Saturday, 27 February 2010

Uphill struggle

This rather amazing figure greets you as you enter the Riverside Wing of the Charing Cross Hospital in London, and make your way up to the ward on which trannies get their genital operation on the NHS.

It's certainly aspirational. But it might be saying that getting this far is a dreadful uphill struggle. Many who finally make it to Charing Cross, after years of trying, would agree!

Friday, 26 February 2010

Validation denied

After the events described in the two previous posts I must have been resting on my laurels somewhat.

I went into Brighton in the afternoon and parked in The Lanes underground car park. When it was time to go, I fed the paid-for ticket into the machine. But it rejected it, and told me to phone for assistance. So I reparked, then went along to the office. It was closed (of course), but I tried the displayed contact phone number on my mobile phone. No reply. But there was also an instruction to press the intercom button on the exit machine itself. So I did that. This time a male voice answered at once - great.

I explained about the rejected ticket, and was told to get in the car, bring it up to the barrier, press the intercom button again, and I'd be let out. Unfortunately the speaker called me 'sir' three times in this brief conversation.

I did as instructed, but before speaking again (I didn't really want to at all) I inserted the ticket to see if it would work second time around. The machine literally spat it out, and it fluttered to the ground, but the barrier was raised! I didn't hang around. I sped through and escaped.

The man must think I'm still trapped in the car park. Let him.

A downer about the sirring, though. I must have let the pitch drop. Tsk.

Validation carried to extreme lengths

Hot on the heels of yesterday's feel-good moment has now come another, but it's actually a bit over the top. I was in Boots the Chemists in Burgess Hill, enquiring about a certain item of intimate female personal care. (I have no shame or embarrassment left, and even used the word 'vagina') Did they stock this? Two serving ladies that I asked first couldn't help me. Then they took me over to the pharmacist, saying to him, 'Can you help this young lady?'

Young lady?

Oh come on. Lady perhaps, but young?

It must have been the voice...I'm on my knees in thanks to you, Christella!

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Validation de luxe

You know, I'm through with sticking up incredibly long, tedious, wallowing, anal monographs on this blog, which after all is meant to be an enjoyable and inspiriting place to visit. Let's return to some good old tranny stuff!

I had a really great validatory experience today. I was up at Charing Cross Hospital to collect my friend Rheya and bring her back to her home. While she did her final packing, I went to the second-floor restaurant in the Riverside Wing, had a coffee and a sandwich, then looked for the ladies' loo.

But I couldn't see where it was. Then a young woman appeared, obviously a member of staff. I said I was looking for the toilets, but - mark this closely - I didn't say specifically 'ladies' toilets'. She said that's where she was going, and she'd take me there. Without hesitation, and chatting merrily with me, she ushered me into the 'Female Staff' room, where we entered adjoining cubicles. How accepting is that? Or - though I find it hard to believe - did she take me for a woman without the slightest misgiving? Either way, it felt pretty good.

It was nice to meet Jenny and Toni while I was there. And by the way, I got Rheya home safely, despite the horrible London traffic and the torrential rain.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

The Pension

And here is the piece about retirement and pension guilt, again written in 2006. It's also long and boring, but perhaps psychologically more interesting than the blather about my job. No trans issues here though. Sorry.

This is another difficult topic. I long wished for early retirement on a pension. But when it came my way, I felt it was a piece of good fortune I did not really deserve. It took a whole year before I shook off this mistaken point of view.

Guilty of good fortune
Quite out of the blue, I had the chance in February 2005 to apply for early retirement on a pension. It would be paid immediately. I applied, heard in the following month that I was successful, and retired at the end of May 2005. I felt very, very lucky to get out so early. I was only 52. The deal did not include a lump sum, but I was selling my house and would realise capital that way. The pension was only two thirds of what I would have got at 60 (my normal retirement age), but even so it was more than sufficient for my established lifestyle. I need not work again, ever. The pension was index-linked. In short, I now had an ample guaranteed income for life that would never lose its value. I was financially safe. And I was still in good health, without dependents.

The first reaction was euphoria. Then something else. Was this great good luck deserved? What had I really done to earn it? Should I celebrate when others, who would doubtless have liked to retire, could not do so because of family responsibilities? I quickly came to feel rather guilty. Nobody made me feel this way, but I felt inhibited when I should have relished the moment to the uttermost. I actually lied to people, making out that the pension arrangements were second-rate. I was ashamed.

One of the lucky few
This is how I saw the background and key events that led up to the early retirement offer. It is a personal view of events, I hasten to add.

In the 1970s it was a different world, the last decade of the traditional Civil Service that had existed in much the same form since before the war. In the Inland Revenue, my department, there was a national, not regional, organisation of work, and because so much had to be left to local control, the District Inspectors were like captains sailing independently on a large ocean, only occasionally seeing the Admiral. Within fairly wide limits they could set the tone, decide local policy, and determine the fate of the staff in their charge. It was a world of pen and paper, dictation and typewriter. Only Pay Section in Worthing and the huge Scottish PAYE office at East Kilbride used a computer.

Recruitment was constant, and often handled locally. The Inland Revenue was never so large than at the end of the 1970s. Retirement was usually at 65, but not compulsory unless there were some question of inefficiency. People planned their final transfers around retirement. They might easily have some say in where they went. It was still possible to engineer a posting at 63 to some pleasant town in Devon or Cornwall. Nobody minded. Careers were very long; anything like this seemed like an appropriate reward for faithful service.

It was an old-fashioned world that could not last. When the Conservatives came to power in 1979, modernisation arrived. Almost at once, to the bewilderment of many, the retirement age was reduced to 60 - with no exceptions. People were offended by this, even terribly upset. It seemed like slap in the face to highly conscientious old-timers. To some it must have been an unexpected blow to their settled way of life, and a sudden threat to their income. People did not necessarily want to give up work at 60: it seemed much too young.

A key aim of Mrs Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government from 1979 and throughout the 1980s was to create a docile rump of house-owning, share-owning people, who would keep the Conservatives in power with their grateful votes. The wealth of North Sea oil was sacrificed to subsidise the growth of this class. They got excessive tax relief so that they could climb onto the property ladder and have all the possessions of a consumer society. It was crudely but shrewdly thought that they would put self-interest before union membership. This policy bore fruit. People did become less concerned with the welfare of their fellow citizens, and, fed by outrageous rewards in some cases, embraced materialism to an unprecedented degree. It was a hectic party that went on unchecked for several years. Successful people knew who to thank for their lovely homes, stylish cars and flash lifestyle. The losers were ignored.

One by one the unions were brought under control. In the case of the miners, their entire industry was closed down and tidied away. Newspaper owners and car manufacturers found they could sack all the old troublemakers and shift their plant to new locations - on cheap land in run-down docklands, or on pleasant green fields in the country. Building projects took off as planning procedures were relaxed. There were some successful fights against proposed airports and the odd motorway, but the government, so far as domestic affairs were concerned, were united behind Mrs Thatcher, and much was forced through.

The Civil Service, hitherto not greatly politicised, watched the trend and was not happy. Its scruples were noticed, and the government realised that reform was necessary in order to make the various departments compliant in all things. Civil Servants were no longer trusted to do the government’s bidding. They would be brought to heel, then watched. There were demonstrably too many Civil Servants anyway. Their unions, historically rather toothless, had been showing signs of spirit. This was particularly so after people working in GCHQ in Cheltenham were denied the right to strike for reasons of national security. So the scene was set for the pruning of the Civil Service, and the undermining of its staff organisations before they became really troublesome.

