Page last updated at 14:25 GMT, Friday, 11 September 2009 15:25 UK

My life as a bully

A boy at school who studied hard was singled out for abuse from classmates, recalls Laurie Taylor in his weekly column. But who had the last laugh?

"Please sir. Please sir. Please sir. Me, sir. Me. Me sir."

Grange Hill bully Gripper Stebson
Can clever pupils ever be popular?

Whenever McNulty got as anxious as this to answer a question in class, whenever he started calling out and waving his arms in the air to attract the teacher's attention, the rest of us in the lower-fifth at St Mary's would do our utmost to thwart him.

The boys in the front rows would try to obscure his waving hands by raising their desk lids while the rest of us would start up a low moaning noise in an attempt to drown out his voice or would all raise our hands simultaneously so as to suggest that there was nothing at all special about his knowing the answer to this particular question. Look. We all know it.

If McNulty was eventually selected by the teacher to answer the question then he might well find that he had to do so from a desk that as the result of successive toe-punts from the boys who sat alongside him, was now positioned in the middle of the aisle that ran between the other rows.

Neither was it unusual for McNulty to find, after he'd briefly stood up to answer the question, that his desk had been moved away from under him as he spoke and had to be retrieved from the clutches of a neighbouring boy.

It was, however, Riley who devised the most subtle means of humiliating McNulty. It was he who organised the mass removal of more than 200 books from the library which a willing group of volunteers then stacked before the first class of the day upon McNulty's desk so that the unhappy boy was compelled to stand beside the monstrous pile and try to explain his predicament.

Laurie Taylor
Hear Laurie Taylor's Thinking Allowed on Radio 4 at 1600 on Wednesdays or 0015 on Mondays
Or listen to it here on the iPlayer

"He likes reading so much, sir, that he's stolen the whole library," Riley said helpfully to whoops of laughter from the rest of us.

There were other minor japes, like putting Tizer in his ink-well, plastic dog turds in his pencil drawer, and itching powder in his gym shorts, but nothing quite beat the morning when we were confronted by a brand new English teacher called Mr Hopkins who had been brought in to teach us about Walter Scott's Waverley novels.

Unlike the Christian brothers who dominated the shift, Mr Hopkins was a lay teacher and he had the absurd idea that he might be able to persuade us more readily of the value of Sir Walter Scott's writing if he adopted a less authoritarian style in class than his religious colleagues.

Breaking point

We were not slow to take advantage. When Mr Hopkins displayed his new informality by failing to take the register, boys in the class simply assumed any name they chose. And one name was, of course, more popular than most.

"Yes", Hopkins would say, "let's hear from that boy in the second row on the left. And your name?" "McNulty, sir" said Riley.

Dilworth and Rowan followed suit. "McNulty, sir" "McNulty, sir" they responded to the teacher's requests, until McNulty was forced to shout out that he was the only true McNulty and all the rest were imposters.

We were all guilty of outrageous, if at times ingenious, bullying

It was not quite clear whether or not it was the mounting hysteria in McNulty's voice or the fact that he spoke from a desk positioned in the centre of the aisle, but this certainly proved a breaking point for Mr Hopkins' liberalism.

He declared he'd had quite enough cheek for one lesson and ordered McNulty to go down the corridor and wait outside the headmaster's office. (The resounding cheers which greeted this decision were about the only sign of approbation that Hopkins was to receive in the rest of his short teaching life at St Mary's.)

Of course, we were all guilty of outrageous bullying. And the only reason that McNulty was singled out for such treatment was his commitment to learning, his determination to do as well as possible, his unflinching resolution to make the best of his education. It was this which made him a public enemy.

Later in life, McNulty became an MP and enjoyed a short period as a junior opposition minister. It seemed a good time for me to make amends.

I sent him a short congratulatory note, mentioning our shared time at St Mary's. It was a good month before his reply arrived on House of Commons paper.

It was short and to the point and, as I had grudgingly to acknowledge, perfectly judged. "Sorry", wrote McNulty, "But I don't remember anyone of the name of Taylor."

