40 before 40

At New Year, in preparation for my fortieth birthday this month, my wife gave me a list of forty challenges I need to complete before I turn forty. Some of them were easy (eat a food you hate, give blood, go to a zoo); some were harder (learn a new language, learn a new instrument, give up technology for a week); and some were impossible and therefore remain incomplete (lose 40lbs, do a 40-hour sponsored silence, learn to ballroom dance).

One of them is to make a list of forty things I’ve achieved in my life. I thought it’d be pretty simple because in my mind I’m someone who’s achieved a lot, but I actually really struggled with it, not least because of how to define what counts as an achievement. Is it a one-off event, like winning an award, or is it something ongoing, like a lifestyle? Is meeting somebody famous an achievement, or is making a connection with a stranger more noteworthy?

It really makes you think about yourself, and what you value, and what is important to you. As someone with depression and autism and social phobia, people tell me just getting out of bed in the morning is an achievement, but it’s hardly notable to do something that virtually every single person on the planet does on a daily basis. You can’t exactly brag about not lounging around in bed all day.

And that is how I’ve defined an achievement: something you can brag about. Or, rather, something you’re proud of that you’d want people to know about if you’re forced to do one of those ‘tell the group something interesting about you’ kind of things.

So here it goes. Forty things I’ve achieved in my forty years:

  1. I managed to convince someone to marry me.
  2. I had a non-fiction book published.
  3. I have the courage to wear my cowboy hat in public, even if I get funny looks.
  4. I sailed across the Atlantic as a crewmember on a tall ship.
  5. I was interviewed on a BBC TV documentary about rescuing two Trans-Atlantic rowers while on the tall ship.
  6. I taught myself to play the guitar.
  7. I recorded three EPs and performed multiple gigs as lead guitarist and vocalist in various rock and metal bands.
  8. I spent six months as a care assistant in an old people’s home and four weeks as a student nurse on an infection control ward.
  9. I have given numerous speeches to educate people about autism.
  10. I got a Diploma of Higher Education, two Bachelor Degrees and a Master’s Degree, and achieved distinctions for all of them.
  11. I have two children, and in four years I haven’t killed them!
  12. I have written eight novels and am still plugging away despite more than 300 rejections.
  13. I travelled alone across the USA from the Atlantic to the Pacific through 23 States on 32 Greyhound buses.
  14. I have been to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, St Peter’s Basilica, the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, the Space Needle, the Sky Tower and the Shard.
  15. I worked for Prince Edward at his production company.
  16. I qualified as a PADI Advanced Open Water scuba diver, making dives to 100ft and at night.
  17. I dived with sea lions.
  18. I have tried waterskiing, windsurfing, paddle boarding, bodyboarding, canoeing, kayaking and canyoneering.
  19. I’ve made two static-line parachute jumps.
  20. I made an iron bottle opener and a candlestick in a blacksmith’s forge.
  21. I spoke to James Cameron about the movie Aliens.
  22. I’ve done two bungee jumps.
  23. I sold a painting to the mayor of Christchurch.
  24. I caught a 50lb conger eel.
  25. I made a 4,200 piece model of the German battleship Bismarck.
  26. I was interviewed live on BBC radio about said model.
  27. I created and maintained a blog for four years.
  28. I’ve tended to injured pigeons, owls, sparrowhawks, hedgehogs and a deer.
  29. I did a 140-ft abseil.
  30. I’ve made 47 blood donations.
  31. I spent three months travelling alone around New Zealand.
  32. I walked eighteen miles around Auckland without stopping.
  33. I spent three days trekking alone around the wilderness of Stewart Island.
  34. I’ve tried archery, pistol-shooting, rifle-shooting, clay pigeon-shooting, fencing and karate.
  35. I’ve climbed Mt. Snowdon in Wales, and Mt. Roy (Roy’s Peak), Ben Lomond and Avalanche Peak in New Zealand.
  36. I worked as a 999 call-taker and radio operator for Thames Valley Police.
  37. I did a falconry day flying owls, hawks and a bald eagle.
  38. I won four consecutive short story competitions in a writing magazine.
  39. I’ve read more than 1000 books, including all six Jane Austens, Watchmen, Lord of the Rings and It, and seen more than 1000 movies, including all six Jane Austens, Watchmen, Lord of the Rings, and It.
  40. I made it to forty when I didn’t think I’d make it out of my teens.

It’s actually quite beneficial to do a list like this, if only to take stock of your life. It’s a sobering realisation that the majority of my ‘achievements’, on closer inspection, seem rather insular and self-indulgent. The one of which I’m most proud is that I’ve made 47 blood donations, sacrificing my time and comfort to help others. And look at what’s missing from my list – being a good husband; being a good father; being a good friend. Why aren’t they there? Because I’m none of those things.

Maybe I should make a new list: things I want to achieve.

