Monday, 3 March 2014

How My Heart Broke Watching Channel 4's First Dates - Thoughts on Stammering

I recently accidentally saw part of a show that is not the sort I would ever seek to watch, but which I felt surprisingly moved by, principally because of the experience of one person in it.  The show has left me thinking about social issues for a few days,  but it was not some philosophical existentialist programme extorting mind-blowing theories. It was First Dates on Channel 4.

I hasten to explain that I did not tune in specially. I had fallen asleep on the sofa one night and dragged myself half-conscious to the bedroom in the wee hours, switching on the telly as I got ready for bed and a repeat of the show provided background.  There I saw the sort of thing you might expect: a woefully TOWIE influenced lot of singles all meeting up for blind dates in a single restaurant on a single night.   Several were people who had been on the planet for all of two decades bemoaning how they’d never met the right person.  Most of the women looked like Jordan wannabies, when even Jordan isn’t Jordan anymore. Some had that baffled, permanently quizzical look that many foolish youngsters sport these days after bidding farewell to their decent, purposeful eyebrows in favour of scary tattooed ones by clearly mischievous tattoo artists who like a good laugh.

We met a blonde girl who turned up to her first date with her dog. Dressed in a shirt and shorts with braces and a tie. The dog was.  (A weird consequence of the dog outfit was that, presumably for hygiene and access reasons, its bottom and other nether regions were left exposed in gaps in the attire.  It had the effect of emphasising those delicate areas, as though an otherwise well-dressed dog had strolled in wearing a shirt and tie with butt-less chaps.  I’d like to see someone try to cheat the dress code of a Pall Mall gentlemen’s club in that way.)  Naturally, the little dog came with blanket, hot water bottle and lots of fuss, and once the date realised that the girl came with the dog,  he was remarkably less interested.  
Another girl hid behind so much physical fakery that, presumably to avoid being mistaken for a transvestite, she resorted to wearing her bulging chesticles mostly outside of her clothes, distractingly tucking edges of them back into the miniscule bustier she was nearly wearing.  I've had to make the odd wardrobe adjustment myself but it’s generally been subtly pulling up a falling bra strap or hitching up a trailing slip when no one’s looking. In this case, I shared her date’s comment that one didn’t know where to look.  It perhaps prepared him for her rapid admission that, feeling warm despite barely being covered, she couldn’t take her pants off as she had no knickers on.   Never mind; he demonstrated that he was not the king of charm when telling his friend in the loo (yes, the cameras filmed in there to eavesdrop on chat with fellow loo-goers), ‘She’s not my type but I’d definitely stick one in her’.  A true prince.

Amidst the mammoth mountains of make-up on display, tonnes of tramp stamps and plentiful piercings, there were also a few pleasant people.  In particular, there was Paul.
Paul was introduced as a 32-year-old death metal addict from Weymouth, who we later learn is an assistant manager of a shop.  He seemed kind and, despite his questionable taste in music, tattoos and a few subtle piercings, he seemed gentle and normal, by which I mean genuine and human, which in this company made him king.

But for some reason he drew---well, I mustn’t unkindly say ‘the short straw’ (I mean, it’s not like she brought an obscenely dressed dog with her), but he drew a straw that brought him a blind date in the form of a bumptious, grimacing Canadian.  She explained in her piece to camera how all her boyfriends married the person they dated right after her, which she interpreted as her doing all the renovations before someone else got the house.  I later wondered if maybe all her exes felt, after their escape, that they had a new appreciation for absolutely anyone else and thus snatched them up….but I don’t wish to be wicked.
In any case, that is not why I ended up feeling tearful after watching their encounter.

We joined Paul and Christine as they met about 21 minutes into the show, and returned to them shortly after another couple spat out their Tabasco-drenched oysters, bemoaning that they tasted like the sea (they must swim in spicy waters, but power to them for trying something new. I won’t question their motives).  We cut to Christine’s pre-date interview, where she explains that a lot of men have said that she intimidates them, that ‘they wouldn’t want to date a woman like me because it’s scary being around a woman who’s as—I guess—intelligent as I am’.  Yeah, that’s why. Weirdly, we have lots in common. We are both North American veggies  who like writing and don’t drink, smoke or do drugs.  Come to think of it, I have also been told that I can be intimidating, but it never occurred to me to assume it’s because of my intelligence. Stupid me.   
So let’s just say she was a force to be reckoned with, and I imagine a challenge for any confident, smooth chap there.  She sat down at the bar with Paul, who managed the opening conversation brilliantly considering, it soon became evident, that he had a faint stutter.  Extremely faint—it was barely noticeable, and I was impressed that he managed it so well.  But when he first stumbled, initially skipping a word that he managed to fill easily when called on it, then very slightly dragging out an ‘s’, she looked at him like he was standing on a rotting corpse and she couldn’t bear the stench.  It wasn’t quite the face that The Now Show recently paraphrased from the Thick of It: ‘like Dot Cotton licking urine off a nettle’, but it was not a kindly tolerant one.   

