I don’t know what it is that makes us look back sometimes, hunting down the smallest, most insignificant and mostly forgotten corners of our lives to find new material with which to torture ourselves. Perhaps as you get older it becomes easier to look back instead of forwards, given there are more years under your belt than over it; and perhaps the valleys of negative events are etched more vividly and viscerally into our memories than the featureless plain of happier times.
For whatever reason, a particular regret has been playing on my mind of late. I tend to live my life without regret, since everything I’ve done, right and wrong, has contributed to who and where I am now – the mountain does not blame the wind that shapes it. True, some things I might wonder about – what if I’d gone to university at 18; what if I’d continued my nursing studies; what if I hadn’t met my wife? – but for the most part, I don’t worry too much about the past. After all, the only thing we can influence is the present, and we can always strive to be better in the future. I have no qualms admitting when I’ve done wrong, and am not too proud to refrain from asking forgiveness.
However, as an intensely moral person, there are a few things I’m sensitive about. I like to think that, while I’m not necessarily a nice, or kind, or even friendly person, I am at least a good person; that is, when the chips are down, I do what is right, not what is easy. In my life I’ve helped drunks back to their flats, carried old people’s groceries to their cars, taken injured wildlife to the vet and tended those I couldn’t save. I’ve broken up fights, stood up for the weak, given lifts to people in distress and taken the punishments I knew others couldn’t endure. It is when I have fallen short of these ideals that I find most difficult to forgive myself.
So what is my deepest regret?
Every summer from the age of 9 to 15, I was sent off to Christian camp. It was an organisation called Covenanters, and I hated it. While I had some very enjoyable experiences over the years – rock climbing, abseiling, surfing, cliff diving – I detested everything else. I have never been comfortable in a social environment, struggling to form friendships or fit in, and since it would be another 15 years before anyone realised I had autism, I had zero insight into or support for my difficulties. My coping mechanisms didn’t extend beyond locking myself in the toilet to cry and lying awake at night wondering what I could say to my parents to get them to pick me up. Alas, these were my prime ‘character building’ years, so I had to take my punishment like a man.
The first three years of camp weren’t actually that bad because I was less aware of how much of a social misfit I was, and because we stayed in posh boarding schools – it felt a little like Harry Potter many years before Harry Potter was a thing. Other than group showers and raiders from other dorms, the indignities were kept to a minimum.
Unfortunately, in the final four years, camp became a literal camp. Home was a circular bell tent in a muddy field, the toilet was a plastic bucket behind canvas, and the showers were sprinklers over a wooden pallet. I no longer even had the minimal privacy of a bunk, and finding a toilet to cry in meant walking down to the local village on the occasional free afternoon.
Worse, puberty had kicked in, and with it a heightened sense of my own awkwardness and inability to get on with people. Desperate to fit in, everything I tried made me ever more of a social pariah. I just wanted to curl up in my sleeping bag and be left alone, but of course, that made me more of a target. Considering these were Christian camps, the boys who went to them were the furthest from Christian behaviour I ever met. I suppose I could have spoken to an adult, but back then I was conditioned to putting on a brave face as I died a little more inside with every day that passed.
The final three years, the camp was at Polzeath in Cornwall. It was truly awful when I was 13, but I had my brother in my tent, so no matter how bad it got, at least I had an ally. When I was 14, it was just about the worst two weeks of my life. My brother was now a Junior Officer, so I barely ever saw him. I was a piece of meat served up to the butcher’s block, and they tore strips off me.
There were six to eight kids to a tent, ranging in age from 12 to 15, and there’s a lot of difference between a 12-year-old and a fifteen-year-old, especially when the older ones get their kicks from bullying the younger. If it’s never happened to you, you can never know what it’s like to have people go through your bag and mess with your stuff; to hide your things or tread them in the mud; to pour water in your sleeping bag; to ostracise you, make fun of you, call you names, mock everything you do and everything you stand for over two entire weeks, what you wear, what you say, how you say it, what you do, how you walk, every insecurity, the drip, drip, drip of breaking you down until you’re a wreck. And God forbid you show any emotion, or they circle round like hyenas. Baby’s crying, aw, you miss your mummy?
