Brain Dancing

Brain Dancing

The Brain Dancing Festival, a celebration of creativity in autism, is a series of creative events in Oxford, organised by the charity Autism Family Support Oxfordshire. An important part of it is the art exhibition at The North Wall which continues until the 2nd of April.

Neurodiversity can be thought of as brains dancing to different tunes, each of us with our own personal rhythm driving the pulse of our lives. It’s a celebration of the richness of difference, an acceptance of the value this adds to all our lives.

As an autistic woman myself I am committed to the goals of the neurodiversity movement, in particular the idea that everybody has something to offer, that our very differences are a source of creative potential.

So it was with a great sense of excitement that I accepted an invitation to attend the private viewing of Brain Dancing, an exhibition featuring works by artists either on the autism spectrum or having family connections to somebody autistic.

I’d never experienced a private viewing before so I had little idea what to expect. I’d seen several TV and movie scenes resembling cocktail parties that people attended to be seen but something told me reality would be somewhat different.


I arrived a little late, a result of the combination of parking the wrong side of the city and the bus services being disrupted by a traffic accident-related road closure. Walking in through the door I was greeted by the welcome sight of man bearing a tray of drinks.

I looked around; I was glad to see that my decision to dress casually fit in with the relaxed atmosphere. There were probably between 40 and 50 people there, most of whom I didn’t know, but I found myself by happy accident standing next to someone familiar, Stu Allsopp. I said hello and we chatted easily for a few minutes between the introductory talk by Gita Lobo, manager of the exhibition’s organiser, local charity Autism Family Support Oxfordshire, before a video presentation started.

After a brief fight against the technology we were treated to a short film that described the work of the charity and showed a few of the children and families being helped. It was a strong, clear message of respect and acceptance, providing support to young autistic people and their families to help them fulfill their potential.

I had realised while watching the film that I was standing directly behind my good friend, participating artist and curator of the exhibition, the wonderful Sonia Boué who had tended the invitation to me.

She told me I had missed meeting her fellow artists from Magdalen Road Studio, Katie Taylor and Kate Hammersley, who had been looking forward to seeing me; it was lovely to hear that people had been keen to meet me but disappointing that I’d not got there early enough to see them. But as compensation I did receive an invitation to the private viewing of Kate Hammersley’s upcoming exhibition at Wolfson College.

And so to the exhibition itself, a varied sampling of artistic expression demonstrating the creative influence of autism. I decided to work my way around the exhibits starting by the door where I had come in. After all, having a structure to activities is reassuring.


I began with Sonia’s works. First was the iconic handbag recalling Barcelona in a Bag above a painting titled Departure, a multi-layered and fascinatingly-textured painting: I spent some time examining it closely, becoming lost in the minute detail of its strata. I found myself wanting to touch it and experience the different textures more directly.


As I moved on through her pieces I felt drawn into a narrative: the sense of depth and history left behind in Departure, through exodus and exile–destierro–via internment and subsistence living to a new beginning and new life in a new land.

Next were a selection of beautifully observed landscapes by Rosalyn Goh. I was especially attracted to one featuring a river flowing between tree-lined banks, the sun glittering off the disturbed water as it rounded a bend.


She captures the essence of the water so well. There is something exquisitely tranquil about her paintings. They capture scenes that you can imagine yourself in, encountering such perfect moments during a walk through the countryside.


The third artist, Janet Millikin, showed works in two very different styles: bold, abstract works alongside intricate geometrical drawings reminiscent of technical drawings. Looking closely at the abstract pieces it was apparent that the inked intricacy was common throughout.


I found myself staring long at the picture above, enjoying the way that the shapes and colours inspired dragons and other fantastic beasts, emerging like cloud-beasts. There’s an intriguing contradiction between harmony and aggression; a softness with hard, sharp edges.


Continuing on my circuit of the room I next came to a set of photographic prints on canvas by Richard Maguire whose work I had encountered before online. He has a great eye for composition as well as a sympathy for his subjects that brings out unexpected impressions.

I am particularly drawn to water and the play of light in reflection and refraction; two of his photographs featured scenes with water and I was captivated by my exploration of the elemental nature of the scenes.

