Chapter 41 – Bullying
When Michael, my mum’s psychopathic boyfriend, pushed her up the wall by her throat and threw me across the room, the cocking of a pistol’s hammer clicked inside me, while my sensitivity to injustice got turned to a hair-trigger setting. No doubt, my DNA and abandonment issues, along with being disabled, were already present and incorrect within my internal anger’s lineup, and of course, I’d already brushed up against plenty of bullies and abusers in those first seven years. Still, the ferocity and unfairness of Michael’s attacks set against our vulnerability acted as a catalyst for all that rage, so much so, it took years to get even a modicum of control over it. With this in mind, I wanted to spend some time looking at bullying, both from a personal and a wider perspective, because after all, it has likely touched not only my life but yours too, at least in some way.
* * *
The Reunion – Part 1
For most people, hospitals are filled with negative associations, but for me and a lot of the other kids who’d attended the LGU ward at Queen Mary’s Roehampton, it was more of a home-from-home, so, when Rose, the ward secretary who’d defended me from the two irate nurses a few months previously, called me to ask if I fancied attending a reunion of ex-patients, I said yes. The event was scheduled to last a week and involved staying in the ward’s adolescent department rooms, going on outings, and ending with a celebratory meal at a London hotel where other significant ex-staff members and patients would join us.
I’d already arranged all I could in terms of preparing for the start of college in September, so, I thought this would be a good way to fill the time. However, I was a bit worried about who else might be going, especially as I was still scared of Clive and George, the legless hardmen, and a little apprehensive of Veronica, but given I could easily get the bus home if I wasn’t happy, I thought it worth the risk. As it turned out, on the day, Clive and George didn’t turn up, much to my relief, although Veronica did. However, Tina was with her, and as she had fed me when I was a baby, she was very fond of me so that made the situation far more bearable. Tina had no arms at all and would always take delight in reminding me of her maternal role in my life, how she’d held the spoon in her mouth and as a mother bird nurtured me. Of course, I had no memory of it whatsoever but there was always a connection between us, and that meant Veronica looked kindly upon me this time. During the introductory meeting the three of us chatted when a guy with no arms, a crew cut hair-don’t and very short legs turned up and approached us in an electric wheelchair. Veronica nodded at him and said, “Alright Paul?” He smiled at us and in a strong Northern Irish accent said, “Hello there my fellow ne’er-do-wells.”
Most of the other attendees were Thalidomide survivors, which wasn’t surprising as initially, that’s why the ward had been set up, but as the years went by it broadened its services to all kinds of disabilities. When I say most of the other attendees, there were only 3 more, 2 of which were attractive girls with short arms, very long legs and hair, and another bloke who was so quiet I can’t remember him. Still, right from the outset, the group divided itself into us 4, those 2 girls, and the other bloke.
Gwen Meers, who’d been the ward’s sister for decades was now matron of the whole hospital so there was a new Sister in town, I’ll call her Sister C, but she had no history with any of us. As she introduced herself, she laid down the rules which we all politely nodded along to while glancing at each other with a “we’ll see about that,” look. Her parting words were, “You must remember, this is a hospital so, if you go out, please be very quiet and whatever you do, don’t come back drunk.”
Cut to 11:30 pm, walking back from the King’s Head pub with the whole group, all of whom, bar me, had drunk too much and were now staggering. For those in wheelchairs this translated to zigzagging across the pavement, going in the wrong direction, pausing, looking around, spinning clockwise, rotating in the opposite direction, still facing the wrong way, and then heading full speed towards the road, at which point any car travelling nearby swerved dramatically and sounded their horn.
I tried to take control of a couple of their wheelchair’s joysticks while they tilted their heads back, closed their eyes and moaned about drinking too much. There were also a few near misses when they suddenly lunged forward and puked. The next morning just me, the two pretty girls and the other person attended breakfast. Sister C came in. “I thought I’d go through this week’s itinerary with you, however, it seems we’re missing a few attendees. I do hope they didn’t go out drinking last night.”
“I’m here, Sister,” Paul shouted as he glid into the room.
“Where are the other two?” She asked
“I don’t know sister, asleep I imagine.”
She looked down, sighed, and walked off saying, “Maybe we should do this later.”
* * *
Victimhood – 2023
Just recently in 2023, there’s been a bit of a hoo-ha about Roald Dahl’s books being sanitised. I don’t want to get into the pros and cons of that, but behind this argument is another about protecting children from trauma, even mild amounts of it, and developing their ability to consider others’ feelings. The irony of this is if schools are supposed to prepare us for real-life, then there’s certainly one area in which they excel and that’s in the sphere of cruelty. But before I go there, let’s touch on another issue first, “Victim-hood”.
If there was one thing that’d really wind me up when I was a kid, it was being seen as a victim. When people wouldn’t fight me because I was disabled, I’d say the nastiest of things to rile them enough to forget about my victim status and go for it. Yet, here in 2023, the notion of being a victim seems to be widely accepted as the starting position for many sections of society, especially in terms of explaining their lack of responsibility for their behaviour or lowly positions. The general consensus is, the dice are loaded against us, and success or failure has very little to do with who we are, our abilities, or lack of them. And anyway, all of those attributes are seen as beyond our own control, because, firstly, as so many philosophers conclude, there’s no such thing as free will and secondly, society pretty much forces our destiny upon us. In this narrative, no one has any true choice because nature, nurture, our place in society, and the world and time we exist in are beyond our governance.
