It’s 1:30pm on a Friday in 1972. I’m wearing a maroon and black segmented school cap which doesn’t even come close to fitting my 12-year old head (It wouldn’t have fitted my 6 year-old head but I’m learning that uniform has some value: when the rest of the herd wears maroon and black, it helps you hide). There’s a queue down the side of the school gym and I’m part of it, waiting for something exciting which was described as ‘Games’ on the timetable.

This is my first week at a grammar school that’s doing what these institutions are for: pretending to be an English public school. I’ve been hearing all week about one teacher who is clearly crazy. Some older boys have already told us with delight about “DB”, a psycho who screams and slaps everyone in sight. I have attempted to console myself with the thought that surely it wouldn’t be allowed. At least we seem to have made it to the haven of ‘Games’ at the end of the first week without anything too unpleasant taking place (other than French).

Then he appears. He’s wearing his checked brown sports coat, v-necked jersey, baggy brown trousers, brogues and thin gold-rimmed glasses. This outfit is by no means new and he will continue to wear it for the next seven years. He also wears an expression on his hatchet face that wouldn’t look out of place underneath the black brim of an SS officer’s cap. He speaks in short bursts of instructions. Failure to follow them instantly results in a tightening of his sharp features and a scream of rage that turns almost everyone’s guts to water (apart from a few nerveless cretins who are used to this kind of performance at home and don’t seem perturbed by anything -except perhaps having to sit quietly for more than 30 seconds) There is something about that reddening, drawn back forehead that reminds me of my own father when doing his domestic tirade routine.

It turns out this is the infamous DB (or Dick as we later call him behind his back). He is also nominally in charge of certain low-level maths classes, although he admits to not being able to understand, let alone teach the subject. I was expecting some fun, but he regards it as his duty to instill discipline in we young men of the Empire via the medium of organised games.

He points us toward a polluted field on the side of which are some pebble-dashed huts filled with hooks -It’s a scene from the gulag. He drives himself the 500 yards in his ancient offwhitish VW beetle (the one I threw up in later on a raiding party sent to attack some unsuspecting Welsh schools).

Here, 20 minutes of screaming seems to suggest that he expects us to change in under a minute in order not to waste time, and that all this is a precursor to something even worse.

No letters from mums suggesting any form of excuse will be tolerated. At one point he yells in the face of some hapless boy, who’s desperate to avoid developing complications of his advanced pleurisy:

“Tell your mother to get her fat ass down here to see me”.

How I pray for rain on Friday afternoons. It means a ’session’ in the gym of 30 circuits, but at least we might get home before 6pm. The word Rugby is never mentioned. We play the game as infantry are drilled with fixed bayonets.

Dick uses a combination of public humiliation and physical threat to get the required performance. This goes on for fully seven years, sometimes three or four times a week. At one stage, although academic output nosedives, we win trophies and are described as ‘playing like a machine’. In one particular practice session, I almost have my ankle crushed and hobble a mile to the hospital for x-rays. He phones later to apologise for having been so livid with me and for not driving me for treatment. I should have told him to get stuffed and ended my rugby career. I didn’t and my parents didn’t disagree.

I’m in a pre-match team talk. Of course the team is silent. Only DB talks.
He’s on a serious Baden Powell trip. No knots, but masturbation is discouraged and any more strenuous forms of sexual activity outlawed to promote performance on the pitch.. He has a style of speaking that is unselfconsciously surreal. We are, “on a fine line between defeat and failure.” Our play is sometimes “obsane.” or “slungeing.”

During our games he strides along one touchline, generally avoided by other staff, his Ulster trenchcoat flapping in the perpetual wind. When the mud approaches periscope depth, he dons a pair of track suit bottoms that looked as if they had been shortened by shark attack. He whines orders and disparaging observations, many of them about my complete ignorance of the rules.

Back in school, Dick routinely walks down the school corridors slapping children who are out of line and screaming that he will “thrash” them. In a school with any leadership, he’d be sacked at once. At my school he is allowed to run riot by the ineffectual, remote Headmaster. Eventually, DB punches the music master (mind you, that bastard deserved it).

After I left, I heard he had got a free transfer to the more prestigious Baxter College. He lasted a few months but was then removed when some sharp eyed fee-paying parents noticed that he was in fact a dangerous lunatic.

Strange then how we came to have a sort of affection for Dick. We were proud of his widely-recognised eccentricity and we came to believe, I suppose that he had done his best for us. Some of his proteges became Internationals and even ascended to careers in local TV.

His ability to manufacture team spirit by fear fell apart, though, when we were about 16. We stopped being scared and saw how pathetic he was. Dick had a Paisleyite absolutism that was not unusual for the time and place. I think it was intended to make men of us.