“What’s the attraction of Mr Twonkey?” I asked Simon Jay this week.
“He says the most ridiculous things,” Simon told me, “in a very naturalistic, deadpan way and the detail of his fantasy world fits very well with the way my mind works. In fact, my partner says: It’s almost like someone has put your mind on stage. It’s the non-sequitur humour that I love – talking about a character that’s half witch/half accountant or the House of Cheese or the Wheel of Knickers. Very specific details and lots of stuff that comes from a really dark place, which I really respond to.”
Simon’s autobiography – Bastardography – was published this week.
The blurb reads:
Telling this story is important for not only a generation affected by mental health and sexuality issues, but also for anyone who has ever felt like an outsider looking in. Growing up with a Combat Stressed Naval Officer Father, a neurotic Mother who flosses her teeth with her hair and an extended family of alcoholic eccentrics is bad enough, especially on a rough South London estate in the 90s. But that is just the tip of the trashy iceberg. Life in such a place is barely tolerable if you tow the line, but Simon didn’t even know where the line was.
“Why call it Bastardograhy? I asked.
“Because I’m completely unflattering about everyone, including myself. It’s about how creativity kept me going – just writing and performing.
“I first went with my parents to a psychiatrist when I was thirteen or fourteen for ‘family therapy’ because I wasn’t sleeping and was up at 3 o’clock in the morning. This was before I ‘came out’. People like to re-write history and say Oh! It was because you were being bullied at school! But this was before that. I was already fucked-up.
“I ‘came out’ when I was 14, at a really rough all-boys school near Sutton in South London. Added to which, I was very mentally unbalanced as a child, which wasn’t treated until my late adolescence/early twenties when I started having breakdowns and going into hospital.”
“You ‘came out’ at 14??” I asked.
“I announced it in a history lesson,” replied Simon. “Well, I didn’t announce it… In an all-boys school, everyone is obsessed with everyone’s sexuality and, in this one lesson, this boy – the skinhead boy – was asking everyone if they were gay.”
“Why in a history lesson?” I asked.
“Because,” explained Simon, “they were going on about What if Hitler was gay…because there was this rumour that Hitler was gay and that’s why he committed genocide… So this skinhead boy went round the classroom and everyone was saying: No… No… No… No… and I said Yes, just because it was the truth and I didn’t really think about it. And then there was this massive backlash and it just spread. It was my first viral hit. There were 1,000 kids at that school. By the end of the week, everyone knew who I was. I was infamous already.”
“That sounds great if you’re a 14 year-old,” I said.
“Until they start beating you up,” Simon pointed out.
“What did the history teacher,” I asked, “say when the skinhead boy was asking everyone if they were gay?”
“He didn’t hear it. Teachers are oblivious to what students talk about.”
“So you were bullied at school for being gay,” I said.
“Most of it was verbal,” said Simon, “but there were times when stones were thrown at me, aerosols sprayed over me and they tried to set me on fire; it was very creative.”
“Tried to set you on fire?” I asked.
“There was a boy who sat behind me in the tutorial lesson and, one day, I could feel this wet at the back of my neck and a tschhhhhhh sound. And I thought: Why are they spraying an aerosol at the back of my head? and then I heard a match being struck. They lit the match while they were spraying the aerosol to make a little mini flame thrower. At the time, none of it seemed very remarkable. When you’re a teenager, you’re resilient; you’re invincible; you don’t feel threatened by…”
“…the miniature flame thrower?” I suggested.
“The worst one,” said Simon, “was having stones thrown at me. Big stones.”
“What happened when they used a flame thrower on you?” I asked. “It sounds like it might have had an effect.”
“Luckily, it just singed hair, because I moved out of the way in time.”
“There was teacher present?” I asked.
“They did nothing. Sometimes they laughed when I was bullied. Sometimes they purposely turned a blind eye and went out of the room. There was a Christian art teacher who liked to laugh at one boy who liked to revel in very gratuitous homophobic rhetoric. It was just fun for him.”
“You said you were mentally unbalanced as a child,” I said. “Isn’t everyone mentally unbalanced at 14?”
“To some extent,” agreed Simon, “But I was very withdrawn as a child and was obsessed with death and had existential crises.”
“That still sounds normal for a 14 year-old,” I said.
“It is normal – or maybe you’re just as weird as I am. No, it is normal, but I didn’t function very well and I wasn’t very happy and it progressed into adolescence.”
“What do you mean you didn’t function?”
“I didn’t interact with the world in a way that would ensure survival. I didn’t eat or sleep properly. Didn’t urinate properly – never urinated in the toilet, just in the bed. I was a very strange child in a very quiet, unassuming family.”
“Did you come out to your parents before or after you came out at school?”
“Six months later. I did that by letter. I left it on the kitchen table. Saying what had gone on for the last six months: that I had come out and I’d been bullied because of it. I was very passive. Once the other kids realised I wouldn’t fight back, they saw it as open season on me.
“I left secondary school after taking seven months of being bullied. Then they put me in a ‘special’ school when I was 15 for the rest of my secondary education and I failed all my GCSEs: I could do them, but I was completely detached. I was completely out of it, not in the real world any more. Completely separate from reality.”
“Drugs?” I asked.
“I started smoking,” said Simon, “but I’ve never really taken (recreational) drugs.”
“So you started smoking weed?” I asked.
“No, no. Cigarettes.”
“That’s bad,” I said. “Weed OK; nicotine bad. So why haven’t you taken recreational drugs?”
“Because my mum said: If you take drugs, you die. And I’ve always been frightened I’ll have some sort of seizure.
“Anyway, I flunked all my GCSEs, then I broke down and didn’t sleep for a couple of weeks and thought my parents were ghosts. I had a complete mental breakdown. So they popped me in the hospital – the psychiatric unit – and that was the beginning of my recovery, really.”
“They filled you full of uppers?” I asked.
“Oh yes. An anti-psychotic called olanzapine that makes you like a zombie.”
“But you weren’t seeing visions?” I asked.
“Vaguely seeing visions. I thought I was a woman at one point. I thought I had ovaries they were not telling me about. One thing that was not a vision was I had to have a Northern Irish male nurse scrub me down. But I was so fucked-up I couldn’t enjoy it.”
“Just scrubbing you down?” I asked.
“I had pissed myself. So I was covered in piss and they had to put me in a shower and I couldn’t wash myself, so they had to do it for me. But I wasn’t into it because I wasn’t there. That’s the most disappointing moment of that era: the lack of male nurse action.
“Then, as I was getting better, I went to college and did an access course which allowed me to go to university without having GCSEs. I was going to do drama, but I was 15 minutes late to be auditioned, so I did Media Studies instead – Screenwriting for Film & Television at Bournemouth.”
“At what point did you want to be a performer?” I asked. “All this mental stuff sounds like it’s pushing you towards performance.”
“I was a complete neurotic fuck-up,” agreed Simon, “until I got in front of people in a theatrical way and I was safe then: because I had control then.”
“When does the book finish?” I asked.
“Last year – 2014, when I had my last breakdown and finally recovered properly. I had a really bad breakdown in 2013 and nearly died.”
“It was almost like a mid-life crisis. Basically everything broke down. I think it was worse than the one I had when I was a teenager.”
“You’re still with the partner you met at university?”
“Yes. But I should say my book is not a misery memoir. It’s a very funny book. There are jokes on every page.”
“Did I tell you,” I asked, “that my blog has been nominated as the Funniest Blog in the UK?”
“Yes,” replied Simon.
“I am not convinced they have read it,” I said.