The first time I became conscious that I was an outsider was when I was about 9 years old. That would have been in 1960. I was in a State school, and not liking it at all. I disliked the lessons, the Teachers, 99% of the other pupils, the school lunches, and the smell.
Most days I would simply not attend, preferring instead to hang around the local fire station watching the crews polish the chrome and red paintwork on the “pumps”. They were always pleased to see me and I would exchange childish pleasantries with them. It made me feel good that they took me seriously, and (although with hindsight I doubt this was so) that they treated me as an equal.
I never lingered long with my firemen friends though. I was always on a mission: to walk the mile or so to the beach. There I would spend hours, crunching over the shingle either beachcombing, or dodging the surf (not always successfully), or playing “ducks and drakes”.
I think that’s when I truly began to think for myself, to become conscious of me. Naturally, being something of a bookworm, I would have a story running through my head, and would sometimes take on the part of the hero: “The Prisoner of Zenda”, “The Count of Monte Christo”, or one of “The Three Musketeers”. Yes, I was only nine, but I had discovered the local library, which for me, as the lonely child of a single Mother who spent most of the day in bed, was the Treasure House of Kublai Khan. When the weather was too inclement for the beach I would spend my truanting time in the library, browsing and reading. My literary world grew weekly. Best of all, I was allowed to take some books home where, alone in my bedroom, I devoured them, simply skipping words and even whole sections that were beyond my comprehension. I took to jotting down words beyond my ken on a separate piece of paper, to look up in the dictionary later. I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of the story by stopping each time I came across a “new” word.
I was already a precocious reader. A fact that none of my Teachers ever uncovered. It was my world and I didn’t want to share it. Not with anyone, not even my Mother. It was the only thing I felt was truly mine, and a wonderfully secret place where my mind could grow and soar untrammelled. Above all, it was a safe haven, impregnable and impervious to my humdrum existence and the vicissitudes of my childhood.
My Mother despaired, my Teachers despaired. They knew not what to do with this shy quiet boy who, unlike his peers, seemed impervious to the rules of the adult, even impervious to sometimes actual, or threatened corporal punishment. So time went by and I was finally put in the same class as the other “educationally subnormal”. Naturally this blinkered approach only reinforced my sense of isolation, of being “different”, and I retreated further into my imaginary world. My friends were the fictional characters of great authors. I shared my Life with them and their creators and eventually began to colonise a new world: that of biography. Who were these marvellous creators whose severe black and white faces sometimes looked right at me from the frontispieces? How wonderful that they had shared their worlds, to enrich mine, and what exciting names they had: Mark Twain; Robert Louis-Stevenson; Victor Hugo.
So that was my life then. Or part of it at any rate. Yes, I was an outsider, but I wasn’t conscious of that until the following incident. I gradually became aware that I was very different from other children. Not because I was officially classified as educationally sub normal, not that I was (in the eyes of “the Establishment”) a rebel, not that I spent most of my time in a fictional world filled with heroes carrying out deeds of “derring do”, but because I did not have a Father.
It may be hard for people today to understand this. The world has changed. Now it is usual for schoolchildren to come from one parent families. In the 1950s I was very much the odd man out. In fact, I cannot recall any of my peers who didn’t have two parents.
This, in itself, did not make me feel out of place. It was never referred to by any of my friends or teachers. However, when I was about 9 years old there was an incident which was to have a long emotional effect on me. An incident which, in the truest sense of the word, was to make me self-conscious for many years.
I had grown used to my friends’ parents asking me: “What does your Father do?”. A common question in those days, but not, I have observed, common now. I would reply (truthfully): “He’s dead”. That always led to the counter reply: “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that”. The topic would then be closed, and I thought nothing more of it. However, on this occasion I was at a friend’s Birthday party. His Father asked me the usual question, and when I delivered the stock reply he said to me: “So that’s why you’re a sissy.”
I knew what a “sissy” was, and I didn’t like being called that. I said nothing, but inwardly I was mortified. Not only was this comment one which hurt, but it angered me. I had never considered myself a sissy. Perhaps my friends and their parents regarded me as one and spoke about me in derogatory terms behind my back? The thought was repugnant and impacted negatively on my self-esteem. Worse still, what could I do about it? If I was regarded as a sissy because I didn’t have a Father, then nothing. If I’d been bullied, or was frightened of sports, for example, then I could change my behaviour and remove the label. My friend’s Father had made a comment, whether out of ignorance or malice, (I shall never know), which altered my perception of myself for the worse. I was unable to correct that self-misconception until my late teens.
Reflecting on this now, I can see that similar unguarded comments can have a devastating impact on individuals who belong to groups that are subject to discrimination, whether on grounds of e.g. race, religion, culture, or academic ability. Watch what you say “devant les enfants”!