From scrap metal to national treasure. The history of the segregated playground.

You might remember hearing about this in the news: Outrageous’ and ‘disgusting’: segregated playground sparks fury. Developers Henley Homes had two playgrounds on one new build site in Lambeth. The large, central playground was allegedly intended for the children of those who privately own property on the complex; it was claimed that a much smaller area was designated for the children from the social housing block (Wren Mews). I’m choosing my words carefully as after all hell broke loose they strenuously denied these accusations but, given the experience of the residents it’s fair to say, few people buy their version of events.

The story caught my attention because the development in question is a stone’s throw from where I grew up and is on the site of a former school I am very much aware of, Lilian Baylis. Lilian Baylis was the local comprehensive, but I didn’t go there as my parents sent me to Roman Catholic schools instead. I remember being glad because it had a reputation, and I was a bit of scaredy-cat as a child.

My only interaction with the school was briefly going to Taekwondo lessons there on weekends. I was about seven or eight years old and hopeless. I wanted to be there because one of my school friends was into it. I couldn’t cope and never felt very welcome – the school gates were rarely opened for us, and we had to shimmy through the gap underneath the gate. Anyway, that’s another shit story – my point is that this news grabbed me because of the location and it made me angry. I know these things do happen, but it felt perverse to think of it happening there. If anyone belonged in the playground on that particular space, it was the kids of those who couldn’t afford to buy a property in central London.

This isn’t just a rant, though. The reason for this post is that I was researching the area for a project I am working on, and I saw some photos from the Lambeth Archives showing how the community came together to build the nearby Adventure Playground Park in the 1950s. Lambeth had suffered a lot of bomb damage during the War. You can see some of this in footage of Passport to Pimlico (sorry Pimlico, Lambeth claims this film, thank you very much) and The Guardian ran a great feature capturing behind-the-scenes.

I know the adventure playground well. I never went in. I walked past it all the time but wasn’t brave enough to go in. I was rubbish at any activity involving coordination, and if I’m honest, I was intimidated by the kids who could climb and swing. The park is across the street from the school, or so I thought. It transpired that the original adventure park was on the same site of the school, and therefore the same place (roughly) as the segregated playground.

I wish I could reproduce this photograph (https://boroughphotos.org/lambeth/lollard-adventure-playground-wake-street-lambeth/) but I am not sure how to get permission, and so a link will suffice. In it, you see a boy pushing a wheelbarrow as part of the community effort to build the Lollard Street Adventure Playground. The boy brought up on a rationed diet is very thin but clearly energetic. According to Lambeth Archives, the project was a joint initiative from the LCC, Lambeth Borough, the National Playing Fields Association and the local community converting a derelict bombsite into an adventure playground for children of all ages. I wish I could reproduce this photograph (https://boroughphotos.org/lambeth/lollard-adventure-playground-wake-street-lambeth/)

” This community-led initiative begun in 1955 was run by a voluntary association supported by grants and fund raising. It was a departure from traditional playgrounds with features that included; a grass area for camping, gossip, sunbathing and growing vegetables; a hard surface for ball games; rough ground for building bonfires, underground tunnels and cooking. Inside areas included a workshop and hut for painting, modelling plus lessons, also a caravan for girls ‘to keep house’. From modest beginnings 250 children were recorded during one day in 1958. The playground site was replaced in the 1960s by the Lilian Baylis School.”

https://boroughphotos.org/lambeth/lollard-adventure-playground-wake-street-lambeth/

That’s right , 250 children came together to build this amazing adventure playground some THIRTEEN YEARS after the War ended. You can see a map of the playground on the Lambeth Archives website. Although Wake Street and Ethelred Street no longer exist by that name, Fitzalan Street does and did at the time. Therefore, its clear what side of Lollard Street the playground occupied and its where the new development sits today – the north side of what was Lilian Baylis School.

SOURCE: NATIONAL LIBRARY OF SCOTLAND

Lollard Street was hit with an incendiary bomb on the first night of the Blitz, 7th September 1940 at 22.21 (SOURCE: LONDON METROPOLITAN ARCHIVES via The Guardian Website). According to bombsite.org a further three high explosive bombs hit Lollard Street during the War, two hit Fitzalan Street, one hit Gibson Road (which is as close to Ethelred Street as currently exists today) and there were several others close by. According to the Lilian Baylis website, a primary school was demolished by a bomb during 1941.

