Friday, 31 October 2014

Evesham and Worcester

Yesterday saw me at Evesham and Worcester. I hadn't been to either for eleven years.

Evesham was a shock. Back in 2003 it was a cheerful place (it was Christmastime, after all), and there were all kinds of touches that showed confidence in the future. A newly-created civic square. Lots of shops. But now...well, it was obvious that Evesham had taken a hard knock in the latest Recession, and was still stuck in it. The town centre wore a forlorn air - so many empty shops! So many of the open ones that were only the cheaper sort, or just charity shops. You really had just the banks and solicitors on one hand, and shops for cash-strapped people on the other. To walk through, say, the Riverside shopping development was to appreciate the death of the High Street. It's difficult to see how town centres in places like this can ever now be revitalised as retail hubs.

I passed another icon of the last decade on one of the routes in - a Tesco. It was in fact offering diesel at a very good price, but there was nothing else about it to tempt me in, as a Waitrose would have. I suppose that I've come to see Tesco as so much a regular part of the Old Life (M--- and I always used it) that subconsciously I now avoid it. It's the same with Lidl. Nothing to do with the quality or price of the goods on offer: it's the associations, something these stores will never be able to remove from my mind.

Evesham did have one shiny new construction: a white-and-silver concrete-and-stainless-steel road bridge over the River Avon. The same Avon that Shakespeare's Stratford straddles. It was most impressive. The approach from the town centre was raised up over green meadows clearly prone to winter flooding. But this bridge was really Evesham's best modern offering. Sad.

In contrast, Worcester was bustling and obviously doing well. I caught it in bright (and surprisingly warm) afternoon sunshine, and, after parking Fiona, treated myself first to the path that runs by the River Severn, then (largely ignoring the shops - I'm being iron-willed about spending money on myself on this trip) I examined the magnificent Cathedral. The Cathedral deserves a post to itself, including my daring ascent to the top of the Tower, via the 11,000 steps up. Actually, it may have been no more than 250 or so, but it felt like a lot more. A description, with pictures, will have to await my return home.

Today should be hazy sunshine and remarkably mild. So I'm going to potter around the countryside, checking out pubs (I'm meeting up with Angie and S--- three days from now) and maybe even getting my walking boots on. (Though tea and cake at a National Trust place is the more likely activity!)

Thursday, 30 October 2014

...but at least the Wi-Fi is good

The Broadway site finally fell silent around midnight last night, and in fact I slept soundly till six o'clock, when the early commuter traffic began. Traffic noise carries a long way, and unfortunately I've chosen a pitch that's too close to the local main road. Not that I had a lot of choice, the site being so full up. There were pitches at some distance from the road, but I was warned at reception that they were noisy because of nearby footpath works involving earth-moving machinery. You can't win.

At least the site Wi-Fi is very good indeed. It isn't cheap. But after an evening struggling to get a post out using a 2G signal that came and went, I bit the bullet and bought a 168 hour package for a cool £10. That's more hours than I can use while here, but it will make posting easy, and the Wi-Fi signal might well be good enough for catch-up TV on the BBC iPlayer. If the weather is against taking many photos, and therefore against filling my evenings with photo-editing on the laptop, then a little TV will be useful. It's a 'one-device only' deal though. That may mean watching on my phone screen, albeit with headphones and stereo sound. Maybe it means I can use either my tablet or my phone, but not both at the same time. We shall see.

Do I hear mumblings that after-dark screen entertainment detracts from the proper spirit of a caravan holiday? I beg to differ. On long late-autumn nights, when it's damp outside, you may need more than a good book. Besides, I want the Internet for looking up what will be open next day, and whether I can get a midday meal there. Tourist places in the Worcestershire countryside are starting to close for the winter. To save a wasted journey, you need to check beforehand.

Ah, what's this? It's grown brighter. While there ought to be no rain today, the local forecast is for dull cloud and no sunshine, and therefore there'll be no chance of taking gorgeous pictures of yellow, red and orange leaves. So I might instead drive into Evesham, and then on to Worcester, neither visited since 2003, and see what the towns have to offer.