The next course in my feast was Tom Eyre and a varied set of works including an ocular pumpkin in a simple style of embellished line drawing, a sculpted wolf mask that evoked friendly play rather than ferocity, and an abstract swirl of colour.

It was this last painting that I felt the strongest reaction to. It could have been a Dante-inspired scene of souls carried within a storm of fire, or the noise, heat and raw emotion at the heart of battle: I sensed powerful turmoil in its chaos.


Finally I came to two display cases containing jewelry crafted by Joanne Turner. I’m drawn magpie-like to anything shiny and these pieces were a delight. The delicate patterning of the surfaces of the links in her chains reflected from the spotlights as I moved my head, almost hypnotic.


There was an organic feel to the various works, accentuated by the slate plinths and occasional simple wooden blocks. Deceptively simple in form, they held a depth of character in their surface textures; rather than being polished to a mirror finish they revealed subtle patterns hammered lightly into the metal.



Overall it was a wonderful evening. Between the pleasure of meeting friends again, the stimulating conversation and my enjoyment of the artworks on show it was a most successful viewing, and I cannot thank Gita and the other organisers enough. I highly recommend this exhibition, and would urge you to visit the charity’s website (link at the top of this blog) to find out all about the work they do.

The Legacy of Empire

The Legacy of Empire

One hundred years ago, on Easter Monday, thousands of ordinary people rose up against the powers that had occupied their country for generations. The uprising was defeated within a week, opposed by overwhelming force.

Nearly three hundred civilians were left dead by the bombs and bullets of the Empire, and many of the rebel leaders were quickly convicted of treason and executed. Against the backdrop of global conflict this could easily have been just a footnote in history.

It wasn’t the first uprising, and it wouldn’t be the last. But the violence of the response, the lack of discrimination with which thousands–many of whom had no involvement–were taken prisoner and interned fostered growing resentment of the occupation and support for the rebel cause and its armed opposition to British rule.

The Easter Rising of 1916 was the turbulent birth of the modern Irish Republic. It saw the issuing of the Proclamation of the Republic, claiming independence from the United Kingdom, and the banner under which they fought was the tricolour that is today the flag of the Republic.

Unlike America’s Fourth of July, the Irish Easter Rising is rarely mentioned in mainland Britain. Irish independence was to take many more years to achieve, and even then the six counties of Northern Ireland were excluded, remaining under British rule: the country was partitioned.

The fallout from this continued to fuel conflict for decades, leading to the Troubles and the equation in mainland Britain of Republicanism with terrorism. However, the Good Friday agreement of 1998 signalled the willingness of most of the parties involved to end the armed conflict and pursue their aims by peaceful means.

That is not to forget all those who died on both sides of the fighting; rather it is to honour them by constructive actions, building a better future for all of us. Forgiveness and reconciliation are the way to achieve this, not the bitterness of resentment and blame.

In many ways for people in the UK, Ireland is our closest neighbour. We share a common language, and many Irish live and work in the UK. Because of this and the status of Northern Ireland as part of the UK, many mainland British hardly think of the Republic of Ireland as a distinct country. But of course that is exactly what it is.

It’s time the UK acknowledged the Easter Rising of 1916 in the same way we acknowledge the Fourth of July for Americans: as the moment when a nation threw off the shackles of Empire and took its first steps towards self-determination and independence. Surely that is something all people deserve the right to, and something to celebrate.

I’d like to thank Tric Kearney for her post Tomorrow we rightly celebrate as the inspiration for this.



She took her leave in dead of night
And silently slipped out the door,
Then by the silver full moon’s light
Retraced the path she took before.

The trees reached up so black and bare,
Frost crackled, glistened under foot.
From bloodless lips the misty air
Of breath hung still and dark as soot.

Deep in her eyes red sparks of light
Burned bright as embers in the ice
That formed her face. Her dreadful sight
Would still one’s heart, exact her price

From those who caught a fleeting glance
Beneath the veil she wore by day
While through the mortal world she’d dance
To watch unseen our artless play.

Raven-clad in cloak of sable
She craves the blood that brings relief.
Nightmare from an ancient fable
Long lost to memory and belief.

The Ennui of Pointless Exchanges

The Ennui of Pointless Exchanges

So much time alone
Discourse a forgotten art
Even with myself.

Social relations
A memory on a wall
Posted on Facebook.

