Monday, 9 June 2014

This Time it's Personal ~ part 6

I've been coming at this in a round about sort of a way, trying to set up the problem - get the reader intrigued by my predicament and wondering how all this could have happened. But reading back I find it's not that easy to read - even to me now a lot of what I've written seems like a disorganised rant.

So I'm going to cut to the chase. I think I am as I am because I spent the first five years of my life effectively alone with my mum living in basement flats in Hove. When I first realised this - about fifteen years ago, I was astonished. I didn't know any other children until I went to school aged five. Ian, my brother was born when I was three, partly, my parents say, so I wouldn't be an only child, but a three year old has nothing in common with a baby. Nor does a five year old with a two year old. In short, he was no help. My aunts and uncles and my parents' friends only started having kids after Ian was born. I was effectively an only child all that time. My mother did not go out and make friends with other mums up the street and there were no nursery schools or day care back then.
Of course there were other adults about. Dad was there in the evenings and weekends although he did a lot of over-time and went out a lot (table tennis, fishing, union etc) The two sets of grandparents came over perhaps once a week each and my parent's friends came over to play cards. I don't remember any except my grandmas being especially interested in a small boy. My mum certainly didn't play with me or read to me or whatever. She just wasn't like that. She'd admit it herself. She was not a cuddly mum. There was no baby talk. Dad read me bedtime stories and sang me silly songs. We didn't really go out anywhere except to the shops.
Once again - I'm not blaming anyone especially. People did not take the time to be with children back then - they didn't try to communicate with them, far less listen to what they had to say. Certainly nobody thought children were interesting - far less likeable. They were a fact of life. A bit of a nuisance. They were kept clean and fed and warm, but they were not included or consulted in those days. They were kept under control - not exactly seen-but-not-heard, but that was what it amounted to. Children were just around, which would be fine if there were several of them to run about together and make their own little social life. I just don't think it occurred to anyone that that was not the case with me. Later, when there were young children running about they seemed out of control and spoilt to me.
I'm not even complaining about this. I don't remember being especially unhappy or bored. I became very good at entertaining myself with the minimum of props. Paper and pencils, or a blackboard and chalks, some plasticine, some mud and some plastic animals in the garden, my cuddly toys for friends, but mostly, just making things up in my head, talking to myself, singing or watching the sun shine through a coleus leaf or a kaleidoscope. I was quiet and self-contained. I avoided asking things of my mum as much as possible and she in turn did what had to be done. I think she was quite depressed a lot of the time, understandably, and my dad and the grandparents were not very understanding. In short it was best not to bother her if at all possible. I remember her crying a lot and my mum and dad not talking. There was a bad atmosphere a lot of the time.
Sometimes I think part of me still lives in that small, dim, subterranean space, free to potter about and make up stories and to stay out of everyone's way. All that would have been fine except that sooner or later I would be expected to grow up and face the world.

I coped with the first five years of school well enough. I was messy and forgetful but my art and writing and interest in nature were good. Maths bewildered me and I absolutely hated PE, as much as anything because only in PE are your failures public and the other kids judge you by them. Being good at football makes you popular in a way that being good at any other subject does not. Mainly I wanted to avoid attention. I had friends but I don't think I took it for granted that they would want to spend time with me. It was always something that might change at any time and I spent a lot of my play times on my own.
Things changed when I was ten because that was when we started to get home work. This had a profound meaning to me which has stayed with me ever since, which is that when you have homework, there is never a time even on holiday when you couldn't be doing some school work. There is no longer any such thing as free time. My parents told me to get it done straight away so I'd have spare time later but I never did. I put it off as long as possible (and sometimes longer) and dashed it off as quickly as possible, not looking back in case I had to do it all over again.
The other problem was the increasing sense that as I got older I should be 'joining in' more. Dad was a great believer in the Scouts and tried to get me interested in games and sports and joining clubs. I was spending all my time reading up on whatever my latest obsession was - prehistoric animals, Second World War armoured vehicles, aquariums, house plants. I made models and collected shells, built ponds and went down to Kingston Beach to hunt in the rock-pools. I went to the library and read everything they had on the subject. I made lists and drew pictures, diagrams and maps. I was almost never bored and almost always on my own. Increasingly I think they worried that I was not like the other boys. I did not behave the way they did. I was not interested in the things they were interested in. In fact, boys just made me uncomfortable. I was never really bullied but I was decidedly wary of boys. The men in the family especially - my uncles and my dad's friends didn't know what to make of me. I was still alone, playing with my models or watching my fish, or off walking alone in the country. They didn't know what I did or why I did it. They never asked. I'm sure my feeling of being viewed with incomprehension, exasperation and embarrassment, especially by men, comes from this. The fact that I was not interested in boys' things and that I was a quiet and sensitive child probably made them think I might be queer. Actually I really liked everything about girls, but there was no way of letting them know that.
On top of all this I had dreadful allergies which made me sneeze until my nose bled and gave me thick itching welts all over my body. I now recognise that the allergies sapped my energy and my concentration but everybody thought I was sort of slow. The Piriton probably didn't help.

