During the warm summer evenings of 1981 my friends and I would hang around Shipston's sportsfield on the London Road. The sports field comprised tennis courts, football and rugby pitches, and a club house from which we were excluded, being just fifteen, or I suppose sixteen in the case of Pete and Steve. We spent most of our time sat upon the swings of the children's play area, there being no children around to make use of them at that time of evening. This displeased Biddy Crump, an elderly pear-shaped woman and Daily Mail reader who lived opposite the entrance to the sportsfield. Her husband had been Geoff Crump, one time mayor of our small market town; but he'd passed on some years before, leaving her a widow and custodian of his beloved wellington boots, so local legend had it, specifically a fairly implausible local legend which held that the woman presently had her husband's beloved vulcanised footwear mounted in a cabinet and on display in the living room.
'Get off them swings!' She scowled at us from afar as she ambled across the car park towards the clubhouse. 'They're not for big boys like you!'
Had we been slightly younger, we might have taken more notice, but we were teenagers, and the edict had been delivered in a comical rural accent by someone with a funny name who, as widow of a mayor, presented herself as an authority figure and therefore a legitimate target; and an authority figure without any actual authority so far as we could see. Furthermore, we were sat upon the swings talking. None of us smoked, nor had we developed any premature alcoholic tendencies. We weren't in the habit of vandalising anything or terrorising anyone for chuckles. As usual, we were minding our own business, trying hard to squeeze some fun out of living in Shipston-on-Stour.
Sometimes we would answer back - and Pete tended to be the one with the wittiest replies in this capacity - or we would wander off to investigate the corner of the field in which a new quota of recently used condoms would appear each time we went to check. We would stand around and speculate as to who had been doing a deed about which we could only dream. At other times we would simply ignore Biddy and so she would waddle angrily towards the clubhouse, threatening to fetch Ted Hunt, proprietor of the establishment. It was an empty threat given that Ted Hunt didn't care enough to subject himself to our protests, peppered as they would be with insults built upon the unfortunate rhymes to which his surname lent itself with such ease. Eventually, having concluded whatever business she had at the clubhouse, Biddy would have to make the return journey, pretending not to notice that we were still there so as to avoid acknowledging the futility of the earlier exchange. Sometimes Pete would shout her name at astonishing volume as she disappeared from view. She would come back from around the corner and stare for a moment, unable to retaliate. Pete progressed to shouting her name backwards, pronouncing it Yiddib, an ingeniously pointless insult, we all felt, specifically designed to bewilder its victim.
With hindsight, it may seem harsh or unfair to some, but we had become a little territorial with regard to our right to sit on the swings and talk rubbish of an evening. There was Pete, Graham, and myself, our numbers occasionally bolstered by Eggy, Dean, Steve, Sid, Mark, Anders, Cloppo, Dean's little brother, or Janice, who was Dean's girlfriend. We didn't really have anywhere else to go, and it wasn't like we could all pile around someone's house in such numbers. We tended to avoid the square as it was usually full of local bikers and their younger admirers, kids our own age with denim jackets upon which were painted the covers of albums by Whitesnake or Rainbow, kids who always seemed to have something to prove.
These kids regarded at least a few of our own group as essentially homosexual and thus sorely in need of punishment. I myself was quite a scruffy child with my worn anorak and saggy corduroy trousers which I distinctly recall having been held up with baling twine at one point. My hair was not long, but I was very much a stranger to both brush and comb, at least sufficiently so as to have earned the nickname Worzel Gummidge after the popular television scarecrow played by Jon Pertwee. Pete and Graham were both of smarter appearance, and Pete in particular aspired to being a mod in keeping with his sartorial impulses. We were doing okay in school, if not spectacularly so, and couldn't really be considered stuck-up toffee-nosed swots unless your standards were so low as to define the act of wiping one's own bottom following defecation as la-di-da and ostentatious. We didn't generally like team sports. We kept ourselves to ourselves, and we all fancied girls - possibly excepting Sid who never really engaged with that one subject and seemed tellingly keen on musical theatre; but nevertheless, we were the gay boys, or the benders - as was probably the most popular term of the time. We didn't smoke, drink, or get in fights, and we listened to bands like Crass, Joy Division, the Stranglers or even Secret Affair in preference to affirming our heterosexuality with a big denim soundtrack of Queen, Judas Priest and proper music of that kind. We weren't homosexual, but we may as well have been for all the difference it made, and we felt somewhat outnumbered by the bikers, the heavy metal kids, and their legions of little followers.
