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I was born into England's idyllic countryside in 1955, just ten years after The Second World War. A time when people were still suffered the terrible trauma of nightly bombing raids and the unimaginable suffering of losing loved ones to a violent death. Many were gripped by what we now call ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder’ at a time when no-one felt comfortable talking about their feelings.
Rationing had only just ended and I remember my anxious mother keeping draws stuffed full with used paper bags because surviving acute shortages made it impossible for her to throw anything away. Almost everyone's mother was hording completely worn-out shoes or tiny bits of material to patch clothes long after they should have been thrown away. Even though food was now freely available many mothers couldn't help skimping on portions of basic things like sugar, flour and butter.
Had I been born into my working-class family fifty years earlier I imagine the mood in my household may well have been a lot less tense. I would also have avoided going to school by becoming a junior apprentice to my accomplished cabinet making father. Conversely, had I been born today I would be learning in an enlightened school system while using computers with some kind of commonly available spellcheck program.
Unfortunately for me, being born in 1955 meant compulsorily attending a tiny village school whose teachers believed education was still something that should be beaten into their pupils. Dyslexia and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) were things of the distant future and any interruption to ask for clarity was considered deliberately disruptive.
Much to my teacher’s constant frustration, I could actually read words. I could even write words. I simply couldn't understand them. Sometimes I would copy things down from the blackboard and the very same word would be spelled in three different ways in the same paragraph. When I read the 'Janet and John' books I could read the words, I could even read them out loud, but I simply couldn't follow the story.
I know this sounds ridiculous but, to give you some idea of what I experience when I read, it's like relearning every word every time I see it. Imagine translating every word into French, then back into English all the time. I truly envy those people who talk about becoming 'lost in a good book' because for me reading is like completing an obstacle course without gravity to hold me down.
As for abstract things like punctuation, or the meaning of nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs etc. My teachers may just as well have been speaking Swahili!
Even as I write this explanation it makes absolutely no sense to me, so how could it possibly have made sense to the frustrated teachers who punished me for being 'lazy and stupid’. When those same teachers informed my parents of, what they believed to be, my ‘unwillingness’ to learn, my poorly educated Mum and Dad also punished me for my apparent rebelliousness.
Like many children who find themselves in this predicament I compensated for my academic failings by becoming an athlete. I sought approval as the fastest swimmer in my junior school. I was a good soccer player. Tall for my age, I was handy for the rugby team and ideal as a fast cricket bowler. I was all set for the macho existence of a ‘Jock’ until the age of 8 when I became a chronic asthmatic and could no longer compete.
It didn’t help when the Doctor who diagnosed my asthma said. 'In my opinion asthma is a psychosomatic illness.’ After that little bomb shell my teachers; my parents, even I believed that I was not only too ‘lazy and stupid’ to read, I was also too ‘lazy and stupid’ to breathe!
I should point out, that most of my teachers were well meaning and not deliberately malicious. They were people born into a very different England. Some had survived two brutal World Wars while living in a society that didn't guarantee education for all until a hard won act of Parliament in 1944. Looking back, I believe they were simply concerned that I was squandering the opportunities they themselves had never been given.
Whatever the reason for their demeaning attacks, I needed to find a way to compensate for my constant feelings of humiliation. I noticed other kids making their mates laugh. They seemed to be winning the kind of positive attention I craved so I decided to give it a go too. Before long my alter-ego was converting painful embarrassment into seemingly carefree laughter, and that is how ‘my fool’ was born.
After a few more stressful years of clowning my way through junior school I was herded into a hall to sit something the teachers were calling ‘The Eleven Plus'. This was the exam given to every child in Britain to determine his or her 'intelligence'. Smart kids went to Grammar Schools and the not so smart kids joined the brand new Secondary Modern education system. Needless to say, I didn't even understand the questions and, as playing the fool wasn't a testable subject, I found myself allocated to a Secondary Modern School.
Now, here comes a big ‘first act twist’: Because my tiny Hertfordshire village school, and my solitary home surrounded by nothing but green fields, happened to be located near the border with Essex I was sent to a brand new Secondary Modern in a place called 'Harlow New Town'.
Those of you who are not native to England may be wondering what a 'New Town' is. You may also be curious to know why it was necessary to build a bunch of these 'New Towns' in a thirty mile radius of London in the first place. Well, Hitler's Luftwaffe had effectively flattened the whole of central London with his Blitz and the people made homeless were being moved out of the city. Harlow New Town had been created to house many of the people who were bombed out of the London Docks in the now famous, East End.
