Coronavirus and domestic abuse

This afternoon, when my wife brought my kids back from visiting [redacted] in spite of the lockdown, my two-year-old asked me to leave the lounge and go into my office – she didn’t want me in the room while she watched Paw Patrol. I’m pretty sure she learned this behaviour from her sister, my four-year-old, who in addition to wanting me out of the room most of the time, has also made it clear she wants me to sleep downstairs from now on.

Why do my kids want me out of the way? Because they’re being poisoned against me.

And there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.

This blog post is a confessional. I didn’t want to reveal the full extent of what’s been going on out of respect for the parties involved. Now, I don’t care anymore. Domestic abuse is wrong, whatever form it takes. I might be a man, with a beard and a few extra stones around my middle, but that doesn’t make me any less a victim.

In order to keep it on point, because it’s long, I’m only going to focus on the lockdown. Stuff that happened before – extorting money out of me by threatening the children, for example, or throwing drinks over me, or attacking me with scissors, or hitting me while I was driving, or saying she’d abort my baby if I didn’t do as I was told – is water under the bridge at this point.

As I’ve mentioned before, as soon as the lockdown started, I became Public Enemy Number One to my wife and her family. When the Prime Minister told us to stay at home and not visit anyone who didn’t live in the same household, I took that as it was meant. My wife, on the other hand, took it to mean ‘keep visiting everyone despite living in three separate households’. Because the rules only apply to other people.

As someone who believes in doing what’s right, I was adamant we’d respect the lockdown. I was therefore horrified when [redacted] turned up on my doorstep a couple of days later. When I didn’t let her in, much shouting and crying ensued, in which I was made out to be the bad guy. To my children, I was being mean and upsetting mummy and [redacted]; to my wife and [redacted], I was being unreasonable and irrational.

The following day, my wife took the children out for ‘exercise’. When I asked to go with them, she became defensive and aggressive, so I dropped the matter because I didn’t want to argue in front of the kids. However, it was obvious she was really going to visit [redacted].

A couple of days after this, [redacted] demanded my wife and I stop having support sessions – the very support that is allowed under government guidelines and without which our family would fall apart. [Redacted] said it would be my fault if they caught coronavirus from my children – not their fault for breaking the lockdown rules!

I let it go until a few days later, when my eldest said she was seeing [redacted], but she wasn’t meant to tell me or they’ll all get in trouble. I had it out with my wife after that. I told her I knew she was visiting [redacted], and I wanted her to stop, but that as she was an adult, I couldn’t physically stop her. I asked her to stop lying, stop getting the kids to lie to me, and at the very least to stay two metres apart, which she agreed to do.

I then emailed [redacted] and told them the same – that I’d like them to support me and not come between me and my wife, but that if they were going to meet up, they were all adults and there was no need to sneak around and ask my kids to lie to me. It was, I thought, a reasonable request to make.

Their response was to call me a hypocrite who didn’t need support, and accused me of deliberately misinterpreting the guidelines.

I replied in a manner that was far more polite than I felt. I provided a link to the government guidelines that spelled out in black and white that I was following the rules. Regarding not needing support, I pointed out that I have autism and depression, while my wife has autism and a personality disorder, and I have spent four years protecting my family from Social Services, who have said that if I wasn’t around, they’d have grave concerns about my wife’s fitness as a mother. I said that this has taken a toll on my mental health, given my wife’s multiple behavioural explosions in front of support workers, including shouting, swearing, throwing things, storming off, slamming doors, making threats, raising her fists to hit me, and totally losing all connection with reality. I said that without support, my marriage wouldn’t survive.

Well. I don’t know why I expected understanding, because none was forthcoming. They tore me a new one. How dare I threaten them with Social Services, they said. How dare I label my wife (it was actually the psychiatrists who labelled her). And they said that if my wife shouted at me, swore at me, threw things at me, threatened me and raised her fists to strike me, they could understand why. That’s right, it’s my fault if she attacks me!

