Saturday, 28 September 2013

My husband comes back to haunt me

Mind you (continuing yesterday's theme of amazingly good social success) there are traps and dangers in the lively conversations that spring up with strangers. It's delightful when the exchange flows beautifully, but you have to be very careful where the talk may lead, and in particular whenever personal history becomes the topic!

Yesterday, for instance. I was in Shaftesbury again, that hilltop town in North Dorset. I go there unfailingly when in the area. As I often do, I took the fast A354 road southwest from Coombe Bissett through rolling countryside with wide open views to the junction with the B3081, then followed a classic scenic route northwest through Sixpenny Handley and Tollard Royal, coming down off the high chalk downs at Zig-Zag Hill, which, believe me, has incredibly sharp hairpin bends, although that's all part of the fun. It's always worth visiting dear old Shaftesbury, just for the drive! And afterwards it was exhilarating to whizz back eastwards along an almost-empty A30 to just short of Fovant, where a minor road took me south up the steep chalk escarpment once again, down into Fifield Bavant, and then east along the attractive valley of the River Ebble; and so back to Coombe Bissett.

Anyway, while in Shaftesbury I noticed a few changes. New shops had arrived, old ones had gone. I tried on some stuff in Shirley Allum, a ladies' fashion shop I've bought from before, and discussed there what was going on with the town's main hotel, which was originally the Grosvenor Hotel - the scene of my first honeymoon night in 1983 - then in 2010 had become the upmarket, arty, metropolitan, Michelin-starred-cheffy Hotel Grosvenor at a reputed cost of three million pounds, had gone into administration from lack of clientele, and was now, after yet another expensive makeover, trading in new hands as The Grosvenor Arms. It was still a posh hotel and restaurant, but with a wider appeal more in tune with country tastes, and its historic origin as a coaching inn. Apparently the signs were now good, the restaurant being full on weekends. I was pleased to hear it. I'd eaten there before, when it was the Hotel Grosvenor, and had enjoyed lovely meals but in almost embarrassing solitude, outnumbered by the staff. Yes, they did afternoon coffee. I went in and ordered one at the bar. It was a very reasonable £2. I chose a comfortable-looking settee to sit on. My goodness, what a change in the layout and decor! The dark colours, fancy coloured lights and sharp contemporary artworks of the former Hotel Grosvenor had been swept away. It was now light and open, and much more pubby and inviting. The coffee came. It was good.

Then an older lady came in, seeking a pot of tea for one. I invited her to sit with me. She was in town to see a photographer. She lived in Henstridge, midway between Sherborne and Shaftesbury. She painted. She told me about her interests. She used photography in connection with her art work. She had learned about geology. We discussed rocks. I admitted that I didn't really know much about the geology of the Jurassic Coast! She knew Sussex, as well as Dorset. During the War, she remembered staying in West Chiltington with a yachting family by name of Crowhurst. I wondered whether there could be any link with the Donald Crowhurst who died tragically in the round-the-world non-stop single-handed yacht race held in 1968/69. We discussed the bravery of Ellen MacArthur, who was in a similar race in 2004/05. I had never forgotten her live satellite broadcast from a stormy southern ocean, when, in tears of real fear, she described what had to be done to clear a cable snarl-up (or something like that) at the top of her mast. It involved climbing the mast, a dizzying, very dangerous feat in that tremendous sea. She did it, and defeated her fears. I so admired her, and still did.

Then our conversation, so easy between us, so wide-ranging, moved on to my interests and background. I freely discussed several things. I mentioned my niece's recent marriage in Iceland, and how my nephew had become a father with the birth of Matilda just two weeks ago, making me a great aunt. Did I have children of my own? No. But I had a step-daughter through my marriage. I explained how A--- was now in New Zealand, and how, sadly, we seemed to be drifting apart, day-to-day contact being impossible. What about my husband, where did he live?

That made me pause. My husband! I had no smooth reply ready. After a second or two, I said he was in New Zealand with A---. In fact A--- now had all of her close family around her there, and so was never likely to come back. Very nearly all of this was the literal truth, but she had tripped me up. It wasn't 'he', it wasn't 'my husband'. I felt horribly uncomfortable telling a fib to this lady, even a harmless fib. Fibs are lies. Lies are dishonest. I began to blush. I think she must have noticed my hesitation in answering, and my blushing, and would surely decide that there was much more in what I said than met the eye. Perhaps one side, or both, had misbehaved. I doubt if she could actually guess the true situation, even when pondering it afterwards, and it didn't matter two hoots anyway because we would never meet again. But I felt that I had slipped up. Shortly afterwards she had to go off for her appointment with the photographer. She left in rather in a hurry, I thought. I saw the damage that one little lie had done.

I'd only been asked directly about 'my husband' once before, at a caravan accessory shop. The situation was quite different. It wasn't dangerous then. But I could plainly see how awkward a subject it could be in an intimate woman-to-woman chat over coffee. And woman-to-woman chats were becoming the invariable rule. It was one of the few topics, like school, that could expose my past life. It was clearly best to avoid saying that I'd ever been married at all - except to my thirty-five year Revenue career! I just didn't want to invent lies, however smooth and well-practiced.

Am I over-scrupulous? My public demeanour is, like anyone's, designed to convey a certain impression - not a dishonest one, but a selective one, a carefully-considered one. I don't advertise who I used to be to people I casually meet. Certainly not my past embarrassments. This is necessary for basic social integration, and indeed basic self-protection from harm. And, hand on heart, what ordinary person hasn't a secret or two that they keep to themselves? We all have something to hide. But not being perfectly open bothers me. The bottom line is that having to be untruthful about something fundamental makes me squirm. It's childish, and of course unavoidable in adult life, but it's a problem. And discussing my husband is an enormous Great White Whale of a problem!

Friday, 27 September 2013

Andrea and Lorraine

My holiday is now almost over: three more full days, then I'm back home. Three weeks of travelling around on my own, without a soul to talk to? Hardly! I'd say that no day has passed without chatting to somebody, whether it's people - generally couples - staying on the same site with me, the owners of the sites (whom I know well by now), people in shops and public buildings, people in pubs and places to eat, people I ask for directions, people I just happen to encounter in the street. Something starts us talking, and I find it's a rare person who doesn't appreciate a few words on some topic close to their heart. I do seem to have inherited some of my Mum's knack of engaging people in conversation. Looking back, I think that until she fell ill - when she then wanted peace and solitude - Mum had a positive hunger for discovering like-minded people and forming bonds with them. Bonds that seemed to endure. Without the inhibitions of a relationship to stop me, I think that I'm developing exactly the same hunger for human contact, exactly the same outgoing attitude, and indeed exactly the same self-confidence and self-assurance to reach out in that way. It's come to me a bit late in my life, but now I have it, it would be a dreadful thing to waste it.

There is of course a great danger that I could turn myself into a garrulous nuisance. But it's good to talk, somebody has to break the ice, and the effort is usually rewarding. I believe in making efforts like that, just as I often find that getting out on a rainy day is so much better than sitting at home, and (as if effort earns the approval of the gods that reward those who get off their backsides) getting out in the world vastly increases one's chances of happy encounters. I suppose this is the attitude of an inveterate optimist. I admit it. I'll give you two examples straight off, from this very holiday.

Last week, while in North Devon, I set forth in rain for Appledore, a pretty place that hosts its own annual Book Festival - with some big-name authors and media personalities this year such as Kate Adie, Michael Palin, Lynda La Plante, Jonathan Dimbleby, Peter Snow, Kate Humble, Ann Widdecombe, as well as the likes of Pam Ayres and a host of others. It's a bit bizarre that such people come to what was once just a little riverside port, famous only for building boats. But Appledore is now well-established on the book festival circuit, and each year, for a week and a half, packs in not only the presenters and authors, but thousands of ordinary people like me who can pick events to attend from a brochure at very reasonable cost. This year Michael Palin would cost you £10, for instance - although all tickets have long gone, three months back! In 2012 I paid £54 to attend five book festival events, including an all-day women's fiction-writing workshop. In 2013, I've had to miss the Book Festival entirely, but I'll make quite sure I'm there in 2014.

It's worth it just for the buzz. The place comes alive, thronged with people strolling from one event to another, from morning to evening, animatedly discussing what they have seen, or expect to see. And of course you keep on meeting the same faces. And with that comes opportunities to make friends. It's so exciting.

