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Thursday, 24 April 2014

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Roger Robson: Wrestling with words

There’s the wrestling. Yes; of course there’s the wrestling. As The Cumberland News’s Cumberland wrestling correspondent since 1978, Roger Robson has written more than 1,600 columns on the sport in which he excelled as both combatant and coach.

Roger Robson photo
Roger Robson

But there’s more to him than the noble art he continues to serve so well.

“I’m just interested in things,” he says, his face in its default setting of slight smile, ever ready to switch to full beam.

“Wrestling, although it’s a very big part of my life, is not the be all and end all.”

At various times the rest of Roger’s 68 years have comprised husband, father, teacher, playwright, farmer, and mole catcher.

“I grew up in Alnwick, Northumberland, in a family of hill farmers. My father was a mole catcher. I came from a fairly poor family but I had an excellent upbringing. I was always well fed and looked after.

“I did an English degree at Durham University. I was the first in my family to go to university. I was from a fairly bright family but none of them had any chance of academia. My father left school at 13.”

Roger describes his time at Durham as “a double life. I was passing exams and then at Christmas I was catching moles with my father. One night I was reading Ulysses by James Joyce. It got to about two o’clock and I thought ‘I’d better stop reading; I’m dipping sheep at seven.’

“I used to think ‘If only I wasn’t doing mole catching and hill farming, I could be brilliant at English literature.’ Now I think they help each other. I could only do English literature because I did the mole catching. That kind of thing keeps you sane.”

Roger met his wife Jill while at Durham. They have three children, all of whom went to university; a source of some pride.

“As I approached the end of my degree I thought ‘I’ve got to earn some pennies’. I decided I would try teaching. It was quite calculated. There was no sense of vocation. But it proved a wonderful career choice.”

Roger spent the first five years of his career at a private school in County Durham. He left partly out of a desire to work in state education, moving to Cumbria in 1970 when he joined the English department at Trinity School, Carlisle. Jill was also a teacher, as head of girls’ PE at the city’s Newman School.

“It was a different world,” recalls Roger of the transition from croquet lawn to comprehensive. “There was huge energy. And a bigger range of staff. Some were doing as little as possible. Others were working at a higher standard than I’d seen at public school. It was more energetic and energised and difficult and rewarding.”

After two years he made the short journey to St Aidan’s as head of English, and stayed there until 1993.

“The catchment area was mainly Currock and Upperby. It wasn’t a deprived area but it was a very lively working class area. I saw children who were like me, from families who had no academic background. Through studying they suddenly found their voice. They could write. They were able to take the world on and go to university.”

He remembers one boy from a difficult background who spent time living in a caravan at Roger and Jill’s small farm near Ivegill when his home life became too difficult. The boy went on to become an accountant.

“I was teaching the best subject in the world,” says Roger. “And at a time when we weren’t always having to meet government goals and targets.

“Instead of teaching children the right format to write a letter, how much better to teach them to reason and make an argument, so that the content of the letter is worthwhile.

“I think English is one of the most liberating things possible. It empowers you if you can choose the right words. It makes such practical differences to your life: job applications, planning applications, local politics. Above all that, personal satisfaction.”

Roger found his own satisfaction being diluted by the Conservative government’s moves to take more control of education with the national curriculum, schools funded centrally rather than by local authorities, and Ofsted inspections.

“The freedom I had enjoyed, and used wisely, was being taken away from me. An Ofsted visit cost as much as a third of the funding for books and equipment for the school for a year. I thought there were better ways to assess.

“I think teachers were regarded as left wing, almost like the miners: ‘We’ll get them under control.’ There were times you were told to do this, that and the other. For goodness sake.”

Rather than compromise his beliefs by remaining in a system he found intolerable, Roger took early retirement at 51, devoting more time to the farm.

He and Jill started with 18 acres which has gradually grown to 75. They have 50 Belted Galloway cattle and just under 100 sheep.

“We eat our own meat and grow our own vegetables. We have three chickens for eggs. You’re never going to get rich with this sort of farm but it gives us a place to live and a lifestyle.”

It also gives him a chance to assess whether children have changed, now that the farm receives school visits.

“Every new generation is worse than the last... that’s what you hear but I don’t think it’s true. Treat them in the right way and they’re fine.”

He sees further evidence most summer weekends when visiting county shows to take in the Cumberland wrestling, and when watching training sessions in Carlisle.

“One of the real pleasures in my life is, I can go along to Currock House on a Wednesday night in winter and see a lively atmosphere. There’s noise, concentration, steam from bodies. Parents talking; they come from all over.

“And it’s got nothing to do with me. I don’t do any coaching now, which is good because it means I’m not needed. We’ve got four top-rate coaches. At my age you’ve got to think about handing things over to the younger generation. After a certain point it looks as if you’re hanging around for your own sake rather than the sport’s.”

Roger has been involved with Cumberland wrestling for nearly 60 years, since his father taught the 11-year-old the basics of a family tradition since passed on to his son Simon and his grandchildren.

In 1964 Roger was named best performer at Grasmere Sports, wrestling’s most prestigious event. That same year he wrestled in front of the Queen at Braemar Show in Scotland.

Success demands “strength, technique, natural ability, quick reactions. And what you’ve got in your head: determination.”

He used to train his arms by swinging a wheelbarrow around and his legs by cossack dancing.

Roger won again at Grasmere in 1970. “The Cumberland News took a photograph just after I’d come out of the ring. I had mud on my face and I was pumped up with adrenaline. The caption said: ‘The new English master at Trinity School..’”

His final bout came at the age of 45. Since then Roger has travelled to countries including Iceland, Holland and Italy as a coach.

He is confident that his beloved sport will survive, despite the distractions available to the PlayStation generation and the possible deterrent of wearing the traditional tights and trunks.

“There have always been distractions for young people. But wrestling has become much more of a young person’s thing. In my dad’s day it was a man’s thing. There were local heroes.

“The outfits are under constant discussion. I know all the insults about Superman and underpants on the outside. But it helps give the region its identity. I don’t think so many events would want to stage wrestling if we didn’t have the heritage element of it.”

For all the triumphs as competitor and coach, Roger regards his most satisfying achievement as writing an adaptation of a 15th-century play.

His version of Everyman, a 1990 production staged by Raughton Head Young Farmers, featured a girl in a pink shellsuit. It won the National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs drama competition, beating more than 600 rivals, and was performed at Rose Castle and Carlisle Cathedral.

“Everyman is about death, basically. The character starts off with all these attributes like strength and beauty. One by one, they leave. At the end, only good deeds is left.”

The smile wobbles a little. “I’ve been lucky all my life. My parents spoiled me. My wife spoils me. And when you’ve had setbacks, you appreciate what you’ve got. I was diagnosed with prostate cancer four or five years ago. I had radiotherapy. Things now are as good as they could possibly be.

“I was fairly fatalistic at the time. I well remember my father telling me once after he’d had several strokes: ‘Don’t you feel sorry for me. I’ve had a good life.’

“The same applies to me.”

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