They said they’ll never forgive me for putting them through this ‘ordeal’, that I should be grateful to them, and that I’m a terrible father and husband who might be able to hide his true temperament from others, but they can see right through me. And they don’t want to speak to me ever again, so I didn’t even get the chance to defend myself.

I’m not entirely sure what ‘ordeal’ I’ve put them through. I asked my wife not to visit [redacted]; she ignored me. That’s it. Hardly an ordeal.

From that point on, my wife took the kids to see [redacted] every day, even though she knew I didn’t approve. When my kids told me they’d been hugging [redacted], my wife denied it and called them liars, before admitting that okay, yes they had, and she wasn’t going to stop him, so mind your own business. And when she told me she hadn’t seen [redacted], it turned out she had.

Our care manager came out to talk to her, and point out how awful it was to ask the children to lie to me. ‘What happens when the man down the street wants to play a game with them, but they can’t tell mummy or daddy or they’ll all get into trouble?’ she said. ‘You’ve trained your children that that’s normal.’ I reiterated that she’s an adult and can make her own decisions and doesn’t need to lie to me, so she agreed to be honest with me from then on.

Two days later, I caught her lying again and coercing the children into lying.

Given what my wife said in the meeting with our care manager, and from hints in [redacted]’s emails, I know they’re trying to set me up as some kind of monster. I caught her filming me in secret, trying to get evidence against me for God-knows-what, and [redacted] has told her to keep a secret diary in which to record all my misdeeds, whatever on earth these might be. I honestly don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing wrong.

I took legal advice from a specialist in family law, who told me that I’m in quite the predicament. You see, the house I live in is co-owned between my wife and [redacted]. If my wife owned it, if our relationship fell apart I would have the right to remain in the house until our divorce; because it’s co-owned, they can kick me out any time they want.

Worse, because of coronavirus, all the hotels, B&Bs and shelters are closed. With my wife being so unstable, if our relationship breaks down during the lockdown and the home situation becomes untenable, Social Services will have nowhere for me and the kids to go so would put the children into foster care until the end of the lockdown. If, on the other hand, it all became too much for me and I walked out and left the kids, I would be deemed to have abandoned them in an unsafe situation and would lose any right to them. Meanwhile, because of my wife’s instability, without me around Social Services would take the kids and put them into foster care permanently.

So, to recap – if I stay and the relationship becomes unworkable, my kids go into foster care; if I leave, the kids go into foster care. Therefore, the only way to keep my kids out of foster care is to stay and make the relationship work until the end of the lockdown, which is what I resolved to do.

A couple of days later, a police car pulled into the close and flashed its lights for a minute, the message being a clear STAY-AT-HOME. My wife waited ten minutes before heading to [redacted]’s again, but she was nervous about being stopped and asked what she should say if the police pulled her over, so she knows it’s wrong. I told her that if she’s decided to break the rules, she has to come up with her own excuses.

She didn’t get stopped, and as usual the kids came home with chocolate smeared all over their faces and didn’t want to eat the meal I cooked for them. I’ve told my wife before that I don’t approve of the way [redacted] buys their affection with chocolate (if he tells them off and they cry, he immediately gives them chocolate in case they stop liking him). I don’t think they should be eating Creme Eggs every day anyway, in addition to other chocolate, biscuits and sweets, and he knows this. So, what do you make of the fact that every day my wife doesn’t visit, an ice-cream tub full of chocolate appears on my garden wall?

It’s awful. I’ll finally manage to prevail upon my wife not to visit him for a day, I’ll take the girls on their scooters around the block, and every time I get back, a box of chocolate has been delivered in my absence. As soon as the girls see it, they scream in excitement, and if I tell them they can’t eat the chocolate, I’m the bad guy again. I’m trying not to be paranoid, but it comes across as a massive fuck you – it seems to say, ‘even when your wife doesn’t come to visit me, I can still get to your kids’.

