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Friday, July 3, 2015

The Making of a Child Psychiatrist (3)

Throughout my early years, singing in a choir was a weekly event. I had joined a choir, aged six and a half, when we lived in Norfolk, and when we moved back to Kent, I joined the choir of St. Saviour’s Church (nominally linked with the school of the same name). So my weekly routine became two practices a week on a Tuesday and then a Friday, and two services on Sunday (Matins and Evensong). I guess I would have walked the length of Westgate on Sea shopping strip (you could not call it a centre), from our new flat over a stables, next to a car saleroom. This not only kept me fit, but engineered ongoing relationships with shopkeepers whom I came to know because I was outgoing and chatty and confident. I remember the smells as much as anything – from the horse and chaff and manure of the stables, past the oil and petrol to the ironmonger’s (endless fascination) to Greig’s the general food shop, past the lingering coal smoke of the station, the nothingness of Lloyd’s Bank to the fish shop and across what was then a not very busy Station road, past the ever present Carlton Cinema and the optometrists to the leafy quiet of the church yard and the entrance to the vestry.
I guess there was some heritage in all of this. My great grandfather had been an organist and choirmaster at St. John’s Church in Preston, and claimed to be a ‘Professor of Music’, and my grandfather and father and his brothers could all sing. I loved singing, and gained a rich sense of harmony and ability to harmonise. On the other side of the family, one of my grandmother’s forebears had toured choirs around Europe.
Judging from a couple of very ancient recordings (‘Mary’s Boy Child’ and ‘Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring’) on tape I had a reasonable treble voice with a wide range. Ultimately I ended up as head choirboy at about 12, and later when my voice broke, I rather proudly joined the tenors for a short time before going to London University at the age of 17. Subsequently, I have always loved listening to choirs (especially Welsh male voice ones) and watching choral competitions, and my musical tastes have become immensely eclectic, but are still based in the rich music written for the church. In addition, I believe it left me with a strong sense of life being about team work in which it took everyone to perform as well as they could on the day to create a meaningful listening experience.
The local vicar (Reverend Pellatt) and his wife had some dedication to putting on Christmas shows for the local community, and ultimately this involved the whole of my family, with my mother making endless costumes, my father painting backdrops and developing the reel to reel music tapes, my sister Andrea dancing, and me singing. I can remember several roles – as King Winter in a pageant of the seasons, and one of the ugly sisters (with a friend Richard Chubb) (my first and only foray into drag). I am sure there were many more roles over the years, but memory does fade.
So despite my somewhat solitary bent, I gained a rich sense of community, and an ability to be part of a creative endeavour.
Two things subsequently soured those experiences, and may well relate to aspects of child psychiatry in which I have taken an interest. The first was relatively minor, but in today’s world would have been rather serious. The choirmaster for most of my younger years was the music teacher at a large secondary modern school. I was somewhat in awe of him – in part because of his musical ability (he played the organ on Sundays), but also his apparently benign yet commanding manner at choir practices – which must have come from years of managing crowds of young people and adults. He favoured me, and I was flattered. I sang solos in church and needed that extra bit of coaching. On one occasion he kept me back from practice and asked if I would ‘pump the organ’? This was necessary to build up the wind pressure released through the organ pipes. There was a large lever to the side of the organ, needing to be worked up and down vigorously several times. He began to play the music so I could sing, and patted the organ stool suggesting I should sit next to him. After a while he began to pat my leg, and then slid his hand up my short trousers. I somehow had the ability and confidence to say: “Please stop that. I do not like it.” Luckily, he stopped, given we were the only ones in the church. It was never mentioned again, and there was no further attempt. I remained deeply suspicious and carefully avoidant. I never did tell my parents, and I wonder at that. I feel in retrospect that I had controlled the situation (all 12 years of me). But the implications for this man if it had come out would have been dire. And then these days you wonder whether he may well have groomed many others during the school years, and perhaps I should have said something and let events take their course. But at 12 you don’t know these things, do you?
The second set of events was designed to leave me with a considerable disdain for priests, and thus the church. These days I think of myself as a caring, kind and respectful ‘Christian’, but I have no wish to be a member of an organised church, and have a long term dislike of unctuous people. When my father was posted in 1961 to Adelaide in South Australia for a three year tour with the RAF, I was nearly 17. I had a place at King’s College, London University, and was desperate to complete my medical training. Ultimately it was decided I would stay in Britain, and my mother and sister would go with my father. The vicar and his wife very kindly offered to take me in for the 6 months before I had to go to London. It was generous. I had known them for many years. Their own children were older than I, and had left home. They had a large empty vicarage. My parents made a contribution to my bed and board. Great.
Well, not great. Their patterns of living were somewhat rigid, and well outside my experience. In my own home I had had the run of the house, could invite friends over, and there was flexibility in terms of mealtime hours. Mrs Pellatt, in particular was one of the most mean spirited people I had (or have) ever met. If a rule was made – for instance lunch is at 1pm – then if I got ‘home’ at 1.05pm (literally), the lunch was in the bin, and bad luck. I could not use all the toilets or bathrooms in the house – only the one on the third floor near my bedroom. I was only allowed to use certain chairs in the lounge. I was not allowed to use the television, unless the Pellatts were watching, and then had to watch their choice.
One mad game she played related to another summer boarder they had for 3 months, and delightful overseas male student studying English. He also was paying board, and despite the other 7 bedrooms in the house, apparently we were to share a room. We did so without much problem. Mrs Pellatt decided the student needed an alarm clock, and removed my gift from my mother from my bedside table and placed it on his. I retrieved it that evening, but each day the process was repeated despite my questions. When the clock was dropped and the base bent while she was cleaning the bedroom one day, all knowledge was denied. This kind of pettiness went on day after day, and I began to become confused and depressed, but also resentful and angry. I spent as much time as I could with my future wife’s family at their seafront hotel, helping out and learning to be a waiter. This caused further nastiness, a confrontation with the vicar through a dense cloud of cigarette smoke in his study, and letters to my parents. Eventually, I moved out of the vicarage into the seafront hotel, and Jan’s parents began my recovery before going to University. So where was the milk of human kindness? I subsequently gained some insight into the family history from the younger daughter, who claimed she had been driven out of the home as well. But ultimately, I learned some sympathy. The woman had had the beginnings of a personality change, and some months after I went to London I learned that she had died from a cerebral tumour. So you think back to all the pettiness and nastiness, and wonder whether it was related. But that came a long time after my recovery from what was quite severe adolescent depression. And my deep suspicion of religious people has never entirely left me.

More to come...

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