Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Born On a Blue Day

"I always knew I was different from other children, but it was not until I was eight or nine that I was aware of being lonely. I used to long to be normal but, because I tend to break things down, my sense of self was thousands of fragments of memories that I was trying to piece together. "

Autistic savant writes a memoir. This book has just been released in the United Kingdom and is not due out in the United States until January 2007.


Rehan Qayoom said...


Review of Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet. (Hodder & Stoughton, 2006).

Seeing the Home he’s in ’s made me obsessed
with remembering those verses I once knew
and setting myself this little memory test
I don’t think, at the moment, I’ll come through.
It’s the Memory, Mother of the Muses, bit.
Prometheus, in words I do recall reciting
but can’t quote now, and they’re so apposite,
claiming he gave Mankind the gift of writing,

If we are what we remember, what are they
who don’t have memories as we have ours,
who, when evening falls, have no recall of day,
or who those people were who’d brought them flowers.
The troubled conscience, though, ‘s glad to forget.
Oblivion for some ‘s an inner balm.
They’ve found some peace of mind, not total yet,
as only death itself brings that much calm.

The cover to Daniel Tammet’s new book has numbers on it. In a font which looks as if they’ve been type-written. One cannot resist running one’s fingers over some of the bulging ones on the cover whilst reading the book, trying to guess what they are. I think the number 9 appears more frequently than any other though perhaps Daniel could tell you that before you can count to 9!

It is with pleasure that I can claim to have known Daniel for well over a decade. We have shared some paradisiacal moments together and argued bitterly over the years but most often because I failed to understand him despite the closeness of our friendship. It was just over a year ago I learnt that he had Asperger’s (which I remember as asparagus) and even now, after having read his book, I feel I still do not know much about Savant Syndrome. Almost all good creative artists worth their salt, poets and musicians have lives as socially abnormal outsiders, often leading unreal childhoods doing unusual things and playing unconventional games. I used to be a train running my hand along the playground wall (the edges of its bricks being my track) at school during playtimes picking up invisible passengers along the way. At secondary school during Physical Education lessons Daniel and I would be the last to be picked by the teams and we still never played. I often didn’t do PE, forging notes from my parents – I was always the more daring one. I didn’t get detentions because never turning up; the teachers thought it no point in giving me one. Instead of running home if I was late for school assemblies I would often stand in the corridor and hear the headmaster out and then join the class once assembly was over.

In fact I am very surprised how similar some of the situations I often found myself in as a child were to Daniel’s and how I responded to the feelings I had, something he briefly hints at in his book, but in Daniel it took an exceptional form of mental genius for seeing everything as numerical shapes. That, for me, is what makes Daniel a savant and places him apart from your average creative artist

Pebble-gobbed Demosthenes
Couldn't speak for want of ease

And there is that irresistible quatrain by Tony Harrison called HEREDITY

How you became a poet’s a mystery!
Wherever did you get your talent from?
I say: I had two uncles, Joe and Harry –
One was a stammerer, the other dumb.

I must admit I do think my own long-term memory is exceptionally good and certainly far better than Daniel’s. I can, for instance, recall our first encounter in the school playground and virtually every major detail about all the times we’ve met since and exactly what was said. I can recall entire conversations, sometimes weeks after I’ve had them. I know and can recite thousands of lines of poetry by heart and can usually remember them after having read or heard them the first or second time. So some of what for Daniel may be gargantuan accomplishments were second nature to me. But it is Daniel who has brought out this realisation of such abilities within me and I am sure for many others who perhaps do all their thinking as children and then grow up avoiding it like a danger.

‘Makind cannot bear too much reality’ wrote Eliot. So I don’t believe that Kim Peek or Daniel and other savants have the ability to remember everything. Because, I believe there is such a thing as the sub-conscious mind. The only examples from Peek I have seen are his recollection of the date of Queen Victoria’s ascension to the throne of England and his working out how old Churchill would’ve been if he were still living – Not something that one would expect someone not to know, especially someone with a little education, let alone someone who has spent their entire life studying subjects of historical interest. The human mind also has an ability known as Latent Inhibition - To be able to shut out much of what is sensed, a natural filtering system lest we all be experiencing too much and go madder than we already are.

We did not gather in the gymnasium on our first day at school (as Daniel has written) but in the usual assembly hall while the head teacher read out the names of all the pupils and assigned them to their classes. We gathered in the gymnasium on our first day at the upper section of the school. A separate building where the students went after having completed the first 2 years at the lower site. I, too, was relieved that our classroom was opposite the library and couldn’t wait for break time (which I spent filling in my membership form), and went straight to the library. I also recall the incident with the doughnut as having took place at the upper school one lunchtime (not the lower site which Daniel recalls) because I was with him at the time.

