Sunday, 8 March 2009

Remembering the Bullies

One effect of having a 7-year old child resident in your house is that the things he is experiencing often trigger of memories of events in your own life. I am not entering into the debate around 'false memories' and abuse, but I am going to look at how hearing about bullying of this child has often brought back memories of (unpleasant) things that happened to me, that I had somehow compacted and stored away in a part of my brain where I tend not to go. I was not abused in my childhood, but my father was harsh, sometimes for a few moments violent and certainly often frightening. My mother often humiliated me, but in a way which I think was motivated by what she felt was the right thing to do though it has left scars that have remained for decades. This is partly as I have a real phobia of humiliation not only for myself but for others whether real people or even fictional ones, so I imagine that these things have lingered longer for me than they would for the bulk of the population.

Bullying of school aged children is very common, though it is taken far more seriously than it used to be. The number of children bullied at some time in their school career (ages 4-16) is around 44%. Of course the duration and the severity of the bullying varies and 16 children in the UK kill themselves each year as the result of bullying. Bullying has become far more sophisticated and it is far harder to escape it as bullies use texts and the internet to get at other children. Interestingly 71% of children have said that they have been a bully themselves at some time in their school life. I suppose this is human nature as often the bullied will find an outlet in picking on someone else. Bullying has a wide range and can be psychological and/or physical. None of us likes to be humiliated or teased but it is especially painful when you are growing up and are facing challenges and may lack self-confidence and self-esteem anyway.

With the child in my house being both bullied and a bully, fortunately in what seems like short-lived incidents that as yet do not seem to have had a long-term impact on his life, I have been reminded of things in my life from childhood up into my thirties when I have been bullied. What I have come to realise is that I have segmented each incident and so have not seen it as a long problem, rather a short-term thing. However, now I look back there seem very few years between the ages of 5-19 in which I was not suffering some form of bullying. Bullying was handled very poorly in the 1970s and 1980s (and of course before then), and I am glad that schools pay far more attention to it now in all its forms and have policies and teaching in place rather than simply dismissing it as a natural part (or in many cases in the UK, especially in private schools, as a necessary part) of growing up. My parents' reaction was simply to tell me I acted as 'a natural victim' that my behaviour simply egged on bullies. They offered no solution to this but simply added to the humiliation by saying I walked and spoke like someone with a mental defect which was hardly going to help. Many teenage boys are gangly and their voices are altering, they want to be told that that is part of adolescence not made to feel that they are somehow peculiar because that is often what the bullies try to do anyway; you do not need it from your parents too.

There were lots of bases on which I suffered bullying. I am a white male who grew up in a middle-class area of the UK so you would imagine I would have had a privileged life and little on which to discriminate against me, but bullies will always find something. At primary school I was told by people that they could not associate with me because I came from the wrong side of the town not the exclusive estate. I was told that our house was too small and we did no have the necessary consumer items to be considered worthy friends, namely a brand new car and a colour television. Teachers were often complicit in these sorts of things being very critical of children they did not feel fitted the norm. I was removed from doing a reading in a school assembly because I pronounced the word 'a' as in 'a town' or whatever as 'ay' rather than 'ah' which was apparently the correct way. I wonder what they would have done if someone from northern or western England had come to the school, probably put them into 'remedial' classes as they were called, to give them the 'correct' pronunciation.

There were other biases. I was told that because I had not been Christened people could call me by any name they chose, because my name was odd anyway. I also apparently looked wrong. I did not like football which meant that I was excluded from the bulk of schoolboy activities and discussion and would actually be ordered off the pitch during PE lessons as the team would rather play with 10 players than have me on their side. My friends tended to be the other marginalised people and even girls, which was odd in those days. Once I was old enough I spent my break times in the school library and though I was once assaulted by two boys in a public library at the age of 12, I was generally safe in the school library.

