British Brats, Basketball and Bruised Balls.

Rocking up to the one public basketball court in central Brighton – very accurately described as a prison pen – my girlfriend and I encounter a small group of football-playing kids I’d doubtless have been intimidated by once upon a time (as my gut wimpily informed me).

There are six or seven kids: the youngest, a boy, is eight; the eldest, two boys and a girl, are twelve. All are playing football in the basketball birdcage.

Three characters are apparent: the youngest boy (we’ll call Bee) is sweet and very spirited; the only girl is tomboyish and cool (we’ll call her Kay); and one of the two oldest boys, whom we’ll call ‘Alpha-Boy’, is just that.

Alpha officiously speaks about gangs with the other lads, convincing them with his gratuitous swearing. I answer a few of the four-letterers by shouting “Language!” This seems to work, though Alpha postures and persists at a baiting volume: so to (im)plausibly deny utterance whilst still asserting himself, laughing at my silly hairstyle for good (and justifiable) measure.

The ‘weaker’ of the football players – particularly the girl Kay and younger boy Bee – are excluded by the dominant play of the bigger boys. They catch my rebounds (collect my air-balls) and politely pass them to me, so I send them back with invitations to shoot. Bee and Kay are drawn to abandon playing football without the playing and opt to shoot about.

Their new association distracts Alpha-Boy: this is his turf. Their inclusion equals his exclusion. He swears louder and more frequently. After a couple of sarcastic thumbs-up, I just opt to ignore it. This affronts Alpha-Boy. He shan’t be ignored on his turf. Football, the obsessive lifeblood of British youth, is forgotten in the instant he begins fishing for rebounds – physical, now, rather than verbal. He nabs one and I encourage him to shoot, but he chooses to fanny around with a poorly improvised strut; I resist swatting his shot, which clatters the backboard and exposes his cool. “I don’t play basketball, I play football!” My encouragement affronts him further and he leads his pack outside the birdcage to reassert himself by still-louder swearing and rough wrestling on the safe (out)side of the cage.

My girlfriend and I are left playing with Bee and Kay. Both relish the novelty of inclusion and encouragement, but Kay’s obviously torn between her allegiance to Alpha and the enjoyment of actually getting to play something; she compromises by feigning disinterest, playing but engaging with the boys, who’ve just tricked two of their own inside a tiny, manky shed. I don’t acknowledge this but worry for the splintered ply being rammed and jammed to keep the kids in there as they hopelessly kick the inside of the door. The reverberative clanging complements the incessant swearing and is quite impossible to ignore.

I instruct Bee, the eight year old boy, to mix up hands when dribbling – no easy task when the ball’s the size of your ribcage – nonetheless he succeeds and moves past me (at my charity, I promise) but his determined sprint is overbalanced and he falls forward on to his forearms. I can see instantly that, unless he’s some peculiar fragility, he is fine: he’s a hoody on so won’t have scratched himself and managed to break the fall from his small stature with his forearms – but he starts crying. I lift him up from under the shoulders and ask him what’s up; his tears are real, he gestures to the elbow that took the lesser of the impact and whimpers. I slap him on the proffered elbow, pass him the ball and urge him hurriedly to shoot, shoot, shoot! Bemused, he whimpers, takes the ball and reassumes his arc (without dribbling) and, voila, shoots the ball backboard-high with both arms – again, no mean feat for his size and age. In the time I take to congratulate him and collect and pass the ball back his way, both the whimper and injury have subsided; he begins unsurely dribbling the ball again, as if he isn’t quite sure what just happened.

Meanwhile, Alpha and the pack are competing for different rebounds without and outside the ball and cage. It’s been the best part of ten loud minutes, with not a parent in sight, so I decide it’s probably best if I execute an infant prison break – I wouldn’t want to be in there. As I walk out the cage, Kay, portending (better than I) a scene, asks me what I’m doing. I say I’m going to open the door, she excitedly replies, “They’re only playing! It’s just a joke!”

Alpha, ever alert, meets my approach with a rugby tackle; two of the braver boys form a second row and the remainder pose as guards, cheerleading, beside the door. Alpha grandiloquently narrates his valiance: “ARRRGH! I’ll f****** smash you up c***! F*** off you f****** prick!” – etcetera, etcetera. So I wade to one side and quickly spin to the other, making it within a few feet of the door. On the back foot, Alpha pulls his ace in the hole, the good old-fashioned nut-shot: the little shite’s creditably strong and accurate, no doubt very experienced, and has me buckle (I fully admit to entertaining the idea of making a prisoner ‘swap’); I use the split-second’s pause to spin around once more to reach the door, not before acquiring a warrior clinging to each limb – Alpha loud and secure, the disciples limp and gestural.

My affront to Alpha has reached the point of no return: exposed and irredeemable, he starts, “They lock me in there all the time!” Removing the splintered planks and ply jutting inside and out, I tell the prison breakees, in fairness rather than conviction, not to do the same.

“I’ll get my dad on you!”

“Go get him then.”

“Your girlfriend has a big arse!”

She instantly and gorgeously replies, “Ooo, thank you darling!” Without a reaction, Alpha’s flummoxed: offended by the offence it didn’t cause, a true rebound which he’s unwilling to catch (offence requires two people to play).

As I walk around the outer cage, some of the pack protest, “You hurt his arm!” I turn to see a deflated Alpha’s furrowed brow, gaze downturned and elbow clasped half-arsedly: he is less convincing than little Bee had been, he doesn’t even bother himself with protesting, perhaps knowing how unfeasible was the ‘injury’. Perhaps his pride confused his victimhood.

“Well he was fighting fit a second ago.”

Never have I found a tike so interesting and educational. Here we’ve a peculiarly British, footballerish mentality: push it as far as you can, until you can’t and then play the victim. Run with the ball as far as you can, until you’re tackled and then play the victim. Roll with the social institutions (soul-destroying education, underpaid employment, unaffordable living), until you realise you’re not much worse off if you play the victim – or fall foul of the system and have no choice but to play the victim.

Alpha acted up to his hard-man, sportsman, cool-guy persona as far as the conditions allowed him: he chirped profusely and profanely; dominated and destructed his game so had to posture himself a basketball player; he tackled, punched, kicked, screamed and swore – until he ‘lost the ball’. Then it’s all about the hurt arm and the proverbial fighting father.

It seems absent in these children (and perhaps our national character) the benefits of attentive, mature, constructive criticism. Or perhaps it’s there, but skewed by overbearing discipline or the ideological impress of the ‘individual consumer’ (complainer) and footballer; both imbue value in victimhood: we run with the ball, until we can’t and then play the victim because the system rewards you to do so. Crying will either, or both, earn attention and excuse failure, so why would kids not do that?

Bee was actually crying. I think this reaction’s been wrought from a childhood of seeing cacophony and paroxysm unduly rewarded by attention and compassion. He’d have continued to cry, had I accommodated the fuss and asked him what he fell on, how much it hurt and where his parents were.

What would they have said if they’d seen me hoist him to his feet and slap his arm?

Well, if I hadn’t my head knocked off by said fighting father, I think they’d see their little boy learn that you don’t need to cry for compassion, that children are better constituted than we think and our fuss presupposes and elicits the behaviour of victimhood.

With ringing ears and aching balls, we took our leave, chased to the end of the housing estate by a boy of about Bee’s age shouting at us to “F*** off” (etcetera) in a well-articulated Irish accent (I gleaned as from the movie Snatch).

Without a reaction he, at the very last moment, dropped the accent and softened his strut: “Safe, see you later guys!”