Saturday, 29 June 2013

Different types of giant

So today Nelson Mandela, Father of modern South Africa and its first Black President, and Barack Obama, the first Black President of the Unites States of America, two giant figures, may meet. Despite his public scruples about giving the Mandela family space, I imagine that privately Mr Obama is hoping that a brief meeting will be possible, one away from the cameras, one that an exhausted and very sick man can cope with. And for his part, I imagine that Mr Mandela is hoping that the doctors will let him see Mr Obama man to man, or father to son if you prefer, even if it has to be simply the grasp of a hand with no words, and a shared gaze. If I were in charge of events, I would ensure that a mutual salute of some kind took place. I am going to ignore the news reports until this post is published. I do want these men to encounter each other. I want to believe it will happen, and I want these personal words of goodwill to both of them to be published when it is still a possibility, and not just a moment that could have been, but never was.

Also today another momentous event of a very different kind. The Rolling Stones on stage at Glastonbury! When I was in my teens, I liked the Stones' music, but thought them too brash, too physically disturbing. Their songs, which spoke of Nights Together, drugs and a generally unsafe and rebellious lifestyle, were too hard to take. The Beatles also offered stuff with an edge, but it was wrapped up more appealingly, the edge was softer, and their musicianship seemed more playful and more universal, even transcendental. So I was overwhelmingly a Beatles fan who in darker moods would listen to the odd Stones track. That position did not change until I met M---, who was the most ardent Stones fan I have ever come across. She actually saw the Stones at their earliest London gigs. She knew all about them. If her father, then an RAF officer, had permitted it, she would have become a groupie, with a special regard for Mick Jagger. Who indeed, let's admit it, still cuts it on stage, still looks lock-up-your-womenfolk-dangerous despite being Sir Mick nowadays, and is still articulate and credible as a human being with 10,000 volts running through him. A liver wire than most, shall we say, with an ugly lived-in face of leather maybe, but also hair and slim hips, and charm, and something to say even at seventy-odd. Strange that he always liked cricket. Stranger still that, when you examine it, you find in the Stones' songs, and especially Mick Jagger's own, not only a tormented despair that love can last, but a yearning to find redemption and a state of grace.

I wonder if M--- will be glued to the TV screen coverage of Glastonbury? I won't be. No TV reception here on site at North Berwick! Instead, if there is a fine sunset, I will enjoy a beach walk and reflect on the delights of my visit to Scotland. I shall certainly want to return next year, unless funds are at such a low ebb that long-range touring is simply not affordable. I cried when leaving Scotland in 2010. It was, I knew, the last big caravan trip M--- and I would ever share. It had been a good one, but it was the end of an era. Now, when I leave tomorrow for England, for the Lake Distict, I will feel a whole lot happier. No tears this time. If I do feel emotional, it will be because my life is on track again, because I am pushing forward with ever-increasing confidence. Successful holidays are strong evidence for a life that is going somewhere, that has direction and purpose, that can be planned. A life that can suddenly explode with opportunities and new interests, such as, well, collecting china cats!

I'm only human. I don't want to be sad and at war with myself any more.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Of Concorde and a cat called Rosie

Let's catch up a bit more. I really need to illustrate what I describe with some photos, but I can't include any in posts made using my Android tablet or phone (Windows is required). So, for now, a purely verbal narrative must do. And to avoid two long posts on the same subject, I'll have to be selective and defer some things till I get home.

Last Monday, then. I have three friends in Scotland, and I met one of them at the National Museum of Flight, a few miles south of North Berwick, at East Fortune. She had offered me a free pass if I came to the Flight Museum while she was on the premises. At first, I thought I wouldn't be in the right mood, the emotional surge two days earlier, when I realised that I still had a lot to work through where M--- was concerned, being still very fresh in my mind. But it was a tempting offer, and I realised that it might relaunch my stay in Scotland. It would certainly be better than tearful beachcombing. So I texted this friend and duly met her at the Museum paydesk, where I'd already introduced myself to the very helpful and friendly staff. We had the briefest of meetings - my friend had a job to do - but I was going to see her later in the week anyway. So I was perfectly happy to punt around on my own, with my pass. Well, never quite alone! I encountered more than one visiting couple again and again, whether it was inside a jet plane, or in the café at lunchtime. We laughed and joked at these constant accidental meetings.

The Museum was housed in the various scattered buildings of the former East Fortune RAF base, which was operational in both World Wars. There were some huge hangars, which contained (with one special exception) a range of small and medium-sized aircraft of various types: civil, military, commercial. There were all kinds of smaller buildings, each devoted to some aspect of flight, such as airships, parachutes, the individual case histories of heroic personnel, and themes such as the role of women in air warfare. All these buildings looked authentically old and tatty from the outside, but were state-of-the-art for modernity and audio-visual presentation within. In fact one big thing that struck me was just how good the presentation was. There were a few larger aircraft out in the open, such as short-haul commercial jets, and a mighty military jet: a Vulcan. What a huge bomber! It was awesome. Unfortunately you couldn't go inside it - perhaps access to the flight deck was simply too tricky for health and safety. But, need I say, a wonderful photographic subject!

The star of the show though was undoubtedly Concorde, housed in solitary splendour in the smartest hangar. This was G-BOAA, 'Bravo Oscar Alpha Alpha', the first Concorde to enter commercial service. It flew for some thirty years, although by the early 2000s it needed internal updating and that didn't make economic sense. Also, the freak takeoff accident at Paris, which spoiled an otherwise unblemished safety record, and modern thinking on the most efficient way to transport passengers long distances at reasonable cost, both prompted retirement. Those Concordes in the hands of British Airways all found a museum home around the UK. G-BOAA came to Scotland. She came in sections, by road, and was expertly reassembled.

Concorde was not one of the technological projects brought into being by Harold Wilson's 1964 government. She was conceived in the Conservative era of Harold MacMillan and Sir Alec Douglas-Hume, and given the go-ahead when I was but a child of ten. At first called Concord, she was specifically a joint Anglo-French endeavour. I suspect the later change of name to Concorde, which was done at the insistence of the French, and which seemed like a blow to British sensibilities at the time, was acquiesced to so that the UK's longed-for membership of the Common Market (now the EU), so long opposed by President Charles de Gaulle, would have a better chance of becoming a reality. Names matter in European politics; but we still did not get in until 1973. Back to Concorde's conception. The start of the 1960s was essentially a pre-computer era, a science-fiction era, and it was no accident that the only Eagle annual I ever had - was it Christmas 1962? - had a big spread on the plane, in between the cartoon adventures of Dan Dare and Digby. Dan Dare looked exactly the sort of handsome intrepid pilot of the future who might be placed in charge of this wonderful new flying machine. One imagined boffins getting down to work, to make it real. And Britain did indeed have expertise in building world-class military and commercial aircraft by drawing-board and slide-rule methods. (Perhaps another reason for building the Concorde was so that all that know-how would stay in Britain, and not leak away to the big plane makers across the Atlantic)

In 1960 one was looking ahead to 1970. 'Miss 1970' (or more probably 'Mrs 1970') could be seen on TV or in magazines living a jet-set futuristic lifestyle full of gadgets and holiday travel. Concorde would be an aspirational part of that world. As it turned out, Concorde's super-expensive tickets were strictly for business chiefs and the rich, and not for housewives. But it was always a wonderful supersonic dream, to fly in Concorde and land at New York 'before' one had set off from London. Among the few ordinary mortals to have had a free seat might have been one or two kids on Jim'll Fix It: a sobering thought.

