Exhibit A for Autopsy

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Exhibit A for Autopsy

From Stirling Castle, Scotland. I’m pleased to know that the display did not cause additional suffering. However, given the way my mind works, I am now concerned about whether murderers who happen to be animals have been getting away with their misdeeds by staging accidents. A keen taxidermist asking too few questions and an evil bunny might escape justice. Scot-free, one might say.

Gerbil Essences

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‘Twas the night before my viva (the final oral exam defending my PhD thesis). I was sitting minding my own business, chewing a chilli chimichanga that was merrily burning its way through my tongue, when my parents dropped the Gerbil Bombshell.

“I think we should tell her. I mean, I’m sure she’s old enough to handle it. We think Dusty ate Lemon.”

Let’s backtrack. My family has a somewhat chequered history with rodents, and we are probably on an RSPCA watch list. Any day now Secret Squirrel Shoppers will start turning up at our houses with hidden cameras in their fur.

It all began when I was five, and it was my turn to look after the class gerbil for the weekend. Squeak was his name, being as he was part of an estranged double-act called Bubble and Squeak (though now I wonder if Bubble met his end in a more cannibalistic fashion). My mother went to empty out the old sawdust from his enclosure and left Squeak in an ice cream tub with my father and I to play, issuing strict instructions that whatever happened we were not to let the gerbil get out and run away. Instead of listening to the voice of rodenty experience, my father thought, “Pfft, how fast can a glorified hamster be?”

Much of the following two hours was spent trying to coax an anxious gerbil down from the interior of an upright piano.

For reasons best explored by professionals, the next year my parents nevertheless took an intuitive leap and decided that getting two gerbils would be a good move. I was enraptured by the whirling ball of fluff that arrived in my house and loved watching the gerbils, playing with the gerbils and making Olympic-standard obstacle courses for the gerbils. The gerbils – names Dusty and Lemon with imaginative reference to their respective hues – were reasonably tolerant of this enforced exercise and rarely took to nibbling the Tiny Human Overlord. Until Dusty snapped and apparently ATE Lemon.

After Lemon’s cruel end, Dusty continued to enjoy the single life in his gerbil duplex bachelor pad, though he eventually grew bored and worked out how to escape. He could use his little paws to unscrew the uppermost level of his house and made it to the floor through what I can only assume was a heroic but minuscule abseiling sequence. Perhaps accompanied by the Mission Impossible theme on a glockenspiel.

One night my mother awoke and heard chaos downstairs. Our fairly new puppy, Ribbons (yes, I named the pets), was going bonkers. She went down and was calming the dog when what she thought was a rat ran across her feet and she shrieked. Of course, it was just Dusty having second thoughts about taking that night job inside the upholstery and making for home base. But it serves as a valuable lesson in both gerbil security and the strength of Yorkie ratting instincts.

Dusty began to look a bit worse for wear after a couple of years. Accepting that he was an elderly gerbil and death comes to us all, I nevertheless felt a deep sadness that he would not be with us to celebrate his birthday the following month. My conviction was that Dusty should get to celebrate early and go out on a high. We may have had a houseguest to traumatise, but I would not be dissuaded. We baked the gerbil a cake and wrapped up some toilet roll tubes as gifts, then I made everyone kneel around him and sing happy birthday.

Miraculously, Dusty recovered. I was convinced the special attention had done him good until I was twenty-five and my parents confessed that, having decided on a kill-or-cure approach, they had given him whisky and he perked right up.

Dusty, the escapology-studying, dog-tormenting alcoholic gerbil. A bit like a rodent James Bond with less misogyny and more sunflower seeds. Why my parents felt that the night before a nervewracking major life-event was the best time to introduce gerbil cannibalism to our family history, I can’t say.

A post-script to my rodent saga came in 2008, in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. I was staying in Denver for a week with a friend. Taking an overnight bag, we took her parents up on their kind invitation to join them at their cabin that weekend. I realised at one point that my pear-scented deodorant had leaked and saturated my only change of shirt. My friend’s parents offered to let me air it overnight on the deck so I would not smell so much like food in the morning.

At sunrise I was already awake, popped outside to admire the mountain vista with pink rays glinting off a distant bison, then went back to sleep contentedly. A couple of hours later I emerged to find three slightly guilty looking hosts who rushed to apologise for an event that was certainly not their fault but has provided much amusement since: chipmunks ate my shirt. People think I am making this up, but they had chewed an impressive number of holes in the material so that parts of it were barely clinging together. I giggled about it for a while then packed the remnants carefully so that I could demonstrate the power of chipmunk teeth.

