I didn’t like high school much. Sometimes at lunchtime I would sit in a classroom and eat or in most weathers I would go out for a walk. If I was really going for it, I would end up nearly at the Castle, sitting by where the old pool was, watching waves. I wrote poems then and a lot of them seemed to involve waves, usually free verse even though Robert Frost likened it to playing tennis with the net down.Very often I would end up at the Prom, ten minutes or so from school, and I would sit on my favourite bench. It’s just around from the second gate with views across the bay to Traprain, North Berwick Law, the Bass and the May. In all weather it is a beautiful, lovely spot and even when I go to Dunbar today, I like to spend a few minutes there. I was up there just now. I’m now sitting writing this on the beach, looking back up towards the Prom. Bird calls chattering back and forth, waves, not much man made noise at all on this warm July evening.I’ve been on the Prom too many times to count. Sometimes I’ve run on it, other times walked, sometimes with the wind at my back, actually a lot of times with the wind at my back, with some visits thoughtful and others joyful. I’ve been there on bright sunny days like this and cold, clear, dark winter nights too, the way shown by a torch. I never feel lonely there, however I feel elsewhere. There I feel connected to the wider world, not so much cities but passing ships, birds and places on the horizon, to memories, hopes and dreams. A lot of what I write about is connections and it all comes from here, this place, and wherever I live, that won’t ever change.
That’s the end of May then. Another busy month and a whole lot of adventures. In May I’ve been to Aberdeen, Edinburgh, East Lothian twice and all the way to Crookston. A lot of travels have been football-related though some haven’t, not least the first adventure I had in May neatly packed into a lunchtime. I was in Glenburn, a suburb of Paisley, and over lunch I ended up going for a walk a little way into the Gleniffer Braes, sitting down on a bench with a considerable view across Paisley to the hills beyond. It was a new perspective on a place I am becoming increasingly familiar with.
On Saturday 5th May I went to Aberdeen to watch Hibs. I left fairly early in the day and read and listened to music on the way up. I went to the football then took myself out to dinner before going home. I was thinking about the Bank Holiday Monday which was coming and ended up buying Ordnance Survey maps for two very disparate bits of Scotland, the area around Hawick in the Borders and Elgin in Moray, before I boarded that bus to civilisation. As it turns out I didn’t get to either one.
The following day was lovely and warm and I had a lie in. After all I had been all the way to Aberdeen the previous day. Mid-afternoon I went out to Crookston Castle, intending on writing about it for Loose Ends, a series featured on this blog on Sundays at the moment. The place was fairly busy with people though that didn’t stop me enjoying the views across this bit of the world. Crookston Castle is within half an hour’s walk so I did just that. On the way back I finally made it to Rosshall Gardens where I wrote up notes and pondered a ruined boiler house in the grounds. I still need to write that bit of the adventure up.
The next day was Bank Holiday Monday and after much deliberation I ended up on the way to Edinburgh. I wanted to do a dry run for visiting Tynecastle that Wednesday so I proceeded in lovely sunshine into deepest darkest Gorgie, found where the away end is then swiftly came away again with no fixed agenda. I found myself at the bus station thinking about where to go and I just missed a bus to St. Andrews. There was a bus sitting bound for East Lothian and I thought briefly about Hailes Castle before eventually concluding I quite fancied a trip to Dunbar. On the way down I felt like going to Lamer Island, the Battery, which has featured here before and that was where I ended up after a turn around the harbour. I managed to find a connection to Crookston Castle and thus my visit also became part of the Loose Ends series. Alas time and train timetables meant I didn’t have long before I needed to head back to Glasgow.
No wonder I’m tired. The following night I went out for dinner. On the way we looked at some of the very fine street art which is scattered around the Merchant City.
Next night was the derby at Tynecastle, another item off my 30 Before 30 list.
