Autism and the Arts Festival (University of Kent): 10 Things I Learned

A blue line was painted on the floor to link all the buildings used as venues at the Autism and the Arts Festival. The organiser, the heroic academic Shaun May had hoped for something more like this:

Not Actual Blue Line

but it ended up more like this (though with more waves, diversions, paint splashes and corrections). I wish I had photographed it. But I was so busy. Doing events or interviews for a podcast made by me and Joanne Limburg about autism and literature that I think might just be the best thing I’ve ever helped make happen, or chatting to people. Or relaxing by walking through bluebells, or eating.

Not Actual Blue Line Either

I still seem to have some brain left. Which is surprising after three days. So, whilst thoughts are still fresh, here are some things I learned/thought/found out as a participant, chatter and audience member:

1. Autistic joy is a key component of autistic creativity. It’s a glint, a shine, a glow, an intensity. It powers writing, pictures, music, novels, not to mention inventions, discoveries, analysis…

2. There’s lots of it about. Many of your favourite things exist because of an autistic person following what makes them glow.

3. Autistic creativity is full of folds, bends, diversions. It makes unexpected connections and gleefully crosses boundaries, genres and conventions. It can be completist. It can see the whole of things as a shape and insert interchangeable parts.

4. It’s nice to see it without it being framed by doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists talking utter bollocks about it or the people producing it.

5. Autistic voices are getting louder and more public. I don’t think there’d have been a strong demand to turn a gig with loud clapping into into one with silent clapping even two years ago for example. (It happened at the gig I was doing with Robert White for example. I was glad).

6. Autistic people seem to vibrate and hum at a higher, faster frequency than non autistic people and are sensitive to this. (See also moves between slow & fast). That means there are more very calm and very frenetic patches of energy throughout autistic space. It can be contagious. Some people are calm-seekers, some are frenetic-seekers, some oscillate. (I’m a big oscillator with a veer to calm). There was enough space for everything to coexist.

7. Many autistic people said they felt much more relaxed in social gatherings than they normally would (I did).

8. There are so many hidden histories yet to uncover about autism. The whole “Mothers being dubbed mentally ill because they were trying to get help for their daughters” thread is terrifying. Co-occurring physical conditions like POTS & EDS are still under-recognised.

9. Dislocations-physical, mental, emotional, spatial are likely to be a feature for autistic people. These dislocations occur on other axes too. Sometimes obscuring, sometimes clarifying. No one is “just” autistic. They are from a place, a time, a class, an ethnicity, a gender. They share dislocations with others who are dis-located-which may allow the forming of bonds, or may lead to double, treble, quadruple dislocations…

10. These burgeoning, fragile, necessary autistic spaces may be the foundations that can help explorations to, and with, allies, companions, partnerships. However power imbalances within and outside these spaces must be acknowledged and respected. Being able to be there was a privilege not available to all. (That shouldn’t be taken to mean that the path to being there wasn’t differently hard for so many of us). It is always better to be done “with” than “to”. Luckily autistic people (can have) strengths in clear, direct, honest communication. What could be more useful (& endangered) in a post-truth world?

Touring a Show: The Good Stuff and the Challenges

I’m sitting in an M and S cafe failing to start writing my next show and the pilot episode of a sitcom. Instead, I’ll record some of the learning from touring my show “Where There’s Muck There’s Bras” and hopefully be useful to another stand up/poet/spoken word theatre person if not myself. It has been categorised in comedy sections, theatre sections and talk sections in the fifteen theatre/arts centre venues (plus five rural touring venues) it’s been to in the past couple of months. It also contains spoken word/poetry. It started as a commission from last year’s Great Exhibition of the North and I hadn’t originally planned to tour it, but enjoyed doing it and thought there might be an audience. Here are ten good things about doing it, and ten challenges:

Good Things

  • I was paid properly to do it and could pay other people. The GEOTN commission was for £20k and allowed me to work with an actor, director, producer, designer, video person and basically make the thing properly (The shows that became my R4 shows were self-funded and produced and made on a shoestring). I then got £11k ACE funding for the tour and could pay a PR company, tour booker, actor etc. The shows themselves also earned at least £500 each. I’d seen folk like Luke Wright and Aisle 16 working like this for years but, having had quite a difficult experience with my show Kate Fox News back in 2010, hadn’t had faith it would pay off.