  1. Being there for a friend in need.
  2. Apologising to my wife and taking the blame even when it’s not my fault
  3. Letting the kids be kids without getting annoyed with them.
  4. Accepting that this is my life.
  5. Learning to enjoy living in the moment.

That seems far more positive. If I manage to achieve these by the time I’m 41, we’ll all be in a better place.

How children learn to talk

As a guy with Asperger’s, and the parent of two kids at different stages of learning to speak, the English language fascinates me. This might sound strange considering that part of living with autism means struggling to communicate, but by forcing me to obsess about words and meaning, those very difficulties made me not only an expert on morphology and syntax, but also a bit of a grammar Nazi. This means I find it incredibly satisfying to watch my girls struggling to work out the rules of the language – and often very annoying too.

‘But surely,’ I hear you non-parents cry, ‘children learn to speak by imitation. They don’t learn grammar until they’re at school.’

You’re wrong. Emphatically so. It’s hardwired into us to spot patterns, and two facets of the English language provide incontrovertible proof that toddlers are not simply passive recipients of their mother tongue, mindlessly parroting back what they’ve heard, but active participants in deciphering language: irregular verbs and irregular plural nouns.

Since most people don’t read grammar primers for fun, a bit of explanation is required. Let’s start with the verbs. There are strong, irregular verbs that have three forms to denote tenses (present, past and past imperfect), like ‘sink, sank, have sunk’, or ‘swim, swam, have swum’, and some with two, like ‘buy’ and ‘bought’, and ‘think’ and ‘thought’. By far the most common, however, are the weak, regular verbs that simply add ‘ed’ to the end to change tense, so ‘walk’ becomes ‘walked’ and ‘talk’ becomes ‘talked’.

Ever heard a child say that they ‘winned’ or they ‘runned’ or they ‘taked’ or they ‘eated’? They absolutely did not pick that up by listening to other people. What they’ve done is notice a rule – that you put a ‘d’ sound on the end of a regular verb to change its tense – and they’ve generalised that rule and applied it to every verb, including the irregular ones. Even if they’re not consciously doing it, they’re grappling with the rules of grammar to make meaning.

The same is true of irregular plural nouns. You pluralise regular nouns by adding an ‘s’ at the end, so ‘bed’ becomes ‘beds’ and ‘tree’ becomes ‘trees’. How, then, are we to account for toddlers talking about ‘sheeps’ and ‘childs’ and ‘mouses’, instead of ‘sheep’ and ‘children’ and ‘mice’? They’ve learned a rule and applied it where it doesn’t work. As seemingly incapable as they are, they’re advanced pattern-recognition machines. That’s right, every kid is a freaking genius.

Another thing children have to do when they learn to talk is limit the range of meanings a particular word can have. If you point at a picture of a silver convertible and say ‘car’, you’d be pretty confident they understand something so simple, but you’d again be wrong. The truth is that pinning down the meaning of a word is far more complicated than that. Are you saying this individual vehicle is a car? Are you saying that all things with wheels are cars? Are you saying all silver things are cars? All convertibles?

As an example, two of the first words my youngest learned were ‘dog’ and ‘cat’, and while she was accurately able to distinguish a dog from a cat, her fluency was actually rather deceptive. We quickly discovered that she understood ‘cat’ to be a catchall term for ‘anything alive that is not a dog’, so rabbits, mice, monkeys, or even people were cats in her mind. Similarly, my oldest often makes mistakes with gender-specific pronouns, thinking ‘he’ and ‘his’ are universal instead of referring to a particular sex, so it can be quite confusing when she’s talking about her friend Phoebe and starts using ‘he’ and ‘him’. Kids have to work out what individual words refer to, or which of several separate meanings is the one you want, and that’s before they can even feed themselves properly.

Speaking of personal pronouns, have you ever thought about the complexity of a sentence as apparently simple as, ‘She gave it to me’? In order to say it, children have to learn to distinguish between first, second and third-person, singular and plural, masculine and feminine, and identify the subject and object of a sentence.

‘Now you’re talking nonsense,’ I hear you cry. ‘That can wait till secondary school.’

Actually, no. While it’s true that English lost most of its inflections and gender constructions, for some reason we kept them when it comes to pronouns. This is another topic that needs a bit of unpacking, so buckle in, it’s going to get interesting.

‘I’ is the first person singular. ‘We’ is the first-person plural. It’s easiest to think of the first-person as involving yourself. I am part of what’s happening, whether it’s just me on my own, or me and some others. You use this when speaking about yourself.

‘You’ is the second-person. You is both singular and plural. You use this when you’re addressing someone to refer to them.

‘He’, ‘she’ or ‘it’ is the third-person singular. ‘They’ is the plural. You use this to describe what other people did that didn’t include you. It’s in the third-person singular that gender comes in – he, she, him, his, her – and is the reason it’s become a battlefield of the trans movement. The only gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun is ‘it’, which normally refers to inanimate objects or gender-indistinguishable animals, whereas many gender-neutral individuals like Sam Smith prefer to be referred to as ‘they’, which purists object to since that is a third-person plural term.