That Sunday was the last game of the season and it was at Easter Road. I don’t have any end of the season traditions and when I left the ground, leaving through exit number 7 as always, I decided to go get fish and chips by the sea. That became North Berwick and after walking to a shop to get provisions, it became a walk around Aberlady Bay first. Aberlady Bay, for those who don’t know it, is a nature reserve with a long, deserted beach at the end of it. But first I had to cross Tranter’s Bridge, a wooden bridge across a burn named after the author Nigel Tranter who often walked there trying to think up ideas. The bridge, which I knew about but Google Maps didnae, features in Loose Ends soon too. The walk was beautiful but very warm. I ended up on the beach and to my slight surprise I ended up sunbathing for a bit. I don’t sunbathe. I think the sand that was still stuck to my body hours later when I got home is probably why. After that interlude I walked to Gullane then got myself to North Berwick for fish and chips, which were no’ bad, eaten by the harbour.
That Tuesday I was doing a work thing in Renfrew Town Hall, recently refurbished, and it is a fabulous building.
The next Friday I ended up in Edinburgh and went for a long walk along the Water of Leith from Leith to Murrayfield, ending up there on the bus home. Particular highlights of this walk were St. Bernard’s Well which was gorgeous in that light and the grounds of the two Modern Art Galleries in the Dean Village.
That Sunday I went to watch Partick Thistle play Livingston. Thistle got relegated.
I walked home from work the next Friday and walking over by Arkleston, there was a brief moment by the motorway when I could be fooled into thinking I was in the proper countryside.
The next day was Saturday and I was off. I went to Culross, via Dunfermline where I partook in some steak bridies for lunch. I was a bit too late for the Palace but I wasn’t heartbroken since I was able to wander in the sunshine, sitting and reading for a bit and looking at the many fine buildings. I went to Culross Abbey all too briefly and the Abbey ruins were great to explore on that beautiful day.
The next day I spent the day with my dad, bopping around central Scotland, starting in Linlithgow with a turn around the loch. We then drove the few miles to Cairnpapple Hill. From the cool but pleasant weather in Linlithgow, Cairnpapple was shrouded in haar. This made the experience all the more beguiling, other-worldly as we made our way round the henge with visibility only a few feet in front of our faces. Barely five minutes away in Torphichen, it was much clearer and sunny. We had lunch in Callander Park in Falkirk, looking over a duck pond. It was good to see the museum and park busy with people. Thereafter we drove across the Forth to Castle Campbell, one of the more atmospheric Scottish castles, with a walk through Dollar Glen an added bonus. Dollar Glen feels like something out of a fairy tale, or where trolls, goblins and nymphs should live. Castle Campbell is great, a blend of ruins and a fairly intact though restored tower house. Before dining in Linlithgow, we headed back to Cairnpapple Hill where it was now sunny and decent views could be had despite the haze. We first had to contend with some cows. A family were already there, reluctant to venture across the field. To slightly misquote We’re Going On A Bear Hunt, we couldn’t go over them, we couldn’t go under them: we had to go through them. We succeeded and the perspective was well worth the close encounters of the bovine kind.
Monday was a bank holiday and I decided to satisfy an ambition and another thing on my 30 Before 30 list to boot. I decided to walk the route of the Glasgow Subway. On the hottest day of the year. I succeeded in 4 hours and 8 minutes from leaving Govan to getting back there. Tales of that adventure will appear here shortly. Afterwards I had a fleeting visit to Glasgow Cathedral, which will be part of the Loose Ends series after Culross.
That’s us for May then. On Friday it is Streets of Glasgow time and it is the final post of that series before hiatus, Addison Road. Loose Ends returns on Sunday and it is Lamer Island this time.
Before I forget, the Wednesday’s Child blog featured an interesting post recently about what constitutes being well-read. I said I would share a list of some books that have been important to me and these appear below. At some point I will go into greater depth as to why I like these particular books:
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark
The collected works of Roald Dahl
The collected works of Douglas Adams
The Harry Potter series
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
Candide by Voltaire
The collected works of Kurt Vonnegut
The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins
Nasty Women, the feminist anthology compiled by 404 Ink
Godless Morality and Looking in the Distance by Richard Holloway
Findings by Kathleen Jamie
The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd
Waterlog by Roger Deakin
Neurotribes by Steve Silberman
Tony Benn’s diaries
My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir
The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida
Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon
Walking Talking takes a week off next week. That’s for practical reasons. As some of you might know, I’m doing an Open University degree and the exam for my current module is next week. I’ll have to revise. Exams aren’t good. I don’t see the point in them but that’s easy to say when I’m staring down the face of one.
