Thursday, 28 June 2012

Madame Butterfly - let's discuss the crime of not living up to expectations

Yesterday it was opera at Grange Park: Puccini's Madama Butterfly no less.

I was there with two friends, a really dressy occasion, as is usual in the summer. With the champagne picnic, naturally.

But the focus was on the production itself, which starred the soprano Claire Rutter as Butterfly, Marco Panuccio as Lieutenant Pinkerton (who 'marries' her and makes her pregnant), Sara Fulgoni as Butterfly's confidential maid Suzuki (one of the important roles in this opera), and Stephen Gadd as Sharpless, the American Consul at Nagasaki. Claire Rutter and Stephen Gadd are real-life husband and wife, living in nearby Winchester, and they frequently perform together. He does other things too: I thought I'd seen him elsewhere, but I couldn't remember where.

If you don't know the story, it runs like this. The opera is set in Nagasaki in Japan, around 1900. Japan is emerging from its isolation from the Western World, and American ships make courtesy visits to foster diplomatic ties and trade and so on. Daughter of a Japanese nobleman who has died, young Butterfly is striving to maintain her honour and dignity, but her slender circumstances have forced her to become a geisha (i.e. a prostitute working within a traditional set of rules), which she is not happy about, even though in Japan it is a recognised and regulated profession. Enter the personable Lieutenant Pinkerton off an American ship, anchored in harbour for some months. Pinkerton is looking for a house ashore, finds one, and then hears that in Japan one can take a 'wife' who can be divorced on one month's notice. The man who controls the local geishas puts Butterfly before him, and he is instantly attracted, glad to 'marry' her, but seeing it mainly as a pleasant arrangement for the duration of his stay. But she, being so young and naive, and unused to the ways of Western men, falls deeply in love with him. The American Consul contratulates Pinkerton, but warns him that for Butterfly this is clearly no light thing, and that he should conduct himself with care.

Well, it's the old story. He has his way with her, on her side very willingly (she loves him), and then duty calls him back to sea, and to far-off America. She finds she is pregnant, gives birth to a Japanese baby (played on stage by what seemed to be a real little Japanese boy in sailor suit and lace-up boots, a competent little actor in his own right, even though he only had to be a quiet, well-behaved child all the time. A rising star, clearly). She waits three long years without Pinkerton returning or sending any word.  

We perceive at once that he considers himself free, and it's no surprise that when he does come back, it's with an American lady as his proper wife. But meanwhile Butterfly cherishes dreams of a beautiful reunion, and refuses all offers of marriage from other suitors. For she is convinced that Pinkerton loves her, and will come back to take her off to America. It's agonising to see her so hopeful. The Consul visits her with a letter from Pinkerton in which he explains that he has married someone else. But the Consul, a man of understanding and sensitivity, cannot bring himself to break Butterfly's heart.

Events move rapidly forward now to their tragic conclusion. Pinkerton comes visiting with his new wife. They learn about the child. His wife, to her credit, offers to bring the child up as her own. But this means that Butterfly will lose both husband and child, and have nothing left, as her own people have disowned her for 'marrying' Pinkerton in the first place. Realising now the consequences of his too-playful dalliance with Butterfly, Pinkerton is filled with remorse. But this cannot undo the dreadful situation. Too late, Butterfly's eyes are opened. She accepts the new wife's offer to care for her child. But her personal honour, and her overwhelming distress, demand that for herself there is now only one way out. And so she stabs herself and dies. All of this is related, of course, with passionate singing and surging music. I confess that I wept at the end. So would you, if you had any heart at all.

Pinkerton's part was a difficult one. By the conclusion of the opera he seemed like a villian, albeit one who had realised his error. And yet he had really done nothing with cruel intent. Certainly nothing that the law of Japan, or the law of America, did not allow.

Butterfly did not know the law, nor would she heed it. She believed he loved her. Nothing else mattered; and she built her entire future on that. So it was death to her when he did not come up to expectations.

How many echoes this has with my own life, not as Butterfly, but cast in the role of Pinkerton. M--- was my Butterfly. The parallels are not quite exact, but I think M--- would say that for fifteen years and more I led her to believe in a future that my transition snatched away, taking with it (although it was not my intention) the entire relationship and all it seemed to stand for. I 'did' nothing. I simply had to 'be' something else. But the net effect was the same as a stab to the heart, just another way of killing something that had seemed so permanent.

Was it a crime? Pinkerton's I mean, but my own if you like. He was extremely contrite. But it could not mend the damage done.

In my own case, I feel that I have nothing to apologise for, but there was destruction and catastrophe - plenty that I wish could be mended, so that my own Butterfly might feel better. But it can't be put back together.

Was it all a crime, though, implying due punishment? And was it a crime that can never be atoned for, where the punishment cannot end? Questions to ponder.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Armchair walkabout - Google Street View

It's only recently, since I bought my Sony tablet really, that I've looked into the possibilities offered by Google Street View.

In case you didn't know, if you have a PC or a laptop, or a mobile phone or a tablet, you can access Google Maps, which is an onscreen street map covering the entire world so far as I can see. Street View is part of that. You select a point on the map, then click on (or if using a touchscreen, put a finger on) whatever you have selected, and some localised details pop up for that particular spot. In populated areas, more often than not nowadays, Street View will be offered. This gives you a street-level visual experience, derived from photos taken by Google with a vehicle-mounted camera that has toured every main road and sidestreet that the vehicle could reach. I think the main effort was in 2009, but of course Google must be updating these shots for major towns and cities all the time. The photos taken have been cleverly stitched together to form an almost seamless, 360 degree view from your selected position. You can pan around as you please.