And here I was, finally aboad Concorde itself - not just seeing it far away up in the evening sky, a vapour-trailing tiny paper dart. Except that no paper dart was ever so loud.

This is where a photo or two would say it all. The pictures will come; for now I'll simply mention two things. First, how cramped and narrow it was inside. Fat cats of the business or showbiz world would have had problems! Second, how complicated and cluttered the cockpit was. It was bristling with old-fashioned switches. And dials and levers everywhere. In front of the pilot and co-pilot, between them, on the ceiling, behind them. Some of the dials had a vaguely 'modern' look, and no doubt there was electronic circuitry galore, but big screens were absent. It bore no resemblance at all to the comparative simplicity of the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek on late-1960s TV. I haven't seen pictures of the pilot area on the latest Airbus, but I bet it's all touchscreens, with just a few buttons to press. Nothing like the Concorde's impenetrable forest of switches and dials.

And the cat? Well, on Tuesday I became the proud owner of a cat named Rosie. No, not a real cat! This is a Wemyss Cat. Pictures to come. She's very cute, she has a very cheerful and uplifting smile, and - so far - Fang, the toy collie dog who lives in the caravan and guards it, hasn't made the slightest fuss. And I believe Rosie will get on well with Teddy Tinkoes back at home too. One happy family! When you have no immediate living family left, when death has taken them all from you one by one, when you have to face the world alone, with no backup, no safety net, then threadbare teddy bears and fluffy toy dogs and china cats make all the difference. Believe me.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

The Clicking of Cuthbert and a yummy Sunday Lunch

This is rapidly turning into one of the best holidays for a long time! The weather has been decent; I've been able to do what I like doing most - driving around, seeing many attractive or interesting places, eating out, taking a boatload of photographs. And I mean a lot of shots: yesterday, on a run to Fife, I took 292 pictures. That's rather a lot, and normally I limit myself to under 150 a day. Because no matter how badly wanted the shots are, each one might take at least two minutes to fully process back at the caravan, on my laptop - the initial bulk sift, numbering and copyrighting; then individual tilt-correction, cropping, exposure correction and captioning; and finally bulk backup and temporary filing onto other drives. So if I take 700 photos over a week, that's 1,400 minutes' work, or 23 hours, or a bit more than three hours a night. If as usual I cook and wash up, then there's no need to fill up any time in watching TV or videos, or reading! It might all seem a dreadful chore, but if you love reliving the best moments of the day, or viewing the occasional shot that, as a picture, is more worthy than just a holiday snap, then it isn't a chore at all.

I am, in fact. always busy with things I like doing! Whether at home or away. That's partly why the things I don't like doing so much tend to get squeezed out more than they should. But hey, it's my life, I have no ties, no responsibilities to anyone else, and I can choose my priorities! It's also partly why I am never bored. Well, not unless someone comes along and attempts to make me fit into their ideas of what constitutes a fab time. Please, never trap me into watching films, or listening to rock bands, or poetry recitals. But meals, conversation, galleries, opera, architecture, and a tramp over moorland to see an ancient stone circle - now we're talking!

So what have I been up to in the last three days? Well, on Sunday I went off to the Open Arms Hotel in close-by Dirleton. This is a golfing hotel (or 'hotel for goff', if you wish), and there are plenty of golfing prints and pictures on walls and corridors, with especial reference to the Muirfield course just down the road on the east side of Gullane, where, as it happens, the 2013 Open is taking place in four weeks time. The roadside banners advertising this (as if anyone in Scotland could be unaware!) are already up, and there are signs at Gullane of things being set up, such as huge tents and raised seating for spectators. Because naturally there are pre-championship qualifying matches, a thing to watch in themselves. I think these qualifying matches must be taking place all over the country, meaning England too, because I passed a course in the East Midlands, at South Luffenham near Stamford, at which such matches were being held. There is a Ladies' Open, too, and yesterday I passed the course at Kingsbarns near St Andrews itself, where qualifying matches for women start soon.

I should explain that I don't play golf, and although I can take an intelligent interest in the game, because I learned the basics at school in the late 1960s, and my Dad was a keen player and spectator, it isn't my kind of outdoor activity. But somehow golf - whether it's the bizarre golf circus of the big-money pro game, the unhappy game played by monied social snobs who want to impress each other, or the down-to-earth game enjoyed by ordinary Scottish locals (lucky mortals, with such links to savour) - exerts a strange, poisonous fascination.

And the magic of old golfing words lingers on: cleek, niblick, mashie, bashie, baffie, plus-fours. Some of the golf shops I saw yesterday in St Andrews were playing on this. In them you could buy a set of old woods like the characters in P G Wodehouse's golfing books would have used:as for instance in a short story entitled The Clicking of Cuthbert, in which the main character Cuthbert, a pleasant young man, is in love with a lovely young girl. But his passion for golf doesn't cut any ice. She is much more impressed with literary heroes. Cuthbert makes himself attend reading clubs just to be with her. It's torture to his golfing soul. It's also agony to his heart, because he sees her eyes shining for a rising young author who writes obscurely in the fashionable way epitomised by Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Set, a weedy, limp-wristed narcissistic and obnoxious individual who would have no idea how to hole a ten-foot putt. Then a visiting Russian author is booked. The girl is so excited. Cuthbert is dejected. What good is golf, when visiting Russian authors who write dark tomes full of bleak realism can sweep impressionable young girls off their feet? But wait. The famous Russian, when he turns up at the reading club, seems trapped. He is tired of talking about his Great Works to club after club. He wants to talk about Ze Open. He is a golf player, and has played with Lenin and Trotsky, and beat them - usually with his niblicksky, his favourite club. Is there nobody present who can discuss Ze Open? This is where Cuthbert, from his corner, coughs and expains to all present what the Open is. The Famous Russian immediately embraces him, and places Cuthbert in the limelight. The rising young author wilts, and slinks away, presumably to die. Who cares? The girl's hero-worship is transferred permanently to Cuthbert, despite his yellow sweater and baggy plus-fours, and they live happily ever after, producing children who become golfing legends. And that is why golf is useful.

Back to my Sunday Lunch. The Hotel has intimate dining rooms just for families or small parties to dine in private, all beautifully furnished and very comfortable, but also a public brasserie called Deveaux's. My table was there. Obviously a crisp brown roll and butter to begin with. For my main I ordered Border roast beef, roast and creamed potatoes, creamed root vegetables, broccoli in a white sauce, red cabbage, Yorkshire Pudding, all with a red wine jus and some horseradish. For my dessert, lemon tarte brûlée with a rhubarb compôte. A large glass of red wine, a very pleasant rioja, to drink with the main, plus iced water. As an aperitif, I asked for a gin and tonic, and afterwards I took what remained of that into the lounge, to finish off. Service was rapid, efficient and friendly, for I had several questions and requests. I had a table to myself, but it was in the middle, so that I was surrounded by the other diners, and didn't feel isolated or tucked out of sight. It was an opportunity to be casually smart. I enjoyed myself thoroughly. The lounge was one in which you could easily have dozed away the rest of the afternoon. I nearly did. The heavens opened, the rain came lashing down for an hour, and I was trapped! I merely ordered coffee and revelled in the soothing experience of after-lunch hotel life. The loos were brillo. All for £30 or so. I didn't begrudge a penny.

