I'm not that keen on zoos in general but one afternoon I had a lot of time to kill waiting for my train. Given that the station I was due to depart from was called Bahnhof Berlin Zoologischer Garten, going to the zoo was an obvious choice. So I put my suitcase and bass guitar in left luggage and headed there.

I had been to Berlin Zoo before as a child – back when there had been a Berlin Wall and everything – but all I could remember were the tigers. Genuinely nothing else had stuck in my mind. The tigers had lived on an island but you could walk through a tunnel built through the middle of it and look out at them through thick perspex windows built into cave mouths on the island's central peak.



Arriving at the Tiger Island as an adult, it turned out this setup was still in place thirty plus years later. The tunnel was shabbier than I remembered, but the perspex windows were still there. And there, curled up next to one of them like a giant housecat, was one of the tigers. I looked through at her but she didn't stir. I wasn't going to start doing anything crass like hammering on the window, so I carried on exploring the tunnel. None of the other perspex windows had tigers by them though.

By the time I returned to the original window the tiger was awake!

Unfortunately this was because there was another tourist in front of the window so I couldn't get closer. He'd obviously tried to attract the tiger's attention. I'm sure you know the type. Rucksack, sandals, baggy khaki shorts. Exactly the kind of galoot that enraged me during The Worst Thing That has Ever Happened ten years ago. This was seven years ago and this instantiation of the backpacker had an enormous expensive looking camera (of course) with which he was snapping away at the tiger.

But even though she was now awake – and furthermore facing into the tunnel – the tiger was completely ignoring him.

She was staring at me. As I walked back and forth behind the happily snapping traveller she was craning to see around him in an almost comical manner, huge round eyes fixed on me. It made me shiver. I had her attention. Was this a good or bad thing? You know when your domestic cat has their eye on something? It was that same fixated, intent stare. Was I potential prey – or just a diversion to relieve the boredom of her confinement, the equivalent of a piece of ribbon dangled to excite a kitten?

I wanted to know more, but tourist guy was clearly not going anywhere now that he had a front seat at the tiger show. This meant I couldn't get any closer to indulge the tiger's interest. Besides, I had a train to catch. So I left.

But the memory of the experience has stayed with me. It's of some comfort to know that while I may sometimes get overlooked or ignored by my own species, I was nevertheless interesting enough to fascinate a tiger and hold her attention, at least for a short while.

I’ve talked before – both here and in other blogging arenas – about how locations and landscapes in dreams seem to be consistent from dream to dream, almost as if there is a place we go when we sleep, or if the brain retains the architecture of dreams like a computer storing the map of an imaginary place on its hard drive ready for when we next play that game. I don’t think we’re computers though, and even though people describe the latter as “electronic brains” I suspect they way they work is very different, just as different as eyes and cameras. A lot of what we see and the resolution is down to the brain interpreting visual (and I suspect other) signals to give us a picture that makes sense.

This is probably why I see cats both when there are cats there and when there are not. It makes sense for there to be cats.

But I digress.

There are a multitude of dream buildings and cities that are often there when I fall asleep – the twisted versions of childhood houses and the large oceanic version of Brighton the most distinguishing feature of which is the fact that the land to the east is flat, almost at sea level as opposed to on cliffs – but there is one place (or collection of places) in which I often find myself, especially in dreams about travelling.

It’s the dream version of the London Underground. I’ve written about it before in various places as part of larger blog entries, but I thought it was about time it had a piece of its own.

Never mind the Night Tube, this is a whole Somnambulent Network at another level of complexity all together. Everything is bigger and better but in a grimy and very nineteen seventies way. And of course this explains why everything is bigger; I first started travelling on the tube in the nineteen seventies when I was around eight years old. I was a small child. This subterranean world I started exploring had been designed and built for creatures much bigger than I was at the time. Part of this sensation of not quite fitting has carried through into these dreams.

But to me the most significant thing about this version of the tube is its permanence. There’s a lot of it. Quite often the dream takes place during a modernisation period during which deep-level “express” versions of some of the lines are under construction or already in use. I get tantalising glimpses of maps with extra lines on them – often multiple new branches of the District Line crawling all over south east London like a particularly virulent species of vine. There are also branches of the Metropolitan and Central lines way beyond the wilds of Buckinghamshire and Essex, far further flung than Amersham and Ongar could ever hope to be in real life. One of the dream Tube’s Metropolitan line termini is in mid-Wales and takes over a day to get to. The Bakerloo Line sometimes runs as far south as Haywards Heath in Sussex while the Victoria Line reaches Luxor in Egypt.

