Thursday, 31 January 2013

Hares, bunnies, wild flowers and wild cats

A change of plan last weekend took me to Arundel in West Sussex, and in particular to Kim's Bookshop, a three-story secondhand bookseller. Upstairs in the children's department I came across two little books that I hadn't seen since my childhood. I was given both as a birthday gift when I was six or seven. They were The Ladybird Book of British Wild Flowers and The Ladybird Book of British Wild Animals. I think my original copies had dust jackets; and I'm guessing that these editions, which lacked them, were printed sometime in the 1960s, or during 1970 at the latest. That must be so because the cost of each book when sold was 2/6, that's 'two and six', or two shillings and sixpence, a price that could only have applied before Britain's currency went decimal in February 1971. Sobering to think that 2/6, or in decimal currency £0.125, could once have bought you a hardback book, albeit a slim one. But we are talking about forty-four years ago at the very least. Both books were in good condition, and I didn't hesitate. I paid £4.00 for the two of them.

I felt like I had rediscovered two old friends. You must imagine me at the age of six or seven, an avid book reader, and absolutely fascinated by the illustrations, which I loved. I also had a larger book with some full-colour photographs in it, that Mum had sent off for, called The Weetabix Wonder Book of Birds:

I do wonder what happened to these three books. I'm guessing that they all became tatty from use, fell to bits, and got thrown out a long time before work took me to London in 1978. I don't remember taking them with me. They might well have been binned, along with almost all my school work, in a pre-moving purge. I was so much less sentimental then. Nowadays I have so little left from my childhood that all of it is treasured.

As it was, I was delighted to have even these later copies of the two Ladybird books. I've been looking through them since last weekend, again and again and again. Come with me through each, and share my favourite pages. First, the British Wild Flowers book:

Brian Vezey-Fitzgerald (1900-1981) was a well-known naturalist and country writer, and he wrote the text of this Ladybird book, which was first published in 1957 when I was five and Mr Vezey-Fitzgerald was fifty-seven. I have another of his books, published in 1948, called It's My Delight. That one is for grown-ups, and is all about poaching, with wonderful woodcut prints of hares, pheasants and other eatable game. (Perhaps I should do a post on this other book, which is so evocative of country characters and a rural way of life long vanished)

The illustrations in the Ladybird book were a joint effort, the backgrounds being painted by Rowland Hilder (1905-1993), a famous landscape artist, while the flowers in the foreground were the work of his wife Edith (1904-1992), a famous nature painter in her own right, who loved the natural flowers of the countryside. I imagine she really enjoyed this commission.

The first picture below shows a pressed flower that was still between the pages. What a bonus!

As I child I lived on the Glamorgan coast at Barry. The South Wales countryside wasn't really far away, but for a little person with no money for buses, and no bike, it seemed inaccessible. So I lived in a world of books.

Now the British Wild Animals book:

This time the text was written by George Cansdale (1909-1993) who was a zoologist and a regular TV presenter from the 1950s onward. The illustrations were by Roland Green (1890-1972), who was primarily a bird painter, famous for drawing from life. But as you will see, he was pretty good at eathbound animals as well! The poor chap became stone deaf from flu when he was about thirty, but it didn't affect his abilty to draw and paint. This Ladybird book was published in 1958, when I was six, and since I had both books at the same time, this is why I think I must have been at least six when I first read them.

That last picture of the Wild Cat scared me a bit, but set off an intense wish to see Scotland that I didn't satisfy until 2002 - unless you count the A Level Geography Field Trip to the Isle of Arran in Easter 1969, which I didn't enjoy much. (Another post looms)

Ladybird books always had a good reputation. Certainly, they engaged nationally-known writers and artists for their production, and the paper inside was almost of banknote crispness. A bit different from most children's annuals, although the Rupert Bear annuals were always superior. Those that I might have had when young are getting rare. I'm thinking of one in particular from 1958, 1959 or 1960 that I'd now like to track down. It might cost me £30 upwards, if in anything like reasonable condition.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Free speech with responsibility 3

One person's impassioned response to my post yesterday on newspaper cartoon portrayals in the British press shows how careful one must be not to offend, even when the post itself isn't directed at the person or group offended. It has only to contain a word or phrase or notion that might be picked up. My post did; and it was picked up. Whether I was a worthy target for attention is another matter: but there were the offensive words, and there was the rebuke. I acknowledge the justice of the rebuke, and apologise to all who read what I said and felt irritated, even if they didn't feel strongly enough to comment.

I suppose my post was a good example of how not to write. In which case, it can serve as a lesson in the kinds of mistakes one can make when writing on a public platform. I will take greater care in the future.

As for the post itself, I wanted to say that historical characterisations of a set of people (for instance, 'the English' as no-nonsense John Bull types, or 'the Americans' as go-getting Uncle Sam lookalikes, with whatever else these hoary mental images conjure up) are usually nonsense and outmoded, but if they are well-planted in a nation's subconscious then the political cartoonist can draw upon them to make his point. And that in the case of trans people, there is no such historical background, no unmistakable stock image, too much of a diverse identity, and this makes the cartoonist's job very difficult.

It was a curious matter that interested me, considering how it has been the habit of the British press to sensationalise trans people in any way they can. A habit that now seems to be resurgent, despite the Leveson report that included shocking examples of privacy-invasion and insensitivity where trans people are concerned. If there can be a regular outpouring of words and photographs prejudicial to trans people in national newspaper articles, then why are there no cartoons as well?

On that resurgence aspect, I heard a warning yesterday that a TV company is currently targeting known British trans people for a daytime confession show, and that one should be very careful if approached.

Indeed yes: why would one wish for this kind of public exposure? It would involve on-screen manipulation, confrontation, probing questions of a highly personal nature, embarrassment, and no reward for the individual concerned except a certain kind of publicity. No thanks.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Newspaper cartoons: are we too hard to draw?

Now it's Rupert Murdoch's Sunday Times in the news, for publishing a cartoon by Gerald Scarfe that shows the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu building a wall with the blood and living bodies of Palistinians, complete with the caption 'Israeli elections. Will cementing peace continue?' Here it is:

It's apparently a robust political comment on Israeli/Jewish attitudes to a resident underclass, and the type of policy that will win an election.

