Sunday, 31 July 2011

Table for one

The caravan is mostly loaded-up, and I hit the road early on Tuesday, aiming to arrive at my regular North Devon spot around 4:00pm. That's early enough to think about dining in Bideford or Barnstaple (or indeed at any country pub) if I don't feel like cooking. A restaurant (as opposed to a pub) lets me glam up a bit - a dress, instead of leggings. And pearls if the mood so takes me. All part of 'eating out'. It would be the same if Something Special were happening in one of the main towns that evening: I'd wear something very smart and chic, a small contribution to making it all an Occasion. Unless of course the festivities involved a lot of Joining In - in which case I'd come prepared to get hot or wet or splashed with beer!

But let's suppose that I'm in that restaurant on that evening, in a long dress, say. Would I be fully content with the meal and the staff as my only companions? I used to say 'yes of course' but now I'm not so sure. I think this may be the first muted rumblings of 'post-op companionship deprivation'. Or at least my personal take on it.

What am I lacking, and vaguely wishing for? It isn't clear. I have friends (and indeed there are bloggers) who are absolutely certain what they need once post-op, more-or-less recovered, and embracing ordinary life. And that's a romantic connection with someone special. But I don't want that. I can't be independent and free to do as I please, and at the same time wholly committed to one person, with all that implies. The urge to be in absolute control of my life - which has so far let me carry through my transition at a fair pace, with nothing in the way to trip me up - is completely at odds with ordinary notions of meeting and keeping a soulmate.

So if I don't want a 'relationship' is it something less or different that I want? Such as to be simply chatted up, and made a fuss of, by some interesting person? And indeed share a meal with them. That's closer to it. But what happens next? Despite shifting emotional and sexual responses, a general wish to experiment with flirtation, and a strong natural curiousity to know how 'the new parts' will perform, I can't see myself throwing caution to the winds, letting myself be seduced, and abandoning myself to a brief but sweet Holiday Romance. Too much would hold me back, at least at this point: a virgin's terrors; fear of rejection or humiliation; a lifelong inability to handle intimacy; a lifelong inability to 'let go' and completely surrender myself to pure physical sensation. The hormones and surgery haven't cured those problems.

So if some man or woman (I don't think I'd mind which) made a beeline for me - or indeed I for them - and we embarked on a deliciously enjoyable evening, I would be fretting about the outcome long before dessert. And longing for the quiet, uncomplicated safety of my little caravan.

But watch this space. The compulsion to move forward and engage with people may prove irresistible!

Thursday, 28 July 2011

High level passing

Now that the op is receding into the past, and I feel embedded into the world of women as never before, I find myself pushing the boundaries of acceptance more and more. I constantly feel a wicked, daredevil urge inside to see whether I can pass with flying colours in this or that social situation.

I'm not talking about just getting by on appearance alone. This high-level test of passing involves the skilful use of appearance, voice, manner, body language, body movement, projection of personality, and an ability to speak naturally on every subject likely to arise in a normal conversation - without giving away the fact that you spent most of your life struggling in  a male role. I'm talking about a prolonged exposure to intelligent, no-nonsense, eagle-eyed people, skilled in reading facial expressions and detecting nuances, who will engage you in deep conversation. With, in some instances, a further series of firey hoops to leap through - whether you have a good social background, a delicate appreciation of the finer things of life, genuine culture, genuine personal experience, savoir faire, some higher education, and (of course) some money. Overall, I'm now putting myself to tests of a much higher order than simply window-shopping in a bustling shopping centre. You are not anonymous. You are the centre of attention whenever speaking, or when asked a question. And the probing - even within the limits of good manners - can be fearsome.

I will tell you about my latest test - or ordeal, if you see it that way! - in a moment. For now I want to assure everyone that most of the time I'm just plain unpretentious Lucy, an ordinary person you might see anywhere, someone wanting to blend in, not looking for difficulties, not on a 'look at me' kick, and most certainly not on a self-destructive mission to get found out. This is typically how I look in public, and in a typical situation:


The venue was Wakehurst Place, the home of Kew Gardens in the Sussex countryside and also a National Trust property. It has a old house, gardens, a series of lakes, a modern restaurant, and the Milennium Seed Bank, which stores millions of plant seeds from around the world in case they are needed to reintroduce plants that have become extinct in a changing climate, or to develop better-adapted new varieties for the centuries to come. It's a good place to walk in, the terrain encompassing a range of plant habitats from rock faces to wetlands, sunny open lawns, shadowy valleys, and walled gardens. Trees, shrubs, heathers, reeds, lillies, and flowers everywhere. I was with two friends. The top shot is me in the Seed Bank; next down me in the restaurant. That's how I generally look when out and about in summertime. No miniskirts or fishnets, no bling, no attention-grabbing eye makeup. Lately my arms have become rather girly, so I deliberately show them off as an extra visual clue that I'm female. A pity about the slightly overlarge hands, but even with those, you can disguise their size by using them gracefully - even when (as here) trying to unscrew a bottle top - and you can help them out with those slender arms outstretched.

Those arms really are a vital asset. I'm constantly using them to send out messsages of femininity. Just as the bag strap across my chest in the top picture has deepened the valley between my breasts, and draws attention to their existence. I knew it would do that. So I used that bag, with the cross-body strap, and not a handbag, or a shoulder bag. 