The Circle Line runs through a natural subterranean cavern at one point where if you stare out of the window hard enough you might be lucky enough to spot one of the troglodytic inhabitants of this undercity. 

In an echo of the Northern Heights scheme (long abandoned in the waking world) there’s a huge depot with  tracks that fill an entire valley before heading off eastwards from the environs of Highgate and Crouch End. There’s an orange line – possibly a reflection of the real world Overground – which travels through a dystopian police state version of East London still containing bomb sites from the Second World War.

It’s more than just the routes themselves that are special. There’s the architecture as well; a lot of it still seems to be of Edwardian construction with post-war fixtures and fittings bolted onto it much like a lot of the real network forty years ago. It’s all yellowish, smelling of burnt dust with a hunt of urine. Huge brass and glass indicator boards hang on chains from the ceiling, lit from inside by tungsten filament incandescent lamps. Ticket machines stand like sentinels, their illuminated wedge shaped faces beaming the price of 15p out in huge red type.

Getting about the stations can be hazardous. There are pedestrian walkways and escalators like nothing you’ve ever seen in the real world. They’re often too long and some of them are too narrow; occasionally you have to squeeze through an incredibly narrow passage between adjacent platforms and sometimes it’s even necessary to walk through the train tunnels to the next station for some unfathomable reason.

And then there are the escalators. Invariably of the old wooden variety (which in reality were removed from use after the Kings Cross fire of 1987), they don’t always travel in a straight line. Sometimes they descent at a very shallow angle, sometimes a steep one.  Some are helical. Some travel very fast so you have to be careful when stepping off at the end. There are often great ranks of them funnelling passengers towards odd ticket gates, complicated mechanisms distantly related to the old variety fitted with what I always called “pincer cushions” upholstered with red and black moquette. A lot of it has a deep level, Northern, Bakerloo quality and yet on the other hand some of the places on the real tube that feel most like this subterranean dreamscape are parts of the subsurface interchange at Baker Street where the Metropolitan Line peels off from the Circle in order to head off northwest; the scissor gates, the old signage the sensation that people have been walking the same corridors for over a century and a half…

As with all dreams, this account barely scratches the surface and only gives a distorted view of what’s it’s like when we’re actually there. If only I could bring a camera with me next time. It would make it easier to compare notes.

Because I am beginning to get the impression that it’s not just me that uses the network. Jung spoke of the Collective Unconscious; perhaps it has its own transit system?
--
Silhouette photo © Alexandros Plakidas on Flickr 

There is a famous quote from Douglas Adams about power and government which always resonates; especially in these unenlightened days:

"Those people who want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it... Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job."

I have been thinking about this recently. The problem I see is that – according to the above definition – most of the time anyone who tries to get made ruler is doing so in order to exploit the system for their own benefit rather than to help people.

And the problem with this is that people who try to exploit systems tend to be either criminals or the very wealthy (and frequently both at the same time). This puts people who do care at a distinct disadvantage; because in order to compete successfully under the current rules you have to lack something fundamental.

You have to lack empathy.

The wealthy – especially those born to wealth – very rarely have it. More often than not they've been raised in luxury so don't know what suffering is really.

How bad can it really be? they think when coming up with cost cutting policies that drive people to despair. No-one has ever said "no" to them so they just take. Going into politics is a gravy train.

Plus it's getting much worse these days as no-one even seems to want to hold them to account any more. Or no-one can be bothered. We are all very exhausted after all.

How can we solve this problem? Bear in mind that any remotely workable solutions would quite naturally to be blocked by those in power because they would result in them not being in power any more.

So, I don't know how it could actually be put in place, but what might help is a law that states before anyone from a privileged background can become an MP they have to spend at least a year in bootcamp living like normal people. The one rule is that if they call in favours or cheat in any way they're instantly disqualified from politics for life.

It could even be televised which would certainly bring in the revenue.

This year was my twelfth year on Twitter. It's grown from one of many experimental social media platforms back then to something everyone has heard of. Despite its now corporate nature and the way it can be constantly abused and used as a channel for bile and hatred by the cowardly and the loud, there is still something about it I find compelling.