As the 1980s advanced, various measures were intoduced to get rid of staff and hobble the unions. Pay negotiations became very difficult, and people stood to fall behind unless they won promotion. Special allowances vanished. Annual pay increments were threatened and ultimately disappeared. The concept of complete loyalty to a Department as an employer broke under the strain, and everyone began to consider alternative careers. Any commercial job seemed to offer pay and perks that totally outclassed what a government department could now offer. Thus many people left for better-paid employment in the commercial world. It was in fact a brain drain. I knew colleagues who trained themselves up in the Revenue, then, with hardly an apology, jumped into the tax departments of major accountancy firms like Arthur Andersen, or international companies like BP. This haemorraging of talent benefitted businesses, and was deemed acceptable by the government. Staff numbers diminished, and with them union membership and the will to risk an all-out strike. This was exactly what the government wanted.

Then in 1989 the Recession came. This affected everybody, but especially those in the commercial world, who would suddenly find themselves discarded. The financial and housing sectors were notoriously hard hit. Estate agents folded. Furniture shops closed. The ranks of share dealers thinned daily. Anyone in a job that depended on customers with a great deal of spare cash was vulnerable. Only food retailers seemed to ride the downturn in wealth. It was common to hear tales of people who had ignored the warning signs and were now trapped in something called ‘negative equity’ - saddled with a huge mortgage on a house whose value had slumped to less than the mortgage. They risked the repossession of their home and goods. For many this actually happened.

By 1990 the grass was definitely no longer greener elsewhere. People in secure jobs sat tight. Revenue staff did so, glad to have reliable employment. The Revenue workforce became compliant, and ‘natural wastage’ fell back to a minimum. This was not what the government wanted - the boom days were over, and government economies were more vital than ever. Mrs Thatcher had fallen, and John Major her inheritor was struggling. The pound was at last linked to the European currencies, but its standing was shaky. As the 1990s got under way, it became necessary to offer inducements to make staff leave, to ensure further shrinkage. And so, in 1993, early retirement was offered to those then over 50, on pretty generous terms. The response was huge. I think this surprised the government, who expected stick-in-the-mud, sheeplike civil servants to cling to their jobs. But the ‘serve them all my life’ or ‘play it safe’ mentalities had been destroyed. The government discovered that Civil Servants would abandon their jobs if the price were right. But the cost of a mass exodus was too great, and the number of people who could actually be released was hastily throttled back. This caused a storm of protest from disappointed over-50s. I knew one lady who was very petulant about it. She ranted and raved and got her way. She could not have been the only one to make a fuss. I dare say the government easily met its target for staff cuts, but at a high price that could not be repeated.

Soon afterwards the Treasury withdrew any special funding for future early retirements. There was nowhere else for the money to come from. There was no 'Civil Service Retirement Fund'. The necessary money was voted each year out of general taxation. This meant that, henceforth, the chief way left to retire early on a pension was to become chronically ill, or feign the condition. It looked as if the ones who got early retirement in 1993 had not only done well financially, they would be the very last to go in that easy way. Those left behind, myself included, resigned ourselves to saving up for a self-funded early retirement, working till 60, or playing the ‘health card’ if opportunity came. It seemed very unlikely that another deal would ever be offered.

When Tony Blair’s Labour government came to power in 1997 everyone wondered what the effect on the Civil Service might be. It soon became clear that the economies of the previous government were not going to be undone by New Labour. Few policies of any kind were undone. On the other hand, Labour had a mandate to improve public services. That ought at least to rule out further staff cuts. It suggested a period of stability. People continued to sit tight and watch events.

The years went by, and it seemed that the government had embarked on a rolling programme of restructuring its departments, to eliminate unnecessary accommodation and save rents; restructuring the work, so that people worked more efficiently for the same pay; and imposing a freeze on recruitment. All this saved costs, yet preserved jobs. But inevitably costs rose and further economies were looked for. At length an announcement was made in 2004 by Gordon Brown, then the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that the Inland Revenue and HM Customs & Excise would merge in 2005. And that in consequence as many as 12,500 of their staff would be surplus to requirements, and must leave by the end of 2006. The unions were aghast. But, on reflection, how could numbers be reduced? There were to be no redundancies. If you were not going to force people to leave, you’d have to make them an offer so good that they couldn’t refuse. But how paid for? No special funding would be provided. So my opinion was (and colleagues agreed) that there couldn't be another retirement deal. We braced ourselves for less congenial measures to get rid of people, such as a programme of transfers, shifting staff around, making their working lives worse. This would encourage the required ‘natural wastage’ - people getting out to avoid inconvenient daily travel, or an unwanted change of duties.

But then in early 2005 - completely out of the blue - an early retirement deal was suddenly offered to those over 50. Approved Early Retirement it was called. This included me. As a deal, it wasn’t universally attractive. If you were in a low grade, or had not built up many years of reckonable service, your pension would be small; and there was no lump sum unless you had stayed with the old 1970 pension scheme. I had opted for the new scheme in 2001, which gave me more pension, but no lump sum. Even so, the arithmetic came out well for me, and I immediately applied for early retirement on the basis offered.

Another colleague, older than me, with a wife in the Revenue who would also be able to go - and both in the old pension scheme - stood to do exceptionally well out of it, and they applied too. But for others the decision was more difficult. Generally the pension would be too small for their needs. Most had family responsibilities, children still at university, or soon to go. Some male colleagues had younger wives who did not want to retire, so that they would be kicking their heels at home, with nothing in particular to do. They feared boredom. And some other people said the scheme was not nearly good enough for them; they thought that another would follow, a better deal altogether, and they preferred to wait for it. This seemed like looking a gift horse in the mouth. But belief in a successon of ever-better schemes was common. It was thought that if the government were serious about reducing staff numbers, they were bound to offer more and more in the way of inducements until they got the numbers they wanted. So it was almost foolish to accept the first deal, which was just to test the water. How wrong this view turned out to be!

And yet it seemed obvious that any Inspector who applied stood only a slim chance of success. The staff most needed for the new HMRC were the experienced investigators, people like me in fact. Clerical staff were not needed so much, and in some areas would indeed be surplus to requirements. Clearly the cuts would fall first on the junior grades. And they were the lowest-paid, the cheapest to retire. In the light of this, people like myself - Inspectors with experience, on relatively high salaries - seemed unlikely to be released. Inspectors more senior to me especially so. The government wanted droves of clerical people to respond instead. It became known that London Region expected 1,000 applications for its area, and it published a pecking order in case the scheme were over-subscribed. I and my investigating colleagues were depressingly low down on the list. But, undaunted, we made our applications, sometimes in the face of dry comments from senior management that we were wasting our time, as we would never be allowed to go.

It did not turn out as expected. There were 600 people in my office at Croydon, but only 18 there applied, most of them Inspectors. It was a similar picture elsewhere. The clerical people just could not afford to give up work, or did not want to.

