Clothes Make the Man

My name is Luke. I’m a 35-year-old male and I have literally never worn the clothes I’d like to wear.

Ever.

There’s an awful lot said about the societal expectations put on women when it comes to clothing, and the judgements that get made about women in particular when they choose to dress in certain ways. There’s a lot of horrible stuff that women face in this regard. What I’m going to be talking about in this essay does not attempt to negate or diminish those experiences, those challenges women face are ghastly, I know.

Rarely, though, does male fashion ever seem to come under any sort of scrutiny. So I’d like to talk about that, and my experience of being a man trying to fit into clothes that simply don’t fit me.

Imagine the scene: your first time clothes shopping as a man. You have the following choices:

T-shirt, shirt, polo-neck shirt, jeans, suit, trousers, shorts, jumper, jacket, socks, shoes, boots

And that’s it.

Cold weather? Jumper and jeans, mate.

Warm weather? T-shirt and jeans, mate.

Hot weather? T-shirt and shorts, mate.

And that’s it.

Nothing floaty, nothing light, nothing that shows off any particular part of my body, nothing that lets me be a bit saucy or revealing, nothing pretty, usually nothing particularly colourful, nothing decorative, nothing whimsical, nothing quirky, nothing ornamental.

As a man, you’re basically told: you’re functional. Don’t try and be pretty. You are not pretty.

Problem is, I don’t  fit and have never fit that mould.

Men’s fashion is crap, and has been crap for decades. There are about eight different cuts of men’s clothing (in total) and I’ve been wearing them for years, never wanting to but never really having a choice.

People, of course, think there is a choice. I could get on the train in a dress. “You shouldn’t care what people think,” people tell me. “Just be you – to hell with what people think!”

I tried it once when I was at uni. I’d found a gorgeous coat, designed for women, in Primark or all places. Denim and fleece. I looked amazing in it, and loved how I felt. My then-girlfriend Elle bought it for me and I paid her back.

I wore it in public once.

I got the bus to university in it, in a pretty liberal city. Literally everyone on the bus stared at me as I took my seat, and many of them kept staring the whole way. Like, not just glancing every now and then, staring and making no effort to break eye contact if I looked at them. The journey continued for twenty minutes in complete silence.

I never wore the coat again. It stayed at the back of my wardrobe for years, and because the house had damp problems it went mouldy and eventually I had to throw it away.

Men are expected not even to want to dress differently.

The Oscars (or indeed any award ceremony) are a good example. There’s huge ridiculous pressure on women to look ‘right’ for those events, and that’s of course a bad thing – but again let’s briefly consider the men. What are their choices on Oscar night?

Tuxedo, mate.

That’s it.

It’s a uniform.

Reached the top of your creative industry? Tough shit, wear the uniform.

Nominated for one of the top awards in the world? Tough shit, wear the uniform.

Literally one of the best in the world at your job? Tough shit, wear the uniform.

I’m a scriptwriter, and I know that if I am ever nominated for a red-carpet award and decide to go along, I don’t want to have to wear the fucking uniform. I just don’t. And the sad thing is, I know that if I did wear what I wanted, maybe a smart black dress with cute little boots, all the press coverage about me would not be about what I’d achieved but what I wore.

To be fair, this is shit that women face all the time. I know. I am not trying to undermine those injustices that they face, and I know that some people’s response to this will be “ohh but it’s much worse for women”, implying “so shut the fuck up”.

 

Of course, there are people who buck the trend. Trans is cool now, and there are examples of celebrities who boldly just wear whatever the hell they want to. And that’s great.

But think how it plays out in non-famous circles. Or in small towns and villages. Or just on the London Underground in a morning commute.

Just once, in public, I would like to wear something floaty, made from a light fabric, that maybe accentuates the features I like rather than demonstrates that I am dressed practically should the need arise to do manual labour like the functional penis-haver that I am.

When it comes to women’s fashion, we’re a bit more consciousness-raised about the bullshit that surrounds it. Sure, the Daily Mail still has “which female MP dressed the best today” or whatever, and I’m not going to pretend that that doesn’t suck.

But looking at all the great fashion available in the women’s section of clothes shops (they almost always make men walk through the women’s section on the way to the men’s), all the choice of cuts, fabrics, colours, the chances for infinite personal expression through clothing, it’s hard not to feel jealous when I get to the t-shirt-and-jeans world that is the men’s section.

I just hope that in my lifetime I’ll be able to walk out of my house wearing a skirt and blouse and not have people stare, make rude comments or make me feel uncomfortable. I would like it to not just be assumed that I’m wearing what I want to wear.

I’m not. I never have been.

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Every Day I’m Shufflin’

[Writer’s note: this is more of a health update than an editorial blog post.]

So today I had a lot of brain tests done.

For those who don’t know I’ve been having pretty weird symptoms, mostly spasms (sometimes full body spasms) and pain but with a few other symptoms too, for ten years, and they’ve got markedly worse over the last month. I’m now sort of staggering/’Tin Man’-ing/shuffling around everywhere I go, most of the time. See my last entry in this blog for details.

Today I had a bunch of tests done to investigate my brain and spinal cord.

I had an appointment with the Consultant Neurologist, Dr Kapoor, a few days ago. He was great – exactly what you’d hope for, really. My Mum was kind enough to drive all the way up to Norwich, where I’d been, to bring me down to London to see Dr Kapoor, despite her own health concerns, breaking up the journey by staying overnight in a hospital.

The appointment went okay, although he said he didn’t think it was Multiple Sclerosis, which is what I’d assumed and even hoped (if only so that I would finally have a diagnosis) that it was. He referred me for tests.

Those tests were today.

For various reasons I suggested that my mum stay home rather than coming all the way up to London to sit there while I get tested in another room; the neurologist appointment aftermath had been exceptionally draining for both of us, really. She’d been so kind as to see that I was seen privately though, which was lovely of her.

Family not getting involved (not sure if my brothers knew about the scans today), I instead relied on some of my wonderful friends for support.

So! Here’s how the day played out.

8:30am. Woke up at my friend Meg’s place.

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I was woken by her delightful cat.

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Meg thinks said cat is annoying but DEAR GOD COMPARED TO MY CAT PICKLE SHE’S AN ANGEL. The cat is also miniscule, like seriously it would fit in a clutch purse kinda thing.

Anyway. Meg was super supportive and lovely and, given that she’s also my ex, it’s really nice that we’re friends again, and have found some sort of place we can exist in each other’s lives. So that was a nice start to the day.

We left Meg’s place, she gave me a big hug, wished me well and sent me on my way to New Cross Gate station as she set off in the opposite direction to go to work (work work work).

So, limping/shuffling at a slow pace, I set off to the station.

From New Cross Gate to Canada Water (Overground). From Canada Water to Green Park (Jubilee Line). From Green Park to Russell Square (Piccadilly Line).

I’d planned to meet my old friend Hannah for breakfast, partly because I knew I’d be nervous as hell going in and she’s just a very sweet, caring person and I knew she’d lift my mood. And indeed she did. We had breakfast at a café near Russell Square – I had scrambled egg and salmon on toast.

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I had kept saying ‘thank you’ via Facebook Messenger and in person, to the point that she’d told me not to, lol. I guess I’m still getting used to people being supportive on a personal level. It’s nice, though. I’m immensely grateful for it.