Monday was quite different, but that's for another post!

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Emotional flashpoint

There was always a risk in coming back to North Berwick. M--- and I stayed here in April 2010, while on our penultimate caravan outing together. At the time we feared it really would be the very last trip. But although it was full of awkwardness, we survived and in fact did one more trip in the following July.

We were both determined to make the April trip to Scotland as good-natured as we possibly could. It would become a horrible stuck-far-away-from-home ordeal if we failed. My transition was advancing. I hadn't yet named a date for surgery, but it was clearly coming. And M--- felt that our relationship was rapidly slipping away, probably doomed beyond recovery. She still clung to the notion that she could somehow make me see things differently, the way she saw it. That true love would prevail.

She mistakenly thought it was a question of love between us. It was a dreadful, tragic error. Love was never the issue. Identity was. Love never died, and, as you will perceive if you read on, it has still has not died in my heart. But M--- thought she knew just how things were, and that I was half-mad with an obsessive delusion, and was willing to sideline her for an impossible goal. But all was not yet lost. She still believed I could be rescued from it, that somehow I would yet 'change my mind', and wake up one morning declaring that I'd had a brainstorm, but was all right now. And that I would renounce 'Lucy Melford' forthwith. But in her more realistic moments - and M--- was a practical person, not a dreamer - she saw only a bleak future with her partner, her man, gone forever.

She acknowledged that I had a genuine medical condition. But simultaneously she resented the threat it posed to our life together. She showed me anger and distress against the invisible lurking thing inside me that, so late in my life, had emerged to spoil everything. But she could vent that anger and distress only against me, the tangible person. She couldn't help it. She would not have been human if she had held it all in. I took the verbals and the black moods without complaint or retaliation. I knew she was desperately unhappy, and felt helpless to avert a tragedy.

As I understood it, my fault lay in not putting her needs first. In not being ruled by love. In rejecting the role of protector. In a real sense I was guilty. Guilty of causing pain, of hurting her. No matter what the medical justification, she was being hurt. Her own temperament made it worse, but the situation would have tested the faith and endurance of a saint. No wonder that, on both sides, our emotional states were fragile and close to snapping-point. She with despair, myself with the burden of being the real me.

I dare say it occurred to M--- that if I abandoned Lucy, and stayed J---, she would still not recover the old happiness because I would remain altered, self-aware but frustrated, possibly resentful whatever I did to cope, and in due course that would destroy the relationship. Knowing that she could not avert disaster, could not sustain her dream of togetherness, must have been a terrible strain. Because of that pressure, I have always felt it right to excuse the damaging tirades that came my way in the time before that trip to Scotland. They were provoked by distress, a love seemingly in danger, and not by hatred. By emotions that took hold of M--- and were beyond her control. Just as my own identity issues pushed at me, and were beyond my control. Rationalised like that, it's awful but bearable.

But the other signs that the relationship was dying were just as heartrending. Such as M--- walking in front of me, or behind, and not with me, as if I were unclean. She was embarrassed. The withdrawal of all intimate gestures, because making them hurt. The long-established quips and sayings that couples exchange suddenly becoming stilted and artificial, and losing their power to comfort and unify. These things were part of the protective fence around what was 'us'. For both of us, the loss of these cherished things seemed a brutal deprivation, whether voluntary or not. We were fully united only in misery.

M--- was right to recognise unstoppable change, but she did not have to fear it. She had the otion to look for the upsides, the new potential, the fun. She made no effort to forge a different kind of relationship with me. If she had tried, she could have discovered the qualities I have now developed. She still can try. But silence has descended between us, and I don't think she will break it. In any case, we will both have 'moved on'. That means absolutely no return to what was. It could still mean something quite new, quite different, with different aims and rewards. But of course as people who now live lives at the same end of the male/female spectrum.

So, on to my first evening here. I first stopped off at the Open Arms Hotel in Dirleton to book a yummy Sunday Lunch for myself. Then I drove into North Berwick and bought milk and other stuff from Tesco. Then I parked near the harbour. A sunset was brewing. I walked past the famous seabird centre and up onto the rocks that look out onto the Firth of Forth, and the offshore island of Craigleith. An emotional danger spot. I have a 2010 photo of M--- standing right out at the farthest part of these rocks, waving back to me, as if waving goodbye. I stood now where I had taken the photo. I felt tight-throated and wet-eyed. But I kept control, and started back to the harbour. At that point I met a couple, and the woman spoke with me, just making evening conversation. And as you seem to do, I explained why I was there. 'I'm actually making a kind of pilgrimage,' I began, and the tears welled up and overflowed. She seemed to realise what I was feeling, what might lie behind it. It was just a sudden surge of emotion. Something one could quell. I quickly got myself in hand. Not wanting to make her feel uncomfortable, and owing her an explanation, I briefly outlined a tale. About a close and valued friendship of very long standing that came to grief over an argument. No mention of transition, nor the Cottage fiasco. Just two friends who had lost their way. Two friends who holidayed together no more. And in essence that was all quite true. But I fancy she guessed much that I could not say.

Anon I felt a little better. The photographer in me took over. The sunset needed attention: the light on the wet beach, the clouds, the silhouettes of Fidra and other islands to the west. I got some fine shots.I chatted in normal friendly fashion to people I met out on the links. We said rueful things about the weather. We laughed. Normal life. Today's life.

I did not cry again till I typed this post.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

The people you meet

It endlessly astonishes me. I'm talking about the friendliness of other people I encounter in my day to day life. People of all kinds.

It's not simply that people will speak to me. They will do things for me, or there are extra impulses to keep up a connection. I'll give you a couple of examples. I've already mentioned the couple at the Fineshade site near Stamford a few days ago, Pam and Michael, who ended up helping me get hitched for departure, very welcome assistance indeed. At Powburn there has been Helen and Douglas. We found we had a definite rapport. I took to them, and they took to me. Both couples let me take a photo of them, to remember them by. In both cases, we sincerely expressed a wish to encounter each other again in the future. Just as with Barbara and Dennis, whom I met at Cirencester last year - they were the ones who treated me to dinner at a country hotel, who really have kept in touch by email in the year since, who posted a heavy packet of Lake District tourist leaflets to me before I headed North this year, and whom I hope to see again at Cirencester, a favourite site for them and me both, in the autumn - these wishes are not empty. Helen and Douglas also proved it.

Just before they left for home in Edinburgh yesterday, Helen came to my caravan. She wanted to leave me Douglas's contact details for emailing and for my next visit to the general area. It was a card. She placed it face down on my kitchen worktop. 'Lucy, don't look at this before we go,' she said, 'And especially please don't be put off by one or two things mentioned on Douglas's card.' Of course, I couldn't prevent myself having an immediate glance. I took in 'OBE' after the name. Douglas was an OBE? Wow. Then, before it, 'Sherriff'. Sherriff? In Scotland, that meant an important man in the legal process, didn't it? I asked her. It meant 'Judge'. So I had spent three days in the company of a couple used to the legal high society of Edinburgh, whom I might well assume were persons of discernment, and able to assess good character. They had decided that despite my appearance, I was made of the right stuff. I wasn't overawed by the 'Judge' bit - I'd become accustomed to legal people and legal processes during my Revenue career, which hadn't been mentioned - but I felt their giving me their contact details, and trusting me with them, was one of the most accepting and flattering gestures made to me so far in my New Life.

