Bigger fish to fry

I don’t always indulge my obsessions (oops sounds too clinical), hobbies (nope sounds like a toy horse for kids), passions (that’ll do) on this blog. But with the big hype around the casting of the first female Doctor Who (wow I can’t believe it’s not a joke anymore) I couldn’t not offer some perspective.

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Image snapped from my computer screen. Copyright BBC.

So there I was tuned into Wimbledon final knowing that at some point in the gap between the men’s singles and the mixed doubles the announcement would be made. I even went on Wikipedia and taught myself how the tennis scoring system worked. Gone are the days when it was just launched at you out of the blue on the evening news though I have fond memories of my mother saying “Oh it’s the one who was in Hammond and Son” (she meant The Brothers) and four years later my going “Oh wow it’s that guy out of Jigsaw”.

Eventually Roger Federer finished hugging people and disappeared into the changing room and Sue Barker said “But now the question is Who…. is Number 13?”

A woodland scene with whistling in the background. Another of the modern BBC idents (I say bring back the spinning globe)? Nope there’s a figure strolling through the woods. A figure. Heavily clad in black gender-neutral clothing (though the suede ankle boots were a teeny giveaway).

The camera pans up. The cloaked figure throws back the hood. A cascade of blonde hair falls down framing a made-up face which looks neutrally at camera for a moment then smiles as the woman steps slowly towards the familiar blue box.

As the birdsong and music fade, the black and gold letters announce “INTRODUCING JODIE WHITTAKER THE 13TH DOCTOR”.

Well I had to admit they seemed to be running out of ways to do the male version. We’ve had grumpy and/or volatile (William Hartnell, Colin Baker, Christopher Eccleston, Peter Capaldi) over and over and it hasn’t always helped the ratings. Patrick Troughton’s portrayal has been aped time and again whether in the comedy of Sylvester McCoy, the gasping energy of Paul McGann or the bow-tie of Matt Smith. I was hoping Capaldi’s Doctor would be more like the warm avuncular Jon Pertwee version but I was disappointed. Tom Baker of course is a colossus of a Doctor and David Tennant showed his influence while still making the character very much his own. Peter Davison was just a nice relaxed guy and Matt Smith was similar although I still describe his portrayal as Tennant-lite. Almost invariably from Davison onwards (1982) the actors have cited Hartnell or Troughton as an influence on how they played the role.

The Doctor works best when the new incarnation is a stark contrast to the overriding characteristic of the previous one while still bringing something uniquely theirs to the role. I didn’t see that in Matt Smith and while the change from his smug pretty boy portrayal to Peter Capaldi’s sinister take on the role was stark, I didn’t feel safe or at home watching the Twelfth Doctor.

And after all these years of it being suggested with varying levels of seriousness and naysayers (myself included) crying out against the possibility of changing the Doctor’s gender, maybe it was time to just flipping well give it a try.

We’ve had a female Master now and seen another Time Lord regenerate into a woman so it’s a no-brainer now that one day a showrunner will cast a female in the role. Even my constant refrain of “If the Doctor had always been female, no-one would be saying it was time for a man” carried so much less clout than it might have done before. Steven Moffat has been edging us towards the idea even though it is his successor who has taken up the challenge.

And with the old guard including Colin and Sylvester hailing Jodie Whittaker’s casting and highly respected figures from behind the scenes like writer Mark Gatiss (long a favourite of mine) doing the same, and a recast version of Bill Hartnell’s first Doctor coming back for the regeneration episode almost like there was no other way to usher in this brave new era (and brave it is you have to agree whether it works or not), I have to realise it’s time to drop my pet peeve and realise I have bigger fish to fry.

I have male friends who think it’s about time.

I have female friends who think it’s a dreadful idea.

But ever since Tom Baker joked in 1980 that he could be replaced by a woman, the idea has grown in strength and with the show hot property again since its 2005 revival (though it’s not as white hot as it was then) the pressure was growing. So it’s really a bit of a relief that we don’t have the usual dialogue where some cry out for a woman, some actresses even do well at the bookies and then the naysayers breathe a sigh of relief when another man is cast. So maybe it’s time for another sigh of relief – this time that this boring dialogue is over.

It’s happened. If it works, great. If not it’ll be a lesson learned.

But with North Korean citizens being tortured and killed for even so much as wanting to leave, welfare recipients dying in the UK because of our broken benefits system and the unlikelihood of many of the Grenfell Tower bereaved being able to find and bury their loved ones is this really worth getting upset over?

Somehow I think the Doctor would say no.

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“Can do A” “Can’t do B” – the stereotypical views of autism

After the look at the stereotypical support worker in “Wot a kerfuffle“, we now turn our attention to the other side of the Little Britain coin. How does the apparently fraudulent character of Andy Pipkin represent the confusion in our lives as autistics today?

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“Want that one!” “Yeah I know” “Stop paraphrasing me!” You can tell I watched my Little Britain DVDs a lot back when it was being made regularly and yours truly was getting through jobs like underwear.

Andy Pipkin. The apparent fraudster being pushed along in his wheelchair by put-upon carer Lou Todd, demanding what he will obviously not want when given it (“Want that one!” “Don’t like it!”), groping women in the street and getting out of his wheelchair and up to antics ranging from parachuting to climbing pylons and getting frazzled when Lou’s back was turned.

