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.

40 before 40

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dream

The Dream

Since my other site is pretty-much defunct, I thought I’d share some of my writing here at Aspie Daddy. I wrote this story in late 2015 for a competition on the theme ‘heart’. It was about my fears at becoming a new father. I have submitted it to various places and have received much positive feedback. However, several places have said it is too sad for them. I thought it was too good to leave wasting away on my hard drive as it might actually help people in the same situation. Let me know in the comments what you think.

 

The Dream by Gillan Drew

The new parents looked up as the midwife entered the room, the little bundle in her arms wrapped in a white blanket.

‘Here she is!’ she announced cheerily. ‘Who wants to be the first to hold her?’

‘I’ll have her,’ said Stephanie, over on the bed. She wore a light blue dressing gown over her hospital smock – it made her face, pale from blood loss and the ordeal of the birth, look grey in the strip lighting.

‘Be sure to support her head,’ said the midwife, a broad fifty-something with a Geordie accent.

The girl took her baby, careful to place the little one’s head in the crook of her arm, and looked down into her face.

‘Hello,’ said Stephanie. ‘I’m your mummy.’

‘Do you have a name picked out for her?’ the midwife asked.

‘Yes: Cora.’

‘That’s a lovely name.’

‘Tom chose it, didn’t you, Tom?’

Slumped in a chair in the corner, his face as pale as his wife’s and black bags under his eyes, Tom merely grunted.

‘Do you want to see her?’ the midwife asked.

Tom shook his head. ‘I’m good,’ he said.

‘You’re sure?’

‘Really,’ said Tom.

Stephanie rocked the baby in her arms. ‘How much does she weigh?’

‘Eight pounds,’ said the midwife. ‘A good size.’

‘You hear that?’ the girl said, nuzzling close to her daughter. ‘You’re a good size. No wonder mummy found it so hard to get you out.’

It had been a horrible labour, coming on the end of a horrible pregnancy. Nine months of morning sickness and mood swings had given way to twenty-six hours of agony, which culminated in an injection into Stephanie’s spine, followed by a ventouse suction cup on the baby’s head and, ultimately, forceps. She was still numb below the chest, unable to get off the bed.

Looking over at Tom, Stephanie smiled. ‘She has your nose,’ she said. ‘My good looks, of course. She’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. You need to come look at her.’

Tom shook his head again.

Unfazed, Stephanie pushed up the woolly pink hat on Cora’s head. ‘Dark hair! Like your daddy.’

‘They normally lose that in the first few months,’ said the midwife. ‘Then it grows back the colour it’s going to be.’

‘What colour are her eyes?’

‘I imagine they’re blue,’ said the midwife. ‘They normally are with newborns. Do you want me to have a look?’

‘No, that’s okay,’ said Stephanie. Reaching inside the blanket, Stephanie pulled out Cora’s hand. ‘Look at those little fingers,’ she said. ‘They’re so perfect.’ She looked over at Tom again. ‘I can’t believe we managed to make something so perfect.’

Tom looked away.

‘Please come and meet her,’ said Stephanie, and for the first time her voice started to crack. ‘Please don’t be like this.’

‘You really should come and hold her,’ the midwife urged.

‘Why?’ Tom asked. ‘What’s the point?’

Stephanie let out a sob.

Sighing, Tom studied his feet for a few moments before his shoulders sagged. ‘Fine,’ he said, standing in one swift movement. His legs ached from all those hours standing by the bedside, flitting between hope and despair.

‘Thank you,’ Stephanie whispered, her eyes glazing with tears.

‘I won’t be holding her long,’ he replied. ‘I’m only doing this for you.’

‘You’re doing it for all of you,’ said the midwife as Stephanie eased the little bundle into Tom’s arms.

‘Careful of her head,’ she said.

‘I know,’ Tom replied. He’d practiced for months on dolls and teddy bears and in his dreams – he knew exactly what to do.