There, that wasn’t so hard, was it? Subject and object is far easier.

The subject of a sentence is the one who does something; the object is the one who has something done to them. In English, we normally distinguish them by their place in the sentence in relation to the verb. Thus in the sentence ‘John kisses Mary’, John is the subject (the one who kisses) and Mary is the object (the one who is kissed). If you want to reverse the meaning, you simply switch the nouns around to ‘Mary kisses John’. This is why English is referred to as an SVO language, because we construct meaning using ‘subject-verb-object’ (about half the planet’s languages are SOV, or subject-object-verb, so would write ‘Mary John kisses’, but it’s not important to know this).

Many of the older languages that influenced English, like German, French, Greek and Latin, are inflected languages, which means the words change their form to reflect their relationship to other words. In Latin, for example, whether a word is the subject or the object is denoted by its ending rather than its position in the sentence, thus ‘Sextus laborat mulum’ and ‘mulum laborat Sextus’ mean exactly the same thing: ‘Sextus works the mule’ (theoretically, the words could be in any order, but in practice, Latin was an SOV language).

The trouble with inflected endings is that people are lazy speakers, so over time they drop word endings, which totally messes up the meaning and forces the language to evolve. English speakers tend be very lazy speakers – we’ve reduced most of our endings to the ‘schwa’ vowel sound ‘uh’, hence the endings of footballer, theatre, literature and banana are now pronounced the same (at least where I live, anyway), so that’s how we ended up with an SVO language. Whether a noun is the subject or the object it stays the same, unless it’s a personal pronoun, in which case it gets tricky.

Now comes the fun part. In order to speak properly using pronouns, you have to know the person (first, second or third), the quantity (singular or plural) and identify the subject and object. That’s how you know the first-person singular subject ‘I’ becomes ‘me’ as the object, just as the first-person plural subject ‘we’ becomes ‘us’ as the object. It’s how you know ‘he’, the third-person singular masculine subject, gives something to ‘him’, the third-person singular masculine object, and ‘she’ gives something to ‘her’. It’s how you know ‘they’, the third -person plural subject, becomes ‘them’. And this is without even mentioning the possessive pronouns ‘my’, ‘our’, ‘his’, ‘her’, and ‘their’.

Pretty complex ideas that need to be unpacked right from the start of learning to talk, not at secondary school. Whether they know it or not, kids are having to sift through a linguistic labyrinth just to say something as simple as ‘I gave it to her’. It’s the reason you hear so many toddlers say, ‘Me do it!’ and the reason it hits your ear wrong: they’ve correctly identified that ‘me’ is first-person singular, but they haven’t yet managed to grasp that ‘I’ is the proper term to use when they’re the subject. See? Kids are sorting out incredibly complex rules, most of them without even being aware they’re doing it.

What I really enjoy about children learning to speak is when their misapplication of the rules, mishearing of idioms, or simple mispronunciations create something genuinely interesting.

Like my youngest the other day walked up to the cat and gave her a kick. I told her off, and then a few minutes later she did it again. When I asked her why, she pointed at the screen and said, ‘Kick cat.’ It didn’t dawn on me until later that we’d been watching a programme on chocolate and they were talking about KitKats!

It’s also been really difficult to convince her that her name is not ‘me’, it’s Rosie. The closest we’ve managed is to get her to say, ‘Rose-me,’ which I guess is close enough.

My eldest, Izzie, is an expert at mixing up expressions. She always says, ‘by your own’ because she’s combined two expressions that mean the same thing: ‘by yourself’ and ‘on your own’. Also, because there’s a bedtime and a night time, she often shouts out in the middle of the night, ‘Is it morning time yet?’

Her pronunciation also leaves a lot to be desired. Instead of dropping the ends of her words and replacing them with a schwa, she has a tendency to drop the start of her words, so banana becomes ‘uhnana’ and ‘pretending’ is pronounced ‘uhtending ‘. And I swear she must have lived in Louisiana in a past life, because at times she has the most Southern drawl of any English girl I’ve ever met. Instead of hotel, she says, ‘Ho-TAY-ul,’ and instead of daffodil, it’s ‘daff-o-DEE-ul.’ It’s like sharing a house with that racist redneck sheriff from the Bond movies.

But the best thing she’s ever done is her song, ‘Anchor hole, anchor hole, make you crazy.’ She’s been singing it for months, and it drives me nuts, but I’ve only just figured out where it comes from.

If you study idioms, you find that their meanings and the words therein gradually change over time. This is particularly true if they contain a word that falls out of fashion and survives only as part of that idiom, and that word is normally changed to one that is more familiar. ‘All that glisters is not gold’ became ‘All that glistens is not gold,’ for example, and people everywhere these days say they’re ‘chomping’ at the bit, when the expression is ‘champing‘.

