Friday, November 30, 2018

What it feels like from the inside

Today, I have a guest on the blog - my husband Dave.  

Doing social

Having Aspergers means that I rarely have a sense of what is going on.

Early on I learned – don’t ask me how – that the best I could do to understand the world was to conduct constant and exhaustive analysis. I have done this habitually all my life. It may take days, weeks, months, and even years on some occasions. There are things I am still analysing after 40 years and somehow the committee of brain cells is not satisfied yet.

Many of these analyses have a life of their own. They are fired often by puzzlement. Feeling bamboozled is fairly familiar. Feeling lost.

An example – a trivial example – of such analysis is Having People Round. They may Eat, Visit, or perhaps just Chat. Everything is OK until they leave. I ask Sue ‘Was that OK ? Were they alright ?’ and then, whatever her answer, plunge into analysis. I search for nuance, study body language, remember what seemed significant moments, trying to figure out if the evening went well. The thing here is that I simply have no circuits to tell me how it was, whether they were OK or not. I have absolutely no sense of it, and have to try to arrive at a conclusion by means of relentless analysis.

To normal people, this process is at best aberrant, and at worse plain nuts. They have an intuitive feel for whether some social occasion has been OK. They don’t need to ask anybody. The question seems absurd. To them, whether someone enjoyed themselves or not is obvious, like asking them if the sky is blue, or what colours mix to make orange. It is not something they think about. Ever. This always feels like amazing magic to me: some spell I never mastered. One of very many.

Analytical thinking was useful at work, when it was explicitly useful. Leading a group through the foothills of analysis to the peaks of understanding was something I could do with ease. But nobody at work knew that the same process was constantly clicking over covertly in my head. It is incessant. It is exhausting, but I can’t stop it. And if I ever did stop it, I would have no understanding at all of what is going on around me. Analysis is the best I can do.

Sometimes there are intuitive insights which make me feel like an idiot savant. I can sometimes pick up on odd emotional undercurrents, and can stumble upon the hidden issues to unlock problems. This can be mistaken as being smart, when it is merely an accident of circuitry.

In particular, my radar has always been tuned to the wavelength of distress. I have never handled happiness well, and cannot detect it confidently in other people or myself. But misery ? That’s another story. I seem able to see the tapestry of misery with all the subtlety of a Farrow and Ball paint chart. I seem able to home in on people’s hidden sadness in a way which often takes them aback.

Why is this ? Well, I do not know, of course. It was true when I was a child, and is still true now.

This random and bizarre combination is all I have to try to understand the world. No wonder I feel so often out of place, puzzled, adrift.

I am hopeless at ‘doing social’. I often wonder aloud to Sue whether people I know might be considered friends, or if she thinks they might think of me as a friend. I was never sure, am still never sure. People are at best a mystery, and occasionally a nightmare.

Doing social was always a problem. Living in a shop, there was a clear boundary between the house and the shop. You stepped through a door from a private world into a public one. In the public one there were likely to be hordes of strangers: customers, reps, deliverymen, all of whom you were supposed to talk to. I remember always feeling tense before stepping through the door that led from the safety of the house into the shop where strange customers might be lurking. It often felt like us against them, though none ever got through the door to the house and actually invaded.

When ‘visitors’, ‘strangers’ actually got into the house, it was usually at my mother’s invitation. She even invited relatives to visit. When they came, much to my mother’s delight, my father, grandfather and I saw thought of it as an alien invasion. Relatives were inconvenient, verging on hostile. We withdrew into our respective shells like alarmed tortoises. There were a few exceptions: relatives with favoured status. We never invited anybody: relatives had nothing to do with us. We tolerated them to please my mother. I think she found this difficult.

I never understood relatives, and could never find common ground with them. It was hard to even figure out how they fitted together. They always felt like a problem that was just too difficult to solve. After my mother died in 1971 it was an opportunity to slip out of sight of many relatives, and her funeral was the last time I ever had any contact with most of them. I do not know whether they are alive or dead, but either way they do not trouble me now.

The family motto was “God gives you relatives. Thank god you can choose your friends.”

The thing was that we did not choose many. My mother had a bunch of them. She visited them, and they came to see her. I think she probably needed the light relief.

