We are decamped at a friend's house to look after her cats while she's away. This is an annual occurrence. There is a dog in this mix who is uncontrollable when it comes to firework season, so our friends take her away somewhere remote in the hope of avoiding the bangs and booms. Mostyn is one of two cats at this abode and just look at him: as regal and as glorious as they come. He's a friendly fella with a wild streak and a show-off attitude. He is quite used to Hannah and I as his occasional carers because we are a key node in a network of pals who feed each other's pets at times of holidaying. Arrangements are made, keys are exchanged, bags of treats are left on kitchen counters alongside complex instructions about medicines that need to be administered or specific foods for specific creatures. Curiously, at times, it feels like we see more of each other's animals than we do of each other.  

All of this is currently allowed according to COVID rules, but will not be on November 5th, Bonfire Night, when the second national lockdown officially begins. That will likely mean that our friends and their dog will be back just in time for the latter's annual terror, unless some alternative arrangement can be sorted out. All of which is terrible timing, of course, but it can't much be helped at the moment because time has become a strained and fuzzy concept. Our sense of what is actually happening at any given moment is foggy and vague, obscured as it is by misleading and meaningless graphs on the nightly news. All they show is what has already happened, with occasional vague and tentative predictions. Who knows anything about the immediate future any more? The scientists can model it but the politicians will invariably do something different. The rest of us live in a perpetual now, hampered by the just-past, doing the best we can.

And so: the traditions continue. Halloween parties occurred last night according to my Twitter feed, and there were plenty of bangs and booms in the distance while Our Dear Leader made his lockdown pronouncements last night. Was this a Guy Fawkes-ian defiance of the government? Or people using up their stocks now before the lockdown makes firework gatherings illegal? Or just mischief makers marking Halloween in the noisiest way possible? It was just people setting of fireworks, because that's what happens at this time of year, making things all that more difficult for anxious dogs and those who don't like sudden, loud noises. 

My sister is one of these latter. This is always a tricky time of year for her and she quickly gets upset by the barrage of pops and fizzes of Bonfire Night. She is autistic and this is not an uncommon experience for those on the spectrum who are especially sensitive to sound. Bonfire Night is a very neurotypical celebration: loud, noisy, unnecessary. My sister would usually spend the evening enclosed in headphones listening to her favourite music, which very much helps. But this year might be extra difficult: we have recently heard that she is self-isolating after a positive COVID test.

She is symptomless at the moment and seems OK, plus she's not in the riskiest age bracket and takes lots of supplements for other conditions so we reckon she's going to be fine. But she has been confined to her room in the care-home where she lives, which must be quite confusing, although I've seen pictures of her that suggest she's taking it all in her stride. We've got her a greetings card to send our best wishes. It has cartoon cats on the front in various silly poses.

There was talk again on the news last night about hospitals being overwhelmed and doctors and nurses having to make difficult decisions about who gets priority treatment. Such rhetoric becomes especially strained when disability gets added to the mix. There was a brief scandal first time around when it was suggested that autistic patients would be lower down on that priority hierarchy than non-autistics, while those with learning difficulties similarly positioned. It remains a horrible fact that certain types of life get valued higher than others, and this is not just found in the divide of age brackets. It seems highly doubtful that my sister will get to this situation at present, but the problem remains a problem and it is haunting.

I have spent the last four years enriching my understanding of autism as a vital and vibrant expression of humanity which has been sorely undervalued and demonised. But I am heartened by the abundant evidence that the profile of the condition is undergoing a seismic change and our increased attention to neurodiversity and mental health is making the world a better and more autistic place. I wrote yesterday about a hope that we will emerge from this pandemic with an enriched appreciation of non-human life. I think what I was driving at was something broader: an enriched appreciation of life beyond that which we sometimes take to be the normal or 'default'. Too often, this default is human, neurotypical, white, male, youngish, and heteronormative. We know this already, and we know it hard, but we have to keep saying it because the more we do, the more we'll recognise its ugliness. I believe that animals can help us here. The most gloriously persistent thing about our fellow fauna is their undying and exuberant expression of the fact that they are not humans and, conversely, that humans are just animals with cocky minds. Without animals, our tendency to tip the scales towards poisonous individualistic ideals of the 'default' person would have overwhelmed us and we would no longer exist. 

This blog began as an exercise in maintaining some writing discipline in the post-submission, pre-examination phase of the PhD. It has now reached its end, but will sit here untouched as a digital archive of a strange month in a strange year. If you've been reading this, I'd like to say a big thank you for returning here and sitting patiently with my wonky and effusive words. I hope they've meant something to you at some point, or have a least made you chuckle or smile a few times. I wish you all the wellness and happiness that can be found over the coming weeks, months and years, and I leave you with this thought-task: check in with your animals every day. Whatever else happens, you will always meet one - whether its as profound as a heron beside a canal, or as fleeting as rabbit mentioned in a book, or as edible as fizzy unicorn, they are always there. Take a moment to register it's presence. Say hello, maybe. Have a little think about what that animal is doing or why it is there. Then absorb it as part of your day, and let it fill you through. We are better when we extend ourselves outwards.

David Hartley

01 November 2020




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