The chipmunks, however, did not eat my gerbil, so cannot be implicated in my parents’ poor judgement.

I’ve Got a Lengthy List

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My best friend and I once had a lengthy chat about our Myers-Briggs types. I read him mine (which has a section on how I like to organise things and, while I’m mostly a big-picture type, can get bogged down in my own fascinating detail). I plan Christmas in a big notebook with a giant penguin pen – card lists, shopping lists, catalogues of decorations, lists of things for other people to do according to my exacting schedule – and once tried to run a tight ship entitled, appropriately, “Camp Christmas”, I have folders of travel plans, keep a running list of current flight schedules from nearby airports, have every possible helpline programmed into my phone and generally try to be ready for anything, so I probably deserve the resultant laughter. He said if I were in the Mikado the song would be called “I’ve Got A Massive List”. He has clearly forgotten what happens if you put such ideas in my head.  This is what happens.

I’ve Got a Lengthy List (to the tune of I’ve Got a Little List  from The Mikado)

If ever it should happen that a party must be planned
I’ve got a lengthy list, I’ve got a lengthy list,
If a foolish project manager should ask me for a hand?
No detail will be missed, no detail will be missed
Upon many great occasions where a list may be required
I’m known to whip a clipboard out, my penmanship admired
You’re going to need a guest list (you don’t want to get that wrong)
A strategy for that guy who keeps bursting into song
And when it comes to napkin rings I’m sure I could assist
I will put them on the list. See? Right here, they’re on the list.

So you’re fleeing to Antarctica, but please, before you run
I’ve got a lengthy list, I’ve got a lengthy list,
We – before things go in boxes – need a pen and staple gun
So that nothing will be missed, so nothing will be missed
Though so weakly you protest, it’s so much better, you will find
No cat or towel or toastie-maker will be left behind
When drifting off this evening you’ll be organising sheep
Reflecting that my listing is rewarding, and it’s cheap
On pillows labelled clearly (no, I really must insist)
For I’ve got them on the list, I have got them on the list.

At Christmas, such a special time for family and friends,
I’ve got a lengthy list, a twice-checked Santa list
From October through to January the planning never ends
The tinsel must persist! (I tied it to my wrist)
There are Christmas cards and posting dates that must be written out
Who’s visiting with allergies to cheese and sauerkraut
The present list and budgeting massaged to work the best,
And colourscheme transgressors to be scolded and redressed
For certain tasks the amateurs I’m willing to enlist;
I have put them on my list, on my very festive list.

Of course, I see potential widely for a plan or chart
I’ve got a list of lists, a very meta list
Of the varied situations, problems, matters of the heart
Where listing could assist, where listing could assist
There’s the labelling of envelopes, your basic pros and cons,
The colour-coded carnival of naming kids (or swans)
And then the lists and systems there’s equipment to enhance
I’ve box files full of cutlery and binders full of pants,
So if you request the options (though I’m sure you get the gist)
I will email you the list, I will email you the list.

Relaxation Tape vs. My Overactive Brain on Caffeine

Koh Samui by Burti
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Right. Sleepytime.

Am I lying on my headphones? And where is my iPod? Oh, got it. Under the pillow. If we could just make the sound come through the pillow that would be much comfier. But wait, they already make those and I can’t have one because I’m convinced I would forget about it and give it to a guest who would accidentally press play during the night and think that demons were talking to them. I don’t really want to wake up headless. Earbuds it is.

Snuggle snuggle. And…begin.

WHOOOOSH… WHOOOOOSH… [babbling brook sounds]…

Great. I need the loo.

Okay. That’s helped. Here we go.

WHOOOOOOSH… Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down…

Which? This may have an effect on the narrative. Or are we just going to be lying on a beach again? I bet we’re going to be lying on a beach. Which reminds me of a painful relaxation tape episode when I was 12 and my father gave me the tape to distract me from my terrible sunburn then wondered why I was groaning as I listened to, “You can feel the sun beating down…”

Also I couldn’t relax that much on a beach. What if I fall asleep and the tide comes in? Or there’s a tidal wave? I was always scared of tidal waves. On some beaches people are always trying to sell you stuff and it’s not very relaxing. And if I fall asleep on a beach people might steal my stuff. Even on an imaginary beach I need my stuff.

