When I was sent to boarding school at Marlborough, it was instilled in us from day one that we were expected to be competitive both academically and on the playing fields and athletics track. I needed no telling. For the previous 13 years my father had instilled in me his intense competitive streak.
“It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part” my mother would counterpoint in order to perhaps blunt my father’s innate competitiveness. My father’s notion of competition was very much along the lines of lots of boys taking part in sporting events but with the Stamfords winning. This in turn became his own personal mantra some years later of “family first, everyone else nowhere”. There was no sporting or competitive event too small for him to take an interest if there was a better than evens chance of winning. Before the egg and spoon race, he would check out the eggs and spoons for the appropriate weight, shape and degree of depth and brief his offspring accordingly.
“Okay Jonathan, it’s a shallow teaspoon with a size 3 hens egg, slightly blunted. Try to get thee speckled one. Don’t go off too fast – let the others go ahead at a faster pace. Their eggs will fall off. Keep your speed steady but not maximum. Look to close in over the last ten yards. Got it?”
I nodded. I was four.
I tried to focus but with the best will in the world it was a lot of information to take in for a four year old. If I won I would get a brief but affectionate tousling of the hair. If I lost I got my mother’s voice instead with the bit about taking part. Either way I would still get my father’s analysis.
And God help us if we stepped outside the rules (even of the egg and spoon race). He abhorred cheating. Competition meant nothing if you cheated. Stern dressing downs followed any whiff of impropriety, any hint of a misdemeanour. He would punish us with that most brutal of sanctions, his disinterest. He would take no further interest in any sport or competition in which we had cheated. Which was very very few.
But it worked. I am competitive in many areas of life – in sport (stop laughing), research et cetera. Even writing – I want my writing to be appreciated, for it to be competitive with the best. I know I’m not there yet. I can think of plenty of writers whose books I admire but know that I cannot reach their pinnacles. But I try. I am my father’s son. I hope I have inherited the best of him and not the more tetchy withdrawn version of his last few years as a widower. It was not how he wanted it.
I make my father sound a tyrant, remote and disengaged. Nothing could be further from the truth. He had ways of rewarding us children with his interest. He had a way of making our world his. If we were interested in cricket or football he would make sure he was knowledgeable enough to be part of the conversation. He would ask for my thoughts on Edrich or Boycott as openers for England, whether Tommy Smith was too impetuous at full-back for Liverpool, whether it would be Connors or Rosewall at Wimbledon.
What we didn’t realise was that he was sharpening our social skills. He despised knee-jerk responses to questions. He wanted us to reason and argue. It was an education far greater than I was aware of at the time. Those lessons have stuck with me throughout my life. And those of my brother and sister.
And we are competitive even within the family. For instance I played intermittently for my local village’s 4th XI. My brother had a trial for Yorkshire, even bowling a future test opener in his short spell. My son appears to have acquired his uncle’s rather than his father’s cricketing skills.
Basically, we were competitive kids and became competitive adults.
I don’t know why I seem to have exempted my mother from all this, perhaps conveying – erroneously as it happens – the notion that she believed only in taking part. But in her own ways she was every bit as fierce a competitor. A game of Scrabble or canasta brought out the worst in her. She took defeat badly and was known to upend the Scrabble table when facing defeat.
Only once did she accept a defeat when playing an ageing Dowager aunt from Pietermaritzburg who played Scrabble to an almost international level. She would visit us for a month every summer, driving my mother to distraction and subjecting her to daily linguistic beatings. On the last day of her holiday before we shipped the old bat out to South Africa again, my mother had the letters in her hand to win the game but generously and perhaps wisely chose not to win. I still don’t think that aunt Ivy was quite ready for CLITORIS across a triple word score.