So there was a lot of name calling but there was physical attacks too. I remember when I was eight being pinned to the ground by two older boys for some reason I do not know why. They found a piece of steel that looked like a guillotine blade (the school was very run down and had lots of disused buildings on the site full of debris, these days it would have been closed on health and safety grounds, but this was 1975) which they pressed against my neck and forced gravel into my mouth. At least they were forced to write an apology but they caught me walking home one day (they walked up my street to get to theirs) and the stronger one gripped me by the neck and lifted me off the floor causing immense pain, so the apology letters had been a small, short-lived victory. I remember a particular bully called Ian Johnstone (I imagine he is long dead by now as though he would only have been 41, I first saw him smoking at the age of 7) who simply walked up to me one day and thrust his knee into my genitals and laughed as I writhed in pain telling me I was clearly so weak as not to be able to stand up to such an attack. There was the usual tripping (sometimes in a very sophisticated way I was once caught out by a set of bolas that a boy had made by linking three conkers on string together and deftly throwing them so they caught around my legs sending me sprawling to the floor).

A lot of the bullying was fostered by parents most of whom earned good incomes, had all the latest consumer items, somehow felt they worked hard and were better than those who did now work in offices and that they were tough and their children had to be tough too. Their toughness had nothing about going hiking or being physically fit, it was about being callous. You can certainly see the seeds of Thatcherism in the middle class areas of the mid-1970s. Her nastiness fitted in perfectly with this class that defined success by ownership rather than experience and strength by how selfish you could be. They were the heirs of the mill owners of the 19th century but lacking even the business sense and willingness to put in effort that those ancestors had.

At secondary school things were marginally easier because I spent all my time hidden in the library though I was punched there once. Playgrounds were more crowded so there was no room for football anyway. I was poor at sports but as more of the 'cool' boys smoked increasingly I came in with better results as they began to struggle as we aged. I was fortunate that two of the sports teachers also taught History my best subject so they forgave me a lot and fortunately, but the mid-1980s were aware more of the range of abilities and gave me marks for effort in sport even when I came in last. A bigger school with some pupils who were disabled meant people could not have the narrow criteria they had set at my primary school. Of course it did not stop the teasing and things, but if I went straight from class to the library and back to class I could avoid a lot of it. I was punched once by a girl of my age simply because she felt I had got in her way when coming into a classroom. At 14 I suffered a cosmetic illness and to some extent it got me off the hook as even the thugs of the school appreciated how I had got through it and it stopped them shouting at me in the playground or asking me why my school trousers were so baggy (this was the early 1980s and all trousers had to be tight) or why I had no girlfriend. Other people, however, ironically not the usual thugs, felt they had a green light to slap me round the head and this would happen as I was filing through crowds.

There was still some of the stuff about not having all the consumer items from the very Thatcherite children, but now in a far bigger school (1200 pupils) there was a much wider mix of social class and so they had to tread carefully. It was only years later when talking with a friend who had gone to school in backwater parts of Scotland in the 1980s where she as a English girl faced constant incomprehension from staff and pupils because of her accent, that I realised that even the 'poor' children at my school were far better off than the average. All the parents owned homes, there were no tenants and all had cars. I suppose any microcosm of society sets its own parameters even if these are out of step with the entirety of that society.

I suppose I was quite fortunate, despite my feelings to the contrary at the time, that my illness stopped a lot of the bullying I had experienced. Unpleasant teachers trod more softly with me as well rather than their previous chastising manner. Humiliation seemed stock in trade in those days and I think I have mentioned Mrs. Williams, Mr. Callen and Mr. Salmon in postings before. In particular, Callen moderated his approach; Williams always had new targets to pick on anyway. Once I went to Sixth Form College, what is now Years 12 and 13 (and I in fact did Year 14 too) I was in a neighbouring town with only a few people I knew. You might have thought at that age 16-18, bullying would be left behind as juvenile. I did get misplaced sympathy from people, who, because of my illness thought I was dying and were surprised to meet me again in my twenties. However, some people still indulged in out-and-out bullying, unfortunately one being the boy I was put next to in my History class, a Eurasian called Rishaad who ridicule my clothes incessantly (he came from a wealthy family and always had the latest fashion) and when I did not rise to his bait (by now being well schooled in avoiding bullies' jibes) he would simply punch me as a bit of warming up before the class started. Of course the time I pushed (rather than punched back) he pretended to be very upset and got the teacher involved saying I was discriminating against him. Given all the bullying I had sustained up to now and the ongoing criticism of my parents, I spend these years very unhappy and this led to a vicious circle of low self-esteem and thinking (as I had done in the latter years of secondary school) that any woman asking me out was trying to pull off a trick or was at best mistaken.

