Tom Shakespeare

“In nature there’s no blemish but the mind:
None can be called deformed but the unkind.
Virtue is beauty”
Twelfth Night

I am standing in a damp car park in Gateshead, with a black bin bag bursting with old clothes. I am trying to feed the pieces of clothing into the opening of an Oxfam clothes recycling bin. A Swiss journalist is standing next to me, looking bemused. My problem is that I am only four foot five inches tall, and I am having to stand on the tips of my toes to reach the slot, and the bag is heavy, and it’s really quite difficult to stuff bulky garments into a opening not much bigger than a letter box.

“Can I help you, please?”

Although he offers politely, the journalist does not understand why I am bothering to recycle garments which are unlikely to be of use to anyone else. After all, I have already explained to him that only one in about twenty thousand people are born with dwarfism. So who else is going to find these suits and jackets and sweaters useful?

Reto is a freelance writer, and he is spending several days with me in order to research a profile which he will publish in the Sunday supplement of Die Neue Zuriche Zeitung, which he assures me is a very prestigious Swiss magazine. Later, the same article will be reprinted in Die Zeit, the leading newspaper in Germany. Several of the German research scientists at the Institute of Human Genetics where I work will read the article, and forever afterwards will look at me differently. At the time, not able to read the language, I imagine it is because of the honour of being featured in an important paper. Later someone explains that Reto has included the clothing incident in the profile, and I realise I have achieved minor notoriety across the German speaking world as a typical English eccentric.

“Yes, Reto. Could you please help me get rid of these clothes?”

Like many adolescents, clothes were a point of conflict in my relationship with my parents. At boarding school, there was a prescribed uniform: flannel trousers, a sports jacket, shirt and tie. It was the same outfit that my father had worn as a pupil, forty years previously, right up to the black gown which to this day flaps around the shoulders of six hundred teenage boys to mark them out as the inheritors of a 150 year tradition of academic excellence, Anglo-Catholicism and privilege at Radley College. As one pupil said, when punished for not wearing it, the only point of having a gown as part of the uniform was to highlight those who were unwilling to cooperate with such an anachronistic regime.

Outside school, and after I went to University, I was as scruffy as any of my contemporaries, which was considerably more down-at-heel than my parents thought fit. However, unlike most of my friends, I was locked into an uneasy dependency with a mother whom I relied upon to alter the sleeves and legs of all my garments. If you have restricted growth you find nothing ready-to-wear apart from undergarments. Children’s clothes are too small, and menswear is too big, and women’s wear bulges in the wrong places. Going shopping for clothes involves the humiliation of trying on garments where the cuffs flap about six inches below the ends of your fingers, or you trip over the trouser legs walking to the mirror. A feat of imagination is required to see what the outfit might look like, after several hours of painstaking work with a needle and thread, by which time it will be too late to return clothes which you now realise may not be helping you look your best. As you try to make up your mind, the latest chart hits thump out across the store, and a supercilious shop assistant makes you feel as if you have no right coming into the premises with such an unprepossessing body shape. That is, if they take any notice of you at all. And let’s not even talk about the shoes.

In the 1940s, when my father went to school, nobody from his background would get clothes off the peg. He and his school friend Scottie would be taken to Billings and Jennings in Mayfair to get their jackets and trousers made to measure. Because everything was bespoke, it was not a problem that he was about 18 inches shorter than his friend, or that his achondroplastic backside protruded. Measurements were taken, discreet adjustments were made to the pattern, and my father emerged as a well turned out as any of his friends at school, university or medical school.

Clothes were a mark of belonging for my father. His life history was written across his tie rack: Radley College; Clare College, Cambridge; Leander Club and the MCC. Every day of his working life he wore a suit, the uniform of a general practitioner. He was indistinguishable from any doctor of the old school, except in his height. He had hand-knitted sweaters and corduroy trousers for weekends and gardening – never jeans – but even on holiday he almost always wore a jacket.