It’s true I didn’t pick my parents (as far as I know), I didn’t elect to be born with a disability, nor did I choose to be born in these times, in this place, with my genes and all the other influences that make me who I am. But even though there is so much I have no control over, there are moments when I do technically make choices within those limitations, and even though philosophically speaking those choices are predetermined by all the influences listed above, I do have an amount of self-determination, whether it be, for example, to move in a certain direction, not follow a whim, or do the opposite of what I know to be right.
To the pro-victimhood camp, those choices exist only because of things beyond my control, but our day-to-day experience is one of decisions, actions, and consequences and even from a very early age we learn we must curb our desires at times otherwise we’ll end up with a negative outcome. But for all the current attraction towards victimhood, most of us still recognise there’s something worthy in someone who takes responsibility for their actions.
When we see a sailor, alone in a storm where a wave may destroy them at any moment, their skill, knowledge, and desire to battle on not only gives them a sense of significance but to anyone looking on, an amount of admiration for them.
It’s easy to swing completely in either direction when it comes to this issue, but surely somewhere in between might be a more realistic place to settle. Yes, there are factors beyond our control but there are some that, to a point are not, and believing we actually do have some ability to choose allows us to do so more readily, whereas if we believe we don’t, we’re far more prone to give up all responsibility and simply go with the flow.
When I was a kid, I wanted to feel other people’s respect, not their pity, I’d felt the pain of sad eyes looking down upon me and couldn’t bear it because to me the hero was loved while the victim was pitied. I knew what a lack of success looked like, and it left me feeling insignificant and unloved. Arguably, if I’d felt loved enough in the first place, then maybe I wouldn’t have been so concerned with respect, but either way love and respect were intertwined for me.
It may suit a lot of people to feel like victims, after all, “it’s not their fault”, and what’s more it can afford one a lot of benefits in life. Even for me, citing the lack of job opportunities due to my disabilities seemed a good enough reason to accept some of the disability benefit mum passed onto me, but deep down, it was still an excuse. There were jobs I could have taken but it was easier not to do them, and to see the money as compensation for all those other positions withheld because of how I looked, so I took the money, but deep down it still gnawed away at me.
* * *
The Reunion – Part 2
Whoever organised the reunion probably had some kind of fantasy about what the ex-patients would enjoy doing, what they didn’t factor in though, was our desire to relive our delinquent pasts. So, along with smoking and drinking, neither of which I participated in, there was a lot of chatting up other patients around the hospital, as well as all the staff we could find in the staff canteen, (which I admit, I did succumb to), and riding the back of food trolleys along the corridors. This normally involved people with very few limbs between them holding onto each other’s wheelchairs while the one at the front would grab a handle on the food trolley when the driver wasn’t looking. For this to work, the electric wheelchairs would be swapped for manual ones as the electric ones couldn’t free-wheel. The downside of this was both Tina and Paul couldn’t propel themselves back to the ward, so, I took hold of Paul’s chair while pushing us along with my feet as I’d also borrowed a wheelchair. Meanwhile, Tina held onto the back of Veronica’s with her teeth, as she wheeled them both along using peddles she’d turn with her arms.
The challenge of riding the food trolleys was holding on when a corner was taken, this would invariably result in us all veering off in multiple directions on the first corner we encountered. The driver, who was totally oblivious, would pull up a little further down the corridor, at which point we’d re-group, re-attach and ride again.
The journey back proved more difficult, especially when I managed to topple Paul’s wheelchair backwards completely. As he fell, I could see his head was going to bash against the ground so I did all I could to follow him downwards and managed to catch his head just before it did so. We’d already made each other laugh a lot but that moment cemented a bond between us. What I also didn’t realise at the time was my relationship with Veronica was changing. Previously I’d always been very wary of her, but now we too were connecting.
As the lot of us settled in over the following days we got taken out on a few excursions including one to the Imperial War Museum where Paul and I put an artificial hand on a Do Not Touch sign on a WW2 bomb which we thought was very Monty-Python-esque. But no one noticed, so after leaving there, we thought we might get more of a reaction if we put it on display in a butcher’s window, but, again, no one seemed to react, maybe it wasn’t such an unusual sight in that part of London. On another day trip, we were taken to a rather posh place where they’d converted horse-drawn carriages so wheelchair users could drive them. We were all given a go each and taught to bring the horses to a stop by gently pulling on the reins and reassuringly saying “Whoa” and adding the horse’s name.
Veronica, who had a shock of long ginger hair, small arms and only the top part of her legs got a disobedient pony, which seemed very fitting. We all laughed as she pulled on the reins and nothing happened but on her third lap of the course the proceedings were brought to a hasty close when she ended up shouting, “For fuck-sake, you little cunt, whoa.” At which point it finally obeyed and she looked at us smiling triumphantly. Matters weren’t improved when later that afternoon we ended up on a boat trip along the river Thames. For most people, sitting on the top deck admiring the view would be the obvious way to pass the time but our group preferred to spend the whole-time smoking and boozing in the bar. After the journey ended, Veronica, Tina, and Paul ‘staggered’ up the ramp in their wheelchairs from the boat to the jetty. Sister C looked at them, and then at me, I smiled at her, but she didn’t smile back. We all had an attitude, we all stood out, none of us were grateful and probably, in her opinion, we needed teaching a lesson.
* * *
Bullying became something I reacted to strongly, so much so that I didn’t experience it much, but I was always on the lookout for it and ready to take up arms, even if they were quite short ones, against it. When it comes to bullying it’s often said bullies are likely to be hurt people who hurt people, with self-esteem issues who tend to dehumanise their victims. There’s probably a lot of truth to all of that, but I have an alternative view I’d like to add. Well, of course, I would, wouldn’t I?