I’m going to mention parts of your body…

Oi, my eyes are up here. On my eyeballs.

…and you will feel those parts begin to relax. Remove any item of clothings that might hinder your total relaxation…

“item of clothings“? Are you winging this?

Picture yourself in a magical forest…

Okay, that’s new. But are we talking about Disneyland-safe, sanitised fairytale magic or dodgy street magician stealing my wallet while showering me with playing cards magic? Am I lying down in the forest? If I’m standing up it wouldn’t be very relaxing but if I’m lying down it might be uncomfortable. I suppose I could make a bed out of some moss or something but it’s night and it will be cold. Also there could be bugs. Is something crawling on me?

… and the moon is lighting up the rich…forest…trees.

Yeah, you’re winging this.

The crickets are gently lulling you to sleep…

And here come the bugs.

Above you you see a white light.

Do I go into it?

It is the most relaxing light you could ever imagine.

That’s not setting the bar very high. I mean, I don’t routinely sit around fantasising about the day I win the lottery and can afford really soothing lightbulbs. If light is so relaxing why did you start off telling me to turn down the lights, hmm?

The light lowers onto your head…

This is where it would be helpful to know whether I’m standing or lying. If I’m standing I feel this will proceed smoothly, but if I’m lying down and this weird light starts lowering itself towards my face, then I’m going to feel less relaxed and more like a glow worm is trying to smother me. Hey, remember that glow worm matching game we used to play? I always really liked the square pyramid pieces. It was satisfying the way they fit exactly into the holes in the board. Where were we? Ah, the smothering glow worm. You know, this reminds me of exactly two things: a particularly vengeful Tinkerbell, and the light that kidnapped people and took them to the future in The 4400. I can’t believe I stuck with that show for so long hoping there would be resolution. I hate when things just get cancelled, even when I’m not that committed. Don’t even start me on Flash Forward. Netflix is a harsh mistress. Oh! The light.

You feel all the little frowns in your forehead just smooth out…

Yes, my forehead is where I like to keep my frowns. Are you calling me wrinkly?

Your eyelids feel so heavy you don’t even want to open them…

I should have known it was a mistake drawing your attention to my eyeballs.

Eyeballs, blah blah, facial muscles, jaw relax, blah blah…

Sorry, forgot to listen for a minute there. Please continue.

You feel all the little nerve endings begin to relax…

Nerve endings relax? I suppose mine could do with calming down about now. I shouldn’t have had that extra Coke Zero so close to bedtime. Am I rattling?

The light travels down your spine. As it goes you feel the warmth move out across your back and around your bottom as it travels on to the hollow of your knees…

Hold up. The back thing started out relaxing and was just beginning to work when suddenly we were at my knees (and can we leave my bottom out of this?) – can I have enough time to actually relax when you’re telling me to relax? I’m now tense because I feel I’m falling behind. Will there be a quiz?

…down your calves to the bottom of your feet. And each and every toe…

Eleven. Check.

…begins to relax. Now picture yourself on a beautiful tropical beach…

I KNEW IT!

The sun is getting ready to set…

What, like it’s putting its rollers in? Okay, now I’m just being picky. I need to commit. What time of year is it? Is it hot? I don’t find being sweaty very relaxing. It’s like all the worst parts of P.E. without the satisfaction of thrashing an opposing team at something. But if it’s cool now and then the sun sets, it could get pretty chilly out here.  Maybe I could just make myself a nest of pillows or something. Mmm, pillows… Ooh! Maybe this is me relaxing!

I’m going to count backwards from ten…

This is not a good time to stimulate my synaesthesia., but let’s give it a try.

Nine…

Nine green bottles hanging on the purple cheesecake fairy monkey monkey monkey…

When did morning happen?

Huh.

Koh Samui by Burti

This is a realistic impression of my nightly routine. I’m usually convinced it’s not going to work until I realise I have been in a deep sleep for several hours. Winner: the relaxation tape.

The Wheel of Death: A Christmas Story

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I am going to tell you a tale of woe. Wait, that’s not right – I’m going to tell you a tale of WOAH!!! Such a tale that will turn your hair on end and make you appreciate your simple lives and families. First, we set the scene.