Kids do this all the time. With their limited vocabulary, they hear something and try to fit it into the words they already know. ‘Anchor hole, anchor hole, make you crazy’? She’s really singing, ‘Alcohol, alcohol, make you crazy.’

Of course, just because I know the difference between the definite and indefinite article doesn’t mean that I’m immune from misunderstandings, far from it, in fact. I’ll leave you with this little anecdote that happened to me the other day. I was listening to the radio in the car when an advert came on extolling the virtues of a particular brand of tyre. It ended with the line, ‘If you want a tyre without standing grip and performance, buy…’ and whatever the brand was called.

I frowned out at the road. Why would you want a tyre that has no standing grip? If you parked it on a hill, what’s it going to do, slide down to the bottom? And what on earth do they mean by standing performance? Surely you want the best performance when you’re driving down the road, not when you’re standing still. What odd characteristics they chose to highlight in their advert, I thought.

It was only later that I realised the man had said, ‘with outstanding grip and performance’. Whoops.

My worst experience

N.B. This one is bad, and bloody, and graphic. If you’re sensitive, especially about animal suffering, stop reading: you have been warned.

I’ve just started reading a book by Professor Richard Wiseman called 59 Seconds, and it argues in the very first chapter that according to empirical scientific data, talking about bad experiences doesn’t actually do you much good. Writing about them, however, by using a different part of the brain and by forcing you to apply a narrative to the events, does help you.

So I’m going to try that because I’ve just had one of the worst experiences of my life.

(What, worse than the time those boys kept ducking you in the swimming pool and you thought you were going to die?)

Yes, worse.

(What, worse than the time you got stuck in traffic with diarrhoea and pooped yourself?)

Yes, much worse.

(What, worse than the time you caught the end of your knob in your zipper?)

No. Not that bad. But close.

So here it goes.

As research for my novel I’ve been spending a lot of time on military forums and message boards, and been struck by how many military types look down their noses at us civilians. It’s as though they think the hardships we experience are in no way comparable to theirs, like we’re weak and sheltered and have easy, pampered lives. So, funnily enough, I was having a conversation just this morning about how everybody has bad things happen to them, you can’t tell what someone’s been through just by looking at their face, and nobody has a monopoly on suffering, and less than an hour later I had a terrible, traumatizing experience that proved us both right.

I live on the edge of the New Forest. I was driving my daughter to nursery with my wife this afternoon when the car in front of me pulled round something lying in the road. It was brown, about the size of a Great Dane, and there was blood everywhere.

‘Someone’s hit a deer,’ I said as I started to pull round it, assuming it was dead.

And then it lifted its head.

Oh. My. God. As we passed, it tried to stand up, but its legs were jutting out at all the wrong angles, like something from a John Carpenter movie, like a broken spider, and all it succeeded in doing was spilling more of its insides across the road.

I stopped, got out and told my wife to drive on. It was screaming, and it was obvious it was going to die, and I thought immediately that I had to kill it, to put it out of its misery, but I knew I didn’t have it in me to do it. Kneeling by it, I put one hand on its shoulder, the other on its neck to hold it down because it kept struggling to get up on broken legs and broken spine. Cars were slowing to stare and driving round me. I was worried they might not see me, but I was wearing a white shirt and I kept an eye out for traffic.

A passing motorist said whoever hit it and left it was a bastard, before she handed me a towel and, ironically, drove off. I covered its head, tried to keep it still and calm. It was on its right side, its two front legs facing left and the two rear ones facing right, like it had been ripped in two pieces about the middle. And it kept making this horrible screeching noise, this sound so sharp it cut to the bone.

There was so much blood. Blood and guts and intestines spreading out over the road.

With one hand holding it down, I fished my phone out of my pocket and called the police to come and destroy it. By the time I’d finished, a man came up from his car a hundred yards down the road and said he was the one who’d hit it. Where he’d been the past five minutes is anybody’s guess, but to be fair to him, he did stick around and he was badly shaken up. He clearly had no idea what to do.

By now, the blood was a big puddle just draining out of it, and it kept screaming and struggling and I kept holding it and trying to calm it down. There seemed to be two types of blood, this dark red liquidy kind and this much thicker, brighter, syrupy kind that oozed slowly towards the ditch, and I felt sick to my stomach, but I made sure the driver was okay and I rang the RSPCA to see if they’d come quicker, but I couldn’t get through.

More and more cars went past and I could see faces pressed to the windows, grown-ups, children, all desperate for a peek, and I thought any minute there’d be a camera and a selfie. (And, bizarrely, a woman with her husband beside her and three kids in the back shouted out the window at me, ‘You’re brave, aren’t ya!’ as she passed, which makes no sense to me whatsoever).

A woman pulled over and asked if I needed any help and I said I thought we needed to get it out of the road and onto the verge. She agreed, said we needed to think about its dignity and thanked me for covering it with the towel. Together with the driver we picked it up and carried it across the road and gently laid it down on the grass.

