Friday, 27 April 2012

Scanning shots of an Important Anniversary

10 April last was the 30th anniversary of first meeting my future step-daughter A--- in 1982, when she was eleven years old. She is now a married mother of two, and will be 42 in August. How time goes by. And despite my divorce from her mother, and her own
emigration (she has lived in New Zealand since 2004), the old relationship endures. Mind you, when she comes over to the UK in June, and meets me as Lucy for the first time, it will be put to its greatest test yet. Unavoidable. But A--- says she will cope, and I believe her.

At her request, I've just scanned the photos of our first meeting on the evening of 10 April 1982, plus others that will take the scans up her twelth birthday. It's mostly her and her mum W---. There's one of me on the first evening, too, but I'm barely unrecognisable. It was a long time ago!

It's good to do this. The power of photography to recall lost moments in time is - at least for me - one of its main uses. I never want to forget. And that was such a magical evening. It was a shame that things did not work out for W--- and myself, but of course there was a Fundamental Flaw in my own subconsciousness that I'd managed to pop into a box and lock up securely. I didn't really know what exactly was in that box, certainly it had no name, but I believed (wrongly) that it would never haunt me in the years ahead. I intended to make a success of the courtship that was about to commence, enjoy my role as a step-parent (but specifically not as a traditional 'step-father'), and generally make a proper go of it.

It was of course my first essay into marriage...and it's telling that I've never wanted to get married again. I can see now, with hindsight, that it wasn't for me. But the Parental Relationship was quite another thing. I did find it satisfying. I was there for A---. So was W--- of course, but I was an incomer, and I had choices. I could have been heavy-handed, or detached, or anything. But I was proud to be 'a parent' and although (A--- being a model child) that role was never put to any real test, I took the responsibility seriously.

I was the one who took A--- swimming (she was very keen), and I went to every parents' evening with her. And I fended off Tesco on Saturday mornings - her part-time jobs as a till girl, then as a floor supervisor - when they wanted her to come in and do some extra hours, and she wasn't well, or should be doing her A-level homework. And I recall gently wiping her face clean with soft words, and putting her to bed safely when she began clubbing, and wasn't used to all the drink - and the dire results. I was a kind and unchiding parent, even if I was an little awkward in my role.

But now I'll be meeting A--- as something else. It will be an interesting encounter for both of us.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Planting an azalea

Two days ago an azalea bush was left outside my front door, with a card. It was only a small thing, well overdue for proper planting out. It was from M---, although she had got her next door neighbour to bring it round to my house. (M--- obviously didn't want to risk an encounter!) The card, which had a cloud of colourful butterflies on the front, read as follows:

Dear WD [i.e. Water Dragon, which is myself in Chinese Astrology]
This azalea/rhododendron was planted in the garden of [my old house until sold in 2005] by your parents [must have been some time ago then]. I thought you might like to plant it in your garden [where I now live] in memory of your Mum & Dad. Now, while the ground is wet and it is not too hot, would be an ideal time to plant it. Of course it will need to be kept watered for the first year till it is established. Should you wish to keep it in a container, it would need to be replanted in a bigger one as the roots are now too restricted for further growth. 
Yours sincerely, WM [i.e. Wood Monkey, which is M--- in Chinese Astrology]

The plant looked rather like a large bonsai tree, and it was clearly itching to spread its roots out in garden soil, and start growing again. I texted my thanks back, and said I'd get it planted the very next day.

The card actually revealed a few things. First, M--- could have merely dumped the plant, or given it away, but instead she ensured that I got it. That was a friendly gesture. Second, the card was a nice one, and even though the tone was neutral, it was pleasant as well, and the sentiment - in memory of my late parents, whose ashes are in the garden already, was a good one. Third, the card reminded me that M--- was a keen and knowledgeable gardener, and that she wanted the plant to do well. In fact, it may be that the welfare of the plant was uppermost in her mind, and that it wasn't a gift as such, but putting a living thing into my care, making me a custodian and a nurturer. But I don't have an issue with this. All plants should have respect and attention, and a bit of advice for rank amateurs like me did not come amiss.

Finally, if M--- can organise this, and write such a card, and feel that Mum and Dad's memory should be honoured, then I'd say that she has found a way to get back to normality, or at least a much less unhappy state. Sorting out her garden, the annual replanting, may have been the positive therapy she could not get from the medical profession. That won't mean a reconciliation between us, but if she really has found satisfaction (if nothing more) from maintaining a beautiful space full of well-tended and attractive growing things, then all power to her.

And I kept my promise to plant the azalea. Nor was it amateurishly done. In one of life's happy coincidences, my friend R---, who probably knews as much as M--- about keeping a garden looking good, got in touch and I invited her over. She's a worker, and she did most of it, so that this picture of me apparently lowering the plant into a hole of my making is, I'm afraid, a mere sham:

But we made a proper job of it. There was some bonemeal in the greenhouse, and R--- used that to line the hole. I held the plant upright as she put soil around the roots, and I trod the soil down around it down. R--- did everything else. She also cleared my path of weeds and moss, and had to be restrained from raking leaves and weeds from the entire bed. As I said, she's a worker; and she's fast.

I rewarded her with a good meal, wine included. Here I am, cooking:

We watched a surfing film, Riding Giants, while eating. Surfing is R---'s passion. The other is tennis.
Since planting, my little azalea has enjoyed shower after shower of heavy rain. I haven't needed to do anything with the water-can, but of course will if it's a sunny day. It's already perked up, clearly appreciating its new home.

Mum and Dad would be pleased. I hope they're looking.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

The Long Goodbye beckons

One of today's tasks is to fill in a form that the Pension Service have sent me. This is to obtain another State Pension forecast. I can estimate what it should be pretty closely, but now that I'm post-GRC, and 'female' contribution and payment rules apply, my assumptions may be a little off! Apart from that, having commenced contributions in 1970, there are some historical complications that affect the net amount of my State Pension in small ways. So it's best to enquire.

