They beat me... but I beat the system;Bullying

11th June 1999 at 01:00
Playwright Philip Ridley lived in fear as a schoolboy but found an inner world that has led to adult success. Here he relives the old terrors

Someone is reading a book on a bench. Suddenly three youths rush him, push him to the ground, kick him and stomp on his left hand so hard it'll be swollen for a week. Then - laughing at their victim's screams - they drag him to some toilets, push his head down the pan and flush it. Afterwards they stroll away, giggling.

In an adult world this would be a criminal offence and the perpetrators could go to jail. In childhood this is considered bullying and the perpetrators go to computer studies.

I should know. I can still taste the toilet water.

From age nine to 15 I was bullied relentlessly. I grew up in Bethnal Green in London's East End, and just getting to school without being picked on was an achievement. I had a safe route mapped out - involving endless back alleys and sidestreets - that put 45 minutes on a journey that should've taken 10.

Once in school I hid between the two big dustbins at the back of the playground. If I was lucky I'd be unnoticed or ignored.

When the bell went for morning assembly I had to wait until everyone was inside before making a move. To merge with crowds meant anonymous punches and kicks.

In assembly hall, no one wanted to sit next to me. Hands covered empty seats as I approached: "My mate's sitting here!" Mateless me had to flutter helplessly until some teacher found me a place. Thanks a lot, sir! My ears would be flicked. Back of head slapped. Leg stabbed with a compass. Snot wiped on the back of my hand. Chewing gum pushed in my hair. And so it went on. All day. Every day. For six years.


Well, I was the geek. The freak. The weirdo. The one everyone despised. Again: why? Well, I was just... different.

I didn't like football. I didn't burp out loud. I didn't salivate over girls. I didn't talk like other people. My favourite music was film soundtracks.

Worse, I liked art and reading and drama. (This was in a school where you were sent to the library as punishment.) After one particularly savage beating in which my glasses were smashed, the headmaster called me to his office. "You're having a rough time, eh?" he chuckled. A glance from my bloodshot eye spoke volumes. "You bring it on yourself!" he snapped. "Don't you see that? You don't make any effort to fit in. You can't go through the rest of your life like that."

Well I did. Or, rather, I have so far. Despite the bullying, despite the organised crime called state education, I have grown from infant geek into perfectly functioning adult geek.

What saved me was stories. As a child I read stories and I wrote stories. Stories became my way of discovering other worlds and inventing my own. I transformed dumps into magical forests, tower blocks into mountains, and myself into... a lonely prince, most of the time.

Looking back now, my stories were bleak affairs -- like Lord of the Rings written by Sylvia Plath. And yet they were my way of making sense of things. A way of giving a ritual to the emotional chaos all around me. Without them I would have either been crushed without trace or - worse still - tried to become like everyone else.

Sparkleshark, my new stage play, is an attempt to dramatise these childhood experiences. In it, a teenager called Jake (my alter-ego) is bullied by his school mates. In order to ward off the beating, a fairy story is told. At first the bullies are cynical about the whole thing. Why should a fairy story be of any interest to them? But gradually they are drawn into the narrative.

They start to become characters within the story who enact aspects of real lives. The school bully becomes a prince who is unable to express his feelings. The oldest member of the group becomes a wizard. And by be- coming these characters they are able to reveal things about themselves that - within the school playground - they'd never been able to vocalise before.

In other words, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, give a man a mask and he'll tell you anything. And so the bullies get engulfed by the story and put aside their violence. Perhaps not forever but at least for that moment.

A friend of mine described the piece as wish-fulfilment. "Stories can't change anything," he said. But my argument would be: if not stories then what? Politics? Religion? Technology? Oh, give me a break! These things might alter the world but they can't change your heart.

Society bullies us all now: we have to like the same things, hate the same things, wear the right labels, bigger is better, louder is coolest, let's aspire to mediocrity. It's so easy to hit your mark when you aim low. We can hear Dolby Stereo without listening to a thing. We like anything new so long as it's familiar.

The legacy of bullying, in all its forms, is hard to shake. After a childhood full of sudden pushes from behind I still have to clutch the banister while descending stairs. Whenever I enter a crowded room I always expect the reception to be hostile. On the first day of rehearsal for Sparkleshark it was a surprise to me that such a wonderful group of actors actually seemed pleased to have me around.

I believe in stories - and by stories I mean, of course, art, for all art is a story, even when it's just flat paint on a canvas. Stories are the only things that can truly change us. And all art, by its nature, is made by geeks: the outsiders, the weirdos, the emotional explorers who bring back messages from the World of Freakdom. Well, that's my story and I'm sticking to it!

'Sparkleshark' is at the Royal National Theatre until June 25: 0171 452 3000. Student support pack from NT, pound;2 (send SAE, A4) or from www.nt-online.orgeducation

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