I’ve been waiting some time now for a character that I enjoy watching. But, like buses, three (well, let’s call it three) came along at once. While I was waiting, my imagination burnt off frustration by inventing the women I’d like to write, create, bring to life. They live in my thoughts, these unnamed profiles, these clusters of habits, running havoc in snatched moments then lassoed back to earth by the shitty, gritty reality of working single parenthood.Read More
This time, I wanted to return to a theme I have previously touched upon, inspired by world empathy day.
When my son was a toddler I read to him a lot. It was a soothing activity and one of the our most popular reads was Shirley Hughes. We had several individual stories and over time, thanks to generous gifts and charity shop finds, some pristine anthologies and dogeared collections of her beautiful, soul-warming illustrations joined our shelves.
When I was a few months pregnant with my daughter, I learnt that Shirley Hughes would be visiting a local bookshop (now closed, sadly, after many happy years). I was insistent, I simply had to go. So it was, I cycled into town and locked my bike, fingers fluttering in anticipation. I stood in line, excited, nervous, clutching several books I had chosen, closely watching her face fluctuate between steady concentrated repose and the animation of enthusiasm when she replied, eyes twinkling underneath the floppy brim of her purple hat. I watched mothers, like me, older than me, fondly recall childhood story times, their gaze skipping from Shirley to their own children, bestowing eager nods and smiles intended to impress upon them the significance of this small, white haired lady.
I babbled, I was over-emotional, I was awe-struck. I do remember Hughes’ mild and delicate surprise at me reading her stories to my two-year-old son (was he too young? I wasn’t sure, he seemed to be listening - or maybe I had mistaken sitting still for concentration). I remember spelling out my nieces’ names and wishing I had a name for the unknown little life in my belly so that I could have that written too, observing how her handwriting unfurled from under the bold, black marker, gliding across the crisp, unblemished white of each new page.
Hughes gave each person time and for that I will forever be grateful. I cannot now remember my exact question but I do remember, I shall never forget, the way she explained her first adventures in drawing. A child in wartime, Hughes and her family had had little in the way of possessions, but scraps of paper and pencils and hours of unstructured time had proven the spark for her imagination and being bored had catalysed her creativity. Research demonstrates the hours required to master a skill (I shall reserve comment on the current fascination and focus with mastery within an educational context but suffice to say it has little to do with nurturing true mastery) and there is nothing like your own imagination, limited resources and unbridled time, on the perimeter of a parent’s attention, to allow a child to develop in his or her own time. Hughes was able to capitalise upon her hours spent drawing as a child, she pursued studies in art and has had a long, very successful career – born of boredom and the freedom it brings.
Hughes’ words sunk into me and concluded a story that had begun in my own childhood, a story that didn’t give away any clue to the ending, but allowed and encouraged me to find my own way. I too had spent hours as a child drawing, absorbed within the comfort of an untouched side of paper, my mind channelled along careful lead lines. My passion was costumes, clothing, from all periods of history. I had an eye for detail. Elizabethan England held an early appeal, with its lavish ruffs, dangling pearls, delicate embroidery and ornate embellishments. My knowledge grew, decade by decade, century upon century, with a library loan that documented both female and male fashion history. I copied and copied, day after day (no tracing!), my eyes could feel the curves of the clothing and my fingers found them, telling each detail in heavy grey lead.
In my later teens, my passion for art was sidelined, overwhelmed by the presence of literature and all it could offer in terms of understanding the world. For years, I sought truth in literature, I burrowed beneath layers of words in order to find meaning, receiving encouragement, praise and qualifications in the process. Over time, I have realised that the vast edifice of literature is a creation in and of itself and whilst literature, linguistics and psychology intertwine, there is simply no solution to the in-the-moment instinct required to ‘read’ a person. The fact is, I understand slowly and deeply, and I accept within myself the gaps I encounter, borne of limitations not only in instinct itself but in the lack of confidence in my own instinct. Imagine, if you can, reading something that appears one way and becomes something other than, something different. Trust lies at the heart of all communication, be it written or verbal: no matter how old you are, if your neurology differs, diverges from the normal – albeit broad and well-beaten – track of typical development, it is likely your anxiety lies in a deep-seated difficulty with trust, with reliability and predictability.
Thus it was, in the most difficult days of parenting I returned to reading, a lost pilgrim, seeking comfort in children’s stories, keeping a sharp eye out for Kate Greenaway and CILIP award winners and any illustration that caught my attention. I also began reading non-fiction avidly, with a hunger to learn and understand many, many nameless feelings, actions and memories. There were so many wonderful finds and overdue fines...in Hughes, I found a feeling to aspire to, an ordinary-looking mother whose home was messy, a son who slammed the door, a daughter who sped half naked on her potty, games which involved cardboard boxes and leaves and stones, rainy day trips out, stopping to look at market stalls, buying a pair of wellingtons then going for a walk in them...there was football club, then running, then ballet, then playdate, then party, then barbecue...I felt that I at least had a fictional home, a place where my days were valid, my small activities meaningful.
I reflect upon those early days with immense poignancy now. They are lost to me forever and how I want them back. I miss the simplicity of being a mother with young children: when my son was young, he had the freedom to sink into long stretches of play, his time was his, not encroached upon by the sharp, unforgiving pinch of schooling, socialising, the cultural clash between children who are growing older, faster than ever before, and his own different developmental trajectory, one which is nurtured by simpler places and simpler times.
Library or bookshop
I am at the point where the purchase of a brand new book is a luxury. I buy second-hand and as a small family we make constant use of our local library. Whenever my son or daughter turns and asks, ‘Can I get another?’, as long as there is space on their card I say yes. A library card has the might to enrich, inspire and empower. The process of visiting the library is also a valuable social learning experience for both children as well as usually a little precious, hands-off time for me. We had our library cards days after we moved house; our internet connection came months later (of course, I was able to access the internet at the library...and that delay is in part indicative of the interconnectedness of motivation and organisation – I was more motivated to fulfil a smaller, easy task at no cost than I was a larger, more complex and expensive task!).
ADHD: Attention and concentration
As I continue along my journey, navigating neurology, I see how hard it is to remain focused under pressure – and I feel how hard it is myself. As I build up ways of internally directing my thoughts, I find I am able to gradually draw upon others to help me too. True friendship acknowledges struggle: at times, some gentle redirection towards less inflammatory thoughts, the opportunity to look at something of beauty – be it a long stroll along the river or an illustration – either of these things can be the salve that helps balance. The loving push, to borrow Temple Grandin’s phrase, is when those redirections are firmly made – imposed, one might say. It takes considerable trust, to accept firm yet positive redirection – to feel like someone has stepped into the furious traffic of your thoughts and stopped them. Developing a relationship – be it between parent and child, friends or partners – requires trust and that it is not necessarily a given, because for many complex reasons which in time science may uncover, yet which currently remain communicational alchemy, there are many who learn differently and the sad truth is, the one thing that is learnt rapidly and painfully is that it is hard to trust in yourself when you are frequently met with responses that correct, chide, berate or seek to shame.
Therefore, I question, how can we raise our neurodivergent children, encourage our diagnosed young people and support those diagnosed in adulthood to journey to the heart of their own true, authentic selves? Hughes’ words suggest a simple truth to me: that it is in fact perhaps the imposition of boredom, a limitation of material possessions, the absence of constant social structure, which is the real point at which we might begin to find our lost selves. An individual who actively sidesteps cultural convention does not lack empathy - (s)he sees life through a kaleidoscope that offers many different colourful permutations and her ability to identify the standard arrangement is simply not as sharply attuned as a neurotypical mind, which tends to converge to the norm with more ease. So let’s actively encourage all forms of creative freedom in order that we can see, hear, converse in and value one another’s colourful perspectives on life.
Zoe Vail Smith hails from London. She blogs on all things autistic and artistic for Mainspring Arts.
For Dan x
It’s been a while since I’ve been able to browse Netflix and on a whim, spotting the face of Holliday Grainger, familiar from Strike, I decided to try Jed Mercurio’s 2015 adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I read Lawrence’s novel years ago, hot on the heels of studying The Go-Between, keen to see what Lawrence did to deserve the infamous obscenity ban. Lawrence’s novel significantly precedes Hartley’s, though it was published afterward. As the novelist Ali Smith ponders, perhaps ‘(The Go-Between’s) appearance ... and its boldness then with the more surface issues of class and sexuality are partly responsible for Lady Chatterley’s Lover finally seeing unexpurgated publication...’. However, Mercurio made clear his focus before the screening, noting that his focus was the ‘love triangle’ as ‘swearing and sex scenes don’t excite (him)’. His adaptation studies in quiet depth Lawrence’s great fascination with social class and nature, as well as the intense inner conflict of Constance Chatterley.
Amongst my thoughts, in the hours that follow watching the film, I am reminded of the value of returning to art, to literature, as we grow older. As a student, my interest lay in the shock value, in understanding what society wanted to conceal, what it perceived to be corrupting. Yet, I question now, whether the purpose of the ban went beyond the mere sexual. For Lawrence upturns more than bodies, he strips back class, social position. As a successful writer he moved in privileged literary circles, yet he never forgot his working class, rural roots. In this day and age, where evidence shows that children who come from lower social economic classes are at a disadvantage when starting school; and furthermore that the education system wides that gap, we must continue, ever louder, to question why. Similarly, we must pursue educational equality for those who are not neurologically mainstream. We can generate meaningful and meaningless data and plan purposeful and pointless interventions but this doesn’t challenge the attitudinal chains and bounds of perception that persist in 21st century Britain.
Constance Chatterley will not be kept in her place: not by marital bonds nor social disapproval. In yoking Constance and Oliver Mellors together, Lawrence is able to acknowledge and explore our human connection with nature and sexual desire, which in turn serves to catalyse a deeply personal study of society and social class. The contemporary corollary we now have are the studies which demonstrate the intrinsic importance of green space upon our mental and physical wellbeing; the green space itself being of increased value as it decreases, victim of careless consumption, the housing crisis, shopping centres and fuel for industry. On the other hand, sexual desire is well documented and widely accessible, no longer fleeting, illicit images on cards or magazines, these images are on screen, limitless, irresistible to curiously tasteless connoisseurs who in turn are no longer aroused by real bodies. It feels as if we’ve ill-used the gains we made and instead formed a myriad of new bad habits. We live in a world of ambiguity, where it becomes increasingly difficult to discern right from wrong, where the most powerful manipulate the least powerful, harnessing the mass of their electoral might. In the microcosm of the novel, Clifford’s power – his wealth, his class, his gender, ultimately don’t save his marriage.
