Stupidity and coronavirus

As an autistic writer who works from home, it’s obviously easier for me to socially isolate than many sections of society. On the other hand, with support workers coming in to help me with my activities of daily living, I’m not immune from exposure – especially when some of my support workers are freaking imbeciles.

After an hour with my support worker this morning, she said, ‘Oh, I probably shouldn’t say this, but my partner’s daughter had a temperature at the weekend.’

What?!

‘It’s alright, it turned out to be a cold.’

How do you know that?

‘Because it was just a cold.’

Did you have her tested?

‘No.’

So how could you possibly know that?

She looked at me like I was dumb. ‘Er, because I know the difference between a cold and coronavirus.’

Oh. You ‘know’. That’s pretty diagnostic.

‘Well, she could hold her breath for ten seconds, so it couldn’t have been coronavirus.’

Because she could hold her breath?

‘Yeah.’

Are you a fucking idiot?

‘What’s wrong?’

You should be in isolation for two weeks.

‘For a cold?’

Because you could be infected with coronavirus!

‘I’m not infected, I feel fine.’

Many cases are asymptomatic. That means no symptoms. But that doesn’t stop you carrying it around and infecting the people you meet.

‘But she had a sniffle.’

A sniffle?

‘Yeah, and you don’t get a sniffle with coronavirus – you get a dry cough.’

Up to a third of cases cough up mucus. A third.

‘Oh. Well I didn’t know that.’

It’s your job to know! It’s everyone’s job to know! And if she had a temperature, you’re supposed to isolate the whole household. You’re meant to stay inside for two weeks.

‘Well, I know it wasn’t the coronavirus – it was just a cold.’

So, despite the government asking us only yesterday to remain isolated inside our homes for two weeks if anybody in the household has a temperature, she’s freely wandering around, potentially spreading it to all and sundry like Typhoid Mary. She’s probably right, and it was just a cold, but that’s hardly the point. The fact is, we don’t know if there’s coronavirus in her household or not, and that’s why we all have to take responsibility.

Dear Lord, if this is how seriously people are taking this, we’re all doomed.

(For the results of some studies into coronavirus symptoms, click here).

Explaining coronavirus isolation to my kids (and wife)

My two-year-old is too young to understand what’s going on in the world, but my four-year-old is definitely switched-on enough to know that something’s up, and since her response to not being able to go to gymnastics was a tantrum, I figured it was time to put on my dad hat and level with her.

‘Lots of people are getting ill,’ I said. ‘Most of them will get better; many of them won’t even realise they were ever even ill; but some of them won’t get better. It’s very bad for old people, and people who are already ill. But you don’t have to worry about it – it doesn’t really affect children.’

‘Why not?’ she asked, sharp as a tack.

‘Nobody really knows,’ I replied. ‘Trouble is, while you might not get ill from it, you can carry the virus and pass it on to others and make them ill. And we don’t want to do that. The government – the people in charge of the country – they’ve said that we shouldn’t go and see people unless we absolutely have to. That includes gymnastics.’

‘But I want to go to gymnastics.’

‘I know, sweetheart. But – look.’ I got three books off the shelf and placed them on the floor, then got six teddy bears. ‘Most of us are going to get this. For most of us it’ll be no worse than a cold. But a lot of people will have to go to hospital. There are only a certain number of beds.’

I took the first teddy bear, and touched its hand to the second. ‘This one’s ill,’ I said, then put it on the first book. ‘He gets a bed in hospital. Now the second bear is ill.’

I touched the second bear’s hand to the third’s, then put it on the second book. ‘He gets a bed too. But now the third one’s ill too.’

I had the third bear touch the fourth and take up the last bed. ‘Now this fourth one’s ill, but there are no beds, so he can’t get better.’ I then showed the virus infecting the remaining two, but there were still no beds.

‘This is what happens if we all keep going to gymnastics and seeing our friends and going to cello lessons,’ I said. ‘There aren’t enough beds, so they can’t all get better. Now let’s see what happens if we don’t do those things.’

I reset the simulation and had the first bear get ill without touching the second bear, and take its bed, then the second, and then the third.

‘But this time,’ I said, making the first bear stand up and jauntily walk away, ‘this bear gets better and comes out of hospital. That means that when this bear gets ill’ (I picked up the fourth bear) ‘there’s a bed for him. And when the second bear gets better’ (I picked up the fifth bear) ‘there’s room for this one, too.’

I repeated it with the sixth bear and showed them all eventually leave the hospital. ‘You see?’ I said. ‘They all still get ill, but instead of all getting ill at the same time, and not having enough beds, they get ill over time, and have the best chance of getting better. That’s why we can’t go to gymnastics right now. We all have to look after the people who need hospital beds – all of us – and the best way of doing that is to do what we’ve been asked to do.’

She got really excited by that and wanted to do it herself, so she re-enacted what would happen if everyone got ill at the same time (not enough beds) versus what would happen if we flattened the curve. Success.

Explaining it to my wife, who is both autistic and has Emotionally Unstable (Impulsive) Personality Disorder, is altogether more difficult.

She’s adamant that she’s still going to see her friends because ‘it means, just hang out with people you know, not strangers.’

It doesn’t mean that at all. You’re just as likely to catch it from friends as strangers – more so, as you’ll be in closer proximity.

‘Everyone I’ve spoken to says they’re still going to go to swimming and gymnastics.’

Well they shouldn’t – what part of, ‘Now is the time to stop ALL non-essential social contact’ is so difficult to understand?

‘I don’t care what they say, they can’t tell us not to, they can’t tell us what to do.’

They can, and they have.

‘I think it’s stupid and pointless.’

I had no idea you know better than the Chief Medical Officer, the Science Advisor to the Government, and all the experts at the World Health Organisation.

‘But we’re not ill or over 70 or pregnant.’

No, but we could carry it to someone who is and they could die, or take the bed away from someone who needs it. Stop being so selfish and bloodyminded. They wouldn’t be asking us to do this without good reason. Our grandparents went to war, we’re being asked to stay home and watch Netflix.

‘I’m not cancelling anything. You can’t stop me.’

It’s not me telling you to do it, it’s the government. You know, the people who pay your benefits. It’s incumbent upon us to be informed, responsible and conscientious citizens, and that means avoiding ALL non-essential social contact, even if it inconveniences you.

‘But it doesn’t mean not to go to gymnastics or see your friends.’

That’s exactly what it means. Is gymnastics essential? Is seeing your friends essential? Is going swimming essential?

‘You just don’t understand it because you’re autistic and you take things literally.’

What’s not to understand? There’s no room for misinterpretation; there are no shades of grey here. It’s as black and white as it comes – avoid ALL non-essential social contact. Not some, not most, not the ones you don’t mind dropping, but ALL. Jesus Christ, we’re talking about people dying here.

I even made her watch tonight’s press conference on YouTube. She watched him say, ‘Now is the time to stop ALL non-essential social contact,’ and her response? ‘He doesn’t mean all.’

Dealing with a global health crisis is one thing; dealing with a stubborn, recalcitrant ass-hat who has no intention of abiding by the government’s instructions is another altogether. God forbid we get locked down for fourteen days together or I’m going to have to lock the doors and hide the keys.

Be responsible, goddamnit. There’s a time to rock the boat and a time to do as you’re told. It’s pretty damned clear which this is.

EDIT: this policy is projected to reduce the UK death toll from 260,000 to 20,000. It’s not a lot to ask for a thirteenfold saving of life.

An observation on panic-buying

It’s rather bewildering to go shopping and find only dented cans left on the shelves.

What exactly is the thought process on that?

“Quick, grab as many tins as you can, it’s the apocalypse!”

“This one has a dent in it…”

“Leave it! We might be desperate, but we’re not that desperate.”

