Sunday, 30 September 2012

A wonderful compliment

Yesterday was an absolutely gorgeous sunny early-autumn Devon day. I headed for Exmoor. On the way I had an early lunch, a really good baked potato with tuna and mayo, washed down by a gin and tonic, at The White Hart in Bratton Fleming. It was accompanied by a pleasant exchange with two girls from up north, one of whom was now living in Manchester. She thought I had 'a really nice English accent'. I'm getting pretty good at chinwagging with people who might 'see through my disguise' but I passed this test easily. However, that's not the encounter that meant most to me, of which more anon.

The colours of the moor were still lush green on the grazing land, but on the wilder parts the bracken was turning orange, and - as you might guess - the little Leica had plenty to do. From the pub I headed eastwards to a lonely spot deep in the moor, to see the 'Sloley Stone', which turned out to be a kind of county-boundary marker with an 18th century inscription on it. Then I took a road along a high ridge to the crossroads at Kinsford Gate, turning northeast now towards Simonsbath. Then it was north on the B3223. If you want a stretch of road with fabulous Exmoor scenery, including deep valleys, rivers, great swathes of open bracken moor, semi-wild sheep with horns, and cairns, all seen from an easy road that offers so many roadside photo opportunities that it might take an hour to travel only a few miles, then this is the road to take! And all in sunshine. Wow.

Exmoor is unusual because it goes all the way to the coast on its northern edge, literally ending in monster cliffs that offer a sweeping view of the silver Bristol Channel, with Lundy off westwards, and South Wales not so far away to the north. Trees prevail near the coast, especially in the deep valleys that cut into the plateau, each with its own rock-strewn river. As I went further north on the B3223, I began to descend into one of these heavily-wooded gorges. There was a sudden hairpin bend to negotiate. and then I joined the A39 on its tortuous route into Lynmouth. It didn't seem at all like an A road at this point, more like a narrow, twisting, minor road with passing places, that anything larger than a car would avoid. No way would I attempt it with a caravan in tow! It was in fact worse than the B road on the open moor. I don't know what two lorries or two buses would do if they met - how to get past each other, with a rock face on one side, and a drop to the river on the other? Of course, they must manage it, otherwise Lynmouth could have no food or fuel deliveries. But this is the 'easy' road into the town: the alternatives both involve 1 in 4 hills.

Parking at Lynmouth, I walked along the riverbank into the town centre. It was of course full of late-season tourists and holidaymakers, all strolling about, and all the shops and cafés and hotels were open for trade. If I'd not already lunched, I'd have tucked into a hot pasty at this point! The town may be a little too touristy, but its setting at the mouth of two deep valleys, with high cliffs each side, with that rocky river, and the harbour, is terribly impressive. But this super-scenic setting was its undoing in August 1952, the year I was born, when, after heavy rain, the local rivers filled those narrow valleys and tore the town to pieces, with 34 dying. A flash flood, nationally infamous, and still remembered.

Along the seafront, there was a memorial museum devoted to the event. I went in. It was full of pictures and contemporary newspaper reports, and sundry little artifacts. And there was a short video to watch. I sat down. I was joined by an older lady. We fell into conversation. She was a grandmother, of course, born in 1938, and she lived in Newtown in Mid-Wales. But in 1952 she and her family were living on the Isle of Sheppey, off the north coast of Kent. Shortly after the Lynmouth disaster she personally experienced similar (though not quite so devastating) flooding, this time caused by a combination of wild weather and a tidal surge in the North Sea, made worse by the funnelling effect of the Thames Estuary. She was 14 at the time, and well remembered both locals and holidaymakers, clad only in their nightwear, being left with all their belongings ruined or lost. And how the entire community had dug into their wardrobes to find outer garments and shoes for them, for the children especially, and how they had taken them iknto their houses, and tided them over with meals and shelter till proper help got through. And that didn't happen straight away, because the bridges were down and the roads all under water.

She said to me that the community had pulled together in a way that was hard to imagine now. Yes, people nowadays could still respond to an occasion, but not necessarily in useful or unselfish ways. The old dogged determination to pitch in and offer unlimited personal help to a stranger, your very clothes even, and do it without thought of recognition, was absent. There was too much reliance on helicopters magically arriving, too much inclination to feel despair and give in, too much inclination to look after one's own concerns and not put other people's immediate needs first. I ventured that people nowadays were also too ready to feel traumatised, and that there was a culture of pushing counselling at anyone who might have been in any way close to an upsetting event. She agreed.

Then she paid me a wonderful compliment. Although I'd already confessed to being only 60, and therefore not really of her generation, she said that I was just like her. She could tell. I was one of the gritty brave unselfish ones who would do their best in any disaster.

This was hardly deserved, but before I could deny it, her daughter came in looking for her. I was introduced. 'This lady is here on holiday too, and we've been talking about what to do in floods. She's got what it takes.' I paraphrase, of course. We all left the museum together. My older companion wanted to go up in the cliff railway, as I did, but her daughter said she hated heights. We parted with best wishes on both sides.

You know, I felt such a glow after that. Someone - who ought to know - had spoken with me and had detected that in a crisis I would show steadiness, and altruism, even bravery. This made being complimented on my looks, or what a nice house or car I had, seem as nothing. Yes, it was true: what counts is not what you have, but what you can offer others. And it didn't matter that I'd never actually been caught up in a situation like the Lynmouth or Sheppey floods. Someone's belief in me was the thing that made me feel strong and capable: their perception that I could be relied on not to buckle and go under.

The cliff lift was very exciting. The views were wonderful. The Victorian ingenuity of the whole setup intriguing. The daughter didn't know what she was missing!

Friday, 28 September 2012

New decades

Today is a friend's 40th birthday. She has travelled home to be with her family, and although I saw her just over a week ago at a pre-birthday dinner - there were nine of us - on the day itself an exchange of texts has had to be enough. Yesterday, on the eve of her 40th, she sent a reflective email to her closest friends and family - I was included, which was really nice - and I was prompted to reply as follows:

Dear -----

That's such a frank and sincere email.

A new decade in your life really is significant - I felt just the same last July. It suddenly became easy to let go of all the bad times and failures and anger of the past, and concentrate instead on what was best about life now.

I felt I'd arrived, had an unchallengeable identify, had talents and emotions and a body that cried out to be used. I cast aside all regrets, and turned my face to the future. Years that must not be wasted. In fact, this 'mustn't waste the years left to me' idea is now my justification for being hard-headed and no-nonsense about how to spend my time and money.

I'm certainly not going to dissipate either on people and projects that seem dead-end, or pursue lost causes. Some will think me too single-minded, even ruthless. But one's life is a fuel tank with no refills allowed: I've got less than half a tank left, and I'm not going to squander that on useless journeys. On the other hand, there's no sense in staying at home, and going nowhere at all. So I intend to travel as much as I can, but be careful and discriminating about where I end up.

Does this make sense?

Anyway, have a lovely 40th Birthday tomorrow!

Love, Lucy XX

I've left out her name and the eleven words after 'tomorrow', to preserve my friend's privacy. I wrote it all straight down, and didn't have to ponder my words. I meant them. It was my way of expressing how it feels to enter a fresh period of one's life. There was of course a difference between myself and my friend, an important difference of twenty years. For me, the lack of time in which to accomplish whatever I now want to do is a matter for very serious concern. Some long-term projects are simply not worth attempting, because I'd be too old to fully enjoy the eventual outcome. An example would be a fresh relationship, and adopting a very young child to bring up. Not that I'd actually want to do that! I would consider it unfair on the child, anyway. But that kind of thing. So I think a certain discrimination is indeed warranted. In fact I think it's the responsible approach. To do only those things that are really within my grasp, and not try to kid myself that I'm as young and fresh and energetic and long-lived as young person would be, even though there is this myth - seductively dangerous in my view - that trans people who have 'gone through the Process' are literally reborn and rejuvenated. Certainly, we are transformed, and may look younger, and perhaps will live longer, but that body clock is ticking the same as ever. In twenty years, I will be eighty and getting a bit tired, even if I do look fabulous for my age. So a lot of well-focussed living needs to be done in a short time. And without messing up anyone else's life.