I found Mercurio’s re-imagining of Clifford and Constance Chatterley a particularly engaging relationship to watch for both are morally ambiguous: you cannot say either is the victim or the wrong-doer. A sophisticated, well drawn character can and will shift from being likeable, deserving of sympathy, to one who is unkind, cruel, drawing our condemnation. That recognition and juxtaposition of good and bad within all of us is what contributed to the critical success of The Wire, which pored over the economic and social deprivation of inner city Baltimore with a fine-toothed comb. However, Oliver Mellors, WW1 cannon fodder and gruff gamekeeper, is less ambiguous: he follows the agreed social codes, aware of the dangers of speculation. He is intelligent and understands his position – which isn’t to say he accepts it. Clifford, in contrast believes in social propriety, imposes these codes of conduct with self righteous privilege, not questioning their social parity. Clearly, the rules serve to maintain the life style of Clifford and the wider upper class at large, (the most ridiculous example is the laboured passing of a letter, from Oliver, via a butler’s silver tray, to be offered to Clifford) as such Constance benefits from these rules and yet she deliberately rejects them, as deliberately as one might choose to undress, she rebels with her body, her sexuality and lastly steps out of her marriage.
In a pivotal moment, we see Clifford’s motorised wheelchair get stuck in thick mud and Oliver is called upon to help. In this moment, the dynamics of economic power, social privelege and sexual desire intersect and each individual is sharply aware of their part in the triangle. Constance is told by Clifford she cannot help in ‘her condition’, perpetuating yet another ill-founded belief that pregnant women are fragile, delicate creatures and ought not to exert themselves at all. Constance obeys him in this matter, though perhaps more wary of Oliver’s emotional intensity than her husband’s propriety. Thus, she stands by awkward, anxious, painfully aware that the man she loves is hurting himself to help the man she is married to. I felt it was a nice touch that Mercurio had Constance run off, anxious for Oliver’s health, elevating an already rebellious act to one which also demonstrates a physically robust side to her determination.
In a key moment later on in the drama, Constance confronts Ivy Bolton, Clifford’s servant. Mercurio coaxes from Lawrence’s threadbare characterisation of Mrs Bolton a slender but sinuous part which runs from the coalmining incident at the start, through Clifford’s tortuous transition back into civilian life, up until the tense final moments. Ivy believes that Constance has taken sexual advantage of Oliver - her reaction implies that she is much less bothered by the sexual scandal than she is by the power imbalance she perceives between the upper and working classes – not only do the likes of the Chatterleys control and dictate the working lives of her and those like her, but now she perceives Constance has the audacity to take the most basic thing and claim it as her own. The energy of her anger and humiliation is swiftly extinguished by Constance’s heartbroken tears, replaced by the burn of regret and genuine empathy for a woman she now sees is as trapped as herself. In a servant’s corridor, Mercurio presents these women as the equals they are – and above all, he gifts them the chance to feel it and believe it themselves.
In writing this, I’ve read numerous reviews and most feel profoundly superficial, focusing on the loyalty of Mercurio to the original, providing a summary of how much you actually see, nod, nod, wink, wink. The better reviews spoke of overarching themes, did at least namedrop social class. Curiously, all were written by men. Perhaps I could spend time mulling over that fact, except I’d prefer to return to Constance and her character and make up for the media preoccupation over how much flesh Grainger would reveal. For she, Constance, is a sophisticated female character who is both constant to herself and inconstant to her husband; both constant in her love for Oliver, yet inconstant in maintaining the commitments demanded of her as a woman by society. In Lawrence’s novel, she goes to live with her sister whilst Oliver seeks to finalise his divorce. Mercurio’s adaptation sees Constance dip to her knees, in supplication, appealing to Clifford’s better, kinder, nature to grant her a divorce. Clifford is given a redemptive moment – despite the humiliation imposed upon him by societal standards he is able to discern that refusing to grant a divorce brings him no advantage, he has nothing to gain from denying her this.
In the closing scenes, Constance is pictured, being driven away by Oliver, she carrying his baby, either madly, bravely, or both, departing from the conventions that have provided for her and protected her. She seeks a new identity for herself, new definitions of love and security, one can only hope that she and Oliver are able to find the means to happily support themselves and raise their child. Of course, Mercurio has the creative right to leave the viewer on the cusp of that hopeful journey, the practical implications which crowd my mind say as much about me as my joy in watching a woman liberate herself from unhappiness.
With the internet illuminated by recent WAAW posts, it may seem like an overly late jump on the bandwagon to consider autistic women at this stage in my blog, yet... the journey one takes as an autistic woman in this current period in time, shares similarities with Constance’s struggles, difficulties, joy and hope. For Lawrence truly wrote about perceptions and expectations – which is at the crux of what autistic individuals struggle with*. Mercurio’s Constance demonstrates an ability to self determine, to connect with her own innermost feelings and needs. As autistic women, it is truly important that we allow ourselves to determine what our needs are, to acknowledge our own feelings. For many of us, this is so diffiicult to do, as society is stacked against us. We define as women, we are autistic, many of us are mothers, we may have either co-morbid mental health conditions or ones brought on by a lack of diagnosis or support. We face increased challenges due to the multifaceted nature of our neurological condition – caught within a complex tangle of intersecting socially generated expectations, perceptions and stereotypes.
What can we do? Well, I think Constance shows us that society likes nothing less than a happy woman because a happy woman is a powerful human. A happy, confident, autistic woman? Well, she is one who can identify her own feelings, is perfectly capable of empathy and is extremely sensitive. She is likely to be guarded or conversely unexpectedly brusque. But then, she experiences life at its extremes for she teeters between being gifted and overwhelmed by a flow of details, information, and sensations, that stream in; vacillating between intensities that range from the exquisite purity of child-like joy to a discordant cacophony – and can find herself unexpectedly accelerated from extreme to the other.
Like Constance, a happy, confident, powerful autistic woman is able to make change. She may not require a gamekeeper for this purpose (though who I am to judge!?) but she would certainly be able to trust and follow her gut instinct. Like Constance, she would permit herself to feel, to take actions which please her, actions which speak louder than words. As I believe a man once said, and I paraphrase: if you believe you are right and your actions are for the best, it’s better to act first and apologise later. I’d go one step further and simplify this process: I’d urge autistic women in this complex world, to act, internally reflect on whether it was for the best, then keep going. It is so important that we don’t overwhelm ourselves with anxiety connected to social propriety: it literally depressing and suppressing us. I have read so much online, so many heartrending struggles centred around social interaction, friendships, relationships, families, and it seems to me that we’re being kept in our place by perceptions. Furthermore, seeing many of us still like to exert our power and privilege over fellow humans we perceive as weaker than ourselves it is imperative that you do what you must and be ballsy about. After all, if you’re going to do a Constance – allow your true feelings, act on them and then be exposed for it – do so with the happy confidence that it was right for you.
*It would be pertinent to acknowledge Lawrence’s limitations – his views on certain sexual acts are outdated and smack of sexual inequality – but Lawrence cannot be expected to be faultless in all domains (besides, Mercurio makes amends by having Oliver enthusiastically perform said act, in the rain).
Zoe Vail Smith hails from London. She blogs on all things autistic and artistic for Mainspring Arts.
This month has been difficult. Females and madness have been flavour of the month* and so it is that I find my mind drifting back to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, not mad but most definitely vilified for her gender and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novella The Yellow Wallpaper in which a male doctor prescribes a cure worse than the condition. These women have been brewing in my mind and from this witches’ stew I’ll attempt to spin some wisps and strands into a blog. I hope it makes sense: my self doubt has billowed in the face of instability, but I am a determined spirit and I hope you will enjoy this tardy October offering.
So let’s begin with a woman who undoubtedly knew her own mind but was let down by the men around her: Hester Prynne, Prynne-rhymes-with-sin – it’s hard not to think it in a singsong voice! For the uninitiated: Hester unwittingly commits adultery in Puritanical New England (bad choice, trust me) and consequently she is required to wear a red capital ‘A’ pinned to her chest to denote her sin. Of course, Hester doesn’t take this lying down (pun unintended): as she emerges from prison with her baby, Hawthorne describes a woman not ‘dimmed and obscured by a disastrous cloud...’ but one whose natural beauty and grace is so powerful that it ‘(makes) a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she (is) enveloped.’ Her ‘attire’, handsewn by herself while imprisoned is notable for its ‘wild and picturesque peculiarity’: here is a woman who is unafraid to stand out even for the wrong reasons and how I admire her.
Hester Prynne is like Series 1 Doctor Foster except it’s society that’s screwed her over and she decides to ignore the bastards and get on with her life. She utilises her significant skills as a seamstress to maintain a role within the community, her beautiful stitching and garments coveted, and paid for, by many. In doing so, she retains her dignity, her daughter Pearl, and allows the man she once thought she loved to reveal himself as firstly not worthy of her love and secondly to die miserably: better than poor old Gemma by the end of series 2.
In the fullness of time, Hester becomes the consummate figure of strength and humility. Hawthorne gifts her the resilience to outgrow her ‘scarlet letter’, her label if you will, and instead become far more than the original connotation attached to it. For the letter was chosen to symbolise her adultery and mark out her mistakes – yet in time, Hester’s graceful force transforms the meaning: ‘...the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too.’
In Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, the author draws upon her own experiences to produce an unsettling and finely-wrought novella. The female protagonist follows Gilman’s own postnatal descent into depression but is then pushed further, then a little further, into the realm of horror by a writer determined to challenge the effectiveness, appropriateness and not to mention humanity of the treatment prescribed by Silas Weir Mitchell, a leading (male) specialist in women’s nervous disorders. Whilst Gilman herself reached rock bottom (by her own account, she crawled under her own bed clutching a child’s doll) she managed to retain the sufficient wits to reject the recommended treatment and therefore recover in her own time under her own terms. One can only deduce that Gilman’s own husband was considerably more respectful and caring than either the fictional spouse or Mitchell.