Sweet conversations with my kids

To offset some of the panic, negativity and fear consuming the world, and remind people of the joys to be had when they switch off their phones, I thought I’d share some cute and funny things my kids said yesterday.

I went swimming with my two-year-old, Rosie. At one point, she was sitting on my lap and we were comparing how big our thumbs are. She labelled one of my thumbs ‘mummy’ and one ‘daddy’, then pushed the tips together to make a triangle and said, ‘Mummy and daddy best friends.’

That’s right, I said. We are best friends.

She then labelled her own thumbs ‘Rosie’ and ‘Izzie’, and put them into the triangle of protection under ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’, making a little family of thumbs.

It was one of the cutest things I’ve ever experienced.

Of course, she ruined it a few minutes later when I took her to the toilet and, thinking it was a sink, she immediately stuck her hand in the nearest urinal.

She’s also started saying something really funny. It’s my fault, I have to admit. I told her not to let the dog lick her, and she asked me why.

Because dogs use their tongues as toilet paper.

So now she keeps saying, ‘No, Ozzy, don’t lick me with your toilet paper!’

But it’s just the latest in a string of weird idiosyncrasies – like the way every night when she gets into bed, she selects the teddy she wants to sleep with then shouts at the rest as though they’ve offended her, before angrily flinging them across the room – only to welcome them again in the morning. ‘You not sleep with me, no way Jose!’

My eldest, Izzie, is so far beyond her years, I often forget I’m talking to a four-year-old. She’s astonishingly switched-on for a child, and seems to understand human interaction better than I do. When my wife and I are at loggerheads, she often comes up with a fair and reasonable solution that neither of us had even considered. She even knows the alphabet, and can write all her letters in lower and upper case – I hadn’t even started school by her age.

But then, midway through a normal conversation, I’ll get a jarring reminder that she’s still just a child. Like yesterday evening when we went shopping.

While we were driving down a dark country lane, she turned to me and said, ‘I helped Gramps milk the cows. And there was a cow that had just been born, and Gramps had to go in the mud to help it and he got all dirty.’

You saw a cow being born?

‘Well, I am going to be a farmer,’ she said matter-of-factly.

You like getting muddy?

‘You have to when you’re a farmer.’

I guess so. Maybe Gramps will leave you the farm when you’re older.

‘No, we’re going to run it together.’

I glanced over at her. Sweetheart, Gramps is in his late sixties and you’re four. I don’t think you’re going to be able to run it together.

‘Why not?’

Because right now you’re too young and by the time you’re old enough, he’ll be too old.

‘Oh,’ she said, crestfallen.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t help him as you’re growing up, I said quickly. Make sure you learn as much as you can from him, so that one day, when you’re all grown up, you’ll be ready to run a farm all by yourself.

Okay. And then you can work on the farm too.’

Me?!

‘You can look after the cows when I’m being a superhero. I’m going to be very busy.’ She looked out the window and sighed, like it was all such a burden. ‘I’m going to have to learn to fly.’

The way she said it was so earnest and serious, that I couldn’t help laughing.

Oh. Where are you going to learn that?

‘Flying school,’ she said, as though I was stupid. ‘I have to go if I’m going to be a superhero.’

Yeah, I guess you do. You don’t want to pick one or the other – farmer or superhero?

‘No, I think I can do both, if you look after the cows.’

Well, study hard and we’ll have to see, won’t we?

Too cute!

Keeping sane in a crisis: an autistic perspective

As someone with autism who’s neurologically predisposed towards obsessing over danger and freaking out over every little thing, I have forty years experience of battling dread and fear, and so the threat of a pandemic bearing down on us like a runaway train is just another day to me. However, it seems to be something new for large sections of society, and as panic starts to spread, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on keeping sane in a crisis – because if an autistic guy can do it, so can you.

First a disclaimer: I’m not an epidemiologist. Nor are most journalists, or the person on Facebook claiming coronavirus is harmless, or the neighbour stockpiling toilet paper. None of these behaviours are particularly helpful, because they add to the noise and misinformation out there, making it difficult to know what to believe and harder still to keep a level head. That’s why I’ve held off blogging about Covid-19: because I didn’t want to add to that noise.

But since we seem to be at peak saturation for signal clutter, what can it hurt? And hell, in some small way it might even help.

1. Demystify what you’re afraid of

There is nothing scarier than the unknown, except, perhaps, the unknown over which we have no control. There’s a very obvious evolutionary reason for this – the unknown could be dangerous and might kill us, so it’s safer sticking to the familiar where we can manage the risks.

Unfortunately, this means we have a tendency to inflate the dangers of anything new, and downplay the severity of those dangers we face everyday. That’s why we’re afraid of terrorists (odds of dying in a terror attack in the UK: 1 in 7.3 million), flying (1 in 5 million) and sharks (1 in 900 million), and not the death machines parked on our driveways (1 in 20,000, or a staggering 1 in 240 in your lifetime).

One of the best ways of controlling our fear of Covid-19 is to make it familiar, and thereby strip it of its mystique. Look at the bald statistics from a reliable site (like the World Health Organisation and Worldometer) and they’re more reassuring than the unhelpful running totals on websites listing number of cases alongside number of deaths.

As of 9:40, Thursday 12 March, there have been 126,628 cases, of which 4638 have died and 68,325 recovered. More helpful, perhaps, are the stats on current cases: 53,665, of which 47,957 (89%) are mild, and 5,708 (11%) serious or critical. While the tabloids might delight in showing photos of people lying in hospitals on ventilators, and implying there are more than 100,000 of them, the truth is that, globally, there are 5,708. Even if you catch Covid-19, the vast majority will have mild or no symptoms.

And this is good news for the statistics. The mortality rate is based on the percentage of known cases that have died, but if up to 50% of cases are asymptomatic, there are undoubtedly thousands who are infected, or have been infected and recovered, without even realising it.

So how lethal is Covid-19? Answers vary depending on which source you look at, but the mortality rate is estimated to be around 2% (ranging from 0.7% to 3%). This varies greatly by age, however, falling heaviest on the elderly and those with underlying health issues. If you’re under 50, the fatality rate runs at 0.2% of those infected, or 1 in 500, giving you a 99.8% chance of recovery, while those in their 80s have an 85% chance of recovery.

Therefore, if you catch Covid-19, you’re still twice as likely to die in a car accident in your life than die of coronavirus this year. Indeed, not only will you most likely recover, you’ll probably have either no symptoms or the mild symptoms of a cough, a high temperature, and a shortness of breath. This doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous or that we shouldn’t do everything to protect ourselves and those more vulnerable to the virus, but knowing what we face is far easier to deal with than worrying unduly.

2. Put your fear into perspective

Oftentimes, it feels like the end of the world. Especially as an autistic person, you spend your life magnifying things to the level of a catastrophe. Your chest tightens as you’re flooded with adrenaline, obsessing over the danger and letting it consume your every thought, because you can’t avoid the thing that’s coming for you. At these times, it’s best to step back and put things into perspective.

Look out of the window: is the world still there? Is the grass still green? Can you see insects buzzing and flowers growing and clouds scudding across the sky? Then it’s not the end of the world, even if it might feel like it.

For the past few months, people have been comparing coronavirus to the flu. For just as long, people have been saying, ‘Stop comparing it to the flu! Stop saying it’s only dangerous to the elderly and those with underlying health issues! Stop trying to minimise the dangers!’ Such people are, I think, missing the point of why these things are being said.

People are scared. People want reassurance. Comparing Covid-19 – the unknown bogeyman – to something we’re fairly comfortable with, like flu, is a way of dispelling some of that fear, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. The situation is serious, yes, but uncontrolled fear leads to the kind of irrational, unhelpful behaviour we’ve been seeing with panic-buying and stockpiling, which places massive strains on supply chains and has the potential to be very damaging. In a crisis, the last thing you want is panic. Making sane, rational decisions is always better than rushed knee-jerk reactions.