I saw my first porno mag that summer, many, many times, because when they realised I didn’t like it, they kept forcing it on me. Look at the flaps on that one! they’d say as they shoved a photo of a vagina in my face. What’s the matter, are you gay?
Other than me, the youngest in the tent was their whipping boy, but he spent the whole time trying to be their friends while I spent the whole time keeping my head down and trying not to get noticed. They held him down once and shaved his head with face razors while he screamed, and still he went back for more. The couple of nights it got physically violent – after they told him his parents were dead and he was an orphan – I stepped in to protect him, taking the blows and the anger directed at him, which made my situation even worse. So of course, he joined them in mocking me, because he wanted to be in their tribe, and it was obvious I was never going to be.
Understandably, I didn’t want to go back to camp when I was 15. I mean, fuck that, right? But there was still character-building to be done, so back I went.
Things had changed, however. Between the end of that awful summer of 1994 and the start of the next, I had changed. I’d started listening to a band whose lead singer had just killed himself, and for the first time I found a voice for my frustrations, a channel for my angst. I’d started teaching myself to play the guitar, and I’d discovered hitherto untapped depths of resilience from all the bullshit I was enduring at school.
I made plans. This time, I swore I wasn’t going to let camp beat me. I bought clip-on shades for my glasses so I could hide behind them if I needed to; a bunch of band T-shirts so I could wear my identity like a suit of armour on my chest; a cross-pendant necklace to remind myself of strength in the face of suffering; and a bag chock full of cassettes and batteries so I could shut out the world and be alone with my music. I would bring my guitar to fill up the spare moments; sign up to every activity and volunteer for every shitty job going, just to stay active and stay safe.
As an officer, my brother had to help set up the camp, so we arrived a day earlier than the other campers and spent the day erecting the marquee and toilet tents. There were only two others like me, so the three of us were put in the same tent that night.
Sometimes the darkness never seems to end; the morning never comes; and you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so desolate. I remember sitting at breakfast on a rough wooden bench, surrounded by adults, and none of them spotted I was crying behind my shades as I ate my cornflakes, lost in utter devastation. The night with those boys had broken me. Despite my preparation, nothing was different; I was no different. I wouldn’t survive the next two weeks.
Behind the scenes, however, my parents has been pulling a few strings to make things a bit easier for me. They’d insisted I be appointed tent leader – the camper in charge of the group when the junior, senior and tent officers weren’t around – and that I be the oldest in my tent. Of course, anyone who knows anything about the group dynamics of a bunch of teenage boys can probably tell you that appointing a leader is an utterly futile gesture, but there you go. It was better than nothing.
I moved my things to my assigned tent, put in my headphones and waited for my bullies to arrive.
And then the strangest thing happened, so strange I can scarce believe it even now – as they arrived one by one, and as the day passed, and then the night, and then the next day, they didn’t pick on me. I was shocked. Stunned. I felt like I was walking along a tightrope, and any moment I’d fall off it and they’d start on me, but as we ended the first week, and entered the second, it still hadn’t happened. I was surviving!
Of course, they didn’t think I was cool – that’d be too much to ask – but they didn’t mess with me either, and I was free to listen to my music, play the guitar, and do all the activities I’d signed up for without anyone making fun of me. I was so used to being excoriated simply for existing, to be free of it was like feeling the sun on my face after a lifetime of winter. For the first time, I wasn’t sneaking off to the village to cry in the toilets. For the first time, I felt like I could make it to the end without sobbing down the phone to my parents.
But there was a reason, and this brings me to the thing that’s been on my mind lately, my deepest regret. The youngest kid in the tent was a 12-year-old called John who looked 10 and dressed like he was 8 – tailored shorts, checked short-sleeved shirts, elasticated bow ties and neatly combed hair, like his mum had picked out his outfit, as she clearly had. You can imagine how the kids in my tent treated him.
