By Mickey Mayhew
As a youngster, my grasp of prose was, I think, already quite masterful. Often my teachers would flourish praise on me in their footnotes, sometimes embarrassing me by reading my efforts out to the entire class; trying to make me stand up and recite them myself usually met with scant success on their part. Mostly, the stories I wrote were made up of a condensed version of the previous weekend’s episode of Doctor Who, but they seemed to go down well enough, nevertheless. The class girl-gang – Anna, Rhonda, Kelly – thought my efforts rather risible, but that bunch could’ve curdled prize cream, with their sour expressions and their sneering asides. You were awarded ‘house points’ if you put in good work and I won the most ‘house points’ for my stories, but little else besides; I certainly wasn’t going to win any for addition or subtraction. My acting skills weren’t much sought after for the various school plays either, but somehow my teachers always instinctively knew that I’d do rather well if given the role of narrator, which I went on to perform several times. At senior school, notwithstanding the spiteful bullying by the likes of Mark and James, I still managed to win the class writing competition; oh, those vinegary, scornful faces!
I think, on reflection, that my attraction to words came from that facet of autism known as hyperresponsiveness. Now, this basically means that normal stimuli – sights and sounds – are sometimes so magnified for an autistic person that they can become almost completely overwhelmed by them. To outsiders, this might manifest almost like a gentle form of hypnosis; trust me, if you’re with an autistic person and suddenly they glaze over, chances are they’re off somewhere really good and not just simply bored by your company. For me – certainly among my more idyllic sensory sojourns – it was often simply random words, or else words sewn together to form a story, although sometimes a really pleasant-sounding word in isolation might leave my senses quite simply spinning: I love the word ‘frost’, for some reason, and ‘crocodile’ is quite good too. When this happened, when I felt myself magnetised by some sentence in a novel or something, well, you could liken the effect to that of someone playing a flute in order to mesmerise a cobra up and out of a box. Of course, this sensitivity to words dovetailed wonderfully with the fact that I had decided I was going to be a writer.
On that basis, I began tinkering with a few words of my own. When I was a teenager, I brought a cheap electric typewriter and crafted a short story I then mailed to a fledgling publishing company based in Wales. I explained to them in the covering letter that I couldn’t hope to hold down a regular job, possibly even paraphrasing one of the characters from my favourite novel, Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour: you know, something like, ‘The only thing I can be is a writer. I’m absolutely unprepared for anything else. When you’ve lived the kind of life I have, you are good for nothing. Only writing can save you.’ It was all very melodramatic, but I was caught up in my own oddness back then, and quite happy to capitalise on my bizarre little backstory as best I could. Anyway, the publishers liked what they saw and published my short story in their first anthology. In fact, they published three of my pieces over the next few years, even though the stories I submitted were somewhat scatological and smutty in nature; the sort of stuff you’d expect from an overgrown schoolboy as opposed to a budding ‘arty’ autistic author.
In some ways, I think that maybe I’m still just an overgrown schoolboy; my education derailed at about the age of 12 and I’ve been trying to recover it from the wreckage ever since. Still, it was nevertheless quite a heady experience to walk into a Waterstones, pick up a copy of this anthology and see my name there in print. Whenever I passed a bookstore that stocked the anthology, I always made a point of putting a copy amidst the foremost display section; something I later heard a lot of authors tend to do whenever they come across their work in public. My family knew about this short story anthology, but I was too ashamed to show them the actual finished product, concerned it would give them something of a warped window into my rather worrisome nature. I even got a good review for the first story in one of the free London magazines, wherein the critic said that I would ‘…one day make my mark’, but only if I might avoid the frequent and often overbearing use of alliteration. I’m still working on that one!
There was an award ceremony for the best short story in that first anthology, held in Aberystwyth, I think at the university. I was so excited I might win the coveted cash prize, I made the journey there under my own steam, the first time I’d ever been so far from home without company. I didn’t win, but some of the people present were pleased to meet the lad who’d written that smutty little story that had made them smile so much.
In the wake of this first literary ‘success’ I enrolled on a creative writing class at Birkbeck, University of London. Nothing much came of it in the way of friendships apart from a reasonably good rapport with the teacher, Paul Hallam. If I wrote anything of note while I was there, then I no longer have it to hand. I stayed friends with Paul, taking my work round to the flat he rented in Soho. Years later, I pitched some fiction to the directors of an MA creative writing course at Birkbeck, University of London. This was a ‘proper’ class, if you like, as opposed to the unqualified class I’d taken some seven or eight years previously, under Paul’s tutelage. On the strength of my submission, I went for an interview with the writer Russell Celyn-Jones; I was offered a place on the course several weeks later. It only occurred to me several years after that, that I might actually have been involved in a direct instance of mainstreaming on the part of my new tutors, given that I’d been rather frank about my autistic ‘misfortunes’ during said interview. Still, this is only a supposition on my part. ‘Mainstreaming’ refers to the idea that disabled students can be successfully integrated into the mainstream of education.