After a month of anxious waiting we 18 had our applications approved, amid whoops of joy. There was an immediate party atmosphere for not just a day, but for all my remaining time there. A feeling that the strain was off. Even those too young to apply, or who had refrained from applying, seemed full of goodwill and smiles. Amazed senior managers congratulated us our wonderful luck. Even accountants (if we told them) more often than not offered their best wishes for the future, and regret at the severing of a good working relationship. I thought I detected some dark mutterings on other floors, among lower grade staff who had fallen victim to work restructuring. And I remember one accountant who made sour remarks about my wanting to shut down a case before I went, putting his client under pressure to agree to some settlement proposals. But these grumblings were not typical. On the whole we 18 were the darlings of all who knew us. Even senior managers could find comfort in losing us. Although awkward in some ways, our departure created a perfect opportunity to renegotiate targets reluctantly agreed with London Region.

It was all a fantastic piece of good luck. Common sense told me to accept it. But I could not help feeling that, for me, the luck was not deserved. I had not been a star investigator, just someone who had stuck it out for thirty five years, had no family to support, and could afford to apply. I had not ‘earned’ this reward. But I was making a basic mistake. Approval to retire was not a reward at all. It was just incidental to the government’s wish to reduce the staff figures. As long as somebody - anybody - accepted the deal, that wish was on its way to being fulfilled. Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer, would have thanked me. But it would be thanks for making the government’s job easier at Question Time, not thanks for the work I did over all those years. My personal past performance, poor or perfection itself, was completely irrelevant.

I heard in September 2005 that this particular early retirement scheme had turned out to be the only one that senior staff could freely apply for. It had been a unique chance. I didn’t feel smug at the news, just glad that I hadn’t hesitated for a minute. And glad that I hadn’t tried to be clever, or greedy, waiting for a better deal.

Idle and uncomfortable
I felt rather uncomfortable about retiring at 52. It really was quite young compared to 65, which was still the traditional retirement age. And I looked youngish, more 40-something than 50-something. Fit and able, with money, apparently idle. I wondered whether I would be challenged as a layabout and a benefit cheat. (I was of course much too well-off to qualify for benefits - but explaining why would arouse resentment for other reasons) I began to feel that my appearance and brisk walk were an annoyance to many white-haired elderly people with sticks. I began to prepare some answers, if anyone accused me.

On my good health and complexion: I had always looked after myself, and so was naturally in better condition than someone who had drank and smoked their way through life. (Mind you, I wasn't as fit as I ought to be)

And yes, 52 was young, but didn’t soldiers, policemen and fireworkers retire in their forties? (But their jobs were dangerous, and you could say, with point, that the personal wear and tear on them was rapid and permanent. I couldn't claim anything more than the bad effects of being deskbound)

On not wanting a job: I scorned the work ethic, the idea that work was good, and idleness evil. My view was that if you could support yourself with your own money - in this case my pension, and capital from selling my own house - then it was pointless and even wrong to seek employment, especially if it prevented someone else getting a job they vitally needed.

What then about unpaid employment? Charity work for example? But it wasn’t obvious to me why helping a charity raise money should take precedence over many other things one might reasonably do in retirement. Even so, was it not wrong to shirk helping the community if I were available? No special talent was needed, just a free pair of hands, or the ability to drive a car or van. Well, nobody actually asked me to give my free time to such things, but if they had, I was a little worried about giving them a satisfactory response. There was nothing I could say that would not seem selfish, even the honest answer that I didn't want the commitment.

And yet after a while it was hard to keep occupied. I was living in M---'s house, not mine, which had been sold. There were only routine tasks like washing up and my own ironing. I was not good at anything domestic, and no gardener. Meanwhile all structure had gone from my day. I couldn't take photos, or read, or pop out in the car, all of the time. Boredom began to tinge my retirement: I learned that there is such a thing as too much leisure. Even so, I constantly remembered my privileged position, and the big fact that I was free.

Eventually I passed out of the guilty phase. I had worked thirty-five years for that pension, after all. Maybe not hard, physical work, but nobody could deny that I had put the time in. I felt I could defend myself with that fact. But finding a solution to boredom, some meaning to my new life, took longer.

The Pension Crisis
In early 2006 a lot of fuss was made of 'the Pension Crisis', which concerned the cost of providing pensions in the future. The media whipped up resentment over two issues in particular. First, many people would have to work on to 67 or older. Second, those still working would be paying for the pensions of people already retired. Fingers were pointed, especially at public-service workers who had rights to retire at 60, and who were 'featherbedded' with free, inflation-proofed, final-salary pensions. Just like I had. The unfortunate ones in the bleak scenario painted by the Press and TV would be denied leisure for most of their lives. They would face rising income taxes to fund the state and occupational pensions of already-retired public servants. They would also pay extra tax and contributions to fund their own state and occupational pensions, and when at 67 they eventually got them, these pensions would be very much inferior.

By 67 I would have enjoyed 15 years of amply-funded leisure. What answer could be made to the 20 to 50 year olds who were supposed to be carrying me on their backs through life?

Well, one obvious reply was that anyone who had made the same career choices as I had would have ended up in exactly the same 'privileged' position. And I hadn’t been especially clever with my choices. Many people had scorned the unglamorous Civil Service, and had opted for a company job with more pay and nice perks, perhaps on their doorstep. (I’d spent a big chunk of my waking life commuting) You could argue that those people had only themselves to blame if they had come unstuck. But I had to recognise that people could not freely jump into the Civil Service, any more than they could freely join the Army, Navy or RAF. After 1979 the Revenue closed its doors to new people, letting in only graduates and a few here and there to fix local shortages. Most people could not join the Revenue when they felt like a change of job. True, they could have joined any local public-service body you might name - the Police, or the Fire Service, for instance. If personal safety was a stumbling-block, then a job with the local Council, school or hospital could also have been an option. But people get stuck in careers and locations for family reasons, and are not always free to chop and change. Sometimes they dare not risk unemployment for the chance of something better. During the Recession of 1989-1993 all new recruits everywhere were at risk, 'last in, first out' being the general rule, and it certainly hadn't been easy for anyone to jump ship. Some people were too afraid of starting again in a strange environment, or just too inert. I was like that. Still, in theory anyone could have 'got on their bike' and found a job with a decent pension attached to it. Or, if they had the drive and talent, create a thriving business and a fortune to look forward to. Putting it another way, wasn't everyone who remained a mere employee, especially those who avoided risk and responsibility, enjoying a ride at someone else’s expense?

As for the accusation that people like me had not paid for our pensions, and were a drain on national resources, it was quite true that the direct contributions were indeed so small as to be unnoticeable. I contributed only 1.5% each year to the ‘Widows and Orphans fund’, and I worked out that if I had it all back at 2005 values it would barely cover one year’s taxed pension.

But more substantial contributions were made in another way - through low annual pay increases. They were always significantly less than those in the commercial world. You couldn’t put an exact figure on it, but it was widely reckoned that the Inland Revenue pay increases over the years may have averaged 4% less than 'outside'. That 4% difference was the extent of the real, hidden, pension contribution each year. Successive governments did not of course put this money by. But they should have, and (with consumer savings account interest rates in mind) you could work out what each annual difference would be worth by 2005, compounded at an average rate of (say) 5% a year. Combined with the 'Widows and Orphans' contributions, the total came out to about £100,000 – a sizeable amount, but sufficient for only six years pension after tax. That is, it would cover me until I was 58, and not beyond.

