Who are you?

Open Spiral Notebook (with path)

I was a callow youth for most of my adolescence.  It wasn’t my fault; the lack of judgment and poor impulse control that I shared with my pubescent friends were the products of a still-developing prefrontal cortex.  When you combine the overestimation of competence and the underestimation of risk with a sprinkling of hormonal surges, you have an accident waiting to happen – such accidents are now recorded for posterity as ASBOs, so that the adolescent perpetrator can have a lifelong reminder of their future-sabotaging prefrontal cortex.  You can’t avoid the cortex, it seems, and neither can you dodge the hand that life deals you.  You might be given a prial of ACEs – not as lucky as it sounds – giving you a predisposition to develop ARMS, followed by a FEP and, thereafter, a potential lifetime managing other psychiatric acronyms with the help of your local CMHT. But that’s another story, another potential trajectory and another identity.

There’s another threat to the immature adolescent brain.  Like a rogue personal trainer from ‘Catcher in the Rye’, urging you on to the next existential crisis, the ‘who am I-why am I’ challenge won’t leave you alone: the tricky twins of individuation and identity.

My older brother had a big influence on my efforts to find myself.  In his slipstream, I glided through a range of footwear from brothel creepers, brogues, loafers and clogs, eventually coming to rest in trainers and Dunlop tennis shoes.  The length of my trousers  and the circumference of their bottoms increased overnight.  Passing quickly through  Sta-Prest, Two Tone Tonics (very uncool, thanks to ‘Johnny Reggae’ by Jonathan King, another of those 1970s characters up to no good  – speaking of Reggae, rumour had it that Judge Dread lived in nearby Snodland, not Gotham City, where he produced a litany of risque Reggae numbers), I finally arrived at my sartorial destination: a pair of Levi originals that were kept going by a life-sustaining network of patches.  Tank tops over Brutus collared shirts were replaced by Grandad shirts and cheesecloth, overlaid with an ironic combat jacket from the ex-Army & Navy store on Week Street.  After a short fling with a feather-cut, my hair was left to its own devices.  This was a post-hippy, ‘Hairy’ look, hurriedly binned following the advent of Punk in 1977 – a glorious paradigm shift that slammed the lid on the 1970s and released an uncontrolled wave of contempt for our suburban status quo.  ‘Fuck the Jubilee’ appeared on the pavement outside the shops on the Beverley Estate.  Maidstone Borough Council was not ready for anarchy, let alone treason.  Who would have guessed that Her Majesty would still be reigning over us forty years later?


 

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Hearing, Mother Father Deaf

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7.30 am.  Late summer.  At the Level Crossing, East Farleigh Station.  The Maidstone West to Charing Cross is approaching.  I’m fifteen years old, sitting in Dad’s car.  We wait for the stretched white gates to be pushed back across the tracks. I’m on my way to Gallants Farm to pick apples for a pound a crate.  Dad’s inadvertently blocked someone’s drive.

‘What are you doing, how do you expect me to get my fucking car out?  I’m going to be late for fucking work.’

Dad looks at me.  Should I translate this?  I don’t think so.

I point at the window and Dad winds it down.  The man takes a breath before his next outburst.  Dad looks at him, shrugs his shoulders and places his finger against his right ear.

‘Sorry, he’s Deaf’, I tell the man.

Defeated and lost for words, he retreats up his drive and the gates open.  We don’t discuss it, but I think there’s a faint smile as we pass ‘The Victory’.


Dad was born at Coldrum Lodge, next to Coldrum Longbarrow, a Neolithic burial chamber.  His older sister was Deaf too and also had Usher Syndrome; inevitably and progressively, the light dimmed at the end of her tunnel.  My brother and I were taken on bike rides to the stones at Coldrum and, in my imagination, it became a hallowed portal, connecting us to them, the sleeping ancestors.    My living ancestors, maternal and paternal grandparents, seemed to me to be completely disconnected, despite their shared experience of having Deaf children.

We differentiated them by name and geography: Grandma and Nanna, Grandad Folkestone and Grandad Langley.  I wondered what they discussed on the rare occasions that they met.  Nanna’s love of books, her rise from life in service with the Barclays of London to shorthand typist at the bank, encouraged by Mrs Barclay?  Grandad Langley’s adventures in Canada, missing the Gold Rush, working in lumber and joining the Canadian Expeditionary Force?  Shot through the jaw in Arras, lamenting he could never eat nuts at Christmas again?  Grandma and Grandad Folkestone’s past lives were unknown to us.  No adventures, no stories, no wisdom.  We had some facts: Grandad Folkestone was an engineer, had served in the RAF during the Great War and didn’t have any scars, just a barometer in the hall that he’d made from aircraft parts, while Grandad Langley was hopping in and out of craters, scouting enemy lines.  I wonder now if they ever discussed the choices they made for their Deaf children, how they could help them to learn about and navigate the world.  And the question of sign language.


The two sets of grandparents differed in one very important respect: one side chose to learn sign language and the other did not.  Maternal or paternal?  Here are some clues.  Olfactory memories of furniture polish and disinfectant, a forbidden parlour reserved for special objects and special occasions (one day they left it open and we fatally examined the gyroscopic carriage clock – they scolded mum, not us), unexplained rules about how to eat and when to speak (and remember to say ‘Blue Peter’ when asked ‘What’s your favourite television programme?’ – not ‘Match of the Day’ or, imagine it, ‘Steptoe and Son’).  On the plus side, there was the funicular railway.  That was Folkestone.  Langley, on the other hand, smelled of orchards, tamped down soil in the tomato-filled greenhouse, suet pudding and steaming tureens of home-grown beans, runner and broad.  French cricket, post-watershed games of Knockout Whist and Joker (the television had the worst reception in the world anyway) and the freedom to run amok with the Suffolk Punch and the weird L-shaped Hayter in the orchard.  On the down side, Nanna and Grandad swore by Izal toilet paper.


Pouring another basket of apples into the crate at Gallants Farm, I say to myself:  ‘Hearing: 0, Deaf: 1’.  Much later, I learn how that crude dichotomy has been refined by Deaf scholars into the possibility of Hearing Loss and Deaf Gain.