I kept my hands on it, soothing it, trying to let it know it wasn’t alone. It wasn’t screaming anymore, just making this quiet keening noise like it was winding down. There was blood on my hands and blood on my shirt, and I knew it wouldn’t be long. I felt its chest rise and fall, rise and fall, and then stop. I waited another minute to be sure.

‘I think it’s gone,’ I said, and peeling back the towel, I saw its eyes had turned a milky blue colour and it was dead, and my hands were shaking and I wanted to cry.

‘Have a good sleep,’ the lady said and touched it on the nose, and then thanked me again and left.

As I said, the guy who’d hit it was pretty out of it, and he was white as a sheet. He rang his work to say he wasn’t coming in while I called the police again and told them they were no longer needed, that it was deceased and it was out of the road. I called the council to come and remove the carcass, but again I couldn’t get through, so standing at the side of the road, I filled in an online form and sent it just as my wife pulled over to pick me up. It must have been twenty minutes since I’d first seen the deer. It took it fifteen minutes to die.

As I was making sure the driver was okay to be left on his own, a woman on a horse came by. She glanced at the deer, still under the towel, looked at me, then tutted and muttered something about people who drive too fast as she rode on. I wanted to knock her riding helmet off her head, and shout, ‘It wasn’t me! I’m not the one who hit it!’

So eventually, after I was sure the driver was okay, I went to shake his hand, but there was blood on it, and blood on mine, so instead I wished him well and told him to look after himself, and I left.

And. I. Felt. Awful.

When I was nineteen, I moved house with the hamster cage on my lap. The hamster ran on its wheel for an hour, then curled up in the corner panting and I watched it die. It broke my heart. And it was a hamster.

This was so much worse. It was a bloody, violent, horrible death. It was struggling and it was screaming and there were bits of it all over the road, and I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach and hollowed out, and on the way home I let out a roar of pain and anguish.

But when I got home and washed my hands and looked at myself in the mirror, I looked no different. I wasn’t even pale. I felt utterly gutted, but to look at me you’d have no idea I’d just been tending to a dying animal in the middle of the road. And when I went to pick up my daughter from school, none of the other parents could tell that all I could see was that thick, red goo oozing out over the darker puddle of blood.

Because you can’t tell what someone’s been through just by looking at their face.

It’s definitely one of the worst things I’ve had to experience. I say ‘had to’ as though I had no choice in the matter, but I don’t think I did – it didn’t even occur to me to drive on, not for a second. I’ve always been like that – I run towards danger to see if I can help instead of away from it, get involved when it’s probably more than I can handle, but I don’t know any other way to be and I don’t understand how people could drive past and not do anything.

This whole experience has made me realise that the experience of combat probably is something beyond what civilians can understand, except those special civilians like doctors, nurses, and the emergency services. We all encounter death in our lives, but it’s normally sanitised or hidden away; violent death is something else altogether. To see something’s insides on the outside; to see its blood spilling across your hands, and hear its screams, and feel its struggles, and know there’s not a damned thing you can do about it, is a shocking, reality-shaking thing. It’s so unnatural, so beyond how things are supposed to be, you can’t quite get your head round it.

I’ve seen many things die. A hamster, a dog, a chicken, a rat, a deer, a sparrowhawk, about a million fish. And it never gets any easier.

But while I’ve seen animals die, I’ve never been there when a person has died – I’ve only ever been there shortly afterwards. Now imagine if, instead of a deer, it was your buddy, your comrade, the man you’ve trained with and gotten drunk with and fought alongside, who was bleeding out into the Afghan soil. Everyday civilian life doesn’t really compare to that experience. No wonder so many of our soldiers have PTSD.

So, long story short, I think we’re both right. Nobody has a monopoly on suffering, and civilians can experience god-awful things in the usual run of their daily life, including death, just as soldiers can. But as civilians, we’re generally sheltered from the gut-spilling reality of violent death, while soldiers are surrounded by it. How much worse it must be to lose someone on the battlefield.

I’ll finish with the words of that woman as we said goodbye to that poor deer on the side of the road: have a good sleep.

Greta the Aspie

There’s a strange assumption I’ve come across of late that, by dint of my autism, I must necessarily be a fan of other people on the spectrum. This is particularly odd when the only point of similarity between us is our diagnosis. As a tattooed, shaven-headed, guitar-playing proponent of punk, rock, metal and grunge, is it really likely that I’m going to listen to Susan Boyle simply because she’s Aspergic? And as a fan of mostly horror and crime fiction, am I going to enjoy Chris Packham’s meandering nature memoir because he, too, is on the spectrum? (Short answer, no).

So, in a week during which 16-year-old autistic activist Greta Thurnberg dominated the headlines by not only arguing her case at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York, but also giving the Leader of the Free World the worst case of stink eye I’ve ever seen, everywhere I go it’s assumed I must be a fan. People keep asking my opinion of her, and of climate change, and whether we should be running for the hills screaming, ‘The sky is falling, the sky is falling!’ all because we both happen to have Asperger’s Syndrome.