Imagine post-war Lambeth? Children playing in bombsites long after the war and when Elvis is on the radio as this drawing demonstrates. Those kids had years of derelict buildings, of dust, and of not being able to have more than barely enough. Imagine what an adventure playground meant to them? It was one of the first in the country and a place designed for imaginative play. The children who used it would mature during the Swinging Sixties, and they would mostly leave Lambeth and not come back. The patch of London they grew up on became derelict again, not because a bomb hit it but because it resided in a desirable part of London and that’s how it works. What goes up was at one point, forced down.Imagine post-war Lambeth?

I now understand why I was surrounded by identical, flat brown buildings growing up although I hadn’t bargained on them becoming iconic examples of modernist architecture. In fact, when I found the 2012 planning proposal for converting Lilian Baylis School online, I saw that the school was on the English Heritage Buildings Risk register. From scrap metal to national treasure.

Lilian Baylis Secondary School replaced the Adventure Playground on Lollard Street in 1964. It was initially named after Henry Beaufoy who had established a Ragged School in Doughty Street. That street is now known as Newport Street (absurdly you can find Damien Hirst’s ar gallery on Newport Street). In 1910 the Ragged School moved to the Beaufoy Institute which is a beautifully decorative building on the corner of Black Prince Road and Vauxhall Road. After the War, evacuation of students, and then several post-war amalgamations, Beaufoy School moved to the site of the Adventure Playground, which in turn, relocated to a smaller space across the road.

Beaufoy merged with Vauxhall Manor School (alumni include Charlie Chaplin albeit briefly) and was renamed after Lilian Baylis in the same year as I was born (1983). As part of a regeneration programme for Vauxhall a move was planned and completed in 2005.

The wheels of ‘progress’ move slowly and in between Lilian Baylis moving out in 2005 and developers moving in, a modern community project sprung up, using the derelict space for sports and recreation. There, in the south of the site, access to sports fields and facilities remain after the new residential properties completion in 2016.

I am not sure where I am going with this post. I just know that I grew up scared of playing outside. I was timid and intimidated by a community on its knees. I hadn’t joined the dots. I thought the Blitz was something that happened in the East End and Coventry. It was only watching Passport to Pimlico and recognising the railway arches that the penny dropped – the area I grew up in had been disappearing since the onslaught the Blitz.

When I was searching the photography archive, I didn’t expect to see children building new communities I didn’t expect that boy with the wheelbarrow and a slight look of mischief. And I didn’t think that in 2019 the playground that became a school would become flats that ALLEGEDLY segregates its poor children from enjoying the same freedoms those baby-boomers enjoyed all those years ago.

Favourite Films: Brief Encounter

I grew up watching old films and I was always aware of David Lean’s Brief Encounter, but it wasn’t until I watched it as a teenager that it became one of my favourite films.

“You’re having a laugh aren’t you?” my sister asked, recalling the clipped accents of the lead characters, especially Laura Jesson, played faultlessly by a wide-eyed Celia Johnson. We both loved classic films from this era but this particular example seemed to be an odd one for me to swoon over. She then asked the question that is so often asked, “why don’t they just get on with it and shag?!” More on that later.

If you haven’t seen Brief Encounter it’s the story of a suburban housewife called Laura who has a chance meeting at a train station with a doctor called Alec (played by a young and dashing-if-I-do-say-so-myself Trevor Howard). They arrange to see each other the following week, instinctively knowing what that means, but neither daring to admit it to themselves. However, as soon as they do acknowledge their true feelings to themselves and each other they know that the relationship (or the fantasy of a relationship) is doomed to end. It is a tender love story and was well received upon its release in 1945.

Awfully middle class

Celia Johnson’s portrayal of Laura is remarkable; as an actress she manages to be both understated and bursting with feeling. I’ve always been a fan of films where ostensibly, not a lot happens but, of course, everything happens – Celia Johnson was the embodiment of this style. Before Meryl Streep there was Celia Johnson. However, the combination of Celia accent (which was role-appropriate) and a plot that is mistaken for stuffy, middle-class repression, has made the film subject to mostly gentle mocking.

Victoria Wood’s parody hasn’t helped Brief Encounter’s legacy, in this rendition, Laura forgets how to eat a minced pie (because, war) and gets some of it stuck in her eye before meeting the doctor (who is no Trevor Howard…).  I was furious about the existence of this sketch but I as I’ve grown older I can see that a lot of love went into its making.