But I don't just get along with fellow caravanners. I was shopping in the big Sainsbury's supermarket in Alnwick. In one of the aisles was a lady sitting in a buggy, doing her shopping. We began to talk, as you do. She was eighty, with weak legs, but very cheerful. Her name was Margaret. We chatted for nearly half an hour. I had a lot of her life history by the end. Just as my Mum would have in a similar situation. She'd been widowed for over twenty years. She showed me a photo of her husband and herself on a sunny holiday at Scarborough in the 1980s. He looked cheerful too, a man who took a lively interest in life. But he had died early of heart trouble. They'd lived in Yorkshire when he was alive, and holidayed in those traditional resorts that Yorkshire people rightly enjoy, such as Whitby and Scarborough and Bridlington. I'd been to them too, and agreed they were hard to beat. Being on her own, and being disabled, had not defeated her. She had her buggy. She loved it, like I loved Fiona. She regularly went on coach trips to places she fancied. The local coach company knew her, and made special arrangements to load and unload her buggy. She'd recently been back to Whitby, when some festival was on. Whitby is a hilly place, but that hadn't stopped her. She'd also been to Skipton, up in the Dales. To see family? No, just to see the town. Just for a day out. To prove perhaps that life could be full and rich and varied, and need not house-bound, not just because one had weak legs and was old. I admired her. She had snapped her fingers at the loss of her life partner and siblings, and bodily weakness, and did things. We had common ground: we agreed that living life on your own, whether enforced or by choice, could be turned to very positive ends. It just needed the right attitude, and a willingness to give other people some time and attention. I was sorry to say goodbye.

And then yesterday, when S---, a friend, drove down to meet up with me for lunch and an afternoon at Cragside (a lovely National Trust property at Rothbury), I found myself having a short personal conversation with the local girl behind the bar at the Tankerville Arms at Eglingham, while S--- was powdering her nose after a very good meal. It was so natural and easy. She had a most attractive north-eastern accent. And at Cragside we spoke at length to more than one Room Guide, S--- being just as happy as myself to set aside reserve and potential embarrassment, to forget the prison of one's appearance, and simply enjoy other people and what they had to say.

I suppose the general point I'm making is that in my situation - which may be your situation too - it's terribly easy to fear being out in public, to fear encounters, to worry over what people may think, and to limit contact and conversation to the bare essentials. Indeed, one might avoid speaking at all. But, if only one can equip oneself for prolonged discussion, and permit repeated or prolonged scrutiny, then the difficulties melt away. Most people respond to a genuine interest in them, or what they are doing. And if you are sincere and friendly, and make no pretence, almost nothing about you will stand in the way of a mutually pleasant meeting of minds.It's not about ego, or trophy-hunting, or subjecting oneself to deliberate social exposure, or to find out just how daring one can be, as a sort of masochistic test. It's about forgetting oneself, forgetting one's own social limitations, being unselfconscious, and reaching out to others. Yes, there's an afterglow of achievement, a real sense of payback and reward. But it's properly paid for, it isn't a free ride. And a large part of the feel-good sensation centres on being a straightforward human being, sharing the common lot, and just possibly, who knows, making a tiny difference to someone else's day. Is that a glib observation, a cheap boast? It isn't meant to be.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Riccarton Junction

I did get to Riccarton Junction, as part of a long day out in the course of which I drove 140 miles in a roughly anticlockwise direction from Powburn, via Wooler, Jedburgh (stopped off to view the Abbey), Carter Bar (one of three Border places I encountered, high up, with sweeping views of the Cheviots), Saughtree (the old station, from which my hike to Riccarton Junction started and ended), Kielder (for a pit stop, a pint of iced soda water at the Anglers Arms pub), Kielder Water (a huge lake, and where Fiona reached 50,000 miles on the clock - well done Fiona!), Bellingham and Rothbury. It was sunny and warm throughout. So much so that the tramp to Riccarton Junction was a bit more gruelling than I'd reckoned on.

I anticipated several problems. First, parking Fiona so that she didn't invite attempted theft. Fortunately, the stoney track that led up to Slaughtree station began with a high-walled river bridge, and I was able to position her so that she was invisible from the south, and unnoticeable if descending the valley from the north. Not that there was much traffic on the road anyway (the B6357), but parking Fiona, a posh car and the apple of my eye, is always worth taking trouble over. Second problem: Saughtree station might nowadays be someone's home, and my way could be blocked, with a barking dog to chase me off. But nobody was living there. Third problem: past experience with railway walks had shown that stout waterproof footwear was needed - the chipped stone ballast was often still there - and that where rainwater collected in cuttings, it might be boggy. I'd brought the Dubarry boots for these things, and although they were unnecessary much of the time, the mire in the cuttings was indeed deep enough to swallow ordinary boots, let alone red high heels, if you were so inclined to walk the high hills in those. But the boots sneered at the mud, and I made triumphant progress. Fourth problem: Riccarton Junction would be devoid of facilities, and I must take a backpack with water and something to eat in it. The backpack I keep in permantly in Fiona contains wet weather shell clothing, fresh socks and a compass. I added my water bottle, a packet of dried apricots, my phone, my purse, and my tablet (with the local map on it). But idiotically I forgot to pack any tissues. Luckily my nose didn't drip, and I didn't need to pee. Fifth problem: mad axemen and violent men intent on rape. They could be behind every bush, certainly lying in wait in one of the cuttings; but in my haste to get going, I foolishly left my stick in Fiona's boot. I resolved to Die Hard.

The route itself, a former railway line, was a doddle to follow, but it was by no means level. As I left Slaughtree station, it struck me that southbound trains had a stiff gradient to get up. It did level off a bit later on, but I'd read somewhere that the old Midland Railway Company had had a small-engine policy, and I could imagine how much harder that would make steaming on this hilly line. Presumably the Waverley express from Edinburgh to London had been double-headed. Maybe a bit easier in diesel locomotive days, during the last years of the line.

On I trudged, thinking that although Dubarry boots are trendy in winter, they are jolly hot in summer, and eventually (after an hour, and without being pounced on by lurking murderers) I reached a green open space overlooked by some holiday homes some distance off on a hillside. It was deserted, and there was almost nothing to be seen. I saw the red-painted building. It was locked and the contents suggested a sudden abandonment. Back in 2005 or so, it had been the working HQ for a preservation society intend on restoring Riccarton Junction to its former glory. But it had all gone wrong. Personally, I think they had much too little left to restore. British Rail had demolished almost everything. The information board next to the red building showed photos of what once was, including the village where the station staff and their families had lived. Most of that had been razed. I took a dozen photos of what could be seen, and will post them up when I get home. My advice: look at them, and then save yourself a hot walk, because a personal visit is hardly worth the effort. You'll see only two crumbling platform faces, the old generator house (that red brick building), a chimney standing amid ferns some way off, and no view like there used to be, because massive fir trees have been planted that limit your vision to the station area only. But I wasn't disappointed. I'd reached and savoured a destination not often seen by Sussex residents!

