My best mate at uni had a terrible secret. I only found out 30 years later

Uni buddies Mark Dapin (at left) and Graham Caveney in the mid-1980s. Photo: Supplied
Uni buddies Mark Dapin (at left) and Graham Caveney in the mid-1980s. Photo: Supplied

I was drinking in a raucous, shallow bar at the Sydney Writers' Festival with my UK publisher, Ravi Mirchandani, when Ravi told me he planned to publish a memoir by an author from the northern English town of Accrington, Lancashire.

I felt slightly nauseous. My forearms goose-pimpled.  

"Is it Graham?" I asked. Twice.

"Yes …" said Ravi, carefully.

"Am I in it?" I asked. Twice.

"No," said Ravi. "Is anyone with my name in it? Anyone who sounds like me?"

Ravi shook his head. I truly, deeply, viscerally did not want to be in Graham's book.

"I think I should tell you what it's about," said Ravi.

"It's the story of how Graham was sexually abused by his headmaster at school."

I stumbled to the bathroom in tears.

Graham Caveney was one of the best friends I ever had. We met for a drink in 1983 in the students' union bar at Warwick University, England, and stayed out until 1984. He was studying English, I had toppled into a social work degree. The rest of the university passed before us while we sat behind our barricade of empty beer glasses, laughing in their faces.

That's the thing I remember the most about my time with Graham: the coarse, coughing laughter as we talked about socialism, punk rock and writing: Leon Trotsky, Pogues' lead singer Shane MacGowan and Graham Greene.

''Whenever I hear people talk about 'I fell in with a bad lot', they always give it this chic f...ing sheen. It's rubbish ... There was nothing redemptive about it.''

We were funny and clever and we smoked like ruined cities. We were seductive, menacing and wrecked.

Graham and I stayed mates until I left England in 1988, but we had grown more distant by then. I'd graduated from university into embittered unemployment, and I feared Graham was wary of the person I'd be - come: a lazy drunk; a loud-mouthed loser. I thought Graham worried I might be contagious.

I left for Australia and sorted myself out. I worked as a journalist and, much later, I wrote books. But Graham made every breakthrough first. He was working for the rock press as a first-year student; he edited an anthology of literary essays when he was 28; he wrote a book about author William Burroughs, and another about Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. I thought about Graham often, but when I remembered the confronting, insulting person I became when drunk in my mid-20s, it no longer seemed funny, just callous. I was ashamed to get back in touch.

I don't recall when I heard Graham had suffered a breakdown, but I learnt he was recovering in 2009. A friend told me Graham had been in a bad way but was getting better. He gave me the email of a woman I used to know who'd been helping him. I put the address into my phone, then lost the phone.

I was sad and sympathetic, but also detached and disappointed. It had become a familiar story: my old friends surrendering to mental illness. I felt slightly affronted, as if I'd been deceived. If I dismissed them as weak, I didn't have to miss them.

I knew Graham was writing again when I noticed he'd grown a Facebook page, from which he sent an inadvertently public message to a band called the Feelies, asking permission to name a book after their song, The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness. Then I saw an interview with a Coronation Street actor flagging Graham's soon-to-be-published memoir about "addiction [to alcohol], music, politics and books". I smiled because that's exactly the book I thought he (and I) would write. It didn't sound very interesting. I just hoped I wasn't in it.

I considered contacting Graham, but decided he didn't want to know me. If he did, I was easy to find. I guessed he'd probably forgotten me. Every scenario I could imagine centred around me .

Then Ravi told me about the abuse, and it sliced to pieces the ideas I had held about my life.

I wonder why Graham hadn't told me himself. Maybe I hadn't been a good enough friend, or perhaps he realised I wouldn't have understood.

The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness is published in England in August. I read the reviews before I read the book. There's a piece in The Guardian written by a former editor of the UK Catholic Herald, who calls Graham's work "defiant" and "important". A reviewer in The Times pronounces it "by turns honest, angry, funny, thoughtful, acerbic and desperately sad". A critic in the Observer finds it "enthralling", "brave" and "deeply funny".