It is late December, and I observe that the snow from the previous week is no longer deep and crisp and even but looks very similar to tripe that has been run over by a turkey driving a steamroller. Instead of happy children with merry and bright hearts flying around on broomsticks, we are left with only seagulls. Having spent much of Advent fighting off evil snowmen (that’s another story, for next Christmas), I determine that more a festive environment should be sought.

I enlist a friend, T into the expedition and we set off for the train station. Unfortunately, we forgot that the university was closing for the season, and the students were departing for their villages and townships, bags full of gifts, cloaks and laundry for their appreciative kinfolk. We do not realise this until we are stranded on board with little chance of escape, but accept that in this time of Advent it is good to reflect on the Son of God and how he was willing to hang out with the normal folk. I condescend manfully but wish I had brought hand sanitiser.

The journey proceeds smoothly, albeit in a standing position, except for the indignity of being clambered over by ordinary people trying to reach the dining car. I note that it must be tasty if so many passengers are keen to elbow their fellow travellers so vigorously in their attempts to reach the food.

A very relieved pair of adventurers arrive at the Christmas Market, where it is cold but decidedly steamrollered-tripe-free. The crowds bustle around us, brimming with festive energy and glowing with cheer, or possibly mulled wine. Both, perhaps. Heads spinning, we behold the Big Wheel, carriages wobbling in a friendly humour as it turns, and down below we see well-cushioned day-trippers jostling for safe passage on the ice rink, teetering and colliding alternately in their pursuit of elegance. Harnessed youngsters bounce high above trampolines and seem to enjoy their endeavours, but we decide that we are best served leaving our stomachs on the inside, and at approximately the present height.

We wait, noses high in the air to catch the delicious smells, until our friend and associate Tallulah, a primary teacher, appears in the vicinity of the giant chicken snow globe. I assume it’s meant to be a giant chicken snow globe. It is certainly full of feathers. We find ourselves in the middle of a market full of treats from Germany, or adjacent parts of Europe pretending to be Germany for the tourists. Overcome by hunger, we hit the sausage stand and drown our sandwiches in sweet German mustard, savouring the tasty, tasty sausage lunch. Thus fortified, we have the strength to investigate the nearby doughnuts recommended by Tallulah.

In a sugar haze, the masses of shoppers, carollers and (paranoia speaking) pickpockets merge and, when we recover our faculties, we find ourselves in possession of bags full of traditional merchandise. Quite inexplicable. Confusion abounds, but the handcrafted items are of such quality and beauty that we do not mind much. The discovery of an outdoor heater leads us into the mulled wine and beer garden, where we enjoy steaming beverages in ceramic goblets, wrapped up against the chill. Caught up in the revelry of the beer garden’s atmosphere, Tallulah and I lead a chorus of the old German drinking song, “When Santa Got Stuck Up the Chimney”. Distracted by the smells wafting from a recently-opened smokehouse, we follow a large joint of smoked pork to the stall where a local artisan slices it with a thump and offers us some of the delicious meat on a roll.

Inside the gallery cafe nearby, we divest ourselves of our outerwear, sipping tea and luxurious melted chocolate while we warm our hands.

The lights of the fair are aglow as we emerge to meet our dear friend, J, who has just finished work.

Tallulah buys me an early Christmas present of hairy highland cow earmuffs, then our attention is drawn to the lights cycling above , spinning and spinning as, one by one, each carriage traces a giant wheel in the air.
‘The Wheel of Death!” I exclaim. “I have heard tales of it, but have never had the chance to see it with mine own eyes!”
‘Ah, ” says Tallulah. “I have seen in before, in my childhood. Indeed, verily, lo, this wheel you see yonder defeated me in my youth and I do believe we are destined to meet again!”
“Um,” says I. “I’m really not all that bothered.” T and J shrug. They are used to these outbursts.
“Look,” says Tallulah. “You brought it up.”
“‘Tis true,” I admit. “You have me there.”
Tallulah considers. “For once, allow me to guide you in this task. We shall conquer the Wheel of Death, or return enbalmed!”
“Yay!” we cry, beginning to feel the heady effects of those delicious beverages.

We approach the attendant and hand over our money, proceeding up the marked path towards the mounting zone. An attendant holds the door as we climb into the carriage.
“Not too bad so far,” I remark.
The Wheel of Death begins to spin.
“MUMMY!” we screech.