One point in my email needs especial comment, that mention of a body crying out to be used. Since I turned 60 last July, I seem to have gone through some sort of mental or emotional development. I'm much more aware of how my body feels, of what it looks like, and I'm starting to be touched by sexual desire. Last week I finally managed a fully-conscious, self-induced orgasm. (As opposed to this being the outcome of mere dreams) Actually two of them, several hours apart. A repeatable experience, then! I wondered how this had come to be. Because this was orgasm female-style, with myself most definitely in the woman's role. I decided that finally saying goodbye to the things of my 50s, the male-type things that had been wrong for me, had let my femininity have a much more complete expression, releasing strong emotions and urges that surprised and delighted me. Well, I'm very happy with this new world of sensation and emotion and frank desire. All my life I thought I was emotionally deficient, that I lacked passion, that sex was just for now and then, but here was evidence that I'd been mistaken - tricked by upbringing, misinformation, and the standards of my former social circle into accepting a false view of myself.

So whither now? Here I am, free of the past and sexually self-aware as never before, but time-limited and still wanting to act responsibly. This needs much thought. Fortunately I am now on holiday again, in North Devon, and if the weather is kind - even if it isn't - I will have many opportunities to mull this over in depth.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Card games and gambling

I like playing cards, but sadly this is no longer a usual family passtime, and not many people now seem to play cards in the home, or even know how. I suppose that anyone brought up in an era where money was tight, entertainments were fewer, and home-made entertainment was important, will know a wide range of card games for varying numbers of players, including patience games for only one player. Especially if they were in the war, or had a job where hanging around for hours on end for an emergency call was the routine: cards helped to fill in the waiting time.

I first learned about cards as a young child in the 1950s, because my Dad and my Uncle W--- were inveterate players. And on holiday - in the chalet say - the parents would all play Whist or similar games. Mum wasn't very good; but she knew enough to play a decent game; and an ability to take part in a game of cards was definitely part of one's social repertoire, as much as knowing how to dance, or how to hold a cigarette as done in the movies (which we called 'the pictures'). Cards might bore you rigid, but nevertheless it was something you had to be prepared to join in with. People who refused to take part in a game were thought odd and awkward. Like making too much of a fuss about not watching a well-loved TV programme in the days when people really did sit enthralled by I Love Lucy, and The Phil Silvers Show (that is, Sergeant Bilko), and The Flintstones, and The Black and White Minstrel Show.

There were many, many card games to play, full of interest, and the ones suitable for children, like Snap, were always lots of fun. I staunchly maintain that I didn't have a satisfactory childhood - you can easily guess why in retrospect - but I must admit that family card games were something I always enjoyed, whatever the company. I was never very good at them, but I was better than Mum was, and it was always a pleasure, and a delicious taste of grownupness, to play Solo Whist with Dad and Uncle W---. They were both gentle, good-tempered men, who studied the game and were good at it. When they won, they'd comment on their very good luck (not their skill); and when they lost, they did so with no more than a rueful smile. It was a world of laughing and chuckling, of winks and twinkling eyes, without strife and inquests or any suggestion of bad feeling.

If I ever thought about it, I saw a game of cards as a ritual in which the rules of the game overrode any personal feelings, a ritual that made people friends, not enemies. I associated my childhood card games with enduring stability and the best of family life.

But then I never took part in cut-throat backroom games for money, never felt the motification of being cheated, and of being afraid to challenge the perpetrators. In the course of my job, I once investigated a London bookmaker who had been cashiered from the RAF for gambling. I was able to prove that he was now taking a percentage off the Revenue. We agreed on that percentage, and settled on that basis, after a cross and contentious interview at which I felt not only soiled by the man himself, but by his equally shysterish accountant. My Revenue experience, whether it was the girl early on who was a croupier on a cruise ship, or the dentist much later who claimed to make a large income from private games of backgammon, all made me associate gambling with sleaze and moral corruption.

I'm sorry to say that. After all, I used to like playing Pontoon for matchsticks when young. I thrilled to the glamorous descriptions of casino gambling, and cards with M at Blades, in the James Bond books, especially Casino Royale (Baccarat, against Le Chiffre) and Moonraker (Bridge, against Hugo Drax).

But during my teens I read Scarne's Complete Guide to Gambling - which I still possess. This was a pre-computer age treatise, on all kinds of gambling from poker to horse-racing; all about craps, blackjack, roulette and other casino games; all about sweepstakes and the numbers game; all about one-armed bandits, all about fairground rackets; with a section on how to cheat. Fascinating stuff. I absorbed it. It was one area in which I felt well-informed as I grew up, and apart from some drunken games of three-card brag with friends after a take-away chinese late at night during the mid-1970s, with nothing but pennies at stake, I kept well away from gambling. The 'glamour' entirely faded when confronted (in my Revenue career, though thankfully not as a steady diet) with real people who did it for real money in real life, and cheated, and then lied about their winnings (or losses) to my face. Even if they could produce scorecards and silver cups. Even if they could claim to be close friends of John Aspinall. Ugh. Or the pathetic Kebab House owner who concealed £300 a week of his takings so that he could blow it on gambling, eventually confessing this in tears to a colleague. The tears didn't signal an end. He didn't stop placing bets so that he could pay his tax arrears instead. Gambling was in his soul.

To this day, I feel disinclined to take part in the National Lottery. No Thunderball for me. You don't see me at the bingo club either. Nor do I ever fancy Camira Flash - that's The Duke's dog, innit - or want to put twenty-five knicker on Yellow Printer, the dog that broke the record at White City last week. I don't even have a flutter on the Grand National. My prejudice is deep. I'm as unlikely to visit the betting shop as shoot cocaine.

All this is a far cry from the innocent joys of family cardplaying! All my life I have distinguished between card playing in that way, and 'serious' card playing - Bridge, mainly - at clubs. Or the racy gambling games like poker, which are now relentlessly pushed at punters, and which for a certain type of young man must be as dangerously addictive as fast red sports cars, and easy sex with young blonde girls in hotpants and exaggerated manga bodies. What a shame that for many people, especially young people, 'cards' are associated only with Texas Hold 'Em, and hammering the credit card balance at midnight in front of the computer.

Elsewhere on this blog I've described how I used to play cards with Dad. And how for three years after he died, I missed not playing our favourite games with him. Buying my Sony tablet last April has changed that. I can now have a game with an 'artificial intelligence'. This is what I have installed. (These are games for an Android device. You'd have different versions for an iPad)

BTO Cribbage by Buck The Odds, LLC (£1.28)
Ecarté by GoodSoft (free)
Piquet by GoodSoft (free)
Klondike Solitaire by Softick Ltd (free)

As you can see, these were mostly free. I'm sure you are familiar with Cribbage, and of course Solitaire. Ecarté was an Edwardian casino game, a bit like Whist with trumps but played with only five cards, in which you discard again and again to improve the hand before someone calls a halt and you play with what you've got. Piquet is a very old but highly skilful game, again on the lines of Whist, with a discarding stage, scores for sets and sequences, and a playout at No Trump. There is facsimile onscreen running commentary, because in the real game you speak as you play. In the example below, I'm 'Y' for 'Younger Hand' (i.e. the dealer). It's the fifth of six deals, and I've got a commanding lead already, but then I get this cracker of a hand. I think I won with over 300 points clocked up (the computer does the arithmetic):

With all but Solitaire you are playing for points against an opponent. I keep to 'moderate' difficulty with the two-player games. I can usually thrash my opponent at Piquet, because I've got a feel for the game. But Ecarté and Cribbage (with much more of an element of luck, good or rotten, in them) are harder, and I can feel more of a triumph if I win, or savour a sweeter revenge if I lose and then trounce my opponent in a return match. Complete with 'swivel on that' gestures. (Pointless of course, because there's really nobody there. But I get exasperated at the impossible luck the 'artificial intelligence' seems to enjoy all too often, and frankly he-she-it deserves much worse abuse than I give out!)

