Shortly after rewatching Shane Meadows’ TV drama The Virtues, I saw the ‘What’s the Matter with Tony Slattery?’ documentary on BBC2 a few weeks back. After a formidable career as a comedian in the late Eighties/early Nineties, Tony disappeared from our screens never to be seen again. As the documentary unravelled, we soon discover that, over the intervening years, Tony has endured severe problems with both alcohol and substance abuse, coupled with mental illness, trauma and teetering on the edge of the bipolar spectrum. Tony’s career appears to be over, and the man has a monumental share of demons to overcome.
Later in the programme, Tony attends a session with a noted psychiatrist, who delves a little deeper into his patient’s subconscious. During a previous discussion, Tony had recalled an incident when he was sexually abused by a priest on several occasions whilst at Catholic school. Inevitably, I found this shocking and terribly moving but not all that surprising as, from my limited knowledge of people with substance abuse issues, there’s usually something lurking in the past which may explain why one chooses to self-medicate.
Once the programme had finished and for no apparent reason, I began to reflect on my time at prep school (effectively from ages 5 to 13 years old). Bizarrely, I started trembling and tears streamed down my face as a distant, hazy memory from my time schooldays began to emerge.
Between lessons, one lazy afternoon, a friend and I had been play-fighting with another, smaller child and things got a bit of hand. As is so often the case, the smaller one took the brunt of our jabs and slaps and, later that day, grassed us up to the headteacher. Well, he grassed me up. Quite why he didn’t mention my friend remains a mystery. An hour later I was called into the staff room and told I would be beaten with the dreaded ‘slipper’ first thing the next morning. On my birthday. This was Britain in the late Seventies so corporeal punishment was still in practice. When I got home from school that night I was in fits of anxiety and burdened with an overwhelming sense of dread. My Mum knew something was up, so I told her. She did her best to console me. However, neither of us had any idea of what was to transpire.
Shortly after arriving at school the next day, I’m called into a dimly lit staff room to be met by three female teachers. Mrs S and another teacher remain seated in anticipation of my punishment whilst Mrs P condemns me for picking on weaker children, but that’s not how it was. We were only play fighting and got into it a little too enthusiastically. Anyway, my fate was sealed. Best get it over with.
At this particular private school, whenever the pupils were caught seriously misbehaving, we were either caned or given ‘the slipper’. In each instance, the beating was administered on the rear through our school uniform’s trousers or shorts (where the younger children were concerned).
Mrs P ordered me to turn around, face the door, and drop my shorts. Then she furthered my humiliation by instructing me to remove my underpants, too. In floods of tears, I quickly peered over my shoulder and noticed the other two teachers had leaned forward and watched me removed my shorts and underwear with what appeared to be fevered interest.
Was this a sordid perversion amongst this particular triumvirate of teachers?
Why the fuck were they watching me?
Thinking about it today, I really can’t remember what happened next. I blacked out, so to speak. Buried it. Perhaps we have an in-built neurological firewall of some kind. I feel stupid because, for all these years, I’ve known something wasn’t quite right with me psychologically and that somewhere, there was a reason behind it. The more I consider ‘the incident’, the reason behind my anxiety and depression becomes abundantly clear. From time to time, I get this horrible feeling that something else happened in the staff room that day but I can’t ‘see’ it. It could involve the third teacher. I don’t know.
I’d never told anyone about any of this until, following the Slattery documentary, I had a heart to heart with my mother. Not a single soul. Since telling her, I feel as if I’ve shamed and humiliated myself for not saying something sooner. Also, I blame myself for it happening in the first place. Sometimes, it’s difficult to explain to people the nature of anxiety, depression and mental health issues. I told Mum so that perhaps she’d have a better understanding of why I am prone to such turmoil.
But that’s not the whole story.
With the best of intentions, my parents paid for me to attend this particular prep school and at the age of 10, every day for the entirety of an academic year, I was verbally abused by a sadistic mathematics teacher named Mr Beech. To this day, I can recall standing next to him at the front of the class and the sheer terror I felt inside as he shouted, screamed and shook his fists only millimetres from my face; just one of several methods employed by Mr Beech to bully and intimidate me.
Each lesson, Mr Beech would set the class a maths exercise and allow us twenty minutes or so to complete it. Then, one after the other and in no particular order, he’d call each of us to stand next to him at his desk as he marked the results of the exercise in front of my fellow classmates. It was the arithmetical equivalent of awaiting death by lethal injection. For some unknown and illogical reason, Mr Beech had taken an instant dislike to me from day one.
I was 10 years old.
WHAT THE FUCK had I done wrong?