He was struck by how light Cora was. Stephanie had put on almost two stone during the pregnancy, and the baby was only a quarter of that. And she was no bigger than a rugby ball, when Stephanie had been huge – still was, he thought, as though Cora was still inside, still waiting to be born.

There was a tight band about his chest and the lump in his throat burned, but he wasn’t going to cry. They were watching him. They were expecting something of him. So eventually he had to look down, had to engage with this, loathe as he was to do so.

Stephanie was right – his daughter was beautiful. Between the rough white of the hospital blanket under her chin and the pink hat pulled down almost to her eyes, she had the face of an angel. Long, dark eyelashes, full lips, and she did have his nose. Her skin was impossibly smooth, free of the slightest blemish. And her purple fingernails, so delicate, her fingerprints, the little dimples of her knuckles – he could have lost himself contemplating the mysteries of how they’d been able to create something so complex, so pure.

The hands those hands would hold, the fingers that would intertwine with hers. The smiles that would crease those lips. The things she would see, smell, touch, taste. The life she would live – what a life.

The ticking of the clock on the wall, the distant hum of the traffic on the spur road, cut into his thoughts. Years later, he would still be haunted by their indifference.

‘Talk to her,’ the midwife urged.

‘What should I say?’

‘Whatever your heart is telling you to say.’

He turned away from the others, gently squeezed his baby girl, gazed into her cherubic face, half Stephanie’s, half his, and he wet his lips.

‘I would have been your dad,’ he said quietly, rocking her softly from side to side. He puffed out his cheeks, fought back the tears. ‘I would give anything to have been your dad.’

‘You were her dad,’ said the midwife. ‘You are.’

‘I would have been,’ said Tom. He sniffed, tried to compose himself. ‘So what happens now?’

‘Well, I can leave you alone with her, if you’d like. There’s some paperwork to be filled out, I’m afraid, but we can sort all of that out later. For now, take some time as a family.’

Tom nodded and the midwife opened the door. ‘I’ll be back to collect her in a few minutes.’ She hesitated in the doorway. ‘The way to look at it,’ she said, ‘is that she was just born sleeping. That’s all. She was born sleeping.’

‘Do you think that helps?’

‘I do,’ said the midwife, and closed the door.

The look on Stephanie’s face broke Tom’s heart, and it was all he could do not to break down.

‘Is it true?’ she asked. ‘Is she just sleeping?’

Tom clenched his jaw. The lump in his throat was choking him. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘She’s just sleeping. We’d best not wake her.’

Taking a deep breath, he placed Cora on the bed alongside her mother, watched as she gazed lovingly down at the little baby and gently stroked her cheek.

‘You’re so small,’ she said. ‘So beautiful. And mummy loves you very much. I’ll be here when you wake. I’ll be waiting for you forever.’ She looked at Tom. ‘Tell her you love her.’

Wiping his eyes, he managed to say, ‘I love you, sweetheart.’

‘And you’ll be there for her when she wakes up.’

‘My heart will be waiting forever for you to wake,’ he said, before, overcome, he buried his head in Stephanie’s belly, as he’d done a thousand times since they found out they were expecting.

When his sobs had finally subsided, he felt her fingers in his hair. ‘What do you think she’s dreaming of?’ Stephanie asked, so softly he almost didn’t hear her.

He looked at Cora through his tears, so peaceful, so serene. ‘I think she’s dreaming of us,’ he said. ‘She’s dreaming of all the love we’re going to give her, all the things she’s going to experience. We’re digging a sandcastle and she’s decorating it with shells. She’s playing with her toys and laughing because I’m making funny faces, and she’s cuddling her mummy and smiling because she knows she’s safe. She’s dreaming of castles and mountains and forests, horses running across the plains, and we’re always with her. Her heart is full, fit to burst with the love we share.’

He felt exhausted, battling to get the words out against the pain searing in his neck and chest.

