A world both grand and small: the beauty of Brambly Hedge

My childhood was one filled with books. In my spare time, I was usually found doing one of two things: drawing, or reading. My parents don’t remember teaching me to read; I just did it. And from an early age, my world, my life, and my head were all filled with stories.

I had various favourites over the years, but there was one series in particular that especially captured my imagination, and whose appeal outlasted many others: the Brambly Hedge books by Jill Barklem.

This was, a series of gently-evocative stories centred on a close-knit, rural community of mice. One story each for every season of the year, with a handful of additional tales; the Hedge’s customs, traditions, feast days, and way of life documented in a descriptive style that was both reassuring and exciting to me.

Part of the appeal, for me, was the rural setting. I grew up in a village, and – when not reading or drawing – was often out paddling in streams, climbing trees, or picking blackberries, just like many of the inhabitants of Brambly Hedge. I loved the outdoors, and the countryside, and felt an affinity with this world.

And the illustrations. Oh, the illustrations. Delicious Victorian-esque period detail. Tantalising depictions of cakes, pies, puddings and other delicacies. Perfect capture of the flora of the Hedge; each plant, flower, or fruit instantly recognisable. The essence of both the grand and the everyday. An entire world captured visually on a scale that was at the same time both immense and minute. Brambly Hedge was presented to me in such glorious, beautiful intricacy that I felt fully immersed in this world-in-miniature. Captivating artwork, at the same time both full of detail and full of heart and soul.

My parents thought highly of this series, and kept hold of our volumes – all hardback, some a little tatty with their dust-jackets missing, but otherwise cherished and taken good care of; far more so than many of our other books. These stories were well-loved, but they were also precious to my brother and me. And it was such a joy to me when my mum brought them out for me to begin reading to my daughter. And they have captured her imagination too.

Yesterday evening, my hyperlexic four-year-old (she was reading fluently at two-and-a-half) had chosen The Secret Staircase as her bedtime story. She has chosen it many times before. As always, she repeatedly interjected and interrupted my narration, journeying off on her own verbal flights of fancy inspired by the words, or eager to stop and examine an illustration close-up, for a little while longer, before turning the page. And though it was bedtime, and my daughter needs time to become calm and settle herself before sleep, such was my love of this story that I was bloody well encouraging her.

I’ve always been preoccupied with patterns, networks, and connections. I have, at various points in my life, created my own imaginary worlds as a way to entertain myself. And the layout – the topography, the landscape, the floor plans of buildings – have always been a hugely important aspect of this visualisation. I always have to make the physics, geometry, and geography of an imagined place “work in my head”. This can become quite an obsession at times.

It’s hard to convey the wonder of Barklem’s illustrations, and I don’t want to reproduce the images here without permission (but take a look round Pinterest, and you can find thousands – these books are clearly a passion for many). But one of the most magical, wonderful features of the Brambly Hedge books is the use of “cross-sections” through the trees, hills, and burrows that the mice use for their homes. A slice through Dusty Dogwood‘s flour mill, the Store Stump, or Crabapple Cottage, depicting the layout of the rooms, staircases, stores, entrances and exits – rather like a woodland doll’s house opened up for play, only ever more intricate.

And one of the things I loved to do as a young girl was to “cross-reference” the images – examining a particular room in a large cross-section image from one book, and then going to off to try and find a larger, close-up depiction of the same room in another volume. I never had one, but I would have loved to have seen a map of the entire Brambly Hedge landscape; nevertheless, the interconnectedness of the images allowed me to damn near conjure this up for myself, in my own mind’s eye. In this way, Brambly Hedge appealed to my holistic-yet-drilled-down, helicopter/magnifying-glass, “pattern” way of looking at the world.

And this evening I found myself doing it again – ignoring the need to calm things down and bring my daughter back to earth in time for bed, because on seeing one glorious cross-section of Old Oak Palace yet again, the need to go hunting for close-up images of its rooms in the other books was too exciting for me to ignore.

And my daughter gets carried away with it all too. At weekends, when we’re out in one of our favourite parks (which we have to do at least once every weekend – familiarity is important to my little girl), the beautiful mature deciduous trees become the homes of her own community of mice. We pretend to shrink down to mouse-size so we can join them for acorn coffee and a slice of cake. We make-believe our attendance at mouse birthday parties and mouse afternoon teas.

These stories – both words and pictures – fulfil a need for my daughter and me to think simultaneously big and small.

Other books similarly quench this thirst.

For my daughter, Sadie the Airmail Pilot, by Kellie Strøm – though vastly different in its illustration style from the homeliness of Brambly Hedge – is similarly evocative in its highly intricate, complex and detailed illustrations of transport hubs, cityscapes, and diverse weather systems and habitats around the world.

