Sunday, 28 October 2012

The Friendly Club

Usually I don't go much to places where I have to pay for admission. The minimum sting exceeds £5 for an adult nowadays, and might easily be around £10, even for a museum or a country house.

You can't visit many such places on holiday without noticing the drain on your slender resources! For instance, two days back I went to Westonbirt Arboretum, and paid £8 to get in. Yesterday it was the American Museum at Claverton, near Bath, and I had to pay £7. And there's all the rest. I will usually visit the cafĂ© and have a cup of tea with something to go with it, and occasionally I will buy a book or a card at the shop. Today it's Dyrham Park, but that's a National Trust property and being a member I can get in for nothing. In two days time I'm off to Oxford, and it'll be the Ashmolean Museum, but that's actually free. Mind you, it'll be an expensive nightmare parking Fiona, and I'd better resign myself to not having afternoon tea at the nearby Randolph Hotel. Or a drink in their Morse Bar, even though I'd quite like to see that. Anyway, the point I'm making is that almost nothing you might do on holiday is without some cost, unless it's stopping by the road to see a view - assuming you can find somewhere to stop, and they don't charge for parking! You've definitely got to be careful with your pennies on each and every occasion.

So finally qualifying for a senior citizen concession at many of these visitor attractions is a useful little saver. Even if it's only a pound off the full charge, that's a pound towards the tea and cake later on.

Actually, it's still a novelty, asking for an age concession. I'm not yet used to it, and I feel I'm chancing my arm, getting away with something that I really shouldn't. As if I might be challenged, the whistle blown, the police called, the arrest, the cell, the humiliating appearance before the judge before the sentence is passed, and then, with my reputation destroyed forever, spending the next ten years behind bars, with only one option on release: to sell my story of shame to a tabloid. The ultimate degradation.

But there's an alternative challenge that crosses my mind. It goes like this:

'One concession, please' 'You mean an old age concession, madam?' 'Why, yes.' 'Please forgive me, but you don't look old enough...do you have anything to prove your age? I'm really sorry to ask, but...' 'No problem. Will my passport do? I've got it here.' 'Ah, thank you, madam. If I may say so, you don't look nearly old enough to be sixty.' 'Thank you! But it's just luck, you know. Good genes, I think.'

Enough to make you cringe, narcissistic dialogue like that! And - mark this - it doesn't happen! Both at Westonbirt Arboretum and the American Museum my claim to concessionary admission was accepted without a blink of the eye. So no prison cell. But no recognition of wearing extraordinarily well either. So, crestfallen and chastened, but no doubt wiser and more realistic, I have to accept that my youth has gone, and I'm now just another bent old crone, a hag, a sagging-faced old biddy, ravaged by time and many cares, a leathery worn-out husk. Not a yummy mummy any longer, but a mummy in the sarcophagus.

But then there's a silver lining. A bright, shining one. I have automatically joined the vast Club of Older Women who Go To Places! At Westonbirt, for example, I was having lunch at an outside table - the autumn colours had brought people there in droves, and there were no free tables inside the restaurant. There were still two or three empty tables in the courtyard, but my table was under a roof overhang, and so slightly sheltered, the pick of what was left. I was lucky to get it, especially as I'd 'reserved' it simply by plonking a cup of coffee there while I queued for a burger. But British people respect such indications. It was however a table for four, and as there was only me, I felt slightly guilty about hogging it.

Then a lady approached, and asked me whether she could sit with me till her friend (who was with a photography group) joined her. Of course! So I had the pleasure of her company for the next twenty minutes until her camera-toting friend found her. We chatted a lot. It was, as usual, so very easy. Mind you, my burger was so massive there was no elegant way to eat it, and I could only nibble around the edges, with apologies for any unladylike behaviour (I never in fact finished it). When she arrived, the friend and I soon fell into a conversation about cameras and autumn shades. Then I left them to explore the Arboretum. It wasn't the end of meeting members of the Club. On the way in, I'd met a lady who was struggling to find where she was on the map of the place. Two hours later, we encountered each other again. She was still hunting for her sequoias. I said I was delighted we had met a second time. She clearly felt the same way. I said it 'completed the circle' so to speak. Just a few words more, and we went out of each other's lives forever; but the nice feeling of being recognised stayed with me.

So I may look like a Hallowe'en witch, but obviously there is something about being one that draws people together. My goodness, the rain has stopped, it's brightened up, and I'd better make the bed, get washed, and get out. On my broomstick. (Only kidding, Fiona!)

Friday, 26 October 2012

On the Cotswolds again

I'm on the Cotswolds again, staying in my touring caravan at the Caravan Club site on the western edge of Cirencester. It's my Autumn Holiday. Very likely my last outing in 2012, but you never know.

I was here last May, and always intended to return. Well, it's just as nice as before. Spacious, lots of lawns and trees. The mains hookup has a digital TV socket too - so I've missed nothing that I would want to watch. A very modern, immaculate and inviting toilet and shower block - I had an amazingly gorgeous long hot shower just this morning: well worth the effort of leaving my warm, snug caravan at 7.30am, when it was only just daylight.