After half an hour, after a swig of water and some dried apricots, I set off back to Saughtree. I was now feeling distinctly tired and footsore, my winter boots being not at all ideal for striding in. The sun was behind me, on my back, and the cooling breeze had dropped. The gates across the trackway all seemed harder to open than before, and heavier. The sheep seemed more aggressive, or at least complained more. I still met no-one. I was so glad when the downwards gradient increased, and Saughtree station came into view. I wondered how the local trains managed to stop for the short platform when the rails were wet or frosty. I paused to inspect the intact buildings, the short length of track laid, the platform, the little engine, the wagons and brake van. It looked like Saughtree had absorbed nearly all the society's money and energies. I wondered why they hadn't created a car park, and at least opened the place up for afternoon teas, with a standing train and a moorland view thrown in? Perhaps they had thought of it, but got insufficient passing trade. Perhaps that was really the basic problem with preserving this line: it was too remote, and no part of it was near a tourist town. It wouldn't generate enough money.

I was relieved to see that Fiona was unmolested. As I approached, almost limping, I opened the powered tailgate by remote control. I eased my boots off, noted the heat rash on my lower legs, slipped on my flats, closed the tailgate, and sank into Fiona's soft cream leather driver's seat. Before all else, I locked the doors. Then I planned my route back to Powburn. I was a long way from the comforts of the caravan. First priority: a cold drink. I fired Fiona up, and on my way back enjoyed some of the best scenery in Southern Scotland and the North of England. At the Club site I chatted further with the couple on the pitch next to me, Helen and Douglas. I then had a wonderful cup of tea, a hot shower, and cooked the sea bass. It was heavenly. But my feet felt tender. I'd overdone it.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

On the Third Day (of my Northern Tour)

I'm at Powburn in Northumberland, and the third day of my Northern Tour dawns. Yet again it's warm and sunny. Today, then, I'll undertake a five-mile return tramp high up in the Cheviots, along an old railway line, to one of the most isolated railway junctions there ever was: Riccarton Junction, on the old Waverley Route between Edinburgh and Carlisle. The line was closed in 1969, and traversed very lonely countryside. It might not have been quite as wild and exposed to the elements as the Settle-Carlisle line further south, but winters at Riccarton Junction must have been pretty severe. The little community there existed solely to staff the railway station, and there was nothing else in the spot except the station. There was no road in: everything was brought by rail. Presumably there were daily sightings of mountain sheep and occasionally the hill farmers who owned them, but otherwise contact with the outside world was confined to the train crews and the passengers. And I doubt whether many passengers alighted, then hung around contemplating their bleak surroundings, until they joined the train that would take them on a roundabout journey to Kielder or Bellingham. Riccarton Junction, or what's left of it, is one of the Holy Grails of railway line exploration. Prior research has shown me that on the way I will see a short stretch of relaid line, and, at the station itself, a restored platform face and a small information display in a surviving original brick hut. Nearly everything else was demolished by British Rail forty-odd years ago. So I'm going mainly to enjoy the scenery - and to say afterwards, possibly as my Last Words on my deathbed, that I went there, and my life was therefore not a complete waste of time.

Of course, if the sun disappears and it lashes down with rain, I'll give it a miss and hit the Metro Centre in Newcastle instead!

The journey here was in two stages. The first 160 miles took me to Fineshade, a forest location south-west of Stamford. I got there in three hours and forty five minutes, with one thirty-minute lunch break. So, while in motion, I covered 160 miles in a net time of 195 minutes, which is an average of 49mph. Not too bad with a caravan weighing more than a ton hitched up behind. But on my second leg to Powburn, a further 240 miles, I did better, covering the distance in four hours and fifty-five minutes, with two breaks totalling 50 minutes. That's 240 miles in a net time of 245 minutes, giving an average speed of 59mph while moving. Queen of the Road, or what?

On the first evening (at Fineshade) I had a good stroll around Stamford - what lovely old buildings! - and on the second evening (here at Powburn) I explored the hilly River Beamish valley, catching both places in golden light as the sun went down. The first night's meal was a curry bought from Sainsbury's, embellished with chutney, and some spinach out of the freezer in the caravan. But last night's was a proper roast pork dinner with potatoes, carrot, green beans, gravy, apple sauce and mustard. I normally cook most of my meals in the caravan from scratch, in exactly the same way as I do at home, using fresh (or fresh-then-frozen-at home-for-later-consumption) ingredients. It's fish tonight - sea bass, with potatoes and courgette. Simple peasant fare. You can't go wrong with stuff like that.

Socially the trip has been good so far. I chat to all and sundry of course. For instance, I bumped into a young man in Stamford, who was also shooting the architecture, and we compared cameras and results. But the best encounters so far have been on the Caravan Club sites. It's normal to smile and say hello, but at Fineshade I had a long chat with a lady walking her little dog, and more than one chat with an extremely pleasant couple in a nearby caravan called Pam and Michael, who live near Leicester. They took a shine to me, and helped me hitch up on departure. At Powburn, a succession of passing caravanners, men and women, have had time for a friendly word; and yesterday evening, at dusk, I had a very nice chat with the couple in the adjacent caravan, who are from Edinburgh.

I ask for no more in the way of human contact while away. It does cross my mind that I'm an object of curiosity for more than one reason: the caravan and Fiona both look resplendent; I'm clearly on my own; I'm clearly an older caravanner, who might struggle a bit with the physical side of caravan life. I'm wearing almost no makeup, just lipstick, and I'm relying on my tops and leggings (and the unconcealed bumps and curves) to signal 'potential damsel in distress' to chaps who feel chivalrous, which seems to be most of them. And yet the ladies have been frank and confiding with me in conversation, so I can't be coming across as a Woman of Danger. As ever, I put it all down to developing a good speaking voice. That achievement opens every door.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Earring experiment

The loading of my caravan is almost complete, but I need a break. So another post before I set forth tomorrow morning. I will of course be posting while away, but without photos; so this is the last one for three weeks that can include a picture.

A little while ago I showed you my new necklace, and mentioned that I was trying out a range of earrings to wear instead of the titanium studs that I'd kept in my ears continuously since the end of 2009, briefly taking them out for only one thing: surgery in March 2011. I settled on some fake pearl earrings that I'd bought for £18 from a shop in Chichester in January 2010, and had never worn before. Once in, they looked like this:

The dumb-bell type studs were a swine to unscrew, but once done, and the pearl earrings put in, I was pleased with the result. These had a thin rod that you popped through the little hole in the ear lobe, then secured with a small push-on piece that stayed in place by friction. But some earrings are of course hooked onto the ear, with all kinds of dangley decoration. It would be fun exploring that world. I wasn't sure how heavyweight gold gypsy (or pirate) rings fixed onto one's ears, but that too could now be looked into!

I'd never fancied the sort of earring (favoured by my Mum) that pinched the lobe to stay in place. Earrings that needed a hole in the lobe seemed so much nicer, and I was really glad that I'd had my ears pierced. I was determined to never let the holes close up, and to keep them healthy.

All went well for a day. Then my left lobe began to feel sore. Sure enough, it looked a bit inflamed. I wasn't going to take any chances. I took the pearl earrings off, and (with a lot of difficulty, it's such a fiddle when you have fat hands with stubby fingers) refitted the titanium studs. The soreness quickly relented.

Sigh. I suppose that if I want to vary my ear bling I'll have to save up and get expensive earrings in a metal that won't react with my skin. Till then, studs only.

Does it always have to be titanium? It obviously can't be anything that might tarnish. What about gold? I'll do some Internet research and find out more.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

My friend Alice has made a film about being herself

Alice was my first trans friend, and I have known her since December 2008. Last weekend she mentioned that she had helped to make a short film about herself with Raphael Fox and Lewis Hancox, whom you may remember from the 2011 TV documentary My Transsexual Summer. These two young men are now film-makers. Their production company is called Lucky Tooth Films.