Obviously the Festival is underpinned by a small army of local volunteers who pin up posters, and 'this way' notices, and usher people, and take good care of the speakers. I met several of these volunteers time and time again, until we began to exchange those 'what, you again?' smiles. But I was nevertheless amazed that anyone could distinguish my face from the multitude of other faces whizzing hither and thither. I certainly never expected to be remembered in 2013, one year later.

But one lady called Andrea did. Admittedly I bumped into her more than most last year - she volunteered for everything, and outside the Festival period had a regular visitor-reception spot at the lifeboat station - but she must have had an amazing memory. This year Appledore parish church was celebrating its 500th anniversary, so I wandered in. A chat with the ladies on the door, a quick word with the chap testing the sound system for the imminent Festival, and there was Andrea. Recognition was instant and mutual. I said, 'It's Andrea M---, isn't it? How are you?' She was clearly astonished that I'd recalled her full name, but you could have knocked me down with a feather when she replied, 'And you're Lucy!' Well! How can this happen? We had a good chat and caught up on family news. Her daughter had just got married, and she showed me the pictures. Funny how people will share their lives with you. And this delightful reunion took place only because I had ignored the rain, and got out and about.

Readers of this blog may recall a post titled Libby in March last year, when I met (and enjoyed a couple of sunny hours with) a lovely lady over lunch in Sue's Pantry in Sidmouth, who just happened to be on holiday there, but whose home was up north. This year, on a dull and wet afternoon in Axminster, it was an equally pleasant local lady called Lorraine. Axminster is a small inland town not far ftom Lyme Regis, smaller than Honiton a few miles away. But it has a nice atmosphere. And it has a department store called Trinity House, which is much on the lines of Wroes in Bude, though without the glorious view of the Atlantic that Wroes has from its café. Well, Trinity House had its pre-winter stock on display, and there, in several sizes, was a stylish black jacket by Tigi that would be just right for smart wear in towns, either over a dress, or more casually with jeggings and boots. It was a versatile garment, suitable for most things except rough stuff like muddy country walks. Perfect for the autumn. I tried it on, but was not quite sure which size looked best. It cost £50. Not peanuts. Hmmm. I didn't want to make a mistake!

So walked away, and drove out into the misty Dorset countryside, ending up in Beaminster, where I'd bought a jacket last year (there are high-class boutiques in every country town). No luck there though. It was getting murkier, spitting with rain. I could have gone straight back to the cosy caravan, but instead decided to have a second look at that black jacket. It sort of called. So it was back onto the winding cross-country Dorset roads, and it wasn't until 4.00pm when I got back to Axminster. Shedding brolly and cardigan, I tried the jacket on again - but was still not sure. It was a sizing problem.

Then I noticed a tallish very slim woman hesitating over a dress nearby. I smiled at her and suggested she tried it on. She clearly lived locally, but was buttoned up against the rain, in between buses perhaps, and I quite understood that she wouldn't feel inclined to take everything off, just to try on a dress that she liked but wasn't going to buy that day anyway. It cost £50 also. However, she took a keen interest in my jacket, and willingly gave her opinion on its look and fit. Although I was on the plump side, and she was slender, we were much the same height. She was size 10/12. I thought a size 14/16 should be right for me, but she could see my back properly, which I couldn't, and thought that I needed more room under my arms. Surely not size 18/20 then? So big! Not at all, she assured me. Just numbers. It was the fit that mattered. So I put on the size 18/20.

She looked at me critically. 'That's right for you. It's a lovely jacket.' I knew instinctively that she had good judgement. I said to her, 'I trust you. I'm going to buy this.' We then congratulated each other on deciding on at least one successful purchase. It had truly been a joint effort. She held my eyes. 'My name's Lorraine,' she said. 'I'm Lucy,' I replied. We agreed to look out for each other at 4.00pm on Wednesdays in Trinity House. Then she left for her regular bus, and I went to the till. How I wish we could meet again, but it was my last afternoon at Lyme Regis until next Spring. When down again, I will however keep that 4.00pm appointment, just in case. If I make the effort, I feel sure that I will be rewarded. And I have reason to think that we will not forget each other during the winter months.

So this is one way in which I make friends. I also seem to have been a hit with a couple on site at Lyme Regis, Pat and Trevor, who live in Anglesey. Pat has given me their address. I will write to them once home. Maybe seeing them will be an objective on my Welsh Tour, when it finally takes place!

You'd expect me to be living a solitary existence, with only my own kind for company, now wouldn't you? But it isn't so. I have more chances to be with people, and talk meaningfully with them, and to get something good out of it, than I ever had in my old life. I'm not naturally given to analysing why things are as they are, but generally 'being Lucy' must lie behind most of what life now brings to me. And so I'd have to support any suggestion that doing what you really need to do, or being what you really need to be, is a key factor in finding fulfilment and possibly happiness, so long as you avoid selfishness.

That and taking a chance on the rain stopping, and the sun bursting through, if you venture out!

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Lobster... maybe!

My longish touring holiday is now drawing to a close. In five days' time I will be back home, and it'll be business as usual, the old routine. But also more blog postings! Quite a lot of my holiday needs photographs to illustrate what I did and what I saw, and the pictures can only be published from my PC.

This morning, for once, it's a beautiful pink and blue sunny dawn. September has not proved to be a good month for holidays in the West of England, and most mornings I've been greeted by leaden skies and spitting rain, or damp fog, even if it's bucked up later on. This unpromising weather hasn't (as the pictures will show) stopped me getting out and around, and generally having a very good time. Take yesterday for instance: up early; a dash in Fiona in thick fog to catch the 9.03am train from Axminster to Exeter St David's (I'm now pitched at Lyme Regis, by the way); a change to a local train to Paignton; and then all the views from a line that for the most part kept to the sea shore, tunneling through red cliffs time and time again, and staying so close to the water that in stormy weather all trains must be comprehensively sprayed by breaking waves. How exciting it must be to travel in such weather! It wasn't like that yesterday, even though the tide seemed high enough to cover the track. The fog dispersed, and Paignton was all palm trees and sunshine and soft mild air. You can plainly see why they call Torbay the English Riviera.

Having lunched leisurely at a harbourside pub - a full-blown roast meal - I decided to walk it off with a promenade-and-beach stroll all the way from Paignton harbour to Torquay station, which isn't that far really, but I misjudged how long it would take, dawdled, then had to cover the last mile at a cracking pace to catch the train back to Exeter. It's left me with sore feet this morning.

Not to worry. Only two objectives today. The first is my mid-weekly dilation. While on holiday I cut out the weekend session, which is in fact completely optional nowadays, and simply dilate when convenient somewhere in the middle of the week. I actually like dilation, because it's a good opportunity to visually inspect The Parts with a mirror, and a great excuse to lie back for half an hour, and totally relax.

Mind you, you need proper facilities. A caravan has them: electrically-heated warmth, a comfortable bed, a bathroom, hot water to wash with, fluffy clouds to watch through the skylight, blinds to pull down, curtains to draw, and total uninterrupted privacy. It would be horribly difficult to dilate in the average backpacker's tent. And although a hotel or guest house bedroom might have space and an ensuite bathroom, it doesn't have that absolute guarantee of privacy. Someone might knock on the door. Someone might blunder in to find you naked on the bed using a kind of dildo. There is no way you would be able to clear away the paraphernalia of dilation in a second or two. It would be a sticky moment and no mistake!

But in one's own caravan, you can lock the world out. You are quite alone and can enforce that. For me the need to dilate, the need to have privacy for it, and all the space in the caravan devoted to it, is the chief reason why I can't ever take somebody else along with me.

The other objective is to investigate a very discreet little signpost less than a mile down the road. I don't remember seeing it before. It says: River Cottage HQ. Aha! An outpost of eco-minded TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall's empire! I think I'll turn down the driveway and if confronted by people with 'you can't come in here' expressions, I'll simply offer apologies for my intrusion, and claim that Fiona overrode my wishes and brought me there against my will. But if I'm lucky, the Great Man himself will be there, and this conversation will take place:

Hugh: I know you! You're that off-the-wall traveller and food lover Lucy Melford, aren't you? Welcome to River Cottage HQ!
Lucy: And you're that renowned but equally off-the-wall chef and bon viveur Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall! How nice to meet you!
Hugh: You'll stay for lunch, won't you? We've just caught some crab, and there are two lobsters that must be eaten, and I have a dandelion and dock leaf salad ready to eat. Of course you'll stay! Only the six of us, but we've plenty of wine, too much really, and we need help to get through it all!
Lucy: With pleasure!