And so to my demanding test. It was at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. The occasion was the AGM of the Friends of Pallant House Gallery. I was a Friend, and had been invited. Here's a link to the Gallery website, so that you can judge for yourself was kind of lion's den I was walking into: http://www.pallant.org.uk/. The Chairlady of the AGM was Lady Nicholas Gordon Lennox, sister in law to the Duke of Richmond and (in 2003 anyway) lady-in-waiting to Princess Alexandra. I mention this to give you an idea of the tone of the event. Also in attendance was the Director of the Gallery, Stefan van Raay, and these two articles from the Guardian in 2006 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2006/jul/10/architecture.communities) and the Sunday Times in 2008 (http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/career_and_jobs/article3881178.ece) will tell you something about him, and the status of the Gallery. Well, I noticed him when he arrived, and he gave me a warm, beautiful smile.

This shot, taken in the ladies toilets, will give you some idea of what I wore:


Sorry about the visible toilet seat. The pale jade skirt was long and voluminous, and ankle-length. It moved and flowed wonderfully. Peeping out from underneath were a pair of flats in pale gold. It was exactly the sort of outfit needed for the occasion. It was understated and nodded to the warm summer evening, but formal enough.

The AGM was well-attended. I counted who was seated, and the total was at least 70. A lot more than I'd expected. I sat in the back row with two ladies on my left called Faye and Jeanette, and a couple called Pam and Ian on my right. I'd met Faye when I arrived; we immediately smiled and spoke to each other, and continued the conversation at a table in the Gallery courtyard. Jeanette was her friend, and joined us later. Jeanette was a voting member of some section of the Chichester Cathedral congregation. Pam and Ian had moved from Burford in the Cotswolds one year before, mainly because Ian's bad knees couldn't cope with Burford's steep streets, and they wanted to be in a place that was flat, offered culture, good living, and had a fine hospital close by. We were all getting beyond middle-age; I was the baby in this company, everyone else being about ten years older. But collectively we must have looked like trouble, because the Deputy Chairlady Jillie came over to us and laughingly hoped that we wouldn't disrupt the proceedings with our lively chat. That meant me too, of course.

The AGM went smoothly, and surprisingly fast. The financial statements provided for everyone were long (18 pages, including the explanatory notes) but not terribly informative. The main item that needed explanation was a donation to the Gallery of some £1,386,000 from Friends' funds. Nobody had much to say about that. I think it was taken for granted that everything was in good hands. The only question of any substance (from a gentleman with a terribly posh and super-educated accent) centred on why the Gallery accounts and the Friends' accounts were not available at the same time of the year. I did wonder why people had turned up, if they weren't going to ask questions! But then it was primarily a social event. The whole thing was wrapped up in an hour, and then we broke up into little groups. That meant wine, and a bit more chat. I had a quick and sneaky second look at the Frida Kahlo paintings, then adjourned to a table with Faye and Jeanette.

We chatted for another 45 minutes, just the three of us. I tried very hard to detect that 'ah-ha' look in their eyes that said 'something here that we weren't expecting' but there was nary a glint of it. Perhaps I'm dense and imperceptive, and it was there after all, and these pleasant ladies had simply been polite and well-mannered and had chosen not to embarrass me. Be that as it may, we discussed pictures and food and wine and coffee and personal careers and the government's policy on funding art. Christella would have been proud of me, my voice never faltering. I even managed two girly sneezes. I think I did jolly well.

Eventually it time to go. We made smiling farewells.

You can imagine me walking on air with light steps, my skirt dancing around my legs in the soft evening breeze, as I made my way back to Fiona.

It had all been an intoxicating boost to my self-confidence. They say (well, Roxy Music said) love is the drug. So is successful passing!

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

North by Northwest - the first outing

North by Northwest is of course the title of an iconic Cary Grant film from 1959 in which he plays an urbane city man suddenly caught up in a Cold War spy intrigue. It involves his impersonating an imaginary US government agent who The Other Side mistakenly assumes him to be. At first, Cary Grant wants out, but then assists the CIA in earnest, in order to save the life of a female agent he has fallen in love with, and barely rescues in the end, with a thrilling denouement on the craggy presidential faces carved into Mount Rushmore. Most of the time he moves around in a £1,000-dollar suit (that's £1,000 dollars in 1959 values) and looks, speaks and moves in his best Cary Grant manner - which was the very model of appealing, handsome sophistication for any man of the time with aspirations to impress the girls in his life. I so much admired him and his style - probably for more complex reasons than I understood back then!

One incident in the film has him lured out into the country, a desolate spot, where he waits for something to happen. It does. He gets attacked by a crop-spraying biplane:


I think it looks better in black and white! And the relevance to myself? Well, towards the end of my inaugural walk in the new boots, when I was trapped in a field behind a barbed wire fence, would you believe it, this came into view and flew low over me:


But fortunately that was all that happened. One pass only.

Anyway, I'm jumping ahead. Let me tell you about this first walk in the new boots. Basically it went very well, but it left me exhausted.