If the sportsfield was not exactly our territory, we nevertheless felt a little safer there. Within plain sight of the clubhouse, a shitty Ford Cortina might occasionally dispense older kids who would pause to remind us that we were gay bum boys before heading into the clubhouse to discuss the size of each other's choppers over a jocular pint or twenty, but this was better than a shitty Ford Cortina pulling up at the side of the road to dispense the courier of a battering because one of us had looked at him funny. On one occasion a group of much younger children, possibly having been brought there by shitty Ford Cortina and bribed to befuckinghave with a pop and some crisps whilst dad discussed penises with his drinking buddies, decided that we were all bare bummers and ran around shouting this verdict, despite our all being fully clothed. This was difficult to take seriously, so Graham threw himself into the role, protesting that this was, after all, no longer the nineteeth century. These denim-clad offspring of Whitesnake fans were so appalled by the possibility that maybe we really were bare bummers that they went to play elsewhere, on the other side of the tennis courts.
More unnerving was the arrival of Bonnie, Janice's much younger sister, and her friend Joanne. They would have been about thirteen, and seemed keen to score points with the older boys and bikers, and they had apparently decided that we were easy targets.
'I've seen more cock on a dead sparrow,' Bonnie smirked at us from the roundabout, having finally caught our attention. We had been hoping that she and her little friend would get bored and piss off, but it wasn't to be. Bonnie smirked a lot, and her features were well-suited to it - like a sort of fish-faced young offender luxuriating in the knowledge of being a girl and thus traditionally immune to the kind of retaliation her comments might warrant under other circumstances. We told her to fuck off, but it didn't bother her, inviting only the somewhat obvious response of just who was going to make her fuck off, and which army they intended to enlist in furtherance of this objective.
Joanne, her sidekick, would underscore each comment with guttural laughter. Hur hur hur hur.
More cock on a dead sparrow - the accusation was bewildering, as none of us could really care less about this weirdly vicious little creature's estimate of our collective masculinity. Someone probably made a comment about the reproductive organs of the common sparrow being mostly internal, so the comparison seemed poorly made, but Bonnie seemed to take all those long words as proof of her original statement.
'Hur hur hur hur,' Joanne chuckled because we were all big queer benders or whatever.
Why us?, I wondered. These girls went to our school, and now they really seemed to be going for the jugular. Had any of our group even done so much as noticed them before, or were they simply joining in with the town consensus? After a while they seemed to lose interest, but hung around by the slide and the roundabout. At one point, Bonnie somehow fell over and, laughing, registered a loud complaint about having hurt her quim, and she actually used the mediaeval term. I got the impression she wanted us to hear, and I found it surprisingly unpleasant to listen to a thirteen year old girl who had apparently adopted the vocabulary of a seasoned author of down-market pornographic copy.
They started in on us again, this time with Joanne enthusiastically joining in to catalogue our numerous imagined failings as men. This seemed a poor decision on her part given that whole deal about people in glass houses not throwing stones. She was a bullish girl with a head the shape of a huge unshelled peanut and a deep, gruff voice.
'She's more of a man than all you lot put together,' Bonnie smirked.
There was moment of silence as everyone gave serious consideration to the comparison. Graham muttered something along the lines of how he didn't think anyone could argue with that.
Another moment passed before the laughter erupted in force. Pete laughed so hard that he fell off the swing as Joanne's heavy brow lowered to define the frown of a small, female Incredible Hulk.
'Oh dear.' Steve tried to speak through the tears, addressing Bonnie. 'You've really dropped your friend in it there.'
They left, because there was no coming back from that one. They had shot themselves in the collective foot, and from then on, each time one of us passed either girl in the school corridor we would be subjected to some reiteration of the theme of our being gay homosexual benders. Such comments were countered with reference to the ambiguous sexuality of JoManne, as we came to know her, or by singing a few bars of the Song of the Volga Boatmen, or beating our chests and roaring like gorillas, or lowering our voices as far as they would go and simply retorting with the words deep voice, drawing the syllables out as though it were a Gregorian chant. Eventually it worked, and the girls got bored, and hostilities ceased.
With hindsight, we said some truly horrible things. Joanne may have been entirely happy about her own appearance, or we may each have contributed to some later body dysmorphia, or she may have had a terrible home life which had driven her to take it out on us, or she may simply have been too fucking thick to understand the flaws in her own bullshit small-town mentality; but what has been said has been said, and it was all a long time ago, and in any case, we didn't start it.