On the one hand, it’s rather patronising to presume that, because we’re both autistic, I have specialist insight into a 16-year-old girl from Sweden who has made it her mission to beat everyone over the head with a virtue stick like a real life Lisa Simpson. On the other, it’s nice that people are talking to me, and since, as a result of my autism, I’m a keen observer of the human condition (even if my conclusions are sometimes way off base), it probably makes more sense to ask me than some random weirdo who sleeps on a park bench and smells of cheese.

So what do I think of Greta Thurnberg?

I have mixed feelings. I think she’s done an amazing job almost singlehandedly putting environmentalism at the centre of the political agenda and bringing the issue of climate change to the forefront of everyone’s minds, and there’s little doubt her autism has played a massive part in this – her obsession, stubbornness, and dogged refusal to be put off by any criticism or negative feedback have all served her well. She’s demonstrated in the best possible way that one person can change the world, if only they work hard and believe in themselves enough. And unlike some environmentalists (*cough* Prince Harry *cough*), she practices what she preaches, travelling by trains and yachts instead of cars and planes. Kudos.

However, the same autism that has enabled her to succeed has, I think, exposed her to legitimate criticism in terms of her message, and created genuine concern about the potential impact of being so notorious so young on both her short-term and long-term mental health.

Climate change is clearly her obsession, but as with many people on the spectrum, while we are fabulous at learning facts and figures, we often lack a genuine understanding of the topic – we’re great at studying the trees, but not so good at putting them together to see the forest. You know, big picture stuff. There is certainly a tinge of millenarian hysteria in her rhetoric, and while she has been emotionally restrained in the past, her speech on Monday was dramatic, scathing, emotional and scolding. It risked undermining the good that she’s done since nobody likes being lectured by a know-it-all teenager who thinks they can solve all the world’s problems because they’re better than you. I should know – as a teen I was insufferable, and, human nature being what it us, I never managed to convince anyone that my extensive knowledge of playground social interaction meant anything in the ‘real’ world. Strange.

Now, before you say I’m a climate change denier, I’m not. The science is unequivocal – the climate is changing. And anyone who ignores the impact of man on the environment and thinks it’s all a conspiracy to charge higher taxes simply doesn’t want to face the uncomfortable truth that we are a massive cause of this. That said, predicting the effects of anthropogenic global warming using computer models is on less sure-footing given our inability to accurately measure the influence of millions of different variables on complex weather patterns, ocean currents and ecosystems. I think much of the panic afflicting young people right now is from taking the ‘worst case scenario’ models. It’s ‘end of the world’ stuff, a doomsday cult with scientific backing, so it’s no wonder that schoolkids are crying themselves to sleep over our impending demise.

I’m not so pessimistic. I think we’re going to be seeing a turbulent few decades involving mass migration of people, increasingly frequent extreme weather events, and lots of highly-charged arguments about power sources and a diet containing less meat and more locally-sourced produce, but I don’t think humanity is going extinct. And the accusation that we’re doing nothing to combat climate change is just as selective a reading of the evidence as climate change denial. We’re not doing enough, certainly; we can definitely go further; but the very fact so many people are engaging with this issue shows that it is being taken seriously by large swathes of the population, including consumers, manufacturers, lobbyists and politicians (with the notable exception of Donald Trump).

Likewise, I fundamentally disagree with many climate change zealots who seem to think we can save the world by going backwards, banning cars and air travel and returning to a pre-industrial-type lifestyle. That genie is out of the lamp, and it’s not getting put back in. Through the natural earthly cycle, climate change is going to happen whether or not we change, so preparing for it is far better than trying to hold back the tide. We need more technology, not less. Look at how digital streaming services have massively reduced the manufacture of CDs and DVDs. Look at how 3D printers prevent the need for transporting goods from the other side of the world. Look at the new Sabre oxygen-hydrogen hybrid engine, which promises far greener air travel. These are the things that are going to let us reach a carbon-neutral society, not a bunch of Luddites throwing their shoes into the machinery.

When it comes to effecting change, I think Greta Thurnberg is right in targeting the young and will reap the rewards of this stratagem, but not in the way that she thinks. Far too many pressure groups and protesters (like Extinction Rebellion and many of Thurnberg’s student activists) seem to prefer standing on the outside shouting at ‘the Establishment’, and I have no truck with that that way of thinking. If you want system change, you do it from within the system. You train hard and work hard, you become an expert, you get into a position where you have the power to change things – you don’t piss and moan on a street corner. I don’t think the student strikes will change the world, but I think ten years from now, when those same students move into government and academia and industry around the world, that’s when things will change – from the inside.