Yep, the tablet can be used instead of the phone. So TV tonight, if the Wi-Fi signal is strong enough. The Caravan Club has been uprating its Wi-Fi during 2014, and this is clearly one of the sites that have benefitted. And maybe my close-to-the-main-road pitch is also close-to-the-Wi-Fi-mast? All to no avail if the other caravanners (or their horrible children) also log in and dilute the signal.

On my troth, a patch of blue sky hath appeared. Wherefore hath this come? A horse! A horse! I must to Worcester! (I'm pretty well in Shakespeare Country, and it's easy to lapse into such talk. Sorry)

Broadway disappoints

I'm off on holiday again, this time in the northern part of the Cotswolds, or rather just off them, at Broadway. I'm here for six nights, intending to enjoy five full days of sunny late-autumn scenery. Sere orange leaves falling silently in the gentle breeze...glorious sunsets...the peace and serenity of a half-empty Caravan Club site...

Some hope! I set off in rain. It lashed down all the way to Stow-on-the-Wold, only to be replaced by fog. At Broadway, the rain spat again. It promises to be dull and cloudy throughout my stay. I wouldn't mind that if I had peace and serenity, but this turns out to be a noisy site. It's not half-empty, it's packed. Loud passing traffic, loud adults, and loud children too. (Why aren't they at school? It's not the weekend yet). The presence of precocious children probably means some ghastly trick-or-treating on Friday, which is Hallowe'en. I might well decide to eat out that evening, and avoid any possibility of being pestered. I blame the parents. Why was it necessary to produce replicas of themselves?

These are unwanted irritants I don't get at my favourite farm sites in the West Country. Some Caravan Club sites are like charming meadows or orchards. Broadway is not. I got a nice welcome on arrival, but occasionally you pick a site you don't fancy coming back to, and on the showing so far, this is one of them. I rather wish I'd gone to Stamford instead, like I did last year. Or, if it had to be the Cotswolds, then the Cirencester site, which is definitely the best of the bunch. Sigh.

I sound very dissatisfied, I know. Maybe I should have stayed at home, and got on with something useful. No: the notion of getting away late in the year was a good one, and I mustn't let my hyperactive neighbours spoil it for me. Tomorrow will be different. I will make it so.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Hallowe'en gimmickry

I was in Wilkinsons yesterday, and immediately noticed all the Hallowe'en stuff on sale. Most of it was aimed at kids - things to dress up in, gruesome makeup for the girls, fake skeletal bits and pieces for the boys. Even teenagers (or Mums and Dads) could buy witches' costumes and the like - up to size 18, believe it or not! But no hats - they had already been snapped up. A pity.

There were still however skulls aplenty, some to put candles in (in the manner of a pumpkin), and some to place on the ground, along with fake skeletal arms, as if a dead person were emerging from his or her grave, keen to claim a victim. It was highly realistic, I can tell you. I played seriously with the idea of buying a skull, one I could keep in my bag and disinter at a key moment to startle all around. It seemed for a moment like a very cool notion, if not positively chilling. And if people weren't frightened out of their wits, I could still do a Lucified version of the big graveyard scene in Hamlet ('Alas, poor Yorick...')

I was very inclined to somehow play on the discovery of a witch in my family, hanged and burned in 1669, and the near-certainty of myself inheriting a witch gene!

In the end I resisted the spell, and just bought two items. One was a witch's broom (intended for a child really) for £1.25. I knew it would somehow come in handy. The other was a realistic-looking wine bottle with 'Witches brew - drink if you dare' on the label. This cost £5.00. I thought it really was a bottle of red wine, or else some vile satanic distillation. But when I removed the cellophane wrapping I found that it was actually a candle. Never mind! It's something I can produce when I turn up for an evening meal at a friend's (as I shall tonight), and if I'm lucky the true nature of this gift won't be discovered until it's time to open the first bottle of red wine. How the other guests will laugh and chortle! What a jape! (I will of course bring along a genuine bottle of wine)

I also bought a third item with tonight's invitation in mind, this time from Waitrose. It's a cheese. Specifically an Epoisses. This is an amazingly smelly French cheese, from Burgundy. I'm confident that it will be a big hit. Mind you, in the meantime, it's making a dreadful pong at Melford Hall. I'm not entirely sure that I'll be eating any of it, but I know that the other guests certainly will want to tuck in. If you remember, I bought an equally smelly English cheese last year called Stinking Bishop, bringing it back from an East Midlands caravan jaunt, along with a range of Melton Mowbray pork pies. All for serious gastronomic assessment. This Epoisses cheese will be sampled in the same spirit.