I have to say that for me it conjures up images of Jews and other people put to work in Nazi death camps from 1933 to 1945. The Nazi regime cared nothing for the welfare of its internees, and people who were not immediately done to death were forced to work on starvation rations till they dropped, Jews and Russians most of all. The Nazi war building programmes (such as the ever-expanding detention camps; military bunkers, towers and underground installations; and massive bombproof harbour works) all needed a huge amount of expendable labour, and there are tales of abused and possibly suicidal prisoners falling into the concrete as it was poured, never rescued, and left to be entombed forever. This cartoon might well stir up memories of that. And it was put out on Holocaust Day, of all days. Was that deliberate, or just crass carelessness? Gerald Scarfe says he didn't know his cartoon would be published on such an anniversary.

I am not Jewish and the cartoon doesn't offend me personally, but I don't like it. There's something wrong and uncomfortable about it, it touches a nerve, and I can perfectly understand why anyone who was Jewish would take it as an attack on the Jewish people of Israel, and indeed all Jews worldwide who support Israel.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews is appalled and has lodged a complaint with the Press Complaints Commission (see Once again, the editorial lapse (or endemic laxity) that allowed the cartoon to go out is glossed over, and the usual bland words of 'major apology' offered up front as a sop to outraged sensibilities, and to give the PCC grounds to dismiss the complaint. All right till the next time then. Meanwhile I wouldn't think that the circulation of the Sunday Times will be in any way affected. Mr Scarfe might tone his cartoons down, but he probably won't.

I don't think that the UK media in general is anti-Jewish, but this is evidence that it still hasn't got a grip. Big errors and misjudgements are still possible. Why should this be? Don't they understand how people might react? Don't they care? It appears not.

This incident made me speculate on whether trans people have ever been made the subject of cartoons lampooning or attacking them in UK national newspapers. A half-hour search on Google didn't take me to any reported examples.

Apparently it hasn't been done. Perhaps there's a practical difficulty.

A cartoon needs to seize on some easily-recognisable feature that its victims must possess. In the case of Jews, that has for centuries been a massive hooked nose and other grotesque exaggerations. That's the convention. But the only Jewess I ever knew (around 1979) had a very pretty face and no hooked nose. It wasn't even large. She was clever and quick-witted, engaging, confident, a good talker, not at all religious (although I think she said her mother was), and very slightly olive-skinned. Those were the only things you might notice about her that made her a bit more exotic - and more interesting - than the average South London girl of the time. She was looking for a stepfather for her son, and faded from my life when she got her man. Anyway, so far as appearance and attitude went, she was not standard Jewish cartoon material. But it seems that enough Jews do resemble the historic standard image well enough to keep it going.  

Trans people however have no universal distinguishing features. We come in all shapes and sizes, and we are not a particular race. And we haven't centuries of traditional caricature behind us.

This makes it difficult for a cartoonist who wants to put a 'stock tranny' into a cartoon. There is nothing he can use like the traditional image of Father Christmas, or the British Bobby, or the British Civil Servant as a man in a bowler hat, dark jacket and shoes, pinstripe trousers, and carrying briefcase and rolled-up brolly. Yes, there is the panto dame, and the joke transvestite who is a hulking male figure in an old-fashioned dress, with wobbly high heels, wig and handbag, and a five o'clock shadow like Fred Flintstone. But then what about the young, switched-on and feisty trans people seen on TV in the last couple of years? Or the Ladyboys of Bangkok? Or any stunning Brazilian model come to that? Do you remember the quickly-withdrawn Paddy Power betting advert last year? I'm sure that anyone who saw it must have concluded that it's almost impossible to distinguish a trans woman who is well turned out from an ordinary woman who is equally well turned out. And what about the FTMs? They are quite numerous nowadays and getting more so all the time. And then what about all the people in between the extremes who have gender issues, but wouldn't say they were full-blown MTF or FTM?

The public has a confused array of different and incompatable trans images in its mind. None of them is automatic, unmistakable shorthand for 'transsexual'. We are too various. And I think that makes 'a typical transsexual person' very hard to draw. As hard as it would be to depict the 'typical person in the street'. And so, for now, we are spared a starring role in a newpaper cartoon.

Two final points.

First, there are of course other sorts of cartoon that show trans people. Search the web and you will discover for instance an entire genre of manga-type cartoons that show pre-op MTFs in sexual situations. I'm not talking about that kind of thing. I'm talking about the type of cartoon, probably political, that might appear in a national newspaper.

Second, I wonder whether we should mind too much about the publication of stock images - photographs mainly, not cartoons - that are miles away from our own personal appearance? If we don't look like that, then the image makes us invisible and anonymous when out in the street, because the public will be looking out for someone very different.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Tolkien and the runes in his books

Those enigmatic and puzzling runic inscriptions at Avebury (see my last post) jogged a memory in my mind that concerned J R R Tolkien, the learned author of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and the book that explains the general background to both of them, The Silmarillion. (Nor overlooking several other works that touch on the deepest meanings of life, and not necessarily in a fictional way, such Tree and Leaf)

Tolkien was of course fascinated with languages, and he based his University career on them. From 1925 to 1945 he was the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford, and then from 1945 until his retirement in 1959 he was the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Merton College, Oxford. No wonder the horse-obsessed people of Rohan in LOTR, his personal realisation of an heroic Anglo-Saxon society, seem to be his best creation. The 'eo-' element in some of the Rohan royal names (Eomer, Eowyn) is an echo of the Old English word 'eoh' which was a poetic term for a steed.

I would say that he thoroughly relished inventing all the fictional names and languages and traditions needed for each of the peoples mentioned in The Hobbit and LOTR, to the point of gross self-indulgence. But he did it so well, and with such obvious scholarship, that I can easily forgive him and simply enjoy the depth and beauty of his epic vision.

He was a good mapmaker and calligrapher too, and I'm not surprised that the runes of the Nordic and Anglo-Saxon peoples cast their spell on his imagination.