As far as Thurnberg’s mental health goes, I do worry what kind of support she’s receiving. This is a person with diagnoses of autism, OCD and selective mutism who, by her own admission, has battled depression and anorexia and who is right now at the very centre of world affairs and media scrutiny. Of course, I’m not saying that this in any way detracts from her message or that she should be denied the right to express it, but as someone who has experienced breakdowns and burnouts throughout his life, I wonder how long she can keep it up. My saying this probably comes across as patronising in itself, and if so, yeah, I am, but that doesn’t change that, from my experience of those of us on the spectrum, her mental health is a legitimate concern and she should not be mocked by the President of the United States simply for being herself.

So, in summary, I think Greta Thurnberg should be applauded, not only for highlighting the issue of climate change, battling her way into the corridors of power, and ensuring the next generation of lawmakers and decision-makers will be concerned about the environment, but for practising what she preaches, even if I’m not entirely on-board with the severity of her message, and I have more hope about the future than she seems to be.

The way I see it, while climate change makes the future a terrifying unknown, we’re humans – we’re creative, adaptable, resilient and determined, and I have no doubt we’ve got this. Of course, climate change fanatics, and Greta Thurnberg herself, might call this hubris, since humans can also be stupid, selfish, backward-looking and incredibly resistant to change. It all depends on your perception of humanity, and whether you believe we are collectively a good or an evil. I’m prepared to think we’re better than Thurnberg thinks.

I hope humanity doesn’t prove me wrong.

Working on yourself isn’t selfish

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve been struggling with mental illness for a while now. Well, all my life in fact, but it’s been particularly severe of late. I’ve pushed myself past the point of sanity, kept struggling on far longer than I should, sacrificing my health, my hobbies, my self-esteem and my dreams in order to be the best father I can be.

And after four years I’ve burned out and can’t give of my best anymore.

I’ve come to realise, as I should have done years ago, that you can’t look after anyone else if you don’t look after yourself. It’s like when a plane is going down and the oxygen masks drop from overhead – put your own mask on before you help the children with theirs, otherwise you pass out and you all die. I thought that being miserable was part of the job, that feeling empty and unfulfilled was a cross that every parent has to bear and I could stubbornly push on and survive on willpower alone. Now I know better.

You can’t be a good parent if all you do is parent. You have to leave the kids, go out and experience all the wonders that the world has to offer, so you can bring that wonder back into your life and give it to your children. Without balance – without time away to gain perspective – you become stuck in unhealthy and repetitive cycles.

need down time, hobbies and personal goals that aren’t centred on parenting. I need to find space for Gillan the man, alongside Gillan the dad.

At school I was told I wouldn’t find fulfilment anywhere outside a university, and they were right. After my first degree, I was strongly encouraged to do a PhD. Instead, I got a second degree and a Masters, after which I was even more strongly encouraged to do a PhD. That was 2015, a few months before my daughter was born and studying had to take a back seat.

Now that she’s started school and my second daughter is two, I’ve decided I want to go for my PhD, and it’s the first time in years that I’ve felt excited about something, where the future seems to hold possibility and light instead of an endless slog of crushed hopes and forgotten dreams.

I’m not unrealistic. With a needy wife and two young kids, I’ll have to do it part time, and without two beans to rub together I’ll have to secure funding, but with a will to succeed I don’t think these difficulties are insurmountable. And as it will make me a better, happier, more contented person, I will be a better father and better husband. To be frank, I’m not good at either right now, and if it keeps going as it is, my marriage is going to fail. I’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Unfortunately, my decision has been met with decidedly less enthusiasm than I imagined. I’ve been told by various people – people I thought would understand – that I ‘can’t’ do a PhD; that I have ‘delusions of grandeur’; that as a father, with a family to think of, the time and opportunity has passed. The implication has been, almost universally, that to do a PhD would somehow be ‘selfish’, and they think less of me for even entertaining such a notion.

I hadn’t realised that having children means your life is over. Forget having hopes and dreams, forget trying to improve yourself and your situation in life – where you are when you have kids is where you will remain until you die. I should just ‘man up’ and struggle on, I suppose, keep feeling horribly empty, irritable and unhappy, keep failing as a husband and a father, so long as I don’t upset the apple cart. How selfish of me to try and escape that destructive mentality and make something of myself, and in the process become the person I want to be.

There’s nothing noble about sacrificing your dreams when you become a parent. For some people, having a family is their whole life. It isn’t for me. I didn’t cease to be an individual the moment I slipped on my ‘dad hat’. I have many roles to play in this world and I refuse to be pigeonholed into one that is only part of who I am. Turning away from life to focus on on your children makes you insular, one-dimensional, and blind. I’d rather put out my eyes and engage with the world by touch than choose to ignore it.

It isn’t selfish to work on yourself. Nor is it desirable. It’s essential. It makes you a better person and a better parent. Would I want my girls to give up their dreams when they become mothers? No. I’d expect them to take their children with them as they shoot for the stars. And that’s the example I want to give them. Why settle for one or the other when you can have both? Life isn’t about shutting yourself off and staying in the same place, it’s about opening up and going on a journey. This river has been stagnant long enough; it’s time to let it flow again.

No matter what anyone else thinks.