These are pretty good card games if you can seldom play anyone in real life. Computerisation makes them unnaturally slick, but the same fine judgements on the odds can be made, and you can play your hunches, just as in the real-life version. Softick's classy version of Solitaire is an absolute winner in my view. It has so many nice touches. Even a 'realistic' noise as you turn up cards, or send them onto different piles. And you can put the photo of your choice on the back of each card. I use Mr Punch, as in this photo I took in 2010:

If I'm doing nothing else, and feel inclined to play cards, as I might anytime during the day, I will challenge my opponent at Ecarté and Cribbage - or rather less often at Piquet (because it takes six long deals to win). That usually results in a satisfying tussle. Then I'll play Solitaire until I have clocked up three wins. 'Three-win Solitaire' is my regular bedtime mental exercise, and because the tablet is easy to hold or prop up, I can actually do this when snug in bed, whether that's in the house or away in the caravan.

The 'mental exercise' aspect is important. You can buy little gadgets that let you play Sudoku - pardon me, while I yawn and fall over at the thought of Sudoku - as bad as crosswords - anywhere, anytime, to keep your decrepid brain from seizing up. But I prefer Solitaire, or, for a bit more excitement and emotional expression, one of my other card games. Same function.

And is my brain in better shape? Or am I still going gaga? Reader, you must make up your own mind.

And if anyone recognises where the references to Yellow Printer, or Camira Flash (The Duke's dog, innit) come from, I will be mightily impressed with their Great Knowledge.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

All aboard for Dungeness!

A few days ago I decided to treat myself to a day out at Dungeness. 'Fiona,' I said, 'Set course for the wildest and bleakest part of Kent!' And so I was wafted eastwards, stopping only to buy a sandwich and a smoothie at Waitrose in Hailsham, and devouring the same at Jury's Gap. I reached New Romney in good time for the 1.35pm train to Dungeness.

But it wasn't an ordinary train, for this was the HQ of the Romney Hythe & Dymchurch Railway, a famous narrow-gauge steam line that runs from Hythe down to Dungeness. There are of course several narrow-gauge lines dotted around the country, notably in Wales, but the thing with this one is that it's all miniaturised to scale, especially the locomotives, which are, as far as is practically possible, exact little replicas of steam (and diesel) engines many times their size in real life. This makes everything look a bit odd. The driver and passengers are overgrown giants compared to the engine and rolling stock. And although the signal box is a proper size, the semaphore signals themselves are twee little things. But this railway is nevertheless fully signalled, with all the proper gear for safely working the sections of single line: staffs for each block to hand over to (and collect from) from the signalman, for instance. The timetable is a bit basic in the winter, but in the summer it's perfectly useful and adequate for ordinary public use, provided you are doing no more than shuttling along the coastal towns of this part of Kent, and don't want to commute to London. So there's the odd shopper, and plenty of schoolkids, as well as the tourists.

Here's a few pictures I took at New Romney. This is my train arriving, then being fed and watered:

The engine is No.10, Dr Syn, a Derby-built machine of 1931 vintage, and immaculately clean. There is still that peculiar smell of steam, though! Dr Syn was of course the resourceful hero of the series of books written by Russell Thorndike in the first half of the 20th century. He was scholar turned pirate turned Vicar of Dymchurch, a vicar with a history he strove to conceal, and an alter ego as The Scarecrow, the commanding leader of the local smugglers. Great stuff.

The train halted for half an hour, no doubt to encourage passengers to visit the cafe and shop, or the toilets. I did all three. The cafe was nice, and I enjoyed a cup of tea and a rather good sausage roll that I couldn't resist having. Then, selecting an open carriage (for the best chance of photos), the train puffed out of the station. The first thing that happens is that you pass under a main road, and this seems like a proper dark tunnel. Exciting! Then you pick up speed as you whizz past residents' back gardens.

Am I enjoying myself, or what? After a quick stop at Romney Sands (for Greatstone-on-Sea) the driver lets Dr Syn have his head, and we tear down the track towards Dungeness. 'Tear' meaning 12 or 15 miles per hour probably, but it does seem a lot more! Lots of level crossings. We whistle at every one. The houses end, and the shacks and shanties characteristic of Dungeness come into view. We are on a vast shingle spit that juts out into the English Channel. It's a weird landscape, but strangely alluring, and interesting to see it from the train for once:

Here'a a photo of the fisherman's huts I took some years ago, showing the old rails that they would, at one time, trundle their catch up to the road on:

Now we approach the tip of Dungeness, the ness itself, with its two lighthouses, the Old and the New, and the menacing presence of the Nuclear Power Station.

Another half-hour stop. We all clamber out of our carriages. There's just enough time to do one thing only. Some head for the cafe. Some head for the shingle. I head for the Old Lighthouse.

The living quarters of the Old Lighthouse were elsewhere, in the buildings fifty yards away, so inside there is mostly empty space, and the stairs spiral upwards in a very scary fashion. You musn't look down! Halfway up, there is a floor containing an array of giant red and green glass prisms. I'm guessing that you saw an upper white light and a lower red light from one direction, and an upper white and lower green from another, and in that way mariners could tell not only where the Lighthouse was, but the different colours confirmed whether they were east or west of the dangerous spit. I think the prisms are beautiful.

On and up to the main light at the top. Then through a small hatch, and out onto the windy walkway. What a view! But it's awfully high up, and you can see from my face that I'm not really liking it. I take my shots, then with relief get inside again. As I go backwards down the steep ladder, two women come up. They're nervous of heights too, but game to see the view. I really wonder how anyone can enjoy parachuting or skydiving - or abseiling, come to that. However if you don't mind lots of stairs and being scared, then you can get married in the Old Lighthouse. It's licensed for weddings. And there's a choice of floors for the ceremony. And afterwards everyone can go up to the top, if they so wish. Hmmm, different!

I get back to the train with three minutes to spare. The green flag is flourished, the driver gets the right away, and off we steam. The line at Dungeness is a vast loop, and we go clockwise back to where we came in. What a landscape: ridges of shingle, strange vegetation, and the brooding Nuclear Power Station. What if there's a sudden meltdown before we can get clear, as in these shots I took in 2003 and 2009?

Of course, knowing me, I'd somehow carry on shooting:

We made it back to New Romney. I had another look around. It really was a classic toy train set for grownups. It was interesting to see that not only men but women were snapping the trains. I spoke to one or two of the women. We agreed that for us it was mostly about feeling young and carefree again. About nostalgia for sunny bucket-and-spade holidays, accomplished by train. But there were serious train men aplenty, examining the brasswork and the coal and the pressure gauges, and putting questions to the drivers. I really thought James May might look in. He of Flying Scotsman versus The Germans fame (i.e. the Barnstaple-to-Bideford toy train challenge on his Toy Stories series in 2011).

One last shot of New Romney. It really is the Clapham Junction of the RH&DR:

Thursday, 20 September 2012


I've just watched Tuesday evening's BBC4 programme Love and Marriage: a 20th Century Romance on iPlayer, the first of a three-part mini-series. (They are all mini nowadays! But that's another topic). What better after breakfast, to start the day with? It was something I watched with mixed feelings.

I have been married myself, in 1983, on St Valentine's Day - which was my own romantic idea - when I was aged 30, in a period not yet covered by this first programme. But strangely much of it applied, because I grew up having absorbed all that my parents had said about their own marriage immediately after the Second World War, and had seen their example before my eyes all of my life. They of course had learned their own standards and behaviour in the 1920s from parents and others who had before them been brought up according to Victorian ideas of what was right and proper, notions that had been very slow to change, and in living conditions that were far removed from today's.

My marriage did not succeed. Like the relationships that came before it, and those that followed, it was doomed to failure.

It began well enough, after a pleasant courtship of almost a year, but if I had not been nudged into popping the question in late 1982, nothing would have happened, and we would have drifted apart. (And how then might my life have gone?) My marriage was (I still think) a positive, enriching experience for the first four years, when homebuilding and enjoying the novel role of parent filled it up. After that, it slowly declined as my wife and I found we had much less in common than we hoped. Arguments and differences simmered as we strove to keep it all from A---, my step-daughter. Her departure to New Zealand for a year after her A Level exams was the coup de grace. The cement was gone. Within months we were permanently separated. That was in 1991. Divorce had to wait until the law allowed. My wife made me put my life on hold for the full five years then needed for a divorce on grounds of incompatability, where one partner (not me) was unwilling to end the marriage. I got my Decree Absolute in 1996. I have never remarried, even though I did often think about it during my years with M---. But it was definitely a case of once bitten, forever shy.