There was still the income tax and NIC I'd paid over the years. At 2005 values I'd paid £225,000 tax and NIC in my working life. Quite a lot; but, allowing for the cost of my existing NHS medicines, this would cover my taxed pension for only another eleven years, until I was 69. From 70 or so my pension would be very much at the expense of the taxpaying public.

So an accusation that I hadn't paid enough for my pension had some force to it, if I dared to live beyond 70. And those obliged to work on to 67 when I would be (say) 80 and still active might very well feel aggrieved. I hoped they wouldn’t get too personal about it.

August 2006

The Job

Well, you asked for it. Caroline did suggest that it might be useful therapy. I wrote this in 2006. I think it's humdrum. Its only real interest is that it's pre-transition and gender does not figure in it - well, not that I'm aware. If you can spot anything that's gender-relevant, assuming you don't fall asleep, do let me know. Incidentally I no longer despise myself for sticking with my job for so long. But I so wish I'd had the drive when eighteen to go to art college and pursue a photo-based career!

I always had very mixed feelings about my job. Like nearly everyone else, I had to work. A job was one of life’s inevitable necessities. I accepted this at first. But it was hard to enjoy working. Whatever slant you might put on it, you were there only to earn money for yourself, and beyond that it was difficult to see what the point of any job was. It was never more than a cash generator. My job was not a vocation, nor a 'natural' activity such as being a farmer, doctor or teacher - the sorts of job rooted in the essence of civilised life itself. If it had been, I would have felt it was more worthwhile. But I was just a government official, engaged in unpopular duties that depended on the tax law of the day. Inspectors of Taxes existed because current legislation required them; a change in the law might abolish my job. That was always unsettling. In fact redundancy itself wasn’t ever a serious possibility, but radical departmental reorganisation certainly was. When I retired the Revenue was on the point of a complete reorganisation, having just merged with Customs and Excise.

Within the office there were always little changes, some pleasant, some not. It was peopled by colleagues who came and went, who might or might not be nice to know. They affected your working life quite profoundly. The duties and procedures could also change suddenly. This again would bear hugely on how you liked the work. Your own attitude mattered: you were supposed to strive for promotion, at least while young. Sometimes it all felt like a pointless game or ritual. I did try to give satisfaction, but it became difficult to go on, year after year, without some signal acknowledgement. And there was always the daily journey to work, often awkward, and more and more tiresome as you got older. Commuting was the thing you most disliked about working.

My job did little to develop me as a person. It consistently failed to make good use of the limited talents I did have. Nevertheless I stuck with it for thirty five years until early retirement rescued me. I now despise myself for that kind of inertia. I should have chucked it in a lot sooner, and tried something else that suited me better.

Joining the world of work
Looking back, I am surprised how casually I went from school into the world of work. Very early on, at school, I had some exotic career ideas, including notions of becoming an astronaut, or at least a pilot. But the scientific background needed for these occupations ruled them out for me. I was no good at mathematics, and my interest in science was only superficial. Indeed I wasn’t obviously good at anything in particular. If I’d had a decent camera early in my teens then perhaps there could have been a career in photography, but there was nothing special about my holiday snaps, and nothing to take forward as a money-making proposition, employed or freelance. I wasn’t completely useless at graphic design, and my art masters urged me to think about a career in it, but again my talent was questionable, and Mum and Dad persuaded me that I couldn't make a living, or be happy, in the cut-and-thrust commercial world. I was positively discouraged to think of any kind of freelance work. Dad was an Inspector of Taxes, and we were a Civil Service family; only a salaried career with a pension at the end of it would do. This was of course sound counsel, and I was not silly. But I allowed any adventurous or risk-taking spirit in me to be quenched. There wasn’t much to snuff out. I was rather timid.

Looking for something safe, I approached Barclays Bank for a clerk's job. I wasn’t enthusiastic about accepting their paternalistic embrace, but my track record with examinations was poor, and I couldn’t believe that my A Level results would be any good. In fact they were very good indeed - the only examinations I ever did really well at. With great relief I said no to Barclays, and considered what else to do. I had no ideas of my own. I went with the flow, and accepted a holiday job in the Revenue, which Dad had suggested and easily arranged. It was novel and highly satisfactory to earn real money, putting the days of pocket money behind me. The way was then paved for a permanent job. I didn't need to think about it at all. Lack of imagination, lack of special ambition, personal inertia, and gentle parental pressure all played their part. The Revenue itself drew me in. I was welcomed, processed and absorbed.

If I had known something about the commercial world, if Dad had worked for a company, I might have been recruited elsewhere, but it was not to be. The Revenue did not seem an inspiring choice, but it certainly had more appeal than a bank or an insurance company. And perhaps I was, deep down, glad to join a rock-solid government department with standards and proper procedures. I would certainly be treated decently, and paid without fail. These things turned out to be true. Years later, my ex-wife’s experience of how commercial firms behaved convinced me that I was very lucky to be in a government department, immune from extreme fear and stress, with laid-down procedures to work to.

Some kind of job was of course the only immediate option. I could not go off to university as an alternative. I hadn't applied. This was at least my very own decision, but in fact it was a rebellion against the whole educational environment, which had seemed like a prison. I couldn't tolerate it any longer. I felt that university would be much like school, the same sort of people anyway. Not applying for a university place, and not joining the Old Boys' Association, had been my personal gestures of defiance. I wanted to get out and join the adult world at once. I did reflect that I was missing a unique chance to experience student life, but I couldn't see myself doing well and gaining a degree worth having. It would have been a complete waste of time and Mum and Dad's money. And I was afraid of the darker side of being a student, the drugs, the unpleasant accommodation, dodgy relationships, babies.

It never occurred to me to go travelling for a year, and then plan the way ahead with a refreshed mind and some ideas to play with. I’d put no money by for it, I had no travel experience, nobody to go with, no idea of what the possibilities were. This was indeed an opportunity missed.

Well, at least I had a job; but it had come about by taking the easiest path. I was never happy with that thought.

On the job

What the job meant to me
I worked for the same organisation throughout: the Inland Revenue, now part of HM Revenue & Customs. It was literally the only job I ever had. I joined in 1970 and retired early in 2005, achieving two major promotions, one in 1977 by internal examination and one in 1985 on the basis of work done. But in 1982 I twice failed a more difficult degree-level internal examination that would have taken me to a higher grade with more money, status and responsibilities. I was not given a third chance, and spent the greater part of my career, the last twenty years, stuck in the same grade. On the whole I was content to be there. I didn't feel I had the ability or commitment to cope with higher-level work. After a while - perhaps it was inevitable - I became completely disenchanted with the notion of a career. The job just became a way of paying the mortgage, something to be put up with because there was no alternative.

Later on I saw the job as a growing pension fund. My ambition changed from getting on to getting out, on the best terms possible. It seemed to be the most realistic ambition I could pursue, and so I shaped my policy accordingly. The job became an investment. I gave it my time, looked after it, and watched the pension rights build up. One day the investment would mature. That moment came sooner than I thought. When it did, I walked away without regret and without wanting any future involvement in the work I had done.

In a way it was like leaving school, and I said jokingly (but felt truly) that I was now going to pick up my life where it had been interrupted in 1970. So far as indulging my favourite interests went, this was perfectly correct. But of course, with a marriage, divorce, and many years of living behind me, I could not actually regress to the carefree and ignorant life of an eighteen year old. Nevertheless I did feel unchained.