On the film’s 70th anniversary, journalist, John Patterson described how he went from laughing at the film to laughing (and crying) with it:

“I thought I was terribly clever to treat it as a comedy, not realising that tragedy and comedy both depend on good timing, and that a moment like, say, the arrival of the gabby gossip Dolly Messiter, just in time to ruin the last few precious moments of the couple’s near-affair, is amusing and unendurably heart-breaking all at once.”[1]

The ending described by Patterson was replicated in the 2015 film, ‘Carol’ by Todd Haynes and based on the 1952 novel, ‘The Price of Salt’ by Patricia Highsmith.

In my twenties, I read an essay on the possible consequences for Laura had she and ‘Alec’ decided to abandon both their partners for each other. Laura’s ability to see her children might have been entirely dependant on her scorned husband’s goodwill who would have been more likely to be granted custody, especially under the circumstances. If he left the children in Laura’s custody without offering funds, she would need to petition for maintenance for their care (Laura herself would not be entitled to financial support) and the details of her affair would become public (i.e. local) knowledge. Alec, her new love, wouldn’t be legally obliged to provide financial support for Laura and should he decide to go back to his wife and children, Laura would potentially find herself in dire straights – possibly with no children, no home (if divorced) and after years of being a housewife, forced into employment (which might be hard to find if her circumstances were known)[2].

After a few glasses of wine, I made a strong case for Laura’s predicament and urged my sister to watch Brief Encounter again, and she re-evaluated it (she is a better person than I am!). After watching ‘Carol’ with her teenage daughter she immediately alerted me to the similarity with the Brief Encounter ending – the lovers’ discreet goodbye innocently interrupted by an alternative Dolly Messiter (although in the case of Carol, it is more of a hello, again).

There is no getting away from Laura’s posh accent which hasn’t aged quite so well as some of the others in the film. In fact, Laura and her husband also have domestic help which puts a different spin on Laura’s weekly escapades; you can’t help but imagine floors being scrubbed or silverware polished whilst her and Alex laugh at the elderly trio who appear to follow them around to provide musical entertainment. Laura’s children have silly accents too, especially the young daughter who has clearly been instructed to look straight ahead and say the bloody lines; their screen time is, thankfully, limited.

Sex, sexuality and shame

Of course, in reality, the whole film is about sex. Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 blasts through the record player as Laura thinks about Alec while Fred earnestly attempts to complete his crossword. “I’m an ordinary woman,” Laura thinks to herself, “I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.” The choice of the wording here is interesting – Laura uses ‘violence’ to describe the passion that has turned her world upside down.

Although they do not consummate their affair, if you pay attention, Laura and Alec do come very close. Alec has a key to his friend Stephen’s flat where he sometimes stays when working at the local hospital. Knowing that his friend will be out for the evening, the possibility of sex hangs in the air throughout a day spent with Laura. Unfortunately for Alec, Laura cannot bring herself to go back to the flat and so, frustrated, he decides to leave Laura at the station and go back there, effectively providing her with an ultimatum, which Laura eventually acts upon. Although she is jittery and unsure of herself, the audience now knows that part of her wants to stay with Alec to consummate their affair.

In one of several cruel twists of fate, Stephen returns home unexpectedly, forcing Laura to leave via the tradesman stairs (stop it) to avoid detection. Laura wanders the streets in shame and despair. The interruption (one of several) marks the beginning of the end of their affair.

The screenplay for Brief Encounter is written by Noel Coward and is based on his play, ‘Still Life’. Both texts can be read as a metaphor for gay love affairs in the same period. Andy Medhurst explained that “Employing the naively biographical paradigm of Gay Authorship, Brief Encounter shows Noel Coward displacing his own fears, anxieties and pessimism about the possibility of a fulfilled sexual relationship within an oppressively homophobic culture by transposing them into a heterosexual context.”[3]

Although it isn’t explicit, I suspect that Stephen, Alec’s bachelor friend is supposed to be gay. He scolds Alec, not so much for having an affair, or even for using his flat but for not being up-front with him, therefore, betraying his trust. Stephen asks Alec for his key back, but Laura’s shame takes a more pitiful form.