Marriage was a step too far for me. However, in the 1990s, and later, it was still the conventional thing to do, the Big Moment to plan for, especially if children were on the scene. And if there were children, marriage safeguarded their interests, ensuring (if it all went wrong) at least a home while they were of school age. So it was the Responsible Thing To Do.

And it might well go wrong. Even when I married in 1983, I was aware that the odds were against it lasting a lifetime, and that I was risking unhappiness. But I had the high hopes of the inexperienced, and a determination to make a proper go of it. Thirty years later, I am completely disillusioned, not just from my own experience, but from how it has been for so many others who have related their stories to me. But I'm not in the slightest degree bitter or regretful about this. In fact I feel as if I survived a kind of cathartic wartime experience, and emerged emotionally and financially battered, but still alive and kicking.

Currently I'm back to that state again, after my long quasi-marriage to M---. The same sensation of being shipwrecked, struggling to the shore, relieved to have no broken bones or serious cuts; picking through whatever the storm has washed up onto the beach; finding that I'll be all right if I set to, and get a hut made, and a fire going, and make a knife, and fashion a bow and arrow, and cobble together some fishing tackle, and fashion a cloak and skirt to hide my nakedness. And a necklace of sea shells and pebbles. Robina Crusoe. Just me and the desert island in the sun. Just me and a hut full of salvaged comforts. Just me and the sea, and the wind, and the wide beautiful sky, and the brilliant stars at night, and the cry of seabirds, and memories to ponder, and tunes to hum, and words to sing, and plans to explore the island and discover its secrets. All on my own. A metaphor for my real future life.

But this isn't how my parents' generation looked at their lives. So far as I can see, they were sexually innocent, subject to parental and official authority, and constrained by many social conventions. Marriage was built up to be the chief ambition within everyone's reach. As essential as finding a job. With children as inevitable and natural as rain. No solitary desert isand independence for them. Some men might pursue a career, and devote themselves to that for years, but most wanted a sweetheart, a wife, a home they could call their own, and kiddies to complete it. Something to work for, to give point to the daily toil. And my parents' generation believed in total commitment to each other, for better or worse. Often worse, of course, but they were prepared to make the best of it. They had their well-defined roles, and if it all worked out the reward for the effort and the compromises was trusted companionship for sixty years and more. Not to be sniffed at.

My Mum and Dad seemed so united. So devoted to each other. So sexless too. I couldn't imagine them ever having passionate moments in bed. It didn't square with the snores coming from their bedroom when I began to speculate on how and when I came to be conceived. For I was born six years after they got married - quite a long time afterwards for those days - and nothing much was ever said about those six years. There were a few photographs, taken on the beach somewhere. Hardly any other momentoes. Both had a decent job. They had a house, rented at first, then purchased. But how did they fill those years? Dad was working on an extension to his autobiography when he died in 2009. In the first weeks afterwards, I looked though his manuscript for clues. But I didn't learn much, and I'm still not ready to revisit it.

I gathered that there may have been problems. I know Mum's mum, a diabetic, died quite young in 1948. I know this made Mum's brother, who loved his mum and was devastated by her death, emigrate to Australia. He ran away. This left Mum without any close family. And Dad had none. So they were very reliant on each other. I know that Dad had some awkward edges that Mum, a strong-willed woman who was prepared to speak her mind, succeeded in smoothing away, though at what cost to Dad I couldn't say, and can never now find out. I suspect that things did not go well at times. I remember that Dad smoked (which Mum was strongly against), and liked his beer (he admitted to me that he'd once been severely scolded by Mum when he came home from the office worse for booze, and had to promise never to do it again). Even so, they must have shared a bed with the usual consequences. Why then did six years pass before I was born? I have speculated on a string of miscarriages before I came along. But it's beyond knowing now.

However it was, they stayed together and ended up with all that they could have hoped for. Dad in a very good job. Mum the domestic queen in a nice house. Two trophy children to be proud of, at least until they got to their teens.

I wonder what Mum and Dad thought when I announced my marriage? They said only conventional things at the time. I think they really wanted a wedding for me like they had had. A white wedding in a church, with proper vows, made to a pretty young thing who would bear children to dote over. Not to an older woman with a twelve-year old child, and not after I'd just failed some important Civil Service exams. It must have seemed unwise, done at the wrong moment, rushed. My parents were never usually slow in telling me what they thought of my ideas and ambitions, but they said nothing, and let it go ahead. It wouldn't of course have mattered if they had ventured an opinion against my marrying. I had begun to assert myself. I had begun in fact to renounce convention and embrace the unknown and unsafe. I would have stubbornly gone ahead if they'd disapproved.

And what did they think when it folded, some years later? They did not say to me, 'We knew this would happen. We could have told you so.' They said nothing; nothing at all for many, many years.

And, if still alive, what would they say now, with the dust settling on my long relationship with M---? From my point of view, nothing useful. I wouldn't want to hear, yet again, how they would have stuck it out, and found a way. I'd want some frankness about their own marriage. And an admission that human beings are very imperfect, and find it difficult to get on with each other without tears and frustration, and the subjugation of one to the other. For there is always one partner who - subtly or not - has the whip hand. I think they had scars to prove it. Invisible ones. As I have.

Even if I could experience a second marriage that was somehow benign and truly equal, I'd not be free. And I will not give up my freedom. So not again, thank you.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Unwanted exfoliation

One week ago I made a big mistake. Friends had been urging me to put something on my face. If not foundation and other cosmetics, then at least some moisturiser. Otherwise my face would dry out and mummify.

Now I had never been much sold on cosmetics. Yes, their power to cover, conceal, and transform was miraculous. But the cost was significant, applying the stuff needed real skill, doing it was time-consuming, and it was high-maintenance, needing touchups throughout the day. And then it all had to come off at night, to be reapplied again next morning. In between one looked disturbingly different, so that an unexpected early-morning knock on the front door might be something to dread. 

I was happy to use mascara and lipstick, but considered the rest not worth the effort. It wasn't just an inclination to save money and keep life simple. However skilfully applied, the large amount of makeup some people wore looked artificial to my eyes - not at all the natural look that I wanted for myself.

And another thing: I couldn't see how layer upon layer of makeup could be good for the skin. I had a naturally greasy skin, so it was supple, and the oestrogen was clearly helping to ward off the ageing process. I ate a good, balanced diet with plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit. I drank a lot of water. Surely that was all I needed to look fine? I certainly didn't like the notion of clogged-up pores, and skin struggling to breathe under a crust of chemicals. Or worse, those chemicals corroding the skin. I knew that my skin was sensitive to cold winds and a salty atmosphere, as was the case when in Cornwall over Christmas in 2010. My face became red, puffy and eventually much of the skin flaked off. So I had reasons for being circumspect about smearing anything onto my face.

But couldn't do any harm, could it? I was in Boots killing ten minutes while my monthly prescription was being made up, and naturally I wandered over to the skincare shelves. And there were pots and pots of moisturisers for day and night use. For some reason I set aside my good reasons for not using anything on my face, and I bought a pot of daytime moisturiser. I thought I chose sensibly. It was by Simple. It ought to be all right.

That evening, I rubbed some onto most of my face. At first it seemed OK. But next morning I knew I had been stupid. My cheeks were bright red, I looked puffy around the eyes, and various parts of my face were tender. Soon they felt positively raw. The worst was over in a day or two, but much of my face then felt itchy for almost a week afterwards, and patches of skin began to flake away. It's only just stopped. Mostly.

I suppose you could say that I'd had a cheap acid peel! But I don't look any better for it. My face looks as if I've just emerged from a bad cold, after plenty of sleepless nights.

I gave the pot of Simple moisturiser away. It clearly is quite unsuitable for my own facial chemistry.

I won't be repeating this experiment in a hurry. From now on, I'm going to be deaf to anyone urging me to beautify myself.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Royal breasts

 I hardly need to say what this is about. Poor Kate. She must have been hoping that it would be different for her. Not like it was for William's Mum.

