I posted this sorry tale one Monday morning in November 2002, and quite frankly, I don’t feel I did it any justice by pussy-footing round the subject. Yes, I’m recycling them already, only this time with the cynicism turned up to eleven…
We were ten, if that's any excuse.
Our school headmaster was a most enlightened soul by the name of David George. Always on a mission to educate, entertain and inform, he would often show us films on the school cine projector or call in special guests for our school assemblies. Trooping into the hall just after nine in the morning to see the film projector set up was always an exciting moment and made half-an-hour cross-legged on a parquet floor rather more bearable. Sometimes it was something educational, if we were really, really lucky, we got cartoons.
This particular morning, Mr George introduced a very, very nice lady in a twin-set and pearls from The Spastics Society, who was to give us a little lecture about how some children were born different to us. News to me, everybody I had ever met, apart from the time I visited the U S of A during the arse end of the Vietnam War, had the right number of limbs. Even in 1970-something, it was still the done thing to hide the imperfect. The most different person I knew was my best friend Geoff, who had no bone in his nose and could almost turn the thing inside out if he so cared. Which he did, often.
Cerebral Palsy wasn't a phrase in circulation in those days: you were a spastic, and life was damn tough. It was all news to most of us, being generally sheltered from the big, bad world in our middle-class households. She was, I am certain, the kind of person who would stand rattling a collection tin in the centre of town asking passers-by to “Help the poor cripples.”
“I’m here,” she said, “to talk about the cripples.”
There was one disabled kid in our whole village. He had legs in callipers, was missing a couple of fingers off his right hand, and was the owner of a particularly sharp, self-deprecating sense of humour. He actually called himself “Shake Rattle and Roll”, how we laughed. He was also the scariest person to get into a fight with, simply because his boots were filled with iron, and could fell a grown man with one merciless blow to the groin. Saw it happen, and laughed like a loon at the idiot who thought he could bully the crippled kid.
So, one token disabled, one token black family (the daughter of whom was somehow asked to sing “White Christmas” at the school carol concert. Who ran the thing –the Ku Klux Klan?). Welcome to Tokenville, Berkshire.
The nice lady in twin-set and pearls showed us the film. It was a beautiful work, artfully shot in black and white, of a boy's struggle in life against his handicap. It told us the facts, how we were blessed to live a normal life, and how the poor crippled children needed the helping hand that the Spastics Society provided. The film, I remember, ended with the lad managing, against the odds, to struggle across a room, pull himself to his feet and reach a favourite toy with a smile of triumph. It was wonderful. I was inspired. I would go out straight after school to find crippled kids and help them cross the road, or something.
“Help the poor cripples” the nice lady said as she left, thoughtfully leaving a collection tin by the door.
We left a hall without a word, a tear in the eye, joyful at the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity, pain and utter despair.
This air of bliss lasted exactly twenty-eight seconds.
Andy: “You spastic.”
Dave: “You cripple, Andy.”
Andy: “You fucking spastic.”
The S-word AND the F-word in one sentence. French class was going to be superb fun today.
By the end of morning break, everybody in a school of 400 pupils had called everybody else a spastic, a cripple, or inventive combinations of the two.
"Spastic", "Spas", "Spacker", “Flid”, “Mong”, “Joey” and other variations on a theme became our weapons of choice for the next twenty years. Kids, eh? Our favourite word, however, was our own invention: “Anvid”. Utterly harmless when spoken in polite company, being an Anvid was worse, even, than not being a Benny Tied to a Tree.
I’ve grown up now.
I no longer call people who get on my tits a “spastic.” I call them a “retard” instead, and it’s still wrong.
When the lightly-oiled TV celebrity Kirstie Allsopp recently referred to herself – on air – as “Mnnnnng Kirstie” over a minor faux pas, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Actually, I laughed, and felt guilty about it, if that helps. But then, if it’s OK with the Chelsea set, it’s certainly not OK with me. You can always trust someone famous to act the flid and spoil it for the rest of us, can’t you?