The Easter Road West blog, my football outpost, goes to one post a week over the summer. The football’s finished! I know there’s the World Cup but I couldn’t care less about that. Anyway, May posts might have a limited shelf-life as I was writing about then-current events. The best post over there was the season review.
Thanks as ever to all readers, commenters and followers. It is one of the nicest bits of blogging that sometimes lengthy digressions can occur because of comments or seeing just which random has liked a post today. Cheers, folks.
Posts in May –
The footballer James Milner has a reputation for being rather drab and dull. Indeed there is a spoof Twitter account called Boring James Milner which covers that ground. Milner has taken that in good spirits and often Tweets playing up to that image. One recent example featured Milner and a referee tying their shoelaces during a match with the legend ‘Double knot races are never boring! #roundthebunnyear #hooploopandswoop’. This interested me because that is just how I was taught to tie my shoelaces. I’m autistic and my motor skills aren’t brilliant. I learned to tie my shoelaces when I was fairly old, still at primary school, with the help of a book. The bunny loop method was how I learned and to this very day my shoelaces are uniformly loopy, much like myself.
I am famously clumsy. It is, I’m told, genetic but I tend to take it to the nth degree. It takes me a few gos with elastic bands and I tend to drop books on a regular basis. That’s an occupational hazard. I pick them up again, though, just about every time. That’s before I go into the adventures I have with pastry. Going to the football can be fun too including the time at Ross County when I fell into the aisle when Hibs scored and when I sat down at Kilmarnock only to cowp hot Vimto over my hand. It’s all about the motor skills. Plus I bump into people with considerable frequency. As a person who doesn’t really like touching other people, trust me, it isn’t deliberate. I walk through busy places thinking a few steps ahead, finding gaps, actively trying to avoid other people. Sometimes that goes awry. Other people just go everywhere.
Some shoelaces can be better than others. I normally wear Skechers, currently one of three pairs – a tweedy colour, a brown pair and another which is blue – and Skechers’ laces tend to be quite thin and need re-tied quite frequently. Coupled with my fumbly fingers, that tends to make life interesting too. But I haven’t yet had to rely on slip-on shoes or worse going barefoot. Bunny ears still win. James Milner says so and he might win the Champions League on Saturday.
From Aberdour there were a whole load of places I could have gone. I strongly considered Glasgow Cathedral, not only because I live in Glasgow and can reach the Cathedral in well under an hour from the house, though I decided I would try and get back there and decided on another place used as a setting in Outlander, Linlithgow Palace. It helped that I was overdue a visit and each time I passed on the train, I thought ‘I should go’. One Friday recently I did just that, rocking up there on a pleasant spring afternoon. As I walked up the hill, I gazed towards the gatehouse with the crests of four orders held by James V, the Order of the Thistle a possible connection with the High Kirk of St. Giles in Edinburgh. I walked around the side of the Palace. Every time I go, I always see something new. This time it was the buttresses on the eastern side of the Palace for I hadn’t ever walked under them before. That was swiftly remedied and I appreciated the new angle of the Palace from underneath. I also paid close attention to the angles and details of the exterior as I walked.
I headed on in and then downstairs first. I usually do each level of the Palace in turn, picking a corner and circling around. This time I fancied going down first, soon ending up in the kitchen downstairs, a possible link to the similarly big court kitchen at Dirleton Castle. I walked upstairs and around the Palace, stopping to eat my sandwich in the Great Hall, albeit in one of the big windows rather than at a banquet table set for the great and good. The bit of wind gave me an unusual sense of vertigo as I climbed the tallest tower, looking right out over West Lothian towards Falkirk on one side and the Forth Bridges on another.
Linlithgow and I have many personal connections too. I went there for camp when I was at primary school, once orienteering around the Peel in the snow and ice. I’ve been there with family and friends. I remember one time being there and my companion complaining of the many, many stairs. I wasn’t too sympathetic, as I recall. I’ve often said that Linlithgow is like Dunbar but with better train links. Linlithgow High Street has a few independent shops but less than Dunbar, the local bakers now shut too sadly.