But no. Simply because she is now a Royal, the rules and agreements can be cast aside. Sneaky little men with cameras can train their long lenses at her. Sleazy magazine editors can do their sums and decide that the game is worth it: lots of publicity; a jump in readership; and enough made out of it to cover any fine. And all over Europe, nasty sweaty little men with prurient minds can gawp at her breasts, and get off in some kind of fantasy. It's so sordid. It's such a mockery of the real person, who has become the target of such attention. It doesn't matter that Kate is a Royal. She is a woman. And no woman would want this.

This post is a development of a comment I made on another blog about this very subject. This is what I wrote:

Well, I'd object to my breasts - dainty though they are - being photographed with a long lens so that some magazine can make money. It would [be] the combination of disrespect and cynical commercial exploitation, and it's really in the same area as the Millie Dowler affair.

And supposing I attended a summer party - in a respectable Suffolk town, say - and it was appropriate to be topless, and a fellow-guest took snaps of the girls, me included, then later posted them all on Facebook, or worse, sold them to some rag, then I too (along with the other girls) would be incandescent.

There is indeed a certain amount of Royal Huffiness here, but you don't need a monster ego to feel offended and insulted. It's not a compliment to female attractiveness, it's offering goods for sale that will satisfy an unhealthy curiosity. Kate isn't being prim if she resents her privacy being invaded, or being turned into a tacky commodity. And she and her husband can afford to slug it out in the courts, and get the issue properly aired. I can't.

I never hear about topless photos of our present elderly Queen. Now I wonder why that is?


Miss Dowler's name was actually Milly: my apologies to her parents. But then this just shows what a great reporter I'd make, not making quite sure of my facts before going into print.

Do you think I was over the top in speaking of Milly and Kate in one breath? I don't think so. I'm saying that both intrusions were deplorable breaches of privacy and ordinary human decency. The differences are only a matter of degree. One was more ghastly than the other; one involved an ordinary teenager, the other a grown-up woman who happened to marry a Prince.

Do you think that the Press (and media reporting generally) should have carte blanche to report the events and personalities of the world just as they wish? Why? There is this myth of the Freedom of the Press, but there is no such thing as a 'free press'. Every popular publication in the Western World is tied to the wishes of its shareholders. What they say goes. And they want to see large profits, so that they can have a good return on the money they paid for their shares. The directors must see to it that the content of this or that popular paper or magazine attracts a large readership. And what stories or articles do this? Well, guess what. Anything that lets the reader sit back and enjoy the indiscretions, misbehaviour and misfortunes of someone very different from them, someone remote from them, especially if that someone is in a superior position. Such as a cabinet minister who has an affair. Or a homosexual bishop. Or a Royal.

The Press will say this:

We print what our readers clearly want to read. 
We publish photographs that people clearly want to look at.
We are an alternative voice, so that you don't have to accept everything the government says.
We speak for the ordinary man in the street, and reflect ordinary values.
We are valiant for truth.
We expose deceit and cant and wrongdoing.
Remember Watergate, and how the Press brought down a lying President. Who else could have?

In the eyes of the press, the first two points justify the hounding of celebrities of every type; and the last point justifies the Investigative Reporter, and any measure that will expose the Big Story.

Getting back to Kate's breasts, I heard a female magazine executive say that there should be no fuss, because you could see bare breasts on most Mediterranean beaches. To which I say: women on Mediterranean beaches may expose their breasts to the sun, and to the men they especially want to ravish them, but not for every Tom, Dick and Harry to lick their lips at. And this applies to Kate the same as any woman. She does not deserve to be trivialised and dehumanised, and her picture wanked over.

There is also this perennial argument that Royals are super-privileged people, and should stop complaining. Sorry, I don't get that one. While the privileges may be sweet, there is no actual power. And there are many duties and restrictions and boredoms to contend with. Royals cannot spend all their time as they might wish. It is arranged for them. It's a public life. And Senior Royals have ambassadorial roles, and a relentless round of engagements that most of us would tire of pretty damn quickly. Certainly, they are well looked after. That means servants and secretaries, beautiful apartments to live in, the best food, the best hospitals at the drop of a hat, a very long and comfortable life. It also means discreet bodyguards at all times, no real solitude, and never the fun of sneaking away on your own. I wouldn't want their 'jobs' for any salary.

As for shutting up, and not complaining, this is such a mistaken demand. Royals are in the same boat as all the rich and powerful. Envy them or despise them, they are, as a group, the only kind of people who can afford to take on the Press. If they are to be muzzled by protocol or populist prohibition then who else is going to stand up to the excesses of the Press? You? Me? Can't afford it, guv.

For certain, the government isn't going to restrict the Free Press, the Crusading Press, the Honest Press, very much. Do you really think that the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry will be made law? I'm afraid not.

So if you, or me, or any ordinary person happens to attract the attention of the Press, we are in desperate danger of unwanted and misleading publicity, character assassination, and the stirring-up of mindless prejudice from our local community. With no hope of stopping it. But if Kate and William can achieve something, it will be a little better for us all.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Whispering women and William Morris

In the last week I've visited two National Trust properties in Sussex: Petworth House and Standen. Petworth House was featured in that short BBC4 series presented by Andrew Graham-Dixon in 2011 - Petworth House: the Big Spring Clean - and that largely inspired me to make another visit.

As ever, I spent half my time there talking to the Volunteers, who stand in each room to inform the Visitors about the history of the room and its contents. We always end up discussing more general subjects. I confess it's an indulgence I enjoy: I can try out my feminine presentation and voice on a variety of people, male and female, knowing that they will at least be polite. I'm fairly sure that some of them do clock me, but then the onus is clearly on them to step up to the challenge, and not be distracted by any little oddities in my appearance. And it always happens that the longer we talk, the more they lower their defences, and in the end it's all smiles and satisfaction on both sides. I then step into another room and repeat the performance with someone else.

It's amazingly good practice. I knew it would be. At the start of my transition, when walking ordinary streets was a nerve-racking journey full of fear, I did see that National Trust properties would be safe places to go. Especially as I could flash my Life Membership card.

The feeling of safety at NT venues was hugely enhanced once I'd bought Fiona (there's nothing like arriving in an expensive car to make a good impression). Then it was bolstered still further after my op (because I could - theoretically - flash my fanny to anyone who questioned my status). I was positively Daniel in the Lion's Den after getting my GRC (because I could flash that under the nose of any officious lion).

Intoxicated with my success at Petworth, I decided on Standen yesterday. This is the large late-Victorian/Edwardian country house near East Grinstead designed by Philip Webb for the Beale family, famous for being decorated and furnished in the Arts and Crafts style. It is a Mecca for William Morris fans. It also has a decent garden. I wanted to take a good long look at the interior of the house, because I love the fabrics, wallpapers, ceramics, metalwork and furniture so characteristic of the Arts and Crafts Movement, or developed from it. Here are some trophies from my visit: 

It dawned on me after a while that I was wearing a top that went rather well with the general decor of the the house! Look closely at this shot of myself in a hall mirror:

Although I tend to be over-critical of my appearance, it did seem to me that I wasn't too ungirly yesterday afternoon. And this impression was supported by the conversation I had with one of the younger (meaning under forty-five) women Volunteers in the house, who told me all about a forthcoming event at Standen not yet in any brochure. Apparently it was going to be in late November. The place would be all lit up and traditional evening festivities would take place with a Nutcracker theme. She stressed how nice it would be for children and their parents. You could be in costume if you wished. Only £7 per head, half for children. It did sound jolly, I'll admit, and I half-wistfully wondered if I could get hold of a costume and a child or two. (Well-behaved, well-spoken National Trust members' children, that is, not chavs off some estate) What struck me as remarkable was her telling me about this. Clearly she put me down as a doting aunt. Possibly even a parent. And not as a dodgy tranny who might be a paedophile or worse. (I'm sorry to mention that, but prejudice can be ugly sometimes)

The next lady liked ballet and had dabbled with opera. I was able to relate my Grange Park experiences over the last couple of years, even to the extent of discussing the roles, the singing, the setting, the champagne picnics, and the prices. More credibility won there.

