Thursday, 15 August 2013

Jock Tamson’s Bairns by Cally Phillips

Review by Chris Longmuir

This book was a free offer distributed by the author Cally Phillips, as a lead in to her book A Week with No Labels. 

Cally Phillips uses the expression ‘we’re all Jock Tamson’s Bairns’ to signify that, although not everyone is the same, ‘we are all equal under the skin’. The introduction to this book of short stories discusses what is meant by intelligence, normality and abnormality, leading onto a discussion about labels and who judges whether someone is ‘normal’ or not.

Jock Tamson’s Bairns is a book of short stories about people who are stuck with labels that suggest they are different from ‘normal’ people. She argues that the people who carry these labels are real people. Maybe a bit different, but equal to everyone else.

I loved the short stories in this book. They revolve around a drama group. I read about Gary, who is labelled as having ‘challenging behaviour’, but which Phillips prefers to call ‘creative behaviour’. Gary has sight, hearing, mobility and communication problems, which can exclude him from certain activities. However, when the group he is part of go on an imaginary journey, his delight at being chosen to play God, made my day as well as his and the group leader’s.

Jonjo is aboy who has acquired the label ADHD, and he runs everywhere. His story is told in his own words, and it flags up the misunderstandings that often arise, because the ‘normal’ person, the one without the label, doesn’t take the trouble to find out what Jonjo, and others like him, understand of the world about them. Then there’s Heather, a wheelchair user with limited movement, who is sometimes described a being ‘not all there’, but she is real, with hopes, dreams, likes and dislikes, just like anyone else. She likes the game of animal noises. She gets to be a giraffe because a giraffe doesn’t make any noise, just stretches its neck and sticks its tongue out, and Heather can do that. Then there’s Angus, who has Aspergers Syndrome. But Angus can do things ‘normal’ people can’t do, although despite this he is stuck in a Behaviour unit at school. Phillips concludes his story by saying ‘Give the boy a job he can do and he’ll do it all day quite happily. Treat him like a reject and he’ll behave like one.’

These short stories certainly gave me a lot to think about, and one of the difficulties in reviewing it was talking about the characters without including the labels they were saddled with. It was a salutory experience.

But before I finish this review, I want to comment on the excerpt at the end. It was quite a long excerpt, but I wanted it to be longer. It was from Cally Phillips’ book, A Week With No Labels. It describes the working of a drama group which is called No Labels. This is a fictional drama group, although Phillips has worked for 10 years with a ‘real’ drama group run ‘for and by’ adults labelled with learning disabilities. It describes the participants in the drama group, what they did on Monday, and their understanding of the labels they carry. These range from learning disability to spazzy, and how it makes them feel. The excerpt finishes with the group performing a play, and the audience going home with a message: ‘Go home and think about how you treat people. And be careful if you are in a position of power. Chickens can come home to roost.’

This is one book I won’t forget in a hurry, and I’ll definitely be buying A Week With No Labels’. I want to find out what the No Labels drama group did on the other days of the week.


Chris Longmuir