But that's not the really clever bit. Street View has Pegman, a small yellow figure whom you grab onto, and move within the scene to a fresh spot. And then the view will move with him. And you'll be able to see another 360 degree scene from that new point. In this way, by shifting Pegman again and again, you can 'walk' up a street, peer around corners, check out the approach to some place, what the parking is like, whether there's a cafe or a cashpoint nearby. It has obvious uses.

And not just to find your way on foot to a supermarket, or a hospital, or a leisure centre, and suss out what to expect on arrival. Street View can be a way of visiting places you have never been to, and might never get the chance to visit.

Google Earth is fine for a flying-saucer-type 'landing' at some distant spot on the Earth - Easter Island, Scott Base, Manaos in the Amazon, or whatever, but you don't get a walkabout experience from it. You most certainly can with Street View. What a boon this might be for the bedridden!

Street View doesn't reach everywhere, but you can get it at some surprising locations.

I've only tried it in the UK so far, but it let me view Land's End and John o'Groats, two places I've actually been to. Yup, Lands End (last seen in 2010) still looked tacky. But John o'Groats looked bizarre, the rundown hotel with turrets having been painted up since I went there in 2010 to resemble a funfair, with red vertical stripes. Ugh!

Elsewhere, in England, I could stroll about Holy Island in Northumberland (also visited in the flesh, in 2006) and Spurn Head on Humberside (only seen before on TV).

In Scotland, really putting it to the test now, I was able to tour Castlebay on the Outer Hebridean island of Barra, and (very surprisingly) Balfour on the Orkney island of Shapinsay. OK, Shapinsay is just a short ferry ride from Kirkwall, the main town in Orkney. Not a severe test at all. What about a couple of the more far-flung islands? But incredibly, Street View was able to show me Pierowall on the far north-west island of Westray, and Whitehall Village on the eastern island of Stronsay.

I looked at Whitehall Village again this morning. Something familiar about it. A definite feeling of deja-vu. Ah, yes. I'd been there before on Street View! When I came to it, I recognised the little white building on the very harbour shoreline that houses the local Royal Bank of Scotland branch. I moved Pegman up to the blue entrance door. Hmmm, it could do with a repaint. On a plaque to the left were these slogans: 'Welcome'; 'We're here to help'; and 'Here for you'. All rather ironic, considering the current computer glitch RBS and its subsidiaries are still battling with. I dare say even on Stronsay the pace of life is normal and modern, and you constantly need cash on demand.

But the Street View camera didn't seem to have got as far as St Kilda, forty miles off western Scotland (nor would I have expected it to), nor Lundy in the Bristol Channel, nor Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour (though I did expect views here, as these are popular tourist destinations), nor Hugh Town on St Mary's in the Scilly Isles (now that was surprising). Up in Scotland again, I'd hoped to drift serenely around Iona, that magical isle off the end of Mull, but no way. The camera took you only to the ferry at Fionnphort. Parked cars, a parked coach, a ferry office, and not a lot else to see, although you could get a glimpse of Iona offshore.

I do see a danger with indulging yourself too much with Street View. It shows up the ordinariness of places. Do I now want to go to Shapinsay, when I know what I will see? For decades Lerwick in Shetland had an exotic fascination. Now I've 'walked' around some of the town centre, and frankly it seems a lot less exotic than before.

On a tightish travel budget, do I want to spend cash on a 'real' visit to any of these places that I've examined on my tablet? You can see how Street View could easily be a spoiler, and a discouragement to getting out in to the world.

So I say: use it with care!

Monday, 25 June 2012


No, I haven't lost my head. I've simply put in place the last document needed to complete my collection of 'identity papers', the papers I need to confirm that I am indeed Lucy Melford, born as a girl named Lucy D--- in 1952. I've executed a replacement Deed Poll that links Lucy D--- on my new Birth Certificate with my present name, Lucy Melford.

The original Birth Certificate, the Deed Poll on 1 November 2009, and the Gender Recognition Certificate can all now be put away. They will not be needed any more to establish my identity. So if I ever get married again, or emigrate, or stand for Parliament, or any of the somewhat unlikely things that I might do in the future, I am covered. I simply produce the new Birth Certificate and the new Deed Poll.

It may seem rather a fuss about not much, but believe me, this is has all been terribly important to me. And now I have a big sense of 'job well done'. I do enjoy clearing up loose ends! It's especially pleasing because it's been done and dusted before I go off down to Cornwall next week. Nice to go off with an important task ticked off, and not just endlessly pending.

This said, it's not something to make into a conversation-piece at my Family Gathering next Saturday, to mark my 60th Birthday. I'm guessing that most people (unless working in the legal profession) wouldn't see why I needed to execute two Deed Polls, and wouldn't be in any way interested to know.

Rather more people might get engaged with the idea of a new Birth Certificate, although my instinct is to play that down. It's one thing to present yourself as a woman, one thing to mention that you actually possess a Gender Recognition Certificate; but something tells me that it's quite another to mention that you have a new Birth Certificate that Rewrites History. A lot of people might baulk at that, and say that it can't be right to allow it, and a contentious discussion on those lines is the last thing I want on a day of togetherness and jollity. So mum's the word.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Venus and Water Dragons

This really is an eventful year for the Queen. Not just her Diamond Jubilee. Not just the Olympic Games, at which England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will doubtless secure gold medals by the boatload in her honour. Not just the centenary of Alan Turing's birth. And not just the chance to shake hands with Martin McGuinness!

