The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness review – trauma and bravery

The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness review – trauma and bravery

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Graham 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-to-please 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 somehow better to omit the “my” before “dad”, “mum” or “holiday”.

Emotionally homeless … Graham Caveney.



Emotionally homeless … Graham Caveney.

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, big-hearted 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.

Joe Moran’s Shrinking Violets: The Secret Life of Shyness is published by Profile. The Boy With the Perpetual Nervousness by Graham Caveney is published by Picador. To order a copy for £12.74 (RRP £14.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99



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