By Harry Mottram: If like me you like Matthew Sweet’s regular music series on BBC Radio Three, The Sound of Cinema, may also enjoy his forays into other areas of popular culture like for instance his Decemebr 2023 programme billed as The Wilkie Collins Guide to Modern Life. in which we find that the great Victorian novellist was (tongue in cheek) ahead of his time.
Born 200 years ago the high priest of the sensation novel – and perhaps best known for the frequently dramatised The Woman In White.
In another investigation into a subject far removed from the sinister 1860 novel concerning the love affair between art teacher Walter Hartright and Laura Fairlie, we investigate something everyone can related to: PE lessons at school. In his BBC Radio 4 programme PE – A History of Violence he gave voice to those who were not enamoured with the compulsory subject at school.
Love them or hate them the 40 minutes of weekly exercise in the school hall or jogging around a wet sports field in nothing more than a singlet and shorts on a February afternoon will bring back memories – and nightmares for some.
Matthew Sweet delves into the subject as someone who wasn’t good at sport and more particularly didn’t enjoy Physical Education or PE or PT as it was called in my school. That’s Physical Training – which included cross country running and what passed for athletics in the summer term.
His take is clearly clouded his own disagreeabled experiences such as rope burns, muddy scrums, the crack of hockey stick on ankle and moral cruelty – as illustrated beautifully in the 1969 film Kes, directed by Ken Russell and the bullying Mr Sugden. He asked the question what had happened to the PE teachers of old, who were represented in popular culture by bullies and drill sergeant types like Bullet Baxter in Grange Hill? And he could have added the PE teacher from my school days of Mr Howard or Bogo as we called him. There was the humiliation of forgetting your games kit and the detentions that followed for being absent minded. Or of being being given a clip round the ear for not changing faster enough afterwards in overcrowded changing rooms that smelt of damp socks.
Like many of his generation Bogo was a product of the Second World War and had an army mentality. Looking back it seems like another world – more akin to Carry On Sergeant than the world today when PE is a compulsory subject under the National Curriculum at all key stages – although at least back in the 1970s school playing fields hadn’t been sold off by cash strapped LEAs.
For many who like me had a love hate relationship with PE – I would have enjoyed it more if you didn’t have to exercise with violent thugs looking for a chance to put in an over the top tackle in football or the teachers gave you the option of going for a cycle ride or to dance to T-Rex instead. For me more time in the art department or the library was always preferable – a bit like Matthew Sweet’s view of the compulsory subject in PE – A History of Violence.