The Boy with the Per­pet­ual Ner­vous­ness: A Mem­oir of an Ado­les­cence by Gra­ham Caveney

So­cial class and the trauma of sex­ual abuse are at the heart of this brave, in­ci­sive au­to­bi­og­ra­phy

The Guardian - Review - - Non-fiction - Joe Mo­ran’s Shrink­ing Violets: The Se­cret Life of Shy­ness is pub­lished by Pro­file.

GJoe Mo­ran

ra­ham Caveney’s en­thralling mem­oir is, in part, about the am­bigu­ous virtues of so­cial mo­bil­ity. He was born in Ac­cring­ton in 1964 to a mill worker, Kath­leen, and a school grounds­man, Jack, nei­ther of whom moved be­yond the same four-mile ra­dius all their lives. A bright boy, he won a place at a Catholic grammar school. Like other bright boys of his class and gen­er­a­tion, his ed­u­ca­tion came as much through NME and left­wing ac­tivism as through his school­ing. He went to War­wick Univer­sity in the early 1980s and em­braced the heady ab­strac­tions of crit­i­cal the­ory, writ­ing aca­demic con­fer­ence pa­pers on “The Scan­dalous Mouth of Shane McGowan”. His in­tel­lec­tual jour­ney, like that of Richard Hog­gart’s fa­mous schol­ar­ship boy, left him feel­ing semi-lib­er­ated but emo­tion­ally home­less.

So far, so fa­mil­iar. But this book is also about some­thing else that hugely en­riches it while deeply un­set­tling the reader. Af­ter writ­ing a stel­lar school es­say, Caveney be­gan to be men­tored by his head­mas­ter, a cool, charis­matic priest ev­ery­one called “the Rev Kev”. The Rev paid him to sort through his book­shelves, took him to the theatre to see Who’s Afraid of Vir­ginia Woolf? and had earnest dis­cus­sions with him about Sa­muel Beck­ett. And then he be­gan sex­u­ally abus­ing him.

The Rev car­ried on men­tor­ing him, and abus­ing him (for ex­actly how long isn’t clear from the non­lin­ear way the story is told), un­til Caveney said “enough” – “an enough born out of weari­ness, help­less­ness and a de­spair­ing kind of hope”. There fol­lowed years of panic at­tacks, drug and al­co­hol ad­dic­tion and ther­apy. His par­ents died with­out know­ing the truth.

One of the many brave things about this book is its con­flict­ed­ness. Caveney’s in­tel­lect and wide read­ing be­come both a way out of his sit­u­a­tion and what links him to his abuser. Both his par­ents think that a book can never be wrong and that all ed­u­ca­tion is a one-way route to re­spectabil­ity. They are flat­tered by the Cam­bridge-ed­u­cated head­mas­ter’s in­ter­est in their son. As an ea­ger-toplease high achiever, their son also en­joys the un­of­fi­cial ed­u­ca­tion it of­fers him. The truly per­son­al­ity-erod­ing and life-de­stroy­ing as­pect of his abuse is its am­biva­lence: the way that “cor­rup­tion can not just co­ex­ist with ten­der­ness, but can be­come part of its fi­bre”.

Caveney’s voice is by turns angry and an­a­lyt­i­cal. He writes in a sort of dis­placed first per­son, ad­dress­ing his abuser in bit­ter asides but ex­am­in­ing his younger self ob­jec­tively. He also su­perbly skew­ers the sen­ti­men­tal cant that em­braces con­sol­ing sim­pli­fi­ca­tions and is “deeply moved by it­self”. “We love our fucked up kids nearly as much as we de­spise the adults they be­come,” he writes.

A quar­ter of a cen­tury ago Caveney co-au­thored an ex­cel­lent work of pop cul­tural the­ory, Shop­ping in Space. He still writes as a semi­oti­cian, read­ing the signs and codes of so­cial class and power re­la­tions. He notes how in the So­cial­ist Work­ers Party that he joins as a teenager the worst sin is to make a com­ment that is “out of or­der”, as if “other peo­ple’s thoughts, emo­tions and opin­ions were like the toi­lets on a train”. When he ar­rives at univer­sity, he dis­cov­ers that he has a “back­ground” and that his mid­dle-class peers have an “up­bring­ing”. The for­mer is “some­thing out of which one stepped” and the lat­ter “an on­go­ing, cycli­cal con­sen­sus”. And he learns that us­ing the pos­ses­sive pro­noun sub­tly marks him out as north­ern and pro­vin­cial – that it is some-

De­spite its sub­ject, this is not a de­press­ing book. It is of­ten bleakly funny

how bet­ter to omit the “my” be­fore “dad”, “mum” or “hol­i­day”.

