Saturday, July 4, 2015
The Making of a Child Psychiatrist (4)
As I noted, I went through an episode of depression at about 13, perhaps begun earlier by my father’s disdainful comment about my 96% in Maths. I found myself avoiding him as much as possible, spending increasing amounts of time reading or making plastic Airfix models in my bedroom, or staying out at other friend’s houses.
Reading was a special treasure for me, and each week I would walk along the Canterbury road to the local library, and come home with an armful of books. I found Isaac Asimov. The reading was a bit out of sync, but I devoured his early work – ‘The Stars Like Dust’, ‘The Currents of Space’, and ‘Pebble in the Sky’ from the Galactic Empire series. Then ‘The Caves of Steel’ and ‘The Naked Sun’ from the Robot series, and finally two from The Foundation Series – ‘Foundation’, and ‘Foundation and Empire’. When I could not get another Asimov, I found Robert Heinlein, a writer who has continued to keep my fantasie life transfixed for 40 years (with the much later ‘Dune’ series). ‘Red Planet’, ‘Farmer in the Sky’, and ‘Between Planets’ were all devoured late into the night. When I ran out of these, I was advised by a friend to try John Wyndham with his ‘The Day of the Triffids’, ‘The Kraken Awakes’, ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’, and ‘The Chrysalids’.
This of course led to problems. First, and quite naturally, there was a bedtime, followed by a lights out time. Bedtime was no problem because I was eager to get to the next chapter. ‘Lights out’ was a serious problem. I tried the torch under the bedcovers trick – sussed. I tried waiting for Mum and Dad to go to bed, and then sneaking my bedside light on – sussed, when one of them went to the toilet. Eventually I took advantage of the landing light which, of course was left on for safety. To do this, I had to engineer to keep my door ajar, then lean out of bed and around the door until I got enough light. The house was quite warm from the Aga cooker in the kitchen that heated the whole house, so I was in no danger of a chill. But I am not sure that my physical position was good for my back, though at that age you do not consider these things. I am sure it was not that good for my eyes either, but again at 12 and 13 you believe you will stay as you are for ever. I got away with it for many weeks, but eventually was sussed. Eventually, I had to accept the limitations – mostly. It was all a bit strange to me. Both my parents were readers, perhaps especially my mother, when she wasn’t knitting. We had books in a couple shelves downstairs. There were some that were even banned for the time being (for instance ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ and ‘Forever Amber’). I think the idea of fantasie fiction appalled my father, given the seriousness of his life post first world war, and his teenage years coming up to the second world war. But I have come to believe that any reading is good reading for children.
Initially this passion showed up in my work at school. As a reader, my reading had provided some preparation for English lessons at school, and this was well supported by our English teacher, Mr Goodram. A small imp of a man in late middle age, engaging and full of energy and enthusiasm, he obviously loved his job in an all boys grammar school. A standing joke oft repeated was after he had had his hair cut, he would arrive in class, announcing: “Well Boys, I have had my hair cut!” which always led to an outbreak of mirth. Our Mr Goodram was almost totally bald but with a tuft of pure white hair at the front of his head. This had led to his nickname – ‘Tufty Goodram’ – and the inevitable response to his standing joke of having his hair cut, a chorused “Which one, sir?” He would beam, we would all be amused, and English was almost always fun. And of course I did well.
In fact I did quite well with all my subjects, to the point that at the end of second form (aged just 13), discussions were held with my parents, and I was accelerated a year into a 4 R (standing for ‘4th form removed’). In retrospect, it was a disaster. I guess much of the work was a meld of 3rd year and 4th year, but I struggled with the academic pressure, and with particular subjects like Latin (barely passed) and Chemistry (barely passed) and Physics (borderline pass). We were expected to behave like 4th year students, but the other classes in 4th year seemed to find us offensive (they were after all a whole year older), and this showed up in bits of bullying in the playground and in sport (where were physically less mature than other 4th formers), and in the ‘house’ system, where we were expected to take on bits of responsibility, but did not quite have the maturity to do the job.
So I think the shift added to my problems at home, and my deteriorating self-esteem, and perhaps my isolation. It hooked into my “you are not quite good enough, clever clogs” inner belief. I was urged to work harder on homework, and discouraged from reading rubbish. Luckily given my emerging personality, I continued to read the science fantasy ‘rubbish’, because it soothed my soul. But my little acts of defiance had consequences. I began to need to feed myself sweets, and this led to an increase in weight, and a lowering of physical fitness (not a good idea in a boy’s school). I began to dislike my father for his pressure to excel, but also to do things the right way. On one occasion I rifled through his greatcoat, looking for coins to go out and buy sweets. I stole the only pound note in the pocket. Of course he knew. And that night on return from London he climbed the stairs, took of his belt, and thrashed me.
In retrospect, I now understand that he had been treated that way by his own father, and had probably missed out on the development of other fathering skills. I also know that this paternal ignorance and violence was intergenerational, in that my grandfather’s father had thrashed him at times, and my grandfather had also attended a boys school where weekly thrashings were just part of life. I think also that Air Force life was (probably rightly) carefully controlled through the chain of command, and things were black and white or right and wrong – with little in terms of shades of understanding and acceptance. So, I had been bad; I was punished.
I can honestly say I have never stolen anything since, so I guess you could say I had been cured, and maybe society benefitted. But that would not be strictly true, and the distance between my father and I grew and lasted a very long time. It took many years of work on myself to undo those few months of my life.