I told my wife she was breaking my heart and betraying our marriage, and she decided to gaslight me in response. She told me I had it it all wrong, that she loved and respected me and was 100% committed to our marriage, and that’s why she hasn’t been visiting [redacted]. She said she goes to [redacted]’s house every day to exercise, and if he just happens to be there at his house when she visits, along with [redacted] who lives fifteen miles away, it’s coincidence. And if he chooses to cook them all a meal, or kiss them and cuddle them, there’s nothing she can do about that, is there? And the reason she lies to me and tells the kids to lie, is because she doesn’t want to upset me. But if I’d just look the other way it wouldn’t bother me so much. So really, I’m the one with the problem. And I’m not actually a very good husband and father anyway, and she only lies to me because I don’t trust her, and I should be grateful to her and [redacted] for taking the kids off my hands for a couple of hours a day. And anyway, she isn’t doing anything wrong and everyone knows I’m the crazy one and if anyone’s ruining our marriage, it’s me.

But that didn’t stop her from lying to me again last week. She said she’d only [redacted] through the car window leaving as my wife arrived, but my eldest said, ‘Mum, shush, remember what [redacted] said? We’re not supposed to tell him,’ to which my wife said to my four-year-old, ‘Shut up and stop lying, we didn’t see her, she’s lying! Liar!’

Later, my daughter told me they’d had a whale of a time with [redacted], who’d been chasing them with a hose, but [redacted] had told them not to tell daddy or they’d get in trouble because daddy’s very naughty. And she said, ‘But it’s okay, we didn’t have a cuddle with her.’

‘I did,’ said my two-year-old.

‘Well, okay, we both did,’ said my four-year-old, ‘but I’m not meant to tell you.’

No wonder they don’t like me. They’ve been told I’m being mean to [redacted] and they’re too young to understand any different.

Even worse is that the bedtime routine has been completely thrown out of whack, making my wife the hero and me the enemy. I put the kids to bed every night, and I’ve done that all their lives because after 7pm, my wife switches off as a parent. The handful of times she’s tried to put them to bed have been utter disasters that she’s abandoned halfway through because it’s hard and her job is to be the ‘fun’ parent.

Anyway, the past month my wife has been going up to bed at 8pm. What’s actually been happening is that, after I’ve put the kids to bed at 7pm, my wife’s been getting them up again and playing with them and telling them to keep quiet or daddy will come up and ruin their fun. Twice in the past two weeks, I’ve come up to bed to find my eldest camped on our bedroom floor because ‘mummy said I can sleep in here.’ Once she was in our bed itself, my wife fast asleep, so I sent her back to her own bed. This has turned me into the bad guy, and my daughter keeps asking me to sleep downstairs because she knows that if it’s just mummy upstairs, she can do whatever she wants. Consequently, discipline and respect have fallen apart.

Two weeks ago I put the kids to bed, waited fifteen minutes to make sure they were settled, then took the dog out for a walk. When I got back, my wife was in their room putting up a play tent and telling them they could sleep in it! I asked her what the hell she was doing, it was far too small, and said the kids had to sleep in their beds. It took me another 90 minutes to settle them again.

The next night she decided that from now on, she’s going to take over bedtimes. I told her this wasn’t a good idea because the girls see her as a playmate and not an authority figure, and now is not the time to disrupt their routine, but my wife had already told the kids she was doing it, and that was that. Again, I didn’t want to argue in front of the kids so I let it be.

After an hour of her screaming and shouting and the kids screaming and shouting, I went up to intervene and she closed the bedroom door in my face and wouldn’t let me in. I left it another half an hour before I’d decided that enough was enough. By this time, my eldest was crying uncontrollably while my youngest was screaming, hyperventilating and so agitated she was biting everything within reach. Walking into that room with my kids in such a state of distress, I was horrified.

I took them downstairs, and it was thirty minutes of holding my two-year-old tight to me before her breathing calmed down and she stopped sobbing. From there, it was another hour to get them to sleep.

