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.