But without trying to attribute anything to Matt Lucas and David Walliams, who have continually insisted the character is just for laughs, let’s have some fun with character analysis (you can tell I studied drama). Just how needy IS Andy? Is he a total fraud? If anything he smacks of the sort of thing comedy, which works best when it’s anti-establishment, could get away with under the New Labour government when people with disabilities were treated much better than under what we’ve had up to now (April 2017) and readers of the Daily Mail (excuse the stereotype) who took the view that the majority of benefit claimants were spongers would have found expression for this idea in the character of Andy.

But let’s take another look at character motivation. Why would anyone fake a disability? Is the motivation necessarily ulterior? In today’s system, you have to exaggerate a bit in order to prove to the powers that be just how needy you are.

For example, the whole view that if you can do A, then you can do B and C as well. This has reached an extreme form in the idea that if you can lift both hands above your head then you are fit for work and other such drivel. Can you cook? You have to say “No” rather than “Well I can manage one or two simple dishes but the heavy multitasking element, as well as that involved in buying loads of ingredients makes it harder still – and no, a class in cookery won’t suddenly mean I don’t need benefit” (see here for more along those lines). To the vultures in power, a teeny bit of ability is like a teeny bit of yeast to a Jew at Passover – if it’s there, it invalidates everything.

So what are you left with? You can either claim to be able to do more than you can, which won’t help anyone, least of all yourself, or you can claim to be able to do less in which case, if your mindset is as literal as the average Aspie type (and I include myself to an extent) you’d better not let the DWP vultures see you taking a stroll in the woods (“You don’t look disabled to me”) or even buying a train ticket to London (“How can you afford that on benefits?”).

And even beyond the government, friends and family have their assumptions too along the lines of “If you can write a song that moves me to tears then you can do a soup.” Either that or they will insist you need occupational therapy when noting your zip has ridden down and yet when it comes to executive function and keeping one’s home in an orderly state, they’ll tell you it’s nothing to do with ability or even gender (where others would say “This place needs a woman’s touch”) and that you just need to forego some luxuries and pay for a cleaner. Either that or they’ll tell you you can’t manage your money in one breath and in the next will assert that you really ought to do something about your weight problem. So from “Can’t budget” to “Can diet fanatically” in one breath. Dogmatisation. It ain’t helpful at all.

Even in childhood I had some of this. “A clever chap like you not knowing that?” on the one hand while on the other begging my mother not to mention co-ordination problems on a form for a youth weekend away because I didn’t want to be prohibited from taking part in anything (mercifully I wasn’t).

But I have my own modus operandi for this. My motto is simple.

NEVER LET ANYONE TELL YOU WHAT YOU CAN OR CAN’T DO.

You would have needed someone to tell you when you were a kid. But now you can stand up for yourself inasmuch as you feel able. “Yes I can do A. No I can’t do B.” “Yes I think I could learn C with help. No I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do D – it’s just part of my disability.”

Never let anyone create a system that says “You can do X and therefore you can do Y” or “Well you struggle with A so why bother trying to learn B?”.

YOU know. You don’t need anyone to tell you.

Or as one folksinger put it “You may criticize me/Try to analyze me/Put me in your little pigeon hole/I’ll still hold the key to the place where I am free/A world that only I control”.

If the world adopted this motto, the Andy syndrome of apparent fraudulence would be a lot harder to find. Mr Pipkin himself would probably step out of the wheelchair and still show some signs of retardation (or whatever the politically correct term is) but at least not have to fake paralysis in order for his genuine needs to be taken seriously.

An Autistic on Sesame Street Part 2: In the Flesh

Julia has arrived – and she’s in the flesh!

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Image not owned by me – for educational and informative purposes only.

Longstanding readers of this blog will remember my flight of nostalgia in October 2015 when it was announced that a character called Julia who has autism was being introduced into the Sesame Street franchise. Those who don’t can read it here.

But now Julia is no longer confined to the ‘printed’ medium. No longer simply the stuff of PDF literature, she made her full debut on the long-running children’s series (48 years and counting) on April 10th 2017 (yesterday as I type this) as a fully fledged autistic muppet (perhaps I should rename this blog).

Here in the jolly old OK it hasn’t proved possible to watch the entire episode but a ten minute clip has been made available on Sesame Street’s official YouTube channel – you can watch it here.

So – what are my thoughts? I can only engage in a conversation with myself 18 months ago when I first ruminated on the character and how she might manifest if moved to the physical medium.

AUTISTIC HERMIT 2015: I mean getting a human actor to portray an autistic/Aspie character is simple enough… But you try creating a puppet that acts like an autistic stereotype with lips fixed firmly and expressionlessly together and puts clenched fists on the side of its head and pulls its jacket over itself when the verbal taunts get too much etc etc.

AUTISTIC HERMIT 2017: Wow she does put her hands on her head – check out how the siren from a passing emergency vehicle gets her going. I don’t remember being bugged by those myself but it’s clearly part of the overload for her and wow this muppet can actually move her hands – I don’t recall Kermit or Miss Piggy ever doing that.

AH 2015: Aside from being difficult to operate such a puppet, Sesame Workshop would probably get done for discrimination before you could say “Me love cookies!”.

