Over the years I have tried dozens of sports and hobbies, many of which have ended in some sort of disaster that put me off persevering forever. Those that I wasn’t inherently terrible at I kept up until I got bored, which averaged at about nine months. In my twenty-four years I have tried and subsequently given up karate, trampolining, horse-riding, sailing, tennis, Bikram yoga, hurdling, lacrosse, aerial hoop, fencing, artistic roller-skating (!) and badminton. I also played netball and hockey at school. As an adult, I’ve scuba-dived, skied, snowboarded and pole-danced, but those pursuits have all been sacked off as regular hobbies either because of the expense or because I’m terrible at commitment . The pole-dancing, by the way, wasn’t really dancing at all. It mostly involved hanging upside down like a big fleshy bat, legs akimbo in the most unladylike way and trying not to whimper over the unholy friction burn. In my experience, all the moves ended the same way: sliding gracelessly down the pole, bare skin squealing on metal with a sound like a wet fart and then landing unceremoniously in a tangled, cussing heap on the floor.
It was probably just as well that no dancing was involved because I possess all the natural rhythm of a soft-boiled egg. When I was very young I went to a ‘ballet’ class which mostly involved running around in a circle waving a silk scarf and pretending either to be a princess or a butterfly. Every year a show was put on for the parents and during my class’s dance I somehow ended up two bars ahead of everyone else and, not realising that I’d missed out a small but significant bit of the routine, shoved my little mate Hayley out of the way so hard she fell over. On stage. My parents got it on video-camera, and how they laughed. (Fortunately my embarrassment was short-lived as my younger sister managed to get trapped in front of the curtain at the end of her performance fifteen minutes later. It must run in the family.) It doesn’t bother me too much, to be honest, because in my view good dancing is throwing yourself around a room – preferably to music – and looking like you’re having a good time. By that (admittedly fairly generous) definition, I’m a regular Michael Flatley. Unfortunately many traditionalists would probably disagree, arguing that a good dancer is someone who can relied upon not to fall over or accidentally hit someone in the face at least 95% of the time, but, well, they can fuck off.
Aerobics, dancing’s sweatier and shoutier cousin, I am indisputably dreadful at. I just cannot do it, my brain doesn’t have the capacity to compute the moves and regurgitate them even half well, let alone carry off the elaborate routines with poise and grace. I am a mad, flailing whirligig in a line of twenty other mad, flailing whirligigs, occasionally broken up by one of the thrice-weekly toned whippersnappers who execute their shoulder-shimmying and hip-swivelling moves with gusto and precision. Once, during the first year of university after we’d both consumed enough Dominos pizza and Apple VKs to gain forty pounds between us, my friend Becky and I decided to go to such a class held at the university. Not only was I colossally unfit, overweight and sporting the sickly pallor of someone who spends too much time indoors playing online poker, but I was also right behind a bronzed Amazonian in the smallest possible pair of hotpants and an arse so spectacular it was like somebody had mugged James for his giant peach and spray-painted the thing gold. It was mid-term and the rest of the class already knew the routine, which was so complicated we may as well have been auditioning for Cats. Within fifteen minutes Beck and I were lying on the floor gasping for air, muscles spasming, sweat sliding off our flabby faces. And it was at that point we decided to never do an aerobics class again.
To be fair, I have done better in other classes. The last spin session I went to, for instance, was filled with women who clearly were only there to fantasise about the stacked instructor who spent the entire hour screaming at everyone to go harder. (Needless to say, everyone left the class dripping wet.) But generally I prefer solo exercise. You can listen to your own music and do it in your own time, which is much more convenient, and because I’ve been doing it for so many years now I hardly ever fall off the equipment any more.