Faster and faster the carriage climbs, pausing at the top suspended only by hope and a large metal bar, before surrendering to gravity and plunging, leaving our hearts at the top as we begin to have second thoughts about the day’s indulgences. As we pass the attendant, we see that he has determined to make the Wheel of Death spin until we can barely remember their names, nationalities and pin numbers.

We spin and spin, faster and faster, whirling and whirling until suddenly all is still.
“Are we… dead?” I ask.
“I think they’re unloading,” says J. “If I use this bit can I make it spin?”
“NOOOO!” we cry.
“If you do, then I will throttle you,” I threaten. “Actually, worse – I’ll hug you.”
J thinks about it for a moment. “I’ll be good.”

Painfully slowly, the Wheel of Death crawls around. The winds whistles through the surrounding girders and all I can hear is my pounding heart. Finally we are poised at the top. The view is magnificent, but all we feel is the chill of the night air, tinged with abandoned dreams and missed opportunities, garnished with the stale, cold smell of vague disappointment. As we descend, these afflictions ease, and we feel instead the promise of relief, when the attendant will open the door and welcome us back into a safe world populated not by Evil Wizards with carriage-spinning intentions, but by good, kind people who wish to live secure lives surrounded by grandchildren and puppies.

The carriage halts. The door opens. Tallulah and J alight first, followed by T, who takes my walking stick and handbag as I try to find the most appropriate disembarkation procedure. Crawling around the central pillar, I pull myself into a position from which I might bend my better leg, thus rendering me somewhat more capable of sliding to the door. A shift here. A slither there.

Just as I am about to push myself out of the door, someone absent-mindedly pushes the lever in the control house to “DEATH SPEED”.

The ground disappears. I can see only the stricken face of T as she attempts to effect a rescue, but is cruelly stuck down by a blow from the following carriage. J can only laugh, laughter that would surely turn to tears of distress were she able to wrest full control of emotional faculties.

High above them, I am shrieking in fright, but after a few moments of paralysis I am able to roll away from the open door – and certain death on the streets far below – and slam the door behind me. As I breath a sigh of relief and continue to ascend, below me I hear the welcome voice of Tallulah.

At ground level, she attempts to reach the enthralled safety attendant by issuing a command: “STOP THE WHEEL!”

The power of a yelling teacher could have stopped the wheel by itself, had not the safety attendant shaken off the trance and reversed the action. I was rescued from the Wheel of Death and disaster was averted.

Bet you’re all breathing a sigh of relief. You thought I was a goner there for a minute, didn’t you?

A SIlent Child

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Note: I wrote this article for a local magazine published in 2009 and am sharing it here five years on. This is one instalment in a series on selective mutism that I will be posting throughout this year.

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She doesn’t speak in class.

That’s how my ten-year-old classmates explained it. Not she can’t speak, not she won’t speak, just a matter-of-fact behavioural observation, uttered in a non-judgmental chorus as the supply teacher struggled to understand why I did not respond to the register.

I was always quiet. I was the midwives’ favourite infant for bathing demonstrations – I refused to cry in front of adults. I made them look good.

I was not physically incapable of speech. In fact, I was very talkative – to other children and to my immediate family. With others I was trapped in silence.

At twenty-one, a friend emailed me an interesting webpage, saying, “Doesn’t this sound like you?” and I discovered “Selective Mutism”, a social anxiety-related disorder that renders the sufferer incapable of speech in certain situations. There is no physiological or developmental reason for their silence, but they experience a very real, almost physical barrier that occurs consistently.

Selective Mutism, or SM, is now estimated to occur in seven out of every thousand children, making it several times as common as autism (according to studies by the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry). This statistic floored me as I always supposed my situation to be unique. When recognised at a young age, it is often possible to desensitise the child to the environment that brings such anxiety, and to avoid future difficulties which become much harder to fix once the child reaches teenage years. When unexplained, others may feel – and express – frustration, suspecting the child of awkwardness.

Mute children are tremendously observant, and often have the measure of their adult interlocutors!  Barely concealed impatience carries over, an unfortunate fact given the general lack of awareness that this disorder even exists. Crucially, for me, even after the anxiety factor subsided, there was always the silencing fear, soundly based, that any speech would lead to an anxiety-inducing fuss.