  • I’ve made a show in the mix of genres I work in; stand up, storytelling, poetry and this time, because of working with brilliant director Annie Rigby and actor Joey Holden- theatre. I also acted (and sang for about twenty seconds!) in the show which was terrifying but opened up a whole new canvas for me.


  • People came to see it. Average audience- about 100. Having struggled in the past (Say on Kate Fox News) to get people to come to poetry shows, this was a relief and a joy. Back in 2010, Claire who did my PR said that Edinburgh could lead to a fast road in which you were feted and a big hit- or otherwise you’d have to take the slow road. Building up over years. I thought I’d left both roads- but turns out from doing shows and radio and being around over the past decade or more, I’ve taken the slow road and enough people have seen and liked me along the way to walk with me a bit (Plus the show image/title/concept helped a lot!).


  • I didn’t really know what people meant when they said that if you want to tour you should “Build up relationships with venues” but now I know there are some venues whose audience and ethos fits what I’m doing and hopefully they’ll book me in future and I’ll know I can go to them and have an idea of how they work. Also, good venues have amazing connections with their audiences and can put them all at your disposal to bring the right people into your show.


  • I’ve learned more about how tours and contracts and things like guarantees and ticket splits actually function.


  • I feel like I made a piece of work I’m proud of, that I enjoyed performing and that audiences connected to in a deeper way than a superficial “That was alright”.


  • Connected to that- I had something I wanted to say (about Northernness, class and gender), which I said in technical language of chapter three of my PhD, but then managed to say in a more entertaining way to over 2000 people in the flesh (Average readership of an academic paper: seven).


  • It’s made me look at the future in a slightly different way- this might have been a fluke but if venues will book me and audiences come see me, then I can think bigger about future work I do (and it can help sustain me as a writer and performer, rather than being something I’d assumed I’d lose money doing).


  • I loved working with a team (nearly all Northern women- as in, women who live and work in the North of England) who helped me do and think things differently and often better than I ever would have on my own.


  • I now have a piece of work that can be and is being) booked in it’s own right after the tour and can go from a literature festival to a fringe festival, a textile festival and a poetry festival because of it’s broad appeal.




  • I’ve worked with a brilliant team- but it has been hard to get people to work with me initially. From established theatre producers to culture-ents PR people, they’re not lining up to work with a stand up storytelling-theatre-poetry person.


  • Turns out (as Laura Brewis and Carole Wears discovered) touring a small-scale show just in the North is hard because venues have “exclusion zones”. Usually things like that you can’t go to a venue within thirty miles/within six weeks- three months. The North’s not actually that big…(and it’s not like I’m Michael McIntyre…).


  • It took a while to work out that it was vital to use a microphone because otherwise there’s always at least one person who can’t hear and others have to strain. It may not be about volume exactly but sound quality. This is an access issue and after the first three shows I went and bought a Sennheiser Radio Microphone for about £220 (I was surprised how often venues don’t have them, just cable ones which aren’t as flexible) and it’s been brilliant.


  • There was a point when all the dates and contracts were coming in that it just got too much information to take in and I didn’t really have a strong sense of what the tour looked like- I was so busy trying to write the show and other things. It became a constant distracting background buzz in my head. Less so than when I used to do everything myself- but there’s still so much to do, sort out and think about and it can hamper your need for creative quiet time.


  • I discovered that the £500 I spent on local newspaper digital ads as a bit of an experiment (I’d originally thought about real newspaper ads) might as well have been weed down a drain.


  • It was relatively easy to get local radio and local newspaper coverage. I naively thought that as the show was on in Manchester, we might get some national radio stuff. (ha ha ha). I think that would have been possible only if we’d gone to London. It (issues of combined Northernness/gender) doesn’t seem cool or “relevant” (to use what will become an increasingly important word). Plus- it wasn’t happening in London therefore it didn’t exist.


  • The first shows had the brilliant actor Joey Holden with me. It was then hard to work out the logistics of one-off tour dates (as opposed to strings of dates) for a London-based actor so we came up with the cunning plan of adding a video element to the show. It’s worked really well and Virtual Joey adds a whole new dimension to the show (including a haunting), but it made me realise that there’s a great value in solo shows when you’re often having to work at least six months ahead. However…


  • …If it’s just you, then you can’t have down-time if you’ve got flu/a dodgy throat as I did for the first few February dates (not, to be fair, that I could have done even working with other people). On the positive side, doing shows while under the weather makes the ones you do with all your spoons much easier.


