World Autism Awareness Day

Today is World Autism Awareness Day and it’s fantastic to see so much attention being given to Autism in the media and online.  As my own very small contribution, it is the perfect opportunity to write my next blog post about my journey as I get used to my Asperger Syndrome diagnosis.

I’m a couple of months into my support with Autism West Midlands and it has been very useful so far.  We’ve looked at various areas where I need help to deal more effectively with life, and we’ve put in place some useful strategies, particularly for prioritising, organising my time better and handling stress.  We’re currently looking at Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques to help me cope with negative thoughts and be less self-critical.  I’ve also been directed to a 3-day residential course in building self-confidence, which I will hopefully be doing in early June.  As well as the practical exercises, it has been a huge thing for me to simply be able to talk to someone who understands and can help me put my responses and thoughts into some kind of context.

The biggest issue I face, like most people I would suppose, is acceptance of the diagnosis.  Not in the sense of being in denial that I have the condition, but in getting my head around what it means.  In one of my earlier posts, I talked about a “battle” and this attitude is exactly what I mean by acceptance.  It is hard to overcome the mindset that autism is something “external” that you have to fight with – in the same way that people with other kinds of medical conditions do, maybe people with cancer or serious physical injuries.  For them, externalising the illness or problem is fine, perhaps even beneficial, as this helps them to muster up the strength and determination to recover.  Initially, I took a similar stance to my diagnosis. I was constantly trying to separate “me” from “my autism”, to draw dividing lines between one and the other (I do this because I’m me, I do that because of my autism) as a way to develop coping strategies.  But I have quickly realised that it simply doesn’t work.  It is not external, it is a deeply-rooted part of me and influences how I think, how I react, what I say and do.  And the same traits can have both hugely positive and negative effects in different areas of life and at different times.

My support worker described it as being like a rope – there are different strands that make up who I am, and autism is one of them, but they all make up one rope.  I understood what he was saying, but this analogy didn’t work for me, because I know you can see the different strands in a rope and I was still trying to pick them apart.  My wife put it another way – I’m green.  Not in the sense of being inexperienced or environmentally friendly, she meant in a metaphorical way.  Imagine making green paint by mixing blue and yellow.  You know the green paint has blue and yellow in it, but you can’t possibly identify which bit of it is the blue and which is the yellow.  I know autism is part of me, but it is absolutely impossible to isolate it.  That makes perfect sense. It’s not easy, but every time I find myself trying to make the distinction, I keep telling myself “I’m green!”.  Anyone with autism will sympathise that I wanted to be blue really, as it’s my favourite colour, but that doesn’t fit the analogy, so I’m getting used to being green.  I’m starting to feel less agitated about battling Asperger Syndrome, and to focus on understanding what makes me unique and how I can make the most of the qualities I have.

Enjoy today’s celebration of Autism, and I hope awareness continues to grow.


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The Big Question…

A couple of days ago, someone I know was recounting an amusing story about a practical joke they once played on a new guy at work.  At break time, they sat around a table in the canteen and arranged condiments, mats etc. in a random pattern on the table, then when he joined them, they started moving them in turn, in the style of a chess-like game, making up names for them as they went.  Apparently, he was so keen to be part of the gang at his new workplace that within a few minutes, he was telling them the “rules” of this game that didn’t exist, using the words they had been making up on the spot.  It’s a great anecdote, but later that night it was on my mind and I couldn’t quite work out why.

Then it hit me.  THAT’S WHAT MY LIFE IS LIKE. In fact that’s probably what life is like for anyone who has an autism spectrum condition and is faced with the daily challenge of seeing and experiencing the world differently to most people.  It’s a frequently asked question in any information you read about autism – what is it like to have an autism spectrum disorder?  It’s something people who are in that situation often get asked.  And, of course, it is impossible to give an answer to.  The people concerned do not know anything else, and their condition can make it hard for them to empathise with how other people see the world.  Meanwhile, the others (we call them neurotypicals or NTs) can only ever get a limited understanding from descriptions provided.  But for me, here it was, out of the blue.

Of course, there are many aspects to conditions on the autism spectrum, and each individual experiences life in different ways.  But if you want to get the basic idea, a simple answer to the question “What is it like to have Asperger Syndrome?”, then here it is.  It is like sitting around a table where everyone is playing a game you don’t know the rules to, using words you don’t understand and you just want to join in.

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National Library Day

It’s National Library Day, so I thought I’d set down a few of my own library memories.

I can’t really remember life before the library was part of it.  From my very early childhood I used to go with my dad to our local one, a beautiful Victorian building in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire.  It had a great children’s section and between us, me and Dad would choose books for him to read to me.  We would get them out on his ticket, but it wasn’t long before I was pestering for my own ticket.  Although I was too young “officially” to join the library, as the staff knew my dad (everybody in Hucknall knew my dad) and they were keen to encourage a young book lover, I was allowed my own tickets.  I was three years old I think.

