|Catherine in Blue Organdie|
I was severely asthmatic as a child. Books, radio and the power of my own imagination were my salvation back then. I've looked at my old school reports and it's clear that I spent far less time at my primary school than I ever did at home. Those were the days when you were kept at home with asthma. The available medication was ineffective and had unpleasant side effects. We lived next door to my grandparents and my mother helped out in their tiny sweet and tobacconist's shop in smoky Holbeck, not far from the centre of Leeds, so there was always somebody to look after me: my mum, my aunt, my nana or my beloved grandad.
|Aunt Vera, Dad, Mum and Me|
Then, when I was twelve, we moved to Scotland where dad had secured a new job in a scientific research institute, and everything changed - except my need for make believe. Nothing in my life till then had prepared me for the cruelty inflicted on an awkward, ugly duckling of an English thirteen year old by her Scottish schoolmates. One with glasses and a Yorkshire accent at that. I didn't help myself much, it's true. I was naive, shy and desperately homesick for Leeds. I suffered two years of misery, leavened only by the bright beacons of vacation in a sea of educational despond. None of it was physical. They just froze me out.They mocked my accent, they mocked the way I looked, they sniggered and passed clever, insulting remarks just loud enough for me to hear them, while I stood like a rabbit, caught in the headlights of their self satisfaction, and all the time, as bullied children will, I blamed myself and told nobody. Afterwards, as an adult, I thought what hell it must be to be a bullied child in a boarding school. At least I got to go home at nights. Sanctuary. Not that I told anyone at home what was happening at school. I used to pray for the illness I had suffered when I was younger, but on the whole, I could breathe more easily in Scotland.
I did very well academically. The classroom was another, lesser refuge. I can remember wishing that we had no break times at all. I spent even more time living inside my head, and I began to write poetry. Things improved during my third year in Scotland and when we all changed schools for our final two years and travelled out of town by train each day. I was beginning to find my place, lose weight, make a few friends, although I was always aware that I didn't quite fit in and possibly never would.
I was still writing. And starting to be known and acknowledged within the school community as the girl who wrote stuff. Then, in spite of a longish spell in hospital with another severe bout of asthma when I was sixteen, (during which I had a couple of only-half-joking proposals of marriage from two kindly young male nurses from Mauritius!) I managed to get a place at university and set off for Edinburgh where, once again, everything changed. For the better this time.
Next week: Poets and Parties and Protests: Edinburgh in the Seventies.