If all this were not sufficient, the planet Venus has chosen to transit the Sun.

A favoured monarch indeed! And a favoured country, to get no less than three long-reigning and influential queens: Elizabeth 1, Victoria and now Elizabeth 11. Not that I'm putting the kings down. They've generally been a set of characters too, including the Duchy Original who is still waiting in the wings, and who knows, may never get a crack at the Top Job till he's drawing his pension. (Hmmm. I think I'll do a post soon about what I think of the Royal Family as an institution!)

Back to the planet Venus. Did you see the transit? Probably not, at least not directly. Nor did I. It was too cloudy, and most of it happened when it was night-time in the UK. But I found a way to check on the progress of the event by other means. I kept looking at Google Sky Map, which is an Android app you can use offline. It gives you a pretty good maplike view of the sky, which of course changes at short intervals as things move around. A view you can zoom into, and scroll about in, and see what's going on. Supernovas, worlds colliding, meteor strikes, exploding moons, alien battlefleets, its all there, constantly updated.

So, wielding my Sony tablet, I looked at what was happening late in the evening on 5 June, and behold, I saw this:

Then I looked again on the morning of 6 June, and lo, I saw this:

The clue that time has elapsed is in the position of the constellation Taurus relative to the Sun, especially the star Aldebaran. Notice how the names of Venus and the Sun are very close together, with the name of Venus above the Sun's in the first shot, and below it in the second, revealing that it had moved across the Sun's disc.

Now I think you'll grant that this was a safe and convenient way to 'observe' the transit, and what's more I've got two souvenir photos, taken with the little Leica off the screen of the tablet!

What nobody seemed to notice was that Mercury, Venus and Jupiter were all rather adjacent in the sky. My astrology is a bit rusty, but I believe that could auger well. Another good omen?

I'm sure it's even better in the system used in Chinese Astrology. I was born in 1952, which makes me a Water Dragon. Sixty years on, it is again the year for Water Dragons. I don't want to tempt the gods, of course I don't, but this surely ought to be a amazingly lucky year for me!

Any day now. For that amazing luck, I mean...

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Jolly happenings in Shaftesbury

I missed most of the events associated with the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations, being away and sans TV on the four-day Holiday Weekend. But on the afternoon and evening of Bank Holiday Monday, the day the beacons were lit - that Commonwealth-wide string of bonfires, each visible from at least one other point of light, thousands of them - I was in Shaftesbury in Dorset, and I did drink in the atmosphere.

Actually, I paid two visits to Shaftesbury on the same day. It was 20 miles down the road from Coombe Bissett, mostly along the A30 - a nice fast, satisfying drive in Fiona. I had to 'go home' to the caravan to take some food shopping back (I'd been to Waitrose in Gillingham), cook a meal and eat it, and then grab a warm woolly cardigan for the evening before returning to see the beacon lit. I thought nothing of racing along the A30 four times altogether.

It was a sunny afternoon. It was thoroughly pleasant to wander around Shaftesbury, a place I always made time for. Shaftesbury is perched on a hilltop in North Dorset, and has a welcoming, familiar, small-town feel. It also has wide views to the north, south and west. I've been coming here on and off since 1975. I spent the first night of my honeymoon here in 1983, and more than once have I seriously considered living here. Its only real drawback (for me) is that it's not especially near the coast.

It's long been discovered by weekend emigrees from London, and all the old-style cottages and town houses have been snapped up. It controversially found itself saddled with a Tesco some years back, which must have been a challenge to the existing food shops and fuel stations, but that's all settled down now.

On the eastern approach, off the A30, a rash of Poundbury-style town houses has recently appeared. Poundbury is the semi-posh western suburb of Dorchester, the county town - developed with the express approval of Prince Charles the Architect - that has allowed only 'houses of character' to be erected, some of them faintly bizarre, a contrived, idealised urban vision that seems a bit out of place so far from the Metropolis. I'm not mocking Poundbury, nor this imitation at Shaftesbury. The houses are individually all different, they do have character of a sort, and are built to high standards. And all are naturally very green and eco-friendly. They just seem an odd sight, and really have nothing in common with the genuinely old buildings in the town proper. This said, if I ever wanted to live in Shaftesbury, I would have to consider a town house like this. Which means that I would probably instead live a mile or two out of town, in a nice bungalow with a view of sorts. Lucy Melford of Melbury Abbas, perhaps. Sounds good.

Back to the plot. Turning up a side street in Shaftesbury, I saw this house:

How interesting! The Union Flag in the middle, the Dorset County Flag to its right, and on the left, unless I was much deceived, was the LGBT Rainbow Flag. Oh ho! In Shaftesbury, of all places. That meant somebody was Out And Proud. And didn't mind saying so with a flag, even though the Police House was just opposite. This all argued that the town must be gay-friendly, and possibly even trans-friendly. Involuntarily, my transdar started whirring.