The novella is narrated by the female protagonist therefore we, as reader, are dependent upon her version of reality. Gilman elegantly exploits the device of unreliable narrator to heavy but justified effect in order to explore the interplay between subjective perceptions and mental illness. As the narrative progresses, we are forced to question and decide upon what is real and what is not. For example, the narrator and John, her husband, have a conversation in which he states she is doing well and that she must remain resting. The unnamed narrator attempts to voice an alternative view, ‘Better in body perhaps –’, but is silenced with his silence ‘...he sat up straight (...) with such a stern, reproachful look that I could not say another word.’ Of course, the missing word is mind, she knows that her mental state is insecure and she tries to communicate this but is thwarted, yet again, by an entitled male response. ‘My darling, said he, I beg of you, for my sake and for our child’s sake, as well as for your own, that you will never for one instant let that idea enter your mind! There is nothing so dangerous, so fascinating, to a temperament like yours. It is a false and foolish fancy.’
John’s response is so entitled by his own perception of advantage and superiority that he cannot allow his wife her own opinion instead muting her with his silent disapproval before addressing, to his own satisfaction only, her concerns. It is tempting to draw strong parallels between Gilman’s experience and those of autistic women. The problem Gilman was determined to challenge was, in essence, one which many autistic and ADHD females experience today. If a woman’s perceptions are discredited by those around her, or furthermore those in positions of professional authority, then the progression of clinical and societal understanding will always be hamstrung. Gilman uses a marital relationship in order to encapsulate the frustrating power dynamic which goes against women; using the narrator’s decline to unpack the unpleasant consequences borne by women at the hands of a society which grants male opinion more worthy than female. Gilman’s exploration of perception and reality will always retain value for the themes and power-play exist, indeed overarch, their socio-historical context, examining with raw emotional honesty the pitfalls of perception and the perils of assumption.
On reflection, I consider these fictional 19th century women then I look forwards across a 21st century landscape and see a proliferation of women who are trapped by perception, by their own doubt or the doubt thrust upon them, by a lack of confidence which undermines the capacity to know and express their own minds. I’ve come to consider Gilman’s novella as an act of generosity – for cannot a warning be a generous helping hand? It is said that Mitchell adapted his treatment and Gilman came to know of at least one woman who received better care as a result of her fictional cri de coeur. In the era before the internet allowed global support networks Gilman set out to influence through the only means available to her: literature.
Returning to Hester, I see a woman who is able to able to forge a future with her own skills and innate aptitudes. Hawthorne creates Hester in such a fashion that the indiscretion she commits becomes questioned, transforms into a product of perception, manifest within a specific social context. Her mistake is no permanent reflection upon her worth, as a mother, nor human spirit. Hester pays for her error of judgement but she is allowed to move on from it and as a consequence her daughter is gifted a happy life, where both love and coincidentally money are not lacking.
As I watch the guttering candle within the hollowed-out pumpkin, I know I must somehow draw this month’s thoughts to a close. Casting an eye around me, there are dirty dishes which signify a fun afternoon, there’s dried washing on an airer that suggests sloppy housekeeping but in fact represents a tidier garden. If literature has taught me anything it has always suggested that meanings are multiple, ambiguous and subjective; that life itself is comprised of manifold perceptions. Every now and then, it is worth indulging in a little reading with a more critical mind-set for the pages of fiction are but a safe playground within which to contemplate life and all its meanings. Gilman’s novella becomes richer with contextualisation, whilst Hawthorne’s novel is within its own right is a tour de force in being a strong and independent woman. With both women in mind and a generous glass of red wine in my hand I salute the end of October and welcome a fresh month.
*I could claim the New England setting reminded me of the Salem Witch Trials therefore forging a Halloween link but that wouldn’t be true.
Zoe Vail Smith hails from London. She blogs on all things autistic and artistic for Mainspring Arts.
We need your help to make our next project happen! We've entered the Aviva Community Fund - which means we're in with a chance of being awarded £25,000 to fund Square Peg Performance, a multi-dimensional, interactive project designed to boost inclusivity, diversity and creativity in the arts. To help us out, all you have to do is vote for our project - it's that simple!
If we're successful, every penny of the grant will go towards Square Peg Performance. Six short plays, written specially by neurodivergent playwrights, will tour around special schools, hospices, residential centres and community inclusion groups, with accompanying drama workshops for pupils and residents. The performances and workshops will show the talent of neurodivergent artists, as well as engaging and inspiring creativity in the neurodivergent community. The project will end with a professional showcase of the plays.
The outcome of the Aviva Community Fund will be decided by public votes. The projects with the most votes will get through to the final, where a panel of judges will decide which projects get funded. We'll be up against lots of other projects, so we need all the help we can get. You'll get up to ten votes - and you can use all ten of them to vote for us! Just click on the button below to vote.
If you want to help us even more, please ask your friends, family and colleagues to vote, and spread the word on social media. This grant would make a huge difference to the work we do, and would contribute to improving neurodiversity in the arts. We need new voices, a refreshing and different take, and more inclusivity. There’s so much unfound and unappreciated talent out there, and it deserves a chance to shine. So please help us make it happen!
Today, my son was diagnosed with ADHD, in addition to his autism spectrum condition (ASC). This blog is for all the individuals who love both children and adults with these conditions.
It was a fresh autumnal morning today and as we drove into the grounds of Springfield Hospital my anxious eye was drawn to the architecture scattered throughout its sprawling campus. There are the modern ‘investment’ buildings, characterised by their mix of soft wood and warm brick, sitting alongside older clinics of concrete grey, but above all I was struck by the imposing Victorian grandeur of the former Surrey County Lunatic Asylum. Most of this vast building appears to be maintained, but certain wings are derelict, their exacting rows of wired-up windows containing the ghosts of the misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and broken spirited.
I suppose it was something to do with my own recent history of undiagnosed Asperger’s, the fact we were there for my son’s assessment and the long chilly shadow of my father’s fear that my younger sister, with her learning disability, epilepsy and autistic traits, would – in the not so recent past as well as the 19th century – have been incarcerated in such a place. As an autistic woman, I am aware that far too many of my autistic sisters have been, and continue to be, misunderstood, ignored and misdiagnosed. The fear of institutionalisation haunts many at society’s most vulnerable cross-sections: the elderly; the mentally ill; the disabled. Thus, with my own brain wiring (diagnosed autistic, self-diagnosed ADHD) the mere act of walking from car park to clinic lit up many different areas of memory, light and dark, in my brain. The thoughts danced in and out of focus, before fading into the ether as we entered the clinic and hard reality pushed its way to the fore.
The psychologist was full of warmth and welcoming, her heavy Spanish accent charming. She observed our son whilst conducting conversation, note taking, making marks across her assessment papers; a process that I suspect she made appear deceptively easy. In the course of the history taking several examples were clearly overt indicators – anecdotes which made her look just a little more keenly, write a little more urgently. We spent some time describing how we had read to our son from a very young age. As the day has gone by, I realised how precious these memories are to me and how this habit, established young, for varied reasons, continues to offer its original benefits and comfort, even as our son grows older.
You see, from a young age, I read a lot to my son. This wasn’t about early literacy or being a pushy mum: no, no, no! It was to stop him moving. Our little boy probably didn’t realise when the stork briefed his baby cohort about developmental milestones that they applied to him also. My son commando-crawled quite happily, then at around 10 months went from lying on his belly to standing up in one disconcerting week. Unsteady steps followed shortly before he launched himself fully into his toddler career as a directionless human cannonball. Ricocheting from exhausted to Duracell bunny mode he was a child of extremes: no middling for our son, an average-averse child.
I left the house armed with the usual toddler accessories and supplies, additionally weighed down by various books (toys and puzzles too!). These books were appliedjudiciously, urgently, frequently, in a bid to reinstate balance in an off kilter world. Have you tried reading when stress makes you shallow breathe and grind your teeth? No, me neither – because you can’t. Reading demands an unclenched jaw and steady breathing, which felt (still feels) like the tide turning: from on-edge overwhelm the chemical tide would gradually recede, in both my son and I, through the physical presence of one another, he under my arm, our breathing would regulate, our lives slow down to a comforting pace. As the familiar patter of a well loved story moved from my mouth, I grateful for the shape and taste of every syllable, and fell into his still, quiet ears, we made ourselves a shelter from the fractious chaos of life, gently held in beautiful balance by a good book.
The acquisition of books was also a pleasing activity for my son and I, a trip out that worked for us both. We regularly visited the local library: I studiously and anti-socially avoided Rhyme Time and coffee mornings, preferring to visit at unconventional times when I could encourage my son to be quiet, act appropriately, seek books that interested him and sit – his white blond mop of hair hanging into the welcoming V of an open book. Those brief moments afforded me a gasp of time to indulge in my own passions and interests – for after all, it doesn’t take long to grab a novel with an attractive cover, or a hardback with glossy photos. Greedily, I’d gather a small stack of Mummy Books and we’d make good our escape before that balance began to turn, before the negatives outweighed the positive gains.
But what did we read? Well naturally, there was plenty of Julia Donaldson but there was plenty of Shirley Hughes too – Alfie a firm favourite. The only book signing I have ever attended was to meet Shirley Hughes and there is no star in Hollywood whose signature I’d prefer! Having been introduced to the delightful illustrations of Inga Moore via ‘Six Dinner Sid’ I found ‘House in the Woods’ which is a strong personal favourite and one which I am resigned to eventually reading purely for my own pleasure! The TV show Abney and Teal led me to Joel Stewart’s enchantingly quirky stories ‘When a Zeeder Met a Xyder’ and ‘Dexter Bexley and the Big Blue Beastie’. My son was, and remains, very interested in trains and so Benedict Blathwayt’s ‘The Little Red Train’ series provides a real visual treat as well as some nice little touches of dry humour. ‘Frog on a Log’ by Kes Grey was a birthday present that makes me laugh every time I read it and maintaining an amphibian theme Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad stories are just perfection. Last but not least, I must namedrop the now sadly closed Lion and the Unicorn bookshop in Richmond which provided us with ‘The Noisy Book’ by Soledad Bravi. An instant hit, due in part to its bold colour-popping graphics and the repetitive structure ‘The snake goes hiss... the owl goes twit twoo...’, it proved as satisfying for our son to listen to as it was easy and comforting to read. The spine eventually broke; at present, I believe the replacement purchase is in a similarly critical condition on a bookshelf somewhere in the children’s bedroom.