Unable to go home directly Laura makes a phone call to her husband, lying as to why she will be home late. Her lies provide the hallmarks of an affair without the physical betrayal. Having nowhere to go, Laura walks the streets alone and in the rain until it stops and she takes a seat facing a war memorial – a foreboding monument to self-sacrifice. The path ahead is clear and is also compounded by a suspicious police officer, the implication being that Laura is conducting herself suspiciously, and for the time, as a prostitute might – why else is she alone at night, in the cold and smoking a cigarette.? The shame mounts and mounts. You cannot help but think that in this film, as in life, love is much worse for a woman.

The other side of the train tracks

The relationship of middle-class Laura and Alec takes place alongside the relationships of minor, working-class characters. In both Still Life and Brief Encounter, a popular reading is a notion that working-class love is less complicated. At face value, it is a romantic notion, perhaps based on the idea that the poorer you are, the freer you can be as you have less to lose. I am not sure I buy into the idea, especially when Laura has more at stake than her male counterpart who is more privileged than she is.

The other relationship of note is between the café owner, Myrtle Bagot (played by Joyce Carey, one of Noel Coward’s frequent collaborators) and ticket inspector Albert Godby (played by Stanley Holloway who appears in many an Ealing Comedy). These fine actors bring these secondary characters to life and although their screen time is limited and comedic in nature, they hint at so much more, as though they are part of another film being made elsewhere.

In an earlier scene, Myrtle explains to the tea assistant, Beryl, how she came to own the teashop. She left her husband who expected her to be ‘housekeeper and char during the day…and a loving wife in the evening.’ Myrtle had family and friends to support her out of her marriage, but her husband was ‘dead as a doornail within three years’.

Laura describes Myrtle as ‘the one with the refined voice’ and you get the impression that although the café owner has no regrets, she cares a lot for propriety. She scolds Albert for ‘taking liberties’ with her in front of a customer but he implies that on a different occasion she was more receptive. Of course, Albert and Myrtle’s scenes are filled with humour (Albert! Now look at me Banburys all over the floor!).

In one scene Myrtle’s mask slips when she is struggling to handle several rowdy youths wanting alcohol outside of licensing hours. In that moment,  when Albert defends her, the couple feel right together –  a sign that she mayrisk her independence again for another man.

Towards the end of the film, Beryl, Myrtle’s assistant is seen with a young man. Although happy, we remember that at the beginning of the film, Beryl mentioned her landlady, the one with various pets who is unlikely to welcome male visitors. During working hours, Beryl is often victim to Myrtle’s sharp tongue. Beryl’s life isn’t necessarily easy or free of risk especially if she should marry poorly.

Laura

Laura narrates the film and as such, you invest in her. Laura is someone who wants to live correctly but cannot easily combat the weight of her feelings for Alec.

There is a moment, at the beginning of their relationship where Laura imagines her and Alec in a variety of different romantic settings. In these glamorous fantasies, they are both younger and freer. The reality hits her hard when she arrives at the station and begins the walk home.

There is a tragic moment when Laura almost faints after running outside to see Alec’s train leave for good and the implication is that she might have easily stepped in front of another train out of pure despair. Laura was never really going to kill herself and she was never going to sleep with Alec either but however briefly, she wanted to do both.

Dolly Messiter is almost the executioner, leading Laura back home to humdrum Fred, domesticity and a lifetime of wondering ‘what if’.

I’ve always been struck by how relatable Laura is as she semi-listens to Dolly gossip to her on their way home while thinking: “I wish you’d stop talking. I wish you’d stop prying, trying to find things out. I wish she were dead. No, I don’t mean that. That was silly and unkind, but I wish you’d stop talking.”

Finally, I love Laura for this sage advice about misery born from ill-fated love:

This can’t last. This misery can’t last. I must remember that and try to control myself. Nothing lasts, really… neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long. There’ll come a time in the future when I shan’t mind about this anymore, when I can look back and say quite peacefully and cheerfully how silly I was. No, no, I don’t want that time to come ever. I want to remember every minute… always… always to the end of my days.

[1] Brief Encounter: is it still relevant at 70?