Not that I was carrying too much. I had a lightweight black Lowe-alpine pax 20 rucksack with plenty of clever pockets. Carefully folded into the base of that was my outer wet-weather shell clothing, two Gore-tex items by Berghaus: a green waterproof jacket, and blue waterproof trousers. It was a sunny day; but you can't venture onto hills, even the gentle South Downs, without proper stuff to get into if the weather takes a cold or rainy turn. Both these items dated from the 1990s, and were styled for a man, but that hardly mattered if I needed something roomy to zip up or pull up over my other attire. And more air between layers meant more insulation. Next in the bag: SeaSalt woolly hat, gloves, and spare Wigwam socks. So that was my 'standard' kit, for every outing. It didn't weigh much at all. Next in was my Olde Trustye Redde Metall Sigg water bottel:


And my Olde Trustye Garisshe Orange Tupperware foode container, with an apple and a Kitkat inside:


Also in the rucksack went a 1:25,000 Ordnance Survey map, my purse, my Nokia E71 phone, my HP iPAQ PDA (which had an array of OS maps stored in its memory, and was in effect a standby electronic map), my Leica D-Lux 4 compact camera (naturally), tissues, sunglasses, comb, cosmetic bag. I could have added a little more to eat, and a compass. The walk lasted longer than intended, and when you are tired and getting disheartened, a second snack can cheer you up and make you think more clearly. I had two Silva compasses, but they both dated from 1979, and frankly I didn't trust them for critical use, such as for walking on a bearing in fog or mist. They'd been in cars too much, and might have been affected by the electrics. (So a new compass before the autumn)

I was wearing a beige low-neckline top, bra, panties, watch, black leggings, Wigwam socks, the new Alt-Berg boots - a pretty minimal garb. I also had with me a wine-red SeaSalt lightweight fleece jacket that soon got wrapped around my waist, as the sun made it too warm to wear. It was a decent 'mat' to sit on though, spread out on the dry grass.



All in all, the rucksack weighed no more than my Nikon D700 camera plus lens had in its backpack, and that was about 5kg, so I reckoned I was carrying about 10 pounds altogether. No problemo.


For once I didn't bother with a panty liner. I've never 'leaked' very much, and I wanted to see how it would be on a proper walk if there was just me and the cotton panties, and nothing between us. I'm pleased to report that it all went well. Of course, as always, I had a panty liner in the cosmetic bag just in case; and on a longer walk, I'd carry spare panties to change into if necessary.

The boots themselves were a dream. They were so supportive and comfortable. I forgot I was wearing them for much of the time - that's a very good sign. They had plenty of grip. I didn't slip or stumble once, even when I began to get very tired. And my toes were able to flex and waggle all the way. So full marks, Alt-Berg!


Right then. I drove the short distance to the top of Ditchling Beacon, parked, and set off around 9.30am. the first objective was Keymer Post, west along the South Downs Way, then I'd turn south on the Sussex Border Path to The Chattri. All this went magnificently well. I stopped to talk with a man looking for a good spot to hang-glide from, and a nice lady with a little dog. The Chattri is a strange thing to see in the English countryside. It's a memorial to Indian troops who died from their wounds in the First World War. Built in 1921 in white marble, it's been the scene of a unique memorial service held in June every year since 1951, to commerate the valour of these troops and remember the gallant individuals who died so far from home.


They let sheep graze, to keep the grass down. It's in a remote, peaceful spot without road access. Apparently 'Chattri' means 'umbrella' in Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi, and in this case refers to the marble dome; but also symbolically to an umbrella sheltering and protecting the memory of those who died. They were cremated where the granite slabs are in the foreground, with the wreaths on them.

Having contemplated the memorial, I sat down in the sun to have my snack, then decided to return to Ditchling Beacon via a farm at Lower Standean and a valley that went in the right direction. Here I went wrong. I found myself on the wrong side of a series of interminable recently-erected barbed wire fences, and I had to struggle uphill through rough fields densely sown with rape. Those oil seed pods got into my boots and worked their way through my socks. And I couldn't escape. There was no getting over the new fences. And there was the proper open path, so tantalisingly close, and I couldn't get to it! At one point, when feeling really low, I nearly cried from frustration. That was when the biplane swooped past. Then at last I found a place where I could crawl under the bottommost strand in the fence, to freedom:


The car park was just over the next rise, and believe me, I was glad to flop into the back of Fiona. I sat with my feet dangling, the hatch shielding me from the hot sun. It took half an hour to pick the worst of the seeds from boots and socks. Then I tidied up my face and hair. Then I discovered that I'd plonked my rucksack right on top of my glasses, and that both lenses had popped out. Complete panic! I can hardly see without my specs! I managed to get one lens back into the frame, and realised that a tiny retaining screw had dropped out. Then began a cyclopean search for that screw. I did find it; it went carefully into the Tupperware food container. I drove home rather deflated. A poor end to a walk that began so well.

But I soon cheered up once I'd had a cup of tea, fixed my specs, and entirely deseeded the boots and socks. After all, the boots had been a huge success, the rest of my gear had functioned perfectly, and I'd acquired a pretty suntan!

But it was the slowest walk ever. Four and a half miles, five at the very most, in four hours! I clearly wasn't ready for any kind of sustained hill walking, and must first spend a lot of time building up my stamina. Especially before walking with anyone else. I didn't want to be a pain. OK, I'd stopped to admire the views often, and was taking photographs all the time, and had two chats along the way. But I only had one sit-down, and ducked into a bush for a pee only once. It was the last mile that did for me, through those awful fields. That wasted an hour at least.

But (need you ask) I'm taking my walking gear with me to North Devon next week. I can get to Exmoor and Dartmoor equally well. And there's the South West Coastal Path too.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

These boots are made for walking

Flushed with my eBay success, you might expect me to quickly set aside my immediate resolution not to blow it all. But I didn't blow it all.

That said, I decided to invest a bit of it in fitness.

I don't like the idea of gyms and jogging and mountain biking. Not my style at all. But I do like walking, especially as you can combine that with two other of my favourite activities - driving (you've got to drive somewhere to walk from), and photography (landscapes being my chief thing). But proper walking can't be done in ordinary shoes. You need boots. And that's what I've just spent some money on.