The only thing missing, so far, is sunny weather. But it's now set to become much colder, and perhaps that'll mean clear blue skies, sun, and frost. I wouldn't mind one bit. I've brought along plenty of clothes suited to chilly conditions, both pairs of boots, and gloves of course, and I'm ready for some crisp days out. Today it's going to be Westonbirt Arboretum, only a few miles away. This is the national collection of trees, and according to a report on BBC Radio 4's Today programme early this morning, the colours are wonderful, with leaves ranging from yellow through orange to red and purple. It's brightening up as I type this, but it's still cloudy, and I'll be lucky to see the Arboretum at its best - you need a blue sky and sunbeams for that - but if I don't go there today, the winds may have blown all the leaves off the trees! Its up to the gods of fine weather: are they lying in a drunken stupour from the previous night's excesses, or are they alert, on the job, and minded to smile on my hopes? I shall encourage them. I generally find (it's almost a philosophy with me) that if you make a personal effort, if you stir yourself and get out, and do it, you will be rewarded.

Yesterday I went into Stroud. It hadn't previously whispered to me, 'I'm a must-see place to visit!' but the afternoon was half-over, the light indifferent, and I wanted somewhere not far away to spend an hour or two in. The outskirts weren't exceptional. Lots of old mills, albeit set in wooded valleys, left over from an industrial past. But the hilly town centre was half-quaint, with some fine old buildings (such as the Subscription Hall) and some narrow streets, mostly pedestrianised. I walked down into the High Street, and immediately discovered three shops that drew me in.

The first was a second-hand bookshop with a very good selection of books. But being on a strict daily budget I looked, but did not buy. The second was stuffed full of superior-quality ladies' and gentlemens' accessories from the 1920-1950 era. Hats, bags, all kinds of personal adornments. A tan Morrocan leather handbag caught my eye. It was beautifully made in thick but pliant leather, with big and practical interior compartments, lovely. The man said I could have 10% off for cash. That meant £44 for a beautiful bag with character. I nearly bought it. I decided not to, because on close inspection I saw that one of the straps had become partially detached, and there would be no way that I could myself get that fixed economically. But it was a wrench to forego that bag!

At the third shop, a boutique, I had much better fortune. It was at the tail end of their sale, and they still had racks of once-expensive clothing now ruthlessly marked down to clear. Marked down to £15, or even £10. I tried on two skirts, was tempted by the price, thought better of it, and in the end bought a well-fitting dark patterned casual jacket that will make my top half look slim, and go very well with jeggings. For £10. So I kept within my daily budget. Tomorrow they get in new stock. I was just in time.

Still no sunshine. Never mind. At least I can have soup and a roll for lunch at the Arboretum, go for a jolly good stroll, and kick the fallen leaves with my Dubarry boots! Hmmm...they offer £1 off as a concession...and I can prove my age with my passport...now do I sacrifice my pride, be a cheapie, and claim the concession for 60s and over? You betcha.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

They give with one hand, and they take away with the other

It's great news that the judges have ruled that women can take equal pay issues to court - with a greatly extended time limit for getting redress. Hurrah!

But it's not such good news that Lord Bichard - who, until he retired in 2001, was the Civil Servant in charge of the former Benerfits Agency - has come up with a radical new idea that could affect everyone's entitlement to a State Pension. He has floated the notion that 'older people who are not very old could be making a useful contribution to civil society', and he is suggesting that they should be penalised (i.e. not paid their State Pension) if they don't work for the community in some way.

He is attempting to come up with new thinking 'to stop older people being a burden on the State'.

It's only an outline proposal at the moment. His idea has been greeted with coolness in several quarters. It has been pointed out that possibly a third of the physically active retired population do some kind of voluntary work, or otherwise offer their time unpaid to various organisations. It has also been pointed out that an army of old people exists who, often with no financial support, nurse and care for their still older but very infirm parents. And of course the State Pension is taxable, so part of it is always clawed back unless it is one's only taxable income. But some are waiving these points aside. Apparently it's all going to be looked at more closely.

So not only will most people have to wait till 67 (and perhaps even older) before their State Pension theoretically comes into payment, quite a lot of them may have to sign up to a work programme in order to actually receive the cash.

How degrading. Lining up in overalls to pick up litter or whatever. Bullied by supervisors.

I dare say there would be exemptions. Anyone who already had a paid job would escape (provided they were being taxed under PAYE, or were at least known to HMRC, and checks would be made). Anyone who could 'prove' they were caring for older parents might be let off (provided it were proved with a formal home inspection, and enough boxes ticked). Anyone who was unfit or unwell might be let off (provided they had a doctor's certificate, or passed a rather stiff statutory fitness test). I would hope that volunteer hospital drivers and hospital visitors would be exempt, but who can say?

Anyone who was well-off enough to forego their State Pension (possibly Lord Bichard, I'm thinking) could sidestep the work gangs altogether. Now surely that's wrong. Wrong because they have this choice, their circumstances allowing them to avoid an early turn-out on cold or rainy mornings, washing off graffiti, spreading grit, shovelling snow, and sweeping gutters. Wrong also that in effect they'd be paying a new but voluntary wealth tax. They'd be denying themselves an incoming that was once regarded as a universal benefit, truly the sign of a civilised society, with age the only qualifying condition. The State Pension isn't the same thing as unemployment benefit. It's the country's across-the-board acknowledgement of senior citizenship, a significant regular income to guarantee that in old age no citizen will actually be destitute.

That was the original concept: cash to keep you alive, and if you were thrifty enough, alive with a measure of dignity. Lord Bichard should think again.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Identity

1 November next will be the third anniversary of changing my name by Deed Poll to Lucy Melford, which I did eleven months after beginning a semi full time existence as Lucy. By 'semi' I mean that although I lived on my own as Lucy, and conducted my life as Lucy, I regularly had to present as the Old Person when seeing my ex-partner and my parents. It was irksome, and seemed a false thing to do, but it was necessary to keep the peace.

