My immediate reaction was, naturally enough, to feel hurt. But I was also puzzled. Had he found a particularly nasty way of phrasing the old commonplace that you don't choose your family? Or was he trying to tell me something worse, that he liked me only out of duty, because I was his father? So, trying not to betray my feelings, I asked him to expand.
"Well, I know lots of boys who are just like you must have been when you were 11," he explained. "They're all mad about sport - and I hate them."
I knew instantly what he meant - and in that instant I flipped back 30 years to find myself in short trousers, with a worn tennis ball in my pocket, ready to sprint out into the playground as soon as the bell went to mark the end of a lesson. I must have played three or four games of playground football a day, from two-a-side to 20-a-side, and I can still summon the exact configuration of the goals: at one end, the recessed double-door entrance to the school hall, high enough to reward dramatic lofted shots, and at the other the wider but lower metal tank which, I now suppose, must have stored the school's supply of oil.
At that age, everyone slotted neatly into a handful of narrow categories: there were the sports-mad, a group which Tom correctly identified as mine; the swots, their noses always buried in a book; the weird musical types (Tom's own group); and the nonentities who had no particular interest or expertise. My dismissive labelling of the rival groupings was, I'm sure, reciprocated. To the more civilised swots and musicians, the sports- mad must have been sweaty, thuggish, hearty, brain-dead yobs, and worse. I wouldn't go so far as agreeing with Tom that I hated all the boys outside my group; we simply ignored each other, having no common language or activity. Once or twice I have asked Tom what he does in break at school, because I have no conception of how a schoolboy fills up his free time if he doesn't play playing football (the answer, it seems, is that he visits the library or - dread innovation - the IT room).
Tom's little brother's school day, by contrast, is all too easily imagined: football, football, followed by a kick-around on the common with me after school once the evenings get light enough.
Anyway, I piously told Tom that this was an immature and superficial way of categorising people, which he would grow out of in a year or two. By the time I left school, I assured him, most of my friends hated sport every bit as much as he does. I didn't want to complicate matters by explaining that it was a shared taste for teenage rebellion that united the sporties, swots, musicians and nonentities.
In the days that followed this conversation, to my alarm it dawned on me that perhaps I have not completely outgrown the habit of categorising people. When I learnt that a colleague absent from work was not suffering from flu or a domestic crisis with the child-minder, but had fallen from her horse, I was deeply impressed. She was definitely, my 11-year-old self told me, someone to be admired, even if she had never played football in the playground.
Then, visiting the National Portrait Gallery, I saw a screen belonging to Lord Byron, behind which he must have changed into his nightshirt before jumping into bed with a string of conquests. On one side of this screen the serial seducer, romantic hero and aristocratic revolutionary had glued cut-out prints of his boxing heroes, on the other his favourite actresses.
Suddenly the distant and formidable figure was transformed into the sort of 11-year-old boy who adorns his bedroom wall with posters of George Best and Raquel Welch, or Ronaldo and the Spice Girls.
And what of other figures from history? There have always been two Henry VIIIs: the dashing young courtier who wandered around strumming "Greensleeves" on his lute between games of real tennis, and the hoary old Bluebeard who murdered his way through six wives. The official line is that Henry was driven to the verge of madness by his desperation to sire a son and heir, but I've always thought his decline must have been linked to the gout that ended his healthy tennis playing.
Our habits of mind and prejudices are set when we are young, so I'm sure that Tom will be wary of the sports-obsessed for the rest of his life, just as I feel immediately at ease with sports-lovers and out of my depth in a room full of artists. But I hope that the two of us can be better than friends.
And if anyone tells me that Hitler was a brilliant left-half in his teens, or that Stalin was a junior tennis champion, I simply won't believe them.Reuse content