From then on, Saturday morning was library time.  Dad would leave me (and later, when she was old enough, my sister) in the children’s section while he went to choose his books.  Generally speaking, he was finished first as I found it hard to choose just a few titles from such a treasure trove.  As I learned to read for myself, I graduated from the picture books and bedtime stories kept in a kind of box in the corner to “real books” on the shelves.  It was my favourite part of the week.  I loved everything about it: browsing the titles, reading the blurbs, maybe taking a peek inside for a preview, even the agony of having to whittle down what was normally a quite long list of possibles to the small number of tickets I had.  If the decision was just too tough, my dad could sometimes be persuaded to sacrifice one of his own precious tickets so I could take home an extra book.  Those are some of my best memories from childhood.

During term time, the number of books I was allowed was generally just about enough to last me until the following Saturday.  School holidays were different, and usually required a midweek visit too.  Parents and library staff (who all knew me by name) occasionally persuaded me to join in some of their “holiday activities” but really I just wanted to choose my books and take them home to start reading!

I can trace my childhood journey by the library departments I spent time in – from the children’s section to non-fiction and reference when working on school projects or just discovering things for my own interest, to young adults, to the proper adult fiction section.  Getting my first books from there made me feel so grown up.

In adult life, I’ve mainly used libraries for reference, preferring to buy my fiction.  But I have always used them, when studying or in my work, which requires a lot of research.  A library is always a place I feel at home, surrounded by books.  Even if I don’t intend to read or borrow one, just browsing and soaking up the atmosphere is a wonderful feeling.

We are very fortunate in Birmingham to have our brand new central library, which I absolutely love.   But my best memories will always be those early ones, in that lovely Victorian building that remains a library serving its community to this day.  Whether they are old or new, grand or modest, large or small, libraries are special places that we should treasure, today and every day.  I cannot imagine my life without them.

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But you seem to cope with life OK…

Since I posted on my blog about my Asperger Syndrome diagnosis, I’ve been quite overwhelmed by the support from friends, which is hugely appreciated and, I have to admit, something of a relief as you never know how people will respond to something like that.

However, I’ve also been asked various things by people.  Most of them are just curious and want to understand a bit more about it, but others have been more specific, wondering how the condition manifests itself day-to-day, especially when I “seem so normal” and appear to cope with life OK.  Those questions are hard to answer, as it is a condition that makes itself known to different degrees at different times and as I am at the high-functioning end of the spectrum it is often less extreme than what others might experience.  People’s expectations and preconceptions are largely shaped by media and fictional portrayals, which obviously focus on more severe or extreme cases – a person’s private day-to-day battle with the sometimes strange way their mind works doesn’t make for such good stories.

Nevertheless, battle is the word I would use, especially at the moment as I am still learning about the condition and have not yet had time to identify the best ways to manage and cope with it.  I’m still getting accustomed to the diagnosis to be honest and the change of perspective and mindset that entails compared to suffering with curable problems.

So how does it affect me day to day?  It varies hugely, some days it does, some days it doesn’t at all, depending on what I’ve been doing and what life throws at me (same as anyone else really).  There are all kinds of little things all the time, most of them minor and relatively quickly dealt with in the grand scheme of things and troublesome mainly because they happen so often and I just can’t seem to change or manage my reaction, but along the way there are things that are a little tougher.  I thought I’d share a couple of examples from the last two weeks.

I have been married to Sally-Jayne for eight years now, but despite our closeness and the way we have loved and supported each other through illness, career changes, loss of parents and much more, I am incredibly insecure and needy at times.  People with Aspergers often struggle to pick up on non-verbal communication and find it hard to empathise with others, and this makes relationships tough. I can’t be secure that Sally-Jayne loves me and wants to be with me just by how she acts and by the “atmosphere” in the house. I need definite reassurance of it, which is hard for her and me.  At the same time, I have a pretty much constant dread that she will leave me, either because of something I have inadvertently done – did I mention that Aspergers can make you very self-obsessed so that you don’t give full attention to other people’s issues and see everything solely in terms of its impact on you? – or because the strain of living with a husband with AS has just got too damned much.  That can come out in quite extreme ways, as it did just before Christmas.  I’d been to the gym and she was out unexpectedly when I got home. Now she assured me she had told me she was going out, but I didn’t hear or get this (oh yes, AS makes it hard to focus on and differentiate between two sounds at the same time, so if someone is talking to me while music, radio etc. is on I can’t tune into both, I have to turn off the music to have a conversation or the person has to attract my attention).  So when I found an empty house, I simply went to pieces. I spent 90 minutes crying, shaking, trying to work out what I had done to push her over the edge.  I was alternating between manically going from room to room and curling up on the floor.  After a time, my mind even started planning how I was going to cope on my own in the future.  It felt that severe, and that final.  Of course, it was no such thing, she had gone to deliver a Christmas present to a friend and returned home in due course to find her frantic, gibbering wreck of a husband.