Firstly, research (Rodkin2000), revealed a lot of bullies are often confident alpha types who are from, what at least on the surface appear to be, good homes, and far from dehumanising their victims they took delight in knowing they were suffering. Now if this is true, what is it that makes them want others to suffer so?
Well, to help understand this, maybe I’ll illustrate a scenario first, in this situation our potential bully is having a nice day when out of nowhere they’re suddenly faced with someone with a disability. Even if they feel some empathy, there’s going to be a part of them that’s also slightly disconcerted, after all, just a minute ago they were bobbing along merrily and now, well let’s just say, now things are more complicated.
For many people, disability brings up a lot of conflicting feelings, not only anxieties about how one should react, but it also reminds us of thoughts we deliberately try to avoid, such as our own susceptibility to injury, illness, disability, and death. For instance, for some people, my arms will cause them to imagine their own limbs being amputated as well as wondering what life would be like for them if they lost limbs, and for that moment they’re caught up in a powerful emotional turmoil. While most of us try not to think about uncomfortable possibilities, service personnel who witness the horrors of war often find it difficult to settle back into Civvy Street, because to them it’s a world where everyone is avoiding the realities of life and death, and for some this denial is unbearable because it leaves them feeling alone and disconnected, surrounded by sleepwalkers trapped in a dream.
Anyway, back to our potential bully. Faced with all these complicated feelings and resentments it’s not surprising that some will want to avoid repeating this experience, so they push those who’ve evoked them away. Sometimes this may be done subtly, but there might also be times when the consequences become far more extreme. For instance, from making disabled people, or any other type of other, feel unwelcome, to attacking them, segregating them from mainstream society, or in extreme cases exterminating them. Even the realisation that they’d like to get rid of them but can’t, might lead to further annoyance too. So, the hidden factor is a cat’s cradle of resentments brought up by being exposed to factors we’d prefer not to face. The upshot of all this is a person who turns on another, with a desire to get rid of and punish them.
There are also several other aspects worth keeping in mind. Firstly, there’s the role of the victim. One could argue that it’s the vulnerability of many disabled people that presents an opportunity for sadistic types to attack them. Paradoxically, I’ve often noticed the meek tend to be left alone as long as they don’t stand out in any way. And maybe that’s because it’s the standing out that links back to the confrontation of difficult feelings, especially when this results in the urge to bring people down a peg or two. Even in societies where disabled people are well accommodated, they may still face further resentment because of the advantages they’re perceived to have. A few years ago, the press in the UK ran a campaign complaining that disabled people were receiving cars that were too good for them as part of a scheme that supplied vehicles in return for some of their disability benefits.
Another paradoxical dynamic involves a non-disabled person feeling sorry for a disabled one, but if there’s then any sense of betrayal felt by the non-disabled person, this is further accentuated because of their earlier feelings of sympathy. In other words, the disabled person is burdened by the responsibility of owing something for a feeling they didn’t ask for in the first place. And if the thought of a disabled person not being grateful for someone’s sympathy makes you feel a little angry, then that kind of shows you what I mean.
The thing is I tend not to be too bothered about such micro-aggressions, because, let’s face it, given we’re all racist, sexist, ageist, and so on, well at least a little at times, it’s not surprising we’re going to feel small resentments. The real problem is when things escalate, and people don’t check themselves and then consequently treat others unfairly, but still, as we saw in the last chapter, there’s the issue of scale. There’s a big difference between micro and serious aggressions, especially when the former does not lead to the latter.
When it comes to the subject of dehumanising and bullying, there’s an irony because if anything it’s the bully who tends to become less human. After all, if they want their victims to feel pain as only a human can, do they not take on the role of an archetype, unyielding and unresponsive to the pleas of mercy? It is the bully who dehumanises themselves by acting as they do.
* * *
Autumn 1981 – Bus Stop Whispers
I wanted to mention the following incident here for two reasons, firstly it illustrates my sensitivity to bullying and secondly, as we’ll see later it also relates to the legacy section, especially the bit about how inaccurate reputations can be.
There was another school near Wilson’s where lots of my friends from Roundshaw Juniors ended up. When I say friends, I mean quite a few people I’d had fights with, some of whom I had lost to and was still a bit scared of. But now I was in the 6th form the other school’s eldest students were a year younger than me, and although I was still just 16 I’d been doing a lot of karate training, so when I came out of school one afternoon to find there were a few of these kids threatening a number of the lower year boys from Wilson’s, some of whom were crying, at the bus stop, I lost it. I immediately went for the largest one there, as most people were, quite a bit taller than me. I stood in front of him and confusingly said, “Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?”, he looked down at me, suitably perplexed, at which point I flung my foot up to his face as fast as I could and just stopped it from hitting him by an inch or so. “Leave them alone, they haven’t done anything to you,” I said. Had I known more about bullying, I might have questioned that statement, because obviously to him, in some perverse way, they had. Maybe to him, they were “haves” and needed to be reprimanded.
He was still looking bewildered as he walked off and within a few minutes a bus arrived, so we all bundled on. Although it was full, I managed to get a seat and after just one stop I heard one boy say to another, “Did you see Smith, he kicked one of those kids who’s been threatening us?”
Then after a couple of further stops a few more Wilsonians got on. Again, I overheard one say to another “Did you hear, Simon Smith took on a load of those bullies from that school and beat ‘em all up?” I wanted to correct their account, but instead, I laughed a little to myself and decided to leave them to their exaggerations. Although the next day I got pulled aside by my maths teacher, Mr Allen, who asked me to recount what’d really happened. When I told him, he said “You do realise I am going to have to admonish you for this?” My heart dropped and I nodded my head. Then smiling he added, “Well consider yourself admonished… Off you go, and don’t do it again.” Only I did, I couldn’t stop myself and throughout my life, I reacted similarly many times.