I could look back, though not without flinching. I was by then in a very negative frame of mind about what I had been doing for so long. This was rooted in the things that had happened to me since 1990 or so, things that had made me give up trying hard, bad experiences that had submerged me in a pool of self-deprecation. But I was wrong to see these latter years as typical. Early in 2006, almost a year after leaving, I was in Mum and Dad's attic and looking through some of my earlier work papers, of which I had copies. These encompassed my management work and casework from the 1970s and 1980s. I was struck how comprehensive my knowledge had been then, how confidently I had behaved, and how good the results were. It was heartening to rediscover this.

But there had indeed been a slow decline after 1990. I can now put this down to the bad effect of misconceived and rigid work practices imposed from above, stifling individuality and innovation. The heavy hand of standardisation and doctrinaire teamworking finally defeated me in 1996, when I was head-hunted for a specialist investigation unit set up experimentally to handle only company enquiries. I was reluctant to join, my instinct told me it would be a mistake, but I gave in. It did not work out. I had the wrong personality, different priorities, different ideas of how best to proceed, and I eventually challenged the team leader’s authority. I was stubborn, would not submit, and was broken. I managed to escape from that particular purgatory, but my reputation and self-esteem had suffered fatal blows. I never again wanted to put myself forward or put up ideas. I simply wanted to survive until I could go.

What I did
For most of my thirty five years I was an Inspector of Taxes. There were various grades of Inspector, but all required you to pass at least one fairly difficult examination. I passed the first of these - eventually - and then went a step beyond the basic Inspector grade. But not to the higher ‘career’ grades.

At any level of Inspector, there were management duties and there were casework duties, and for a long time little choice about which you were allocated. In many years I had to combine both. But on the whole I spent more time on casework. Managing people was hard, and I never found a way to do it well.

If you were a caseworker you largely organised yourself, and for a very long time you could select your own cases. This suited me very well. But in my final years (now working in a large office in Croydon) there was much less freedom. An entire section of the office was devoted to selecting tax returns for caseworkers to look into, and the approach was completely standardised. It was an environment where published codes of practice and detailed guidelines on customer service were taken very seriously indeed. Procedures became very elaborate and tiresome to follow. Planning was taken to an extreme, and precious hours were spent deciding what to do, then seeing how well these initial plans had been fulfilled. All this seemed fundamentally irrelevant to the real work. I thought we existed to detect and chase criminals, and bring them to book. Not to examine our navels. But self-examination was all part of the work to those put in charge of it. What one did had to be explained and justified as a ‘proper use of resources’. Some senior people's jobs were entirely concerned with how resources were used. And of course there were targets for everything. Those with a career to push forward had to embrace it all. The rest of us were allowed to indulge in a certain amount of grumbling about 'audit trails' and 'quality indicators', but we could not subvert any of it.

Absurdity became normal, more and more of it, often in reaction to the Disclosure of Information and Human Rights Acts. For instance, just before I left a restriction was placed on emails - you could not name the taxpayer you were sending the email about, just in case an outsider intercepted the email and in so doing gained confidential information. This made meaningful emailing difficult or impossible. You had instead to write an old-fashioned paper memo. Just as we did in 1970, thirty-five years earlier. Unbelievably, a memo sent to another office in London had first to go north to the Revenue's post-sorting centre in distant Scotland! Then back again. A fantastic state of affairs.

Traditionally Inspectors of Taxes handled their cases on their own. Their training was directed towards self-reliance and reaching independent decisions without troubling other colleagues except when required by the manuals. This encouraged individualism and a strong sense of personal responsibility. Even those whose climb up the promotion ladder had ended on a low rung, who knew they would never go further, felt they were trusted to work with minimum supervision, and in their own way. This system generally worked. Until standardisation became universal, individual flair was valued and marked you out for higher things. A degree of colourful eccentricity often did you no harm. There were many senior people who had spectacular stories told about them. Some of those stories were true.

But regardless of the effort and conscientiousness someone might put in, there was an operational problem which eventually had to be addressed. It spelt the end of individualism. The largest and most complex cases could never be tackled properly by just one person. The pressure to deal with them effectively meant that teamworking in some form or another had to be introduced. At the start it was an innovation for a few specialist offices, then it became usual in most offices, and finally it was compulsory across the board. Accountants were slow to get used to this, and occasionally expressed their bewilderment that so many Revenue people had a hand in the enquiry. They became irritated when passed from one specialist to another, instead of discussing everything with just one Inspector, as it used to be. That Inspector was now busy managing the case and coordinating the people involved in it. Only part of the work was done personally by him.

It needed a lot of patience and effort to get people to work in step with each other, and get them to understand each other’s role and area of responsibility. More than anything else, it was the loss of complete personal control that I found so unsatisfying. It began to be seriously demotivating.

I saw myself as someone who had stayed overlong in the wrong job. I worried about making some small but awful procedural mistake that would one day lead to the collapse of an important project, affecting team members badly. I voiced some of this doubt, but nobody would take me seriously. I was assured that I was doing well, misjudging myself, and would not fall into error. I believed none of this. It was an uncomfortable position to be in. Thankfully early retirement saved me from any disaster.

Office life
When I started in the Revenue, and for many years afterwards, offices were small and the people working in them - from the most junior Clerical Assistant to the District Inspector at the top - were much more important as individuals to the day-to-day smooth running of the office than in later years, when larger and larger set-ups became usual. In a small office, the absence of even a couple of people could make a difference. This meant that everyone there had a sense of being essential. You were being counted on. In contrast, my final office in Croydon housed some 600 people, spread over six floors. It didn’t seem to matter if anyone was absent for a week or two. Some people were only occasionally present. Who could say whether their absences were fully accounted for?

In the old traditional offices, at least one in each town of any size, the District Inspector (and sometimes his deputies and managers) had often been senior figures, not just in the building but in the local area. But once that network of small offices was destroyed, the connection between the tax office and the local people was severed. There were no DIs now. They became Team Leaders in big new high-rise offices, located in cities. They received the same high salaries, but were invisible to the public, and indeed to most of the staff. They had lost the visible trappings of authority - no big room of their own, no special desk, no secretary. But I have to say that the ex-DIs personally known to me (and four of them sat within yards of my desk) embraced their reduced status with no apparent concern. Maybe they found it pleasant not to be burdened with the myriad heavy responsibilities of old.

But their deputies, the fully-trained Inspectors, were now deprived of any possible chance of independent command. Some of them, keenly aware of their intellectual superiority over most other staff, hated being indistinguishable from the rank and file. These thwarted souls might become unpleasant to work with. This kind of bad behaviour was wholly against the official spirit of ‘working together’, as it was understood from 2000 onwards. The guilty should have been pilloried, but were not. I remember one, especially boorish, who made covert arrangements to re-establish himself in another office. One day, after two bad-tempered years, he was suddenly gone; he’d asked his manager for secrecy and had told nobody he was going. It was a pleasant surprise to see his empty desk, and not hear his loud voice. But I fancy that the staff who knew him felt snubbed. They'd been ignored and shut out. I heard nobody regret his departure.

The customers
Then there was the attitude of our 'customers' - once known as ‘taxpayers’. Throughout I was highly conscious of the public view of the Revenue as a troublesome and sinister organisation. In the past we had just been something of a bad national joke. But things had got more serious, and despite the Revenue’s rather embarrassing efforts on TV to present a friendly face, you felt that we had made the public more defensive, not less. They were awkward about the Revenue, just as they were about the Police. People you might talk to stopped behaving naturally once they learned what you did for a living. While I worked for the Revenue I was reluctant to volunteer the fact that I was an Inspector of Taxes. This caution continued into retirement.