And here’s another example.  For Christmas dinner we had booked into our local Indian restaurant, where we know the owner and staff very well.  Late on Christmas Eve, I received a text from the owner asking if we could possibly go an hour later than booked.  Now this was not, in theory, a problem. We had made no other plans for the day at all, and it really did not make a jot of difference.  Except to my Aspergers mind, where it was a huge issue.  I need structure and routine, and to know where I’m going to be and when as far as possible.  So even though the rest of the day was unplanned (or maybe because of that), somebody trying to rearrange the one fixed thing was serious.  Rather than just accepting it as most people would, I was upset, angry and confused.  It made me cry, I was shaking, it stopped me sleeping, I felt physically sick. Anyone who has wondered why I like to make definite plans and pin people down to dates and times to meet or do things might now understand – this is what can happen when a routine or arrangements are changed.

Hmm, not looking so normal now, hey?  But these extreme reactions to everyday events are a regular part of our lives – “meltdowns” is the term most people in the Aspergers/Autism community use.  While mine are much less severe than others who suffer more extreme forms of the condition, of course they have an impact, on me and on my wife.  It’s not just the reaction itself either.  Once I’ve calmed down, I have the secondary reaction.  That is where I get angry and frustrated with myself for “letting myself” get into such a state over minor things, and for putting my wife in a position where she has to look after me and talk me down.  In fact, I would honestly say that I hate myself for it, and that sometimes feels even worse than the initial response did.  There is always a part of me that feels as though me having to deal with it is one thing, as it’s my condition, but it’s unfair and unreasonable to expect other people to have to cope.

As I said at the beginning, it’s still very early days since my diagnosis.  There are experts out there who can help me and, also extremely important, help couples in our situation to deal with the impact on their relationship.  I’m very fortunate that I have an appointment this week with an adult support worker from our local support organisation (Autism West Midlands).  They can offer me help and advice in how to cope more effectively with managing the condition now I have a firm diagnosis, and hopefully in time this will moderate my reactions to things and make it easier for those around me too.  Getting to grips with some of the bigger issues that impact on my life and relationships will be a big step towards accepting the condition as a whole, and the more minor things it brings up every single day of our lives.


My intention is to write a series of blog posts outlining what it means to be diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome and my progress in dealing with it and learning to cope with it as time goes on.  This is for several reasons, firstly it helps me to write things down, secondly so that people I know will have a better understanding of me, and finally on behalf of everyone with the condition. I am fortunate, yes I have Asperger’s but my written and verbal communication skills are good, which gives me the opportunity (and, I feel, a kind of responsibility or obligation) to write about AS and related issues, with the aim of increasing understanding and acceptance of it.

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Today was a huge disappointment.

Yesterday I saw a sign in a shop proclaiming “Five Sleeps Till Christmas”.  Well, last night I nodded off twice on the sofa, then went to bed, and this morning I hit snooze twice before I got up. I make that….five sleeps. Fantastic, must be Christmas then, I thought.  But no, there was no sack of gifts awaiting me, no excessively large roast dinner, just work as normal. What a let down!

So what to make of this confusion? Counting down “sleeps” has always been what parents do to help curb kids’ excitement about Christmas.  But these days it seems to have morphed into something else entirely, something that adults use to express their enthusiasm for a forthcoming event, even in conversation with other adults.  Ladies and gentlemen, stand by for a revelation of seismic proportions – the “sleep” is not a real unit of time.  In fact we have a perfectly respectable unit to mark the passage of twenty four hours, it is called a day and has stood mankind in good stead for thousands of years.  It’s a relatively simple concept all things considered, and the word itself is even shorter than “sleep” in case anyone is struggling intellectually.

When I was in the first year of infants, we measured distances by counting out our footsteps.  Then we passed the age of 6 and started using metres and centimetres.  Is it too much to ask that people do the same with the ridiculous “sleep”? It doesn’t sound cute or quirky it just sounds daft.

And for people who use it all year round, I propose harsh measures. Anyone counting down sleeps until their wedding day should be legally barred from marrying, as they are clearly not mature enough to cope with adult responsibilities.

Please, please, please let’s keep baby talk for babies, and use normal language when talking to other people above primary school age!

A Merry Christmas to all, when it comes in four DAYS’ time.

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Today has been a very strange one.  This morning I had an appointment with a Consultant Psychiatrist, who put me through a detailed assessment before confirming my suspected Asperger Syndrome diagnosis.

