Don’t pick fights with the bullies or the cads
‘Cause I’m not much cop at punching other people’s Dads
David Bowie. Kooks.
When I look back at my time at school and growing up in general, there are certain events that always spring to mind; things that made life hard! As a white middle-class, straight man, I’m conscious of my privileges… so I’m not suggesting these things compare with a lifetime experiencing racism, sexism or homophobia. But I still think I suffered a lot of crap that I had to process in an angsty private world – convinced that this was just how life is; that you had to put up with the crap. That you somehow deserved it. It could be that my experiences are so trivial in others’ eyes that it only serves to underline my relative privilege but, while acknowledging that possibility, I still felt like making a list of some of the events I remember.
We still had corporal punishment in those days, to give my experiences some perspective. I remember when the Headmaster of my primary school gave a boy the slipper – hitting his backside, slung over his lap, in assembly, in front of the whole school. It was pretty terrifying. These were not enlightened times.
These things happened between 1976-1979.
Four Eyes: I first learned about systematic meanness when I started wearing glasses aged 9. Pretty soon after that, ‘four eyes’ became part and parcel of life. Sounds lame, right? No biggie? But it came as a shock to me at the time. Total strangers would call out across the street. ‘Oi -four eyes!’. ‘Who you staring at four eyes?’. Kids at school would use it freely: ‘You four-eyed puff’. ‘Shut your face, four-eyes’. In those days wearing glasses was apparently offensive and deeply uncool and, consequently, this meant I deserved some hate for wearing those nerdy square frames every day. Square in every sense.
Spray it again: I used to lisp quite a bit. Nothing too debilitating but common enough. I used to have kids repeat my words back to me in a caricatured run of spitting th’s: th, th, th, th th, say it don’t spray it… Plus of course I was too posh for some so that added another layer to the piss-take. Happened all the time. Nothing I could do – except work on my diction.
Robert: I used to learn the cello at primary school. (Already I feel I’m building the image of a privileged lisping four-eyed cello nerd who had it coming…?) I was terrible. I played an under-practised duet in the school concert which was so bad my mum later admitted how deeply embarrassing it had been to sit through. But, assuming lessons started on day one, on my first day at secondary school I took my cello with me in its thin canvas case. It was a mistake and I had to bring the cello home. Unfortunately, on the way back, my older brother got into a slanging match with some of the ‘hard lads’ from up the road… they were intimidating us and he wouldn’t just suck it up. They came for us and I held up my cello in self-defence. Robert – who looked a bit like Denis the Menace – put his foot right through it. Cello ruined. Nightmare. My dad was livid and tore round to the boy’s house later that evening to have words. I was mortified. Dad made some ludicrous officious threat that he never saw through! The silver lining was that nobody had to hear me play the cello again.
Terry and Edwin: In my tutor group I had to sit between Terry and Edwin. They were friends from primary school and didn’t appreciate me blocking their chats during lessons – so they would punch me on the arms; on both sides. All the time. Fuck off Sherrington. Punch. We’re not talking to you. Punch. It hurt. I was powerless and never did anything about it or mentioned it to anyone. But it did make me super-delighted to be in the top sets for maths, English and science which cut down the time I had to be in their lessons. It only stopped when my Dad died – their horror at the awkwardness of what to say to me gave me a degree of protection. Perversely, I enjoyed their disquiet. It gave me power.
Andrew (who once boasted to have watched Grease 8 times in one weekend, 77 times in total) didn’t have Terry and Edwin’s horror. He just taunted me. He’d try to pick a fight; friends would step in trying to help and say ‘leave him alone, you know his Dad died’. Andrew would say ‘ I bet that’s always your excuse. You fucking puff Sherrington’. I was desperate not to cry in front of him. A couple of years later, you’d imagine he’d never said those things as he tried to get in with me and my friends. But I always remembered and never trusted him.
Eddie was probably as close to the archetypal school bully stereotype as you can imagine. Relentlessly miserable – you could almost feel sorry for him. But he scared people. And he got away with it. He looked for trouble. One day, cycling back from school, he was up ahead on his bike with a friend, dawdling along. I weighed up my options and decided to ride past them quickly. Bad move! They saw me try, forced me to go wide and then Eddie punched me hard in the face; the hardest punch I’ve ever felt. I crashed my bike, hit my head, crazed my leg and they left me in a heap in the road, laughing and swearing as they rode away. I felt like shit. Deeply despondent at my wimpish capitulation. I couldn’t hide it from my mum – but I knew what she’d do. She was furious and made me drive round to his house with her. I stood behind her, cowering nervously as mum knocked on the door. Eddie’s mum called him down; he stood behind her; I stood behind my mum; the whole exchange the very definition of ‘excruciating’. Aged about 12/13, this was almost worse than the punch. Some time later, my brother got into another fight with Eddie and totally owned him, pushing him down into a low hedge with a hand round his neck. I’m not going to lie. I enjoyed it; I was proud of my brother for this direct form of retaliation. We were left alone after that. But I was nervous walking home for a good couple of years often avoiding the alley. Just in case.
Roger. He sat in class making darts from some pins and the fibre you’d find inside felt tips. Within a few minutes he’d have fashioned a set of pin-darts with a biro casing for a blow-pipe. We’d get shot at in the back of our legs. Ffft. Ffft. .,.dart blown… OUCH!! I wasn’t the prime target.. that was Tony who sat in front. But Roger created this horrific atmosphere – where you’d be petrified to tell. Amazing really – you’d imagine that creating a weapon during class was obvious; we could all see it; and it hurt like hell to get a pin in the leg. But we didn’t say a word. Tony suffered horribly but we didn’t have the courage to stick up for him.
Peter. Archetypal Bully 2. School playground at break. Sherrington – give us your crisps. Why? Peter reveals six-inch nail in his hand. Hands over crisps without further protest. . Having crisps at break was basically an open invitation to be robbed or threatened. We ran the gauntlet… Mostly nothing happened but when it did it was terrifying. Nobody ever said anything to teachers or parents. It was just part of life. Later we learned to laugh it off – imagine being so sad you had to threaten people for crisps with a six-inch nail. But it meant there was always an edge.
In those days we never had assemblies about bullying. We had no tools, no common language, nobody to tell. It just wasn’t part of the culture. We just ducked and dived, protected ourselves and tried not to let it get to us. I can say ‘us’ now – because now I know it happened to all my friends too. I’d like to think things have changed but I know all too well that for many, the bullies and cads still hold sway. Giving kids the power, the courage to tell with some degree of safety – is so important. But it’s hard and we shouldn’t ever underestimate how strong kids need to be to come forward in these circumstances. If any teacher at school had asked me if there were any problems – I’d have lied. That felt like the safest bet.