Nor do I think it’s a problem stressing that 98% of those infected will recover, with most of the remaining 2% being elderly and/or those with underlying medical issues. There was an article in the Guardian yesterday about the people in that 2% ‘at risk’ group feeling thrown to the wolves to make the other 98% feel better (along with lots of the usual Tory-bashing), but while you must be feeling vulnerable in that 2%, the solution isn’t to fill the remainder with dread. This doesn’t mean that those who die from this pandemic are unimportant and that we shouldn’t do everything we can to keep them safe, simply that we shouldn’t panic by overestimating the lethality of this virus.

Putting Covid-19 into context shows that it’s much worse than the flu, which has a mortality rate of 0.1% and a mortality rate in the over-65s of only 0.83%. However, it’s far less lethal than recent health scares like bird flu (60%), Ebola (50%), MERS (35%), and SARS (10%). It’s also nowhere near as contagious as measles or chicken pox.

Looking at the big picture, the government’s worst case scenario – something that is unlikely to happen – is that 80% of the UK gets it, resulting in 500,000 deaths. While this seems terrifying, again we must put it into perspective. In the UK, there are around 600,000 deaths each year from all causes, which is around 1% of the population. Therefore, more than half-a-million people die around us each year and we barely even notice it. Many of the people in the government’s 500,000 would have died anyway and been included in the 600,000, so if we speculate that around 1 million people will die in the UK this year, the worst case scenario will increase our annual death rate by half a percentage point – from 1% to 1.5%. This is worth remembering.

It’s also worth remembering that all of these figures are speculative. Covid-19 has the potential to kill millions, but so far it hasn’t, and only time will tell how it pans out. As my mother always says, worry is a waste of energy – if the thing you fear doesn’t happen, there was never any point worrying about it, and if it does, your worry didn’t stop it.

You know what does kill millions of people around the world each year? Heart disease. It kills 18 million people a year, but very few of us heed the warnings and change our diets and exercise. Cancer kills 10 million, many of them preventable. 9 million die of hunger. 1.5 million die of tuberculosis. 1.1 million of dysentery.

Judging Covid-19 on what it has actually done, instead of what it might do, is a better way of keeping a level head. I understand those people who scream that Covid-19 could kill millions, because they’re right. I also understand those who say that coronavirus has only killed around 4500 people, and even if you do catch it, you’ve got a 98% chance of recovery, because they’re right too.

3. Switch off

As someone whose autism causes him to obsess over every little detail of an issue until it dominates every aspect of his life, I’m well aware that there comes a point where, for the sake of your sanity, you just have to stop. It’s understandable that people want to keep abreast of the situation, because you want to keep an eye on the danger and avoid it if you can, but we’re in a uniquely difficult age where our technology gives us 24-hour access to information. What starts as a desire to keep you and your family safe can quickly turn into an addiction.

Watching the news a couple of times a day is fine, but tracking the spread of Covid-19 in real time and checking your phone for updates every few minutes isn’t healthy. It gives you the illusion of safety while simultaneously heightening your anxiety – a wound can’t heal when you’re constantly picking at it. Following Covid-19 doesn’t make you any safer, but it does make you far more uptight about it. So learn what you need to learn, hear what you need to hear, and then switch off, or else you risk letting your fear of coronavirus take over your life.

Of course, distracting yourself from that feeling of impending doom is not always easy. Instead of telling yourself not to think about it, which only makes you think about it more, simply acknowledge it whenever it pops into your head and gently shift your focus onto something else. I find doing something that requires concentration, focus and hand-eye coordination – a jigsaw puzzle, a model, a paint-by-numbers – is a far better means of taking your mind off your fears than TV, movies or a book.

And once your mind is off it, go do something else. Count the leaves on a tree. Dance in the shower. Focus on the here and now and the things you have control over, instead of things that might happen tomorrow. Know that this will pass.

4. Learn to accept the things we cannot change

I think the biggest thing I’ve realised from watching this emerging crisis is just how resistant people are to accepting things. They might close the schools, they might cancel my holiday, it’s not fair, rage, fume. When you come up against a brick wall blocking your path, repeatedly bashing your head against it is nothing more than a futile gesture. Sure, it’s annoying to find our way blocked. The solution isn’t to cry, it’s to go back and find another path.

You also have to accept that we’re all mortal and will therefore one day die. I’ve seen tons of people in their 70s and 80s in denial, panicking that they’re going to die. Why? If you’ve not accepted your mortality by that age, when you’re already past the life expectancy of an adult human, you’d better start working on it. I’m 40 and I’m comfortable with the fact that this bundle of cells, animated by that mysterious force called life, will one day become nothing more than meat. If I die of coronavirus, or heart disease, or in a car accident, it’ll be sad for my wife and kids, my family and friends, but it’ll be normal, and natural, and it was simply my time. There’s no point feeling bitter over the years I didn’t get to have, because I was never entitled to them, and I never had them anyway.

Accepting that no amount of huffing and puffing will change the nature of the universe is a vital skill if you want to keep your head when all around you are losing theirs.

5. Keep a sense of humour, even if (especially if) it’s dark

The best way of dispelling fear in a crisis is finding the humour in your situation. I remember someone posting that you should look around at all your friends and know that two of them will die. Wow, I thought – with a mortality rate of 2%, she’s vastly overestimating my popularity!

I’m also bemused by people’s fear of self-isolating. To me, that’s a normal day.

I find social media an endless source of amusement. It’s fascinating how easily Covid-19 slips into political rhetoric. To the right wing, the crisis is the result of immigrants bringing in the virus; to the left, it’s because the Tories have cut health services. Various right-wing websites are claiming that Covid-19 is a biological weapon that escaped from a Chinese lab; various left-wing websites are claiming it’s an American biological weapon designed to crash the Chinese economy. You’ve got to see something amusing about that.

Perhaps the weirdest thing is how quickly people’s professed virtues flip to the opposite extreme. After Brexit, I lost count of the number of Tweets I read hoping that elderly Leavers would hurry up and die; then, in the run-up to the election, those same people were saying how we had to vote Labour or else millions of old people would be at risk. After the result showed most old people voted Tory, I again lost count of the number of Tweets saying they looked forward to the elderly dying in their millions as the Tories ran the NHS into the ground as it would serve them right; and now, those same people are saying, Save the Elderly! Save the Elderly! I mean, come on guys, pick a side and stick to it: do you want elderly Brexit-voting Tories to die, or don’t you?

One of the best jokes I saw online was: If there was a vaccine for coronavirus, most of you wouldn’t take it anyway. Now shut up and wash your hands.

We have some difficult times ahead of us, people. But keep calm and carry on.

Good luck on staying sane.

World Book Day 2020: Top Ten Non-Fiction

In honour of World Book Day, and having already listed my Top Ten Novels, here are ten of my favourite non-fiction books (with the exception of my own, of course!). These are ten books spanning various genres that stood out from the crowd, providing entertainment, fascination, insight, knowledge and joy.

1. Chariots of the Gods, by Erich Von Daniken (1968)

Filled with wondrous insights about the ancient aliens that created us…oh no, wait. Only joking!

1. A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson (2005)

Writing a scientific history of the world that explains not only what we know but how we know it, and the oftentimes bizarre people who made it possible, and putting it all into one book that is readable for the layperson, seems like an impossible task, but Bryson manages to pull it off with aplomb. From geology to seismology, biology to paleontology, particle physics to relativity, he takes some incredibly complex fields of science and somehow makes them understandable, entertaining and endlessly fascinating. Part science primer, part history and part biography, this book is a must read for anybody curious about the world around them.

