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Saturday, 25 September 2010

The Change in the Changing Room Part 1

I like to think that I'm something of a student of human behaviour (only GCSE at the moment, but I'm working on it) and the activities in the gents changing room are a rich source of study. Back in 2007, I wrote a piece for the Derby Evening Telegraph on how much the male changing room had changed since my school days. This is the first part of that article:
“We’ve got to make the most of what we’ve got left, haven’t we?” The white-haired gent said to me as we both stood in front of the mirror in the changing room of a local health club. I’ll tell you more about that conversation later (before you jump to any odd conclusions) but it did prompt me to realise just how much has changed in male behaviour in my fifty-odd (very odd in some cases) years.
In my youth, anyone attempting to ‘make the most of what they’ve got’ in the changing room (by which I mean adornment of any sort, from deodorant to hair gel, before the double-entendres start flying thick and fast) would have been viewed with deep suspicion. Things are rather different now, I have discovered.
In Uxbridge St. Juniors, the changing room for sports tended to be the brick built shelter on Anglesey Road Recreation Grounds (“the Wreck”). This was open to the elements on one side and the facilities consisted of a slatted bench around the other three sides (large chunks of which had usually been broken away by the older youths who frequented the place at night). It was somewhat Spartan in design and did not really encourage the spending of any time on one’s appearance. The main aim was to get your socks and football boots (or equivalent, depending on the season) on before the biting wind, scything across from the Wagon Works, turned your extremities a fetching shade of blue and condemned you to a Pobble-like existence for the rest of your days (for those who have forgotten their Edward Lear, the Pobble had no toes). I suppose we must have changed somewhere on site at Uxbridge St. as well. I can recall those ubiquitous draw-string pump bags hanging ominously from every coat peg, a sure sign of horrors yet to come (you may have gathered that my relationship with physical exercise was not an entirely positive one), so I suppose we changed in the coat-stuffed cloakroom but I’m not entirely sure.
The move to Secondary School brought much improved facilities for changing for the various tortures that featured in the school timetable. I can only speak for the Boy’s Changing Rooms of course, the Girl’s equivalent would remain a mystery to me, the only images I had were those conjured up by the lurid gossip of adolescence and consequent fevered imaginings (one being entirely the product of the other). The Boy’s Changing Rooms consisted of rows of slatted benches (again, I don’t know why, perhaps there’s a law somewhere) with coat hooks above. I seem to recall some lockers but these were for gym and sports equipment, I think. At the end of the room was the shower block, a tiled area split into two short corridors with shower heads either side, and the P.E. Teacher’s changing room.
Those unable to take part in the planned physical activity (or who hoped that they would not have to) lined up by the lockers, waiting for inspection by the P.E. Teacher. He would then proceed down the line, perusing the ‘papers’ (letters from home, allegedly) of the supplicants, like an S.S. Officer in a World War II film. By this time, the rest of the class would be changed and ready for their instructions and could sit back and enjoy the ritual humiliation of those who, for real or imagined reasons, were trying to avoid being involved. The degree of theatricality involved in this process tended to depend on the teacher for that class and the mood he was in. Genuine medical reasons usually just provoked a degree of discontented muttering from the track-suited Torquemada whereas the more feeble excuses (“I’m not feeling very well, sir”, “I think I’ve got a cold, sir” (as opposed to a cold sore), or “I had a letter from me mum, but the dog ate it”) would be seized upon, communicated to the rest of the class in pantomime-like tones, and followed by one of his stock of withering phrases or sarcastic comments (“Cold! Cold! If you can catch a cold, Whiteland then you can catch a ball, get yourself changed” or “Well, I’d rather teach your dog than you, Jones. Three times around the playing field, now!”).
Forgetting your kit was a cardinal sin and, whilst it might work occasionally as a means of dodging P.E./Sports, it was usually guaranteed to result in the utter humiliation of the ‘less than artful’ dodger. The standard punishment was to find yourself attired in kit assembled from lost items and cast-offs of previous generations of Anglesey scholars, in a bewildering range of sizes. The miscreant might therefore find himself wearing shorts that might be considered a little roomy by Bernard Manning, his (not Bernard Manning’s) school vest (we all wore vests in those days), grey school socks and football boots so tight that the erstwhile footballer would have to mince onto the playing field. All of the above in a range of colours from dark purple to “me mum washed it with me sister’s red flannel knickers” white.
Returning to the changing room after your bout of physical endeavour inevitably meant an encounter with the showers. In those days, adolescence and cleanliness did not really go together and many tried to avoid this particular ordeal. The P.E. Teacher was, however, always absolutely determined that everyone would shower, but as you were only ever allowed about 30 seconds in there, the chances of any thorough cleansing taking place was pretty limited. By and large, ‘he that must be obeyed’ seemed to be fairly happy if you were just wet. What the reaction would have been if you had trooped into the showers clutching some herbal essence shower gel and a bottle of ‘Wash and Go’ (I used that on my hair and they were right – I washed it and its gone!), I dread to think. Ideally, following the Spartan ethic, I’m sure they would have liked you to rub yourself down with a pumice stone and flay yourself dry with a whip. Of course, getting clean under these conditions would have been a minor miracle anyway, given that the floor was usually liberally coated with divots of mud and turf prised from the boots of all the preceding classes, and that you were putting back on the same sweaty (and there’s nothing like an adolescent male for sweat, they can sweat from pores that haven’t even been discovered yet), grotty garments that you changed out of in the first place.

The first collection of stories - "Steady Past Your Granny's" is now available in Kindle e-book format at Amazon UK and Amazon USA