30 April 2007

All on the spectrum now

Last Monday I took some time out from the Triathlon Training that is increasingly dominating my days, my nights, my waking thoughts and - worst of all - my blog, to go to a lecture.

It was two hours, I calculated, lost for training. In that time I could have:
  • swum 7 x 100m off 3 minutes, and
  • run the 5.5km treadmill programme at level 4 (level 5 if they would only keep the bleeding gym at the 19° that they are supposed to) and
  • had another attempt at the tantalising 1 hour barrier for the bike home (PB 1h05)
Ah well. The event was Autism Nation - a panel discussion on autism at the ICA. The star of the show was the clever, intellectual and urbane Simon Baron Cohen, but stealer of the show was the fierce, opinionated professional talker-of-down-to-earth-common-sense Dr Michael Fitzpatrick. Alt-views were provided by the intensively unautistic Marti Leimbach while the genuine real-life autist Kamran Nazeer loomed impassively from the edge, carefully refraining from eye contact with the rest of the panel who, quite naturally, ignored him.

The panel waxed lyrical all evening, and on my note pad I jotted down a page of their original thoughts; thinking back on it over the week since one thought in particular struck me - in terms of sociability and ability to communicate our tolerant, inclusive modern society has quite raised the bar in terms of what is considered normal: Nowadays children in quite ordinary schools are expected to participate in drama, hold and attend parties, talk about sex and sexuality in the classroom (talk in the classroom, I mean, of course, not talk about sex in the.... you know what I mean!) they are expected to be able to engage meaningfully with people of astonishly diverse backgrounds and avoid any scarily intensive hobbies, all in order to be considered normal. Behaviours that would have been considered quite usual in 1957 are, in 2007, plotted carefully on the all-embracing, all encompassing autistic spectrum.

What is autism? Simon Baron Cohen identified four traits
- difficulty socialising
- lack of empathy/interest in others
- intense interest in a narrow range subject
- repetition

It was an interesting evening, and exactly a week later I was still thinking on it as I splashed out my life-threatening 500m in the pool and pounded out a tedious 5km on the treadmill.

Between the two, I practised transition: I got out of the pool and took out my racing top [super-wicking, dry-quick, ultra light; no armpit holes £84.99] from my locker and laid it out carefully on the floor in front of me, flat and untangled, just as it will be in the race, with the back rolled up just a little bit. Then I stood up straight and stared at it for a moment, and visualised.

Water dripped slowly from my arms to the floor, I could quite distinctly hear the hum of the air conditioner and I could smell the sweat of the changing room and the chlorine on my skin.

Slowly and deliberately I counted to three and then - to the astonishment of my neighbours - I burst into life and hauled the top over my head and, writhing desperately, managed to haul the tightly rolled fabric down my damp back. Immediately it was on, I dropped on ground, toggled up my trainers, then leapt to my feet and put my cycling helmet on. And stoppped my watch.

A sudden hush had descended on the changing room.

"Blenheim Palace?"asked my neighbour?
"Thames Turbo, said I,
"Word of advice", he said, not unkindly, "Put an arm in first, before it goes over your head. Much faster that way"

19 April 2007

What Luck?

There are two kinds of motorists that a cyclist may encounter on the streets of London: the first kind is simply unobservant - they just didn't see you. The second kind is simply reckless - they did see you but they just didn't care.

These two kinds of motorist can be distinguished, sometimes, by the sheepish wave they give - or fail to give - that acknowledges the mortal danger in which they placed you.

But when you actually encounter a motorist on the streets of London, cutting in front of you to make a sudden unindicated left turn, you seldom wait for the wave to work out what kind of motorist it is that you see. This is because whatever kind of motorist it is, there is only one kind of braking that you do, and that is the hardest kind of braking.

I have noticed also that there are two kinds of luck experienced by cyclists in these situations: the bad luck that leads to you meet such a motorist, and the good luck which allows you to escape with your life.

But which kind of luck it is that you experience, and mention prefacatorily when relating your triathlon anecdotes to bored wives on each side of you at the dinner table depends, I suppose, on whether you are glass-half-empty or glass-half full sort of person. In my case - suffice to say it was not with an overwhelming sense of good fortune that I picked myself up from the tarmac on the approaches to Tower Bridge on Wednesday morning (driver stopped suddenly in front of me / foot caught in cleat / good job the driver behind me was paying attention / any little wave? ummm...)