* * *
Bettie and Herbert Cukurs
Herbert Cukurs may well have presented himself as a brave man, but for all his daring escapades, when it came to standing up to the Nazis, he put his survival ahead of what he knew was morally right. Previously when the Soviets had occupied Latvia, he’d collaborated with them, and then when the Nazis invaded, he immediately volunteered to join the Latvian Auxiliary Police. This was a unit led by SS commander and Nazi collaborator Victor Arājs, and from the outset rounded up and murdered Jews, Roma, and psychiatric patients.
When Bettie looked at Cukurs in her final minutes it must have felt as if the whole world had shattered around her. His initial friendliness years beforehand symbolised Latvia’s seemingly kind hand of friendship, because, for Jews, Latvia was one of the most liberal countries to live in during the 1930s. There hadn’t been any pogroms, nor were there restrictions on movement, plus Jews had the same voting rights and legal standing as all other people living there. But that hand of friendship turned out to be the cruellest hand of all, murderous betrayal.
Official attempts to hold Cukurs to account had failed after the war, and even now his involvement is fiercely contested by some, but Mossad were not going to let it end there. While those involved in bringing war criminals to trial after WW2 had ignored many of the testimonies offered against Cukurs, Mossad collated what it could and so, it was decided, he would either be kidnapped and brought to trial, or assassinated in situ. One of the problems with this plan though was Brazil still had the death penalty, so if he was killed there and any of the agents were caught, the consequences could be dire, so a strategy was devised to get him out of the country before attempting either of the options.
* * *
Reunion – Part 3
There was something about Sister C that reminded me of Nurse Ratchet from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. You might think I’m exaggerating but her treatment of others, especially the trainee nurses was harsh and often uncalled for. One of the nurses was so upset by how she’d been dealt with she resigned in protest even though she was only a few months from qualifying. So, when Sister C started holding me responsible for the others’ bad behaviour, I too felt both unfairly put upon and angry.
On the Wednesday morning, in front of everyone, she told me I was to go home and wasn’t welcome on the reunion any longer. Admittedly, I with the other 3 in our group had gotten hold of a massive panda cuddly toy at 2 am and thrown it in one of the long-legged short armed girls’ rooms and this provided Sister C with an opportunity to flex her muscles and regain some control. Paul, Veronica, and Tina looked on as I packed my things and set off home. Maybe it was anger or the sense of coming up against someone in attack mode, but I could feel my eyes filling with tears.
When I got in mum told me Sister C had called her to say I’d been getting drunk and causing problems, to which mum replied, “He’s over 18 and he doesn’t drink so I know he wasn’t drunk.” When I told mum about the panda incident, she laughed and said, “Some people need to get a sense of humour.” So, I threw one in her room at 2 am that night… Don’t worry, even I wasn’t stupid enough to do that.
But things between Sister C and I didn’t end there.
* * *
Was I Bullied?
There’s a difference between bullying and what happened to me. Bullying tends to be an exercise of power by stronger individuals over weaker ones. Under those terms, I wasn’t bullied much. Instead, what I experienced was constant low-level abuse from multiple sources.
Not only did I look very different, but I also had a highly conspicuous and reactive personality. This isn’t a case of the victim blaming themself, but who I was did play a part within the process. Had I cried, or run away every time someone took the piss, I am sure that would have affected the frequency and quantity of abuse, although who knows in which direction, and likewise my standing up to and fighting back had an effect too. But to me, the thought of people feeling sorry for me was far worse than them being abusive. If they abused me, they came over as less worthy and I, well maybe I came out looking a bit heroic. I don’t think I thought that at the time, instead, I’d just feel angry, hurt, and a little disillusioned about people’s humanity.
Throughout my life, there were multiple incidents of cruelty, some of which I’ve listed below, but instead of making me want to hide away, it had the opposite effect, it filled me with a desire to create bridges between us.
1988 Putney Bridge Station
I had just gotten out of my car and a load of football fans were walking past. One of them, a bloke in his late 20s, asked me the way to the football ground. I told him the quickest route I knew, at which point he said, “Thanks stumpy”. He and his friends laughed as they walked off. I was outnumbered and taken aback, and while I could see why they thought it was funny, as indeed some people might do reading this, I was angered by their inability to care about my feelings and my lack of a machine gun. Even now, if I built a bridge for them I’d probably place a lot of explosives under it and then beckon them across.
I was cycling along Munster Road in Fulham, 3 teenagers pointed at me and started to laugh loudly. I did a U-turn, went up to them and things escalated, massively. You may remember I’ve mentioned this one before.
I was cycling through Battersea at night, 2 guys in their late teens saw me and burst out laughing then started running along with their knees bent and arms folded. I did a U-Turn, confronted them, and threw a kick to the head of one of them while shouting, “If you want a fight, you’ve got one”. They looked shocked, apologized, and walked off.
2010 Lewes Town Centre
I was photographing a monument in Lewes when a guy standing outside a nearby pub started calling me names and laughing at me. I took some photographs of him, then went home and created a Facebook page dedicated just to him which I later linked to loads of Lewes-based pages and groups. It remained in situ for years after.
1976 to 83
At Wilson’s school, the boys would mainly make fun of me to my face by making strange noises, calling me names such as crip, spaz, spastic (they weren’t good on disability classifications), giblet (referring to the untidy look of my finger), and mimicking my arms or walking, or running with their knees together. Which wasn’t how I walked, although I did limp.