As his nerves increased, he stumbled more, and her face fixed into an expression that screamed out that she’d ordered a Labrador puppy but was handed an angry Picasso-design Tasmanian devil with a gory leg dangling from its socket.  When he confessed that he was nervous and apologised for his increasingly obvious stammer (which was still marvellously controlled), she encouraged him to have another drink and relax since they would be there for a while.  More than once, she finished his sentence but apologised for doing so, as he grew more red-faced but remained generous and genial.  His disappointment was with himself when we might have expected it to lie elsewhere.  One time as he struggled to find his words, she actually cocked her head sideways while puckering her mug into a real ‘Aww, sad face’ that you might make to a toddler, when even a toddler would find that exaggeration patronising.
Realistically, I imagine anyone would have difficulty finding something to say—or a chance to speak—in her presence.  She was forthright and relentless.  When telling him early on of her break-up with her last boyfriend, she weirdly offered that it was great that he wasn’t texting her constantly, which she claimed often happened to her, the texts saying ‘I miss you….blah blah f**king blah’.  I suspect that’s her method of saying ‘I’m so incredibly desirable that exes bombard me night and day with pleas to take me back, and I find it all so very dull. Yawn.’   Something else I have in common with her, as I also found her tale very dull (it seemed to scream secret insecurity.) ‘I’m always looking out for a future ex-boyfriend’ she tells the chap who might have hoped to be the candidate for her next ex, a slightly baffled but still giving-it-his-all Paul.

He seemed fine with everything she threw his way.  He was attentive and accommodating.  He may, of course, be a serial killer despite my impressions; I don’t know.  After all, he wore a beard.  And I would hate his music.  But even ignoring my soft spot for stammerers, he came across both on the date and the chats to camera as a truly decent soul who probably made all the audience want to give him a big hug and fix him up with our better friends.
It was okay that he was quiet as she was a talker, but he understandably got frustrated when the conversation led to something he could contribute to but then couldn’t finish describing within the allotted time before Christine leapt in. I suspected that her scowls and pouts and impatient filling in the blanks drew even more attention to the fact that he was stammering worse than expected, which led to him struggling even more.  He sweetly confided in her that doing the first date thing on telly didn’t really help because it made him more conscious of it. 

Here, she jumped in.  Would she reassure him that he really mustn’t worry, help put him at his ease and thus help diminish his stammer so he could speak more freely?  ‘You know yourself well enough to know what makes you nervous, ‘ she said, ‘So why did you agree to do a blind date if you know it makes you nervous?’  Paul froze for a moment.  I felt horrible for him. 

The next shot was of Paul speaking to the camera immediately after the date, admitting that he thought that that moment was awful.   And because he was the epitome of eternal sweetness, he hastened to clarify that he wasn’t criticising Christine.  ‘Not her. Me.
Even without this insight into his agony, we felt it. It was an awful question, basically saying, why bother to come here when you can’t cope?  It seemed to dumbfound him and made his stammer worse.  Should he shut himself in a room?  Hide away cloaked in loneliness forever because the first hurdle is high?  There was nothing he could do about it, he answered a bit sheepishly, and then with a kick at himself, he candidly added with a self-effacing smile, ‘It’s really annoying because I really…didn’t want it to be this bad.’ 

When I go to do something nerve-wracking, I can usually hide my nerves. I don’t have an unwelcome constant companion that I dread giving me away and possibly putting people off. I can only imagine the frustration and agonising disappointment involved here.  It made me think about how, when I have a horrid cold with shocking coughing fits, I avoid dinners and the theatre, but the unavoidable train commute is nearly a terrifying ordeal.  I almost choke myself repeatedly on the journey trying to suppress the coughing fits that make the whole carriage of people cringe as they glare at me, wishing me dead.  The more I try to stop, the more I cough.  It’s a weak example but I wondered what it would be like if I had that awful cough all the time, and people were vastly less forgiving. I wouldn’t be able to refrain from leaving the house ever; I’d just have to get on with what I wanted to do and pray that the cough wouldn’t rear its fierce head too often, but it would.  I could hardly go up to someone and splutter all over them when trying to sweet talk them. 
And whilst this is too poor to qualify as an analogy, imagine if you had something that seriously impaired your skills in social banter but you still longed to be part of it all. Although I know what it's like to be shy, it is difficult to imagine how hard it must be for someone who has little hope of melting anyone with their smooth talking charm when they walk into a room owing to some unfair disadvantage.  Paul couldn’t come out with the pathetic chat-up line another participant in the show came up with: ‘You remind me of a parking ticket, because you’ve got fine written all over you’ (and thank God for Paul and all of humanity).  As Paul later explained, ‘You can’t say sexy stuff with a stammer.’  It also prevented him from approaching girls as he thought they wouldn't want to talk to him, so he had had few girlfriends. 