Below is a selection of your comments.

I am just appalled that you can so write so eloquently and proudly of having bullied someone at school, the fact that he went onto become an MP some how implying that there was no harm done, at least nothing long lasting. Bullying, in both schools and the workplace, causes untold damage, marital breakups and lasting damage to the bullied.
Caroline, London

In Australia you definitely need to be good at sport - brains won't make you many friends (if any), and definitely will get you ostracised - or bullied. (Unless you are in a school that is specifically for students with high academic ability and supports them.) This has been the case certainly since the 1950s, and probably before then as well. Kids think you're great if you're good at sport - and are jealous and extremely nasty if you are brighter than they are. Anyone that's different in any way, other than that which is "socially acceptable", gets hounded. Try having red hair! That's always good for years of abuse at school as well. As, these days, is wearing the "wrong clothes"...
Margaret, London

I don't know if I totally agree with the whole "smart people that get bullied have the last laugh" idea. I got bullied my entire school life. Have I had the last laugh? No. Because it completely crippled my self esteem. I'm currently wasting whatever intellect I have being an under-appreciated assistant in a diagnostics department at the city hospital. I have no confidence in myself or any of my abilities because absolutely no one gave me any indication that I was worth something when I was at school. I'm intelligent, yet my GCSEs could've been better, as well as my A-levels. I admire those who persevere through bullying and shine at the end of it, but for some of us, that just doesn't happen.
Nicola, Southampton, UK

There is no one more sinister or sly than a bully with intellectual capacity. Sure, most kids know how to stay away from the usual suspects, or put on bravado when they see the archetypical skinheaded ruffian bully coming round the corner, to avoid ridicule. But a bully with brains - an altogether different beast.
John Dolan, Chorley

You've done your permanent harm, and there's no undoing it. And waiting 50 years to make amends just compounds the crime.
Tod, Croydon, UK

Bullying is as old as schools. There is little you can do if you're on the receiving end - ignoring it does NOT make it go away. Usually it gets worse as the bullies try harder to get a reaction. These days though, CCTV covers most of the communal areas within schools. It is getting much harder to get away with it, and that's all good. But as in the example above, an encounter many years later can give some payback. Mine was in a triathlon race where I finished 17 minutes and 100 places above the school bully from 20 years before.
Dan, Swindon

When I was at school some 20 years or so ago, I once responded to some D streamer who was trying to bully me with "who cares what you think, you're thick as...". Bully actually squirmed and said "No I'm not". I don't know if that would happen these days, as we're told there's a real anti-intellectual culture at school now - at my school there was a culture of sneering at the dim. And I don't think there's anything to be proud of in making someone's school life hell and then writing an article about it.

I went to a large London high school and we had our fair share of bullies, the nastiest of which were some of the smartest kids in the year. They were also very popular among those who didn't get bullied by them.
Rachael, London

Not the case in any of the schools I attended, where underachievers or those with any kind of learning disability were always excluded from the "popular" crowd (unless they had some redeeming factor, such as sporting aptitude or really, really good social skills). I guess that kids have cottoned on now to the fact that high-achievers have the most earning potential, and kids are very materialistic these days...
Charlotte, London

Charlotte, that might be the case in public and grammar schools where you have to be of a certain intelligence to be accepted. However it certainly was not the case in my comprehensive/state school. I left my greater London state school only five years ago and it was definitely NOT cool to be clever. If you wanted to be popular and you were in the top sets, you had to work twice as hard as everyone else, pretending not to be interested in long words and books and musical instruments. A boy mate of mine was clever, AND popular. For the entire five years he fooled his popular mates into believing that the cello in his hard case was actually an electric guitar. In mixed state schools these days, sport is also becoming very uncool. This is more so for girls than boys, as running around fields and netball courts in unflattering PE kits after school is far less attractive to the boys than the girls in short school skirts piled with makeup down the park.
Rowan Smith, London

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