While my father always dressed correctly, adopting clothes which made his difference less dramatic, it would be stretching the point to describe him as smart. In other ways, he was oblivious to his appearance. He kept wearing his suits and sports jackets until they had almost worn out, with splitting seams and threadbare cuffs. My mother maintained a constant vigilance, to ensure he wasn’t going to the best occasions in the worst suit. But there was one exception to Dad’s tendency to shabbiness. Throughout his life, he always kept his shoes shined. On Sunday mornings, before church, he would get out the tin of polish, and line up our shoes on a sheet of newspaper. Things like that were important to him. When now, sadly more intermittently, I polish my shoes, I always think of my father.

When he came down from Clare College in June 1950, William almost immediately started work at London Brick as a management trainee. The job was arranged by his father, who was on the Board of Directors. I suspect that William did not have much say in the matter. My grandfather Geoffrey had low expectations of his disabled son. He didn’t want William to over-stretch himself or risk failure. But he did want him to get out and earn his own living.

William was in a period of indecision. During his final year at Cambridge, both his sister and his mother had died. After the strain of this double bereavement, he graduated with a third class degree. He did not know what to do with his life, and he could offer no alternative to his father’s plan. So he started at the bottom, learning how bricks were made at factories around Bedford, while living in lodgings in Ampthill. He enjoyed the fellowship with other employees, particularly sharing a few pints after work. But although he made friends, he hated the job, finding industry dull and uninspiring.

I don’t know why my father decided to opt for a career in medicine. His first degree was in Natural Sciences, specialising in Botany. Two of his uncles were doctors and this may have been a formative influence. His best friend Scottie told me that he thought William had worked it out rationally, and was determined to succeed in his chosen path: “I think he felt that this was one way in which he could repay people for how easy they had made his life up to that point, how they’d accepted him… I think he had this feeling that he wanted to do what he considered a useful occupation for people as a whole, which he never felt he was going to do in industry. I think his motives were very pure and very high in that respect.”

My father spent the Christmas of 1950 with his Uncle Bill and Aunt Ruth in Malvern, where Uncle Bill – the first Dr William Shakespeare – practised medicine rather haphazardly and often the worse for drink. Shortly afterwards, William decided to return to Clare for two additional years, to complete the necessary training to become a doctor. It was a tough choice, and a big risk. My grandfather was strongly opposed to the idea. Geoffrey tried to discourage him, both because he underestimated Dad’s chance of success, but also because he lacked the money to support his son through further study. But the sudden death of my grandmother Aimée in February 1950 left William with an inheritance which gave him the financial independence to return to college. The tragedy of his mother’s stroke opened the way to my father fulfilling his vocation.

William’s early education had been interrupted because of his disability, and he was never a natural scholar. Lodging at his paternal grandmother’s house in Gonville Place, Cambridge, he studied hard, cramming a three-year medical course into two years. He only took time out to read his father’s memoirs aloud to Granny Amy, page by page, through her ear trumpet. This book, Let Candles Be Brought In, was a revered volume in my childhood. But when later I read it as a teenager, I was surprised to discover that never once did my grandfather refer to his son’s restricted growth.

After scraping through his exams, William went on to St George’s, Hyde Park Corner. It was there that his Uncle Jack, the most brilliant and best loved of the four Shakespeare siblings, had studied medicine, only to die in his thirties from testicular cancer, while still a houseman. My father patiently overcame every hurdle, and exceeded all expectations. When it was his turn to examine patients or to perform surgery he stood on a wooden box. After his death, I found a folder of correspondence about his return to Clare, and his progress through various training posts at St George’s, Hyde Park Corner, at Windsor Hospital and at Tite Street Hospital for Children. It is striking that his disability was never once mentioned. Perhaps it was even an advantage in his chosen specialism, paediatrics. Because of his size, children found him not frightening but fascinating:

“Where’s our little doctor?” they chanted at Tite Street, “we want our little doctor!”

