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A Shout From The Attic: The Esmé Years - 10

Ronnie Bray tells of overcoming a dislike of red haired people.

Come Back Derek Harrowby - All is Forgiven!

As a child, I had an almost pathological dislike for red hair. The origin of my distaste is hard to determine. Red haired people did not figure large in my childhood, so I am at a loss to understand how my aversion began, and why it continued past my teenaged years.

One boy in my class at school had red hair. His name was Derek Harrowby. Our paths crossed infrequently, except in my last year when he decided to take over bullying me. I didn’t like bullying. Probably because I was an easy target: a smallish lad with no fight in him. The fight, if I ever had any, had evaporated before the power of all the grown-ups who had dominated my life since the first stirrings of my memory.

I first went to school when I was two-and-a-half years old. Then, due to the tragic event that took place in Europe in September 1939, nursery school was immediately suspended, and I stayed home until the following January, when my fifth birthday qualified me to attend infants’ school.

I have few distinct memories of those early years. Of some classes, I have but a single memory: of others, none at all. Yet, though the events have slipped out of my mind, the pain of alienation and oppression I felt remains distinct.

I should add that I did not suffer a lot of bullying. Most of the time I was merely treated with disdain, as though I was invisible. That was less painful than the physical bullying that I experienced from time to time. However, these episodes did not last long. Principally, because I usually collapsed in a heap before the onslaught. The ‘cave-in’ invariably ended the attack.

I was bullied by a variety of boys. Some of the smaller boys did so under the tacit approval of their bigger, more fearsome friends, who stood near in case I ever fought back. I never did. I do not recall suffering any serious injury other than loss of dignity in front of my peers, and the small death that occurred unseen and unheard inside me on these occasions. Many others suffered at the hands of the ferocious and bold who seem to have been regularly fed on raw meat, which is no small accomplishment in wartime.

To be fair, Derek Harrowby was not a regular bully, only an occasional one. It was a surprise, therefore, to find myself being pushed backwards through the school playground one lunchtime by this ginger-haired lad. Surrounded by bloodthirsty boys, calling to see my blood, he poked and prodded me into retreat until he had me trapped in front of the schoolhouse door.

Then, something inside me snapped. I will never forget his look of triumphant satisfaction as he exulted in his absolute power over me. Nor will I forget the look on his face when my fist shot out and bloodied his nose, felling him as if he were a sack of potatoes. His supporters were stunned onto silence. I was stunned into an angry tirade.

It was as if all the pent-up anger accumulated over the years by those times when I had been petrified and unable to frame any response to bullies, except either to flee from them, or to cower before them trembling with fear, unable even to raise enough voice to plead for mercy. Now, I vocalised loudly and eloquently. The savage mob that, only a second before, had bayed for my blood, fell silent, then evaporated, leaving my tormentor quite alone and sobbing on the ground. Dorothy had unmasked the Wizard!

It would not be fair to impute my dislike of red hair to this incident. Yet, what else to assign it to, I do not know but, from whatever cause, I did not like red hair, and that was undeniable.

Time passed, as time does, and I met and avoided several red headed people. Of them, I remember little except my natural disaffection. Then one day I met one who changed my attitude to red-haired people – or ginger nuts as they are commonly referred to in England – and who also changed my life.

My wife had gone into the maternity hospital deep in the heart of Hampshire’s New Forest, for the birth of our first child. The day she was born, I went to the hospital to see them both. After seeing my wife, who looked radiant in the way only new mothers can, I went to the baby unit where the new born were stored in serried ranks of cots, facing the viewing window like so many codlings on a fishmonger’s slab.

A nurse, whose face I did not see, carried a pink bundle to the door. I was not allowed to hold my daughter, but I could see two things that struck me. One was her absolutely beautiful face. You will understand that I am speaking without any special pleading or bias simply because she was mine. She was utterly adorable - although I have been blessed with other children, none was as beautiful as Andrea was. The second stunning thing was her hair. She had heaps of copper-coloured hair.

She was perfect and it was love at first sight!

How did I feel about her red hair? I loved it. My presuppositions and prejudices were swept away as suddenly and as completely as the West Wind of late autumn sweeps away the dry dead leaves of a forgotten summer in its sudden and deadly gusts. Come back Derek Harrowby! All is forgiven!

Since that time, I have loved red hair. I have also learned that particular characteristics are a poor foundation for character assessment. My prejudice had been exposed, tested, and forced into retirement and my life is the better for it.


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