Although the Pension won't begin until November 2014, when I'm 62, that moment is not so far away. I have in fact regarded myself as 'a pensioner' ever since retirement from my job in 2005. But I got out at 52, which frankly felt a bit young! Especially as I looked like someone in their forties. I thought (on appearances) that I'd be regarded as a lazy, job-shy layabout. Maybe even a benefit fraudster. The truth - that I'd worked non-stop for 35 years since 18, had never claimed a penny in benefits, and was not doing any such thing now - wasn't obvious to a casual glance. I braced myself to explain in vain to stick-wagging old codgers. And end up being stigmatised, especially by those old enough to have Fought In The War. 

In fact there was no such social tut-tutting. But then I went out of my way not to gloat or exult about enjoying a life of leisure on an ample Civil Service Pension. That helped to keep people's feathers unruffled.

Believe me, I respected older people. I thought they had a lot to put up with, and didn't deserve bad behaviour and mockery - real or assumed - from young retirees. I had the example of my very own parents, and several much older people that I'd known, to show me that after 60 the Long Goodbye began in earnest. At first, by little degrees, so that there wasn't much amiss at 70, but by 80 you were beginning to live on borrowed time. 90 was attainable with luck and good health, but beyond that life was getting to be unsatisfactory, with immobility issues to contend with,  contemporary friends and family dead or unreachable, and a general feeling that more or different things could have been done with the active years. It is a sad truism that the wisdom of old age comes too late to be of much practical use. I haven't forgotten the poet John Betjeman's regret in his last days that he'd not had 'more sex'. He'd had many experiences of the mind, but had missed out on something basic and physical, an important aspect of life as a human being. At least he could laugh about it; but there's a lesson in his remark.  

So completing this Pension Forecast form will, in its small way, fix my attention on the years ahead, and where they lead to. Years not to be frittered away on silly things. At least, despite all the happenings of the past three or four years, I feel steeled and well-prepared to face whatever may be in store. And here's a fresh thought: who has the better time in old age? Old gentlemen, or old ladies? I reckon that there's more scope for having a ball as an old lady. Well, that's a bit of luck!  Funny how it all came right in the end.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Ten days of struggle has its reward (and sad moments)

Well, I finally got my new BT Broadband service running on wi-fi by six o'clock this evening, after a whole afternoon struggling with it.

If you've ever done this sort of thing, you'll know how maddening it is when everything has been followed to the letter, connected in the right sequence, in the right way, with the right lights showing, and yet there is still no connection! Enough said. But it's working now. Indeed, I have an 'excellent' wi-fi signal, according to my Sony tablet, which picked it up straight away. (Now why couldn't the Netgear USB adapter for my PC do the same thing?) BT's advice is that a new Broadband connection takes up to ten days to achieve full power, which might explain why the YouTube videos I tried to watch keep freezing. Hopefully, all that will improve.

I'm just beginning to feel that I can start getting back to normal - and back to blogging. I can only blog when I'm doing real things and reacting to real events. And messing about with computer devices is not exactly my notion of real life!

I haven't felt a sense of normality since 10th April, when I bought the Sony tablet - and with that, committed myself to modernising my entire Internet arrangements. Well, I now only need to download some applications for the Sony. It's already loaded up with music and pictures, and will soon have all my documents and spreadsheets too, all of them reformatted to go in cleanly. And the Whole Wonderful World of Android is going to be open for my inspection! A kind of reward for all the effort and frustration.

So comfortable lounge-lolling armchair computing has finally arrived at Melford Hall - as opposed to doing it in the study, sitting on a hard chair. That's an advance, isn't it?

And isn't it an advance to be able to whip out the Sony in plenty of other places too, wherever there's wi-fi? Like in my garden. Or down in Brighton. Or maybe on a train to London (maybe!). Or at the Cirencester Caravan Club site, which is where I'm going in late May. I'm not counting my chickens, but the site does have wi-fi, and that might mean a decent Internet connection. Better than TV if the weather is bad!

I mentioned 'sad moments' in my title. Well, most of my 480 or so existing Word documents and Excel spreadsheeets needed to be converted into Office 2007 documents and spreadsheets, so that they could be imported to the Sony and handled by my chosen office application - let's say Quickoffice - without problems. Inevitably I looked at quite a few of the documents. Some of the older ones, which I'd still like to have on the Sony, recorded my life with M---. Our plans, our doings - mostly very nice things; but latterly the awful drift into the pit of despair as my transition progressed. I wrote a lot about all this, and now read it back again.

That was a mistake. By mid-evening yesterday I felt so sad that I cried in total anguish, like M--- had done three years before now. I felt the same pain. And nothing of our life together can now be put back as it was.

I don't want to return to the old life - it's obviously impossible anyway - but it broke my heart to think of what had been lost. And although I don't know how M--- is placed now, I suspect that the damage my transition did to her is unhealed. Poor M---. And poor Lucy too. Life is cruel and nobody escapes, good or bad, guilty or innocent.

I cried till I could cry no more, then had a cup of tea, pulled myself together, had a hearty 'comfort' meal (too hearty really, but it cheered me up), and by bedtime I felt back to normal. I do bounce back quickly: I can't sustain an extreme mood - ecstatic or depressed - for very long. I'm a middle-of-the-road person, with a middling level of happiness. Maybe that's best.

Some of you might say, 'For goodness sake, delete those notes!' But I won't, because I want to remember how it was, and not rely on memory alone. It's all part of my personal history. Delete my records, and you surely delete part of me.

This is actually written from the PC. Old habits die hard! I'll try writing the next post from the Sony.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Leather dreams

The leather case for my new Sony tablet has arrived from Proporta. I have to say, it does look nice. Here it is, with the Sony inside, resting atop my Prada handbag:

Dear me, that toe-hole in my left slipper is getting noticeable!

