IT WILL come as little surprise to long-time readers of this column that I was bullied as a child. I mean, look at me. Now imagine me as a child in school, a clumsy swot with a lisp and an inability to play football… My parents might as well have coated me in honey and thrown me to the bears.
It was fairly low-level bullying when I was at primary school, a sort of background buzz within my tolerance.
But when I got to secondary school, it changed quite dramatically. There was a boy, a couple of years older than me, who lived near me. I’ll call him Squeakybum, partly to protect his identity (he might now be a decent man ashamed of his childhood), and mostly as an act of revenge.
We would get the same bus to school. In those pre-deregulated days, a junior bus ticket would cost me 9p, the equivalent of 28p now – yeah, thanks for that, Maggie.
But there was a cheaper 5p ticket available for shorter journeys. Squeakybum and his friends would buy that ticket and stay on the bus for longer than they were entitled. It was theft, basically, and I am many terrible things but I am not a thief.
A couple of days after my first term started, Squeakybum came up to me, surrounded by his friends. “Stop paying 9p on the bus. We all pay 5p.”
“Yeah, but it’s 9p,” I said.
“I don’t care. If you pay 9p, the driver will know we’re paying the wrong fare.”
His message delivered, Squeakybum and his associates went to get on the bus. I followed them. And paid 9p.
I continued paying 9p for days until Squeakybum realised I was still defying him. That was when he punched me in the gut for the first time.
I carried on paying the right fare, he carried on bullying me, verbally abusing me, hitting me, for months. This was a boy who if I had said to him, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” he would have taken it as a tip to use sticks and stones.
I would like to think it shows character on my part that I continued to pay the correct fare, but maybe I was just more scared of the authorities than of him. It is hard to tell. I am not even sure what motivated me to choose my current breakfast cereal.
The point is that it was not the actual punching that was so debilitating, nor the name calling. It was the constant sense of dread, the knowing that Squeakybum could be around any corner, and the helplessness to do anything about it.
I have not really felt that dread for years. I have had short stabs of it when I have remembered that time, echoes of the pain, like the day after you have recovered from a migraine and you cough, and the jarring brings the headache back for a moment.
But I feel it now, because we have started to elect bullies like Squeakybum into power. And even more so since Tuesday.
I get the appeal of the strong man, who will knock heads together, instead of the wheedling pygmy compromising politicians lining their own pockets, blah, blah, etc, etc.
It’s not as simple as that. Everything is connected. That’s not just the way of modern life, that’s the way of life. You can’t just yank out the bit you don’t like and expect there to be no consequences.
But these easy answers-peddling bullies won’t tell you that. They won’t tell you that working women or the immigrants you don’t like because they talk foreign in shops are the ones paying for your NHS and pension.
They will tell you everything would be great if it weren’t for one thing. They will give you scapegoats.
Build a wall, throw out the Poles, beat up the little kid who pays 9p on the bus so you can carry on paying 5p. They’re all of a piece.
And you have a choice. Are you going to be one of the kids standing behind Squeakybum, holding his coat as he beats up his current target, egging him on, so that he doesn’t make you his next scapegoat?
Or are you going to stand up to him, and carry on paying 9p on the bus because it’s the right thing to do?
Not literally, obviously. That would be theft.