I used to be quite a scrapper when I was a kid. I remember once when I was about 10 having a fight in the school playground over a game of football.
We went at each other in a whirl of kicks and punches, cheered on by the doughnut of kids who’d always instantly gather to watch any ruckus – ‘Fight! Fight!’ Until a teacher strode into the circle and hauled us off to the headmaster’s office, where we sat outside and licked our wounds – literally in his case, as I’d knocked one of his front teeth out. In return, he’d given me a black eye.
I was rather proud of it, I remember, until my dad gave me a rollicking when he came home from work. Which I found rather confusing, since I was only doing what he’d always advised – stand up for myself.
I learned in Big School that to do that using fisticuffs was a high-risk strategy, especially on the rugby pitch. The ‘boys’ there could be seriously large and the referee couldn’t always be counted on to break up a fight before proper pain was inflicted – more often on me now, as I was one of the smaller players.
So I stopped fighting physically – but my combative nature simply expressed itself in other ways.
A fundamental shift
I became very competitive, with words and wit now my fists. Which was fine as long as I was punching ‘up’ against the more powerful but not so good if punching ‘across’ at my peers. And frankly unforgivable on the few occasions I was tempted to punch ‘down’.
Even so, this approach did get me quite a long way, for quite a long while, in different areas of my life – academically, socially, even professionally at first.
Then, in my mid-20s two things happened that started a fundamental shift.
First, I had an especially intense row with my dad. We’d had a bad relationship for years and during this argument we pretty much hit rock bottom.