AH 2017: Well she’s met Big Bird already. Let’s hope it’s only a matter of time before she starts aping Cookie Monster although this could set a bad example to young viewers…

AH 2015: What’s also a pity is that everything is now seen through the sanitised eyes of Elmo, who simply has daddy explain to him that Julia has autism. Personally I would have loved to see a little Big Bird bewilderment or Oscar having a grouch about this incomprehensible newcomer – this could really speak to how we often are out in reality where not everything’s A okay.

AH 2017: Well hey now we’ve had the Big Bird bewilderment but he doesn’t take long to get used to the newcomer. Oscar meets Julia… now that I would love to see!

But even today I have my reservations. In my day we had to learn to fit in. Not to the point of doing things we didn’t want to but just in realising that we couldn’t always propose or set the terms of the activity we were trying to participate in or initiate and that we would likely end up loners if we did. Just because Julia does ‘boing boing’ doesn’t mean everybody else is obliged to play tag the same way. Do we want autistic kids to get the idea that they are entitled to set the corporate pace wherever they go? Also there are health and safety considerations – if they really want to be gritty and realistic they’ll have to have Julia lacking co-ordination and spatial awareness and bouncing straight into another player, but I don’t think they’ve quite got round to giving muppets the capacity for tears and nosebleeds just yet.

But this middle-aged cynicism aside, I do applaud the way in which professional psychologists and the like have been consulted in the development of the character and the lady who created and operates the puppet has a son with autism who has seemingly no objection at all to the character and is even seen to give the puppet a cuddle almost as if she calms him like Julia’s toy rabbit Fluffster. I can’t seem to find the link right now despite having watched it only fifteen minutes ago. I guess this is what they call impaired executive function.

Right – I’m going to paint an 11…

Blue Sparks and Long Weights – the early working years

The workplace is a lot more politically correct now than it used to be. There are grievance procedures and HR departments if you get given grief whether disability related or otherwise. But it also used to be a lot less target-driven and there was more scope for people with certain challenges to develop without dismissal. Or was that just the place I worked…

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I had left full-time education. I had a lot of anxiety and I needed more space to clear my head than I felt a coursework schedule would allow at the time. Knowing we were entering a recession at the time (1992) I decided to do the two year Work Preparation Programme at the college where I had been ‘studying’ over the preceding year. Little did I know I was basically stepping into a course that dealt with individuals who might be classed as dropouts and ruffians. My escapades on day release at college deserve a piece to themselves.

But I was getting through placements like underwear. Over the first four months or so there were two I left because I didn’t like them, one I got dismissed from after one day and another looked promising and earned me a day less in college (the better you were at your job the more days per week you spent on placement) until I was told that ‘two week trial’ did not mean I’d get taken on for longer if I did well.

But it was a few days after the last of these finished that the placements officer said “I’ve got something at a warehouse that does Christmas cards. Would you be interested?”

I said yes and the next day was driven to the warehouse of Alban Greetings. I was taken inside and introduced to the manager Colin Richards, a short man with a friendly but abrupt manner.

“Do you want to work here?” I did.

Initially it was a doddle. The newbies from the college usually spent the first day out helping one of the drivers and I was no exception. On the second day I was putting gift tags, string etc into boxes to be taken to our dedicated home workers to assemble. I enjoyed this. Nice and simple and colourful too. But on the third day I had a broom thrust in my hand and got told to sweep the floor.

So I did. And every time you finished there was more to do.

And more.

And more.

And still more.

How clean is clean? It was a while before anyone told me to just focus on the “big dirt” i.e. dropped polybags, discarded cellophane wrap etc rather than worry about wiping dust off railings. Colin’s temper had me abandoning logic to the point where I would ask Naz, Colin’s immediate junior, if I needed to pick up euro holes from the floor. He’d send me round to the machine room to collect twenty red ones “and make sure they’re not faded” and even the machine room supervisor saying I should tell Naz to get stuffed didn’t make me realise the guy was pulling my leg.

For the whole of that fifteen-month placement, sweeping and cleaning was my main task. I didn’t dare complain – Colin Richards turned out to be a fearsome man to get the wrong side of, although he did tactfully ask on one occasion how I felt about sweeping all the time and tell me how important my role was by saying that you couldn’t have a Red Indian chief without having lots of little Indians doing the menial work and giving me two free boxes of Christmas cards seemingly to placate me. But I didn’t dare leave either – I had been in too many placements in too few months to justify it, and besides there turned out to be a very warm family atmosphere there.

It was after Colin had left for pastures new that autumn that I moaned to Tom the stock control guy that I was here to learn work skills and I wasn’t learning them sweeping the floor. He passed this on to Naz who had taken on many of his former tasks of management who said that the only reason he hadn’t given me more to do was because I was much too precise which admittedly Colin had tactfully told me before then.

I got given other less menial stuff to do as time went on but it hadn’t taken Colin and the lads long to work out I was game for a wind up. I fell for two classic workplace pranks. One involved Colin sending me round all the other warehouses on the estate asking if we could have “blue sparks for the angle grinder”.

“What’s an angle grinder Colin?”

“It’s part of one of the machines. Now go!”