By the end of October 2009 my parents were gone, my partner had relinquished any say in my transition, and nearly all the residual legal stuff connected with my parents' estates had been dealt with. It was a natural moment to change my name forever.

It felt very much like entering a brand new phase, as if I were getting married and taking a new identity. The Deed Poll had real significance. It became a vital documentary indicator that I was 'full time' from 1 November 2009. Using it, I set up further essential documentation and record-changes. A 'female' NHS record, passport and driving licence were all in place by the end of January 2010. Other important documentation has followed, as you know.

I am now legally bulletproof, beyond challenge. Though so far as the actual name goes, not beyond amendment. A further name change to Lucy Somethingelse will always be possible. Conceivably back to my father's surname, the one on my birth certificate. But I'm so comfortable with 'Lucy Melford' that I intend to stick with it. I've grown into it.

I'd even say that I look like a woman who would be called 'Lucy Melford'. It's a name that, for me, says 'pleasant middle-class lady with a good family and educational background', and that's the presentation that suits me most. I don't want an edgy, gritty, fought-her-way-up-from-the-gutter-and-never-went-to-school image. Nor a super-posh-loadsamoney-always-had-a-smooth-and-easy-ride image either. I want to be Miss Nice, Miss Pleasant, Miss Chatty, the sort of woman you bump into at friendly places where civilisation and afternoon tea are serious concepts. That means cafes and restaurants in old hotels, museums, galleries, and National Trust properties. One day, fifteen years from now, I shall become Miss Marple and take up amateur sleuthing!

Funny thing, this business of identity.

I've been looking closer at The Angels and Rose's, and I've been speculating on the names people choose for their online identities. Let's make up a few typical ones: LongLegsNottingham, JasmineTGirl, NikkiGlasgow, LindaLovelyLips, Hopeful7053, JustOutLiverpool, BristolBev, Anna SadEyes, PartyGoer. Often it's a name that hints at status ('JustOut'), personal inclination ('LovingLady') and locality ('Hertford'). There's this new trend of sending all and sundry a message (sometimes fierce and aggressive) in your home wi-fi name. But the message in these names is overwhelmingly 'I'm-nice-to-know, good to be with', or 'I'm-fun-with-a-great-sense-of-humour-but-I-need to-be-understood'. These two forums are very welcoming to newcomers, very supportive if a genuine problem is aired, and the overall sense of community is warm and deep. It's understood that if any of these girls link up in real life, then pretence will be dropped and disclosures made. Meanwhile the online name is a protection, just in case suspicious family or work colleagues visit the site. Sometimes there is a proper name ('Lucy Melford') but that's a little exceptional. It's a luxury item for people who are secure and have nothing to lose by being up front and open.

Clearly a lot of the names are temporary, and could get discarded if there is progress in whatever direction these girls are going in. That they persist, sometimes for several years, suggests that for many no progress is possible, or that progress is only something to talk about. Which means that there are a lot of people out there who live double lives, with a double identity, for years on end.

Now I couldn't stand that, not as a long-term proposition. I'd find it very unsettling, juggling two names, two lives, having to remember who I'm supposed to be at any given moment, and what might be the consequences of introducing myself as one person or the other. I couldn't do it. In real life, I adopted the persona and life of Lucy Melford as rapidly and as completely as I could. One identity was quite enough. Two parallel identities would have been dangerously confusing. It would also have perpetuated the Old Life, which I quickly saw had been lived on a mistaken basis. It seemed intolerable to keep it going. It was also emotionally difficult, and in some fundamental way dishonest, even though the duality was imposed on me from outside, against my will. The worst period for me was the first twelve months after coming out, during which I had to maintain two very different lives. I had no compunction or second thoughts about taking all my Old Life clothes to the charity shop (see my post Time for a wardrobe purge, 9 September 2009).

It's an old (and true) proverb that no man can serve two masters. I'd add that nobody can juggle two identities - not without problems that will completely stress them out.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Attacked in public

Live and let live, I say. We all have to get along. I personally don't mind if I share the world with all kinds of people. So long as they are kind and compassionate, and live useful and cheerful lives, then I think they should be given respect and a stake in society.

But some people overstep the mark, and attack you in public for no reason.

A case in point. Yesterday was a social double bill. I met my sister-in-law G--- in Chichester for lunch and a look around the shops. Then I cut back to Brighton, to have an evening meal and a drink with friends in a Kemp Town pub called The Barley Mow. All was going well until I went up to the bar to order a drink. Two girls were there. Something about them made me say, 'Gosh, you both look brilliant!'. Next thing I know, they had transformed, and had seized me, and were making ready to tear my throat out:


Fortunately I remembered what you had to say when seized by zombies, and in a ringing voice I cried: 'Fundamenta eius in montibus sanctis!' and I knew I would live. Then I paid for my glass of house white, and rejoined my friends.

These zombies are a real nuisance. You never suspect that the person you are talking to is one. They catch you off-guard. One minute they are all smooth-talking and smooth-faced - a bit like politicians really - then the next instant boils erupt on their faces and blood oozes from their dripping maws, the blood of their recent victims. They don't drink it, they just go for your throat and savage you a bit. It's just something they do. Personally, I say why not? Unless, of course, their lifeless eyes fix on you.