In my time I investigated a vast range of taxpayers, as diverse as solicitors, scientists, cruise ship croupiers, car dealers, nursing homes, county council executives, international haulage firms, companies of all sorts, and property trusts with millions squirreled away. And I had to know something about an equally diverse range of activities, such as superbike racing, backgammon, and racecourse bookmaking. And in one case learn a bit of Russian. The job did not lack interest.

My encounters with accountants, solicitors and other professional advisors - the 'other side’ - were nearly always low-key. They often ended in relaxed smiles. Perhaps too often so: I was not renowned for any hardness. Some inspectors thought you should needle the accountant and his client. I did not. But I would not spare them any questions I thought should be answered. I prepared thoroughly for every meeting, imagining possible replies and what then to say. I made sure that the agenda was sensible, that we did not waste time, and that I was courteous and human. These meetings, phone calls and the correspondence were all aspects of a game that was often played out to gentlemen’s rules. I liked it like that, and so did many taxpayers and accountants. Some played it differently, and gave me a defensive or aggressive attitude; and that special breed of red-faced, pompous peppery senior accountants of the old school took a long time to die out. But I never had anything much worse than sneers and crossness to cope with. I was never threatened with violence, or injured.

But there were many devious taxpayers and accountants who would lie and make delays without conscience, and I had to deal with them too. It was not easy to discover the facts when the taxable transaction had been concealed and the money spent without trace. The real purpose of examining business records was to find out what had not been recorded - what was missing from the official record, and had instead found its way into someone’s pocket without taxation. But if you dug in the right place, if you knew where to look, something would be revealed that could not be explained. I was quite good at picking up very slight traces. Bringing together all the available information into a cross-referenced summary document or spreadsheet was another thing I was very good at. Often enough this brought to light an inconsistency unnoticed before, and furnished several key questions to ask that might prove decisive. But it usually took imagination and experience, hard slog, hard information, persistent questioning and a good deal of luck, to establish exactly what was creamed off and how it was done. Usually the true amount of the money or value taken out of the business remained a mystery, and the Revenue would settle on a negotiated figure. Usually the guilt would be played down or not acknowledged. Nearly always you felt that after paying up the taxpayer still had something in hand that had not come to light. And this is to speak of successful cases. The Revenue could not win every contest.

All this tended to make you very sceptical about explanations and confessions, and promises to put matters right for the future. You grew very tired of the the same old stories, the same old bluster from accountants, the same old basic lack of honesty. You could not ignore the facts: many of the enquiries taken up revealed irregularities. Large or small, these were evidence that many business people (and perhaps their advisors) were very dishonest. Their bare statements could never be trusted. Many colleagues had good grounds for an ingrained jaded cynicism that must have affected their private lives.

All that effort to conceal money from taxation! At the bottom of it was the urge to have something without paying for it. The justification for what the Revenue did was that these people were robbing all the rest of us, and deserved to be challenged. The test was always this: what would an ordinary member of the public say, if following events at your shoulder? Would they smile, and laugh off the dishonesty, or insist on a thorough investigation? The answer was rarely in doubt. It was hard to take another view.

I was always quite certain that deception and deceit were negative things, corrosive to the character, so that the people who were prepared to cheat paid a price for it - even if they were never found out. But I had no personal mission, never felt committed to stamping out all misbehaviour. Sometimes the Revenue chose the wrong victim, and put them through an ordeal to no purpose. It wasn't hard to imagine this happening to Mum, say, or myself. I saw how reasonable people might be wary of the tax authorities, and likely to be defensive and careful about contact and disclosure. As retirement approached, I became ready to keep the Revenue very much at arm's length in the future. After all, I would be just an ordinary member of the public. A potential victim myself.

And yet at first a certain loyalty remained. When the Revenue was criticised in a national news story, I would think, 'that can't be right, nobody in the Revenue would do that, we didn't do things that way. The reporter hasn't understood.' But how could I be sure? Things can change rapidly in an organisation. Gradually, as the months passed, I let go and accepted that the Revenue had moved on. And I was glad I had escaped.

Looking back
I feel some nostalgia, of course, but this is for the offices I attended and the people I worked with, not for the cases. I met some very pleasant people in a variety of offices; even so, with one exception they did not become permanent friends. I dare say I would be happy to reminisce with many of them if we ever meet in the future, but this doesn’t seem likely, and I am not going to seek anyone out. I also encountered some interesting taxpayers and accountants, but all of them must stay buried in the past.

Dad advised me never to go back: to turn down, as he had, dinners, lunches and reunions. Certainly never to visit the office again. I knew he was right. Once gone you were old news and just a ghost from the past. What indeed was there to discuss, cut off from the day to day life of the office? Did people really want to know how much I was enjoying unlimited leisure on an ample pension? And would I want to learn that all my cases had been completely forgotten? Or that one or two had embarrassed the department?

Who would know who I was anyway? I had expected to slip from people's minds within six months. Even if this were not true, and I was long remembered, I was in effect a dead person, and must not return to haunt the living.

August 2006

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Old Firm coughs up

Well, it's all but over. I mean the administration of my parents' estates. If you recall, my Mum died in February last year and my Dad in May. Since then, bills have been settled and money has dribbled in. The last major receipt arrived yesterday: a tax refund from my 'old firm', Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs.

It had just been renamed that when I retired in May 2005, but of course my own career went back 35 years to the days when it was just the 'Inland Revenue', and a typical Civil Service Department. The days when tax inspectors were straightforward characters, easily comprehended, well before it all got a lot more sinister. We were supposed to go around in black bowler hats, black jackets, pinstripe trousers, carrying briefcases with 'Elizabeth II' emblazoned on them. A music hall joke, really. We dwelt in handy local offices in every town of any importance. Our boss, the District Inspector, was often the senior local Civil Servant. My father was one. He got pheasants at Christmas from a local landowner. He had ample time to play golf with the other DIs. One I knew shot at Bisley and was an expert rifleman. If a DI were serving in a remote country town, he (and probably his wife) would be expected to attend local civic ceremonies and dinners. DIs in charge of an important London office were very senior indeed. They might, and sometimes did, get their ideas accepted by the lofty and olympian Board of Inland Revenue, and through them mould national policy, or be instrumental in the introduction of a new national procedure.

A different world. A pre-computer world, I need hardly add. Before computers every District Inspector had great freedom to run their 'ships' how they liked (they were like sea-captains who saw the admiral only once a year). If they were efficient, they could easily create time off for themselves. In a well-run office, they could afford to wink at staff doing the same thing. There was no restricting framework, little accountability, all perfectly consistent with the notion of 'independent commands' that to some extent went all the way down the management chain in each office. It often worked, because local offices were small, like little villages; everyone knew everyone else, and things were noticed. That didn't mean that abuses would be pounced on. They were not. There were autocratic DIs of the old school who were hidebound and prejudiced, and could block promotion. Worse still were the laissez-faire ones who let their Management Inspectors, who were meant to be subordinate to them, run the office as they wished, often very unfairly. When I was a new face straight from school in Southampton, I had to contend with someone who had been a Chief Petty Officer in the Navy. A red-faced, grumpy man, he had traditional and entrenched views on discipline. He was wary of me because of my father's position (then DI of one of the Portsmouth Districts), but he still made life very awkward for me. To be fair, he didn't actually order me to get my long hair cut, but he picked me up on many aspects of my demeanour and behaviour, and he was hyper critical of my own work. He especially disliked my rather androgenous clothes - superwide flowery ties, see-through shirts, tight trousers with flapping flares, patent leather boots, trench coats with exaggerated collars, and 'Dr Who' scarves three miles long. I wonder what he would have said about the notion of transitioning? Fifteen lashes and my rum ration withheld?