University life was not too bad, though I lived in a very strait-laced corridor in my first year and because I was not Christian and because I was anti-Thatcher I was seen as an oddity rather than something to be bullied. At university there is always a huge diversity of people you can usually find someone in the same situation. In the second year, when living in a rented house, the landlord's step-daughter also a student was incredibly bullying. There was unresolved tension between daughter and step-father who seemed to despise her and made her sleep in the house when there was a whole wall missing. She was very arrogant and blamed anything that went wrong on her fellow flatmates, for example the collapse of the 1970s sofa despite the fact that she and her boyfriend used to pet on it one on top of the other whereas the rest of us simply sat there one at a time. She felt she had a right to stand right in front of the television while ironing so blocking the view for everyone else and constantly whining about everything I did. I suppose that was not bullying but it was an unpleasant atmosphere.

I have spoken about the bullying that I experienced while in my last job, a terrible invasive bullying by a colleague. It is interesting that like a number of the bullies he had a real sense of self-righteousness that somehow I was in the wrong and he was behaving precisely normally. He set out to prevent me getting any recognition for any work I did claiming he inspired anything of value that happened in the office. He also expressed amazement when managers trod softly around him, wondering why they thought they might upset him. There was the 'moral' thing too, as a robust Christian he could not tolerate the pattern of life he assumed that I lived, whereas in reality it was boringly sober and asexual. My manager lived in a fantasy world of her own creation and could not tolerate anyone who said anything that did not tally with her perceptions of how the world worked. Despite direct appeals to her she would not accept that bullying was taking place. I only recognised the severity of it when the man in question left for another job, saying incredibly arrogantly that he felt his work there was done. He did, though, come back some years later and it must have been a nightmare when he returned saying something along the lines that he understood the company needed the benefit of his skills.

Having kept a diary every day since 1st January 1978, I know that my memories of bullying are not false, they are real. As I see the boy in my house experience some of the same things, these memories are coming unpacked and each course of bullying has numerous humiliating or painful incidents that made up the whole experience of that bout of harrassment. For a great deal of my life I have experienced bullying and it really retarded my emotional growth and made me feel worthless for so many years. It took some wonderful people to lift me out of that situation and even then I can still be sucked into being bullied by the more sophisticated methods colleagues use. What equated effectively to collaboration between my parents, teachers, colleagues and managers with the bullies made it harder. I have managed to pull out of it, even though it has taken many years. However, for many people, especially children the scarring of bullying often runs deep and can destroy what would otherwise have been a fulfilling life. This stuff is too unpleasant to want to make up.

P.P. 03/01/2010: Having read of a new two-part television drama of 'The Day of the Triffids' shown over the recent Christmas period on BBC1, I was reminded of the last time the BBC produced an adaptation of this story.  It was shown in April 1981 and starred John Duttine.  Like many young people (I was 13 at the time), impressed by the series, which naturally fitted the apocalyptic feel of that time (with the threat of nuclear holocaust a regular topic of discussion on television and even in schools) I went in search of the original novel.  My school had two libraries, one old one which held the non-fiction books and then a paperback library run by one of the younger English teachers which was only open at lunchtimes.  I was a member of both and went to the paperback library and found a 1960s copy of the story which I proceeded to borrow.  A younger girl had also wanted it but by the time she arrived, I was waiting in the queue to check it out, but she insisted that I gave it to her.  I refused so she simply kicked me very forcefully in the small of my back (she had braced herself against a desk, this library being housed in a classroom) throwing me forward against the check out desk.  She had a gruff lightly freckled face, fair hair cut in a common short Eighties style and though a year below me, was little smaller than me.  The teacher did not understand what was happening and assumed I had stumbled.  The girl simply glared at me, expecting me now to give her the book, but I checked it out and left in real pain.  It turned out my father had a copy of the book anyway and I returned the school copy on Monday.  What came back to me so sharply was, however, the girl's assumption, in many ways, twenty years ahead of its time, that she should have anything she wanted, no-one else's interests mattered and that violence was a matter of course if demands were not met.  She did not bully me in the way the others have done, but she was certainly symptomatic of the kind of culture that sees bullying as something of strength and in fact is uncomprehending/intolerant of anything that stands in the way of that particular moment's desire.

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