Autism and the bass guitar: “A music lesson saved my life.”

By Alexander Hodgkins-Jones

For aspiring Leicestershire musician Oliver Major, the greatest lesson of his life did not happen in a classroom. It took place while walking circles around a school field talking music. His teacher was a fellow pupil called Miguel who he had only met an hour before.

“I learned more during that conversation than I had in 14 years of life,” says Oliver, 23.

Those first 14 years of life had been difficult for Oliver because of his autism. He had no friends before meeting Miguel. “Behavioural issues” had caused him to be kicked out of two schools. Getting through a maths or English lesson was a chore.

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Autism made Oliver’s early life a struggle

“I could talk to Miguel because he was so much older than his years. He had the sort of patience with me that nobody else had ever had.”

Up until that conversation, Oliver didn’t have much interest in music. He describes his early music taste as “a bit crap”, borrowing superficial influences from his older brother Knill (sic) who listened to generic rap which was all about “sex, partying and drugs”.

Unlike Oliver, Miguel had benefitted from years of rock music education. Oliver was awestruck the first time he went to his house. It was like visiting the hall of fame for guitars. Miguel’s dad collected them. They were all autographed by rock ‘n’ roll legends and hung throughout the place like trophies.

“Miguel taught me what music could be. I started listening to all of these heavy metal bands he told me about. Slipknot. Mindless Self Indulgence. Rammstein. Then I kept discovering more bands. Better bands,” says Oliver.

“I found that I could relate to what they were saying. It was unlike anything I had heard before. The music sounds aggressive, but if you truly listen to the lyrics they tell you about the artists’ lives.”

Relating to other people had always been a struggle for young Oliver. Kids at school never really “got” him. He remembers the bullying and frustration of not being able to express himself. That changed when listening to metal.

“I wish I had known metal music was out there before I was 14,” he says, recalling a troubled youth caused not only by his autism but because of his fractious home life.

Oliver never met his womanising father. He has “three or four” siblings on his dads’ side all with different mothers. Oliver’s mum was severely disabled throughout his childhood due to a car accident, leaving his sister Jo and Knill to raise him.

“I got everything except my music taste from my brother. He would never admit it, but he was pretty much my dad.”

Autism made writing and arithmetic particularly difficult for Oliver. He would never choose to sit down and study, but he jumped at the opportunity to take music lessons when they were offered.

“For autistic people learning is very sensory. With music, you’re engaging at least three senses at once. I can see the music, I can listen to the music and I can feel the music. That’s why finding metal helped me so much.”

After their first music lesson, Miguel jokingly told Oliver they should form a band. Admitting he took the thought a little too seriously Oliver says he “almost immediately” hunted down the music teacher and suggested the idea. The sharp needled response of “well what instrument can you play?” quickly burst Oliver’s overzealous balloon.

Unsure of what instrument to learn or even if he could learn an instrument Oliver went through a few false starts before picking the bass guitar. Often overlooked and underappreciated Oliver was drawn to it like a kindred spirit.

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Oliver with his Les Paul guitar, he has learnt to play a variety of instruments but always comes back to the bass

“I thought the bass was just this boring thing you play in the back and guitar was where all the cool stuff happened. But then I listened to Primus. Their bassist is incredible. I wanted to be like that,” says Oliver.

“Playing bass meant I had something to focus on. I had something to do with my hands and my mind. I had a passion and a purpose. I could look back and think ‘wow I did that’ after learning a new song. Trying to learn anything else had always ended in failure and disappointment.”

Nine years later, Oliver is still playing bass.

“I’m glad I didn’t pick drums. I think I would’ve been kicked out of the house because I practised so much,” Oliver jokes.

Bass guitar helped Oliver through some difficult times. His social anxiety slowly, but surely, dissipated as he found like-minded metalheads who he could talk to “for hours”. He ended up going to college to study music.

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Oliver is “all about the music”, playing gigs has improved his confidence

He had almost given up hope of being in a band when a small Leicester outfit, Every Rope a Noose, put out the feelers for a replacement bassist.

“They had played gigs, so it was a serious band. It was a big step, but I went to a session and played with them. I wasn’t sure what to expect. They liked me. They thought I was good.”

The validation came as a surprise for Oliver. To him it playing bass was just a bit of fun, but now he was getting the appreciation from other musicians.

Like many small bands’ things broke down. They became more about their image, Oliver says, and less about the music.

It didn’t bother him too much. He now has the confidence to form a band of his own.

“I just want to write and play the sort of music that helped 14-year-old me. Hopefully, I will.”

Oliver does admit to cheekily poaching the drummer from old friend Miguel’s hardcore group, Voidwalker, for the new unnamed venture he is putting together.

Oliver tries to get to all of Voidwalkers’ gigs. He feels he owes his support to the friend who course-corrected his life.

