Both of those underachieving wallflowers, however, went on to become hardy perennials. For if the Wall Game tries men's souls, it also toughens their fiber. Cynics would say this is no different from the proverbial act of the numskull who bangs his head repeatedly against a wall so that he can exult when the torture is over. But the Wall Game is much more than a thinking man's form of self-abuse: It is, in effect, a crash course in the art of becoming a noble savage in reverse. The game builds builders of empires, instills stoicism and strength and teaches Darwinian truths about the survival of the fittest. According to Clutton-Brock, "The enduring wall [a player in the bully] tastes something of the triumph of Ajax at the ships." It hardly matters that he strikes the spectator as "merely a blind obstruction or nuisance."
Throughout the time I was at Eton, from 1970 to '74, others of the school's "sports"—the steeplechase (a five-mile race capped by a 15-foot water jump), fives (a form of handball for the homicidal) and the Field Game (another Eton-only confection combining the most murderous elements of soccer and rugby)—stretched and strengthened and exercised me. I was driven to teach English as a second language in order to avoid the Field Game. I fabricated a sudden and undying passion for chess so as to steal away from the fives court. I quoted effusively from Gandhi when conscientiously objecting to running. But as one of the luckless King's Scholars, I had, I knew, no way of getting out of the Wall Game. The best tactic, and the real skill of the game, I decided, would lie in playing it badly. So even as my classmates were fecklessly knuckling under or kicking themselves in the shins, I simply performed with such cool incompetence in practice matches that I was sure never to be asked to play in the real thing.
Yet to this day I cannot count myself safe. There is, after all, only one Wall Game, and only one Wall, on the planet; there are fewer than 1,000 lucky souls still alive who can claim to have knuckled a behind, or distinguished between "furking" (letting the ball illegally escape from the bully) and smirking. Since no other school produces players, every practice game before St. Andrew's Day requires a "scratch" team of 11 able-bodied—or at least uncrippled—Old Etonians. And healthy veterans of the Wall Game are an endangered species. So, more than 20 years after last watching a second fall, I lie awake at night, terrified that the phone will ring and summon me to serve King and country at the Wall. And as a well-trained product of this training in masochism, I know that it wouldn't be cricket to refuse.