I didn't realise something before I ordered the case. But my subconscious mind must have picked it up - and it must surely have influenced my buying decision. The case has a brass zip that goes perfectly with the brass fittings on the Prada bag:

Isn't that a good match? The Prada would be my bag of choice if I were (as tomorrow) seeing friends for Sunday lunch. It's capacious enough to swallow the tablet with ease. The case ought to cause a sensation when I take the tablet out of the bag at the pub we're eating at. (I have been asked to bring the tablet, but nobody has seen the case yet)

And here's myself, at home, holding the tablet and demonstrating its lightness, and its actual size when all cased-up:

Tut, tut! My belly looks huge. It's not really so. That green top just isn't tailored to my waist. (Memo: avoid billowy or baggy clothing)

So the Sony is now ready to be carried out of the house. Usually I'd plan to do this in a shopping bag rather than the posh Prada. Or probably not carry it anywhere at all. It all depends on whether I use it to help organise and record my life. Because if I do, I'll need to have it close by all the time. Now would that be a sensible and exciting advance, or a daft backward step?

Such is modern life.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Violence in the home

The dreadful violence inflicted on the girl in Cornwall by her boyfriend is in the news today, and it's totally shocking.

I too feel that this is an example of a man regarding his wants as paramount, justifying ruthlessly exercised control over his victim, including cruel punishments and revenge. With this awful result. It's yet another warning that anyone in a relationship where one partner enforces undue control is in mortal danger. Even if it's only mental pressure for now, it may escalate. And if it's already physical, then the abused partner should get out while they can. The Police say so. It's official. The situation will only get worse: the controlling partner will want ever more power, ever more debasement of his victim.

The pity is that so many women will put up with abuse. Is it for the illusion of love, or the otherwise super lifestyle, or simply for the sake of their children? But ultimately they will have to leave when the abuse gets too intense, and quite probably this will be a desperate, crisis-led decision, when it might have been a carefully planned withdrawal with primed friends at the ready. Recognising the situation for what it really is seems to be the biggest problem.

It all argues against forming any relationship with someone who has a flawed personality. But how do you know? 'I have an inhuman, remorseless urge to dominate' is not something that dating site members admit to each other during the first fascinating meetup. Besides, the potential victim may not know what the warning signs are. Or she might get an intoxicating thrill out of having a very possessive, demanding, jealous and highly physical lover. I get the impression that the girl most at risk will be poorly educated, low-income, over-trusting, over-dependent, and inclined to under-value herself. But one can imagine any woman finding herself in a relationship that has a dark side.

Sigh. The behaviour of this man towards the poor girl was appalling, and must make decent men hot with shame and anger. But the destruction of women by bad men of this kind still goes on, despite legal retribution.

Perhaps the only safe course is to forego any relationships at all, not just dodgy ones. I was personally inclined to adopt that course anyway; but after today's news, it becomes prudent and reasonable to stay away from any entanglement whatsoever.

Bottom line: if you share a bed, will you dare to fall asleep?

Wi-fi blues

Dear me, aren't new gadgets huge time-wasters? I was going to do my ironing this morning, and other things too, but all I've done is investigate wi-fi for my new Sony tablet! Tsk.

The stuff from BT on my new contract - the router, etc - is on its way, and the new Internet service is promised by midnight on Thursday next week. That's six days away, though, and having seen a working wi-fi tether last Monday, when a friend made her phone into a personal hotspot, I wanted to see whether I could get my own Nokia E71 phone to do the same thing.

Well, the E71 wasn't hotspot-enabled - too old - but you could get software to add this facility. I soon discovered JoikuSpot Premium. It had a high recommendation on the web, and Nokia offered it in their own online Store. So it seemed a good bet. I bought it, and installed it on the E71. And yes, my phone can now be a hotspot for any nearby devices wanting to connect to the Internet.

But not for my Sony tablet! Damn. Why not?

It turns out that many Android devices - including my Sony tablet - will not connect to 'ad hoc' wi-fi sources without surgery. It's a disablement at root level, and if I were super-confident, I could meddle with the Sony's root code and make it 'ad hoc' aware. But you just don't do this with brand-new tablets, just in case you mess up - which I could easily do.

So if I want to connect from home, I may have to wait another six days, and meanwhile I can't do much more with my tablet than play music and view some selected photos. I don't want to take the still-pristine Sony out of the house without adequate physical protection from bumps and knocks. Therefore until its new leather case arrives, visiting Brighton friends and coffee houses must wait. It's stuck at home for its own good. There are some detectable home wi-fi sources somewhere in my village, but they don't provide enough of a signal for the Sony's liking.

Anyway, provided there are no fresh wi-fi issues once my BT kit is switched on, the Sony promises much for home use. First, I need to connect to the Internet in order to set it up properly, initially through my existing Gmail account. Then the rest will follow, including downloading a carefully worked-out selection of apps. I suspect that, ongoing, a lot can be done offline. I'm hoping that (for instance) my Calendar can be used when no internet connection is possible. We'll see.

Meanwhile nearly all of my favourite music (that's 1,100 tracks) is now on the Sony. Only 100 tracks couldn't be transferred, because of some licensing problem. I hope to find a way to deal with the missing 100 without repurchasing all of them. The two built-in music players are both very good.

As for the photos, I'm setting up a collection of my very best, and 500 are already installed - that's less than 1% of my total collection of course! I'm also going to set up a separate album of shots for special showing. So, for example, I'd put photos in this separate album to show to my step-daughter when I meet her - for her eyes only. Then I'd clear the album, ready for another quite different selection to show to someone else. And so on. The larger-screened Sony does make an excellent viewer - far better than any phone.

And now for some lunch!