It all seems so terribly likely to happen. I'd better give today's garb a lot of careful consideration. A loster-coloured long top, certainly, in case of accidents while eating. Well, I can ponder my outfit while dilating! (People who don't dilate miss out on all these golden opportunities for serious thought).

And if Hugh isn't there, and there is no lunchtime invitation, then I have some sea bass in the caravan freezer for an evening meal instead. Sorted, either way!

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Being called a slut

MEP Godfrey Bloom's remark a couple of days ago, to some women party members at a UKIP meeting, who admitted openly that they didn't clean behind their fridges - 'This place is full of sluts!' - was clearly meant as a jocular remark, but as might be expected, one likely to misfire. And indeed it has. I don't wonder that party leader Nigel Farage has clutched his brow in exasperation. No political party, especially one apparently making real headway in the run-up to the 2015 General Election, and especially one in the middle of an Annual Conference that must send out serious messages to the electorate, can pass off gaffes like this with an indulgent chuckle. I won't ever be voting for UKIP, but I do not wish to see them ridiculed.

Mr Bloom is the man who, not long ago, condemned foreign aid going to people in 'Bongo Bongo Land'. That phrase calls up immediate images of supercilious white English bwanas in pith helmets keeping down superstitious drum-thumping natives in Darkest Africa, and all the worst features of Colonial Life a hundred years ago. Africa may still be a continent full of poverty and wars, but it isn't Dark any more. Its problems, rural and urban, are largely a legacy from misguided and unjust colonial rule and exploitation, and they are curable. I personally think that every European country who selfishly grabbed a piece of Africa before World War II has an ongoing moral responsibility to make amends. And foreign aid is one way. If you must justify it further, then getting countries properly onto their feet with educational, medical, agricultural, manufacturing, housing and infrastructural programmes will stabilise them, and one day will turn them into significant political allies and trading partners. Either way, people opposed to foreign aid are spoiling the life chances of millions of people, and possibly condemning them to needless early death from war, disease or any of the many bad effects of grinding poverty and a life with no hope in sight.

Back to sluts. Can anyone call a woman a slut nowadays, meaning it to be taken as a joke?

At one time the word implied a low-class creature with no standards, who was badly dressed, dirty, unkempt, and almost certainly poor and ignorant. In other words, a victim of social indifference and prejudice, at a time when The Poor were a subclass, and judged by their 'betters' as guilty for their squalid way of life, its female members even more so than the men. It was no surprise if a desperate woman, forced to live a sluttish life, turned to prostitution. Thus dirt and sex were entangled, and a slut meant first and foremost a poor-class sleazy streetwalker who sold her body cheaply, simply for the means to stay alive.

It was of course a gross insult to call a respectable woman a slut. Her male family, or her husband, might well call out the perpetrator for satisfaction of the slur, whether the remark was justified or not. So in 1820 Mr Bloom would have faced pistols at dawn for his ill-judged remark. In 1920 he might still have been roughed up, and left with a black eye or two.

During the second half of the twentieth century a more metaphorical, more playful, usage of the word crept in, as the dire financial need to turn to prostitution receded. By 1970 the word could simply mean a good-time girl who didn't care who she slept with, nor how often. A cross but concerned mother on TV's Coronation Street could therefore accuse her misbehaving daughter of being a slut. On the box it had explosive but legitimate dramatic effect. But in real life it remained one of the worst things you could say to a woman.

Like many such words, 'slut' has lost some of its power in the last forty years. But it's still a word linked with easy, careless sex. You can however say it as a harmless throwaway remark to a friend who admits to sleeping with someone, or seriously thought of doing so, provided both of you are women of the world and know each other very well. You can get away with it if the word is said gently, with a shared smile and the right intonation, and is apropos of a confidence. It's still not a word I would personally ever write in a text or email, let alone in a handwritten letter, not to anyone, unless it were literally true and I really meant it to sting. Even then, caution would probably stop me. If a man ever called me a slut I'd take him to mean I was sexually wayward and probably none too particular about my feminine hygiene. I'd feel cheapened and disrespected. It most definitely wouldn't be the right word to chose, if he simply wanted to jest about my fridge-cleaning routine.

Is this being too sensitive? Well, we have all become a lot more aware of our individual value and self-worth. There is no need for anyone to accept a put-down, however jocular. Mr Bloom's 'slut' remark wasn't addressed to me, but I'm imagining how I would have felt if I had been there. And in a way Mr Bloom was attacking all women, myself included, who are not obsessive about the dust and fluff that gradually accumulates behind their kitchen appliances. He shouldn't be dismissing us with an inappropriate label.

I'm not going to retaliate and call him names here. I think his gaffe indicates the attitudes that buzz around inside his head. I'm saying no more. Of course he forfeits my support. If he believes that it's OK to belittle and insult women, he can't expect women to vote for him if they happen to be one of his East of England constituents, nor praise him if not. That is our sanction against him. I'm assuming that, as a politician, he will see this is as a perfectly principled position. It doesn't seek to destroy him, but merely registers proper protest, and attempts to educate him for the better.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Great Aunt Lucy

I can now reveal that I am officially Great Aunt Lucy!  My nephew M---'s girlfriend C--- has given birth to a baby girl. She's called Matilda, and was born at 1.16am on 16 September. Although in theory full-term, she was a little underweight at five and three-quarter pounds, but today the hospital judged that it was OK for her to be taken home. So M--- and C--- now have transformed lives, a new and immensely important responsibility, and all the joys and tears that a child will bring.

I myself get a new status: and it's up to me whether I turn it into a meaningful role. I mean to try, although I must not of course trespass in the slightest on the far more important roles of parent and grandparent! I don't think that Great Aunts are actually expected to do very much. But whatever they might do, I'm up for it, although it's unlikely to include babysitting because M--- and C--- live about two hours away (it's not so much the distance, but the slow London traffic). Do Great Aunts get to hold and feed the baby? I hope so.

Funny how my nephew's 'OK Lucy! Go ahead and blog as much as you like about this uniquely amazing birth' message should  closely follow an enquiry I made earlier today at Wroes department store in Bude, about another girl who had also been expecting a baby - although the baby would now be of nursery school age. It was two years ago. I was being served by a pleasant girl on the staff of Wroes called Gemma. I was looking for a fitted sheet for my bed at home, and she went that extra mile in rooting around behind the scenes to find exactly what I wanted. Gemma was however unmistakably pregnant. I asked when, of course. The birth was about three weeks away. So this was almost her last week at Wroes before taking maternity leave. She lived in Marhamchurch, a nearby village, but had originally come from the Midlands with her husband. Altogether we had quite a conversation. I never forgot her, and now, two years on almost to the day, I asked whether she was back at the store. Yes she was - how nice of me to enquire! She worked Mondays, Tuesdays and Saturdays. Today was a Wednesday, so I'd missed her. How very disappointing! I'll have to remember her working days, and come again to say hello, and of course ask after her child. But it could not be on this holiday: what a pity.

Funny also - to continue the baby theme - that on 16 September I was in Ilfracombe and saw yet another heavily pregnant girl, down by the harbour. She was completely naked, but that's for another post.

Monday, 16 September 2013

It's a gas

Today I had a phone call informing me of wonderful news. I am bound by a promise not to reveal details yet on my blog, nor to say why there is such a temporary embargo, and so I'd better not even mention who the caller was, nor what the news means to me personally. I will simply say that having had an early lunch at The Gallery Café at the Queens Theatre in Barnstaple, and having begun a leisurely look around the shops, on hearing the news I immediately sped back to the Café for a celebratory glass of Sauvignon Blanc. I explained the reason for this to the girl behind the bar, a mother of four, because I was bursting to tell someone even if it had to be a total stranger. But I must wait for The Word before declaring my news to the wider world. Sorry.

So, tonight I'm going to talk about gas.

There was once a time when the phrase 'it's a gas' was current. It meant 'what's going on now is mindblowingly cool'. It was actually a neat thing to say. But it was an odd and obscure use of the word 'gas' and it always sounded contrived, or at least an 'in' phrase used and understood only by a select few. One associated it with a spaced-out drug-taking subculture, and the louche life of rock bands. It occurs in the Rolling Stones' hit number Jumping Jack Flash, where Mick Jagger (vocals) howls out this tender refrain:

But it's all right now,
In fact it's a gas.
But it's all right,
I'm Jumping Jack Flash, it's a gas, gas, gas.

