Were you awkward at school? I was…
At secondary school, I went through a terrible patch. Specially around girls.
I don’t think I’m unique, but that was no consolation.
At 14, I switched from sport to drama half-way through the school year.
This was partly because the boys doing sport were maniacs. When the teacher wasn’t watching, which happened a lot, they’d start playing this game called Punching Circle.
Very simple game: just punch the next person as hard as you can on the upper arm, and they in turn must punch the next person, until it has gone all the way round.
You mustn’t flinch when it’s your turn to take the blow. Otherwise you get punched again.
Like I said, it’s a simple game.
But my move from sport was also substantially motivated by the type of people I would be joining in drama: tons of girls.
Like a moth to a flame…
And drama turned out to be good for me. In so many ways.
But there was one excruciating moment towards the end of the year. The drama teacher sat us in a circle and asked what we’d got out of it…
“John, how did you think it went?”
(I hated people calling me John, instead of John-Paul or JP, but I’d given up correcting them.)
“All right,” I replied.
And then I went bright red.
And the more I thought about how embarrassed I was, the more embarrassed I became.
I was looking at the carpet, and I couldn’t help it but my mouth kept filling up with saliva so I had to keep swallowing, like I was scared.
And all the time the girls I liked were watching, quietly waiting for me to say something…
I thought I would die…
Then my eyes started to water.
Staring dimly at the carpet, and swallowing like a maniac, I wished I’d stayed in sport.
The thing about the nutters is, I knew how to behave: muck about, come up with evil tricks to play on each other, and throw insults.
Drama was different. Girls didn’t go in for that kind of thing.
After waiting for me to say something, and watching me go red and swallow all the time, the teacher said, “Are you feeling a little shy…?”
“No,” I said, and gulped some more.
I looked around to see if everyone was watching me. They were, but some of them looked away, to make me feel more comfortable. I didn’t look closely, just glanced, but I think that the girl I liked most, Siobhan, was staring at her hands and pretending she wasn’t watching.
When the lesson ended, and people started to leave the classroom, the teacher stood by the door and intercepted me.
He put his arms around me, hugged me.
I was astonished. I just stood there, taller than him, with my arms hanging down.
He said, “John, listen, you’re doing so much better now than when you started. Well done.”
He said it quietly, under his breath so nobody would hear.
But the thing is, everybody was staring at us…
He was a brilliant teacher, and years later I still massively value what he said.
This was just me, being weird.
But like I said, I’m hardly unique. And a lot of people remain socially awkward well into adulthood.
Certainly where some topics are concerned…
It’s as if talking about things we’ve not talked about before might actually kill us.
We get that scared.
And so we avoid certain conversations.
And the price we pay? We stop learning, and growing…
We become isolated.
That’s why there are sometimes big public campaigns, with prominent supporters, to get people talking about difficult topics, like mental health…
But this is not just about mental health. It’s bigger than any one topic.
And it’s not just individuals who have problems if we don’t talk to each other.
It affects society as a whole.
More and more, we’re cut off from people whose experience and ideas are different from ours…
Even “nice” people, who profess love for everybody, find themselves isolated in little bubbles of group-think.
The classic example of this is when groups of citizens, in an election, are stunned to find that large chunks of the population disagree with them.
When I was on the Financial Times, I was sent to Burnley, in the north of England, to interview some local councillors.
That doesn’t happen often: local councillors aren’t generally considered important enough for the FT magazine.
But these ones were different. They were the first in the UK to be elected as representatives of the British National Party.
More than 800 people in Burnley had voted in favour of a party hitherto regarded as neo-fascist.
I was sent to find out what was going on.
I met the leader of the BNP councillors at his corner shop, in a tidy village just outside Burnley.
He was a former soldier. Tough guy. He told me a bit about his life, revealing as he did so certain disappointments he’d experienced, and despite myself I found myself thinking differently about him.
Didn’t agree with his politics, but started to see him as a human being.
Not a mere type…
… not just “a bad guy”.
But there was still a definite tension between us. We both knew I hadn’t been sent to write an enthusiastic endorsement of the BNP.
I noticed that, as he spoke, he talked quite a lot about “the Asians”. He said they were getting preferential treatment, and told me what he was going to do about it.
I asked if he had ever met any Asians.
He said, Yes, loads of times, whenever he went into town.
(There weren’t any in his tidy little village.)
I asked if, when he was in town, he ever went to the “Asian area”.
He wasn’t an idiot. He saw a trap.
For a moment I watched him struggle: cautious politician v bold ex-military. The tough former soldier came out top:
“I’m happy to… Any time.”
I said, Yes please. Can we go now?
And off we went.
It was a Friday evening. In the so-called Asian area, lots of young men were gathered around what looked like the front door of a shop.
But it wasn’t a shop, It was a mosque.
I asked, Have you ever been in a mosque…?
“I’m happy to.”
And we wandered over…
On the next page, I’ll tell you what happened next.
But before that, I want to make clear that the difficulties we experience with conversation aren’t all about dealing with people who are “not like us”.
Even in our own families, we can find it hard to talk about some things.
Recently, I interviewed another tough guy, the adventurer Joe Simpson. Joe was left for dead on a mountainside, years ago, and wrote about it in a book, Touching The Void, that became a massive best-seller, and a film.
We were talking about Joe’s father, a war hero. He told me a story about how the two of them communicated.
It’s a warning to us all.
Watch it now, before you read on, because the rest won’t make sense otherwise:
5 mins 21 seconds