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Got a problem? Ask Aunt Lucy!

Or rather, please don't if you can avoid it.

Among the comments on a post last month - (Almost) perfect passing - my list of hot tips - was one from Anonymous who asked me for advice. I ventured a reply, but it struck me afterwards that (a) what I said probably wasn't any good, and (b) I really had no business giving advice.

Describing one's own real personal experiences is OK, the very stuff of ordinary blog posts. Deriving and passing on 'hot tips' (i.e. personal opinions) based on those real experiences is permissable, if it makes for a good read. But giving out any kind of general, theoretical advice that someone might seriously follow is quite another thing. I should have politely said 'no' to Anonymous. I'm simply not qualified to be an agony aunt. Nor do I want to become one.

In fact, come to think of it, it's astonishing how little I do know of life, and of how the other half lives. In my own milieu, which I take care to stay within, I flourish. I simply don't encounter the problems that many have to face. And I'm not the sort to find out what it's like to live dangerously.

So I don't know the answers at all. And therefore, no more requests for advice, please!

Lucy takes the tablet

This post will explain my three-day silence (something unheard-of nowadays!). I've updated my mobile computing kit. Yesterday, after much deliberation and resarch, and some demos from a friend, I bought these items:

As you can see (if you click on the shots to enlarge them) I bought a Sony Tablet S - the 32GB version - with a matching bluetooth keyboard. Plus a micro USB cable and a high-speed SD card. I have a cradle and a leather case on order. The keyboard is for writing lengthy pieces - such as a blog post, or a long email - with ease. If I decide to switch my documents and spreadsheets to the tablet, then it will make text and data entry very fast. The SD card is for mass transfer or mass backup.

Now, why?

Well, all my computer equipment was ageing, or had a mobility issue.

My widescreen laptop dated from 2006, and ran on Windows XP (a nice OS, I thought), and was presently working hard at just one task and nothing else: photo processing and backup. I'd relieved it of all other duties, but it was hardly winding-down to a well-earned retirement. I'd been thinking for some time about getting some kind of replacement, because after six years of heavy use - and some 75,000 photographs processed in that time - it was not surprisingly getting a little fatigued. I thought it would soldier on for some while to come, but it needed an apprentice or understudy who could step in if hard drive failure occurred, or the keyboard or touchpad suddenly gave up. It was by no means a heavy device, but I wouldn't like to carry it about all day, as I had to during my two-month trip to New Zealand in 2007. It wasn't really an ideal travelling companion.

The PC dated from 2007, and ran on Windows Vista (always irritatingly slow at start-up), but it did have impressive storage - 640GB, with plenty of space still left - and the main peripherals (the printer and scanner) were superior beasts. It was widescreen too, and great for viewing photos and web pages, and for handling my many spreadsheets. It got heavy use for many things. But I wanted to take some of the burden off, to extend its life. It was a good machine, but of course fixed in my study at home. I couldn't take it caravanning, or bring it into the lounge and watch TV at the same time.

The PDA (they were all called 'organisers' around the year 2000) - my iPAQ - dated from 2008 and was still going strong. It was intensively used most hours of my waking day, and for bedtime gaming (well, solitaire!). It was clearly very robust. It had some marvellously effective software on it, and carried synchronised copies of all the currently-used documents and notes on the PC, some of them encrypted of course. It was my calendar, my list of tasks to get through, my record of money transactions, my diary, my notepad. It was comprehensively backed up. It was light enough to carry it around all the time. It was indispensible. But it wouldn't last forever, and like the PC it needed its load lightened to keep it going for longer. I also felt that things like games, and map viewing, could be better handled on a larger-screened device.

The mobile phone - my Nokia E71 smartphone - dated from 2009, and was in its prime, although superficially outmoded by the iPhone and its Android imitators. It remained a very attractive possession, though: small, slim, in polished stainless steel and high-grade white plastic, with every feature a top-end device could have had in 2008, when it was launched. It was brilliant for voice calls, texting and emailing, which were the main uses it was designed for. It also had a very good music player. That said, the Nokia was a small-screen device. Half its length was taken up by a physical QWERTY keyboard. The keyboard was good (if you had, like me, small fingers), but the small screen made viewing the internet, and writing blog posts when away, hard on the eyes. I felt I could justify having a much bigger screen for such things. And PC-like access to the internet, with a proper browser, not a cut-down version. Otherwise, such things as online banking were difficult when out and about.

So you can see that I had a latent wish for something mobile, smaller and lighter than a laptop, but with a screen larger than I had on my PDA and phone. Over last weekend the wish jelled into an identified need that could be researched on the internet and investigated on friends' tablets. I spent hours on this - hence no blogging time!

Why not the obvious, an iPad 3? Apart from the facts that (a) I owned nothing Apple, so it would have compatabiity problems, and (b) I didn't want to get sucked into the Apple club, never to return, the iPad did not have an SD card slot. So I couldn't transfer anything into it, or take anything out, except through iTunes or whatever. This was a bad defect. The Sony did have this additional way of connecting to outside devices and storage. It was a clincher.

I think that's quite enough on what I've bought and why! I am pleased with what I've got. Sony make nice gear. And the need to abandon the old modem and cables, and acquire a wireless router for home, means that I have also changed my internet service provider and will save money on the new deal. Can't be bad. And it offsets the cost of this new stuff somewhat.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

My shiny new Birth Certificate

This is what the fuss is all about. This is The Glittering Prize that lies beyond The Surgery. It arrived yesterday from Southport. You can get two versions if your birth was registered before 1969, both of them printed on watermarked A4 paper: a landscape-style version that shows all the information that the original birth certificate did, but not your surname at birth (although that can be inferred from your father's name); and a portrait version, very much simpler, that omits most of the original information but does show your current surname. Here they are:

YES! I can take all the pain of owning this.

