Gair Rhydd speaks to Steve Hannam – Wrestler, Author, Father

Steve Hannam
The ‘Living with Luke’ stage production toured around parts of the UK before COVID-19 restric- tions were brought into effect, telling Hannam’s story as a father of a child with autism. Credit: Steve Hannam
Gair Rhydd sat down with the Harlow-based former semi-professional wrestler, author, actor and father to talk over his varied career and plans following his 100th blog post.

By Jack Robert Stacey | Editor-in-Chief

Steve Hannam is a Harlow-based former semi-professional wrestler, author, actor and father, who has become a local advocate for children on the autistic spectrum. Now that his experiences with the ‘autistic shadow’ have been adapted to both stage and page, Gair Rhydd sat down with Hannam to discuss his varied career and plans following his 100th blog post.

Steve Hannam is by no means an ‘ordinary father’. Just last month the former semi-professional wrestler, author, actor and father of two posted his 100th consecutive post in celebration of eight years of the ‘Living with Luke’ blogs – a self-described “stream of conscious(ness)/train of thought/load of bollocks” that Hannam had been writing since mid-2013.

The blogs follow Hannam’s experiences and personal struggles raising Luke, his 23-year-old son who was diagnosed with autism at an early age.

Autism, or Autistic Spectrum Disorder (‘ASD’) refers to a broad, complex group of developmental disabilities which influence a person’s behaviour and interaction with others. According to the National Autistic Society (NAS), it is currently estimated that 700,000 people in the UK are on the autistic spectrum.

Hannam’s intentions to write posts for ‘Living with Luke’ were always simple: the blogs provided him with a way to get his thoughts, feelings and uncertainties down on virtual paper. “It’s a very personal story to a lot of people,” he says. “It’s not your typical father-son relationship. It’s very much a different and challenging relationship at times.”

Part of his usual writing process, Hannam explained, is to write each post in one sitting: “It’s very much a stream of consciousness thing. If I think I have something to write about, then I’ll usually write about it in one go and post it. It’s very rare that I’ll go back and edit what I’ve written.”

This way, Hannam said that it’s important for him that the blogs to present an accurate representation of life as a parent of a child with autism. A key part of this, he continued, involves him actively acknowledging and reflecting on his own occasional shortcomings as a parent.

Hannam was conscious not to come across as a ‘perfect dad’ in his blogs. Instead, he admits that like other parents, “we all have our shortcomings and we all have our failings.”

Hannam’s semi-professional wrestling career

Growing up in the late seventies, Hannam said that he would often spend his time writing stories or ‘pretend wrestling’ with his brothers. Two activities would eventually dominate his life after leaving education and finding work as a so-called ‘blue coat entertainer’.

During this time, Hannam spent a number of years working on the sidelines of semi-professional wrestling matches until, by chance, he was asked whether he would be interested in refereeing a match.

“And that’s how it started,” Hannam explained.

After acting as a referee, he spent some time on the road with a group of wrestlers where Hannam became familiar with wrestling himself. This experience turned out to be, as Hannam saw it, his ‘on the job training’ as an aspiring semi-professional wrestler. He quickly picked up ‘the basics’ of setting up a ring and began learning how to perform a variety of wrestling moves. To Hannam, this experience was his first ‘real’ chance to be a wrestler:

“By the end of the week, bearing in mind it was only a five day tour, I had wrestled my first match. One of the guys who was wrestling had injured himself and, as I’d done a bit of refereeing for the shows, they said: ‘You’re on!’ So, yeah, I wrestled my first match a week after I started training and that was pretty insane and it was great, I absolutely loved it!”

Hannam would continue wrestling for a while longer, competing at the Harlow ‘Wrestle Fest’ and several charity wrestling matches under the name ‘Danson Thunderbolt’ before eventually settling down to start a family. With his wrestling career on pause, Hannam and his wife had two sons, Jake and Luke who was diagnosed with autism as a child and would become the basis behind the ‘Living with Luke’ blogs.

Luke’s diagnosis

Speaking about his son Luke’s diagnosis of autism at an early age, Hannam said that, “it was a confirmation of something that [him and his wife] suspected, but didn’t want to admit.”

Whilst this news came at a time when public awareness of autism was beginning to increase, Hannam talked of the limited amount of support available which essentially left him with no clear direction to follow. “We pretty much had to start from the beginning,” he said, “in the dark… with a bag over our heads.”

Around this time, the public understanding autism was largely shaped around the 1988 film ‘Rain Man’, a road drama centring on the relationship between two brothers; one of which, the character ‘Raymond’, is presented as being on the autistic spectrum. Although the film has been widely recognised for raising the visibility of autism, it remains to be a subject of critical debate over what many have argued is an inaccurate and simplistic representation of ASD.

Following Luke’s diagnosis, Hannam understandably found himself dealing with a sudden “fear of the unknown” over what his next steps would be and how Luke’s life would play out.

“With a lot of children, there’s almost a logical progression,” he said. “Although that path was there for Luke, it wasn’t clear as we didn’t know how he was going to react, we didn’t know how everybody else was going to react to him.”

‘Living with Luke’ on stage

This story and many others eventually became the inspiration behind a stage adaptation of Hannam’s ‘Living With Luke’ blogs, a show that toured the UK before COVID-19 restrictions were brought into effect.

Reflecting on the show, Hannam mentioned that he was approached by the playwright Paul T. Davies who expressed an early interest in creating a stage show based on the blogs. As they outlined the performance, Davis stumbled upon an old picture of Hannam during his wrestling days.

An idea struck Davies – to set the show inside of a wrestling ring.

The basis behind the performance, Hannam explained, became a wrestling match between him and the ‘autistic shadow’, a depiction of his doubts and fears as a father. The show similarly explores a number of the stories in the ‘Living with Luke’ blogs, focusing on Hannam’s attempts to connect with his son whilst overcoming “the perceptions (and sometimes misperceptions) of the general public” – this is, again, an aspect of his life that Hannam feels is important to present in a realistic way.

“I hope that the audience do identify with that. We do get a lot of feedback from people who say ‘this is my life, this is what I go through every day, thank you for presenting that.’”

Although live performances of ‘Living with Luke’ have been put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hannam expressed that he was looking forward to resuming the show again soon.

Hannam’s experiences with autism

The show has always been a key way for Hannam to get the message out about the reality of autism in his own uniquely personal way. By connecting people with his experiences as Luke’s father, he said that he hopes to help his audience understand “that no autistic child is the same.”

“Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how much education you create around the autistic spectrum or special needs because, if you don’t experience it [first-hand], it’s never going to work for you.”

Hannam currently spends his time working at Church Langley Primary School in Harlow, a school which has been previously praised for its inclusive attitude towards children with special
educational needs.

When engaging with people with autism or special needs, Hannam maintains that it’s important to “get onto their wavelength” and make them feel as comfortable as possible.

Looking over varied career, Hannam said that the meaning behind his numerous blog entries and performances is still as clear as it was back in mid-2013. All of this, he summarised, is “a love letter to my little boy.”

“It’s been an honour and a privilege to be able to have done [live performances of ‘Living with Luke’] for so long and for
so many people.”

“To have that opportunity to keep performing, that is just astounding and I hope that it continues.”

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