Befriending

Empathy is difficult. It’s harder when the person with which you’re trying to empathise has a brain wired in a way that’s not only completely different to yours, but limited in its ability to perform certain socially crucial functions.

Picture yourself stood amongst a roomful of senior Oxbridge neurophysicists, engaging in a pacey debate as to some incomprehensible intricacy of molecular mechanics: the wrenching awkwardness you’d feel being faced by an impenetrably complex social event – you hardly dare attempt an approach, never mind offer up conversation.

I’m sure you’ve got the gist, but we’re going to go a little further.

Imagine that this roomful represents the overwhelming majority of people in the world you live in.

Every interaction is too fast; manner of speech too complicated; subject matter too complex.

Outside of your family, the people you engage with are mostly paid to do so.

Those with whom you try to engage are often awkward and the conversation fleeting.

Where do you even start?

Being a person on the autistic spectrum and/or with an intellectual disability is difficult.

To better word that statement: people on the autistic spectrum and/or with an intellectual disability find it difficult just ‘being.’

Stuff we don’t even think about: crossing the road, putting on a jumper when it’s cold, eating when hungry, reading signs, following conversation, picking up on social cues, speaking (!) – all of these essential and, for the majority, automated functions are hugely trialing for these people.

For more than a year, I’ve been hanging out with a guy facing such daily struggles as part of the ‘Befriending’ scheme organised by Autism Guernsey and Guernsey Mencap.

His name’s Mark, and he’s a few years older than me, likes cars and bikes, loves a chat and loves life in general.

In point of fact, we’ve both a penchant for head-banging to heavy metal (aggressively and in unison), trying out new activities, spending time exploring out and about and just talking about anything and everything: we’re perfectly similar friends. But, from a purely intellectual standpoint, couldn’t be more dissimilar.

The biggest thing I had to get over before signing up to the scheme was my pretensions as to people with disabilities that are ‘invisible’ – “Won’t it be awkward? What do I say? Should I speak slower? Christ, isn’t that condescending?” And so on, ad infinitum.

Mark and I ate some lunch and wandered about the harbour in our first outing in June of last year.
Mark and I ate some lunch and wandered about the harbour in our first outing in June of last year.

One can find such pretenses build themselves in to a mental block – “I could never do that!” “I just don’t know how you do it!”

It’s completely illusory.

I count Mark as one of closest friends. He has the same outlook on life as I: it’s too short not to be doing something or talking to someone, so you’ll find me doing one or the other. The salient difference is just that you won’t find him writing or articulating that sentiment. Or understanding the word ‘sentiment.’ So what, eh?

An intellectual disparity doesn’t cheapen a friendship. For me, it’s cemented it: the infinitesimally small ‘problems’ you have to overcome, the anxieties you discuss and assuage and the fun times you have together mean more because it isn’t straightforward. (Disclaimer: it can be a fecking nightmare!)

Mark, unlike many on the island, has a loving family and network of supportive people (I swear the boy has a fan club), but he didn’t have something that you don’t crave unless it’s missing: the ability to just ‘be’ with somebody the same age and gender as you. Chill out. Chat shit. Listen to music. Burp. Laugh. Chirp. Be silly, have fun, feel good.

Mark5

A relative of his said to me that, “it is great for him to be spending time with someone who isn’t related to him or paid for it!”

This is the crux of the issue. The onus should be on us, as able-bodied and able-minded individuals, to give people like Mark a quality of life experience equal or at least akin to ours.

I just rattled out these few hundred words whilst emailing, phoning, texting, talking, buying, eating, typing, writing and whatever else (not quite all at once). I’ve had more interaction, activity and engagement in the last couple of hours of my life than too many autistic Guerns my age would get in a week (or more) of theirs.

You can change that.

Selling volunteering by relying purely on the philanthropic, or charitable, instinct of people doesn’t work (I intend to write a piece on why that is).

So, I’m going to tell and sell some of my side of the bargain too. It’s going to sound preachy, perhaps insufferable to some, but it’s going to persuade at least one person to take the plunge and sign up to this so I couldn’t give a flying shit.

NO LONGER GIVING A FLYING SHIT

With the wider perspective afforded by watching a person struggle through simple tasks – I mean so simple they’d only ever comprise one of a three-part multitasking effort – you start caring a bit less.

