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Thursday, 24 May 2007

The Hundred Years War

Tony was on the ground. My knees were on his shoulders, holding him down, and I was banging his head on asphalt. We were surrounded by a forest of legs and shrieks of excitement. Then an old lady pushed through and shouted at us, pulling me off.

A turning point.

The next moment Tony was on top of me, pounding my head on the ground and so it went on for most of our childhood. Rivalry. For most, Chess is a game. For us it was the Hundred Years War, each game meticulously recorded - at least in our minds - in order to prove who was Grand Master. I still shudder at chess associating it with headaches, blood dripping from fingernails.

Flash forward fifteen years: we were walking through the bar at Swansea University, Tony’s first visit to where I was studying. The University, not the bar. The bar-lady looked up from polishing a glass and said. “You two are brothers. I can see it in your faces.” Too true, I thought. And I have the scars to prove it.

The problem was, or I imagine it so, that a natural hierarchy had been up-ended. I was the elder brother in name but in reality, positions had been reversed after two years spent on my back.

Childhood is both hierarchical and cruel. Peer groups demand conformity. For Tony it was tough, too, having a brother who wheezed and puffed and ran like a three-legged dog. I was the outsider. ‘Outsider’ has a nice ring to it for the romantically inclined. It’s less attractive though between eight to fourteen. Embarrassing for the brother, too. I clung to the story of the Ugly duckling and it somehow worked out. Things eventually do.

Hierarchy breeds cruelty. My own son as a child experienced quite savage bullying. Then another boy arrived at the school who also became a magnet for the dominant peer group. Without really thinking about it, I suggested to Thomas that maybe he should make friends with the new boy. Thomas was halfway up the stairs at the time. He turned and I can still remember his half-guilty smile and the look in his eyes that maybe his father was more of a fool than he thought. “They’ve stopped picking on me now,” he said. And you want that I go make friends with him? The thought was unspoken.

Been there, bought the Tee Shirt. Another window to the past: ‘Sugar-butty’. A pale-faced boy with glasses and protruding teeth. We called him ‘Sugar-butty’ because he’d once confided that white bread spread with butter and sugar was his favourite food. He lived halfway down Wyresdale Road and he was a deeply vulnerable boy. The gang turned on him joyously and I felt relief. His mother was in despair. I think as you grow older you cry more easily, especially when you remember how cruel you were as a child.

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