YES! I can take all the punishment. Bring it on.

Even these are not the Ultimate Certificates. I can imagine someone being even prouder of a Marriage Certificate or similar that shows their corrected birth name and gender. But for me, my new Birth Certificate is sufficient to put an end to a lifetime feeling like one of society's awkward misfits.

For preference, I will use the old-style Certificate. I paid £18.50 for two copies of it. (The new-style Certificate was free) I'll have to set up a fresh Statutory Declaration to connect my birth surname of Dommett with my adopted surname of Melford, so that I can drop my original 'male' Birth Certificate and the Deed Poll as linking documents. I'm thinking about consulting the Gender Trust or Gires about that next week.

So am I carrying printouts of these Certificates (and the GRC) in my handbag? You betcha. At least for now, because lots of people seem very keen to see them, including the three natal women I had a meal out with last Monday evening. (They toasted me, and I was officially welcomed as One Of The Girls) But eventually I'll carry only the old-style Birth certificate, along with my passport and NHS Medical Card, these basic items being essential anyway for my caravanning holidays far from home. But adequate firepower, I'd say, to let me win any showdown with transphobic officialdom.

[Act Two. Outside the Ladies Club. Enter Lucy, in the costume of a Venetian noblewoman, making for the entrance. A Transphobic Official bars her way]

Transphobe: You're a man, aren't you?
Lucy: I beg your pardon? Let me pass, oafish slave.
Transphobe: Listen, I know all about these things. You were born a man.
Lucy: You insult me. I was always a woman. Do you want me to prove it?
Transphobe: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You think you were born a girl. You people all say that. Are you going to flash your fake boobs, then?
Lucy: Now you're annoying me. Supposing I prove what I say, will you fall on this dagger, and drink from this cup of hemlock?
Transphobe: I'll fall on a dozen daggers, aye, and drink a hundred vile cups of poison. Show me your proof.
Lucy: So be it. Here's my passport. Sex: F for female.
Transphobe: Er...
Lucy: Here's my Birth Certificate. It says 'girl'.
Transphobe: Er...
Lucy: I'm afraid you must die.

[Transphobe dies of self-inflicted stab wounds and excess toxicity. Exit Lucy]

Saturday, 7 April 2012


I know that some people don't take holidays. They may have nobody to go with. Or it just seems like a huge effort, all that airport stuff, when all you really want to do is stay in bed and not get up for work. Or the hassle of putting pets into catteries and kennels, or asking reluctant neighbours yet again to look after them, is all too much.

And of course some people simply don't have the money. For instance, unemployed trans people in bedsits, especially if they're so depressed that the thought of a nice holiday is a fantasy.

Camping in tents is usually inexpensive, and I'm not saying that it can't be fun. Many revel in the experience. I just think that even 'civilised' camping, in a modern tent with modern gadgets, is way too uncomfortable and inconvenient to get excited about. I can't see the pleasure when it's frosty outside (and inside as well), or when it's teeming down with rain, or blowing a gale. There's no heating in a tent, no oven, no fridge, no ensuite bathroom with piping hot water, no loo. And no security. Given a choice between a tent and a decent hotel or guest house, or even a cabin, it would take less than a heartbeat to decide. Good hotels (and high-class B&Bs) have a solid comfort and luxury to them; and nothing beats a refreshing shower or hot bath after a day spent travelling there. Not like arriving in late afternoon, and having to set up a tent on a sloping pitch in a rising breeze, assuming the thing is dry and was logically packed away last time, and all the bits and pieces are there in the bag, and you can find the air pump and the hammer.

While in Dorset, I discovered a nice country hotel at Evershot - the Acorn Inn. I had a good but not too expensive lunch there, and formed the impression that it might be nice to stay at. Here's a picture from their brochure. It really was like this:

The brochure also showed interior scenes of heartwarming comfort and good cheer - nice decor, four-poster beds, succulent meals, roaring fires, all of that. Just the job indeed for a Merry Christmas. I rather fancied rubbing shoulders with ladies and gentlemen of a certain age and mellowness. I was moved to enquire about prices. But as expected it wasn't cheap. Costing it all up, I'd need to find a minimum of £525 for the room and normal board for the three days from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day, but Christmas Dinner was £60 extra, and then you'd have to factor in drinks, and a couple of shopping expeditions. They did lay on some free stuff - a bottle of champaigne when you arrived, and use of their own spa. And you could enjoy things like strolling about the village, and the grounds of Melbury Hall, and watching the local hunt foregathering, tweeting their horns and toasting each other in a sea of over-excited hounds. But there wasn't a lot that you wouldn't have to shell out big bucks for.

Even so, I was tempted...although their description of the bedrooms as 'delightful and discreet' made me wonder what mellow unattached ladies and gentlemen might get up to when in their cups! But all told I'd be spending some £800 on this three-day Christmas indulgence. Phew. That's an awful lot of money.

Sanity has prevailed, and I've now booked more caravan sites. How about this: I've just had twelve nights away in Wiltshire and Dorset for £123. Now I'm having nine nights in the Cotswolds in late May for £95, and seven nights in Cornwall in early July for £71. This is more like it - this is how I can afford my clothes and meals out.

And they're proper Caravan Club sites too, at Cirencester and Camelford. They won't be intimate and secluded, but they will be neat and tidy, with trees and nice shrubs and beautifully mown grounds, and the usual excellent facilities. I've checked them out on Google Earth (my invariable practice, to see what access is like - and what's next door that they haven't mentioned).

I haven't touched on travel costs. I always want to do it by car. I currently reckon on £20 per 100 miles, fuelling Fiona with diesel. If I'm not towing, I tend to race in Fiona. If towing, it's all more sedate, but the load and the wind-resistence tend to impair fuel consumption by 10%: so I get 27mpg instead of 31mpg. Not much difference really, unless travelling a very long way. I can easily do 500 miles on one tankful if not towing, and 400 miles or so if towing - it depends on how much low-gear stuff there is. So, given an initial topped-up tank, a sudden fuel-delivery drivers' strike wouldn't prevent me getting home, even if I were then grounded for the duration.