My father had a friend. Jack Brownhill had improbably furry eyebrows and appeared very infrequently. He had been best man at my parents’ wedding, and after that came around like a comet maybe once every two years. It wasn’t a close friendship, but it was the closest my father had. Jack Brownhill and my father both look bewildered on the wedding photographs, though that might have been due to the fancy dress. I have no idea who Jack Brownhill actually was.

My grandfather had a tiny group of friends who never visited, though he went to see them. They were previous colleagues from work, and all of them female. He – and I – always got on more easily with women than with men. Neither he nor I were competitive, and both of us were vaguely cerebral, probably feeling safer in our heads than out in the company of people.

As a kid, I had friends at primary school. I even did Susan Sloboda’s maths in exchange for her doing my sewing. My stuffed Bambi still has Susan’s tiny seams punctuated by wild blanket stitch where I took over. My sewing looks like the webs spun by spiders after being given marijuana. But I was taken home ill from the end of school leaver’s party. It was the social stress that made me ill, rather than the jelly and buns.

Secondary school was a nightmare of Kafka-esque proportions from the first day to the last, and ‘friends’ there were never more than acquaintances really. The school used surnames only, so I guess that friends were the people whose first names I knew. The main task at school was to protect myself from the school’s desire that we should all fit in with what were odd rules of behaviour. I did this by being difficult when I was there, and by being there as infrequently as was possible. I was often not there when I was actually there – playing truant inside the school. I have been playing truant all my life.

I did A levels at 16, and went to university when I was just 17. I was socially inept, hideously immature, ill-at-ease, but good at Latin. It was not a promising prospect.

The university wanted me to go into hall. This was a deal-breaker as I simply could not face spending time in the company of so many strangers. I wrote to say that I would not be going to the university at all if I had to be in hall, and so I ended up in digs with a dozen other misfits, oddballs and eccentrics. They were delightful, though Sue always felt we were faintly creepy as a bunch.

University was the best period of my life. By light years. There were very few, if any, rules. Nobody seemed to care very much what you did, and there was no pressure of any kind. I failed to turn up for any departmental meetings, parties, meals or wine tastings, and did not go to graduation. I missed not only lectures, but whole courses of lectures. I read voraciously and discovered delight in so many areas of learning. I bought astonishing numbers of books and had VIP status in the bookshop as a result.

As an adult I have studiously and creatively avoided groups of people wherever they gather. Shops, parties, weddings, sports, festivals, collective bonhomie of all kinds. I am most alone in groups of people, and feel existentially threatened. I have been to three weddings, one of which was my own, but could not face going to my wonderful children’s weddings. There are many reasons for that, but social events are something I welcome as much as the invitation to have flu for a month, or have someone push wires under my toe-nails. I break into a sweat at social events, feel my pulse rate and blood pressure rise, and can’t wait to get away.

To other people, it seems incredible that I have this debilitating lack of social feel. It is unbelievable to normal people that anyone can lack this basic capability. I look un-ironed but otherwise almost normal. My behaviour is a little eccentric, but not wildly enough to have me barred from public spaces. But there is just no circuit in my head which can tune in to how happy people are, whether they like me, whether they are having a good time, whether they are satisfied.

Analysis, analysis, analysis … there are usually several simultaneous analyses continually running in my head. No matter what I am doing, however absorbed I am in some obscure woodwork or music, committees of brain cells are beavering away trying to find answers to impossible and often trivial questions.

I cannot tell whether people are angry or upset. This is true of myself, too. It is hard to distinguish between them. I try not to get into that whole territory, as it feels rather scary. On occasions when I have been angry, I feel out of control and unstoppable. Martial boggled at the rhino displayed in the arena. He commented that it was slow to anger, and hard to provoke, but once aroused it was ferocious beyond belief. The Romans were awe-struck that a rampaging rhino, suitably goaded into action, tossed anything in its path. Its fury was indiscriminate and implacable. I know how it felt.