My strongest feeling tonight is one of relief at finally having a diagnosis that makes sense, after years of frustrating treatment for anxiety, stress, depression and the like, making little progress with any other therapies I have tried.  As I suspected, I have a relatively mild and high-functioning form of Asperger Syndrome, which is probably why the condition went unidentified for so long, especially in my childhood.  But today’s diagnosis means I can start learning more about the condition and how to manage it, so it impacts as little and as harmlessly as possible on my life and the lives of those around me.  It also explains properly feelings, reactions and unconscious behaviour that I have been dealing with for a long time.

Why I constantly feel as though I am in a bubble, detached from the world around me, yet affected in strange and unpredictable ways by the people and events I come across.  Why I can never answer the therapists’ questions “What did you feel like before all this began?” and “How would you like to get back to feeling?”, as I cannot ever remember feeling any differently.  Why I don’t understand the way other people react to things, or why it is so different to my own responses.  Why I get obsessed with things.  Why I always want to talk about what is important to me, and interrupt people to make sure I can do that.  Why I find social situations so impenetrable, and even a casual night out with great friends can be so daunting it brings me to tears of dread.  Why I walk a constant tightrope between feeling like the most selfish and unlikeable person in the world, yet devoting so much energy, effort and heartache into trying to please other people and make them like me.  These are just some of the things that can at least partly be explained by the diagnosis.

But alongside the relief, part of me is scared, maybe more than I ever have been in my life before.  For years I have worked on the basis that somewhere, in some medication, therapy, lifestyle choice or whatever, there would be a way to “get better”, a way to stop feeling like this, and maybe just be able to respond to life the way I see people around me do, but can never quite understand.  But of course Asperger Syndrome is for life.  While there are some things that might be helped by some targeted Cognitive Behavioural Therapy sessions, most of the support I can expect will be in the form of information that will hopefully help me to understand more and cope better.  There will definitely not be any “getting better” in the way I thought there could be, and that is a daunting prospect.

So why am I writing this?  Well, partly as a way of getting things out of my head in a coherent form.  One thing I have learned from all that therapy is that writing feelings down can sometimes help!   But partly because I feel somehow that I owe it to myself, and to people that know me to varying degrees, to be perfectly honest now that the diagnosis has been confirmed.

Not for sympathy – I would not want that from anyone, nor for people to treat me any differently from how they ever have.  Just for people to know and, if I’m very lucky, to understand.  To realise why I need routines and to have everything planned out, and why I get so upset if plans get changed.  To know that if I only see the world from my point of view, and don’t always ask questions about their lives, it doesn’t mean I’m being self-centred in the normal sense of the term, or that I am not interested in my friends and family and how their lives are going.  To know that if I interrupt them to talk about something on my mind, it’s not that I don’t care about their views and am not interested in listening to them, because I promise that is not the case at all.  To appreciate that if I act like we’re best friends when we don’t know each other that well really, I’m not a stalker.  To not want to strangle me if I am needy, trying too hard or being hard work in any other way.  To understand that if I need a break from being sociable sometimes, it’s not a reflection on the company.

Most of all, just so people will know me honestly.  Leading up to the diagnosis, I have learned so much about myself from finding out about Asperger Syndrome. I feel like for the first time probably in my life, certainly my adult life, I am starting to know and understand who I am and why my brain works in a different way, and essentially I want to give other people a chance to do the same.  So now you know.

If you’d like to know more about Asperger Syndrome, feel free to ask me and I’ll try my best, alternatively a simple but detailed description can be found on the National Autistic Society website.

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Film Review – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I’m a big fan of Tolkien’s books, and fascinated by how his early life in Birmingham inspired him, but I’m equally enamoured with Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings.  So I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of Jackson’s latest visit to Middle Earth when it was released in December.  Having seen the film twice, I thought it was time for a review.

My first visit was my first experience of 3D, while my second viewing was in 2D.  Of the two, I found the 2D much more satisfying.  While the 3D was effective in the scenic panning shots, and the eagle flight scene especially, it was less rather than more immersive than 2D in the scenes with characters, especially indoors, as they looked like flat cardboard cut-outs arranged one behind the other.  I remain unconvinced that it is anything other than a gimmick and will not be repeating the 3D experiment if I can possibly avoid it.  So that’s the technology, what about the film itself?

The first comment to make, regardless of any discussion about its links to or departures from Tolkien’s source material, is that it is visually stunning, exciting and thoroughly entertaining.  Many people have said it is too long, particularly the early section prior to the company setting out on their adventure, but I disagree.  I thought the pacing was fine, and I actually loved the whole Bag End section as it established characters and themes and had plenty of humour.

