Saturday 30 April 2016

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

What is normal? How do we define it? What are its components? I kept asking myself these questions after I finished watching BBC drama The A Word.

Auntie’s been throwing up some good programmes recently. Actually, make that, outstanding programmes. There was “Happy Valley” last year (I only saw the first series. I know the second one was on recently and it was just as good). Police drama, Undercover, (which I have not seen, I hasten to add, but I have heard it is excellent) has had rave reviews. All these BBC shows have similar traits:  solid writing, ace performances and believable stories. “The A Word” has picked up where “Happy Valley” and other shows have left off.

The “A” in the title is for “autism” or “autistic spectrum” (as it is known these days). The series deals with two parents, Alison and Paul, who are in denial about their five-year-old’s condition. Set against the breath-taking mountainous background of the Lake District, “The A Word” is not just a series about an autistic child, but about a family that is coming to terms with issues ranging from marital infidelity to online bullying.

The programme centres on Joe, the five-year-old. At the same time the director is careful enough to explore the world surrounding him. That is one of the strengths of the script. By giving almost equal time to each main character we get a better picture of how Joe’s autistic spectrum diagnosis changes their lives. We also get an in-depth look into these very complex and intermingled lives. This is another strength “The A Word” displays; it explores different dimensions of the human persona. For instance, Alison’s brother is still haunted by a recent affair his wife had with a colleague and finds it hard to cope. Paul’s relationship with his father-in-law is strained because of the latter’s strong opinions on Joe’s wellbeing. There is not one single scene – until the final episode, perhaps – where there isn’t an argument going on. Little by little, the layers are peeled off and we see a family at loggerheads with each other with issues from the past refusing to be buried and left alone. It takes a speech and language therapist, Maggie, to act as a tough-as-nails neutral advisor and force them all to confront their fears and self-doubts. But even this is a clever sleight of hand. Maggie is not just any therapist. She used to go to the same school as Joe’s mother, Alison, and was bullied by her during her time there leaving many wounds behind. Wounds which, it is fair to say, have not healed.

There are two very important non-human characters in the series. Non-human only in concept. They are as active as any of the Homo sapiens belting out speeches to the camera: the mountains and the soundtrack. The former is almost a tourist board’s ad for Cumbria, in North West England. The latter features indie music from the 80s and 90s which I am sure goes down very well with 40- and 50-somethings. The music is also indispensable in order to understand Joe’s condition. At the beginning of each episode we see Joe walking down a country lane, blue headphones stuck to his little head, singing his heart out to a melody by Pulp or The Libertines. It is hard not to look at the surrounding landscape, the monumental mountains closing in around him, and not think that here is a metaphor for Joe’s future life, one in which he will be reminded of how different he is.

This is perhaps the key element in the success “The A Word” has had. It has managed to address a very difficult issue without patronising its subject. In doing so, it has also turned the camera on the viewer. Some of the more cathartic and yet, equally beautiful, moments are when Alison and Paul speak frankly and honestly about Joe, about their frustrations and hopes. As a spectator, I disliked Alison a lot for her bullying behaviour but I also sympathised with her as a fellow parent, even if I have never gone through a similar dilemma myself. Paul conveys a fragility that is welcomed in a world where masculinity is still valued by the size of one’s schlong. In fact, one of the unintended masterstrokes is how the three main male characters, Maurice (Joe’s grandpa), Eddie (uncle) and Paul see their man ego diminished. Maurice, a widower, starts an affair with a music teacher, a widow herself, only to be confronted by his own body’s denial to perform when asked to do so. Eddie cannot get his wife’s affair out of his head. In the middle of a heated argument, Paul confesses to Alison that he would like to have a “normal” child. Reader, I felt as if I was in in the dock myself.

Because, what is normal? How do we define it? And in defining it, are we not excluding children like Joe? This music-obsessed, five-year-old lives in a world of his own and has a language of his own. He is as human as we are. But he won’t come to us. Whilst talking to Paul and Alison, the speech and language therapist, Maggie, is very clear about one of the courses of action they should follow: reach out to your child. Joe’s withdrawal, lack of social skills and verbal awkwardness are ways he has developed to protect himself.

If there is one gripe I have with the series is with the fact that the school staff working with Joe should have been given more screen time. I happen to have worked and still work now with excellent teachers and teaching assistants of children on the autistic spectrum. It is hard to quantify the hard work, the care and the love these professionals put in. I also happen to be married to someone who worked with an autistic child some years ago. I still remember seeing my wife night after night getting her resources ready for the next day in order to give this child the best possible start in life.

