UFOs over Highcliffe update

Gosh darn it. After seeing those UFOs over Highcliffe I’ve spent all day researching the effects of environmental distortion on perspective, the flight ceilings of various helicopters, the operational capacities of blimps, balloons and UAVs, the science behind contrails, and the history of UFO sightings in the area, when I should just have visited a site called Flight Radar 24, that shows you real time air traffic control maps, which you can backdate and replay. I therefore know exactly what we saw this morning.

The silver UFOs were, in fact (drum roll!)… a pair of 737s on their way to Tenerife. One was at 35,000 feet, the other at 38,000 feet, too high to see the wings, but they appeared lower because of their brightness and the way the sun bounced off them. The rest of the jets I saw were around 20,000 feet, which is why they looked so different. What a delightful thing this ‘internet’ is. I wrote an entire blog post about a couple of passenger jets!

But it goes to show how easy it is to mistake something in the sky for something else, and why you should never jump to conclusions about alien invasions and crafts from other worlds – these were two of the least plane-like planes I ever did see, and I’ve seen tens of thousands of planes. But what were they? Planes.

Now I’m going to go coz I’m kinda embarrassed…

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UFOs over Highcliffe

Calling all airheads and aviation fanatics: can you help me identify something I saw in the sky?

I took my kids to the beach this morning, at Highcliffe on the UK’s South Coast. The sun was bright, the sky was clear, and we took off our shoes and socks and made sandcastles on the first truly glorious day of spring.

Their grandmother is flying to Spain today, and with the airport nearby in Hurn, we eagerly looked to the sky at the sound of every engine, waiting for a plane to appear from behind the trees that line the top of the cliff. Sometimes a Cessna would appear, someone on a flying lesson or out for pleasure; sometimes a helicopter on a sightseeing tour. Much higher up, passenger jets from Gatwick or Heathrow left contrails across the sky.

But once when we looked up, I spotted something I couldn’t identify in the sky. It made no noise and seemed to be at very high altitude, though without clouds it’s impossible to tell. It was silver, roughly cigar-shaped with the front and rear tapering to points. I noticed it because it was reflecting the sun, twinkling bright and dull and bright again as though catching and losing the sun, making it look as though it was rolling along the length of its axis. There were no wings that I could see, no tail, no lights, no contrail. It was travelling in a straight line, out into the Channel, with no deviation, and seemed to be getting higher (and smaller) as it went.

‘There are two,’ said my three-year-old, to whom I’d pointed it out.

And she was right. Following the silver object was a second, identical in appearance and motion, reflecting the sun like a mirror. It was almost like seeing two daytime stars, though not so bright that you couldn’t see they had mass and form.

We watched them for two or three minutes until they flew too close to the sun and we lost them. During that time, they were clearly either under power or the influence of gravity – not balloons as it was a smooth, continuous movement, and they didn’t alter course or change their positions relative to one another.

My daughter says they were spaceships, but that’s because she’s three. At first I thought they might be satellites in low earth orbit, particularly given the way they reflected the sun, but I’m not sure a satellite would be so easily observable during the day, or so slow moving. And I’m certainly not ready to credit them to little green men!

My best guess is that we saw a pair of helicopters flying high enough that I could neither see nor hear their rotors, even though I’ve never seen helicopters look like that before. Presumably they took off from Bournemouth and were still climbing to altitude when we saw them, en route to France. Until somebody in the know tells me different, that’s what I think we saw.

All I can say for sure is that they were objects, they were flying, and I’m unable to identify them, making them, by definition, Unidentified Flying Objects. But if they were aliens, I can’t imagine that after conquering interstellar travel there’d be much to interest them in rural Dorset, except, perhaps a cream tea that’s out of this world! (Shoot me now…)

[Click here for UFOs over Highcliffe update]

Giving up sugar for Lent

I may have made a mistake. A big one. I gave up sugar for Lent.

Not all sugar, of course – there are sugars in all kinds of food. But I’ve given up foods to which sugar is added, and I’m advising anybody who reads this cry for help – don’t. Don’t do what I did.

But why sugar? I hear you ask. Why not something easy, like chocolate? Are you a masochist?

Yes. And resoundingly no.

I’m a chocoholic. I buy a 200g chocolate bar with the intention of making it last two days at least, and within 20 minutes it’s gone. And living close to the shops, who always have special deals on their chocolate, I can get through a fair few bars in a week. And I know that’s bad, particularly since chocolate doesn’t agree with me. Heart problems, diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity – my chocolate addiction is going to shorten my life. That’s why last year, I thought it would be a good idea to give up chocolate for Lent.

But here’s the rub – because I stopped eating chocolate, I doubled down on sweets, biscuits, cakes, ice-cream and doughnuts. If you’re going to sacrifice chocolate, you have to do it for your health, and if you’re just going to binge on sugar as a replacement, what’s the point?