After an hour or so she walked me (well, she walked, I staggered while leaning on her) to the hospital. She gave me a hug and wished me well etc and we parted ways.

By this point I was Tin Man-ing (my phrase for when my back stiffens up and it affects my gait) pretty horrendously and in quite a lot of pain. But the first test was about to begin.

10am – Neurological Nerve Conduction Test I
I met the Doctor who’d be doing the test, whose name sadly I forget. Alissa, I think.  She was very nice.

She explained what’d happen, left me to get changed into a hospital gown and came back.

She attached a bunch of cables/pads to my head, my leg and a fleshy bit near my ankle.

I then sat in a comfy chair while she ran electricity through me. As you do.

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“Fetch… THE COMFY CHAIR!”

All my toes kinda waved rhythmically  in unison. It wasn’t painful at all, just a bit weird.

They measured a bunch of results and sent me on my way.


10:40am – Blood tests

Got lost about six times because I accidentally wandered into the NHS part of the hospital and they had no record of me as I wasn’t their patient. Took me a good fifteen minutes to find the place, simply because being lost while you’re limping everywhere is a slow-ass process.

I checked in at the blood place (not to be confused with the vampire club of the same name) and waited.

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Dat choice of newspapers tho :-/.

Got called in. Had nine tubes of blood taken. 10ml each, I think. Chatted with the ladies (wish I knew their job titles – Practise Nurses?) there – they were also very nice.

Blood skillfully drawn, I headed back round the corner for:


10am – Neurological Nerve Conduction Test II

Different room, different Doctor (this time I didn’t get her name at all, unfortunately). A student/trainee (also didn’t get her name, oops) observing and being taught.

Having changed into a gown, I sat in the comfy chair.

This test was slightly different. She attached the cables/pads just to my feet this time.

And then, out of nowhere, came the best sentence of the day as she said (in her delightful Spanish accent, which somehow just made it better):

“Okay Luke, now I am going to bang you on the head… with a machine.”

“Oh right,” I thought…

“Wait, fucking what?”

I had mental images of her picking up the printer. I gave the student/trainee a “Jesus Christ what the fuck?” look, hoping for a look of reassurance, but instead she just returned a much subtler “Jesus Christ what the fuck?” look BACK AT ME. Lol, thanks.

So apparently it’s some weird device like two circles fused together attached to a stick (lol, medical types will be laughing at me right now I know but I have no idea what that thing is called).

She put it on my head, pressed a button with her foot and BANG, it felt like I’d been hit on the head and my whole body jolted. Ow. Fuck. Over and over and over again. It was painful but bearable. Thankfully it didn’t last long, maybe 15 minutes.

I was allowed to get dressed again and sent on my way.

My next appointment would be at 2pm.

MOAR BLUHD PLZ

Shortly after leaving the EMG room I was accosted by a very polite lady named Miriam on behalf of a UCL Medical Research Team. They wanted my blood for scientific research. I’d already had nine tubes of blood taken but though “fuck it” and agreed to volunteer. She escorted me to a room and drew another three bottles of blood for medical research. She was also very nice (recurring theme, that); we chatted about our enormous hair. Hers was better than mine. We finished up and I left. By this point I had a little plaster on one arm and a bandage and sticky tape (or whatever, again medical types are lol-ing at my ignorance) on the other.


MRI – 2pm

My MRI would be at a different location, about twenty-five minutes’ walk away (for a fully mobile person) but I had an hour and a half in which to do it and it was nice weather so I walked. /Staggered. /Tin Manned.

Got there in time, and had almost no wait at all. Met a lady (again, I’m so crap with names and I didn’t get her job title, I don’t think – maybe this was Alissa?) who led me to the changing room. I got changed and stored my stuff.

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Possibly-not-Alissa-after-all-although-maybe-actually asked me a bunch of medical questions and took me through to meet the MRI person, whose name I think was Kirsty..?

They led me into the MRI room. I’d never had an MRI before.

The inside of the room sort of looked like the Mike Teavee bit from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Except with a giant space bog roll in the middle of it with its tongue sticking out.

Kirsty (I’m going to call her that because I think that’s correct) explained to me the whole procedure, being very reassuring the whole time.

I lay down on the table thing, she ensured I was as comfortable as possible and gave me an air thing to squeeze to alert her and her colleague (who I never met) if I panicked/needed help for some reason. I also had a periscope thing so that I’d be able to see out of the MRI machine. Word of advice: the periscope makes a huge difference. If you’re claustrophobic and need to have an MRI, the periscope is your friend.

I was given ear plugs and ear protectors.

She then left the room and started the process.

The MRI beast’s tongue slowly drew me into its gaping maw. Holy shit it was a narrow tube but the periscope was there and I never felt claustrophobic, although a few times I had to do some psychological gymnastics not to.

It stopped. The process began. BEEEEEEEP. Beeps and boops and other weird noises for about an hour. At times it was like being in one of those flotation tanks that people lie in to relax, except that some fucker had filled it with noisy dot matrix printers from the 90s.

Kirsty constantly reassured me through the whole process, “you’re doing really well” etc. I never felt tempted to squeeze the alarm.

The overall MRI was done superbly I’m sure but kinda sucked in that I felt drained and headachey as hell afterwards, and my back had gone full Tin Man.

She said I’d done well (although to be honest I can’t imagine she ever says “you’re really shit at getting MRIs”) and sent me on my way.

I shuffled off to Euston Square station. I’d planned to go back to Norwich that night but there was no way that was going to happen given how headachey I was and how much pain I was in. So I decided to go stay in London. I’m lucky enough to have a houseboat near Imperial Wharf station. So off I set.

From Euston Square to Edgware Road (Circle Line). From Edgware Road to West Brompton (District Line). From West Brompton to Imperial Wharf (Overground).

And that’s where I am now. I arrived at 4:20pm (appropriately, given my next course of action) and managed my pain for a bit.

And then I wrote this.

And that’s been my day.

Curiously, the overwhelming majority of the healthcare professionals I met today were female. In fact, almost all of the staff too. Only one receptionist and one MRI dude (the one I never met) were male. I have no comment about this, I just find it interesting.


So how do I feel now, at 7:19pm?

I’m in less pain now than I was earlier (although still quite a lot) but am still 60% Tin Man. But actually my main feeling right now is one of immense gratitude. I was lucky enough to be supported by some wonderful friends today, and earlier in the week.


Special thanks to:

Tess – for her calm reassurance, support and openness about her own health in order to be supportive of mine. And for continually being an inspirational bad-ass in the face of her own neurological crap.

Krystal – for her support and openness about her own health in order to be supportive of mine.

Meg – for her support over the last few days as my symptoms have worsened, and her assistance in helping me manage those symptoms.

Hannah – for being supporting me at my time of greatest need and being a little ray of sunshine in what would go on to be a pretty grim day

My Mum – for driving for hours on end to get me to my initial consultation despite being in pain herself and for enabling me to get this all done privately.

To many more of my wonderful friends – for being epic and giving a shit about my wellbeing.

I get most of the results next week. Some possibly the week after that. I have no idea what it’ll be. It could be anything from MS to stress (amazingly) and many things in between.

Today hasn’t been horrendous. And it easily could have been. And for that I have to thank (a) the wonderful healthcare professionals who treated me today and (b) my support network of friends.