In April 1998 I made it to the position of Deputy Officer In Charge (DIs were by then styled 'Officers In Charge') at Sutton District in South London, when the person who had that role retired and was not replaced. My boss needed someone to look after the office when he took his six weeks' annual holiday, and generally share the day-to-day responsibilities. I agreed to take the role on. I combined it with my more usual technical duties of harrying the limited companies in the area. I was also the Training Officer. As usual I performed my duties conscientiously and without controversy. Luckily, nothing bad came up. I had a great working relationship with my boss's secretary, who carried me along, and the office typists were on my side too. Key members of staff! All female, of course.

This pinnacle of management experience did not last long. In October 2000 most staff in South London were sent to a huge new office in Croydon. I found myself working in a vast open-plan setup, with no less than four of my former bosses sitting nearby on identical desks, with nothing to show they had ever been important. The casework they did was technically stratospheric, as were their salaries, but you wouldn't have been able to guess that from the look of their work areas. You could spot my desk from a hundred yards away - the office was that big, and this was just one of six floors - it was decorated with prints of my own photos. People noticed that. It was a kind of gallery, with never less than sixteen or so prints on display, always changing. A focus for passing people I was friendly with, and believe me, there were many among the 600-odd people who worked in or from that Croydon office who knew me. But once retired, I never saw them again. Sigh.

I seem to have seriously digressed. Sorry.

Monday, 22 February 2010

The Brighton University trans talk

This was supposed to take place in February, but nothing has come of it, and it probably won't happen now, or if it does, I may not be available. I've had no hand in any of the arrangements. Perhaps the idea has simply been dropped for lack of interest.

When first invited to participate last autumn I felt honoured, and eager to educate. I was at that stage where my self-confidence was starting to reach a 'critical mass' and I felt that I could face anything, even a mob of frenzied students baying for my blood. I am sure it would have been much more welcoming than that, but from time to time I practiced my responses to likely remarks and witticisms from the back row, and decided how certain kinds of heckling might be turned around so that the heckler was the one embarrassed, rather than myself. Probably all a waste of effort.

I've moved on. I don't think I would have any entertainment value now, having settled comfortably into my female life, so comfortably that I would seem boring to my student audience. They wouldn't have an obvious 'tranny' in front of them, just a dumpy middle-aged lady who might be their mum. They might question my heavy jawline and big nose, but otherwise there would be nothing to provoke comment. No brawny physique, heavy five o'clock shadow or moustache. No deep voice. No strange wig. No ludricrous eye makeup or fluorescent lipstick. No tight red dress and matching high heels. No fishnets. No flashy jewellery.

My toned-down appearance, ordinary behaviour and ordinary conversation explain why I can go anywhere, speak to anybody, and get accepted for what I seem to be. And it's great to be taken seriously by the world at large. But I'm really not going to be much fun for a student audience hoping to see and hear a freaky-looking person in transition.

And as already suggested, I may not even be available. The caravan season starts in earnest soon, and I'd prefer to be away somewhere. Scotland is now on the cards for April (tickets for a public lecture in Edinburgh during the Science Festival have already been booked), and although this displaces the trip to Sweden, I'm still minded to go there in May instead.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

My boomerang won't come back

I have before me a relic from my distant youth. It's a boomerang that my uncle D--- gave me when I was about ten. He lived in Australia, and sent it over. This was the same uncle who died three years ago and left me enough money to buy the Volvo with.

The boomerang looks authentic, with a painted kangaroo and other markings on it, all in the proper Aboriginal style, and it seems to be the right aerodynamic shape for throwing. It has signs of mud at one end, never cleaned off.

There is a true story attached to it, which says something about my impulsiveness, my ability to convince even though completely wrong, and also my dire lack of attention to whatever I was told at school.

When the boomerang arrived in the post, I immediately wanted to take it down to Porthkerry (a picturesque park area on the west side of Barry in South Wales, where we were then living) and throw it around, to see whether boomerangs really did return to you. My younger brother W--- got a boomerang too, and agreed this was a brilliant idea. I took the lead. It must have been the weekend, and without checking I decided that the Monday was a school half-term holiday. I was in fact wrong (the holiday was actually on the following Friday), but nevertheless I was completely certain that I was right, and I put my conviction across so well that I got Dad to take the day off and drive both of us down to Porthkerry. Well, we tossed those boomerangs around till we were puffed out with running after them - they just wouldn't come back! And mine kept on landing with one end stuck in the ground. What a disappointment. We came home wondering what we had done wrong: perhaps there was a special throwing technique? I never found out what it was. That boomerang never flew again.

My error over the holiday came to light next day. Dad couldn't have been too pleased about it, but I don't remember any scolding at home. I can't recall what happened at school. W--- would have got off because he was too young to be held responsible. But I was old enough to merit a caning. Perhaps I told the truth so earnestly that my silliness was obvious and the cane was withheld.

Now you tell me why I didn't 'lose' the boomerang and bury this embarrassing memory. I kept the thing. I'm glad I did.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Another friend has her surgery

It began with Debbie in November, and since then there has been a spate of surgeries. Today it was my local friend Rheya (who is awake and cheerful, and kidding me that she can manage without painkillers). Soon it will be Jenny and Sue. I feel a bit left out!

I shouldn't feel that way of course. I realised what was specifically 'wrong' with me in the autumn of 2008, only about a year and a half ago. The consultations and therapy began in December 2008, and hormones started in March 2009. I'm not a newbie any more, but it's still early days for me. I don't want to rush this. I want to give the hormones another twelve months to work their main effect, and then look at March or April next year for my own genital surgery. I have already chosen my hospital, made contact with the surgeon, and notified my intentions to both Dr Richard Curtis in London and and my local GP. I've even checked that Roz, who handles my hair removal, can do the genital bits as soon as Mr Phil Thomas the surgeon makes his wishes known.

So it's now a waiting game. One decision that might be made is whether to have any facial surgery during 2010. On the whole, I think not. We would be talking about the usual brow, nose and jawline work, plus cheek shaping and the odd lift here and there. I don't want to become unrecognisable, but the present Melford visage is way too neanderthal for my liking, and it would be more comfortable for both myself and innocent bystanders if Lucy Mk11 looked reasonably feminine from the neck up. But I don't want to end 2010 with my capital so depleted that paying for the genital surgery might be a problem. So I'm thinking that I'll get the car purchase out of the way, sell my old home if I can (which might free up a little money after repaying the loan on it), get the genital surgery seen to, and then see what's left in the kitty. It seems more prudent to do it like that.

Apart from that, I need to give myself a break. Squeezing in facial surgery during 2010 would be too much pressure. I pass fairly well already, so it isn't desperately needed. And I hate the thought of operations, not having stayed overnight in a hospital for over 50 years. I feel detached about being cut about 'down there', but not nearly so nonchalant about major surgery on my face. I need time to prepare for it.