I can't however remember anyone using the phrase 'it's a gas' after the late 1970s. It's ripe for revival, you know. It would be an economical sound bite for politicians, for instance - a phrase that sounds trendy and positive and approving, and would appeal in equal measure to the Young Voter Of Today, and to the Voter Who Was Young In The 1970s. But it conveniently means almost nothing. The perfect utterance for a hard-pressed Prime Minister. Or indeed a hard-pressed Deputy Prime Minister.

Enough of these vapidities.

As you know, I like to cook in my caravan. I scorn using a microwave oven, and cook with a gas hob and gas oven, just as I do at home. But yesterday evening, just as I was about to start cooking, and was pre-heating the oven, the gas ran out. Oh no! This was a dire problem. Not because I didn't have a spare propane gas cylinder - I always carry two cylinders, and can switch between them. Nor because I might not deal with the emergency in time to see that film a bit later on. No, it was a dire problem because to switch cylinders I'd have to brave the driving rain, and struggle with a spanner.

Thankfully there was immediate divine intervention, and the rain stopped. That left only the spanner to cope with. It had to be used in a confined space, at an awkward angle, and with a degree of strength that I had just about possessed when I last changed gas cylinders, but might not possess now. It was ages since I last carried out this very awkward chore. Supposing I couldn't undo the nut on the hose connector? Even if I cleverly remembered that the thread was the reverse of normal? I could of course ask Phil the farmer to do it for me, but that would be to admit a sad degree of girly feebleness. Fortunately, the nut moved, and I could detach the gas hose and fix it onto my spare cylinder instead. My Intrepid Girl Caravanner Credentials were still intact. I cooked and ate and arrived at the Arts Centre ten minutes before the film commenced - in time for that gin and tonic. And they did let me take it in.

I've turned up the date on which I last run out of gas: it was on 5 May 2010. That was the last night of my 2010 Scottish Tour with M---. A very different pre-op world. Since then I have spent 118 nights away in the caravan, on my own, cooking just for myself. I haven't cooked on every one of those 118 nights. I've had quite a number of meals out in pubs and restaurants. Against that, I've occasionally cooked up something for lunch, as well as in the evening. Let's say that on 100 occasions I've used some gas for preparing food to eat in the caravan. That then is what I can expect from a 6kg gas cylinder: 100 meals. The cylinder I've just exhausted cost me £16 in 2008, so each meal cooked from May 2010 has consumed, on average, 16p worth of propane gas. The cylinder I've now switched to cost me £22 in 2010, and each of the next 100-odd meals will use up 22p in gas. (I knew you secretly wanted to know all these fascinating dates and figures)

At any rate, I can now feel assured that it will be 2015 or 2016 before I need to use that spanner again. A weight off my mind. The last thing you want, on a cold evening late in the year, with rain whipping against the caravan windows, is an exhausted gas cylinder and a test of strength and endurance in the dark!

Much Ado About Nothing

Well, the night-time storm didn't materialise, but the following day was wet and windy from breakfast time to early evening, and I didn't stir from my caravan. It became my snug weatherproof capsule for photo work, cooking lunch and dinner, and a lot of snoozing. But I didn't abandon my plan to see that film at 8.00pm at The Plough Arts Centre in nearby Great Torrington.

I should mention that 'seeing a film' in a public performance was going to be rather a novelty for me. I'm pretty certain that the last film I saw at a cinema in a town was in 1996 or thereabouts, at the then newly-opened Crawley Megaplex. It was Star Wars 1 - The Phantom Menace. I wasn't impressed with that film, which I considered juvenile, nor the experience of seeing it in a futuristic cinema. I wasn't impressed with the eye-watering cost, either. I did not go again. I continued to watch occasional films at home on TV, on VHS tapes, or latterly on DVDs, but the Megaplex had put me off going out to a public performance. I really did not feel I was missing anything important by staying away from town cinemas, whether traditional or super-modern. I relented somewhat in 2009, watching the James Bond film Quantum of Solace with Dad on the cruise ship. That was fine, as an experience, but it didn't turn me into a keen cinema-goer. So this film at the Arts Centre was going to be something of an experiment.

I wasn't disappointed. The film was Much Ado About Nothing, made in 2012 and on general release in 2013. A romantic film. I saw it was highly rated, and I had to agree that the casting was excellent, the setting (a rich man's country villa with extensive grounds) right for the plot, and the contemporary 2012 dress (and gadgets) skilfully used to bring the action and atmosphere right up-to-date. So you had handsome men in sharp suits arriving in cars, using phones, with handguns instead of rapiers. Pretty ladies in fashionable dresses and hairstyles. Maids and security men dressed as you would conjecture they would be in a top luxury hotel. If you can imagine a Mafia aristocrat welcoming other Mafia aristocrats and their friends for a weekend party, you will get the general idea. With the host aristocrat having in his care a daughter called Hero and her slightly older cousin Beatrice. And visitors Claudio and slightly older Benedick falling for these ladies and marrying them in the end - for this is a Shakespearean comedy, meaning that whatever the turmoil introduced, the ending must be happy.

Turmoil there certainly is. Another visitor tries to wreck the Hero/Claudio hitch-up by concocting false evidence to slander her with. And I have to say it is disturbing to see how easily Claudio, and indeed all the men, are persuaded that young and sweet-natured Hero is a disloyal nymphomaniac. Perhaps in Elizabethan times a woman was very vulnerable to any slur on her virtue, and any lie whatever might be believed. Shakespeare similarly makes the smooth villain Iago sling mud at Desdemona in Othello, and the Moor is just as ready to accept Iago's clever lies as fact, with tragic results. A favourite theme, then. I'd like to think that nowadays the average man would keep an open mind, ask searching questions, and require irrefutable proofs before reacting to someone's poisonous assertions about his girl. But I'm probably naïve.

The film was made in black and white, although I wasn't quite sure why, because it would have worked in colour just as well. Black and white is very suitable for dramatic lighting effects, Caravaggio-style, but this film wasn't overburdened with them. The original Shakespearean words and phrases were used, just as he wrote them, and not a transcript in modern idiom. It should have sounded odd, with all the characters in 2012 garb, but strangely it worked. Even the names and noble titles of the men were preserved, although their subtle degrees of nobility could not be conveyed through modern dress (all were in well-cut light or dark suits) and I tended to mix up who was who. I could tell only by their behaviour.

So: two pairs of lovers who encounter misunderstandings, disapproval and other obstacles before wedding bells ring. I thought 'how very Jane Austen'. Or rather, Jane Austen must surely have had Much Ado About Nothing constantly in mind when she was putting pen to paper!

And the fallout? I think that henceforth I will stop refusing invitations from my Brighton friends to see a film with them. The films they may suggest won't all be great, but they should be much better than Star Wars I - The Phantom Menace, and I ought to give them a chance.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

3G rant, a sunny afternoon, and the coming storm

I haven't been able to send out any posts in the last few days because the 'Mobile Internet' is really a big city concept, and it doesn't work too well out in the countryside, not even in what you might regard as proper towns. It did not prevent me posting from Cirencester (a proper town) before, because I had a Caravan Club wi-fi connection and could use that. But this time their router was not working, and it silenced me. The last post some days back was sent not from the Cotswolds but from a street near the centre of Newport in South Wales. Newport has beefed-up mobile phone coverage. Smaller towns do not. It's often possible to get a goodish mobile phone signal in them, which may be excellent for calls and texts, but not necessarily for the Internet. In such places, it can sometimes take up to half an hour to get a post out. In country meadows, it's impossible. So much for 3G. 4G? Ha.

I'm now in North Devon - arrived early in the afternoon - and it may be that the only place with mobile phone coverage robust enough for posting purposes will be Barnstaple, the largest town around. So of an evening, I might have to fire up Fiona, drive in, and hang around somewhere in the town centre, possibly in the rain, just to send out my latest literary effort. Obviously I will be securely locked inside Fiona. I'm not standing around out in the open, or lingering on a riverside seat, or waiting for an Internet connection under a lamp on a street corner, in case my purpose is misconstrued and I attract unwanted attention!

It was gloriously sunny and warm this afternoon. Having chatted with Ann and Phil who own the farm I'm pitched on - I've been coming here since 2009, and it's the sixth time I've stayed with them, so we are of course on first-name terms - I drove into Bideford, picked up the brochure for the annual Appledore Book Festival for Ann, and had a good wander around this attractive river town. I bought a green top for £2.95 from a charity shop, got diesel and food from Morrisons, and looked in at The Plough Arts Centre in Great Torrington. There's a film on there tomorrow evening at 8.00pm that I may go to see. Yes, it's a definite plan: out for the day, whatever the weather, then cut back for a quick meal at the caravan - or perhaps fish and chips from somewhere? - then see this film at the Arts Centre. Phil mentioned that they don't mind if you take your gin and tonic in while you watch. How civilised.