People react in various ways to a child who doesn’t speak. A common impulse is the wish to “take the situation in hand”. Many want to engineer some kind of breakthrough; well-meaning, perhaps, but their zeal can be difficult to cope with. Some see silence as bad behaviour not to be tolerated – what, after all, is so hard about speaking? My parents, both experienced professionals in different social-work-related areas, received comments ranging from the critical to the bizarre. My violin teacher made a singing exam a personal quest. A playgroup teacher offered to take me to her house and scream at me until I spoke.

My favourite people were those who never made it an issue. No censure, no jokes; those who understood that silence did not render me invisible, nor did it prevent me from having a personality, and whose company allowed me to be myself, albeit silent. I especially liked those who discerned my sense of humour.

In my village primary school, everyone knew me. With imagination, and no pressure, my teachers helped me to move from silence to mouthing the words to whispering, so I was finally able to communicate verbally.

High school brought with it greater challenges and teachers who were less familiar with my problem, but it also brought choirs and new activities. Given the number of teachers I had during those six years, things went pretty smoothly. There were, of course, moments of unvented frustration. There was an oral component to English, and while I was capable in the other areas, my teachers explained, without a recognised cause for my silence or being able to perform in front of the whole class, it was impossible to give me the highest scores for official purposes. Yet even here allowances were made, and whenever oral presentation was required, I was able to present to a small group, in a quiet room at my own volume. Such a clear declaration that I was different often felt humiliating, but it was far better than the alternatives.

Tension, however, never dissipated. I came to dread the times when, lining up outside a classroom, the word would spread that we had a supply teacher. My silence was always an issue; every class involved taking a register. Invariably there would be a comment, though not always pointed. I saw most supply teachers add me to their mental “watch list”. Understandable, perhaps, but unfair. Everyone had an opinion. Some who did not understand simply dismissed me.

I still get frustrated thinking of all I wish I could have said at the time. “You don’t understand my silence, but neither do I.” – “Don’t punish me because you feel uncomfortable.” And, above all: “What makes you think that because I don’t speak I have nothing to say?

The difference a diagnosis would have made is a subject I often ponder. Those who recognised a condition in those days would not have branded me a selective mute but an “elective mute”, horrible terminology used until the nineties, on the erroneous belief that silence is wilful. “Selective”, though it sounds similar, recognises distinctions between situations, without identifying silence as a choice. Before the change, the silence of an “elective mute” was believed to be a bid for control. While I had no diagnosis, this does not differ terribly from the suggestions of the professionals who worked with me. That my parents were switched on and willing to endure criticism saved me repeatedly from blundering, ill-conceived attempts to help that were nonetheless genuine – merely misguided.

A diagnosis is no barrier to prejudice. Many are suspicious of apparently new syndromes and question the diagnoses of children in far less confusing circumstances. When it becomes known that they are physically capable of speech in other settings, sufferers are still sometimes accused of belligerence and told their silence is manipulative or controlling, an appalling characterisation to present to a child. Awareness is crucial, since it is rare to find a professional with experience of SM and even now there will be many undiagnosed children. Nevertheless, recognition of SM is creeping into our culture – the TV series The Big Bang Theory features an SM character, and in 2001, Paul McCartney even wrote a song called “She’s Giving Up Talking”.

While the current advice is that it is rare for someone with SM to just grow out of it, I always believed that, logically speaking, since I had difficulty with adults and people older than me, as I grew older there would be fewer and fewer people in the “problem” category. Ignorance and denial were my friends. My difficulty in speaking to “new” people diminished, and by the time I was a young adult I would seem merely shy to those who did not know me in a school or family context.

My best guess is that a diagnosis would have helped to reassure me that I was not alone. Whether labelling my silence would have helped or hindered, whether it would have preserved it or robbed it of its power, I cannot say.  But that is history, and now, with information available, it is vital that it reaches those who encounter this disorder, whether teacher, parent, or selective mute.

And now, for me?

My life has moved on from silence. Academia, after all, is a very speech-intensive world. I have taken language classes, argued in French with bureaucrats (ineffectively but joyously) and delight in giving tours to my overseas colleagues. I teach, present and discuss, a vocally demanding task if ever there was one, and absolutely love it.

I still hate using the phone sometimes, but I can live with that. There are still moments and hours of anxiety, as the underlying anxiety issue hasn’t gone away despite the gradual eroding of its favourite mode of manifestation. Having come so far, over nearly two decades, from complete silence, I have to appreciate the progress and look forward to better management of these obstacles.