In fact that was just the start one of my most fortunate cycling days yet, when all on a single commute
  • I was lucky to escape being run over at Tower Bridge
  • and lucky to persuade the bike shop to fix my mysteriously bent sprocket, that jammed my chain..
  • and lucky that no one ran over my pannier when it fell off my bike..
  • and lucky to puncture so close to a street light to see by..
Yes, some people - I have noticed, but not me, see at least some good luck in every situation even when there manifestly is none. Tree fell on their car? What luck they weren't in it. Lost their bag? What luck their wallet was in their pocket. Their child dangerously ill? lucky to live so close to the hospital, to have a congestion-charge free car, to have just hired a nanny who is now looking after the siblings. Yes, what desperate, desperate luck some people have.

11 April 2007

What to Wear?

My son and I leave for the South Coast on Friday for the annual Rugby Club Tour. This is a character-building exercise for small boys who learn buffalo rules and that there's no point arguing with the Judge.

The worst thing about the tour is the fancy dress. This year our theme is Space. All apart from our age group, that is, who are unilaterally Pirates (this is in the interest of bonding) I told the coach I was going as a Space Pirate and he was extremely unamused; I fear I may be a pint in the hole already.

And the worst thing about the fancy dress is that children don't have to wear the costume. It's actually the adults who will dressing in Vulcan ears and fake beards carrying bags of illegally copied DVDs. The children will be in jeans and heelies.

My objective is to avoid a coma, more likely induced by alcohol than heely, it's true.
My son's objective is to be appointed a snitch.

I hate fancy dress.

10 April 2007

Swimming Times

My swimming performance has reached dizzy heights: £17.50 a week. This buys me a 30 minute lesson.

My teacher told me that my stroke is "acceptable". "That's as maybe", I said, breathing carefully out through my nose, and keeping my fingers clenched and elbows bent, "but using that stroke I can't yet swim 450m without choking".
She said I needed a more positive attitude. And more practice.

The second week she told me to change to position of my head: "The water", she said, "should be half-way between your goggles and your hairline".

We looked at each other for a moment in silence "What I mean is ...", she said... "It's OK, I know what you mean", said, I.

I could have drowned.

Four weeks to go.

03 April 2007

This month I have been mostly...

Top 10 Dinner Party Conversations
for middle-class 40somethings
in South-West London

March 2007

All Together Round The Table

  1. Car Insurance for 17 year old learners [prohibitive, extortionate cost of]
  2. Sex [are our children doing it?]
  3. House Prices, London [prohibitive, extortionate cost of]
  4. House Prices, Tarn Valley [prohibitive, extortionate cost of]
  5. Triathlon Training [endless, tedious details of]
  6. Police [persecution of middle classes by]
  7. Tony Blair [did you see him doing 'am I bovvered' for comic relief, he was pretty good in fact. You can't imagine Gordon Brown pulling that off, can you?]
  8. Daniel Radcliffe naked [much better actor than you'd expect actually. And, no, he didn't]
  9. Polish Builders [sudden scareness of; not as cheap as they used to be. Actually I know a little man who..]
  10. Global Warming [the wisteria in our garden is out already]

The Men-On-Their-Own

  1. Did you see the rugby last week?
  2. Bob Woolmer [apparently it says on the net that...]
  3. Did you see the football last week?
  4. What about Pakistan in the world cup then? [see 2]
  5. Triathlon Training [anyway, as I was saying / so how much did the bike cost really?]

The Women-On-Their-Own

  1. Husbands [general uselessness of]
  2. Sex [See 1]
  3. Schools [general uselessness of]
  4. Umm....

01 April 2007

Bosman on Blogging

"When people ask me - as they often do, how is that I can write the best blog of anybody in the Transvaal (Oom Schalk Laurens said, modestly) then I explain to them that I just learn through observing the way that the world has with men and women. When I say this they nod their heads wisely, and say that they understand, and I nod my head wisely also, and this seems to satisfy them. But the thing I say to them is a lie of course.