I should have remembered Colin had a habit of adopting a brusque tone in order to conceal a prank as well as when he really meant it. On one occasion he had placed a box of tray dividers in my hand and ordered me to take it up to the packing bench on the mezzanine floor.

“Take that up to Ike” he ordered “and tell him from me ‘Meshuggah. And it’s very important!”

Assuming Meshuggah to be the name of the manufacturer or somesuch, I obeyed.

Ike – Colin asked me to give you this,” – Ike looked at me quizzically – and he says “Meshuggah-”

Suddenly everyone burst out laughing. I went downstairs again in sheer embarrassment. Laughing, Colin told me it was “The Hungarian word for shirtlifter.” It later turned out to actually be a Yiddish word meaning ‘mad’. Ike, an elderly Jewish bloke, was not unused to Colin calling him this and had no objection  – it was just considered part of the banter.

Anyway, in a similarly brusque tone Colin had instructed me to get the “blue sparks”. I didn’t think he’d mean literal sparks, maybe something along the lines of a spark plug. The other three warehouses had nothing along those lines – one genteel receptionist even walked into the factory and returned saying “I’m sorry we don’t have anything like that”. No instruction that nothing “like that” actually existed.

It ended with my being told to look for them in the back of a delivery driver’s van but when I found it empty the subject was dropped. It was only about a year later that another guy on placement told me an angle grinder was a tool used in construction and that “The only blue sparks it’s got are the ones what fly out of it!”

The pranks didn’t stop there though. One time I reported to the office that I needed a plaster as I’d cut myself. After Colin had initially remarked “Well what do you want me to do? Kiss it better?!” he made some remark about how “There was a guy here who cut himself and died of gangrene a few years ago”. Hayley who ran the bench upstairs didn’t help when she said “Oh yeah I remember” when I told her about it – mind you her smile should have been a clue.I got really paranoid about cuts after that (usually incurred with a scalpel blade while cutting through shrink wrap) and Naz would tell me “OK just sit in the canteen holding your nose for five minutes”. I did this quite a few times before Colin told me there was no need and told Naz to stop. But even before then they were using other fake remedies like getting me to run down the side of the building and back in some crouched position. When I got back, Colin said “You know that’s the fastest anyone’s managed in the 16 years the company’s been running.” It wasn’t till a few months after Colin had left that I discovered no-one had died of gangrene. My health-related anxieties at work ceased therewith.

Another time I got paranoid about having to clean up a spillage of rat poison and whether I’d washed my hands sufficiently before eating. It was some weeks before Tom, who was the first aider, told me that it doesn’t kill humans, it only makes us throw up. They took advantage of my hypochondria no end – putting boxes on my feet so I didn’t step in the poison and writing brand names on them with their marker pens and one time even taping bin liners to me as protection before the driver I was assisting that day (who initially thought I was threatening to knife him when I used a kitchen knife in my lunch box to get them off) told me to use my common sense and that it was obviously a joke.

Apart from these psychological games however, I could still laugh at some of the more humorous pranks. One week a guy called Vince who was only working there for three months said to me in his most serious tone “Could you ask Naz to get me a long weight?”

I approached Naz with this request, keen to learn about a piece of equipment other than the broom.

“Oh” said Naz “I think Brian’s got it”. I duly walked to the machine room where Brian Mahoney operated the printing machine.

“Brian, Vince needs a long weight and Naz says you’ve got it.”

“Yeah mate I think I need to ask Colin first”. He disappeared.

Eventually 1.30 came round and the buzzer sounded for lunch break. When we resumed work at 2.00 I returned to Brian.

“Weren’t you going to get me the long weight?”

“Er I’m not sure I’m allowed to give it to you after 2pm”.

Eventually I gave up and walked over to Colin’s office. He told me to wait outside.

Colin disappeared through to the offices and eventually walked through again with a few blokes in suits.

“Colin weren’t you going to-”

“Wait WAIT!” he kept saying with a grin.

Eventually Michael Allan, a South African with a strong accent remarked “Why don’t you stop looking like the village idiot and think what it was you asked for.”

I did. And I got it. By now it was 3.30. I poked my head round the door of Colin’s office and said to the girl at the other desk, “Tell Colin thanks for the long weight.”

“You mean you fell for that old chestnut?” she laughed.

Apparently Colin had pulled this on people before but this was “Definitely the longest wait.”

But that evening when we gathered at a pub to bid farewell to Rhianna who ran the bench upstairs, I really felt like part of the family. Towards the end of the meal, Colin told me to make a speech. I could tell he was maybe having a bit of a joke at my expense but people liked what I came out about how brilliant Rhianna had been to work with with so it paid off once again.

Tom and his wife Jane gave me a lift home. It turned out Jane had already heard about me. “What have you heard?” I asked with slight apprehension.

“I hear you’re quite popular” she replied.

There was little doubt about it. People knew I was a bit different, they knew I was a wind-up target but they had seen me slaving away with the broom without complaint, they knew I knew my pop trivia and knew what year Simon Bates was doing on The Golden Hour (shows how long ago it was) and did good impressions of Colin etc and I knew how to be nice with old ladies anyway having a female curate for a mother – although Colin did once order me to go back upstairs and apologise for relieving my nose in their recycle bin. Heck I didn’t really understand why I was a bit different either and I was only just emerging from a period of OCD based anxiety, scruples etc so I hadn’t quite got back to my old self yet but with the motto in my heart that I must do everything to the best of my abilities no matter how much it hurt, I did this as best I could and it paid off. I learned something of how to roll with the punchesand turn it to good.