I told my wife that from now on, she leaves bedtime alone. We can’t have this disruption. Once I’ve put the kids to bed, they stay in bed. They’re tired out and overstimulated. They’re being damaged and I need her support, because they’re the most important thing.

When the next day I told my support worker what had happened, she was equally horrified, and said she would have to report it, and in all likelihood it would be passed up the chain to Social Services. I figured the decision had been taken out of my hands. Whatever happened was no longer my responsibility – I had lost my kids.

This was a Friday, and I spent the whole weekend on tenterhooks, waiting for Children’s Services to come with a  van and take away my kids. I felt awful because since I’d clamped down on bedtime, things had improved. Worse, my wife was being nice to me, and I was racked with guilt over what this would do to her.

Nothing happened. Monday, nothing. Tuesday, nothing. Wednesday, I saw my support worker and she told me that her manager wouldn’t be passing it to Social Services because they’re my children and they’ll support me in keeping them, whatever it takes. It felt good to have that support.

Alas, it was the calm before the storm.

During my support session, my wife was home-schooling my eldest. Badly. Even though we were in a different room with the door closed, it was impossible not to hear the shouting and the crying. It was clear my wife wasn’t coping. So my support worker asked me why I wasn’t teaching my daughter.

I explained that from the start, my wife has elbowed me out of different aspects of the girls’ lives – birthdays, Christmas, days out, and in particular, schooling. When we were getting my daughter ready for school, I wanted to be involved but my wife kept pushing me out, going out to buy uniforms, pencil cases and suchlike with [redacted] instead of with me. She even wanted to take her to her first day at school by herself, without me.

I insisted I go too, but my wife conveniently ‘forgot’ to bring something vital and sent me home to get it. I asked her to wait and not go in without me, but of course, by the time I got back, she’d gone in, so I missed walking my daughter into her first day of school.

Anyway, my wife has always been incredibly territorial over our daughter’s homework, and I don’t get a look-in, and she’s the same with the home-schooling. So my support worker reminded me that she’s my daughter too, and if I want to be involved in her education, that’s my right as her father.

She had a point. My wife and I had been getting on for days, and that afternoon when she got back from visiting [redacted], we spent a very pleasant hour in the garden as a family. It was all fun and games so I thought it was a fair moment to broach the subject. I said I wanted to be more involved with the teaching, so could I have the login details for the school portal with all the lesson plans and resources she uses?

Everything changed. No, she said, no way. How dare I? Why did I have to ruin everything? No, I couldn’t have access to my daughter’s schooling – she would never give me access. She stormed inside and disappeared for thirty minutes, and when she reappeared, she looked at me like I was the dogshit she’d stepped in.

‘What have I done wrong?’ I asked, and she exploded with this whole rant about how I’d stolen bedtimes and bathtimes from her and there was no way she’d let me steal this. I said I didn’t think what I was asking was unreasonable; I wasn’t trying to steal anything, I just wanted to take a turn with the home-schooling. She replied with how I was selfish and nasty, and she stormed inside again.

But when the kids tried to follow, she told them to leave her alone, slammed the door in their faces and then locked us out in the garden! My kids burst into tears, I had to calm them down and it was five minutes of knocking before she let us in, while telling us she wouldn’t talk to any of us ever again, which again upset the kids.

I kept my head down and tried to keep the kids buoyant, but I was absolutely gutted, because things had been fine for a few days and suddenly it had all gone wrong.

Eventually, she started talking to the kids again. And then, with the kids sitting on her and glaring across at me, she said, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m putting the girls to bed tonight and there’s nothing you can do about it.’

I repeated what I’d said about routine and disruption, and I didn’t think it was a good idea, but she shot that down in a heartbeat, so again not wanting to argue in front of the kids, I went outside and wrote a long email to my care manager about the situation, before I had to hurry upstairs because my kids were screaming and crying again and bedtime was yet another disaster.