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/nov/02/david-lean-brief-encounter-70th-anniversary

[2] Christine Gledhill and Gillian Swanson (eds) Nationalising Femininity: Culture, Sexuality and British Cinema in the Second World War Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1996, pages 99-100

[3] Andy Medhurst; That special thrill: Brief Encounter, homosexuality and authorship, Screen, Volume 32, Issue 2, 1 July 1991, Page 198, https://doi.org/10.1093/screen/32.2.197

Memoir and Life-Writing

A year ago I took a short course at Goldsmiths. I’d wanted to take a course in writing short stories but it had sold out. I didn’t want to wait and so I went for a different course in memoir and life-writing. On the course, our teacher told us about an Irish expression, ‘putting on the poor mouth’ which is essential, exaggerating your woes for sympathy. Although I hadn’t heard of the expression, I recognised it as a tendency when writing about myself. To take the edge of my natural inclination, I decided to write about my relationship with my dad who was born in 1938 in County of Roscommon. I was born in London, in 1983.

Below are segments – I’ve left things out for family privacy.

38:83

And from the time that the continual burnt offering is taken away, and the abomination that makes desolate is set up, there shall be a thousand two hundred and ninety days.

— Daniel 12:11

I see my dad’s life in neat compartments, as a boy and a young man, he’s both a tearaway and a ‘Jack the Lad’; as a father, he is quick-tempered; and as an older father, when I came along as a surprised I see the man I know today, this is the mellow version. The truth is I do not know much about his past before my sisters were born. When he drank, you could sometimes get snippets of his past and although these were often full of sentiment my dad is not one for embellishment.  Other clues are contained in old photographs, like the one of him aged fifteen and in full military garb. Dad left home for the Irish army in the early 1950s. I know he got on a bus to the Curragh because he mentioned it when we were watching the Horses. He lied about his age to get in and you can tell this because the uniform is very much wearing him. I know that when he left the army he went back to his family home but didn’t last long. In London, he turned heads and broke hearts. When aged thirty, he settled down he continued to play up before Catholicism re-entered his life, not that it ever entirely left, and he mellowed. My birth took place in his 45th year, the mellow period.

The London period, the one when he had just arrived, is one I imagine vividly. I think of his early days in England as if it were a film – the film is in black and white, and his charm is amplified. He’s a few inches taller in the film version, and he has a full head of hair. This film is set towards the end of the 1950s and in it, Dad gallivants around town, changing jobs, digs and girlfriends every other week.

Of course, the reality wasn’t exactly like this; it was bleaker, and it was in colour.

I only hear about that time in snippets. When he’s had a few drinks and is in a sentimental mood. He doesn’t drink these days but when he did, these conversations took place in the kitchen. The kitchen was never the most comfortable room in the house, especially with the dinner table that belonged in a much bigger room, but without fail it’s where everything important happened. Dad would tell me about the scrapes he got himself into, like the landlord who didn’t let his tenants stay in their rooms during the day. When my dad slept in he needed to escape without the dogs giving him away. Or, on another occasion, when he didn’t have a train ticket, waited on the platform and he tip-toed between the backs of two rail inspectors who were counting their ticket stubs.

There was one evening when he told me quite a different story. As he sipped cheap red wine from a tumbler and smoked back-to-back rollies,  until they almost burnt his fingertips, his eyes looked beyond me the Big Bopper’s ‘Chantilly Lace’ transported him to a Camden pub in the late 1950s. I expected another funny tale but instead, he told me something that’s haunted me ever since.


He worked night shifts at the Post Office for nearly thirty years. If I didn’t go to school and I often didn’t, he’d come home and make my breakfast before going to bed himself. Usually, he’d make me a bacon buttie and a weak mug of tea. Afterwards, I’d quietly watch television while he was asleep and with only four channels at my disposal, I’d often choose an old movie or two – an Ealing comedy or a Gainsborough period piece. Sometimes dad would wake up in time to catch the end of a film or else we’d talk about it afterwards and he would try to remember if he’d seen it. He liked to work out whether the actors were still alive or, more likely, dead. We’d estimate their age in the film and working backwards, would suggest a possible age for the actor, giving us good odds on whether or not they were pushing up the daisies. The fun you could have before the internet!

Over time I watched increasingly adult content, making full use of the VCR. I watched films full of sex, swearing and sacrilege. I had to be cautious of course, I’d keep the volume low and listen out for movement upstairs. Was he getting out of bed or just moving on to his side? I’d pause if I heard the landing creak and then switch to something else, often appearing to have developed a brand new interest in cricket.

