My greatest skill is not, you will have observed, writing. I’m not good at anything, if the truth be known. That’s not to say I’m bad at everything. I possess, or should I say possessed, sufficient skills to participate in many sports. I could get by, by dint of certain natural skills, in anything from cricket to darts. I played football for years despite being a terrible footballer, but one who could run and tackle all day, enabling the good footballers to do their thing. I was not coached in any sport, except golf, which I am not great at, but thanks to a genius called Sam Hughes, I can play a round without the need to be kicked off the course by club officials. So for everything, I was the autodidact. Everything I knew about sport, I learned myself. Sadly, that’s how the rest of my life has gone so far. And not just in sport.
Coming from a dysfunctional background – how else can you describe the only son of a poorly educated Dutch immigrant lone parent who knew nothing about England other than the need to work to put bread on the table? – was something that didn’t occur to me at the time. Sitting in class at primary, junior and then senior school – Briz school in Briz, an eastern suburb of Bristol – and not really understanding anything that was going on, except being really good at spelling but never knowing why, could have had a number of outcomes.
I could, I suppose, have just been dumped into the ‘remedial’ classes for those who were regarded as dim or had learning difficulties or both. Instead, entirely subconsciously, I learned to bluff. That way, I bumbled along in the lower middle to lower levels of achievement without giving the game away.
There was a long list of things I didn’t understand. They included maths, all the sciences, geography, languages, woodwork and, thankfully, religious education. I didn’t care much for English Literature either because dissecting various books and essays and explaining what they really meant showed to me that they were badly written if you actually needed to do that. But hardly anyone noticed what was, or rather, wasn’t, going on. Year followed year and still no one realised how useless I was at everything. That included by mum, my grandparents who, in any event, never showed the slightest interest in my education (and why should they?), teachers and just about anyone else. Except for one: Mrs Defonseca.
Mrs Defonseca was a Portuguese woman who taught English. She had a thick Portuguese accent too, a very loud, sometimes cutting, voice. But she saw something in me that no one else did. She saw I could write and she set me free, encouraging me to write what I want instead of writing about and reading stuff by anyone else. “Use your imagination,” she would say, and I did. A whole new world came into existence. I could do something that not everyone could whereas with everything else at school and in life everyone could do things I couldn’t.
Why did everyone else understand how a slide-rule worked? What was the difference between Chemistry and Physics? Why was the only thing I remembered about Biology was cutting up a dead rat and almost throwing up at the smell? I had never heard of Charles Darwin until years after I left Briz school. In truth, I left Briz school as unprepared for life in The Real World as anyone could possibly have been. I left school with one O level – English Language, obvs – and, according to my woodwork teacher, the lowest ever mark recorded for my GCSE exam in that subject. Everything else came at the woodwork end of the scale. I knew so little stuff, but I got through school without letting on. ‘Easily distracted, could try harder, his writing looks as though a spider has crawled out of an ink pot and walked across the exercise book.’ Good luck at work.
As it was, I joined the civil service on 23rd September 1974. The first 19 years were an extension of the self-taught bluffing techniques I learned at school. The complicated aspects, I managed to avoid, often by the skin of my teeth. I knew very quickly that my career, such as it was, depended upon me not being found out as the fraud I was convinced I was. From 1993 onwards, I found something I was good at, at least until the paperwork came along, which was dealing with the public, which following a late and unexpected career promotion, took me into the area of benefit fraud, as an investigator I hasten to add and not a fraudulent benefit claimant. This took up the remaining 15 years of my civil service like in the DWP, although once again my inability to deal with even straightforward paperwork saw the bluffer return. Others covered for me, often in exchange for work I’d for them that didn’t involve paperwork. Then, in 2014, the DWP having decided that it no longer regarded benefit fraud investigations as important enough handed me an exit package, followed by part time jobs at the British Red Cross and the brain injury charity Headway, which involved my specialist subject: one-on-one support. (My loyal reader will recall that my career at the BRC ended after I suffered bullying and abuse from tin pot inadequate mis-managers and at the dysfunctional Headway when one day they demanded I wipe the arses of service users, something which was never going to happen.) And now it appears my working life is over, but the problems still remain.
I’m still struggling to learn things and retain information and I still don’t know why. It took two years to get on an NHS waiting list for an assessment into potential ADHD/autism/bipolar/PTSD and another on the list itself. As the song goes, I’m still waiting.
Despite the mountain of evidence to the contrary, I don’t think I am hopelessly dim. What I am great at, certainly at work and in school, is the art of bluff. I didn’t set out to fool anyone but I did manage to get this far without people realising I am the bluffer’s bluffer. It’s an odd thing to be proud of, but without bluffing where would I be now?
What has happened to me is partly my fault but also the fault of my parents, my grandparents, my teachers and many of my useless work managers, until 1993 when my professional ‘career’ took a turn for the better. And do I bear grudges? You bet I do. What I learned as a child and as a fully matured adult (if that’s possible in my case), was mainly down to me. And it’s why I look back with so much sadness at a life without direction and purpose.
When it comes right down to it, there is no career for a moderately average blogger and general writer, especially one with only a passing understanding of grammar. It always helps if the one thing you are ‘good’ at provides worth and value. Now, writing is all I have left, albeit with a family I love and adore and continue to make life worth living. Trust me when I say there were times when this was not always the case.