Let the reader understand I never sucked up to Colin. Some of his management techniques left a lot to be desired for. Everyone knew I was a bit odd so it wasn’t hard to call out whoever had left a floater in the gents having omitted to check whether a second flush was needed.

One day Colin was with some of the other lads chatting round a stationary fork-lift. As I passed, Colin called me over with a big grin on his face.

“Hey Chris. Chris. When did you last use the loo?”

I knew what would be coming. “Errr about 10-15 minutes ago?”

“You didn’t do a poopy did you?!”

“Er yeah I did actually.”

“Oh get away from me!” snapped Colin pushing me out of the way.

My mum wouldn’t have let me get away with that!” remarked Brian Mahoney referring more to my faux pas than Colin’s management technique.

Another time I was about to go into the single cubicle gents when Colin came up behind me.

“Chris! Tom wants you.”

I moved out of the way and he hastily entered the cubicle in my place.

I walked over to Tom who turned out not to really want me after all.

But for all that, it was clear I had Colin’s respect otherwise I would have been sent back to the college and had to wait around for another placement to turn up. When Colin left that autumn, I was, once again, invited to give a speech. The verbosity I now pour into writing came into these periodical speeches.

I mentioned that next week my favourite band (the Bee Gees) would be releasing a new album. “I think the title’s quite appropriate” I said “because it’s called… Size Isn’t Everything.”

Everyone burst out laughing. I was making a joke about Colin’s height, I had no idea it was an old phallic reference. “Well was that meant to be a compliment or what!” remarked Colin.

But clearly he wasn’t offended. When I left that day he said to me “It’s been a pleasure Chris and I mean that. Here’s my address, contact me if you ever need a reference.”

* * * * *

After Colin left, Naz effectively took charge. He became a lot more snappy. “Chris! How many times!” “Chris! What have I told you!” I could see that my difficulty in understanding certain instructions and in not being able to work both fast and accurately at the same time was obviously being caused by this condition and that I would need an official diagnosis in order to be able to tell employers about this then relatively unknown condition. I knew that I no longer had the luxury of the Special Educational Needs department behind me as I had had at school and that I needed something official in terms of proof. I had told Naz about it and that I would need to hear “move the pallet to your right” rather than “move that pallet”. He acknowledged it but said little.

I left Alban Greetings in May 1994 having done placement there for just over a year. I had had enough of constant reprimands, teasing, having to wipe bird droppings off directors’ cars and other menial tasks. No-one wanted to see me go and a petition was signed to keep me there. Naz signed it three times and a couple of wags wrote Nelson Mandela and Jesus Christ. The next placement had me doing production line work which was actually a lot more fulfilling but didn’t lead to work by the time the course ended in June. Nevertheless I finished the course in good standing largely because of my work at Alban Greetings and I was praised by the tutors for my progress.

I took a few weeks to just recuperate emotionally after the course had ended. It had been a school of hard knocks and for a few weeks I was content just to eat doorstep sandwiches and watch reruns of Trumpton and the like. Eventually I got back to applying for work but the next big event on the horizon was my official diagnosis six months later.

So much made sense now. I began to realise I wasn’t just a freak. I was prone to missing a tease, not knowing how I came across, eccentric tics and all this was because of a condition that would never go away but could at least be tamed somewhat.

The following summer I returned to Alban Greetings on a paid contract. There had been a shake-up, certain key wind-up merchants had gone and although Naz and his new sidekick Ash could tear into you for England, the practical joking had stopped, no-one was sending me round to buy their rolls anymore and I could tell Naz must have had a word with everybody and told them the behaviours of old were off limits. Instead of just sweeping, I now worked with Tom on finished goods, preparing pallets for final dispatch. Two years later I left of my own free will to pursue other projects.

Since then I’ve had quite a few other jobs, most of which I didn’t leave of my own free will as well as lengthy periods of unemployment. But for all the political incorrectness, impatience, lack of HR department to report grievances through and flagrant disregard for health and safety (they never used the fork-lift cage), Alban Greetings gave me a chance in life that pretty much no other company ever did.

Names have been changed (mostly).

I, Autistic Hermit

Some thoughts on the present UK benefits system and being moved to a lower benefit for reasons that need to be coaxed out of the DWP (Department for Work and Pensions) via the red tape of a “mandatory reconsideration”. Also on a film that every single MP, Lord and DWP type needs to see.

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Just over a month ago I was reassessed for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). I had been sent the re-application form back round September and got it sent off ironically just before Damian Green, the present Work and Pensions Secretary announced that people with chronic conditions would not have to re-apply anymore. Chronic, for the uninitiated, does not mean severe or bad but lasting for a long period of time – note similarity to ‘chronicle’ and ‘chronology’

Just over a week ago I got a letter telling me that I had been moved from the ESA Support Group (i.e. not having to look for work anymore) to the ESA Work Related Activity Group (i.e. being expected to work constructively towards becoming employable without actually being obligated to apply for anything). No reason was given for this other than “A change in circumstance”. They didn’t even say which one, me and my trusty support worker had made it totally clear to the assessor that there had been no improvement in my condition be it medicinal, miraculous or otherwise.