You guys are the best.

Vaguely ill

[Writer’s note: this is more of a health update than an editorial blog post.]

For ten years I’ve had weird health symptoms. Abdominal pain, spasms, twinges, muscle weakness, temporary paralysis, more pain, difficulty walking, occasional difficulty speaking, full-body-numbness back/arm spasms that seemed like weird conscious seizures…

The symptoms would stick around for weeks at a time – I’d have up to twenty of these full-body spasm ‘seizure’ things in a day… and then nothing for months. Usually they’d kick off just as I was doing a show. ‘King Lear’, I was seizuring every day without fail; I had to email the Director and SM to let them know what to do if they found me in a heap. ‘Macbeth’ I had to drop out because the symptoms were so bad. ‘Comedy of Errors’ (2012) I was in permanent pain the whole time I was throwing myself around that stage. ‘Betrayal’ they had to cancel a performance and get me to a hospital by ambulance, over an hour away.

I largely dealt with it on my own for ten years, acting through the pain, both in a theatrical sense and a “pretending I’m not in pain all the time” sense.

I was told any number of things, depending on where the pain was/what the symptoms were. IBS, psychogenic seizures, stress related stuff, trauma related stuff. I self-medicated relentlessly.

And then several things happened about a month ago.

About three weeks ago, my symptoms shifted.

Instead of symptoms for weeks and weeks and then nothing, I now have:

– Permanent pins and needles in the last two fingers of my left hand, and that side of the hand itself, and a bit of my wrist
– Fluctuating abdominal pain, like I’m wearing a heavy suit of armour and it’s crushing me (worse at night, when the pain keeps me awake)
– I am now no longer able to walk normally – my gait is sort of stiff and awkward and I would probably genuinely benefit from walking with a stick at the moment.
– Tiredness all the time

There are a few more symptoms, too. It became clear, though, that my symptoms had shifted. I have not really had many spasms since then; they seem to be fading away.

And that’s when the pieces sort of started fitting into place, and all the evidence started clustering around one diagnosis:

Multiple Sclerosis.

My GP has sent me to a neurologist. The neurologist will be doing some tests and then sending me for an MRI or similar.

It now seems highly likely that I have had Relapsing-Remitting Multiple Sclerosis for the best part of ten years, and have never had any help with it at all.

It also seems highly likely that it has now progressed to, or is in the process of progressing to, Secondary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis.

So wtf does this all mean?

Firstly, it’s not a death sentence. This is not going to kill me. If it is MS, and I finally get a diagnosis, several things will happen, many of them good. I’ll be able to get medication, for one.

If it is Secondary Progressive, though, these symptoms I’m currently having literally aren’t going away.

For my acting “career”, such as it is, on the amateur stage boards of Norwich, that’s not great. Those physical comedy roles I did for years? Not gonna happen so much any more. I can barely move. I struggle to speak sometimes.

My mobility, if it is MS, particularly if it’s Secondary Progressive, will also diminish as time goes on. I may end up wheelchair-bound sooner rather than later, or not at all – it’s different from person to person.

Also if it’s MS it limits what I can do, acting-wise. But that’s okay. I’m still writing, and I still intend keep involved with theatre.

I go for the tests/scans over the next few weeks. These things drag on at a snail’s pace, unfortunately.

People have been helpful, kind, supportive and baffled by my symptoms.

A huge thank you to my friend Tess Zoers-Taylor, who’s been hugely helpful through this. As someone with diagnosed MS herself she’s sort of been an inspiration to me for a while now.

Anyway. I’m okay. This isn’t going to kill me. And I have fought this for ten years already with no help. I’m a fucking warrior. I got this.

What happened to Luke

Many of you who know me will be vaguely aware of some sort of immense darkness in my childhood, one that I’ve rarely explained except to a chosen few.

Here, in case you were interested, is a fuller explanation of all that. I should warn you in advance, it’s not a pleasant read, and is potentially upsetting – particularly for any of you who might have had your own early-life traumas to contend with.

 

I grew up in Surrey. These days it’s basically Bland Commuter Helltown, but back then my home town was simply a medium-sized, fairly inconsequential point on the map between London and the south coast.

My first few years were fairly ordinary, tricky but by no means traumatic: an alcoholic but generally well-meaning father and an overworked mother desperately trying to raise five sons and run a business almost single-handedly. I have a lot of early memories of my parents arguing or my dad passed out in his underwear on the living room floor and my mum away at a business meeting – but there were happy times too.

With the family business doing quite well, my parents decided to send me, aged five, to a private all-boys primary school. My three older brothers had largely been state educated – the youngest of them was the first to have any sort of private education (having been sent to boarding school at age thirteen) or university tuition. His private education had done him good, so it seemed like a logical choice for me and my little brother.

The school my parents chose was nearby, with a solid reputation and – importantly for my parents – it did “prep”. Homework at school, basically. So our school day would run until 6pm (as well as, for a while, a half day on Saturdays), with sports every day and then prep. It had, apparently, been such a struggle getting my older brothers to do their homework that this prep idea seemed fantastic to my parents, who eagerly sent both my younger brother and me there.

My first few years at the 120-place school were uneventful; it was an ordinary 1980s/1990s private school, rampant bullying, comically terrible food, compulsory sports – even for the skinny weird-looking kids like me.

In 1992, with me aged ten, our wonderful Maths/Music teacher Mr Lister left the school. He was one of those people who was just born to teach – a lovely man and a great teacher – but he and his wife (who taught in the junior school) had fallen out with the Headmaster for some reason. If memory serves, it was due to a pay dispute.

Mr Lister’s replacement, the Reverend Doctor Pennant (or “Rev Trev”), taught at the school for a few terms before he basically exploded. He was fired for hitting two pupils; he slapped one across the face and threw another against a wall.

He was immediately replaced as Head of Music by Mr Spicer, a somewhat odd man who seemed to live his life in slow motion – walking incredibly slowly, speaking incredibly slowly, smoking cigars incredibly slowly. He had to leave after he tried to lift the grand piano on his own (presumably incredibly slowly) and did his back in.

The school had gotten through two Heads of Music in one academic year, and now the school and its production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (in which I played Guard 2) were looking for another.

The man they found was a 40-ish, podgy, brusque Yorkshireman named David Allen. He was hired mid-term by the Headmaster Mr Cassell and basically told to get on with it.

Had they background-checked him, they would have found that David Allen, their new Head of Music, had sexually assaulted a male teenage hitchhiker some years earlier.

They did not.

Instead, they gave him unsupervised access to every child in the school.

Remember those compulsory sports I mentioned? Every afternoon we’d have a sports session, followed by “change back”, during which boys aged 5 – 13 would pile into the changing room, shower in the communal showers and get changed from their sports clothes back into their school uniforms, before going to tea (juice and biscuits) and then prep.

The set-up of “change back” was basically a small-ish room with dozens of naked boys in it, supervised by one member of staff on his/her own.

Most members of staff hated being that one staff member. Because let’s face it, it’s embarrassing – most grown-ups don’t want to be the only adult in a room full of naked children.

Not Mr Allen.

Within months of arriving at the school, Mr Allen had managed to fix it such that he supervised no fewer than three of the five weekly “change back” sessions: Monday’s, Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s.

None of the other staff saw this as suspicious.