1972 to 1977
On Roundshaw it was mainly either folding their arms up and encircling and taunting me (although that didn’t happen often). Again, calling me a spaz, or a Flid, (Also technically wrong as I wasn’t a Thalidomide survivor).
Then of course there were the subtler things, like people nodding towards me to their friends and laughing, sometimes openly pointing, looking disgusted or staring for a long time. Pulling their children away from me as if I was something to be hidden from or scared of or talking about me in a negative way within earshot.
When I start listing things like this, it probably makes people feel sorry for me, but I’m not aiming for that. I think what I’d prefer is a little understanding of how it constantly pervaded my world. Nowadays, if I experience it, I’m far more likely to approach the person and explain to them how behaving like that puts a lot of pressure on me, and other disabled people to not go out, which in a way adds another dimension of disability to our situation. There’s been a few times when people have said things like, “Good, I’d rather you weren’t allowed out”, but that’s quite rare.
I also often add, that just like them I too can find people who look strange, funny as well, (which is true at times) but to ram it directly in someone’s face is not on. When I was a kid there wasn’t any legal protection against people attacking me verbally because of my disability, and even after the first disability legislation came about in 1995, there wasn’t any real protection then either, however in 2010, the Equality Act became law in the UK and that provided some defence against such harassment. Obviously, this won’t stop people from making jokes behind my back, but it will curb them doing it to my face.
* * *
1986 Battersea, London.
Here’s another example, but this time it didn’t relate to my disability. I had just come out from watching a karate fighting competition at the Latchmere Leisure Centre in Battersea, so I was a bit hyped up with adrenalin. Back then I didn’t have a car and cycled most places. My girlfriend at the time, her name was Sue, and I set off for home but took the long route up towards the East Hill one-way system. As we approached it, we had to change lanes, I looked over my shoulder, saw it was clear and moved to the right lane. Sue did the same, but as we were manoeuvring a white van sped around the corner and accelerated noisily towards us. I heard the van’s horn being pushed aggressively so looked over my shoulder again to see Sue, who wasn’t doing anything untoward, being tailgated by a beaten-up white van, while revving its engine.
I pulled up so Sue, who was already looking shaken, had to stop too. I figured this way he’d be forced to pass us, but as he did he shouted, ‘Get off the fucking road’. As he got level with me, he was just a meter away, so I spat in his face.
“You wanna fight, do ya?” He shouted, “Well, you’ve fucking got one!” His van came to a sudden stop and his door flew open. I got off my bike, he got out of the van and as he approached, Sue put her bike between us and said, “C’mon there’s no need to fight”. He pushed her sideways which made me seethe with anger, so as she cleared the access to each other I threw up a fast roundhouse kick which landed exactly on the tip of his bulbous red nose, and as it made contact, it quivered from side to side.
I could see he looked shocked so as I targeted all the vulnerable parts I could attack, (his groin, knees, fat stomach, shins, solar plexus, throat and face) I shouted in a rather confident voice, “The next one is going to knock you out.”
He stepped away as he clearly hadn’t expected that to happen and shouted, “You shouldn’t be on the road you’re a fucking lunatic.” He then walked back to his van and as he got in, I noticed a line of traffic had built up behind his van. The guy in the car nearest us, stuck his head out the window and said, “Are you, ok mate?”
I walked up to him and a little shakily said, “Not really, that bloke just tried to run us off the road.”
The guy then turned to another man in the passenger seat and said something and as the white van started pulling off he looked back at me and said, “That was a good kick, very impressive. Don’t worry, we’ll deal with him,” and with that, he smiled, then drove off at speed in the same direction as the van.
* * *
2004 Interview Technique 1 – Don’t be Honest.
I have only ever not got one job I was interviewed for. It might have been when they asked me what I’d do if one of the students took the piss out of my disability. I said I’d probably want to smash their face in, but I wouldn’t.
* * *
Cancel Culture – Part 1
Just as one tends to enter a community without having much choice in the matter, as in we tend to be born into them, at times the same may be true when it comes to being ejected from one. In an earlier chapter I mentioned how in the past, those who were cast out of a community would end up living in the wilds, as outlaws, which suggests by deduction the world of community is one of laws.
The contemporary version of ostracising members of a group is known as cancel culture. This too is a place where people can be cast out for not following certain rules, even though they may not have broken any legal ones. Ironically, the penalties for going against the mob’s policies may be far harsher than had they actually broken the law.
Some argue cancel culture doesn’t exist, but there’s plenty of evidence that says otherwise, and even if being cancelled is simply the consequence of being accountable, it’s the extra-judicial nature of it that has caused so much controversy this last decade. But the thing is, cancel culture isn’t such a new phenomenon, it’s been around a long time and includes among its many victims the likes of Aristarchus (230BC), and Galileo (1564-1642). Over the last 4 decades, there have been plenty of examples of people being cancelled. Sinead O’Connor tore up a photo of the Pope on Saturday Night Live in 1992 in response to the revelations of child abuse within the church. For this, she received a lifetime ban by NBC, as well as condemnation by many other stars including Frank Sinatra and Madonna, all of which culminated in her being booed off stage at Bob Dylan’s 30th-anniversary concert. Then there was David Bellamy who, in 1996, argued against climate change being caused by humans. Bellamy was a well-known professor, botanist, author, broadcaster, and environmental campaigner, but after he made his opinion known, there was a sudden cessation of work from the mainstream media, he was spat upon in London and thrown out of the conservation groups he’d originally set up. In 2003, Michael Bailey found his life almost destroyed by political activists after he suggested in his book ‘The Man Who Would be Queen’ that transgender is more complicated than just a matter of being born with the body of one sex and the brain of another. Twenty years later the same issues lie behind a litany of other attempts at cancelling celebrities, from Germaine Greer to J. K. Rowling, and plenty of others regarding many other hot topics, most of whom were found guilty by very vocal groups on Social media.
