Book Review: A BOY CALLED ARSENAL (by Alan J. Hill + author interview)

Autism remains, to many, a complete enigma. Difficult to diagnose, even harder to treat, it serves as a misunderstood disability millions have to live with on a daily basis. This struggle is what Alan J. Hill’s A Boy Called Arsenal neatly encapsulates.

Full disclosure: I am acquainted with the author. Alan is the father of one of my wife’s best and longest friends, and indeed a friend of mine too. We have met, in person, once only (though fortunately an event beckons next year that will remedy this), and I very quickly fell into a long discussion with him about our common interests (we’re both huge film buffs, as anyone who reads this site will know me to be), not to mention Alan’s work with mental health charities. This was before, I believe, Arsenal Whittick, the protagonist of Alan’s first foray into non-fiction, came into his life, or certainly before the groundwork was laid for A Boy Called Arsenal.

Even in that discussion, however, I gained a sense of Alan’s real passion for the causes and treatment of mental health.

It came as no surprise to me that Alan went on to write A Boy Called Arsenal, therefore, which is framed primarily as a translated conversation between him and 59-year old, autistic Liverpuddlian Arsenal, whose name stands out as contrasting deeply with his heritage. This is explored early on and serves as a lynchpin to the story Alan tells, returning regularly as he does to the quote from his subject: “I only ever wanted to be Arsenal Whittick”. The result is part-memoir, part-study, examining not just Arsenal’s journey from a working-class Scouse background in the 60’s and 70’s through to fatherhood on the South Coast and raising awareness about autism, but how Arsenal’s learning difficulties affected his journey, having gone undiagnosed for decades.

Around these conversations, repeated largely ad nauseam with inflections of Arsenal’s plain-speaking delivery, Alan works to try and frame his experiences in everything from becoming obsessed with Arsenal Football Club, to a wide variety of jobs and self-start businesses, through to his complex, difficult and often traumatic relationships with his family both north and south, always via the prism of his autistic experience. Alan provides context and theory, leaning on his own knowledge base as a practitioner, to help us draw conclusions about Arsenal’s life, behaviour and experience that the man himself will never be able to articulate. Arsenal, nevertheless, remains an open and candid subject matter, as are particularly his ex-wife and two daughters from that marriage, building to an emotional and cathartic, enormously personal reckoning with their own abuse and self-harm.

A Boy Called Arsenal is, therefore, by degrees a relaxed and often comedic conversation between two friends, a snapshot of late 20th century British social history, and a personal journey into the mind and life of a normal man living with autism, a man who could be your neighbour or pal or work colleague. Alan suspects Arsenal may be a little exceptional in how he has reckoned with his experiences and life choices, and how he is now working to use both of them to help his local community, but his message is empowering to anyone living with autism or indeed living with someone living with autism. It is a biography with the best of intentions, born of care and love, which hopes to give those who may never have understood Arsenal some clarity, and the rest of us some inspiration.

Me? I look forward to when I get to talk to Alan about the boy called Arsenal, and how he inspired him.

Alan Hill was kind enough to answer a few questions about the making of the book, his process and how A Boy Called Arsenal came together.

A J. BLACK: You describe in the book how you first met Arsenal Whittick, but what was it about him that really made you want to write his story?

ALAN HILL: Initially I was first drawn to him in the pub because I could simply see he was struggling socially in the Friday night bustle of a summer pub in a coastal town. I believe I was just trying to help out a work colleague who looked like he could use someone to talk to.

Within minutes he was frank and open with me. He spoke candidly about Samantha’s attempted suicide and about how autism has and still was impacting his life. I think it was his immediate honesty and his willingness to talk about subjects that are not normally spoken about that made me think this is a story worth telling. I do remember saying to him that he had to be totally honest with me and we would see where it took us. At this point I didn’t even know if we had enough for a book but I did say that if nothing else he would have his own account of his battle with autism and it might just help him. Little did I know at this point that I had only opened the first Russian doll.

AJB: You’ve written novels before previously but how did you find the transition to non-fiction? Was the challenge trickier or simply different?

AH: I’ll be honest Tony it was another reason for wanting to write Arsenal’s story, the fact that it was going to be a challenge to myself and I really didn’t know if I would be able to do it. I had my own experiences as an avid reader of thousands of books, both fiction and non-fiction, and set myself the challenge of presenting Arsenal’s life story as entertainingly as I could.