For me, the written descriptions of structures, buildings and landscapes in megascale in the science fiction novels of Iain (M) Banks serve a similar purpose; as do any fantasy or SF novels in which worlds are mapped out (I have to say, however, that I probably like the idea of Middle-Earth more than I actually like Tolkien‘s writing).

But Brambly Hedge was my first love.

I’ve realised there are a couple of books in the series that we don’t yet own. And I must seek them out, for my own enjoyment as much as that of my daughter. Revisiting these stories after so many years feels like coming home. And being able to share these stories with my little girl, and to see how they fill her with such enthusiasm, excitement, and inspiration, is, to me, the most comforting and yet utterly magical thing.

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So it turns out that I was never an extrovert after all…

In the early days of this blog – just one day, in fact, before I was assessed for, and received, my official diagnosis – I wrote a post about how I considered myself to be not an introvert but an “autistic extrovert“. I now realise that I was mistaken.

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, but other topics have either piqued my interest more keenly, or simply got in the way and hassled me for their attention. There are times when I simply have to write about a thing, even if it means veering completely off-track from my original blogging plans (believe me, I have a list as long as my own arm of potential posts I’ll get around to writing at some point…).

About a month ago, I decided to undertake some online Myers-Briggs personality type tests. These seem to be a bit of a ‘thing’ amongst the #actuallyautistic community, especially on Twitter, and having communicated with a few fellow autistics who’d identified their “personality types”, I was intrigued to do the same.

I set about searching for some free tests to take. The first one that attracted my attention was the 16 Personalities quiz. I liked the format of it – the fact the questions involved Likert-type scales rather than selecting black-or-white, either/or answers. I struggle with decision-making, and am very rarely absolute.

But I had a problem. I couldn’t help but over-analyse every single question. I got lost in thinking far too deeply, and for far too long, on everything that was asked of me. For certain questions – particularly those relating to interactions with others – I really couldn’t tell whether I was being truly honest with myself or not.

The result came back: ENFJ. “The Protagonist“. An extrovert if ever there was one.

And yeah, sure; some of it seemed to make sense. I mean, really make sense. For instance, this personality type has:

a tremendous capacity for reflecting on and analyzing their own feelings, but if they get too caught up in another person’s plight, they can develop a sort of emotional hypochondria, seeing other people’s problems in themselves, trying to fix something in themselves that isn’t wrong.

But I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that it wasn’t quite correct. I like to think of myself as a “passionate altruist”, and I do find it “natural and easy to communicate with others” in certain contexts. But something didn’t quite sit right.

And so I did what any social media addict does when they’re puzzled by something. I posted about it on Twitter. I got a few more recommendations back from fellow users, and this time decided to go with gut instinct, and to complete the tests more quickly, with less conscious thought. And the results?

25 questions? INFJ.

Quistic? INFJ, once again.

My scores breakdowns told me I wasn’t quite as introverted as some; nevertheless, it appeared I was not the extrovert I thought myself to be. I decided to ignore the tests for a bit, and simply look at some descriptions for the INFJ personality type. And this particular description seemed to fit me like a glove.

They tend to feel happiest and most fulfilled when helping and enlightening others through their insights.

This is me. On the internet. All the time. Often it becomes a mission to research someone’s problem, find answers, and provide my own insights and experience. There are times when I can’t rest until I’ve provided my input to someone, if I can see that it will help them. It can become something of an obsession. And often, having promised to help someone, I don’t have the time, energy, to capacity to do so.

The guilt I feel at such times is truly immense.

I often focus on helping others at the expense of my own need for self-care. I’m learning, these days, that sometimes I must let things go.

INFJs also enjoy listening to music, watching movies and television, and engaging with people. Perhaps more than anything, they love spending time engrossed in meaningful conversation[…]

Me as well.

Yes, I am chatty. I’m often loud. I’m certainly not shy. I like to dance. Often. In the middle of the dance floor. I’m completely at ease when giving presentations and teaching sessions to sometimes very large groups of people.

But none of these things makes me a true extrovert. Introversion isn’t shyness. It doesn’t necessarily mean being always as meek and quiet as a mouse. It turns out, I was confusing my outward behaviours with the true definitions of introverts and extroverts – I was ignoring what goes on within.

Like every true introvert, my energy levels are depleted from too much social interaction. I draw energy and life force, recharging my batteries, from time spent alone.

So why had I got it so wrong? I seemed to have such a shaky sense of who I was. And I think this had come about from years, and years, and years, of trying to be someone I was not. Of not knowing quite how to be, and so adopting the traits of those around me; observing, absorbing, and imitating. Of being the person I felt other people wanted me to be, because I had no idea how to be myself. Yes, I am pretty sociable. I’ve done my fair share of partying in my time. I’ve enjoyed performing so often in my life. But I’ve so often forced myself to do far more of all this than was ever healthy for me. I’ve done things that felt unnatural to me because I didn’t know anything different.

Because a key part of me was not visible until this year.