Hitherto, I've referred to Alice as simply 'A---' on this blog, but she's now put herself out there in public as a named trans person, 'Alice of Brighton' anyway, and there's no point now in carrying on with 'A---'. Indeed, she has urged me to publicise her film on my blog if I can. I'm very happy to do that for her.

So: I got an excited text message earlier today from Alice, telling me that the film was out, and where I could watch it on the Internet. I promised to look at it tonight, but I couldn't resist looking at it sooner than that.

It's a short film with Alice herself doing all the talking. You get to see a lot of her flat, her appearance, hints of what music she likes, and you hear what makes her tick. It's all very natural. There's a good relevant soundtrack going on in the background, which I suspect was chosen by Alice. The editing seems very professional. I see that Lucky Tooth Films have in mind showings in schools and film festivals. It would be nice if a TV company took up this kind of documentary for a mid-evening slot.

It absolutely shows Alice as you will find her at home or in her garden. She doesn't dwell on stuff like surgery: I don't think she even mentions it. She does speak frankly about how she first faced up to transition; how she came out to her kids; and what it means to her, to be accepted and appreciated for the woman she is. She gives us a poem to round the film off that I found moving. For some, the ending might require tissues for a tear or two: Alice's life, and her position, will resonate with a lot of people.

I do recommend a viewing. You can see Alice's film at the Lucky Tooth Films website at Under their flashing 'gold tooth' logo is a choice of pages: select 'Documentary', and a list of films to view then appears. Click on My Genderation - Alice.

Alice and I are very good friends, but very different at the same time. She can explain herself in film and music and especially poetry. I can't - I need to do it with still photographs and plodding screeds.

We are both articulate, however, and love to talk. And, in our own ways, we both need to be creative. Like many, many, other trans people need to be. There may not be a 'trans gene', but I bet that most trans people have a 'creativity gene', and need to express themselves somehow, if they don't actually perform.


Oh, look. This is a bit sad, isn't it? In fact it's more than sad:

Three days ago my pageview total made it to 234,567. I happened to notice it coming up, then hovered over the PC for at least half an hour, checking the mounting total all the time, so that I could get this shot. I really did. It was a photographic challenge. To capture the Decisive Moment.

I suppose you could say that it was a unique moment, a perfect run of figures that would never be repeated. Never. Essential to record it!

Oh well. At least nobody will be fooled into believing that I have a lofty mind that soars far above trivial things.

This must surely be a contender for a booby prize of some kind. Or is that even more ridiculous?

The pageview total is now 236,580 and I don't see any scope for similar games for a while!

Friday, 14 June 2013

Cordon Blur: the Come Dine With Me application form has been sent

It's gone. Completed on the PC and sent by email not an hour ago, with receipt instantly acknowledged.

I actually did a paper version for ordinary posting yesterday, but then slept on it, and this morning decided that it would be much better to deal with this electronically.

First, typing in my answers to Channel 4's questions meant that the form would be easier to read, and I could actually get more information in, or at least make my answers more nuanced.

Second, a paper form wouldn't get acknowledged at all unless it passed the first sift and they were definitely interested in me.

Third, a paper form would have to be scanned for internal distribution to, and consideration by, whatever teams wade through all the applications. It would assist Channel 4, and possibly fast-track me, if the physical scanning stage could be sidestepped.

Fourth, emailing the thing meant that both the application form and my photo would be attachments, letting me include a decent-sized shot.

This is the photo I selected, taken in a Welsh pub last March. I've featured it before, but it has the obvious virtues that I'm in a evening dining situation, wine glass in hand, wearing suitable clothes, and smiling just as a friendly food-loving hostess should:

What now? Well, nothing more for the time being. This is for a future series. If I get through the whittling-down process, then one day I could get a call. But that might be months away, if it happens at all. Meanwhile, I'll make a few preparations, just in case. Those will at least add to my personal skills, my cookery knowledge, and the look of my home.

Thursday, 13 June 2013


A short while ago, at the monthly Clare Project Posh Nosh in Brighton in fact, the subject of autogynephilia came up. Views differed on what it was, although the basic idea of having an erotic regard for one's own appearance was generally agreed on. But it seemed a technical issue, something only weird psychologists obsessed about, specifically Dr Ray Blanchard in America. The discussion didn't go very far, chiefly because it wasn't a topic that had much to do with the day-to-day business of living a trans life in a south coast city; and because it was in any case thought to be an unproven theory that applied mainly to a minority of pre-op MTF transsexuals or crossdressers.

However, I had noticed the occasional distressed post on Angels and Roses, on the lines of 'Am I an Autogynephiliac?' Posts from apparently quite ordinary people. For them it was clearly a great worry. As if getting turned on by your appearance was wrong, a sin, something that would stigmatise you, something to be ashamed of.

For myself, I'd known of the word 'autogynephilia' for a long time, and recalled encountering it right at the start of my transition, before I even took any active steps. I think it was on a forum. The message I took on board was that autogynephilia meant obsessive self-love to the point of orgasm, and then way beyond. Something more than just finding oneself very sexy when dressed up, wigged, and smothered in makeup. Something more serious than doing an imaginary strip tease in front of a mirror, followed by a jolly good wank. Something that kept on nagging at you once the clothes, wig and makeup had been packed away for a future session. An incurable type of compulsion. A disturbing fetishism. Certainly something to keep quiet about when seeing the doctor at the gender clinic, in case your transition got sidetracked. I got the drift.

But what is autogynephilia actually supposed to be? I looked it up. As expected, Wikipedia has a decent article (see, and for a thorough examination of the subject and the controversy that surrounds it, Andrea James' Transsexual Roadmap article seems hard to beat (see I also looked at what Gires had to say about gynephilia in natal women (see, and noted the link to a digest of a paper by Dr Charles Moser at Jack Molay's blog The Autogynephilia Portal also seems to be useful, offering yet another angle on the subject (see

Any post-op transsexual should feel qualified by nature to have an insight into the whole matter. In other words, one such can say to any researcher or enquirer: ask me, and you'll get information from the horse's mouth, first-hand stuff.

So here's my take. Let's imagine I'm in the London rooms of an eminent phychologist, on the couch, while he takes notes.

Psychologist: Have you ever felt aroused by your own appearance?

Lucy: Yes, of course.

Psychologist: Why 'of course'?

Lucy: Because I think it's natural to feel a response when you see something exciting and stimulating. It could be a picture, something on TV, a person in the street, or your own reflection in a mirror. If a sexual trigger is there, your response will be triggered.

Pychologist: Do you always need to respond? Can't you control the impulse?

Lucy: If the trigger is powerful, it's hard not to respond. It then becomes a choice between stifling the response, and giving it expression. If you're on your own, in private, and there's no reason to curb the response, it seems perverse not to enjoy the sensation nature offers and see where it may go. Why would you, for example, deny yourself the full pleasure of eating a delicious-looking meal? What indeed is the essential difference between various kinds of sensation? You can get turned on by all kinds of things: food, sex, exciting sports, thunderous applause, by creating something breathtakingly beautiful, or (let's be frank) by killing and destroying things - the horrible depravity of orgies. On a trivial level, you may crave a naughty buttered biscuit: will you resist the temptation to scoff one? What really will be bad about it, if you give in? So you do. In company you usually manage to curb impulses, good manners and social conventions providing a stalwart counter-influence; but left to yourself, the impulse may be so overwhelming that you go ahead and take the sensation promised. If you are obeying the automatic electro-chemical signal in your body that says to you, do this, it will give you pleasure, and it won't harm yourself, and nobody else is involved or affected by whatever it is, then where exactly is the badness?