Vampires are nicer, more sophisticated, albeit in an insinuating, serpentine sort of way. And they look after themselves much better. The skincare is remarkable. All smooth and plump, a bit like a politician. They always have nice white teeth, plenty of them, and really sharp. Presumably they must spend half an hour a day flossing and brushing to get them like that. But you have to watch them. They still get you into lots of uncomfortable situations. Again and again I have listened to their spiel, and then wake up next morning in some chilly crypt with a punctured throat. It happens over and over again. Will I never learn? What I should do, when faced with a vampire, is utter the the Unknown Last Line of the Saaamaaa Ritual. Trouble is, as it's unknown, you can never trot it out as and when needed. And you can't simply look it up in Wikipedia. Tsk.

Three years ago, in another Brighton pub, the vampires and zombies were out in force, and all we could do was look on in horror as they rampaged:


I seem to like wearing grey for these occasions. To strike the serious note. The grey says, 'I'm a serious person. Stop this nonsense now.' But it has no effect. Well, if these people want victims, what can you do? Sigh.

Friday, 19 October 2012

The Angels revisited


Cheers! Two days ago, in Kent. Lunch at The Brown Trout at Lamberhurst with E---, whom I've known since she was a teenager, lost touch with during my transition, but have now reconnected with. We had such a lovely day. We went to Scotney Castle afterwards, the nearby National Trust house with a garden, and chatted to everyone we met.

I suppose this stage of 'being out' is wistfully yearned for by thousands of trans people who can't press ahead in the way I did. Either because of despair as to how to begin, or frustration at the practical difficulties in their way. The bulk of the people on The Angels website, and on Rose's, seem to be like that. I do wish I could wave a magic wand for them all.

It was October 2009 before I registered for The Angels. I felt I needed to be in touch with the people contributing to that website. But I was already a little too late. I'd 'come out' over a year previously. The hesitations of how to make a start were well past. My parents had died. My partner was realising that the person she thought she knew was really someone rather different, and that events were moving out of her control. I was in the midst of an unfolding tragedy, but I did have personal control, and I had confidence, and I had a definite plan. I had passed beyond the initial phase, and was pressing forward with my transition.

I was able to fund it privately and therefore call the shots. I blew a fortune in the process. I was spending my life's savings. It should have been there for the rest of my retirement, but I spent it all on becoming Lucy Melford instead. Regrets? Absolutely none. Afraid of a future without capital in the bank, just a home and a car? Yes, a bit.

But really there was no decision, no choice, the transition had to go ahead or else I'd become bitter and twisted - or mad. I'm so glad I trusted my feelings. Well, just look at me now!

I had a look at The Angels today. The top posts that caught my eye had titles like these:

Out and about for the First Time.
A Theory about why I like presenting as Female.
Makeup Advice.
The dam is about to break.
Adventures in Arm Shaving.
First gp visit.
Frustrations of being a TGirl.

Those post titles cover many of the challenges that bear down on trans people who have yet to find a way forward. They are answered by stalwarts who give reassurance and sympathy and good advice. The Angels is most definitely a place to get useful advice. It's sad that so many clearly need to be doing something about their lives, taking a big and irreversable step forward, but are in some way stuck. I was so lucky not to be stuck. I posted a reply on the Frustrations of being a TGirl thread, but although it read back fine to me, it probably won't be received too gladly. These women have to take things one step at a time. It must be offputting to hear from someone who has forged ahead and completed most of their transition - perhaps an impossible dream for some.

The very description 'T Girl' is something that never seemed to apply to me, and certainly doesn't now - disqualifying me from the entire social world of T Girls. I was too late to get excited about Sparkle, or a weekend girly get-together at Pink Punters. In 2009 I did try to attend a Christmas Lunch in Covent Garden, organised through The Angels, but I caught a cold and couldn't go. One year later, such a thing had much less appeal. That said, I'd be happy to dip into some of these events, to see what they might have been like. I'm thinking it would resemble a hen party - a chance to be loud and over the top. But could I do it with conviction? With authenticity? Or would I in fact be too 'finished' as a female to behave like a proper tranny? Or, in any case, too quiet and careful to fully 'let go' and rave it up in the way needed for these events? Let's face it, I'm a National Trust Girl, not a T Girl.

Yet I almost feel quite wistful at what I must have missed, the meetups, the company, the talk, the excitement of a long-awaited escape to a buzzing city, the frisson of public exposure in ultra-feminine clothes.

I can't have it.

But I have something else instead. Something of substance. And I'm not swapping.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Lonely spots: Hawker's Hut on the cliffs at Morwenstow

While on holiday recently, I revisited Hawker's Hut, which is tucked into the very high cliffs just west of the North Cornish village of Morwenstow. I was last here in 1995.

This part of North Cornwall is sparsely populated and open to the fierce winds and bad weather sweeping in from the Atlantic. You can easily tell that, because of the windswept look of the trees! Staunchly defying those winds, albeit slightly sheltered in a valley, is the parish church:


The Reverend Robert Stephen Hawker was the vicar here for much of the 19th century. He is best known for being a poet, for being much concerned for his parishioners' welfare, and for his opposition to the brutal local shipwreckers. Also for various eccentricities. I can easily believe that he had a singular character. He was well-educated, and yet buried himself for decades in this wild spot. He would have had a great deal of leisure for contemplation on the human condition. He was of course a very important local figure, commanding unquestioned respect. And yet his everyday clothing was very colourful, not at all the usual sombre black of an Anglican clergyman. 'Twas said that at times he dressed up as a mermaid; and once excommunicated his cat for mousing on a Sunday. Men whispered that in the cliff hut that he built from driftwood he would not only write poetry, but use cocaine to induce dreams. Proper facts include marrying a 41 year old woman when he was only 19, and after her death marrying again to a 20 year old girl at the age of 60. And on his deathbed, he converted to Roman Catholicism. I suppose that Anglican vicars then could be as unconventional as they pleased!