Despite the connections to Dunbar, Dirleton, Edinburgh and the Forth Bridges, I decided to go next to Stirling, handily reachable in under an hour so I could do two that day. Mary, Queen of Scots was born in Linlithgow. I thought her father, James V, was born in Stirling, though I’ve since discovered he was born in Linlithgow Palace too. No matter, for Mary was crowned in Stirling, as was her father who also developed the Castle. It was Stirling for the next trip, which follows here in two weeks time.
This is the second post in the Loose Ends series here on Walking Talking. The first was Aberdour Castle and the third Stirling Castle, which appears here in two weeks time.
Next Sunday there will be a Streets of Glasgow post which is Waterloo Street.
I sometimes go through fits and starts when I don’t write a lot. Also, there can be times when there’s a lot of things that I should post about but I can’t be bothered posting a whole bunch. Both of these are happening at the moment. So, our agenda tonight consists of three items: Rebel, World Autism Awareness Week and some thoughts about stars. I’ll start with Rebel. Rebel is a Scottish Book Trust writing initiative for this year’s Book Week Scotland, which will take place in November. As regular readers of this blog may remember, I had a piece published in last year’s Book Week Scotland anthology, on the subject of ‘Nourish’ featuring a steak bridie and a seagull. Rebel is this year’s competition. It opened on Wednesday and closes at midnight on 6th June. Pieces can be in pretty much any form you like and in any of Scotland’s languages, as long as they are 1,000 words or less and it is also true. Entrants have to be Scottish residents, though, and unpublished. For more details, please see the Scottish Book Trust website. SBT are nice people and so please do support them. A piece I’ve written, which is called ‘Rebel’ and is about not having seen any popular TV programme or film you care to name, is on the SBT website too. I wrote it in January and I still haven’t seen Game of Thrones.
Second thing is World Autism Awareness Week, which is this week. World Autism Awareness Day is this coming Monday, Easter Monday. I don’t have anything new to post about autism this week, though many, many others will have written about autism and Asperger’s this week and you should check them out. If you are a fellow WordPress blogger, just search ‘autism’ in your WordPress reader or Feedly. Wherever you read online, you should find something good. Autism is a blessing and a curse at times. World Autism Awareness Week will make more people aware of autism and that certainly isn’t a bad thing.
Normal service will be resumed on Sunday with a Streets of Glasgow post, this time Trongate. The March digest will follow next week. Easter Road West will have a new post tomorrow morning, which is about sticker books and The Pink. Last week’s was about goalkeepers. I will leave you with a few words about stars.
One of the things that I miss about living in Dunbar is the fact I don’t see stars. I live in Glasgow and there’s too many street lights most of the time to be able to see much of anything in the night sky beyond the moon and plane tail lights. The other night I was coming home from a day in the east. I was walking from the station along the street to my house when I happened to look up. It had been a mostly bright, only marginally cloudy day and the sky was clear and dark. Except I could really, genuinely see stars. Only one or two, not whole constellations, but I could see stars in the big city. I couldn’t help smiling, reminded as ever of those things bigger than ourselves and the world humanity has built, atoms, molecules, protons, worlds beyond our ken. Even in the big city, there’s always a world beyond.
If I am running a little late in the morning on the way to work, I usually have to walk a wee bit further to get a bus, to the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, to be precise, about a mile from the house. The QEUH is served by a lot of buses, with no fewer than four bus stops outside the main entrance of the hospital where it is possible to get a bus across most of the west of Scotland. On each of the bus stops is a map, produced by SPT and NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, which shows where the buses all go. It is sort-of like a circuit diagram, vaguely paying attention to geography but more focused on clarity and concision, much like the London Underground map. Now and then I look at it and trace out bus routes I have covered in the city, usually realising I’ve been to most of them over the last few years. I still harbour the notion of going on the 90 or the 3 around the city but I would probably have to pack enough provisions for an assault on Everest.
I like maps, particularly schematics like the bus or Tube maps. I get lost in them for a while, planning future adventures and reliving old ones. Very often working out ideas is as good as the actual experience itself.
