The Thatcher Crisis Years

An era of protest and fury

school gym 1970s

On a Facebook page for my old school, somebody posted a picture of one side of the old school gym. The wall was covered in wooden climbing bars with ropes dangling down that could slide out on pulleys across the gym. Immediately I was transported back to P.E. lessons in the 1970s and I’m sure like many of you, there are very mixed memories of those days.

What was it with P.E. teachers in the 70s? The ability to maintain that level of sadistic aggression must have taken incredible effort. About ten years ago, I told my millennial gym trainer what a P.E. teacher, from the Welsh valleys, screamed at me after my javelin throwing on the school field had been below par: “McMahon you s—–c, if you had to hunt for your food, you’d f——g starve!”

My trainer was about twenty years younger than me. And he was so taken by this that he used to repeat this awful phrsae when I reached my limit on the bench press. For him, it was a hilarious eye opener on the 1970s school gym. For me, it was like a voice from the deepest reaches of hell.

Why was physical education made so awful back then?

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Admit it, fellow baby boomer, you shudder occasionally to remember P.E. classes. There was the old-style trampet set at an angle off which we had to launch ourselves over a horsebox, arms outstretched, to hopefully be caught by the P.E. teacher. The murder-ball-style games played with a large, unevenly-shaped, leathery sphere known for some reason as the medicine ball. Why it was called that I have no idea. It was more likely to cause injury than cure you of anything.

Then there was the 1970s gym obsession with gymnastics. Because God knows, we all had an inner Olga Korbut struggling to break out. For younger readers, Korbut was a Soviet gymnast who wowed the world with her 1972 Olympics performance. We poor school kids were then expected to emulate this and failure to do so would result in a severe tongue lashing or worse from our P.E. overlords.

If, for whatever reason, you ‘forgot’ your gym kit in an attempt to avoid 40 minutes of gymnastic hell, the changing room had a box full of mysteriously waylaid kit – completely filthy – that you were forced to wear. We called these disgusting items the “VD shorts” – VD being the acronym for STDs back then (venereal disease). Nobody knew the provenance of the discarded shorts and tops nor why their owners had never claimed them back. They just sat there, festering in the corner.

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Then we were herded like sheep into the showers. At one of my secondary schools – I went to two – this area was a communal room. Overhead was a row of nozzles spouting boiling or freezing water – never anything in between. The gym teacher would strip off and join us…..yeah, about that. Mid-shower, he’d turn round to us eleven-year-olds barking: “Pass the buttermilk soap!” Small bars of soap that dissolved at a rapid rate.

On one occasion we’d had to abandon a rugby match because it was raining so hard. Well, the sadist-in-chief made us play for what seemed like an eternity until two of my fellow pupils collapsed deliriously on to the swampy pitch and started chucking mud at each other. Back in the changing room, after we’d spent a few minutes passing the buttermilk soap around in the showers, the same P.E. teacher produced a trainer and gave one of the kids an almighty “slippering”. This meant touching your toes while your arse was thwacked very hard.

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Despite the best efforts of certain P.E teachers I kept up sporting activity throughout my life and I still weight train today. But really, that is DESPITE and not BECAUSE of my experience of the 1970s school gym. Sadly I have many friends who were permanently put off any kind of organised sporting activity for the rest of their lives. I rather hope today it’s a more humane regime for schools kids than it was for us in the 1970s school gym.

This is Olga Korbut – I was definitely not Olga Korbut

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