The Hut is on the very edge of the cliff, but below the level of the field above, and although the National Trust have marked the path down to the Hut with a small stone, its roof is turfed, and really there is nothing to reveal it from the field. In mist, or at night, you would certainly walk straight past it without realising. It's a hidden, private place. I thought at once, what a secluded spot for an assignation! And I wondered whether it was here that the Vicar of Morwenstow discreetly met the troubled souls of his parish. Or, for all one knows, where he offered counsel and other comforts to those women and girls who needed to make a personal and strictly confidential confession to him.

In winter the Hut would have made a chilly hermitage, facing the bleak sea:


Inside it was lined with wood, with an all-round bench to sit on, but somewhat cramped for space, so that if two were conversing they would be unavoidably intimate:


Those be my legs, m'dears. With the split door shut, there might have been draughts, but there would also have been a high degree of privacy, bearing in mind that all would be dark within, and that in any case nobody would dare intrude on the Vicar's domain:


So if Parson Hawker was construing a dialogue by Xenophon, or composing his own poetry, or lost in a cocaine-induced haze, nobody would disturb him. I fancied that in the summer he would come to the Hut often to contemplate the sunset. And in the gales, he would come here to look out for ships in distress, and be ready to intervene if a wrecking gang were at work. He was a very compassionate man.

Twitter: the exit of @lucymelford

I've pulled the plug on Twitter already.

No sooner had I got up and running, than a virus hit my PC. F-Secure spotted it and dealt with it, but really this was too much of a coincidence. I think the sudden influx of new connections must have made me vulnerable, and I'm not minded to take any risks. So Twitter has had to go. No ifs and buts. Out the door.

It won't be missed. It was only going to be another way, an informal way, of tapping into what's happening. It was not my New Voice, nor how I like to keep in touch with anybody, nor a method of promoting myself.  

So anyone who thought that my blog was about to be run down can now breathe a big sigh of relief, or irritation, as the case may be!

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

More artwork!

While in North Devon recently I visited the West Gallery (http://www.westgallery.co.uk/) at West Putford. The owner, Belinda Walker, had emailed me some months previously, suggesting that I drop in if in the area, and I wasn't one to overlook a nudging like that. The gallery is opposite the entrance to The Gnome Reserve, an unconnected local attraction (for gnomes, presumably). Considering the very rural location, it's actually a surprise to find two tourist-orientated places cheek by jowl, but there you are. Belinda remembered me as 'the lady with the blog'. It was lunchtime on a Sunday. I had the place to myself. It was all set up for a Private View that very evening, and Belinda pressed me to attend if I could manage it. Of course I could.

The Gallery showcases attractive work by Devon artists of all kinds. So there were paintings, prints, pots, glassware, creations in wood, textiles, jewellery, the whole gamut, all nicely set out on walls and tables.


I quickly identified two things that I liked very much. One was a one-off coral necklace in bright red by Izabela Gorska-Kwak (aka Isabelle Jewellery (http://www.isabelle-jewellery.co.uk/), which I long lingered over. I eventually decided, after asking Belinda whether I could try it on, that it didn't work for me. The red was so intense that only someone with lustrous dark hair and a dusky complexion could get away with it. But it was nevertheless a beautiful creation. I didn't walk away empty-handed, though. Another piece had caught my attention: a fabulous glass bowl by Gregg Anston-Race (http://www.craftfusion.co.uk/). It cost £90. Three days' spending money. I thought about it. But it was so nice that I just had to buy it. Here it is, at home:


The first three are daylight shots. The last, the golden one, is how the centre of the bowl looks in the dark when lit up by a nearby lamp. What rich colours! And of course it echoes the coloration of the main painting in my lounge at home, 'A Field of Dreams' by Jo Pryor (http://www.jopryor.net/). Belinda explained that Gregg melts copper wire (and presumably certain pigments) into a thick square glass plate, and then heats the piece up further to whatever temperature will produce the colours he intends. Finally, the plate is turned into a bowl by another heating over a mould that allows it to sag in the middle. It is a repeatable process, so the bowl I bought isn't actually a one-off. But there must be small differences between pieces, in how the copper wire is bent and twisted, and how the pigments are splattered on. The glass itself has frosty patterns in it, so even the edges are interesting.

After a latish lunch at The Bush Inn at Morwenstow - a very pleasant Sunday roast - I walked the nearby cliffs to Hawker's Hut and back (more on that in another post), and then meandered back to West Putford for the Private View. This was surprisingly well-attended, bearing in mind that the light was fading, the weather had deteriorated, and the locate was so remote and out-in-the-country. I had my free glass of wine and mingled. I wasn't there for too long, but I spoke with Izabela Gorska-Kwak (who had made the red coral necklace) and Gill Jones (http://www.gilljonesart.com/), who had produced  intriguing paintings that contained ghostly nude studies of her husband. As I drove away, I thought that all these artists had to work pretty hard at their craft and at promoting themselves. And there was a lot of travel. Izabela for example had to go all the way back to Crediton that evening (not so far from Exeter). It was now raining. I didn't fancy her journey in the dark.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Twitter: the debut of @lucymelford

I was searching for information on a topic, and it occurred to me that Twitter might feed me with lots of references to look into. So yesterday I set myself up on this particular social networking site. And today I filled out my profile with a photo of myself (taken very recently on a sunny and breezy day on Exmoor)...