Until really recently, and decades after her death, I always thought of my mum as volcanic. She seemed to me to have two settings: calm and explosive. There was no mid-setting, and she moved unpredictably from pacific to violent without warning. It was scary and made me feel a bit insecure. Now I see that she must have had infinite gradations of gently increasing annoyance. The puzzle for her must have been that I ignored the warning signs and ploughed on regardless. It must have been so frustrating and inexplicable. But I simply did not notice any warning signs, could not read them, did not even see them. I simply went on with whatever nefarious thing I was doing, and kept on enthusiastically until she exploded, much to my complete surprise. And much to her huge incomprehension. How could I be so wilfully annoying ?

No relevant circuits, that’s how.

I am colour-blind. My rainbows, wonderful, glorious, and moving have only two distinct colours really. I see yellow and I see blue, and maybe am aware of another colour, though I don’t know what it is. Not for me the ROYGBIV version which I know exists for other people, but never see. It’s just the same with emotions. You have to work with whatever you have.

The second instalment to Dave's explanation is here.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Addicted to turquoise

A friend emailed me a few annotated photographs of her daily life yesterday as a newsy update. She's been doing a lot of dressmaking and has in the last couple of years broken out from the oppression of neutrals into brighter colours. You can see the results in her wardrobe:

It made me think about the colours that dominate my wardrobe, but it isn't 'colours' it's one colour - blue. And it's a specific shade - turquoise. I've spread them out on the bed to show you.

Yes, I'm addicted to every shade of turquoise - whether it's 'aqua' or 'eau de nil' or 'sea breeze' or 'ocean' or 'sea mist' or some other name for the same hue. I am so addicted to it that my granddaughters call the colour  'Sue blue' and someone at my Quaker Meeting calls me 'The Turquoise Lady.'

I know that the colour suits my complexion and colouring, but it's hold clutches further than clothes. It's scary. My study walls are pale turquoise, my kitchen walls are similar, I chose turquoise for two of my books covers, my favourite earrings are turquoise. So is my bedside light and my pencil case and my teapot and omg I won't go on. 

In the summer I took great care choosing my outfit for the Croatian wedding as mother of the groom, and then went to get a pedicure. I was looking for something sophisticated, of course, and then I saw the colour chart and this happened:

When I got home from the salon I was appalled. Not only was it glittery, it was turquoise, and it so bright! I tried to remove it, but it was so stuck on there, that I only managed to lighten it. Surprise, surprise, it was not the focus of attention at the wedding, though someone did admire it.

When I went for my next pedicure in Boulder in October (Wendy always treats me) I was looking forward to having bright red toenails again, but when the manicurist showed me the colour chart, my eyes were drawn to - yes, the turquoise, and before I could stop myself, I had chosen it.  I despair.

I am beginning to feel as though I am another version of The Green Lady. Click on the link and check her out.

Any suggestions?

Tuesday, November 27, 2018


Last week I was lighting candles, and this week it feels as if I am snuffing them out, and it's a dispiriting business.  

Let me explain. I mentioned to you before that my two grandsons, whose ages are now into double figures, had asked me to delete all photographs of them from my blog. This is both sad and annoying, but I respect their wishes and I have been deleting said pics as soon as I track them down. 

But even when they have been deleted on the blog that you see, they are still in the ether, and are (for the moment anyway) still available to Google searches. So for the last few days in odd moments I have been trawling through deeper files and albums to erase the things forever. 

It makes me feel sad. I hate deleting photographs of people I love, even when they are ropy pictures. To delete specially chosen lovely ones feels like sacrilege. I find the power of the visual image so strong that I feel - and I know this is stupid and irrational - as though I am erasing the boys themselves.

And in the olden days (before the edict) I would now show you how fab these boys are by posting a photo. What's to do? Should I post a photo of Lux and Cecilia, my two young granddaughters, instead? or will the time come in a few years time when I will have to remove these too?

Bugger it!

Here is a picture of me and my little sister instead:

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Light in the darkness

This is my Twitter profile. For those of you not on Twitter, the 'pinned tweet' stays there permanently, and underneath come all my current tweets in chronological order, newest at the top.

It's been a dark week. There are so many dark weeks, and I am finding it a struggle to focus on the lighting of candles. Perhaps I have been spending too much time reading the news. Perhaps it's the lack of light and the fog. Not's really the state of the world, the state of this country.

