Stephen Fry’s story
I must have been 4 or 5 years old when a young woman came to visit our home. I didn’t know who she was and I can’t remember how long she stayed, but during her stay I learnt that she was my mother.
My grandparents had saved me from adoption as a baby and I had always thought that they were my parents. I hadn’t questioned it when, at the age of 2, a brother arrived – he too was this strangers’ child. She had been only about 15 years old when she had given birth to me. She flitted in and out of our home for the rest of my life and I remember that she battered the two of us when she was there, usually leaving after a row with my Nan.
Nan and Grampy were loving, hard-working people. My Nan worked for a firm of solicitors in Cardiff and my granddad worked in a bakery. He had had his hand blasted off by a grenade in the war, but being the great man he was, it never got in the way of his work ethic. We lived in a good part of the city with a lovely home and surroundings.
Stigma – The outsider
Back in the 50’s to be born illegitimately was a total disgrace and the entire neighbourhood knew that I was a ‘bastard’ and regularly shouted the title at me. The locals would bash me round the head and call me names. I couldn’t go to Cadets or Sunday school because of the stigma of my birth.
Nan was a regular churchgoer but that was not enough to overcome the bias. I was excluded from main-stream school because of my illegitimacy – you can’t have ‘normal’ kids mix with the likes of me. Instead I attended a special school for children with mental, physical and learning difficulties. School was a nightmare.
Violence – A way of life
The beatings from the other pupils came thick and fast, violence seemed a way of life and before long I was holding my own, and soon I became a hardened fighter. It was the teachers that were so cruel, unable to fight back I got regularly belted with a gym rope with a knot in it and once a teacher punched me so hard in the back of the head with a knuckle-duster on his hand that I fell to the ground and passed out.
My Nan would go to the school and complain but it made no difference. It was a different time; social services, helplines and the like were non-existent, besides who’d listen to an illegitimate kid like me anyway. I dreaded each day because I didn’t want to go to school but Nan insisted and marched me to the gates every day. I would start to walk in and then as soon as backs were turned, I would run away for the day.
Rebellion and gangs
During this time I started stealing food at lunchtime because I had no money and couldn’t sneak home. I am so glad to see all the help there is available for children today, keeping quiet is what was expected of you back then, but I know the scars of keeping these things to yourself.
When I was about 10 or 11 years old I had my first drink. I had fallen in with a gang of boys called the ‘Cathay’s’ gang. I was by far the youngest member and I had to drink and steal to be accepted. It was a harsh reality of crime and violence, one older member even tried to rape me. Despite the cruelty of the gang world it was the one place I felt I belonged.
It wasn’t long before I was filling the shoes of the ‘bastard’ I was told I was. I didn’t particularly like the taste or the buzz of the alcohol at that time, but I felt a stronger sense of belonging with each sip. I started to find that drinking gave me something to hide behind – it became my escape from reality.
When I was 10 the older gang members put me through a gap in the window of a bakery, so that I could open the door for them. My Nan found out and was furious, she hadn’t had the easiest time bringing up us kids, this may have been the first time she knew about my crimes, but even her disapproval didn’t make it the last.
I was about 13 when I had my first proper run-in with the law. I spent a night in the cells but really can’t remember what I’d done that time. I had probation officers and cautions but none of it seemed to make any difference.
I spent eight weeks of a three month sentence in a detention centre when I was 13 or 14 and although I endured the usual battering from inmates and staff I used the time to build up my fitness and strength in the gym. It was during this stint ‘inside’ that something changed within me.
When I got out I was straight round to the nearest off license and I started to hatch a plan for revenge. I was so full of anger and I was determined to get my own back on all the people who had hurt me as I grew up. The next few years were a haze of drinking and fighting and trouble. In and out of prison but always straight back to the pub or off license as soon as I was released.
A turning point in my life came when I was 16. I broke into a closed night-club with a friend and we drank it dry. We were woken the next morning by the owner, a retired professional boxer who was not impressed with what we had done.
We got talking and it turned out that my Mum worked for him and instead of getting the police involved he offered me a job on the doors of the club. My life still involved a lot of alcohol and I could drink all I liked in the club.
I worked hard though and was promoted up to head doorman. I took to the role like a duck to water, using my physical strength and determination on the right side of the law. This club was one of many owned by the same company and I later worked in several other locations including Majorca.
The owners asked for my ideas and opinions and actually listened to what I had to say, this was the first time people seemed to respect me for more than my ‘hardened exterior’ and gradually my confidence grew, but all the while I continued drinking heavily – it was my mask. It dulled the memories I wanted to forget; it helped give me enough bravado to feel I was Ok, when inside I still felt like a no-body.
The ‘high’ life
Through contacts I made on this job I got asked to do close protection work. I did courses, worked hard and qualified well. My close protection work involved protecting celebrities. I worked with many famous names including Robbie Coltrane, Richard Harris, Kylie, Tom Jones, Robbie Williams, Charlotte Church and her mum to name just a few. I was happier than I had ever been and although I did still binge drank from time to time when the old me took the shine off my new world, I didn’t drink as much as I had done.
When I was approached to do a different kind of security work, I thought why not? I was not sure exactly what this would involve but was sent on more courses and then offered work on film sets for Warner Brothers.
I worked at Leavesden Studios in Watford on the Harry Potter 1 film. I was an outsider at first but soon I was accepted by all the crew and the actors. I went on to work on Harry Potter 2 in Ipswich. I still drank nearly every night. I suppose you could say I had no confidence of my own so I sought it from other people, I found strength first in my ‘hard-man’ reputation, next as my role as a doorman, later I got it from the hard work I was doing, but nothing gave me the inner validation, to me I was still the ‘bastard’ kid. That is why I always took comfort from the bottle.
I had earned lots of money, met loads of famous people, drove nice cars and wore nice clothes… but I was still unfulfilled. I knew that if I wanted to change my life I must change my location and I bought a house in the Welsh Valleys. I did further training and became head of security on Ariva trains.
I really came a long way from the criminal adolescent that left school illiterate. Being on my own and facing my own problems away from the people who expected me to be the man I used to be; the drinker, the player- away from this I could learn who I really was.
I could actually start to be free from the traits forced upon me by others, the traits I grew into and wore for so long. So I gave up working with the stars, but I gained something far more, I gained the time to heal, a new prospective and a new life. It was only when I had done this that I could start to let go of drink as a crutch.
I now live a relatively quiet life in my home in the Valleys and although I drink occasionally, I do it only when it is enjoyable, only with friends to enhance an evening, not to escape anymore. I have learned a great deal about myself, built up some self-esteem and realize that I am not worthless and that I am worthy of respect just because I am me.
I hate the bully-boy criminal I had become and am so glad I made the changes in my life that were necessary to put my past behavior behind me. My Mum calls me a couple of times a year and my Nan who was the biggest force in my life has passed on now but I would like to think that she would be proud of what I eventually achieved. At the age of 52 I can finally say I have stopped running!
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