The EU Referendum - The Eton Wall Game Writ Large / The Times

I am 59 and three quarters. I am caught in the midst of a multilayered mêlée of muddy, malodorous males, all frantically pushing and shoving, grunting and shouting, but going nowhere. My left shoulder is jammed against a brick wall. A young whippersnapper is forcing my head back with his fists. Others are trampling on my feet with studded boots.

Why, at my advanced age, am I playing the Eton wall game? Not from some misguided desire to recreate my youth — I didn’t go to Eton. Not because I’m suffering a mid­life crisis — it’s too late for that. I am doing so in the interests of political research. For if the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, as the Duke of Wellington is erroneously supposed to have said, historians will doubtless record in future years that the EU referendum was won or lost here: on the narrow strip of grass that flanks the 120­yard brick wall that divides College Field from the Slough Road.

David Cameron and Boris Johnson, respective leaders of the Remainers and Brexiteers, both went to Eton, and the referendum is merely the wall game writ large. It is played by a tiny elite. It is incomprehensible to most ordinary people. It involves two sides straining to push the other backwards, with only fleeting moments of drama or excitement and seldom a clear­cut winner.

This description of the game from the school’s website could, I submit, just as easily apply to Britain’s present struggle over Europe: “The Eton wall game is exceptionally exhausting and is far more skilful than might appear to the uninitiated. The skill consists in the remorseless application of pressure and leverage as one advances inch by inch through a seemingly impenetrable mass of opponents. Few sports offer less to the spectator . . . ”

I shall gloss over the absence of any evidence that Cameron actually played the game during his pubescent years, but Johnson certainly did. Three times he played for Collegers, the 70­strong body of Eton scholars, in their annual St Andrew’s Day match against the Oppidans, the fee­paying students. In 1980 the Eton College Chronicle recorded that Johnson was “completely non­directional, has to be pointed in the right way  or he may push the wall over”. In 1981 the student newspaper noted that “he plays the wall game like an echidna on heat” — an echidna being a spiny anteater. Before Johnson’s final game in 1982 the Chronicle invited readers to “watch the Blond Behemoth crud relentlessly through the steaming pile of purple­-and-­orange heavyweights, until he is knocking on the lower master’s door”.

Johnson was keeper (captain) of Collegers that last year. A team photo shows him sitting at the centre of the front row, chest pumped out, a pumpkin-­shaped leather ball from the 1940s resting on his knee. “My tactics in the wall game are sudden spasms of uncontrolled aggression,” he told Andrew Gimson, his biographer. Those are tactics that Cameron would recognise.

My participation in the wall game followed a chance meeting with an old school friend at Twickenham during the early stages of last year’s Rugby World Cup. We both agreed as we reminisced that we would like to play one more game of full-­on rugby before we died. We challenged each other to raise a team of over­-55s for a 40-­minute game to be played on the morning of the World Cup final.

Alas we both failed miserably. Our invitations went out, accompanied by stirring calls to all our male friends to relive their youths, to rediscover their inner boys, to remember that however decrepit they had become the other players would be equally decrepit. Then we sat back as the refusals rolled in.

“I was so flabbergasted by your ludicrous proposal that it has taken me a few days to summon the energy to reply,” one typical response began. “Unfortunately I will not be able to join your doomed and foolish enterprise as I’ve been suffering with a problem in my neck for a few months, and I don’t think rugby is on the list of activities approved by my chiropractor. But I wish you and your fellow players well, and do contact me when you are planning a barefoot ascent of Everest or a stage of the Tour de France on unicycles. I always enjoy a good laugh.”

We had to abandon the proposed match because neither of us managed to raise more than half a dozen players — though we could easily have raised two full teams of volunteer referees or linesmen. Yet there was a silver lining. To make up for my disappointment another friend, Anto, invited me to join a bunch of Old Etonians who return to their alma mater each spring to play a team of present­-day boys at the wall game.

