I COULD BE ANYONE
Actors will say they walk on air, break a leg, put on face, fly the horse, walk the plank, swallow a sword… they’ll adapt their whole persona, do anything in heaven and sometimes in hell, when they want that job badly enough…
It was at one of my aunt’s funerals, of which there have been many, by anyone’s standards I had lots… aunts that is. We were outside, after the service, in the warm summer sun. I was standing some short distance away from the blood crowd of mourning merriment, wondering how to leave without drawing focus, when my cousin, squeezing out from the throng,
made his way over, on a lubricated turn.
He sidled up so close I could smell the mixture of canapes and alcohol on his breath… I Could be Anyone? What’s that mean for heaven’s sake? He spoke loud enough for the words to catch the flames of family gossip, on the other side of the manicured lawns.
The ambiguity, might be a little confusing for someone on the straight and narrow, I replied, nervously, trying to detract attention and lift a smile.
You are somebody! he remarked, missing the target by miles.
That’s not the point, I said, trying to hide the annoyance… The ill educated can rise to the light, or wilt like a poisoned rose, hold the mantle to terror, or save the hour to the sword, depending on….
Don’t try to be clever Matthew… he said, cutting me off mid stream, change the title… it sullies the family name! With a quick condescending pat, to my shoulder, he lurched sideways and shuffled off, back to familiar faces on the other side of the lawn…
The Manor Secondary School for boys opened, a brand new building in 1959, my first year, with all the hope in the world. Neat classrooms… rows of woodwork and metalwork benches decorated with gleaming tools waiting patiently for young and eager hands to go to work. Science laboratories ready for every experiment one could imagine. Immaculate playing fields partnered a fully equipped gymnasium, crying out for the swift of foot to fly. And classrooms, oh the classrooms, crammed full of bountiful knowledge and delightful stories; where calligraphy pens, dirty-blue ink and reams of fresh paper were given out to wide eyed boys, who sat in rows of regimented desks, excited at the prospect of the next abundant lesson.
What a load of old bollocks that turned out to be!
I entered this raw and seething atmosphere totally unprepared, without any understanding of the armour and weaponry necessary to survive.
The top class was A, the bottom D and below D there was Removed, the class where I was to start my first term. Along with myself there were around twenty other boys who were barely able to speak, let alone read or write. The word failure, began pounding around, a permanent fixture inside my numb skull. “You’re not stupid, Matthew, of course you can read and write!” The formalities kept telling me otherwise. An academic fiasco, played out against a backdrop of scholastic excellence…
I was raised in a family of collective principles, in post-war Cambridge. My mother and father lead a prominent, bohemian, academic lifestyle. Well-read and, well versed in politics and the arts, they were privately educated and came away from Cambridge University before the war with B.A.s in English literature. A wing of the engineering faculty was named in honour of my maternal forefathers. We lived in a big house with a luxurious garden. My immediate neighbourhood was home to lorded engineers, scientists, grammarians, philosophers, mathematicians, doctors of law, of history, of sociology, of biology, of criminology, in any language, in any colour, in any array; an endless fount of expertise. My mates from school, the ones I wasn’t too embarrassed to bring home, called where I lived the posh side of the tracks, nob’s row.
After the stock-in-trade misery of Primary School, the combination of my parents’ political ideals and flunking a measly exam catapulted me headfirst into the Manor, which was situated on the edge of a council housing estate, in one of the seedier regions of that acclaimed city. Might as well have been on the other side of the moon, for all I knew.
As far as the school authorities were concerned, here was this boy from the posh side of town in the same class as a bunch of oiks. Some teachers seemed perplexed, but most went out of their way to put a son of privilege well and truly out of joint. More like boot camp than a campus of love and learning. Subjects were thrown at us at break neck speed; masters, given licence by the policies of the day, threating us with punishment if we didn’t keep up. I found myself constantly lagging behind. And if struggling with schoolwork wasn’t enough to reduce me to a quivering wreck, grappling with the enemy certainly was.
It became perfectly normal during a break to see at least one brawl where blood was spilt. Some of the harder boys brandished flick knives, or knuckledusters, particularly if the punch-up took place outside the gates after school. By the time of my second year I’d seen a boy impaled and killed with a javelin, another shot and paralysed with an airgun and many horrific fistfights. If ever the fire of a fight caught up with me, which it increasingly did, I’d become blind with rage and usually wound up beaten into the submission and tears of a snotty, toffee nosed wanker.
