As book dedications go, it’s one of the most touching and heartfelt: ‘To Lorna and all the kind people who have been kind to me.’
There are many people who have not been kind to Bill Furlong throughout his 47 years.
He says he was bullied mercilessly and faced prejudice at all his Portsmouth schools and later at college and yet again at work.
Bill is autistic. He knew he was different from an early age, but it was not until he was 32 that he finally realised why. By his own admission he is a misfit who lives on the margins of society.
But it was not until he sat down at the age of 32, depressed and seeing little point to his life, that he decided to put his thoughts and life experiences on paper and exorcised some of his demons.
In two intense months he wrote steadily in longhand on pieces of A4 paper pouring out his heart and his life story.
He counted the number of words on the page of a paperback book and produced the same amount on his sheets until he knew he had enough to make a book.
Then he stuffed them all in a couple of box files and promptly forgot about them for 15 years.
Earlier this year he knocked on the door of Tricorn Books in High Street, Old Portsmouth, and asked publishers Gail Baird and husband Dan Bernard for an opinion.
They were captivated by Bill’s story and have now published it exactly as he wrote it. It is called Where There’s a Bill There’s A Way.
The title was Bill’s idea. It was not his first. ‘I first wanted to call it ‘‘Thirty-two Years of Imprisonment’’ because that’s exactly what I realised my first 32 years were,’ says Bill. ‘But I realised it was a bit depressing.’
For the first time in his life Bill is now living independently. He looks after himself in a housing association flat at Priory View overlooking Fratton Bridge.
The book is his moving, funny, frequently violent and always deadpan story of growing up in Portsmouth with autism in the 1970s and ’80s.
Of the cathartic writing exercise he says: ‘I didn’t realise or understand why I was different or why other people thought I was different, until I started writing.
‘A huge amount had been building up inside me.
‘A big decision, the first ever big decision in my life was hammering away at me. I decided to try to sort out my problems by writing them down.
‘I had been having suicidal thoughts at the back of my mind involving a railway station I frequently passed.’
So Bill began to write. ‘It eventually turned to my past experiences. As I wrote the words, their symmetry began to take on a pattern and a new realisation began to form. ‘‘You’re autistic,’’ a voice screamed.
‘I began to write more and more, faster and faster about my life and experiences. I can only describe it as a kind of euphoria. It was a huge accidental self-diagnosis that may have saved my life.’
Bill, grew up in Cosham and went to schools there, then Springfield secondary at Drayton followed by South Downs College. He has drifted from job to job and after leaving home was placed with various carers around Portsmouth.
‘At one point I nearly went to Cliffdale special school, but I’m pleased I was able to stay in mainstream education even though I was always bullied.’
He devised a term for his condition MDDB – mentally deaf, dumb and blind. ‘It’s not politically correct today, but it sums up the way I felt about myself.’
Today he feels generally more confident and at ease with himself. He writes poetry, takes part in amateur dramatics with the Phoenix Players and walks with the Ramblers. Lorna, to whom the book is dedicated, is a member of Phoenix.
‘She was very kind to me backstage when we did A Christmas Carol earlier this year. She took time to help me.’
Bill’s life has been difficult to say the least. ‘I’ve had a lot of jobs but they don’t last. I do get despondent when I’m knocked back time and time again, particularly in the last year when I’ve realised I’m getting old.
‘I’d like to have a relationship but it’s difficult for me. Very difficult.
‘I enjoy poetry – putting down the way I’m feeling in poems. That helps me relax. Just last night I spilled some pineapple drink on the table and that made me very angry and frustrated with myself. It’s the way I am.’
Bill is registered disabled. He accepts the definition but is quick to retort: ‘I’m less disabled than I used to be. I’m much better now. I’m a lot more capable than I was. I’m capable of feeding myself and capable of using common sense in some situations.
‘But I’m not good at thinking quickly or grasping practical things. But I am good at writing.’
‘Just because people are disabled doesn’t mean they haven’t got something meaningful to offer. I hope this book is a new beginning for me.’
· Where There’s a Bill There’s a Way by Bill Furlong is published by Tricorn Books at £7.95. It is available from Waterstones, Commercial Road, Portsmouth.
Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people. It affects how they make sense of the world around them.
It is a spectrum condition which means that while all people with autism share certain difficulties, their condition affects them in different ways. Some with autism are able to live relatively independent lives but others may have accompanying learning disabilities and need a lifetime of specialist support.
People with autism may also be over or under-sensitive to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light or colours.
Asperger’s syndrome is a form of autism and people with the condition are often of average or above average intelligence. They have fewer problems with speech but may still have difficulties with understanding and processing language.