The unreliability of the Wi-Fi connection in the coffeeshop this afternoon has frustrated me. Enough so, despite being a British national, that I went to ‘have a word.’

Now, I think of how frustrating it must be to have something to say and have not the vocabulary or capacity to word it.

Worse, still, if you have nobody to say it to. How cripplingly lonely and hopeless must that make a person feel?

Perspective: widened.

Shits given about how you [look/sound/smell/didn’t rake in half as many likes as Claire’s picture despite taking about fourty of them to find ‘the one’]: lessened.

People who are struggling to live a life that has meaning and joy matter more to me than how I appear to other people. I don’t care that what’s-her-face said something about me, I don’t care about the snooty stare a pinstriped prick’s just shot me on account of my head tattoo and I care so much less about people taking the piss out of this article than the small band of people who act upon it and change someone’s life, and their own, immeasurably for the better.

Superficiality is fucking meaningless.

Despite being fairly active on Facebook, I can only recall twice sharing anything in respect of my volunteership. Mostly because it used to piss me off sensing the severity of narcissism when Clive you went to school with posts some self-indulgent bull about how he shaved his pubes for charity, raised fifty quid and the profile of some already-established charity, thinking he’s fecking Bono.

With the liberty of keeping my flying shits, I don’t mind championing a charitable cause at risk of sounding self-righteous or holier-than-thou. I’m certainly not holier than anyone and I really, really don’t do a lot – the bare minimum (having your girlfriend come home after a seven hour nonstop shift supporting the severely disabled has taught me that much).

I just spend a few hours a week making a mate’s life much more enjoyable. Why would you not sacrifice an hour of your Sunday to do that?

Today's piece in the Guernsey Press
Today’s piece in the Guernsey Press

GIVING A FLYING SHIT 

Woaaah, but dude, you just said the opposite thing?! PATIENCE.

Knowing the plight (I hate to use that word, but it is perfectly appropriate) of those born with differently wired brains or intellectual capacities to mine matters to me.

My family matters to me, my friends matter to me and Mark really matters to me.

Many a shit will be flown on their account. Not because of guilt or glory, but because I actually care about somebody other than myself now.

Volunteering’s a choice, I want to help

Give it a shot and you’ll develop that want too.

Mark’s taught me too much to ever do justice in a couple of hour’s worth of hungover typing, which I assure you is only being done on account of (a cocainesque caffeine high and) the debt I owe this man for having given me something more important than any lottery winner or Dan fucking Bilzerian can buy.

My greatest life achievement will be persuading one of you to befriend someone through this scheme.


If you would like to find out more about the Befriending scheme or wish to sign up, ping an email to befriending@autismguernsey.org.gg and the Befriending Co-Ordinator (delightful and inspirational lady) will be glad to help.

You commit four hours of your month (say, an hour a week) for a year, you’re trained by experienced professionals and then ‘matched’ with a ‘befriendee’ after having met them and mutually agreed to said match. Personally, I started with an hour or two on Sundays which increased to a couple of hours on Tuesdays, few hours on Sunday and whatever pops up in between,

If you’d rather just chat it over, feel free to ping me an email on liamapollodoherty@gmail.com

Just liking and sharing this piece on social media will be massive help.

Thank you in advance, have a lovely evening and Happy Tuesday x

@ApolloDoherty

Jack Falla Racing – Burning Treads and Turning Heads.

Jack Falla

Jack Falla is the highest-flying, fastest-driving Guernsey sportsman you may not and should have heard of.

He has shot from zero to sixty in as short a time as one could feasibly manage in a sport where champions are incubated at ludicrously young ages: Lewis Hamilton – coming off the back of a commanding win at the Italian Grand Prix this month – was racing competitively at eight years old; Jack’s very first experience of circuit racing was at twenty-two.

He’s spent twelve hours travelling the length of the country after a gruelling weekend racing in Scotland before this interview; I expect a modicum of patience to be lost with me for my ignorance with respect to his career and sport, especially as I open with the tedious “how did you get in to…” question.

Not so. On holiday to Australia in 2009, fate steered Jack toward his future profession in romantic fashion: “My friend owned a Formula Ford team”, Jack starts, a little nonchalant, “he was testing a load of drivers and he said to pop down to the track, so I borrowed a helmet and drove a racecar for the first time in my life.” Shortly thereafter, a driver in the team dropped out with two races left in the season; Jack was asked, “do you fancy jumping in?”

