobody is planning to make that compulsory.

But let us humour Mr Major for a moment. Let us assume he is right, and that Britain would be a much better, happier place if our children were forced to throw balls at each other once a week. The reasons they don't play very much sport are as follows: school playing fields have been flogged off as fast as anyone will buy them (over 5,000 under the Tories - for the past three years, pounds 70,000 a day has been raised in this manner); this and preceding Conservative governments treated school teachers with such flagrant contempt that they suddenly found they didn't want to stay for hours after work or get up at some terrible time on a Saturday morning.

And those people who accuse schoolteachers of shirking - namely fat-bastard newspaper editors, right-wing columnists, and gobshite Tory MPs, people who are invariably paid extra for their opinions about why people shouldn't be paid extra - should try trudging down to the local park with a few dozen teenagers, getting turned back by the groundsman (who doesn't want his pitches ruined by people playing on them) and supervising said teenagers while they jog morosely round the school playground. I'd much rather flit from Commons tea-bar to TV studio to Lord's for a Test than put myself through that kind of hell.

I packed in teaching because I wanted to write, but also because it was a miserable, difficult, ill-paid, thankless job where sometimes minutes seemed like hours. I am glad that I taught, however - I met some extremely nice people, young and old, but I also have teaching as a benchmark, and if I lose a few hundred words in my computer or somebody writes me a rude letter or I can't think of the next sentence (these are what pass for hazards in the life of a writer), all I have to do is remind myself of my old fourth-year CSE class, or Saturday mornings travelling in a coach to some godforsaken football pitch. I don't work as hard now as I did then, and I am much better paid than I was, which is why I do not feel qualified to tell teachers what they should be doing with their leisure time. I wonder if Mr Major has thought about those straws you get with drinks cartons? They're not long enough, half of them, and they're quite often missing altogether . . .-

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