This pool of violence, which was my school, came to dictate my way of operating in the world; if it wasn’t for learning a lot about how to escape the horrors and how to face up to them, I just wouldn’t have survived. Using whatever creative intervention I could muster, I quickly learnt to drop those H’s and paint a local accent so as to merge with the other boys. Playing the idiot, buffoon, or total arsehole, as some of us did, became my expertise. By the time I reached my third year, I was thought of as nothing more than a troublemaker. For me and many of my mates, however, it was simply a matter of primitive survival.
“Now,” that old familiar voice declares, “we all have our cross to bear. You wouldn’t be where you are today without such a colourful tapestry! That’s what happens in life. It’s called character building!”
To my mind this was banging your head against a brick wall, to know how it feels when you stop. Mine was just one of thousands of schools through which a massive part of the population was filtered and segregated like chaff from wheat. If nothing else, I learnt what it was like to be schooled as an inferior, second-rate citizen. The polite excuse was that there were those who were good with their hands and those who weren’t… white-collar or blue-collar workers, dictated by the industrial needs of the day.
Having been branded as innately stupid, we needed to be funnelled and controlled. What better way to do this than to put the fear of god in us. Proverbs 13:24: Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him. It’s an old story, condoning terror as the main ingredient.
At my primary school the cane was positioned for all to see, like a prized trophy, above a replica of a Van Gogh painting, the one with fishing boats on a beach. This straight red stick was rarely put to task, but it still managed to induce dread into the imagination of a small child. At the Manor it turned out to be a good deal different. Caning was a way of life.
As well as the slipper and the one foot ruler, a lean bendy cane made of rattan was used for dealing out daily doses of punishment at the Manor. Rattan took over from birch, as the preferred instrument of correction, because it was said to have fitted in with Victorian ideals of modesty. Those ideals seemed to stick around for a very long time. Corporal punishment was outlawed in most state run schools as recently as 1986, some twenty seven years after my initiation. It was mainly through conspiratorial talk in the playground that the terror of canning really flared up.
“Jesus, it really hurts!” a wide eyed boy would exclaim. “I put a comic down the seat of my pants, so when the stick hits it don’t hurt at all”, says another. “Liar!” snarls his friend “How many did you get? “I got six, burns like a line of fire.”
Again and again, these torturous anecdotes kept teasing our deepest fears. If this fiery gossip wasn’t enough to push you off your stride, hearing the stick thrashing its soft target through the thin walls of that prefabricated prison certainly did.
We were given a lecture about school image. How the cane would be administered to any boy who stepped out of line. We were told that this diabolical form of control would only be used if it fitted the magnitude of the crime, but we were never told what constituted a crime worthy of such treatment. The deputy headmaster Mr Maxwell, a short, podgy man, whose face frequently looked like it was about to explode, took severe delight in telling the assembled school that even through two or three layers of clothing the cane would impart a considerable sting.
“Of course,” he whispered with a hint of secrecy in his voice, “the pain is even more intense if applied to the bare buttocks”.
Mr Maxwell had been brought in from my brother’s Secondary School, so I had warnings of his heartless reputation. His regime wasn’t helped by the fact that he’d brought with him some of the toughest rejects in the shire; teddy boys, motorcycle hoodlums, thugs who’d beat the unsuspecting to a pulp if you so much as looked at them the wrong way. Heeding my brother’s advice, for the most part, I managed to avoid Maxwell’s hooks. Then, as the terms ground to a painful crawl, I became careless with my behaviour.
“SCURFIELD, HANSLOW and WELFORD,” he yelled out our names with vitriolic hatred steaming from his lips,
“SEE ME AFTER ASSEMBLY!”
We had been trying to lighten the occasion, no doubt joshing around, whilst the rest of the school was singing the national anthem. To Mr Maxwell this was a red rag to a bull. He hauled us out in front of the whole school and told everyone we would be thrashed for degrading the image of the school and worst of all, for violating the Queen. I was beaten severely. Like my tougher companions, I tried to show indifference, but caved in to the devastation of sobbing uncontrollably in front of this dreadful teacher.
