I HAD A teacher who used to wake us up by shouting: “The early bird gets the worm.”

Let him have the worm.

I hate food that doesn’t stay still on your plate.

Besides, I stopped eating worms at the age of three, switching to regular breakfasts of frosted cereal, to which I would add extra sugar until it was really just a bowl of white granules.

Once I just poured milk into the sugar bowl.

My parents were horrified, forgetting that children’s throats are portals to an alternative universe: they can eat anything they like without harm.

My children live entirely on pies filled with chopped and shaped pieces of monosodium glutamate, a delicious animal from somewhere or other, probably Australia, they have all the weird fauna, the duck-billed platypus, the spotted wombat, the Dundee crocodile, etc.


Your humble narrator was thinking about early birds and the competitive spirit after receiving a letter from a reader in Malaysia: “My son deliberately throws away marks because he doesn’t like to be top of the class. What shall I do?”

Give him a round of applause, ma’am.

Nerdy types perform better out of the limelight.

But it is tough for us, since children these days are naturally competitive.

For example, when my three were small, they would race everywhere, including to the Time Out Corner when being punished.

“I’m first,” one would declare.

“First is worst, second is best,” number two would sneer.

And then the two would chant at the third: “And third’s a princess with a hairy chest.”


As for me, I learned the secret of being a happy introvert when I was 11: The ideal position in a large group is second to last: this position is easy to get, yet makes you TOTALLY INVISIBLE.

But be careful.

At the London Olympics, badminton pairs from three Asian countries deliberately tried to lose matches to get better odds in later rounds, and were disqualified for cheating.

Remembering them reminded me of a football final that a colleague of mine covered in Ho Chi Minh City in the 1990s.

Thailand and Indonesia were BOTH trying really hard to lose.

The starting whistle blew.

Thailand played badly.

Indonesia played worse.

Thailand’s players slowed to a crawl.

Indonesia’s players stopped moving completely.

As the clock ticked towards the final whistle, an Indonesian player took drastic action, changing sides.

Thai players also decided to target their own goal.

It was possibly the funniest moment in the history of sports, not excepting the announcements of tangle-mouthed sports commentator David Coleman, whose typical sayings included:

“This evening is a very different evening from the morning we had this morning.”

(Covering motor racing, he said: “The front wheel crosses the finish line, closely followed by the back wheel.”)


Hey. It has just struck me that the organizers of sports matches could use my kids’ playground rhyme when people deliberately lose matches.

“I lost,” the delighted loser will say.

The judges could STILL declare them winners, pointing to a new, optional regulation:

“First is worse, second is best, third’s a princess with a hairy chest.”