On the day I turned up to school in my brand-new cap, shorts and blazer I felt as though the person in-charge had made a terrible mistake. The assembly hall was full of people who looked like children but acted like men. Tough men! To say this was something of a culture shock would be an understatement.
Before that first day of secondary school my world had been so small. I had no idea what words like London or bomb actually meant so it took a long time for me to work out what was going on. It also took a couple of beatings for me to understand that many of the older kids had been born into the ghetto like existence of temporary London housing. Before being shipped out to Harlow like refugees, they had all seen and experienced so much upheaval in their short lives. They were all so worldly and unafraid and hard-bitten. Not to mention, they all talked funny.
Obviously, I was really desperate to fit in with these intense 'East Enders' so I revived the 'the fool' who saw me through junior school. Just as an added complication, I also picked up their broad Cockney accent.
My horrified Mum absolutely hated the way I spoke so, by way of ‘piling on’ to my already split personality, in my conflict filled home I spoke like a country bumpkin and at my stressful school I sounded like one of the Kray twins (Very famous and very violent London gangsters).
Having ‘endured’ the trauma of learning almost nothing in the dumbest class for far too long, I escaped school with no qualifications. Effectively, at the age of 15, I 'slunk' out into the real world with absolutely no self-esteem to seek work that did not require others witnessing my ‘shameful secret’.
I can still remember what letting my guard down felt like on the day I went for a job in one of Harlow’s many anonymous warehouses. I made the beginners mistake of assuming it would be the usual driving a forklift or stacking boxes. I was wrong. This particular company felt the need to test potential employees because they made all kinds of weighing scales.
The weights and measures questions on the application form were very simple, like the kind I would Google now, but back then I couldn't understand what was being asked of me. I waited for the ground to open up and swallow me whole but, sadly, that didn't happen. All I could do was fiddle with pens and make pathetic excuses until the manager had to leave his desk and I could 'slink' away in shame.
After that humiliation I took jobs on farms or on building sites. I worked as a cook and a baggage loader at Stansted Airport. Anything, just as long as the application form was limited to the information I had learned by wrote, and the weekly pay packet gave me enough to drink in the local pubs.
It was in those pubs I had conversations with what, back then, I believed to be 'clever people'. People who had finished school with O and A level's. People who had been to university. Accountants and Solicitors. People who owned their own businesses. Educated, professional people. People who knew me as that ‘funny bloke’ Stretch and not the ‘dumb-arse’ Simon.
It always felt so intoxicating while it was happening but the next day my inevitable self-doubt would creep back in. While recovering from my hangovers on building sites, or driving tractors, I would convince myself that these 'clever people' must have been humouring me because I was really too dumb to be 'one of them'.
After years of this drifting from one mindless job to another I stumbled into the role of salesman and found myself in a world where ‘the fool’ really came into his own. The sales trainers who taught me when I joined Xerox told me, 'People buy people first.' And, boy were they right! Obviously, I wasn't very good with rejection so cold calling was a problem but managing major accounts was a breeze. ‘Stretch’ could sell anything while standing at a bar or sitting across a dining table eating and drinking on expenses.
Ironically, the more sales I made, the more my insecure subconscious caused anxiety which fed my depression. I became obsessed with running away before my employers 'caught onto me'. For no apparent reason I would jump ship when things were going well. Then, when my subconscious self believed I had run out of English companies to escape from, I fled to a sales job in Australia. Had there been a sales job on the moon I would have taken it and, by now, I would be eyeing up opportunities on Mars.
In a perfect contradiction, at exactly the same time as all of this self sabotage was going on, my reckless ego was periodically overruling my insecurity and accepted promotions to higher and higher management roles. 'What the hell was it thinking?' Inevitably, my ego's bluff was called when I was headhunted into the role of Managing Director of a small computer communications company. 'What the hell were they thinking?'
Dictating all of my letters, to incredibly capable and understanding PA'S, was easy enough but reading the manuals and technical white papers was impossible. In order to learn about complex new products I had to develop innovative methods of conscripting my technical support teams into presenting the sales benefits of multifaceted computer products while using only simple line drawings.
Oddly enough, by including my sales force in these whiteboard sessions, I not only taught myself I had stumbled upon a fantastic team building exercise that also made it easier for customers to understand our products. In-time this method even increased sales but, no matter what good came from my ‘compensatory strategies’, I always felt like a con artist who used sleight of hand to deflect attention away from what I believed to be my ‘ignorance’.
Now, here comes the ‘second act twist’: Because one of our customers needed a particular product someone on my team had to go and search for it at a computer show in Las Vegas. To make things more challenging, that same someone had a million square feet of exhibition stands to look at but only had three days in which to complete the round trip. Sadly, I was the only ‘someone’ available.