I was eleven when he started supervising change back sessions, and was still slightly too young to work out whatwas going on. It wasn’t until Mr Allen took a personal interest in me that I eventually realised what he was.

I was exceptionally musical as a child – when I was seven I had qualified for Mensa membership and they’d basically told my parents “buy him instruments!” so they did. I played three instruments by age eleven (piano, clarinet, saxophone) and Mr Allen had suggested that as one of his “star pupils” I be given private lessons by him, so that I might become the school’s new church organist. The local church was a gorgeous medieval one with a powerhouse of an organ, and I thought it’d be cool to be playing it. I hadn’t yet worked out what Mr Allen was, so I said I’d go along.

My mum found out that I was being considered for private lessons with Mr Allen and was immediately worried, insisting that my Dad accompany me to the church with Mr Allen rather than my just going with Mr Allen. At the time I didn’t understand why this was.

So my Dad, Mr Allen and I went to the church. I played on the organ. They chatted about music. We parted ways amicably – me to my Dad’s new flat (he and my mum had just separated after many years of arguing but thankfully, as far as I know, no physical aggression) and Mr Allen to his house on the grounds of the school.

That evening my Dad chatted to me about the possibility of having organ lessons. And I remember the exact moment the penny dropped: “You’re welcome to have the lessons,” he said, “but I think you should know about Mr Allen. He’s one of the most… “single” men I have ever met.”

People have since told me that that was a spectacularly unhelpful way for my Dad to explain to me what Mr Allen was. But in that instant I knew.

Suddenly, aged eleven:

I knew why Mr Allen was supervising three change back sessions a week.

I knew why he stood at the entrance to the communal showers when supervising change back, rather than at the far end of the room like all the other teachers.

I knew why he wanted to give me private tuition.

I didn’t even know the word, but in that moment, sat on my Dad’s sofa in a bland Woking suburb at age eleven, I knew for the first time that Mr Allen was a paedophile.

My whole world collapsed in on itself. I suddenly found myself facing a school day tomorrow, and my first class was with Mr Allen.

I refused to go in. I barricaded myself in a room in my dad’s flat and refused to come out.

My parents understood why. Livid, they went straight to the Headmaster, Mr Cassell (remember that name – we’ll be talking about him later), and told him their suspicions. He promised that they’d sort the situation out. My parents left.

Mr Cassell “sorted the situation out” by going straight to Mr Allen about it. So the first thing that happened when I got back to school the next day was that Mr Allen was waiting for me, furious.

He escorted me to his office and basically called me a horrible person for half an hour. “I don’t know what I’ve ever done to you that makes you think I’m some sort of ogre” were his exact words.

I remember sitting there aged eleven, desperately trying not to cry about the outrage and anger I felt, desperately wanting to scream at him “you want to have sex with children! That’s why I think you’re an ogre!”

Instead, I apologised.

I didn’t know what else to do, and I was alone in a remote part of the school with a man I had just realised some thirty-six hours earlier was a monster. So I apologised for having gone to my parents, I apologised for them having gone to Mr Cassell, I apologised for everything I could think of apologising for. And I cried, despite having tried not to.

He sent me off on my way. He told me he was “heartbroken”.

And nothing changed.

Mr Allen stayed in charge of three change back sessions a week. The next term he was also made head of swimming. One might safely hazard a guess at why the role appealed to him.

Speaking of roles, he also gave me a substantial role in the school play (HMS Pinafore – I was Sir Joseph) and made me a “corner boy” in the choir. I remained terrified of him but knew not to let that show.

He pursued a personal vendetta against my best friend at the time (presumably out of jealousy) making excuses to publicly humiliate him whenever he could, frequently making him cry in front of other pupils.

Very soon, all of us aged 11 – 13 knew what Mr Allen was. And our parents knew.

And still nothing changed.

We didn’t know what to do. We had told our parents. That was all we knew how to do. They had told teachers.

And still nothing changed.

Change back sessions continued as always, with Mr Allen still supervising three a week. During this time I saw classmates, other boys and children as young as five groomed and abused on a regular basis. Those children were too young to realise what was being done to them. The older children (myself included) knew by then exactly what we were witnessing, but were powerless to stop it. I have always had a good ear for dialogue and conversations; regrettably this means I can recite entire conversations he had with five-year-olds, even twenty years on. I wish I couldn’t.

This went on for two years without interruption.

Bullying in the school got worse. Kids started getting hospitalised. A kid sprayed deodorant directly into another kid’s eye, almost blinding him. One kid tried to drown another in the swimming pool. We were all “acting out”, as the Americans call it.

As I reached the top class of the school, 6A, we were scheduled to have a “Leavers’ Trip”, a week of activities in Derbyshire supervised by Mr Allen and art teacher Mrs Gould.

Our parents were by this point rallying round to see what could be done about Mr Allen.

I should explain – the question you’re probably asking yourself by this point is “why, if our parents knew about Mr Allen and what he was, didn’t they do something more substantial? Why did they keep sending you there? Why didn’t they call the police?”

All good questions, those.

Unfortunately, we’re in Yew Tree Land for the answer to that one. “It was a different time” is the only answer I’ve ever had. In the late nineties the media would explode with documentaries about paedophiles. This was the mid-nineties. That’s it. That is the explanation.

If it seems lacking to you, trust me: it does to me, too.

Anyway. Aged thirteen I was meant to be going, with maybe fifteen other kids from Forms 6 and 6A, on this Leavers’ Trip. We were due to be staying in a hostel.

Our parents, understandably worried about Mr Allen, approached art teacher Mrs Gould en masse with their concerns. She told them that Mr Allen was a lovely man (not true), that he was married (not true) and that her own son had spent time with him and he’d been fine. “How old is your son?” my mum asked. “Sixteen” Mrs Gould replied.” “Well… he’s probably a bit old for Mr Allen” my mum apparently said.

Mrs Gould lost her temper. “I don’t think you realise how disgusting and serious an allegation that is” she said to my mum.

Our parents insisted that Mrs Gould should at no point leave Mr Allen with unsupervised access to us during the week of the trip. She begrudgingly accepted, although said that there was “no need” for that measure.

On the trip, Mr Allen brought along with him a sixteen year old boy who shared a room with him for the whole trip. Who was he? It was never explained. They slept in the room next to ours, one unlockable door away. Mrs Gould, breaking her promise, slept in a different building entirely for the whole week.

And nothing changed.

Throughout all this, Mr Allen had been particularly interested in me. But I wasn’t his favourite. His favourite (let’s call him Kid 1) was the choir leader, two years younger than me, so nine when Mr Allen had started. We’ll come back to him later.

So how did I finally escape?

I graduated.

Yup – at no point during my two years being taught by Mr Allen did my parents remove me or my little brother from the school. They nearly did, ironically before any of the actual abuse had started, but the school basically promised my mum that if I didn’t leave I’d be made House Captain or at least a Monitor (Prefect, basically) and that that would look good on my secondary school application. They (chiefly the Headmaster Mr Cassell – and again, remember that name for later) made her feel ridiculous for wanting to remove me from the school, and in fact in doing so made her cry.

Incidentally, I was never made House Captain or even a Monitor. Not that it matters.

Having graduated from a paedophilic hell hole, I was immediately sent to hellish boarding school.

