I was with my son at the park a few days back.
He had fallen in with a group of other boys. All young, around pre-school or P1 age. They were all talking their own special language.
As usual I was lurking not too far away. Trying to come across as the caring dad but probably resembling The Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
And then something stirred in me. I noticed one of the little boys was pointing and laughing at another. Then he called him a ‘weirdo’. A second boy jumped in, using the same term.
I felt compelled to get involved. Gently I tried to talk to them.
‘Hey buddy, we don’t say things like that about our friends. We’re all different but we’re all good pals.’
The kids looked at me like I was a crazy man. Was I right to intervene? I don’t know. Did it help? I don’t know.
But certainly an emotion had been stirred. Something confusing, something so contradictory, familiar and troubling.
My wife and I talk to our son a lot about bullying. Probably one of my greatest fears in life is that my boy will be bullied. Or be a bully.
One of my proudest recent moments was when he stood up to a bigger boy in an adventure playground. The kid was pushing the smaller children. My son went up to him and said ‘Stop being a bully!’ My heart swelled.
But I don’t want to run away with myself here. These were innocent kids in the park. Good kids. The boy who was called a weirdo didn’t seem to register at all what had happened. I was more upset than he was.
There are things in the world that no amount of good intentions can change. Children can act in a way that is brutish. Hunting in packs and targeting the weakest.
Finding comfort in being inside the cave huddled around the fire rather than the one who is left stranded outside in the cold.
I have to accept that my son will be as prone to this as any other kid who has ever lived. The solace of belonging.
And who am I to lecture anyone anyway? I was reading back over a recent blog of mine where I had written that we all have to be wary of the impact of our words on others.
Really McCambridge? You really want to open this box of slugs?
I’ve always been blessed/cursed with an overactive mind and a hard-edged tongue.
How many times have I delivered a sharp-witted comment at the expense of a member of my group?
How often have I enjoyed the laughter of my peers. How often have I bothered to stop and think about the impact on the butt of my joke?
And what about my professional persona? The loud boss terrifying a team of younger colleagues.
Did I think enough about how scary it is for a young person starting off in the job? Was I approachable?
Did I enjoy the power of influence a little bit too much and use it like a weapon?
Did I always treat others the way that I would want to be treated myself?
They are uncomfortable questions. The answers are even more uncomfortable.
It means little now but all I can do is hold my hands up and say sorry to any person who I made feel at any time like a lesser person than they should have been.
My own personal experience with bullying runs deep. Right back to a time in the 1970s and 80s when Northern Ireland was a much more brutal place than it is now.
I grew up on a farm in the country. A remote little piece of north Antrim near the Ballinlea crossroads. It wasn’t a village or even a hamlet, it was barely a place at all.
I had to go to primary school in Ballycastle, five miles away. I attended St Patrick’s Boys PS, a Catholic school. I had then, as now, very little knowledge or interest in religion but you had to go somewhere and that was my background.
We wore a blue uniform which clearly identified us.
The only way my older brother and I could get to school was by bus. By a peculiar geographic quirk the only bus which went past our lane was number 171 which took the older kids from the neighbouring villages of Armoy and Mosside to Ballycastle High School.
Our uniforms marked us out as obvious and soft targets for some of the boys who sat on the back seats.
We were the only two children from a Catholic background who took that route.
I started going on that bus when I was four. There were never seats available. We always stood.
Like all children of my generation we grew up knowing nothing other than The Troubles.
Tensions were high then. The hunger strikes were taking place. I know this because I remember a song being sang on the bus which referenced Bobby Sands as a ‘dirty Fenian fucker’.
At that time I knew a lot more about The Sandman who battled Spider-Man than I did about Bobby Sands, but it made no difference. Even though I was just a small child I had an innate understanding that the songs were being sung to frighten me and my brother.
There was another song. Even more sinister. I’ve never heard it sung in any other place or at any other time but the words are still branded into my memory.
‘Take the Popey, put him on the table and ram the poker up his hole!
‘Ram the poker! Ram the poker! Ram the poker up his hole!’
The black-blazered kids on the back seat wore heavy boots which they repeatedly thumped off the floor as they chanted this as if they were hypnotised.
To this day I have never witnessed anything else so genuinely chilling and filled with menace.
I suppose the boys who were doing it were 15 or 16, but in my mind they were giants. I still remember a couple of them, exactly how they looked, the sneering faces.