When I hit my teens everything got worse because there was more homework and I really wanted a girlfriend. Plus the things I'd been good at at junior school - the creative writing and the art and the nature became irrelevant. Again, schools in those days were not places where a person's strengths could be discovered and nurtured. School then was simply about doing what you were told. I don't remember a single inspiring teacher, far less one who went out of their way to encourage me, or any of us for that matter. I was in the top 10% throughout, despite my difficulties getting things done and not checking my work but there was never any sense of being someone who might achieve anything. Both my parents and teachers simply assumed I was lazy. It was the only explanation available for why a person was not doing as well as they might. I on the other hand was panicking the whole time, worrying about not getting things done but at the same time unable to think what I might do to change that. The only advice I got was 'pull your socks up'.

I passed my O levels well enough in this state and even got as far as a C in my chemistry AO that first year of sixth form but by the time the second year ended and I took my A level Chemistry and Biology I failed completely. Partly I think this was due to being with Claire, my first girlfriend - an experience which left me feeling utterly rejected and lost, but otherwise I think I simply didn't know how to approach the volume of work and as I began to feel more and more left behind, the less and less I felt able to do anything about it. I spent all my time at Claire's house being ignored by her or walking over the Downs to get away from it all. Needless to say nobody knew what to say to me or even tried. Getting angry with teenagers who don't do what they're supposed to was the only strategy back then. As far as they were concerned I just couldn't be bothered. It was the only explanation.

After that it was worse. School was hard but work was harder. At school they couldn't kick you out even if you regularly did badly but at work you were always under suspicion. Reading the sits vac in the Thursday Argus was all about fulfilling some incomprehensible and arbitrary criteria for some bloody-minded boss - people like my uncles and my dad's friends whose only interest would be in making you do what you were told and put up with it. Even if I succeeded in getting a job, all I could see was a lifetime of meaningless drudgery for money that never really made a difference, to pay for things that didn't seem to make anyone happy, till the end of my life and then what? What would it all have been for? When I did get jobs - none of them for long, I was always aware of how I was wasting my time when I could have been doing... what? Back in that small place of mine, or alone on the beach or on the hills, alone with my thoughts and my dreams and my imaginary girlfriends. I just wanted to get out. I knew I wanted to do something with my life but I couldn't even begin to imagine what. Instead I had to face being home with my family again, and their incomprehension, exasperation and embarrassment. I couldn't even get it together to sign on some weeks. I think in retrospect I was very depressed pretty much that entire time.

I did move on. At twenty three I got a job that I could stand (a part time nursing orderly at St Dunstan's), I rented a room, got a place at Brighton Poly to be a teacher (the normal refuge for people who couldn't get into uni) and I got a girlfriend. As it turned out I had trouble with my landlady (too much like mum), I really didn't know how to deal with the school kids (unsurprisingly) and my girlfriend was nine years older than me and more like a good friend than a lover, but it got me out and saved me from being much more of a loser than I might have been.
Since then I've had a lot of jobs - mostly part time and some not too bad. I've lived in a lot of different places, travelled a bit, made something of a success of academia (I never missed a deadline and was a straight 2.1 student. I got a distinction for my MSc, but my Ecology Phd fell apart after a few months.) I still find people difficult and don't make friends easily but I've had quite a lot of girlfriends. I worked out how to deal with my allergies in my mid thirties and they've hardly bothered me since.
Most recently I've met a woman on line, married her and now live with her and her two (now teenage) kids and we all get on remarkably well. I work part time as a gardener for an excellent old lady, have my own (small, unprofitable) business running a nursery and have written a couple of (unpublished) novels. Dad died a while back but I'm friends with my mum and my brother. I've come through. Like I said, I have no good reason to be unhappy, and yet...