Around another corner, and the sounds of a street party drifted towards me. This was being serviced from the Masonic Hall, drinks and light refreshments much in evidence. There were plenty of people about, some sitting, some standing, lots of talk and jollity. I wandered into it all, and ended up chatting to a nice man whose wife was helping with the catering, and as we spoke they began to set up tables in the road for people to eat off.

Near where we were talking I couldn't help noticing a tallish woman with longish brown hair, in a red top, red party hat, blue jeans and black flats. She's in the upper of the two party pictures, in the background, three-quarters of the way across to the right of the frame - find the corner of the modern building, then a bit further right, and left of the chappie in the blue-and-white stripey rugby shirt. Now maybe I am doing this lady a monstrous injustice - for which I will apologise - but at the time I could swear that I'd spotted a trans woman. I know one shouldn't go about looking, but that Rainbow Flag had made me 'aware'. I think she certainly spotted me! She quickly walked off. Which sort of confirmed it in my mind. I must have embarrassed her. I didn't think I looked so obvious. The man I was talking to seemed well at ease with me, and his wife, when she came up to say what was going on next, made no sign herself. Nor did anybody else. But something had given me away to the lady who so rapidly disappeared into the Masonic Hall.

I was back in Shaftesbury again in the evening, I went first into the Hotel Grosvenor for a cocktail, a Manhattan. I used to consume two of these late at night on the cruise in 2009. The barman told me what went into one: it was a very strong mixture, almost pure alcohol. It cost me £8. Whoops. It looked nice, and it tasted nice, but I decided to drink only half, as I was driving.

I chatted with the barman a bit. It seemed that the owner of the Hotel, Charlie, had now found a buyer for it. I'd heard last March that he'd stood to lose £2 million on this venture. He'd completely refurbished the Hotel, creating luxury bedrooms, a Michelin-cheffed restaurant, and a sophisticated bar full of artworks. I had lunch there in 2010, a few months after it reopened, and another meal since then. The food was good, but apparently Charlie had made a miscalculation, hoping that the London set would flock there on the weekends. They hadn't. And the place was too metro for the locals. This is what a local paper had made of it two months ago, in an artlicle published on 11 April 2012:

(From the monthly Valley News)

Is Charlie new owner (again) ?

MYSTERY still surrounded the ownership of Shaftesbury’s iconic Hotel Grosvenor as Valley News went to press this month.

Local rumours that the hotel has a new owner were neither admitted nor denied last month by Winchester-based agents Christie & Co handling the sale.  Christie’s Ed Bellfield told Valley News “there is movement and a number of bids have come in.” But he refused to say more.

Earlier he had said he was confident of selling the hotel by Easter. The property is now in the hands of London-based administrators MCR for bids “in the region of £1 million”.

Former owner Charlie Berkshire said in January he hoped to buy the High Street hotel back himself. Staff confirmed last month he is still running the hotel, leading to suggestions that he might be the new owner under a different name.

Mr Bellfield would not comment on whether Mr Berkshire was one of those bidding. The hotel, with its famous Georgian facade and parts of which are 16th-century, re-opened in December 2009 after a two-year refurbishment costing an estimated £2 million. But despite the hotel’s 16 £125-a-night ensuite bedrooms and award-winning restaurant, with a declared annual turnover of more than £650,000, the hotel went into administration last November.   

The last of Shaftesbury’s once -famous coaching inns, the formerly-named Red Lion Inn became the Grosvenor Hotel in the 1830s after Shaftesbury’s and the hotel’s new owner Lord Grosvenor, later the Marquess of Westminster, whose descendant is now Britain’s wealthiest landowner. It was renamed Hotel Grosvenor by Mr Berkshire in 2009.

There you are. I don't make these things up! I was told that, in all, this Charlie Berkshire had put £3 million of his own money into the Hotel, and expected to get back only £1 million on a sale - hence a loss of £2 million. It makes my own loss of £200,000 on Ouse Cottage look like peanuts! 

I will say, the Hotel was still doing business in style - there was a 30th birthday gathering in the restaurant - and still kept up that well-maintained, luxury look. And the bar was still arty and sophisticated:

A farewell to the barman, and then it was out onto Abbey Walk to join the fun. A band was playing lively hold-hands-and-dance-in-a-circle-everybody music, abetted by the Town Crier in red and gold coat, red breeches, red cocked hat and tambourine.

Incredibly, I encountered the man and wife I met at the street party: they were really pleased that I'd returned to be part of the evening's celebrations. Then we all fell silent to hear a trumpeter on the lit-up church tower. After that, a race over to the open space on Castle Hill, where a beacon had been prepared. I got close to the civic dignitories, the Town Crier and a very young-looking Mayor called Simon:

It was already almost 10pm. That was the time that all beacons had to be lit. Ours however missed the deadline by a few minutes. Meanwhile you could see the horizon decorated with points of light, and we all agreed that there must be two or three official beacons in view, plus several unofficial ones. Chinese lanterns floated about in the air. I was sorry for a tiny elderly lady near me, who was almost blind and couldn't see those distant beacons. She was accompanied by her daughter, I think. She took my arm, and explained how her husband had died, how they'd used to live out of town at Cann, and how she now had a nice little flat off Abbey Walk, near the hospital. She was sweet, but of course she couldn't see me properly, only hear my voice. It was getting pretty dark. Here I am, in a poor-quality shot in the dark:

And then our beacon flared, and it was well and truly alight, and we joined up with all the other beacons around the world. Just like the moment in the film version of Lord of the Rings, when the beacon is lit at Minas Tirith to summon aid from the horse-lords of Rohan, a summons they will answer. It felt like just such a momentous occasion, a feeling that history was being made, an event you'd talk about for years to come. Nearby a man loudly said exactly that.