There I panicked whenever I got into the showers (although I didn’t understand why at the time) and refused to shower for weeks. I became incredibly unpopular with my dorm mates, as you can imagine, and was bullied because of it. Within two months I was hallucinating, threatening suicide, sitting on outside window sills four floors up with a closed window behind me, phoning my mum every day (my House Master called me “pathetic” for doing so, so that was nice) and begging to be taken home.

After two or three months, I got my wish. In late 1996 I was taken out of the boarding school and sent instead to a local day school, age fourteen.

That day school was great – I made friends almost instantly.

My little brother was still at the primary school I’d gone to, and about halfway through his last academic year Mr Allen was suddenly fired. At the primary school the kids called it “VA Day”, “‘Victory over Allen’ Day”; they ran through the corridors shouting “MR ALLEN’S BEEN FIRED” and the school was, for that day, apparently filled with a camaraderie and “we’ve survived this together” trench spirit that I wish I’d been there to witness.

So why did he get fired? By which I mean, of course, “for which of the many, many valid reasons to fire him was he eventually fired?”

Well, remember Kid 1? His favourite, two years younger than me.

Apparently Mr Allen had been abusing Kid 1 worse than anyone else, myself included. And had insisted that the kid write to him while on holiday with family. The kid did so, every day. The family got suspicious. The kid eventually broke down and told them everything. The family flew home and pressed charges.

Mr Allen was tried and found guilty for crimes against Kid 1. If I remember correctly, these were molestation and attempted rape, with several other charges brought but not proved or provable.

Our parents tried to keep the trial secret from us. I was never asked to give any evidence or asked whether I had been abused. To my knowledge, none of us were asked anything; just Kid 1. The teachers claimed in local media (it never made national news, perhaps surprisingly) that Mr Allen had “pulled the wool over [their] eyes” and that they’d had no idea, that no-one had told them anything about any suspicions about Mr Allen. Not true, of course.

No-one from the school ever contacted us. No-one apologised. No-one did anything.

We were just expected to go on with things as if nothing had happened.

Mr Allen was sentenced to five and a half years, and served three and a half. From there he vanished back up north, into obscurity.

My teenage years were a mess. Suicide attempts, mental illness that wasn’t diagnosed until I was seventeen. Perhaps worse still was the worries it gave me about myself. Aged fifteen I started to realise that I had same-sex attractions. The only gay man I’d encountered up until that point was you-know-who, and he’d also happened to be a paedophile. So I was terrified that that’s what I’d become. Thankfully I didn’t, although I have no idea how I dodged that particular bullet.

These days I’m bisexual and fine with it – and exclusively attracted to adults, I hasten to add.

Brief tangent – two other interesting things about teachers at my primary school:

Firstly – there was also a man called Mr Lea who was variously our woodwork teacher, Maths teacher or Scripture teacher (it was a small school so most teachers taught more than one subject). He was maybe seventy and used to stroke boys’ faces. “Sir, should I sand this wooden bowl I’ve made on the lathe?” “Well, how smooth is it?” he’d ask. Then he’s stroke our faces with the back of his finger. “It’s not quite this smooth, is it?” he’d ask, grinning straight at us.

Yeah. Bit creepy.

Secondly – remember Mr Cassell? The Headmaster I mentioned? The one who had hired Mr Allen and mocked my mum for wanting to remove me from the school, making her cry? Welp, three years after I left he was found guilty of indecently assaulting a nine-year-old girl and an eleven-year-old boy, albeit twenty years before his time at my primary school. He had also been accused of assaulting two more children but these charges were dropped.

Or, to put it another way, in 1993 a paedophile Headmaster hired a paedophile teacher and gave him free reign over a room full of naked children for three years, and the school has never seen any need to apologise for any of that.

Even if, for sake of argument, we suppose that Mr ‘Face-stroker’ Lea was not in fact a paedophile – Mr Allen and Mr Cassell demonstrably (and provably, in the court of law) were; both were jailed for it. So in the senior part of the primary school we had one paedophile for every sixty children. If we include Mr Lea, it’s one paedophile for every forty children.

We were, effectively, lambs to the slaughter. We never stood a chance.

So what has the school done to make reparations?

Nothing.

Literally nothing.

I have emailed the then-Maths-teacher-now-headmaster who applauded my “bravery” for speaking so openly about it, but he saw no need to apologise for the actions of what is now his school.

As a teenager and young adult I suffered with all kinds of mental and physical illnesses that would go undiagnosed for years. The thing is, no-one was taking the blame. Not Mr Allen. Not the school. Not my mum (my dad passed away in 2001 after a lifelong battle with alcoholism).

So guess who I blamed, for the best part of two decades?

I blamed myself.

I hadn’t stopped the abuse from happening to me. So it was, as I saw it for many many years, my fault. I didn’t realise I felt that way until I was an adult. I didn’t realise it was bullshit until I was in my thirties.

And it is bullshit. Of course it is; I realise that now. It’s victim blaming of the highest order. It was not my responsibility, aged 11 – 13, to get myself out of that situation. It was my parents’ responsibility to ensure my safety. It was Mr Allen’s responsibility not to abuse me. It was the school’s responsibility to ensure that their staff are suitable, ideally not sex offenders, and to follow up on any accusations to the contrary.

None of them fulfilled those responsibilities, none of them acknowledged that they should have done so, and none of them apologised failing to do so. So instead, without even realising it, I took the blame myself.

In 2007, aged 25, I went to the police and gave a statement. They subsequently questioned Mr Allen but he claimed he had “forgotten” what had happened as it was “such a long time ago”. The only option I had left was a my-word-against-his court battle in which I’d have to relive the whole thing and basically be called a liar by hostile cross-examiners. Combating my own legion of mental illnesses at the time, I decided to let the whole thing drop. My statement exists now only as a “bad character statement” against Mr Allen in case he ever gets called to court again, which I’m sure he will. I may be called to give evidence in a future trial in which he is accused of a similar crime.

But yes. Mr Allen claimed he had “forgotten” what had happened.

Funnily enough, I have not.

In 2007 I wrote a play in which a central (female) character has a history of having been abused, and ends up dating a guy who works online to eliminate evidence of child abuse. This play went on to become Unscorched, and though that backstory of having been abused was eventually removed and the focus shifted towards the male character, the in-depth knowledge of the blunt, creeping effect of psychological trauma that I learnt at primary school stayed in the script and is (in my opinion) what made it work.

“[You] go through life thinking there’s a limit to the things that people will do to each other. But there’s not. There’s just not.”

                                                                                              – Unscorched

In 2013 – after six years of trying to get someone to listen to what I had to say via that play – it won an award and was professionally staged in London, launching my career as a playwright.

In 2014, my youngest older brother (the one who was the first to go to private school before me), still living in the area in which I grew up, was looking for a private primary school for his own kids.

Guess which one he chose.

Yeah.

That one.

The abuse I suffered had been a family secret. I hadn’t told anyone in my family the full extent of it and my older brothers knew nothing.