So I decided this year to nix sugar altogether. Surely I’d feel better, healthier, more alive?

I feel like I’m going to die. It’s been thirteen days. The first week I had cravings, sure, like an addict in need of a fix, but I ate a lot of potatoes and fruit and wondered why I hadn’t done this sooner.

The second week has been hell. I have no energy. I fall asleep at the drop of a hat. I’m not just irritable, I’m angry. My joints ache. My back hurts. My eyes flicker at the sides. I’ve got a constant headache. I’m dizzy and nauseous. I have earache and a sore throat. My belly feels heavy and tender. I can hear my heart in my ears, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. I can’t take a deep breath or I cough. My teeth are now chattering, even though I’m wearing a T-shirt, shirt, hoodie, dressing gown, woolly hat, fluffy slippers, and I’m wrapped in a blanket.

Hmm. Actually I think I might have flu.

[Next day]

Okay, so I just spent all last night shivering and sweating, drifting in and out of consciousness, my mind racing (I wrote an entire novel in my head), and woke up feeling a little better, albeit as grimy as a cinema floor and weak as a  newborn lamb. Yes, this might have been a 24-hour fly bug.

But I stand by what I said – giving up sugar has kicked me in the nuts and knocked me for six. Apparently, you’re not supposed to give up all at once – like any addictive drug, you’re meant to wean yourself off it. But I hope that I’m now past the worst of it, and will start to feel better from now on.

But one thing I have to point out is the weight loss, which might surprise you. When I joined Slimming World a few years ago, I lost 9lbs the first week, 4.5 lbs the second, and 35lbs over 12 weeks.

So how much weight have I lost from giving up sugar for two weeks? 10lbs? 5lbs? 1lb?

Not one solitary ounce.

Hardly seems worth it, does it?

But how did her baby get into her tummy?

Ah. We have reached a developmental threshold. I thought we’d hit it before Christmas when my daughter said, ‘You know I was in mummy’s tummy? Well how did I get out?’ but that was only the mechanics of birth (and she didn’t believe me that mummy pushed her out her noo-noo). No, this question – the creation of life and the sexual dimension it implies – is altogether trickier, deeper, and represents a significant step outside of ‘that’s the way things are’ to ‘why are things that way?’ Yikes.

I must admit, I fudged the answer. I was alone with her in the car at the time, and I figured something like this ought to be discussed with her mother first so we can decide the best time, best way, and all that. To be honest, I thought I wouldn’t have to deal with the concept of procreation for a few more years at least, so I wasn’t ready, and a garbled response about eggs and seeds probably isn’t the best way to introduce a three-year-old to the mysteries of the adult world.

My mind racing, I considered implying that birds and bees had something to do with it; storks, cabbage patches, magic; even the age-old ‘when a mummy and daddy love each other very much…’; but given that bees are dying, storks are terrifying, and one of her friends has two mummies, it’s no longer that simple.

I turned it on its head and asked her how she thought they got in there.

‘I think mummy swallows them,’ she said, and we left it at that.

Phew! Dodged a bullet.

I was taught about sex at the age of four or five – penises, vaginas, sperm and eggs. While I’m not sure about the appropriate lower age, there is definitely an age where you should already be clued in – I remember everybody making fun of a ten-year-old at my school because he thought he came out of his mother’s butt. Sucked to be that guy – pooped into the world.

There’s a danger to leaving it too late, too. When I was on a bus travelling through Alabama twenty years ago, I remember seeing a massive billboard that said: ‘Talk to your children about SEX, or SOMEONE ELSE WILL!’ You definitely don’t want them learning from porn and thinking, like today’s eleven-year-olds, that that’s how people actually do it. And, of course, the consequences of a lack of sex education have been devastatingly explored in fiction, from Stephen King’s Carrie to Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. Message received and understood.

But there’s a way to do it, and I know that showing embarrassment or squeamishness can send out the wrong message and lead to problems later down the line. I met a girl at university who said, ‘I’m bisexual, but I’m terrified of penises, so I’ve only ever been with girls and I don’t think I’ll ever have sex with a man, so behaviourally I’m a lesbian.’ (My response to this statement was, ‘Nice to meet you, I’m Gillan, what’s your name?’). I don’t want that kind of confusion for my girls.

And I certainly don’t want them to think sex or masturbation or specific body parts are ‘dirty’ or ‘naughty’ or ‘shameful’ either. I want them to be body confident, with a healthy sexuality free from the hang-ups that I, an awkward, sexually-inexperienced autistic bloke might pass on to them.

So I started researching this topic online (very carefully – I don’t want to be on a watch list!), and I discovered I’m a lot more old-fashioned and out-of-touch than I realised.

