Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: My ‘special needs’ and why they lay hidden for so long

School desks of yesteryear

School desks of yesteryear - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Dhekelia Primary School, Cyprus, 1961

I was eight years old. It was near the end of lessons and time to hand in our exercise books. This was a new method which our teacher had devised. With our desks rearranged in squares rather than in columns, books would now be stacked in fours from each group before being collected up by a monitor and placed in a pile upon the teacher’s desk.

I never found out why the teacher’s attention had suddenly focused upon me but here he was. He wanted to know what I didn’t understand about his new system. I said that I didn’t know. The four kids on my table now had to take back our books and begin again. He watched me as I passed my book to the boy opposite me. “No, no, no!” he snapped.

I could feel my face reddening. I took back the book and passed it to the person next to me. “Not him!” yelled the teacher. I began to panic. The whole class was watching now. I took the exercise book and passed it forlornly to the last of our quartet. Surely this must be right? The teacher addressed the class incredulously. “You see? He still doesn’t understand!”

I passed the book diagonally across to the boy to whom I’d first passed it. With that, the furious teacher pulled me out in front of the class. I can’t remember what he yelled but the next thing I knew, he’d picked me up by my ribcage and was shaking me in the air. Now he put me down again. He grabbed my exercise book and swiped me three or four times across the face. It didn’t seem particularly hard, but, prone then to nosebleeds, I felt a thin trickle of blood from one nostril. “Now sit down.” he said.


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The bell went. We all filed out. I felt ashamed, numb and faint. I was a pariah, the class Jonah. None of my classmates said anything to me. No-one sat with me on the bus back to the army base. I never told my parents. I thought that they’d probably just say, “Well, perhaps you should have been paying more attention.” That was what they did in those days. To this day I don’t understand what the teacher was trying to make me do.

My schooldays were peppered with such events. What most led to trouble for me at school, was not so much doing the wrong thing, as failing to do the corrrect one. I did manage, however, to often say the wrong thing, having again failed to understand the general requirements. This carried on well into early adulthood. There were some things which I seemed to be good at, history, for instance. Dates of battles: there was no-one to touch me on them.

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I was good at running, especially cross-country, and yet hopeless at all team sports. Football, for me, simply didn’t compute. I was forever being screamed at by team-mates for moving the wrong way. Many of these tribulations faded after childhood, leaving only traces of my old confusion.

At 20 years old, for instance, offered driving lessons, I refused. I instinctively knew that I could never drive a car. The prospect seemed impossible. I’ve never driven.

Although I’ve played music since my teens, gradually acquiring skills on a number of stringed and keyboard instruments, it’s irked me that I’ve never mastered the drums. I’ve learned how they function. I could even explain to you how a bossa-nova rhythm works. What I can’t do, is to play it on a kit.

My partner, who for years taught children with learning difficulties, only broke it to me recently that I am dyspraxic. That wasn’t all. I’m still reluctantly acknowledging that I’m also mildly aspergic. It’s been interesting to learn about my ‘symptoms’. Only now, am I beginning to solve the mysteries of decades, such as the one recounted at the beginning of this piece. My condition, I’ve learned, if not common, is not that unusual.

I discussed it with another musician, himself aspergic. He asked me, “Did people get cross with you a lot, when you were younger – and you didn’t understand why.” I said yes. He nodded.

Further reading upon the subject was enlightening and at times, poignant. Aspergers and dyspraxia may sometimes occur together. My discovery has explained why I couldn’t understand certain simple things. It’s explained too, why I can skillfully recount long and complex jokes and yet take certain others completely literally. And then there were all the exasperated girlfriends of my younger days, who left me, seemingly inexplicably. I never understood what was required. For example, when someone asks how you are, you shouldn’t give them a 15-minute run-down. You should say, “Fine, thanks.” and then ask them how they are. It took me ages to learn that – about four girlfriends. Nobody mentioned aspergers or dyspraxia back then. People just used to shout at you, or hit you.

Let’s keep this in proportion. In the end I fared okay. Somewhere along the way I somehow taught myself to compensate for my condition. The other morning, having reconsidered it, I asked our resident special-needs teacher: “So, if I’m dyspraxic and aspergic, what does that actually mean?” She replied, “It means you’re a bloke.”

• If readers have encountered any issues within this feature, please don’t write in. I’m still trying to figure it out myself.

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