The reason they didn’t bully me that summer was because there was someone else to pick on. And, to my eternal shame, instead of sticking up for him, all I could think was: thank God it isn’t me. Oh thank God it isn’t me.
I don’t want to minimise it in any way, but their bullying of him wasn’t bad relative to some of the stuff I’d not only witnessed but endured. They made fun of his clothes, of how young he looked, and how posh he sounded. They got cross with him when he was rubbish at inter-tent sports, and criticised him for being him. They teased him relentlessly, but they didn’t physically attack him or mess with his things or tell him his parents were dead. But of course, having been bullied all my life, looking at it objectively, and trying to say who had it worse, is to do a disservice to the lived experience – to John, it was torture.
How do I know this? Because he told me. Because we took it in turns, in pairs, to wash up at mealtimes, and he was my partner, and as I stood with my hands in the bowl in that greasy hot water, and as he dried up the plastic camping plates, he’d tell me how much he was struggling, and how he was looking forward to his parents coming to pick him up, and how he just wished it was over now, and you know what I said to him? Do you know what I did?
I cringe when I think of it. Despite knowing how he felt, despite being the person best-placed to help him, I fobbed him off with the exact same platitudes I couldn’t bear myself. ‘You’ll get through it. You just have to toughen up. It’s not that bad. You’ll look back on this experience and laugh.’ And worst of all, I gave him advice on how not to make himself a target.
He turned to me for help, me, his tent leader, and what did I do to help? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Other than a couple of, ‘Come on, guys, knock it off’, when they were taking it a bit too far, I let the others pick on him because I was afraid that if I intervened they’d start to pick on me. How cowardly. I had the chance to do the right thing and I stood by and did nothing. And that cowardice haunts me to this day.
I keep trying to excuse myself. I wasn’t doing the bullying, I say; I was never mean to him myself. But that’s not good enough – by allowing it, by enabling the others to act as they did, I’m equally culpable.
I was young, I tell myself, only 15 – but I knew right from wrong, even at that time, and I chose to do the wrong thing; rather, I chose not to do the right thing, out of fear for myself. I wanted him to be bullied, not me – age is no excuse.
I was bullied myself, I say, I was psychologically damaged, so I’m not responsible for whatever actions I took to protect myself. But that doesn’t work either, since knowing so intimately the damage that bullying can cause, I should have prevented it happening to another.
And he could have gone to an adult for help, I argue. But then, so could I. That’s victim-blaming at it’s finest. And he came to me, who was close enough to an adult to have done something. It was more than I ever did.
None of my excuses work. After six years of being eaten alive at summer camp, in the seventh I threw fresh meat to the wolves and fled up a tree. That’s about as far from a ‘good’ person as you can get.
If I could go back there, I’d tell the others to back off, no matter the consequences. I would rather I had been bullied that year than John. I was already damaged; I could take it. Instead, I might have started a sequence of events that led to him being bullied year on year. I could have stopped someone feeling as bad as I did, and I didn’t.
I’ve carried that guilt with me all my life. I knew him for two weeks twenty-five years ago. I don’t know his name or even where he was from. I don’t know if he remembers me; if this was a single blip he quickly got over or a recurring theme, if it shaped him as a person or lies forgotten. In truth, none of that matters.
What’s important is that I remember. And it still torments me.
But then perhaps, as with everything, this event, and my inability to forgive myself for it, has made me the person I am today. Perhaps it’s this failure to do good that has made me so determined to do good in my life, and I should accept that while I’m always going to feel sore about it, it ultimately led to good. I can’t change what happened. I can’t change what I did, or really what I didn’t do. I can only promise never to repeat that mistake. You regret the things you don’t do far more than the things you do.
And if anyone knows a John in his late thirties who went to Covenanter Camp at Polzeath in 1995, tell him I’m sorry I wasn’t there for him when he needed me. If it’s any comfort, it’s my deepest regret.