I never belonged. Aged 5 in the 70s, in an old, red-brick Victorian East End school, with those high windows and Alcatraz walls, I found my 10-year-old friend from down the road getting beaten up in the playground. May even have been my first school playtime ever. That was what I remember and certainly what I was told. I don’t remember violence prior to that point, but I do remember intervening. With a bunch of steel adding to the weight of my calliper, I kicked the shit out of kids twice my age.
The East End of London was, now perhaps more so, a hands-on place and I was fully aware of the knives at school, the tales of fathers and uncles boxing and street-fighting and the hateful words, the blood on my father’s face. The Headmaster’s office was a regular place of banishment. We moved. I think it was for the best.
In my new school, I was immediately bullied, like in the last. No longer with a calliper, but in a plaster cast, frequent visits to Great Ormond Street, and bearing crutches for what felt like most of my first year, I didn’t back down. I took delight in hopping, double-crutch-aided, to beat other boys in sprints. But still, I was different. When the shoes started looking the same as everyone else’s, my freckles and our relative lack of means meant I still looked different enough to be the ire of bullies 3-4 years older than me. I’ve never been gifted to be the best at anything, but I did start to find my love of sports there. For that, I must thank directly a boy 7 or 8 years older than me, and indirectly, Duke of Edinburgh Awards. For it was this that inspired him to get a group of us to compete year after year in a Super Games format with a variety of odd events including running, dribbling, bike racing and darts. [My brother was there even though he was 2 years younger. In fact, he was always there and, paradoxically given the self-centredness of this post, has always been present for me and the person I always revert to.] I was always third or second overall. Can’t remember being first. But I always won the bike race (circuits around a small portion of the school field). I rode a beaten-up single-speed salvaged from a skip by my Dad which I painted with his help, and much to my delight, in silver Hammarite. The other boys – all friends (in a distant, not quite close-friend way), no dickheads here – had shop-bought bikes. Choppers and Raleighs. All multi-geared. Looking back, I think we must have been invited for some reason as we were all the sporty types (including my brother who always punched above his weight). I say sporty. I loved football but never had any sort of coaching or inherent natural ability. Dad didn’t play (although Uncle played for West Ham Youth in the 50s). There were no tactics and no resources for individual focus. I was a very, very good defender but, when I tackled the ball, I immediately kicked it out of play as I was petrified of having the focus on me, not knowing what to do. I think I was offered the first captaincy, maybe because I led by example and was vocal (I certainly didn’t know what I was doing). I may even have taken it, but I know I avoided it thereafter. I was too insecure to accept. I was known and won multiple awards, but I am sure I contributed to many defeats by giving easy throw-ins too far into our half.
At this point, I had found a tribe. I wasn’t a loner, and I was no longer an outsider, but I still felt different.
With the privilege of Grammar School, I found a new, true, love. Rugby I considered for a number of decades a proper sport for competitive boys. Violent, but controlled, skilled, but without too much focus on the individual, and, finally, collectively, an animalistic togetherness that went beyond the training ground. I always was good, intuitive and unafraid and I had found a belonging. I was never aware of my foot – more my calf that was half the size of my ‘good’ leg due to the many years of callipers and plaster. ‘Peg leg’ was what I was called to wind me up. I was first fifteen in my second year. Probably should have been county-level but my fear got the better of me in the trials. Would never have been, could never have been more than that given the repetitive knee dislocations my weakness caused and the obvious weakness in my right leg which would have been targeted. I was still fast! I came back to rugby at business school in my 30s and reinvigorated my love of the game (despite a broken nose in my first training session). Although I was not the top scorer (Wilson!), I believe I scored more points (tries) per game and provided more assists than anyone else, including taking us to the knockouts in the World Biz School Champs through 3 tries and setting up both tries in our Old Boys game defeating the previous year.
I had also found mountain biking in the 80s. This suited my loner personality more. I planned trips to Wales and Norfolk (!) with friends and family. Believe I forged UK firsts on trails and mountains with friends – locals certainly told me so. Fell off a mountain and cracked my head open and had to rescue us a few times from underprepared fog-bound mountains. Saved all my money for a top-end English-built Overbury’s custom (sold my Muddy Fox to my younger brother who accepted the elevated price knowingly – he is, and always will be, a star). This distant tribe I identified with. Its non-conformity (Mint Sauce), athleticism and danger-seeking attitude was new outside the music tribes all teenagers are familiar with. The first time I saw a surfer was in an MTB magazine. Long bleached blond hair, riding a Klein but riding it for training. For training! This sport is hard enough.