One of the big challenges for Jackson in The Hobbit is that there are so many new characters to introduce from the beginning, most notably the 13 dwarves.  Perhaps understandably, he shied away from doing this completely (otherwise we’d never have left Bag End), with the result that some were developed more than others.  Obviously Thorin Oakenshield is well defined as the leader and the key figure, while Fili and Kili also have quite a lot to do.  Meanwhile, some of the others are essentially background, although perhaps they will have their chance in the remaining films of the series.  The differing costumes, hair styles and accents are clearly an attempt to establish separate identities, and this works moderately well.  I am not sure what Tolkien would have made of Ori asking “Do they have any chips?” at Rivendell however.  It’s up there with Orlando Bloom snowboarding on his shield in the list of cringeworthy Middle Earth moments for me.

Counteracting these new characters, and helping to establish a feeling of familiarity for those who might only know Middle Earth from the films, were the reprised roles from Lord of the Rings.  Lord Elrond and Lady Galadriel were played with customary dignity and charm by Hugo Weaving and the lovely Cate Blanchett respectively, while Christopher Lee again brings his unique brilliance to Saruman, his brooding nature perfectly reflecting the turn to evil that we know is coming.  The scenes involving Ian Holm as the older Bilbo and Elijah Wood as Frodo were essentially to fit this story into those already seen in LOTR, which I thought was a clever and relatively quick way of achieving this, and personally I was delighted to see these favourites back on screen again.  The main continuity with previous films, of course, is in the person of Gandalf, once again a major character as supporter, protector, advisor and general egger-on of the quest that makes up the story.  Although equally adept with a thunderbolt, a staff or a sword in the action sequences, it is Ian McKellen’s ability to deliver a telling line or withering look that make the character.  Not McKellen’s fault, as he was suffering from cancer I believe when the film was being made, but he looks very much older, which I found disconcerting in a timeless wizard, especially as these events are meant to be happening several decades before Lord of the Rings.

Personally, I was not a fan of Radegast the Brown.  While playing an important role in the story, I felt he got a little too much screen time.  Sylvester McCoy certainly brought plenty of craziness and eccentricity to the part, but less of him would have been more effective as I think the pudding was definitely over-egged.

Of the dwarves, it’s too early to say in most cases.  Richard Armitage did a great job with Thorin Oakenshield in terms of the character’s development, especially his determination, stubbornness and growing appreciation for Bilbo.    However, he did not look dwarf-like enough for me, in fact you had to keep reminding yourself he was a dwarf as he looked essentially like Viggo Mortensen and Sean Bean in their roles as men of Gondor.  Meanwhile, it looks as though Filli and Killi will be taking on the “younger hero” mantle of Orlando Bloom in this trilogy.  I can’t help but feel some of the characters’ integrity has been sacrificed for having – well, not exactly eye candy – but certainly a particular kind of tried and tested Middle Earth action hero look.

Obviously the central character of the film is Bilbo Baggins, the eponymous hobbit.  In my view, Martin Freeman’s performance as Bilbo is probably the biggest triumph of the film.  He perfectly captures Bilbo’s idiosyncracies – from his house-proud nature to his loyalty and bravery when called upon.  At the same time, the sheer Englishness of his politeness and refusal to show his anger when his house is invaded by dwarves, in fact his reserved approach throughout the film, is superb.  Considering that Tolkien based hobbits on the traditionally English village folk he knew in childhood (including himself), I think Freeman’s performance is the truest depiction we have seen on screen of what hobbits should really be like.

Last but not least, Gollum.  As always,  Andy Serkis’s scenes steal the film.  He captures the essence of the character so convincingly and it is a shame that we will probably not get to see him again (unless Jackson can somehow weave him into the plot later on).

So what of the plot and action?  The first thing to say is that it is highly inconsistent in terms of its correspondence with the book.  Essentially you have three sources – the book of “The Hobbit”, other Tolkien writings that Jackson and his team have mined to add context to events and characters and to establish this story within a wider Middle Earth context (and, a cynic might say, to make a mid-length book into a trilogy of long films!), and additions made for the film itself.  Let’s look at those in reverse order.

The major addition was that of a main antagonist orc, Azog, an interesting decision.  I guess this character (mentioned briefly in Tolkien but not involved in the action of The Hobbit) added threat and action to the early part of the quest and certainly provided for some great chase and fight sequences, but it meant the film strayed a little too far from the concept of the book for me.  It sidelined the true purpose of the quest – the dwarves trying to reclaim their kingdom – and made this film more about him hunting down Thorin.   The context material was more successful.  This was particularly the scenes in Rivendell, with the White Council talking more widely about events in Middle Earth as a whole, and relating the phenomena being witnessed in this film to those that the later (earlier) films deal with.  I look forward to more of these characters bringing to life material from other Tolkien writings, as I believe is due to happen in the remaining two films of this trilogy.

