Running away from something is a powerful motivator
The first time I ever punched anyone I was 13.
At school I was a fragile, shy, often sad kid. It wasn't a fun place for me. But I was good at computer stuff, so the wonderful Dr Harris, the school’s computer science teacher, seeing my talent for coding, and perhaps also my fragility, gave me the spare key to the computer room. He probably wasn't allowed to do that, but he did, and in doing so granted me the literal keys to the kingdom. During my lunchbreaks I could, unnoticed, vanish from the playground, lock myself in the little computer room, and hack away happily. Making things.
Decades before campuses would start the dialogue around safe spaces, this was mine. Quiet and calm and away from the bullying that I encountered both from other students, and some of the teachers. Away from one bully in particular, who's name, blissfully, I no longer remember. But I do remember how he'd walk up to me in the school canteen and spit in my food. And I remember how, one lunchtime, he noticed me slip away, and followed me to the computer room, and waited until I unlocked the door, and barged in behind me, and slapped me, and pushed me, and told me how he was going to smash up all the equipment so I would get the blame. I remember how panicked I became, the feeling of my one safe place being destroyed, and how that panic turned to desperate anger.
My dad, for better, and certainly for worse, had taught me how to throw a punch early on. I reared back like John Wayne in The Quiet Man and right crossed him. Hard. His head snapped back and bounced off the square of toughened glass in the middle of the door behind him, and he fell, dazed, out onto the floor of the corridor outside. I looked down at him as he scrambled away, terrified, and then looked up to see my gruff, Northern form teacher, who had witnessed the whole thing, raise his eyebrows, nod approvingly and shuffle into the staff room. I went back inside, locked the door behind me, and got back to my hacking, knuckles throbbing and head spinning with endorphins.
I'm not condoning violence. It's generally very bad. But, I learned something that lunchtime, or maybe I developed something. Agency. A little extra autonomy. That the role others cast you in doesn't have to be the role that you choose to play. That sometimes it takes a bully to make clear what it is that you love. What it is that you will, in whatever way, fight for.
Conventional wisdom suggests that the best way to move forward (with your life, career, creative vision, whatever) is to have a goal in mind. Decide the end point and start trudging toward it. And yes, that sometimes works. But there's also another way. My friend Rob used to refer to having ‘a grain of sand in your clamshell’. The irritating, scratchy, piece of outside interference that makes you close up and run away, but gives you the raw material to create a pearl. It's as valid to be moving forward because you're running away from something, as it is to be moving toward something. And for me, certainly, more powerful.
For nearly 20 years I was a full-time Covent Garden street performer. I started doing it because it was an amazingly free place to try out ideas, develop shows, learn stagecraft and all that good stuff. Then, in my late 30s, it became just the place that I worked. I slowly realised that the job I had chosen precisely because it was so free and creative, had become a 9-5 slog. I pondered on how I didn't want to end up being a 40-year-old busker. How I wanted to do more, work elsewhere, stretch myself, develop. But all the time, the pitch was there, and there was easy money to be made, and the risks of the unknown next steps were stifling my courage.
I was increasingly unhappy working there, especially since more and more of my friends from that world had taken the big leap out, and were no longer there for me to hang out with. I dreamed of goals, but couldn't fix on one – they all seemed too unattainable. I wouldn't let myself fully commit to wanting any of them. And then, one grey Monday morning, someone I knew approached me. He had been a street performer back in the 80s – one of the biggest acts on the scene, but hadn't really worked much recently, devoting his time mostly to drinking and behaving aggressively to younger performers. He had been drinking that day too. He took me aside, he wanted to show me something, he said. He opened his bag and showed me a kitchen knife. He told me that this was the knife he was going to stab me with.
I have no idea if this was a serious threat or not, and only partially took it as one. He was drunk, past his prime, and a little bit unhinged, which means it could have just been crazy talk, or it could have migrated into equally crazy action.
I went home and told my wife what had happened, and that I didn't think I wanted to work in a place where that kind of thing happened, and that I'd never work there again. She smiled, gave me a ‘what the hell took you so long?’ expression, and said: ‘Good.’
It’s ridiculous that I was so unsure of my ability to make a future for myself outside of Covent Garden that it literally took someone threatening to kill me to push me on to greater things. But it is what it is, and that's what it took. Pretty much everything I've done since then wouldn't have happened were it not for him, and I've done some seriously fun stuff. I never went back.
Not because I was scared of being attacked by a knife-wielding busker (although, god knows, that is not an honourable death), but because I was scared that if I hadn't left, I might become something like him.
So: Sometimes it takes an asshole, behaving in an assholish way, to show you what you really want. Also: It's as valid and allowed to move away from something, as it is to move toward something. As long as you're moving.
Published: 4 Nov 2016