2. Heavier Than Heaven: The Biography of Kurt Cobain, by Charles R. Cross (2001)

I’m not normally a fan of celebrity biographies, and having already read several on Kurt Cobain, the tragic frontman of Nirvana who committed suicide in 1994, I didn’t expect this book to be anything more than a casual read. I was happy to be proved wrong. Expertly drawing together details from hundreds of interviews, Cross recreates Cobain so vividly, I felt I could reach out and touch him. Indeed, for someone who died before I even knew who he was, this book brought Cobain back to life, almost as though the narrative was unfolding in real time as we drew on towards the inevitable conclusion. Raw, heartfelt and honest, I’d recommend this to anyone, even if you’re not a fan of Cobain’s music, for the way it manages to penetrate the public persona and reach the real individual beneath.

3. A Voyage for Madmen, by Peter Nichols (2011)

The definitive account of one of the strangest and most gripping stories of man at sea, this is the kind of twist-filled, rip-roaring adventure you’d describe as unbelievable if it wasn’t true. In 1968, nine solo yachtsmen set out to become the first to sail alone and non-stop around the world. And what a strange bunch they were – a philosopher, a failed inventor, a soldier who didn’t know how to sail, in boats that hadn’t been designed for the rigours of the open seas. Of the nine, four pulled out after being battered by the ocean; one after vomiting blood from a peptic ulcer; one sank; one didn’t want to stop sailing so abandoned the race to become one with the ocean; one went mad, wrote a 25,000 word treatise about the human condition, and then killed himself; and only one made it. There aren’t enough superlatives to describe this perfect storm of eccentricities, and this book more than does them justice.

4. The Case For Mars, by Robert Zubrin (1996)

A fascinating proposal for colonizing the Red Planet using existing technology and scientific know-how, this is both a sales pitch and a step-by-step manual to creating a sustainable habitat on Mars. With infectious enthusiasm, Zubrin convincingly shows how to achieve each stage physically, technologically, scientifically, politically and financially. Indeed, from reading this book it becomes clear that we don’t need to wait a hundred years or even fifty – we could start right now. If that doesn’t excite the little child inside you that dreams of walking on alien worlds, then nothing will.

5. Travels With Charley: In Search of America, by John Steinbeck (1962)

Travels With Charley is an absolute gem of a travelogue that has informed so much of how I see the world. While it’s ostensibly about Steinbeck’s trip around the US in a pickup truck when he was sixty, accompanied only by his pet dog Charley, it’s as much about an old man coming to terms with his mortality, revisiting the places he once knew and that are now lost in time. Along the way, we learn what it is to take a journey, why we should refuse to surrender the fire in our bellies, how we can never go home again, and why men should have beards. Atmospheric, lyrical, meditative and philosophical, in trying to pin down what makes Americans so American, Steinbeck reveals far more about what it is to be human.

6. The Stories of English, by David Crystal (2004)

Essentially a history of the English Language, this book is far more readable and entertaining than it has any right to be. Do you know why the land of the Angles and Saxons came to be called England and not Saxonland? That the sea used to be called a seal bath, swan road or whale way, and ships were keels, wave floaters or wave horses? That the Vikings are the reason Keswick and Chiswick are no longer pronounced the same? That as a result of Norman noblemen exploiting Anglo-Saxon peasants, all the names of domesticated animals are English (calves, cows, sheep, pigs) but all the meats are French (veal, beef, mutton, pork)? Whether you’re looking to understand the language or simply want interesting facts to fire at your friends in the pub, The Stories of English is the easiest and most enjoyable way of doing it.

7. Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust, by Richard Rhodes (2002)

Despite its slightly misleading title, this harrowing piece of historical study is one of the most important and revealing accounts of the Holocaust I’ve read – and I’ve read a lot. While everyone knows about the death camps, very few know about what came before them, when four ‘special task forces’ of a thousand men each followed the army into Poland and Russia, rounded up Jews, and shot more than one million of them into makeshift graves. Following the organisation, training, development and ideologies of these groups, Rhodes shows how the death camps weren’t created to make the killing more efficient – they were created to make it easier on the executioners, who were suffering depression, alcoholism and suicide as a result of murdering people all day long. A nasty but worthwhile read, Masters of Death shines a light on a gruesome part of history that should never be forgotten.

8. The Dinosaur Hunters, by Deborah Cadbury (2000)

Popular history at its best, The Dinosaur Hunters is a fascinating story of heroes and villains, gifted amateurs exploited by amoral academics, and the battles that raged as the first dinosaur bones were pulled from the earth. It’s the tale of Mary Anning, a poor Dorset spinster who made some of the greatest discoveries of all time but was shut out of the scientific community because she was a woman; of Gideon Mantell, a country doctor who lost his money and his wife trying to prove that the giant bones he collected belonged to prehistoric lizards; and of the obnoxious anatomist Sir Richard Owen, who destroyed Mantell’s reputation before taking credit for many of his discoveries and stealing the honour of naming the dinosaurs. A real page-turner that shows in stark terms how difficult it can sometimes be to separate the vested interests of the scientists from the science itself.

9. The Sociopath Next Door, by Martha Stout (2006)

We tend to think of sociopaths as violent criminals, but did you know that 4% of people are reckoned to have no conscience? In this eye-opening and frankly terrifying book, Stout reveals how 1 in every 25 people walking around in society are only out for themselves, with no instinctive limits on how they treat others, having zero empathy and no remorse whatsoever. Ever made excuses for someone’s behaviour, like they must have forgotten or they must have been under a lot of pressure, because you simply can’t believe any normal human being could do such a thing? Chances are, you’re dealing with a sociopath. Filled with horrifying case studies of the destruction wrought by these people in relationships, families, the workplace and wider society, this book teaches us how to recognise the sociopaths in our lives and how to protect ourselves from them, and for that alone it’s essential reading.

10. A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, by Captain Charles Johnson (1724)

If you’ve ever read Treasure Island; played Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag; watched Johnny Depp do his best Keith Richards impression; or told the joke, ‘Why are pirates called pirates? Because they arrrrr’; then this is the book for you. It pretty much created everything we think we know about pirates, from peg legs and buried treasure to eye patches and the Jolly Roger. A collected ‘biography’ of famous pirates, all the big names are here: Blackbeard, William Kidd, Calico Jack Rackham, Bartholomew Roberts, Mary Read, Anne Bonney, Charles Vane, Edward Low, Israel Hands, Stede Bonnet, Sam Bellamy and a whole bunch you’ve probably never heard of. Given that its authorship is still in dispute and there’s no doubt that much of it is exaggerated, if not simply made up, calling this non-fiction is a bit of a stretch, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun nonetheless.

World Book Day 2020: Top Ten Novels

In honour of World Book Day, I thought I’d list ten of my favourite novels (with the exception of my own. Hint, hint, any publishers who are reading this!). These are ten books that got under my skin and left such a deep impression that I was still thinking about them months or even years later – no mean feat when I’ve read around 800 in the last twenty years. While they might not be considered ‘literature’, and are therefore unlikely to grace many Top Ten lists, they show writers at the top of their craft, able to stir, excite, move, challenge and satisfy. What more could you want in a book?

My Top Five (in no particular order):

1. The Death of Grass, by John Christopher (1956)

A horrifyingly real apocalyptic thriller with a uniquely ominous, slow-burn first act as the world edges towards catastrophe. Set in post-war Britain, the story is about a virus that starts in China (where else?) and spreads slowly westwards, killing all grasses – including rice, wheat, oats and barley. With an upcoming election, and in the mistaken belief that science can find a solution, the government opts not to take the necessary but unpopular measures to offset the crisis, so by the time the virus hits, it’s already too late – at least half the population is going to starve.