My father never became a consultant paediatrician. He worked too hard and travelled too much, and struggled with study, and never got the necessary Membership qualification. But in every other respect he succeeded. After my birth, he spent a year in Barbados, in practice with a local doctor who also had a young son with restricted growth. Returning to England, my father started work as a general practitioner in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. For twenty-five years, he was a hard-working doctor, devoted husband, and proud father to me and my younger brother James. During the 1970s, he served on the Snowden Committee on the Integration of the Handicapped. He was invited to become patron of several voluntary organisations concerned with disability. He was medical advisor to the Buckinghamshire Adoption Committee. Every Sunday, he went to church. Most years he attended school and college reunions.

My father’s remarkable achievement in life was to be normal. His regular clothing and his shiny shoes were part of proving that disability did not need to make a difference. They were a kind of camouflage. By force of character and hard work, he managed to succeed as a doctor, in an era where there were very few disabled people in the medical profession, or in any other area of public life for that matter.

But it took me a long time to appreciate my father’s success. As a teenager, I found his conventional way of life rather suburban and dull. Though it shames me to admit it now, I made no secret of this opinion. School offered me friends, intellectual stimulation, art and culture. Home meant boredom. My parents spent most evenings watching the television. They went to the theatre once a year, to see a Shakespeare play at Stratford. The only time they went to the cinema was when a new James Bond film was released. I mocked my father’s ignorance, and attitudes, and his sentimentality. He thought heavy metal records were made from lead! He voted Conservative! He wept at Crocodile Dundee! I did not notice the long hours he worked, and his dedication to creating a good life for his children.

Where my father was quiet and dignified, my mother was forceful and loud. Her role was to husband the money and ensure that her family were properly fed and well turned out. So my teenage arguments, which often concerned clothing, were with her, not my father. My mother’s philosophy was that disabled people should not draw attention to themselves. As far as she was concerned, it was bad enough that I was short, without making myself into a public spectacle by having spiked hair, or earrings, or flamboyant clothes. She would far rather that I wore smart trousers, not torn jeans; jacket and tie, not a torn tee-shirt with a provocative slogan. Shoes should be sensible; shirts tucked in; hair brushed. She wanted, as far as possible, to make me invisible. If I was to be noticed, I must be well turned out. My father did not dissent from her strategy. After all, it was the same approach that he took to clothing. Moreover, for over twenty years he’d been aware that a quiet life depended on concurring with Sue’s rulings on domestic matters.

But I wasn’t my father. To me, clothes and haircuts were statements of difference, not opportunities for conformity. A quiet life was the last thing I wanted. If people were going to stare at me anyway, I would give them a good reason to look. My Doc Martins, monkey boots and donkey jacket were statements of radical affiliation with the working class, expressions of the sort of social alienation which was second nature in the 1980s for doctors’ sons from the Home Counties who were concerned about the Nicaraguan revolution, the miners’ strike and Cruise missiles. While my father had maintained his account with the Barclays Bank nearest to his parents’ former home for nearly fifty years, I joined sit-ins at the Cambridge branch each Saturday morning singing anti-apartheid freedom songs with my student comrades.

I’d originally wanted to become a doctor, but my father discouraged me, and eventually I became an academic. He approved of that, dreaming that I would end up a Fellow at a Cambridge college, but instead I ended up teaching sociology at the University of Sunderland to mature students. Whereas he spent his life trying to make people better, I taught courses on the sociology of health and illness. I deconstructed the medical gaze. I dissected the doctor-patient relationship. I deployed the latest French social theory to what I thought was devastating effect. As far as I and my colleagues were concerned, most of the diseases Dad was trying to cure were socially constructed anyway.

Unlike doctors, sociology lecturers at former polytechnics do not have a dress code. The uniform, such as it is, would be more likely to involve polo necks and leather jackets than suit, tie and polished shoes. Sometimes, I went to work in a football strip, which was admittedly irresponsible. Wearing a Newcastle United shirt to lecture a class of Wearsiders was provocative in the extreme, and the distraction I caused hindered the educational prospects of more than one of my students.