I attended my first class, six o’clock every Thursday evening, in one of the buildings overlooking Russell Square. I was perhaps the youngest pupil there. The rest of the class comprised of professional or, at least, semi-professional men and women in their late thirties/early forties, most of them wryly cynical but also secretly hopeful about the chance of seeing their stuff in print. This self-deprecating notion toward the possibility of publication had been reinforced a week or so previously in a kindly admonishment from Russell himself, during an en masse pep talk to the entire creative writing body. The gist of this talk centred around the fact that he thought it best to warn everyone that very few of us would actually go on to see our name in print, and certainly not to any degree of significant financial success. I guess he was merely trying to manage expectations, but for me, it had the effect of shoving the proverbial firework up my arse; I became more determined than ever to see my books published, even though it would end up taking me a fair bit longer than first anticipated.
Moving back to the notion of mainstreaming, my feelings/suspicions of inadequacy soon began bubbling, as I discerned the deep and meaningful subjects my classmates were writing about – journalism in war zones and the like – and there was I writing about the ghost of a debutante haunting a group of lusty barrow boys in modern-day Barking. My classmates were also very literate, prone to bouts of scoffing where the bounteous fortunes of writers like Dan Brown and JK Rowling were concerned. Everything for them seemed very intellectual, very wry and very arch. Perhaps they saw my own modest literary efforts as a little light relief. I’m not sure. I like to think they were being genuine in their praise, but as an autistic person I’m often highly suspicious of neurotypicals, simply because they rarely say what they actually mean, and to me, really, that must be an awfully constrained kind of a way to live a life.
Several weeks after the class began, I started shaping my various writings into an actual novel, concerning the aforementioned group of Barking barrow boys. That group eventually swelled into a large, sprawling family, one which still included the aforementioned barrow boys and also their debutante familiar. These works remain my pride and joy to this very day, even though they’re a little like the literary equivalent of Marmite for those who have read them. An extract was published in The Mechanic’s Institute Review, the anthology put forth by the class as a result of our weekly sessions. This hit the bookshops at the end of the first year of the MA, with me eagerly awaiting the calls from prospective publishers wanting to find out more about my work; although, in the end, my telephone turned out to be rather reticent when it came to ringing off the hook. The first among us to find publishing success was actually a quiet, bespectacled woman called Sally Hinchcliffe – her blog is called ‘town mouse’, so I don’t think I’m doing her a terrible disservice description-wise! – who secured a deal for a novel about birdwatching and murder some several years after we’d all graduated. I sat there during her celebratory drinks smiling but still slightly simmering, because I hadn’t been the first to find success after all. A rather sobering thought hit me just then: namely the rather unpalatable notion that other people might not actually find me and my work as fascinating as I myself found them. This was, I think, almost as equivalent a shock as that great Freudian moment when the little child discovers that the whole world doesn’t revolve around them after all. I’m certainly still recovering from that one!
A year or so into the MA, I secured an extracurricular place on a week-long residential writing course held at a big cottage complex somewhere in deepest Devon. I made my own way there and was met at the station by one of the tutors, alongside several of the other applicants. Introductions were made – awkwardly autistic on my part – and off we were driven to the cottage complex in question. We were all given a run-down on how to manage ourselves while living at the complex, along with a rota of who would be doing what and when, when they weren’t busy being creative. I wasn’t too enamoured that I had to pitch in on various days with the washing-up and the cooking, but there was nevertheless a faintly pleasurable feeling of team building. I think also that dyspraxia and therefore the ever-present threat of dropped crockery featured somewhat in this reluctance on my part to partake in these particular chores.
For the greater part of each day, we were left to our own devices – i.e. to actually write – and at various other times, there were workshops and also a one-to-one tutorial with one of the two resident authors. These two women comprised a rather glamorous, knowing, faintly withering lesbian couple, all scrunch perms and short skirts and hardly what my inexperienced little mind thought a lesbian ‘ought to’ look like at all. I’d been permanently scarred by too much Prisoner: Cell Block H, perhaps. Every evening, we all gathered in a barn beside the property and read our works aloud. Of course, I simply couldn’t do this, and I think I was the only one who didn’t, in the end, rise up and regale newfound friends with their lyrical prose. Instead, I sat there with my fists clenched, quietly hoping that our tutors would hop straight along to the person beside me. I vaguely remember someone else reading my stuff out for me in a show of pity, but the memory is hazy and perhaps I was simply passed by altogether after all. Despite this, I was, however, getting better at being around people and partaking in the sorts of nonsensical small talk that seems so agreeable to mass gatherings. Having said that, I still had a way to go before I could consider myself to be in any way socially ‘savvy’…
More on Mickey’s struggles to become a writer and to overcome his autism can be found in Mickeypedia The A To Z Of An Autistic Savant – available on Amazon and from the Anna Kennedy Online website. All proceeds from this work are donated to the Anna Kennedy Online autism charity.
‘…the ghost of a debutante haunting a group of lusty barrow boys in modern-day Barking’ can now be found on Amazon as The Barrow Boys Of Barking trilogy; specifically, Jack And The Lad, Taking Tiffany, and Jamie’s Big Bang.
Other works by Mickey include The Little Book Of Mary Queen Of Scots (published by the History Press) and I Love The Tudors (Pavilion Books).
Mickey recently secured a four-book deal with Pen & Sword Books, the fruits of which will begin to materialise early in 2022.
You can connect with Mickey at his website: mickeymayhew.com
My attraction to words came from that facet of autism known as hyperresponsiveness. Now, this basically means that normal stimuli – sights and sounds – are sometimes so magnified for an autistic person that they can become almost completely overwhelmed by them