The exception to the rule is swimming, which I’ve always totally sucked that. I mean, if you threw me in I wouldn’t drown, but despite years of lessons I never quite got the hang. I think I must have missed the crucial lesson about coordinating arms and legs because no amount of thrashing around seems to get me very far. I was probably put off by the PE Gestapo at school, who used to force us to swim with the sort of oppressive brutality more characteristic of Stalin’s Russia than the average Phys Ed lesson. Every two weeks we were marched over the road to use the pool at the boys’ school, which was always frigid and curiously lacking in any sort of ladder. As noodle-armed teenage girls we always had a bit of a job getting out, especially at the deep end, and nobody in Class 9C circa 2003 will ever forget the day Debbie Greer literally burst out of her swimsuit heaving herself over the side.
The other problem with swimming at the boys’ school is that their lesson periods ran to a different timetable to ours and changeovers was regrettably timed so a dozen spotty adolescent faces appeared at the window just as the changing room became a crazed frenzy of rolled-over skirts, teenage nipples and Impulse body spray. We would run screaming into the changing rooms (“Girls, girls!” the Gestapo would yell. “Settle! SETTLE!”), pull our clothes on over damp, clammy skin and run screaming out again, leaving the stragglers to risk the wide, goggling eyes of the twelve year-olds gawking at the windows.
I did quite like team sports at school though. Netball may well be just a slower, sissier version of basketball but anyone who doesn’t believe hockey is a real sport has clearly never seen what a speeding hockey ball can do to an unshielded set of teeth. Football, though, was only for boys, and the maverick handful of girls who went to Mr Baird’s football club after school on Thursdays. It’s never been a thing for me and I’ve never understood the fanaticism. I get the rules – even the offside one – and I know people are often lifelong supporters of certain teams, but Christ, I can’t believe a sodding game can reduce grown men to tears. I have an ex-boyfriend who was a big football fan, and once I allowed myself to be emotionally blackmailed into going to a match. His family were from Chesterfield so we went to Barnet to support them in an Away game, and I didn’t enjoy it one little bit.
It was about 3 degrees and there was nothing to sit on. Halfway through I was given a cup of hot gravy (!?) to wash down the aspirin I sorely needed after 45 minutes of old codgers yelling themselves hoarse approximately thirty centimetres from my left ear. After half time I thought I’d try and enjoy it a bit more, you know, to show willing, but completely forgot that sides swap ends halfway through. I think my brain must have been numbed by cold (and boredom, possibly), because every other team sport I’ve ever played does this too, but on this occasion I made a complete tit of myself yelling and blinding when Chesterfield sped towards Barnet’s goal, under the sad misapprehension that they were about to shoot an own goal.
The yelling and chanting, too, was something else I struggled to get behind. Unfortunately my encouraging words of ‘go forth and emerge victorious, O Chesterfield!’ were drowned out by such cries as ‘Oi, Ref! Did you see that? Didja? DIDJA? BOOK THAT CHEATING BASTARD OR I’LL COME DOWN THERE AND CUT YER TODGER OFF’. Even my well-spoken ex was screaming like a banshee and singing along with the crowd like a hysterical, gravelly-voiced schoolgirl, which came as a shock.
Although I suspect the magic of football may have passed me by forever, I did have a bash at tag rugby just the other day for the first (and probably last) time. I was filling in last minute for a friend’s PhD student team so I arrived only two minutes before kick-off, which was just enough time to don a pair of knee-length men’s shorts but not enough for anyone to explain the rules. I spent the first twenty minutes running up and down the side fervently praying that nobody would try to pass me the ball and apologising at every opportunity to the dude I accidentally grabbed by the testicles in the first five minutes. Eventually, after getting booked for repeatedly being too far down the pitch and on the verge of tears, someone took pity on me and explained what was going on. I felt – and looked – like an absolute twat. Imagine a fully grown woman, muddied, confused and wearing a magnificently unflattering pair of shorts, bottom lip a-quiver, surrounded by blokes wearing that special mask of terror that all men put on when it looks like a girl is going to cry. Very embarrassing.
Fortunately I managed to turn it around and got on much better in the second half. I was actually quite good at catching the ball, even if I was so startled that every time I caught it I either dropped the thing or ran madly in the wrong direction. I even successfully de-tagged two people without grabbing them by the scruff of the bollocks, which was an improvement on the first half. I still haven’t been asked back to play again though. Strange, that.
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