Last week, I wrote about how I never felt any pressure at exam time. I had the useful if unspectacular facility of doing well in academic tests.
But this post is supposed to be about a different kind of pressure, that in physical confrontations. I shall draw a veil over my Army boxing record, one win and two losses - in both of which I was flagrantly robbed of the verdict. I distinctly remember my face repeatedly landing full-blooded blows on my opponent's left glove. To my surprise, none of them counted in my favour.
Two fights at primary school stick out in my memory. One I would certainly have lost if it had continued; the other I definitely won. But lately I have come to realize that the attitude I took into each encounter, the state of mind I experienced, was far more important than the outcome. It's probable that this has become clear through my deepening understanding of the martial art mindset as I continue to practise and study tai chi chuan.
The first was with Ronnie J. He wasn't exactly a bully, certainly not vicious in the Flashman mould. He was bigger than most of the class, about half a head taller than me. I think now that his harassment of others, and it was little more than that, was his way of being noticed. Maybe it was a way of compensating for his lack of scholastic achievement, to put it kindly.
He had been at me all day, pushing me around, making snide remarks about my performance in the 11-plus exam. I was the only one in our year to get a place at the Grammar School. As we left at the end of the day, he gave me one final shove that almost sent me sprawling out of the door onto the pavement. I remember clearly the anger I felt. It truly was a "red mist" moment. I turned and went for him with no sense of fear, just a desire to get in a few punches at his smirking face. I remember I had to strike upwards to get at him.
I remember too the look of surprise, almost hurt, on his face. It was like, "What did I do? Why are you having a go at me?" To defend himself from the onslaught of this furious dwarf, he stuck out a fist, using his longer reach, and caught me full on the nose. It started spouting blood - as noses tend to do when they meet a fist - but that didn't stop me. By that time, some mothers waiting for their children to appear had seen the fracas and ran over to haul us apart.
In the second encounter ( I believe it was only a week or so after the first) I was surprised that I felt no anger at all. I was heading home from school when I heard a shout behind me, "Hey, you - Wells!"
I turned. It was Richard W. This one did have a reputation as a bully, so my brother informed me later. I hardly knew him. He wasn't in my class, I'm sure. He started shouting but I couldn't make out what he was saying. There was no reasoning with him. He seemed angry about something but I didn't know what. He pushed me, I pushed him off, then he started with his fists.
This one was as long as the other was short. It didn't have the Cinemascope effect of the classic rough-and-tumble between John Wayne and Victor McLaglen in "The Quiet Man", which ranged up hill and down dale over a good acreage of the West of Ireland. But it seemed to last for a good ten minutes, first on the path across The Meadows, then out onto the road, a quiet cul-de-sac, past the home of the twins, Nita and Nesta, where the hollyhocks bloomed, back and forth across the street, past Gerald Bowering's house. Then we turned up the rough track which led to three identical houses, in one of which the fearsome figure of Alec the gardener held sway like Mr Macgregor in "Peter Rabbit". A crowd of homegoing kids followed the action.
That's where I finally got the upper hand. He was getting hurt and I wasn't. He turned away. I landed another couple of punches on his back, just to show I could keep going if he was up for it.
He wasn't. I ignored him and went home. He never bothered me again. I still don't know what the fight was about. Perhaps he thought he could "do a Ronnie" on me.
Was that the start of my "cool" approach to confrontation - and to life in general?