Fives

I was once an international sports star. You may scoff at this but if being an international sport star is the same as being the best in the world at an established sport, then the claim is, arguably, justified. The sport in question is AGS fives. If you now want to point out that fives isn’t exactly played world-wide, I can only say neither is baseball and yet the American’s claim they have a World Series.

Fives, according to Wikipedia, is a British game, played at Eton and Rugby and a few other old public schools. The article completely ignores the long tradition of fives at Auckland Grammar School. I don’t know how the poms play it but I’ve learnt enough about their version to believe that ours was a distinct game in its own right, as different as rugby is from rugby league.

Fives is played with a ball – a tennis ball in our case – that you hit with your hand. Our rules were similar to those of squash, except that the court had only three walls, not four. Each shot had to hit the back wall and had to be returned either on the volley or after a single bounce. I have a feeling that a side wall had to be struck too but I might be wrong about that.

There were a dozen or more courts ranged along a six metre high wall that marked the boundary between the school and Mount Eden Prison. The side walls of each court were stepped, about four metres high at the back and descending in two scoops to around three metres at the front, the open side of the court. Each side wall ended in a squarish pillar and there was trim along the top of the walls, too. These features provided little nooks and angles that the skilful player could exploit to achieve unexpected rebounds and ricochets. I believe that the original game in Olde Englande was first played in the spaces between the buttresses of gothic churches. These would have provided the opportunity for similarly cunning shots.  

For a while, in 1958, I was a skilful player, one of the best. I was not as good as Alan Winton but he is the only person I can remember beating me regularly. I achieved my eminence by the usual means – hard work. For three years, I played fives at morning and afternoon break and at lunch time too. I played before school when I could and, during my fifth form year, when I was allowed a little more autonomy, after school for an hour or two as well. At one point, I played with my leg in plaster after I’d broken it falling off my bike. I played so much that, at times, the palm of my right hand swelled up so that I couldn’t close my fist properly. When I was in hospital recently, a doctor asked me what the two lumps in my right hand were at the base of the third and fourth fingers. ‘Calluses’ I said. I didn’t add that they were from playing fives fifty years ago.

It was a strange obsession. None of my classmates, except Alan, were interested in the game. They were all too focussed on their studies or on proper sports like rugby, soccer or cricket. Fives had no future, no meaning outside the immediate context of the school. I don’t know whether I liked it despite its obscurity or because of it. It certainly meant more to me than most other things the school had to offer in those first three years. In the week or so before the School Certificate exams, we were let off classes so that we could study. Along with a few other ne’er-do-wells, I spent most of the time playing fives. My marks, in consequence, were way below expectations, except for Maths, which I didn’t need to study for.

A year later I moved into the sixth form. For the first time we were allowed to spend our breaks in our form room. A few of us invented a game of cricket played with a piece of broken desk, a ball made of screwed up paper and the gas heater as the wickets. Another useless game that I got quite good at. I don’t think I ever played played fives again.

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