It struck me, as it has often struck me before, that life in North Devon, if I ever moved here, would not be dull. Pleasant towns, interesting shops, wonderful beaches, scenery to die for, galleries to visit, performances of all kinds to attend, good dining...my kind of life. And although house prices are creeping up, they are not at Sussex levels, nor will ever be. Well, if my Brighton friends disperse, and my village neighbours move away, then I'll sell up too and move here.

Sunny it may have been today, but the sunset was the kind that warned of a storm to come. When I last heard the forecast, it said that tomorrow is supposed to be a shocker for wind and rain. Phil and Ann were not so sure about that, but I wouldn't be surprised, having seen that sunset, to be woken in the night by a howling wind, and fierce rain drumming on the roof of the caravan. If the wind is strong enough, the caravan will shudder. I won't mind. It will all be exciting. The caravan weighs over a ton, so it's not going to get blown over!

I am one of those people who relish gales, and especially thunderstorms. I have always found a loud clap of thunder thrilling, and a bright flashes of lightning something to look out for with delicious anticipation. The louder and brighter the better, even though that means the heart of the storm must be dangerously close. As a child I would have my bedroom window open, to lean out and watch. I was fearless. And in my early twenties, I'd drive out to the New Forest chasing a thunderstorm, although that was possibly quite a rash thing to do, the large number of lightning-blasted oak trees in the Forest proving that in a storm you should definitely not be there! Nothing has changed. I still like a grandstand seat if Nature is putting on a display.

Not all people enjoy thunder and lightning, of course. Some are afraid of it, and I'm not going to scoff at them, because, after all, a massive electrical discharge can destroy whatever it touches, and occasionally people do get killed by being struck by lightning, or from being too close to a tall object that is struck. However, I saw on a TV science programme that if you are inside a metal box or cage, the immense current simply flows around you, leaving you unaffected. A car is such a box, and I should think a caravan (if metal-skinned, as mine is) is surely another. So I ought to be safe in the most intense of storms.

Just now it's very calm and quiet outside. No clouds, a half-moon. It's quite chilly. Clearly, 'the calm before the storm'. Hmmm...just at the moment, I've actually got an exceptionally good mobile phone signal: let's get this published without further ado.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Christine and The New Companions Club

Who agrees that getting away on holiday is never a simple, straighforward thing to do?

Thank goodness that with the caravan packing is easy in that (a) within reason I can take everything that I might conceivably need - I'm not restricted to whatever will fit into a couple of cases; and (b) there is no need to continually pack, unpack, and repack while travelling around, as you would if going from hotel to hotel. I can literally take all my favourite clothes and shoes. And the best items can hang in the wardrobe, and not get creased. That's a huge plus point, having nice things to wear while away that hare not been creased to death! Things people don't normally take with them when holidaying. I often look exactly like a decently-attired local, especially as I don't dress in sports or rambling gear.

But when loading up the caravan, you mustn't put things in too soon! Yesterday morning, for instance, when halfway through giving my legs their six-weekly shave, saved till the morning of departure, I ran out of shaving gel and realised that both spare gel canisters had already been neatly stowed away in the caravan. Outside, that is. Where the Gas Guys were. Where the cold rain was gently falling. Sigh. There was nothing to be done but wash off my half-shaved limbs, towel myself, don proper leggings and a top, and scurry out to retrieve a gel canister. Then resume. What a palaver!

I'm still using a man's wet razor and gel, by the way. By Gillette. Mach 3. It does a very good job, and I'm disinclined to spend cash unnecessarily on a 'correct-gender' substitute pink girly razor. When the male kit gets shabby or breaks, or Gillette withdraw the refills from shopping shelves, or all but occasional electrolysis ends, then I'll invest in the pretty female version. But not till then. Meanwhile I buy the male razor refills and gel without turning a hair. Anyone watching, the checkout person included, can assume that I have a man in the house. Women often do, after all.

The Gel Episode was not the only hiccup in achieving a smooth getaway. There were other things that I needed which had already gone out to the caravan. Bottom line: it's impossible to be fully loaded and ready to roll hours in advance, such as on the evening before. There's always something that can't be packed till the very last minute, such as one's toothbrush if nothing else.

Yesterday I spoke of the delicious hope one has of encountering a new friend. Well, as soon as I backed onto my pitch at Cirencester, the lady in the motorhome next to me came out and said hello. Like me, she was on her own. Divorced, and the same age.

She especially noticed my girl-on-her own arrival because of her own situation, but she had also recently discovered a club for single caravanners and motorcaravanners whose aim was to ensure that no unmarried, widowed or divorced person need holiday without like company on hand. And she wondered whether I was a member. This club, which was called The New Companions Camping Club, had core members who spent their time travelling from one site to another, in accordance with a schedule made available to all the other members, and acted as hosts for social meetups. If you fancied a meetup, you simply booked in at the scheduled place, and asked at reception where the host member could be found. And then make yourself known, and join in as you felt inclined. There would be 10am and 5pm gatherings at the host's motorcaravan to decide on the day's and evening's events respectively. It might be a walk, or a trip into some town, or lunch somewhere, or cards with wine in the evening.

It seemed a great way to meet a big bunch of new people, all of them single for some reason or another, all of them with an enthusiasm for caravanning in common and possibly more than that. You had only to abandon your anonymity, and be sociable. It wasn't a dating club, but there was no ban on people pairing off if they felt they wanted to. It really is by no means uncommon for people on their own, perhaps lonely and lacking in self-confidence but determined to hit the road and tour, to discover a soulmate at some point in their travels. The ordinary caravan magazines are full of letters from those who have found true love through caravanning.

This New Companions Club, which just happened to be present at Cirencester during my stay there, made it much more likely that Cupid would call and start firing little arrows. The lady who had greeted me on arrival, whose name was Christine, wasn't looking for love herself, and I certainly wasn't, not even holiday companionship, but I was curious enough to let her introduce me to the group gathering at 5pm to discuss that evening's entertainment, although pleading tiredness I did not stay.

Later on, I invited Christine into my caravan for an early-evening chat before I started cooking my meal. She was chatty and seemed to have good attitudes, and we got on well. She was originally from the North, and now lived in South Wales, near her daughter and baby grandchildren. She had never been to Sussex, not wanting to drive in the heavy traffic around London, and I don't blame her.

At one point, just talking about the South Coast, she asked me whether Brighton was really as full of gay and lesbian people as its reputation suggested. I said there were certainly a lot of gay and lesbian people there, but on the whole they were unnoticeable. She then mentioned that there were gay men and lesbian women in the New Companions Club. And they were very nice too. Then she said she knew a transsexual woman who was also a Club member. She was just as nice. I thought at this point that she had a suspicion about me, and that she was probing. But no: the conversation flowed smoothly on without a pregnant pause. I decided that she didn't think I was trans myself. I could have corrected her, but quite honestly I saw no reason to.

I did ask however (doing my own probing) what other Club members thought of this trans lady. She said that some (including herself) were very welcoming, and very understanding, but some others were a bit awkward - not exactly hostile, but unable to overcome the feeling that the lady was really a man. And she mentioned that the trans lady had plenty of masculine traits, such as a deep voice. I don't think she would have spoken quite like this if she'd thought me trans also. Besides, at her own suggestion, we exchanged our full names, addresses, and contact numbers, and she gave me an unmistakably sincere invitation to get in touch when next in her area. Something she might not have done so freely if she was certain I was trans, although I may be misjudging her. As a clincher, so to speak, she looked out for me this morning to say goodbye, as she was going home today. But all the time it might have just been further evidence that Northern people are friendlier than most.

Which now puts an onus on me to enlighten her before attempting any future meetup in South Wales. That'll take some thinking about.

You know, she singled out the trans lady's deep voice. More proof that voice matters! It's one of the key defining features of a female person. I do wonder why so few trans women, so very few, pay serious attention to this.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Off on my travels again tomorrow

As early as possible tomorrow morning, although it'll no doubt be after 9.30am by the time I've faffed round, I'm hitching the caravan up to Fiona and launching forth on another Odyssey.

