When James Cook’s daughter was nearly one, he began to suspect that she wasn’t simply a ‘late bloomer’, as he and his wife were telling friends and family. Emily was strongly taken by images and patterns around the house, had a marked response to music, but never pointed at anything, and hadn’t crawled yet.
At the age of two-and-a-half, after months of invasive tests, Emily was finally diagnosed with severe autism, and everything changed.
Forced to embark on a fraught journey from denial to acceptance, James discovered the multi-faceted link between music and autism, and how singing and playing guitar for Emily could provide a unique form of communication.
In Her Room is an extraordinary and heartbreaking story of a father’s attempts to connect with his daughter, and how music can help bridge the divide.
The Colour of Spring
I’ve been singing the Beatles’ ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ to Emily at bedtime. It seems to calm her; the long, even metre of the opening notes sound madrigal-like when sung a cappella. I do this while brushing her teeth, me sitting on the edge of the bath; her tiny body perched upon my knees. She opens her mouth like a cuckoo, makes a soft sound of appreciation – ah – as she tastes the minty toothpaste. Sometimes she copies a note, and I pat my hand over her mouth to make a sort of holler: wo wo wo wo wo. It makes her laugh, but then I realise it’s the only reciprocal thing she does, and I feel panic.
After I’ve put her to bed, I contemplate playing an album. The plan to listen to new music – while keeping a record of Emily’s milestones – has been a dismal failure, and I decide to quietly abandon it.
At the weekend, I read in the paper that novelist Henning Mankell couldn’t read new books after his cancer diagnosis, only the ones he’d loved all his life. And so I decide, from now on, to listen only to the old music.
When I was seventeen, my favourite band was Talk Talk. Once a moderately successful early-80s British synth-pop outfit, they had evolved, during a short space of time, into something rather different. The LP they released that year, 1986, The Colour of Spring, was experimental, melancholy, and, in stark contrast to their earlier incarnation – and most of the rest of the charts – featured many ‘real’ instruments.
With late January becoming almost spring-like, I look for my vinyl copy of the record. It seems to have vanished, so I search YouTube, and find Tim Pope’s video for my favourite tune on the album, the big single, ‘Life’s What You Make It’. I click ‘play’. A tight close up of a piano keyboard appears, just the black notes – huge, polished leviathans reflecting a ghostly, blueish light. Silence. A bug – a woodlouse, perhaps – clambers over the edge of one, a tiny mountaineer. There is still no sound, just a background thrum of what could be insects in a forest at night.
The track bursts into life. A wide shot reveals a shadowy figure in dark glasses and a suede jacket with turned-up collars: the pianist. He’s struck the first note of the riff at precisely the same moment as the first kick-drum hit. Shivers of pleasure tingle across my upper back and neck. A starburst guitar figure, impossibly high in the mix, explodes from out of nowhere. A scorching, 1960s Hammond organ emerges in the backing layers. The music – with its peculiar blend of optimism and regret – speaks to me as it did when I first heard it in the bedroom of my father’s house, after my parents’ separation. I’m a teenager again: full of restless, youthful enthusiasm, but with a strange core of anxiety.
We see the drummer next: intense, pony-tailed, playing along to a programmed pattern, yet hitting the skins immensely hard, putting his entire bodyweight into the action. And yes, they are indeed outdoors, at night, in a forest. There are moon shadows. It’s cold: there’s condensation on his drums.
Cut away shots reveal wildlife: a glossy centipede crawls – filling the screen; a white owl takes flight; a fox startles. We see these creatures as a child might see them, close up, for the first time. The colours seem to reference the English nineteenth century painter Samuel Palmer, who painted rural night time scenes. Rich blues; muted greens, gleaming silvers.
The pianist is also the singer, and his breath comes out in a cloud as he sings the first word:
Baby . . .
And I suddenly recall how thrilling this pop locution was in such a serious piece of work. He follows it with the title of the song: ‘Life’s What You Make It’. But what I really loved at seventeen was the simplicity of every element, the unerring repetition, the same riff and lyric over and over. The piano motif and vocal melody consist of only a handful of notes, endlessly recycled. The drummer plays no fills at all, a pattern reminiscent of Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’, but also – since I’m now familiar with the 1970s German bands – Can’s Tago Mago.
Towards the halfway mark, massed backing vocals reassure that everything will be ‘all right’. It is the only time a band member – bassist Paul Webb – looks directly into the camera. As the song fades, a pale, misty dawn is coming up; rabbits hop among the ferns.
Suitably ravished, I decide to look for my other favourite on The Colour of Spring, the quiet song that ends side one, a tune that I came back to again and again as a shy, introspective teenager. ‘April 5th’ seems at odds with the rest of the record, yet somehow integrated. A beginning rather than an ending. It is a fragile, impressionistic piece, the song in which Talk Talk accidentally stumble upon their luminous new sound, explored later on the final two albums, Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock. A realisation must have occurred that a tiny brushstroke, a shiver of guitar, or feedback, could produce a huge effect.
I find the clip, and press ‘play’. A dobro acoustic chimes, a swish of percussion repeats. The music proceeds haltingly, suggesting the incremental onset of spring. The vocal – in which it is hard to make out many words – expresses frustration, impatience. The first unformed utterances of a child. And this is why I’m playing it now, and will play it obsessively in the days to come, watching Emily on her play-mat, trying to find the path ahead.
In Her Room: How Music Helped Me Connect With My Autistic Daughter, by James Cook, out 2nd April, RRP £14.99 (Bonnier Books UK)