....and a brief personal description: Retired and divorced, I like art, history, photography, writing, good food, conversation, and driving Fiona my Volvo XC60. Now that's a pretty good tweet in itself - my present life summarised in eighteen words! I'm rarely so succinct. Perhaps Twitter will train me to be much less verbose?

I already delve into the BBC News website, and other sites that are basically a collection of news articles updated daily or oftener. Signing up to Twitter may give me personal commentary on breaking situations and happening events: a different, less official type of news service. That's how I see it. I don't see myself originating or contributing much, unless I write an exceptional post that I feel needs some publicity, or I stumble upon something important that I feel other people really ought to know about.

But you can't tell how it will go. Plenty of people clearly find that Twitter is a wonderful outlet, a way of publicising their daily life or passing thoughts to the world at large. Or to pass on little bits of wisdom, their own, or something pithy copied from elsewhere. But you can throw yellow paint all over me if I ever tweet nonsense such as I've just seen the Loch Ness Monster, and here's a video clip to prove it, taken with my phone!

You can of course use Twitter to 'keep in touch', although it's with the entire unfiltered world, and not confined to 'friends' in the Facebook way. You can send Direct Messages to one individual only, if they too are on Twitter. But then, wouldn't an ordinary text or email be easier? (Ah, I see that this is a way of sending a personal message to somebody who hasn't given you their mobile phone number or email address...)

From the beginning, Twitter has been the domain of those who lead the pack with witty sayings and lifestyle remarks. I'm not however going to 'follow' the likes of Robbie Williams or Nigella Lawson. And I can't imagine anyone 'following' me, unless I develop a talent for Yoda-like philosophy.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Time for another diet!

I wouldn't say I am stuffing myself with food, nor eating the wrong things. There are no sweets or biscuits in the house. But my weight (and plumpness) continues to increase bit by bit. I've decided to take myself in hand, and follow the regime I used in January and February 2011, in the run-up to my surgery. I kept exact details of every meal, every drink, the quantities consumed and the calorific value. I still have those daily notes. That regime - which wasn't a starvation diet, impossible to sustain, but a measured, cut-down version of my ordinary food intake - allowed me to lose 10kg in less than two months. I could still enjoy attractive meals made from fresh, high-quality ingredients. They were just smaller, and more carefully thought out. Without so many snacks. I was glad to increase my food intake during the post-op convalescence - cooking was then my main 'activity', and eating was my main pleasure - but pre-op the daily discipline, against a target, was a good challenge and one I'm happy to face again. And this time, not on surgeon's instructions, but because I want to be more attractive. The butterball look isn't me.

Initially my target is to get back to 90kg. Then to 85kg. Then to 80kg, where I'll stop. 80kg is realistic: I will still be nicely rounded, but noticeably slimmer.

Why do I care about being attractive, if I keep on declaring that I want to stay free and independent? It's about self-respect. And it's wanting clothes to fit me properly. And it's wanting good health as I get older. Weight will wear out my joints. I don't want to be dismissed as an overweight lump with a fat face and bad knees.

Taking more exercise would help a lot. Two years ago I had a weekly badminton thrash, but I've lost my inclination for that, quite apart from the cost. I greatly enjoy walking, but Sussex is short on wild and remote countryside and coast, and I've done all the easily-accessible South Downs bits to death. But of course, that's no excuse. I've got all the right equipment - boots, bad-weather wear, the lot - and will have to get out and do the miles. At least it will cost nothing except the fuel to get to the car park and back. I made a start while on holiday in Devon, walking part of the Tarka Trail in the rain. There'll be a post on that shortly, once I've fully processed my holiday photos. (Washing and ironing have had to come first!)

Monday, 8 October 2012

Jimmy Savile

What do we make of the revelations seeping out that Jimmy Savile was a bit too keen on young girls?

I have to say that I am sorry to hear it. I always thought he was a bit unusual, one of a kind, perhaps a bit eccentric with his blond hair and funny outfits, and his big cigar, and his rings, and his catch phrases, but he was cheerful and made things happen, and he seemed very good with children. I often wondered why we never heard about what he did in his private life, but then it was easy to assume that he didn't have one, no wife or sweetheart, and that he lived the frantic life of a Top of the Pops presenter all the time. I gathered that he loved his mum, had a brother, did worthy things for charities, and owned a Rolls Royce. It all seemed fair enough. He seemed to become a national treasure with Jim'll Fix It. I was too old to ever appear on that - and of course even he couldn't arrange what I really wanted for myself.

I can't say I was ever strongly pro-Jimmy Savile, but I did think he was somebody who had made a career supporting good ideas and good causes. And when he told us it was the Age of the Train, he made British Rail seem very cool and trendy.

And now we are hearing about another side to this man. And it will undo all the good he did.

He won't be the only one. I'm waiting daily for someone else to be named and shamed. Perhaps someone still alive. Perhaps someone still working for the BBC. I can think of several other people on TV in Jimmy Savile's heyday who I most definitely suspected of Wandering Hand Syndrome, and not just BBC people either. Men who groped women were in every workplace. Maybe they still are. I mean, what has changed? Do women really get vastly more respect now than they used to?

When I started work in 1970 I quickly noticed that broadly speaking there were three kinds of men. There was the quiet, steady sort who got on with their work and were courteous towards all women. Then there were the drunks, who were often very pleasant when sober, and were frequently defended, but after a liquid lunch they were red-faced and useless at the job, and might as well have gone home for all the good they did. Sometimes these men got rather too maudlin, too inclined to seek kisses and other kinds of sympathy. Then there were the outright womanisers. At first, I thought they were sophisticated and charming. They were certainly engaging talkers. Then I saw that they preyed on the youngest of the office girls, and also some of the older ones who should have known better. I saw that they liked to place their hands on knees and thighs, casually, in the pub mainly, but often at the desk too.

