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.


  1. Very cool! Seen the museum on television would love to visit in person.

  2. Well lucy if it was intended for boys of all ages what were you doing there? LOL. I understand what you are saying about life-long interests and hobbies and why they shouldn't remain so after transition. In my humble opinion, and I know you won't agree with me on this, I think it odd for females (generally speaking) to be interested in male orientated things in the first place. As a child who knew about my gender issues, I found myself drawn to girly things in the main but I have to confess that I too wasn't that much interested in prams and dolls. I did like fluffy animal toys though! Curiously my interests included astronomy (still an interest) and scientific things (again still an interest). When I took up electrical work I never gave it a thought that women weren't supposed to be electricians and indeed a girl neighbour who was two years older than I went into electrical engineering with great success. Since those days though many more women are now involved in engineering. I am not saying that women shouldn't have interests in 'male' things but it is just unusual. When I transitioned I had thoughts of giving up electrical work and made tentative enquiries along those lines but people who knew me encouraged me to continue as an electrician. I am glad I took their advice, Now I get asked about why I got involved in the business seeing as it was an unusual thing to do way back in the early sixties. Naturally I play along with them and reveal nothing about the real facts. I am totally accepted as a female electrician and now I am not the only female electrician in my town. I'm not sure I could get all excited about tanks though! Maps, history, old places and the other things you mention, yes, I am into those things too.

    Shirley Anne xxx

  3. Oh, I'm not claiming excitement where the tanks were concerned, but it was certainly interesting, and a novelty too, because apart from seeing some in the National War Museum in London about ten years ago - and I was there to hear a poetry reading - I'd not been close to any of these impressive machines before.


  4. I long ago resolved to pursue my eccentricities with vigour, so on the one hand I allowed 'Angie' to develop without an ounce of masculine shame, and on the other embraced my chosen hobby of railway modelling with enthusiasm.

    Now my ambition is to storm the male-dominated battlements and take my model (or a bit of it) to an exhibition - the only girl with her name on the programme!

  5. I love train sets and layouts

    Shirley Anne x

  6. I'm afraid train sets never grabbed me. I like to hunt up old stations, but that's a kind of geographical or local history thing.

    I never wanted to do train-spotting either, although I occasionally visit steam railways for their obvious photographic possibilities.

    I had only some of the traditional boyish interests, and did nothing with any other child. I was very much the 'lone wolf' even then!



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