“It’s amazing to think if I hadn’t been out on that field on that day nine years ago, I wouldn’t be where I am now,

“That conversation with Miguel was the most important one of my life. It came just as I needed it. Just as I needed that music and that instrument. I’d still be a lonely kid struggling with autism without him.”

Photography by Alexander Hodgkins-Jones, feature photo by Charlotte Coburn

 

He left home for work – three days later sepsis had claimed Jamie Giltrap’s life

By Alexander Hodgkins-Jones

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Jamie with wife Karen and son Braden, inset image courtesy of Karen Giltrap-Barnes

It sits by the stairs of Karen Giltrap-Barnes’ home – a small wooden box, maybe two-by-four-foot, full of mementos and keepsakes.

Her six-year-old son, Braden, goes over to it and lifts the lid, not fully aware of what the box symbolises.

This is a memory box representing a life well-lived, but one taken too soon.

A life, and a father, Braden will grow up knowing only through its assorted contents.

Karen did not want her unwell husband, Jamie Giltrap, to fly 300 miles from their home in Nuneaton to Edinburgh for work.

He chalked his symptoms up to man-flu. “I’ll be alright,” he told her before leaving.

He gave a loving goodbye to Braden, then drove to Birmingham Airport.

Three days later, on January 31, 2018, he was dead.

The man-flu Jamie had complained about on the Sunday of his flight had been the initial signs of something far more serious. Sepsis.

Karen doesn’t blame Jamie for taking that flight. Nor for downplaying his symptoms when he first went to A&E after landing in Scotland.

His word was his bond and he didn’t want to let down the electricians he was due to teach the following day.

She always admired that about him. “If he ever said he was going to do something, he did it,” says Karen.

He wasn’t the type of bloke to make a fuss either. So he accepted a diagnosis of Australian flu and an antiviral prescription.

Karen believes had he been more honest about how unwell he felt on that first visit to the hospital that he would be alive today.

When they began dating in 2001 Karen was unaware of Jamie’s alter-ego, DJ Tango.

“I knew he liked music, but at the time I did not know who he was,” says Karen.

As Tango, Jamie produced a string of successful jungle tunes in the 1990s. An obituary published by DJ Magazine describes him as ‘a pioneer.’

After training as an electrician, he continued to produce music, but much remains unreleased.

“He did not believe in himself. I’m finding great stuff all the time and asking why? Why? Why is this not out there?

“There’s all this music he thought was not good enough. But it absolutely was.”

Karen believes that, like his father, Gordon Giltrap, a sessions musician who received an MBE for his services to music, Jamie was a genius.

“Jamie had synaesthesia. He could produce music through painting pictures. It’s a shame he never recognised his own talent.”

Karen fondly remembers how in awe Jamie was after the birth of Braden. “He used to say to me ‘I can’t believe we’ve created this human being’.”

Together, Jamie and Braden would go on long walks in the woods, build Lego and go swimming. “He was so loving. They were always doing something. I see so much of Jamie in Braden.”

Jamie felt so sick by Monday that he cancelled his class and told Karen that he would be flying back the next day. It was that serious.

She was relieved. “I just want you home now,” Karen recalls telling him. “But on the Tuesday he said he couldn’t fly and was going back to A&E. Then the messages just stopped. I didn’t even know what hospital he was in.”

At work, she pondered the unbelievable out loud while desperately awaiting an update, “what if Jamie dies?”

A colleague dismissed it as a silly question. “Everything will be fine,” they said.

Jamie was only 46. He was physically fit. Didn’t smoke or drink heavily. Karen remembers teasing him whenever he wouldn’t finish off a glass of wine. “I’m done,” he would say, the red liquid still sloshing around the bottom of the glass, “Get it down ya,” she would retort.

That evening Karen was informed by Jamie’s employers that he was in critical care at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. They organised a flight.

“Jamie was unconscious when I arrived. I spoke out to him and there was a response. He knew I was there,” she says.

Jamie did improve slightly, but overnight his organs began to fail as the sepsis ravaged his body.

The following morning Karen realised she needed to phone Braden’s school, but the myriad of machines which boxed them both in meant there was no signal in the room.

She told him she would be gone for a minute and tore herself away, “I said, ‘Right Jamie I must go out to make this call’ and that was it.”

While she stood in the corridor of the critical care unit, hundreds of miles from home, a nurse approached and told Karen the devastating news. Jamie had passed away.

She could go back in if she wanted, but Karen chose to stay in the corridor.

“I had been with Jamie for hours. He didn’t want me in that room. He had waited for me to leave. He decided that was the time to go.

“I’m not angry. The NHS is overrun and the window for sepsis is so small. But, had he got antibiotics first he would still be here.”

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Jamie’s order of service, inset image courtesy of Karen Giltrap-Barnes

Karen still has boxes to deal with. Jamie’s boxes of vinyl still stacked up in the loft. The boxed-up emotions of a son who hasn’t cried since the death of his father.

And the old wooden box of mementos sat by the stairs.