As we left the clinic today, our son walking between us, I looked at him and realised that as his mother I had known him all along. I could ‘read’ my own son. Yet, crucially, I needed to understand and furthermore have the conclusions we, as parents, had drawn: to be validated by the process of an official diagnosis. Both ASC and ADHD comprise traits and behaviours which are part of the human condition itself, yet if an individual has a sufficient quantity of those traits their experience of life becomes quantifiably different (the outward indicator being their behavioural response to their life and its challenges) and chances are they will benefit from being diagnosed. As I watched my son, it dawned upon me that he is, simply, his own unique little person – as are we all – and that allowing him to march to the beat of his own drum is perhaps the most loving thing I can do for him.
Zoe Vail Smith hails from London. Recently diagnosed as autistic, Zoe blogs about the arts, the world and family from her neurodivergent perspective.
As I start to write this blog post I try to think about what people would want to read about the Square Peg Stories Project. And to be honest my only reaction is that I have one thing to say about it and that’s that it has changed my life. Why? Because it made me see myself differently. It made me realise that I could achieve my dreams. I found a community within Square Pegs that made me smile and made me want to leave the house, which as anyone who knows me could tell you, is not easy for me to do.
Starting Something New never comes easily to me: the new environments, the new people, the new routine that has to be established. It all makes me anxious and scared. In years past it has stopped me from going out of the house for over a year. But even when you try not to do anything new, you’re inevitably faced with something. So, when that scary New Situation came into my life, I would go through the following: I would start by discussing the endless possibilities of what could happen if that new thing came into my life and what the possible consequences are to each of those possibilities. Imagine just for one moment, if you were the person I chose to talk to about the possibilities of going outside. For one thing I would take hours possibly the whole day to tell you everything that could happen. Oh, and secondly I am more than likely going to end up having a panic attack, so good luck with dealing with that. Meanwhile I am still in my head going through all the possibilities not listening to you. I would forget to breathe, and you would tell me to breathe, but I am not listening to you. I will end up thinking I am having a heart attack. The result of this has been that I avoid new things and stick to my routine. But with Square Peg Stories I did Something New.
It all started with a story that I wrote about a dog and an email about an opportunity for autistic adults to take part in creative writing workshop with the result of getting published. I decided to apply for it as I love writing and I had just written this story that I wanted to share with the world. I didn’t ever think I would actually get in to the Square Peg Project, so I never actually worried about it.
But I did. On the day that I got accepted I told my mum as we were on our way to the hospital. She was very proud. I started my usual nervous tendencies and discussed all the possible outcome that could happen. I had made the decision not to go for this opportunity, as I was so worried that I would ruin their workshop. My decision happened pretty quickly after receiving the email. My biggest worry was people would read my work, and the consequence was people would not understand me, and think I am stupid or silly. I also worried I would get told off from by my father, who doesn’t support my writing.
But at the hospital we were told the news that Mum had cancer. My decision was reversed: I was going to do the workshops because it was going to make Mum so proud, and she said it would help her. The panic set in for the month leading up to that first day, and my mum and aunt helped me through.
My first day on Square Pegs again consisted of experiencing my nervous tendencies on the train and the walk to the workshops. I went in and was greeted by smiling faces and the journey began. I sat next to new people and I didn’t run away. I just sat and listened to the inspirational people giving a workshop on writing. My brain instead took over with my ideas. I started my lists in my head about all the stories that I wanted to write when I get home. Each workshop more lists were created, more stories were written. I came across a problem: I had a deadline and I couldn’t find one of my stories that I wanted to give to people to read, let alone judge in some way. I knew that one of these inspirational workshop facilitators was going read my work and give me feedback and so I knew that it had to be the right story.
After panicking for a week I decided that I had to choose the story that came from my favourite workshop. In one of the workshops we had done this exercise where we wrote from the point of view of an object. I loved thinking about how this object would perceive the world. I remember that all the way home I looked at everything, from the road, the wheels, the animals that I saw and eventually a tree. So the story that I chose was about a tree I saw in the park every time was on my journey to Mainspring’s workshop. With the help of the other workshops I was able to input all the facilitators’ collective wisdom into this story. It went from one type of story to another and eventually it ended up to where it is today.
Throughout all the workshops and the mentoring that I had, I was able to see my story come to life and I was able to feel slightly more comfortable with the fact that someone was reading my work. I found that my mentor never judged me and it made me realise that mostly I was judging myself, and that this had led me to believe that others would think the same as me. As I saw they didn’t I began to question my own thoughts about my writing. It made me think more constructively about myself and my writing. I found a writing buddy in this team of creative geniuses and he helped me see my story in a different way and I found that having your own voice was perfect.
Every part of this journey has been new. I have found some of it painfully difficult but I wouldn’t change any of it because I made a friend, I was happy to have someone read my writing and I felt like I made my mum proud as I let now let her read all my stories.
‘How do you think you’ll feel about that?’ the counsellor asked, in his usual thoughtful manner. In this instance, my actions spoke before, and more clearly, than my words. From my seat, I could feel the intense delight and awkwardness move through me and activate my body: my legs curled up so my arms could embrace them, I squirmed, squinting through the gap between my knees, ‘Like this,’ I said, ‘I’ll feel like this!’ He looked at me, ‘You do realise,’ he said carefully, ‘You’re describing positive sensory overload.’ I took in what he had said, then my body unfurled and the pleasure in what I had discovered began to slowly sink in.
The reality was, as I watched my short play be performed, the excitement, concern and exposure were so excruciating that I sat so hunched forwards as to be almost folded in half! I was a cocktail of both pleasurable and adrenaline-fuelled anxiety: I wanted the audience to like my play, I felt devoutly grateful to the individuals who’d made it happen and I simply wanted it to be over! It was, soon enough. Thus it was the creative arts were drawing me towards the positive end of the sensory overload spectrum and this was my first outing.
Fast forwards a few months and I found myself in Waterstones one warm, wet weekend afternoon. This has been a difficult summer and the toll of solving complex problems has pressed hard upon my energy, stirring up anxiety and heightening sensory issues. It’s a complicated game, caring for oneself admit internal and external storms. But this afternoon was leisure: coffee then a browse through the sections that most appealed. Despite my urgent return to reading fiction (the sublime ‘Mrs Hemingway’; JK Rowling’s ‘The Casual Vacancy’; Robert Glancy’s excellent ‘Terms and Conditions’, next it is Patrick Gale’s ‘A Place Called Winter’. Again, I give thanks for public libraries), I didn’t fancy browsing novels… instead, I gave myself the gift of time to both wander and wonder… what was it that I feel like? As my mind was free to drift, it led me towards the comfort of hardback books, the luxury of detailed photographs, the subject matter ranging from crafting, to gardening and upcycling.
The longer I browse I feel my body relax as my mind absorbs the plentiful detail, page by page, idea by idea, soothing my troubled mind and turning the tide from uncomfortable, fretful anxiety, straight through neutral and into excited, hopeful inspiration. It’s not easy, living along the outreaches, with a brain which chemically catalyses such speedy emotional switches and contrasts. Suddenly I’m stood in the centre of the store and I feel overwhelmingly faint. The irregular rushing of my heart (an intermittently intrusivesensation that has been bothering me for some days) becomes central to the empty feeling flooding through me, gravity offering me the chance to float. I know these palpitations are the side effects of over-strenuous anxiety yet they are still upsetting – a clarion call I must address the imbalance.
A gentle arm leads me to the side, guides me to the floor. I kneel, head lent against books and wait. I can’t speak, I will my tongue to move, my hands to reach out. It has scared me more when I didn’t understand what was going on… Eventually the moment passes and I seek fresh air, cooler temperatures. What has just happened? A collision, I believe, in emotional extremes: a bedrock of stressful exhaustion is juxtaposed by positive overwhelm – the moody black of a stormy night blasted apart by persistent fireworks. We are not built to weather such extremes although we can if we must.
Another few weeks pass and I am presented with the wonderful opportunity to see ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ at the Globe. Every step of this day was a discovery: under the high blue summer sky I ventured to be true to my autistic self, to allow it the chance to flex its underworked muscles and explore the positive parameters of life. As my companion and I stood at the stage’s edge, elbows resting upon the stage like children slouching at the tea table, I felt at ease and simultaneously enervated by the experience.
The play itself? Well, I must admit the cynic in me felt that the Mexican setting was an astute marketing ploy designed to return a successful summer run. It’s probably unfair, but the broad mix of accents made the Mexican costumes little more than fancy dress to my eye. Of course, there is plenty to enjoy about the vivid colours, swirling skirts and excitable fiesta catcalls of a Mexican setting I just can’t help unfavourably compare it to my memory of Tamsin Greig’s commanding Beatrice in 2006’s outstanding Cuban set production.
However, a Shakespeare play is always about the language and unless the lines are truly murdered by inexperience then there is joy to be taken: by the anticipation of familiar passages and in the recognition of treasured phrases! For the slight lack of conviction and verve there was the magnificence of the venue, the novel intimacy of standing, the open air above our heads. What I would truly love to see is an ASC friendly performance at the Globe. I attended an ASC friendly matinee of War Horse in 2014 and I would urge anyone who truly loves theatre to experience a showing which embraces honest, human responses. It was not stiffly quiet and dark – the occasional movement and call-outs added substance to the experience not detraction from it. I couldn’t help but think that had the Globe audience been predominantly neurodiverse the wonderful and rousing whole cast finale would have got the whole yard dancing too! It ought to have done – my word, I was tempted – yet the pressure of dull convention kept me in a metaphorical corner.
As the summer progresses, I am writing fiction for the first time with a flow and intensity I haven’t felt before. Who knows where it will go, how it will finish? I have finally slipped free from the tricks played by my inner perfectionist and it is with joy I am constructing my own protagonists; learning to utilise the imagination that has previously generated too many hypothetical anxieties. It seems that I can build fiction also and no matter where it leads I shall enjoy the safe haven it provides my mind.
Zoe Vail Smith hails from London. She is Mainspring Arts' monthly blogger, bringing a fresh autistic perspective to the arts.
I read it over and over again, enthralled, legs hooked over the armchair, feet swinging. The old letter linking the modern writer to the long dead explorers (that spectacular revelation!)… I pored over the beautiful illustrations – a predominantly natural palette of greens, blues and ochre – apart from the opening plate which depicted the moment the writer stumbled across the long forgotten letter, tucked away inside the pages of some dust crusted text. That page filled me joy and curiosity for it revealed the innards of the British Library and promised smooth wood, polished brass and many, many beautiful books. I was transported by this fiction as far as the earliest ambitious travel writers had imaginatively flung their armchair readers! Very much safe in my home in London, England, I was now very much aware that somewhere out there, across our vast globe, was a forgotten place where dinosaurs still roamed.