Reaching out to a child who does not respond in the same way we do is hard to do. I will not lie about that. But I think that we owe it to children like Joe to change the definition of “normal”. Even if it takes singing the whole repertoire of Jarvis Cocker’s Pulp.

© 2016

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 4th May at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday 27 April 2016

Killer Opening Songs (Song 44 by The Gloaming)

Ireland has featured prominently in 2016 on account of the centenary of the Easter Rising, the revolt that laid the grounds for, ultimately, Irish independence from Great Britain.

For Killer Opening Songs Ireland has another meaning: that of a fascinating musical canon. Whether traditional or modern, the repertoire from the Emerald Isle is one to which our regular section always defaults. Tonight it is the turn of a band that, although with only two albums under its belt, has already made its mark.

The Gloaming is a supergroup made up of five successful musicians who first came together in 2011 with the sole purpose of revolutionising Irish music. They have done this by mixing the orthodox with the experimental. The Killer Opening Song of their self-titled debut album is an outstanding example of craftsmanship. On Song 44, singer Iarla Ó Lionáird’s voice lifts and floats as Thomas Bartlett’s piano is kept to almost a whisper. At the same time Martin Hayes’ fiddle lets out a slow, sweet and melodic wail. It sounds like a plaintive note, one that is supported by Caoimhin Ó Raghallaigh on hardanger d’amore and Dennis Cahill on guitar. The spectral-sounding track is sung in Gaelic and has an 800-year love story behind it. A man keeps seeing the woman he loves in his dreams. Midway through the song the tempo changes and becomes more upbeat with the familiar Irish jig making its first appearance only for the melody to return to its sombre tone at the end.

Those looking just for foot-tapping music, however, will be disappointed. The Gloaming is more interested in how far they can push the boundaries of Irish music, not how to conform to already-established melodic patterns. The evidence for this is in the rest of the album. Allistrum’s March is a haunting fiddle-driven instrumental. Necklace of Wrens features words by poet Michael Hartnett. Opening Set is perhaps the standout track in the album. A sixteen-minute-long piece, brooding at times, explosive at others, this is the sort of composition that becomes a classic from the word go.

It is always heartening to see musicians, especially those plying their trade in traditional forms, using their left-of-field, creative power to the maximum. The Gloaming is a good example of this and the Killer Opening Song is one again the living proof.

© 2016

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 30th April at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 23 April 2016

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up And Switch On

The bloke called out “mile number 21!” on his megaphone. For the first time I had second thoughts about carrying on. Up until then I was confident I could do it but inside my head I was under the impression that I had already reached the twenty-second or twenty-third mile by the time the announcement was made. I stopped to stretch my tired and tense muscles. I also had an impromptu, on-the-spot conversation with myself. Then the miracle happened.

My mind and spirit took over and carried me forward.

For as long as I have been alive I have been exposed to a dichotomy: that of mind and body. Or mind versus body, as others might put it. Yet, dichotomy is the wrong definition for me, as mind and body are not mutually exclusive, nor contradictory. When used in tandem, they support each other.

For a good example of this theory let me go back to my introductory paragraph. In it I was describing my recent marathon run in the beautiful and ever-welcoming city of Brighton and Hove. I had wanted to complete the 42-kilometre challenge for years but I had never plucked up enough courage to do it. An opportunity arose in the autumn last year when I tried to enter the London marathon only to be told that all places had been allocated. However, there was a way to get into the Brighton one through the charity route. I wasted no time and signed up with Cancer Research UK. Along with Women’s Aid, these are two charities that have always been close to my heart. I was over the moon when I got the confirmation e-mail.

My fund-raising target was £550 and I knew I would have trouble reaching it (as I write I have raised exactly half that amount. For details of how you can help me raise the rest, please, e-mail me). That was not the biggest challenge, however. Despite being a runner for more than twenty years I had never trained for a marathon before. My longest distance up until then had been sixteen miles last summer. I had a Sisyphean task ahead of me but knowing myself I was completely certain I would not let the boulder roll down the hill.

Straight away after the first few running sessions I realised that it was not just my body I had to work on, but also my mind. I had gotten used to listening to music while jogging so much that the first mental block appeared when I removed my mp3 player from the equation. According to the event organisers listening to music while running the marathon was banned (erroneous information as it turned out). Nevertheless, I challenged myself to run in silence, or rather accompanied by nature’s soundtrack.