My Mum, on hearing that my older brother planned to send his own kids to that primary school, immediately told my brother what had happened to me there, without my permission. I sent a polite but emotional (and, in my opinion, well-founded) email to both of them saying that (a) that secret was not  Mum’s to tell, it was mine and (b) I think it’s an awful thing to do to endorse (and indeed PAY) a school at which your younger brother was abused – more so if that school has never apologised for that abuse. He (my brother) calmly and rationally explained that he was simply doing what was best for his kids (it’s a great school these days – apparently). I said that it was kinda heartless but that I understood his decision. I also said that I intended to pursue legal action against the school at some point. He told me not to, that I was being “abusive” towards him, risking his children’s future. I told him I wasn’t going to answer that. He called me a dick. He’s ten years older than me.

I have not seen him since, and his children will be attending the school soon.

In 2012 and again in 2015 I emailed the now-headmaster (then-Maths-teacher) of the school, asking for an apology on behalf of the school. He applauded my “bravery” for “speaking so openly” and at first made motions towards wanting to help me. When I asked for an apology he refused, and said that it “would not be appropriate” to talk about all that. I can kinda see why, from a coward’s perspective. An apology is an admission of wrongdoing, and he could legally expose his school to getting sued. So for now, no apology is coming because the now-Headmaster is a coward.

Fine.

In 2015 I got the apology from my mum, after years and years of asking for that and having not received it. It came in the form of an email, and was about two sentences long. And it meant the world. Until that point she had never apologised for leaving us in the school or failing to go to the police about Mr Allen.

I have never had an apology from the school or Mr Allen, and don’t expect either. The lack of apology from the school is, weirdly, the harder thing to deal with.

So how am I now, at age 34?

I’m getting better.

But a lifetime of dealing with unpleasant memories has taken its toll. I rely too heavily on bad coping strategies and I run away from my problems. I also have a number of physical ailments that, frustratingly, have a high correlation with having experienced abuse. Let’s look at the full list, shall we?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome
A 1993 study suggests that 33% of sufferers were previously victims of child abuse. I am in that demographic, meaning that a wonderful world of continual abdominal pain is all mine for the taking. Most mornings I am awoken by “the pain alarm clock”, and lose entire days/weeks to pain management.

Conversion disorder
A somatisation disorder which is basically a symptoms free-for-all, means that in moments of stress my body physicalises that stress and I can have muscle spasms, muscle paralysis and even Psychogenic Non-Epileptic Seizures. Again, proven correlation with having experienced abuse.

Triggers everywhere
I’ve had panic attacks in the middle of sex. I’ll be there with some lovely person or other and they’ll say one thing that was similar to something Mr Allen once said – and suddenly the rest of the night/day/week is basically written off. I’ll find that I’m with someone really nice who wants to have sex with me and suddenly one comment and I’m triggered and terrified and feeling the need for personal space and safety. So I either have to explain to them why that’s just happened or, sometimes, just come across as a crazy person. More often than not I tell them what’s happened, but they don’t always react well. “I don’t know why you’ve just told me that” (and being vaguely angry about it) is not an uncommon reaction. Usually though, people with whom I’m having sex are already people I know quite well so it’s okay. But I haven’t had sex without being heavily intoxicated in maybe six years. I can’t hack it, psychologically. Too much risk.

Nightmares
I have nightmares and flashbacks. I’ve woken in the middle of the night, been conscious of someone lying pressed against me in the darkness and panicked. For this reason I can’t sleep between someone and the wall – to this day I have to have the side nearest the door.

Mental illness
Of course, some of my mental illness was probably going to happen anyway. But the sort of childhood I had doesn’t help. I have chronic unipolar depression that has kept me out of regular work for the last four years and been a huge factor in every relationship I’ve had. I have literally lost track of how many times I have tried to kill myself – maybe five? Six?

Anger
I am really not an angry person on the surface. My friends largely think of me as psychologically fragile – and for that reason occasionally unreliable – but generally a decent, kind, friendly (and apparently quite funny) guy. But for twenty years I have carried around a dead weight of anger – anger at Mr Allen, anger at the school, anger at my Mum for leaving me at the school. The anger towards Mr Allen has – after two decades – just passed (he’s not worth it, he’s a shit). The anger towards my mum subsided in 2015 when she apologised. The anger towards the school has not yet passed. I have no way of expressing anger – I don’t shout at people, I’m terrified of being nasty towards people for fear of how they’d react and fear of hurting their feelings, so for years it was like I had a dead weight of anger, like a bowling ball in my lower abdomen, and I was lugging it around everywhere I went. Processing that anger and making sure it didn’t spill out into my day-to-day life was a huge task and occupied far more of my psychological bandwidth than I ever let on.

I live with all of the above today, and comparatively the abuse I suffered wasn’t anything like as bad as some. In fact, it wasn’t even the worst in the school.

The weirdest thing of all, though, is the good that’s come from the hell I went through.

It has taken me an absolute age to realise it or give myself any credit for it, but my in-depth knowledge of emotional and psychological suffering has been turned, in part by me, to some good use.

1)    I go out of my way to be supportive and nice to people.
People seem to open up to me. I am a good listener, apparently, and help people make sense of chaotic, confusing situations. I am able to use my understanding of psychological trauma to help friends through theirs. I want to be nice to people because I know how incredibly nasty people can be to each other. If you’re going through hell, don’t worry; I have the map.

2)    I’m a pretty respectful person.
I don’t harass women on the street, I don’t consciously pressure people to have sex with me. Partly because I know how awful it is to be the victim of unwanted sexual attention. It’s grim. Most men don’t know that. I do.

3)    My writing displays a knowledge of psychological devastation that many people my age simply don’t have.
If I hadn’t been abused, would I have written the play that launched my writing career? Almost certainly not. And the “understated” tone of the play that so many critics liked – that’s there because I didn’t want to traumatise people, because I know how unpleasant it is to be traumatised. I did not, as some blog-reviewers suggested (nay, demanded) I should, fill it with dialogue intended to traumatise the audience, because I know how horrible it is to be traumatised and I’m not a complete wanker.

I have forgiven my mum (although it took at least twenty years) and I have been able to let go of my anger towards Mr Allen, although that took me just as long.

People, throughout, have been accidentally patronising about it. “Have you ever thought about maybe getting some help/dealing with it?” they almost invariably ask, as if the idea is new to me, as if I haven’t been in counselling since I was seventeen and prescribed half a dozen different anti-depressants over the years. “You can’t let this own your whole life, because then Mr Allen wins”. Though well-meaning, those sort of comments never, ever help. Because they imply that I’m not fighting it, that I haven’t been fighting it for years, that I’ve just been casually letting it ruin my life without thinking “actually, maybe I don’t want that”, that I’ve just resigned myself to this aftermath. Trust me, I have been fighting the psychologically devastating legacy of that school for twenty years. The fact that I’m even alive now is testament to that, and to the many wonderful people whose support and friendship I have managed to gather over the years.

When people talk about paedophiles, Operation Yew Tree and all that, the knee-jerk reaction seems to be “string them all up” or “lock them up and throw away the key”. That sort of talk makes me vaguely angry – because it’s not a solution. We don’t live in a country in which the death penalty exists (and “well, we should” doesn’t get us anywhere either) and we don’t have indefinite sentences for paedophiles (and again, “well, we should” isn’t an argument that achieves anything).

I have more reason than most to hate paedophiles, and yet – strangely – these days I don’t hate them as much as most people do. Make no mistake, their crimes sicken me and they are, as people, abhorrent to me. And yet, for whatever reason, I pity them. I feel much, much more sorry for their victims, of course, but I can’t imagine what it must be like to realise that you have that sort of abhorrent desire. Where would you go? These days the answer tothat is almost always “the internet”, it would seem – where they meet other paedophiles who validate their desires and encourage them to act on them, leading to an awful perpetual cycle of abuse to which there is no beginning or end.