I thought that the  sequences lifted directly from Tolkien’s writing were brilliantly done – the troll scene veered between slapstick humour and action perfectly for example.  The absolute highlight was the Bilbo and Gollum section, which was pure Tolkien.  This is an iconic piece of writing, and essentially one of the most important moments of the entire Hobbit/Lord Of The Rings cycle as it represents the passing of the Ring of Power from Gollum to the hobbits, with all the consequences that has later on.  Freeman and Serkis played it superbly, with impeccable delivery and timing, and I cannot imagine it having been done better than it was.

After a rather slow start, the film has its share of action in the later sections, with Jackson and his team once again delivering very believable sequences.  Fight and battle scenes are fast-paced and I was surprised how visceral and brutal some of them were, contrasting well with the lighter moments elsewhere.  I did think the final battle scene with Azog , his orcs and wargs was a little drawn out, while the escape from the goblin city was very reminiscent of its parallel sequence of the race to the Bridge of Kazam-Dum in Fellowship Of The Ring, but these are minor criticisms.

There are certainly more comic and light moments than in Lord Of The Rings, which is very much in line with the source material.  The Hobbit was written as a children’s tale, and does have more of a light and fanciful tone in many sections than Tolkien’s later works.  It is pleasing to see that Jackson has stayed true to that distinction, even while attempting to make this story fit more comfortably into an overall context.

As always, Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth was stunning.  While I object strenuously to them claiming it as the “home of Middle Earth” (which is undoubtedly the Midlands of England where Tolkien grew up), I cannot deny that New Zealand’s scenery provides an incredible backdrop for the films.  As always, the visual effects were superb and the portrayal of imaginary creatures such as orcs, wargs and trolls was totally believable (tribute both to the effects team and the actors who played so convincingly against green screen for these scenes).  Special mention must go to the underground goblin city, which was almost exactly as I had imagined it when reading the book.  In fact, although this was an exciting and tension-filled section of the film, I was smiling throughout at the way Jackson so accurately created what I had conjured in my own head.

Finally, I have to talk about the portrayal of the dragon Smaug, which was superbly done.  During the brilliant scenes of the devastation he wreaks on men and dwarves alike, we catch only glimpses of the beast himself.  Then, right at the end of the film, we see his eye open in his lair under the mountain.  This is great suspense-building by Jackson, creating great anticipation for when we actually get to see Smaug in the second film.

All in all, I thought that “An Unexpected Journey” was excellent as a film, and good as an adaptation of Tolkien’s book.  Visually spectacular, brilliantly acted for the most part, and with some truly memorable set pieces, it stands alongside Jackson’s other Middle Earth epics as a major achievement in bringing that world onto the screen.  I hope that the remaining two films make more use of Tolkien’s extensive writing than new material to remain as true as possible to the source, but I am definitely looking forward to how the rest of this wonderful tale will be told in Parts 2 and 3 of the trilogy.

On February 24th, I will be leading the “Tolkien’s Middle Earth Tour”, which is a combined coach and walking tour exploring Tolkien’s links to Birmingham, visiting places associated with his boyhood in and around the city, and discovering how his early experiences shaped his writing.  If you’re interested in joining the tour, visit Midlands Discovery Tours.




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Wrecking Ball by Bruce Springsteen – A Review

Studiously avoiding the drip-feed online clips of the tracks in pre-release week, I had only heard the opening song before the album arrived.  Because of that, and the huge amount of positive online coverage, it was with perhaps even more than the usual “new Bruce album” anticipation that I loaded Wrecking Ball into the CD player for the first time.  After numerous listens over several days, I have to say that I am not disappointed at all; in fact it has surpassed my expectations.

There was part of me that wondered whether Bruce had another truly great album in him, but he has proved I was wrong to doubt.  Even leaving aside the novelty value and sheer excitement of a whole new collection of Springsteen songs to enjoy, I honestly think this will stand as one of his best releases, alongside Born To Run, Darkness On The Edge of Town, Tunnel of Love and The Rising, my personal highlights of his long career.  While the subject matter is bleak, reflecting the desperate economic climate in the USA and globally in recent years, the dark background has really sparked Bruce’s creativity, both musically and lyrically.  There is something distinctly fresh and free about the songs he has written to express anger, frustration, hopelessness and betrayal, and that is an achievement in itself.  There are not many artists around who can sing out a heartbreaking tale of a desperate working man, bringing a tear to the eye, and yet make you want to get up and dance around the room within the space of the same four minute song.  But that is what exactly what Bruce manages on this album.

Beginning with the wonderfully cynical “We Take Care of Our Own”, the album is superbly performed and produced from start to finish.  Musically, the thing that strikes me the most is the rhythmic feel of many of the tracks, driven by heavy, surging beats.  Alongside that are some trademark brilliant guitar lines, including wonderful solos on “This Depression” and “Jack of All Trades”.  Superbly incorporating a huge diversity of stylistic influences – gospel, Irish folk, rock, tribal chant, chain gang work song – and turning it into something so typically Springsteen yet, at the same time, so innovative, is perhaps the biggest achievement of the album.