The first serious pair of boots that I bought in 1992 were really quite good. I covered many miles in them. In fact I kept a Walk Diary, and set myself weekly mileage targets. I actually wore those first boots out, the rubber grips on the sole eventually becoming ineffective, making me liable to slip up on steep descents. None of the boots I've bought since have been as good. They've all been cheap substitutes for the real thing, and none have been a good fit, so it's hardly surprising that I stopped wanting to do much walking, especially in wet weather. And got fat as a result.

So, now that I was keen to get up on those hills again, it seemed sensible to buy a pair of really good boots at a place where they would be fitted properly. I went to Peglers in Arundel, and spent an hour with a nice man called Jonathan (alias Jonny), who gave my needs a lot of thought. Peglers are specialists, and you can view their website at http://www.peglers.co.uk/. They get in stuff from all over the world. Jonathan carefully measured my feet with walking socks on. To allow plenty of toe room I ended up with a size 9 and a half, in a wide fitting. That sounded gigantic to me, but in fact it didn't look so terribly large.

The most comfortable pair that he thought suitable for my feet, and for the proposed use, were boots made by Alt-Berg, a Yorkshire firm based in Richmond. Here they are, at home:


To keep the boots company, cushion-comfort Merino wool socks by Wigwam of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, USA.


Yes, that's very comfortable indeed. These Alt-Berg boots feel solid, not a hint of sloppiness, and extremely supportive for feet and ankles. Jonathan had me up on a small section of sloping 'rockface', so that I could feel how it was when making my way down a steep slope, when the toes tend to move slightly forward in the boot. No problem at all. Nothing was moving much, nothing was getting crammed up. And although appearance wasn't a deal-maker or deal-breaker, I thought the dark brown boots looked handsome as well.  Here's the purchase receipt:


That's £170 for the boots, and £26 for two pairs of those special socks. But no charge for the tin of leather oil. Strange to see my name handwritten in full by someone else. It looks rather nice like that!

There are of course a host of walking things that I could now buy - shell clothing - poles - GPS stuff - but I'll resist for now. Most of my existing gear dates from the mid-1990s, and could do with uprating, but it's still OK and there are many other priorities. It would be nice to stride out in trendy new stuff, modelling myself on Julia Bradbury perhaps, but it isn't necessary. This, by the way, is Julia Bradbury, hitherto the most scarily fit outdoor woman on British TV, but shortly to be a mum at 40 (and many congratulations to her):


Hmmm. Not much resemblance to me! But then I am a bit older, and a lot heftier.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Make way for the big wheeler-dealer!

I've now disposed of all my semi-pro Nikon camera equipment in two separate deals.

The first was completed a month ago, when I sold my full-frame Nikon D700 camera and all its accessories to a local professional wedding photographer for £800 cash, in crisp £50 notes. I'd brought that about by sending a targeted email shot to eighteen wedding photographers, mainly in Sussex and Surrey. My Plan A. The eventual buyer was one of these.

I didn't quibble about that £800. It was only 33% of what I'd spent on the camera and its accessories three years before, but it was a sufficient exchange for something that I didn't use much any longer - the D700 was too heavy for me now. Alas, girly muscles and pro equipment don't mix.

If the email shot hadn't worked, I had thought of approaching the local photo clubs - Plan B - and touting my gear to the members in each until I found a discerning buyer, but that would all take time. And time was of the essence - the D800 was not far off. I had a Plan C - putting the thing on eBay. But an amateur bidder might fight shy of paying real money for a three-year-old camera that was about to be replaced with something newer and shinier, and 'better'. Whereas the pro I dealt with saw the soon-to-be-superseded D700 as a decent robust workhorse camera with most of its useful life still to come (I'd taken only 14,000 shots with it, and the shutter was good for 150,000 actuations). No pro would pay top dollar, of course, and he didn't, but I could expect a serious offer if the camera passed muster after examination and some test shots. I got that offer, and took the ready cash. And it was nice to know that the D700 would be going to a good home.   

I was left with the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom lens that I bought with the D700. It was a great lens, with Nikon's latest technology and glass in it, and it would have a long useful life, but the man who bought the camera had no use for it. So this was one for eBay. A week ago I put it in at £250, hoping for over £700 on the basis of what another such lens had fetched on eBay in May. A couple of hours ago the auction ended, and the winning bid was £895! Wow! I'll get £873 after adding on the agreed amount for postage, and deducting PayPal's handling fee. And I'd paid £1,030 for it three years ago: so I was getting back 85% of its original cost. A very good result.

I won't be whizzing out to buy another posh camera though. The £1,673 that I've made overall will have to be kept in hand to cover running costs on the Cottage through the autumn and winter, in case disposal drags on. At the moment I expect it will all be spent in that practical but very dull way.

Thus endeth my semi-pro career, the career that never was. The feisty and handbag-friendly little Leica takes some excellent photos, and is good for recording my passing life, but it will never earn me money.

Monday, 18 July 2011

When is the right time to transition?

The obvious answer is 'as young as possible, and certainly before the onset of puberty'.

Yes...but when I look back on how I was at age ten or so, it seems utterly unreal that the person I was then could have articulated to her parents how she felt inside, and what she wanted her parents to do about it.