I'm sure you read about the UN report on poverty in the UK. It didn't tell me anything I didn't know but it brought it all together in one damning and desperate bulletin - the cruelties of Universal Credit, the huge increases in homelessness, the explosion in food bank usage.

What's to be done apart from voting out this compassion-less and incompetent government?

Some people are doing things. Take, for example, Jack Monroe, the food writer. After her experience of trying to feed herself and her young son while living on benefits in desperate poverty for two years, and then using a food bank, she started cookery writing, beginning with a blog, in which she offered tasty recipes for people on tiny budgets. One of her books is Cooking on a Bootstrap and the latest is Tin Can Cook. Both would be useful for people using food banks, and she is currently raising money so that every food bank in the country will receive a copy of Tin Can Cook, which they are free to photocopy for all of their users. If you donate £9 to the scheme, a food bank will get a copy plus three tins. This covers all costs, including postage, packing and admin.

Help Refugees has also been lighting a candle this week with their Choose Love shop in London. A real pop-up shop at  
30-32 Fouberts Place, Carnaby Street, London, W1F 7PS 
has items on sale that you can buy for the charity Help Refugees to give to refugees. You can also buy them online here.

Yesterday Dave and I lit another candle. This autumn we read a War on Want report called Deadly Investments, about UK banks' complicity in Israels' crimes against the Palestinian people. You can read the full report here. Here is an excerpt:

We banked with the Co-op Bank for 30 years until they had all that shenanigins five years ago and we worried about losing our money and moved to First Direct, which is owned by HSBC.

Yesterday we moved back to the Co-op Bank and it's a relief to know I am not helping to arm Israel in their violent oppression of the Palestinian people, of which THIS is just the latest example. 

Do you have a candle you'd like to light?

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

On the nose

Writers love lists. This writer loves lists of tips on writing, and I came across my latest one thanks to Billy Mernit. It was written by William Goldman about screenwriting, in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade:

1.     Thou shalt not take the crisis out of the protagonist’s hands.
2.     Thou shalt not make life easy for the protagonist.
3.     Thou shalt not give exposition for exposition’s sake.
4.     Thou shalt not use false mystery or cheap surprise.
5.     Thou shalt respect thy audience.
6.     Thou shalt know thy world as God knows this one.
7.     Thou shalt not complicate when complexity is better.
8.     Thou shalt seek the end of the line, taking characters to the farthest depth of the conflict imaginable within the story’s own realm of probability.
9.     Thou shalt not write on the nose — put a subtext under every text.
10.   Thou shalt rewrite.

I am still trying to work out what number 7 means, and I always have trouble with number 9. I am not good at writing subtext in my dialogue. For non-writers, subtext in dialogue is the underlying meaning or motivation behind something someone says. When you write something straightforward with no subtext it's called writing on the nose. When I was working on the screenplay of But I Told You Last Year That I Loved You, a friendly writer critiquing it for me said the dialogue was 'too on the nose.'

After much thought I realised that if you live with someone with Asperger syndrome for 50 years (in my case, Dave) and you have other people in the family on the autism spectrum, you learn to talk in a straightforward and unambiguous way, otherwise you are misunderstood. Even then it can be tricky, because some of these aspies look for subtext that isn't there and read all kinds of things into what you say that you really did not mean. But that's another problem. 

In addition to being programmed over the years to be straight-talking, I am basically a frank person, and am sometimes criticised for being too frank by certain members of the family - ironically the two main critics are the ones who often look for subtext that isn't there. 

But the crucial thing with my screenplay difficulty was that the story is about a marriage in which the husband has undiagnosed Asperger syndrome, so the long time wife had learned (as I did) to talk without subtext. What's a girl to do? it's a conundrum.

Subtext in dialogue is a huge problem for me, and it's one of the things I am currently wrestling with in the rewrite of FRIENDS, LOVERS AND TREES.

Now for something for everyone - whether or not you're a writer. I came across an idea on a blog yesterday. It's the reverse advent calendar. I am a little late with this, as you're supposed to start one at the beginning of November. You collect an item every day of November - an item for a foodbank - and then hand it in at the end of the month, so the items can be given out by the foodbank in December.  Isn't it a cracking idea to do with children? I would do it if I had kids still at home. As it is, I just put something in the foodbank collection basket every time I go to the Co-op.