Escaping from the city shortly before martial law puts it on lockdown, an ordinary man and his family set out towards his brother’s farm – a safe-haven in an easily defensible valley where they’ve been growing potatoes. Following the adage that civilisation is only ever three meals from anarchy, the countryside rapidly descends into a lawless hell of robbery, rape and murder, forcing the travellers to unexpected acts of savagery to survive – but at what cost to their humanity?

What makes this book different from so many others is the sheer believability of both the premise and the characters, showcasing the best and worst of mankind. When I first read it a few years ago, it scared the hell out of me, and with the coronavirus dominating the headlines, it’s as resonant today as it ever was. A word of warning to the easily offended: it isn’t very PC. But then, for a book written in the fifties, why would it be?

2. Changeling, by Matt Wesolowski (2019)

A work of staggering impact that ought to be taught in schools to warn about the dangers of certain types of abuse, Changeling explores six different perspectives on the disappearance of a child in a haunted forest so creepy it has the genuine ability to make your skin crawl. What at first appears to be a modern supernatural chiller slowly reveals itself to be a psychological thriller that is as profound and unsettling as it is insightful and authentic.

And that is the genius of this novel – it deliberately turns everything you think you know on its head. Possibly more than any other novel I’ve read, it gets inside and shakes up your view of the world. The human monster at the heart of the story is far more convincing and everyday than Hannibal Lecter, which makes him/her all the more disturbing. This isn’t the horror of cannibals and serial killers, but of partners and parents, people who live with us and present a civilised front to the world while, out of sight, they destroy us one little bit at a time – tap, tap, tap.

I’m not sure why this book isn’t better known – perhaps because, like its antagonist, it wraps itself in a cloak that disguises what it really is. But this is what makes the book so affecting – by putting us, its readers, in the same position as the novel’s victims, we’re able to experience what this form of abuse is like, and what it feels like, and how truly awful it is. It’s an important book, something that could change how people think about power in relationships, and it deserves to be read more widely. I can’t recommend it enough.

3. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler (2013)

I read Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club and didn’t really care for it (the movie is one of my favourite guilty pleasures), so I wasn’t really expecting much. How wrong I was. Oh my gosh, I cried and I cried and I cried. Reading this was like opening up a wound and exposing all that came out to sunlight. I ploughed through it in a day, desperate to get to the end just so the pain would stop.

It’s pretty far from a perfect book – some of the side characters are one-dimensional and the subplots are poorly executed – but the central story, about the relationship between a girl and the sister she grew up with, is brave, and thought-provoking, and devastating, so moving that it makes up for everything else. I can’t say too much about the plot without giving away the twist, but it’s a mix of family drama, mystery, tragedy and coming-of-age story. If you’re sensitive, if you feel things deeply and can’t bear to see another creature suffer, keep the tissues handy because you’re going to need them.

4. HMS Ulysses, by Alistair MacLean (1955)

The only book I’ve read more than three times, this is the definitive account of the horrors of the Arctic Convoys during the Second World War. Following the cruiser of the title as it escorts an assortment of merchant ships towards Russia, battling German planes, surface raiders, U-boats and the elements, the novel is a thrilling, draining, harrowing tour de force of a war story. The characters are so real, they leap off the page; the descriptions of the polar conditions so vivid, you feel the spray turning to ice in the wind; and the tiny details that populate every paragraph, evidently taken from real life (MacLean served in the Royal Navy during World War II), blur the boundaries between fiction and lived experience.

This is one of the few books where every character stands out, living on in the mind for years afterward; where events, seemingly small and insignificant, are so clearly depicted they linger like memories. While it might be fair to say that many of his later novels were somewhat derivative, MacLean’s debut is a storytelling masterclass that has been undeservedly overshadowed by Nicholas Monsarrat’s better-known The Cruel Sea.

5. Furnace, by Muriel Gray (1997)

For a few short years in the 1990s, Muriel Gray was the best thing about the horror genre, a worthy rival to Stephen King. Unfortunately, she only wrote three books, and Furnace, her second, was undoubtedly her best. An homage to MR James’s chilling 1911 short story Casting the Runes and its 1957 film adaptation Night of the Demon, the novel follows a long-distance truck driver as, while crossing rural Virginia, he stumbles into the wrong town at decidedly the wrong time. Cursed with a string of runes written on human skin, he learns he has three days to find out who gave it to him, and give it back without them knowing, or else a demon will manifest and devour him.

Gray takes this simple idea and imbues it with everything you could want from a page-turner. The growing sense of urgency and desperation is beautifully aligned with characters you really care about in a subculture – that of US truckers – that feels authentic and atmospheric. As an author, she had a real talent for pairing character and setting with a kind of creeping terror that didn’t rely on gore or schlocky cliches to scare. Definitely a book to read late at night when the shadows contain secrets.

And the rest of my Top Ten:

6. Deliverance, by James Dickey (1970): A survival horror masterpiece in which four city dwellers go on a weekend canoe trip in rural Georgia and run foul of the locals, Deliverance is a deceptively simple tale that’s still shocking in its uncompromising portrayal of violence and refusal to answer the ambiguous moral questions at its core.

7. The Relic, by Lincoln Child (1995): A Michael Crichton-style techno-thriller that has a pace and gnarliness all its own, this is a tense and exciting story about a mutant monster roaming the basements of the Chicago Museum. Any 450 page novel that can sustain a breathtaking climax over 150 pages without going off the boil is a masterful display of craftsmanship. Just don’t judge it by the atrocious film version.

8. Gates of Fire, by Steven Pressfield (1998): Depicting the last stand of the 300 Spartans against an army of 100,000 Persians at the pass of Thermopylae in 480BC, this novel is that rare thing: a war story that recreates the brutal realities of killing without any of the usual gloss, and an historical drama that lives in its own time without imposing modern sensibilities onto the narrative. Erudite, literate, vivid and, above all, exciting, it’s a definite must-read.

9. The Lost Fleet: Dauntless, by Jack Campbell (2006): Military science-fiction at its best, the first in a series of books about a fleet of warships cut off, surrounded and stranded in enemy space light-years from home. What makes this stand out from the rest is the realism of fleet tactics in three-dimensional space, taking into account the relativistic effects of time-dilation on manoeuvring. Simply top notch storytelling.

10. Sea of Ghosts, by Alan Campbell (2011): Insanely creative, bizarre, intriguing steampunk fantasy merging science, technology, and psychic powers with monsters, magic and parallel dimensions, this novel is an absolute weird gem. Set in a world where the seas are toxic and slowly rising, poisoning the land, it’s like nothing else I’ve ever read. My only qualms in recommending it is that while this is the first in a series, it was cancelled after two novels, leaving you on a cliffhanger that will likely never be resolved. That said, it’s worth reading just to spend time in Campbell’s unique world.

NB: Now that you’ve read this Top Ten, spare a thought for fiction’s lesser cousin. Non-fiction might not have boy wizards or fifty shades of rubbish, but it has a lot of good. Check out my Top Ten Non-Fiction Books.

More life lessons from learning cello

As a forty-year-old self-taught guitar-player who never learned to read music, I’ve spent the past two months attempting to master the cello. Hard? Damn straight. But nothing worth doing is ever easy.

At first, I thought my age would count against me – Yo-Yo Ma started at 4, and Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the cellist du jour, is only 20 – but I quickly realised that studying an instrument isn’t about simply learning the notes: it’s about utilising important life skills that have far wider applications than music (Life lessons from learning cello). I might not have the flexibility, patience or single-mindedness of a child, but I like to think my adult insight makes up for this deficit.

So here are more life lessons from learning cello.

1. Don’t try to run before you can crawl.

The first few days, I mastered the C-Major scale across the four strings, and it sounded pretty good. Up, down, up, down, what could be simpler? I learned the notes and finger positions and figured I’d be a virtuoso in no time. If I know where the notes are already, I thought, I’ll be able to play proper music, without having to waste time on Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.