The actual me at ten was still deeply immersed in childhood, and completely naive and uninformed. It was 1962. Families were led by the Man Of The House; in my case a benevolent figure; but my Dad would not have understood anything about gender dysphoria. He was 42, and had learned many things in the war. Like his entire generation, the war had broadened his mind, and called his attention to many new things. So he could take a view on the characters and goings-on in D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, even if it was still regarded as a scandalous novel, unfit for the eyes of women and children. Army life - his eventual rank as sergeant-major - must have shown him all kinds of human behaviour. He must, for instance, have become well aware what a homosexual was, and what 'they' were supposed to get up to, even if the subject of same-sex love was taboo in public discussion. I suspect that my Mum did not know exactly what 'they' did, and Dad certainly wasn't going to tell her.

In this climate, anything about sex or gender would get mixed up and horribly complicated by misinformation and the lurid prancings of 'camp' entertainers, as seen on TV and in theatres everywhere. I had to endure the squeam-inducing performances of Danny La Rue, Kenneth Williams, Dick Emery, Lionel Blair and many others - and even Liberace - who played the cross-gender or homosexual card in various ways. Most comedians used jokes about sexual or gender variance as part of their stock-in-trade; although made quite inexplicit, so as not to cause embarrassment to the audience, who knew full well (or thought they knew) what was being referred to, but didn't want it thrust in their face because it was all 'dirty'.

It did not help that my Mum seemed to enjoy many of these acts, and found them wonderfully entertaining, and the costumes gorgeous. Danny La Rue was especially confusing and embarrassing to me. He wore a wig, dresses and high heels, and make-up that although ultra-feminine did not disguise the fact that he was really a man. He hadn't had surgery. Nor did he ape a woman's voice in a convincing way. I suppose he had to make it obvious that it was all just an act. If he had tried too hard, people would stop enjoying what he did and said, and he'd suddenly be a freak, and pilloried or reviled in a Sunday newspaper.

Throughout the 1960s, the dreadful phrase 'sex change' was associated - in the UK at least - with perverted sexual practices and louche immorality, something unmentionable in normal conversation, or at best a sensational and daring story about the wicked ways of film folk in The People or The News of the World. (I can see that the World is going to remain a metaphor for vulgar and salacious journalism for years to come)  No compassionate insight or understanding - or treatment - was available for people who felt uncomfortable with their bodies.

It was therefore, in 1962, impossible for any child to talk about the subject to their parents. Children were not in any way associated with the 'disgusting' world of sexual deviance, and any attempt to open a conversation about wanting to be a little girl instead of a little boy would have got a shocked and possibly frosty reception. I would have been slapped and sent to my bedroom as a precocious little horror. Certainly not referred rapidly to a London specialist, and put on appropriate medication until I was older. 

Even if I'd had extraordinary parents with amazingly advanced views, I couldn't have found the words. I could not have reduced my vague feelings of discomfort and distress to a definite concept, with a definite name that my parents could look up and read about, and then discuss with the family doctor. I couldn't say: 'Dad! I think I've got gender dysphoria! Look - it's all here on this web page!'. (Funny how I'd probably have approached my father first, assuming that I dared to speak at all; Mum was inclined to be opinionated, not a sympathetic listener, and wouldn't have been the one I'd want to break the news to) In 1962, gender dysphoria didn't exist as a public concept in the UK, and there was no Internet, no Wikipedia, no trans sites, no trans blogs. There wouldn't be for another forty-odd years.

So I'm saying that for me, and for everyone of my generation, an attempt to begin transition in 1962, when I was ten, would have led to ridicule or punishment or both; and in any case no diagnosis could have been made, and no treatment would have been available at the time.

It would have been the wrong time to transition.

And that would have remained true well into adulthood, although the 'punishment' would have been on the lines of social ostracism, a job lost, or promotion denied. It's only now that being trans is entering into the public consciousness as a condition that requires sympathetic and urgent treatment. And 'entering' is almost putting it too strongly. Trans people have a toehold on a mountain whose summit is still far off. But at least the climb has begun, and it is getting media attention of the right sort.

I visited Jane Fae at the Brighton Nuffield Hospital on Friday and again yesterday. She is still being video'd by the people who are making a documentary about her and two other transitioners for ITV3. It will be screened in the autumn. (Jane describes in her own words how her post-op experience is going on her blog: see my blog list) I met the producers of the documentary. From how they seemed to be, and what they got on camera, I think the programme will be sensitive and insightful, and a 'must-see'.

I just hope I didn't say anything silly when chatting in Jane's room with her family. There's a possibility that I will show up on the odd clip or two. I had to sign a consent form, just in case I don't get entirely deleted. You have been warned.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Ex-voto

'Ex voto' is a religious term referring to the offering of a personal or symbolic item in gratitude for some deliverance, often in fulfilment of a vow to a god or saint. Thus one might have prayed for a cure, or for a happy outcome, and when the cure or happy outcome came, make a pilgimage to a shrine in order to give thanks and offer a momento or present to the god or saint. Ex-voto objects have included a tin hat, scarred with a bullet, that saved the life of a soldier. The highly stylised ex-votos in Roman Catholic Latin America are well known.

How, you might ask, does this subject come to my attention?

Well, yesterday I went to Chichester, and during the afternoon I popped into the Pallant House Gallery to see what was new. The Frida Kahlo exhibition was on. This talented and rather strange lady of Mexican background but mixed parentage was a superb painter in a distinctive style that emphasised her odd looks in the the name of truth, and paid no homage to conventional perceptions of female glamour. So no Hollywood air-brushing here. Fully one third of her paintings were self-portraits, and in them we see a woman who was unafraid to show her sallow complexion, her over-active facial hair, and the unbeautiful, and rather unsettling mannish planes of her face. And yet she was not without lovers; and was long married to a devoted but unfaithful husband who was a famous painter in his own right, Diego Rivera.