Later that night, I asked her why she was trying to push me out of my children’s lives – why she won’t let me have anything to do with education, why she’s just spent £200 on a children’s entertainer for my eldest’s fifth birthday without telling me, why she keeps arranging holidays and trips out with [redacted] and the kids but not me. She again told me she’d never let me steal this from her, and threatened to hit me if I said one more word on the matter.

Later that night, she texted me the login details, and the following day she told me not to change password and lock her out, like I’ve ‘done with everything else’. I knew immediately what she was talking about. The previous week, her account had been locked because she’d accidentally bought 17 lids for her inflatable hot tub (essential, I know), so she’d asked for my bank card so she could go shopping. When I pointed out we had plenty of food in the house and a menu plan covering the entire next week, she flipped out, so I thought it prudent to change the password on my Sainsbury’s (supermarket) account. Clearly I was right to do so, because she must have tried to get into it.

Anyway, I reassured her I wasn’t going to change the password and lock her out, nor did I want to take over or steal the home-schooling from her – I just wanted to be involved. And I asked her why she’d ever think it was okay to lock us out. ‘I was just joking,’ she said, like every abuser in history.

My care manager responded to my email and said she was very concerned about my wife’s increasingly unstable behaviour, particularly as it was damaging the kids and their relationship with me, and said that now was the time to bring in Social Services and get this resolved, and how did I feel about that?

I did a lot of soul-searching that day, but eventually I conceded that yes, the time had come. My children would be damaged by going into foster care, but they’re being damaged anyway. Things couldn’t go on as they were as it wasn’t healthy for any of us. It’s what’s in the best interests of the kids, after all.

This was a massive thing for me to do, because I knew it would spell the end of my marriage, but there needed to be resolution of some sort, whatever that was.

The next day, Adult Social Services rang and said I could have an extra couple hours of support each week. Not hugely helpful, but a start. But Children’s Services didn’t ring, so I waited for them to turn up and take my kids for a second weekend in a row.

Nothing.

Over the weekend, my wife has decided that [redacted] will now read the girls their bedtime story on a video call, despite me doing it for four years and it being one of the few fun things I have left to do with them. The girls told me they don’t want me putting them to bed anymore and want me to sleep downstairs from now on. As a father, that’s not pleasant to hear.

I spent the weekend doing everything an abused spouse does, like prevaricating, like making excuses for my partner’s behaviour, like wondering if I was the one in the wrong.

Finally yesterday (Monday) they rang. They told me they’d heard my wife had locked us out of the house and to tell them what was going on. So I did. I told them everything of the above. The lying, the undermining, visiting [redacted], poisoning my children against me, disrupting bedtime, shouting and swearing in front of them, all of it. Like I said – time for a resolution.

Well. Don’t believe what people say about Children’s Services wanting to take your kids away. They couldn’t care less. They said that if my wife decides to visit [redacted], so be it, it’s already done so there’s no point intervening. They said they can offer us some Early Years Support to teach us how to ‘cooperate better’ with each other, but not until after lockdown.

They asked to speak to my wife and said it wasn’t good to ask the children to lie to me, so she said ‘Okay, I’ll stop,’ and the person on the phone said that that was now all sorted, and if there was nothing else, thanks for calling.

I quickly asked her about the possibility of my eldest going back to school, just to get her away from the toxic atmosphere in the house, and she said she could perhaps ring the school and see if they’d take her for a couple of days, but she wouldn’t be able to do this until later in the week.

And that was that. To say I felt like somebody had ripped out my insides is an understatement. Children’s Services weren’t helpful, they were positively harmful. Why? Because they’ve essentially just told my wife that everything she’s done is perfectly acceptable and the only consequence of her actions is to maybe attend a voluntary parenting course. So of course, last night when they should’ve been in bed, she painted their toenails and let them camp on the floor, because there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.