Still, when things begin to go wrong, when things don't go according to plan, when things start to get on top of me, I'm like that thirteen year old caught not doing his homework again, or that eighteen year old not getting on with his revision again, or I'm that twenty year old not looking for work again. The temptation is always to go back into that space where I can just be in my head or with just some basic materials, and not have to deal with the world...

to be continued...


Vincent said...

I’ve read this several times and don't know what to say other than express sympathy and considerable empathy.

You have have summarized your current situation as having made progress to a more satisfactory relationship with the world, but it has not gone far enough, and you are not sure how to make further progress, indeed are constantly tempted to backslide.

Posting this series of instalments is of course one way to address the world directly, and I feel myself in the odd position, in the absence of other volunteers, of representing the entire world in responding to you.

But this would be to adopt the stark grammar of relationship that you delineate, of “self & other”, where self is the subject and world is the predicate.

I often find myself writing in these terms too, because our society (possibly our species) has refined itself and even come to define itself in this individualistic way: me vs. world, or world vs. me. Which then elaborates itself as me plus allies vs. indifferent world plus specific enemies. And then we die. A bleak scenario.

Increasingly I feel that I am part of the world, and that you and I are part of the world. As a feeling and not just an intellectual tautology. Self and other is a false distinction. We are characters in a drama who didn’t write the script, we just speak the lines & play the parts. To put it another way, we are not entirely free, having been irrevocably cast in our current role. But we can inject our own feeling, our own intonation; and in some mysterious way draw on strength and guidance. Mysterious because we cannot know whence it comes: whether it is our own unconscious mind or heavenly assistance. Personally I think these are synonyms for the same thing, whatever it is. And we can reach an accommodation with the “other” whereby there is implicit friendship and acceptance, independent of actual interaction. “The temptation is always to go back into that space where I can just be in my head or with just some basic materials, and not have to deal with the world.” OK. Suppose you did. Then what? What is “dealing with the world”? I don’t know what you mean. Dealing with a situation of antipathy? It seems to me clear that you can only be a gift to the world, and the world can only be a gift to you, if you are truly yourself, being comfortable with yourself.

Perhaps this doesn’t speak to you, or doesn’t make sense, and perhaps you will feel it has no relevance to anything you’ve been saying. But it comes from the heart to the heart, and is in any case part of the conversation, just as we are part of the world, part of its ongoing transactions.

This could have been put in an email, but you’ve gone public and so then shall I, in sending this to you with warmest wishes.

Steve Law said...

Ha! If I thought the public was likely to read this I wouldn't have published it!
But thanks for the sympathy/empathy and fear not - I'm still trying to lay out the problem. I haven't even begun to really talk about dealing with it. That's to come. I feel that this entry has at last got the problem down in a manageable form. I'm pretty pleased with it.
I get what you say about being a part of the world/playing a part etc but it's one of those conundrums isn't it. For example, the law has to assume that the miscreant acted out of free will or else punishment is pointless, and yet we know that (almost) everything we do is caused by something else. How much is the paedophile guilty if he was abused by his father as a child? and how much was he guilty if he was also abused by his father? 50%? 70%? I want to talk more about the underestimation of the power of these deep motivations later on, that and the overestimation of our ability to take responsibility for our actions.
At any rate perhaps part of the problem is that I don't really feel like part of the world - meaning the human world in particular. It's the human world - work, money, people, systems, paperwork, that is the problem.
Me a gift to the world? Hmmm. That is so very far from how I feel.
Anyway, more on that later

ps. thanks for volunteering.