I mugged up. I learnt that the wall was built in 1717 and that the first recorded game was in 1766; that there is only one pitch in the world and just one important match a year (Collegers v Oppidans); that the Collegers drink a toast at their annual Christmas sock supper to Logie Leggatt, a great exponent of the wall game who was killed in Flanders in 1917, allegedly wearing his wall game scarf; and that there are scarcely forty regular players — all of which surely makes the wall game the world’s most exclusive sport.

It is also, according to Oliver Van Oss, a former Eton beak (teacher) who became headmaster of Charterhouse, “the supreme non-­spectacle, the last sport totally to disregard the spectator”.

I read the rules. I read them several times, in fact, but they made Harry Potter’s quidditch look simple by comparison. I gathered that there are ten players a side and that, broadly speaking, the object is to propel the ball to one end or the other of the wall in a quasi­scrum known as a “bully”. Occasionally the ball escapes from the bully, at which point other players called “lines”, “flys” or “longs” hoof it upfield. The bully then reforms at the point on the wall opposite where the ball came to rest.

The scrummagers try to push their opponents backwards, but they cannot hold, hit, trip, kick or “knuckle” them (twist their fists in their opponents’ faces). They cannot pick the ball up. Nor can they “furk” (heel the ball backwards) or “sneak” (put both feet in front of the ball). They can cry for air if they find themselves face down in the mud, but Anto informed me that to do so is “bad form”, even though a player did once die.

The two ends of the wall are marked by vertical white lines and called good calx and bad calx (calx being Latin for chalk). A team that pushes the ball past those lines can score a one­point “shy” (try) by lifting the ball against the wall with their lower leg and crying “got it” as they touch it. They can then try to get a goal worth ten more points by hurling the ball against a narrow tree trunk at one end or a small green doorway in the lower master’s garden wall at the other. That is harder than it sounds. The last time a goal was scored in the annual Collegers v Oppidans match was 1909.

Our team duly gathered at the wall last Saturday — a retired general, a film producer, a banker, an insurance broker, a wrought-­iron maker and assorted others. So did a bunch of disconcertingly beefy young Etonians. I was assigned the position of second wall, whatever that meant. The first bully formed at a mud patch called “the ladder”, halfway along the wall, and the umpire called “play” to start the game.

What followed was an hour of toil, sweat and general pandemonium. Players piled into the bully. They pushed and wrestled and strained every sinew to push their opponents back and prise them away from the wall. They roared and yelled and frequently appealed to the umpire for foul play. Sometimes my lot crabbed a few feet forwards along the wall, and sometimes our opponents did, but the bully was mostly a static morass of writhing bodies and flailing limbs with the ball buried deep beneath. At no point did anyone pick up the ball and run with it.

I like to think that I contributed to all this, but I had no idea what I was doing. Fouls were awarded for I know not what. I rarely laid eyes on the ball. On the few occasions it did appear the players lashed out at it with their feet until someone connected and it went flying up the field and everyone gave chase. That was the only time either team made any significant advance. At some point the students scored a shy, though I don’t know when or how, which meant they won by a single point. Miraculously neither I nor anyone else was injured, but by the end we geriatrics lay panting on the ground.

The umpire declared it a fine game — “not too static, not too loose, and played in an excellent spirit”. Eton has produced no fewer than 19 prime ministers. If Cameron loses the EU referendum, Johnson could well succeed him as Tory leader and become the 20th. The huge gamble he took in deciding to join the Brexit camp would have paid off.

Would the wall game have contributed to his success? Van Oss, for one, would surely argue that it had. The wall game, he wrote in the Chronicle in 1982, “teaches one to push oneself to the limit of endurance and discomfort without losing one’s temper. It provides the perfect training for later work on boards, committees, royal commissions and governing bodies. The immovable and irresistible are poised in perfect balance. Nothing is happening and it seems unlikely that anything ever will. Then for two seconds or so, the situation becomes fluid. If one can take one’s chance — and there may not be another — the day is won.