First and foremost, Speaking with the Angel is a collection of 12 completely new stories by some of the best authors writing today – Robert Harris, Melissa Bank, Giles Smith, Patrick Marber, Colin Firth, Zadie Smith, Nick Hornby, Dave Eggers, Roddy Doyle, Helen Fielding, Irvine Welsh, John O’Farrell – commissioned and edited by Nick Hornby. But it is a special book in another way, too, as Nick Hornby explains:
TreeHouse, the charity to which a pound will be donated for every copy of Speaking with the Angel sold, is a small – at the moment, a very small – school for severely autistic children, and one of its pupils is my son.
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 me 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 located 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-six thousand of whom were classed as severely autistic.
TreeHouse is unique: its children receive an education unlike anything else that is offered in the UK, which is why those of us involved with the school are so passionate, so evangelical about it. We want TreeHouse to become bigger, and we want other schools like Tree House to start sprouting up all over the country, and the only way that’s going to happen is if some of us start shouting. I’m not much of a shouter by nature, but Speaking with the Angel is my way of at least raising my voice. I can see that what is being provided for the majority of these seventy-six thousand children is hopelessly inadequate, and I want to give other parents the same opportunities that Danny has had – or at least help to create a climate wherein these opportunities are regarded as important.
And of course, of course, there are other charities, and other problems, some of them worse than this, if such things can be quantified in that way, and other autistic organizations that would kill for the money that this book is going to raise. But I can’t worry about any of that. All I can say is that this book will change a family’s life for the better – a real, specific family, and if you want, you can write to me c/o Penguin Books and I’ll write back with the name of that family. As a result of Speaking with the Angel, TreeHouse will be able to expand, which means that there will be a couple of extra places for autistic children. And because the teachers there know what they are doing, and have at their disposal ways to make these children happier, more expressive, more confident, less frustrated, then the awful worry and exhaustion of bringing up an autistic child will be made a lot easier for a few lucky parents. Oh, I know it’s not much. But nothing’s much, if you look at it like that, and all that any of us who care about autistic kids can do for the time being is to try to carve a few school places out of nowhere.
My son has a friend now, a little boy in his class called Toby, whom he loves, and enjoys seeing and spending time with. There are some autistic kids who get no particular pleasure out of seeing or being with their parents, so a friendship of this kind is remarkable, unexpected, a constant joy to those who witness it. And he’s generally calmer, especially in social situations, and he’s beginning to play with his toys, and he’s finally learning how to use a toilet … None of this would have happened if he hadn’t been able to attend this one, particular, special school.