* * * * *


Perhaps my father was being unrealistic, in planning his Atlantic crossing at the age of 68. By then, he had been having heart problems for at least a decade. It had all begun because of his difficulty walking. This is a common problem for people with restricted growth. Our vertebrae are constricted, and the pressure on the spinal cord causes neurological problems. My father eventually had a spinal decompression operation at the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore in his early fifties. He’d had pains and numbness in his back and legs for many years, and now he was beginning to lose control of his bladder. In spinal terms, the operation was a success. But the surgery must have thrown off blood clots, which damaged his heart. He may already have had a weakened heart, because of a bout of pneumonia he had suffered in his thirties. After several heart scares, early retirement and a quieter life seemed to be the solution.

In booking his cruise to the West Indies by banana boat, perhaps my father had forgotten that unlike a luxury liner, there was no elevator, just interminable corridors and steep stairways. Within a day of departure, he became very poorly. He was travelling with David, whom he’d known since Clare College and St Georges, who became so alarmed by his best friend’s declining health that he insisted on William’s evacuation to a hospital on the mainland. They were still in British waters, and a Sea King helicopter was called to winch my father off the ship. Realising the seriousness of the situation, David made sure that the pilot knew to take William to Papworth Hospital in Cambridgeshire, rather than to the nearest general hospital.

When I was told of the situation, I was more impressed by the drama of the air sea rescue than anxious about Dad’s condition. After all he had experienced several bouts of heart failure before. The news from Papworth was that he needed an operation to repair an incompetent mitral valve, apparently a fairly routine procedure. But when I visited him in hospital, I began to realise that things were more serious than I had thought. I had came down to Cambridge to visit him, it was a Tuesday, and his operation was due in a few days. My mother met me at the station. She had been spending every day by his hospital bed.. As I walked along the corridors to his room, I noticed that since I’d last visited, hospitals had become like shopping malls, We walked past fast food outlets, florists, stationery, even an estate agent’s office.

My father looked very small and pale in his high hospital bed. His familiar pyjamas seemed incongruous in the unfamiliar setting. The room was crowded with oxygen cylinders, chairs, flowers, and medical equipment. I could see how my mother had already colonised the place – a box of tissues, a tube of hand cream, a comb, some leaflets from the church. My father smiled weakly at me, and I felt glad I’d made the effort to come. We sat around the bed, and I told him my news. My daughter Ivy had successfully made the transition to secondary school. I’d been in my new job at Leeds University for a couple of months, and I explained about my research plans. After ten minutes, my mother suddenly remembered that she needed to fetch something from the car, and left us alone.

The moment she left the room, the atmosphere changed.. My father beckoned me towards him, and I moved to his side.

“We need to talk about what to do if I don’t survive the operation”

I was horrified. I listened to what he wanted me to know, what he wanted me to do if he died. I had never seen my father frightened before, and I tried to reassure him, while feeling panicky myself. A few minutes later, my mother came into the room, carrying a jug filled with flowers. Immediately, she realised that she’d interrupted something important. She looked anxiously at us both.

My father brushed off her concern, and we started talking about his memoirs. It was a project that he had begun a few years earlier. He had carefully dictated each chapter onto a Dictaphone tape, and a lady who had been his secretary at the health centre had typed the pages up for him. I had recently read the first draft. I told him that I felt it was good material, but it needed some editing. It was frustrating that he said so little about his feelings, and about what it had been like to grow up with restricted growth. After all, he had been one of the first disabled people in Britain to become a doctor. This, I thought, was the unique selling point of his memoir. Readers would be more interested in finding out about disability than in hearing about all the famous people he or my grandfather had known. For me, it was an opportunity to hear his story for myself. I wanted to know how he dealt with people staring at him. I wanted to know more about his relationship with his parents. I wanted to know whether he had had the same existential crises as I had had in my teenage years, none of which we’d ever talked about.

I promised to spend time with him to expand this aspect of the book. I talked eagerly about his recuperation from the operation. When he was well enough to leave hospital, we would both go to the family cottage in Norfolk. I could look after him and cook him meals, and we would work on the book together. I was very enthusiastic about the idea. For the first time in years, the two of us would be able to spend some quality time together. I had been busy starting a family, moving hundreds of miles to Tyneside, and there had been no time for visits to Aylesbury. I envied the closeness that my brother had with my father. Perhaps the book would be something we could share, something that would bring us together again.