As they say, pride comes before a fall.

After six days, I looked up the sheet music for Schindler’s List – one of the pieces of music that inspired me to take up cello – and worked out where all the notes were (not being able to read music, after all). I figured it’s a slow piece, so there shouldn’t be much of an issue. After all, I was playing Nirvana a week after first picking up the guitar. How hard could it be?

Hard. It sounded like a leaky arsehole. Eurgh!

There’s playing notes and then there’s playing music, and the two things are worlds apart, especially when it comes to the cello. On the piano, you can make a perfect note every time with a single action – whether you’re five or fifty-five, press a key and you’ll get the same sound. On the cello, multiple things have to happen to make a note – the fingers of your left hand have to be in the exact position, not a millimetre out of place, and you have to be applying the right pressure; in your right hand, your bow has to be held properly, and it needs to be pressing on the strings correctly, with the correct force, moving smoothly and perfectly straight at the right speed. And for music, you need to adjust the force for expression, accelerate or decelerate. Without vibrato (where you rock the fingers of your left hand), everything sounds horribly thin and unappealing.

While you might be able to go up and down a scale and make it sound okay, and you can play the notes to Schindler’s List after six days, to make it sound good takes years. This realisation was a massive blow to my confidence, and I was of a mind to quit outright. But you have to be resilient if you want to achieve anything good – which brings me to my second life lesson.

2. Take it one step at a time.

A journey of a thousand miles starts beneath your own feet. All you have to do is take one step.

That’s all such a journey is – a succession of individual steps. Don’t think about all the months and years it’s going to take you. Don’t think of all the steps you’re going to have to take. The only thing you should think about, and the only thing over which you have control, is the very next step. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and eventually you’ll get there.

That’s how we achieve any difficult, incremental goal whose attainment is way off in the future, and it’s a vitally important skill to have when learning an instrument – one step at a time. It helps you remain patient; encourages you to take it slow and master the basics; prevents you from racing on ahead and becoming disheartened; and limits much of the frustration and despair that you will inevitably feel.

And remember: you can’t take the second step until you’ve taken the first. So after those rapid first six days, I picked myself up and went back to the very beginning: the cello position; holding the bow; bowing an open string; moving from one string to an adjacent one; skipping over a string; first finger; third and fourth finger; and learning to read the notes on the bass clef. You need a solid foundation on which to build, and if you don’t get the basics right, it’s all just wasted effort.

So when the other day, after two months of nursery rhymes, I learned to play the cello part from Pachelbel’s Canon in D, it sounded amazing, a just reward for my perseverance. Of course, it’s one of the easiest classical pieces to play, but who cares? I’m proud of myself. And that is so important in a world where you’re surrounded by people better than you.

3. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.

(Props to Jordan B. Peterson for this one). This, I think, is probably the most important lesson any of us can learn, whether it’s as a musician, a partner, a parent, or, really, anything. There will always be someone better than you. And I’m not just talking about listening to Stepjan Hauser and despairing that you’ll never be as good as him – I’m talking about all the crap that social media throws at us on a daily basis about our abilities, our relationships, our worth in regard to other people.

Part of the reason I raced ahead to Schindler’s List in six days was from watching videos on YouTube showing how far ordinary people had come in just one week with the instrument. I felt like I was in competition, and I compared everything I was doing with them. And it’s strange, when you start learning the cello, how many people suddenly appear out of the woodwork to say, ‘My cousin’s a professional cellist,’ or ‘My nephew’s just been accepted into music college,’ and I just felt so bloody inferior to them all, so darned useless.

But really, it’s not about competing with anybody else, because I’m not anybody else – I’m me. And each day I sit down to play my cello, I get a little bit better; it feels a mite more natural; and I’ve taken another step towards that distant goal.

4. Keep your eyes on the prize.

Of course, taking it slowly, mastering the basics, and judging yourself only against yourself, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be mindful of the bigger picture. Yes, right now I’m playing Algy the Bear, but ultimately I want to be playing River Flows In You, and it’s not wrong to keep that distant dream in the back of your mind to give you both a goal to work towards and the motivation to get there. Just make sure it helps you, and doesn’t hinder you.

To help me on the way, I’ve started taking lessons. Originally I’d intended to teach myself, but after following five separate teachers on YouTube, all of whom were excellent, I found they were actually confusing me more than helping as they all said slightly different things. When you’ve learned five different bow holds, you start to second guess everything you do, so I decided I’d need one single tutor who could correct all the mistakes I’m making.

In terms of ultimate goals, she asked me how far I wanted to go with the cello, and I realised I hadn’t really given it much thought. I played her River Flows In You on my iPod and told her I wanted to play things like that. ‘So, professional then,’ she said, and it threw me through a loop. When I started to play the guitar, it was to play rock songs; I knew I probably wouldn’t ever be as good as Kirk Hammett from Metallica or Slash from Guns N’ Roses, but I’d definitely be able to master Nirvana, Oasis and Weezer (yes, this enables you to date when I started playing the guitar). But when I took up the cello, it was to play classical music – I mean, that’s what it’s designed for, right? You don’t take up cello because you want to play RnB. Doesn’t everyone reach the stage that they’re playing classical music? Does that mean they’re all professionals?

She’s teaching two other ‘mature’ students, one of whom has reached Grade 4 in eighteen months, the other Grade 8 in two years – whatever the hell that means. They want to play in orchestras. I only ever thought about playing in the spare room – I was learning the cello for its own sake, but I guess the essence of music is performance, so it’s something to consider, provided it doesn’t interfere with lessons 1-3 above.

5. Have fun!

And, all of the above notwithstanding, have fun. Enjoy what you’re doing, even if it’s just Baa Baa Black Sheep. After doing an hour of scales, I like to reward myself by working out a rock song and then making as much noise as I can. Pachelbel’s Canon in D is virtually identical to Green Day’s Basket Case, while U2’s With or Without You is pretty easy. Pantera’s Walk is less so. Lamb of God’s Redneck is a non-starter.

So these are five more life lessons from learning cello:

1. Don’t try to run before you can crawl.

2. Take it one step at a time.

3. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.

4. Keep your eyes on the prize.

5. Have fun!

School gate politics

Since we live our lives surrounded by other people, I follow one simple rule to avoid complications: be distantly polite. Say hello, ask how they are, keep the conversation to mundane topics like the weather and how your kids are doing, and then leave. Not complicated, is it?

Unfortunately, this seems to be a minority viewpoint. I’ve mentioned before how women with kids can be incredibly petty (Millennial mothers: Grow the hell up!), and nothing I’ve experienced in five months of the school gate has convinced me that I’m wrong. If anything, I think I underplayed how obnoxious people can be.

Just before Christmas we had a new girl start at school from a couple of towns over. She hadn’t been getting on at her school (or I’m inclined to think the mother hadn’t been), so she transferred to my daughter’s school. No probs, no foul. The mother’s a bit full on – you can’t get a word in edgeways – but hey ho, we only see her at the school gate, though her and my wife had liaised about setting up a playdate since our daughters hang around together at school. So far, so normal.

Then yesterday, my wife got a text from her. A very nasty text, accusing my wife of gossiping, spreading dirt, and trying to turn the other mothers against her, saying that she hadn’t gone to the effort of switching schools to be judged by such a spiteful person as my wife, and telling her to stay away from her and her family in future or things could get ugly. To which my wife’s response was: what the hell?

The mother then texted to say she’d seen screen captures of messages my wife had sent, and that she wants nothing to do with us, she’d hoped we could be friends but not anymore.