And now, one more list that popped up on Twitter:

p.s. Dave just explained to me the difference between complex and complicated. Hurrah!

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Aging ain't for cissies

Things changed after my last post, thank goodness.

On Friday morning I was not only wiped out from a terrible night I was (I realise now in retrospect) in despair about the state of my legs. Was this it? Would they ache until I died? I was due to go for a walk with Liz and when we chatted on the phone to decide where to go, I said 'I never want to walk anywhere again. Cycle, yes. WALK, no.'

I know this sounds self-pitying and over-the-top as I always an ache or small pain somewhere. It's a long time since I got out of bed in the morning and didn't have some part of my body saying 'Yoo-hoo!' I am used to that. I know a lot of you are the same age as me, so you're probably in the same position. This was worse. 

Being this age (on the verge of 70) makes one aware of one's mortality. Friends die. Friends have ailments that stop them participating fully in activities they once enjoyed. We have less energy, less stamina, no matter how fit we are. (And I am quite fit.)  I thought my time had arrived for doing nothing but knitting.

After talking to Liz on the phone I went back to bed and tried to sleep. Then Liz came over and we went to lunch. I did nothing else until it was time to drive to Sheffield for a night out with my son-in-law Brian, and my younger grandson. (I hate it that he no longer wants to be named on here, let alone be shown in a picture, but for long-time readers, he is the one who once said 'I don't want to be mean but Sue and Dave aren't posh. They never dust and they have dead flies in their attic.'

He and Brian and I went out to a local jazz event and I had a great time. It was so nice being out with the pair of them, the music was interesting and refreshing (if not to my precise jazz taste, despite the two saxes) and it was fun walking out into a foggy evening in an unfamiliar place and hanging about outside Domino's Pizza for a taxi home. Yes, really. I live a very sheltered life.  I went to bed two hours later than usual in a different bed, slept for eight hours and woke up to have a fun breakfast with Zoe and Brian, with lots of banter about subjects other than the politics or astrophysics to which I am accustomed. (Ahem.)

My legs didn't ache, and I realised that the problem with them had been nothing more sinister or permanent than the result of too many long walks with the Aging Hippie last weekend. I drove home listening to the kind of jazz I DO like, and had so much energy and joie de vivre that I cleaned the house. I even vacuumed up the dead flies in the attic. 

I repotted the doorstep geraniums to bring inside for over-wintering and replaced them with small scarlet cyclamens. I rode my bike for an hour. I did all this without aching legs. 

So it's all going to be OK. Until the next time. Aging is tough. The thing, I think, is not to lose one's nerve, and to build in lots of treats which are refreshing and act as temporary rejuvenations, and to have a son-in-law so sweet natured he invites his mother-in-law out for the evening to listen to jazz. How lucky am I.

p.s. The venue wasn't Ronnie Scott's, it was Crookes Working Men's Club, Sheffield, but I have no pictures, so I'm busking.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Still not a stoic

Have you ever said to someone who asked you how you are: 'I feel old' and have them respond 'It's better than the alternative'(i.e. death) and felt like socking them in the jaw?

I would like to be a stoic, but I can't seem to manage it. Last night I was awake for three hours with aching legs and feet. 

This morning is foggy, and in London, too many MPs are behaving like ill-disciplined children at wet playime.

Be that as it may (lower case) we have had some fabulous sunny days this week and some stunning sunsets.

When I was driving home from Sheffield over the hills at 3 p.m. on Wednesday the sky looked like this:

and on our lane 90 minutes later it looked like this:

"Let’s love today, the what we have now, this day, not
          today or tomorrow or
yesterday, but this passing moment, that will
          not come again."

James Schuyler, from A Few Days

Monday, November 12, 2018

Weekend walks

Firstly, thank you to all of you who gave me your thoughts and advice on smartphones.

Isaac gave me a beautiful secondhand one while I was in Boulder and I love it.

It is twice as big as my crappy old stupid one (as in not smart) and texting on it is a dream, even with my fat fingers.