The definition of impossible

Before you have kids, you think of the impossible in terms of massively unachievable goals that affect the very nature of our existence. World peace, faster-than-light travel, a day without anybody mentioning Brexit. You know, big things.

After you’ve had kids, your understanding of impossibility comes much closer to home.

Like, have you ever tried explaining to a four-year-old that the man who lives with Granny isn’t Grandpa but is actually Granny’s boyfriend? What about the difference between a boyfriend and a husband, or why some people get married and some people don’t? It makes faster-than-light travel seem a cinch by comparison.

What about trying to follow the labyrinthine stories they tell through all the twists and turns of pointless details and extraneous information? You might as well try learning ancient Greek without a primer for all the sense it makes.

Have you ever tried fishing poo out of the bathtub without smearing it all over the sides? Or explaining to a toddler that she really shouldn’t poop in the bath.

Why? Why?

Have you ever tried explaining to your kids that Justin Fletcher and Mr Tumble are the same person, or that the distinction between ‘not nearly there yet’ and ‘nearly there yet’ is longer than thirty seconds? I’ve given up trying to make them understand perspective – if they think the moon is chasing the car every time we drive, I’m just going to have to leave that delusion intact.

I’ve also decided not to bother asking what my eldest did at school anymore, because it’s a mystery I will never get to the bottom of. Other than learning that she once saw a pigeon in the playground, whatever happens inside those school gates stays inside those school gates.

And forget trying to get your kid to understand how to tell a joke.

Knock, knock.

Who’s there?

Izzie. Ha ha!

Izzie who?

Izzie. It’s me. Your daughter.

Oh

At least her chicken jokes are getting better, if only because their randomness makes them unintentionally amusing. Why did the cow cross the road? Because it was the dog’s day off at work, ha ha!

Of course, some people out there are going to argue that these things aren’t really impossible, and they’re hardly universal, applying only to me in my very limited family sphere. To those people, I will say that I’ve come to believe there are some impossible truths that cross all cultures and time periods and afflict every parent in human history: the word ‘no’ will never be the end of it; you cannot cut an onion small enough that your kids don’t pick every last bit out of their dinner; and even if you tie their shoes together and lock them in a safe, when you come to leave the house, one will always be missing.

I’ll leave you with this little nugget about the impossible in the life of a parent: it is easier to get an honest answer from a politician than to get your kids to change their bedtime story.

Too young for a sleepover?

My daughter Izzie loves sleepovers, probably because they have been confined to Granny’s house, where she is spoiled rotten, is pampered and protected, and can invade Granny’s bed at any time of the night. I can sleep soundly knowing she’s being well looked after, and that if there are any problems, I will be alerted and can sort them out. Furthermore, being ‘within the family’ means any hiccups – behaviour I don’t approve of from either child or caregiver – can be corrected moving forward.

However, since turning four a couple of months ago, Izzie has decided she’s grown-up enough to have friends over for sleepovers or even go for sleepovers at their houses. I can well understand the thrill and excitement of hanging out with your friend without your parents, staying up late to muck around, and gaining a sense of independence and ownership over your life. But while my wife thinks sleepovers are fine, I am dead set against them because to my mind, four is way too young.

So when is the ‘right’ time to start sleepovers?

She has a friend that she’s known since they were both around six months old. This friend (and, of course, her mother) have been to our house dozens of times, and Izzie and my wife have been to hers probably more than this. They’ve been to parties together, the park, the theatre, swimming – all sorts. I’ve seen how the children interact together, how the mother disciplines her child, and the values and beliefs that this woman possesses. I have therefore, tentatively, agreed to my child going over to her friend’s house for a sleepover, on the understanding that if there are any problems we are to be informed immediately and come and collect her.

My wife unfortunately interpreted this as carte blanche on sleepovers, so promptly lined up another with a friend from nursery, a child I don’t really know, whose mother I’ve only met a few times and whose father, coming from a radically different socio-economic class to us (he’s undoubtedly many, many rungs closer to the Queen than we are), is such an unknown in terms of attitudes, beliefs, behaviours and child-rearing practices, that I’ve insisted my wife cancel.

And therein lies the rub, as my wife now refuses to budge. This is before the first sleepover has even taken place, and we’ve seen whether it was a success or not.

I’ve explained to my wife that I see it as my job to protect my daughter from harm – physical, psychological and emotional – and I am simply not comfortable allowing my four-year-old into a nighttime excursion at a virtual stranger’s house, a place filled with expensive breakables and a father I’ve never met. Her response is that she has met the family a number of times, I’m a control freak and need to learn to let go. Yes, I know I struggle to relinquish control, but frankly the safety of my children, to be looked after within my own home and under my own roof, is more important to me than fostering my daughter’s social connections.

We are therefore at loggerheads, and neither of us looks to back down anytime soon.

So which of us is right? Is four too young for sleepovers? What age were yours when they first slept out? And does anybody have any experiences, good or bad, they’d like to share about sleepovers?