Many of the important features that have come to define the platform (@-ing people, RTing a tweet) were first invented by early users of the system and it's partly these home-grown origins that I like ("...the street finds its own uses for things..." William Gibson, Burning Chrome) but what keeps me coming back is something else, something personal.

I can of course see where the main criticisms are coming from but I disagree with them.

"Oh it's just boring, who wants to read what someone had for breakfast every morning?"

If that's all you're seeing then you're following the wrong people. It's a big internet, somewhere out there are (a) people who do want to know what @JennyHollister had for breakfast and (b) people who are tweeting about things you do want to know. If someone's tweets aren't to your taste you don't have to follow them. It's like complaining that you hate using the library because you don't like Westerns (and they have half a shelf of them next to the historical fiction).

"It's not real and distracts people from real social interaction. Put down your phones and talk to a real person! Stop being antisocial! These people aren't your friends!"

This is the big one. The one I disagree with the most.  But I can see why some people, people who perhaps don't have trouble socialising in real life, might think this. Why stay in hunched over your phone or in front of your laptop when you could be out partying or in the pub?

Well, there are many and varied reasons. I'm going to describe mine but I am sure there will be some overlap with other people's.

I've always been prone to anxiety in crowded social situations. I've never quite known what to say or how to engage people in conversation. I have learned conversational openers to employ but it's tricky remembering so many and calculating what to say several responses ahead can be extremely mentally draining. The news that most people did this without thinking was astonishing to me.

Then there's the noise. Social situations often tend to take place in pubs or cafes. If there are more than a few conversations going on around me I find it hard to concentrate on the right one. I start getting sensory overload. It's not that the actual decibel level is higher for me - that would be silly - but I do begin to have trouble processing it all at once, my anxiety levels start ramping up and sometimes when it is particularly bad I need to go and hide somewhere and take a valium.

As a result I find these social situations, this stuff that is so much more "real",  very exhausting indeed.

I can do it of course (even if I do make a hash of it and people end up wondering why I'm sitting in a corner not saying much) but can't keep at it for as long as some people. I need to break off and spend time on my own recharging my energy.

Even if you didn't already know from other posts I've made on this blog, some of this is because I am autistic. Not all autistic people are the same of course; however this is how my particular flavour of autism affects my behaviour and why I like to spend time on my own.

This love of solitude doesn't mean that I don't get lonely. I may find traditional social gatherings difficult and draining but that doesn't mean I dislike talking to people. Put me in a one-to-one situation with a person I gel with and there's nothing I enjoy more. The problem is that in a traditionally structured life this is quite difficult to engineer on a regular basis.

This is where Twitter comes in. By their very nature the people I follow are going to be people I have some things in common with and if we've been hanging around in the same electronic social space for ages, sometimes years and years, then of course they are going to feel like friends. I've even dreamed about a few of them regularly.

I've never met them in real life but I am happy to talk to them about quite deep and occasionally personal subjects; subjects I might not be comfortable talking about in person.

However sometimes I wonder if I am sharing too much. Should I reign in my comments on Twitter and restrict myself to puns, isn't this cool posts, politics and plugging? I don't want to appear attention seeking or needy, and some people have pointed out that there's a danger that any posts I might make about, say, mental health might be seen by a potential employer and put them off.

That's a fair point, but the only problem is - where else am I going to express them? I have trouble enough with small talk in real life. Many times when I've actually psyched myself up to taking part in a social situation I've found myself without much to contribute to the discussions about the partner, the kids or the car and end up in one corner within half an hour or so due to some sort of conversational Brownian motion. This even happened once at my leaving do for a previous job...

If I had to restrict myself to that on Twitter as well, where could I express myself?

I think talking about mental health and other serious issues is good for us; attempts to keep things light and frothy are in the long run just sweeping matters under the carpet and perpetuating the stigma.

Furthermore in recent weeks I've read Twitter threads on subjects such as people's experiences with autism before and after diagnosis, suicide ideation and people pleasing behaviour. I found all of these compelling and what is more important they made me feel less alone. I'd never met the people who wrote them but I knew exactly what they were talking about as I'd experienced those feelings too. These threads made me feel better about myself and more understood. Other people had gone through this before me, survived and thrived.

If something I write about mental health on Twitter makes just one person feel less alone then it's worth it despite how many might consider it Too Much Information.