Time for lunch. My usual. Eye of toad and wing of bat, mashed-up slug and tail of rat - all sautéed in fresh blood, and served with salad leaves drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. Low-calorie and yet wonderfully nutritious. Really healthy.

I come, Greymalkin!

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Women pulling the levers for a change

Let me describe a incident where, for once, male territory was invaded by women determined to see for themselves, and not be excluded. This assertion of basic fairness occurred at Instow, the little town on the other side of the river from Appledore. The women in question included myself. Here is the photographic proof that will forever overturn the glib (male) supposition that women are interested only in children, shopping, and dishy TV presenters.

It was a sunny day. Not a cloud was in the sky. Not a negative word was heard from the people passing by. I was among a large group of men and women enjoying a leisurely morning History Walk led by local historian David Carter. Some had come by car. Others by ferry across the River Torridge, from Appledore, presumably straight from a late breakfast. It was warm, very warm. There was no breeze. We were all glad we'd left coats and jumpers behind.

David led us all along the seafront, pointing out houses and facts of interest. Then it was up a side road, and along a bit, with tantalising river views glimpsed through buildings and down side alleyways that had a Mediterranean atmosphere.

Gradually we worked towards the climax of the History Walk - the remains of the former Instow railway station: chiefly a level crossing gate, a stretch of railway line, a platform - and a very well-preserved signal box which was specially open, complete with a man inside to tell visitors all about it.

David told us the history of the station. Impatient, the men tossed their heads and snorted, eyeing the steps up into the signal box. A scent of testosterone filled the air as he spoke, the men edging closer to the box all the time, jaw muscles flexing. Then the home semaphore signal tilted up, giving the 'Right away', and they made a push for the steps, like bulls charging.

Then a surprising thing happened. A phalanx of nimble women leapt up the steps ahead of them. The bulls, torn between 'ladies-first' courtesy and the imperative primal call of their railway gene, wavered, then conceded. They were utterly thwarted; and as it became clear that there would be no room at all for any men in the box, they were clearly minded to make a mild protest. But I shouted at them as I mounted the steps, 'No, it's our turn this time! You're always stopping us doing what we want to do!' They drew back, frustrated but powerless.

Inside, we had the undivided attention of the chappie in charge. I think he was rather chuffed to have such amazing female company. We asked all kinds of questions. We didn't actually get to touch the levers, but we persuaded him to give a demo (though secretly he wanted to do it anyway, of course):

One reason for not insisting on having a go was that these levers looked pretty hard to pull. I asked him about that. He said the home signals were easy (for a man), but the distant signals - linked mechanically to the signal box by a very long run of wire - were an entirely different proposition and required a learned technique to exert the right kind of effort. The cloth was essential, to give the hands a firm dry grasp.

I must say, on a sunny day, when the line was open, the signalman would have had a great view, as you can judge from these shots - first up the former line towards Fremington; and then across the river, showing incidentally another new friend (Sara, wearing the high-visibility jacket) at the foot of the steps:

We ladies stayed a bit overlong in the signal box, but nobody seemed to mind. Even the stallions who hadn't managed to see inside had stopped making a fuss. It was so lovely in the sunshine. David rounded off his historical tour of Instow, and we all dispersed.

The fire buckets hadn't been needed!

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Meeting Richard and Judy

Many of the Appledore Book Festival bookwriters/speakers were very well known. That didn't mean they were all approachable. From their point of view, the Book Festival Circuit was a good way to talk about their new book and stimulate sales, but rather tiring. You know: Henley yesterday, Appledore today, Hay-on-Wye tomorrow; living out of a suitcase for two or three weeks at a time. I don't think I'd like it much, if I had written a book, was a Name, and an intense series of public appearances were expected by publisher and public alike. All that relentless travelling, while having to look fresh and creative, and always witty and interesting, even if really brain-dead and fed up.

Enough to put you off beginning a book, in case it becomes a runaway success!

