Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Spasticus Autisticus: Ian Dury and disability

I've been reading Richard Balls's updated, authoritative biography of Ian Dury - Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll. Richard incudes material from several people about Ian's disability and how it may have influenced his personality. I don't disagree with any of their (and his) conclusions: I think, though, that his disability may have played more of a part in the formation of Ian's public and self-image than even they imagined.

Dury wrote the anthemic number Spasticus Autisticus in 1981 in response to that year's designation as International Year of Disabled People. He felt that having such a year was patronising. The song is a cross between a battle cry and a plea for understanding. The BBC allegedly banned it from its playlists because of the provocative lyrics: the term spastic was by then beginning to become unacceptable.

The song later became central to the plot of Reasons to be Cheerful, a piece by disabled theatre group Graeae. It features Ian's usual witty rhymes, such as
I wibble when I piddle
Cos my middle is a riddle
 But it is in the equally un-PC verses that his attitude to disability, and to society's reactions to it, is most overt.
Hello to you out there in Normal Land
You may not comprehend my tale or understand
As I crawl past your window give me lucky looks
You can be my body but you'll never read my books

Despite a solidly middle-class upbringing, Dury viewed himself as an outsider. He gathered other outsiders around him socially and to make music. His first band, Kilburn and the High Roads, numbered at least two other disabled people among its members: surely more than would be expected by chance. Was Ian, perhaps semi-consciously, seeking to surround himself with others who shared his personal experience of societal exclusion?

Ian became disabled suddenly, as a small child, as a result of polio. From then on, he had to wear a heavy, uncomfortable calliper on his left leg, and had little use of his left arm and hand. Sudden disability or severe illness can have a huge impact on an individual's psyche. Enforced separation from family and friends could only have added to this. Ian was young enough when illness struck not to have had to deal with the disruption of his own plans for his future, but as a previously active wee boy he must have found enforced immobility hugely frustrating.

This may have been influential in his need as an adult for control over his life. Rock frontmen are famous for their demanding, overpowering personalities: they need them to be good at their jobs. Ian seems to have developed it into a high art, though. He hired and fired band members without consultation, moved back and forward between the house he rented with his then wife and his girlfriend's flat, and demanded control over the songwriting process even with supposed collaborators.

Following lengthy stays in hospital and rehabilitation unit, Ian was sent to a boarding school for kids with disabilities. The regime there seems to have been Spartan: the children were forced to be very independent physically, bullying was commonplace, and there were examples of sexual abuse. This could lead to the children becoming detached emotionally. On his return home from this school, Ian was enrolled in a fee-paying boarding grammar school, where he was bullied as a result of his disability.

As an adult, he became very manipulative, "using" his disability when necessary to get what he wanted or get out of doing things. He used his undeniable personal charm to convince people to drive him around, carry things, and generally do his dirty work for him. He was also very possessive about those close to him.

Dury could be promiscuous, and certainly delighted in his attractiveness to women. He's reported as being surprised that women found him attractive. Our culture tends to portry disabled people as asexual: unaware of and uninterested in sex. We are also portrayed as sexually vulnerable: Ian claimed to have experienced sexual abuse as a disabled child at boarding school.

Some disabled people rebel against this stereotype by becoming almost hypersexual. It's possible that this is what happened to Dury. Increasing fame, and the inevitable groupies that came with it, gave him the opportunity to demonstrate his "normal" sexual appetites.

So how significant was Ian Dury's disability in the development of his charming but often abrasive personality? I believe it was extremely influential. But without it, he would possibly never have been driven to develop his distinctive songwriting voice and overwhelming stage presence.

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