So I was a little taken aback when I left the house to wander in the nearby garden. A husband and wife were sitting on a seat by the conservatory. As I walked past I was perfectly aware that she was looking at me hard. No mistake about it. I walked back their way. Yes, she was whispering to her husband about me. How impertinent of her. She was primly dressed in a skirt and unrevealing top, with a hat. I should say that both were well over sixty. I was in the top that you saw in the mirror above, with jeggings, and apart from not wearing a cardigan, I looked much as in this picture taken some months ago:

What mistake had I made? She was clearly not saying anything complimentary. I decided that she thought me too fat to wear jeggings, and walked on. Let her whisper.

You do get knocked to the ground a bit when someone gives you the eye of disapproval, but the setback was only temporary, as I exchanged waves with the pleasant lady who told me about the Nutcracker event as I drove out.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Sweet victory

A short while back I won an argument with a car parking firm who wanted £90 for alleged parking at a motorway service area. Here was their rather frightening Charge Notice dated 17 August:

As you can see, they had photographed Fiona entering and leaving the Medway Services on the north side of the M2 in Kent. The time difference was five and a half hours, and they had assumed that I'd been parked there throughout. In fact I'd been visiting my cousin nearby, parking exactly as in this shot, taken earlier in the year:

The small gold-coloured car to the right of Fiona is my cousin's car, and used to be my Dad's. She bought it from the Estate that I administered after Dad died in 2009. I always take great pleasure in the thought that Dad (in a sense) lives on in this way. His car is still low-mileage, and perfect for my cousin.

I sent a letter to CP Plus, appealing against the charge. I pointed out that, unusually, both sides of the Medway Services featured a section of road that linked the service area to the local road network. These were much-used local short cuts to and from the motorway. I had simply made use of the one on the north side. I had not parked, and in fact had not needed to stop at all. I had arrived from the London direction, taken the link road, spent all the time with my cousin, and then, later on, had re-entered the service area using the same link road as before, driving out onto the motorway towards Canterbury, and turning off at the first exit (for Maidstone, and eventually home).

I reckoned I might have a fight on my hands, getting them to accept this. It was very worrying. Internet research suggested that the affair could drag on for months. The early stages might not even see human intervention on their side, so that despite appealing I could get final demands and threats of court action. They might or might not back off. I revisited Medway Services, took many photographs, studied the displayed terms and conditions for parking, and got my cousin to write me a letter confirming that I had parked at her house. All in readiness for a big battle, perhaps even a day in court.

And then, a sweet victory. They sent me a very polite letter ageeing that no further action was needed:

I was delighted to get this, and very relieved. But also surprised. My appeal letter must have been more eloquent than I supposed! Well, it just shows that it pays to resist, and not simply pay up. Provided, of course, that your resistance is just and reasonable.

Needless to say, I am not going to use either of these local shortcuts again. I don't want a repeat of this hassle! But coming off the motorway at the 'correct' point, and driving to my cousin's from there, will add six miles to my overall journey every time. It was a very good and useful shortcut indeed. Never mind.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Wedding insurance

Today has been another gorgeously sunny day, and if anyone chose this weekend to get married on, and I know of one couple in St Albans, then the weather will have been perfect. They won't have had need of Wedding Insurance, at least not because Rain Stopped Play. Or the tsunami did, if in Phuket.

A leaflet at the checkout at Waitrose caught my eye a few days ago. It was about this very kind of insurance. Offered by John Lewis, for the sort of people who go to their stores and shop at Waitrose. The policy covers:

# Cancellation or rearrangement costs
# Failure of suppliers
# The wedding attire, flowers, and cake
# The wedding ring
# The wedding gifts
# As an option, the marquee at the reception
# As an option, the risks of a wedding abroad

There are six levels of cover. You choose which you want. On the front of the leaflet it says 'Cover from just £58'. Really? I'm sure that anyone selecting a level 6 cover will be paying a lot more than that. Level 6 will pay out up to:

£100,000 for cancellation or rearrangement costs.
£50,000 if the suppliers let you down.
£50,000 for a ruined wedding dress, or the groom's suit, or the bridesmaid's outfits, or the wrong flowers, or a wrecked cake.
£15,000 for a lost or stolen wedding ring.
£15,000 for lost or stolen wedding gifts.

What struck me are the huge figures here. Do people really spend so much? Well, if serious insurance is being offered for amounts like these, then the answer must be yes. Personally, I'd say that a quiet local register office wedding clad in off-the-peg John Lewis togs, with a pub lunch in a private room for not more than twenty guests, and a half-decent week's honeymoon to follow, would surely cost no more than £2,000 if you were reasonably careful.

Of course, I don't rate weddings much. I'm not against them, and not 'doom and gloom' about them - I don't refer to them as 'funerals' for example, as some do - but I've seen enough to convince me that this is not money well spent. Nor do I come from a background where making a splash is expected. I certainly don't have Romantic Notions about the day of someone's marriage being The Most Special Day Of Their Life, worth any outlay, worth going into permanent debt for. It will almost surely not be a unique event in their life. (I've become so cynical)

And yet, if I'm honest, I do like to go as a guest!  I haven't been to a wedding for over nine years. Come on, somebody! My wardrobe is stuffed with super outfits that have never yet been on parade, and would do nicely for a Big Event. (If they still fitted. Sigh.)

Thursday, 6 September 2012

'Transgender Women' - a challenge to one's prejudices!

This post describes how in the last few days I've had to think hard about my own prejudices, both old and new. It's left me realising that I'm full of inconsistent attitudes, which is not good. But at the same time, I've clearly travelled a huge distance from where I used to be, which is very, very pleasing. I have hopes, therefore, that eventually I will become a thoroughly accepting and unjudgemental person. And to be like that is surely one of the best ambitions anyone could have.

So what's all this about? And why have I titled the post 'Transgender Women'?

It all began mundanely enough earlier in the week, after a friend mentioned that she had been able to find someone to give her electrolysis in the rather remote North Cornish town of Bude. I was a little surprised. Towns far from anywhere do tend to have better shops and services than you might suppose, simply because of the cost of travelling to the nearest city, and the fact that they must serve as the centre for a wide area. So most ordinary needs get catered for. But you wouldn't expect a specialised service such as electrolysis to be available. But it was.

Then I thought, well, surely there can be no trans scene at Bude to speak of? That would be found only in Exeter or Plymouth, right? It was the work of a moment to do a Google search using the words 'bude trans women'. I got an unexpected result. Top of the list was a blog written by a gay man called Enlightened Male2000, and I had hit on his archive of occasional posts on Transgendered Women. Clearly Google reckoned I'd meant 'nude trans women'!

The thing was, it didn't seem to be yet another website devoted to self-indulgent pornography, and otherwise devoid of content. I thought the chap who wrote on it came across very much as the Thinking Gay Man - or should I say the Thinking Bisexual Man? He was most definitely Bi-curious, even if he made it perfectly plain that he appreciated the physical attributes of regular gay men. And of more exotic creatures - the Transgender Women he had penned several articles on. Here they are:

29 March 2010: Born in the Wrong Body
16 August 2011: Some of Us are Born in the Wrong Body
17 October 2011: Accommodating Women
21 November 2011: Transgender Women...Are there Enough of Them
2 January 2012: Life's Trials as a Transgender Female
6 June 2012: Dating a Transgender Woman
29 July 2012: Pure Female Except For...

I'm not urging anyone to read these posts, but by all means have a look. A warning: you will (naturally) see a series of photos of pretty girls with male genitals. That is what this man means by 'Transgender Women'. Impolitely, you might dismiss them all as Shemales. Personally I am not impolite. These girls' points of view are quoted, as are those of the gay men who find them attractive. I think the posts are well worth reading for the insights they give into why these girls have transformed themselves - becoming more attractive than I could ever have hoped to be - and yet have stopped short of surgery to acquire female parts. And I don't think, looked at fairly, that this is a dirty or irrelevant story at all.