But the reward for the rest of my progress is the incredulous laughter with which my friends receive my admission that I – I, of all people – was once mute. 

In Defence of Sightseeing

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The air was heavy. A red mist began to rise around my head. I had a vision of myself vaulting over the child below. What kind of stupid man would block the bus exit with his buggy and refuse to budge? If one cannot respond to a kind request, I fumed, what hope is there for humanity?

Then it happened. I tutted. Loudly.

My mind flashed back to a similar bus situation, upon moving to Paris four weeks earlier, as the blue-rinsed commuters telegraphed their disapproval of one woman’s pram-wrestling boarding of the number 81. It struck me: I had become a little old Parisian lady.

This kind of self-discovery, to my mind, puts Marco Polo to shame and is the holy grail for the introspective travel writer. Especially as it’s about me. Except for one thing: all of the above took place in the shadow of the Sacre Coeur.

Thousands of independent travellers share a horror of the overfamiliar; we want to emphasise our thorough appreciation of a place and its culture, gain an insight into the people – and we would not be caught dead up the Eiffel Tower. It seems self-evident that the worst parts of any destination, the most money-grabbing, tourist heaving aspects, will be found in impressive proportion within viewing distance of any major monument. Much of it gives the impression (not entirely inaccurately) that tourist are a bottomless pit of money. At Notre Dame one may enjoy waving bits of paper before the nose if one stands still for more than thirty seconds, the aforementioned Tour Eiffel boasts unrivalled queuing, while at the Louvre a prospective admirer of the Mona Lisa will no doubt appreciate the tranquility afforded by four hundred jostling elbows. Worse still, we find ourselves surrounded by pale imitations of ourselves in the form of novelty T-shirt wearing, socks-with-sandals sporting, tacky fridge magnet purchasing tourists. I choke on the word. Choke!

The disappointments and inconveniences of major tourist sights are well documented, and the reasons for avoiding such tourist-crammed areas are considered and well-meant (as well as a little snobbish). When one wants to gain a deeper understanding of the local people and their lifestyles, there really isn’t a lot you can do about it when yelling your crepe order over the heads of an idling tour group.

In a city like Paris, however, non-touristy sights are thin on the ground. Nowhere in the world have I encountered such a density of – gulp – attractions, but the annual turnover of tourists within its twenty arrondissements more than compensates. More to the point, had I gone to Paris as a student and not visited any of the tourist destinations, what would I have missed?

I may have missed out on the beautiful Pantheon with its confused ecclesiastical heritage, or the view from the Pompidou Centre. When you’ve got postcards to send anyway, why not buy them at St-Michel with everyone else, where genuine Parisian students hang out and you can witness a political demonstration or two?

There’s a reason that the Musee D’Orsay is a popular destination – its collection – and while Versailles can be downright unpleasant with its surfeit of tourists, once you get past the gritting of teeth and grumbles of, “Someone should really do something,” the apartments really do provide an insight into the ambitions of Louis XIV. While travellers may be justly disinterested in the doings of the tourist masses, there’s little point in getting snobby towards those who have a genuine interest in and knowledge of local history.

People travel for all sorts of reasons. I find it quite wrong to suggest that going to “see things” is in any way an invalid proposition. There are good reasons for travellers to be interested in people and character, but many of us have tangible interests, particularly those with a passion for architecture. In the style and decor of a church many travellers can read insight not only into the current population, but into the priorities and preoccupations of long-dead designers and craftsmen. In this spirit I chased down the Lavirotte-designed public toilets at Madeleine – perhaps off the tourist trail themselves; certainly under it – and the Opera Garnier, my spiritual home and favourite building in Paris. And I don’t care if it is crawling with tourists. It’s magnificent.

Much is dependent on outlook. One can find oneself immersed in a city, speaking the language, surrounded by locals, and still gain no insight into the society. Equally, one can queue for the Louvre with a thousand tourists and be motivated by a love for their extensive collection of pre-19th century art, ancient Babylonian decor, or Levantine religious sculpture. Is this wrong? Is it shallow to be concerned with anything beyond the local community, or to be primarily interested in other things?

I confess that I do own quite the tacky fridge magnet collection – but I still haven’t been up the Eiffel Tower.