Perhaps what they need, and what society needs, is help. If Mr Allen had been helped in 1992, perhaps I wouldn’t be sat here in 2015 talking about the trauma he caused me, the devastation it wreaked upon my brain or the faultlines it has left through my life. Perhaps there wouldn’t now be dozens of men in Surrey, aged about 30, whose lives have been thrown into disarray by the actions of one man. To surmise the extent of a problem: I approached counsellors in Surrey in 2007, and one of them said to me “the moment you mentioned the name of the school, I knew what was coming.” The school’s name is well-known among local counsellors because they’ve been doing a roaring trade from its legacy for years.

Of course, suggesting that we should do anything other than “string them all up” will (perhaps understandably, in the current climate) get you accused of… you guessed it… being a paedophile. So no-one does. And the problem goes on. And people keep getting abused.

We have not, as a society, come up with a solution to this problem.

The worst thing is: I don’t know that there is one. Perhaps complete segregation IS the answer. Perhaps chemical castration. I don’t know. I wish I did. Certainly there have been times that I’ve felt like enacting violence against Mr Allen, wherever he is. Certainly I feel that same anger that the string-em-uppers feel. But rather than just spouting rhetoric and anger, I hope that one day we can, as a society, find a solution to this problem. Because I don’t want anyone, ever, to have to go through what I went through.

To be sure, what happened to me could have been a lot, lot worse. And yet it’s nearly ruined my life, and nearly killed me more than once.

But for those of you who’ve ever wondered “why did all these people in Operation Yew Tree wait decades before mentioning the abuse they’d suffered” – I hope their decisions now make a bit more sense to you. They’ve been busy.

Mr Allen is now free. He never had any legal recourse for anything he did to anyone except Kid 1, and we are just expected to be okay with that.

I am not yet okay with that. It is my hope that one day I will be, and that one day it won’t matter to me that I got abused.

I think I can get there, and I await that day with bated breath.

Lastly, if you’re a young person reading this and you’ve just gone through a similar thing in your own life, the message I have for you is actually, perhaps surprisingly, one of hope. The road ahead is going to be enormously difficult, and I don’t envy you at all as you embark on this lengthy journey towards that distant land of Being Okay. I am still on that road, although further ahead, but I can see our destination from here and to be honest it looks pretty great.

And along the way you’ll learn what I’ve learned: that when it comes down to it, the vast majority of people are decent, kind, loving people who will care about you and want to make you feel better than you do right now. Most people think that what you’ve gone through is horrible. Most people want to punch your abuser in the face.

People are okay. It took me ages to realise it but they are. For every one horrible person in my past I have twenty wonderful people in my present, and to achieve that I didn’t really have to do anything except be kind and say thank you.

And know too that there are other people out there who get it, this pain you’re going through. They have been burnt by the same fire. You may never meet them, but they are there, in their millions. They stand on the same planet and look at the same stars as you, and they understand.

Sparing the Child

 

Spanking or “smacking” children is always going to be a sensitive subject. Here in the UK, it’s legal to do so provided the person doing it leaves no physical marks (such as bruising or bleeding) but understandably the debate still rages.

A meta-analysis of fifty years of data on the subject recently found that smacking has no positive effects on a child’s outcome, and makes them more likely to have mental health problems as they grow up.

The responses to the article, and indeed the study, have been fairly predictable.

“Rubbish.”

“I was smacked as a child and I can confirm that I am 100% okay.”

“Kids today should be smacked. That’s why so many teenagers and young adults now are degenerates with no respect for authority.”

“I smacked my kids and they grew up to be fine.”

First and foremost, an admission: I was smacked. A lot. I have four brothers, they were all smacked too – the older three far more than I was. Almost all of it was done by our father. I have no children, but have no intention of smacking them if ever I do and would have a serious objection to any partner who might want to do so.

I also have mental health problems (nothing exotic, mainly depression), though I do not suggest that these are the result of my having been smacked.

The thing is, often when talking about smacking, people who are in favour of it make several assumptions, without even realising that they’re doing so:

  • They assume that the smacking is done fairly, with a fixed set of rules
  • They assume that the parent/guardian is of sound mind
  • They assume that the parent/guardian has no substance abuse issues going on.

In our family’s case, none of the above assumptions were true. My Dad was an alcoholic and quite possibly had a number of undiagnosed mental health issues, but the key problem with us being smacked was that it was never done fairly. There were no fixed rules.

Sometimes my little brother and I could talk late into the night and be fine. Other times, one peep out of us and we’d get smacked. Sometimes it was okay for us to be doing something, and were even told by my father that it was fine to do so. Next night we’d do the same and get instantly smacked, him telling us “you know the rules”.

So what effect did it have on me? That’s harder to determine.

It taught me to do certain things, though:

  • I became very good at using disparate bits of information to work out my father’s mood.

Where was the whiskey bottle? If it was in a certain place in the floor, he was probably sober. If it was in another, he was probably drunk. To this day, I am very good at predicting people’s behaviour based on very little information. People think this is a cute personality trait of mine, but I learnt it as a child, and back then it was how I stayed as safe as I could.

  • It made me terrified of upsetting anyone.

I remember being about seven, and at school – and at the end of one school day I threw my school cap in the air on the way towards my Mum’s car and received a stern look from the teacher for doing so. I was so rarely in trouble that this stern look sort of terrified me, and I went home in tears. “I threw my cap in the air and the teacher gave me a cross look” I remember saying, sobbing. My Mum told me I had overreacted and to this day still remembers the incident as some sort of amusing indication of what I was like as a child.

Thing is, I was terrified. I had angered the teacher, and everything I knew about human behaviour up until that point (largely from home) suggested to me that angering someone had immediate and unstoppable consequences. Of course, the teacher didn’t hit me, but that sense of fear stuck with me. I was certain my actions had put me in danger. It’s a knee-jerk reaction that remains with me to this day – upsetting or angering anyone sends me into almost a panic mode and makes me completely unable to focus or concentrate.

Some people might say that this demonstrates that smacking had taught me to respect authority. But it wasn’t respect, it was fear. And it has no practical use. I had no intention of breaking the rules in the first place.

  • It made me dislike my father

Did I respect him? Not really. Did I like him? Not at all. Not while I was growing up. Eventually as he stopped smacking us I was able to have more of a relationship with him (although barely, because he was still drunk most of the time or in hospital or rehab), but for most of my early childhood I just saw him as a drunken tyrant.

  • It taught me that it’s acceptable for people who love me to physically hurt me

As a man, this is merely a weird facet of my childhood. But I can’t help but think that if I’d been a girl and had been smacked, would it alter my view on domestic violence? Would it make me more likely to stay in a relationship in which I was being hit?

 

So did it do me any harm? That’s unclear. Some people might argue that none of the above is particularly nasty, and I certainly don’t sit around thinking “woe is me, I was spanked and now I can’t deal with life”.