I never took Daniel to see Big Ben, Buckingham Palace or the Tower of London. He told me he had visited the Tower a few years before we met with Kevin Fox, Trevor Cooper, Colin Hems and perhaps Terry Ganning – (His classmates from Dorothy Barley School). Daniel was always very reluctant to travel with me on the underground and the few times we did do it, it was to the mosque in Wimbledon – And once with Jens – The tall guy from Germany. We went to Oxford Street and to see the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum. It was very unsettling for me and I was often frustrated because there was so much that I wanted to show him in London. If only I had known then what I know now. That Daniel just couldn’t do this and was probably as upset and irritated as I was about it when he did. The few times I did succeed in coaxing him into it he was flushed throughout. I wish now, I could’ve helped him overcome a lot of his anxiety sooner but am happy that he has got over that too and recently we had a day out in London and I showed him around London University. We then had lunch at the Poetry Café and made our way to climb Parliament Hill Fields onto Hampstead Heath and ended up having tea at a Hungarian teahouse. I also took him to visit St Bartholomew’s the Great Church in Smithfield and showed him the house in Cloth fair where the poet John Betjeman had lived. I hope he enjoyed himself though thinking back on it now; he was probably both mentally and physically exhausted. Daniel never goes to the beach but has offered to take me on many occasions.

Another thing Daniel has not mentioned is the laughs we have had together at each other’s expense. There are very few people who I’ve laughed with so much so that sometimes our jaws would start to ache but we would carry on laughing. I recall, for instance, once when he had chicken paste sandwiches for lunch and said (taking them out from his lunchbox) “I’ve been looking forward to this all day” and then dropped the whole sandwich without yet having had a single bite! Another time he zipped up his school bag at the end of a lesson and (the zip having been broken) I couldn’t stop laughing to see that the bag remained open whichever way he zipped it up. We would often both end up in very precarious situations!

I’ve also realised that my memory isn’t all as good as I think! For Daniel’s parents’ house (the 2-houses-knocked-into-one one) appears to my memory exactly as his old one in Marston Avenue – Excepting the façade.

My own favourite number is 1 – In praise of which Philip Larkin wrote his poem COUNTING

Thinking in terms of one
Is easily done –
One room, one bed, one chair,
One person there,
Makes perfect sense; one set
Of wishes can be met,
One coffin filled.

But counting up to two
Is harder to do;
For one must be denied
Before it’s tried.

It sounds as if Larkin was like me too, for I do not understand a lot of the mathematical equations Daniel presents in his book. I still do not understand π properly. In the first chapter, Daniel explains exactly how he sees the answers to extraordinarily lengthy calculations by putting 2 shapes together to create a third. This is terribly similar to true poetic inspiration. The best example of which, to my knowledge, is given by Auden

How can I know what I think till I see what I say? A poet writes: “The chestnut’s
comfortable root” and then changes this to “The chestnut’s customary root.” In this
alteration there is no question of replacing one emotion by another, or of strengthening
an emotion, but of discovering what the emotion is. The emotion is unchanged, but
waiting to be identified like a telephone number one cannot remember. “8357. No,
that’s not it. 8557, 8457, no, it’s on the tip of my tongue, wait a moment, I’ve got it,
8657. That’s it.”

Poetry is certainly and unquestionably the most ancient and the most respectable form of civilized literature. It’s art for a poem is an artefact, and artefacts are self exposure. Poetry whets the imagination by causing a strong foment of visual ideas. Ideas denote the final stage of responses to a work of art when emotion has spent itself, and have no emotive implicitness in themselves - Begin with the stimulus that gave the ideas, and the ideas will follow - Just as in sexual intercourse, when one never concentrates upon the orgasm, but on the salacious causative factors.

Poetry too, must evince delight in disorder, for it’s obliged to praise, and a way to do that is to elucidate the delight in the disorder. Disorder being, say the many emotional junctures, and inspirational events which may actually be unrelated but for the emotional fusion which creates originality thereby entering the realm of delight. Delight being the harmony of metrical structure, scansion, syntax, the euphony of a hyphen between the caesura, and all this (relying on line as a formal formatted unit, and on rhythm as an intrinsic technical element consisting of internal/external rhyme, iambs (syllabic conglomerates), and the metrical stitch) is poignantly significant. By so doing we may relate our illogical thoughts into a coherent whole with words (as in musical notes).