At first, the operation went fine. My father was recovering at Papworth. But then there were complications: he was too weak, he should have had the mitral valve operation years before. He began to have difficulties breathing, and his heart was under renewed strain. On March 12th 1996, I was woken by a phone call at 640am. It was my mother. She had just received a call from the hospital. My father had died that morning. He was sixty eight years old. It was exactly the same day on which his paternal grandfather had died, back in 1928.

It was a complete shock. None of us had expected him to die. My grief was mixed with incredulity, and bitterness at hospitals, and the feeling that it had all been a preventable accident. Everything felt dreamy, as if I was participating in a work of fiction. I felt angry with my father for dying. Within the next weeks, I began to feel anger at myself, for letting us become strangers in recent years. Above all, I was furious that now I was to be denied the time to get to know my father better. I wanted to get close to him, and feel a bond. I had all the right intentions, only now it was too late to be interested in him. There was nothing more to say, no chance of a second chance. For once, it was not the idea of my own mortality that bothered me, it was the reality of my father’s.

My father was buried at Burnham Thorpe, the small village in Norfolk where my parents had bought a holiday cottage, to which my father had hoped to retire. In death, he returned to the county where his grandfather had been a minister, and his father had been an MP, the district where he had enjoyed childhood holidays by the sea, the place to which he’d hoped to retired in his old age.

We had arranged to see my father’s body on the night before the funeral. The undertaker was based in a former car showroom. 1950s petrol pumps still stood outside the single storey building, but the plate glass windows were curtained. We were ushered to a side room, which at one stage must have been the managers office, but was now kept chilled, an open coffin standing ready for us. I had never seen a dead body before, and I was shocked to see one now. My father’s skin was yellow, and his face had shrunk away almost unrecognisably. It seemed as if we were being shown the wrong corpse. He was dressed in a white shroud, like the surplice which he had worn as a chorister at school. Despite his restricted growth, it was a full sized coffin. We stood for a few moments in silence, cold flesh making death irrefutable where before it had seemed like a bad dream. When we spoke, the chill condensed the vapour of our breath between us. Before leaving, I dared myself to kiss his clammy cheek.

Late that night I lay awake in the unfamiliar bed. The house was quiet, the others had fallen asleep, exhausted with the emotions of bereavement. No cars passed in the dark village. I missed the noise of Northern cities, and I felt alone, as if I had reached the front of a queue and that only blackness stretched before me. As I lay in the narrow single bed, listening to my own breathing, I felt a presence in the dark. For a few moments it seemed as if there was someone else there. Whether because of heightened emotion or vivid imagination, it felt strongly to me that my father was with us in spirit, present in the house as he always was on family occasions: quiet and consoling. The idea gave me a feeling not of terror, but of comfort. For the first time I felt as if relationships could continue across that silent frontier. I missed him then, and ten years on I miss him still, but there’s also a sense in which he never left. I know what he would think of my work, my relationships, the pride he would take in my achievements, like a Chorus offstage from the drama.

My father and I had our stature in common, a biological bond which we rarely discussed but which separated us from my mother and my brother. Whenever we met, I subconsciously measured myself against him to see if I had reached my final height, or to check that I wasn’t overweight. On the weekend of his funeral, I used his overcoat and walking stick. Grief seemed to make me unsteady on my feet, or perhaps it was that I suddenly felt far older than thirty. My mother had already passed on to me his signet ring. The band of gold was set with a lapis lazuli stone engraved with the Shakespeare crest. Nigel, his half-brother, gave it to him for his twenty first birthday. The ring was too big for my finger, so later she took it back to a jewellers to be made smaller.