The first problem will be just getting off my drive. The gas people have filled my road with fenced-off holes in order to put in a modern yellow plastic gas main (plus side-branches to individual houses). Squeezing past these will be no small feat. I've made my getaway as simple as I can by mounting a shameless charm offensive towards the three diamond geezers who are doing the work in my road (actually they are polite and pleasant thirty-something guys with designer stubble and nice eyes) - making sure that I remind them of my presence and concerns by having a few friendly words with them every day. I've tried to make their job easy by not making waves over access to my house and garage for necessary drilling, excavation, tests and checks; and, when I'm out, making sure that a neighbour has keys to give them if required. Once or twice I've offered cups of tea.

They've been able to ogle me as they wished. A variety of outfits: tatty leggings and an old top; a dressing gown and nothing else; posh jacket and slinky stuff to match. Hair made up, hair in a mess. Make-up on, make-up off. But charm and elegance and no-nonsense confidence throughout. I gave one of these lusty fellows an eyeful of tit when winding up the corner steadies on my caravan, so that it could be temporarily shifted away from the house, in case they needed to dig a hole. God knows what they have made of me. But in return they have been most obliging with scheduling their work so that everything essential is finished at my house in time for my departure. There is some making-good left to be done during the next few days, after I'm gone, but nothing that can now stop me getting away on time.

Ah, the open road beckons! But it's not an open-ended adventure, never knowing from day to day quite where I'll be. The entire three weeks has been booked well ahead, so that I know for certain what to expect, and will avoid the situation, sometimes experienced in the past when touring, where no pitches are available except on nightmare sites that no-one would ever wish to return to. And I don't do 'wild camping' in roadside lay-byes, whatever the apparent attraction. Not in a caravan. It can, I agree, be OK in a motorhome or campervan - it's one self-contained and secure unit; you are safely locked in; you can reach the driving seat without going outside; and if there's any sign of trouble, you can just drive off. But you can't 'just drive off' with a caravan.

For peace of mind, if nothing else, I would always want the security of a proper caravan site. Whether it's a farm site where I know the owners, or a Caravan Club site, there is backup and support if anything goes wrong. Such as a technical problem with the caravan, or some personal mishap. That's become very important since I began caravanning on my own in 2009, especially as feminisation has robbed me of strength and made me vulnerable. In any case, as I get older I'm getting more and more reluctant to take chances on anything.

But if the places I shall pitch are set in stone, the people I might meet are not.

One of the attractions of a caravan touring is that you are bound to encounter all kinds of people you've never met before, not just on site, but out and around. I do, unfailingly; and the thought of meeting someone new who might prove to be a lifelong friend is always a delicious possibility. Not a Holiday Romance, I am not looking for that, but the kind of close friendship that blossoms when you find that you have an awful lot in common, and the chemistry is good. It's one of the reasons (though not the only one of course) why I will always holiday on my own. I want to be a free agent. Just in case. And it doesn't matter that my successes in the last year or two have been meagre. There is always the chance!

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Shamed. My stupid assumptions, and the lesson to be learned.

This is about the consequences of publishing blog posts containing unwarranted assumptions, and a confession of personal crassness in that area.

From time to time I go through the Comments pages on Blogger Dashboard, not only to view (and nearly always delete) the ones that Google thinks are spam, but to conduct a 'housekeeping' exercise on the many pages of more respectable comments. This is necessary, because occasionally I get comments on posts some time after the post is published, and I would not otherwise see them. When you are a prolific poster, it isn't feasible to scroll back on the main web page, on the off-chance of discovering comments on posts put out two or three weeks ago, or even further in the past. But I can do it from the Dashboard, when I have an odd moment. In that way, I get to read at least some of the comments that I've hitherto missed.

I came across three comments yesterday that were not made straight after the post, and I was therefore unaware of them. All were by 'Anonymous', but all three writers did identify themselves when signing-off their comment, so I do know who they are. Two of the comments made me feel great. The third made me feel that I'd been rather stupid, and I would especially like to discuss it.

The two feel-good ones first. Last year, at the height of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, I was in the Dorset town of Shaftesbury, and after the event wrote a post on 21 June 2012 titled Jolly happenings in Shaftesbury. I'd witnessed a street party earlier in the day, then in the evening I saw the Mayor making his way to the place where the town fire-beacon would be lit:


There was a great atmosphere and I enjoyed the entire occasion. So I was chuffed to discover that on 12 July 2012 the Mayor left this comment that I'd not seen before:

BTW... Our beacon time slot was 10:15, so in fact we were a little early! The idea was for a chain of beacons to spread out from HRH The Queens beacon that she had lit in London. Anyway, it matters not. Pleased you had a good time! :)
Simon Pritchard
The Mayor of Shaftesbury

Fancy that. Now who made a search, and called my post to his attention, I wonder? And what a thing to happen, a presumably busy man making a comment to me! I'm impressed.

The second feel-good comment now. I'd seen an immaculate De Lorean sports car outside Waitrose in Winchester, and waxed lyrical about it in my post Back...to the Future! on 2 June 2010. Who wouldn't:


But I'd hitherto not seen this comment, made over a year later on 25 September 2011, by the actual owner of the car:

Hello Lucy, 
Thank you for taking some wonderful pictures of my car. I drive the car each week to the shops and it is very reliable, due to being serviced every 1000 miles and driven each week. I had to park in the disabled spaces as I tried to park in the underground car park and needed 3 members of staff and 2 hours to get back out again. I had permisison to park outside the store after that. 
Take care 
Ed H

I really appreciate it, that this man took the trouble to respond, so long after my post!

Now for the third comment, the one I feel very awkward about, and have learned a lesson from. On 8 June 2012 I wrote a post titled Marriage on my mind, which touched on various aspects of a successful married relationship, and how nice it clearly is when it works. My post wandered into the topic of arranged marriages, and marriages between members of a supposedly elite set, and at the time I had this charming picture in Country Life to inspire me:


I wrote this as part of my post, based on that picture and the magazine notes beneath it:

Before me is a copy of Country Life. In fact it's the edition published on 30 May, just over a week ago. On page 45 is a charming picture of a not-quite-young lady (she's got to be almost 30, I'd say, because of her top job) called Miss Elizabeth Hemstock. It looks as if she's wearing a richly-woven dark red shawl over a virgin white nightdress. The subscript says this:

Lizzie, elder daughter of Mr and Mrs David Hemstock of Charnwood, Leicestershire, is to be married to Captain Merlin Hanbury-Tenison, The Light Dragoons, the son of Mr and Mrs Robin Hanbury-Tenison of Cabilla Manor, Cornwall. They will be married at Cardynham Church, Cornwall, on June 2. Lizzie is the UK brand manager of Gu Puds.

Well, she has clearly fallen under this young man's spell, as you would expect from his name! Love his magic, or love his horse, or love his smart uniform, this sounds like a peer-to-peer County Wedding par excellence. Guard of Honour, crossed sabres, the lot. And not the humble bonding by an anvil at Gretna Green of eloping lovers, planless, penniless, but free.

Hmmm. They've surely misspelled Cardinham. Cabilla Manor by the way is a country residence across the valley from the village of Warleggan on the south edge of Bodmin Moor. (Warleggan? All terribly Poldark)

I now think this seems flippant and over-personal. And I made some very silly assumptions about the circumstances of the couple's wedding. Captain Hanbury-Tenison wrote the following as a comment on 8 October 2012, to set the record straight, and to correct the false impression that my post had given. I feel absolutely obliged to reproduce it here, as a just rebuke:

Dear Lucy,

I must agree with the other ‘commenters’ that you’ve written a lovely post and I can only agree with all of your sentiments and observations of love, marriage and companionship. I feel duty bound, however, to correct you in your errors regarding Lizzie, my wife, and me. I thought I would give you a snapshot of the true story rather than assumption of a ‘peer to peer’ marriage. As you quite rightly pointed out in your piece I am a Captain in the British Army. Lizzie and I met six weeks before I deployed on my third and final tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2010. Our parents had never met before or even heard of each other. She is from the Midlands and I am from the South West. We quickly fell in love and wrote to each other every day for six months while I was in Afghanistan. The shawl that you mention in your post was a birthday present that I bought for her from a street seller in Kandahar market. As soon as I returned from war I knew that I wanted to marry her. I had met not only my soul mate but also my best friend. I waited a year before proposing because I didn’t want to rush her and I wanted to leave the Army before we married so that she wouldn’t have to go through the hell of another 6 months with me in Afghanistan.