Daniel’s vision of the Black Goddess is not unique to him either but is a norm in creative types of people. She is the same Dark Lady invoked by the poets. The words which he chooses to describe her are symmetrical to those in which the poets have done throughout the ages. Shakespeare Says

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red.
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound.
I grant I never saw a goddess go:
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground

Keats’ Belle Dame sans Merci is also the ‘toothless mastiff bitch’ of Coleridge’s CHRISTABEL. His damsel in ‘Kubla Khan’ is described more faithfully than ever before in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’

Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold,
Her skin was white as leprosy.
The Night-mare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks mans’ blood with cold.

Coleridge’s prose account of the composition of ‘Kubla Khan’ is solid proof of the verity of the dictations she inspires and by far one of the best. Her acts have also been recorded by other prose writers – Here is a good example

Such a relation does the Dark Interpreter, whom immediately the
reader will learn to know as an intruder into my dreams, bear
to my own mind. He is originally a mere reflex of my inner nature.
I do not always know him in these cases as my own parhelion.
What he says, generally, is but that which I have said in
daylight, and in meditation deep enough to sculpture itself on
my heart. But sometimes, as his face alters, his words alter;
and they do not always seem such as I have used, or could use.
No man can account for all things that occur in dreams.
Generally I believe this - that he is a faithful representative
of myself; but he also is at times subject to the action of the
good Phantasus, who rules in dreams. II

Mysteriously, in some versions ‘the good Phantasus’ appears as ‘the god Phantasus.’ A sort of double-pun which works both ways contextually! I know Daniel will totally disagree with me. Being a Christian such a theory abrogates his concept of time and sin. But how compatible this reflex of De Quincey’s Inner Nature is with Daniel’s ‘personification of my feelings of loneliness and uncertainty’. Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad – Khalifatul Masih IV cites numerous examples of how such experiences have created epochal changes in the world in the field of technological advancement, for example, in his equally epoch-making magnum opus Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge & Truth. He suggests that such visions may be akin to the experience of the phenomena of revelation in the world of religion.


Mnemosyne, the inspiration for Daniel’s website Optimnem is the mother of the triple muse in Greek mythology. The traditional theory of the hortus conclusus or the Spiral Castle requires a type of aesthetical understanding of another time outside and beyond time – An adynaton rather like Seamus Heaney’s chestnut tree which I have discussed in greater detail elsewhere. This is a world in which one could easily exist as a split identity occupying the same physical time-space but inhabiting 2 bodies. A phenomenon Hazrat Bashir Ahmad Orchard discussed with reference to the soul in Life Supreme. A world of parallel time vistas running at different speeds, sometimes overlapping. Auden described coming upon such a vision of a doppelganger sitting, writing at the desk and refusing to look up.

In one of my all-time favourite films Before Sunrise, Before Sunset Celine takes Jesse into the Cemetery of No Name (which actually exists – A cemetery of unknowns, mostly suicides who drowned in the Danube) and shows him her favourite grave of a little girl. She tells him it’s her favourite because the girl died aged 9, and that she was the same age when she first came to see the cemetery with her grandmother. Then she says how uncanny it is that she herself is now 39 but that the girl still somehow remains 9. Perhaps that is why all inspired artists are very particular about what they read but we’re talking generalities now.

Thus it is possible to contravene physical laws in order to time travel – Of casting dreams as realities – Of writing as a form of time travel where one can go back in one’s mind in order to conjure up a sensation, thought, smell. It would be interesting to see how much control one has on these things if any

In the poetic act, time is suspended and details of future experience often become
incorporated in the poem, as they do in dreams. This explains why the first Muse of the
Greek triad was named Mnemosyne, ‘Memory’: one can have memory of the future as
well as of the past. III

Rather like the
brief meeting that took place between Keats and Coleridge (the only
time they're known to have met each other) on Millfield Lane, when
Coleridge reported having felt death in Keats' hand when they shook
hands to bid farewell at the end of it. This was a year before Keats
received his death warrant in the shape of violent arterial bleeding
in the lungs. This, I take to be another event which took place
outside the 3 dimensional, physical time-space we usually occupy: `In
those 2 miles he broached a thousand things -- Nightingales, poetry –
On Poetical sensation – METAPHYSICS – Different genera and species of
Dreams – NIGHTMARE – A dream accompanied by a sense of touch – Single
and double touch – A Dream related – First and second consciousness –
The difference explained between will and Volition – MONSTERS – The
Kraken – MERMAIDS – A Ghost story – ̉̉ IV


Daniel’s ruminations on beauty and love are subjects he has written about for the first time. He expresses the particular fear which the Urdu poet Obaidullah Aleem wrote of

Hearts are strangely agitated in love for who knows
which of us will adopt a different path and when

Daniel has found a lot of answers to his questions ‘From the face / That never will go back into a book’ and asks for all his life. He has found the support that people crave for in their moments of emotional meltdown.

