I was born on Friday, 6th March 1992 in Ashington, Northumberland. My mum, Janet, and my dad, Geoff, who had met while studying at a teacher training college in Scarborough in the 1980s, tell me that it was clear that something was wrong when I was born, as I was immediately scooped up and taken away for further examination. It had turned out that I was born with talipes – commonly known as ‘clubfoot’ – and it was affecting both feet. In other words, I was born with my feet pointing inwards towards each other instead of pointing out front, and it would require treatment within the first year of my life to minimise the risk of having difficulty with walking later down the road.
The treatment came at 10 months. My ankles were cut into, and bits and pieces were rearranged so that my feet could settle in the right place. The result was to be feet which functioned as close to normal as was reasonably possible, considering their original formation.
Shortly after this, my family – mum, dad and my brother Simon, 18 months my elder – moved from our cottage in Cresswell (which I have no memory of given my age!) to a house in Widdrington Station, another village in Northumberland. My memories of Widdrington are overwhelmingly positive – we had a nice big garden (which backed directly onto the East Coast Mainline…it’s amazing how you can learn to ignore trains hurtling past you every few minutes), and we had at various points dogs, hamsters and even an aviary full of budgies. I went to first school in Ellington which was a short drive from Widdrington.
Things changed in 1998. As I remember it, I had started to limp a bit and the doctors determined that the clubfoot was threatening to return in my left foot. They operated again – this time using a more aggressive method which involved the insertion of seven metal rods into my lower leg, ankle and foot. The rods were held together in a metal frame and the whole thing resembled a mini construction site. While the frame was in place I wasn’t allowed to walk and used a wheelchair. For a young boy who had been quite active and enjoyed playing outside, this was a difficult transition to make. The weirdest thing about it was that my foot was held in place by five elastic bands which looped individually around each toe. It meant that I could pretend to play guitar on my leg – every cloud!
Overall, it took several months to deal with this clubfoot ‘relapse’ – several weeks in the frame, then another operation to remove it, followed by two months in a cast while the leg healed. Then came a wobbly period of getting used to walking again after such a long period of inactivity. Although the operation succeeded in correcting the clubfoot once more, I was left with feet which weren’t officially ‘signed off’ by the NHS until I was 17, and even so with the caveat that they were simply as good as they were going to get, rather than as good as normal feet. I was also left with a long-lasting lack of confidence in my physical abilities, and my enjoyment of playing outside and doing PE at school dwindled.
The other thing that changed in 1998 was that my parents parted ways. What followed were two moves. First, dad moved to Forest Hall, a village in suburban Newcastle-upon-Tyne. For a while, Simon and I remained in Widdrington with mum, until we sold the house and moved to Blyth – the largest town in Northumberland which is also where mum’s parents and other relatives lived, and where my mum had grown up herself.
Since then, I have always considered myself to have not one but two family homes. My dad married Gill – another teacher – in 2000, and I gained an older stepbrother, Ben, and a younger stepsister, Sarah, as a result. My mum married Michael – not a teacher – in 2005. And so, the rest of my childhood and adolescence after moving from Widdrington was spent moving back and forth between Blyth and Forest Hall. I went to Plessey Road First School which, conveniently, was almost directly opposite our house in Blyth – not a long ‘commute’! This was followed by four years at Wensleydale Middle School, also in Blyth, which took me through to age 13 (fancy that, the three tier system!). I then moved up to Astley Community High School in Seaton Delaval, where I took my GCSEs and A levels.
By the time I started high school, I was a relatively accomplished piano player – I had been taking lessons since the age of eight (after my operation it was an appealing choice of hobby!) and made it up to Grade 5 before stress over exams at school caused me to quit taking lessons. By high school, I also had a fairly good inkling that I might be gay. By the time I was 16, I had come out to all of my friends and most of my family. I don’t have any dramatic stories surrounding my coming out – undoubtedly a good thing – but I do remember, before coming out, going through the inevitable period of questioning the messages – explicit and implicit – which I had received in my life up until that point. Is it really okay for boys to like boys? For girls to like girls? Why didn’t anyone talk about this at school? I had developed a great trust in the education ‘system’ and was a very well-disciplined student. So, the fact that something so catastrophically central to my own existence had barely come up at school had made me wonder what on earth I had done wrong! Certainly the frame of mind of questioning the status quo is something which I have carried with me ever since.
At A-level I studied English Literature, English Language, Maths and Chemistry. A 50/50 split between the arts and the sciences, as I saw it at the time. I was clear that I wanted to study at university afterwards. What I wasn’t clear about was what to study. I was as good at Maths as I was at English. The decision was made easier when Simon went off to the University of Bath to study Maths. I couldn’t possibly do the same as him! So I went with English – specifically English Language, which eventually became Linguistics, after a year of being exposed to its wonders as an undergraduate at Lancaster University.
What followed is still fairly recent for me. I graduated with a first in Linguistics in 2013, and took the decision to stay at Lancaster for another four years to take an MA and then a PhD at the newly-established corpus linguistics research centre there. I was happy enough to do this – I had developed my interest in acting and singing in theatrical productions as an undergraduate (something which I did occasionally, growing up), and was in a routine of performing in three, four or sometimes even five shows in Lancaster each year. I was also happy to do this since the final year of my BA course had convinced me that corpus linguistics (and the observations it can make) was one of the most amazing things I had ever heard of.
From Lancaster I had a brief stint at Cambridge Assessment in 2017, before finding a new home at the University of Leeds – pursuing my interest in corpus linguistics. I am very happy to be in a position where I can try to make a career out of something which fascinates me.