I arrange through Ravi to meet Graham, for the first time in 28 years. I take my friend's book on the train to the central England city of Nottingham, where Graham now lives, and begin to read about a boy I used to know who grew up in a working-class family in a house without a telephone in a northern industrial town. He is reserved, awkward and smart, exhilarated by pop music, unmoved by sport.

He wins a place at St Mary's Roman Catholic Grammar School in Blackburn (a selective state school run by the Catholic Church), where his headmaster, the charismatic and cultured Father Kevin O'Neill (the "Rev Kev"), encourages him to learn about literature, theatre and dining out, then – when Graham is 15 years old – pins him down, masturbates him, and ejaculates on his stomach. The assaults continue for two years.

Graham's parents are proud of the boy's relationship with his rapist. They are thrilled that their son's talents have caught the attention of not just a good man, but the best of men: a teacher and a priest. And Graham revels in O'Neill's intellectual flattery – the idea that the priest is drawn to him because he is unique, gifted and sensitive – and he needs what his teacher has to offer, an entry to the world of learning, art and taste.

"I loved being groomed," writes Graham. "If I had my adolescence to do all over again, not only would I want to be groomed by Kevin O'Neill I would want to be groomed by others, too (collective noun for groomers? A nest, a swarm, a spoil?) I would want a spoil of groomers lending me books, talking to me about mankind's insufficiency and gently making it known that steak was too fatty in restaurants. Maybe I didn't have enough groomers. Maybe if my science teachers had been paedophiles I'd have done better at chemistry. Or maybe they were paedophiles but I simply wasn't to their taste. Is this sick? Not all of my past needs to be arranged along those lines, abusers and cynical groomers, the groomed and the cynically abused.

"Not all of it," he writes. "But some of it."

That's how brave and funny my friend can be.

But although Graham might have loved being groomed, he hated being "fucked". He was sickened, confused and compromised, repeatedly overpowered by authority and charm and cowardly, manipulative lies.

The journey from London to Nottingham is two hours. I don't have time to finish the book but the pages I read remind me of myself at every other turn. My mum was educated, we were better off than Graham's family, and I went to a far worse state school than Graham, but almost all his adolescent thoughts and experiences mirror my own – except that one thing. I had forgotten why we were such close friends: talking to Graham used to be like talking to myself.

Uni buddies Mark Dapin (left) and Graham Caveney, reuniting this year. Photo: Supplied

Uni buddies Mark Dapin (left) and Graham Caveney, reuniting this year. Photo: Supplied

I don't know if it will be so comfortable today.

Graham is waiting for me at the station. We hug like family. I have thousands of questions, and so has he. To my surprise, his first is, "Do you still not eat eggs?" His skin has aged, and I curse myself for ever thinking he couldn't live hard. And yet…he must be 52 years old, but to me he still looks 18.

It seems absurd not to talk to Graham in a pub, but I know he doesn't drink anymore. He chooses a cafe that serves beer, out of consideration for the person I used to be. We sit on a couch with cups of coffee and I offer to go first. It isn't anything I'd planned, but I talk about what has happened to me from the day I had last saw him – my dad was dead, my grandad about to die – until about the time I turned 30. Then I hand over to Graham, who speaks until he tires of hearing his own voice, and I take over again.We each tell our story in three parts, to the point where they converge in a Nottingham cafe where two old men sit together, quietly thrilled to be in one another's company.

I tell him how much his writing reminds me of my own. He says we helped shape each other's style. He thanks me for introducing him to the Pogues, those poets of personal disintegration: they showed him a way to see a brutal glamour in desperate lives. I flinch and shrink inside. He says there was always a difference between his drinking and mine: he was drinking to escape, I was drinking because I enjoyed it. "You seemed to be better at it than I was," he says. "You got into adventures in a way that I never did. And I was half-admiring and half-fearful for you."

Nonetheless, he always thought I'd be the one to collapse. I thought so, too.