The change was not as drastic as I thought. Being music-free allowed me to concentrate more on my pace, my body and, above all, my mind. I noticed how the latter would intervene in moments of crisis; for instance, when I ran twenty miles for the first time in my life. My legs gave up in mile eighteen or nineteen, yet the mental fortitude I was already developing inside me saw me to the end of the run.

Practice is never the real event. On Sunday 17th April, when I turned at Preston Park I did not know what to expect. On the one hand my body was fine. Physically speaking I was in optimum condition. It helped that my wife and daughter had travelled with me to the coast and that they had given me much-needed encouragement. As I approached the start I realised that this was now in earnest, that the practice had been left behind. It was then that my mind stepped in and, like an old friend, whispered in my ear: “It’s going to be all right. Just focus on your pace”.

Easier said than done. The first thirteen miles (a half-marathon) were good, pace-wise. I had done a lot of work on hills, knowing that Brighton and Hove is full of inclines (I had driven up them before. In fact, some of my better uphill starts have been executed in Brighton). Up until the well-known runner’s fear-inducing “seventeen-mile wall”, I was doing well. Then, we went past the city centre and up New Church Road.

Desert might not be the most apposite description for what greeted me once I turned left on to this road, which, coincidentally, my family and I had crossed the night before on our way to a nearby pub. Yet, the feeling was that of being in a desert (not that I have ever been in one). Only that this desert was full of people, but still, it stretched for miles on end towards a seemingly unreachable urban horizon. Immediately my pace dropped. So far it had been approximately 8 minutes to a mile. Now I was probably doing 10, maybe 11.

As it turned out this was not the biggest challenge. That one came when we returned to the seafront and turned right to carry on towards Hove. It was then that my body forsook me completely. It was then that the bloke with the megaphone called out “mile number 21!” It was then that my mind and spirit took over.

I still remember from one of the parenting courses I did many years ago that human beings have four dimensions: physical, mental, spiritual and emotional. The four play an important role together in our development. Sadly, in our western-centric, globalised world, we pay more attention to the first two and underestimate the power of our spiritual and emotional side. It is easy to see why. The body, including the brain, is more visible. Exercise has become a byword for physical activities with a mental side effect. Brawn and brain work beautifully as alliterations for our fast-paced world. However, it was the combination of my brain, my spiritual side and my emotions that helped me complete the marathon.

After stretching my aching muscles, I decided to carry on. By now I focused more on positive thoughts than on my pace. In fact, as I later found out, the latter had dropped to sixteen minutes to a mile. I turned my thoughts to the reasons why I was putting myself through to what some would be torture. I thought of the people, runners like me, who could not do what I was doing because, through no fault of their own, they had been struck by cancer. I thought of relatives and friends who went too soon. I thought of their offspring and those they left behind. By now I was approaching the seafront again.

This was the moment when my spirituality made a much-welcomed cameo. The sea was placid. A dark grey, mud-looking, flat mass of water kissed the pebbled beach. Amongst my fellow runners, flanked by the cheering crowd, I heard the voice of Yemayá, the orisha of the sea in our Afro-Cuban canon, accompanied by the inseparable batá drums. Her voice was calm and assuring: Sigue. No pares. No te rindas. No te des por vencido. Sigue. So, I carried on.

This was no apparition or religious vision. This was the sum of my experience as a human being and as a Cuban. Those four dimensions I mentioned earlier mean that at any point we can call to a part of us that will help us surmount the obstacle that has been troubling us for so long. In the same way I had my Afro-Cuban drums to fall back on other runners probably had their own spiritual and mental mechanisms of support. Unfortunately, spirituality nowadays can sometimes be confused with the life-affirming balderdash spouted by self-appointed, opportunistic gurus.

There we all were, in mind, body and spirit

In order to understand what happened almost a week ago, I needed to return to that diagram I first saw when my son was a toddler. Only by focusing on all four areas together can we grow both as individuals and as a collective. When we function in those four dimensions, all we are doing is accepting ourselves for who we are, warts and all. We give ourselves a more positive purpose in life and learn new ways to cope with our ever-changing world. Or, you could say, with a marathon.

© 2016

Photo taken by the blog author

Next Post: “Killer Opening Songs”, to be published on Wednesday 27th April at 6pm (GMT)


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