So, in summary, apparently you can:

  • Shout and swear in front of your kids;
  • Slam the door in your children’s faces;
  • Lock your husband and kids outside;
  • Take your children to visit multiple family members almost every day of the pandemic despite it being against the government guidelines;
  • Undermine your husband with his children;
  • Tell the children to lie to him;
  • Call them liars when they tell him the truth;
  • Tell them daddy is the one being naughty;
  • Tell them that if they get caught, daddy will punish them;
  • Disrupt the bedtime routine in a way that makes the children frantic and distressed;
  • When he tries to intervene for his children’s safety, shut the door in his face and put your foot against it;
  • Refuse to give your partner access to your children’s lives;
  • Threaten him with violence when he asks to be more involved;
  • Manipulate him into missing his daughter’s first day of school:
  • Shut him out of any and all decision-making around your children;
  • Allow your parents more influence on your children than their own father;
  • Not support your husband when the kids no longer want him in the same room as them or even sleeping on the same floor;
  • Use your children as weapons in some sort of twisted power game against your partner;

And Social Services will do nothing about it.

My care manager was utterly shocked by their response. She feels I’ve been badly let down by the system. While you’re in the house, she said, those children are not deemed to be ‘at risk’, so Children’s Services will sit on their hands until you leave, and then they’ll be in like a shot. Instead of preventing a crisis, they’ll wait until it becomes a crisis before intervening.

No wonder Baby P fell through the cracks.

My children have been poisoned against me, and will go on being poisoned against me.

And apparently there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.

 

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

The Perils of Perfection

I am a high achiever. This might come as a surprise considering I’m a 38-year-old stay-at-home dad whose longest of nineteen jobs lasted a massive 365 days and whose highest take-home pay was a measly 16k, who has practically nothing in the bank, drives an old rust-bucket, and lives in a house owned by his father-in-law. But I am a high achiever nonetheless. And I’m here to tell you: it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

What makes me a high achiever despite never actually achieving anything of much note? With no false modesty, I just am. I walked early, talked early, read early, wrote early. In primary school, I jumped from the first year to the third year, skipping the second. I was in an advanced English class with older children. They told my parents that the sky was the limit. I said I was going to be a novelist, and they said I absolutely could be.

At middle school I was in an advanced English and Maths class with older children, and regularly corrected my teachers’ spelling and mathematical mistakes. They told my parents I would reach the stratosphere. I said I was going to be a novelist, and they said I absolutely would be.

At secondary school I was in the top set for every subject, and started getting Level 10s for English (the highest you can get) when everyone else was getting Level 6s. They told my parents I was the most exceptional student they’d ever had in the 54 years the school had existed. I said I was going to be a novelist, and they said to remember them when I was on This Is Your Life.

In VI Form, my English Literature work was deemed third-year university standard, and I was selected to go to a politics retreat for especially bright students. They told my parents I had a gift that needed to be shared with the world. I said I was going to be a novelist, and they had no doubt I wouldn’t just be a novelist, I’d be one of the bestselling novelists in the world.

I sleepwalked through university, spending no more than two days on any assignment, and still came out with a first class BA (Hons) with distinction and the highest mark in the year. I was voted the person most likely to succeed by my peers.

I started doing Open University courses and got a Diploma of Higher Education, another degree and a Masters, earning a distinction for every module, exam and essay, whether it was humanities, arts or social science – English, History, Classics, Archaeology, Psychology or Philosophy.

I have excelled at every job I’ve ever done, be it medical secretary, student nurse, telesalesperson, administrator, public speaker or police communications officer. I have worked with famous people and for royalty, sold art to mayors, travelled solo across the United States and around New Zealand; I have spoken with James Cameron, stood beside the Queen and once saw Michael Jackson travelling down Broadway on top of a bus.

