Today was mostly OK, but I struggled with some autistic stuff. I hadn’t had much time so far this week for Torah study, and much of what I had done was preparation for the Pesach seders, so I read this week’s sedra (Torah portion) on the Tube, not something I like to do as (a) you are supposed to say the words audibly (even in a whisper) and (b) even with my slim volume of Vayikra (Leviticus) only in Hebrew (as opposed to all five books of the Pentateuch in Hebrew and English) and my pocket JPS English Bible, it’s awkward reading it on a Tube train. I really need a table. I haven’t been wearing a mask on the Tube lately, but I wore one today so people wouldn’t see my lips moving as I whispered the words. (Someone once told me that his brother did this without a mask, pre-COVID; halfway through the journey he could see out of the corner of his eye the man next to him texting “Some nutter is reading to himself next to me” on his phone.)
Work was slow and I made some mistakes and felt like an idiot (again). I spent much of the afternoon comparing a spreadsheet with a database to try to work out which entries have apparently vanished from the latter and why. I have more to do on this next week. It was very dull and I became bored and somewhat depressed, but at least I realised partway through that it was mindless enough that I could listen to music on my headphones, which cheered me up a bit.
J wanted me to drop a file off at the auditors on my way home and let me leave early to do so. On the way, I went shopping in Primark on Oxford Street. This would not have been an ideal choice even pre-COVID as it was hugely busy. I had been in busy shops since COVID, but usually ones I was familiar with. I’m not sure if this was literally my first new, busy shopping experience in two years (the airports were quite busy when I went to New York), but it was harder than I remembered and more draining. I just bought what I had come for and left as soon as possible.
There is the added element with Primark of guilt knowing that their clothes are not very ethically-sourced, but as I can’t afford to shop in more upmarket shops all the time, I’m not sure what else to do. Walking around naked isn’t very healthy.
I found the auditors alright, despite nearly losing both my kippah (skullcap) and glasses to the extremely strong wind, but hesitated outside. It was a converted house with two entry buzzers and I wasn’t sure which was the right one. I hesitated, wondering if I should text J, when the door opened and someone came out and I slipped inside. The sign for reception pointed to a shut door and I wondered if I should knock or open it or try to find out if this was reception for both offices when someone came up from behind me, saw our organisation’s logo on the folder and said, “Is that for X?” He seemed to be on the same team and told me to give it to the receptionist and told her to leave it on his chair. I hope that was the right thing to do. Only afterwards did I worry whether he was who he said he was, but he had got inside the office which he should only be able to do if he worked there (except that I managed it).
There was both social anxiety here and autistic ‘new environment’ anxiety, as in Primark. By the time I got on the Tube home, I realised my heart was racing and my adrenaline rushing. I’m pretty sure this was an abnormally strong reaction to this for me. I guess COVID and lockdown have left their mark.
I came home and responded to blog comments, but I rapidly felt burnt out and went to bed, not because I wanted to sleep, but just for the comfort of wrapping myself in duvet and weighted blanket. E wonders if I should deliberately do stuff in bed. I mean like read, write, blog and so on. She things I might find it easier to get up if I was going back shortly. She may be right. Churchill spent a lot of the war in bed in his room in the Cabinet War Rooms bunker, with advisors and Cabinet ministers coming to see him.
The other excitement today was that Mum kashered the ovens for Pesach (Passover). They were cleaned by the oven cleaner the other day and now heated to remove any trace of leaven food or ‘taste’. (The Jewish dietary laws assume that taste can be absorbed and emitted by porous materials. A lot of the dietary laws, both regular and Pesach, stem from this idea. I struggled with this in the past. It’s not totally crazy, as seasoning cast iron pans and aging whiskey in sherry casks both work on the same principle, but I do sometimes wonder if the rabbis had very sensitive palates to note such subtle tastes. Still, it’s the model we have and I think there’s value in sticking with established law regardless of personal opinion.)
I have been thinking a lot about The Prisoner lately. The Prisoner, for those who don’t know, was a “spy-fi” (espionage/science fiction hybrid) TV series from the late sixties. They only made seventeen episodes (there was a noughties remake/re-imagining that is not without merit, but is not as compulsive). It’s about a secret agent who resigns from his job, gets knocked out, and wakes up in a weird mini-society called The Village where people have numbers instead of names. He is Number 6, although, as he declares in the title sequence, “I am not a number, I am a free man!” He wants to find out who runs The Village (the unseen Number 1; day-to-day running is invested in the ever-changing Number 2s) and escape; the Village authorities want to find out why he resigned.