Let's leave aside their spurious magical significance, and concentrate on what runes were chiefly used for. They are just a form of our ordinary Roman alphabet, modified for scratching and carving on wood and stone. It's easiest, if your cutting equipment is crude, or your material is a bit uneven, to carve letters using only straight lines. And since you might wish (as a stylistic device) to enclose these letters between long parallel lines - as if written on the long body of a winding serpent - you need to morph the Roman letters into something based on upright or slanting lines, with twiglike projections, and with no horizontal lines at the top or at the bottom. Here for example is a repainted cast of a Swedish stone that I saw at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford only last October. I've heightened the contrast a bit, to make the runes stand out better. As you can see, they are written in a meandering fashion on a red ribbon that turns this way and that:

Obviously without paint these centuries-worn letters would be very hard to see, so I think it's perfectly excusable for the museum to apply it. And I think you can appreciate my point about the difficulties of carving on semi-natural lumps of stone, and why the majuscule letters of Rome, with their refined curves and graceful serifs, had to be ditched in favour of these much simpler characters. Such is the case at Avebury and many other places in Northern Europe, and indeed anywhere that the Vikings went, even Iceland and Newfoundland.

As I said, although they look strange, these runes are just an ordinary alphabet, albeit with variations from our own because they were used to write in a whole family of languages and dialects: Old Norse, Frisian, Anglo-Saxon and so forth. If a language or dialect had sounds that the rest didn't have, it had to invent extra letters accordingly. So there is variation in time and place, and not a lot was fixed. Tolkien knew all about this.

If you are interested enough, the Wikipedia article on 'Runes' (see will tell you all about it. And if you scroll down (quite a way - it's a longish article) there are tables showing the correspondences between our own alphabet and the main runic variants, the Elder Futhark, Anglo-Frisian, and the Younger Futhark. All very Tolkienish! You can easily use these tables to 'translate' any runes you come across into the local vernacular of the time, and you can often tease out the rough meaning of the words without the need for a specialised course in Old Norse. The basic words of modern English are substantially derived from the ancient language of the Norse invaders who came here in waves after the Romans left.

Here's a general table of correspondences, which is useful for any inscription, at any time and place, up to the year 1100 or so, including Avebury:

Now: Tolkien and his use of runes. I will select two examples. The first comes from The Hobbit, where on a map showing The Lonely Mountain and The Desolation of Smaug (called 'Thror's Map') we have this:

Doesn't it look terribly authentic? Thror is a not a modern English chappie, and so this must be written in a strange Middle-Earth tongue. But when you transcribe each letter above into our own alphabet it comes out as:

Hmmmm. Not as expected! So Thror spoke English. Odd that. You know, for decades I took it for granted that these runes on the map were in a Middle-Earth language, and not in English. Rather a let-down to discover otherwise.

Example two. In LOTR, the Fellowship of the Ring have been travelling underground through Moria for days, and not far from the eastern exit reach a chamber containing the tomb of Balin, Lord of Moria, a dwarf of great renown. On the slab is carved the following, 'in the tongues of Men and Dwarves' according to the wizard Gandalf, who buzzes off a rapid translation of a jolly impressive set of runes, even though some of the letters seem to be non-standard. I've substituted the closest equivalent for these non-standard letters, marking the substitutions in RED as a warning that they are my own guesses:

Which, if transcribed using the normal alphabetical correspondences, becomes:

What's this gibberish? It's supposed to mean:


I expected something that resembled Arabic, seeing that many of the Dwarvish names have a middle-eastern ring to them: Khazad-Dûm, for instance. Even if you play around with those letters in red, trying other letters instead, it still doesn't seem like any kind of proper language. Which is odd, when you consider Tolkien's enthusuasm for inventing tongues (such as Elvish, which I think has strong affinities with Welsh and Finnish). Or the fact that the firey script on the One Ring itself is written in the Black Speech of Mordor, and looks like a proper language, albeit a barbarous one:

Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul

This meant:

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the Darkness bind them

But the tomb inscription is just a meaningless - or nearly meaningless - jumble of letters, with few obvious words. I suppose 'Wokizon' is perhaps 'son' or 'lord'. But the rest? And why is Balin called Runiz? Of course, it's meant to be carved in 'Daeron's runes', and perhaps he wasn't familiar with the Elder Futhark...or maybe he was dyslexic...or his chisel slipped...or it was all a massive typo that the publishers didn't pick up on. What man (or dwarf) can say? Another thing for Tolkien experts to unravel, I suppose.

Tolkien himself does explain something about Dwarvish names in Appendix F of the third volume of LOTR. He says (speaking of the 'real' names of individual dwarves) 'Their own secret and 'inner' names, their true names, the Dwarves have never revealed to any one of alien race. Not even on their tombs do they inscribe them'. Aha! So 'Balin' wasn't his proper name then, just a nom de guerre. But the rest of the carved inscription should have looked like a real language. In late 1940 Tolkien was super-busy combining his University and wartime duties in Oxford, and finding them onerous, so that he had to push aside his LOTR manuscript with a sigh, and remain standing a whole year by Balin's tomb. Maybe, when he was at last able to resume, there were no dwarves on hand to explain the secret of their language, all having perished in battle, and he just had to fudge it as best he could. After all, what person would care what the runes might really mean?

He surely thought wrong. LOTR proved very popular, and I'm sure that Tolkien's old college colleagues and his students examined his major work with a fierce academic rigour. Even so, I don't imagine that very many have tried to work out what the runes on Balin's tomb say. Despite their clear importance. I mean, it's got to be a cricial insight or prophesy of some kind, hasn't it? A prophesy of more relevance than the Mayans', I'll warrant. Certainly worth a concentrated attack by a team of fine minds.

I'm not personally competent to undertake the task, but I can at least lobby for a temporary revision, so that in the interim ordinary English readers won't get driven to despair by the runes that presently grace the tomb. As mentioned above, these runes should read (in English, as if Thror carved it):


Which in 'correct' runic characters will now be:

And that's my contibution to Tolkien scholarship. 

In my next post I'll turn to something completely different. None too soon for some, I suspect.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Avebury and other stones

(I took this post down yesterday after I discovered a technical problem. Hopefully it's now sorted!)

Wiltshire is such a spanking good place for standing stones thousands of years old. It not only has Stonehenge - on which I did a piece on 21 December, with commentary on the Mayans' supposed end-of-the-world prediction as a bonus - but also another prehistoric treasure at Avebury, which has been in the news during the last week or so: see Believe it or not, Avebury is officially World Heritage Site Number Two, beaten only by Mexico's Monte Alban (no, I haven't heard of it, either), and thrashing the pants off the Taj Mahal (so don't waste your time going there, when you can go to Wiltshire instead).