Meanwhile, I can see how people handle their own operations, and learn from them!

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Air skipping rope, air exercise!

While away I became very conscious of how much 'fuel' I was putting into myself, to keep warm and assuage that nagging hunger. Your appetite gets pretty sharp when it's bleak outside. And while snacking is a nice passtime, it produces a Rubinesque figure that may look great in a studio in front of a bunch of art students but otherwise says 'fatty' to everyone else. I hasten to add that I don't really pose in the nude in any circumstances, and that if I ever had to drum up some extra cash, I wouldn't use my body to generate a few bob. Anyway, I thought that I ought to take a bit more exercise. And I came across this skipping rope in Salisbury. Just the job, I said to myself, and bought it on impulse. But when I unpacked it at home a few days later, I realised that it was totally unnecessary. All you need to do is imagine that you're holding a skipping rope, and then do the motions - a variety of hops and skips, anything you like so long as you leave the ground. And all the time you twirl your hands and arms as if you're really using a skipping rope.

It's a simulation, but remarkably energetic and aerobic. And just like frenzied playing of air drums requires stamina and quickly gets your heart pounding, so an air skipping rope rapidly infuses you with that 'I'm burning calories so fast I'll be a veritable stick insect by the end of the day' feeling. Plus, you can't possibly trip up. Plus also, if you do it indoors, you can't possibly lassoo your light fittings and destroy them.

I'm not saying I won't try out the real thing in the back garden when the weather is milder. But meanwhile, there's nothing like a bit of air exercise. And you feel so virtuous.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Is it really 74 degrees in the caravan?

Two days ago I towed the caravan to my usual spot at Coombe Bissett, just outside Salisbury. On the following evening (yesterday) I attended a dinner date with four other girls - Sue, Dee, Linda and Louisa, all of them UK Angels, and tomorrow I meet up with Debbie (of Debbie K True To My HeART). In between, shopping in Bournemouth and Salisbury.

The dinner was at a Thai restaurant in Salisbury, and was something of a 'Last Supper' for Sue, who is having her surgery next month. Linda was new to me, but I'd met everyone else just before Christmas. We all got on very well indeed. There was plenty to talk about. I was staggered to learn that one or two of the others had been following my blog! I thought my regular following was confined to a faithful half-dozen, the usual suspects (you know who you are). Anyway, it was a great evening out, well worth the effort of hauling the caravan halfway across southern England in winter.

Which brings me to the title of this post. It has been bitterly cold. It hasn't snowed, but it was cold enough to freeze the fresh water tap solid this morning, so that I couldn't replenish my 40 litre barrel until sunset, when the tap had thawed out. It'll ice up again overnight, but hopefully I can eke out the water I've now got until my departure. No onboard shower will be possible, but then, even with hot air blowing into the bathroom in the caravan, I didn't really fancy stripping off when it's so cold outside! At the moment (8:25pm) the thermometer says 74 degrees, but I don't believe it.

I bought a 16-inch digital TV for the caravan this afternoon. It will obviously work fine in normal conditions, but the digital reception high up here on the downs is non-existent tonight, and even the analogue signal is poor. Oh well.

Time to cook something. That'll warm me up!

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Music and voice

A lot of bloggers refer to their love of music, how it sustains them, and in one or two cases what a wonderful channel it is for their creative energies. I can readily appreciate the power music has to change mood, banish fatigue, evoke memory, inspire passion, and generally enhance the sweetness of life. All this said, visual things mean much, much more to me. I am image-orientated, not sound-orientated, and I would sooner become deaf than blind.

I'm sorry if that sounds like some kind of heresy. So much of our culture is based on music. But I am not mainstream. I could live in a world without music if it were beautiful to behold, and birdsong and running water were the only things to hear.

I do of course have a large and indiscriminate store of favourite music in my conscious mind, and much of it is constantly with me on my phone, there to be tapped into. And I'm sure I have an absolutely staggering amount of music tucked away in my subconscious mind, simply awaiting a trigger of some kind to recall it again - the jingles of 1960s TV ads, snatches of film scores, the theme tunes of old TV shows, and singles that never made it into the top ten. Not to mention old hymns, carols, and weird kinds of ethnic music that people have introduced me to. But none of it is central to my daily life.

I do use music to make ironing fun, to play in the background while I take a shower, and to keep me awake when driving at night. But that's not the same as loving music, or regarding it as essential as the air one breathes. I always tell people that I am just not a musical person.

I do however like voices. I can listen to conversation for much longer than I can listen to music. And I particularly like singing voices. It is still one of my personal ambitions to learn to sing. How I do that with a voice artificially raised, stretched and adapted to a female presentation is a very good question. I mentioned this ambition to Christella today. She didn't dismiss it as impossible. She said I was making very good progress with my voice, after only five sessions. So perhaps I may learn to do more with it than just ask for a cup of coffee.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

First flag on upper lip

If you can imagine my upper lip as Mount Everest (I would say my awful nose bore a stronger resemblence, but let's pass on that) then I have conquered it for the first time and planted my flag on the summit. Today Roz cleared the last of the thick dark hairs from the upper lip. Last of the current crop, that is: plenty more to do. It's like bagging one's first Monro. Just another 300-odd to climb. But a landmark occasion nevertheless. I thought you'd like to know.

I have to say, the pain was pretty excruciating in some places, especially in the middle of the lip. But I didn't wimper once, which makes a change! In any case, the pain was very local and soon faded. And it must be nothing to the discomfort some post-op people we know have experienced.

Friday, 5 February 2010

First anniversary of Mum's death

Poor Mum. I thought of her a lot on Wednesday, and was sad, but tears did not come as expected. I suppose a year is sufficient time for grief to dissipate, but I did want to cry. Instead I got on with a visit to Welling and then an evening with my cousin R---. No doubt it was best; what good would brooding at home have done?

The only image I can see of her is the deathbed one - as captured in my poem Under The Sheet in the posting on 11 February 2009 called My Mum Is Dead. Clearly the sight of her so soon after death, laid out as if asleep, but with her final expression still on her face, affected me deeply. I just can't seem to recall her as she was in life. I can look at my photos, but I haven't got a recording of her voice - nor Dad for that matter - and she seems forever fixed in her dying state. I hope that changes.

The last verse of the poem goes as follows:

The unbeliever knelt and prayed,
And found some loving words to say.
I wished you in Heaven, and said it through tears,
But they couldn't repair the guilt of years.
I wanted to tell you and explain,
I wanted to tell you my real name.
And speak of this, and this, and this,
But all I could do at the very end
Was to give your cheek the softest kiss.

Perhaps I have a mental block because there was so much I wanted to say to Mum before she died, but she wouldn't hear me; and then all too soon she was unable to hear me. We did not have a proper farewell.

20,000 viewings!

I'm referring of course to my Flickr site, not this blog. The Flickr site has been running about a year now, and in the first eight months to October 2009 I had 10,000 viewings (see the posting 10,000 viewings! on 18 October 2009). Now there have been another 10,000 viewings, but this time in only four months. Hmmm. Must be getting better known.

As I said last time, I'm interested in the number of viewings, and Flickr does tell me which shots are the most popular, but I really don't know what kind of shots people would most like to see if they could ask.