Caveney re­serves his most in­ci­sive tex­tual analy­ses for the ex­pe­ri­ence of abuse. Sex­ual abuse, he writes, is “a cri­sis in genre”. Be­cause his abuser is not a gothic grotesque but a charis­matic and some­times con­sid­er­ate teacher, he is left with no sense-mak­ing ap­pa­ra­tus for it. The abuse of power that lies at the root of his or­deal is in­vis­i­ble and all-en­com­pass­ing. When he goes to his head­mas­ter/abuser’s of­fice to re­ceive his A-level re­sults in an al­ready opened en­ve­lope, he grasps the dy­namic straight­away: “Your ac­com­plish­ments are theirs (although you know that your fail­ures will be your own).”

The abused per­son must also con­front the mea­greness of words. Caveney is forced to com­mu­ni­cate what has hap­pened to him with “this sec­ond­hand, jumble sale, rag­bag thing called lan­guage”, and then to deal with the in­evitable in­ad­e­quacy of what peo­ple say in re­turn. The least ar­tic­u­late re­sponses, free of well-mean­ing eva­sion, turn out to be the most help­ful. When Caveney steels him­self to tell his story to a stu­dent friend, the friend re­sponds with a long pause and the sin­gle word, “fuck”. Caveney finds this word – “a sin­gu­lar dec­la­ra­tion with lots of room for ma­noeu­vre” – ther­a­peu­tic. It “cap­tures the mix­ture of out­rage and fu­til­ity” he feels and is “an ex­cuse for the jaw to

drop and the mouth to re­main frozen”. It is the one word he later wishes

(in vain) to hear from his ther­a­pists.

Caveney writes in free-as­so­ci­at­ing mode, with short chap­ters and block para­graphs al­low­ing for bursts of in­sight and sud­den tran­si­tions. This im­pres­sion­is­tic struc­ture fits the story and its nar­ra­tor, whose mem­o­ries have been turned into frag­ments by years of drink, drugs and re­pressed trauma. But although this book flits from dis­jointed rec­ol­lec­tion to the near-present of his ther­apy ses­sions, it re­mains a grip­ping read (with, sadly, no cathar­tic end­ing).

De­spite its sub­ject, this is not a de­press­ing book. It is of­ten bleakly funny and, along­side its trou­bling main theme, tells a more ten­der story of ado­les­cent male friend­ship, un­spo­ken parental love and mu­sic’s re­demp­tive power. (The book’s ti­tle is a song by Amer­i­can in­die un­der­ground band the Feel­ies.) Caveney may claim at the end that be­ing abused has left him “needy, ma­nip­u­la­tive, petty, vin­dic­tive”. But his voice on the page is hu­mane, big­hearted and with­out self-pity.

This is, fi­nally, a book about how abuse of dif­fer­ent kinds thrives in an un­equal world: how so­cial def­er­ence and weird power dy­nam­ics lead to sto­ries be­ing untold. The mid­dle-class stu­dents Caveney en­coun­ters at War­wick “had been taught that they were in­ter­est­ing, that their sto­ries were worth lis­ten­ing to. They ac­cepted my cu­rios­ity as their birthright.” It has taken much longer for Caveney to tell his story, but it is cer­tainly worth lis­ten­ing to. This book is not flaw­less – its tone can some­times be un­even and its namecheck­ing of other au­thors and cul­tural the­o­rists a dis­trac­tion. But it feels as if it had to be writ­ten, and it de­mands to be read.

320pp, Picador, £14.99

To or­der The Boy with the Per­pet­ual Ner­vous­ness for £12.74 go to book­shop.the­guardian.com or call 0330 333 6846.

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