I think about Death
And the high cost of living
Balancing my books.

Monotonous trap
Even pain is no relief
Routine no solace.

Chocolate fixes
Addict’s way of marking time
Needle track stretch marks.

Life is but a joke
Reasons to get excited
Like thieves in the night.

Slowly fade away
Melt into billowing swirls
Of media dreams.

Saying It Doesn’t Make It So

Saying It Doesn’t Make It So

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

There’s an article that I’m seeing a lot on my timeline just lately titled All white people are inherently white supremacists. Now, I have a knee-jerk reaction to generalization in all forms which is to assume that there are holes in the argument.

In this case, what stands out first and foremost is that it is the old “all men are inherently rapists” trope, recast in terms of race.

But there’s a little twist in this article: the author tells us that when they say supremacist they don’t mean quite what the dictionary tells you the word means, what everybody who hasn’t read the article would assume it means.

No, in this article a supremacist is not someone who advocates for the superiority of a particular group; it is someone who benefits from the advantaged status of that group. In my book (despite the denial of the author) they are talking about privilege.

Sorry, but you don’t get to redefine such a loaded word just because it suits your desire for an attention-grabbing headline. There are already words and phrases in existence that carry the meaning you want, unless you just intend to provoke and incite a reaction.

It’s disingenuous of the author: the redefinition of the word is calculated to undermine the position of anybody asserting that they are not a white supremacist. And because it’s about race, that touchiest of subjects, especially in the US, people are reluctant to call “bullshit” lest they incur the righteous wrath of those who take it all at face value.

The essence of this piece is to imply that all white people are the same: at heart they are indistinguishable from the shaven-headed neo-Nazis and KKK members who proclaim the primacy of the “white race”. I call bullshit.

There’s a particular statement in the article, “All white people […] won’t challenge and disagree with genocide, police brutality, the prison industrial complex, gentrification, the hypersexualization of young Black girls, the criminalization of young Black boys.”

That’s simply not true. In fact I find it hard to credit that more than a handful of white people would agree with those things. But according to the author all white people “are inherently racist” and by implication support the oppression and subjugation of other races.

I must admit I’ve been surprised by the support shown for this deeply flawed article with its sweeping generalizations and unsupported, easily refutable claims. It’s the same sort of polemic as Trump’s attacks on Mexican immigrants in that it caters to the prejudices and insecurities of a particular audience.

But here’s the thing: just because the author believes in what they wrote, just because there are published words on a page does not make it true. I know what a supremacist is, and claiming it means something else just doesn’t hold water. If you want to play games with language, you’ve got to do a damn sight better than that.

Mother’s Love

Mother’s Love

Today is Mothering Sunday in the UK, Mothers’ Day. I was always very close to my mother and it was heart-breaking when she died six years ago. It’s still heart-breaking.

One of the few photos I have of my mother, Maureen, seen here with my daughter.

There’s so much I never got chance to tell her. She never got the chance to know me as Alexandra; I regret that she died before she could see me as her daughter. But my regrets are minor compared to my memories of the many happy times I spent with her. Going out for meals, shopping, cooking together, or just sitting doing a crossword.

If I have one wish it would be to live up to the example she set. She demonstrated every day such kindness and love, and I would not be the person I am today without her guidance and influence.

Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her, remembering her with a degree of affection that brings a tear to my eye. I miss her terribly, but I console myself with the thought that she lives on in me, in my memories and in my heart.

Looking Beyond The Binary

Looking Beyond The Binary

Like the overwhelming majority of people I was immersed from my earliest days in a world divided into two. It is so pervasive that it doesn’t seem at all strange; most people never have cause to even think about it.

In the blue corner we have everything male. Boys, men, anything electronic or mechanical, big or loud. Football. Beer.

And in the pink corner we have the supposed polar opposite, female. Soft, delicate, dainty, quiet. Embroidered cushions and flowers. Ballet. Prosecco.

Take a moment to think about how much of the world is seen in terms of masculine or feminine. It’s even ingrained in many languages such as Spanish, French, German, Russian.

Who do you see when you imagine people in various jobs? Flight attendant, nurse, engineer, bricklayer, plumber, mechanic, secretary, truck driver. Are the examples you think of primarily male or female?

