Friday, 23 November 2012

War Picture Library

One of the jibes thrust at me early in my transition was that 'in every way' I thought like a man and had the habits and interests of a man - and 'therefore' I was deluding myself if I thought that I had a woman's brain, or at least a woman's consciousness.

I was on my own against my partner and both parents, with nobody else in my daily life. The pressure heaped on me was immense. It would have been so easy to cave in, to meekly agree that I was mistaken, that they were right; to accept the rewards that would be given to the prodigal son, returning into the family fold. I had only to acquiescence to the will of those who said they loved me. Just as I'd been doing all my life.

The persons saying such things were of course in denial, and desperate to persuade me that I had turned up a blind alley - that I was simply experiencing 'what all middle aged men go through' - the classic 'mid-life crisis'. And that I'd snap out of it soon enough. Meanwhile, would I please desist, and stop this distressing 'I know I'm a woman' nonsense?

But I could not. Not this time. I knew what I felt, and they didn't know, and that was that. Thus commenced the overturning of my settled existence, and my expulsion from Eden.

But that thrust, that I thought like a man and therefore (whatever I actually felt) must have a male mind, bothered me. I did rationalise it eventually. The male thinking was the result of decades of conditioning. I'd been brought up to believe that I was a boy.

The way things were in the 1950s, the worlds of little girls and little boys diverged early, and were sharply defined. Girls played in this way; were encouraged to do this, and not that; they were moulded into junior versions of their mothers, a trend reinforced if there was an elder sister. Boys played and behaved in quite other ways. What a girl should look like and be, and what a boy should look like and be, were quite different things, and the stereotypes were enforced by parents and adult neighbours and teachers and really anyone in authority that the child might meet, such as the family doctor. In particular the stereotypes were enforced by other children: nobody is more alert for difference than a child. Conform or suffer. There was absolutely no escape from this. If a child felt they were different in any way, and said so, they risked a good slapping or worse.

It was a world in which there were (for instance) no left-handed kids. They were either forced to be right-handed, or, if bright, instantly realised for themselves that they must defy their natures and try to be right-handed like the rest. So their handwriting (with scratchy nibbed pens) was poor, and they got belted for that instead. Looking back, there must have been half-a-dozen kids in every class who had an issue of some sort or another, but they would have sat on it. Survival demanded that they had to. Of course some could not manage it all the time, and got punished. I knew I was a misfit too, but I succeeded in avoiding the wrath of teacher and child alike. I can't imagine how it would have been possible to announce that I hated being a boy.

And, brainwashed into believing that I was one, I did my unwilling best to embrace what boys did. This included reading boys' comics. I liked The Eagle, but it was expensive and a rare treat. My usual comic was The Beano. But it didn't grip me for long. By the time I was ten I'd moved on to other fare. It was an odd mixture: James Bond, travel books, history books, and for a while the little booklets of the War Picture Library. They were cheap enough for me to buy an occasional one with my pocket money. I read them until I was thirteen or so.

What was the appeal of these war stories? I can only remember a few. In no particular order, here they are:

Baptism of Fire
This was about a British soldier of Greek origins and puny physique, who finds himself defending a vital mountain pass on Crete against vast numbers of invading German paratroopers. He is mortally afraid, but puts up an absolutely heroic single-handed resistance, defending his position against fantastically superior odds until his ammunition runs out. Then he dies when his position is overrun. The Germans are amazed, and honour him in death. So do the invisible ghosts of ancient Greeks who witness his brave stand, and salute him for defending Greece in her travail.

On the subject of redemption, there is the story about an infantry officer who makes a mistake that costs the lives of his men. By way of self-punishment, he voluntarily resigns his commision and tries to become a humble private. But he finds that this act is scorned by officers, NCOs and fellow-privates alike. Then there is an enemy attack, and a crisis develops. The British positions are in grave danger of being overrun. His natural qualities reassert themselves, and he tries to organise a coherent defence. But, being a mere private, he has no authority, and he is ignored. So he strips a dead major of his jacket and cap, and now, apparently a senior officer, with the right badges and red tabs, men will obey him. He saves the day with adroit commands and inspiring leadership. Afterwards he faces a court martial for impersonating an officer, but is justly acquitted.

Rogue Lancaster
This is about a squadron of Lancaster bombers who run the gauntlet of German anti-aircraft defences at night, on their way to bomb factories and other plant that must be knocked out. Unknown to them, the Luftwaffe have captured an intact Lancaster, and with this they tag behind the other planes until the anti-aircraft fire begins, when the Germans in the fake Lancaster train all guns onto the other aircraft round them, and shoot them down. On this first occasion, it's all put down to well-aimed anti-aircraft fire from the ground defences. Then it happens again, and again. The crews get jittery. There is talk of a phantom bomber from Hell that is seeking victims. I forget how, but eventually the Germans are rumbled and get shot down themselves.

Then there is story set late in the war, presumably in the winter of 1944, in which a British anti-tank gun battalion digs in to repulse German tanks ordered to make one last desperate push. It's a classic tale of two intelligent commanders who have encountered each other before. They must, as a matter of duty, slug it out, but they respect each other and see the pointlessness of it all. The German commander, skilfully outgunned, eventually makes an honourable surrender, ending the destruction.