I don't tell Graham that I'd felt a lot of things had saved me – good luck, a good girlfriend, escape to Australia (all three of them intertwined) and the ruthless nurturing of an unforgiving (if intermittent) self-discipline – but I recently realised that my pitiful pride was worthless because the one single overriding factor in my resilience over Graham's (temporary) subsidence was that my risible, buffoonish, incompetent, uncomprehending school headmaster did not force his penis on me.

When I was younger, I thought Graham was more grounded than me, more motivated than me, more capable than me. Graham says he imagined me as the older brother he'd never had but always missed.

"I idolised you," he says. I didn't know that. It makes me feel sick to think of it.

I admired Graham for the public confidence that allowed him to stand for student elections and perform at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and for his easy, seductive manner. Everything else about him, I just enjoyed. Only one thing bothered me: the raucous, explicit, dismissive way he would describe his sex life. And I get that now. Of course I do.

I ask Graham why he didn't tell me – his brother, his idol – about the abuse.

"The point of Warwick [University] was to start again," he says. "And I kept starting again. And to tell anyone would have been blurring the lines." 

But he'd told two friends at home.

"I didn't want it to spoil our friendship," he says. "As the words come out of my mouth, it seems like quite a stupid thing to say. But it's also true."

What would I have done if Graham had told me? I suspect I'd have helped him build an elaborate revenge fantasy, where we ambushed the Rev Kev and smashed his teeth on the baptismal font. I would never have done that, but I would happily have confronted him. I wasn't frightened of soft teachers or unholy priests, or anyone in authority who didn't carry their fists like a threat.

There I go again, consoling myself.

Graham eventually reported his abuser to the Church. "I was in crisis therapy because I'd been self-harming," he says, "and the counsellor I saw said, 'It might help if you were to shop him, rather than just carry it around. If it doesn't help you, it might help someone else.'

"So I go to a Marist priest – which is his order – in Wakefield, near Leeds. He takes it to the top man, and the top man then goes to confront [O'Neill] – and he admits it. Then they report back to me that he's admitted it, then it all goes very quiet. Oh, he's been shipped off for counselling. And it turns out the counsellor he saw is a counsellor who's a priest who treats homosexuality as an illness. He's called Louis Marteau. He's got a little stupid book out, which I bought a copy of, from Amazon about how to spiritually heal gay people. So the treatment he had wasn't for kid-fucking, the treatment he had was for homosexuality."

Suddenly, there is more than one set of smashed-up teeth swimming in blood in my fantasy font.

"And then [O'Neill] got Alzheimer's," says Graham.

The Church could not accept that O'Neill was exclusively to blame. They recited to Graham the rape-apologists' credo: "It takes two to tango." 

And how did Graham feel about that?

"I… I… I..." he says, and I fear he won't be able to finish his sentence. "… I was back on the piss by then," he recovers. "Throughout that whole period, I was serially relapsing and heavily tranquillised, and caring about nothing and enraged at the same time. You kind of aspire to indifference.

"But it's all in my stomach. That's where it has always got me. My shoulders… I'm all crunched up…" He hunches his back, braces, twists into himself. 

"Anger has been my one abiding emotion for the last 35-plus years," he says. "Sometimes I've been grateful for it, because I can channel it, but it'd be nice if…"

We both know what would be nice.

Graham's parents died never having learnt the truth about O'Neill. Graham sold their house for a small amount of money and found himself among a lot of new friends. "I was drinking in dodgy pubs," he says. "Scoring drugs, um…

"What I don't want," he continues, "is to make it seem in any way glamorous…"

Thank you for introducing me to the Pogues.

"It was just so…grubby. Whenever I hear people talk about 'I fell in with a bad lot', they always give it this chic fucking sheen. It's rubbish. [The drug dealers] were not 'oppositional figures' at all. What they wanted was money. They were reactionary fucks. There was nothing redemptive about it. I was just getting my kicks off the back of their prison stories that were all probably lies anyway.

"I was living in this grubby little flat," he goes on, "which, if I was being glamorous, I'd call 'a crack house', but that gives it a certain kind of American-cop-drama feel. But it was just this grubby, stinking piss-hole.