Here are some shots of the stones at Avebury, that I took myself in 1993 and 2005:

As you can see, the stones are largely in their natural state, but subtly shaped and fluted to make them seem more dramatic as the sunlight plays over them. Many strange cracks and fissues have been created by the ancient stone masons, no doubt intended as little shelves for offerings to the Earth Goddess: ears of corn, berries, seeds and the like. Perhaps the odd human sacrifice, such as a finger or toe, whatever could be spared.

Every stone is individual, none are the same, even though there must be over a hundred of them arranged in a vast circle. Seen in the light of the full moon, it is said that certain stones glow balefully, which is probably because of quartz or mica crystals glinting in the weak light; but legend says that 'he who doth see the stones glow in May will live no more than a year and a day' - so watch out.

Another legend has it that when three sarsen stones on the southern edge of the circle are aligned with the star Mizar in Ursa Major (that's the Plough to you and me), they have the power to speak if any man of evil intent comes close. They were therefore employed right up to quite modern times as a kind of lie-detector to test the word of local miscreants - with dire consequences if the slightest noise was heard by the mob that wanted to see justice done. Hence the old rhyme, recorded for posterity by a certain clergyman in the late eighteenth century, and still current in rural Wiltshire:

When the stones do speak in ire
A man of falsehood must expire;
The stones do be the bestest judge
Of any man who hath a grudge.
No man can the stones deceiveth,
He will, ere dawn, his last breath breatheth.
Such is our antient country law:
The Old Way requireth payment in gore. 

So there you go. Seems all fair enough to me. The Old Way of finding the truth was always best.

Nowadays, of course, the stones have a much friendlier image, and recently the well-known Hug A Stone scheme has been promoted strongly and with great success by Wiltshire County Council in conjunction with the English Tourist Board. Avebury has a great advantage over Stonehenge, in that nothing is fenced off, and access is free. The kids love it. Note however, that you will get stung in the expensive official car park.

One little-known fact is that some of the stones at Avebury have runic inscriptions on them, doubtless carved by the first Viking settlors. They are in a state of preservation rivalled only by the inscriptions in Sweden at places like Rök, Vaksala and Blekinge. For instance, these, which are clearly of ninth-century origin:

Or these, possibly of later date:

I have no idea what they mean.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

The Breaking of the Fellowship

Those who go through a process like transition form strange alliances.

We were all different before; the process forces us to come together, and we form cross-cultural friendships as a group, our backgrounds not mattering. For a while we all have the same goals and preoccupations. We are bonded. And to the outside world we all seem remarkably similar. And then, once the major personal changes are over, we diverge again into our separate worlds. A Breaking of the Fellowship. Because unless there is something particular to sustain a connection, the mere fact of being trans cannot hold people together indefinitely. There is only so much you need to discuss with your friends for the time being. There is only so much group comforting required. Only so much that can be agreed upon. One day, after every essential stage is complete, the glue cracks and people break away one by one. Probably to disappear without trace into their private worlds, pursuing the ordinary ambitions of any human being, and never to be heard of again.

Imagine going to live in a foreign country. At first the language and the local customs seem impenetrable, and you cling to mutual support from other ex-pats. But after a while it all becomes easier. And then one day you see that it has stopped being difficult. From that point, you can go your own way. Your world revolves around the ordinary people of the country, and a distance opens up between yourself and the ex-pat community.

For some of my trans friends, that moment of departure happened a long time ago. For others, it looms and will eventually have to be faced. I'm thinking that the greatest challenge of transition, apart from the original coming-out, is deciding when you will make that decisive break.

It's a psychological thing really. It comes on bit by bit. There is no need to literally abandon dozens of friends all at once, nor the lifestyle that went with them. But in your mind, a fissure will open up between yourself, the transitional life, and some of the people you associate with it. It will gradually widen into a crevasse. It's entirely natural. Time's up. You've had your turn. Now you must do something different on your own.

Who should stay in your life? Who can you take along with you into the future? Surely in the end it's down to personality alone. Only those people who have important things in common - interests, attitudes and temperaments - will be a good match for each other, and survive as friends.

Mind you, this is a counsel of impossible perfection. I've had friends - I speak of the past forty years - whom I now realise were not a good match at all. I could not abandon them for two reasons: one, I'm terribly loyal; and two, I felt that one should bend over backwards to overcome reservations about a quirky habit, the occasional forgetfulness, some intolerance or prejudice or unjustified partisanship, or a certain touchiness when this or that subject was mentioned. And sometimes I felt they were wobbly and vulnerable in a secret way that they couldn't possibly have admitted to, and this, if nothing else, made me feel that I couldn't rob them of whatever my friendship was worth. Perhaps, for all I knew, the perception was mutual. Perhaps we were deceiving ourselves. But it's easy to see how difficult it is to make rational decisions about breaking away and making a definite new beginning.

So the 'trans world' is a transient world really, full of temporary alliances that will last only if there is some other, more enduring adhesive. Very far removed from the Monolithic View of trans people as an ever-growing united Force on the March, with a Collective Agenda and a Subversive Presence everywhere. To me, that seems like 1950s science fiction. Lookalike aliens infiltrating society and taking over, and other scary nonsense. When all the time we were just getting on with clearing up after the snow, and cooking lunch, which is the next thing on my own agenda.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

I didn't win the rope sculpture!

Last night's Komedia show was in aid of charity, and to celebrate the work of the North Laine Community Association.

Let me digress a little. If you've never been to Brighton, you must at least know that it's the UK's Number One LGBT/Goth/boho/Alien/anything-goes seaside town. Why, they even let me walk around the place! I don't say that London isn't more cosmopolitan (although it's really hard to see how), or that Manchester isn't more exciting (although again it seems ridiculous), but Brighton is certainly reckoned to be in a league of its own, and a Mecca for comedians of the fringe persuasion. Just like Edinburgh is. In fact I rather believe that dozens of comedians spend their lives shuttling between Edinburgh and Brighton, as a complete way of life.