I am a private person but I tell you this because I want you to know that we are madly in love and would most likely have greatly enjoyed spending an evening drinking wine with you if the opportunity had arisen. I feel that your allusion to the middle classes being less likely to have a marriage based on love is unfair and unfounded. In my 8 years in the military I lived with people from extremely underprivileged backgrounds and I saw a great many marriages fail. Often this was due to unwanted pregnancies, lust coming before love or complacency being mistaken for happiness. These problems span all classes and backgrounds. Arranged marriages can come in many forms and as Lizzie and I live in a small one bedroom flat I hardly think we are contenders for this unpleasant title.

I hope that you don’t find my comments rude but I was offended to be talked about when you don’t know me or my wife and yet you write as though you might.

Regards

Merlin

PS. Lizzie is 27 (26 at the time of your writing). The reason for her ‘top job’ is entirely due to her competence, drive and professionalism.

Well, I am ashamed. The man's sincerity and restraint at what must have seemed a most annoying piece of writing on my part is remarkable. I wrote this yesterday beneath his comment:

I've just seen your comment, Captain, and because I made those assumptions I offer my apologies for my consequent misrepresentation of your meeting and marriage. My very best wishes for the future.

Lucy

But that did not seem sufficient. Nothing less than a full disclosure of my error would do. Hence this post.

I do hope that Captain Hanbury-Tenison, who says he is a private person, is not further offended by my making this kind of fuss. I simply think that one should publicly own up to important errors, and not let them stay buried. I will, in the future, be much more careful about what I say.

Friday, 6 September 2013

My last day out in London - the Petrie Museum

Flinders Petrie was a renowned British Egyptologist who laid down the methodical principles and techniques of modern archaelological work in Egypt. He was active over a long period during the early years of the twentieth century. Before him, excavations were much less scientific in their approach, some of them little more than frank treasure-hunting.

The Petrie Museum, hidden away in the University College London complex, contains a huge number of Ancient Egyptian artefacts, all meticulously recorded and catalogued. It's a museum for the academic and specialist, and not for the tourist looking for breathtaking displays of mummies and sarcophagi, and vast stone heads of pharaohs. If you want that, then the place to go is the British Museum, not far away. Don't misunderstand me: I enjoy very much the extraordinary effect that the larger exhibits in the British Museum can have, and have done since my first visit when much younger. One is very conscious of the magical spells in the snakey hieroglyphs, the brooding intensity of the painted eyes on sarcophagi lids, and the presence of actual dead bony bodies in their funeral-wrappings. In dim light it would all be undeniably creepy, even in the setting of a modern museum.

During the Second World War, my Dad, who was in the Eighth Army, spent some time in Cairo and at one point went around the famous Egyptian Museum. This is what he said about it, in his autobiography:

We...spent several hours in the Egyptian Museum. The Museum was housed in a huge gloomy building crammed with the antiquities of the dead. Various sized stone sarcophagus (coffins) stood here and there with bandaged mummies housed in glassed containers. A wealth of gold, gems, ebony, ivory and alabaster vases were exhibited in other glass containers. Weird looking animals, coiled serpents, fierce cats and exotic scarabs were in abundance and the treasures found by Howard Carter in the tomb of Tutankhamun were housed in two vast galleries.

Everywhere homage was paid to the Deities, the Gods Horus, Osiris, Set, Imhotep and others. The names of Rameses, Cheops, Cleopatra and Nefertiti, Pharohs and Queens of Egypt appeared among others in the writings which also contained much about Memphis and Thebes, ancient cities, long gone, but from whose treasure houses much of the exhibits had been obtained. Here and there were large tablets covered with hieroglyphics (picture writing) and intricate wood carvings.

The atmosphere in the Museum was one of mustiness and haunting menace. While I was most interested in the marvellous sights I was very pleased when we got out into the sunshine again.

There you are: haunting menace. In contrast, the Petrie Museum is full of (mostly friendly) little ornaments and pots, and all the intimate everyday things, that enable archaeologists to understand the ordinary lives of the Ancient Egyptians of two to five thousand years ago. For instance, this charming pair of busts:


Clearly not the Pharaoh and his Queen! An official and his wife, I'm guessing. But there is some 'royal' stuff also. And plenty of pots and urns:


The Museum has some well-preserved items of clothing. This linen tunic for example, owned by a woman who lived around 2,800 BC:


The explanatory note next to it said this:

The Tarkhan dress
This dress...was excavated at Tarkhan. Tarkhan was one of the most important cemeteries from the time that Egypt was unified around 3,000 BC...Petrie excavated a pile of linen from a Dynasty I (c2,800 BC) tomb in 1913. It was only in 1977, when this linen pile was cleaned by the Victoria and Albert Museum Textile Conservation Workshop, that the dress was discovered. It was then carefully conserved, stitched onto Crepeline (a fine silk material used in textile conservation) and mounted so that it could be seen the way it was worn in life. It is one of the oldest garments from Egypt on display anywhere in the world. ...Rosalind Hall, who re-displayed the garment, comments that: 'The garment had clearly been worn in life, because it was found inside out, as it very well might have been after having been pulled over the head, with distinct signs of creasing at the elbows and under the armpits.'

Worn and then taken off over the head, just as you would do with a modern dress. It brings you so much closer to the real person.

There was another female garment on display, this time made of durable faience beads (faience was a kind of artificial coloured glass, and therefore weighty). It was fashioned into a wide-mesh net that revealed not only the shape of the wearer's body, but all their naughty bits, the breast cups covering only the nipples. The Ancient Egyptians had no hang-ups about nudity, their paintings clearly showing that children and servants went about naked, and even clothed adults wore thin, semi-transparent items. The hot climate was adequate reason for this. But clothing also had a connection with age and social status, so that only the royal household had the importance (and the ceremonial right) to wear really elaborate costumes. This particular dress seems very sexy in intention to our modern eyes, a fetish garment, but not necessarily so when it was actually worn:


The explanatory note had this to say:

The bead-net dress
This dress...was excavated by Guy Brunton at Qau in 1923-24 and dates to Dynasty 5 (c2,400 BC). In 1994 and 1995 two conservators, Alexandra Seth-Smith and Alison Lister, re-constructed the dress. The dress may have been worn for dancing. Each of the 127 shells around the fringe are plugged with a small stone so that it would have emitted a rattling sound when the wearer moved. When it was being conserved, it was thought to fit a girl of about 12 and to be worn naked. Guy Brunton commented that the dress reminds us of the story of King Sneferu going on a sailing trip on the palace lake, recorded on a papyrus dating from around 1,800 BC. The King gets 20 young women to row a boat and, to relieve his boredom, orders: 'Let there be brought to me 20 women with the shapeliest bodies, breasts and braids, who have not yet given birth. And let there be brought to me 20 nets. Give those nets to these women in place of their clothes!' The point of the story is that the behaviour of the King is outrageous rather than normal, but this tale has been used to make the bead-net dress into an erotic and exotic garment. When Janet Johnstone, and Ancient Egyptian clothing consultant, made a replica of this dress, she found that the bead-net dress was too heavy to be worn when placed directly on the naked body. Janet also discovered that due its 'netting' structure it could fit women of all shapes and ages. Is it therefore our imaginative reading of the dress that makes it erotic?

In other words, a heavy dress like this needed an undergarment to prevent the beads digging into the skin, and any shapely female person, not just a 12 year old girl, could feasibly wear it. The nipple-pieces still suggest however that it was meant to show as much of the woman's figure as possible, erotically so, and the 'worn for dancing' idea surely holds up. Interesting that netted garments can fit any shape: this must be why fat women can look good in fishnet stockings. Maybe I should experiment!

Once again, something that was worn by a real person bridges the gulf of time. I have to say that the things people wore are, for me, among the most interesting things in museums.

I do like Ancient Egyptian things. Maybe I should look to ways of cultivating the look of a wealthy lady of those times!

Thursday, 5 September 2013

A proposal to the local doctors who look after me

Dr Curtis wrote a letter to the GP I prefer to see, basically confirming his ongoing role as a consultant 'only as required'.

This was sent via myself, so that I could read it, and take a copy if I wished (of course!). And today I dropped by at the village surgery, to leave his letter at reception for my doctor's attention when convenient to her. I didn't think I was justified in squeezing the time available for patients who were ill by making a special appointment simply to hand over Dr Curtis's letter and chat about it. So it wrote a covering letter of my own, and popped the lot in a sealed envelope.