"The door got kicked in and in steams this big fella – he was six-foot-three, and he'd got prison muscle; all he did all day for years was pump up – and, in his eyes, it was probably no big thing to smack me about. I remember thinking afterwards that he wasn't bothered about what happened to him, so God knows he wasn't bothered what happened to me. And that realisation of how little you are valued really scared me. He wanted to know about some stuff that had gone missing, um…"

He knocked out several of Graham's teeth, and the crack took several more.

Justice promises bloodstained dentures.

Kevin O'Neill died in 2011. "What really got me is, after they shipped him off for therapy, they named an arts centre after him," says Graham.

In February 2008, St Mary's College, Blackburn was graced with the O'Neill Academy of Performing Arts. In August this year, in response to Graham's revelations – which the Church had known about for more than a decade – the school said it had removed O'Neill's name from the building. A spokesman for the Marist Order told theLancashire Telegraph he was unaware of any other complaints against O'Neill.

So, was Graham the only victim?

"Well, I know I'm not now," he says, "because I've had four emails. I had one last night, actually." 

He shows me the message. I am shocked. Until today I have believed it was just me… that he meant well… that what he did was to help me…because I was 'unique', was 'special', 'sensitive' and 'vulnerable', with a 'gift'… It was just me and I could tell no one…

How does Graham feel about "his" abuser now?

"It's complicated," he says. "A mixture of all-consuming rage and a strange kind of gratitude for the other opportunities he gave me. And, of course, the balance of that changes day by day. It can change within the hour. It's not that I'm loath to talk about it, I'm loath to make definitive statements."

When Graham wrote the book, he says, "I wanted people to understand that it wasn't just a victim-predator situation. That I felt quite defensive towards him. And the word I kept having to use was 'ambivalent'. And complicated. That's what grooming means: you gain access, trust, and it's not easy to separate the trust from the abuse. They're made of the same fabrics."

Does he believe O'Neill cared about him?

"Yeah," he says, without hesitation. "And I think that's part of the – sickness is the wrong word… I think that's part of the pathology. He didn't know how else to express the caring or something. And that was an extension of it, in his own way.

"He's not a monster," says Graham, as if O'Neill is just a character in a book. "In some ways, it's like incest. I've heard lots of incest survivors talk about how they wish they could hate their abuser: he's also your dad, your uncle or your grandad."

Graham hates other people instead. "It can be as general as the whole world, but it can be that suit over there with his briefcase." Obligingly, a caricature businessman walks past the café window. "He'll just represent all that's wrong with the world. Mr Clean."

Graham recites a line from a song by The Jam. "If I get the chance, I'll fuck up your life." "And actually," he says, "now that we've seen him, let's…" He laughs that rasping, raking, deranged familiar laugh and, for a moment, we're back in 1984, rattling collection bins for striking miners.

"I'm starting to find peace," says Graham. The book has helped. The writing wasn't cathartic, but its publication brought him back into the world, back in touch with his friends, and he thinks that might have some therapeutic value.

I ask myself again: what would I have done if Graham had told me at the time?

I wouldn't have understood. I was selectively naïve in 1984. I didn't believe gay people were real. I thought "queer" was a slur used by stupid kids against bright boys, and that the students in the university Gay Society were pretending. I'd had a couple of older men try to sexually assault me, but I never thought they were gay – and, I suspect, they didn't, either. I would not have imagined Graham's abuse was about sex.

And, in my ignorance, maybe I would have been half-right. Graham's abuse was a class crime as much as a sex crime. If you ask many former Catholic schoolboys which pupils the creepy priests preferred, it was often the poor, the orphans, the lost – including, in Australia, the Indigenous. A lot of Fathers and Brothers were somehow able to suppress their insuppressible desires with the sons of the wealthiest and most powerful.

Towards the end of our conversation, with my recorder running and my train waiting, I begin to feel more like a journalist than a friend. I'm conscious of trying to coax words from Graham – to turn him, me, us, it into a story. I'd feel guilty if I didn't know he was doing the same to me.

Because I am in his next book, God help us.

Good Weekend