I think that, morally speaking, office life deteriorated during the 1970s, so that by 1980 it was nothing to see very drunken behaviour on Fridays. And indeed any other day, when some kind of celebration was in order. I speak first-hand of the old Inland Revenue. Most events requiring the consumption of immense quantities of alcohol arose from the various stages in an Inspector's training. Such as being selected for the Final Course, or passing the terrifying exams further down the line (quite an intellectual feat, I assure you), or finally getting promotion, or being transferred to another office. Each office, especially in London or any big city, had a number of people going through this lengthy and draining process. I was one of them. For the rest of the staff it was essentially a day off in the pub. When I left Southampton 2 office in 1978, with promotion and a transfer to Wimbledon office to look forward to, the entire office came to the pub, everyone, and I bought the most expensive round of my life. Easily 35 to 40 people. It seemed like a £200 round in today's money.

Once in London, I noticed that not only was hard drinking expected of you: sexually explicit behaviour was also part of the culture. The work got done in an atmosphere charged with sexual tension, partly fuelled by the recent recruitment of many pretty girls out of school. They giggled and messed around, some of them with a very good idea of the effect they were having. The young men were totally distracted. Older men ogled lewdly. And of course come Christmastime all kinds of things went on, from the top down. In 1980, my boss, the District Inspector, invited all the girls he liked to come into his office during the afternoon Office Party on Christmas Eve, one by one, and sit on his knee. Reportedly he kissed them all. I couldn't see what pleasure they could have had from a boozy middle-aged man with cigar-breath, but then I wasn't one of those young girls. He must have intrigued them with his wit and wisdom. I kept aloof. I certainly didn't interfere. Nor did any of the older women in the office. We all pretended it wasn't really happening. And it wasn't just the boss. Each Inspector had their own room, usually private and lockable. Who knows what might be going on inside. In another office, in the early 1980s, I had it from the Management Inspector there - an openly gay man, incidentally, with a mischievous sense of humour - that one Christmas he'd blundered into an unlocked Inspector's room to find the man with his trousers down, rogering a lady sprawled over his desk. He gave her a child. I believed this was a true story. Certainly there were women in that office who behaved as if they wanted to be taken.

I'm not making excuses for the misbehaviour of some men high up in the workplace pyramid. I'm simply saying that from what I saw, or heard about, sex was part of the ordinary office culture during the 1970s and 1980s. It went with the heavy drinking. And although many women in the office stood well away from all this bad behaviour, there were some women who liked to have a drink with the boys, and liked to behave as if they could be seduced. This made life very difficult for the rest. If the BBC was anything like the Inland Revenue, then it would have been normal for a man so inclined to indiscriminately 'chat up' anyone he pleased, and to be very free with his hands. Again, I stress that I did not approve then, and certainly don't approve in retrospect, but I did let it happen, and the way these things were tolerated made it hard to stop. Jimmy Savile would have been misbehaving in this kind of atmosphere.

After 1990, the Revenue got much more serious about getting the job done, much more professional in its approach, and a lot more emphasis was placed on what was proper behaviour. This coincided with initiatives to bridge cultural differences within the Department, and remove barriers to advancement. The introduction of performance-related pay was another major factor in eliminating maverick behaviour. By 2000 the hard drinking (and the abuses associated with it) had all but vanished, at least in my office in Croydon. Perhaps it was so in other workplaces too, but I can't speak for the BBC.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Inspired by fifteen women at a workshop

I was very pleased with myself today - I might almost say proud of myself. I spent six hours cheek-by-jowl with fifteen other women and my bona fides were never once challenged. I call that some achievement!

I was attending an Appledore Book Festival event. The one-day Workshop on Women's Commercial Fiction lead by Veronica Henry, the scriptwriter and author. From 10.30am to 4.30pm, with a break for lunch at the Church Hall where there was a kind of restaurant, and most of us could sit together. So I, Lucy Melford, no more than a fairly prolific blogger thus far, had to face not only one successful author (Veronica) but several other authors. Women who had written cookery books and police fiction and now wanted to try their hand at a bestseller aimed at women, a book that the likes of Tesco might have on display and aim to sell by the thousand. Or perhaps something rather deeper. I would say that half the women present had had something published, or had at least brought their creation to the original draft stage. The rest had tried writing in some form or other. My own motive was a wish to extend my writing skills to books that might be marketable. I wanted to do more than simply churn out blog posts for the rest of my life.

Veronica proved to be a witty and entertaining teacher. We commenced by discussing the best approaches to writing a book that women would buy and enjoy. The financial expectation if you could get a publisher interested, including pitfalls where contracts were concerned. The importance of making early contact with a suitable agent that you could get on with. The importance of treating it all as a business, committing proper time and effort to it, and setting realistic word-production targets - because if a publisher took you on, a book each year might be looked for. How you should expect three years to pass before publication, occupied by getting to the first draft inside the first six months, then the eventual delivery of the finished book one year prior to launch. How you should not be discouraged by the meagreness (or outright lack) of royalty income after publication. About cover designs, and how the demands of the eventual retailer will dictate what the book looks like. (Fortunately there is currently a move away from the traditional pink and fluffy chic lit appearance towards something darker and more photographic, that suggests moods and strong emotions, and 'something to get your teeth into') How, three months before publication, the selling machine gets going, driven by the publisher, and how you will be expected to cooperate, taking every opportunity arranged for you - or by yourself - to promote your forthcoming book, such as interviews for women's magazines, perhaps (if fortunate) a Sunday paper review, or (if extraordinarily lucky) the chance to talk about it on a popular morning or afternoon TV chat show. And the ever-present problems of keeping family and other distractions under some kind of control.