At this early stage, it is hard for me to pick out individual favourite tracks, but I will mention several that have immediately struck a particular chord with me. “We Take Care of Our Own” is as good as anything Bruce has recorded since “The Rising” album in my opinion.  The vocal is particularly impressive, and anyone who says Americans don’t understand irony has obviously not yet heard Bruce delivering the killer title line of the song (although how many understand it will be revealed by the (mis)interpretation of the song in the months ahead).  “Jack of All Trades” is definitely a song that creeps up on you, seeming at first listen rather stately in pace, with relatively simple lyrics, but as the verses progress we move from desperate optimism, to resignation, to violent anger.  And just when you think it has been quietly effective, the instrumental coda kicks in, making the hair on the back of my neck stand up and showing off as well as anything for many years Bruce’s ability not just to write rousing songs and moving lyrics but actually to write pure superb music.  “Death To My Hometown” is an incredible piece – you would never think that tribal chanting, Irish whistle and pounding rock beats could be combined, but that is exactly what happens here, to great effect.  Bruce sings in a kind of furious growl, as he takes the already bleak outlook of his classic “My Hometown” and updates it to tell of the true impact of loss of jobs, spirit and sense of community on a town and its people.

Finally, I have to mention “Land of Hope and Dreams”.  Some people have been critical of Bruce for putting a song that has been around for over a decade on his new album, but I don’t go along with that at all for several reasons.  Firstly, it is one of my favourite Springsteen songs, and a staple of most of the shows I have seen since the Rising tour, so I have no problem at all with it being on here, especially as there has not yet been a studio version released.  Secondly, this is a reworking of the song anyway, with more gospel influence and more attack in the guitar, especially the intro.  The one thing it does retain is the saxophone part, played by the late, great Clarence Clemons.  Most of us anticipated some kind of tribute to the Big Man on the next album, but at the same time wondered what could be done to do him justice.  Ultimately, including a song that features his brilliant playing is the best tribute there could be to a man who has been an integral part of our experience of Bruce’s music for so many years.  With Bruce, it is always about light and shade.  Often that happens within a song, with despair set against hope, but with such an unrelenting dark mood running through the entire Wrecking Ball album, it needs a song with a more upbeat feel and message to it to give some balance and that is the role I feel “Land of Hope and Dreams” fulfils.

There is no doubt that the politics behind Wrecking Ball are likely to get as much attention as the music itself, if not more.  For me, that is a shame to some extent, but inevitable for any artist who uses their art to make such bold and unequivocal political statements.  From the other side of the Atlantic, I am not ideally placed to assess the message of the album, or the circumstances that gave rise to it in the USA.  Instead I take a more general approach to the political aspects, and try to draw some links with the UK experience.  Coming originally from a mining community that was devastated by closures, and seeing my late father struggle with unemployment and the challenges it brings over many years, the songs that deal with these issues are obviously the ones that hit home hardest for me.  And I believe Bruce accurately gives voice to some of the emotions involved for those affected and the people around them, for which he should be praised.  Looking more widely, it has often been said that Bruce is a champion of the working man.  In fact that has become very much a cliché, but for me it is a crucial point.  Yes, he is on the side of the downtrodden and the underdog, those who are cast aside by corporate interests, but the word “working” is the key one here.  The message I strongly get from Bruce’s music, not just on this album but over many years, is of the importance of work in terms of self-respect and personal fulfilment.  The tragedy in so many of the songs is not being at the bottom of the heap per se, it is being denied the dignity that fair, unexploited work brings people.  The characters in Bruce’s songs do not want a handout or sympathy, they want a chance to work to look after themselves and their families.  From a UK perspective, I believe this is a very valuable point in our debate on welfare reform and the culture of worklessness and wanting something for nothing that has been allowed to grow up in some sections of society.  Meanwhile, I cannot help but think the ideas behind “Land of Hope and Dreams” are equally valid in the UK as in the USA.  A more mischievous writer than I might even muse that the train carrying everyone along resonates with ideas like “all in this together” and “big society”.  After all, it would not be the first time that “man of the people” Springsteen has had his work appropriated by the political right!