So that'll be 28 caravanning nights under my belt in the first half of 2012, for a combined cost of £289. You can pay that for one night at a middling-posh hotel nowadays. And I still get all the creature comforts of my well-appointed little home-on-wheels.

I'm so sorry to be self-satisfied. It's a great weakness of mine. And I do hope it won't disgust anyone if I just lie down, relax, shut my eyes, and bask in the sun...

Friday, 6 April 2012

Visiting the family seat at Dommett in Somerset

Near the southern edge of Somerset is a hamlet called Dommett. My father's surname was Dommett, and it's a name particularly found in these parts, and over the Devon border too.

The Dommetts - several distinct families, I should say - were generally farmers, or in some way involved in the agricultural scene. Not all were squires and merchants. Many (whether men or women) were no more than labourers, with no money, no land, and living in tied or rented accommodation. Dad's father - the only grandparent I ever knew, albeit fleetingly and not closely - was an itinerant worker of no education or attainments. He must have been the first Dommett ever to have been photographed, and here is the only picture of him that exists, taken in 1930 or so near Kentisbeare, probably at Ponchydown Farm at Blackborough, when aged about 50:

The child in the picture is certainly not Dad, who was by then aged 10. Dad's father (I never called him Grandpa, not really knowing him) had no inclination to bring him up, and at this date (1930) had foisted Dad onto a local family, paying for his keep and just turning up when he felt like it, and not staying long. Dad did not know what a proper home was until he got married to Mum in 1946, and never knew a home with loving parents in it to look after him. No wonder he gew up very self-reliant. The Second World War was the making of him, as it was for so many.

So in strictness there is no family seat, no venerable old manor house that has been in the family for generations. Dad's branch of the Dommett family were too poor to own anything. But there is a place that would do nicely for the part, even if there is really no demonstrable connection at all, and that is Dommett Farm in this tiny hamlet. I visited it with Mum and Dad and/or M--- in 1994, 1997 and 2006. And on my own two weeks ago. It's down a steep narrow road, indicated by this signpost:

Surprisingly, it was named on Fiona's satnav display:

In 1994, it was a house that had seen better days, but still most attractive in its yellow stone. It was set on a hill, with a commanding view to the south. So far as I can tell, it isn't in my Pevsner for South and West Somerset, which is odd. But it is very out of the way, and he probably never knew it was there. The next few pictures are mostly from 1997:

By the main gate into the courtyard is a tiny portal, which I imagine was for dogs or very young children:

A most curious feature. It used to have this charming iron grille in its upper part, to look through:

Superficially it was all much the same when I went there two weeks ago, but everything had an air of neglect. Nothing had been painted for ages, the gate had fallen apart, and the little child/dog portal was a sorry sight. The house was still inhabited though. Let's not go too close. Here's general view. And Lucy, dipossessed and outcast. And her restless arab mare Fiona:

You know, I feel I should walk in, turf out the squatters and interlopers, and claim it back for the family. Who's with me?

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Prayers, organs, wayside stations and spooky posters

I once had a girlfriend who thought that exploring old country churches was a deeply, deeply boring thing to do. I dare say it depends on your cultural background and point of view. And maybe your state of grace. Me, I just like the locations, the sense of local history often going back 1,000 years or more, and the photographic potential. I'm not at all religious - God forbid! - but I'm sensitive to the spirit of these places, the waiting presence of the divine. Not that you'd guess it from these shots, taken in what seemed at the time to be an interesting light for the camera:

Yes, well, if I may say so, the camera has lied in this instance, and has recorded a much too secular bust on my front side. Sorry for that: I suppose I should really morph it into a more holy bust, something much more in keeping with the surroundings. But I hate manipulating pictures on the computer. As it is, I look as if I'm on the cusp of doing a Madonna impersonation, as in her song Like a Prayer.

I was in fact standing in Beaminster Parish Church, dedicated to St Mary (the real Madonna), an attractive edifice found down a pretty lane off the town square. Beaminster is a small town in the West Dorset countryside. I think its church must be very much at the heart of the community: it was very well cared-for, it had been modernised, and it wasn't just a well-preserved museum for architecture students to visit. I was taken with this delicately sewn Mother's Union banner:

The standout feature of the church is the spanking new organ, with its polished stainless-steel pipes and huge number of keys and stops and pedals, which for organ players must be an irresistible draw. Imagine Procol Harum's A Whiter Shade of Pale played on this:

Are you reading this, Mel? Get down there pronto!

Let's shift gear a little, but stay with history. While in Dorset, I couldn't resist seeking out a remote wayside railway station now simply called Chetnole. But it was once Chetnole Halt, meaning that it was originally a spartan platform with a shelter and a nameplate, and that was all. Strictly for country folk who needed only two trains a day, and were happy to wait in the dark if need be. But look at it now:

It's still isolated and basic, but Health and Safety have ensured that it has proper lighting, non-slip stairs from the road with handrails, a Help Point to summon assistance if you are being attacked by a mad axeman, two information boards, and the shelter has a telephone inside so that you can chat even if you've left your mobile phone back at the farm. Talk about featherbedding the country traveller. I suppose that if you're waiting for the last train to Yeovil on a dark evening, these luxuries might matter.