“And that was that; my holiday in Australia was over!” Jack laughs animatedly. And so it was, with only a handful of hours’ experience driving a supercar, Jack was offered his seat – his debut. Against all odds and in miserably wet conditions, “I came ninth out of a thirty car grid having never raced or trained properly in my life” – a seemingly modest but contextually outrageous feat, moreso as Jack went on to finish eleventh out of another thirty car grid in the following race, proving the first was no fluke.

Jack battling Ryan Cullen round a Belgian circuit
Jack battling Ryan Cullen round a Belgian circuit

It’s in the context of the sport’s ferocious competitiveness, in which entire lives are consumed to shave off that make-or-break tenth of a second, that Jack’s casual ascendance can be realised for what it is: nothing short of astounding.

“From 2009 to 2013 I did nothing. I did those two races”, Jack tells me with an understandable annoyance; raw talent wasn’t enough to capitalise on his success without being ‘in the know’. “Then in 2013 my friend said to me, ‘have you not done anything with your racing? We’re running GT3s in Australia soon, would you consider driving?’”

Jack’s initiation in to GT3 racing wasn’t so much romantic as grounding and grafting. The romance was certainly lost in the initial test circuit after his four-year hiatus, run in preparation for his first season in Australia’s Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge 2013. With his new teammates clocking laps of a minute, Jack’s first lap reflected his lacking experience: he was fifteen seconds slower, which may as well be light-years at this level. “It was that slow, it wouldn’t have even qualified me to race”, Jack says, laughing. “I spent everyday that week down the track learning to drive this car. It was a completely different beast”.

Jack paints a toilsome picture before saying, “by the end of the week, I was just off the track record for a GT3 car and finished the season fifth in Pro Class”. First season, age 24, no experience and already finishing just out of reach of the podium; it would beckon Jack after a season of near-miss finishes in the podium’s shadow as he went on to finish third overall and first in his class in the Perth 300 endurance race; “a great memory” and vindication after a hard first season in the deep end.

Jack’s work ethic is exemplary and his regimen comprehensive, which he paints as necessary to have a puncher’s chance at ‘making it’ in circuit racing with his relative “lack of experience”. I ask what it is he thinks gives him the edge over his peers in terms of training, Jack pleasantly surprises me with, “things like visualisation, mindfulness, yoga, meditation; I think they’re as important to me as actually being in the car and training.” We agree on the underappreciated benefits of such techniques – and that we can’t envisage many of the more party-prone F1 drivers employing them.

Though Jack made head-turning inroads during Australia’s Porsche GT3 2013 season, the commute to and from the land down under proved unsustainable. Jack bowed out of the 2014 season, racing only thrice, again with a fifth place finish in the frustrating downwind of champagne spray. The travel is arduous enough without the cross-hemisphere travel, Jack tells me, “it becomes a chore very quickly. Moving to three hotel rooms a week, it gets lonely; you miss the normality of family life; seeing Kirsty and the boys”.

Finding Tenths
‘Finding tenths’ (figuratively) on the road

Jack, perhaps unlike many sporting stars his age, is a dedicated family man. He tells me the support from his partner and four-month and seven-year old boys, Otto and Seve, has been steadfast despite the obvious risks – ever-present with recent deaths in the sport – and “ups and downs of racing”, which are as dramatic as they are unforgiving. “They want me to succeed as much as I do. Otto’s too young to know what’s going on, but Seve absolutely loves it. Kirsty knows the risks involved but she trusts me. You can’t jump in a car thinking of the risks and ‘what-ifs’; she knows I’m a clean driver and I rarely make mistakes”. This is evident in Jack’s consistent finishing down to the consistency of his lap times; Jack sums it up with: “I treat every lap like my qualifying lap”.

Jack didn’t lose the momentum he gained throughout 2014 as he did in 2009. He was contacted by Porsche Carrera Cup GB 2014 winners, Redline Racing, with an invitation to drive a test circuit for the 2015 championship, and the rest is history: again in fairy-tale fashion, Jack’s test was behind the wheel of a car he’d never driven, in torrential rain, around an unfamiliar circuit. Despite this, he was the first driver signed by any team for the Carrera Cup GB 2015 season, to last season’s winning team no less.

