This is a man’s, man’s, man’s, man’s world but it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing without a woman – James Brown.
I was nine when the bullying began. l remember walking home from school followed by a gang of small boys. They hunted in a pack, laughing and shouting out names from a distance. Every afternoon I shut out their calls and kept going in the hope they’d get tired and try someone else. As I walked I told myself I wasn’t really there. Part of me felt that they had the upper hand – so if I fought and lost that would be shameful but if I beat them up then I’d be the bully. I was afraid that if I turned around they’d see my tears and call out even more and if I tried to catch them they’d dodge like flies, jeering at my clumsiness. And like those flies, they were dirty and demanding, and there was nothing I could do to shake them off.
So why did it happen?
At school I wanted to sit with the girls. They were clever and they listened; they were nicer, kinder and had quick hands and pretty hair. In the playground they ran fast, linked arms and called out strange words or mysterious numbers as they practised skipping or hopscotch. Everything about them seemed cleaner, more intelligently respectful and civilised. And if a boy challenged them they didn’t have to fight.
The boys soon found my weak spots. If they challenged or insulted me I was slow to catch on. There was a time delay while I tried to find an answer and my reply, when it came, wasn’t that clever. I gave myself away, blushing at rude things or pretending not to hear when one of them burped or swore. In me they recognised a quick, easy, guaranteed laugh and they enjoyed seeing how far they could push me.
I remember swimming lessons. Stripped down to my trunks and paraded with my classmates along the edge of a blue and white pool, I felt cold, exposed and inadequate. The swimming baths were large and echoey with nowhere to hide. Everyone could see me as I struggled alone and helpless at the shallow end pretending to swim while clinging onto my red rubber ring. Later, when I moved out to deeper water, I tried to please, bobbing up and down and calling excitedly. It was when our PE instructor told me to strike out and swim that I floundered, my mouth filled up, and I went under. Each week I was told loudly to SWIM and each week I struggled to the poolside, spluttering and thrashing in a parody of drowning. And every time I lost my nerve, my next attempt was blocked by my own fear of failure.
At ten I moved from London to Sheffield, where the bullying became more physical. Although I was tall for my age, some of the boys at my new school were taller and stronger than me. I was the outsider, and this time, instead of shouting from a distance, one of them decided to call me out in the playground. In the fight that followed he floored me in front of his admiring followers and punch-wrestled me to submission. I was anybody’s after that, the girl-boy who everyone took on and insulted, because kids with a ‘rep’ knew I wouldn’t answer back.
It was the silence inside me that gave them their power. I’d a sense of being watched and judged, I was no good at sport – a dodger at the back who couldn’t catch a ball – and I took myself ultra-seriously, but what made me a victim was my own shocked silence. I’d no self-possession, nothing to fall back on. I’d no snappy-catch answers and, as in sport, I couldn’t connect or act without thinking.
We moved again, this time to Northumberland and a boys’ grammar school where I was singled out by P. He was the class hard man: a dark hairy youth with a powerful jaw and penetrating eyes which he fixed on me like a boxer. He probed me with rude, gloating personal questions. I answered him back once and he challenged me to an after-school fight, which I at first accepted but then lost my nerve and sneaked off home. From then on, he insulted me at will, elbowing me to one side in queues and jabbing me with pens and scissors, calling me his worm. I didn’t dare say a word. His status rose as he reduced mine to nothing, and though I believe the teachers knew or at least suspected, they turned a blind eye.
What I experienced with P was the school of hard knocks where team sport was the measure of success and the staff were either indifferent or violent, using nicknames and beatings and slaps around the head. P was the outcome of their methods. As long as they could keep him in line then everyone else would kowtow.
What no one offered was a set of male values that mirrored what I’d seen amongst the girls. They smiled and held hands, enjoyed talk and fine motor skills and were physical in a way I admired and saw as self-possessed. Thinking of boys as boasters and fighters, and therefore lacking, I imagined girls to be deeper and more mature, or at least more experienced and wiser to the world.
I’d been measured and found wanting in a man’s world that kept me quiet. As Robert W Fuller says the boys were rankists, claiming special privileges, standing on the shoulders of others. But in the end, and maybe as a result of the bullying, I came to see that all boys are afraid and that fear shuts them up. What they and I needed was a different set of values, an open, authentic exchange between equals, talking about strengths and weaknesses and acknowledging feelings in a world that was nothing without the girls…
(This passage is an extract from my ‘Imaginary Autobiography’ Heaven’s Rage – more details below.)
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Love’s Register tells the story of romantic love and climate change over four UK generations. Beginning with ‘climate children’ Joe, Mia and Cass and ending with Hereiti’s night sea journey across Oceania, the book’s voices take us through family conflicts in the 1920s, the pressures of the ‘free-love 60s’, open relationships in the feminist 80s/90s and a contemporary late-life love affair. Love’s Register is a family saga and a modern psychological novel that explores the way we live now.
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir that explores addiction, cross-dressing, bullying and the hidden sides of families, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
- The Dream Speaks Back, written by Sue Hampton, Cy Henty and Leslie Tate, is a joint autobiography exploring imagination and the adult search for the inner child. The book looks at gender difference, growing up in unusual families and mental health issues. It’s also a very funny portrait of working in the arts, full of crazy characters, their ups and downs, and their stories. You can buy a signed copy of The Dream Speaks Back here
Next week I talk to Rick Cross, senior NASA media writer and winner of the Silver Snoopy award for his interviews with astronauts and his coverage of early spaceflight missions. Rick is also the author of short stories and the novel Times Squared, a licensed Dr Who spinoff.