‘Her heart is full,’ he repeated.

Stephanie continued to stroke Cora’s cheek. ‘It’s a good dream,’ she said.

‘She’s safe there, and happy, and she never has to grow up.’

Stephanie smiled, though there were tears streaming down her cheeks. ‘Then maybe it’s okay if she never wakes up. She can live forever in her dream.’

‘Yes,’ said Tom. ‘And she can visit us in ours.’

‘Then I’ll never want to wake up.’

‘Me neither,’ said Tom, and lying down on the bed beside his wife and daughter, he closed his eyes to sleep.

THE END

Copyright, Gillan Drew, 2015.

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

My Life With Autism

For anybody in the Dorset/Hampshire borders region (or further afield, I’m not fussy!), I’d like to announce that I’m talking at an event on Tuesday evening, June 6, entitled ‘My Life With Autism’.

It’s hosted by Autism Wessex at Portfield School from 7:00-9:00pm and it’s free, but as spaces are limited you need to book tickets from the following link: Get Involved.

I will be talking about my journey to diagnosis, the difficulties of growing up undiagnosed, work, parenting, and day-to-day life. Along the way I’ll provide hints and tips on living with the condition that have proved helpful in my own life. There will also be the opportunity to ask questions.

I hope to see some of you there and thanks for reading!

Children with autism become adults with autism

There is a deductive argument so straightforward and sound that all intelligent, educated, free-thinking people should be able to grasp it with ease. It’s so patently obvious that I shouldn’t even need to write it down because we all just know it to be true. I will, however, because it is necessary for what follows.

  1. Autism is incurable.
  2. Children grow up.
  3. Therefore, children with autism become adults with autism.

I mean, it couldn’t get much simpler than that. You’d have to be a philosophical contortionist to somehow argue against it.

And yet, looking at the way that autism is treated, represented, categorised, theorised and mythologised, you’d be forgiven for thinking autism is a childhood disorder that disappears on your eighteenth birthday. You step up to your birthday cake a person with autism, and as you blow out the candles, lo and behold, you’re neurotypical! Hallelujah!

It strikes me as bizarre that even though we all know that children with autism become adults with autism, the latter group is virtually invisible. From the services available, to funding, to treatment, to research, to specialists, to TV programmes, to books, to websites, to expertise, it’s all heavily skewed towards children with the condition. Much of it simply vanishes as soon as a person reaches their majority, as though nobody realised that these children with needs would one day become adults with those same needs that are now, sadly, unsupported.

Go look at 100 books on autism, you’ll find that around 99 of them have children or childlike images on the cover, and contain chapters dealing with school and adolescence and how you can help your child make friends. Research the statistics on autism and you’ll find statements like, ‘1 in 88 children has autism’, when surely they mean 1 in 88 people has autism? Then try and find academic studies on autism and sex or on parents with autism and you’ll find it pretty damned hard, because the experts don’t seem to realise that autism extends beyond the first eighteen years.

When, as an adult, I spent a decade seeing psychiatrists and psychologists under the Mental Health Team, not one of them ever brought up the possibility I might have autism. When I asked to be seen by an autism specialist, I discovered there was one person qualified to diagnose adults in the whole of Dorset – a county with a population of almost 800,000 people – and she could only devote one day a week to this. When I was finally diagnosed with autism at 28 (and immediately discharged by the Mental Health Team because ‘autism isn’t a mental illness’), I went to the Learning Disabilities Team, to be told that all of their support services were for children with autism, and they had neither the funding nor the expertise to cater to adults. So that was that.

But the greatest irony, and to me the greatest illustration of this very real problem, is the book I had published last month. Now, I am incredibly grateful that it has been published and I’m gratified to learn it is helping people, but I wrote it specifically to address a shortfall in the autism literature, namely, people diagnosed with autism as adults. The book is entitled An Adult With an Autism Diagnosis. It is written for adults with autism, about adults with autism by an adult with autism. So where does it appear on Amazon?

