If You Can’t Beat Them…? You Can

It’s funny how things come back to you.

In one blog, I mentioned a memory of having been a runner-up in a Cadbury essay writing competition when I was eight. The fact that I didn’t win still weighs heavily on my heart (yes, I am that competitive). A Facebook friend joined in, having remembered that she, too, won a prize.

Like her, I can’t quite recall if it was chocolates or biscuits, although I do remember boycotting Cadbury for some time, and my taste for chocolate never returned. To this day, I can make a Flake last six months (You see, Cadbury? I can be mean like that. Your loss).

I have never been a good loser and have no idea where that comes from. My parents were not over-pushy and did not punish me if I came home without the trophy for winning the egg and spoon race on school Sports Day (I, by the way, was in my bedroom, ready to commit hara-kiri at the humiliation of not coming first).

Most of my youth’s social activities centred on ballroom dancing, where competitiveness was all. I still have the photo of my first competition, in which, with my partner Kerry (girls could dance with each other until the age of 12), I am holding a medal. For sixth place. Sixth place! Are you serious? Kerry had to go. I then partnered Janette and we won everything. My smiles could have eclipsed planets.

When I was clearing out my Cardiff house last year, I came across a book called Girls’ Stories that my grandmother had given me around the same I lost the Cadbury writing competition (did I mention that?). The inscription is a reward for something (certainly not being a runner-up), though I can’t quite remember now, as it’s in storage.

But anyway, what’s interesting is that every single girl in the book is a winner. Bullied at school? Girl rises above it and moves on to friends in pastures new, having learned a valuable lesson. Would-be jockey? Against all odds, she wins the local gymkhana. The lesson in every story is that any girl can do anything, be anyone, achieve anything.

I must have believed it.

Was that where the seeds of my competitiveness were sown?

Or was I born with a gene that makes the ache of losing inevitable?

That’s why I was so impressed with Jordan Horowitz during the Oscars when he “won” but had really lost. To be holding that trophy in his hand and be able to hand it over so graciously when he discovered there had been a mistake . . . would that I were able to acquire an atom of his magnanimity.

Personally, I would have been in jail very quickly, leaving Jessica Fletcher pondering an Oscar statuette embedded in someone’s skull.

I was brought up in education with the Henry Grantland Rice adage: “For when the One Great Scorer comes/ To mark against your name/He writes – not that you won or lost/ But how you played the Game.”

Well, stuff that for a bunch of soldiers.

Much as my mother tried to foist the spirit of the poem upon me, along with Rudyard Kipling’s If, I was going to reach for those stars if I had to break my back doing so.

That was never encouraged in my secondary school. I once scored three goals in hockey and I remember Mrs Davies sternly telling me: “It never pays to be too competitive in life.” Apparently, she was very upset when I told the story on the radio three decades later.

Back of the net, Mrs Davies!

I recall another teacher throwing my satchel (complete with flask of soup my mother had lovingly prepared) over a balcony because it was about three inches from where it should have been. “I strongly object,” I informed her, only to be ushered aside and told: “It never pays to strongly object to anything in life.”

Ah, so many “It never pays” lessons. It’s just a pity those teachers hadn’t applied the same ones to the many teachers involved with pupils in that school, because, let me tell you, it never pays to be the victim of a powerful man abusing his position and devastating the lives of vulnerable schoolgirls. But when that Great Scorer comes to write against their names…

Maybe it was the knowledge that I was a writer – I never doubted it – that instilled the confidence and surety; and yet, as everyone who knows me would attest, I have been wracked with personal insecurities all my life. Maybe it was those that sharpened the edge of competitiveness?

I was never part of the “in” crowd – maybe that, too, had something to do with it?

But as I sit now, on a sunny spring day in New York City, overlooking the Hudson, I count so many blessings: most of all, my family and friends – because, without them, I wouldn’t have made it this far.

And, because of them and their love and support, I will always feel like life’s luckiest and biggest winner.