“My relationship with Redline is like family”, Jack says in no uncertain terms or tone, “there are sixteen other team members; it’s these guys who don’t get enough credit for the work they do. My personal mechanic is like my best friend, he ensures my car is on the grid every race and he will do whatever it takes to fix any damage caused regardless. He’s the guy who belts me up and the last person I have physical contact with while I’m sat on the grid before the race. We have a strong bond”. One can sense the intensity, the sheer anticipation; become infected by the adrenaline’s potency.

Consolidating one and a half seasons-worth of experience; securing hard-won sponsorship deals and advanced training equipment; backed by the Porsche Carrera Cup GB 2014 winning team; and racing circuits just one short flight rather than several long-hauls from Guernsey – the world’s his oyster.

Indeed it remains his oyster, but despite a first season studded with stand-out performances and several podium finishes, it has been beset by setbacks. “It’s a heart-breaking feeling when you are working so hard for the finish you desire and deserve”, Jack admits matter-of-factly, “but I look at the positive and realise not many people get four podium finishes in their first year”. Hugely creditable, with the liberty of context, but as it stands, Jack sits in an unrepresentative fifth in his class of ProAM1 (he overqualified himself for the more rookie-appropriate ProAM2 with a blazing test circuit) in the knowledge that he could, should and would have been higher were it not for a plague of bad luck.

Written Off
The remains of Jack’s metallic stallion

He’s suffered four major and unavoidable setbacks this season already: the first courtesy of a backmarker (a racer who’s been lapped) wiping out Jack whilst he was running seventh overall; the second, in which he was leading his class, the driver in front lost control before Jack collided with him at pace, resulting in his car being written off, missing the next race (the third setback) and suffering a severe concussion; the fourth, the weekend before I meet Jack, he was battling for second in his class before the competing car span through a corner and wiped Jack out. He was sixth-tenths of a second off of pole position – first overall.

So there’s a large and well-weighted asterisk above the fifth place he currently occupies; a position in which he risks being downwind of the champagne he deserves and has worked so hard to be spraying. Jack seems cool and unfazed – “I’m not going backwards, that’s for sure”, Jack reassures me, perhaps as much as himself. “That’s racing. Knowing I could have done nothing to stop what’s happened”, shrugs Jack, “I leave the track, and if there’s any negativity, I leave it on the track”. Wise words, easily talked but harder to walk.

So where from here?

Jack maintains a sustainable, though not always ideal, balance between his career and his family life (and sanity). “I would literally love to pack up everything and escape the chaos, the stress, the highs and lows of racing”, Jack tells me longingly, implying there’s much more to be achieved before he does. I ask Jack what he does to decompress, or if he’s any hobby with which to wind down. “I love motorbikes. Building and restoring old bikes; it’s very therapeutic’, Jack assures me, with my eyebrows raised; the intricacies of mechanical construction after a day’s work don’t strike me as ‘therapeutic.’ “Hmmm, Kirsty can feel a little neglected”, jokes Jack, “I’d like to play tennis or golf too but I’m just consumed by everything else – especially kids!” Jack’s good humour should surely be flashing on reserve after the weekend’s collision and full day of driving, flying and sailing.

The ecstatic podium peaks can contrast taxingly with frustrating troughs; “It always feels, just as I’m taking the next step up the ladder, something takes me down three steps”, Jack says uncharacteristically. “Well, that’s racing!” That’s more like it. “I believe if I’d have finished every race, I’d be in the top three, without a doubt. I still do have time to be in the top three, but it doesn’t give me any room for error – I have to be perfect”.

Podium
Imbibed after the race, Jack assures me…

With perfection the goal, where Jack goes from here is by no means set in the stars, but gauging his boundless determination, dedication and enthusiasm, I’d say it’s undoubtedly up.

You can catch Jack competing in the penultimate round of the Porsche Carrera Cup GB next weekend on ITV4 and support him by liking, commenting and sharing this piece using the social media icons below.

Jack Falla can be followed on:

Twitter – @JackWilliamGF

Instagram – @falla87

Facebook – www.facebook.com/fallasport


Like these words? If you’d like to see some more about a worthy story or subject, why not contact me on liamapollodoherty@gmail.com, which you can also use to send feedback, fan and hate mail.

Thank you for the continued support, enjoy our dwindling days of sunshine over the weekend and Happy Friday!

@ApolloDoherty