I realised that I had not thought about non-op women very much before, and had in fact (during the last four years or so) absorbed an entirely fresh prejudice - which was that these women were definitely not like us, the transsexual women, because they had rejected genital surgery. They weren't going the whole hog. The urge, the necessity, to look totally female and embrace the standard female life in its entirety obviously wasn't there. They still wanted some male capability. They were therefore lesser women; or even not women at all, but just gay men who fancied looking very girly. They deserved a sneer. That was shock number one, that I had adopted that notion. I thought that I had shed all of my prejudices, especially any that made me look down on someone. But now I saw that I was perfectly capable of embracing a harmful and hurtful new prejudice that I most certainly didn't have before I transitioned. (I didn't have it because I had no idea that non-op women existed, so that I had no view on them)

I considered the posts mentioned above. Was I seeing pure pornography, or just pretty girls with a key physical feature that the camera had presented to very good advantage? A feature that the site owner found fascinating. He seemed to be on these girls' side, empathising with them. And if so, why shouldn't I empathise as well? Rather than just be mildly rude? After all, each of these girls was a human being, entitled to free choice where their own body was concerned. (Ouch...hadn't this been what we, the transsexual women, said about ourselves?)

Shock number two was the realisation that I could ponder the concept of non-op women, and the men who liked them so much, without recoil or embarrassment. I was never as prim and proper and uptight as some people I could name, but I used to be full of bad attitudes that I hadn't questioned for decades. No, I wasn't racist or sectarian, or blindly against abortion, or anything so extreme. But I could take an elitist point of view, the sort that a person used to a safe and secure background can take, the sort that a person used to having authority at work can take, the sort that a person who believes they are free of prejudice can take. Transition showed me that I was in fact extremely vulnerable, that I could be misunderstood, pulled down and reviled. It made me bin a lot of useless mental baggage. I learned about so many new kinds of people. I saw that they all had a point of view, a role to play, a right to exist. Just as I had. Nobody was superior to anyone else.

And so that's why idly searching for the non-existent Bude trans scene has taken me down a sideroad and altered my thinking a bit.

One final thought. An entirely new idea, at least for me. And not one that I'm personally going to pursue. But I will state it. Could a non-op woman be the ideal partner for a post-op trans woman? If, that is, the trans woman in question hates her partner having a 'male look' and wants to see and embrace female beauty - but at the same time desires the kind of sex only a man can provide? It's a thought. But I suppose it would never be, if it's true that all non-op women are exclusively interested in gay male partners. Still, how liberating it is to find that one can imagine the possibility.

I feel less stuck in the mires of Upbringing and Social Class than I did a week ago. There's hope.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012


How in 2012 do you most like to contact people, to ask them something, to tell them some news, or just keep in touch?

Until the early 1960s, for many people it was done by letter and postcard. Or from a public phone box if it had to be a phone call, because it was important or confidential. Such as summoning the police, or an ambulance. Or some dire family news. Not very many homes had a telephone installed. My Mum and Dad didn't until about 1964 or 1965, even though the family lived in Southampton, a biggish city. I can still remember our number: 0703 57199.

How odd that I can remember that. It wasn't as if I was an enthusiastic phone user, despite being aged 12 or 13 when it arrived, and in theory quite old enough to have a bevvy of friends to chat with. But two things must be understood: I had no friends that I saw outside school; and our one phone was on a table in the hall, with absolutely no privacy. Mum and Dad could hear every word, as I could hear theirs, and believe me, their ears would flap if on rare occasions the call was for me. This made me terribly self-conscious and awkward about using the phone. I jumped when it rang.

I especially hated the traditional Christmas phone calls, and if there was time and opportunity I would duck into the bathroom, sitting on the loo for as long as the danger lasted, so that Mum couldn't say 'Oh, there's J---! Would you like a quick word with him?' and then beckon me over; or 'J---! there's Auntie So-and-so on the phone. She wants to talk to you.' Or even worse, 'J---! There's [some son or daughter or cousin I was supposed to be friends with] on the phone, come and speak with them.' I dreaded such invitations.

And I absolutely never made phone calls myself if I could avoid it. I hated the phone. It frightened me. I was clumsy with it. I was shy and awkward and gauche, and never knew what to say. There was only the voice to hear, sometimes a voice I didn't recognise, and it was all a poor substitute for a face-to-face conversation. Not that I liked those, either. I almost had a panic attack if it was ever necessary to dial a number. Dialling wasn't like punching number keys, or touching a modern phone lightly and playfully with your fingers. It was slow and deliberate, a wind-up, and the phone made odd clicking noises while you did it. It was so easy to misdial. The dialling process took so long that you were thoroughly tensed up by the time you'd finished. Then there was a hiatus, silence or whirrings that lasted for perhaps several seconds. I remember hoping fervently, during that silence, that the call had failed. But more often than not, there would be a sudden connection, the ringing tone would begin at the other end, and I would feel panic that had to be fought down. I dreaded the harsh click of the phone being picked up, and someone saying hello.

It was just as bad in the red public phone boxes. In the 1960s it was still common to be confronted with the old-fashioned type of apparatus inside them. A heavy black handset with twisted fabric-covered wires, and Button A and Button B to press as part of the procedure. Juggling with four pennies. Never good with complicated procedures, I was nervous and usually messed up the call.

So my early experience with telephones was entirely negative, and it was only when I started work in Southampton 3 Tax Office that I mastered the right technique for making and answering calls. It was a vital part of the job. Familiarity made me competent. I soon found that I could handle work-related calls. But I still disliked the telephone at home, or in the red kiosk, and all the old nervousness and clumsiness returned when I started dating. As time went by, and I acquired my first flat, then a house, and I got married, and generally joined the conventional family world, much more phoning was needed away from the office. I slowly conquered my problem. It became easier and easier to phone other people and speak to them on the phone - such as traders to find out whether they could come and fix something, or asking a shop whether they had something in stock, and at what price. But whenever I could, I'd write a letter. I was always good with the written word. I could be to the point, say precisely what I meant, get the reply I was looking for.

Oddly enough, mobile phones finally banished my fear. I bought my first one in 2000. I think it was the very different way they looked and worked that did the trick. Plus the fact that this was my personal phone: it was literally mine, under my own control, with a pleasant ringtone that I had chosen, and not some shrill noise that startled me to death. My first mobile phone of 2000, even though primitive compared to my latest phone in 2012, quickly became a very useful gadget to have around. My pocket friend indeed. My attitude to phone calls changed. I could make them, and answer them, with hardly a care. It was a novelty. It was almost fun.

But at home I still disliked using the domestic handset connected to the landline. It was out of my control. The caller could be anyone, and there was no indication of who was calling. When I did answer, it was either an annoying sales pitch, or someone who wanted a very long chat about nothing much at all. I grew to resent the intrusion. The intrusive effect was worse after I retired in 2005, because I was consciously trying to put structure into my life, lining up little jobs, and I did not wish to be diverted. Or if watching something interesting on TV in the evening, some documentary say, I did not want to abandon it and spend the next hour and a half speaking with a person who was entirely capable of putting it all in an email. How bizarre: I had put my telephobia well behind me, but the thing was still a problem because of its potential to disrupt my day, and stop me getting on with things.

Most of the people in my old life, my pre-transition life, stuck with the old-fashioned voice call. They either had no mobile phone, or only 'kept it in the car for emergencies', or 'couldn't work out how to text', or knew but couldn't be bothered. As time went by, I felt they were stuck in the past, and really had no business - if they wanted people to keep in touch with them - to spurn modern ways of communication. Most of the world was finding that texting (for quick messages) and emailing (for something longer and more content-rich) were both cheap and convenient; and ideal if no instant reply was needed. In fact, almost all the people I came to know from the end of 2008 were extremely text-minded, checking their phone constantly for texts if it didn't actually push the message at them with a notification tone. And they would probably reply within minutes - or seconds - because they were eager to read the message, and just as eager to reply. Reading and writing was in vogue again. It was now entirely possible to conduct a conversation by rapid-fire texting.

So in 2012 I would say that there is no need to make a voice call unless the matter is urgent, or if it's in some way essential to hear the voice. Lovers, then, might prefer a voice call. But if arranging a social evening out, texting several people simultaneously is much more efficient. And on modern touchscreen phones, it's all so much easier than using the multi-letter keys and 'predictive text' usual on mobile phones of not so very long ago.