Now, I know my wife isn’t perfect – she’s irresponsible, stubborn and impulsive – but she’s also helpful and generous and desperate to be everyone’s friend, and calling her nasty and judgemental, and accusing her of spreading gossip, is a gross misrepresentation of her character. Only last week, my wife was telling me how excited she was at setting up a playdate and making a ‘new friend’ – this woman – so it infuriates me to have her so maligned.

Since she wasn’t receiving any coherent responses from this woman, my wife contacted a mutual friend from school, one of the other girl’s mothers, to say that she’d received this nasty text and had no idea why. And then we got the explanation.

My daughter told us one day that the new girl had wet herself at school, so she’d been extra nice to her. It’s no biggee – they’re four, most of them have had accidents at school. When my wife met up with her friend the other night, she happened to mention this in conversation, which I figure is a pretty normal thing for parents whose kids are in same class to discuss – like that one of the girls fell over and skinned both knees, or that the Polish kids all hang out together speaking Polish. I mean, when the only thing you’ve got in common is that your kids are friends, what else are you going to talk about other than your kids and their interactions with their friends?

Well, this ‘friend’ mentioned the girl wetting herself to the girl’s mother, who immediately demanded to know who told her. So the ‘friend’ pointed the finger at my wife, and then showed this woman a text message my wife had sent on the very first day they’d met her, saying, ‘Wow, she’s a bit full on,’ because the new mum had blurted out her entire life story to them at the school gate, warts and all.

Those are the two times my wife has ever mentioned that family to anyone else. A text message from almost three months ago saying, ‘Wow, she’s a bit full on,’ and mentioning in passing that our daughter had been extra nice to the new girl because she wet herself. From that, she’s been accused of running a campaign to turn all the other mothers against the new woman, of being cruel, vindictive, spiteful and judgemental. Even though the ‘friend’s’ daughter has wet herself, like, five times! Who cares? They’re kids.

The way I see it, if this woman is so sensitive about people knowing her four-year-old wet herself, she’s the one with the problem. She’s clearly paranoid about being judged by the other mums, and while I don’t know what happened at the other school, she’s come to this one looking out for any sign that she’s being mistreated and totally overreacted to the very first perceived slight. Which makes you wonder if anything really did happen at the other school, or if this is all in her head. I wonder how many other people she’s going to attack and call it self-defence? Or how long before she pulls her child out of this school because of perceived mistreatment?

I composed a very pleasant response to this woman saying that we didn’t judge her at all, we’re all just trying to navigate this very difficult time in our lives without messing up, and it was never our intention to make anybody feel ridiculed because that’s not who we are. And that’s the truth. But we’ve had no response.

Now, however, I do judge her – I think she’s a bit of a psycho. I’d like to say that I can understand her response and I’m trying to see things from her point of view, but really, all I can see is somebody lashing out and accusing people of things that simply never happened. For someone who doesn’t want to be gossiped about, attacking another mum (who is, I am proud to say, rather popular at the school gate) is hardly a good way to stop gossip; indeed, it’s probably the best way to start it. Because, after all, if you’re a paranoid person the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.

I’ve told my wife to watch out for her ‘friend’ too. I mean, who shows someone else a text message about them? Who, when someone is cross because she thinks the other mums are talking about her, pours fuel on the fire? What was her role in all this nonsense? It’s the school gate, not the bloody playground!

And now I shall leave it there, because I’m still angry about how this has played out and I’m feeling the petty caveman building up in me once again. Attack me? Fine, I’ll take in on the chin. Attack my wife and kids? You’d better bring your A-Game, baby, because my dictionary doesn’t go up to B.

I await a rather awkward Monday morning at the school gate. She doesn’t want anything to do with my family? The bloody cheek. I want nothing to do with hers.

But if pressed, I will be distantly polite. If everyone behaved the same way, none of this aggravation would have happened.

My deepest regret

I don’t know what it is that makes us look back sometimes, hunting down the smallest, most insignificant and mostly forgotten corners of our lives to find new material with which to torture ourselves. Perhaps as you get older it becomes easier to look back instead of forwards, given there are more years under your belt than over it; and perhaps the valleys of negative events are etched more vividly and viscerally into our memories than the featureless plain of happier times.

For whatever reason, a particular regret has been playing on my mind of late. I tend to live my life without regret, since everything I’ve done, right and wrong, has contributed to who and where I am now – the mountain does not blame the wind that shapes it. True, some things I might wonder about – what if I’d gone to university at 18; what if I’d continued my nursing studies; what if I hadn’t met my wife? – but for the most part, I don’t worry too much about the past. After all, the only thing we can influence is the present, and we can always strive to be better in the future. I have no qualms admitting when I’ve done wrong, and am not too proud to refrain from asking forgiveness.

However, as an intensely moral person, there are a few things I’m sensitive about. I like to think that, while I’m not necessarily a nice, or kind, or even friendly person, I am at least a good person; that is, when the chips are down, I do what is right, not what is easy. In my life I’ve helped drunks back to their flats, carried old people’s groceries to their cars, taken injured wildlife to the vet and tended those I couldn’t save. I’ve broken up fights, stood up for the weak, given lifts to people in distress and taken the punishments I knew others couldn’t endure. It is when I have fallen short of these ideals that I find most difficult to forgive myself.

So what is my deepest regret?

Every summer from the age of 9 to 15, I was sent off to Christian camp. It was an organisation called Covenanters, and I hated it. While I had some very enjoyable experiences over the years – rock climbing, abseiling, surfing, cliff diving – I detested everything else. I have never been comfortable in a social environment, struggling to form friendships or fit in, and since it would be another 15 years before anyone realised I had autism, I had zero insight into or support for my difficulties. My coping mechanisms didn’t extend beyond locking myself in the toilet to cry and lying awake at night wondering what I could say to my parents to get them to pick me up. Alas, these were my prime ‘character building’ years, so I had to take my punishment like a man.

The first three years of camp weren’t actually that bad because I was less aware of how much of a social misfit I was, and because we stayed in posh boarding schools – it felt a little like Harry Potter many years before Harry Potter was a thing. Other than group showers and raiders from other dorms, the indignities were kept to a minimum.

Unfortunately, in the final four years, camp became a literal camp. Home was a circular bell tent in a muddy field, the toilet was a plastic bucket behind canvas, and the showers were sprinklers over a wooden pallet. I no longer even had the minimal privacy of a bunk, and finding a toilet to cry in meant walking down to the local village on the occasional free afternoon.

Worse, puberty had kicked in, and with it a heightened sense of my own awkwardness and inability to get on with people. Desperate to fit in, everything I tried made me ever more of a social pariah. I just wanted to curl up in my sleeping bag and be left alone, but of course, that made me more of a target. Considering these were Christian camps, the boys who went to them were the furthest from Christian behaviour I ever met. I suppose I could have spoken to an adult, but back then I was conditioned to putting on a brave face as I died a little more inside with every day that passed.

The final three years, the camp was at Polzeath in Cornwall. It was truly awful when I was 13, but I had my brother in my tent, so no matter how bad it got, at least I had an ally. When I was 14, it was just about the worst two weeks of my life. My brother was now a Junior Officer, so I barely ever saw him. I was a piece of meat served up to the butcher’s block, and they tore strips off me.

There were six to eight kids to a tent, ranging in age from 12 to 15, and there’s a lot of difference between a 12-year-old and a fifteen-year-old, especially when the older ones get their kicks from bullying the younger. If it’s never happened to you, you can never know what it’s like to have people go through your bag and mess with your stuff; to hide your things or tread them in the mud; to pour water in your sleeping bag; to ostracise you, make fun of you, call you names, mock everything you do and everything you stand for over two entire weeks, what you wear, what you say, how you say it, what you do, how you walk, every insecurity, the drip, drip, drip of breaking you down until you’re a wreck. And God forbid you show any emotion, or they circle round like hyenas. Baby’s crying, aw, you miss your mummy?