I made a proposal in my covering letter, about a health care initiative that might improve how the eleven doctors in the large local practice deal with the needs of patients who come to them and say they are transsexual. I very much doubt whether they have more than a handful of such patients between them, and they can't be feeling their way forward with much assurance and consistency. It would be good, I thought, if these doctors, all of them, could have the chance of exchanging questions and answers directly with real-life trans patients whose cases histories they know, or will come to know.

Obviously it would have to be one patient at a time, in a small friendly forum, so that no cross-patient confidentiality issues would arise. Meaning that I mustn't air my medical case history in front of another trans patient, and vice versa, regardless of whatever we might afterwards say to each other over a drink at the pub! And quite apart from the confidentiality issue, it really would be asking too much to expect a group of trans people, who have never met each other before, to explain with one voice how it feels to be trans, and what their essential needs are! We are all very individual.

Anyway, this is what I added at the end of my covering letter:

I do not know how many transsexual patients the practice deals with, but they must still be thin on the ground in Mid-Sussex. That will not always be the case. The gradual easing of public prejudice and discrimination is making ‘coming out’ less of a hurdle for transsexual persons, and medical practices are bound to be approached for help more and more. There is an obvious advantage in General Practitioners being briefed on what to expect, and how to react, not only in the case of a patient making his or her first nervous (perhaps terrified) approach, but in the case of post-operative patients (like myself) who have settled down into their new life, and have health needs entirely similar to anyone in their particular gender and age group. 

It would surely help if once in a while doctors had the opportunity of discussing clinical and other issues directly with such patients. I am thinking less of a lecture, and much more of a low-key discussion group, with the opportunity for both doctors and patient to put the questions they wish, and explore any points that are not clear.  

Ideally there might be a well-populated and willing consultative panel of trans persons of all ages and both genders. But in real life perhaps not very many would be happy to take part. Those at an early stage of treatment might feel too emotionally battered to talk about their experiences and needs. Those who have successfully transitioned into their new life might wish to leave all unnecessary self-disclosure well behind them. However, I for one would like to assist. In no way do I want to push myself forward, but I’d be happy to volunteer for such discussions if they can increase local expertise in this clinical area. 

It’s something positive that I can do, something I can give back for the care I have received, and look forward to receiving in the future. So do please bear this suggestion in mind, and perhaps ask your colleagues what they think.

I wonder what will come of this? I certainly would, if invited, give a proper 'talk' to the practice doctors, and the nurses and reception staff too, at some early-evening session. 

There is the danger that if I were the only person to give them 'the trans patient's point of view', their 'education' would be skewed towards my own experience and situation. But even that would be better than a patient turning up at an appointment sometime in the future, wanting to plunge in - and burn their boats - with a Huge Disclosure About Themselves, desperately wanting immediate counsel, but being handled with bafflement or clumsiness. Or for the doctor to be unfamiliar with post-op routines such as dilation. Nobody can really 'get' what it's like to be trans unless they are trans themselves. But it's very important to assist people like doctors to respond with some basic understanding, and answers from the horse's mouth must help. I do hope there is a positive response.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

My last day out in London - the Tate Modern 2

In this post, I feature some of the people I saw in the galleries, and the exhibits that had the most impact on me.

The Tate Modern galleries were thronged when I was there last week. This was a major tourist attraction. A smaller building would have seemed impossibly crowded. It certainly wasn't easy to get shots without people in them, so I made them part of the composition. In one room some kids asked me why I was standing in a corner. I explained that I was waiting for the right people to wander into my shot.

Modern art can be rather difficult, with abstractions and the artist's often very personal symbolism to contend with. So I was surprised how patient and seemingly interested the visitors were when faced with something that was impenetrable or inexplicably grotesque. How they assumed 'church' or 'museum' behaviour, and generally treated all the artworks with equal respect, even though they didn't have to. Here are some shots to illustrate what I mean. In this first one, a long queue had formed, simply to look through the eyepieces at the end of several long wooden boxes:


Was it 'what the butler saw'? I shouldn't think so. I didn't have the time to find out. Or this couple, getting intense about some paintings by Gerhard Richter:


Or these women, formed up before a darkly shimmering Mark Rothko painting, their postures for all the world suggesting entrancement and deep appreciation:


Or these people, silently watching patterns projected onto a wall in a dark room. Absorbed, unable to leave:


In a book I possess (presently out of print) the author (a photographer) says that galleries are the very best places for illicit couples to meet in secret. You can sit together in front of a picture or sculpture, and nobody will guess that you are connected in any way. The book also says that galleries are where such affaires end, the woman, forsworn, sitting alone until she breaks down and cries in her aching despair. It's rude to come between anyone seated and the artwork they are contemplating, so only her shaking back can betray her grief. Only the painting sees the tears. 

The exhibits in the Tate Modern are not all abstract and obscure. There are some easily-absorbed (though not necessarily easily-understood) paintings. Such as this Dod Proctor from 1926:


Or this Meredith Frampton from 1928:


And even this claustrophobic Francis Bacon from 1961 - which shows his suicidal homosexual lover I believe - is not at all hard to digest:


But some knowledge of conditions in German-occupied Belgium during the Second World War is needed to unravel this eerie painting called Sleeping Venus from 1945 by Paul Delvaux. It was the best painting I saw:


Delvaux has gone to town with naked women in this picture. There are no less than six of them. Apart from the two in the foreground, there are four kneeling women in the background, all making wailing gestures of despair, just like the standing woman on the foreground right. On the left, a clothed woman with a strange red hat does her best to plead with the skeleton, Death - or the German occupiers, if you like - but you know that he will be possessing the reclining Venus soon enough, no matter how the negotiations go. She, the sleeping Venus, seems oblivious to her fate. The other women's anguish reflects their terror of the violation to come, and the knowledge that they may be next. The thought of a skeleton laying a bony hand on warm living flesh is peculiar, surreal; but for all that the reclining woman is made to look calm, serene, almost anticipatory. 

She certainly has a womanly body, and I found it very easy to imagine myself in that picture. My self-view has developed that far! However imperfect one's body, there comes a point where it unmistakably resembles the classic female form, in my case the classic fleshy female form, and can be taken for nothing else. And you also realise that such a body has a natural purpose that you ought not to deny or resist. I am starting to feel that way. In this mood, a gallery full of voluptuous Restoration beauties with bare shoulders might fire me up! (Watch for signs in my posts)

There were several Picassos, of course, but I couldn't identify with the women in them, whether from 1925, 1937 or 1968:


I don't know why Picasso felt compelled to pull the physical features of women apart, and display them in such an ugly and distorted way. Why not reveal the inner life of a woman in a beautiful way? After all, he loved women all his life, and presumably valued them as more than a collection of sexual parts. He was also extremely proud of his virility; its loss in old age disturbed and depressed him. 

The purely abstract works were more subtly unsettling. Like this off-balance Mondrian painting from 1935:


Or Cy Twombly's work from 2006-08. This was my favourite from a series of four very similar paintings:


It looks dashed off in a few paint-laden sweeps of the arm. It probably took a bit more planning than that. Not clever enough? No message? Maybe. But then I came across this, a photograph-based creation by Lorna Simpson from 1991 called Five Day Forecast:  


The five days are named along the top: Monday to Friday. The same person shot each day, dressed in the same plain dress, though creased in subtly different ways. The same pose. Clearly the forecast is for five days of humdrum repetition. It may be significant that this is a black person. It may also be significant that we can't see her face. Is it a woman at all? There is no bust, and those arms look a bit muscular. Along the bottom are words that all begin with Mis-. Misdescription. Misinformation. Misidentify. Misdiagnose. Misfunction. Mistranscribe. Misremember. Misguage. Misconstrue. Mistranslate. Mis- or Miss? The accompanying note on the wall suggested that calling attention to gender differences was part of the artist's concern. I think I agree.

Then there is art which deals not with a general condition, but accuses and vilifies an individual. Such as Margaret Thatcher in her handling of the Falklands War of 1982, in this textile work by Tracey Emin from 2004:


I was very much exhilarated by a collection of Soviet Russian propaganda posters from the 1930s and 1940s:


The last, with this brave and determined Woman in Red exhorting us to fight, is a lithograph by Nina Vatolina from 1941, a fateful year, and the words say: Fascism - The Most Evil Enemy of Women. Everyone to the struggle Against Fascism! You can't argue with that.

Finally, I must show a very colourful work by Dan Flavin that was a firm favourite with children and adults alike. Me too!


I think you'll agree that I got a lot out of my visit to the Tate Modern!