Time was when isolated Dorset stations looked like this. Here's my own pix of Powerstock and Toller in May 1975, just a couple of days before the Bridport branch line closed forever:

Hah, men were men then, and women were women. But not any more. It's the same all over the country now. The sequestered delights of Lonely Country Railway Stations have been compromised with modern gadgetry to make the wait for the train unromantically civilised and high-tech. For example: Umberleigh station on the Barnstaple line, in the very heart of rural Devon, absolutely smothered in tendrilled greenery as Nature attempts to reclaim what is rightfully hers, nevertheless has a real-time display of the trains in each direction:

Tsk. Why not provide a TV screen in a mini auditorium so that passengers can't miss Eastenders if the train is late? And a vending machine so that they can have a mocha or cappuccino? All this mollycoddling will turn passengers into proper softies. They had to be made of sterner stuff in the Good Old Days of the Great Western or (in this case) the London & South Western Railway! Especially if travelling third class.

Even in the remotest parts of the country things have been tarted up and 'improved' to remove all possibility of being eaten by wolves while waiting for the train. I was at Georgemas Junction in April 2010. This is right up in the far north of Scotland, on the dead-end line to Wick, and is the junction for Thurso. It is in fact the most northerly railway junction in Britain, and, apart from Thurso, the most northerly station. But it's had a lick of paint, and looks spruce enough, and throughly modern swish trendy trains call:

However, authenticity has been partially maintained. You can still freeze to death in winter blizzards. Because although the station buildings look smart and well-kept, the public can't go inside, and must therefore die of hyperthermia in that draughty bus-shelter thing along the platform. I looked in through the windows. It's a different decade in there. The 1980s. It's just as they left it, when staffing was suddenly withdrawn. On the wall, this poster for the winter of 1984/85:

And a map of the country's rail network in 1984. I couldn't see any skeletons, but who knows.


Wednesday, 4 April 2012


I shouldn't by now be seriously concerned about passing (or whatever term you might wish to use to mean going about your day without funny looks or comments coming your way). And it's by no means uppermost in my mind.

I certainly get by on the 'embarrassment test' - that is, that even if people see that you're no ordinary girl, even if they say to themselves 'Aha, I know what you are!', they are still happy to speak to you and count you in, because your appearance doesn't embarrass them. Yes, I do indeed pass that test.

But I still need a regular fix of positive recognition and acceptance. Isn't it absurd? You know, men opening doors for you, being really helpful and pleasant, and freely saying 'madam'; kids shyly smiling at you, and their mums saying to them things like 'Now watch where you're going, don't you walk into that lady!'; receptionists and counter staff who have seen you before, giving you a natural and open grin, and perfectly remembering your name; and so on. I still get a kick out of all this.

Where's the harm? Every little boost to my self-esteem helps me avoid the deflation when a security guard or waiter says 'sir' to me in an effort to be super-polite (I think that's what they're attempting) - which doesn't happen often, but it did happen back in January on my first visit to the magistrate's court, and it happened at a restaurant last Sunday too. Always by men, in situations when I would indeed expect proper politeness. But I wish they wouldn't bother if they can't get it right. It's a momentary pinprick, said and done with, but it stays in the mind, and you wonder what 'gave you away'. Reassurance asserts itself in the hours that follow, as you recall many, many other occasions when you were triumphantly the belle of the ball. But the fact that this reassurance seeps back only gradually after quite a small negative incident reveals how fragile one's self-confidence is. Yes, you really do need good experiences all the time to keep you buoyant!

In the last couple of weeks I've had several. The one I want to tell you about here is what happened when Lucy met Libby.

I was in Sidmouth on a gorgeously sunny and warm Sunday. The sky was blue, of radiant hue; the tide was out, with seagulls about; the sands were wide, exposed by the tide. The Esplanade was thronged with plenty of locals and holidaymakers strolling along it and obviously having a great time in a quiet way. You could really believe that God was in His heaven, and all was right with the world.

I'd parked for two hours, had enjoyed strolling about the town a bit, and then suddenly felt a little peckish. There was a pleasant-looking bakery/cafe called something like Cathy's Kitchen. I went in, intending to have a coffee and a small snack. It was more sumptuous and civilised than I'd thought, although still a place you could just wander into and have a quick drink and a bun, if that's all you wanted. Being Sunday, they were doing a choice of 'home-cooked' hot meals out of their oven, and a steak and kidney pie spoke to me. I never usually go near pies, but this one appealed. Ordering a portion, with vegetables, with the coffee to be brought to my table, was the work of a moment.

Which table? It was actually only just gone twelve, and there was still a wide choice. A lady was at the end table of a row of smaller ones. She saw that I was making up my mind, and smiled at me, saying how difficult it was to make one's mind up. I agreed, and not wanting to intrude on whatever she was doing, which looked 'official' (as if she were something to do with the Tourist Office), but sensing a kindred spirit, I sat on the table next to hers. She looked like a smart fifty-something businesswoman making notes from a client list, but actually she was writing postcards. We had a little conversation, and then she urged me to eat my meal before we spoke again. This I did, thinking already that here was another nice positive encounter under my belt. The pie was very good. I wouldn't need to cook up much that evening, back at the caravan.

I finished, and so did she. We began to talk all about what we were doing in Sidmouth. She wasn't local. She lived in a village near Carlisle, right up north, but she had a friend who did live in Sidmouth. This friend had had a hip operation recently, and now, recovered, was treating herself to a holiday in Madeira. But she had cats, and so had asked this Carlisle lady to come down and house-sit, and care for the cats while she was away, effectively giving her a free holiday in sunny Sidmouth, with only light duties where the cats were concerned. But of course she was on her own, as I was.

We did get on well. There was a definite rapport. I mentioned that this was the last full day of my own holiday, and she was instantly regretful. She said it was a pity, as had I been staying longer, we could perhaps have met up on another day. As it was, she had to catch a bus back to her local friend's house in a couple of hours, to have a late lunch and feed the cats. A couple of hours? I made up my mind. I proposed, tentatively, that I go off and repark my car, and then that we meet up on the Esplanade and stroll the half-mile to Connaught Gardens (which were on a bluff overlooking the sparkling sea), where we could maybe have an ice-cream. I was tentative because I wasn't sure whether she had realised that I was trans. There was absolutely no sign. If she had clocked me, and wanted to politely make excuses to get away, then it would be simple for her to invent reasons not to share those two hours with me. But she didn't politely invent anything at all. She accepted the suggestion with enthusiasm. Wow.