At any rate I got a polite phone call a few days ago enquiring why I had not made it to an appointment that day (they don’t have to be as strict about missed appointments as they do with Jobseekers Allowance). I could only tell them that I had received no letter or text informing me of said appointment which just goes to prove that the DWP do not practise what they preach in terms of punctuality and efficiency. Mercifully I was able to rearrange but there are still questions that need to be asked.

That evening I attended a screening of Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake. I won’t spoil it for you but it totally shows up the present system for the sick, heartless box-ticking monster it has become. I know Tory voters who agree with me on this – what does that tell you? I can only share with you now my own take on the theme.

I, AUTISTIC HERMIT demand that the Department of Work and Pensions consider the following:

  • Being fit to do tasks is one thing. Being able to do them in such a way as to meet the standards of an employer who has a target to meet is quite another. I have never been good at combining speed with accuracy in a high pressure environment so please do not assume that any of your so-called workshops are going to therapise that out of me.
  • Most of the so-called proper jobs that can be accessed on the doorstep and that we can afford to commute to are temping jobs. Personally I do not cope well with being phoned with a potential booking, often with only a few hours notice. The last time it happened it was with so little notice that I was unable to emotionally prepare myself for it after a traumatic few days recovering from other bits of dung life had thrown at me.  The result was that on the second day, when I was suddenly and unexpectedly required to work without a trainer (I’d been told I’d have one for the week), I was so stressed with trying to meet the required pick rate accurately that I could barely even absorb what other people were saying who wanted to help. Two of them got shouted at as a result and one never forgave me and by the end of the contract was blanking me every time he walked past.
  • I need my evenings. Seriously why is it that this side of 1997, 9-5 or even 8-4 jobs in warehousing (not that I’d fit in anywhere in these target driven days) are about as common as rocking horse dung? We all rely on our social life to some extent to keep us sane and if the only times I am free are when Tupperware parties and ladies’ coffee mornings are happening then what does that do for my feeling of relevance to society or even for my need to be around like-minded people. The 6-2/2-10/10-6 pattern is alright if all you want to do is go clubbing and get hammered at the weekend but otherwise forget it. I reckon the demise of the industrial day job probably has a lot to do with New Labour which came in at around that time. I’m no Tory but I left a warehousing job in late 1997 to do a year out and when I came back, found even my old company had fallen victim to the target-driven mentality. As it is, the latterday Conservative administrations love it but then Tony Blair did have a reputation for out-Torying the Tories on some matters.
  • The majority of jobs I have held from 1998 onwards have been terminated by the employer, mostly because I couldn’t be both fast and accurate (a multiple focus issue). Even a degree has done little to amend this matter because the only ready work it got me was in the educational sector where one mistake and you’re out of the door usually for reasons the school asked the agency not to repeat despite the seven kids you helped with their English and the lad who told Learning Support personally how helpful you were with his Maths.
  • Do you really think that workshops (so-called) on CV writing, interviews etc are anything new to me? The fact is that employers want to see your FULL employment history and however hard you try to disguise it, they can always tell when you’ve had a string of sackings, redundancies or what have you. 1999-2001/2001-2/2002/2003-4/2004-5 and that’s before you add in the temping. Throw in a degree and a couple of postgraduate qualifications and even then I feel trapped by the social housing situation us raspberry ripples tend to find ourselves in. You can’t just up and move to the city and do voluntary theatre in education or whatever because a move in the public sector is much more complex than just jacking in one shared house or lodging for another. Add in the fact that my father lost so much money on fraudulent investments that I can’t even afford to part-buy a flat in the capital and you have a recipe for benefit street and temping agencies.
  • With all this in mind I must ask that whatever you do, you never EVER put me on Jobseekers Allowance again. At least not until you drop the requirement that we prove 35 hours of job-related activity per week. Do you really think with all of what I’ve put above that there are that many jobs I can realistically fill that amount of time applying for? I will do my best while in the Work-Related Activity Group but you can take it from me that this may mean a lot of volunteering and just occasional ventures into paid work like maybe a voiceover or two – perhaps even a book. But I am no longer 19 years old and the “Get a proper job first” thing has not worked for me so I am now more than entitled to a little of what I fancy (and I don’t mean mattress-warming).
  • I refuse to work to any hidden pressure to either be in an unsuitable job or back on JSA within a year. It is one thing to expect us to either sh*t or get off the pot. It is another thing entirely to chain us to the pot and force feed us with figs and prunes.
  • If I ever EVER again apply for a job under pressure from yourselves and it doesn’t work out then I demand that you put me straight back in the support group and leave me there until I give notice of any miraculous change.I remain respectfully my own. Not yours – except when I turn up to tick your boxes. My own person.

    Autistic Hermit

    P.S. And that’s before you get to the sick new policy that new additions to the Work Related Activity Group will get paid the same pittance as those on Jobseeker’s Allowance from April 2017 (which I’m grateful to have just missed). Damian Green are you really so keen to boost the use of food banks?

The book that changed my life

Teenage undiagnosed music lover Part 2. Yours truly discovers classic rock beyond the Beatles and his life will never be the same again.

“Come on it’s not all music” one relative half-teased me when I didn’t recognise the name of a famous sportsman on her Facebook status.