So surfing started at 17. The Summer before University I convinced a guy I worked with at the vegetable packing store to take us surfing on his wave-board to grey, cold and pebbly Camber Sands. But here was a tribe that acknowledged itself as such: different clothes, different hair and a hedonism that was more spiritual than alcoholic. I was hooked and affiliated to this tribe for over 20 years. In fact, I still identify with it and still hold innocent love like a former girlfriend in my heart for this most majestic and soulful of sports.
In my 20s I was lucky enough to secure a job that took me on adventures. I felt, in my indestructible innocence that these were true, pure exploits onto the East Coast of Scotland (more fights) then into habitation with my first (and lovably crazy) fiancée in New York, the Mediterranean. Then North Africa. Then West Africa, then Asia, America. Often with fights. Sometimes with scars. Everywhere. Civil wars, chartered planes into war zones, drinking, bar fights of Hollywood proportions, bargaining with extortionists on runways, random hostage experiences, exploring deserts and designing isolated bases for 10s of people in crazy locations for quick exit in case of a terrorist attack. None of this with training. Prehistoric mountain islands with bats and spiders the size of dinner plates, malaria that killed people around me and juju that killed people even more plus snakes the length of skipping ropes (but forest elephants the size of small ponies). And running alone 16ks in the middle of the Sahara in the middle of the day and through a war-torn capital. Surfing was the link between break-ups and vagrancy, surfing countries or breaks that have seen few if any surfers. And nearly dying. That was the way.
Quitting was always on the cards. I drank too much. Fairly healthy, but burnout and with a new girlfriend, I needed to reset. So surfing the world it was. Plotting a combination of destinations that an around-the-world ticket could get us. Regions I had no familiarity with but that were remote enough for more adventures (sidestepping Unexploded Ordinance in SEA on the way to drinking in huts with so-happy farmers cradling shotguns), close to surf breaks, and months next to beaches were the focus. My god it was good! Nearly a month in Bangkok studying bits of culture and lots of sculpture. Living as a local. Indonesia with free and perfect waves. Always on foot. Always carrying our homes on our backs. Australia and the feeling of surf inadequacy. Then South Africa and home. South Africa was a beautiful halfway house between the £4 a day subsistence for most of the year and the expectancy of mobiles, grocery stores and fixed living that was to come.
In terms of tribe, my business school friends and future wife provided everything I could want. Back to London, but in an elevated state. I still feel concerned about trappings but my wife is the most beautiful of spirits and she supports me in ways I can’t. Running the Moors and Dales, trekking and camping at -15deg, climbing the Alps. But then my foot giving out. No more running. No more walking. Harley Street offering an amputation. Then back to bikes! My wife buys me one and I’m shuttling it between the serenity of Richmond Park and English-perfect seasonal views and Jabel Hafeet heat where I’m working. My son changed everything. Prior to that, women were the love of my life. Now, indisputably and forever, my children have stolen my heart.
In South Africa, I gradually transitioned to riding bikes more and more confidently. My brother-in-law was the first to introduce the science. My brother, to whom I sold my first mountain bike in the 80s (he was not even 10!), and is my idol in so many ways, introduced me to the folklore and the history. I never entered a race with a plan but my 4th or 5th was my warmup for the following day’s road race. MTB. The shorter version. I checked out the start as I had read that starting was all-important off-road. Came 5th out of some 170. Top 4 were (junior, hmmm) National Champions. Day later, I was sprinting for 2nd in the road race when I was taken out and ended up off the bike with broken bones and destroyed bike for 6 weeks. The Cape Town Cycle Tour, where I clocked a sub-3 and Tshwane Classic where I came fourth in the first group that was not Pro or Elite and my first race in over a year.
My ankle is collapsing. I am in pain quite a bit but I’m doing well and pain has always been there. If my mother had listened to the GPs and pediatricians who said I would never walk 40 years ago, let alone run, play competitively at a high level, or compete athletically into my 40s, who knows where I would be. But she didn’t. And here I am.