Surely you've heard of Brighton's famous Lanes? That's the touristy quarter full of narrow alleyways full of restaurants, coffee houses, pubs, clothing shops and jewellery shops just inland from the jolly seafront, and squashed between the main shops and the green strip of parkland called the Steyne, that snakes inland from the Pier. The Royal Pavilion, that extravagant seaside palace with its onion-shaped domes and minarets - created by the Prince Regent before he became George IV - is just off the Steyne. And North Laine is a trendy area still further north.

North Laine is much more for the locals than the tourists. It's got pubs and shops and cafes, but they are cheaper and more down-to-earth than in the Lanes. It's also very much a residential area, full of characterful little terraced houses that have a 'conservation area' feel to them. A little world of its own, right in the centre of Brighton. I imagine one must feel rather privileged to actually live there. A bit like living in the old heart of Bath. But North Laine does not look at all like Bath: architecturally it's all small houses with pastel-painted brick fronts, and there are no grand sweeping crescents of honey-coloured Cotswold stone.

The Komedia is at the southern end of North Laine, and consists of a cafe at street level with a couple of auditoria within for shows and films. Last night's performances took place in the intimate Studio Bar downstairs.

So how did it go?  Well, once at the table with V---, the natal French lady who is one of my friends, she took this photo of me with the Leica. The light level was very low, so the shot has not come out all that well, but I think you can see that I was fully prepared for a fun evening:

But was my funny bone tickled? Despite my having absolutely no sense of humour?

Now I'm not entirely a stranger to small-space comedy nights. I've been for instance to a couple of the monthly shows at Winchester (see my post On stage! Acting my head off in full view of the audience! on 22 January 2011). So I know the style. The ten comedians I saw last might were much in the same vein as the Winchester lot, but with some differences that became apparent after a bit.

For one thing, they did not actually tell any jokes. Not one of the ten told a straightforward old-fashioned joke with a punchline. It was all much more conversational. That did make it more informal, and avoided the dreadful pause you get at the end of any joke - that second or two of emptiness when the comedian's worth as a human being lies in the balance; that second or two before he or she is either rewarded with an explosion of laughter, or destroyed with the blank crashing silence of an audience Not Amused. (Why do comedy people torture themselves like this? It's insane) No. They offered only casual, throw-away sound-bites, and it didn't matter if a few of those failed to raise more than a titter or two. It was all right. You could pass on smoothly, and try another. You did not die. A great survival technique. Although I must emphasise that this was a friendly audience who were very willing to chuckle over anything remotely funny, and who bore not the slightest ill-will towards the compère Chris Brazier and the acts he introduced one by one. It was all for charity after all, and not visceral entertainment for the bloodthirsty and baying Roman mob.

Second, there was the minumum of swearing. By which I mean use of the F-word. For a long time it has been de rigeur with British comedy, especially on stage, to punctuate one's act with 'f---' whenever you've forgotten what comes next and need a breathing-space, or just want to raise a laugh by saying what most of the audience will of course mutter to themselves in private, but wouldn't dream of saying loudly in public. Perhaps I merely speak for myself. It was for instance (and maybe still is) Billy Connolly's trademark technique on stage, and I think he used the F-word really quite cleverly, with great timing and expression. But it must never become the whole of one's act. Being potty-mouthed is in any case starting to become unfashionable, like cheating on your taxes. Beware: a new, pursed-lipped Puritan Age may be dawning! (That's why, search as you might, I don't think you'll find a single example of my using 'f---' in this blog. I aim to satisfy the Witchfinder-General on that score, if nothing else)

Third, it was all rather politically correct and inoffensive. In fact, I literally didn't hear a joke about the government, ours or anyone else's, apart from one or two vague mentions of Syria as a throwaway line, although how one can be funny about Syria beats me. But then, as I must keep on insisting, I have no sense of humour. There was no taking advantage of Brighton's reputation as a Place Where Audiences Want To Hear Forbidden Things. Nothing then on gay or lesbian attitudes. Or trannies. Romesh Ranganathan, who was the final act, and who had been a teacher, drew on his school experiences to discuss how kids behave, but that was the most daringly non-PC stuff that I heard. I don't think there was even anything racial, even from Romesh, who was Asian, and therefore perfectly entitled to get naughty about Asians if he so wished. But he didn't. It was all really rather polite and sweet and in good taste. The late Bernard Manning must be thrashing around in his grave.

I rather think these ten comedians were trying hard not to ruffle the sensibilities of the semi-posh and somewhat well-off North Laine residents who packed the audience. That might have hobbled their acts a little, which would otherwise surely have been hard and jagged, and sickeningly offensive.

Fourth, each of these comedians - should I be saying 'comediennes' as well? Four of the ten were female - was dressed in a very toned-down way. The men looked as if they had pulled on miscellaneous drab clothes rescued from a stale laundry-basket. Here's a selection to illustrate my point (Chris Brazier; someone whose name I can't recall; and David Jordan):

The ladies had made more effort, but were determined to keep the colours muted. Here's Sam Savage, Kathy Spencer, and a Norwegian girl called Ingrid:

Ingrid (the bottom photo) made the baggy pants she was wearing part of her act, by cleverly showing how you can wear huge pants in various ways to compliment your social life. I thought she was very funny. Fancy being confident enough to do more than one British accent! (I've only got the one accent, which I make do for all kinds of impersonations - Welsh, Scottish, Irish, Cockney, South London, West Country, Brum, Yorkshire - you name it - whenever I do a comedy turn at the dinner table while the Ferraro Rochers are being passed around. Not that I really ever do, being po-faced and unhumorous you understand) I thought that the girls filled their tatty jeans and sweaters better than the blokes, and I made mental notes to emulate them, but otherwise they were as drably attired as the fellers. I think this must be a Technique For Seeming Down To Earth And Not La De Dah. In other words, snapping one's fingers at sartorial display is massively cool. (Thank God I didn't take the Prada bag along. Or wear my pearls. Thought of it, though)

So the comedy we had was mostly confined to tales of everyday things that will go wrong because of human frailty. Which depended heavily on the tale being referable in some way to one's own life. I personally live an odd life, with plenty of vital stuff missing from it - like sex, and a job - and so some of the best things went right over my head. Now if any of them had mentioned waking up in the morning, and putting clothes on back to front, or inside out, and tripping up, and spilling things, and not being able to read labels, simply because one was too lazy to put one's glasses on - now that would have struck a big chord with me!