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Re-Union – Part 4
Veronica telephoned me from the ward the next day, she wanted to see if I was OK and to reassure me that everyone, including my Panda attack victims, thought it was unfair for sister C to pick on me when everyone had played a part in the shenanigans.
Veronica laughed, “You know what, I’ve just had a fucking great idea about how we can get her back.”
“Oh yeah, what is it?” I asked.
* * *
After the war, the reparations Germany had to make were complicated, especially because of the USA’s strained relationship with the USSR. So, under the directives of Operation Paperclip, the Americans deemed ex-Nazi war criminals with expertise in many scientific and technological areas should not be put to death, but instead, be made useful to the USA while kept out of the Soviet’s reach.
Although the Nuremberg trials received a lot of publicity, in reality only 200 German war crime defendants were tried there while another 1600 were prosecuted via traditional military channels. Most of the “non-useful” Nazi war criminals were never captured, or tried, with many escaping to South America. Again, the USA was complicit in this at times especially when it suited them to recruit Nazi war criminals as spies to help with Anti-Communist activities in the region. For instance, Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo chief in Lyon was smuggled into Bolivia where he advised the government about torture and interrogation techniques which they then used on their political opponents. It is estimated that as many as 12000 Nazi war criminals ended up in Argentina, which not only already had a sizeable German community but was also largely sympathetic to the Nazi cause anyway.
At the time the future President of Argentina, Juan Peron, was an army general. He’d been extremely supportive of Hitler’s ideologies and like the Americans, wanted to make use of the Nazi’s expertise too, and of course, there was, as always, a financial element too. The Wiesenthal Centre alleged Argentine banks who had ties to Germany took the money stolen from Jewish victims both before and during the war and transferred it to what is now called Credit Suisse.
One might think that WW2 settled the issues surrounding the persecution of Jews once and for all, but just 19 years after the war’s cessation there were calls to set a statute of limitations on Nazi war crimes. The months leading up to the debate saw a wave of opposition to these plans across the world. Thousands protested, including Nobel Prize winners, politicians, playwrights, and the future Pope Benedict XVI. And in Germany, a bitter and divisive national debate broke out about how the country should both atone for its sins and how widespread the responsibility for them truly lay. This brought to the fore the fact that many war criminals who ought to have been dealt with hadn’t, and amongst them, Herbert Cukurs’ name came up.
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Cancel Culture – Part 2
My first experience of coming into contact with a cancelled writer occurred when I purchased some psychology books, because, as you now know, studying psychology at university was going to be my destiny. One of these was written by a prolific author and researcher in this field, Hans Eysenck. However, when I showed it to a friend she immediately berated me for reading something written by such a racist. At the time, I didn’t know if this was true or not, so taking her word for it, I read quite a bit of it anyway. Later, I would make my own decision about Eysenck and as usual, I found things were a bit more nebulous than him simply being “a racist.” Even the allegation that someone is a racist is often motivated by the desire to silence dissent rather than healing division, and in its own way is a kind of micro cancel culture technique.
Anyway, back to the “racist”, Eysenck. As far as his critics were concerned, his fall from grace came because of two main incidents. The first was his assertion that there were certain personality types who were more likely to get cancer, which he made while being funded indirectly by the tobacco industry. To be fair, he also publicly stated he had no doubt that “smoking was not a healthy habit”. But it was his second, more momentous “blunder” that brought the system crashing down upon him.
Eysenck both hypothesised and researched the notion that race and intelligence were interlinked and at one point, at least, accepted funding from an organisation which promoted scientific racism. When this criticism was put to him he argued research should be judged on its quality, not on who paid for it. But perhaps his greatest trespass was investigating an area of science that was, and still is, highly charged and controversial. His main contention was that genes played a part in intelligence, and, to make matters worse, no sooner had he publicised his opinions, certain racist groups seized on these theories as evidence to further their cause. In the 70s racism was far more rampant within institutions than it is now so it should have been clear a backlash would occur, and it did. Eysenck then claimed the media had misrepresented him when they reported his views were “outside of the mainstream scientific consensus,” and argued there was a majority of support for all of his main claims, that there was no real debate about the issue amongst relevant scientists. No matter his defence, he got punched in the face by a protester during a talk at the London School of Economics, received bomb threats as well as threats to kill his young children and in time his research findings were attacked and unpublished.
One of his critics, Sandra Scarr-Salapatek, wrote in 1976 that Eysenck’s book was “generally inflammatory,” and that there “is something in this book to insult almost everyone except WASPs and Jews.” She went on to add, “a quick reading of the book, however, is sure to leave the reader believing that scientific evidence today strongly supports the conclusion that US blacks are genetically inferior to whites in IQ.”
Most people reading this in the 2020s will bristle at the idea of intelligence being linked to race and will argue such research is not only divisive but what good reason could there be to embark on it. Yet, these same people, possibly all of us to an extent, harbour lots of secret prejudices about different races. For instance, in terms of intelligence, many believe Jewish and Asian people are generally more intelligent than other ‘races’ and while this could be argued to be a positive prejudice, it might just as easily be used against both Jewish and Asian people, especially if that intelligence is perceived as scheming. So, given people of all races are looking at other races and casting secret aspersions upon them, it could be argued that getting to the truth might be beneficial. The thing is it could also make things worse. That’s the thing about truth.