So I had sympathy with people like Lord Owen, who at his age had to pace himself carefully; and sympathy even for younger writers, who might be more inclined to seek the public adulation (or at least the public fascination) there for the asking. But whatever their age or inclination, a writer has a human need for space and some private moments of peace, away from the attentions of admirers, and it was understandable that some of them did not linger long to chat.

But not all. I was impressed to find that Richard Madeley (who had just brought out a psychological thriller called The Way You Look Tonight) and his wife Judy Finnigan were very relaxed about the excitement they generated at Appledore.

Richard in particular seemed to like the fuss. And there was a lot of that. Hoards of Devon housewives turned up, plus sundry other visiting women (myself included) who eagerly jumped on the 'I love Richard' bandwagon! More on that shortly.

The couple are both famous for presenting (from 1988 through to 2009) the long-running TV shows This Morning (ITV) and Richard and Judy (Channel 4) that followed - with offshoot developments such as the Richard and Judy Book Club, which involved their interviewing new writers, recommending books to read, and ultimately choosing an annual prizewinner. Originally journalists, then TV presenters, both have since become popular novelists in their own right.

Richard's ABF spot at 6.00pm on Saturday 4th October took the form of a conversation on stage (in the large Parish Church) with a woman interviewer determined to give him an easy and flattering time. These (rather poor) shots of his arrival, and settling down, will give you an idea:

As you can see, I managed to get a reasonably good view.

Just after I sat down I realised that I was in the row immediately in front of a friendly woman from Barnstaple called Ros, whom I'd encountered earlier in the week. She said hello with gusto. She was there with her sister Liz, also delighted to see me.

Then a man sat next to me. He was friendly too. He seemed all ready to take a lot of notes. I asked him whether he had a good enough view. Yes, thanks, he had. It turned out that he was a journalist engaged in writing a feature article for a leisure-interest magazine that was connected with The Economist. The article was about book festivals. His name was Anthony Gardner. He'd already been to Cheltenham, Henley and Havant. Today was Appledore. Next day he was going to yet another festival somewhere else. A punishing schedule, I thought.

Several things struck me about Richard Madeley's 'performance'. First, he was very much at ease. He spoke well and clearly; and the combination of suntan, open-necked white shirt, well-cut suit, studied unshavenness, and slightly dishevelled hair had their combined effect. Every woman's eyes were fixed on him. He was every bit as as good as his TV persona. And just now and then he verged on saying the 'wrong' thing (the sort of thing men get under-the-table kicks from their wives about) which kept him from being too smooth. No suave politician this. And yet he was undoubtedly clever, and interesting to hear. I saw that on the table he had two drinks: one was the regulation tumbler of water. The other was a wine glass. I wondered if it contained white wine. He drank sparingly from both. I also noticed that his boots were meticulously clean. In fact they shone like a parade guardsman's. I approved of that. I was very tempted to ask my journalist companion whether he had noticed the wine glass and the boots, but stopped myself - surely a trained journalist wouldn't fail to notice such things, and I was loath to tell him his business.

The new thriller was a sequel to an earlier book, with the same heroine, now twelve years older, and it sounded like a cat-and-mouse story involving a psychopathic killer. I wondered if it might have the atmosphere of the terrifying 1962 Gregory Peck/Robert Mitchum film Cape Fear (see but with a different twist. I resolved to buy a copy afterwards.

And I did. Here's the view I had in the nearby Church Hall of the long, snaking queue to buy the book, and then have it signed by Richard. That's Liz in the foreground, wearing mauve.

It took time, but we gradually shuffled forward until right at the signing table. The three of us (Ros, Liz and myself) exchanged cameras in a fluster of excitement, so that we could each be seated with Richard, and the shot of a lifetime then taken. Here, Ros (left) is checking that she got the photo she wanted, while Richard asks me what I'd like written in my copy of his book:

'To Lucy from Richard Madeley', please!

Then I too sat like a star-struck schoolgirl with this man, absolutely chuffed to bits.

Judy, who had been sitting next to Richard, had wandered off to look at some of the other books on display. Once again the three of us hurriedly exchanged cameras so that we could each pose with her. If she was seriously put out, then she didn't show it!

