During a childhood visit to a Mental Health Professional at around seven years of age I shared my experiences of a place twelve miles away called Strawberry Land at some length, describing its awesomeness and superiority to the mundane world which surrounded it.
The psychiatrist wrote “he became quite vivacious when discussing this.” Later on he added “he may already be exhibiting a psychosis.” This thought seemed to horrify him.
I discovered this letter in a file of my mom’s, typed in the usual font so typical of ribbon typewriters, in which a medical pro was discussing the puzzling issue of my mental state with the egghead to whom he was referring me.
My imagination has always been a veritable galaxy of colourful imagery and curious characters. At one point I much preferred anthropomorphic animals to people and I had a number of non-human characters I loved, both in the books I was reading about animals and among my stuff. I had a tiny yellow plastic poodle called Narrow (he was thin) who was rather weird. He had a maid called Lily who was a flower and slept in the flower bed at night. He always went to bed early, around 8 pm or so but rose at midnight for reasons none but he could have explained.
Another tiny plastic dog, whose name I no longer recall, climbed my bedside lamp in the form of a tree with a pixie sitting cross legged at its foot. Unfortunately the light bulb was hot, and I was too young to realize the scientific implications of unprotected lamp exploration. I called my mom, plaintively explaining that smoke was coming from the little plastic canine. His daring venture up the tree burnt a hole in his bottom.
It’s odd that at this stage of my toddlerhood I had no idea that electric lights were hot. When we stayed at another house on the other side of the river, I used to go around=d switching off all the lights my mom had switched on, thinking they were going to set alight. Apparently reassured by the fact that nothing bad happened when my mom walked around switching them on again, I decided it must be perfectly safe for lights to not only be on but become a cozy tree house for plastic dogs. Thus my attitude to lights seems to have swung the other way.
After all, the pixie sitting cross legged at the bottom presumably lived up the tree, just as in The Magic Faraway Tree, one of my favourite Enid Blyton books. Would he let his visitors burn their bottoms on his soft downy sofa? I doubted this.
I was reading from an early age, around four, as I wanted to discover for myself the wonderful world around me and what better way than to feast my eyes on the written word. I also loved drawing. Houses, cars and bridges were my most popular subjects.
My grandmother’s old house where I spent most of my time held many an interesting discovery for a enquiring mind like mine. She had a blue-bound dictionary and an old brown Encyclopaedia, which is one of the long words I learned when still a tender-footed little tyke. I spent much time with these. I also loved the telephone book and spent happy hours reading the hundreds of telephone exchange names which existed at the time, when there were numerous little exchanges which had no listed names except the post office and call office. Some exchanges had names such as Collywobbles, Four Pines and Punch Bowl. The number to dial usually consisted of a lengthy dial code of up to seven digits followed by the number 2. This was the vanished era of manual dialling, when the success of a telephone call depended on a woman known as the “operator” who would no doubt be quite happy to disconnect you if she heard anything she didn’t like, or more likely to listen in on the juicy details. The operator probably knew more of what went on in the small villages than anyone else, including the police and the dominee.
I also used to count the different surnames listed under each exchange while keeping an eye out for unusual names which happened to include Neale Down as well as folk such as Mr Kitcat and Miss Sweet.
Farms had party lines in those days. I imagined the fun they had having a party across the phone lines, all chatting merrily away while blowing balloons or wearing funny hats. To many Aspies this would be a fine way to have a party.
I could hardly wait for each Wednesday when the latest issue of Jack and Jill came out at the local newsagent and I could read all about Harold Hare, Freddie Frog, Katie Country Mouse, Walter Hottle Bottle, Pixie Pip, the children of Cherry Green, Timothy in Toyland, Jack and Jill and other characters. Poor old Freddie was always getting in some sort of trouble. The children of Cherry Green all had their special interests (or lack thereof, in the case of someone like Shy Willie who was usually to be found behind a tree, like some of us on the spectrum). In one Walter Hottle Bottle, about a boy who dreams every week that his hot water bottle comes to life and takes him adventuring, they visit the future and among other things, they get lunch from a vending machine: a white pill. “In the future,” Walter said, “they will put all the vitamins we need into a pill so there will be no need to eat a plate of food.” I was a little worried at the time, contemplating the possible extinction of the three course meal, but am glad this particular idea of the future never came to pass. If anything, people focus even more on food and British fare has transformed from a starchy mass into a Jamie Oliver or Nigella Lawson culinary cornucopia. Whoever dreamed up a little white daily pill in lieu of some tasty texture for the tongue, seems to have been deservedly banished to Komodo so he can test his theory on the local dragons and see how they respond to such “innovation”.
I felt self conscious when asked to read stories to the class, but was often asked to by a chorus of voices who knew I could read well and with suitable expression. I didn’t really want to be different and would have preferred the relative anonymity of my hard wooden seat. But I really enjoyed all the stories and tales we heard, and heard such well known epics as Pinocchio and The Wizard of Oz, and some lesser known titles such as Tina the Tidy Pig.I didn’t read these classics to the class but there were quite a number which I did.
I felt a little less at home during organized games which included tennissette, The Farmer’s in the Dell, Oranges and Lemons and Musical Chairs. I was rather worried because I had some idea that rugby might be more or less compulsory later on and I couldn’t catch balls of any description.