Like you, (maybe), I bristle too at the idea of researching whether there’s a connection between race and intelligence, after all, I’m a product of our times as well and there have been plenty of situations where I’ve argued with others about this subject. I’ve pointed out that IQ tests are flawed, that our environment has a bigger effect than our genes, and I’ve also mentioned that even if there were differences in intelligence because of race, then the range of intelligence between individuals of any racial group will be so varied that one could never prejudge anyone’s intelligence based on race. And yet, there’s something about constraining scientific research because of political issues that is concerning too. After all, in theory, a scientist should be able to present their hypothesis and evidence to the world where other scientists can evaluate them without political or religious interference. Yet, as all the above illustrates, even within the present scientific community some areas are deemed too sensitive to explore. In other words, they’ve been cancelled, as will anyone who goes near them.
If you’re wondering what all this has to do with cruelty then it might be worth considering that cancel culture is in some ways a form of bullying and may result in not only the suffering of those being cancelled but also the loss of the potential benefits that may have been brought to the world had they not been silenced. Yes, the obvious argument to that is what damage might they have caused had they not been stopped, but both elements of the equation have value, and I doubt very much that those cancelling someone ever consider what might be being lost too by doing so.
Even if Eysenck was racist, he still provided other invaluable understandings as well. So, when my friend completely dismissed him, I should have asked if we should dismiss everything someone says just because they’ve said some things we find unacceptable.
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The Reunion meal was held at The Lillie Langtree Hotel on Lillie Road in Fulham. The hotel was named after Lillie Langtree who was famous in her own right as an actress, socialite, and poster girl for Pears Soap, as well as for being Edward VII’s lover. So, for all its airs and graces it seemed a fitting venue for such a renegade group of misfits to meet.
Veronica’s great idea went like this. Everyone took their seats while I was to hide in the lobby and as the first introductory speech started I was to enter. I followed the plan as instructed and strode to the main table where Sister C was, then sat in the place next to Doctor Ian Fletcher, who’d kept his plus one seat available for me. Sister C and I were pretty much opposite each other and as I took my place, she went to say something, but Doctor Fletcher made it clear I was his plus one and there wasn’t any need for a commotion. Her draw dropped, after all, what could she do outside of throw her drink over me, stab me with her cutlery or simply walk out? All around us came a quiet ripple of applause from both normal and not-so-normal hands. This probably confused the speaker a little, who may have thought it was a hint not to go on much longer, so he didn’t.
Sister C, must, like everyone have her story too, but sometimes the voice of the community says it all, and a little bit of cancel culture has its place, as with most things, it’s a matter of degree. Still, for me, that week marked the beginning of the end of my relationship with the LGU and Roehampton hospital. With sister C running the ward I didn’t feel like visiting it anymore, and even though she went on to play her Ratchet role in pastures new a year or so later, I was eventually moved to a different place to get my artificial feet made.
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Legacy – Part 1
People often think about leaving a legacy, (and I’m not talking about artificial legacies), but as we’ve previously discussed, what’s left behind is a very abstract version of who we are. Yet, just as when we meet someone in real life we only get to know a part of their being, the same could be said of our legacy, it’s not the full version, but somewhere amidst the mythology we still exist.
There’s a lot of focus on how our legacy will be perceived by others after we have gone, but sometimes, probably more often than not, it’s not a very accurate image, therefore, if that’s so, one could argue our own internal judgement of ourselves might be more honest, but given how good we are at self-deception, that’s probably not very exact too. Either way, for those of us, left looking in from the outside there’s no real way of knowing both the accuracy and ultimate consequences of a life lived. So, maybe, when it comes to legacy, it’s best to see its limitations and accept we really have no idea of what our true legacy is or will be. Of course, for those who believe in God, there’s a final all-seeing reckoning to be had, but so far God has not been too willing to download a final report for us to check.
I would often sing the nursery rhyme “Why did the butterfly flutter by?” to my kids, but had I considered the philosophical complexities behind the answer I might have refrained from burdening them at such a young age.
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The Final Approach
Mossad sent a team to capture Cukurs, and amongst them was an experienced agent called Yaakov Meidad. His persona was set up as an Austrian businessman called Anton Künzle who was looking for tourist businesses he could invest in, in South America. Initially, he introduced himself by commissioning a flight in Cukurs’ plane. They started chatting and Yaakov told him that he had fought for Germany in the war. He even showed him a battlefield wound which was, in fact, a scar from surgery he’d had in Israel. Cukurs was naturally suspicious, as he was with everyone, but given Yaakov didn’t make a move on him and continued their friendship over a number of months he either started to feel a little more trusting or was intrigued to see what was going on. Mossad’s need to get him to another country in order to avoid the risk of the death sentence worked for the group. It meant they had to spend time luring him. As far as he was concerned, if Mossad were ever to go after him, they’d probably just kill him as soon as they found him, so his guard came down slightly.
It is also possible that Yaakov enjoyed the challenge of manipulating Cukurs as well as getting to know someone with such a dark side. However, there was another issue. The other members of the group were young and overconfident, and this caused a rift between them and Yaakov. Possibly because of this, he wanted to bring down and outwit Cukurs without the rest of the team’s help. That way he could show these young “know-it-alls” how it’s done.