The heat was fierce! We all lingered for quite a while, then drifted away, only to find that, back at Abbey Walk, in the sky to the south, the moon had risen. It was surely a full moon. It was very big, very round, with a face. This had to be a sign. God save the Queen! And driving back along the A30, with the chalk ridge to my right for miles on end, there were bonfires every mile or so. They must have been mostly unofficial, but who cares? It was the evening of a lifetime. I was glad I'd made to effort to be there, to witness it all.

Pity about the half-abandoned cocktail though.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Toys for boys - The Tank Museum

One of the issues when transitioning is whether one should retain 'inappropriate' interests that developed over the pre-transition period. Often these have been part of one's life for decades, not necessarily the main leisure pursuits, but something one took up and enjoyed. And really nothing has changed.

If going from male mode to female mode, there is a natural feeling at first that one 'ought' to discard these interests, and concentrate instead on feminine things. I dare say that some actually launch seriously into all the traditional female activities, and find they like them very much, especially if there is a social side to it. And some find that it's not for them, and that if they are honest they'd really like to continue with their favourite 'male' hobbies, perhaps in a spirit of defiance. After all, why should one's choice of leisure activity be determined by social convention, any more tham one's choice of job?

In time, you do see that there is nothing terribly weird or shameful or wrong about carrying on with interests that grew naturally from living in an earlier gender role. The 'fault' if any lay with the parents and schoolteachers and others who mistakenly encouraged you to play with toy trains, or toy guns, or mess about with Meccano or Airfix modelling, or whatever it was. If you liked doing that, and are now something of an expert in the field so to speak, then why not continue with all possible gusto? James May can't claim these things for men only.

I will confess at once that when young I did not have any great urge to play with dolls or toy ponies. These things might have tugged at me more if I had a lot of girl friends, but I was a solitary child and played with nobody else but my younger brother W---. He liked building sets, and pirate ships full of little plastic men with cutlasses. So I embraced those too.

But I also developed my own interests. Such as collecting car registration numbers, which for a while gave me a comprehensive knowledge of towns across the country, for every large town and every county had its own set of registration letters, and it was a challenge to memorise these and spot rare combinations when out and about. For some reason it was highly absorbing. It was vaguely geographical, and I tended towards anything like that. Maps and atlases were an early passion. I liked all things nautical too, especially lighthouses and lightships. And I liked learning about foreign places, including places that had long passed away such as Ancient Egypt. (W--- liked Ancient Greece, and all the Greek Myths) Egyptian hieroglyphics, and then ancient scripts generally, caught my attention. Later on it was Norse stuff, and runes.

I also became enthralled by certain aspects of war, such as prisoner-of-war life (the escapes, the practical ways people overcame the boredom of captivity), life in occupied countries (such as in France: how was defeat possible, what was life like under an overwhelming occupying force, what did resistance and collaboration actually mean), codebreaking, weapons, and the character of the national leaders and commanders. All this was fascinating stuff. It still is.

So after seeing Lawrence of Arabia's cottage, it was perhaps inevitable that I would consider visiting The Tank Museum at Bovington, just down the road. I wouldn't have ordinarily gone there if the day were bright and sunny - I'd have headed off to Swanage or Kimmeridge, Lulworth Cove, somewhere beachy or scenic. But the day was turning cold and windy, and it was overcast, and being snugly indoors had a definite appeal.

I thought I'd see a big collection of hulks in a couple of vast hangars. Instead it was a vast modern complex, funded with EU money, which presented all things tank with full information. It claimed to have the best collection in the world. I could easily believe this. I was there for nearly three hours, and will have to return, because I didn't see it all (fortunately the entrance fee gives you free admission for a year). Here's a few shots:

I have to say, the Germans made the best-looking tanks during the Second World War. I'm still amazed at their capacity for invention and production. Thank goodness the allied bombings destroyed their armaments capability before they could deploy too many Tigers onto their western and eastern fronts. Incidentally I think I read that 80% of the exhibits are in working order, and regularly get put through their paces. But only on weekdays; I was there on a Sunday.

Tucked away in the vast complex was a section called 'Battlegroup Afghanistan'. This was a recreation of a tank HQ in Afghanistan, complete with camoflaged vehicles and living quarters. It was probably a little idealised, but despite the lack of fierce heat and dust and flies, it gave a pretty good idea what to expect if visiting such a place out in Helmand or wherever, down to the tank crews' pinups and football team banners. The vehicles would of course form a kind of fort when tightly parked, and netting was thrown over the whole lot to provide shade and cover.

I was intrigued by the 'shower'. This was a heavy-duty PVC bag that you filled with water and let the sun heat up. On the front of the bag was a table showing you exactly how long to allow. Clearly not too long, or else you might get a hotter shower than intended! But it was an ingenious bit of kit, and one of those 'creature comfort' things that make all the difference. Of course, you showered in full view of your mates. So not for the ladies.