  • I hate being video’d and photographed and have been very late in getting a proper trailer and production shots which, thinking about it, are vital and I should have sorted out last year when we first did the show. However, this all comes back to planning ahead. I didn’t know we’d tour in the spring, or that I’d get booked for more dates, or actively want to book a second leg of the tour.


  • Returning back to the London thing- I haven’t actively sought reviews but it would have been easier to get them if I had done London shows. Social media and unsolicited Tweets/Facebook posts and Instagrams from audiences have been wonderful. And, I did do literally a whole PhD which might suggest why a show done by me on this subject matter with this approach might struggle to garner cultural capital…

Lifting the Lid (Tins Tins Tins poem for Barnsley Museums)

I was commissioned to write a poem for the launch of the “Tins Tins Tins” exhibition, celebrating the Barnsley Canister Company and the beautiful tins they produced.

Loved hearing more from women who worked there in the seventies about factory and office life. (Especially as I’m a product of seventies office life- born of an affair between a secretary and her boss!). This project really resonated with one I recently did for Kirkleatham’s Steel Stories exhibition about the steelworks in Redcar. Overwhelming sense of family and support from being part of the factory workforce (which can be idealised but was also very real and now felt to be vanished).

Exhibition at Barnsley Town Hall til September


Take the Lid Off

If you take the lid off the four storeys 

of the clacking, stinking, buzzing 

of Barnsley Canister Company, t’in’ole,

you’ll know this town 

wasn’t just built on coal.

Some thought it was too much, 

they should keep a lid on it,

this hub, this hive

where passersby at the bottom of the hill 

heard women laughing and singing

as if it was the time of their lives.


Take the lid off,

who knew Barnsley made such beauties?

Slicing, edging, rolling, trapping,

tins moulded into teddy bears (biker bears, ballet bears),

puppies, cottages, Egyptian mummies.

Tombs topped with companion animals. Collectable as gems, 

as grudges. Stored in cupboards, coal holes.

Top on spinning, bottom on spinning, you’d get in a rhythm.

We should stop keeping a lid on their skill,

if only we’d realised sooner

how much they were really worth.


Let’s take the lid off how

a woman’s finger ends suddenly appeared on a tray.

A man held half another’s arm on,

at the very least you’d be ringed with plasters.

No helmets, no safety,

but at the end of the week, 

a brown envelope with your pay.

So you’d keep a lid on it

and there’s Fridays at the Fitz,

half a lager and lime, rollers in since lunchtime,

you’re part of a family.


Take the lid off this heavy work, men’s work,

leaving your kids instructions to make their tea

when you took twilight shift.

Earning anything from a good Christmas

to a holiday, freedom, survival, a lull in the thrift.

No need to keep a lid on it,

always someone to pick you up and carry you,

put a pound in, bits for the babbies, take up the slack.

Men scaring you to giggles with warehouse ghosts

a line of ARP hats in an abandoned room;

the women of tin have got your back.


Take the lid off the world,

you might get a chance to travel beyond Barnsley,

even if you’re not a twinkly manager in a suit,

though the tea in a Twinings tin’s been further than you,

than the office girls sharpening boss’s pencils 

when their special buzzer sounds.

If you’d wanted to be an artist,

someone would have said “Don’t be daft, put a lid on it”

but Dana, the designer from New York,

and businessmen with briefcases visited

and shouted to the world about your craft.


Take the lid off this box in a box filled  

with flickering specks in the air and talk,

folded intricately as origami 

by Pat, Wendy and Regina in their tabards.

Day after day they felt that click.

Surely there’d always be tick 

and treasures in the stock room.

Carol’s wind had them digging up the drains once

but she kept a lid on it,

unlike the Diamond White she thought was slimming beer,

the magnificent beehive she built every day for years.


Take the lid off, blow the dust from photographs 

of factory girls on a bus to the races, an old lipstick,

a newspaper clipping about the can can-themed float

winning the Christmas Eve fancy dress prize.

Smell morning break rolls from Edna Coes.

taste the butchers’ hot pies.

Keep a lid on the longing shining their eyes

reflecting faces turned to craquelure.

They thought t’in’ole would be there for ever

We see now that they are precious 

edged and embossed as fancy tins. Moulded together.