Of course, at some point this unfortunate misapprehension had to come to light. How it did I can’t exactly recall, but chances are, propelled by over-enthusiasm, I would have started to regurgitate a torrent of details about the book at my parents, keen for them to share in my delight. Naturally, it can’t have been long before they saw my predicament – I had been gulled by literary trickery. After the brutal realisation, I sobbed and sobbed, humiliation cut through with abject disappointment at the fact that the letter was not real, therefore the events did not happen and the dinosaurs were never discovered.
The images and fragments of plot remain very vivid to me, yet its title slipped away years ago. Nor can I remember how old I was… yet, I do recall strongly thinking that I was old enough to have known better, that I shouldn’t have been taken in. I took it very hard and the truth sunk deep down into my heart – that the artful composition of words alone can create realism and authenticity, yet things aren’t always what they seem, that fact can in fact be fiction. In some small way, a twig had snapped, trust cracked.
During my relatively brief stint teaching, I encountered the same literary device used to engaging effect in the opening pages of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. The letter serves to introduce the reader to the world of the novel by sketching out, with a deft touch, the history of their relations, passing the responsibility to he, Hawthorne, to capture the delicate nature of the events. The students were in a general statement of confusion over Hawthorne’s archaic English. They momentarily questioned if the letter was real – no, it’s not – and then passed on, unbothered by their confusion, blaming it on the author and his old fashioned prose.
Over the past year, global politics have reminded me why the study of literature and language is so critical. The fictitious examples above use letters (historical artefacts) in order to induce authenticity within the narrative – in other words, to make the story more real. Although we know, as readers, that it is not literally real – our brains lean towards that interpretation as it is what presented so persuasively. Indeed, some of us will take that interpretation a little too literally. It is crucially important to develop the critical skills to prise apart the fact from the fiction, to understand that complex circumstances offer many truths, from many angles. I believe that it is our moral imperative as adults, parents and educators, to ensure that our children aren’t gulled by the unscrupulous motives of those in power. It is one thing to be confused by a story, quite another to duped by political linguistic power play.
For years, I was overwhelmed by my brain’s ability to see multiple interpretations. My self-confidence a tattered flag, I felt buffeted by the prevailing winds of others – I was too keen to please, too keen to assimilate. In that chilly and confusing gulf, I was drawn to the notion that there is a right or a wrong answer, I conned myself into seeing life as a black or white experience. In time, I have been able to find a medium point, where I am able to experience the ocean wave of myriad interpretation without it scaring me into reductive thinking.
In hindsight, I see that my autistic wiring has always been at the forefront of my functioning. I can smile a wry smile at how it presented itself as a very able English student: it was a quest to understand language (communication) underpinned by a refusal to trust and accept anything. Unlike my son, who is extremely vocal in his unwillingness to accept anything other than a proper reason, I was the underground resistance fighter, allowing my restlessness to manifest only in certain contexts – presenting fierce ideas in A level English Literature was about the closest to being true to myself that I ever got. When it came to literary criticism I could deploy my vocabulary knowledge and analyse each sentence, phrase, singular word, for its meaning (denotation), its connotations, what other sense of meaning could be inferred or gathered from its usage. I over-thought, and I was rewarded for it.
Of course, applying this strategy to broader adult life was never going to work: this process cannot be done in real time. The constant flow of data would mean that I am immediately behind, an instant processing backlog. Therein lies the crux: place me in one environment and my strengths will shine, place me in another and I will seek the shadows. Of late, my thinking habits have slowly changed, their old etched pathways finding new richer courses; my feelings, previously simmering away, have become part of the flow. My emotional state is nothing other than intense and I’ve learnt to construct analytical scaffolding around them, in order to acknowledge and consider them, yet resist being overthrown by them. At times, the emotional and the sensory data feels like a chemical intrusion and the effort required to stay balanced is exhausting.
From the earliest stages of my life, I see that I have been driven to understand – I gather information with the zeal of an explorer desperate to reach the summit first. It is not that there’s a right or wrong route, but the more I understand life’s processes the more tameable the whole chaotic process feels. Yet, it is a delusion that we are ever in control of our mental state and existence. There are occasions when doing nothing – letting the emotional moment slip from my brain’s grip – is the only thing to do. But, being aware of that approach is important information to know. So, whilst emotions must form part of that data flow so that I can shape the world around rather than being shaped by it, I will never stop fact seeking for my brain is designed to sit still, accept or assume – it prods and shakes, for fear it will be taken in by the promise of a dinosaur once more.
Zoe Vail Smith hails from London. She was diagnosed with Asperger's two years ago, and is Mainspring Arts' resident blogger. She brings a fresh, autistic perspective to reviews of the arts.
‘…and it was then we saw them, together on the ground, the Virgin and the Water-Carrier, two bodies moving like one. I think I was more mystified than horrified; it was Mrs Maudsley’s repeated screams that frightened me, and a shadow on the wall that opened and closed like an umbrella.’
Within this quotation from L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between lies an image which confounded me at 17. Over the intervening years, several conversations have led me back to the text and inevitably I find myself bemoaning the phrase. Of course, what is laid before the reader is the earth-shattering and life-destroying moment of passion shared by Marian and Ted, the class-crossed lovers, whose affair is narrated and in a sense consummated by Leo, the naive middle class boy left to holiday among an upper class family in the baking heat of a Norfolk summer. In this moment the affair is stripped bare – in every sense of the phrase – as Leo has inadvertently led Marian’s mother to the place, at the moment, where the nature of the two lovers’ relationship is made explicitly clear.
I recall feeling very strongly about this novel. I remember thinking that although I really didn’t like it, it was extremely well written and therefore I could certainly enjoy it from the point of view of critically appreciating the language. With hindsight, I suspect that I have often re-packaged my own feelings of intense confusion (or straight-up lack of understanding, or perhaps a struggle to empathise) as rejection of some form. It’s an emotional shortcut that protects me from having to deduce what is really going on. Of course, in the long run, it’s counter-productive as it means I am closing doors to further exploration and understanding.
In this instance, Hartley again provides an apt quotation – possibly one of the most memorable in the English literary canon: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ Indeed, my earlier years do feel a like a foreign country, the past is banded into BCD – Before Clinical Diagnosis, and ASD – After Spectrum Diagnosis (I do mean that with some humour!). So whilst I am genuinely stirred to read the novel again, in its entirety, chuckling at my extremely eager adolescent annotations, I am also confident that my interaction with the text would not be dominated by rejection – I would be able to embrace the themes with deeper understanding and ultimately satisfaction. However, I still categorically do not get the image!
My broad division of time into BCD and ASD does serve to illustrate a far broader point. Throughout my adulthood, I have enjoyed occasionally revisiting certain novels or films; nothing particularly unique in that! However, I have perhaps felt more keenly, certainly differently, the development of emotional maturity, identity, feelings. My course has been slower, more circuitous, almost certainly delayed – and let’s class the plentiful mistakes as scenic detours! Therefore, in some peculiar and arbitrary way I have been able to measure that progress through my responses to literature and film.
Although I’ve not fully re-read The Go-Between (rather, a hurried flick through its final chapters, knowing more or less exactly where this passage lies) I am sure – based on the parts I did briefly skim through – that this is a novel I would fully enjoy and appreciate now, without any need for delineating between my critical faculties and my emotions, and without needing to stubbornly insist I loathe all examinations of class. Yet, needless to say, I still do not understand that ridiculous image.
The shift in perception coupled with romance and class allows me, I hope, to introduce Richard Curtis’ classic Four Weddings and a Funeral, a film I first encountered in my late teens – the weight of two crushes weighing heavily. John Hannah, who had recently won my heart in Sliding Doors, and Kristin Scott Thomas, whose poise and/or fluent French are always absolute scene stealers. What a film! I truly adored it…until I watched it again at university and was knocked sideways by its appalling sexism and ridiculous stereotyping and obsession with the upper middle class and that appalling Wet Wet Wet song which is just nauseatingly cheesy and…I realised that something had changed.
Where had the sweet innocence of my earlier viewing gone? Evaporated by a hard, hot breeze of intellectual isms, perhaps? My word, it was disappointing, sad, cruel. Yet, like a cinematic boomerang caught on the curve, Four Weddings was returned to me, by me, a further few years down the line, when my raging critical faculty had subsided, backed down, decided to nestle in amongst the mainstream admirers, and understand that here was a sweet little film to cherish. Unlike, for instance, Love Actually, which will never ever win me over, in the same way Hartley’s image will never, ever make sense to me!
At this point in time, I suppose I really ought to pinpoint the image which has caused me such distress. You may laugh, but it all comes down to that damn umbrella. My brain shrieks (it is now!): that doesn’t make sense! I have literally opened and shut umbrellas in a bid to understand this image and my mind’s eye stubbornly refuses to grant this metaphor access. Now, please don’t assume that because the phrase ‘to get turned on’ makes me think of light switches I take everything literally – sexual or otherwise...I have had fun mapping out the literal lines along which my mind appears to run. For instance, I am told that in normal everyday interaction I can be very literal – there’s no surprise there really. I am aware of it myself and can generally quickly re-route phrases back through my processing system in a bid to auto-check and adjust for meaning. It’s noticeable to me and presumably others at times, but probably without really realising what exactly is happening.
I suppose the way I process is intrinsically linked to my idiosyncratic communication style – therefore to the wider world, in many ways, I am simply Zoe – and that is how I’d like to be. However, me, Zoe, I am autistic, and over the years I have come to realise that the written word is by far the friendlier option for me. With written language, my brain takes an over-actively ambiguous stance to meaning, actively conjuring those most and least likely interpretations with easy and rapid abandon, gleefully sifting through alternatives. And yet, this - ‘a shadow on the wall that opened and closed like an umbrella’ – this will never speak to me of passion, of wild abandon, of sexual entanglement – it will quite simply be a bright light, a brolly and an awkward teenage shadow.
Zoe Vail Smith hails from London. She was diagnosed with Asperger's two years ago, and is Mainspring Arts' resident blogger. She brings a fresh, autistic perspective to reviews of the arts.
I love libraries, I recently wrote to a friend, they’re my faith, my church, full of facts and fiction. Libraries and, if you wish, my relationship to them, are at the heart of many of my more significant memories, formative layers in my identity.