Increasingly the television became a symbol of our differences. There was a time before me when we didn’t have a tv at all, and I found school hard enough as it was, I didn’t want to be the only one who didn’t watch Neighbours or Top of the Pops. I couldn’t risk him catching me watching anything that confirmed his fears about televisions – that they were the devil’s devices taking up a spot in the holy place, a man’s home, and that they signified the end of the world. That’s how the tv in our house was always known, it was the abomination that makes desolate. We are still waiting for the apocalypse.

Dad felt uncomfortable about leaving the house at night, and the television was often at fault. He didn’t want anyone to know it was just us women in the house and needed to eradicate any signs of life. Increasingly, it was difficult to predict how he’d feel about you still being awake and watching the abomination that made desolate. We would routinely sit, without saying a word, watching a muted television in the dark and waiting for the sound of the gate locking behind him.

Before I was on the scence he used to place balloons by the front and back doors as a trap for really think burglars. I sometimes imagined clowns moonlighting as thieves, unable to avoid the balloons because of their enormous feet.

Years later, I returned to live at home in my late twenties, tail between my legs after another failed relationship. Not thrilled by my new circumstances I spent a lot of time out and would miss the unspoken, but very real curfew. Like my dad, I was partial to a drink or five and lost track of time.

One weeknight, he managed to open the front door before I’d so much as taken my keys out of my bag. He didn’t say a word, but his face cut me down to size. He ushered me upstairs and I grimly followed not daring to turn on any of the lights until I was upstairs. As I turned to do so, he put out his hand and in a loud and purposeful whisper said: get dressed in the dark. I don’t want the neighbours to know you get home at all hours.

He closed the door, and I sat on the bed, fully clothed and staring into nothingness.


There is only one story my dad ever tells me about me. After two weeks of holiday as a child, I must have been nine or ten, I came home with a tan (it was the only time, I almost always go from ghostly-white to tomato-red). Dad walked me around his old stomping ground in Camden Town and bought me diet cokes in some of the pubs he used to frequent. My brown hair had hints of blonde, and my green-blue eyes contrasted my tanned skin. And I was thin. And that is the proudest he has ever been of me. I peaked early.

There is a Tony Harrison poem called ‘Book Ends’. It was in the GCSE English Literature Anthology in the late 1990s. As a teenager who quarrelled with my dad about politics and religion, I found the poem was very relatable because I was young and obnoxious. The first half ends:

Back in our silences and sullen looks,
for all the Scotch we drink, what’s still between ‘s
not the thirty or so years, but books, books, books.

Now I know it was actually ‘looks, looks, looks’.

Author on bench with back to camera

Why I got assessed for dyspraxia as an adult

I was assessed for dyspraxia in 2016, aged 33. I wrote a version of this blog post several months later to reflect on why it mattered to me. I also wanted to share the perspective of an adult diagnosis because it was something I wrestled with – would it be worth finding out and what difference would it make anyway?


It’s something children have, right?

If you are reading this as someone who was assessed as an adult, or as an adult who thinks they might have dyspraxia, then like me you have probably found a lot of the information available is targetted at children. This is something the Dyspraxia Foundation try to address although it does make sense when you think about it; parents and schools mostly clock when important milestones are missed or when a child struggles with some activities much more than they do others.

However, there is a noticeable imbalance of information available for adults with dyspraxia even though it doesn’t go away, you just learn to manage it. Learning to manage it means different things dependant on when you were diagnosed. For example, you may see difficulties as shortcomings or weaknesses. They may be the cause of unkind treatment for which you blame yourself. Having an assessment helps you understand your world and explain it to others. However, the volume of materials targetted at children made me reluctant to pursue a diagnosis at first. I didn’t see the point and I thought it was too late.

I didn’t know what dyspraxia was until my twenties. I certainly hadn’t heard of it when I was at University. I immediately knew this was something that made sense to me but I couldn’t easily see how the NHS would support a diagnosis at my age (they typically don’t) and taking it further almost felt like an indulgence, after all, I had got this far. However, I couldn’t put it to bed. I needed to know more as it was beginning to help me to make sense of my past.

Childhood

Since being assessed, I have spent a long time thinking about my childhood in the context of having dyspraxia, and there is no denying that being a child makes the condition especially tough. As a child, you do not have any agency and you are often forced into situations you struggle with but without being able to explain why. Of course, with dyspraxia, you do not even have agency over your own body.