Here’s the directory information: Health, Family & Lifestyle > Pregnancy & Childcare > Children’s Health & Nutrition.

Ever get the feeling you don’t exist?

Parenting and writing: more similar than you might think

Having had my first book published last month, I can now call myself a writer. Of course, I could have called myself a writer at any point over the past twenty-five years, since that’s how long I’ve been at it, but it always felt a little pretentious, given I have barely made a penny from it. It would be like a postman, upon being asked what he does, saying, ‘I’m a fisherman,’ because at weekends he takes a rod and some maggots to his local river and casts about for fish. While he might want to be known for doing that, it’s not exactly an accurate answer, is it?

And yet, throughout my writing life, I have met no end of people who proudly introduce themselves as writers, authors, novelists, poets and even philosophers, despite never having had anything in print. On top of this, there is a really weird thing that many of the writers I’ve met have in common: none of them actually write.

I’m always amazed by how many people pack up their laptop and go to a busy cafe, park or pub in order to write in a loud, bustling and incredibly public place. I’ve had long conversations with writers about their writing, their ideas, their characters, their themes, the depths of their literary ambitions, and how if only someone took a chance on them, they’d shake up the publishing world – all without ever having written anything. I even had a tutor on a creative writing course I was taking tell me she wanted to write a novel one day. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I’d already written eight. What’s stopping you?

It seems to me that while many writers love being writers, they don’t particularly like doing writing.

That’s understandable – writing is hard. All the other aspects of the craft – planning, plotting, themes, character biographies, working out the front cover and the blurb, giving imaginary interviews in front of the mirror and picturing your book at the top of the bestseller list – those are the easy parts, the fun parts, the parts you can do with an audience. The hard part is sitting down and actually writing, day after day, week after week, churning out tens of thousands of words, editing, rewriting, reworking. Most of that stuff you can’t do in public – you do it in private, in loneliness, in blood, sweat and tears. The only publicity is the book itself, because nobody is meant to see the struggle that goes into it.

The fact is, writers write. They don’t sit around pontificating about their ‘art’ all day, worrying about which jacket makes them look the most writer-ly, or which is the best place to write where they’ll be seen and acknowledged. They knuckle down and work. They don’t wait for inspiration to hit them. They cram it in whenever and wherever they can. Some days it’s easy, some days it’s hard. Some days you have no idea if you’re doing it right and if you’re wasting your life. But you persevere. You keep going in the faith that you’re on the right path and that tomorrow it’ll all click. You keep going not because you want to, but because you need to, because it’s in you and it’s who you are.

In this way, it’s a lot like being a parent.

It’s very easy to get caught up in the superficial aspects of parenting. You take the little one to a cafe and she sits there all well-behaved and you play a game and she laughs and an old couple comes over and tells you what a great parent you are – I love that stuff. It happens to me quite often, in fact – I can’t go a week without a stranger coming up to me and telling me how awesome I am, which makes me walk around all day with a massive head, going, ‘Oh yeah, I’m the shiznit.’

Trouble is, sitting in a cafe playing with a well-behaved child as you bask in the adoration of the public is not all that different from the writer who sits in the pub and delights in telling people about the books he intends to write when his writing credits to date total zero. You’re wallowing in the glory of being a parent, without actually doing any parenting. Because parenting, like writing, can be bloody difficult.

A good parent, just like the good writer, does most of their work unseen. They do it day in, day out, and all through the night, despite the aching spine, the headaches and the tiredness. They face the monotony, the boredom and the isolation with stoic fortitude. They work, work, work, because they have no choice but to do so. They get pushed to the edge but keep their cool somehow; cuddle a kicking, screaming toddler at two in the morning when all they want to do is stay in bed; and endure the torture of a hundred mealtimes in a row that involve more tears and thrown food than spoonfuls successfully swallowed.