A year or two later I started battling to see the blackboard in nice sharp-edged focus and saw, for instance, what appeared to be The Dict of Malan but was actually The Edict of Milan. Soon enough evidence was produced to initiate a visit to the optometrist for prescription glasses to be fitted to my face.
My reading skills helped me to memorize long lists of names, such as the world’s capitals and the sixty-six books of the Bible. I used to get full or almost full marks for any name lists involving scripture or geography. Later in life, when I had to make the adjustment to high school, a combination of social awkwardness and inability to focus my thoughts on providing long and involved answers as opposed to churning out lists and one-word answers, lowered my marks and my self esteem in equal quantities and reduced me from an on-demand reader to an insignificant entity content to keep a low profile.
The world I was growing up has changed drastically. Many changes were for the better. Today we have a much more informal take on daily life.
Church, for instance, involved dressing up with a clip-on tie and nylon socks and going to a building dominated by men in dark suits and some with carnations in their buttonhole, and women with hats like an assortment of freshly iced cakes. The teachers at school, with the exception of the PT master, all wore suits. Only the colours of these and the shirt and tie under it differed. These were also the days of smoke-filled restaurants, drive-ins with tinny speakers clinging to the car window, and dark, thick-framed glasses a la Henry Kissinger.(below left). The darker and thicker the frame, the more distinguished a man appeared to be.
Frames so heavy and thick that your nose felt like an arch holding up a bridge
Men also had longish hair and sideburns which came almost down to the chin, and they wore the flimsiest imaginable shorts when on the beach or playing tennis. Women didn’t even seem to possess their own initials and would simply be referred to in photos as “Mr and Mrs G J Pugwash”.
“A dire path”* was deeply entrenched and a fence cut the local park through the middle with one side marked “Whites” and the other one “Non-whites”. I don’t know which side of the fence the domestics taking their madam’s offspring for a walk were supposed to go. Maybe they had to take a straight walk along each side of the fence, meeting at the end so they could go home to tea.
However further research informed me that an exception was made for “nannies” and below you can see some of the absurdity which the system produced, where child minders could become “honorary whites” while in the park:
The post office was also subdivided into two queues: not marked “Stamps” and “Licences and Payments” but “Whites” and “Non Whites.”. Tourists unfamiliar with Afrikaans may have been under the impression the White queue was for Blanks and where you asked for blank forms.
In fact we fortunately lived in one of the more easygoing towns, one which had up until then never even elected a member of the ruling party to Parliament. Our town took great pride in being referred to as a Borough: one of only two in the country.
My created worlds became more complex and the towns grew more numerous as I grew up and I began to cut out faces from magazines so I could put together families to inhabit the towns. More and more magazines of all kinds were “defaced” to populate the towns. Each person was pasted willy-nilly on a card as husband and wife whether or not they would have tolerated each other in real life and assigned suitable offspring of an age appropriate to the parents. Some remained single and had simpler lives. Usually a house, car and dog or cat were also allocated in this game of Happy Families. Sometimes I’d draw up a plan of their house, allocate an address using one of the street names I invented and give them suitable career paths to follow in the community. Their religious affiliation was sometimes added too, and some were selected to sit on the town council.
All my little toy cars had drivers allocated to them and used to have their own version of Wacky Races except it was more like a Demolition Derby.
Some of my characters were Minna del Oopio (Mini ),Karen Kissing-Lips (VW Beetle), Dawn Wavyhaira (VW Passat hatchback) and Jack Larvisto (unknown make / model). The Prime Minister had a Rolls and was referred to as Boo Prime Minister. There was a vintage Mercedes driven by a rich gentleman with the unflattering name of Hidius.
The cards, maps and other paraphernalia grew more numerous and annexed more and more territory – so much for peaceful intentions when they had to colonize available space!
I also have a planet on which my children’s books are set. Here animals have the choice whether or not to live as humans do. They can furthermore choose if they want to live as pets or completely wild. Obviously there are no zoos or circuses on Radiant. Of course there are criminals and other evil folk there or there would be no story…
I gather inspiration from numerous sources, including picture I’ve seen in magazines, and in my dreams. Many writers and artists use similar sources to fire up their imagination: things which many folk would miss because they fail to observe the little oddities around them, which can be natural or man made. So many things can tell a story, but not everyone listens.
I was glad to discover that I am not the only one who builds my own worlds, whether these be towns in existing countries, towns and places in imaginary lands on Earth or a parallel universe, or even entire galaxies. In fact, the larger the world, the more scope there is for your imagination to run riot. Numerous people have created worlds for their characters to inhabit: think Tolkien, C S Lewis, Raymond Feist, George Lucas, Ursula le Guin and others, as well as a number of ordinary folk I’ve come across online. Some of the places they invented seem like idyllic paradises while others make Earth seem like a sanctuary of peace and goodwill by comparison.
Many world builders are somewhere on the high functioning autism spectrum and need an outlet for their creative instinct. Sometimes a more practical person may be able to apply world building ideas as a town planner, landscaper or golf course developer. Others build amazing model railways for their trains to run through.
I think many of us simply retain the childhood fascination with fantasy and have a place we can retreat to as needed.
It’s great to have a galactic imagination without psychiatrists from the late 60s implying the existence of a psychosis!