Every day, this malevolent cunt of a teacher was using me as his verbal punchbag. When he’d found a mistake in my sums, Mr Beech would slowly and deliberately place his red pen at the top of his desk, which signalled the beginning of my humiliation. I would begin to tremble. He would quietly mutter something about my ineptitude at this particular subject before exploding in a terrifying display of animal fury and seething contempt. Within seconds, I would be reduced to tears as he ranted and raved at me. Often threatening me with violence i.e. breaking my neck or punching my “thick skull”, this degrading ritual lasted anywhere from ten to twenty minutes, five days a week and for a whole nine months. Eventually, I would be ordered to return to my desk and the next pupil would be called up. I was the only one to be on the receiving end of Mr Beech’s frustrations. The rest of the class got off relatively lightly compared to my daily torment. Suffice to say, I never did grasp algebra or anything even remotely mathematical for several years.
Despite showing a natural flair for English and Art at school, mathematics remained a frustrating enigma for me. I believe children take to certain subjects genetically; there’s some mechanism buried deep within our DNA from past generations that will switch itself on when a familiar topic presents itself, whether that be mathematics, nuclear physics or changing a plug.
Mr Beech went at me for what seemed like an eternity before I eventually broke down and told my parents who immediately phoned the headmaster and arranged a meeting. I should have told Mum and Dad sooner (again), but I’ll put it down to shame. I was too embarrassed to say anything to my parents and I felt like I’d let them down in some way. Mum completely lost it with the headmaster and threatened to take me out of school unless Mr Beech was suitably admonished. Thankfully, within a few weeks, he handed in his notice and landed a job at another school down south, or so I was told. His replacement, Mr Ashton, was the total opposite to his predecessor: kind, patient and even-tempered.
I believe Mr Beech was the reason when, aged 13, and transferring from a fee-paying private school to a comprehensive, I completely lost all interest in academia. I was tired of school. Being the ‘posh kid’ at a comprehensive – a target for further bullying by a couple of the older children – wasn’t much fun either so eventually, I tuned out. I maintained a routinely small circle of friends but within a few months, I was skipping practically every lesson, so I rarely spent much time in their company. I’d nip uptown, wasting hour after hour window shopping or sit in the park smoking cigarettes and watching the world go by. It was only upon leaving school with just one ‘O’ Level to my name (English Language) that I realised just how limited my options were. My dear father came to my rescue and paid for me to attend a crammer college near the centre of Birmingham and 18 months later, I emerged with four more ‘O’ Levels (including mathematics). Within a few months and just before turning 18, I started my first job, and it was all downhill from then on. No, that’s not strictly true. I enjoyed having a few quid in my pocket and throughout my ‘career’ (I use that term loosely), I made some exceptional lifelong friends. But I knew all too well I was wasting my potential, stuck in a series of dead-end jobs with few prospects plus I hated having a boss.
“Bosses are something, aren’t they? Like gnats on a camping trip” as the late, great Bill Hicks once remarked.
I can recall my first anxiety attack to this day. I was 17, travelling by train to Birmingham town centre with my best chum from school and headed for a pre-arranged date with a female friend of a friend. Roughly halfway through our journey, I became aware of this strange knotting sensation in my stomach immediately followed by the most dreadful nausea and sweat pouring down my back. My breathing quickened as I had absolutely no clue as to what was happening to me. This came from nowhere. I paced up and down the train carriage to remain calm, but the feeling of nausea quickly became overwhelming. I soon realised this was ‘first date nerves’ times one hundred. Somehow, I managed to keep it together and by the time I’d met up with the girl, my nerves had mostly settled down. This was my first encounter with a mental illness that – along with depression – would continue to blight my existence to this day, some thirty years later.
Recently, during yet another horrific anxiety attack, I felt as if I’d been ‘cursed’ or possessed by an unseen entity. Perhaps that’s the true nature of anxiety – an ancient curse updated for the Facebook generation. An indiscriminate app as penance for the luxuries of modern life.
However unpleasant the incident was, there is a silver lining to this black cloud. The unearthing, so to speak, of this memory and resulting trauma seems to have had an unexpectedly positive effect in that I’ve been diagnosed as suffering from PTSD.
How is that positive?
To begin with, it’s helped me understand my mental health difficulties a lot better. Unlocking the memory explains much of my behaviour over the last thirty-odd years. I recognise the motivations behind some of my less than admirable conduct from my teens onwards. It explains my ‘angry young man’ attitude (which still emerges from time to time) and how badly I behaved toward my late father. I hope to become more comfortable with who I am but it’s very early days. But I have hope.