It starts as a thriller with slight fantastical and weird elements (e.g. the Rover weather balloons that smoother anyone trying to escape), but by the end becomes a surreal sixties ‘happening,’ complete with Beatles soundtrack. The surrealism and the deliberate obscurity of many of the episodes, particularly the final one, Fall Out, meant that interpretations of the series are legion (political, religious, psychological, postmodern, etc.). It was one of the first TV shows that cultural and media studies academics homed in on, unsurprisingly.
Former Doctor Who writer Gareth Roberts wrote an essay about The Village seeming more like Britain in the 2020s than the 1960s. That’s partly why I’ve been thinking about it. Certainly I thought today that the public announcements on the Tube, particularly the ones about mask-wearing, are very Village: officious, sanctimonious and pedantic, with an ostensible nod towards diversity while asking for conformity. But that’s only part of why I’ve been thinking about it.
Doctor Who has been my favourite TV programme since I discovered it aged eight, but when I was at Oxford and saw it for the first time, The Prisoner rapidly became the series that I identified most with. It’s a mirror for anyone who feels counter-cultural and under pressure to conform. At the time, I thought I was friendless and lonely, and stressed and eventually made depressed and suicidal by over-work. I now see I was mid-autistic burnout, struggling to fit in to an environment that I just did not understand with people who I wanted to connect with, but somehow could not.
I think autistic people would find a lot they recognise in The Prisoner. The whole idea of making people conform, that society runs better if everyone thinks and does the same thing, and the individualists who instinctively rebel against this mindset is really the source of the drama in The Prisoner, as well as in the lives of many autistics, particularly those diagnosed late and/or forced to act the way other people want instead of how they want, or how they need.
In the penultimate episode, Once Upon a Time, there’s a sequence where a hypnotised Prisoner is made to relive his schooldays. His “headmaster” (actually Number 2) has a speech that goes, “Society is the place where people exist together. That is civilisation. The lone wolf belongs to the wilderness. You must conform! It is my sworn duty to make you conform!” before beating him for disobedience. I quoted the speech here from memory; it made such an impression on me that I learnt it by heart.
One episode, Living in Harmony, is, bizarrely, a Western, with The Prisoner as a sheriff who chooses to get beaten up rather than violate his moral objections to carrying a gun. This idea of personal morals being more important than society’s rules, even at extreme personal cost, is another thing that probably resonates with many people on the spectrum (and off it, of course). Other things that might be familiar to autistics might include: the uncertainty that runs through the entire series about who you can trust and who is working for the authorities, analogous to navigating the school playground (and later the workplace) not being able to read body language, intonation, subtext and so on to tell if people are being friendly or bullying; the authorities’ hostility to questions, particularly those directed to the foundations of their society (“Questions are a burden to others, answers a prison for oneself” — another quote I learnt by heart); The Prisoner’s sense of alienation from the constant Village celebrations particularly in my favourite episode Dance of the Dead, where a fancy dress ball turns into an angry mob trying to tear him limb from limb; the sequence in A Change of Mind where The Prisoner is effectively ‘cancelled’ as the villagers shun him as an “unmutual” and refuse to engage with him for the sin of using his own gym equipment and then mocking the Village disciplinary procedures; and the general pervasive sense of paranoia, of one person against The System, of being seen as essentially, even ontologically wrong and made to be something you are not.
The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction suggests that “The series’ thesis may be that freedom is impossible, as is opting out.” This is something I feel strongly, and not just for autistic reasons.
I did not mean to write all of this! I went into autistic hyper-focus, and an hour had gone. I guess it shows how much it means to me. I should have a re-watch. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen it (a lot; the low number of episodes facilitates that). I don’t know if E would like it, though.
One day I’ll to go Portmeirion, the strange, real-life village/holiday resort in Wales where it was filmed (also the Doctor Who story The Masque of Mandragora, which E and I watched recently) and run along the beach shouting, “I am not a number, I am a free man!”