Now Dad was dead, I also inherited all his clothes. His suits had been specially tailored so that no one else could wear them. And my mother hates to waste anything. Which is why one day, I realised that I was standing in a dead man’s shoes. Not just his shoes, but his jacket, trousers, tie and overcoat as well. No wonder that when I met people who hadn’t seen my father for decades, they sometimes mistook me for him. In an instant, I went from being an untidy academic, to being the owner of not one but two dinner jackets (plus a white version for the tropics) and a morning suit (which came in useful for my brother’s wedding the following year) and several other suits and jackets. Best of all, was the double breasted pinstripe. It’s a sharp, stylish outfit. People say it makes me look a Mafiosi. A very small Mafiosi. The boxy style of the suit is very fashionable of course. Things come around, if you wait long enough. Once, I sat next to an editor of Vogue at a dinner at the Royal Institution, and she told me so herself. I felt ten foot tall.

Now that I had left my twenties, I discovered that I enjoyed wearing a suit. Throughout my school days, it had been a chore to turn out smart, because it was expected of me. But now it became fun to dress up. Because everyone expected me to be informal, people are always surprised and impressed if I arrive at an event or a lecture in a suit. Formality becomes another way to subvert expectations. For me, it is like fancy dress, or playing a role. When I wear a suit, particularly the double-breasted pinstripe suit which is my favourite, it is slightly ironic. I want to say, look at me! I can do this, too! But although I take more pleasure in my appearance, in my heart I don’t believe it’s really important. Clothes don’t make the man.

When the pinstripe suit wore out, I had it copied, exactly, by my tailor Bernard. I like having my own tailor. But we’re not talking Saville Row. He works for a theatrical costumier in Leeds. Most of the time, he makes outfits for amateur theatricals and fancy dress balls and even pantomimes. Because he isn’t a bespoke tailor, he charges rock bottom prices for suits for people like me. The word is out in the restricted growth community, and a steady stream of four foot something professionals traipse through the wardrobe rooms to his workshop, to be measured for suits and blazers, jackets and trousers. Which is odd, really. Because the theatre people go to get clothes to make them stand out, and become someone else. Whereas the restricted growth crowd go to get clothes to help them fit in, to make looking themselves look normal. The cloned version of the suit is not as good as the original, which is not Bernard’s fault. They made things to last, back then. It’s quality cloth. After forty years, only now it’s fraying, the seams are splitting. I don’t want to let it go, I would like to keep on wearing it until it falls apart around me.

I can’t imagine I’ll ever throw away the pinstripe, even if I only ever wear the modern copy. It feels like a last link to the past. But there were problems with some of my father’s other clothes. Several of the jackets did not quite fit me. As my father aged, his back became very crooked. One shoulder ended up higher than the other. Although I’m far from straight and erect, I’m less bent than my dad, and so the suits made later in his life did not sit properly on my shoulders. Fashion, as well as fit, made me reject several items. One year, at the Restricted Growth Association annual convention, I learned from a colour consultant that yellows and tweeds and pastels did not suit the complexion I had inherited from my mother: I knew that my father’s sports jackets would have to go.

I am not good at throwing things away. My mother is a hoarder, and I have inherited the same tendency. Discarding is never easy, but I found that junking the property of a dead father was a different order of decision. All the books and programmes on life laundry counsel ruthlessness and austerity, but binning someone’s possessions feels like discarding their life. A decade after his death, my mother is still only reluctantly disposing of my father’s papers and books and clothes. We sort through piles together when I visit. It’s easy to throw away things without emotional value – letters about cars and insurance policies – but we linger over anything which bears the mark of his personality.

And so here I am, standing with my black bin bag full of unwanted clothes, ten years on from my father’s death. Not just my father’s old suits and threadbare trousers and drastically unfashionable knitwear, but also a cupboard full of worn out tee-shirts, strident relics of my student days, and dungarees that I can’t believe I ever wore, and a donkey jacket. It wasn’t that I thought anyone else would wear them. I was not as naïve as all that. But I thought, I hoped, that perhaps they could be pulled apart and the fibres recycled. Wasn’t that what Oxfam did with old garments? These clothes represented my history, and my father’s history before me. I wanted them to live on, not end up in landfill or incinerator. Continuity matters.