I was looking at the Edinburgh bus map earlier and it has become significantly more complicated in recent years with Lothian taking over lots of new routes plus the addition of the trams. It is an absolute mess. Strangely it is actually easier to navigate the capital’s public transport network in person than figuring it out with the map, even with Leith Street being shut and the roadworks at Haymarket. Edinburgh is a wonderful city but it is an absolute nightmare if you desire a simple life.
The London Underground map is rightly a design classic and Transport for London have capitalised on that, putting it on duvets, wrapping paper and notebooks, amongst many other things. I sincerely hope there isn’t London Underground map underwear or condoms or something. (Having just looked up the London Transport Museum shop online, they actually do sell London Underground map-themed boxer shorts, for the mildly reasonable sum of £8.99. They don’t sell condoms, yet.) Anyway, I don’t visit London that often but when I do, I usually use the Tube to get around, not least because it is supremely logical and the stations often have a lot of character architecturally. Looking at the map just now, I seem to have been on quite a few of the Underground’s various lines, including the Northern line when I made a special pilgrimage to Mornington Crescent. I wrote about that a wee while ago here. I don’t think I’ll ever get round them all but it’s nice thinking about it all the same.
A schematic map doesn’t need to be strictly accurate, as long as it makes sense. The whole process of planning an adventure, particularly the best adventure, involves a bit of order but a whole lot of not being exact and just plain winging it. When I want to plan an adventure, I invariably have to be somewhere else but the planning is always worth it, even if I won’t actually get to set sail in the other direction that day, that month or even that year. One day it will happen, even if it is just in my mind as I gaze across the map.
It was reported in The Herald recently that the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) are considering stopping handwritten exams in secondary schools over the next decade. SQA chief executive, Dr Janet Brown, was quoted as saying that some subjects will ‘always need’ paper exams but electronic examinations would simply reflect societal change. The teaching union, the EIS, said handwriting is still important while the Scottish Parent Teacher Council said much the same. The article, which appeared on the front page of The Herald on 8th December 2017, mentioned a SQA report from 2014, where many Higher English exam scripts were ‘near-illegible’. Making people write at speed for three hours at a time tends to do that, leaving aside anything else. For OU courses, I write exam scripts in block capitals, to give the examiners a chance.
I don’t like exams anyway, either doing them or as a part of the education system, but I think this would be progress. The fact is that very few people handwrite anything any more. Typing is faster for many people, either on a screen or a keyboard. Our thoughts go at typing speed rather than writing speed now. A comment that the Scottish Parent Teacher Council made in the article was interesting, though, about how touch typing used to be taught and ‘would be invaluable to many’. I have to differ with that. When I was at high school, I was taught touch typing and I couldn’t do it. I had to leave the class as I was getting so frustrated. To this day, I still can’t do it. I am not well-coordinated and even though I can type very fast with multiple fingers and without looking at the screen, it is hardly the way that Mavis Beacon intended me to type.
While I am typing this post, I am referring to handwritten notes I made. I write a lot and it tends to be split between stories and notes on paper and articles, essays and blog posts on my computer. With some pieces, I handwrite the first draft then type it and redraft from there, variously scribbling on a printed copy and then working from there. My handwriting isn’t brilliant. It can be spidery and illegible to some but that’s not always a bad thing. I sometimes refer to it as encryption. It remains remarkably consistent wherever I write, from buses to trains to actually sitting at a table. I’ve spent years writing leaning on a clipboard or a folder so it’s fine.
I think handwriting is actually important. It is a skill thousands of years of evolution in the making and we shouldn’t simply dismiss it in favour of technology. Even though exams are fundamentally pointless, we have to stick with them and making people write their answers out at speed by hand seems unnecessarily cruel and excessive. For exams, technology is the answer. For a lot of things, though, for creative writing, even just for the pleasure of it, by hand will still be best.
When I realised Valentine’s Day fell on a Wednesday this year, I thought about how to mark it. I looked through my photos and quite seriously considered using a photo I took last year at Seton Collegiate Church of a compost heap to write about manure, neatly summing up my view of 14th February. It’s shown below. Instead, I’ve got this.