I saw my first porno mag that summer, many, many times, because when they realised I didn’t like it, they kept forcing it on me. Look at the flaps on that one! they’d say as they shoved a photo of a vagina in my face. What’s the matter, are you gay?

Other than me, the youngest in the tent was their whipping boy, but he spent the whole time trying to be their friends while I spent the whole time keeping my head down and trying not to get noticed. They held him down once and shaved his head with face razors while he screamed, and still he went back for more. The couple of nights it got physically violent – after they told him his parents were dead and he was an orphan – I stepped in to protect him, taking the blows and the anger directed at him, which made my situation even worse. So of course, he joined them in mocking me, because he wanted to be in their tribe, and it was obvious I was never going to be.

Understandably, I didn’t want to go back to camp when I was 15. I mean, fuck that, right? But there was still character-building to be done, so back I went.

Things had changed, however. Between the end of that awful summer of 1994 and the start of the next, I had changed. I’d started listening to a band whose lead singer had just killed himself, and for the first time I found a voice for my frustrations, a channel for my angst. I’d started teaching myself to play the guitar, and I’d discovered hitherto untapped depths of resilience from all the bullshit I was enduring at school.

I made plans. This time, I swore I wasn’t going to let camp beat me. I bought clip-on shades for my glasses so I could hide behind them if I needed to; a bunch of band T-shirts so I could wear my identity like a suit of armour on my chest; a cross-pendant necklace to remind myself of strength in the face of suffering; and a bag chock full of cassettes and batteries so I could shut out the world and be alone with my music. I would bring my guitar to fill up the spare moments; sign up to every activity and volunteer for every shitty job going, just to stay active and stay safe.

As an officer, my brother had to help set up the camp, so we arrived a day earlier than the other campers and spent the day erecting the marquee and toilet tents. There were only two others like me, so the three of us were put in the same tent that night.

Sometimes the darkness never seems to end; the morning never comes; and you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so desolate. I remember sitting at breakfast on a rough wooden bench, surrounded by adults, and none of them spotted I was crying behind my shades as I ate my cornflakes, lost in utter devastation. The night with those boys had broken me. Despite my preparation, nothing was different; I was no different. I wouldn’t survive the next two weeks.

Behind the scenes, however, my parents has been pulling a few strings to make things a bit easier for me. They’d insisted I be appointed tent leader – the camper in charge of the group when the junior, senior and tent officers weren’t around – and that I be the oldest in my tent. Of course, anyone who knows anything about the group dynamics of a bunch of teenage boys can probably tell you that appointing a leader is an utterly futile gesture, but there you go. It was better than nothing.

I moved my things to my assigned tent, put in my headphones and waited for my bullies to arrive.

And then the strangest thing happened, so strange I can scarce believe it even now – as they arrived one by one, and as the day passed, and then the night, and then the next day, they didn’t pick on me. I was shocked. Stunned. I felt like I was walking along a tightrope, and any moment I’d fall off it and they’d start on me, but as we ended the first week, and entered the second, it still hadn’t happened. I was surviving!

Of course, they didn’t think I was cool – that’d be too much to ask – but they didn’t mess with me either, and I was free to listen to my music, play the guitar, and do all the activities I’d signed up for without anyone making fun of me. I was so used to being excoriated simply for existing, to be free of it was like feeling the sun on my face after a lifetime of winter. For the first time, I wasn’t sneaking off to the village to cry in the toilets. For the first time, I felt like I could make it to the end without sobbing down the phone to my parents.

But there was a reason, and this brings me to the thing that’s been on my mind lately, my deepest regret. The youngest kid in the tent was a 12-year-old called John who looked 10 and dressed like he was 8 – tailored shorts, checked short-sleeved shirts, elasticated bow ties and neatly combed hair, like his mum had picked out his outfit, as she clearly had. You can imagine how the kids in my tent treated him.

The reason they didn’t bully me that summer was because there was someone else to pick on. And, to my eternal shame, instead of sticking up for him, all I could think was: thank God it isn’t me. Oh thank God it isn’t me.

I don’t want to minimise it in any way, but their bullying of him wasn’t bad relative to some of the stuff I’d not only witnessed but endured. They made fun of his clothes, of how young he looked, and how posh he sounded. They got cross with him when he was rubbish at inter-tent sports, and criticised him for being him. They teased him relentlessly, but they didn’t physically attack him or mess with his things or tell him his parents were dead. But of course, having been bullied all my life, looking at it objectively, and trying to say who had it worse, is to do a disservice to the lived experience – to John, it was torture.

How do I know this? Because he told me. Because we took it in turns, in pairs, to wash up at mealtimes, and he was my partner, and as I stood with my hands in the bowl in that greasy hot water, and as he dried up the plastic camping plates, he’d tell me how much he was struggling, and how he was looking forward to his parents coming to pick him up, and how he just wished it was over now, and you know what I said to him? Do you know what I did?

I cringe when I think of it. Despite knowing how he felt, despite being the person best-placed to help him, I fobbed him off with the exact same platitudes I couldn’t bear myself. ‘You’ll get through it. You just have to toughen up. It’s not that bad. You’ll look back on this experience and laugh.’ And worst of all, I gave him advice on how not to make himself a target.

He turned to me for help, me, his tent leader, and what did I do to help? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Other than a couple of, ‘Come on, guys, knock it off’, when they were taking it a bit too far, I let the others pick on him because I was afraid that if I intervened they’d start to pick on me. How cowardly. I had the chance to do the right thing and I stood by and did nothing. And that cowardice haunts me to this day.

I keep trying to excuse myself. I wasn’t doing the bullying, I say; I was never mean to him myself. But that’s not good enough – by allowing it, by enabling the others to act as they did, I’m equally culpable.

I was young, I tell myself, only 15 – but I knew right from wrong, even at that time, and I chose to do the wrong thing; rather, I chose not to do the right thing, out of fear for myself. I wanted him to be bullied, not me – age is no excuse.

I was bullied myself, I say, I was psychologically damaged, so I’m not responsible for whatever actions I took to protect myself. But that doesn’t work either, since knowing so intimately the damage that bullying can cause, I should have prevented it happening to another.

And he could have gone to an adult for help, I argue. But then, so could I. That’s victim-blaming at it’s finest. And he came to me, who was close enough to an adult to have done something. It was more than I ever did.

None of my excuses work. After six years of being eaten alive at summer camp, in the seventh I threw fresh meat to the wolves and fled up a tree. That’s about as far from a ‘good’ person as you can get.

If I could go back there, I’d tell the others to back off, no matter the consequences. I would rather I had been bullied that year than John. I was already damaged; I could take it. Instead, I might have started a sequence of events that led to him being bullied year on year. I could have stopped someone feeling as bad as I did, and I didn’t.

I’ve carried that guilt with me all my life. I knew him for two weeks twenty-five years ago. I don’t know his name or even where he was from. I don’t know if he remembers me; if this was a single blip he quickly got over or a recurring theme, if it shaped him as a person or lies forgotten. In truth, none of that matters.

What’s important is that remember. And it still torments me.

But then perhaps, as with everything, this event, and my inability to forgive myself for it, has made me the person I am today. Perhaps it’s this failure to do good that has made me so determined to do good in my life, and I should accept that while I’m always going to feel sore about it, it ultimately led to good. I can’t change what happened. I can’t change what I did, or really what I didn’t do. I can only promise never to repeat that mistake. You regret the things you don’t do far more than the things you do.

And if anyone knows a John in his late thirties who went to Covenanter Camp at Polzeath in 1995, tell him I’m sorry I wasn’t there for him when he needed me. If it’s any comfort, it’s my deepest regret.