Notes from the Stalls

What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare?

No time to stand beneath the boughs,

And stare as long as sheep and cows…

(From Leisure by W. H Davies)

Previous to the Friday just gone, the last time I was in Reading was in 1992, gate-crashing someone’s honeymoon, weirdly, and someone else’s tent at the Reading Festival that I never bought a weekend ticket for; wearing long sleeves pulled down over my hands, despite the heat, on the Friday at least, to conceal the fact I didn’t actually have an access all areas wristband but proceeded as if I did. By the Monday, grunge lovers with really bad hangovers and rain-washed come downs were being carried out, one by one, on police horseback because everyone’s wheels were stuck in the mud. The morning after the night before. The morning after Nirvana.

Reading Festival Poster Cb

It took me all day yesterday to recover from this year’s trip to Reading even though it was a – mostly – much more civilised affair consisting of a day at the Town Hall preceded by a very comfortable night in a boutique hotel in which the mini bar remained untouched. (My days of passing out in fields are well and truly over.)

There was not an entirely dissimilar level of screeching into microphones, however, and one woman shamelessly took advantage of the fact she had a captive audience to hook up her electric guitar and inflict both visually, via PowerPoint, and out loud, through an amplifier – to the unsuspecting delegates – the chorus of her newly penned ditty, Space Cadet. In fairness, she had anticipated a range of potentially unappreciative reactions and pre-emptively supplied everyone with earplugs. It was quite bizarre.

Excepting the yearly onslaught that is The Autism Show, this was – without doubt – the most autism-unfriendly autism conference I’ve ever attended. And I’ve attended a few. I’ll readily admit to being a bit of a conference junkie these days. It’s ok. We all have our thing.

I did wonder if the feeling of being cattle herded was intentional. It might have been forgivable had Dr Grandin been making a deliberate statement about animal welfare – it genuinely crossed my mind that she might have been doing just that – but no, it really was just the NAS forgetting themselves and those they say they represent. In print, they represent themselves and others very well. In 3-D space, not so much. At least not consistently.

I directed my death-stare full-force-square at the seating police: ‘I am unclipping this seat. I am moving it into the aisle. If you try to force me to comply with your preferred seating arrangements I will launch headlong into an ungodly scene. Now kindly remove yourself from my personal space,’ I said, without uttering a word. They begrudgingly, quietly, obliged.

The first speaker of the day didn’t show up. She is herself autistic and had planned to speak about How Anxiety Affects Everything. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out what had scuppered her morning. The last-minute change to the schedule gave me an extra sixty minutes to de-agitate myself whilst the Chair threw himself into an anxiety-based and driven improv stand up. He had a tough crowd but he successfully displaced the tension with a nervous warmth and some twistedly funny anecdotes in advance of Temple taking to the stage. Even I felt relaxed by the end of his set. Well done that man!

Temple Grandin 1C

Temple Grandin is LOUD. And blunt. And clever and witty and funny. And generally altogether bloody marvellous. No wonder they made a film about her. Her insistence on offering up unsolicited fashion, presentation and communication advice to the rest of the autistic panel was pure, unscripted (hilarious) genius in an ‘OMG! No-one else could ever possibly get away with saying that!‘ kind of way. She is – actually – jaw dropping.

In the end I decided against showing her my Different… Not Less tattoo and I pulled my sleeves down over my wrists. (Again!) I thought she might think it was just weird rather than flattering. I very (self)consciously limited myself to politely asking her to sign my book, which she did with the kind of flair only someone accustomed to being asked such things can. She wasn’t expecting me to answer, “However you like…” when she asked, “How do you spell your name?” Neither was I. But, nonetheless, that’s what came out. The last time an American wrote my name without checking the spelling I got renamed Carrie. So I was pleasantly surprised that Temple was only off by one letter.

Temple Grandin 2C

If I’d have known I was going to be only one empty seat (reserved for someone else who didn’t show up) removed from the author of one of Boy’s favourite books, I’d have taken that along for signing too. Similarly, I didn’t have my entire collection of contemporary paperbacks with me, just on the off-chance that I might run into a writer of one or two, when I shared a lift over three floors with an author in the middle of Manchester last month.

Instead in my head

A verse set adrift

A freak and a geek

Alone in a lift…

Nerds into trite words

And so it went on

To the mezzanine level

And then he was gone…

The literary world exhales a sigh of relief that it wasn’t a high-rise building and that my attention span and compulsion to write do not match those of Davies.

Jamie & Lion began their post lunch slot with a reading of Davies’ Leisure because poetry helps Jamie get into his public speaking groove. I don’t know if the cattle reference was a considered nod to Temple Grandin or whether that just happens to be one of Jamie’s favourite poems but, either way, I liked the synchronicity. Lion seemed a little less enthusiastic about it but I believe antelopes are more his thing.

As a balance to anything negative I may or may not have already said about the NAS, I really should point out that every speaker who took to the stage at this particular event is autistic. Other charities would do well to take note.

PDA clearly wasn’t anyone’s thing though and I couldn’t help but audibly groan when someone in the audience asked the panel what their general thoughts on the subject were. They all admitted to understanding very little about PDA – except for Temple who completely got the wrong end of the stick but just went ahead and made something up anyway. I really couldn’t fathom why so many parenting questions were being directed towards her. She knows a great deal about bovine behaviour and large scale construction and many other things. But parenting? Really?! If you have a parenting question, ask a parent! Specifically seeking out an autistic parent for advice on raising an autistic child seems like a perfectly sensible thing to do – but why in God’s name would you expect to receive expert parenting advice from someone who designs slaughterhouse machinery?

Some people completely baffle me.