“Please sir, I’m sorry sir!”
“WHAT ARE YOU?”
“I’m good for nothing.”
“WHAT DID YOU SAY?”
“GOOD FOR NOTHING, SIR!”
“GOOD! NOW GET OUT OF MY SIGHT!”
My parents’ passion for the arts helped to realise my skill as an actor and in light of all the mess, they encouraged, nay begged me to be involved in the theatre at any level. Thus I took a step toward the stage, with the fear of not measuring up to the score line slashed indelibly across my buttocks.
The man who ran the Arts Theatre in Cambridge at this time was known as Commander Blackwood. He was a forthright gentleman, who had the air and graces of an old fashioned bank manager, rather than someone who might run such a flamboyant affair. During my third year at the Manor, through my mum’s involvement with the theatre at a local level, I got to meet the Commander. Much to my surprise, he agreed to give me a job, as a general dogs-body, for the duration of the school holidays.
I was amazed to be extended proper responsibility by the stage staff, especially by the stage director, who prompted me with humour and respect. I worked my socks off. I guess it’s hardly surprising that I learnt a damned sight more than I ever would have given the same amount of time at school.
The other side of getting to know the Arts Theatre more intimately was going with my parents to see plays before their London opening. My early memory of these excursions conjures up a feeling of nauseous boredom and a longing for the interval, when I would be offered a glass of branded cola in the cool of the foyer; a treat, because fizzy drinks weren’t approved of at home
At first there were limp musicals like Salad Days and No, No, Nanette and dreary productions of plays such as Private Lives and Fanny by Gaslight. This feeling of being dragged to the theatre changed, when dramatists like Arnold Wesker, Harold Pinter and Joan Littlewood began to make their mark. The plays got wiry and even connected with some of my disjointed feelings. I can never forget the power of Ian Holm in The Homecoming, Roy Kinnear’s humorous turn in Sparrers Can’t Sing, James Booth’s sinister twist in The Fire Raisers and other great eye openers. But the highlight, in a kind of caustic tumble, would come from the university itself…
Such was the social etiquette in those days that standing for the anthem before a play or a film was routine. I knew families who even stood when the nation’s tune saw out the end of a day’s television. The minute the drum-roll sounded the introduction, from village halls to grand pavilions, we rose to the occasion, no matter what and without question.
Sat with my mum and dad, expecting the usual formalities. The voices of the packed auditorium quietened, as a slight figure in a bow tie and tails walked across the stage, down to the orchestra pit, to the home of a grand piano. The pianist, looking not unlike a dapper penguin, gave a clipped bow and then turned his back to us. He flipped his tailcoat away from his behind, sat down on the stool and proceeded to play the national anthem.
And, right on cue, everyone in the theatre got to their feet. There was the usual polite silence, as the audience paid their respects. Then, having finished with the Queen, the house lights dimmed, prompting us back into our seats. Penguin-man went back up onto the stage and walked off, leaving behind the slight shuffling of coats and clearing of throats; familiar sounds from a theatre ready to descend into the world of play. After a naked pause, the well-groomed man came back. And with the same equal poise, he crossed the stage, as before, stepped down to the piano, as before, bowed and flicked his tails, as before, and sat and played our national anthem, as before. Perplexed, if not embarrassed, the audience decided amongst themselves that he must have made a mistake. We dutifully stood up to help him out. With whispers of faux pas sweeping through the theatre, Penguin-man departed for a second time.
Just as the audience began to settle, ready to put this rather peculiar incident behind them, the pianist returned to the stage once again. Repeating the exact same ritual, a little twitchy perhaps, the diminutive figure resumed his place at the piano. And for what seemed like the umpteenth time that evening, he keyed out the anthem. For a few sweet seconds the spectators seemed frozen in nothing less than opened-mouthed contortion. Some of the more patriotic obliged by getting up from their seats; others remained still and incensed. This was a step too far. Confusion reigned. When it finally sunk in that he was teasing our obedience, gasps of outrage and awkwardness gave way to a wave of elation, laughing and clapping.
