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A Shout From The Attic: The Gladiators

...At best it was a sorry sight with two chortling schoolboys circling with their fists in the air and their hearts not in the contest...

Ronnie Bray recalls the day when he was a reluctant gladiator.

Read also Ronnie's ever-surprising columns. Click on Letter From America in the menu on this page.

I wonder why no one seemed to think it odd that a field that stood between two rows of houses should be six feet higher than the street. True, the ground behind the houses rises a good six or eight feet when it gets behind the terraces on Bow Street, and the climb up Springwood footpath will bring a strong man and his horse to hard drawn breath and silly snorting noises.

Miss Moss, who undertook to teach me piano for six lessons at a half crown a lesson, lived two doors to the right of the footpath, and Brian Firth lived in the first house the other side of the field. It was opposite the boys’ playground of Spring Grove School so he could get up late and still be in time for school.

The combat took place after school. Peter West lent Brian Firth a pair of brown leather gloves for the fight. The outing was not for a fight, but that’s how it ended up and I still have no idea why it took place at all, although Pete was eager to see it take place and egged Brian on mercilessly.

Brian Firth was one of the nicest boys I ever met, and, seeing him later in life, he seems not to have changed and is as nice a man as you could wish to meet. He had a slow gentle way about him that was endearing, and I know that as we circled each other on the lofty greensward next to his home, that my heart was not in it. I kept making wisecracks, he kept bursting into laughter, and Peter kept urging us to fight. Perhaps it was one of Peter’s experiments in social engineering. Who is to know? Even Peter has probably forgotten all about it by now, and I only remember it because my memory remembers mainly the trivia of my life, much of its substance having been too painful to lodge where it easily accessible.

It was no saga, not the stuff of legend. Of the encounter, no quill-struck versifier could inscribe, “So all day long the noise of battle rolled … “ At best it was a sorry sight with two chortling schoolboys circling with their fists in the air and their hearts not in the contest, until bad light forced the match to be abandoned. I was not disappointed and I cannot imagine Brian would be any less gruntled than I was. Perhaps Peter had missed his sport, but he seemed not to notice it and time returned to normal.

I prefer to blame it on the altitude of the jousting field rather than ascribe it to our Martian demons struggling for expression. Boys sometimes find themselves up to their necks in mischief they didn’t intend and don’t really want, and then they can’t find the exit. That was probably the whole of the matter. But, I have thought about the episode now and then and wondered how two fundamentally peaceful boys could even get so far so quickly as to square off against each other on what set out to be an evening of careless adventure.

There is more than a grain of truth in the adage, “All’s well that ends well”, so our “little ado about nothing” was well met and quickly over and no bones broken, no blow struck, but a triumph for humour and good nature and only a warmonger could complain at that. If I take nothing from the lofty battle that never was, it is that good hearts will not easily be troubled, and where there is true friendship, it will not be easily disturbed, not even by the wrong kind of matchmaker, even if he provides brown leather gloves of dubious provenance to his favourite.

The other thing I have learned is that boys will sometimes do daft meaningless things for which no explanation, however inventive, is adequate. Deal with it!


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