My last hour was spent at a lecture given by one of the tank training instructors on a raised platform between the two halves of a large tank of 1940s vintage, split so that you could see all the inside components and fittings - and how cramped it was for the crew of four! Commander, gunner, wireless operator/gun loader and driver. It seemed to me that they could hardly move from their seats. But apparently they could, just about, as they would have to do if hunkered down with hatches closed tight in their firing position, perhaps for a couple of days, and possibly in snow during the depths of winter. The person giving the lecture explained that they would eat, sleep, wash and go to the loo where they sat. Washing and the intimate things were of course in full view of the other crew, in your face literally, and for this reason (and despite advances in comfort and equipment and 'waste-disposal') women were still not permitted to serve in tanks. Even the largest and most modern remained very cramped, and privacy was impossible. Nor was it feasible to have an all-girl crew. They'd all have to be incredibly muscular. For instance, handling the shells. A couple of real (but defused) ones were passed around. They were heavy.

The lecture was very interesting, but got rather technical here and there. At the beginning, I wasn't the only woman listening, but all but one of the other girls gradually sidled away. I felt it was rude not to stay to the end. None of the men, nor the lecturer, seemed to think it odd that I should stick it out. Well, I learned a lot about operating a tank, and how to live inside one, but if I can't sign up for a tank regiment, it's all of no practical use!

The Tank Museum had a jolly good restaurant, so a refreshing cup of tea and a slice of cake were well overdue after this, for I was 'tanked-out' and needed a break.

There were plenty of women (and children) there: it was a proper family day-out destination. But it was of course mainly for the boys. Of all ages.

Monday, 18 June 2012

T E Lawrence

Back again!

I took about 400 photos in the last three days of my holiday, and they gave me a problem, because trying to process them plus do my post-holiday my washing and ironing, and the other chores, and fit in two elecrolysis sessions, and a pressing social life, has been quite a headache. My to-do list was a bit overwhelming for a while, but now I've time for blogging again.

While pitched at Coombe Bissett (near Salisbury) a couple of weeks ago the weather began to deteriorate, and on a dull day I set off to see a National Trust property that I've been meaning to visit for a long time. This was Clouds Hill, T E Lawrence's little pied-a-terre in the Dorset heathland. In other words, Lawrence of Arabia's Cottage.

Lawrence was well-educated, a gifted and cultured man, with a passion for pure experience. He was possibly conceited, but nevertheless able to mix it with all types of men, from the greats of literature to army generals, from ragged desert tribesmen to arab kings.

I long thought he might be gay, at least in the suppressed way that all gay people had to conduct themselves in the first decades of the 20th century. But nowadays I'm not so sure. It was so much a male-dominated world then, and it was very natural for a man to find himself living a life that had very few women in it. All professional contacts would be with men. Women were simply not allowed to have important roles. And I suppose that if you were shy about speaking with a woman, if you were not used to any women at all apart from your mother or sister, it was easy and comforting to keep exclusively to other men's company. But that wouldn't necessarily indicate that you were gay.

There were alternative suggestions that Lawrence was a masochist. While I think he enjoyed hardship, and I think he made a fetish of hard-living, I believe it was not in the Ernest Hemingway fashion, but in the bare-bones way of the desert. A mode of life cut down to the essentials only; without too many luxuries or comforts; austerity deliberately employed to clear the mind of fog, and to enjoy sensations in their purest distillation. Lawrence certainly loved the thrill of speed (he was killed in a motorcycle accident). He also loved the precision and perfection of academic discipline, of something supremely well-written, and sonorous, well-structured music.

A complex man, I thought. I was interested to see whether the cottage itself might offer further clues to his personality.

It was a very small dwelling. The Trust were at pains to point out that he never used it as a home. He lived in Bovington Camp, the army barracks a mile or two down the road. The cottage was his evening retreat. The place he could invite people to for tea and cake and cheese and serious conversation. Or to read till the light faded. Or to listen to music from a gramophone.

The seats were leather, in sombre colours, without throws or anything soft. The furniture was plain. It was telling that Lawrence regarded the bathroom as luxurious, with cork tiling on the walls, but I thought it looked like the kind of bathroom that monks would share. It was functional, unfussy, designed strictly for a man to get clean in. No woman would want to use it, and indeed throughout the cottage the woman's touch was entirely lacking. There was no toilet, Lawrence deeming one unnecessary. Real men could go outside with a spade. The atmosphere was uncompromising, hard, focussed, and I found it hard to imagine anyone relaxing there, or finding the place soothing, or even getting comfortable. There was a 'guest bedroom' which Lawrence had lined with aluminium sheeting in an attempt to make things warmer for the guest, who 'enjoyed' a ship's bunk bed at one end. It was weird. I couldn't imagine sleeping well in a metal-lined room!

I did not like the cottage much, and I don't think I would have liked Lawrence much either, despite his fine mind and his brave achievements on behalf of the Arab Revolt in the First World War. But then he might well have not wanted to talk to me. In an exhibition in the garage where he kept his beloved motorcycle, it was easier to recapture the myth. And to see perhaps that Lawrence was a man who struggled with disappointment, and with finding sufficient purpose in life. He was killed swerving to avoid two cyclists hidden in a dip on a straight stretch of road neaby. I had wondered whether he was tired of life, and rode fast to play with death. I'm still not sure. Here is a photo of him, taken shortly before he died. He was approaching fifty. He was famous but did not want fame. He was no longer young, his forces career had ended, he had nobody in his life, and he looks as if he had no hope or expectation left.