During the process I recollect telling a friend, “Arsenal’s story is incredible, I just hope I can do it justice by telling it in a manner that will make people want to read it”. I was looking for a USP and I found my storytelling skills very helpful in deciding on the format of the book. I personally am a big fan of novels that work with the concept of multiple timelines whereby something from the past can impact the second timeline set many years later. I decided to use two main timelines, that of Arsenal’s life and the one of my experiencing it through all the interviews. I weaved this into the approach hoping to draw on my own novel writing skills to create the denouement of the epilogue, which I honestly couldn’t write until the day it happened. So, to answer your question, I found it different but not more difficult. A novel can take you anywhere, for me, non-fiction needs a disciplined structure and once you have that structure…

AJB: Arsenal’s story is quite varied and spread across many years, even decades. How did you go about researching his life? It seems to be primarily oral accounts but how easy were these to arrange and conduct? Were there any other avenues you explored?

AH: How did authors write this genre of book before the internet? Some of the situations are simply unresearchable, if that’s a word? If Arsenal says he said ‘yes’, but another member of his family suggests he said, ‘no’, who is right? I tried to use that element of uncertainty to my advantage. Both would pass a lie detector test but only one can be absolutely correct. It’s for the reader to make their own decision.

On pure fact, who scored which goal when and where, there is enough evidence out there now to ensure we get it correct. I even managed to get the weather report in Liverpool for the night that Arsenal was born. So apart from oral and t’internet I was lucky enough to have access to Arsenal’s personal records. So even though I couldn’t reproduce the documents in the book due to copyright, because of Arsenal’s autism, he has hard copies of bills paid, doctor’s letters, diagnoses, court documents, etc, etc. These were my three main areas of research.

AJB: You talk in the book about how you worked in accounting for forty years before transitioning to working with mental health & charities. What inspired such a huge personal and career change?

AH: This is pretty straightforward if not cliched in that I decided I wanted to give something back and I believed I could do this by moving into the third sector. I had worked long and hard enough to earn bonuses for other people it was high time to help those less fortunate than myself. It really is as simple as that!

AJB: You suggest Arsenal’s personal story is unique in some respects and he is quite an inspirational figure in how he lives with his autism, but you don’t shy away from the differing accounts of his life that don’t always paint him favourably. Was this difficult to include & did Arsenal struggle with this?

AH: Not at all. We decided early doors that this was going to be a warts and all account. In fact Arsenal encouraged it. He knows he did and said things that anyone not on the spectrum may have difficulty in accepting but if we weren’t honest with ourselves how could we help anyone else. Samantha was adamant about this as well. She said to me, “If we can help just one person then it’s all been worthwhile.”

So it wasn’t difficult to include but there were many times when Arsenal would get emotional, and struggle. The biggest struggle was on the very last page, plus anything else when looking back he realised the stress he had put his family through. Nevertheless his great sense of humour invariably gets him through.

AJB: What was Arsenal’s reaction to the final product? And what did you take from this whole experience as a writer and person?

AH: This is a clear memory for me. It was during the first six weeks of lockdown when I received the author’s copies of the book. We arranged to do our ‘big shop’ on the same day at the same time so that I could from a socially acceptable distance, put a box of books into his car. It was sensory overload for him. His eyes filled with tears and he couldn’t approach the books in his car. As he stepped forward to look he would stop, start clicking his fingers and involuntarily twitch. I had seen this behaviour many times over the previous two years and I had to talk to him, telling him this was a good moment in his life, a great moment. His name was on a book cover. His life was in that book. Eventually he managed to get to the car but then couldn’t touch the book and don’t forget I couldn’t physically help him because of Covid, I could just watch and talk him through it. Once he picked one up he didn’t open it but stroked the front cover. Tears down his face by this point. I knew for sure there and then that the previous two years work was worth it.

As to the content of the book he has read it slowly over time and is now reading it again. He is genuinely very grateful as are his two daughters who have been in touch to say they love it. Once I knew they were happy I’d achieved my original goal. Arsenal carries the book everywhere with him and it’s helping him process the events of his life by reading them over in his own book. As a writer it once more stresses the importance and strength of the written word. I am just grateful that Arsenal trusted me with his life and let me tell it the way I did.

AJB: So what’s next? Any other non-fiction stories to tell?

AH: Enough has happened to Arsenal since publishing that I could write a sequel but I think I’ll leave that for a few years. I have many ideas for children’s books that I would like get around to writing, plus I have one book to write in the Tremain series to finish that saga. I really enjoyed the process of A Boy Called Arsenal, the collaboration, the research, looking for the hook and then the accountant in me enjoyed the structure and discipline required to complete the work. I was going to write book four of Tremain and had started the preparation when I bumped into Arsenal in a pub in Southbourne. I think that’s where I’m going next.

Big thanks to Alan for giving up his time to answer these questions.

A Boy Called Arsenal is now available from The Book Guild and in all good bookshops.

If you enjoyed this read, fancy buying me a cup of coffee on Ko-Fi? Just click here. Thanks a lot if you do.

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