Thursday, 10 December 2009

Shyness Isn't Nice...

There's a picture of all my family at Knott End in about 1973. My dad's a big, grinning grizzly bear in a Sunday Best suit. My mum's wearing tan tights and a mini dress and smiling from ear to ear. My Uncle Bill and Auntie Vi are all sex and newlywed sophistication, in tan leather jackets and matching shoes. Nana and Grandad are obviously laughing at something the photographer has said to make everyone smile (something blue, no doubt). My brother, aged 7, has got Kasabian hair and a stripey tank top and he's laughing too. My sister (who would have been 10) is wearing a really weird dress that looks like it was cut down from a frock designed for a much older person. But the look of joy and mirth on her face is priceless.

And then there, peeking out from behind my dad's legs, is a mop of curly blonde hair, the arm of a blue anorak and a little chubby leg with white socks and red shoes. You can't see his face and his hand is gripping on to my dad's trouser leg for dear life. Sometimes I don't recognise who it is. And then I remember - oh yes, Jim. You're shy!

Truth is, it's always been a bit crippling, really. There are really no decent pictures of me as a child, because I'm always hiding - either literally, behind my dad's legs, or hiding in one of the many imaginary worlds I created. So on the pictures where you can see my face (and there aren't many) there's a strange, faraway look in my eyes. I'm never smiling at the camera or at whoever is taking the picture. I'm smiling at the people in my head who are just as shy as me and understand what a terrible experience this all is. Which makes me sound deranged. Perhaps I was.

When I was 4 we moved to a small village. The only other person my age who lived in that village was a lad called Tony who nowadays would be described as having special needs. All through my childhood I tried my best to make friends with him. But it never worked. I frustrated him because he wanted to play silly beggars, pretend to shoot each other, dig random holes for no reason. I wanted to dam streams and catch fish in the pools they created, so I could look at them and understand how they worked. I wanted to invent convoluted make believe stories (often involving Doctor Who in some way) and act them out. Tony didn't have a scrap of interest in any of that and he can't be blamed for that. So I spent a lot of my childhood on my own. It wasn't all bad - I spent the entire summer when I was 9 years old sat on a haystack reading Orwell.

Secondary school wasn't much better. True, once I discovered Robert Smith and Morrissey I had role models, but I still had to hide the fact that I would genuinely much rather be listening to Mozart from most people. It led to bouts of depression. When I was 13 my dad built me a box on the shed roof. I know that probably sounds insane, but I asked him to do it and the fact that he readily agreed shows that he understood something about how my psyche worked. It was just big enough for me to sit in and it had a door I could lock from the inside. He knew, I think, that all I wanted to do was have somewhere I could go to read a book or draw a picture where no-one else could get to me. I shared a bedroom with my older brother, which sometimes upset me so much that I found I was unable to speak.

Books taught me another language, though. They taught me how confident, articulate people talked. By the time I had left home I had pretty much learnt how to hide my shyness from most people. And alcohol helped a lot.

It's still there though - put me somewhere like Sankey's, where I feel uncomfortable, and, no matter how many potions and chemicals I have partaken in, you probably won't get more than two words out of me. You'll probably notice my whole body stiffen and if someone touches me - even someone I know and care about - I will visibly recoil.

The other day, I was eating my lunch by the town hall here in Manchester and someone (I have no idea who they are) walked up to me and said "OH MY GOD! You're Jim Hewitt aren't you?" and I looked at them and froze. All I could say is "No." They looked confused and unconvinced, but I buried my head back into The Morning Star and pretended they weren't there. Some of you might think that's sad and a little bit pathetic. And that's because shyness isn't nice. Especially when you're too big to hide behind your dad's legs anymore.

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