An excerpt from a memoir, “Notes of a British Boyhood,” in progress.
Johnny Folkes had the muscles of a man. We were on the same teams at Humphrey Perkins: soccer and rugby in winter, cricket and athletics in summer, basketball all year round. I was a slender fifteen-year-old. He was beautiful, with a fringe of blond curls. All the girls wanted him.
In sport, he’d go for the man, not the ball. During a soccer match, he’d trip an opponent making a run, or he’d grab a player’s shirt when the referee wasn’t looking. He had the skill and grace not to foul, but he liked to. He’d rise up grinning after a nasty tackle. People stayed back. No one wanted to wind up carried off on a stretcher. In rugby, he’d be leading in points until the referee would send him off for gouging or stiff-arming. The sports master would despair. He’d been handed the most gifted athlete he’d ever seen and was unable to control him.
Johnny qualified in trials for the national teams in rugby, soccer, and cricket, but each time he’d miss the final pick or be dismissed for unsportsmanlike conduct. I found Johnny scary, too. I would have avoided him if I could have. I became his friend instead. On the field, I passed to him so he could score. I specialized in long jump and high jump, events he disdained. We were allies in sprint relays, and being Johnny’s friend meant I was protected.
I treated Johnny’s cruelty as an unquestioned fact. I won his confidence by lobbing fast putdowns of the people he loathed—i.e. everyone who appeared smarter than him, except me. I liked to take off the teachers, and I talked out of turn. I couldn’t help it, and I earned as many detentions as Johnny did. We bonded as kings of sport and rebels, although I knew his cruelty could turn on me.
It’s summer vacation, 1965, and out of the blue Johnny invites me to spend the day with him in Loughborough, a town fifteen miles away from my village, Syston. He’ll meet me at the bus stop by the market on Saturday morning. I don’t wonder if he’s fond of me. I don’t wonder if he’s lonely.
When I step off the bus, he says, “How much money have you?” I say, “A quid.” He says, “Not enough.” I say, “For what?” He says, “Beer and pie at the pub.” He doesn’t meet my eyes. He says, “We can get a fiver at my dad’s.” It’s the first time he’s mentioned family, the first I know he doesn’t live with his father. We pass by the noisy, colorful market, where sellers hawk fruit and vegetables at open stalls. It’s the same theater that has been staged for hundreds of years. We turn onto a side street lined with red brick row houses, and halfway down Johnny knocks loudly on a door. A man appears and says, “What the fuck do you want?” He’s been awakened from a drunken sleep. I smell cigarettes and stale beer. He wears a string vest, and the fly of his trousers is undone. His face is blotchy, and his belly is bloated, but I can see Johnny is his son. I can see where Johnny is headed if a god in a machine does not snatch him up. I don’t know this expression back then.
Johnny says, “I want a fucking fiver.” He locks eyes with his dad. His dad says, “Fuck that.” Johnny says, “You owe us, so ‘and it over.” His father says, “I haven’t got it.” Johnny says, “Don’t give me that, you bastard.” He inches forward, his hand balling into a fist. Next door a baby cries and no one comes to quiet it. Johnny doesn’t introduce me, and his father doesn’t ask who I am. I have never seen a father and son speak to each other with raw emotion. My dad treats me kindly. I feel bad for Johnny, but I can’t help wondering how it would feel to see my father flare with feeling rather than stamp it out like a lit match.
Johnny’s dad looks at his son’s face and sighs. He is too tired to fight, or he knows Johnny can hurt him. He digs into his pocket, withdraws a clip of bills, peels off a five, and holds it out, saying, “Tell you what.” His voice is a bit softer. “Go down to the offlicense and get me some fags, and you can keep the change.” A half-smile crosses his face.
Johnny grabs the note and walks off, looking the way he does on the playing field when he’s about to attack. His dad calls, “Don’t forget, you promised.” Johnny doesn’t turn.
We don’t stop at the offlicense. We head straight to the pub. We drink, sitting across from each other in the bar of the George, each with a half-drained pint of bitter and the remains of Cornish pasties. Johnny is pumping a little spring loaded contraption he’s sent away for from a Charles Atlas ad in a comic. It promises to build muscles through the miracle of dynamic tension, and it seems to be working. He says, “Last year you were robbed.” He is leaning in, a rare smile on his face. “The Victor Ludorum was yours by right. Dunn’s a bastard.” He is referring to the headmaster of our school.
The previous year, on sports day, I was young enough to be in the junior rankings. Johnny was in the seniors. I won four events and earned sixteen points while, in the senior ranks, Johnny was disqualified from two races for jumping the starter’s gun. The prize was mine, everyone thought. I thought. The sun was setting over the towering chestnut trees that lined the sports field. The whole school was gathered, and Headmaster Dunn looked out before announcing the prize would go to the senior boy with the most points, who turned out to be his son. A ripple of half-hearted clapping greeted the winner as he stepped forward. I received a few, hard-luck slaps on the back. People shook their heads but did not protest.
Johnny and I have not spoken of this before, and I’m not sure what to make of his comraderie. I say, “Dunn’s a pillock, and so is his son.” Johnny says, “They’ll always find a way. They’ve got it in for us.” I say, “Yeah,” but I am thinking each of us is doomed in a different way.
I have been slotted into the C stream, and I despise my ranking, although I don’t yet know how much. I’m not good at memorizing, and try as I do my brain isn’t wired that way. Headmaster Dunn has caned me for walking on the paths reserved for teachers and prefects, for not wearing my cap when off school grounds, for talking in assembly. Humphrey Perkins, a state school founded in 1717 “so poor boys could read the Bible,” is now open to all classes but parades the trappings of tradition with rigid rules for uniforms and walk ways—all this while outside its walls the political and cultural revolutions of the ‘60s are calling to us. Do I underperform because I am lazy or because officials such as Headmaster Dunn have determined that the children of tailors are best launched on their low-level courses in life from the modest C stream?
“Dunn’s a tool,” I say, looking into Johnny’s steel blue eyes and watching his muscles almost ripple through his clothes. He is a cheater and a bully, and his father does not love him, and I am looking for the right time to get away.
I board the bus back to Syston in a beer-infused haze. Johnny will never be picked for a national team. He is not going to be rescued, including by me. Over the years, I will come to know Hell’s Angels and encounter other violent people, including muggers. A pack of pub brawlers will follow me and a friend back to his flat and break the windows. I do not threaten these people in return. As much as I can, either from temperament or strategy, I face them. Sometimes I see them. And their full fury does not come my way.