A short while after my exploration of the Myers-Briggs type indicators, a fellow blogger and Twitter user (who writes a rather fantastic blog), conducted a Twitter survey of fellow #actuallyautistic users, asking them their personality types. The suggested quiz to use was the 16 Personalities test I’d tried before; the one that had yielded my dubious ENFJ result.

And so I re-visited it, this time giving my answers according to gut instinct; to “what felt right”, rather than what I’d been doing for years because I felt it was expected of me and because it was that I was accustomed to doing, regardless of my inner convictions.

The result? An emphatic INFJ. “The Advocate“. This, at last, made sense.

There aren’t many INFJs around in the world. I quite like that. I’m not into the idea of being a “special snowflake”, but I’m something of a non-conformist, and being a little different from the norm is something that comes naturally. It is my norm.

Of course, these are just online quizzes. They’re subjective. Your answers might be different on any given day, depending on circumstances, how you’re feeling, and so on. But – as with my autism self-discovery – the more I found out about the INFJ personality type, the more I realised it fit.

Personality types aren’t the absolute end of who we are. Humans are complicated. I’ve written before – exploring our relationships with information, and the (as I see it) misuse of the word “symptoms” – about how our behaviour is merely an outward manifestation of the internal.

My autism manifests itself in a manner specific only to me; the same is also true for my introversion. As it is for my femaleness, my whiteness, my living-in-the-North-of-England-ness, and so on. All of these things are elements of who I am, they are influenced by the particular circumstances in which I was born and have lived my life, and they are all interconnected.

But I feel a lot closer now to understanding who I am.

As introverts go, I’m a pretty loud one. And I’m certainly not at the extreme, introverted end of any introvert-extrovert spectrum. But that’s just me. Whether that makes me an “atypical introvert” or not, I now feel that it, and I, make far more sense.

Can you ever tell?

This morning, I walked to work, as usual. The weather, the subject of so much small talk on the at times beautiful but still beleaguered isle I call home, was sleety. Wet. Grey. Cold-but-not-that-cold.

And yet, on cars, gardens, and rooftops, there were the still remnants of a light coverage of real snow from the night before. And the sleet, as it fell, still looked like snow. It still fell in that ever-so-erratic, drifting, languid manner that differentiates snow from rain.

Rather than paying attention to the world around me, as I normally do, I was wrapped up in gloomy thoughts on the breaking election results from a country across the ocean from my own.

As I walked along one of the unbroken rows of terraced housing close to my workplace, a boy walked up the path from his front door, out onto the street. Late primary age. Nine or ten years of age, at a guess. Wrapped up against the cold. Thick, black waterproof coat. Bright green bag.

He walked slightly in front of me, and I heard him humming, and possibly talking softly, to himself. I saw him look up at the falling sleet as he walked. His glance was more than a glance – a prolonged, fascinated gaze upwards as he moved. He was far more intent on the sky above than on the route in front of him.

I wondered.

I saw him run a finger through the melting icing-sugar dusting on a car roof, scoop up a little of the white, cold stuff, and hold it in his hands as he walked along, gazing down at it as he moved.

I wondered.

I caught up with him, and passed him. My legs were much longer than his, my stride taking me further more quickly; plus, I was used to needing to get to work on a tight schedule.

I walked in front of him, flicking my fingers (as I often do when I walk, and when no-one’s around), subtly, but perhaps a little more visibly than at times. I neared a garden with a particularly beautiful acer tree, and stopped to inspect the sparkling snow remnants still encrusting the bright red leaves. I cocked my head to one side slightly as I did so, the better to examine more closely the beautiful detail of what I saw in front of me. My glance was more than a glance – a prolonged, fascinated gaze at the flame-bright, bejewelled foliage.

The boy passed me and looked back at me.

He smiled at me. Not the kind of smile I’d expect from most kids of his age, on encountering a person flicking their fingers and gazing close-up at leaves with their head cocked at an angle. He was surely old enough to think my behaviour a little odd. But he appeared not to.

I smiled back.

He carried on walking and, moments later, so did I. We parted ways. I watched his darting, but ever-so-slightly swaying, bobbing gait as he walked away.

I wondered.

Can he tell?

Can you ever tell?

Am I reading too much into the situation?

There seemed to be some solidarity there. Some shared joy in the fascinating details of the everyday, its mundaneness altered somewhat by the change in weather. Some acknowledgement.

Did it matter whether or not both of us shared the same neurotype?

It was nice to think we might possibly have done. It’s always a little surprising, and a source of joy, to come across one of “your own”. But, of course, autistic people do not have the monopoly on fascination with the fine details of our surroundings.

We read what we want to read from a situation.

Even so, to see someone else revelling in the beauty of the everyday was an utter joy to me on such a cold, wet, miserable morning.

[Featured image: ‘Acer’, by coniferconifer]