One story that I especially liked involved three generals and a British corporal, marooned by snow in an Italian mountain farmhouse. The generals are American, Italian, and German. The German and Italian generals are of course prisoners under escort to HQ. They all agree to call a truce for the duration of their stay, which may last a couple of days. The local roads are impassable and they are stuck there. The British Tommy is something of a cook, and he forages around the farmhouse for something to eat. Meanwhile, the three generals start to bicker. Recriminations are made; personal and regimental honour is impugned; insults fly; and the next thing you know, they are going to settle the matter by playing Russian Roulette - taking their turn to put a revolver loaded with just one bullet to their head, as a demonstration of bravery. Five chances of a blank to one with a bullet. The monocled German general, more than any of them, feels he must defend the reputation of the Wehrmacht, but he thinks it is a stupid way to end a brilliant career. In the nick of time, the British Tommy reappears, with three hot meals and some chianti. He has found a couple of scrawny chickens and has cobbled together three variations on a basic chicken dinner. But to the generals, used to army rations for so long, it seems that the clever Britisher has created for each their national dish. It distracts them from the Russian Roulette, and all is soon good cheer. They become very mellow. Next morning, American army jeeps arrive, and reality returns. But all are still alive, and they gratefully salute the cook.

Finally two odd stories involving the supernatural. One is set in Viking times, and is about a fierce berserker plagued with strange dreams that feature invincible one-horned monsters. These are in fact German tanks spearheading the invasion of Norway in 1940, and his dream is a frightening premonition. The other story is set in Egypt. A British army officer accidentally disturbs an ancient tomb, and becomes haunted by the angered occupant - Curse of the Mummy stuff. There is one scene where he wakes up from a nightmare in which he has been wound tightly in a mummy's wrappings and sealed in a tomb. In fact he is simply stuck in a sleeping bag and can't find the zip. But it gets worse...

Well, there you are. These are the stories that I can still recall after fifty years, so they made a strong impression on me. I can't see what the common theme is, but all of them are oddball stories that somehow had a message for me.

There was another kind of war story that fascinated me in my early teens: life in prisoner-of-war camps. The grammar school library had some books on this. Heroics in Colditz, that sort of thing. But I also found one book that discussed life in more ordinary camps. The author was unusually frank. He described (for instance) what prisoners did for sex. And he described a curious type of person who would eagerly dress up for the women's parts in the shows and entertainments that the prisoners would organise for themselves. Not only would people like this dress up, but mentally they would seem to become women, as a full-time thing. They were a fascinating study. He wondered what became of them after release in 1945, because by then they would certainly not be able to go back to any kind of ordinary life. I wondered too. There was no name for them when the book was published. Nor when I was reading about them in 1966 or thereabouts. I have more than once wondered what might have happened to me if the author had been able to use the word 'transsexual', and there had been some way of researching for myself what this meant as a clinical condition.


  1. What about the war going on inside your brain? One thing I have to ask is this, although you say much influence on your behaviour was due to nurture you admit to reading the stuff you talk about here yet that wasn't demanded of you. I cannot remember any of the girls I knew who were into war stories I certainly wasn't into anything 'boyish'. Why do you suppose that was?
    Shirley Anne x

  2. These war stories were interesting because of the plots, which involved unconventional twists and characters who found their true role. There was certainly a strong 'prisoner' theme. Later on I got facinated with books and novels that discussed life 'under cover'. The problems of secret agents and resistence fighters, people on the run, and John Wyndham's science fiction story 'The Chrysalids', about children in a repressive post-apocalyptic future where minor mutations are treated as abominations, all fired my imagination. In adult life I read books about how ordinary people coped in occupied countries, and how they escaped detection.

    Agreed, this was all 'boy's stuff', if you take a conventional viewpoint. But I see it now as an escape into the kinds of fact and fantasy that a youngster with a secret inner life might be hungry for. I thought myself odd and was therefore very careful not to take risks. So asking for a doll at Christmas was dangerous.

    In fact, I didn't yearn to play with dolls. It would never have been my thing, because toys in general weren't my thing. And I rather believe that if girly things had actually been encouraged, I would have perversely found alternatives. I was a secret rebel.


  3. I read the same "trash mags" our teachers would call them when at boarding school. Sven Hassel was also very popular. The Battle/Action weekly then gave way to the science fiction of 2000AD, finally to be replaced by Custom Car and Street Machine. I am sure I still have copies of each somewhere.

  4. I dont understand how reading while young has anything to do with being Ts Tg Tv, but I find it all intresting, In Shirley Anne's comment, Wasn't into anything Boyish, Did she become a electrician, after Transition, hope this does not offend, I know there are lots of women in the Trades, What did they read, Screw fix and Wicks Catalogues, I bet

    1. Good question 'Anonymous' and it deserves an answer. The girl who lived across the road from me became an electrical engineer. She was two years my elder. Many women in those days began to involve themselves in traditional male occupations but that didn't mean they were giving up on being feminine. Most of the world's aggression is brought about by the male of the species, it's down to testosterone, it's a natural thing that needs nurture to overcome it and an attitude of heart change, often difficult for many men. women on the other hand tend to be less aggressive and that is probably due to estrogen's influence, it is also a natural thing. As a child we are not really influenced by hormones we are influenced by nurture but nurture cannot eradicate a person's gender dysphoria or blind them to what they know to be the truth regarding their gender. I do not profess to know all the answers but I do think that wanting to read material involving acts of aggression such as war comics, as most boys do is not a feminine trait and I was referring to what children read and not what adults read. I take Lucy's point that adult war stories about the human struggle during war are a different thing.

      Shirley Anne x

  5. I think the last two comments confirm that when 'in role' - in this case, trying to be a boy - you do what other boys do, and may well find it interesting. That's not to deny that many 'boys' were fascinated by what the girls were into. I imagine it helped if there were natal girls in the family, sisters say, and a sympathetic mother. Unfortunately I didn't have that.

    Considering the long history of women who have wanted to do 'male' jobs like being a soldier, I'd guess that cross-gender interests have always existed, but weren't encouraged until quite recently. Parents conscious of 'what everyone else might think' would be paranoid about their children seeming 'normal'. My parents certainly were, all their lives.



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