Seems tame now, but back then, by a good few miles, this was radical. The breakdown, of our machinelike etiquette, seemed nothing short of a revolution. It blew fresh, vibrant air into what I had expected to be a stuffy night out at the theatre. The man playing the piano was Dudley Moore. The play was Beyond the Fringe, acclaimed today as pivotal to the birth of satirical theatre. It became a huge irony for me, this show, because of what had happened with Mr Maxwell at The Manor. But the screw that stuck in my throat was: How come Dudley got away with it and I didn’t!?
I had what is held up as the best within my grasp, but in the end was given the worst of what our schooling gives out to a vast majority – a feeling of disempowerment that comes from being incessantly told what to feel and think. I hovered awhile, like a bird in view of a city of spires, only to crash into a psychotic divide.
I may have come from the opposite end of the social spectrum to the boys I went to school with, but I was labelled and packaged as they were: a slow learner, word-blind, or as I came to embody from playground politics, thick and stupid. These derogatory terms, wrapped around my torso by the mechanism we call school, were measured against my background and mapped out my path in the world.
When my sentence was finally up, I couldn’t wait to escape. Along with the rest of the losers I was systematically chucked out, like a rotten piece of meat from a butcher’s shop. With a pathological hatred of school, Cambridge and all it represented, I left when I was fifteen, embroiled in a web of semi-illiteracy, bitterness and relief. Unsurprisingly, I veered dangerously close to the abyss.
By the time I hit my twenty-first birthday I’d lost all confidence in doing anything worthwhile. Somehow I managed to avoid an untimely death, by clinging onto the hope that I might find some respect in the acting profession. Between the drugs, drink and rock ‘n’ roll there were intermittent sessions of therapy and the discovery of yoga. But it wasn’t until I met Steven Berkoff, and started acting in his company, that I really began to put the negative image I had of myself to some inventive use. By kicking the twisted heap of anger I had accumulated in my life up onto the stage, I was able to take a monumental leap into new and positive horizons.
Several decades later, in my early fifties, through the vagaries of academic fashion and a series of fateful interventions, I gradually became aware of the fact that I might be dyslexic. Eventually, following some months of indecision, I resolved to get myself tested. For the first time in my life, I flew past the finishing post in an exam and took gold. I was very dyslexic! But the initial euphoria of having a hook to hang my troubled past on soon gave way to a feeling of betrayal and abuse.
Caning becomes a glaring metaphor for an education system that goes to any lengths to get what it wants. Sadly, there are more ways to skin a cat; playing one kid off against another, tearing them down for being useless in front of the class, belittling their intelligence and so on.
In 1729, William Blake wrote about the price we pay, when stultifying a child’s love of learning, in his poem The Schoolboy.
How shall the summer arise in joy,
Or the summer fruits appear?
Or how shall we gather what griefs destroy,
Or bless the mellowing year,
When the blasts of winter appear?
The sensitivities summed up in the last verse of this iconic poem, have been brushed aside as impossible, or at best simplified ideology, for so long. Taking a feather from the great man’s cap, I see how much time I wasted, pulling away from the child’s heart.
Being beaten for my sins was obviously inexcusable. But, as horrendous as this abuse certainly was, being judged a no-hoper left the greatest scar.
Imagine if I’d been able to ask a friend how to spell a certain word, without shame; get the teacher to slow down when giving dictation, without shame; ask the shopkeeper to fill in the cheque for me, without shame; get help with the tax form and the utility bill, without shame. Imagine the joy in tackling that illusive, lexical, exercise, without dread and frustration. I believe this would have been possible, years ago, if I hadn’t been punished for being dyslexic.
Since the word dyslexia wasn’t part of the school vocabulary in my day, there can be no doubt that measuring myself against the almighty scholastic yardstick caused immeasurable damage. Which leads me to wonder what others less fortunate than I might inflict on themselves and the world, if they aren’t able to realise and celebrate their learning difference?
Disobedient or not, it doesn’t make sense to chop myself in to pieces, and then spend the short time I have left favouring, or avoiding, one piece over another. Aside from that lifelong struggle with shame, I now believe passionately that rather than being a part, a side, or indeed anything to be ashamed of, dyslexia stands out as an integral and important asset. I’m convinced that thinking visually, spatially, or, if you need one of the labels, being dyslexic, saved me from a life of mediocrity and made seemingly impossible tasks possible.