The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness

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With wry wit, vivid observational clarity and self-depreciating put downs, Caveney tells of the loves and let downs, the highs and the hangovers of growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He tells of the enthusiasms his teenage self-discovered: The Fall, Satre, Marx, The Pretenders, Shelley, socialism, Tom Robinson, Paul Foot, The Feelies, Tony Cliff, Orange Juice, Oscar Wilde, Patti Smith and many more surprisingly familiar cultural and political landmarks are enjoyed as he seeks to create an identity.

Yet Graham Caveney had his familiar teenage mix of arrogance, awkwardness, rebellion and idealism wrecked by years of sexual abuse at the hands of his priest, who was also his headmaster. Father Kevin O’Neill, or “Rev Kev” as the boys in his care called him, a charismatically cool character who grooms Graham with literature, music, alcohol and attention, before regularly abusing him.

Caveney uses brutal, honest language to describe what happens to him; euphemisms may protect our sensibilities, but won’t help us understand the truth. However, Caveney fears that the words don’t exist to fully express his experiences, and if he can’t explain it to himself, what chance has he got of getting anyone else to understand? “How do you disclose your secrets to someone when your secrets are so shameful they remain a secret to yourself?”

So he certainly doesn’t blame his “respectable working class” parents for not protecting him. When they saw him being marked out for special attention, helping him become the first member of the family headed for university, they were proud of their son and grateful to his abuser, having no idea what was going on. The only person he dared disclose to was Sara, a slightly older member of Accrington SWP, who befriended him. Though sympathetic, even she couldn’t really understand.

When he finally reported the abuse to the Catholic church years later, Rev Kev wasn’t handed over to the police or even disowned. This was despite the fact that he admitted his guilt, trying to ameliorate it with the glib retort “it takes two to tango!” In a cruel twist of blinkered incomprehension, he even had a new performing arts building at the school named after him.

Some of this narrative made me feel physically sick. And I felt doubly sick when I remembered that this is a true story, and even worse when I remembered that these sort of attacks are still going on regularly around the world.

Despite this, I enjoyed the book. It’s well written, full of good humour and astute observations about 1980s youth culture, all with a left wing twist. And it ends with a hint of hope.

Throughout the book Caveney addresses Rev Kev directly, hoping to forge for himself some sort of closure. I desperately hope this helps.

However, nothing can bring back the lost childhood and ruined dreams, nor repair the enduring damage that led to deep psychological problems, nervous breakdowns, failed relationships, panic attacks, and drink and drugs dependencies.

Ultimately, it is only a change in the way society is organised that can banish this type of life-destroying abuse of power. At the time the teenage Caveney may have thought this comment from his friend, SWP member Gary, a bit glib, but his experiences reinforce the point, powerfully and painfully:

“Our society is organised violently or has violence at its core. All of our transactions and interactions are conducted from a place of inequality, which means that there is someone who has got the power, and someone who hasn’t.”