A few weeks ago, I managed to delete photos from quite a few posts on the blog. I had to go through every single one of around 370 posts to edit, add or delete accordingly. This gave me the opportunity to read some of the posts back, particularly some of the earlier ones. I found this one which I really liked. It is still one of the most personal posts I’ve written here but one that still rings true. Thankfully I am much less lonely than I was even when I wrote this two years ago. It’s called ‘Day tripping‘:
There is one part of the day trip experience I haven’t covered yet. It is an exceedingly difficult one to write about, however, but I feel it might be time to cover it here. I apologise that it is a slightly more personal post than normal, covering more emotional and difficult terrain.
Being autistic is quite a lonely business. People on the autistic spectrum aren’t known for having fabulous social skills. Making friends is not something I find very easy. I wish I did. I have somehow become a social person. I work and I am told I am an outgoing person, good at being with people. But making friends and building relationships is very difficult for me and it still remains. Even though I can look at people in the eye now, and I can even sometimes charm people and people like me, it is not easy to do. At times I can be lonely. Less so than I have been for a very long time. But it still remains.
I have been going on day trips for eight years, since a friendship ended. I used to go on day trips with him. Then I found myself with a free Saturday and I ended up going away myself. Then I did it again and again. My travels became a topic of conversation and informed my work. Many people now think of me because of my day trips. It’s ironic because what I first did due to being lonely connects me with the world now. The subject of this blog stems from these experiences I have had mostly on my own, sitting on buses and trains across this country, watching the world go by and spending a lot of time entirely on my own.
On some day trips, I used to feel very lonely and long for someone else to be with, to talk to and so not to have to make all the decisions myself. I walked or I visited places rather than sit in my room on my own. The worst day trips were always in the summer, when more people were around, couples, families and there I was, on my own and feeling it.
That’s much less of an issue now. I live a very active life. I still don’t have many friends, I still don’t have a relationship, but I spend a lot of my life with people. And that’s good. It’s not perfect but it’s my life and I’m not so lonely now. And my day trips are rarer but I often look forward to them for the escape, to actually be on my own for 10 or 12 hours, just to think, read and be in my own company. I went on holiday in October on my own. I had a great time. I talked to some people but spent most of the time on my own.
I once wanted to advertise for a day trip companion. I wasn’t sure where to do that or what kind of person I was looking for. A person of a like mind, maybe, someone I could share a conversation with and wasn’t shy of making the decisions. I am not sure I want one any more. If more people appear in my life, then in the words of Roger Deakin, I don’t want to have to cultivate them. A day trip companion can be other things too. The world cannot be compartmentalised and neither would I want it to be.
I have made some sort of peace with myself. I am not an extrovert. I am a reader and a writer. I am an introvert who manages to be outgoing when I need to. I don’t always want to. That’s fine. Sometimes I simply can’t. That’s fine too. One of the finest things about being on your own is that you don’t have to share. I can amuse myself quite happily. I make myself laugh, which is hard to conceal at times, and I think a lot. The best experiences I have had on day trips have been on my own, as have many of the best places I have discovered.
One of the earliest was my first trip to Durham, a place I have visited many times since, not always alone. Across the room now is an old railway poster showing the Cathedral towering high above the River Wear. The Cathedral is one of my favourite buildings on the Earth, despite my lack of religious belief. I feel at peace there, feeling a deep sense of connection and joy there, with the combination of magnificent architecture and beauty in that ancient place. My first visit was one morning in May. As I walked around the Cathedral, I think near the Crossing, heading towards the Chapel of the Nine Altars, I felt something that had eluded me for quite a while, that things were going to be okay after all. I used to go to that magnificent place and try to sort my life out. The last time I was there, last summer, I didn’t have to bother.
Not having to share also helps in choosing what to do. Instead of compromising, I can be entirely autocratic and follow my impulses. I doubt that if I had been with someone else, I would have decided to cross the country on a whim or ended up in Aberdeen instead of Dundee or York instead of Newcastle, to name but two examples.