But for me at the age of thirteen, boy was it.

Nobody else was interested in how far a line of pylons stretched (no Google Earth then).

I didn’t dig sport and team sport lessons at school usually led to someone getting mad at me back in the changing rooms for scoring an own goal or somesuch. All the teacher could say was “I know he’s annoying sometimes but AREN’T WE ALL!!!” God rest his soul but they didn’t know how to handle that sort of thing back then.

The nearest cinema was half an hour’s bus ride away and anyway I needed plots explaining to me more then.

My favourite TV series had dwindled to a shadow of its former self and only had a few years left before the BBC pulled the plug. (It came back in 2005, that narrows it down a bit).

Music had it for me. The genesis of my love affair with the Beatles has been detailed in a previous entry. But a series on TV at the time called The Rock n Roll Years, which admittedly I was watching so I could get my visual fix of the Fab Four, opened my eyes to there being so much more. When the Rolling Stones appeared playing a song that had been on a single a mate of my dad’s had had, I remembered the song and how cool I had thought it was at the tender age of six.

“What’s this song called Dad?”

“Jumping Jack Flash”

I knew I’d have to start investigating the Stones at some point – when not chasing up George Harrison’s solo stuff through the local library system that is. One term into second year (Year 8 in today’s parlance) the time came.

It was nearly Christmas. I had been browsing music related titles in my local bookstore. One in particular had caught my eye. It is pictured below (image grabbed from eBay).

$_57.JPG

I opened it up. Facts and figures. Aspies love those. I already had them for the Beatles courtesy of a lyric book complete with discography. Now I could investigate further. When a book token came by post (you always opened what only looked like a card early) I knew what I was going to spend it on.

The Stones entry was the first I looked upon. Yes, Jumping Jack Flash had deservedly topped charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Ah but there was more. So much more. With no streaming services or YouTube back then, I was left with guesswork. Why I didn’t avail myself more of my local library is anyone’s guess. But anyhow I familiared myself up on the Beatles’ solo careers, got to know which Stone did what and found myself looking through to learn of artists they’d covered like Chuck Berry.

Then there were others I’d heard of in passing like Pink Floyd and Deep Purple (I’d  heard Smoke on the Water on the curate’s son’s guitar not long before). Now I could read up and learn more and see what was touted as worth listening to. Now I knew why one sixth former’s jacket had Black Sabbath emblazoned on the back. Now I knew why the names Abba, Roxy Music and Thin Lizzy had all disappeared from the charts not long after I’d started noticing their names in them – surprise surprise they’d all disbanded at about that time. Abba… so THAT’S who did that Money Money Money thing Mum used to sing while she was doing the housework (much as she loathed Abba). Bob Dylan – I had to look him up cos I’d learnt Blowing in the Wind at a summer camp the previous year and heard Peter, Paul and Mary’s rendition on The Rock n Roll Years soon after. It wasn’t in the hit singles list but I knew which album to find it on.

At my school it wasn’t cool to be a trainspotter and somehow my love of the few Sinclair Spectrum games I had didn’t inspire me to save up for or hunt out more. I knew it would be a long time before I got to explore Britain’s railways in any depth (I’d bought a national timetable and map with birthday money on turning thirteen).

But now whole new vistas were opened up. And the folks singing these songs knew how I felt and expressed it better than I could, and certainly better than any counsellor or form tutor had managed to relate to.

Unrequited love and being a target of bullying with varying degrees of provocation? George Harrison could deal with both in one stanza.

In the eyes of the lonely one
Everything is cold and hopeless that he looks upon
He needs a friend, a lover who can comfort him
His deeds offend, he knows that he has brought on him… Teardrops

Teardrops (Somewhere in England, 1981)

And when I made a start on other bands, the Rolling Stones knew about my innocence that had died.

It is the evening of the day
I sit and watch the children play
Smiling faces I can see
But not for me
I sit and watch as tears go by

As Tears Go By (single track, 1965)

It wasn’t long before I got into Fleetwood Mac too. Their entry in the book had fascinated me – even their name had a certain strange allure. Conveniently, they brought out their first single and album (Tango in the Night) in five years not long afterwards. A getting on point which led me to delve deeper. If I had had enough of being told “That’s the way you get bullied when you call people names” and thinking “Well heck I get bullied anyway” and hearing the “Just ignore him” advice yet again right in front of said tormentor, thus encouraging him all the more by making me the fall guy then I had no further to look than the Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie co-write World Turning.

Everybody’s trying to say I’m wrong…
Maybe I’m wrong but who’s to say what’s right
I need someone to help me through the night

World turning – I got to get my feet back on the ground
World turning – everybody’s got me down

World Turning (Fleetwood Mac, 1975)

“You’re obsessed with records aren’t you. And groups” the French teacher chided me one summer afternoon out on the lawn when none of us wanted to sing Alouette. “You have to remember to focus on real life as well you know.”

But heck this WAS real life. The Doctor and the Daleks weren’t real. Nor were Tom Tomato or Pete Pepper whose ‘adventures’ I had been magnetised back to a few summers before.