Here are shots of three of those self-portraits:


All three photos: © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

She had poor health always. Polio when a child, which left her right leg thinner than her left. Then there was a horrific accident when still in her teens. On September 17, 1925 [this information is from Wikipedia]  Kahlo was riding in a bus when the vehicle collided with a trolley car. She suffered serious injuries as a result of the accident, including a broken spinal column, a broken collarbone, broken ribs, a broken pelvis, eleven fractures in her right leg, a crushed and dislocated right foot, and a dislocated shoulder. Also, an iron handrail pierced her abdomen and her uterus, which seriously damaged her reproductive ability. The accident left her in a great deal of pain while she spent three months recovering in a full body cast. Although she recovered from her injuries and eventually regained her ability to walk, she had relapses of extreme pain for the remainder of her life. The pain was intense and often left her confined to a hospital or bedridden for months at a time. She had as many as thirty-five operations as a result of the accident, mainly on her back, her right leg, and her right foot. The injuries also prevented Kahlo from having a child because of the medical complications and permanent damage. All three pregnancies had to be terminated.

And the ex-voto bit? There is a self-portrait - it was in the exhibition at Chichester - showing her upright by a hospital bed after yet another miscarriage. She is alive, but her baby is dead. The baby is not shown. In its place is a symbol, a large naked doll. A completely inadequate and artificial substitute for the child who never was. The painting gives thanks to God for deliverance for the woman who is a gifted painter and an honest feminist but cannot be a mother.

And the relevance to my situation?

Have I not been delivered, though not without loss or payment? Am I not thankful to be alive, when I was dead before? Do I not have an inner urge to thank someone or something for my answered prayers, or their equivalent?

And the difference? I move in a world without gods, and there is nobody to appeal to, or to thank, or anyone to save me. But I can still feel.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Serving the community

I'm in a very good position to be of service to the community, which could mean the local community in which I live, or some group that I belong to, such as the community of retired people, or the trans community, or just women as a section of society. But I'm doing nothing, and it mildly bothers me.

Look at me. I have unlimited leisure time, no family to feed, no partner to consider, no boss to appease, a home that's mine, and a pension to live on for the rest of my life. I can pay off my credit card bill every month in full, and do. No mortgage, no obligations, no religion, no criminal record, no scandal hidden away that could haunt me later. No-one's got a hold on me. I'm immune from pressure. So I can voice an opinion and not fear the comeback. I'm free. I can go boldly.

Such a person would be useful to any community - or group - needing an advocate. But I'm doing nothing.

And it will probably stay that way. Long ago I recognised that I'm simply not a person who likes to join anything. Not clubs, not societies, not political parties, not Facebook. Transitioning hasn't altered that in the slightest. I really have thought about becoming a trans advocate, for instance. After all, I'm not doing stealth, and I'm fairly good with words. Or at least I'm fluent with words, with the odd glimmer of meaning in there sometimes, more than the average politician can generally show.

So why not become an activist? But that would mean having to get accredited to some action group, and immediately I'd be rubbing shoulders with people whom I might dislike, even if we were supposed to be aiming at the same goal, and working to the same agenda. Do I want to join some ego-driven contest? No, I'm not ambitious for the limelight, nor for power, nor for celebrity, and I'm not prepared to posture or exaggerate or lie in the name of anything. Nor sit on endless committees. Nor chant slogans on marches. Not even for a very good cause.

I could still quietly volunteer in some humble capacity, working unseen behind the scenes. That would enable me to stay out of the rat-race. But how could that make a big difference? Wouldn't it be a waste of personal potential? How does a Saturday job in a charity shop change anything that's wrong about society?

I can't help feeling that the only way to influence events and get big things done would be to plunge in, elbow my way to the front, shoot my mouth off, get noticed, get my hands dirty, and risk a dirty reputation. That's what people do, who want to make it into national politics, or become media bosses. Not for me.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

My 59th birthday day out and evening meal


On Wednesday 6th July I was 59. I spent the entire day alone. As you know, I'm a solitary, independent sort of person and I never feel lonely. But I do like to share nice experiences, and I admit that in the evening I had a little twinge of regret that I wasn't enjoying the evening meal with someone. But I still had a lovely time, as you can see from the picture I took of myself above. The little Leica was balanced on the top of a wine glass, and I made it a black and white shot that I've tinted a romantic pink-brown. In that way, the noise from the small sensor has been disguised. It just looks a bit grainy. I am wearing my opera outfit, including the pearls. And I'm looking forward to the meal ahead, of which more anon. I've said before that a really good meal of several carefully-chosen courses can become your companion, helped out by attentive staff and a fine wine.

Turning 59 was no big deal. I just don't feel especially old. And the medical regime I'm now on - the kind that people like me all share a version of - makes you look ten years younger, and maybe ten years friskier! I rather like the 'forty-fivish going on fifty' appearance, and the eye-twinkle that I now seem to have - at least in soft and flattering lighting. Yes, despite creeping old age I'm still a potential contender in the attraction stakes, although those hormones will have to do a lot, lot more work on the saggy Melford visage!