While the political ideas and arguments in Wrecking Ball are fascinating and worthy of lengthy discussion, it is ultimately all about the music.  In that respect, I believe the album is a triumph.  The easy option for Bruce would be to keep churning out a few new mid-paced rock numbers every couple of years and rake in the dollars on tour.  Few would actually blame him for that in his 60s, but he has gone down a totally different road.  Fusing a diverse range of styles and influences, he has succeeded in creating an album that is both instantly recognisable as his work and yet a fresh, different sound.  That combination of familiarity and surprise is what really works for me throughout the album.  The themes may be dark, but the ultimate feeling I am left with is something else entirely.  Bruce has turned what could have been a challenging listen, considering the subject matter, into something uplifting and inspirational, truly some of his very best work.  Now roll on those summertime shows in Manchester and London…

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Jelly – My Kind of Networking Event!

For the uninitiated, “Jelly” is a networking event, that involves freelance or home workers getting together at a particular venue once a month to work, chat, socialise, network and generally spend time with other people in a similar situation, rather than working on their own as they normally do.  Why it is called Jelly I have no idea.  So that’s what it is, and I am now a regular at the monthly Birmingham Jelly.

I must begin by making it clear that I have never really been a “networking” person.  I find socialising and small talk immensely difficult, often quite intimidating, particularly with people I don’t know.  So it is the kind of situation I have tried to avoid over most of my 12 years in the freelance sector.  That was all well and good with my translation business, as I didn’t need to go out looking for new clients or building relationships, but my tour guiding business is very different.  With that, I do need to think about such things, but until just over a year ago I had not yet plucked up the courage.

One evening I ended up, by pure coincidence, becoming involved in the fringes of a meet-up of Birmingham entrepreneurs in a coffee shop and was invited to an event called Jelly by its organiser Rickie Josen.  It actually sounded like something that might be for me – informal, specifically for freelance and home workers, in an excellent coffee shop – and that, combined with Rickie’s enthusiasm persuaded me to bite the bullet.  And I am so glad I did so.  Although it was daunting the first couple of times, and still is sometimes if I am not at my best, I make a point of putting each month’s event in my diary as a definite, unless there is a very pressing reason preventing me from going.

What does Jelly mean to me?

First and foremost, a chance to have contact with people in a similar working situation.  The worst thing about being a freelance worker who works at home is the isolation.  Despite your best intentions, it is so hard to do anything about this normally, in fact I struggled for many years.  But Jelly provides a once a month social outlet – often enough to be an effective pressure valve, infrequently enough to be something to look forward to and to not take up huge chunks of your schedule.

 Do we actually do much work?

Personally, not usually, but that is kind of the point from my perspective.  Jelly is my reward for the many isolated hours in my office.  I always keep the day clear of any deadlines or complex work.  If I can do a bit of admin, catch up on some correspondence, or do a little bit on an ongoing project, then great.  If not, it bothers me not at all.  If I want to be mega-productive, I can sequester myself in my office for several hours, get my head down and do it, in fact that is how I spend many days during the month.  Jelly is the thing that balances such days out, I don’t view it as just a different venue to do the same thing as I do every other day.  It is all about the social side – interacting face to face with interesting people.  And if I consider how long we used to spend doing non-productive stuff – office politics, gossiping about colleagues, clients and suppliers, talking about what we did at the weekend or watched on TV – when I worked for a normal company years ago, what it must have added up to in a month is way, way more than a monthly Jelly.

 What kind of people go?

I must admit, when I first went to Jelly I was nervous about what kind of people it would attract, but there was no need.  Generally, if you are the kind of person who needs to and wants to attend, then you will have a lot in common with the others there!  It is a fantastic opportunity to meet and talk to intelligent, creative, down-to-earth and friendly people, to share ideas and experiences, to have a laugh and do all those things you miss out on when you work on your own.  But that’s not all, there is a genuine networking benefit, as Jelly people can share contacts and opportunities, as well as supporting and promoting each other’s businesses.  For me though, the single biggest thing I have got out of Jelly is friendship.  Although I’ve lived in Birmingham for a long time, I have never had much of a social life or circle of friends here, as I have spent most of the time living and working on my own.  But through Jelly, I feel as though I have genuinely made new friends, people who I have common interests with, who share some of the same attitudes and outlook on life, and who I enjoy seeing and chatting to not just on that day once a month, but all the time either in person or online.

In summary, this event with the funny name has enriched my working life and my social life, helped with my fragile confidence and has had a positive impact on my business.  I would recommend it to anyone who works freelance or at home, perhaps it could be useful to you too.

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The aftermath…

My submission to this week’s 100 Word Challenge at Julia’s Place.  The prompt was five random words, which are in bold in my entry.

Dad was never the same after the accident, constantly mixing up words. It was hard at first, but when he acted all offended at me correcting his report of seeing “that great aeroplane from the War, the aquamarine Spitfire” by asking if he meant “Supermarine”, I soon learned to keep quiet. So when he calls a moving staircase an “excavator” and tells me about the “sausage” someone left on his voicemail I hardly notice. Still, even I was aghast a few days ago in the supermarket, when he casually asked the young assistant to direct him to the orgasmic milk.

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