Today’s Parent, for example, suggests teaching a child of 0 to 2 the words penis, vagina, vulva, clitoris, bum and nipple, meaning I missed that window. It also suggest explaining to them when and where it’s appropriate to explore their bodies – gently and in the privacy of their bedrooms, apparently – which I must confess I thought was a conversation for much, much, much later on.

For the 2 to 5 age range – where we’re at now – it suggests opening up about consent, explaining it’s not appropriate for others to ask to see or touch their genitals, and not to keep secrets about this, which is definitely good advice but, God, how do you have that conversation without implying the world’s full of sexual predators? Also, now’s the time to mention sperm and egg, perhaps leaving the gory details for when they’re older.

All of this seems alien to me. Far too young, I keep thinking, let them be children a little longer before you strip them of their innocence. But other sites, like Family Education, all seem to agree on this basic framework – the proper names for genitals and where and when it’s appropriate to touch yourself somewhere between 0 and 3, the egg and sperm speech and stranger danger around 3 to 5, and the more explicit details about 6 to 8.

I’ve been living under the erroneous belief that I could sit them down in about five years, have a one-off Q&A session, then avoid the issue until their first date when they’re sixteen, with a couple of ‘women’s issues’ interventions along the way. Instead, you need to mention sex throughout their upbringing, stressing issues of consent and context, in order to create a sexually healthy adult.

I guess I agreed to all this when I became a father, and next time she asks I’ll be better prepared. Sometimes, I think it would be better if a stork delivered us fully-formed to our parents. You certainly wouldn’t have to worry about stretch marks and post-partum incontinence!

How to age 5 years in 3 minutes

The three scariest things that can happen to a childless man:

  1. Looking in the mirror and seeing your father’s face staring back at you.
  2. Hearing the mechanic suck in his breath through his teeth when you ask how much it’ll cost.
  3. Your girlfriend turning to you and saying, “I know we’ve never talked about having children, but I’ve got some news…’

The three scariest things that can happen to a parent:

  1. Answering the door to a stranger who says, “Hello, I’m from Child Services.”
  2.  Discovering a rash that looks strangely like those meningitis pictures you keep Googling.
  3. When your child stops breathing.

So this afternoon I was driving along with my wife and youngest daughter in the car when suddenly 17-month-old Rosie’s breathing started to sound a bit raspy, like there was something lodged in her throat and she was struggling to breathe. I looked round and she was staring vacantly off to one side.

‘Rosie?’ I said.

No response.

‘Can you check on her?’ I asked my wife.

She turned round in her seat and said, with increasing panic, ‘Rosie? Rosie? Rosie!’

I looked round again and Rosie was still staring off to the side, eyes still blank, but now her lips were blue, her face was violet, and she looked like a porcelain doll.

‘I’m pulling in!’ I shouted, spun the wheel and stopped the car on someone’s driveway. Leaping out, I scattered the contents of the door pocket all across the road, rushed round the back of the car, ripped open Rosie’s door and dragged her from the seat.

She had this glazed look in her eyes and she was trying to breathe but there was nothing but this horrible gurgling rattle, and she was totally unresponsive.

I turned her upside down, lay her over my forearm and slapped her hard between the shoulder blades, whereupon two old ladies, thinking I was assaulting her, asked if she was okay.

I checked her and she wasn’t, so I shook her, turned her over, slapped her again a few times. When I turned her back the right way she was still struggling to breathe, but there was a bit more life in her eyes.

Cuddling her and bouncing her up and down, gradually the colour returned to her lips and she started breathing, if not normally then at least no longer sounding like she was dying. She didn’t react to me, just stared away and kept yawning and closing her eyes, everything sluggish and drained, her eyelids pink and lurid.

Luckily we were only a few minutes from the local surgery, so I rushed her there and they put me straight in to see a doctor. She was so sleepy, she didn’t react to the thermometer in her ear or the stick in her mouth, but she did start to cry when the doctor listened to her chest.

The long and the short of it, she has a fever but her chest sounds clear and her throat isn’t swollen. The doctor thinks it’s one of three things:

  1. A fit, though with no other symptoms or a repeat performance, it’s difficult to say any more at this time.
  2. She choked on a foreign body or even her own saliva.
  3. She is ill, and sometimes children hold their breath  when they’re feeling rotten, even to the point of turning blue.

Reassured, I took her home and she has been asleep on me the last ninety minutes while I listen to her breathing. But oh my gosh, if you’ve ever known fear before becoming a parent, it’s a thousand times worse after. It was probably three minutes between seeing her lips were blue and the colour returning to them, but those three minutes have kicked the living crap out of me.

I only hope it is a one-off.

The Greatest Spoonman

I am 39 years old, give or take six months. That means I’ve been alive around 14,235 days not accounting for leap years. I’m good at some things, less so at others, but one thing I can say without any exaggeration or false modesty: I’m damned good at using a spoon.