I think they could have explored the dark humour in things like making the touchscreen of one's mobile phone behave when you have fat fingers, especially when typing out a 'quick text'. But I suppose it's been done to death already. Or how a breakfast Ryvita will develop hidden cracks as you butter it and then spread marmalade on it, so that as you raise the goo-laden slice to your mouth, half of it breaks away, messing up your bra, your jeans, and your slippers before flopping upside down onto your kitchen floor... I'd have laughed a lot at at that!

But on the whole V--- and I both agreed that the show was a great success.

Apart from the raffle at the very end. We won neither the 'rope sculture' nor the '1950s handbag'. But by great good luck we didn't win the bottle of ASDA rosé wine either. Phew!

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Comedy tonight at the Brighton Komedia

Brighton has a lot of places you can go to to be entertained, and this is one. I'm off there tonight to have my funny bone tickled by no less than ten comedians in the space of three hours or so. There is an interval so that composure can be regained, should one end up rolling between the tables in uncontrollable mirth, breathless, red-faced and begging for mercy.

Not of course that I am likely to be one of the people who get into such a state. Not me!

Despite my merry demeanour, twinkling eyes and propensity to giggle, I always make out that I have absolutely no sense of humour. What I mean is that it takes the silly and childish and daft to make me laugh. And all that sophisticated stuff you see nowadays, with its social, sexual and counter-cultural allusion, is way over my head and hardly registers. If I understand it at all. After all, I've led such a sheltered life!

All my Brighton friends have knowing winks and streetwise cool. Their speech is peppered with oblique references to the latest whisper, the Word that only Townies get to hear. I'm very much the Person From The Snowy Wastes, the Land Beyond Where Dragons Be. Where oppressed serfs contend with sorcerors and the uncaring gentry of the land; and have never learned to laugh, because there is nothing to laugh at!

So really I'm fitted only for the rustic delights of simple country folk. Jokes about turnips and potatoes. And if a feisty lady with attitude bounces on stage to speak drolly of period pains, cucumbers and men's underpants, I'm befuddled and bemused. 'Baint she goin ter tell a joke about taturs?' I say to myself, amid all the cheers and whistles.

They are really all very kind to me. They seem to understand my simple heart, my innocence. So I'll stable the mare with confidence, and, suitably dressed in my best bodice - the one with squirrels mating on it - I'll present my £5 ticket and then try to follow all that happens. I just hope I don't do the wrong thing, especially if Squire and Parson be there as well. Heavens, that would be my standing in the village ruined at once! And once a girl is ruined, she do stay ruined.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The need to go back

So: 2013 lies ahead, and my holiday plans are beginning to firm up. I now think my Northern and Anglian Tour in June - which will definitely include south-east Scotland, including Edinburgh - must have absolute priority. Which means that my favourite West Country places will probably not get visited again before July or August, to ensure that I will have enough money saved up for that one big three-week trip in the north and east.

The Welsh Tour has been cut back to a week at Newport in late March, to visit family and nearby friends. I will just have to leave west, central and north Wales for another year.

I'm really looking forward to seeing the north of England and Scotland again. It's been nearly two years. The last visit in April 2010 was in unhappy circumstances. I went with M---, and our relationship was in a dire state. But we had unfinished business in Scotland.

We'd previously journeyed to Scotland in 2002, our first year of caravanning together, but had concentrated on the Border country around Berwick on Tweed, Fife, the Nairn area, the Oban area, and a bit of Galloway. I didn't want to deny M--- the chance of seeing some of the places we had skipped the first time. M--- also now had three compelling personal reasons for going with me. She wanted to make some genealogical enquiries in Aberdeenshire, in the Huntly district, and find her great-grandfather's farmhouse. She also had material to donate to the Gordon Highlanders' Regimental Museum in Aberdeen. Finally, she had got me to book two tickets for a lecture at Edinburgh University. It was an event in the Edinburgh International Science Festival, and was called Gender: More than X versus Y. She thought it would be illuminating. It was.

For myself, I only wanted to see the sights and scenery of Scotland again: a photographic adventure pure and simple. It would be the final pre-Fiona journey. I was pre-op, but over a year into full-on transition, and I was somewhat feminised already. But I toned myself down, so that a three-week trip with me in a little caravan wouldn't be too difficult for M---. There was still however plenty of tension. At the beginning, I didn't believe we'd get beyond Edinburgh. But in fact the holiday went remarkably well, everything considered, and we did go to Aberdeenshire, then on to the far north, then west to Skye, then back via Glasgow and Yorkshire. But I had to endure all the unwelcome drawbacks of a deliberately androgynous presentation.

What saddened me most was the way our relationship had withered. The long silences, the lack of warmth, the taboo subjects. And the way M--- always walked ahead of me in public areas, quite a few yards ahead, to give the impression that she wasn't with me. She even did it when people were not around, although meals together indoors were fine, so long as I behaved as a man would. I did my best not to.

I do see how my compromised appearance could have made her feel embarrassed, but she was insisting on it - it wasn't my own choice. By then I would have looked much more natural in what I usually wore, but that was a no-no as far as she was concerned, even if the androgyny looked odd. I got misgendered aplenty by the end of the holiday, which made neither of us happy. And her walking ahead of me, as if I didn't exist, made me feel like an outcast.

For example, here we are at North Berwick and Gullane, at the start of our 2010 holiday. M--- was prepared to pose for a picture, even to wave, but I couldn't bring the camera closer:

Similarly in Edinburgh and Glasgow, where she was but a distant figure at the top of the stairs,  beyond an archway, or walking across the street:

This feeling of not being seen together in public spaces got me down. It coloured my feelings about where we went, and actually made processing the photos quite difficult, because I'd remember all the emotional tension. I so much wanted to go back, and do it differently. I promised myself that I would.

So on this trip in June I will return and overlay the previous memories with new ones. I need to, to release these places from the past, and enjoy them again.

So if you happen to see me on my holiday, don't be surprised to notice, at times, a strange look in my face. Sadness laid to rest.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Social identity defined by one's Internet presence

Now that's interesting, although it comes as no surprise. The Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Sir John Beddington (see, commissioned a report into social developments on the Internet, and the report has just been published. See this BBC News item:

In a nutshell it highlights the importance many people, especially younger people, now place on having a distinct Internet persona that enables them to communicate worldwide with others, crossing social boundaries in the process, and allowing isolated individuals with common interests and concerns to get in touch, and speak collectively.