When I recall childhood visits to my local library, joyful sensory details bubble up through the years. Dusty motes of sunlight cascade from windows far above my head; there is the smell of paper, paper both loved and dirtied with use; the smooth warm wood of the desk. I’d lean, fingers gliding along its long curved edges, waiting for the librarian to neatly re-stack my pile of books into an order he wanted, before beginning – and never sharing – the task of stamping each book with a pleasing inky bang.
With hindsight, I see how I was destined to love a library. They soothed my senses – the environment was my friend: Shush, please, no talking. Actively encouraged to be quiet I could allow myself to slip away down any path I chose. I remember certain books that I inhaled with an intensity that surprised and delighted my parents. There was the Dorling Kindersley toy reference book, packed with all sorts of details about Steiff bears, porcelain dolls, Kewpies, provenance and manufacturing details, auction value... Then there was the illustrated costume book which contained a male and a female reference costume for every decade from 1600 -1970s. I pored over that book adoringly and have returned many times since, trying to track it down. I spent hours copying and internalising the details – reproducing them in my own drawings.
Of course, libraries function according to strict rules. Delighted by the Dewey system, I took great joy in checking a book was available before carefully tracking it down, according to the numbers and letters provided. There was great satisfaction in leaning sideways, shuffling along, finger tips following the bumpety bump of spines until they alighted upon the correct combination! So long as the book wasn’t missing it was a brilliantly predictable treasure hunt.
My university library was to be my intellectual oyster: the font of all knowledge and future dreams. It was all I’d really thought about before I packed up and left home for that first term. I didn’t really think about all the ‘other’ stuff, the strangers, the making of friends, nights out. I’d developed this highly romanticised notion that university was my opportunity to leave behind the misery of sixth form college and would be where I could immerse myself in literature, floating through prose, plays and poetry, floating away from my troubles, becoming an academic wraith. As I finally approached it, my mood was elation mingled with reverence: this is what I have come here for, this building the repository of all my hopes … and yet, rapidly those amorphous hopes were quickly spun into nightmarish ghouls.
It is neither lie nor exaggeration when I admit that I never properly learnt to find a library text in my three year degree and yet I graduated with a 2:1. I could not understand the system, I didn’t know who to ask and I was too terrified to admit I didn’t know. Possibly I missed an induction and I think my poor housemate did once try to explain the process but I couldn’t grasp the steps, the chemical interaction of embarrassment and anxiety cancelling out any chance of recall. Thus, finding texts was potluck.
However, this was only the half the story. I had assumed that being in the library I could at least wander haplessly and stumble upon things whilst feeling safe, disconnected from the outside world, protected by flanks of books. Again, I was wrong. All these people, these confusing anonymous hordes of people, were definitely doing some form of studying but they were also doing a lot else which was both disagreeable and distracting. Unable to concentrate, I closely observed glances and games, whispers and tears, relationships starting and possibly ending… As I watched I resented them, for bringing this behaviour into my hallowed place, for intruding upon my one chance for uncomplicated quiet.
What I discovered in my university library was a treasure trove of sensory issues that would to take me another decade or more to fully uncover. As my childhood memories are so rich in sensory memory and evoke emotional warmth, my university years trigger traumatic sensory memories. As I sat at my carrel; my hopes, expectations and ambitions bobbing like many multi-coloured balloons over my desk, over the course of days, weeks, months, they deflated – and some popped. Not only was I unable to navigate the library system I was deeply uncomfortable at the intrusion of social life, nor could I sit still long enough to block it all out.
My body was corrupted by its anxiety and I simply couldn’t concentrate for the confusing crossfire of sensory messages: I was too hot then too cold; the light was too bright or too dim; I constantly adjusted the volume of my Walkman (probably the same song or album on endless repeat); my stomach rumbled as I starved it; I was thirsty as I didn’t understand the importance of hydration. I wasn’t hung over because I barely touched alcohol for fear of being out of control besideswithin 6 weeks of starting first year I was prescribed an anti-depressant and had been advised I shouldn’t drink.
Unfortunately, my sensory issues intruded upon the weekly taught sessions too. I remember being mortified after a particular tutorial: not only had I failed to include a reference list (too embarrassed to admit I’d read none of the texts because I couldn’t find them I was therefore unable to explain that the ideas were all my own – thus how could I have referenced them?!) I was clearly out too much because I was falling asleep during class. Yet, I was barely out. What could I say? Nowadays, I am aware that my body needs a fairly constant stream of movement in order to stay alert. I move, I fidget, I re-position, I avidly note take and I doodle in detail. However, no matter how intrinsically motivated I am, if the room is too hot and I am not moving… I will fall asleep.
I have a different local library these days. I regard its existence as a minor miracle: it is compact and squashed between shops on a busy high road. But it is needed, it is used, it is loved. The culture has changed vastly since I was a child… my frequent fines don’t prevent me from getting out more books! Child rumpuses are common and getting to stamp books is de rigeur. I most commonly go with my children in tow… and watch them making beelines towards their favourite stacks and shelves, ready to repeat my old fashioned mantra: books not DVDs! Mostly, I watch, waiting for that window of opportunity where I can vanish out of their sight for moment, just long enough to scan a row of books – select on a whim a name, or colour, or key word, hold it in my hand and flick through. Those moments are the making of an entire day.
Zoe Vail Smith blogs for Mainspring Arts.
I had intended to write about 45 Years, director Andrew Haigh’s exquisite portrait of love and grief, starring the majestic Charlottle Rampling and Tom Courtenay. In fact, I ploughed time and several hundred seedling words into a draft which then fell fallow. You see, several weeks ago, in the aftermath of watching the film I had plunged greedily into its reviews. In one piece, now out of reach, someone had made an observation along these lines: this film will linger in your mind for days. This idea had been a fertile one and although I now felt distanced from my work, unable to complete it as I wished, I felt determined that the work wouldn’t go to waste.
I considered the reviewer’s claim: was it a promise or a warning? Or could it be both? It was clearly a reassuring promise of quality: you will really like this elegant narrative, revolving around an emotionally brutal discovery, delivering powerful performances and presented in haunting cinematography, it will move you. Yet, it also felt like a warning: approach this film cautiously, it will stake a hefty claim. It made me question: don’t we all mull over films for several hours, or days? Revisiting scenes on our inner projectors, flickering faces against the eyelid, hearing echoes of lines, feeling buoyed by joy or muted by sadness, yearning to talk about it, what it meant, how it was shot, etc.
I’m used to existing in a world that operates in emotional aftermath; learning to identify emotions, how they manifest, their impact. The choice of aftermath is a deliberate indication that my response is typically untimely, out of sync. An old friend used the phrase ‘dream skin’ to describe the sensation that particularly vivid dreams would have upon him, clinging, long after he had woken. I always liked the physicality of this phrase and over time it expanded into the notion of an ‘emotional hangover’. This handy term is multi-purpose and transparent to most familiar with alcohol and its effects: if you replace alcohol with emotional over-consumption at an atypical rate et voila! You have the emotional hangover – not something which can be chemically cured or bypassed. A mind wired autistic consumes and processes data differently – be it sensory or emotional. Drinking too much is a choice whereas being flooded by too much information is not.
So it seems this anonymous critic, in pinpointing the emotional heft of 45 Years, served as a useful catalyst for me to reflect on the clingy pervasiveness of slow processing which leads to most films hanging around my head for several days or more. On most occasions, this is something I don’t mind; typically, it’s like sifting through sand for a glistening brooch or shell, something that’s going on while I walk, cycle, cook, parent. Frequently, it’s something that occurs while I’m not even aware and a palpable sensation of dawning realisation and clarity will bloom. Knowing no way other of being, I’m used to the slow percolation of my own thoughts – drip, drip, drip – until the initial warm glow of an emotional response transmutes into a tangible response I can grasp and discuss.
In conclusion, the claggy irritation I felt at letting slip a reference passed eventually. Of course, Kate and Geoff still cast long shadows in my mind. Moving forward, I intend to read the original source text, ‘In Another Country’, a 12 page story by David Constantine. Furthermore, I am curious to watch Haigh’s earlier companion film ‘Weekend’. Life is about making sense of many parts, joining up the dots. I like to think of myself as an astronomer of ideas, slowly, carefully picking out the illuminating constellations.
Following 45 Years later, I was vulnerable. Emotional icebergs were shifting at a glacial pace through my subconscious: love lost, grief, a body of memories stretching a lifetime. It was against this backdrop that Netflix’s peculiar algorithm saw fit to offer me The Skeleton Twins. A shockingly good film, The Skeleton Twins explores suicide like a kitten playing with wool, in joyful clawed pounces. It jumps in at the deep end: immediately, the viewer is confronted by Maggie (Kristen Wiig) clutching enough pills to guarantee at least a stomach pump. On the opposite coast, twin brother Milo (Bill Hader) drunkenly cranks up the stereo then in an unseen act he sends blood blooming through bath water.
Maggie’s pills are abandoned when news of Milo’s hospitalisation reaches her – the point at which a 10 year estrangement finally ends. Hader and Wiig give finely nuanced performances which create an intimate rapport between Milo and Maggie that is characterised by gauche moments, misunderstandings, teasing, and whiplash anger. Their relationship is a dysfunctional dance, carefully choreographed, with each new scene forming additional layers, challenging initial impressions until at last the tables are turned – and the superficial gloss of conventionality shatters. As Maggie reaches her nadir and is pulled upwards by Milo, I couldn’t help but think that blood is indeed thicker than water.
Flashbacks are used to sensitive effect, bringing depth and poignancy to this dark comedy. Cumulatively, the shared childhood memories help to flesh-out Maggie and Milo’s adult relationship, by flitting around the damaged emotional core they both share, the defining moment of their father’s suicide. The film presents a very particular and personal shared history and acknowledges how, as humans, we are shaped by our experience although not necessarily defined by them.
The foremost refreshing element of The Skeleton Twins is its primary focus on relationship between sister and brother. It felt so positive and pleasing to watch the varied emotionally intimate moments between Maggie and Milo yet for them not to be framed by romantic love. For me, the most touching scene is the one in which Maggie, pushed to the brink, snaps at Milo. This scene is an absolute master class in providing the right sort of comfort, at the right time. Without giving it all away, Milo begins to lip-synch a song, initially meeting with cold resistance. Gradually, his confident persistence pays off, Maggie’s lips twitching almost imperceptibly at first, before giving away to wholeheartedly to the moment.