She was wearing very well for a mother of four - and Richard to cope with. She's actually four years older than me, while Richard is four years younger. This was taken only a week and a bit before she joined the panel of Loose Women on daytime TV.

Richard is about the same age that my brother Wayne would have been, were he still around. Funny how he seemed older than me, but then nearly everyone always seems older than me. Maybe I am forever stuck, psychologically speaking, in childhood, in my early teens. I'll have to ponder that.

Meanwhile, this was a pleasant and memorable brush with celebrity!

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Tarr Steps and wet wheels

This is about a visit to Tarr Steps on Exmoor in late September, when it was still warm and sunny. The Steps are a 'clapper bridge', a West Country term for a crude bridge made of stone slabs on stone supports, laid across a river, in this case the River Barle. There are one or two famous clapper bridges on Dartmoor. This is Exmoor's prime example. They are pretty ancient.

The setting is highly picturesque, in a wooded valley, approachable by a steep, narrow, but tarred road in two directions. I arrived from the south-west, via Hawkridge. I was last here in May 1998, and took this shot then:

The little blue car you can see on the opposite side of the ford that runs alongside the clapper bridge is the Nissan Micra that I was driving at the time. Fiona (my Volvo XC60) is simply that car's eventual successor, via a Peugeot 306 and a Honda CR-V, all of them blue. Blue is my traditional colour for cars, just as white is my traditional colour for mobile phones. (Something whispered to me that you wanted to know this) The ford is normally quite shallow, and in theory one can drive a normal car across it. In practice, it's stony and therefore rather bumpy, and at all times a little deeper than it looks. I'll return to that in a moment!

Well, assuming one gets there at a 'quiet' time and actually manages to park - as I did on this September 2014 revisit - the first thing to do is clamber up onto the bridge and foot it across. Here's Fiona parked in a pole position close to the ford, and then some views of the bridge:

While I was still halfway across, sounds of revving diesel cars were heard, and then four Land Rovers shot into view, and drove across the river in great style...

...and then came back across the river again! How exciting! Every driver present craned to see. Every driver, myself included, considered the feasibility of doing the same thing. Most shook their heads wistfully, discarding the notion at once. The driver of this low-slung sports car clearly couldn't risk it:

But Fiona, now? Hmmm. She had quite a bit of ground clearance, and lots of power, and four-wheel drive, and good water seals. Built for icy gravel tracks in the far north of Sweden, and no doubt capable of crossing torrents and other hazards...

Even so, I decided not not try. I didn't want one of those river-stones clonking into Fiona's underside and making expensive dents. Nor in any case did I relish getting stuck, and having to beg for assistance from one of the Land Rover owners. Mind you, they'd probably enjoy demonstrating their winches.

Well, was I travelling show? No, I was not. So I faked it. I reversed Fiona into the river, intending to take a shot that would give the impression that I'd forded the River Barle with nary a water drop on Fiona's bonnet. It would fool everyone for at least five seconds! So, with curious eyes watching, I turned her around and backed her into the water...and then realised that I was going to get wet shoes (and a wet skirt!) for the sake of just that one shot. Oh...

Silly me! But I laughed it off. And hey, nobody else had the bottle to do the same.

My shoes dried out by teatime.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Kissing men

Well, here's a subject, and no mistake. Mouth-on-face action with the opposite sex! With men, anyway, however you stand in relation to them.

I will confess at once that I was never, ever, super-confident about sexual kissing. Even if there are those still living, still prowling the planet, who can testify to occasions - not many, and only after a period of profound celibacy - when I was in the grip of relentless, uncorked sexual desire, I was, even in those steamy moments, unhappy about my kissing technique. It was on my mind and always took the edge off any excitement. I felt inept. But then, I'd never been taught properly. My family did not kiss each other; I started late in the dating game; and the best ways to kiss were never explained to me. I was somehow supposed to know how.

And I still feel inept with kissing. The leopard does not change her spots. In fact, if I ever find myself cornered by a marriage proposal, however unlikely that may be, I will insist on a 'no kissing' clause in the pre-nup. (I'm secretly hoping that this will be my 'get out of jail free' card, so that the thing won't go ahead)

Expert sexual kissing seems jolly difficult. Like achieving an orgasm. It's something I presently feel inclined to avoid like the plague. Well, let's leave this on one side, and discuss the other kind, social kissing - which after all, is the sort most of us have to contend with every day.