Psychologist: You don't see any constraints? Moral or religious injunctions not to do something, for example?

Lucy: No. I simply think that I have this body, these natural ways to enjoy it, and that's the end of the matter really. Of course, my lifelong social conditioning has implanted artificial notions that make me wonder what people might think if they caught me doing this or that. And lots of things don't appeal to me, for reasons I can't fathom, but it probably also has something to do with my upbringing, what my parents thought, what my peers and partners considered right and proper. You can't escape your past that easily!

Psychologist: And these things do restrain you, because you feel guilt, or at least they make you feel you are doing something to be ashamed of?

Lucy: Yes. Even though I honestly can't see the real problem. I still feel guilt, and have to consciously set it aside.

Psychologist: Let's be specific. Do you ever get sexually aroused by your own reflection?

Lucy: If I'm honest, yes.

Psychologist: When did this become an intense sensation?

Lucy: Oh, once the hormones had got me in their grip, and my skin became smooth and soft, and the fat-distribution gave me much more of a woman's shape, and my face changed. Electrolysis helped hugely. These were changes that I saw, and responded to, even when I first woke up in the morning, hair tousled and no makeup. I saw myself in a raw state, and still found the sight amazing. It's even more true nowadays.

Psychologist: You mean 'nowadays when I'm post-op'? Do you get aroused at the sight of your female genitalia?

Lucy: Ah, that's not what actually makes me feel sexy. I'm not saying that I don't look at that zone - it's impossible not to look, and why would you avert your eyes? But I feel sexy - post-op - because of the knowledge that my body is 'authentic'. It's a mental thing. The surgical alterations have made me feel different. I walk differently, and I'm much lighter on my feet. And my posture has improved. I definitely walk taller, literally. All this reinforces the perfectly real sensation of being a graceful floating female, and not a clumsy clumping male. Slinky cat versus blundering bulldog. But the social consequences are just as important. With a woman's shape, a woman's voice, and a woman's behaviour, I socialise in a completely female way, and that has remoulded my self-perception. To the extent that it's easy to imagine the thrill of being chatted up and seduced. And that kind of fantasy is what I have in mind when I have got myself ready to go out, and I consider my reflection, and think, 'you don't look bad, not at all'. Even though I'm not looking for love, and will be an my guard against advances, and I'm quite aware that, in any case, only old codgers will give me a second glance.

Psychologist: Your reflection doesn't make you abandon the evening for a session of masturbation in front of the mirror?

Lucy: No way. I want to see my friends, and have a nice drink, or a meal, or both. With plenty of talk, plenty of laughter. That's all much more satisfying.

Psychologist: So your social life is more important to you than sex?

Lucy: It is.

And I think we'll leave the discussion there. As you can see, my own take is that there is nothing wrong with enjoying the natural sensations your body can give you. Our eyes and brains can't help responding to trigger sights that set internal processes in motion. I say, let them have expression, but subject to some considerations. For example, I draw the line very sharply at harming other people. And at self-harming, whether it's too much drinking, smoking, drugs or frank torture. Without exceptions, we surely owe it to others to protect their mental and physical welfare by being much more than just discreet: we must be adult and responsible in the widest and finest senses. It's a compulsory and universal duty of care, in fact.

If the only sex available is masturbation in private, then I'd say go for it without guilt. The same if duff at handling relationships, or if needing a way of having sex without the risk of infections and diseases.

Above all, I don't think anyone should regard themselves as a depraved fetishist if they find their own appearance sexy. It's good to have high self-esteem. It's an essential part of a great evening out. But it's bad if that self-esteem develops into the kind of self-obsessed narcissism that takes over one's life, and makes it impossible to give proper care and attention to other people, because the world has narrowed down to just one's pretty face. Now that is something to be concerned about.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Glowing in the dark: the new necklace

I came away from the South of England Show with a souvenir - a new necklace, composed of a string of large egg-shaped glass beads, light-blue in colour and only slightly opaque. These catch the light all the time in such a way that the necklace seems to glow. But from certain angles, and in certain lights, there is a secondary effect: the light is refracted, so that as well as the blue glow, there is an amber light pattern. To my eyes it looks very pretty. See what you think:

That amber thing seems to be more pronounced in dim light, and so I think this is especially a necklace for indoor or evening wear, as the beads will catch any light available, such as candlelight. It might be a bit too much at midday on a beach, or in a sunny shopping mall. But naturally I will have to do a few test runs, and see what happens. The necklace is definitely going with me on holiday to bonny Scotland!

You may detect already a very slight change in my 'look'. I've decided to wear the hairband much less, to show my ears more, and to try a range of earrings instead of the same old studs. None of these changes need be permanent, it's all experimentation. Basically I feel that despite the dreadful ravages of old age and a vibrant social life, I can still cut it in the cattle market if I do little things to enhance whatever lingering femininity I can still muster. It can't make me pretty or beautiful - decades too late for that - but it might add subtly to my physical attractiveness. A kind of tentative makeover. Pity about the witch-like neck, but hey ho.

If only cats and dogs take an interest, and I get blanked as usual by passing chappies under forty seeking younger and prettier flesh, then I'll be perfectly composed. If on the other hand cultured fellows of wealth, style, distinction and discernment, all of them men of the world in the very finest sense, eagerly want to claim my acquaintance as I stroll through the elegant streets and crescents of Edinburgh, then I'll know that tweaking one's presentation really does make a difference!

Fantasy City, here I come.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

South of England Show 3 - This Wheel's On Fire

There was much else to see at the Show beyond animals and old geezers playing banjos. Stalls of every kind. And country vehicles for sale. For instance, you could inspect a Claas Combine Harvester:

Not the biggest, obviously, but large enough! It was very interesting to see the fancy hydraulics close up, and I admired the spacious cab - what I could see of it, for it was so high up. In fact, I was puzzled as to how the driver (and any passenger) could get up there. There was no clear sign of where they might put their feet to climb up. Did they use the treads of the tyres? Or somehow scrabble up using anything that offered a handhold? Bearing in mind that these things might operate at night, and you wouldn't want to slip in the dark and impale yourself on a metal spike, how was it done? Surely it wasn't driven by Tarzan of the Apes, swinging himself up on a liana, or Spiderman, or some ace mountaineer who regularly tackled the North Face of the Eiger? It was only when studying my photos afterwards that it dawned on me that the tall green thing behind the glass of the cab in the lower shot was not the engine exhaust but a set of hinged steps that swung down. Duuuh.

On to exotic chariots for the posh farmer or racehorse owner and his family. Harwoods, one of the more upmarket Sussex motor dealers, were displaying Jaguars and Range Rovers. I had a good look at them.

Two Jaguars first. They had an F-type and an XK, both convertables, and naturally they looked stunning in the bright sunshine. Things of beauty to sweep you into a fantasy world of old-time motor sport, champagne and exhilarating alpine driving, a hint of Monaco casino life and James Bond thrown in - and as British as hell. But I wasn't alone in being amused at the white F-type's ridiculously small boot: it would hardly take a briefcase, certainly not a set of golf clubs! So not a serious contender, whatever its prowess on the road. Its official list price started at £58,520, but you could be sure that with all normal equipment and trim options you could add at least 50% to that. Nice as a sunny-day runabout, of course.