Their chosen persona may be qute unlike their real selves, which raises issues of deception and fraud, but also lets people who feel shy or unfree to reach out and take part in something much larger. It could be as trivial as a multi-participant online game, or as big as a revolutionary political movement. Or just participating in a widely-scattered online community. The essential thing to understand is that 'hyper-connectivity' can replace all ordinary limitations on human contact, and that in the process one can let go of traditional ideas about identity - nationality, ethnic background, sex, age, degree of disability and all the rest.

Thus a housebound 85 year old living in the Outer Hebrides can style herself Atlantic Freedom Warrior, or even Galactic Freedom Warrior, and contribute to a national discussion on rape penalties, abortion, limits on immigration, withdrawal from the EU - or whatever - without being dismissed as a crazy old woman who is completely gaga and out of touch. Because she won't be out of touch at all, not with the Internet to inform her 24/7 of what is going on all over the world. And her Internet ID protects her from sight, and therefore from snap judgements based on nothing more than how she looks and sounds. As if her wrinkles and arthritis disqualify her from sharing her point of view.

I don't think this is a far-fetched development, nor one that should be stopped.

It's what blogging and Facebook and Twitter are all about right now. Cyberspace is very self-releasing. And hooking into a worldwide readership gives a powerful sense of belonging. But it can also go to the head, because the same readership can make one think that one now has clout and influence. Anyone who chiefly wants that will tend to make their online presence more and more extreme, encouraging an equally extreme support group, and, naturally, an equally extreme counter-group. And the sense of self-importance can be enhanced all the more by engaging in flame wars. It's a safe and comfortable way to inflict wounds. Not like a real-life duel at dawn with lethal weapons.

Roaming cyberspace as a high-profile and well-known persona also develops a feeling of go-anywhere, say-anything invulnerability. There are no physical restraints. The ability to post and comment as strongly as one wishes isn't curbed by any obvious sanction. When a sanction is in fact applied, as it can be, the shock is huge. Three days ago, for instance, GallusMag, the anonymous radical feminist who ran GenderTrender, was shut out of her own blog by WordPress. She could henceforth only make comments, on the same footing as anyone else; but no further posts. This stopped the blog dead. Her final comment, on her final post, bristled with dismay, disgust and defiance. But I also thought she came across as shaken to the core. She must have believed that she was untouchable. The shut-down was (according to her) engineered by an American trans woman with connections. She saw it as an attack by 'the Patriarchy' on a person who resolutely championed women's rights.

It was certainly a censorship of free speech, the kind of situation I was discussing in one of my recent posts. It was an outcome she ought to have expected sooner or later, not because of her message so much, unpopular though it was, but because she became too immoderate in its presentation. Then someone pulled strings, and she was gagged. Not killed off forever - she will re-emerge on a new blog soon enough. But no more GenderTrender as it used to be.

Which brings me onto another point, that there are ways to post and comment that dodge clampdowns, that do get real-life results if the cause is reasonable and the targets genuinely culpable. Take, for instance the activists in China who have had misbehaving local officials investigated and dismissed by the Communist Party. The activists have not been able to bring down the top people in the Politburo, but nevertheless they have achieved a useful purge of irritating midrankers. See I have to agree that this has happened mainly because the Party chose to allow it. But it certainly illustrates the power of the Internet when a lot of people are able to communicate - even if they had to resort to all kinds of strategems to avoid naming their targets openly.

Is such collective action democratic? If it is the will of the majority, then I'd say yes, even if there is no formal vote. It is still 'the voice of the people'. There is however an obvious problem of verifying who has spoken. If forty million persons said online, perhaps in a petition, that 'the UK government has messed up and should go at once' then that ought to be heeded. But first check who they are. If 90% of them were commenting from places abroad, it would clearly not be the authentic voice of the British electorate.

Finally, the personal angle. Is my own life enlarged by having an Internet persona, the Lucy Melford you read about on this blog, and can see on my Flickr site? I think it most certainly is. The Internet allows me to take part in a nationwide (indeed worldwide) conversation that I could not possibly join in otherwise. And I can continue to do it even if my personal circumstances one day make it impossible for me to leave my home and get out and around. It's definitely part of my social life. Not all of it, just part. But one I'd miss if somebody shut me down.

What about personal identity? Surely the Lucy Melford persona set up online has become my most prominent and important public presence, because it clearly reaches several hundred people each day, judging by my Blogger and Flickr stats. The number of people I interact with in the 'real world' is much less. On that basis - sheer numbers - I would say that the identity that comes across on the PC screen is surely the dominant one, the one I will be most known for in my lifetime, and the one most remembered when I die. Just because I shared my life and my point of view online. Surely this is a wonderful example of what the Internet can achieve. (Think for example of Melissa, those who knew her)

And really, it's an identity that doesn't have to be analysed very far. I'm quite content to be just 'a person', sexless and ageless, without any particular nationality or ethinic background that might trigger preconceived ideas in anyone's mind. If the Internet does that for me, then hooray.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

The Real Life

Below is a photograph taken by Takeji Iwamiya in the 1970s. (See I imagine it was taken somewhere on the Pacific seaboard of the United States, and not in Japan, but it certainly has a strong Japanese feel, as if shot in a fishing village in the north of the country, in a lull between snow showers. Look at the carefully worked out relationship between the curves of the boat - I think it's a shallow-draft boat of some kind - and the straight lines of the window, poster and planking. Also the muted colours, which emphasise the bright red of the exquisitely-positioned Coca-Cola logo. I think he is saying: the real life is colder and tattier than you think, but it's an honest life, one full of simple beauty.

At any rate, I interpret it that way. It seems to sum up how I feel at the start of 2013. I've had my celebration of four years of change. Now I want the more settled life that lies ahead. The simple life. The uncomplicated life. The real life.

