Autism, Work & Me Part Five: A Digression, No. 1

My paternal grandad was born 26th of June 1903 to a mining family in the working-class village of Hasland in Northeast Derbyshire. The family moved to Shirebrook, also in Northeast Derbyshire in 1908 and grandad remained there until he was married in 1926. These were the days of poverty and hardship in general and although great grandad and his two brothers were contractor track layers, effectively self-employed, for the local colliery, there wasn’t much money to spare. Grandad, having initially started work as a barber’s apprentice, found himself working on the coalface of the local colliery and remain there until illness made him take an early retirement. He died in 1963 of cancer. 

From an early age, grandad showed an interest in music. There was a piano in the house, probably some old family item handed down. Money being tight, he was only ever able to have one lesson. Thereafter he taught himself through Ezra Read’s Easy Pianoforte Tutor, published around 1897. 

Ezra Read, born 1862 in Staffordshire, came from a working-class family, his father being a locksmith. Ezra became an apprentice blacksmith, but his skills as a pianist were such that he was able to develop a career as a pianist. Although not world renowned, he was a very accomplished pianist and composer, composing several hundred pieces over the course of his career, much of which is still around. He moved to Shirebrook in 1912, following the death of his wife and lived out his life there until his death of cancer in 1922. 

I would like to think that that one and only piano lesson that grandad had was with Ezra Read. I can’t put a date on that first and only lesson, but grandad would’ve been around nine years old when Ezra moved to Shirebrook. Ezra also played at the local music hall, The Empire, which was barely a five-minute walk from grandad’s home, so he would have known of Ezra. Grandad developed into a talented pianist and worked weekends as an accompanist to the artists who performed at the local Miners’ Welfare club.  

I believe grandad to have been autistic. I have no absolute proof, but his son, my dad, displayed autistic traits through his life in his focussed skills and particular behaviours and, of course, I have an official diagnosis. Genetically the likelihood that grandad was autistic is quite clear to me, but here are the clues: He was highly intelligent despite an inadequate education, he had to leave school at 13 years old to go to work, not unusual in those days. He was self-taught, via a book, in the piano, although he couldn’t play by ear, he needed the sheet music before him, but he could sight-read and whistle or hum any tune placed before him without having heard it or seen it beforehand. He was fixed in his thinking and beliefs, struggled with socialising with grandma’s extended family. He also had bouts of being on non-speaking terms after rows with grandma; dad felt that he struggled with communicating his own quite literal thoughts and understanding grandma’s more overt emotional preferences, his intelligence over her homely pragmatism. Finally, despite his dexterity on the piano, he couldn’t transfer those skills to basic tasks, being quite clumsy and lacking coordination. 

Another pianist at this time was Charlie Kunz. An American, he came to England in 1921 and settled here. Known as the ‘Medley King’ he thrived and was a well-respected artist on the British music scene until his death in 1958.  Several years ago, dad bought a CD of Charlie’s recordings. He said he was taken with how much grandad must have been influenced by Charlie’s style, for when he listened to the CD, he was taken back to the times he sat and listened to grandad rehearsing his repertoire, such was the similarity. 

And the point of this digression from the usual format of this blog series? Grandad was a child and adult of an era in which the dominant ideology stated that you were born into a certain class and that was your station in life; it was your destiny. Therefore, grandad was born to be a miner and believed that being in the mines was where he was deemed to have to stay. His piano-playing was a sideline, a hobby.  As well as his ability to not only accompany artists at the club, grandad also assembled medleys of popular tunes, composing the links between each one. These he played throughout the evenings he worked and in-between the acts he accompanied. His talent captured the interest of a number of professional musicians and artists such that he was offered lucrative opportunities to turn professional and work as a session musician. All of which he turned down in the belief that to accept would mean he was rising above his station. 

Part Five Commentary:

Fixed beliefs are nothing new and would appear to be almost acceptable in an appropriate context, such as moral codes and ethics and personal values. But what do we do with a fixed belief when it becomes a limiting belief? A limiting belief where all that is possible to you, or your client is denied or left unexplored? 

What would a lesson in understanding limiting beliefs reveal and what could we do to resolve them for the best? Are we destined to be defined by a belief that we are only where we are due to the circumstances into which we were born? Can interests, hobbies and special gifts, when exploited appropriately, be the gateway to a different and better world? 

Next time, in part six of The Accidental Achiever: Come Fly With Me

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