I am using it for phoning, texting, maps and taking photographs, and nothing else. I am not putting Twitter on it or any games at all, because I don't want to be addicted to my phone. I may put an app on to measure how far I've been on my bike, but that's it.

This is me unlocking it to take a photograph:

The Aging Hippie took the picture. She's been staying here since Thursday, which is why I have not blogged. 

Here she is enjoying a cream tea on Friday. These yanks love cream teas. It's hard to persuade Karen to eat anything but scones while she's here.  

We've been out for a long walk every day and here are some of the photos I've taken:

Can you tell the difference between these and the ones you've seen up to now, taken with my tiny camera?

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

On quitting

I am well used to coping with rejection. You need to be, if you want to be a published writer. But being rejected when you apply for a creative writing course is a whole other level of rejection. At least that's what it felt like two weeks ago. I was gutted.

I am bouncing back, though. All kinds of silver linings have occurred to me, not least the fact that I shan't have to shell out £1600 (or whatever it was) on course fees. Another silver lining is that I shall have time to garden and cycle as well as rewrite the novel. Yet another advantage is that as I'm now officially a has-been and a loser, I don't have to worry about keeping up a front for PR purposes. (I can hear you saying - 'OMG. When did she ever worry about doing that?') I can let it all hang out. Yay!

Assuming I wasn't rejected on the grounds of age and my limited years of earning power ahead, one reason for the rejection could be that the selectors of the lucky 15 course participants didn't think my novel was marketable. Actually it's deeply unfashionable. It certainly doesn't fit the spec the literary agent mentioned to me in the summer. According to her, the current trend is for psychological thrillers. I told her I'd read that Up-LIT - e.g. Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine  - was the genre du jour but she said it definitely wasn't a trend. 

Dave and I get a mail order catalogue from Postscript Books, which deals in good quality remaindered books such as those by Mary Beard and Alan Bennett. Most of their stock is non-fiction. And some of the titles take your breath away in terms of "How could anyone imagine there was going to be mass market for THAT?"

Ijudging from this, it's much easier to get an unmarketable book published if it's non-fiction. Perhaps I should disguise mine as that. The trouble is I rarely read non-fiction. Even the two titles I've mentioned on here this year - The Hidden Life of Trees and Why I'm no longer talking to white people about race  - are sitting on my bedside table unfinished. I lose heart if there are no characters and no plot.

I'm going to leave you with the most inspiring video I've seen this year. It went viral recently so you may have already seen it. I think it contains a message for me.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Peace must be dared

Yesterday, Bakewell Quakers (of which I am one) held their annual remembrance peace vigil. We stood in silence for one hour by the main pedestrian bridge over the river:

Fortunately it wasn't raining, because it meant there was a steady stream of tourists crossing over the bridge, and so we were seen. And a larger proportion of passers-by than usual took time to read our messages. Two tourists even took photographs. 

We usually have one banner - the one on the left, which says 

We remember all victims of war 
- civilians and soldiers.
 Let's all say NO to war.

there are a variety of slogans on the placards...

Arms are for hugging

Quakers for peace

People need bread not bombs

Our world needs YOU to say no to war

This time we also brought along the banner we had when Trump became president:


Speak peace not hate

because if we are to have peace in the future and the end of war, it will be by building bridges and not by erecting barbed wire fences.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said:

“There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is itself the great venture and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to want to protect oneself.”

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Cold hard times

Having spent the last two weeks in warm Colorado sunshine and come home to frosty mornings and evenings in front of the log burning stove, I've been thinking about all the refugees who are facing a cold hard winter outdoors. 

I'm thinking of organising a collection, so I looked at the website of the charity Help Refugees to see what they list as priority needs right now.  This charity works in Calais, Greece, Italy, Serbia, Lebanon and the UK. If you follow the link you can find the list too. 

But don't worry if you have no items to donate, because they've arranged with a supplier of outdoor clothes for us to buy things online at a reduced price and have them shipped direct to Help Refugees. There are a number of items, with prices ranging from £1.60 for a survival foil blanket and £2.25 for warm thermal gloves to sleeping bags for £15, coats and blankets for £20, and shoes for £30. 

There is also a wishlist on Amazon with a much larger range of items, including tents. It's here.

Please consider it.