And not a high-spending life full of Prada bags and other toys. Some readers may recall that I once wrote a post which analysed my transition expenditure over a three-year period (see Counting the transition costs on 17 June 2011). It was the most unthrifty period of my life. And it was very hard to come down from Spend Mountain. But I think I've managed it now. I've got my finances under control at last. This is strikingly illustrated by these figures, which represent the average monthly credit card repayments made in the years 2007 to 2012:

2007 £1,050 (pre-transition)
2008 £1,230 (transition began quietly)
2009 £2,355 (transition was in full spate - my savings were being raided bigtime)
2010 £2,424 (transition was still in full spate - and my savings were being clobbered to death)
2011 £1,624 (transition got at last to the surgery stage, then tailed off)
2012 £1,186 (back to normal; but my savings had almost gone)

The January and February 2013 credit card repayments average out at only £884. Even after Christmas.

I think I make my point: I have got my sending impulses in hand, and now mean to keep it that way.

So no trips to Japan to see what it really looks like. Google Street View will have to do. Let me see, central Tokyo for instance...

Ah, the Real Life.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Frank confessions

Lance Armstrong is now the latest to have made a confession in a stage-managed performance on TV. I don't follow professional cycling, so I can't say anything sensible about what he seems to be admitting to. But I spent most of my thirty-five year career investigating people who wanted to pay less tax than they should, and I ought to know something about temptation, cheating, concealment, and the mentality of guiltless sustained lying.

I can tell you that it needs an extraordinary amount of self-justification and self-belief, and a complete refusal to accept that the ordinary rules ever applied to yourself, even when the game is up. In a word, arrogance. I know this because the hardest thing to get, once a case was broken and the concealed income admitted to, was an admission of guilt.

None of my cases ended in a criminal prosecution. The person found to have cheated was instead given the opportunity to make a money settlement. A contract to pay an agreed sum, and then walk away free. This included the tax (of course), interest on that tax (often considerable, if the concealment had been going on for a long time; but not usually resisted), and a 'penalty' - which was Revenuespeak for a fine. The settlement contract always contained words that explained in a formal way why the fine was being imposed, and those words shouted Guilty.

And that was what the closing negotiations were always centred on. Very often a person would be willing to pay up, but just wouldn't admit to have done anything wrong and punishable. Despite the damning facts found.

The art of reaching a negotiated settlement, by getting that contract signed, most often hinged on overcoming all that self-justification. Duress was not the way, nor the offer of inducements: either would invalidate the contract. A frank, voluntary confession of serious irregularities was needed, and the matter then recorded in the document to be signed. It was the price of an out-of-court settlement, well away from public scrutiny and comment.

I imagine that Lance Armstrong will have to settle with a good many very angry companies and individuals before he is done. If he is lucky, he will do it out of court. But he will have to acknowledge personal guilt each time, and be humiliated each time, until all claims are met and he can move on. I doubt if he will enjoy what lies ahead. I think it could scar him for life.

He isn't the first to have made a public confession, and he won't be the last. Because despite this latest example, there will always be people who will think they can get away with it and prosper. Human nature, I suppose. It's sad, because a soiled reputation damages you across the board. If you cheat in one thing, why not everything? Why should anyone trust you ever again?

Friday, 18 January 2013

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

Down here in rural Sussex we do actually get proper snow, in contrast to folk who live in Brighton, who normally just get a sprinkling that soon melts. You have to understand that although Brighton is only a few miles away, it has a completely different microclimate. It's on the seaward side of the steep South Downs, and is a highly built-up seaside town with a mean temperature always several degrees above that of inland Sussex north of the Downs. In other words, my village is in the Cold Zone. And that ensures that any snow worthy of the name tends to accumulate and become deep and crisp and even, as in the carol about Good King Wenceslas. (As an aside, I don't recall hearing a single Christmas Carol last month, although I heard Mariah Carey belting out All I Want For Christmas Is You several times. Something not quite right there)

Yes, the pleasure and the pain of snow has come to Sussex in earnest. In fact it's been snowing since mid-morning. So I abandoned a post I was writing about the Maori in New Zealand (which may get an airing soon) and instead got ready to go out and see the snow while it was more-or-less pristine. First, though, I made sure I fortified myself with a solid breakfast, because it would naturally be madness to venture forth without an adequate thickness of subcutaneous fat to ward off the biting cold:

Then I tested the effect by brushing the snow off Fiona. She was thickly covered already. But I made a mistake: I put heavy-duty rubber gloves on over my bare fingers, and although these gloves kept my hands perfectly dry, they let the cold penetrate, and it almost hurt after a while. Even now, hours later, my fingers feel funny. So next time, I'll wear woollen gloves under the rubber ones, to keep my fingers from freezing. Old age, I suppose.

I intended to drive Fiona over to Ditchling, another village not far away, park off the main road, and walk up a hill with a great view, where the kids always go tobogganing. A neighbour came past me while I was still clearing the snow off Fiona. It was a man I often see walking his little dog. As usual, we exchanged a few cheery words. I told him what I had in mind, and hoped the road would be passable. He assured me that in my Volvo I wouldn't have any problem whatever. He was right. Fiona gave not the slightest sign of losing grip, and I made it to Ditchling as easily as if the weather were dry. I suppose this is partly what I bought her for, to make myself immune from winter weather in a worsening climate. She certainly looked in her element:

By now I was as warm as toast, and ready for a good stroll:

The little Leica came out, because I tend to go into blitz mode whenever snow falls - even though most photos taken in snow are often dull and unexciting unless corrected afterwards on the computer. The bright reflective snow always fools the camera into under-exposure. My camera does of course have a special 'snow' setting, but I prefer to shoot a standard photo on the ordinary 'program' setting, and then tinker with the result on my large PC screen when I get home.

The obvious way up the hill was to use the car track. It was all reasonably fairytale:

At the top end, the kids were very much enjoying the slope:

I wouldn't dare commit myself to a glorified plastic tray like those. I'd be too afraid of breaking a bone or two. The compacted snow was very slippery, and they seemed to shoot down the slope very fast. One of my friends likes snowboarding, and she is two years older than me. She must think I'm a scaredy-cat and completely feeble. I don't care. I'm staying on terra firma. Which I can do in style, because instead of wellies, I was dry and cosy in my Dubarry boots. What a good purchase those have turned out to be:

By now a wind had got up, and it was time to head back down to Fiona and go home. A cup of tea and a snooze. Why ever not?