It's unlikely that anyone is really thinking this—I don't for a second imagine that there's anyone hanging on my every online word—but it may have occurred to some people that I haven't written a blog entry for a while. What has caused this gap in the torrent of words pouring forth from my brain into this arena since 2006? Laziness? Writer's Block?

It's neither (not that I don't suffer from both on a regular basis). I have actually been writing elsewhere.


Last summer I was lucky enough to have my novel Comeback accepted by a publisher called Unbound. However this didn't mean it was all over bar the editing. Unbound have an unusual business model in that they crowdfund for their production costs before a book can be published. This means that—unlike more traditional publishers in today's understandably risk averse market—they can take chances on books, which is good news for someone like me.

At this point I think it is important to clarify a couple of things. Often when I tell people about this there are two common responses, both of which are based on slight misconceptions about Unbound (which I too shared before I got involved with them and learned otherwise).

"Why do you need all that money to self publish?"

I don't need it and it's not self-publishing. The money from the crowdfund goes straight to Unbound to pay for their production costs, including proofreading, layout, cover design, distribution and so forth. If I was self publishing it's true that I wouldn't need the money—but I also wouldn't have Unbound's marketing and distribution services behind me.

"Maybe I'll use them next time."

While this is a good idea because—as I detailed above—they're more likely to take a chance on a manuscript, strictly speaking I didn't decide to use Unbound as opposed to, say, Createspace. To reiterate, this is not self-publishing and I could just as easily have been rejected by them when I submitted my manuscript!

If the campaign doesn't reach its target then I may very well self-publish—and if that eventuality comes to pass no doubt you will be hearing from me about it on a regular basis! But at the moment I am committed to the Unbound crowd-funding campaign.

To get back to the main point of this blog entry, part of the Unbound campaign involves writing updates (i.e. blog entries) on the Unbound platform to keep your supporters and other interested parties entertained (and up to date on your progress). I've been doing so on an almost weekly basis since the beginning of August 2017 and have clocked up nearly 20,000 words since then. I've written both blog entries—often loosely writing themed—and short fiction. If you're interested you can read them all here.

If you enjoy them—and indeed if you enjoy my writing in general—I do hope you'll consider backing the Unbound campaign. A successful completion is one of my goals for this year. If you've already pledged—many thanks! If you could persuade just one other person to do so at the bottom level that would be fantastic.

I now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

Following the post I made at the end of last year which discussed my reaction to having been officially diagnosed as having Autism Spectrum Condition (a.k.a. the Syndrome Previously Known as Aspergers), I've noticed that there are a few misconceptions that have made their way into received wisdom about how I must behave.

These are not true for many reasons.

For a start not everyone with ASC is going to behave in the same manner. Everyone is different no matter where they sit on the spectrum. It is perfectly possible to have ASC and be an introvert or an extrovert. Some people might exhibit certain symptoms whilst others don't.

One of the most common preconceptions that people seem to have is that I will take everything they say literally. That if they use an idiom or colloquialism I will think they actually  mean that someone has (say) eyes bigger than their stomach.

Well no, of course not. That would be silly. I have enough of a sense of the real world and what's possible in it to realise that when a nonsensical phrase like that is used it's almost certainly an idiom and - if I'm unfamiliar with it - a few seconds thought will usually enable me to work out what it means.

Sometimes these expressions can be a little opaque. For instance a very well known one is "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush". Of course I do know that this means that it's not worth risking losing something you definitely have now in order to possibly get hold of something of a greater value, but even knowing that, it's still not what the expression says to me.

For a start in my head the expression definitely is about catching birds. This is something that - I suspect in common with many people - as a child I always wanted to do. There's something about a bird's ability to fly away that comes across as a challenge to small children. I'm sure I am not the only person who spent many fruitless hours of their childhood hiding in the garden holding a string attached to a stick propping up a shoe box under which a handful of crumbs had been scattered. But I digress.

"A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush".

I quite clearly visualise the bird in the hand and the two in the bush a little way off. I can't see why the captive bird is somehow worth more than the two that still have their freedom. If anything it's the other way around. This is partly because I am seeing the expression from the birds' point of view. The birds are the only real characters in this micro story, and while you might feel sympathy for the poor bird who's been captured by the nameless hand, the two still at liberty have far more potential, far more worth, simply due to the fact that for them the sky is the limit.