For it is not the story that counts. What matters is the way that you tell it. The important thing is to know just at what moment you must knock your pipe out on your veldskoen, and at what stage of the story you must start talking about the School Committee at Drogevlei. Another necessary thing is to know what part of the story to leave out.

I read all of Herman Charles Bosman's short stories in a single month in 1994 when we lived in Johannesburg and I have been an avid fan ever since.

They made more of an impression on me than Chekhov - of Bosman's tales I remember almost every word, and since 1994 I have hugged his stories to me, a secret treasure, for (South African readers of my blog [cough] will be surprised to know) Bosman is undeservedly unknown in England.

In 1994 I knew nothing of the world he described - 1930s rural Africa, but all the same his tightly constructed, witty short stories connected with me, they connected me to Africa, and through his stories we connected with new friends

If blogs had existed in 1994 I would have written one - I would have had something to blog about for it was the year of the election, the world was watching our corner of the highveld,
and, like Jurie Steyn's, our voorkamer hummed with speculation. In due course Mandela became president, shots were fired at a crowd by the ANC from the top of the Shell building and South Africa became free. Perhaps I would even have stood a chance at that book deal. Management Consultant in the South.

But they didn't, and I didn't, and instead I wrote long letters home to friends and family. Letters that blogged on paper - for astonishingly, neither was there any email in 1994 and each one was envelope-stuffed and entrusted to the nefarious South African postal service, letters that I tried to fill with wry observations, letters from a long-ago, different me, now achingly embarassing to re-read, letters that I was chuffed to find pinned to a friend's kitchen notice board when we went home to visit that summer. I would write letters about the storms, about racial conflict, about danger and passion in the city and the red earth of Africa and my friends would understand that we we were well and happy in our comfortable Johanesburg home.

When I wrote I sometimes thought of Bosman, an urban man in the Groot Marico, and ridiculously compared myself, a Westerner in the south, a 1990s Londoner in the 1970s African platteland, an At Naude, bursting with irrelevant news and views from the outside world, to him Sometimes, even, I tried to write like him.

It was a good time. Our decision to go to Africa was precipitate and opportunistic, the trip was decided and planned in just a few mad weeks and from decorating a nursery in Mortlake in September we found ourselves in January in Sandton with a brand new new baby in our battered travel-cot, a rented house and our very own swimming pool in the garden. Shorn of possessions and friends we were forced to rely on our own resources...and we survived.

When we came back from South Africa, leaving behind in turn another, newer set of friends we entered a new stage in our life. We bought a house, retrieved our possessions from store and we had a fire in our grate. We settled down. Before long we found ourselves - astonishingly - parents of a school age child, our oldest daughter setting off in a maroon dress to the local primary school. I joined the PTA Committee and served as Treasurer. We became a suburban family but we had Africa in our souls and sometimes, when the sky was London-grey and streets glowered, I would remember April 1994 and our maid overwhelmed to vote in her first election, and how afterwards in the warm evening that we drank champagne on the roadside with the gardeners. I wrote a letter about that.

It's all a long time ago now. One by one our African friends too moved away - to Berlin, to Norfolk to Saudi Arabia. The Transvaal is Gauteng, now - a different place, a place where we know no one and instead of writing letters to distant friends and family to remember us by, I write a blog for strangers to stumble across and perhaps smile. But we still have Africa in our souls.

We've lived in the same street ever since we moved home, and in June the youngest of our children leaves the primary school that our oldest started 12 years ago. My spell in the PTA Commitee didn't last nearly as long - a single ignominious year following the fall-out from the ludicrous Summer Fair Budget fiasco of April 1997.

In 1994 we were restless adventurers, leaving our cautious stay-at-home-friends behind. Now we're the stay-at-homes, and we have friends who don't know we once lived in Africa. Likewise in my family the tables are turned. My sister is now the restless, footloose adventurer and she blogs to us from the Phillipines and we pin her emails to fridge door. And my mother, also, is in a far away place, but one from where she can write no letters.

And I blog, and in each post I try to choose just the right moment to knock my pipe on my metaphorical veldskoen, and to give just the right amount of space for my opinion of the Primary School PTA Committee, and sometimes the most important stories in my blog are the ones I leave out.