Being the Odd One Out - Valerie Mendes
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Being the Odd One Out

When I began my professional career as a journalist for Marshall Cavendish in London in the early 1970s, I was allowed to race out of the office at 3.00pm to collect Sam from his St John’s Wood nursery school. Norman Marshall was way ahead of his time. He recognised I was leading two separate lives: one as a professional journalist, the other as a dedicated mother. He allowed me to prove that doing both was not only possible, but could succeed to everyone’s advantage.

I immediately became the Odd One Out.

All my office colleagues gathered in their Soho pub at 6.00pm to drink, gossip, flirt, and dissect the events of the day. They sat there until closing time and then, buying fish and chips on the way, rolled home.

They told me I lived behind a brick wall because I couldn’t join in the daily evening ritual. I happen to hate pubs. Reading University’s night life was dominated by them. I don’t drink beer and in those days everybody smoked. The smell of warm beer and hot tobacco was enough to send me reeling back to my university room, where I’d hang my clothes on the railings of the fire escape until the stink had gone Blowing in the Wind.

As a working journalist, I was determined to keep my apartment on the borders of Primrose Hill smoke free. I couldn’t afford alcohol, anyway. I earned £100 a month. £60 of that went to my mother in cash because she was my landlady. You can’t raise a child on £10 a week and have any money left over for booze. Not a single drop.

But if you don’t drink alcohol in large quantities in this country, you are automatically the Odd One Out. Hang out with the boys in any old bar and you are One Of Us. Get stoned as a woman and you are One of The Boys. Get drunk as a man and you are An Absolutely Splendid Chap. Buy bottles of champagne you can’t afford and go on TV. You become the nation’s favourite Ab Fab drunkard with horrendous hair, a mind like a bee’s nest, and a voice that shatters glass.

Where was I? … Oh, yes, that brick wall.

In many ways I did live behind a wall. I hadn’t built it myself. It was erected for my protection. Sixty years ago, the women who’d married, divorced, had an only child and also worked as professional journalists were very few and very far between. As a parent I wanted above all to be a friend. I never said, “I told you so.” I never pretended to be older and therefore wiser. I invented a few rules and stuck to them like glue. “Always be punctual,” was one of them. When I dropped Sam at Magdalen College School I used to yell through the departing car window at him, “Concentrate and score.”

It seems to have worked, doesn’t it? You can’t make a film like 1917 by slopping around on the sofa until midday and then rolling out to the nearest pub for a pint. Or two… Or five.

Secretly, as a young journalist, in spite of being on the poverty line, I was having a wonderful time. I was working to tight creative deadlines with both men and women for the first time in my life. I was up with the lark, as always, but this time with a real sense of professional purpose. After being marooned in the suburbs of Manchester – a city that felt strange and alien – with a husband who didn’t want me in any way whatsoever and who was never there, and not a friend in sight, being back in London at the centre of everything, and working in a swift, demanding form of publishing on encyclopedias that were published in weekly magazines, suited me down to the ground.

Besides, I’ve always been the Odd One Out.

At the heart of every dedicated writer, inventor, musician, painter, craftsman, singer, actor or dancer is an ability to watch, analyse, rethink and question. You can’t do that in the middle of a scrum with your bottom in the air. You can only do it by standing on the sidelines, silent as the tomb, until nobody notices you are there at all. Then the real thinking, the true creative drive to be original, to be the best, to be true to your own voice, begins.

Of course, there are good ways and bad ways of being Odd, of being One – and of being Out. Even in these days of individuality, it’s so much easier, so much less demanding, to conform. If everyone does things this way, follow suit, join the crowd, nobody will notice you, keep your head down and don’t bother me. Keep your trap shut. Sign yourself off as Donald Duck. That way nobody will ever know whose side you’re on. And nobody will blithering well care, either.

If you are Odd, you are probably also considered to be Mad. The English eccentric lives on a knife-edge of insanity. So does the writer with the burning creative mind. If people think I am Mad, I no longer care. Insanity lies in a total non-recognition of reality. The creative pioneer – the woman who writes an opera nobody understands, the man who writes a totally original, life-changing Waiting for Godot, the Dyson who makes thousands of prototypes before the right one works – these are the ‘mad’ guys who not only work madly to recognise reality, but do their bit to change their tiny world for the big and better good.

Watching children perform a school play, you can instantly recognise the Odd One In. It is the child who takes to the stage like the proverbial duck to water. Whose voice commands without shouting. Who finds an original poignant gesture in drinking from a goblet of fire. Who demands attention and captures every watching eye as to the manor born.

As a child I was an interesting combination. Outwardly, I conformed. I was polite, quiet, undemanding, acquiescent and never, ever, rude. Inwardly I raged like a furnace about the family who trapped me in their lair, and the ways in which I was unable to escape.

Children like me are loners. We may be considered Odd, but we are the changers and makers of our tiny worlds. In turn, we create children who are allowed the freedom to be themselves and to think for themselves. We let our children make their own mistakes so they can learn from them. We channel our energies into the things that matter. We dare to care.

The Odd One Outers recognise each other in the blink of an eye and the shaking of a hand.

That’s all it takes, folks. Black Lives Matter. So do Lives of Every Other Colour.

Keep up the good work, Odd One Outers.

We do not walk alone.