How about when you see a person at the mall or in the street? Do you find yourself automatically thinking of them as she or he? Making an unconscious decision about their gender simply based on a quick glance, a fleeting impression?

It’s so deeply ingrained in our culture and society that it’s hard not to. And when somebody doesn’t seem to fit into either category we can find ourselves wondering, “Are they…?” Does that make you uncomfortable? How would you address them?

Good news: there’s a solution. It’s not easy because you have to make an effort and learn to see things differently. But you can teach yourself to look at people without the need to put them in a box labeled M or F.

Go on, try it. Watch the TV, scroll through Facebook, whatever, and deliberately keep an open mind about the gender of everyone you see there. Avoid “he” and “she” in your thoughts; use the neutral “they” by default.

After a while you find that it becomes easier, the conscious effort becomes an unconscious reflex. And you discover something unexpected: you still see aspects that suggest male or female, but your overall impression is a blend of the two. You see both simultaneously!

And it strikes you that the whole dyadic division is an illusion, a pernicious lie.

Ordinary Lives

Ordinary Lives

Each life begins
In its own place and time.
Distinct. Separate.
A single unique thread
Woven by the Fates
Into the skein
of Life.

Some are short;
Some are long.
Some run straight;
Some loop and twist.
Some stand apart;
Some gather others,

In the end
Each is cut off, ended.
But still a part
Of the one pattern
Into which we all
Find ourselves

Take even one
And a hole remains.
Its memory impressed
On those it touched.
All so different;
All so similar;

And exceptional.

Description, Not Prescription

Description, Not Prescription

If the past indicative did not exist, then somebody would have to invent it.

I remember being taught English grammar at school (rather appropriately it was a grammar school). Indeed I received a double dose since I also studied Latin: all those hours spent declining nouns and conjugating verbs. “Amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant.” Thirty years later and I still remember it.

The number of hours spent learning this huge, unwieldy set of rules that prescribe how to construct sentences was huge, but, certainly at that time, it was believed to be a necessary foundation for the study and academic use of my native language.

However, one small but important fact was omitted: English, like virtually every other spoken language, came into being long before these grammatical rules. I had to deduce for myself that grammar is nothing more than a model, a simplification that attempts to describe the structure of language.

In that respect it is analogous to physical models such as Newton’s Laws of Motion. Those famous statements, at one time seen as perfect representations of the natural world, are now understood to simply be approximations. Very good approximations in the realm of everyday speeds, masses and distances, but increasingly inaccurate as you push their limits.

Nobody with more than a basic understanding of physics these days expects the world to conform to the old Newtonian laws, and yet the equally artificial rules of grammar are often seen as sacrosanct, beyond criticism. To casually break one of those rules is to face opprobrium and censure.

Like the mathematical relationships used to approximate and model the physical world, grammar does have important uses: it is not possible to analyze and describe the structure of language–its syntax–without it. But that is all it is: a specialized vocabulary of a particular domain of study. Language exists and will continue to exist (and evolve) without an awareness of a system of rules.

That is why I take issue with those who slavishly follow the rules of grammar, upbraiding those who transgress. Many criticisms of “bad” or “incorrect” grammar are fair. Missing a preposition changes the meaning of a sentence: “She ate her family” tells you something completely different from “She ate with her family”. Other lapses are less detrimental to comprehension: “He eat an apple” versus “He eats an apple” still conveys the message.

Other commonly quoted rules either have many exceptions, or simply do not apply to colloquial English. Some constructions like the infamous “split infinitive” of Star Trek‘s “to boldly go” are in common use: I slipped one into a sentence earlier and I wonder how many readers even noticed it?

My preference is to always try to find a construction that feels natural, that mirrors the way I speak. I’m reminded of a phrase commonly attributed (in various forms though without evidence) to Winston Churchill, “This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.” It’s a great illustration of the contortions necessary to satisfy an arbitrary rule of grammar (don’t end a sentence with a preposition) that has no place in a description of English syntax.

Because that’s the point: grammar rules are descriptive. For all that a complete record of them would (and does) fill many volumes, it remains an indispitable fact that the language was there first and grammar is something invented as a tool to model it. The English language in particular is immensely flexible, liquid in its ability to assume different forms. Its complexity and fluid nature defy complete documentation.