And it thrills me! The way Milo alters Maggie’s mood, elevating her from shutdown anger to joy is so perfect, it is almost too much! It leaves me with such a high I am glad for the short cheesy montage which allows the song to finish with Milo, a day later, about to knock on a front door – on the cusp, yet again, of an emotional gear change. I’m sure the intensity of my response is because life, including theatre and film, rush in through my unfiltered senses in a way that enhances the riches, the darkness, the fear. I regard this intensity as a gift and a privilege.
Zoe Vail Smith hails from London. She was diagnosed with Asperger's two years ago, and is Mainspring Arts' resident blogger. She brings a fresh, autistic perspective to reviews of the arts.
It took me a little while to find my direction this month. Truth be told, I felt compelled to select a theme, to tie it to the month. February had set a thematic precedent and my brain didn’t want to let go of it. Even now, after several drafting attempts, I’m still struggling to bridge that gap, ease the transition. And so - welcome to March.
Sideways, do I love the film Sideways! I dream of perching on a bar stool beside Paul Giamatti’s Miles, accepting a glass of his choice of red, watching the bartender, relieved of the expectation that eye contact is a social imperative and just passing the evening by. Two mildly depressive souls floating along in the introverted stream of life...where mistakes, frustrations and shrewd insight comingle and the dust of some dry misanthropic vibe settles over us.
I mean, what a film! It doesn’t bother me that Miles is a middle-aged man with a paunch and beard. My mind pole vaults right over that fact and lands slap bang in the midst of his emotional disenchantment. I splash around merrily, always eagerly anticipating the awesome scene where Sandra Oh’s Stephanie goes what can only be termed batshit (just watch it). Watching Oh fiercely swing that motorcycle helmet makes me want to trade high fives with her!
I’ve always been a large fan of watching explosive emotions. Take, for instance, August: Osage County, adapted from his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play by the dramatist Tracy Letts. Set during a baking hot Oklahoma summer, a family gathers, angst agitates at the surface, tensions simmer, tempers boil over. I’ve definitely got a thing for watching arguments on screen.
I first encountered the term catharsis aged 15. There was a school trip to see Willy Russell’s magnificent Blood Brothers; for homework we had to prepare a review to read in class. I can’t remember exactly how, but during an undoubtedly intense and excited conversation with my mum, the dictionary was consulted and this strange and beautiful word was matched to the feelings I had experienced: ca-thar-sis - an absolute humdinger of a word!
Of course, if you take a moment to consider what catharsis is it clearly requires – how best to phrase this - a degree of emotional literacy. When I reflect on my life so far, I see that the childhood bookworm has segued into a grown-up who seeks refuge in films. I understand how, when the challenge posed by university got too much, I utterly rejected all I had held dear – literature – and pursued linguistics, the science of language, horribly determined to make sense of social interactions that I struggled to participate in. Yet now, I appreciate I have gone full circle: when life’s challenges are too much, my preferred choice is solitary retreat into the world of film - artfully constructed make-believe - in order to escape the confusions of reality and live vicariously through the characters whose lives invite me in.
However, I’m not exclusively a negative feelings fangirl. Let’s take Clueless: inspired by Jane Austen’s Emma, writer-director Amy Heckerling created a truly trailblazing, sunshine-splashed, box office-seizing classic of a film. I have always adored Clueless for its warmth and wit, for the way Paul Rudd’s ever youthful face questions, with affection and wry humour, the strange ways Alicia Silverstone’s Cher approaches the myriad complexities of teen life. Yet my appreciation intensified when I learnt a little more of Heckerling’s intentions: a self-professed ‘loner and weirdo’, she has always been aware of her own otherness, and constructed a hyper-optimistic microcosm where she could play with the opposites of her own emotional life. Words cannot express the admiration I have for that. Confessing to envy is the only decent course of action.
And of course, there’s Amelie. The chocolate-eyed, gamine beauty of Audrey Tautou complete with her rather clompy choice in footwear represents the perfect image of a lifelong oddball loner, absorbed within the hustle-bustle of storybook Paris, taking pleasure in secretive little tasks to surprise and please neighbours (albeit resting alongside slightly morally askew amusements) which are, in a way, a foreshadowing of the current trend for random moments of kindness. Amelie doesn’t appear to have friends, she works as a waitress where her preferred pastime appears to be people watching, and yet…yet, she finds love, with Mathieu Kassovitz’s Nino (which strikes me as the most superlative casting - here is the man who, six years earlier, had written and directed La Haine, and now voila, the perfect romantic lead).
So it is that films are very literal escapism for me, existing so that I can pause reality. The combination of moving image, dialogue, music, acts as a welcoming wave of sensory intervention. As I physically rest, my mind’s focus is distracted by the narrative on screen, it keenly feels the anger, the joy, the passion, the heartbreak. Yet, I am safe from it…I do not need to respond to these feelings, my role is purely to observe. Thus, at the most challenging times, when mental exhaustion has set in, I know the duration of a decent film will act as an emotional purge, sweeping up and expelling the unprocessed remnants which clutter my mind, a mental re-boot. As the credits roll, I begin to step tentatively back towards reality, meeting once more the challenges put on hold, but with greater energy and clarity.
The book should ideally be read before the film. On several significant occasions I have flouted my own strict rule, most notably: 1) The Dancer Upstairs by Nicholas Shakespeare (it was accidental!) 2) Persuasion by Jane Austen, which was entirely intentional. At one point my feelings for Austen were lukewarm, but my enthusiasm for the pairing of Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry Jones was decidedly warmer.
As a general rule, I cannot do Marvel stuff. My mind constantly calls out: but that’s not real! How did they do that? The incessant curiosity about the SFX does not stop. It’s a similar story for Lord of the Rings – I want to enjoy it, I enjoyed the prose, yet…my mind demands: how did they create all those teeny tiny marauding armies? None of it’s real…! Ultimately, it’s a tiring distraction.
Lastly, as a child I was that child that read all the credits aloud. It was compulsive reading material.
Zoe Vail Smith
Zoe is Mainspring Arts' resident monthly blogger. She hails from London and was diagnosed with Asperger's in 2014.
In writing this piece, I had to revisit my bookshelves, in search of two particular books. On the one hand, Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native; in the other, Caitlin Moran’s How To Be a Woman. Whilst I hunted for this peculiar pair, I picked up this and that, my eye snagged by the sight of much loved titles, my fingers tips pausing to brush the raised lettering with an odd thrill. This month I had decided to explore a theme and the theme for February must surely be love. So it is, perhaps surprisingly, love which ties together Hardy and Moran.
Let’s begin with Moran. I read How To Be a Woman when it first came out and had the immense satisfaction of finishing it before it decorated every tube station billboard and became the ubiquitous feminist hit it deserved to be. Yes indeed, I got in quick, I read and re-read it voraciously! With delight, I realised my brain seemed to naturally click into this feminist gear: where I couldn’t perceive the status quo my mind leapt around it, above it, pushed through it, until some sort of albeit unconventional explanation was formed. However, put under the honest microscope, most of my ideas and expectations were patched together from reading and television. I may have been an adept critical reader of fiction, less so the nuances of social communication.
For you see, thanks to Hardy, my tender 17 year old heart had taken a darkly wrong turn. I made the terrible mistake of falling in love with the divine, fragile beauty Eustacia Vye, Hardy’s tempestuous heroine about whom he observes:
“To be loved to madness – such was her great desire. Love was to her the one cordial which could drive away the eating loneliness of her days. And she seemed to long for the abstraction called passionate love more than for any particular lover.”
In fact, it was only the first sentence my mind could retain in full … the rest dislodged, lost. But the essence remained: love was intense, love was misery, love was an addiction. That a Victorian novel should exert such an unfortunate influence seems as quaint as it is ridiculous, but in reality, this notion took a steadfast hold. It was a sentiment which reverberated long after I had put aside the novel, passed my exams, slipped through university and graduated. It became the jet black velvet centrepiece at the heart of what I’ve come to view as my crazy quilt of love. This sumptuous sadness, drip by drop, made me expect very little and settle for less. Of course, as I gradually met with experience, of love, of heartbreak – all to the background music of undiagnosed, clamouring anxiety - I stitched together only more blacks and greys.
Then, there was Moran; whose words did the job of a psychological quick-unpick, yanking at tight stubborn threads, ripping apart the old yarn.
I have an August-blue petticoat with tiny pink roses, and black suspender straps, that makes me happier than almost anything I own. Not only does it embody the kind of purring, spanky, joyous 1950’s soft-porn postcards I have based most of my wardrobe/sexuality on, but I also look dead thin in it too.
All of a sudden, in a passage dedicated to the delight of lingerie, I found a way to slip free from Eustacia’s corset and imagine a world which was sensuous and feel-good, that told me love was happy not sad, that lovers should make me feel content not mad.
It had never before occurred to me to question the idea that our sexualities are something which are shaped, informed, created; it is not even really Moran’s point. It’s hard to explain how much that well-crafted paragraph, piled among many, so deceptively light-of-touch (“purring, spanky, joyous”!) could so truly upend, subvert, shake, my sense of self. But it did. And I owe you, Caitlin, I truly do. The drinks are on me.
And so it is, I carried on, aware that my crazy quilt required some adjustments. Returning to fiction, I found Jane Austen’s wise words “Know your own happiness” gave me a clear and purposeful mission in a life which had felt relentlessly chaotic. I started to unpick unhelpful notions and memories and replace them with my own August blue, rosebuds and suspenders.
Through the process of questioning and unpicking this crazy quilt of mine, I began to reflect upon the rich diversity and complexity of quilting, how they are products of a long history of traditional patterns and skills. The crazy quilt occupies a unique corner, for it defies conventions by sampling eclectic fabrics and favours arrangements according to colour and texture. Like ourselves, our identities are built of many layers and influences, a patchwork of experience and unintentional design… In ripping out my blacks and greys, in delicately stitching small sunny scraps, I was able to remain myself and yet … be happier. With that one critical notion – “I have based most of my (…) sexuality on…” I had begun to understand that I could start over, one small stitch at a time.
On a final note, this time of year lures us all towards the trap of expectation… Of performing love, rather than truly connecting with our feelings and offering that to someone who will care for us in return. As we all explore this world with our unique perspectives, we must honour and respect one another’s different ways of expressing love. It can be truly hard to communicate even our deepest feelings for those we genuinely care for and it is important, that with gentle courage, we reach out and do so, letting not only your lovers and partners know you care, but also your family and precious friends.
