Thursday, September 12, 2019

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, by Chris Packham

I've had a busy few weeks - as a guest at the Hastings Literary Festival, working through notes on various things and researching and writing various others - and so made slowish progress through this remarkable memoir by  Chris Packham.

As I knew from his 2017 documentary, Aspergers and Me, Chris is autistic and his heightened senses can often be overwhelming. His memoir is a series of vividly recalled and felt moments from his childhood: passion, terror, injustice, the tactile delight of sniffing, touching, tasting nature such as drinking frogspawn. Some of it is very funny, some is pretty harrowing - not least the jumps forward to 2003-4 where it all got too much and he tried to take his own life.

At one point, he richly describes his first efforts to blow out the contents of a bird's egg he's carefully filched. It doesn't work and the egg collapses.
"The crumpled shell was soft and stuck to his fingers, the exploded mess glued to his hand, which he gradually opened. He felt sick with the shock of it, he had the gummy taste of raw egg in his mouth and he now knew why he had been unable to force the contents out of the pinhole. Looking like a bubblegum bogey bathed in shiny spittle a fully developed sparrow embryo lay on its back - bulbous-bellied, big-headed and black-eyed, with a broad waxy bill and peg-like wings and legs, its toes pricked with minuscule claws. He turned it over. It was dead. If he hadn't stolen the egg it would have hatched by now, or at least by tomorrow." (pp. 201-2)
Given that a trait of autism can be a failure to see things from other people's perspective, Packham recounts several moments in the third-person pespective of people around him - a neighbour, a bully at school, his own sister - which raises questions of authenticity, of truthfulness. How much of these and his own recollections are invented, sensations and colour added not felt at the time? But the effect is to show that everyone else had their passions and fears, that this strange little boy is not so alone in his weirdness.

Packham grew up not far from where I did in Hampshire, if at least a decade before me. His prose is peppered with slang that transported me right back: gob, guffs and jaspers (wasps), kids who chucked up when sick and creased up rather than laughed.

But lots of the book struck a chord as the father of an autistic child who is obsessive about bits of nature - snails and sharks and sea creatures. I'm wowed by his parents' patience and continued encouragement as he boils up skulls or brings home a bird of prey. He mentions but I can well see how hard this could all for his sister, for ever being overlooked by being the easier one. The power of the book is that Packham isn't alone and so seeing the world from his point of view is a revelation.

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