It is hard to explain how everyday things terrified me as a child. If someone threw a pan at me to catch, I would be terrified of missing it and being ridiculed. I was scared of sports to the point of obsession. For a short while, I tried. I wasn’t overweight then as I am now and couldn’t quite understand, perhaps unkindly, why I was the slowest runner in the class. You notice these things at school, these things matter. I was painfully shy and awkward then, and after time, the mickey-taking from other pupils and teachers alike made P.E. the root cause of twice-weekly dread.

I managed to convince a newly qualified teacher to not force me into taking part in weekly swimming classes at Clapham Pools. Instead, she let me sit beside the pool as she tested herself on Spanish vocabulary. I think that’s why I went on to buck the family trend and enjoy a modern language GCSE;

My next teacher wouldn’t let me get away with this, and although she was probably right, she lacked compassion. To her, I was wet and oversensitive. She was a stickler for neatness in everything and I was scruffy in every possible way.  I looked dirty and I often was. My sloppiness extended to my untidy handwriting and my unwillingness to take part in physical activities was an irritation.

Most other teachers had a different take because, in spite of these shortcomings, I was clearly a very bright child, and for most of my teachers, that was enough. That was plenty. They had other children to worry about. Teachers frequently congratulated my mother, the school cleaner, for having raised a model student – quiet (withdrawn), polite (because I lived in constant fear of being forced to catch something) and curious (slightly obsessive).

My first obsession was history and The Tudors especially. When aged seven, our class was asked to write a few sentences about Henry VIII, I wrote the equivalent of an essay. At Assembly, I had to read some of my work aloud, I was confronted by a sea of crossed legs and bored faces, propped up by one hand. I quietly read my work, all the time looking down and speaking to the page.  I was interrupted by my teacher from the back of the hall. ‘No, no, this isn’t right. Mary – speak up. Mary knows lots about The Tudors. Mary, tell them the names of his wives, in order and what happened to them.’ I obliged and answered more questions, slowly growing in confidence and pride. I didn’t do much for my street cred that day.

I suppose a lot of teachers put my timidity down to being a  bookworm (I actually wasn’t – there was an assumption I read all the time which simply wasn’t true – I am a competent reader but I struggle with reading at length and lose concentration). My handwriting was incoherent, but that was a minor failing and so I was left to my own devices.

At home, things were different; I wasn’t an introvert at all. I talked incessantly. The youngest of four sisters I soaked up knowledge from those around me. Adults didn’t baby me. I watched old films and adult television.

Secondary school was worse. I increasingly lost interest in academia although I still did well. I wanted to fit in more but as a teenage girl with dyspraxia, personal grooming didn’t come naturally to me. I also made my life harder by liking bands and films that others found weird. I was bullied for long time had I didn’t look forward to University where I’d most likely account for more of the same. I barely put any thought into where I would go, choosing the same university as my boyfriend at the time. I didn’t even visit there first.

Hello, Manchester!

Everything aligned when I went to university on a social level. I embraced my independence, and I made friends instantly. I spent the next three years living and making my own choices.  I wasn’t shy at all (who knew?!) but I was in the habit of poisoning myself with too much booze, getting obsessed with boys and spending all my student loan on nights out, but I lived those years. And if I fell over a lot, well, I was often tipsy…

I do wonder what difference an assessment would have had during that period of hedonism. I wasn’t present enough for anyone to notice but had I started university with my dyspraxia diagnosis, I think I would have engaged with it a lot more. The concentration difficulties, the struggle for comprehension, reading slowly and short-term memory, were too much for me to confront alone when I was experiencing some form of arrested development.

I barely engaged in academic life. I found lectures hard. I made many notes but couldn’t make sense of them afterwards. My mind wandered, and I soon went in less and less. About half-way through I may as well have been studying my degree remotely. Somehow I scraped a 2:1, despite procrastination and entire spent nights awake doing everything that bit too late. I still have nightmares about having failed after all or having my degree taken away from me. In fact, these nightmares are now so detailed that I often forget I have a degree at all.

The gender myth

I recently read an article about the late diagnosis of women with autism, and in it, the National Autistic Society found that twice as many women as men were undiagnosed. The reason I mention this is that dyspraxia is often thought to be more common in men, but there is no reason to explain why this is. There is one theory, and I subscribe to it, that women are less likely to be diagnosed.

