Gerry Farrell: Curious taboo needs exposed

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What does it feel like to be autistic – with “high-functioning autism” so that you are fully aware you’re autistic? Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, gives us this description.

“Sometimes when I am in a new place and there are lots of people there it is like a computer crashing and I have to close my eyes and put my hands over my years and groan, which is like pressing Ctrl+Alt+Del and shutting down programs and turning the computer off and rebooting so that I can remember what I am doing and where I am meant to be going.”

He’s not describing himself but Christopher Boone, the fictional hero of The Curious Incident. By his own admission, Haddon didn’t do a lot of research into the condition. But when he was young, he worked with people who had Asperger’s syndrome.

There are four reasons I’m interested in the subject:

1: People very close to me have a high-functioning autistic child.

2: Mark Haddon shared a flat in Edinburgh with my wee brother.

3: His self-illustrated children’s book Gilbert’s Gobstopper was one of my own children’s favourite books when they were little.

4: For my birthday present, I got tickets to see the play of the book, at the Festival Theatre last Friday.

Turning this award-winning novel into a play must have been tricky. The 15-year-old central character Christopher, played by Joshua Jenkins, sees the world in a very different way from the rest of us, making him a tough character to empathise with.

On the surface he seems antisocial, he hates being touched and he’s very literal. He doesn’t understand metaphors, is unable to lie, and can’t read emotions on people’s faces. He’s also a maths genius whose brain can absorb massive amounts of information – often far too much – at once.

The stage set was incredible: two walls marked out in a grid like a maths jotter but wired with hidden light pathways so that at any point in the drama, these walls could explode into light and sound, giving us a window into the terrors and excitements in Christopher’s mind as he sets out to solve the mystery of the murdered dog in his neighbour’s garden.

I won’t give away any more of the plot – if you’ve read the novel you’ll know the story anyway. I’ll just say this: there is still a terrible stigma attached to mental ill health and challenging mental conditions in this country. Folk would much rather sign a pal’s stookie than chat openly about their mental illness. Tabloid papers talk about “loonies” and “nutters” not caring that their choice of words is deeply offensive.

Employers make little effort to understand the issue when it affects their own staff. One of my own former bosses admitted to me “I know nothing about mental health” and yet there on the wall was a framed certificate that said his firm was “proud to have signed SeeMe’s 
anti-stigma pledge.”

I’d urge you to get tickets to see the play (it’s in its last week). Not just because it’s brilliant but because millions of us have suffered or will suffer from a serious mental health problem at some point in our lives and we need to support writers and dramatists who make it clear that it is nothing to be ashamed of.

MAN UP AND GET TESTED

My better half was ransacking my bedside cabinet for a card reader when she found something shameful at the back of my drawer. She brandished it in my face and I hung my head. It was a bowel cancer test kit that was sent to me a year ago. If it’s caught early enough bowel cancer can be treated, but it’s invisible to your GP unless you do the poo test. If you’re a bloke over 50 like me and you still haven’t done your test, it’s time to man up for your family’s sake.

Clicktivists . . you have one last chance to delay ‘superpub’

It’s easy to be a clicktivist. You read a story on Facebook about some awful injustice. A hyperlink whisks you to an online protest petition. Click. Done! Bravo, you are an upstanding citizen of the world. You lifted a finger. I’ve done it myself. But does it actually change anything – or does it just salve our consciences?

Last Wednesday, Edinburgh City Council nodded through a planning application to turn one of the Capital’s top music venues, the Picture House in Lothian Road, into a giant Wetherspoon drinking barn. There will be no music in this so-called “superpub” because JD Wetherspoon is too mean to pay the music licence. This will bring to 286 the number of alcohol outlets within a ten-minute walk of Tollcross.

Thousands of people in Edinburgh’s music community signed an e-petition but only three or four people bothered to write to the council’s development management sub-committee to raise objections. Those few e-mails played an important part in delaying the decision by three months.

I watched a live webcast of the council discussing its decision before the vote. The six councillors who voted to approve the application were swayed by a Police Scotland rep who claimed that the Picture House posed more of a threat to good order than a Wetherspoon would. When asked to provide statistics of incidents in or around the Picture House to back up this assertion, the Police Scotland rep said she did not have any with her!

As somebody who actually plays live music here on Fridays and Saturday nights, I know this city will not thrive without a flourishing music scene so I got in touch with a man who’s done more than most to promote live music in Scotland, Olaf Furniss, director of Scotland’s award-winning music business convention, Wide Days. This is what he said about the council’s decision.

“The Picture House was the only medium capacity venue in Edinburgh, so its loss means people will have to go to Glasgow to see the acts who would have played there.

“I don’t remember being at any Picture House gigs which went past 10.30pm and the clubs which took place at weekends were rather innocuous student nights. That is in stark contrast to the ‘radge magnet’ which existed at that location before it became the Picture House.

“The police had three months to come up with figures to back their case and failed to do so at the council meeting.

“It is frustrating that half a dozen councillors made a decision without being in full possession of the facts. However, the many people who failed to take the time to explain the situation to their elected representatives also have to shoulder some responsibility.”

You have one last chance to delay Wetherspoon’s arrival in Lothian Road. According to the webcast I watched, there is no evidence that the new Wetherspoon kitchen will be properly vented. This is unacceptable. You can still raise an objection on those grounds if you write to the council’s development sub-committee. Do it now.