I went back to Fiona, thinking that it might not be so easy to repark her on such a busy Sunday. Just buy another ticket then, and hope nobody would notice. But when I got to the car park, there was a council parking enforcement officer, checking who was already parked. That meant I couldn't simply buy a fresh ticket. I was mindful of the parking fine I'd already incurred a few days before. I decided to tackle him. He looked all right. In fact he looked the spitting image of a traditional Devon fisherman, an old salt, with his white beard, stout-hearted demeanour and rolling gait, only slightly modified by the yellow high-visibility jacket, peaked cap, and dangling electronic gadgetry that these people have to carry nowadays. I went boldly over to him. 'Excuse me, I've just met a friend, and now need to stay a couple of hours longer. I know you shouldn't feed the meter, but I'll never find another space now, and I wondered if you could make an exception...?' My most winning smile. I hoped this little speech implied 'two local ladies in a pickle that this nice gentleman had the power to fix'. 'Well, my dear, (said he) it's against regulations of course, and I'm not supposed to do it, but, well, perhaps there's no harm.' 'Oh thank you! (I gushed) My car's the blue Volvo, just there.' I got my new ticket, making certain that he saw me do it, cheekily for the maximum time allowed, confirmed to him which car was mine with a gesture and another big smile, and then departed for the Esplanade. What an insinuating female I was!

And there was the lady, waiting for me with a smile. I said to her, 'I haven't introduced myself properly. I'm Lucy'. She said, 'I'm Libby'. We walked slowly westwards along the Esplanade, chatting animatedly. It turned out that, surprisingly, she was five years older than me. But we had similar backgrounds, and both had a similar sad close-family situation. Much in common, in fact. And still she didn't asked me a frank question about what had happened to me. The moment resolutely didn't come. All too soon we were climbing the steep steps up the red cliff to the gardens. And there was the lawn, and the castellated tea room. Inside, a queue for refreshments and ice cream. As expected, they were selling proper West Country ice cream in all sorts of delicious flavours. We both had cones bulging with something cold and yummy. I'd taken it for granted that we'd buy our own, but she insisted on paying for mine. It was churlish to refuse.

We spent the last half-hour talking and admiring the various walled sections of garden, already full of flowers, and the high view out across the beach, and back to the town. She took a picture of me with the little Leica:

Then she had to go. She hoped that somehow we'd bump into each other again, especially if I was in Sidmouth at a future date, or came to live there. I gave her my card with my email address on it. She went off for her bus. I felt our two hours or more had been the high point of my holiday. Here I am, immediately afterwards, feeling rather thoughtful:

But there was no anti-climax. For I already had a plan for the rest of the afternoon. You can see a huge beach in the picture above. Over a mile long. At the far end, under the towering cliffs, was a large rock called the Big Picket Rock. I wanted to reach it. So I went down another set of steps:

The beach was a bit wet, refecting the red cliffs like a mirror. I took off my shoes and just walked along in a kind of euphoria, revelling in the sunshine. Others did the same. The sea was calm, gently drifting in, and felt warm in the shallows. It was very hard to believe it was only March, and not August:

You can see the rock, at the foot of the cliffs. I got to the far end of the beach. But I never quite made it. The rock stayed far away, inaccessible. I ran out of time. The tide turned, and I had to head back to the car.

But what an uplifting, inspiring day!

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

The magic of Dorset placenames!

I ask you, what other English county has such evocative village and town names as these:

Three Legged Cross
Gussage All Saints
Sixpenny Handley
Tollard Royal
Fifehead Magdalen
Melbury Abbas
Fontmell Magna
Iwerne Minster
Tarrant Gunville
Blandford Forum
Winterbourne Zelston
Melcombe Bingham
Bere Regis
Corfe Castle
Langton Matravers
East Creech
Chaldon Herring
Burton Bradstock
Shipton Gorge
Wynford Eagle
Toller Porcorum
Maiden Newton
Cerne Abbas
Melbury Bubb
Beer Hackett
Ryme Intrinseca
Whitchurch Canonicorum
Lyme Regis

And these are just the first names that occur to me. I could go on and on. They not only conjure up a mental image of picturesque rurality, these names have have a definite hint of magic about them, a bit like a chanting a spell. And quite a few actually live up to the imagined image of an ideal place in an ideal setting! All this said, it can't have been much consolation to underpaid agricultural workers in the nineteenth century to live in a village with a pretty name. One shouldn't forget that. But when I visited Melbury Bubb not two weks ago - a tiny hamlet on a dead-end road, comfortably nestling against a hill - I felt a tranquility and sense of deep history, and there was no suggestion of past rural unhappiness and poverty. The old church was neatly kept, and still relied on candles and oil lamps, with aluminium picnic plates behind each lamp to spread the light a bit more effectively on winter evenings...

Melbury Bubb's church is 'famous' for having a font with upside-down carvings of animals. But I was more intrigued by the oil lamps, and the briefest War Memorial plaque I can recall seeing:

Just two names. The First World War was notorious for stripping men from the countryside to fight in their county regiments. I've seen much longer lists of the fallen than this, even in quite small places. It just shows what a backwater this place has always been. And you do wonder how many people turn up for the services nowadays. It can't be more than a tiny handful; and yet the church and its grounds are so well-kept.

I rather think that Dorset has more placenames with 'Mel' in them than any other county. I certainly feel at home there, with my own name of Melford. But Devon has the first claim on my West Country loyalties.