I also see now what he meant when once he told me he did not need to prove himself to anyone. I did not know what he meant and he never tried to explain when I asked. Perhaps because he felt as the mystic Sufi poet of Islam, Rumi had done when he spoke of love

The pen would smoothly write the things it knew
But when it came to love it split in two
A donkey stuck in mud is logic’s fate –
Love’s nature only love can demonstrate.

Daniel explains ‘Like the Mona Lisa or a Mozart symphony, pi is its own reason for loving it.’ But he goes on to provide us in the following chapter (thank God) with an argument more suited to the intellectual mind. Daniel is what he is and does what he does not merely for self-gratification but because by doing so he is helping us to understand better our brains and how they function.

Daniel loves, as Plath (and Chesterton) did ‘The thinginess of things.’ However, in his case it is an extreme form of thinginess (and not meaning to get overly biographical here), this can be described as a kind of Positive Capability that one finds actively at work throughout the years (at least) in which I have known him. This seems to be all the backdrop to his flat melancholic feelings. Feelings that he is doomed to the limits of logical thinking, of the physical mortality of man and of the immortality of true (and in his case numerical) art. He sees the beauty and truth that he knows he himself lacks the means to possess and it is obviously this which brings on feelings of Positive Capability – The exact opposite to the Keatsian Negative Capability.


By the star when it falls.
Your companion has neither erred nor has he gone astray.
He does not speak out of his own desire.
It is pure revelation sent to him.
Taught him by the one with mighty powers.
Of Great Might. Who then settled upon His throne.
When He was at the loftiest Horizon.
Who came down when he drew nearer.
So that it became one chord to 2 bows or closer still.
Then He revealed to His servant that which He revealed.
The heart of the Prophet lied not regarding what it saw.
Wilt thou then dispute with him about what he saw?
And he experienced Him a second time.
Near the farthest lote-tree.
Close to the Great Good Place.
When it was covered by a covering.
The eye deviated not nor wandered.
Surely he witnessed the greatest of the Signs of his Lord. V

Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad – The Promised Messiah and Mahdi presented a distinguishable difference between philosophers and prophets on numerous occasions in his life. Philosophy can only lead one to the stage where one can affirm that there ought to be a God and logic alone is futile in the realms of love which categorically states from experience that such a God does indeed exist

For example the foremost condition of belief is that in the existence of Almighty
God and in his being the Knowing and the Wise and the absolutely Powerful and
Judicious in his will and the One without partner and eternally without beginning
and possessor of the throne and then to believe that he is purposefully present
everywhere but what can logic discover of these principles any more than
conjectural precepts and self-made probabilities and how can such a person who
hungers and thirsts for the disclosure of the reality and wisdom of the living God
be content with the unrequited and insufficient reasonings of logic. Human logic
may think a thousand times and even if it casts a concerted eye upon the fabric of
the Earth and the heavenly bodies a hundred thousand times it still cannot claim
that there is a creator of this universe. For such a claim could only be made if he
was visible too. If there had been some clue to his existence. It is however
plausible that if logic is not mislead and does not direct itself otherwise it can
admit that there should be a creator for this orderly composition and elegantly
executed plan and prudent work. We have mentioned this moderate example
because the difference between is and should be is clear otherwise those who
searched for the existence of Almighty God led by their logic alone and desired
to reach some conclusion were led by logic to no place but a state of atheism or
such a credulous belief in Almighty God which was akin to unbelief. VI

It was from this passage which he read a long time ago that he learnt that ‘thought and logic had limits and could only take a person so far’ and such a realisation led him to Christianity, which is itself found on the mysterium of trinity (God’s threefold nature), through a perfect experience of ‘complete peace and connection.’

If the heart is a monarch then the mind’s its minister. The mind is a logical councillor in heart-decided matters, for the heart’s decisions are illogical. The mind concentrates on incentive, on evidence, on upshot. Whilst the heart is governed by sensational powers. It gravitates to beauty and through a sensory power of the esoteric (because ethereal) nature, all the while importuned by the mind. The mind is subject to formality and the heart is unceremonious. It is only love divine which unmeshes the incessant enigmas ensuing from the wrangles of heart and mind through wisdom and by enslaving the senses.

