Alas, regardless of their doom,
The little victims play.
Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College
The students look like penguins, the teachers are known as beaks, and both pupils and pedagogues wear "tails." So much for the school's claims to humanity. Having tea is "messing," monitors are called "praepostors," and terms are known as halves, making for three halves in every year. So much for reason. And, whenever a student passes a teacher in the street, each party must acknowledge the other by solemnly, silently raising his right index finger in greeting (thus causing a teacher who passes a gaggle of charges to flick his finger up and down like a woodpecker on speed). So much for ceremony.
But it is only on the playing fields of Eton that all the insane impulses of England's premier, 555-year-old high school—now being attended by Prince William, heir to the British throne—really come to the fore. The Battle of Waterloo may have been won on that hallowed turf, but minds, limbs and nerves are lost there every year. For Eton fields a riot of homegrown sports played nowhere else in the world yet celebrated everywhere for their mad brutality. Of all these curious traditions, the most peculiar and the oldest is the Wall Game. Few who have seen it are alive, and none who have played it are well. During my five years at Eton, I built a career at the Wall that was glorious though, in its way, typical: I never scored a goal; I never saw a goal scored; and in terrible fact, I never set eyes, let alone feet, on the ball.
For all that, the Wall Game has a breathtaking simplicity. A soiled and soggy ball is placed along the eponymous Wall, a 278-year-old structure 11 feet high and roughly 355 feet long. A small boy sits, henlike, on top of the soccer-style ball. About 15 of the game's other 19 players—called seconds, walls and longs—pile on top of the small boy, forming a rugbylike scrum known with killing aptness as the bully (rugby, you may recall, was devised at another of England's high schools). Then, after a signal from the umpire (usually a teacher in mufti), the boys push, shove and tackle one another, while the bully shakes around in a many-legged frenzy that, as one appreciative former housemaster put it, resembles the "death throes of some monstrous crab." After 30 minutes of this fun the players change ends and blearily set about knocking heads for another 30 minutes. The Wall Game, they say, is an acquired taste.
Yet there is to the madness a demented method. At the northern end of the playing area (a strip of grass 15 feet wide running along the redbrick Wall) a tiny black door that opens onto a private garden serves as a goal; its counterpart at the southern end is the trunk of an ancient elm. In between pummeling princelings and potentates, the players in the bully try to move toward the goal by clutching the ball between their ankles and hopping through the mess of enemy forces, all the while keeping the ball in contact with the Wall. This is not much harder than balancing an egg on one's nose while crawling through the trenches of Verdun. Far behind the bully, the other two players on each team stand around idly, painting their fingernails. One is called a flying man or fly. Both, however, might easily be mistaken for spectators. If the ball makes one of its biennial appearances outside the bully, the job of these "behinds" is to lumber up to it and kick it toward the opponents' goal. This happens with the frequency of lunar eclipses.
Scoring is therefore virtually impossible. But the beauty of the Wall Game is that it makes a mockery of the very notions of victory and defeat. Since kicking an unseen ball into a tiny target from 178 feet away is beyond the reach of all mankind, some allowances are made. If one player close to the opposing goal lifts the ball up the Wall with his feet (as if juggling a soccer ball) and a colleague touches it while crying, "Got it!" their team is allowed to pick up the ball and fling it goalward. But should that throw be touched by any of the 10 players defending the unreachable target, it does not count as a goal—even if by some miracle it hits the target. Scoring by this method is, therefore, also impossible. In desperation some benign lunatics declared that the very attempt to make a "shy at goal" would count for a point. Spurred by this, perhaps, the Wall Game recently witnessed an offensive explosion: two goals in the space of 27 years. And Americans think soccer is a snooze!
The Wall Game is, however, anything but stagnant. Heads swathed in woolen helmets with earflaps, bodies covered in long trousers and sweaters known fittingly as sacks, hands marginally protected by gloves, the players struggle as if their lives depended on it (as perhaps they do). As a description of the game in the Museum of Eton delicately states (under the heading of "Violence"), "A player in real danger of fracture or suffocation may call Air,' and play stops while aid is administered." Yet only the keenest of eyes can distinguish fair play from foul. Players are, for example, strongly urged to "knuckle"—to apply "steady pressure" with their fists upon their opponents' faces. But the rules discourage gouging an opponent's eye.
Happily, the entire Wall Game season lasts no more than an hour or a suffocation, whichever comes first. Each year there is only one official match, pitting 10 unlikely eggheads from the school's special house for 70 King's Scholars (who practice the game throughout their careers) against a relatively untrained but eager squad selected from the 1,130 boys of the other 24 houses (including the likes of Prince William). This contest to end all contests is played out in the dreary, drizzly fag end of November, on the traditional school holiday of St. Andrew's Day, when the grass has turned to mud, and sludge and dark are epidemic. The last goal scored on St. Andrew's Day came in 1909.
As a spectator sport the Wall Game ranks somewhere between tortoise-racing and grass-growing. Even "the most exquisite part of the game," concedes A. Clutton-Brock, chronicler of Eton, "is a wearisome spectacle for the ignorant onlooker." The Wall Game is hailed in the Encyclopaedia of Sports and Games as an inspiration for "aspects of rugby according to the American code" (none other than American football). But cheerleaders, Nielsen ratings and splashy visuals are not among those aspects. It is fair, in fact, to say that the only pleasures to be had from watching the Wall Game are purely malevolent. Thus, one Humpty-Dumptian convention allows younger boys to perch atop the Wall and, for a few giddy moments, look down (in every sense) on the bigger brutes who usually beat and bully them. Others find a rare delight in watching future prime ministers wallow in the mud while likely poets laureate gasp desperately for air. During one improvised contest, his zealous comrades used Percy Bysshe Shelley as a goal; more recently, George Orwell distinguished himself with play described in the official Wall Game report as "conspicuously bad."