November 21, 2003
Etonians will be Etonians

I grew up a bus-ride away from Eton, the ultra-posh school in Windsor – Windsor being where my primary school was. But I never wanted to go to Eton. One of the reasons for that was the Eton Wall Game. So far as I understand it, you have to shove a big ball along a big wall and past a line. Or something. It's played between two brands of Etonian called Oppidans and Collegers, whatever they are.

How come, the non-aficionado will ask, that such a slow and at times painful sport survives?

Non-aficionado. That would be me.

One answer is simply that it has done so since at least the 1760s and probably longer: the wall was built in 1717. Another is that it gives the 70 collegers, who like to think of themselves as the brains of Eton, the chance to show that they are anyone's equal at games too. The wall game is essentially a collegers' sport: even now, they have a ceremony in piam memoriam JKS – J.K. Stephen, a great colleger player (and in later years a very minor poet) of the 1870s. Collegers have more chance to play than most oppidans do, and greater skills can make up for the greater brawn available among their more numerous rivals.

A third reason may seem unbelievable to those who have never played this game: it's fun. Buried in that sweating, unmoving bully are skills and achievement that few watchers – not even the boys looking down from atop the wall – will see, let alone understand. Boys like rough games. They like to have skills, even arcane ones. They like to compete, however eccentric the game. Ask the synchronised swimmers, the shot-putters, the hop-skip-and-jumpers before you rush to mock the world's dullest game.

Not all boys feel this way. Trust me. I don't mind watching rough games but I don't care to play them thank you, and I never did. I've never forgotten or forgiven being made to box, against my clearly stated will, at the age of eight. Presumably nobody is made to play this Eton game, and assuming that's so, fine, play up, play up etc.

I got to this via her and she got to it through these guys . That's the blogosphere for you. That's a game I like a lot.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:33 PM
Category: Boys will be boys