It's history coming full circle really. Cheap and very efficient postal services in the later nineteenth century allowed everyone to send letters and postcards with the prospect of a same-day response. Having to rely on a written message wasn't a problem. The nineteenth-century was in fact regarded as the era of expressive little billets-doux, as well as the era of belles-lettres. And today we can accomplish just the same with emails and texts. I can (and do) carefully read a text or email over and over again to extract every shade of meaning from it, and copy it to preserve it forever if it's something I want to cherish. Much better than some voice call in which there might be a lot of noise, but not much accurately remembered, and precious little of the real message has got through.

Do you cling to the 'convenience' of the voice call? Or do you, like me, infinitely prefer a well-composed email, or a quick text, neither of which can annoy by calling you away from something else that must have your time and attention? A voice call is like someone at your front door, an unexpected caller. So many times I've hastily stepped out of the shower, flung on a dressing gown, and gone to my front door, only to find it's just some person selling solar panels, or canvassing, or collecting for old donkeys.

Ditto when the landline phone rings. Almost everyone I want to hear from texts me or calls me on my mobile phone. So if the landline rings I know it's 90% certain to be a call centre. Occasionally I do dial 1471 afterwads, just in case it was a real person. Nearly always I'm told that the caller didn't leave their number, and sure enough that means it was a call centre. I can imagine hundreds of phone numbers - maybe thousands - being called at the same time from some Far Eastern place. A tiny proportion of the hapless people called in this way pick up their phone and answer. Immediately the operatives are onto them, and, speaking very fast, they give you their spiel. This is communication totally debased.

The call centres are an all-day scourge. They're mostly offshore, so you can't stop them. So nowadays, unless I'm expecting a call, I just don't answer. And one day soon I may unplug the handset, leaving the landline clear for Broadband and emails only.

Monday, 3 September 2012

After all the excitement

Despite all the upheavals, and all the pain, there is something very exciting about the three or four years it might take to transition from the old state to the new. It's definitely like going over a huge waterfall. And although the rush towards the white water, and then the roaring edge, is all in slow motion, just like a real waterfall the journey is one-way once the current has you in its grip, and the fall is as frightening (or thrilling) as an actual header over Niagara would be. At the bottom, after the fall is past, you bob up spluttering, swim or drift to the calm shore, dry off, examine your hurts, and then contemplate what to do next.

It's then time for a big reality check. Setting aside the medical demands and routines of post-op existence, what else is there? What does one actually do now? How will life be?

The adrenalin has died back. The contention is over. You have the prize you wanted. But thirty, forty, fifty years lie ahead that must somehow be filled. And although you are now 'fixed' physically, there is a whole different world to face up to. With new rules. A world in which you are going to be treated very differently, in which you are a new member from another planet, competing with natives who know exactly how to get on, how to get ahead, how to beat you in love. You may not be in their league. At least not yet. But there is little time to learn the finer points. Very urgent matters need attention. Matters you may have set aside till now. A proper place to live. An income. A social life away from the trans scene. A partner.

And whatever you brought over the waterfall with you in a bundle, all the stuff from the old life that must be carried into the new - perhaps parental responsibilities - that too needs to be picked up and shouldered. It might well be a heavy burden. Heavier in fact than ever before. A burden that can hurt you still.

The potential for post-op deflation is great. I think that very few transitioners slide effortlessly from the old life into the new. I'd compare it to the joy of keenly-anticipated early retirement turning into depression. Again, you have a glittering prize, in this case release from the daily grind of earning a living combined with the promise of boundless leisure. But as with all things, there is a price: a purposeless existence without a definite job to do, only 'projects' and 'hobbies' to get on with; a sense of uselessness; personal status diminished, leading to loss of self-esteem; introspection; a life without urgency, a life spent drifting, and yet not free of stress for all that because little worries get magnified. And no clear way forward, just years stretching into the future, a slow death.

The real challenges of the 'new life' are not much mentioned by early transitioners. They concentrate on immediate goals, and the frustrations of getting anywhere at all. The attitudes of other people. The little victories of passing, that mean so much. The clothes and accessories. I'm not criticising. It was like that for me too. The Afterlife seems unreal, something Far Ahead, hardly imaginable. In some ways as unreal as adult lfe, and the world of work, and owning a house, and paying a mortgage, and having a family to care for, when you are only fourteen.

I think though that alongside the provision of medical services (whether NHS or private) there should be some structured social guidance officially available, to prepare transitioners for the Afterlife. Free or low-cost courses on how to approach living as a born-again man or woman; the realities of their new role; the rights and responsibilites; practical advice, such as what works if applying for a job; what is natural and expected behaviour in the new role; and not only sexual advice, but the art of getting to know someone without blowing it. No doubt a lot of trans people have no problems with some of this, but many do. I know how I pooh-poohed the notion of Pre-Retirement courses, and how, when I went to one, I dismissed the anecdotes and warnings and practical guidance as irrelevant to me. But I was arrogant. I did not know it all.

Clearly only a few places around the country could offer viable courses for trans persons on these lines - in London, Manchester, Glasgow, and a few other major cities, including (of course) Brighton.   

I can see the tabloid comments: School For Sex For Trannies! Or Finishing School Opens In Neasden For Young (Er) Ladies! The Leveson Report into press standards won't stop any of that. Let it come. Transitioners need practical knowledge, to fit them into their new roles, to let them function as useful citizens in changed circumstances. To spare them them mockery and rejection. To give them a chance of happiness and material success. A long-term prisoner would be rehabilitated. A teenager still at school would (or should) get some lessons about the real world. Why not us?

Saturday, 1 September 2012

A neighbour's funeral

The lady who used to live opposite me died a short while ago, and her funeral was the day before yesterday. This wasn't the first non-family funeral that I'd ever been to, but it was the first for someone who had lived actually on my doorstep. We had frequently spoken. And now she had suddenly gone, at only 61. It's just not the same without her.

The funeral took place at the Woodvale Crematorium in Brighton. About 100 people attended. I was not surprised. She was well-regarded by her neighbours, and a lot of family and friends came. It made me wonder who would turn up at my own funeral - nothing like this number! I went with my next door neighbour's wife, mother and sister, and the sister's eleven year old daughter. We all had to stand in the packed chapel. As always, it was strangely moving, despite the brevity of the service, despite the fact that this woman, my dead neighbour, had been to me only a pleasant person to know, a decent neighbour, and not a close friend or family member. Perhaps any ceremony that marks the end of a life has meaning, and affects those left behind in odd and unpredictable ways.

I was rather on view in the chapel. I was demurely dressed in a silky grey top with short sleeves and a scooped neckline, loose and flowing silky black pants, black shoes, best black Prada bag, and silver jewellery. The top and pants tended to reveal my well-rounded figure, but nevertheless seemed entirely appropriate to the occasion. Nobody stared at me, except one man in his sixties standing nearby. I wondered why, because it was really easy to blend in, and I thought I was behaving very naturally. I even managed the hymn, singing it in a high, clear and consistent voice: some progress there. Some women weren't even attempting to sing. The girls in front of me just mimed. It was obviously a myth that all women had the voices of angels!

As I guessed would be the case, there was a spread at the local pub. Parking Fiona at home, I walked to the pub in my finery. This had once been the pub that J--- (the old me) had been to for regular meals with M---, or with Mum and Dad. When my transition began, I stopped going there. Now I was confidently stepping into the place as Lucy. It was seething with men standing around in dark suits, and women sitting in groups earnestly talking. I politely pushed my way through, getting welcoming smiles from the girls. The men gave me no attention.

I ended up sitting for over an hour with my chapel companions, and I didn't mix. I could easily have introduced myself to other women at nearby tables and chatted with them, but I loyally stayed where I was. It was pleasant enough to play computer games with the daughter. And I felt perfectly accepted.

But I would have liked some of the men to talk to me. Not because I fancied them, but as a kind of test. I wanted to see whether I looked interesting enough to be worth talking to; and then to find out how well I could deal with whatever line of chat was thrown at me. But not one of the men said anything to me. I must have been either invisible, or else written off as one of the visiting mums. Never mind.