There were so many symptoms in my childhood. The physical ones were evident – my fine and gross motor skills remain very poor. I have no sense of spatial awareness – my inability to judge distances makes crossing the road very stressful, and I don’t understand the physical space I take up (which being a fat adult can be especially problematic). My problem with speech, my memory and my difficulty with sequential thinking should have been apparent as a child. When I was being assessed as an adult, I was told I was ‘textbook’.

Yes, awareness of dyspraxia is an issue, but I cannot help but feel that if a boy had exhibited the same problems with coordination and visible stress when asked to participate in sports, some concern would have been raised and they may have worked out what the problem was. There are gendered expectations and for that reason, girls can get overlooked.

Anxiety

I am not sure it is a ‘chicken or egg’ situation but I can see how dyspraxia exacerbates anxiety. It certainly knocked my self-esteem; being back to front and inside out nine times out of ten is exhausting.

I am 35 years old and I am unable to tie my laces, use cutlery or ride a bike. I mix words and sounds up. I struggle with speech. My short-term memory is poor. I am not always aware of the space I take up. I hear how a word should sound but I cannot say it. I have no spacial awareness and Google Maps doesn’t always help me. I’ve turned up to social occasions in tears because I got lost and then I got angry with myself for being useless. I struggle with personal grooming and so it takes me much longer to get ready than most. I’m that annoying pedestrian in the street who gets shouted at by an angry commuter – you know, the one that suddenly changes direction and causes the world to end as a result. I have a limited sense of distance and space, and will always wait to see my good friend, ‘Green Man’ before attempting to cross roads (that’s just good sense though surely?).

Low self-esteem and high anxiety have made some personal relationships tough and I wouldn’t do my twenties again if you paid me. It took a long time for me to realise there was something more to all of this than being a rubbish person.

Not finding the words

I found myself getting increasingly frustrated as I mixed up words or couldn’t remember them at all. I was worried about how I was being perceived by others – for being judged as inarticulate or possibly ‘thick’. I shied away from public speaking, and I had to work twice as hard to keep on top of things – often taking work home and never feeling able to entirely switch off.

I wanted the assessment to understand myself in the same way that knowing about my anxiety had been a huge relief.

Most importantly, it would give me words to explain all the differences I felt. The way simple tasks just took longer and tired me out. I wanted people to understand I wasn’t intentionally scruffy. My desk is messy for a reason. I fall up the stairs, I spill coffee everywhere and wear my clothes inside out because of something. It isn’t a quirk.

Getting assessed

I thought long and hard about this as it isn’t something you can afford to do with discretion unless you can pay for an assessment privately. I couldn’t. Instead, I looked into it with my HR department, and they referred for evaluation. Not all employers will do this.

I did deliberate about whether this was the right thing to. What if I wasn’t dyspraxic? Maybe I have the symptoms but not the condition. Maybe I have no excuses, and I am just crap after all. Or if I am, will people think less of me? Will they find out about my anxiety disorder? Who will I have to share all of this with?

I didn’t really find peace with all of these worries and concerns. I just knew that I needed to know and that I would work everything else out.

Happy now?

Well, yes. I’ve been very candid about it, and it feels a part of who I am now. I am proud of how I’ve coped with it and how I found strategies for dealing with dyspraxia before I even knew what it was. It has helped my self-esteem and it has given me the confidence to try new things and not care so much about failure.

People’s reactions are interesting. I think some of those close to me realised quickly that it made sense, it explained things. For others, I am not sure it matched the version of me they know, and so it has been more of an eye-opener. A lot of people tend to tell me they’ve suspected themselves or people they are close to as being dyspraxic. And there are others who I suspect don’t know why I even bothered to find out.

Raising awareness

I would like there to be a greater understanding of what dyspraxia means and how it can manifest itself in different ways. How the combination of the many ways it can express itself can drive you to distraction. How it can rob you of your confidence or willingness to move outside of what makes you comfortable. How it can lead someone to spend their life avoiding things that are, without explanation, so much harder than they should be.

I’ve joined the Dyspraxia Foundation, and I started this blog as a way of starting to do something useful with this new information. If you are interested in hearing about the ways in which dyspraxia can impact a person at work, please read their very useful guide, Working with Dyspraxia – a Hidden Asset.