Zoe Vail Smith
Zoe is Mainspring Arts' resident monthly blogger. She hails from London and was diagnosed with Asperger's in 2014.
I first read The Discovery of the Pacific by Thom Gunn when I was 18. Almost 16 years later, it remains my favourite piece of writing, in any genre. It has been a constant for me, all my adult life. It was there, throughout my troubled twenties, when nothing was quite right: a decade out of tune. It was there, when I realised I was autistic and then when I received my diagnosis.
One of my small thrills in life is returning to favourite poetry, fiction and film, to see how my response has changed. Throughout my undiagnosed years, depression set in; I stumbled through life, barely coping and desperately concealing it. Through the intense noisy static of life, I read avidly, attempting to find anything that would help me understand what I was dealing with. I came to cling to certain truths – and I think what I found in Gunn’s words was hope – a sense that life was so much more, so much richer, than the everyday routines, rules and expectations which I was battling so hard to understand.
With his opening stanza, Gunn invites the reader to join his travellers on their journey of discovery, an offer which never fails to thrill me for it is an opportunity to quietly observe such loving intimacy, lightly yet firmly created by Gunn’s brilliant touch.
Thrust immediately into the journey, our skin imagines the heat of the engine, it feels the grains of dirt. Nature is the vast star of this star; the travellers are but specks in a vast landscape, being pulled toward the Pacific. We watch the sun set. Each time, I puzzle over Gunn’s peculiar and powerful a choice of the verb fall to describe the setting of the sun - the earth’s regular orbit. Fall suggests a lack of control which in my mind has always ricocheted off the sunset and instead cast light upon the travellers themselves: in embarking on this journey what is it that they are losing control of? Put differently, what new freedoms will they find beyond the everyday limits?
As a confused teen, the promise that poetry knew life was powerfully overwhelming too was the most reassuring spiritual balm. These travellers were rejecting daily convention – and that was ok. This challenged the very essence of all I was striving to do and be at that point: to fit in. Was it any wonder I too wanted to lean against a car bonnet, inhaling freedom? That it took me years to come close to that feeling was undoubtedly made a little easier by the existence of this poem. Using subtle, cleverly crafted alliteration, Gunn links together the first and second stanza, creating a sense of flow: it is in the cooling car that they continue their journey from Kansas to California. This second stanza offers the hope which has comforted me many times –
These words! Oh these words were the abundant proof that our routines and habits are arbitrary, a product of our environment and experiences… It was my poetic psychology, my rope to cling to! I understood in one dazzling stanza it was ok to question the whirlwind of social rules, habits and occasions surrounding me, it was probably ok to think lots of them were pointless. With a few short lines, Gunn wooed me and won.
Again, Gunn deploys alliterative clusters of sound to such strong effect: how deeply this resonated within my lonely heart. As a child who had grown up seeking nature, most at home on long walks, under the open sky and trees, I could conjure up that very resin-smell and the whisper of firs and in doing so a shiver of delight would shoot up my spine. Then the juxtaposition of soft human warmth, tucked within their sleeping bag, upon the broken/Tight knotted surfaces of the naked ground told me something about how hard, simple and brutal life is when all our luxuries and commodities are stripped away. It told me nature is truth and that is where I belong and feel happiest.
Across the final three stanzas the poem begins its gradual journey towards its tender conclusion. Gunn’s depiction of the intimacy between the couple is pared back yet sensual, the man’s lean quiet body (cups) hers/(keeping) her from …the extreme chill. This image always strikes me as the purest distillation of love: protection from a hostile environment, the sharing of heat to survive. The couple travel closer to the ocean, growing closer to nature – literally caked with road they remove their clothes, shedding their last material possessions. They stand chin-deep in the sway of the ocean – vulnerable and exposed – two stringy bodies face to face – the ocean, nature itself, pushes the couple together in a way that cannot be prevented. I have only ever interpreted this as sexual climax: And come, together, in the water’s motion/The full caught pause of their embrace. A simple, truthful moment, subtly crafted through the judicious use of punctuation.
Of course, this poem rewrote itself for me, gaining in beauty and strength, when I discovered that Thom Gunn was gay. I do not know if he felt obliged to mask his sexuality but the thought is a tantalising one. Is this journey to the Pacific about exploring and defining sexual identity? I have re-read those words so many times, altering the pronouns, touched by the poignancy of how a single letter can deny an entire identity. This poem has always encouraged me to strive for happiness, for the truth – and for fresh air and solitude when the complexities of life’s habits and occasions feel too much.
The Discovery of the Pacific
They lean against the cooling car, backs pressed
Upon the dusts of a brown continent,
And watch the sun, now Westward of their West,
Fall to the ocean. Where it led they went.
Kansas to California. Day by day
They travelled emptier of the things they knew.
They improvised new habits on the way,
But lost the occasions, and then lost them too.
One night, no-one and nowhere, she had woken
To resin-smell and to the firs' slight sound,
And through their sleeping-bag had felt the broken
Tight-knotted surfaces of the naked ground.
Only his lean quiet body cupping hers
Kept her from it, the extreme chill. By degrees
She fell asleep. Around them in the firs
The wind probed, tiding through forked estuaries.
And now their skin is caked with road, the grime
Merely reflecting sunlight as it fails.
They leave their clothes among the rocks they climb,
Blunt leaves of iceplant nuzzle at their soles.
Now they stand chin-deep in the sway of ocean,
Firm West, two stringy bodies face to face,
And come, together, in the water's motion,
The full caught pause of their embrace.
Square Peg Stories is flying by. So far we've had workshops on generating ideas with Joanne Limburg, structure with Adam Feinstein and the poetry of prose with Jonathan Totman.
We've been constantly amazed by our participants' talent, skill and enthusiasm. Some wonderful work has already come out of the workshops - it's been a privilege to work with such an incredibly talented group of writers.
In Jonathan Totman's workshop on 19th November our participants explored how poetry techniques can be used in prose. As part of one of the exercises they produced haikus. We were absolutely blown away by the results, and couldn't resist sharing.
Here's a selection of our participants' wonderful haikus:
Ascendant full moon;
sea gently moves, reflecting.
Which brings which to life?
Time has now splintered,
everything mixed up by
the speed of darkness.
They took yesterday,
savagely edited it,
Called it, ‘tomorrow’.
A London graveyard
In a cold, clear November
Is very pretty
Treat me like a child
Though it hurts me I can’t deny
I am like a child
the monkey had passed away
in time for Christmas.
Fleeting donkeys with
new iPhones run between the
bare branched Sycamore.
In the Universe
small whispers echo through the
great House of Rumour.
Crisp green shoots erupt
from the duvet of humus
on the forest floor.
twirl through the air with the wind
against their bright wings.
buildings, vehicles, people all
pass time’s consumption.
A train’s injection,
into the skyline we are,
this city’s bleeding.
The breaking of words
like bread, arranging rubble
into neat ideas.
Humming tune in head
Leads to an idea about starting
A Rock’n’Roll band
Her eyes closed slowly
Her heartbeat stops, face cloud white
She is still alive
Eyes close, heartbeat stops
Organs close down their businesses
“Compressions” “Clear” Shock
I do not want to
Come out of her warm tummy
Too many faces
He sits still It's cold
The dog barks at passing feet
Waiting for breakfast
Cold he wakes blinking
barking blurred at passing feet
waiting for breakfast
Long shadow on dark fields
tilled in spring her earth turning
summer filled by green
Leaves having fallen
trees hibernate bearing gifts
their soul for all feet
Come and enjoy some hilarious comedy and help fund arts opportunities for people with disabilities!
The Comedy Grotto is a night of laughs tipped by The Independent and The Sunday Times. Time Out praises its 'consistently excellent line-ups' that have 'comedy connoisseurs drooling.'
Money from ticket sales will help fund Square Peg Stories, our unique creative writing project for adults on the autism spectrum. Read more about the project here.
Tuesday 25 October at 19:45. The Star of Kings, 126 York Way, London N1 0AX. Tickets £8.
The line-up is packed to the rafters with funny:
TOM ROSENTHAL - Star of Channel 4's Friday Night Dinner and ITV2's Plebs
“Crackles with energy and glows with originality” - Spoonfed
★★★★ - The List
SARAH KENDALL - Edinburgh Comedy Award Best Show Nominee 2015, Received 17 four and five star reviews at Edinburgh 2016
"Propulsive, involving, vivid, cathartic and very funny" ★★★★ - The Times
LOU SANDERS - As seen on Russell Howard's Good News
"Almost rupturing an organ laughing...a breathless adventure" ★★★★ - Fest
"Hilarious and compulsive viewing" ★★★★ - The Skinny
AHIR SHAH - Best Show at the Leicester Comedy Festival
"Sizzling quality...passion at his fingertips and the gags to back up his fire" ★★★★★ - The List
'Consistently insightful...a very funny, self-mocking comedy show' ★★★★ - Guardian
ROSE MATAFEO - Melbourne Comedy Award Nominee
"Uproarious...joyous, high-energy...as fresh and invigorating as an ice cold bottle of Steinlager. One of the undoubted highlights of this year's Fringe." ★★★★★ - The Telegraph
ALEX KEALY - So You Think You're Funny Finalist
"Ferociously quick-witted...flawless script" ★★★★ - EdFringeReview
IAN SMITH (MC) - Amused Moose Best Show Nominee 2015
"A hugely entertaining show" ★★★★★ - Three Weeks
Mainspring Arts is looking for volunteers to be part of our unique literary project, Square Peg Stories.
Square Peg Stories will involve an exciting programme of creative writing workshops for adults on the autism spectrum, led by published authors and resulting in an anthology of participants’ short stories. Read more about the project here.
We’re looking for a team of superstar volunteers to help run the workshops. You’ll be an indispensable part of our team, making the day run smoothly and supporting our workshop leaders and participants.
In return for your help, we’ll feed you, pay your travel expenses within London – and maybe even give you a lanyard.
The workshops will take place at Riverside Studios on the following Saturdays:
5 November 2016
12 November 2016
19 November 2016
10 December 2016
7 January 2017
14 January 2017
21 January 2017
11 February 2017
If you’d like to help out at one (or more!) of our workshops, please email email@example.com. Tell us a bit about you, why you’d like to volunteer and the dates you’d be able to help.
Katya and Miranda