Above the entrance door to the cottage, he had, years before, written two Greek words in the cement:

Ou phrontis. I did Latin at school, not Greek, so I can't translate with any knowledge, but apparently these words mean 'I don't give a damn'.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

A friend joins the GRC Club

A nice bit of news today: one of my Brighton friends (L---) has got her Gender Recognition Certificate! I'm very pleased to hear it, and really happy for her.

I've no idea how many applications for a certificate have been dealt with over the years since 2004. I'm guessing that the cumulative figure is around 3,000 - meaning (maybe) that about half of those who get as far as genital surgery eventually apply for a GRC as well, although there is no absolute requirement to have surgery before going for your GRC.

Why doesn't everyone apply for one? Some can't, because of the rules. For some, the process is offputting. And perhaps the irreversability of the GRC is too big a step for those who are not quite sure of their transsexuality: once you have your Certificate there is no going back. It commits you absolutely for the rest of your life. No reversion is possible. So if someone thought they were a woman, convinced everyone that they were, got their GRC, but then later on reconsidered the matter and reverted to a male life, they'd be stuck. They might restore a male appearance and lifestyle, and possibly a male sexual function, but they would remain officially a woman - with of course significant consequences!

And for those who scorn mere bits of paper, there is no very compelling advantage that flows from permanently adopting a different 'official' gender. If MTF, you can easily get a 'female' passport and driving licence without a GRC. And if nobody is likely to ask for your Birth Certificate, what else would drive you to apply?

There might be some particular advantage that would make it worth the effort. In my own case, I will get my State Pension a couple of years earlier than I would have otherwise. But please don't think that I transitioned - with all the trauma and loss involved - then got my GRC, merely to get a bit more cash out of the government! That wasn't the Glittering Prize that kept me going. The GRC itself wasn't the Glittering Prize. It was simply being the real me, and getting out into the world and accepted as the real me. 

The number of applications made keeps the Panel that considers them pretty busy. Last year they looked at over 300 applications. Their remit is to OK them if they possibly can, but they are bound to be nitpicking where the legal rules are concerned, and to require proper evidence of such things a 'full time living', and of any surgery. Basically, you will not succeed if you haven't been accumulating good paper evidence of female presentation and living for a long time, or if your surgery was done illegally by an unaccredited surgeon in Rhinoland.

Apparently the initial failure rate for applications is about 40%. However, the Panel prefer not to reject any of these completely, and their practice is to simply request further information. Often when this is supplied the applicant is then successful. And indeed, nearly 90% of last year's applications were ultimately successful. So although the process seems a bit daunting, it isn't by any means futile to try.

My friend L--- is really thrilled. And it certainly is a huge thing to be 'officially' or 'legally' a woman - as the public would understand such notions. I got my GRC last March and I'm still over the moon about it, and indeed proud of it. It rounded off my transition (or the main part of it) rather nicely. I now feel free (subject only to executing the second Deed Poll that I've been mentioning recently) to do anything that a woman can do or ask for. What a good place to be. And how unjustly treated are those who are in pre-transition marriages that are still working, still alive and kicking, still sacred perhaps, and who can't get a GRC because of silly rules insisted upon before the Gender Recognition Act 2004 took its final shape. They are not in a good place at all.

Another Brighton friend (A---) has also sent off her own application, and I'm thinking she will hear about it soon. No reason to think she will fail. And then she too will have the satisfaction that a GRC brings!

My goodness, it's like a 1/1 honours degree pass! Really.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Marriage on my mind

Some unrelated strands of thinking have come together to make me ponder the subject of marriage.

As some of you may have realised, I was married once, long ago, but we separated in 1991 and were divorced in 1996. By then I'd met M---, a widow, but we did not get hitched. Partly that was M---'s long-lasting grief for her dead husband, partly the financial complications marriage would have introduced, and partly my own reluctance to venture again into an institution that had not worked out well first time.

I suppose there was a moment when M--- and I could have taken the plunge, but it passed, and although marriage was never taken off the agenda, it became Something That Was Nice To Think About But Will Probably Never Happen. Nor did it. And no doubt just as well, considering what has happened to me in recent years! I am so sorry to observe the strife and heartbreak that nearly always engulfs marriage partners when Transition bursts into the home, and destroys the old comfortable life forever. For me, unmarried, it was bad enough; how awful if the bonds of matrimony had to be broken as well.

And yet.

While on holiday, especially while at the caravan site in Cirencester - but elsewhere too - I met a number of couples who had clearly made things work, and were happy with their lives and the families they had created. I won't say that I positively envied them, but I was certainly wistful for what they had achieved, and the mutual companionship they enjoyed.

All these couples had time for me. All had much to say (well, the wife had!) and they included me in their world and their news whenever we happened to encounter each other. In the circumstances, this was very generous of them. I am assuming that at some point they realised that I was not quite what I seemed to be, and so that's why their unwavering bonhomie was remarkable. One especially pleasant couple had me in their caravan (a luxury experience) for half the evening, with wine flowing, simply because I'd written a list for them of my favourite caravan sites around the country. The list was perhaps a slightly better effort than many would have made, but not anything that warranted such friendship and hospitality in return. It didn't stop there: the very next evening they treated me to a superior meal in a country hotel. I still can't get over how nice they were. And we spoke together as equals.

So here is evidence that successful marriages exist, not just ones that have become a habit. And that they enhance the personalities of the partners in them. It does make you think.