Sometimes they’re driven to tears themselves. Sometimes it seems utterly hopeless, and they don’t know how they can possibly get through it all. Sometimes nothing seems to work. But they still get up and do it, because it’s the only thing they can do.

The mark of a good parent is not measured by being good when everything is going well – it’s how you do when your precocious twenty-two month old is driving you up the wall by testing you, pressuring you, challenging you, from dawn to dusk each day and then again from dusk till dawn. It’s measured by what you do when you’re in a cafe and your little one is screaming bloody murder, by how you react when they’re not behaving themselves, by whether you can remain calm when everyone’s looking at you and judging you for the behaviour of your child.

Nobody sees the work that goes into a book, just as nobody sees the work that goes into a child. By the time it is ready to be released into the world, you have poured far more of your heart into it than you even thought you had in you to give. But when all is said and done, you’re only assessed on the finished product, not the work that went into creating it. So you just have to press on in the faith that one day it’ll all come good. And then maybe your kid will write that bestseller that eluded you so long!

An Adult With an Autism Diagnosis

Well, it’s here: today my book, ‘An Adult With an Autism Diagnosis: A Guide for the Newly Diagnosed‘ is released into the world. You can buy it from Amazon by following one of these links: Amazon UKAmazon US, or from your regular book supplier.

Here is the blurb:

Being diagnosed with autism as an adult can be disorienting and isolating; however, if you can understand the condition and how it affects perceptions, relationships, and your relationship with the world in general, a happy and successful life is attainable. Through an introduction to the autism spectrum, and how the Level 1 diagnosis is characterised, the author draws on personal experiences to provide positive advice on dealing with life, health, and relationships following an adult diagnosis.

The effect of autism on social skills is described with tips for dealing with family and personal relationships, parenting, living arrangements, and employment. Important topics include disclosure, available resources, and options for different therapeutic routes. On reading this book, you will learn a lot more about the autism spectrum at Level 1, be able to separate the facts from the myths, and gain an appreciation of the strengths of autism, and how autism can affect many aspects of everyday life. Drawing from the author’s lived experience, this book is an essential guide for all newly diagnosed adults on the autism spectrum, their families and friends, and all professionals new to working with adults with ASDs.

So, why did I write this book? The short answer is that when I was diagnosed with autism at the age of 28, having only heard of Asperger’s Syndrome and high-functioning autism a year previously, I was sent away without so much as a leaflet to explain what it was, why I had it, how it would affect my life, and why it had taken so long to identify. I had nobody to talk to – nobody knowledgeable, at least – who could help me come to terms with this life-changing news.

Like anybody, I turned to books and the internet. I discovered, much to my dismay, that books on autism seemed to fall into three categories: those for autistic children; those for parents of autistic children; and those for healthcare professionals working in the field. There was very little about adults with the condition and nothing for the many thousands of people diagnosed each year as adults.

The internet was worse. There were dozens of sites, and now hundreds, if not thousands, offering conflicting, confusing, inaccurate, unreliable, opinionated and impenetrable information and advice, often littered with jargon and insider knowledge, with no explanations for the layperson. I therefore struggled to accept the diagnosis, to make sense of where I now found myself, and to understand what any of it meant for my future.

I wrote this book for people who find themselves in a similar situation, a one-stop shop for those newly diagnosed with Asperger’s and ASD Level 1. It is not exhaustive, not ‘the only book on autism you will ever need’, but it contains answers to everything I wanted to know when I was first diagnosed. It is designed to help explain the basics, untangle the jargon, and describe in clear and plain terms how autism might affect the various parts of your life.

If this book can help just one person avoid some of the confusion and grief that I went through upon being diagnosed, if it can help them learn about their condition and be able to see the diagnosis not as an end but as a new beginning, and if it can make them feel not quite so alone in the world, then the effort will have been worth it.

Happy reading!

Gillan Drew