And then there is also the lure of principles that he admires and praises such as God. That is why his heart feels no heaviness when parting with loved ones

She dwells with Beauty - Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine;

He has to learn, if he is to enjoy life, that his crisis of identity ought to result in a passion for a duty to be happy and to create the fleeting joy around him from the principle of Beauty as Truth as Keats’ does in his ‘Song of Opposites.’ He explains elsewhere

As to the poetical Character itself (I mean that sort of which, if I am any thing, I am a
Member, that sort distinguished from the Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime; which
is a thing per se and stands alone) it is not itself - It has no self - It is every thing and
nothing – It has no character - It enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or
fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated It has as much delight in conceiving
an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the chameleon
Poet. It does not harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its
taste for the bright one; because they both end in speculation. A Poet is the most
unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity - He is continually in
for - And filling some other Body - The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women
who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable
attribute - The poet has none; no identity - He is certainly the most unpoetical of all
Gods Creatures. If then he has no self, and if I am a Poet, where is the Wonder that I
should say I would write no more? Might I not at that very instant have been
cogitating on the Characters of Saturn and Ops? It is a wretched thing to confess; but
is a very fact that not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion
growing out of my identical nature - How can it, when I have no nature? When I am in
a room with People if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain,
then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins
so to press upon me that I am in a very little time annihilated. VII

He must remember that beginnings do not always precipitate endings but endings always beginnings and that as one adventure ends, another begins. He must realise that after all joy is fleeting and cannot be grabbed at greedily as a butterfly. He is exceptionally fortunate in that he has parents who have encouraged and nurtured his talents and made him feel something special and unique instead of discouraging, insulting and demoralising him, and that whatever else remains to be corroborated, Daniel will now find his name on a library book which he has written all by himself.

Ahmad, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam – The Promised Messiah & Mahdi. Ayna kamalat – E – Islam
[Mirror for the
Excellences of Islam].
(Riyaz Hind, Qadian,
Ahmad, Hazrat Mirza Tahir – Khalifatul Masih IV. Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge &
Truth. (Islam International Publications
LTD, 1998).
Aleem, Obaidullah. Chand chehra sitara ankhhen [Moon face star eyes]. (1974).
Auden, W. H. ‘Squares & Oblongs.’ (1948). ). In The Complete Works of W. H. Auden:
Prose. Volume II. 1939 – 1948. (Faber & Faber, 2002).
Collected Poems. (Faber & Faber, 1974).

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Complete Poems. (Penguin, 1997).

De Quincey, Thomas. Suspiria de Profundis. (1845).

Eliot, T. S. Collected Poems 1909 – 1962. (Faber & Faber, 1963).

Forster, E. M. Aspects of the Novel. (1927).

Graves, Robert. The White Goddess. (Faber & Faber, fourth edition 1997).

Harrison, Tony. Selected Poems. (Pengiun, 1985).
The Gaze of the Gorgon. (Bloodaxe Books, 1992).

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats, 1814 – 1821. (Harvard University Press, 1958).
The Complete Poems. (Penguin, 1973).

Larkin, Philip. Collected Poems. (Faber & Faber, 1990).

Orchard, Hazrat Bashir Ahmad. Life Supreme. (Ascot Press, 1979).

Qayoom, Rehan. Poetic Iconography & the Goddess of Divine Being.
The Holy Quran. Translated with Brief Explanatory notes by Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad –
Khalifatul Masih IV. (The Bath Press, 1997).

Rumi, Mowlana Jalaloddin. The Masnavi. Translated by Jawid Mojaddedi. (Oxford
University Press, 2004).

Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works. (Clarendon: Oxford University Press, 1988).
Stevenson, Anne. Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. (Penguin, 1998).

Tammet, Daniel. Born on a Blue Day. (Hodder & Stoughton, 2006).

Warner, Marina. Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds. (Oxford University Press, 2002).

Anonymous said...

In another just released book, Strange Son, a very unusual young man named Tito who falls on the opposite end of the autism spectrum, shares his equally unusual experience of the world. Tito is severely autistic and nonverbal and yet, astoundingly, he has a high IQ and writes poetry. One hopes that these two books appearing on the scene at nearly the same moment in history, suggests that we are on the verge of a new understanding of the autism spectrum disorders; an understanding that comes from the inside out instead of from the theories and hypotheses of "experts". While the biological causes of autism still remain undiscovered, these firsthand accounts are not only the most valuable tool scientists have to study autism, they are the beginnings of a new understanding of autism for us all. Although the wide-ranging abilities and expressions of the human mind never cease to amaze us, the opportunity to glimpse the world through the unique consciousness of these two young men offers a dazzling and unexpected gift like none that we have encountered in recent memory.

Rehan Qayoom said...

Again, these things are common to all creative types and artists/poets. Nothing fascinating about it at all.