A few weeks ago I was in a park, in a leafy part of London, with my daughter. It was the kind of summer day that most people have in mind when they think of Britain; sunny but nippy. I had a jumper on and given the park’s location (yuppy, middle-class area), it was a case of leaving my hoodie down and being greeted warmly by passers-by or putting it up and risking a visit by the local bobbie. I chose the former and opened my copy of The Observer as wide as possible.
My daughter was playing in the sandpit and I was completely immersed in the newspaper – maybe reading the excellent Robert McCrum or the deliciously witty and sarcastic Catherine Bennett – when a pair of hazel eyes forced mine to take a detour from the page I was avidly devouring. It was my offspring and she looked quite upset. ‘That boy just hit me and bit me’. What? I asked her with eyes wide open, whilst my eyebrows shot up so high that they could have been used as a bar for a pole vaulting competition. ‘Yes, he just went like this’. And then she showed me how the boy (probably nine or ten) had clipped her on the left temple and sunk his teeth in her arm – though she had been really quick in withdrawing her upper limb before real damage could be done.
At this moment I would like to open a metaphorical bracket to explain to readers, followers and fellow bloggers that when it comes to next of kin, you offend one member of my family and you might as well move to Mars - and face the tough border controls they have there which put the ones at Calais port to shame - because as the famous philosopher Marcellus Wallace said in that treatise on human relationships called ‘Pulp Fiction’, I will go medieval on their a***s. And if they think it is all over when they are in hospital recovering, they’re in for a nasty surprise. I will make sure that they stay awake to watch every single episode of the ‘Jordan and Peter Laid Bare’ DVD series. Back to back to back to back to back to back to back… ad infinitum. They will wish they were in Guantanamo. Or at least they will look at the colour orange in a different light. End of the metaphorical bracket.
After my daughter reported to me what had happened in the sandpit, I was faced with two choices: one, ask her to ignore the child or two, have a word with the culprit's mother. That was when I noticed something else.
The child did not look normal. His movements were brusque and uncoordinated. There was also a somewhat feral approach in his attitude to the toys he was using. As I continued to watch this minor, I realised there was another peculiar spectacle going on.
Out of two dozen children playing in the sandpit when my daughter arrived there was only one left now: my eight-year-old. And she was sitting with me. All the other kiddies had scrambled away. If we'd had an aerial view of the aforementioned small, square enclosure, the child and his mother would have been in the southwestern part whilst most adults and their offspring were in the northeast. Berlin Wall, come back, alles ist entschuldigt.
Then, on closer inspection, another curious element caught my eye: my daughter's aggressor's mother's attire and how out of place it looked amidst the jeans, Birkenstocks and mostly GAP and Next jumpers worn by the other parents. A dark scarf adorned the woman's head, an equally crepuscular, large, long-sleeved blouse covered her upper body whilst a colourful Gypsy skirt took care of her thighs and legs. She was barefoot with both her feet inside the sandpit, whilst her black sandals rested by the sandpit. And she could not speak a word of English. How did I know this? Because I chose option two and went to have a word with her about what her child had done to my daughter. She mumbled the words: 'Me no English'. That was when the penny dropped.
Suddenly my initial rage was replaced by a different feeling. The sentiment that this was an anomalous situation happening to someone who had probably been in a similar position before. It was clear that her child had a mental disability - autism perhaps? -, but what really compounded her ordeal was that she was a foreigner with no command of the English language in a setting which, although inviting, was as hostile as a park in the middle of a block of council flats at twelve o' clock midnight.
This was a double, or rather, triple whammy. Disability is one of those issues that gets brushed under the carpet or overlooked completely so often that one might think we're a nation where 100% of the population is fit and able. And it pains me to say that years ago I would have joined the ranks of parents who were now sitting in the other side of the park waiting for the 'odd' kid to go. Yes, I put my hand up, too.
Disability was never properly discussed at home when I was growing up and on one occasion I remember my younger self pestering my mother about wanting to be a baby again. It was to do with all that attention and affection (not that I lacked any, by the way but I was still an only child then and so you tend to want more all the time). I was probably nine or ten at the time, but my progenitor retorted sharply to my harassment: 'Well, you know, if you do want to be a baby again, you will be like him'. And then she pointed at a boy who lived in our block and had Down's Syndrome. That was the end of me importuning my mother on the same subject. But the image stayed with me and I'm sad to say that not in a positive light.
Fast-forward more than twenty-five years later and once I began to live in the UK I became aware of how hot this topic was and will continue to be. Just recently Andy Burnham, the health secretary, had to come clean about the fact that disability benefits will not be scrapped to fund the new national care service. Phew, what a relief! But why even think about it? Could it have something to do with the 'us' vs 'them' culture that imbues much of our social interaction nowadays? 'I'm active, I can walk, work out and cycle, so anything to do with the less mobile is not my concern'. Until it strikes you, literally.