Then Veronica took us through the techniques for 'building up a book', dealing with the timescale the book covered (a weekend, a month, or what); whether the action would proceed in a linear fashion, or include flashbacks, or even begin at the end and then explain how the protagonists got where they were; whether to write in the third person, or the first, or as some 'omniscient being' would see the action; whether to keep things simple and use a straightforward past tense, or try the present tense; what style to adopt - will the tone be light or dark, whether to use humour, sexy incidents, or 'bad' language for effect or realism, or whether to narrate the action through devices such as the letters, emails, or diary entries written by the characters - but above all aiming for consistency; and the unwisdom of copying someone else's style. After this she analysed how she constructed her recent book 'The Long Weekend' - the setting (a seaside hotel); the story (the main plot and the subplots, and how these were found by constant observation of real incidents); the characters and what to call them, what they are like and why we the readers will care about what happens to them; the pressures they will be subject to; how they will change. Never forgetting that this, and the other books we were talking about, were in the realm of romantic fiction, and that the reader will want to see an intriguing set of characters, a kick-start event, complications, a crisis, and finally a satisfying resolution.

Veronica gave us ten questions to ask ourselves about the characters and what they do or suffer, which need to be addessed in order to make the book compelling. And then ten 'top tips' about the nuts and bolts of starting and finishing the book, and giving it a title. Finally, she discussed finding an agent.

There wasn't time to put pen to paper in some creatiive effort - although just in case I had resurrected big-businessmen Ralph and Derek, and best friend Sue, from my dreams (see the post about that), grafting on a new character, Greg, my former husband in the story. I had converted the dream into the beginnings of a plot about a 40 year old childless woman of untapped resources named Brenda (i.e.myself as the first-person narrator) who recovers from Greg's desertion and the subsequent divorce to live a settled and independent life. But Sue's association with Ralph drags Brenda into a whirlpool of never-before-experienced emotion, as she finds herself pursued relentlessly by both Ralph and Derek, neither of whom she wants. The story gets tangled and dark before the clouds clear, all concerned learning a lesson about life, and discovering something surprising about themselves. I haven't yet decided whether anyone will die or suffer some grievous misfortune. I might keep it light and playful. Or I might not. We shall see. One thing: Brenda will emerge from this maelstrom stronger and more confident. As indeed I did from today's workshop. I thanked Veronica for giving me inspiration. This has set something in motion.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Meeting Martin Bell

The weather down in North Devon has turned wet and windy, but I am not in the least dismayed, because at Appledore, that quaint seafaring town just north of Bideford, a Book Festival is going on. There are book-orientated events every day, all through the day and into the evening, at various venues around the town. This afternoon I bought tickets for five of them:

Monday 1st October at 8.00pm: Martin Bell about the revised edition of his book 'In Harm's Way' and the ongoing consequences of the Balkan conflict.

Tuesday 2nd October at 2.00pm: Elizabeth Buchan about her book 'Daughters',exploring the mother-daughter and mother- stepdaughter relationships.

Wednesday 3rd October from 10.30am to 4.00pm: Veronica Henry leading a Women's Commercial Fiction Workshop.

Thursday 4th October at 11.00am: Professor Helen Taylor on how and why do women read books, exploring women's special relationship to reading, and how, for many women, it is a lifeline.

Thursday 4th October at 6.00pm: Lesley-Ann Jones about her books 'Freddie Mercury: The Definitive Biography' and 'Ride A White Swan: The Lives and Death of Marc Bolan'.

Martin Bell is of course the war reporter turned Independent Member of Parliament, the 'Man in the White Suit'. I saw him tonight. So did a lot of other people. He not only spoke of how the Balkan Conflict of the 1990s came to be, but how it has had ongoing effects on other wars; how it was the last war to be reported in the old way, by correspondents in flack jackets at the front line, as opposed to people tethered to a satellite dish; and how younger politicians from Tony Blair onwards have lacked combat experience, and have therefore had a false belief in the effectiveness of overwhelming military force. He also gave us some racy anedotes and some amusing poetry somewhat in the style of Ogden Nash. Altogether an entertaining hour with very serious underpinnings. As he came away from the podium I had a few words with him and he let me take a close-up shot:


He also signed a copy of his book for me: 'To Lucy Melford from Martin Bell'. I was thrilled!

I'm now especially looking forward to the workshop on Wednesday. When I booked my ticket, I learned that thirteen other people were going to be there, presumably all women. I'm interested in the possibility of writing in ways other than just my blog. I may actually cite my blog as part of my writing credentials. 715-odd posts in three and a half years, and maybe 450,000 words (I must work out exactly how many!), surely indicate a certain love of writing. And with currently 7,000 pageviews a month - even though it's a non-cult blog - I must be getting some aspects of the craft right. I don't at the moment write fiction, nor aim my stuff specifically at women, but I'd certainly like to know more about that type of writing.

It's possibly an unusual way to spend a holiday. But why not? At the very least, I'm meeting real writers, and other experts in fields connected with writing. And making friends with the unpaid ladies and gentlemen who volunteer their time to act as stewards and catering staff and ticket sellers for this Festival.