There is a significant difference between being alone and being lonely. You can be both or one or the other. Or neither. I have known both, often at the same time, often far from home. But I have become the person I am because of spending time on my own. I write because of being on my own. I read and I know what I know because of being on my own. Making the best of it. It takes time but fundamentally I am confident. In the meantime, I will plan the next day trip around my busy life and see where it takes me.
Incidentally, there’s a new post tonight on my other blog, Easter Road West, about why watching a football game in person is far superior to catching it on the TV.
Glasgow has a Subway. It runs in two loops around the city and for a while I used it daily on my commute. Now I tend to be on it maybe once a month. It’s not always the most pleasant experience. It’s loud and screechy, playing havoc with my particular blend of sensory sensitivities. At some point I hope to do a walk around the Subway on the surface – I did a test walk from Buchanan Street to Bridge Street recently and still need to write it up – and that should be much better.
Strangely, though, I actually prefer the London Underground to the Subway. Not when it is mentally busy, mind, but as an experience the Tube wins. It is a bigger system, the trains themselves are quieter and it is well organised. When I was in London recently, I made four journeys:
- Holborn to South Kensington – Piccadilly line
- Marble Arch to St. Paul’s – Central line
- Westminster to Embankment – Circle line
- Embankment to Euston – Northern line
The trick I’ve found with the Underground is taking it slow and looking around to make sure I’m going in the right direction, if necessary checking and re-checking posters. I tend to take the right side of escalators in order to pace myself. This is natural since the Tube is not a part of my everyday life.
I also like the Tube because each station is different in architecture and design. The Glasgow Subway is mostly uniform save for some art pieces in a few of the stations like Kelvinhall and Hillhead. The London Underground is piecemeal and inconsistent and I like that. It is the product of different companies running the show over time and their different priorities.
At one point when I was in London recently, possibly on the train from Embankment to Euston, I sat back and thought about where I was and how I got there. I was just in the moment, I was on the London Underground, one of the busiest transport systems in the world in one of the busiest cities in the world. I felt fine. I was glad to be there, feeling confident in myself and my ability to navigate it.
Being autistic has its moments. Sometimes it has its advantages, other times it can be an absolute bastard, to use a technical term. A lot of my life can be about keeping on an even keel, not getting too overwhelmed or indeed too underwhelmed, as sometimes happens. Some of the most difficult moments can be just walking along the street, trying to figure out a route along the pavement, weaving between people and other obstacles. Sometimes I get it right, other times very much wrong. When in doubt, I tend to walk around people and things, usually at a wee bit of speed as I walk a bit fast. I do that naturally, though, despite now and then just feeling uncomfortable and wanting to get through the city as fast as I can.
An example of a particularly difficult time was quite recently. I was doing a couple of bits of business in Glasgow city centre one Saturday lunchtime before heading for the football in Edinburgh. To get between the bank and Queen Street Station required walking up Buchanan Street. On a Saturday afternoon. In the space of a few hundred yards I not only had to get through a crowd of people but also to duck and weave between charity muggers, communists, performance artists, leafleters and poppy sellers, as well as a choir singing Christmas carols in early November. Of those, the least objectionable were, remarkably, the communists. I took off at top speed, deploying my very best negative body language, and soon reached my train. I just concentrated on moving through all the people, though I also took out a pen which I kept in my hand and clicked for the part between St. Vincent Street and West George Street. I landed in a seat on the Edinburgh train and breathed a deep sigh of relief.
Walking along the street involves very quick decision-making, usually with a mix of instinct and systematic choices. I try to keep my head up but I am usually looking around for gaps in people so I can get through. I usually yield to others, even when I don’t really have to. Being quite polite and also walking fast tends to make that the most pragmatic approach.
In an ideal world, I would simply travel at times which are quieter. Or have crowds part like Moses parting the Red Sea as I approached. I lack that power. That’s probably for the best, to be honest. Sometimes I just have to get on with it, making my way through, around or occasionally over. Being autistic does have its moments. As well as making getting through cities difficult, though, it also gives me the sense of curiosity that makes me walk down streets on quieter days looking at architecture. There’s always a reason I’m there, just as there are thousands of reasons other people have chosen to be there at the same time, and we end up co-existing, albeit, thankfully, briefly.