What I object to, I think, is the continual assertion from people who were smacked or who smacked/smack their kids that “oh it never did me any harm, therefore this scientific analysis of fifty years of data is clearly wrong”. Sorry, but no. Your evidence is anecdotal. As is mine. But the meta-analysis of fifty years of data, that’s scientific, so it trumps whatever subjective opinions we might have on the matter.

Is it partly a sense of guilt that keeps parents who smacked their children from admitting that it might not have helped them at all? Sat here writing this I’m having a Twitter debate with a seemingly not-entirely-evil lady whose opening gambit was that she smacked her three children and they all grew up to be fine, upstanding citizens.

Problem is, maybe they would have grown up to be fine, upstanding citizens anyway. Surely this lady’s parenting was about more than smacking, so maybe some of that worked. We just don’t know.

Similarly, people who were smacked by their parents/guardians might not want to think that it was all in vain, that their parents were just smacking them for basically no reason. And that’s understandable.

What I would suggest is this: look at the evidence. Yes, maybe you were smacked and it did you no harm. Maybe I was smacked and it did me little harm. But that’s a sample size of two. Compared to the scientific evidence, it’s completely irrelevant.

Look at the evidence. And reconsider.

48 Hours in Milan

So a few weeks back I agreed to be in a production of my play Unscorched… in Milan.

The young but immensely dedicated theatre company doing the production (It’s Time) had already done a rehearsed reading and a ‘mise en scene’ of the piece in English, and both had gone very well. They were now, however, looking for someone new to play the role of Simon, who only appears in scene one, for a one-off performance at the Fabbrica del Vapore (Steam Factory) as part of the first Milan Playwriting Festival.

I was offered the role, despite my being all the way over here in Norwich. At the time I had no idea whether I was being brave or foolhardy accepting it. But, rather excitedly, accept it I did.

I was invited to Milan, with the plan being that I would be there for forty-eight hours:
Thursday: land in Milan, tech rehearsal, dress rehearsal
Friday: performance
Saturday: fly back to England

And that’s pretty much how it went. Flying in from Stansted, I landed in Milan on Thursday afternoon and was taken to the flat I’d be staying in by Jumi and Claudio, the girlfriend and father (respectively) of the chap playing the part of Tom, Francesco. I quickly stashed my stuff in the bedroom before heading straight out and to the theatre itself for the tech rehearsal.

There I met the team: Director (Marco Ghelardi), cast (Francesco Lovati (Tom), Simone Formicola (Nidge), Maria Renda (Emily) and Giacomo Rabbi (Mark)), as well as various members of the production team. They gave me a warm welcome, and within minutes the stage was set. We were going to be running scene one (my only scene), then a cue to cue, then a full dress rehearsal – and that’d be it for the day.

The thing I noticed immediately was that the vibe there, and indeed throughout my time in Milan, was identical to any theatrical production I’ve ever done in England. The tech in particular – the combination of nerves, actors joking with each other and doing warm-ups, minor technical issues being solved, waiting around, technical staff occasionally puncturing the quiet with requests for people to go and stand in place for whatever scene – it all felt instantly and reassuringly familiar, even though I speak little to no Italian.

All eyes on me as the new guy, I took my place in the wings and waited for first of only two rehearsals I’d have to start.

Almost immediately I fluffed a line. Or rather, fluffed a silence – breaking out of it and asking what the right line was when actually it wasn’t my line at all. Oops. My own stupid fault for putting so many silences in it. Ah well.

The scene went okay (although I completely soaked the table when I poured the lemon juice over it), as did the cue-to-cue. Marco gave me a few notes, and we did a dress rehearsal; this time with no fluffed lines.

Afterwards we all gathered on the floor for notes – again, just like any rehearsal I’ve done in the UK. Everyone seemed pretty pleased – they asked me for my opinion and I told them (truthfully) I thought they’d done a great job of it and I was looking forward to the performance tomorrow.

After a long day I got back to the flat and almost immediately passed out on the bed.

Day two was mainly a day of rest, perhaps surprisingly. The show would begin at 8:30pm, with the call at 7. I spent much of the day going through my lines and trying not to be nervous.

Off to the theatre for the performance.

We did the (I’m told) traditional Italian “good luck” ritual – everyone puts their hands together in a circle, chants “uno, due, tre, merda, merda, merda!” (“one, two, three, shit, shit, shit!”) and then go around the circle patting each others’ bums. Lol.

I went into the wings and waited for the show to start. By then I had rehearsed it only twice.

The audience started coming in. It was pretty full – maybe 50 – 100 people there, with Italian subtitles being projected above the stage for those audience members not fluent in English.

The show went really well; they did me proud. I was pretty pleased with my performance; I didn’t fluff any lines, poured a sensible amount of lemon juice over the keyboard and watched the rest of the play from backstage. At one point Giacomo turned to me and said “You have written a wonderful play; it hurts to act it”. This phrase was literally true for Simone Formicola, who became the second Nidge in Unscorched’s history to receive an AirFix-model-related injury, albeit in rehearsal rather than performance. Oops.

The performances were great – each of the actors had clearly given a lot of time and thought to their character and I was honoured to be part of the production. The direction, too, was first class. And hey presto, we’d finished the show.

After a quick Q+A session with the audience (via translation by Marco) I said my farewells to the cast and team, thrilled with how it had all gone.

Went for a bit of a drink with some of the Finborough-y folks who’d arrived earlier in the day: writers Sarah Page (The Sweethearts, Finborough) and Stuart Slade (Cans, 503) and actors Jennifer Clement and Graham O’Mara, all of whom had just seen Unscorched and seemed very nice. We bonded over a few drinks.

Drinks turned into more drinks. Which turned into dancing at a nearby reggae night at a Moroccan-themed place (as you do), which turned into more drinks, and then we had to make it back to the flat at 2:20am (and it was quite some distance) while all shitfaced, in the rain, with no idea whether the trams were still running (Jen managed to persuade a passing tram driver who was taking his tram back to the depot to let us in – albeit only for two stops) and we staggered along Milan’s deserted streets drinking beers that we’d opened on nearby steps and broken the tops of (mmm, delicious broken glass) like a bunch of fools, while desperately trying in vain to flag down nearby taxis. One stopped but it only had four seats, and there were five of us, so we walked. And walked.

We made it back to the flat, soaking wet, chatted for a bit and then slept.
In the morning I woke up to find that Sarah’s advice of “ah, the wine here doesn’t give you hangovers because they don’t have to put weird chemicals in it” was patently not true (lol). I said my farewells, was driven to the airport (which in itself was a bit of an adventure – Italian driver, Chinese Sat Nav, with Jumi (originally Taiwanese) translating directions for him) and got my plane back to England.

The whole thing lasted less than forty-eight hours and was completely wonderful. From the parents of my host to the team at the theatre, the cast, the director, literally every person I met in my time in Italy was completely lovely and had not a single bad thing to say about anyone or anything.

I feel immensely lucky and honoured to have been chosen to have such an amazing experience – to see how theatre works in a country whose theatrical scene I previously knew nothing about, and to find, heartwarmingly, that it was almost identical to our own. As I put it in the Q+A session afterwards: “theatre is, it seems, universal”.

I feel immensely privileged to have had so many talented people working on every aspect of the production, too – who showed a genuine passion for the play and for doing their very best with it.

The production will be back in February, for a one week run at the Teatro Out Off.

I hope I get to see it.

Ciao, Milano. E grazie. Mille grazie!