It was my Doctor who came up with the idea of taking Valium to make me sleep on the flights. He also suggested taking 'diet pills' (speed) to keep me awake during my visits to the computer show. Incredibly, when I was on these 'diet pills' I calmed down instead of speeding up. I was able to focus my mind on one subject for the very first time in my life. I visited every stand at the show. I took notes and, more importantly, I understood what was happening.
After returning to Australia, my Doctor diagnosed my ADD immediately because many of the kids he treats are given Ritalin (speed) for the same condition. You may be wondering why I hadn't noticed my brain was flitting from one thing to another like a jukebox on steroids. The simple answer is, having never experienced anything else, I just assumed this was how everyone's brain worked.
It was around this same time, I attempted to harness my newfound financial success to improve my mood. I bought expensive clothes. I drove bigger, flashier and 'sexier' cars. I hungered for 'faster' women whose appearance was more important than their character. I bought property, I travelled, I partied, but none of these things made me feel worthy.
To escape my marrow deep insecurities I drank copious quantities of alcohol, but the inevitable hangovers simply promoted deeper depression. It was only a matter of time before this lifestyle caught up with me. As a New Zealand friend of mine would have put it. 'I simply flew to bits!' Yet, even then, I didn’t do what was clearly necessary. Like so many in that condition, I did all of the stupid things first.
When I did eventually seek help, my psychiatrist tried to convince me that I suffered from dyslexia. I argued against his diagnosis. I told him, 'I was just ‘lazy and stupid’. When he tried to explain how someone who was truly ‘lazy and stupid’ could not have achieved so much I merely humoured him. In my heart of hearts, I just knew I had him fooled too.
On the day my shrink eventually broke through my defences I wept for the whole hour session. It cost a lot of money to cry like a baby but it was the best money I have ever spent.
After drying my eyes, I went home to find I was drawn to the keyboards of one of my many PC’S. I had a whole stack of them, still in their boxes, because employers had been giving them to me for years. Other than playing a couple of rounds of a game called 'Frogger' I had never touched any of them.
Much to my amazement, I saw words coming out of me and onto the screen. Incredibly, pushing characters out of my peculiar mind through a keyboard and onto the screen makes more sense to my brain than trying to send them out through a pen or in through my eyes.
I taught myself how to type words. Then I taught myself to craft those words into stories, characters and plots. Within a couple of years I had completed a writing course at the Australian Film Television and Radio School in Sydney and won a scholarship to The Seattle Film School in America.
As more time went by I found myself the proud author of five raw books and twenty naive screenplays. It turns out, I'm what’s known as a natural writer. This means I simply don’t know what the story's going to be until I release it from deep within my mind. In the ultimate ironic, ‘third act twist’, writing is my only true way of expressing myself.
By releasing, for want of a better description, this 'log jam' in my mind I had finally found out what it is to lose myself in a book. In my case it's writing one not reading one but now, as my adventures tumble out, the hours simply melt away.
Book number six, ‘Another Self’, is the first one to be published. The story follows a young woman journey through ancient Rome. She has to overcome crippling self-doubt to become the richest woman in the Roman Republic and, of course, the security which is supposed to come with wealth and power proves elusive.
My second published book, ‘Another Tribe’, is about a young Native American woman who has to survive and make sense of, what she sees as, the seemingly irrelevant differences between races while enduring persecution in the southern states during the American Civil War.
My third published book, ‘Another War’, is about a young woman who is forced to come to terms with her guileless involvement in causing The First World War.
The genre of this three book series is quite difficult to categorize because they are not typical historical fiction. They all include a bit of fantasy, mystery, and psychological thriller. There is even a little romance mixed in with an intimate look at the beliefs of the period. The characters appear real because every facet of my ‘glorious suffering’ and eventual redemption is writ large on every page.
You may be wondering how I write books set in three very different periods of history when I have clearly never read a history book. The answer is the BBC and The History Channel. My mind has always been a sponge for received knowledge verbally and visually so I have learned almost everything in my life by watching documentaries and movies.
You may also be curious to know how my fragile ego handles the inevitable criticism that comes with selling books. This is how it was explained to me by a very successful writer: 'There are literally billions of people on this planet who can correct spelling but almost none of them will ever have the ability to write a book.' I always hold these words close when I read a particularly pompous 'Grammar Nazi's' review of my technical writing style.
Just in case you're worried about the quality of my published work, I should mention my wonderfully understanding editor, Yelena Fairfax. She’s the one who, 'Put's in all the commas and shit.' (A quote I love from the movie 'Get Shorty').