I have sailed across the Atlantic as deckhand on a tall ship; climbed 100-foot cliffs; abseiled down a mineshaft; caught a 50lb conger eel; ascended mountains; qualified as a scuba diver and a parachute jumper; played guitar in a number of rock and metal bands; acted in amateur plays; won screenwriting and short story competitions; had a book published about being diagnosed with autism as an adult; appeared on TV, in magazines and newspapers, and on the radio. I have kayaked, surfed, water skiied, disappeared into the wilderness. Last year I won a competition medal for rifle shooting the first time I picked up a rifle. I’ve done courses in blacksmithing, map-reading, survival, forensic science, private detection, web design, tai chi, sailing, Alzheimer’s, and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The only thing I’ve never done is walk on water.

So, I’m a high achiever. Which is weird considering I’m a 38-year-old stay-at-home dad whose longest of nineteen jobs lasted a massive 365 days and whose highest take-home pay was a measly 16k, who has practically nothing in the bank, drives an old rust-bucket, and lives in a house owned by his father-in-law.

The trouble with being a high achiever is when your achievements don’t actually amount to diddly squat in the real world. I haven’t reached the stratosphere, or This Is Your Life, or even London. I still haven’t had a novel published, despite having written ten over the past twenty years, sacrificing career and relationships in exchange for 350 rejection letters declining my entry into the hallowed halls of the literary world. I’m hardly setting the world on fire.

I mean, even Clark Griswold invented the Crunch Enhancer, a non-nutritive semi-permeable cereal varnish. I’m less successful than Clark Griswold. Puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?

I feel that if I died at eighteen, I’d have been on the front page of the newspaper – so much potential, he would’ve been great and done so much, what a tragedy. If I die now, I’ll be lucky to get a footnote in the obituaries – so much wasted potential, he could’ve been great and done so much, but didn’t, oh well.

Living as a high achiever messes with your mental health. Ten out of ten is not something to strive for; it is something to be expected every time. If I get nine out of ten, I beat myself up because it’s not good enough, damn it, I should be better. When you throw parenting into the mix – especially of two little girls aged two and zero – that’s when perfectionism is a right royal pain in the ass.

Regular readers of this blog might have noticed I’m a little obsessive over my role as father. It’s not good enough just to be a dad – I have to be the best dad who ever lived. I model myself on Supernanny Jo Frost – calm, collected, consistent, and always in control.

So now that, after two years and nine months of putting up with the crap of parenting, I have started falling short of this ideal – when the baby is screaming and the toddler joins in just for fun and I suddenly shout, ‘Oh for God’s sake, shut up the both of you before my brain starts leaking out of my ears!’ and the toddler starts sobbing ‘don’t shout at me, daddy!’ – I have been sinking into a shame spiral, thinking I’m the worst father in the world, and punishing myself for my abject failure to live up to my unrealistically high expectations.

All of which has resulted in me taking an Anxiety Management and Coping With Depression course, where I have learned four interesting things:

  1. Eight out of ten is good enough.
  2. When you’ve lived with the Black Dog nipping at your heels all your life, just getting up in the morning is an achievement, let alone looking after two kids and a heavily dependent wife.
  3. If I’m always in control around my kids, I’ll teach them that it is bad to show their emotions and they should strive to be perfect all the time, which will set them unrealistic goals and thus perpetuate the cycle.
  4. I am a human and not a robot.

To which I respond with:

  1. For whom?
  2. They don’t put up statues of people simply for getting out of bed.
  3. Fair dues.
  4. Beep boop – does not compute.

But in all seriousness, they’re right. I have to lower my sights and lower my standards, because I’m killing myself to be perfect and there’s no such thing as a perfect parent. I have to accept that sometimes I’m allowed to be ‘crap dad’. Eight out of ten is a perfectly acceptable standard to live at. And what does it matter if I never publish a bestseller?

It matters to me.

Setting aside everyone’s expectations of me, my supposed potential, all the things I ‘should’ have done, all the things I was ‘meant’ to achieve, the only pressure on me to live at ten out of ten comes from within my own head. So it’s up to me to change the thought patterns of a lifetime if I want to access that elusive thing called ‘peace of me mind’.

Can I do it? Of course I can – I can do anything!

Let’s just call it a ‘work in progress’ and see where I end up, okay?

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?