Compiled by Nick Hornby and featuring brand new stories from some of the most lauded and original voices in the literary world on both sides of the Atlantic, Speaking with the Angel’s proceeds benefit education charities for children with autism.
'An exemplary gathering of bright literary lights from both sides of the Atlantic…quirky, colorful, and alive.'
New York Times Book Review'
“The book most likely to top the literate hipster’s charts this season'
Time Out New York
'Kinetic, witty and, most important, soulful in unexpected ways, these stories help us transcend the mundane and look toward the heavens, smiling'
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Soon after I had decided to ask some writers I knew and admired to contribute to this book, I read an interview with Bono in the Guardian, in which he talked about the Jubilee 2000 campaign, aimed at reducing the Third World's debt to the West.
'It's bigger than anything I will ever have anything to do with again as long as I live,' he said. 'So if I can open doors simply because I'm a celebrity, then I'll use that for all it's worth.' So far, his effort have helped to remove $100 billion from the tab. The interview brought me up shot. I'm not Bono, of course, and I suspect that it would be considerably harder for me to open the door of the Oval office than it was for him, but even so... Third World Debt! $100 billion! Treehouse, the charity to which you have just donated a pound (unless you've been sent a review copy, in which case you can send dome money using the form at the back of this book), is a small -at the moment, a very small - school for severely autisitic children, and one of it's pupils is my son. Luckily I don't have to justify myself to you, because all you've done is buy a book that you wanted to read, a book containing a dozen or so new stories by some of your favourite authors, and your donation was, I hope, incidental. But I certainly owe those authors an explanation, and so this introduction is aimed at them. You can read it if you like, but I don't mind if you skip it. You'll get your money's-worth anyway.
Perhaps I should begin by explaining that my son Danny won't benefit from Speaking with the Angel. (I've pinched the title, by the way, from Ron Sexsmith, whose first album contains a song of that name which seems to be heart-meltingly relevant.) Danny's fine, he's sorted - which is one of the reasons why I wanted to put this book together in the first place. He is, in many ways (and if one excludes the huge slice of ill-luck that befell him in the first place), a lucky little boy, and though I am in a financial position to ensure that his luck continues, I am not able to spread that luck around, not as much as I would like to. Danny's good fortune is locate in his attendance at TreeHouse, and, at the moment, very few autistic children are able to do the same. Indeed, very few autistic children are able to attend any school designed to meet their needs: there is a catastrophic underprovision of places in Britain. A TES survey in 1996 found that there were three thousand specialist places for seventy-six thousand kids, twenty-thousand of whom were classed as severely autistic.
If you are a parent, then, your choices are unattractive. You can drive yourself mad by chasing after one of those three thousand places - twenty-five-to-one shot, and almost certain to involve a move from one part of the country to another; or you can stick your child in a school that hasn't go a clue how to deal with him ) he's probably male, your autistic child, for reasons that still remain obscure); or you can keep him at home and wait, while the precious months and years slip by and you know that all the research points to the urgency of early intervention. Over the last few years, distraught parents have begun to realize that the only response to all this is to found their own school.
One could put a kind of let'-do-the-show-here spin on this, and make out that founding your own school is fun, and self-improving, and so on, but of course it's not any of these things, as you probably suspected. It's a Kafkaesque nightmare of blackly comical bureaucratic buck-passing, and frantic worry. The parents who set up Treehouse have done so with minimal help from local authorities - even though some of these local authorities now recognize the school as the best and indeed only alternative for their autistic children - and with o public assistance. (England' hopeless and ill-advised bid for the 2006 World Cup was eligible for lottery money, for example, whereas TreeHouse was not.) Danny's school is now firmly established, but it needs permanent premises, and it needs to grow; we have a waiting list, and a duty to educate as many kids as possible.
And how do you educate severely autistic children? How do you teach those who, for the most part, have no language, and no particular compulsion to acquire it, who are born without the need to explore the world, who would rather spin round and round in a circle, or do the same jigsaw over and over again, than play games with their peers, who won't make eye-contact, or copy, and who fight bitterly (and sometimes literally, with nails and teeth and small fists) for the right to remain sealed in their own world? The answer is that you teach them everything, and the absolute necessity of this first-principles approach makes all other forms of education, the approaches that involve reading and writing and all that, look quite frivolous. Danny has to be shown how to copy, how to look, how o make word-shapes with his mouth, how to play with toys, how to draw, how to have fun, how to live and be, effectively, and Treehouse utilizes a system that makes these elementary skills possible...