Most idioms are easier to decode though. Some are really obvious. For example "The early bird gets the worm" may still be about birds in my head, but its meaning when applied to birds is directly transferrable across to human situations. Others may be less straightforward but I know what they mean on an intellectual level and they don't alarm me.

But while many people use idioms as a kind of unconscious shorthand, I can't help imagining what it would be like if they were literally true. This ties into my sense of humour. What if her eyes actually were bigger than her stomach? What if a feast for the eyes actually did involve shovelling spoonfuls of trifle between your eyelids? Once I was watching the news and a reporter said "politicians have got to stop surprising the public". I immediately imagined an MP leaping out at someone from behind a bush. Probably the same bush that had the two birds in it.

Sometimes if an imagined scenario strikes me as particularly amusing I might make a joke based on one of these what-if scenarios. Unfortunately often people won't get these jokes. Their expressions freeze for a second before they embark on a detailed explanation of the idiom in question and what was really meant by it.

Well yes, I know. But wouldn't it be funny if...?


Do you remember the pointless lies you told yourself as a child?

I do. I remember them quite clearly. They were harmless but very powerful and sometimes I almost managed to convince myself that they were true. As far as I can see they served one major purpose: to make life more interesting and more like a story. They were micro-stories.

One that clearly stuck in my mind was almost convincing myself that I'd heard a cuckoo. Of course it was really a wood pigeon, but a cuckoo was more exciting. Cuckoos belonged in fairy tales and clocks, and how much more exciting would it have been to live in a fairy tale?

Or indeed in a clock.

The important thing was not to question it. Of course there was that tiny nagging rational voice at the back of my mind whispering "Pigeon... pigeon... pigeon..." but who was interested in pigeons? Pigeons were commonplace, part of the mundane, the everyday, the here and now. Hearing a pigeon was not anything to get excited about. Hearing a cuckoo - well in my head that was halfway to Narnia.

Sometimes I was nearly successful in convincing myself that the tiny lie was true. There was another occasion that now I remember as almost real. I can see it in my mind's eye. I was about four or five and obsessed with space travel. One morning I looked out of my window and "saw" a satellite. It was a silver sphere covered with long spikes - more like a sea urchin than space hardware - moving along swiftly beneath the solid grey cloud deck that passed for the sky for most of the early 1970s in the UK. I ran downstairs and told my Dad who was standing in the kitchen in his dressing gown making tea. His response was something along the lines of an indulgent "Oh really? That must have been exciting."

The odd thing is I remember so much detail but of course it has to be made up. For one thing no satellites had orbits that took them below the clouds in London N9. No satellites were in the form of giant silver sea-urchins. And for another I can't quite shut that tiny rational voice up.

"Pigeon... pigeon... pigeon..."

I had to have been making it up but the self delusion was so strong in this instance - and has now had so long to bed in - that this imaginary incident looms as large in my memory as many of my real experiences. It is just as valid a part of my background as watching Top Cat on TV, seeing Saturn through a telescope for the first time or the sheer panic I felt when for a few seconds I was convinced that my parents had abandoned me in a department store.

Everything is much more intense as a child anyway. We have yet to learn what our expectations of the world should be and so notice everything around us, sometimes spotting things that adults overlook. To make sense of this brand new complex universe we find ourselves in, our imaginations are supercharged, the Question Machine turned up to eleven. Any books we read and television programmes or films we watch are so much a larger proportion of our experiences than they would be if we'd read or watched them as an adult that it's no wonder the real world often doesn't seem to match up to the potential of our imaginations. There was a police box at the end of our street. One day it vanished, probably removed as part of the Met's program of phasing them out in the early 1970s. I almost convinced myself it had dematerialised. It's understandable that faced with yet another example of the mundane we might try on a more outlandish explanation for size.

But eventually we become adults and the sheer quantity of our experiences in the real world starts to outstrip our supply of more fanciful imaginings. The tiny rational voice is no longer so tiny.

"Pigeon! Pigeon! Pigeon!"

And the small lies we almost managed to convince ourselves were true? They start to get recycled for more sinister purposes. If we're not careful they might start playing a part in getting us to ignore injustice, rationalise our selfishness or justify hatred. I think it's far better that we return them to their original use and every so often entertain ourselves with micro-stories of what the world might only be like if... The rational part of our brains still has a very important part to play - fighting injustice, practicing altruism and battling hatred.

Cuckoo.