Social kissing is on the rise. Once (the context I now refer to is middle-class UK in the 1960s or 1970s) it was only between husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend, adults and young children in the same family, or between women friends. Men did not kiss men. Men did not kiss women who 'belonged' to another men, unless the couples knew each other very well indeed. It was a fairly clear-cut scheme. If anyone was in doubt, one could shake hands instead, or just smile at each other. In business and professional situations, a manly handshake was in order, supposedly signifying solid qualities connected with trust and honesty.

Did I say men did not kiss men? It wasn't quite true. It was plain from watching TV that foreigners behaved differently. Continental men might at any moment embrace one, and bestow a celebratory kiss on both cheeks. This was a morbid fear, I suspect, of many a British father at his daughter's wedding or similar ceremony. And one imagines, as town-twinning got under way, how the average town council in Cheshire or Yorkshire or Somerset looked askance on the requirement to be properly welcoming to the visiting town council from France. It would require an intense kissing ritual between grown men. By 'eck! Talk about being hot under the collar!

And there was another category of men who seemed to smooch each other rather a lot: footballers. Any goal, and they were all over each other. Maybe this was more from the 1980s, but I do recall the ridicule directed at these players' uninhibited behaviour. Maybe it was just the foreign teams.

Kissing between gay men wasn't then discussed. It wasn't discussable. This changed during the 1980s as AIDS cases suddenly proliferated - a bit like the Ebola scare today - and the mechanics of body fluid transfer had to be widely understood. Before AIDS, even urine and spit weren't mentionable in normal conversation.

How prim we were! We've forgotten. I'm pretty certain that if I could be magically transported back to 1970, and sat down in the very training room that I sat in at age eighteen, with assorted 1970-style adults on week 1 of the Inland Revenue's Income Tax Training Course, I would scandalise everyone - old and young - within seconds. I'd give myself away as soon as I opened my mouth. I'd be casually mentioning, in what would be to me polite and friendly conversation, all kinds of things that just weren't known or spoken about then. They'd think me a very loose and precocious woman in odd clothing who didn't know her place, and showed no respect whatever to men, and indeed authority in general. I'd be raising eyebrows and making people gasp with what I let drop on perfectly ordinary topics. They'd consider me hopelessly irreligious, immoral and subversive - a danger to society.

Some chaps, and some of the younger girls, would admire my apparent forthrightness, and wish they could be as outspoken and daring. But most wouldn't. They'd be shocked into red-faced embarrassment at my easy frankness; dismayed at my amazing tolerance; and mystified by the opaque technological content of my talk. We are all knowledgeable about techy things nowadays - but not then, not before the Internet, when even pocket calculators weren't invented, and 'computers' meant huge mainframe machines with punch cards, or tapes whirring around.

God help me if I accidentally showed my mobile phone, or - impossibly - it received a text message from 2014. All eyes on me, and that thing in my hand that made the funny noise. The best I could hope for would be, 'Is that a toy? Gosh, a Communicator like they have on TV, in Star Trek! But where's the flip cover?' The worst could mean being arrested as an invading alien from Outer Space, masquerading in humanoid form. Probably I would be, anyway: they'd find Fiona in the car park, and panic would ensue. Sirens would wail, the Sweeney would rush in after doing ninety up the Edgware Road. They'd take me to a disused warehouse in Dockland. And I'd miss a golden opportunity to brush up on the Total Income Formula, and learn to calculate Earned Income Relief (taking into account Retainable Charges), and absorb all the ins and outs of Dependent Relative Allowance. Sad.

Oh dear, I've digressed.

Right, social kissing. In 2014. Things have moved forward quite a lot. I think it must have started in London and nearby counties and spread outward. A certain recognition that as a nation we were a sight too stiff and pompous and reserved, and that it would do no harm to ditch the stiff upper lip and be more Gallic (kissing is always linked to The French). This marched with drinking more wine, smoking recreational drugs, cocking a snook at politicians and 'standards', and generally enjoying a party lifestyle - if you could afford it. During the Thatcher Years it wasn't congenial to be Gallic and kissy if you had no money. So you stayed old-fashioned. But if you were doing well, social kissing took off and became the norm. Handshakes suddenly looked over-formal and distant. Embracing and kissing was so much nicer, perfect for a new age of spending and display.