Five years ago I met Jim. He was an affable man, a natural joker. We were both doing a project management course and he was the soul of the party, so to speak. There was just one tiny difference. Jim had had a stroke when he was in his forties. His right side had been left paralysed and as a consequence he had had to learn how to do everything anew. We became acquaintances after he contacted the organisation I used to work for before. He wanted to use visual art, drawing and painting in this case, to help stroke sufferers regain mobility. It was a beautiful scheme and Jim was so keen to kick off at once. My then boss, a very good painter and teacher in her own right, took over the class and by May 2005, almost nine months after the course had started, Jim's group had the first exhibition at our arts centre. We put it up in the hall because we wanted to raise awareness of stroke and its consequences. We also wanted to fly the flag of optimism, that not everything was lost, that there were ways in which to approach such heavy blows. The exhibition was a success, especially hearing first people's comments on how simple the drawings and painting looked and then seeing their reactions when properly told who the artists (I still refuse to call them students, you should have seen the quality of the works on display, eat your heart out, Tracey Emin, and don't forget to take your messy, unmade bed with you when you move to France, please) were and what they had gone through. Their expressions and attitudes changed totally and were replaced by candour and sympathy instead.
Jim's group also wanted to lobby the local government to fund this initiative long-term. Hence his enrolling on a project management course. Together we learnt how to plan, deliver, monitor and evaluate projects. And I also helped him with the business side of his scheme, as I had just become an advisor for my company (one of those many hats we wear in the public sector and which my post a fortnight ago touched upon light-heartedly). Although, I have not seen Jim for a few years now, I know that his group exists and is very active in our local community.
But if the previous case scenario reads like a success story to some of you, then, in the same way I think that we ought to be just as honest to admit that the future does not augur as well for the child I saw in the park that day. Because as it usually happens within minority groups, besides the external obstacles they face: lack of government funding, target-orientated agenda, short-term strategy, there is also the 'difference within the difference' hurdle to overcome. I have already explained this term before, which is not actually mine, but a friend's and which she first used back in the early 90s when she edited a short-lived gay pamphlet in Havana called 'Huellas' (Foootprints). When it comes to disability, people like Jim are in a better position to earn the public's sympathy vote. That kiddie in the park, unfortunately, is the flipside of our flippant coin. When it comes to mental health, the presumption is that you cannot perform to the best of your abilities, because you don't have any. Time to Change, a programme aimed at ending the discrimination that people with mental health problems face, revealed recently that 92% of Britons would not disclose suffering from a mental disorder lest this admission damaged their career prospects. Shocking, isn't it? I think I ought to translate that article for Mum. Now add the lack of linguistic skills and factor in possible economic deprivation and you will get a fuller picture of what that child's future will look like.
I would have loved to wrap up my column today by saying that in the end we all linked arms in the park and gave a powerful rendition of 'We Are the World' whilst hugging a big tree at the same time. But no, I can't write that because that didn't happen. The parents stayed in their corner and my daughter went back to the sandpit, although she kept to her own little nook - she might be a tough cookie, but, you know, once bitten, twice shy, literally.
What I did see, though, was plenty of love pouring out from that mother. Everytime I looked at her, she was watching her son affectionately. She kept smiling at him, even when he attempted to hit her. You could only marvel at her composure. And that to me was the highlight that day.
This is the first time since I began uploading videos from youtube that I am not completely happy with my choice. I'll explain. The first time I listened to the song that closes this column today was by the exceptional Sinead O'Connor. It was included in her album 'Universal Mother'. I did not know at the time it was a cover version but recently I came across an earlier performance of the track by none other than Luke Kelly. Now, I love Luke's singing and his very own version of 'Dirty Old Town' is amongst my favourites on my youtube channel. But for some reason 'Scorn Not His Simplicity', in my humble opinion, is meant to be sung by a woman. However, since there's no clip on the aforementioned site of Sinead singing the song - and I am loath to upload videos of tunes accompanied just by an album cover - I have decided to give you the option of clicking on the link below and listening to the track as sung by Sinead, or watching Luke performing the same tune. By the way he does a sterling job of it, I just think Sinead's version is better. And needless to say, this post and clip today are dedicated to that mother and child who were playing together in that park, in that leafy part of London. Enjoy.
Sinead O'connor - Scorn Not His Simplicity
Image taken from Candoco Dance Company's website. Candoco is a contemporary dance company of disabled and non-disabled dancers.
Next Post: 'What Makes a Good Writer?', to be published on Tuesday 3rd November at 10am (GMT)