Dear Matt by Barbara Nadel

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Dear Matt

Just been catching up on the Blog and have finally got around to your September 10th piece ‘Scared Away’. God did that ring some bells with me! I fully accept that not all writers have had awful, frightening or forgettable childhoods. There are many in our profession who had an absolute ball as kids. But like you, I was not one of them.

Looking back on it now I suppose I was a bit of a square peg as a kid. Where other girls were interested in rock music, disco dancing and being ‘popular’ I was far too geeky for any of that. I liked reading books about ancient Egypt, particularly books about the discovery of spooky, fresco-covered tombs. I liked dancing but preferred my own form of flamenco which I did on my own in my bedroom. I was clever and used to cover up my innate nervousness by making smart comments and swearing creatively. An odd mixture and one that could have worked had I also possessed the attribute of prettiness. I was so unpretty. I remain so. The only difference is that now I care less. Now I don’t get the fact of my unprettiness rammed in my face every single day of my life.

I remember one particular occasion, I think I was fourteen, when a very large girl who hated me for no reason, but with much passion, pushed me against a wall and told me I would never get a boyfriend. I was ugly, I had apparently, no shape and no man would ever, EVER look at me except to laugh. At the time I don’t recall losing any sleep over this one incident. I expect I just went home and read a book about the heretic pharaoh Akenaten. It was the cumulative effect that did the damage. Day after day, year in and year out. It took me years to drum up the confidence to actually show anything I had written to anyone. Everything that I did was always, in my eyes, rubbish. I was rubbish because I wasn’t pretty and so no-one would ever want anything that I produced because of what I so obviously was. Even when I got married and had a child that sense of lack of self worth didn’t leave me. On the plus side it did make me try to ensure that my son never ever suffered as I had and every knock back that he got was countered and dispelled by my husband and myself and in most strong terms. We didn’t always succeed and he did have some very dark times, but at least we did try to help him.

But back in the nineteen seventies no-one told their parents about the things that went on at school. No-one cared much about bullying full stop. If I had problems with other girls at school the attitude of my teachers was that it was my fault for being different.

As an adult, like you Matt, I found some solace in just simply removing myself from the scene of my persecution. I travelled, I lived in many and various parts of the UK and I got on with other things. I avoided and still avoid all and any school reunions. A friend of mine went to one a few years ago and was so horrified she had to be rescued, by me, from the hordes of middle aged men and women she had once known and disliked intensely.

People often ask me who my detective, Çetin İkmen is based upon and I always say the same thing. Çetin İkmen is the person I would be if I were more courageous. Çetin İkmen says and does the things that I would love to do if only I were not crippled by self doubt and the remains of this need to be something that I am not. He doesn’t care much about what he looks like or what other people might think of him and that for me, as his author, is very liberating. Living vicariously for pleasure and profit, what could be better? Not a lot. I enjoy my life as a writer. I love the way I can split my time between two very different countries. I am extremely fortunate. But would I give it all up to be able to go back in time and be pretty and popular, enjoy the social side of schooling and have an entirely different kind of life?

Not now, no. I like what I do even if I still find acceptance of what I am hard. But not so many years ago, I would have said a most resounding ‘yes’. I would have given almost anything to be pretty and accepted and ‘normal’. In the darkness of a sleepless night I can still find myself being seduced by that notion. Childhood and its trials and traumas do not just go away. You and I Matt, are just really lucky that we have found places to be and things to do that hold back, in part, some of those old, dark memories.


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