The larger XK looked a much more practical proposition. Here it is, resplendent in British Racing Green:

Wow. It exuded quality. The leather trim and the controls looked fantastic. However, I immediately wondered how long that leather would stay so white, and after prodding the seats and examining the stitchwork I thought that it wasn't really any better than the cream leather I had in Fiona. Strange that they extended the leather to those parcel shelves behind the seats...oh! Those are the rear seats! They're kidding. It's a leg-pull. There's no space for your legs! How silly...well, no further interest from from me, then. That said, the XK, with an official price 'from £71,465' (but again, add 50% for decent options) was rather more practical for a weekend away than the F-Type. It might even be good for a small-scale expedition to the local Waitrose, when you run out of Pimm's.

I turned to the Range Rovers. Much more my cup of tea.

At this point I will remind you what Fiona looks like. She's a top-of-the-range Volvo XC60 SE Lux Premium with the D5 five-cylinder 2.4 litre diesel engine, six-gear automatic transmission with permanent all-wheel drive, and most of the useful options. She cost £40,000 in May 2010 (actually only £34,000, because of the £6,000 trade-in on my old Honda CR-V under the Scrappage Scheme then in force). Four shots from 2010, when she was new:

Three more from 2011, 2012, and 2013 (the very day of the Show):

Right then, the supposedly posher Range Rovers. First up a snazzy-looking red Evoque:

Interior, courtesy of Mrs Beckham, the wife of a retired football player I've vaguely heard of. I have to say, she's got a sense of style. And I saw James May take this car through its paces in the rough stuff on Top Gear: it's a tough and capable little car. But only two doors! And I hate the exterior styling - the car looks as if a giant has sat on it, and squashed it down. I can't get past that. This is supposed to be the chic, mini Range Rover for fashionista mums with style-conscious children. Dare I say Essex mums? (No, perhaps best not) I can't quite make out the precise version on the card in the front window in my photo, but the price looks like £50,064 (phew) so it must be loaded up with all the options going! It's too small, too red, and not practical enough for me.

Let's now contemplate a full-sized Range Rover Vogue in a more sobre hue:

Your carriage awaits, Your Majesty...and indeed, the Royal Family do run around their estates in Range Rovers because there is nothing better for their purposes. This is a car of superlatives. I'd consider having one if I could afford to buy and run it. This version cost £82,656. But you can pay close to £100,000 if you want everything they can bolt on. I'd reckon on realistic annual running costs, cash only, ignoring depreciation, of £12,000, or an average of £1,000 a month. I'd certainly want a better colour than metallic grey with a slate decor inside. On the other hand, it's just the right drab neutral background colour to make your Ladies' Day at Ascot outfit sing with colour and brilliance. And a good camouflage colour for the shoot, especially when dusty. You don't want to unsettle the stags with lurid bodywork one can see for miles! Certainly not.

I can perceive a difference between the finish on a Range Rover, and the finish on Fiona. But Fiona is still luxurious, does the same thing, and doesn't come with the pretentious social baggage that a Range Rover does, nor with the extreme running costs. Fionas are for those who look for alternatives, who plough their own furrow, who blaze their own trail, and don't want to be trapped in an upper-class dream.

To round this post off, let's have a look at the stunt bike display. The setup was simply a ramp that curled up sharply to get the stunt riders airborne, and a long landing strip on the back of a lorry:

But then they began to do increasingly daring stunts, gradually holding onto the bike with less and less, not even the handlebars eventually:

Whatever next? No contact with the bike at all? I didn't stay to see any more, in case one of the riders misjudged his stunt and there was tragedy. But I'm sure they all survived.

There are more of these stunt photos on my Flickr site (link in the upper top right of this page).

Monday, 10 June 2013

South of England Show 2 - The Silence of the Lambs

Although there are distractions galore, the Show was originally a showcase for the breeding efforts of farmers in the south of the country, and putting up field animals for a prize remains an essential element.

So do the displays of horsemanship, and believe me, an awful lot of riding goes on in my part of the world! I've ridden myself, although my personal experiences have not been good. I still recall with terror an ex-racehorse called Finbar that I found myself saddled with on a holiday ride in Anglesey in North Wales in 1977. This excitable animal may have been officially retired, but he clearly didn't understand the concept, and expected to be urged into a wild gallop as soon as we got out into open countryside, which, being Holyhead Mountain, meant perilously near the cliffs. He found me lacking in skill and courage, and, irritated, would bite my feet. Then, having made up his mind that I was no good and that he'd best take charge, he showed a distressing inclination to push forward ahead of the field and get some real exercise in. I managed to hang on - but, well, never again! I solemnly swore that to myself, once the bruises on my nether regions had healed.

However, in the early 1990s, I got myself persuaded by a girlfriend to learn to ride properly at a farm near Horsham, and I then spent over a year getting bent legs and a sore bottom every week. I persevered, but eventually I gave it up because I invariably drew the short straw on available horses. The young girls got lovely little ponies, but I had to mount and ride a huge lumbering ex-carthorse called Thunder. This mountainous specimen of workaday equine breeding was chiefly interested in a quiet life munching hay, and found it bothersome to move. He was too docile - or should I say inert? After a while, after too much of his company, I felt that I was being short-changed and would never learn anything useful, and so I left, never to return. Besides, heights worried me, and the prospect of a spectacular fall from Thunder was in itself robbing me of any pleasure I might have had.

In the late 1990s, I went to see the championships at Hickstead (which is not so far away from Ardingly) - on a free ticket, I might add - and saw amazing demonstrations of dressage, as well as regular jumping, by internationally-known exponents. Quite an experience. But even that did not inspire me to leap back into the saddle. This year's jumping at Ardingly reminded me awfully of Hickstead. Here's a few shots from the Show:


But my main interest was in the cattle and sheep. Cattle first. They were all noble beasts. Look at these shots:

If you've got the impression that the owners were not quite in perfect control, you'd be right. The younger animals simply didn't know the ropes, as if they'd turned up to the Strictly Come Dancing Final without any prior tuition whatever. They did their best, wanting to please, but didn't knew the steps. The older animals, who had done all this before, and knew the routine, and knew what the judges were looking for, were inclined to be perverse and mischievous and to make life difficult for the daft humans. Quite frankly, they couldn't give a monkeys. So they amused themselves as they saw fit. The poor girl in the bottom two pictures had a fight on her hands to get her beast into position for judging, but the men did no better. The animal winked at me.

Sheep haven't got the advantage of bulk and weight, and feel far more caught up in a process beyond their control, and indeed beyond their understanding. However, out in the open, while being judged in the sunshine, the more mature sheep looked poised and confident:

That's a good-looking animal, and no mistake. How sturdy and well set up. You can see why the other owners are giving admiring glances:

But the lambs in pens inside the tents, out of the heat, on comfortable straw but hemmed in and no doubt feeling like prisoners, seemed anxious; and they buried their heads in corners, or hid their faces behind each other, seeking some kind of comfort. They were silent.

Poor little things. We looked at each other. On impulse, I leaned forward and whispered to them: 'Fear not,' I said, 'You will inherit all the earth.'