Some people look at me and think I was just born with certain genetic advantages, but I wasn’t. My skill with a spoon does not come naturally but has been honed over a lifetime of practice and hard work. If we scratch out the first two years of my life (which are a little vague in my memory), let’s suppose for the next four years, I used a spoon an average of four times a day, or a total of 5,840 times. If you use anything that many times, you become an expert. You have to put in the effort to get the results.

Unfortunately, my dedication to spoons slackened off after that as life got in the way. After starting school, up until eleven, I probably used a spoon twice a day – once for my cereal in the morning and once for pudding at teatime. Although I wasn’t really focusing on my spoon-wielding skills, I still managed to get another 4,380 uses in my logbook. Quite good for the average person, but not enough if you want your spooning to take you to the Olympics.

Then at twelve I started to take things more seriously. Like a quintessential Englishman, I started drinking tea to help focus my performances. For five years, seven spoons a day, that’s another 12,775 times.

At seventeen, shortly after taking silver at the National Spooning Championships, I realised I would have to add coffee to my daily regimen if I ever wanted gold. Eight to ten cups a day, plus cereal for breakfast and yoghurt for pudding, say, twelve spoons a day for 23 years, and you’re looking at 100,740.

Total times I’ve used a spoon in my life (give or take a couple of thousand): 123,735.

That is how I became what I am today. All my plaudits and successes in spoon usage have come from 39 years of single-minded pursuit of excellence. I am, without a doubt and by any objective measure, a giant of spoon-wielding brilliance.

But apparently, I’m using my spoon wrong. I’ve been using it wrong all my life. Luckily, my three-year-old was able to put me right over breakfast this morning. How lucky I am to have such an expert in my home who is able to correct years of bad technique.

Her lectures on how to properly use toilet paper, the best way of making coffee, and how I should shave my face have also been greatly appreciated and improved my life no end.

This will take me to the next level, so look out world! If I was unstoppable before, with the help of my three-year-old’s wisdom and expertise, I will soon conquer this puny planet. All hail your new emperor.

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar review

About eighteen months ago I was asked to review Chris Packham’s nature memoir, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, by an autism charity with links to the man himself. Presumably they thought that, as an autistic writer who lives in the New Forest like Packham, I would give it a glowing review. But I didn’t. So they didn’t publish it.

In honour of World Book Day, here it is:

Chris Packham is a man who divides people. I have met those who adore him and his animal activism, and others who cannot abide him. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, his idiosyncratic memoir of his childhood, is just as divisive.

The title is, without a doubt, the best possible description for his work. A jumbled collection of vividly-drawn vignettes and intimately-rendered impressions, some magical, some shocking, all peculiarly individual, it will surely disappoint those looking for a straightforward autobiography. To read this book is to delve into a mixture of memories and imaginings, poetry and pain, as though shaking up a jar of recollections and drifting through the resulting chaos. This is the book’s main strength, and one of its key weaknesses.

While there is an overall progression – it’s the story of a boy taking a kestrel chick from a nest and raising it, in the process learning about life and death – to try to impose a linear narrative to the text seems to be to miss the point. Indeed, it has an obsessive focus on the details rather than the ‘bigger picture’, clearly representing how Packham interprets the world and mirroring the workings of the autistic mind. As a reader, however, and an autistic one at that, I found this wandering style more alienating than inviting, especially the multiple shifts from first- to third-person, and craved something – anything – that might give me a sense of direction.

It is also a particularly difficult read, both in terms of form and content. From the first page, you are struck by Packham’s individualistic writing style – long sentences packed with adjectives and multiple clauses that create a wonderful sense of a place or a feeling but make literal understanding almost impossible. Some of his sentences I had to read a dozen times to even come close to getting the gist of what he was trying to say, and this added to my frustration with the book. Furthermore, the brutal, unsentimental honesty of his writing is at times deeply uncomfortable; the depictions of bullying and animal cruelty, for example, some of it by Packham himself – a passage where he describes his fondness for eating live tadpoles stands out – are markedly unpleasant and not for the squeamish.

All of which makes Fingers in the Sparkle Jar an incredibly difficult book to review. On the one hand, it is revealing and brave, beautifully illustrating the isolation, confusion, and bullying often experienced by those of us on the Spectrum while we were growing up; and on the other, I found it both a challenge and a chore to read. Having discussed it with others, some really liked the lyricism and free form of the structure, while others, like me, struggled to cope with the poeticism and formlessness of Packham’s style. I can understand why, as a dark, individualistic depiction of a childhood living with autism and nature, it has earned bestseller status, but if you’re expecting a straightforward autobiography about how a naturalist became a TV presenter and was subsequently diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, this is definitely not the book for you.

Fingers In The Sparkle Jar at Amazon