Earlier that day I drove Fiona down to sunny Dorchester. The main objective here, apart from getting a sandwich for lunch, was to visit the Dorset County Museum. I love museums. I'd not actually stepped inside this one since a school trip to Dorchester and nearby Maiden Castle (a vast iron-age hill fort that the Romans beseiged) in 1965, when aged 13. It had seemed an old-fashioned place then, and the main part, the original part, was a vast two-level space constructed from Victorian cast-iron, that still looked much as I remembered it:


It really resembles one of those classic west-country market halls, usually called Pannier Markets, such as the famous one in Barnstaple. This is a 2010 shot of the Barnstaple Pannier Market, just to make my point:


The front part of the Museum led up to a large room given over to fossil exhibits, the latest being a big fish-like reptile with huge jaws and teeth. The official picture below shows just how huge. It was being set up for filming by a BBC camera crew when I was there. In fact the creature's head was under wraps, although you could discern its general shape. Apparently it was going to be featured in a forthcoming TV programme, and I was enjoined not to take photos, which of course I didn't. So I can't show you any terrifying pliosaur shots of my own. You'll have to make do with this one:


Image copyright Dorset County Council Jurassic Coast Team

Big, isn't it? And this is what the Museum's website had to say:

MONSTER JURASSIC COAST FOSSIL ON DISPLAY AT DORSET COUNTY MUSEUM 

The giant jaws of a huge marine reptile is on permanent display at the Dorset County Museum from 8 July – unveiled by Sir David Attenborough. Dating back around 155 million years, the pliosaur skull was discovered on the nearby Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, and is one of the largest and best preserved fossils of its kind ever found. Belonging to a creature up to 18m in length, the skull is a staggering 2.4 m long and is believed to have possessed the biggest bite of all time – powerful enough to break a small car in half...The specimen has already been scanned at the University of Southampton using its high-energy, micro-focus CT scanner – one of the most powerful of its kind in the UK. The results have been used to reconstruct a digital model of the entire skull, revealing details of the creature’s internal structure that would otherwise have remained a mystery. The University of Bristol will now be using the CT scan data in a bid to understand just how powerful the bite may have been. Experts from the University of Portsmouth will also study the fossilisation process, while mud associated with the bones has been sent to the University of Plymouth to see if any fossil plankton have been preserved. Rock removed from the bones will be studied by experts in the Natural History Museum in search of bones and teeth of animals that may have hunted around the dead skeleton.


For more information about the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, visit http://www.jurassiccoast.com

As you can see, my visit was slightly premature: I missed the public 'opening' of this exhibit by three days. Damn.

Built in recent years was a cleverly-designed network of modern rooms, each dealing with some aspect of Dorset life. Inevitably that meant rural life and customs, with curious exhibits such as this outfit, worn for feast-day rituals until the 19th century:


Imagine wearing that for hours on end. I suppose the jaws were made to flap open and shut, as if the face were actually speaking or singing. Maybe it chased maidens in the crowd, pretending to eat them.

Being Dorset, there was much about Thomas Hardy and other literary figures. Personally I find Hardy depressing. Hard though the 19th century rural world was - and this was real-life Tolpuddle Martyrs country, of course - it surely had happier, more cheerful moments than Hardy liked to dwell on. My goodness, he was one for the ladies, even so, with two fine-looking women in his life.

Dorset is renowned for its archaelological remains, being a favoured settlement area for neolithic cultures, and there were several exhibits full of skeletons in various burial poses. Great stuff. But I'm sure you're more interested in knowing about the tea and cake I had in the Museum Cafe, a place incidentally that you can use off the street without paying a Museum admission charge - worth remembering. The woman who served me was very pleasant and friendly; we discussed children and holidays and birthdays. The cake was home-made, and tres yummy.


Thus fortified, I sped on to Weymouth, but I didn't linger long. The afternoon had turned cool and cloudy, and I wanted to get back to change for my evening meal. I was booked in at the Greenhouse Restaurant at the Hotel Grosvenor in Shaftesbury. My Michelin guide says this of the restaurant: Ground floor restaurant enlivened by boldly coloured abstract art...refined brasserie cooking...excellent service. And of the hotel itself: Stylish former coaching inn with Georgian-style facade and spacious, trendy bar. Perfectly accurate! I'd been there before, and if you look back in the posting archives you can find a report of my June 2010 lunch ('A long weekend in Wiltshire - part 1').

I arrived when it was raining outside, and I was concerned that my long dress didn't get wet. The light was just beginning to fade as I sat down, but of course that helped to make the lights and candles seem more romantic:


I selected a jolly good meal, with a half-bottle of Chablis to go with it:


On asking, I found that the chef was still Mark Treasure. Ah, that was nice to know! The stage for a pleasant evening was set. To kick off, I had Italian breads, with butter and an olive oil dip:


Then a mushroom risotto. It was delicious, such subtle flavours:


The big white plate - or should I say dish? - made the risotto look tiny, but it was actually quite filling. I should have asked which types of mushroom were used: certainly not bog-standard growths from a damp shed. Then the main course: halibut, with a poached egg and wafer-thin whisps of bacon:


Ah, I so enjoyed that! To follow came a coffee panacotta coated in biscuit crumbs, with an orange ice and a crisp 'hat' of caramel:


And finally full-flavoured black coffee with exquisite petit fours:


Replete, I went upstairs to refresh my appearance:


Then down to the Hotel bar, where I was delighted to find James Whitty engaged in his 'daytime job' as (by now) expert sommelier and cocktail mixer. He genuinely remembered me from June last year. James's real interest and intended career is in fashion photography, and I was fortunate to catch him before he moved Londonwards. He is putting together an online portfolio, which obviously has to be carefully judged, as it's one's shop window. You can see it in its first morph at http://www.jameswhitty.com/ and I would like to think that in the years to come he will make it into Vogue and other fashion magazines. Well, I spent a pleasant hour over the gin-and-tonic he prepared for me, and we discussed photography (of course). I mentioned that I had just sold my Nikon D700 semi-pro camera, and was wondering what to get as a much lighter but still large-sensor replacement, bearing in mind that my professional ambitions were (realistically) caput, and yet I did want superb image quality in a handbag-friendly package. He recommended the Leica M9 or (if living in the real world) the new Fuji X100. Hmmm. I'll be looking into it.