At this point I just wish to emphasise that I’m not trying to make any sort of narrow political or sectarian point here. Later I went to a secondary school where I was one of the few children from a Catholic background. I never had so much as a sniff of a sectarian incident in seven years.
Back to the bus. This was our daily ritual every morning and afternoon.
Every day when my brother and I got off at the end of our country lane several of the kids in the back seat turned and made obscene gestures out the back window. Sometimes it was the middle finger. Sometimes they ran a finger across their throats.
On some occasions it became physical. My brother was pushed around and knocked over a few times.
One day my little schoolbag was ripped from my grasp. All the contents were scattered. I was on my hands and knees like a desperate starving rat trying to recover my exercise and prayer books. The mocking laughter was all around.
My parents went to the teachers of my school. The high school. The bus operator. Nothing ever seemed to change.
We had to go to school and this was the only way to get there. Getting on that bus every day reduced me to a state close to terror.
I remember the worst day. I suspect it is one of the things which will stay vivid with me even when the rest of my mind is rotting away.
One of the worst bullies moved away from the back seat that day. Instead he took a seat just behind where I was standing in the aisle.
He tortured me on the whole route home. Pushing and shoving, calling me names. The hiss of his voice. ‘Wee Fenian, wee Fenian.’
At one point I felt a tugging at my coat but I was too afraid to turn around.
Eventually the bus pulled to a stop at the end of our lane. My brother moved up the aisle to depart. I tried to follow.
But I couldn’t. At first I thought someone was holding me back. But then I saw it was something worse.
I used to wear an old faded green anorak, the sort which had laces hanging out of it.
I saw now that I had been tied by the laces to the seat of the bus. I was six-years-old.
I wanted to shout to the driver to hold the bus but I had no voice. I was frozen with shame.
I tried to work at the knots but it was hopeless. My tiny fingers felt like they belonged to another. It was the first time I ever remembered seeing my own hands tremble.
The situation was horrible. But, as I find often, the goodness of human nature cannot be suppressed.
A couple of the older girls from the high school came to help me. Their elegant fingers working at the strings to free me.
The bus driver noticed that I hadn’t got off at my usual point. He stopped the bus and came back to see what was happening.
I still remember that driver. His face. His name. He was a prominent Orangeman in the area.
He asked me if I was alright.
I mumbled something.
He asked who had done this to me.
I was about to tell him that I didn’t know. But then I clearly recall looking up and seeing the face of my tormentor, grinning at me.
I think it was only at this point that I surprised myself by noticing that I wasn’t crying. I wasn’t going to cry.
I found a voice and raised a finger.
‘It was him.’
What happened next is quite direct and more suited to the time it occurred than now, over three decades later. View it through that prism.
The driver caught the boy by the collar of his blazer and dragged him from the seat and up the aisle. He sent him reeling down the bus steps with a solid kick in the arse. Presumably he was miles from home.
I suppose things gradually improved after that. I don’t remember too much about the bus from my later years at primary school. Older boys left school and things settled down.
I’ve never really spoken about or recorded these event before. What their impact has been on me I don’t know. Perhaps none. Perhaps plenty. The mind can’t be cut open and read like the rings of a tree.
So I’ve moved in this post from innocent kids shouting weirdo, to my snide smart-Alec remarks to naked displays of mindless sectarian hatred from my youth.
I am not suggesting there is any commonality here at all or that one thing leads to the other. It is horrendous to suggest they are in anyway linked. They are not.
The boys who I saw at the park where just doing what kids do. It will always be that way.
But that desire to belong to the popular group, to have a common bond, can lead us all into actions which are not what we expect of ourselves. And they are almost always at the expense of somebody weaker.
I talked to my son about what we had seen in the park that day. I tried to reason it through with him.
I told him to imagine how it made the little boy they were calling the name feel. I think he understood. I hope he did.
It does none of us any harm to remember from time to time how the victim feels.
2 thoughts on “The bullies”
Gosh, what evocative writing. I too grew up in the North during ‘the Troubles’ and your piece catapulted me right back to that time. Children can be unbelievably cruel. I too experienced several forms of bullying and it undoubtedly impacted me greatly. And it was just ‘run of the mill’ bullying, nothing extraordinary. Thanks so much for your writing Jonathan, I really appreciate being able to read it – I really admire you for it.
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Thank you so much