Still, Cukurs constantly sought to test whether Yaakov was truly who he said he was. At one point, he staged a shooting contest between the two of them on a remote farm in the middle of nowhere just to ascertain whether Yaakov’s claim to have served on the Eastern Front during World War II rang true. And even after the months of friendship, on the morning of the mission’s climax, Cukurs gave his wife a photograph of Yaakov, saying, “If anything happens to me, give this picture to the police and tell them this man is responsible”. It’s possible Cukurs knew the game was up, but even so, he may have also sensed Yaakov had a certain empathy towards him, but maybe he was just curious to see how things would pan out and wanted to see if he could get them before they got him. Either way, when Yaakov asked him if he could check out a business he was thinking of investing in, in Uruguay, he agreed to go along with him and together they drove to the Capital, Montevideo.
As they approached the property in question in their rented Volkswagen Beetle they pulled into a petrol station across the road. This was the signal for the other agents to take position and prepare for their arrival. The heat from the sun was intense, so Yaakov went into the station to buy some bottles of Coke. Cukurs locked the car, adjusted his hat, and threw his jacket over his shoulder. When Yaakov came out he passed Cukurs a Coke, and as they crossed the road to the building, they drank and joked. They both inspected the front of the building then Yaakov calmly took the key from his pocket and opened the door.
The agents had been instructed to let him and Cukurs get into the house far enough to make an attack less risky, but they ignored the advice and jumped Cukurs as soon as he entered, what they hadn’t considered was just how tall, strong, and ferocious he was as he fought like “a wild wounded animal”. Within a few seconds, he injured a couple of the agents, reached for the door and shouted for help. In the melee, Yaakov got knocked to the floor, while 2 of the others flailed ineffectually. As Cukurs pushed the third off he looked back at Yaakov, his eyes filled with horror, betrayal, and anger. His fingers wrapped around the handle of the door once again, but the sound of two coins loudly hitting a metal tabletop rang out, and he dropped to the ground. One of the agents had managed to step back, take aim at Cukurs head and shoot him twice with a silenced pistol.
Yaakov, Bettie, Chanan, and thousands of his victims would have wanted him to go on trial, as to die this neatly was no justice at all. In an attempt to try to humiliate him in some way, his body was put in a crate where it was left for several days before the authorities were notified. A note was left beside the crate stating:
“Taking into consideration the gravity of the charge levelled against the accused, namely that he personally supervised the killing of more than 30,000 men, women, and children, and considering the extreme display of cruelty which the subject showed when carrying out his tasks, the accused Herbert Cukurs is hereby sentenced to death. Accused was executed by those who can never forget on the 23rd of February, 1965.”
One of the consequences of there not being a trial was for some in Latvia there was enough doubt to still see him as a hero and even today some websites proclaim those who gave testimony against him were far from reliable. At one point, he was even the subject of a musical that toured the Baltic nation, outraging many in the Latvian Jewish community. The play’s producer Juris Millers argued that because Cukurs was never put on trial it remained unclear as to what extent he participated in the atrocities. “There are a few people who testify that he was a killer and others who say that he was a hero,” he said. He also claimed the musical addressed Cukurs’ Nazi past, with the climax showing the aviator surrounded by people shouting “killer.” This, in Miller’s opinion, proved the show did not glorify Cukurs. But for many, the fact that the show portrayed Cukurs as a hero at all, implied his accusers were wrong. Meanwhile, the Latvian government officially described Cukurs as a war criminal and prosecutors have rejected requests made by his relatives to have his memory rehabilitated.
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Legacy – Part 2
When Cukurs fought for his life, was he an innocent scapegoat, or deserving of a far greater punishment, and are the stories I’ve written about him untrue? But ultimately how much does it really matter if our name is besmirched if we, or God if there is one, knows we are truly guiltless of any crimes alleged against us? We may speak of integrity and the good standing of our name, but whose opinion is it that matters most?
At the other extreme to Cukurs and his ilk, there are millions who have been temporarily immortalised by having monuments erected in their honour and roads named after them. As I researched this chapter I took a look at Roehampton Hospital on Google Street View. Where most of the old hospital buildings had been, there’s now a modern housing estate and close to where our ward was, there’s an area called Gillis Square and a few meters away from it another street called Holford Way which was named after Mary Eleanor Gwynne Holford. Holford was a towering woman in stature and personality and left a legacy behind to match. She had been the main driving force behind Roehampton hospital being set up during the First World War, and as a consequence, played a decisive part in instigating the British Welfare State. Likewise, Leon Gillis, whom Gillis Square is named after, was a tirelessly devoted surgeon who dedicated his life to helping others too. When I first went to Roehampton the ward I stayed on was known as CPU, which stood for the ‘Children’s Prosthetic Unit’, but sometime after Gillis’ early death in 1967 it was renamed after him, although it tended to be known as the LGU. When I thought about these two people I was touched by their inspirational lives and the choices they made, but maybe, given we apparently don’t have any free will at all I shouldn’t have, but even with that in my mind, I was still moved by them.
I often find it a little sad to think of how almost all well-known people of any time will fade away eventually, but given so much of our legacy occurs during our lifetime, maybe I shouldn’t.
It should also be remembered that it isn’t just people who leave a legacy, ultimately everything does, even occurrences, whether they’re caused by nature or humans. Of course, if we could we’d cancel the destructive ones, but still, it’s important to remember they too bring positive gifts to the world. That isn’t to say that justifies the negative impacts and suffering they cause but what it does accentuate is our inability to assess legacy beyond a certain point and that’s probably why we’re so prone to leaving it to an all-seeing deity to get to deal with.
* * *
“And you who would understand justice, how shall you unless you look upon all deeds in the fullness of light?”
Only then shall you know that the erect and the fallen are but one man standing in twilight between the night of his pigmy-self and the day of his god-self,
And that the cornerstone of the temple is not higher than the lowest stone in its foundation.”
From “The Prophet” (Chapter 50), by Kahlil Gibran
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