Soon enough it was time to go. Another dash for Fiona in the rain, back to Coombe Bissett. The A30 was almost free of traffic, and I had newish high-performance tyres, and so it was a good run.

And so to bed, after a lovely day. Do you think I was silly not to invite a friend to share it with me? Well, at least two answers to that: first, wading through Museum exhibits isn't to everyone's taste; second, I couldn't possibly have expected a friend to pay what I did for that evening meal. And I suppose that, on my birthday of all days, I want to take stock, and think about my life, and decide for myself how one balances the freedoms of an independent existence with the benefits and comforts of companionship. There is no simple conclusion.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

A night at the Opera

Having arrived in Wiltshire, at my usual place out in the countryside near Salisbury, the next afternoon I went to the home of an opera-going friend, M---, packed all the picnic food and drink in Fiona, and then we set off for The Grange at Northington to see Dvorak's Rusalka. A little while after our arrival we were joined by J---, another opera-going friend, coming up by taxi from her hotel in Winchester.

It was a fine sunny afternoon. It was very atmospheric, all those people in posh frocks and DJs arriving in nice cars at this amazingly impressive Georgian mansion set deep in the rolling Hampshire scenery. (Just click on the pictures to enlarge them and get a clearer view)


That's me in my long dress.


As before, we had a reserved table in the main marquee, and before the performance began, and during the intervals, ate the yummy food M--- had prepared, and guzzled champagne!


Cheers!


About to tuck into duck! M--- did very well with the food, didn't she? I wish I could show you pix of M--- and J---, but of course my 'house rules' mean that I never show anyone but me, to preserve other people's anonymity. This isn't The News of the World, you know! Oh, can't say that any more, can we: the World's final issue was only days ahead. Not that I ever read it, nor any paper come to that, but people are right when they suggest that it had found a deep place in British culture. I have to say that many of those attending the opera had an 'important', or at least 'monied' look - you could tell from the type of cars in the big car park - but perhaps there were no celebrities present. After all, any man in formal evening attire looks impressive and distinguished; and any woman fashionably dressed in something long and tasteful acquires grace and dignity. Even someone like me! Well, maybe...!


The opera itself, Rusalka, is about a lake-dwelling nymph who feels overpowering love for a prince who comes to hunt in the forest. She is basically a mermaid with a fishy tail. Despite misgivings, her father the Merman points her in the direction of a witch who, by means of a potion, some radical surgery, and a spell, transforms her into a human being. However, there are two big catches: she is denied the power of speech, and the spell means that if her love isn't returned, then both she and the prince are doomed. That's witches for you. Can't trust 'em.

Anyway, she encounters the prince as a young (but mute) girl. He is fascinated by her, and takes her away to court, where of course everyone else fails to see the attraction. Poor Rusalka! She soon learns that there is much more to being human than she thought. And even as the prince makes his wedding preparations - he is set on marrying her - she discovers that she is easily ridiculed by the prince's entourage, and in particular by the princess who had meant to marry him instead. Too late she sees that her former cold and watery existence did not teach her passion, a quality the prince yearns for. And so he is easily drawn away by the princess's warm and elegant charms. It really doesn't help that Rusalka can't utter a word. Remember that, girls, if ever offered such a deal by a witch.

Inevitably poor Rusalka flees and goes back to the lake, where she can live only on the margins in a kind of lonely limbo. She pleads with the witch, but the spell can be broken only if she kills the prince by her own hand, which she won't do as she loves him too much. But he comes looking for her - he can't help himself - and they meet, and even though he realises that her kiss will kill him, he begs for such a death. So they kiss, and he dies. And she retreats back into her former life, sadder than before, and full of unrequited love. Sigh. It just shows that love does not conquer all.

All through, there is Dvorak's score that tugs at the heart. And the singing is amazing, whether it is the Merman's ultra-deep bass, or the prince's tenor, or the soprano of the female cast, including Rusalka herself of course, at those moments when she can give voice. The stage scenery is simple but evocative, enhanced by much ballet-like movement from female wood-sprites, and the gestures - commanding, regal or buffoon-like - from the supporting cast. There is a palace scene where Rusalka has to watch a banquet being served in front of her to men and women in stylish evening dress, who then dance a razor-sharp and fierce tango all around her, as if to emphasise their passion and sophistication - and her lack of it. All sung in Czech, too: but as ever with opera, the language doesn't matter, because the theatre of the performance, the swell of the music, and the emotion in the voices explain everything.

I haven't any shots of the performance - I couldn't remember how to set up my camera so that the screen didn't come on and give away the fact that I was taking (probably prohibited) pictures. but I do have shots of the auditorium:


Obviously these are interval shots! It got pretty packed when everyone was seated. After the opera ended, we came out into darkness, but the mansion itself was stunningly lit up:


They're putting on Tosca in September. I'm going.