But these people were. Whether it was John Lennon pouring his emotional pain out in between political rants or Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks ranting at each other in song on songs like Go Your Own Way and The Chain, I had found real people to identify with. I read their stories in the Rock Handbook over and over again. It all reached deeper than any shrink could and moreover at my independent school where it was “hip to be square” (to quote Huey Lewis) and Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd could be heard drifting out of the dormitories, it helped me meet my non-autistic comrades halfway and made it easier for them to relate to me and vice versa.

“Reading your Bible again?” my grandmother would tease me when she would see the book spread open in front of me on the dining table.

Well maybe not the Bible – more on a level with Greek mythology albeit with real-life tails of derring-do, psychotic episodes and great music being created that made me thirst for more.

I shall probably recount how certain artists caught my attention and brought me to the point where I own all their commercially released studio work in future entries.

But though multiple copies of it fell apart over the years, I will never forget the book that changed my life.

 

A fat man’s FAQ

Fat.jpg

Co-morbid with autism is anxiety. This can sometimes lead to overeating which in itself leads to anxiety which makes me feel like I’m being watched to see if I make progress, act on advice etc.

I developed my present weight problem in my late twenties roundabout the time I lost the best job I ever had. I was fighting to hold onto my mental health as undiagnosed OCD got me in a vice-like grip so anything else people said was good for me or necessary (apart from earning my keep) took second place as I dealt with inner panics few could understand. Also I was less physically active – partly because I had quit the warehousing industry and also because I was on the internet a lot more. I’d never had so much trivial info at my fingertips before and it was an Aspie’s paradise.

Sixteen years later after trying diet plans and finding them very hard to stick to, I’m going to lay some ghosts here.

For your reassurance I am at the time of writing going out walking with friends more and potentially about to purchase a bike.

The trouble is the minute anyone makes even a simple suggestion like that I feel like either (a) they think I’m ignorant enough not to have thought of it for myself or (b) I’m a stubborn reprobate for not having done it before or (c) plead a list of circumstances that may have mitigated over the years.

But I don’t want to be this big anymore. I’ll write more about how I feel the problem developed another time. But for now, here are my responses to some stock questions and statements I receive about the matter from my wonderful friends and family (for such they are).

What do you do to keep fit (if anything)?

In the past I used to enjoy walking. I guess I lost that habit round about the time I came as near as I ever have to a breakdown. Also the rise of the internet gave me occasion to spend most of my free time chasing the trivial information I so crave.

Why don’t you join the gym?

No thanks, especially not after one famous author suffered a fatal heart attack after going on the exercise bike at his local gym. I like swimming when I can spare the money and the time which I should do more often. Trouble is swimming pools aren’t often open for the use of all – a lot of classes and senior citizens sessions etc so you can’t just go along whenever you’re free.

Is there anywhere nice to walk round where you live?

Most of it you have to walk down main roads to get to. A lot of traffic dodging even when you walk on the right.

What about changes to diet?

OK let’s look at a few of them.

Cut all carbs and/or fats and/or sugars

I am not psychologically equipped to go cold turkey. I got put on loads of different diets as a kid to alleviate undiagnosed problems, irrational fears, poor co-ordination, bed wetting, you name it. One of them I got taken off because it just wasn’t working. The memory of having to avoid most of my favourite foods for a year (and it looked like it would be for life) is so painful.

Alright then just be moderate. Try a diet plan where you’re only allowed so much of XYZ per day.

Long lists confuse me. Also I save on my weekly budget and reduced benefits by volunteering at a cafe where I get my food for free. No it’s not a soup kitchen for those of you about to say so. The food is very difficult to quantify when it’s not the kind of thing that’s saved in a fitness app and has no calorie count already attached. I try to just have a big meal there and eat minimally for breakfast and dinner but it often doesn’t work out particularly when we get to take freebies home.

Do you think you might have compulsive eating disorder?

I have in fact had that looked into. My local mental health centre concluded I didn’t have one, I was just overeating because of ‘unhelpful belief systems’ referring to the religious based anxieties that had contributed to the problem arising in the first place.

You’re killing yourself you know

Of course I frickin’ know (adopts autistic whine and covers eyes)!!! You obviously either consider me stupid or a reprobate.

We’re all very worried about you

You know what? I’m worried about me too. I just feel so hooked and trapped. Just keep me far away from nice food. Really far away. Unless it’s a special occasion of course 😉

I’ve got a suggestion for you

And no doubt you’re expecting me to either act on it or give you a very good reason why not. You know what? That makes me feel like my back’s to the wall. My motto is that I never promise anybody anything, least of all to act on their advice. That doesn’t mean I won’t, just that I don’t appreciate feeling like I’m being watched.

We’re not having a go at you/trying to be horrible etc etc

I NEVER SAID YOU WERE!!!!!!

MY BIT: Some thoughts of my own

When people are addicted to drugs they get sent off to a clinic

When people are addicted to tobacco no-one takes much notice as long as they go outside to smoke. When did a smoker last hear anyone say “We’re all very worried about you!”?

When people are addicted to booze it’s much easier to diagnose (well so it seems). They even have medication for alcoholics now.

When people are addicted to certain foods they’re expected to join a group and get a grip of it.

But if it’s any reassurance peeps…

My blood pressure is regularly checked and medicated by my doctor who was pleased with my progress the last I heard. Also my level of negative triglycerides has been dropping steadily in recent years.