Then a week ago I was in Winchester, enjoying a Queen's Diamond Jubilee evening in the St James Tavern. The landlady had a woman booked (by name of Bunty Lancaster) who was going to sing a selection of 1940s songs, evoking the spirit of wartime England in the Vera Lynn style, plus some older music-hall favourites, and also a couple of patriotic numbers, including of course the National Anthem. I joined in with vigour, and was surprised to find that my singing voice had improved. I was glad of that, because I was sharing my songsheet with a natal girl who might have been disturbed if my voice had cracked and deepened under the strain! But I managed the high notes rather well.

The girl just mentioned (actually she was only ten years younger than me, but could easily have passed for 40) and several others nearby had all come to the pub because they had seen the event on, a website hitherto unknown to me that brought people together. It was not a dating site. It was interest-based, so that if you were keen on gliding, or country dancing, or creative writing, or theatre, or simply eating out and having a chat, you could find an event to attend. And there was nothing to prevent people who had met up on an 'official' basis from meeting up again under their own steam, if they wished. These women (and men) all had in common, and having casually met up had stayed together as a group. They had something else in common: they generally had too little time for a regular relationship. Work demands, travel and other commitments disrupted their lives. So they couldn't come to every event. But it was a fine way to set up a social life that you could dip into when you could.

And I thought to myself, what a nice bunch of people. All of them the sort you'd want to know better. I could well believe that occasionally they paired off. And maybe wedding bells might follow.

Then, in the news, was that story of yet another arranged marriage that had ended in tragedy. A tale from the Dark Side. Mind you, I am convinced that 'arranged marriages' are not simply the preserve of Asian communities. In every sphere of life, there are a few families who dominate the rest, and they naturally want to keep a hold on their wealth and their privileges, and not let outsiders in. Birds of a feather, in fact. Thus money marries money, and I'm sure that Daddy will suggest to Lucinda that fellow-industrialist's son Rupert is a fine young fellow, and how nice it would be if she lets him take her out. After all, they've been in the same set for years, and her friends will approve, and... Well, it's just a slightly more subtle arranged marriage full of social and material enticements, and to a man she knows, and has presumably quite liked for a long time - a bit different from the plight of some girls, who are threatened or shanghai'd into marrying a total stramger - but a honeyed trap devised by cunning parents all the same.

Before me is a copy of Country Life. In fact it's the edition published on 30 May, just over a week ago. On page 45 is a charming picture of a not-quite-young lady (she's got to be almost 30, I'd say, because of her top job) called Miss Elizabeth Hemstock. It looks as if she's wearing a richly-woven dark red shawl over a virgin white nightdress. The subscript says this:

Lizzie, elder daughter of Mr and Mrs David Hemstock of Charnwood, Leicestershire, is to be married to Captain Merlin Hanbury-Tenison, The Light Dragoons, the son of Mr and Mrs Robin Hanbury-Tenison of Cabilla Manor, Cornwall. They will be married at Cardynham Church, Cornwall, on June 2. Lizzie is the UK brand manager of Gu Puds.

Well, she has clearly fallen under this young man's spell, as you would expect from his name! Love his magic, or love his horse, or love his smart uniform, this sounds like a peer-to-peer County Wedding par excellence. Guard of Honour, crossed sabres, the lot. And not the humble bonding by an anvil at Gretna Green of eloping lovers, planless, penniless, but free.

Hmmm. They've surely misspelled Cardinham. Cabilla Manor by the way is a country residence across the valley from the village of Warleggan on the south edge of Bodmin Moor. (Warleggan? All terribly Poldark)

The final strand in my marriage pondering is a diary note that I need to execute another Deed Poll to link the name on my Birth Certificate (Lucy D---) with my present name of Lucy Melford. And the legal right I now have to marry any man I please at a white wedding in a church, assuming the clergyman is agreeable. Quite a privilege in itself, I'd say! And oddly enough in the last day or so I've been approached by a TV producer who is proposing a series about four trans persons who go through the marriage process. That is, forget the coming out and the surgery, this is now the Life That Follows and how a set of people cope with the stresses and strains of one of life's Main Events. Presumably, for most or all of them, it's the second time around, with kids watching in the wings, and parents and siblings taking sides and cheering or tut-tutting as the case may be. I admire the four participants' courage.

The producer asked me if I knew of anyone in my circle who was getting married and might wish to be included in the documentary. I didn't. Not even myself.

Which begs the question, will I ever join the growing band of people who take the plunge after transition? I don't think so. But then who can predict the future with any confidence?

I think I'd like to be a senior bridesmaid at least, though! Niece and nephew please take note.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Technical difficulties

I'm sorry that my holiday posts dried up. I was writing posts offline for publication when connected to the Internet via wi-fi, and once I moved on from Cirencester I never did end up in a coffee shop with free Internet on offer.

I'm back home now, and can catch up, although I have to say putting a post together on Blogger is not proving easy. It used to be straightforward with the 'old look', and I could compose a plain text piece offline on my Nokia phone (which runs Symbian, and I use Opera Mini as my browser) then copy-and-paste it into Blogger, but the 'new look' has put an end to that. Doing something similar offline with the Sony tablet is possible, but laborious, as no formatting survives the pasting process, which means you have to insert html tags wherever needed, just to get paragraphing for instance. I will no doubt find a solution, but I wasn't going to waste holiday time on this!

At least I can now use the PC at home to write posts with photos included. There appears to be no way of doing that on a non-Windows mobile device.