Back on the date,  Christine commented in as bubbly a manner as she could muster that some couples were chatting to other couples seated near them, then whined, ‘‘We don’t have anybody sitting next to us that we can talk to. Crap!’  In case you have fallen behind, this is Christine speak for ‘It is so unfair that I have to get through this date with you as the only person I have to speak with.’  But try not to hate her intelligence.
Naturally, this was a smack in the face for our dear Paul, who must have been enormously frustrated that he was not speaking as smoothly as he had hoped, and the date wasn’t going well.

The agony of the date finally ended but the real punch was yet to come.  It already felt as though Paul had been unnecessarily kicked around a bit, when he surely had looked forward to the evening.  They parted amidst politeness, and she wished him good luck in a way that made it clear she didn’t intend to speak with him again. She fired a parting shot with, ‘Some of the other couples looked like they were having a nice time.’  What a sweet thought.
If the restaurant scenes were not heartbreaking enough—and I don’t mean because he didn’t win her over since I was wishing he would run far away—we then saw Paul on his own commenting on the overall date. 

 ‘I would like to go on a second date,’ he said, ‘ just to show her that I’m not a bumbling, talking idiot, to be honest, which is---‘   He then surprised himself by getting choked up and naturally hating that, too.   He buried his face in his arm, bursting with frustration and disappointment.
‘I had high hopes for the date,’ he sighed through slightly tearful eyes. ‘I just wish I could have made a better impression.’   I wanted to cry and hug him.  We could almost see the little boy in there, inside this lovely person who was facing this challenge that he could not fix, who had had to deal with this for decades.  We know he’s not a bumbling idiot, and I don’t think he came across as one. I was remarkably impressed by how well he controlled his stammer, much better than most people I have come across. Many people would not even venture out into a social situation in case they struggled with their stammer, leaving them embarrassed or ashamed.

Paul’s comments made me think of The Smiths’ song How Soon is Now?, with its truly devastating lines, not just ‘I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does’, but the crushing scenario of someone with desperate hope of finding love having those hopes cruelly dashed into aching loneliness:   ‘There's a club if you'd like to go / you could meet somebody who really loves you / so you go, and you stand on your own / and you leave on your own / and you go home, and you cry / and you want to die’.  At least Paul had someone to talk to but, tragically, as Christine herself pointed out, not a nice couple sitting beside them, just her.
Happily, in the meeting afterwards where Paul and Christine sit side by side, he’s fine.  Smoother, with no stammer, and I hope she takes note. But she’s immediately patronising, turning to him right away with a little sympathetic look as she begins with, ‘How are you feeling?’, cooing like some charitable fairy tale countess reaching down to a wretched creature.  Suddenly those plastic girls with baps and dolled-up dogs looked choice.  She continued to crunch up her nose like there was the stench of a decomposing corpse in the room and crossed an arm across her body and twisted away from him.  I thought she was surprisingly privileged when he agreed that they could be friends. ‘I just got myself a new friend’ she possibly feigns cheerfulness, before adding as though she’s verbally rolling her eyes: ‘in Weymouth’!  His smile fades slightly with another unnecessary unkindness as though Weymouth is the sweaty armpit of the universe.  (I’ve no idea; I’ve not been there.  But couldn’t she have just left it with the high five?)

I hope someone sensible saw Paul on the show and got in touch so he knows he can be valued, even by strangers, as the neat person he seemed to be.  (I later saw that his Twitter feed—he’s @Paulamahol -- suggested he got a decent response).  I feel a bit guilty painting his date as the epitome of evil, which she wasn't; she is human, too, with flaws like the rest of us, and rarely are things truly black and white, but he deserved better. He wanted what everyone else wants since he is human, not a freak mutant, and a more courageous human than many because he had more of a stumbling block in making first impressions than many of us have. 
The experience has remained in my mind for a while now, much to my surprise.   But I can’t really class Christine as wicked for being so impatient with Paul’s stammer, I just expected more tolerance and awareness these days.  We’ve had the hugely popular Oscar winning film The King’s Speech, which superbly showed the frustration and agony of being trapped behind a stammer.   More recently, a popular episode of Channel 4’s Educating Yorkshire  showed pupil Musharaf risk missing out on his English GCSE because an oral exam was 25% of his grade and he had such a severe stammer that he had to type out his comments to the TV crew, until teacher Mr Burton applied an ingenious method inspired by The King’s Speech to help him work miraculously through it.  (Watch tearfully here: . 

