Unlike 99 per cent of my colleagues, I was quite touched by John Bercow’s comment about how fed up he is with jokes about his height. ‘Whereas nobody these days would regard it as acceptable to criticise someone on grounds of race or creed or disability or sexual orientation, somehow it seems to be acceptable to comment on someone’s height, or lack of it,’ he said.
OK, maybe taking the mickey out of someone for being short isn’t quite on the same level as, say, murdering them for being black or homosexual, but I think he has a point. I say this for two reasons. The first, obviously, is because I hope to become an MP one day and have a vested interest in sucking up to the Speaker. The second, though, is because I’m a bit of a short-arse myself.
Whenever anyone asks how tall I am, I say ‘five foot eight and a half’ — a surefire giveaway that I’m defensive about it, like my son Charlie saying he’s ‘five and three quarters’. If anyone then accuses me of being ‘short’, I immediately point out that, in fact, I’m average height. Not strictly true — the average British male is five foot ten — but it was 50 years ago on the date of my birth. Paradoxically, I was taller then than I am now, because the average height of the British male increases by four inches or so every 100 years. I would still be average height if I lived in Iran — although that probably isn’t a good enough reason to move there.
The fact that I’m a short 50-year-old would have come as no surprise to my maternal grandfather Raisley Moorsom. A strapping six-footer, he was so appalled by my diminutive height as a young boy that he urged my mother to get me ‘stretched’. I’m not sure if this was a legitimate medical procedure back then, but thankfully my mother resisted. She always insisted I would have a ‘growth spurt’ and so I would have done if I hadn’t taken up smoking at the age of 14. According to the experts, smoking really does stunt your growth.
At school, I escaped being called ‘titch’ by the skin of my teeth. This was partly because I went to a bog-standard comprehensive where the boys were a good foot shorter than their public school counterparts, and partly because my best friend, Mathew Bowyer, was even shorter than me. As such, he was known as ‘titch’ and the bigger boys couldn’t very well call both of us ‘titch’. I was known as ‘punky junkie’ on account of my spiky hair and the fact that I had a BBC accent. The other boys assumed that anyone middle class at a school like theirs must have hippie parents and was therefore a drug addict — and they were usually right.
Titch Bowyer had the heart of a lion, a common characteristic in short men. I remember the night the two of us confronted a local thug who had cornered a beautiful young woman in an alleyway. The boy was a good two or three years older than us and the leader of the most terrifying gang in the school. I tried to talk the boy out of it, but he shut me up pretty quickly with a murderous look. Titch, by contrast, just stood in front of him and announced he wasn’t going anywhere until he let the girl go.
I remember being astonished by what I thought of as a suicidal act of bravery. Didn’t Mathew realise this psychopath would beat him to a pulp? Well, he did, of course, but he wasn’t about to abandon this girl to her fate. And, by golly, it worked. After a 15-minute standoff, the tough nut sloped away, muttering something about how she wasn’t worth it.
Titch was also funny, another side effect of being short. Unfortunately, I was never quite small enough for my psyche to compensate by blessing me with any of these gifts. I’m not even sure I suffer from ‘short-man syndrome’ — a burning desire to assert yourself against much bigger creatures, like a yapping Yorkshire terrier. I don’t think Mathew ever suffered from that complex, but John Bercow clearly does and you get the feeling that if he were two and a half inches taller — my height — he wouldn’t now occupy the position he does in British public life. In a sense, he’s lucky that he’s only five foot six — it’s been the making of him. If he found his stature ‘acceptable’, he wouldn’t have become such a colossus.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.