Before that, a BBC1 programme called The Kid's Speech followed children who attended an intensive two-week course at the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children. That helped them so that one boy’s father was blindsided when his son was able to rattle off dinosaur facts to an expert at the Natural History Museum, since all that knowledge had long been suppressed beneath the weight of years of stammering.  Not long ago, I was terribly impressed to hear on Radio 4 Andrew Duff, MEP, making a speech to the European Parliament whilst stuttering, and no one was jeering. Surely all these things had enlightened us enough to be more accepting and understanding of people who struggle with their words.  Or does some Darwinsim kick in so that people like Christine are looking for perfection and being unkind to those with some small weakness? (I don’t really buy that as many people with much less going for them end up coupled.)
I can’t condemn Christine entirely for being unkind to him in the same way I can’t declare Paul to be some holy hero just because I have a warm spot for stammerers.  She was not aggressively evil nor did she refuse to talk to him, but she was unpleasant, which perhaps is her nature. Her principal crime was constantly calling attention to his stammer in a way that made him so uncomfortable that it became more prevalent, which led him to be distressingly frustrated with himself.  To be fair, she had no warning of it, and most people who come across some unusual trait in someone they meet don't have a camera focusing on their every expression in close-up as they try to deal with it.  But I would have thought that someone who apparently travels so much and thus sees a variety of life might have managed a bit better.  Still, it was a bad match.  They admitted afterwards that there was no chemistry, but the whole thing was awful to watch. 

I am rather notorious for my own lack of patience and propensity for rushing around, but I think I could spare a few seconds to let my dinner companion finish his sentence, particularly if I was seated alone with him with a few hours to kill. But then some people don’t know what is preferable when facing someone with a stammer—should you ‘help’ them by finishing the sentence or wait while they do? I’ve always understood the latter is best.  In fact, if you really want to be prepared for when you next come across someone who is struggling to speak through a stammer , the British Stammering Association (BSA) produces leaflets that are available online. 

 There is one for people who have partners who stammer ( ), but a helpful broad one giving tips on conversing with someone who stammers is here:  Indeed, first on the list is be patient, as most people strongly prefer to speak for themselves and it does not help to finish the stammering person’s sentence.  It also says never give advice like ‘relax’ or ‘slow down’; just maintain eye contact and listen, conveying a relaxed attitude to show that you are hearing what they say rather than focusing on how they say it.  The advice says to bear in mind that nervousness is a result of embarrassment about their stammering rather than a cause of it, and that people have more difficulty in some situations than others.  Crucially, ‘If you are not sure how to respond, ask the speaker—but always do this sensitively in a way that leaves the speaker in control’, like saying ‘is there anything I can do to make this easier for you?’ in an appropriate tone.  In summary, ‘Try to empower the person by offering a choice rather than imposing your solution. Always err on the side of being patient and giving the person the opportunity to speak for [himself].’
As the show moved onto the cougar police officer who once dated a colleague’s son hook up with a mega-tattooed pumped-up Bros lookalike ex-soldier who seems a bit sweet, I left the programme and felt sad, and it surprisingly haunted my mind for some time.

A pleasing coda is that, having heard that Paul returned to the show the following week, I caught up with part of that episode and was relieved to see him paired up with Kathryn, a bubbly Irish teacher from Liverpool,  who said she saw a stammer almost like an accent, and so was very accepting of it (plus she said he smelled great, so no decomposing corpse stench to curl her nose).  That enabled him to be more relaxed, and they seemed to have fun.  They even talk about his BSA wristband. Sadly, there was no chemistry sparking romance at the end of the date, but it was lovely that Paul had a chance to come back and show his date and the viewers that he wasn’t, in his own cruel words, a bumbling idiot.  We never he thought was.
Should you have any interest in watching these episodes, the first one is available online until 14th March at and the one where he dates Kathryn is available until 24th March at  (about 33 minutes in).

And if you’re really interested in Paul, his #firstdates profile is here:  (Warning: he says ‘boobs’. But don't hold them against him.)