The only trouble was that it didn't happen like this everywhere, nor at the same pace everywhere, nor at all levels of society. And nobody, not even the Ministry of Kissing and Approved Social Behaviour, wrote a manual on what to do when meeting another person. So we were all left guessing.

And that is how it still is. Among your own local social group, you all know what to do. But elsewhere it's a nightmare - nobody knows quite what to expect, resulting in clashing noses and lips slithering past each other, missing their targets. All in all, a constant embarrassing failure to greet each other elegantly.

You'd expect women to sort this out, especially between themselves, but the kissing that some older women expect - a peck on one cheek only, say, for one's elderly aunt in Newport - is a world away from what occurs between some young girls (possibly a hearty smackeroo on both cheeks, and/or a wet-lipped smooch right on the lips), which would disconcert my aunt.

British men remain more reticent, as befits their credentials as No-nonsense Masculine Frontier Types. But even they have become accustomed to accepting (and giving) a two-cheek kiss to flighty females like Yours Truly. Actually, I'd say men are an easier proposition than kissing other women, because men mostly stick to one simple learned technique. This is most commonly a cheek-to-cheek air-kiss, plus a rather robotic hug. I can cope with that. It contains no surprises at all. Nor do they linger over it - another plus. And no special kissing skill is demanded of me. We can fudge it, and be thoroughly British about it. Personally speaking, a girly handshake from me would do just as well, but I realise that these fine fellows - my nephew, for instance - are making a Gallant Effort, and so I will help them out willingly.

There's just one snag. It's the current fashion for men - especially young men - to grow a crop of stubble over their faces, if not incipient beards. It feels like rubbing up against a stiff wire brush. Ooooh...! Still, it's remarkable that men will nowadays let you kiss them this freely, something not to be discouraged, and so I make the best of it and compliment them on the staunch virility of their facial hair. This always goes down well. What I'm saying is that the issue is not now so much 'Should I kiss this man?', but 'Will it hurt?'. The kissing has become a given; facial discomfort is the key problem.

I hope men do not go back to Victorian beards as voluminous as Charles Darwin's, or Lord Tennyson's.

But then, perhaps, men's beards tend to become softer when grown really long. I hope that's true. If not, how on earth did their wives and girlfriends cope?

Sunday, 19 October 2014

From blend to flash

In mid-September I had my last electrolysis session with Roz, who was close to retiring. She won't be lazing around - she's a very, very good ladies' tournament golfer, representing England in the past. So she loses an income but gains leisure to pursue what she loves.

However, this means that I've had to find another person for my hair removal. I'd been with Roz (originally through personal recommendation) for over five years. It's quite a big change to make, because you need to establish a good rapport with the practitioner. I was concerned about that.

A conversation with a local friend pointed me in the direction of Sarah. Roz was in south-east London. Sarah's in Brighton. So at least she would be on my doorstep, at least relatively speaking, and there would be car fuel and time savings. Anyway, I fixed up a first appointment last week. See

And first impressions were very good. The setup was inviting, and Sarah herself was welcoming and professional. And of course skilful. I'm paying fractionally less than before; although in fairness to Roz, she was merely charging at London rates.

The only essential difference, apart from Sarah's studio being so close to home, is that she got me to try electrolysis using the flash method, instead of the blend method that Roz advocated.

If you didn't know, blend involves the client holding a rod in one hand to complete an electrical circuit though the body. A needle is inserted into the hair follicle, and a medium current heats up the base of the follicle sufficiently to create a hot chemical reaction that destroys the root of the hair - which can then be pulled out. This process might take five seconds altogether, so that in theory twelve hairs can be treated each minute, although that's rather more than can actually be managed in practice. There is certainly (as with all electrolysis) some discomfort involved - though often only slight. Blend doesn't stress the skin much, and recovery from any redness or puffiness is quick, at least if you have my kind of hide.

Flash dispenses with the rod. The needle goes in the same, but faster, because the needle carries a much higher current and mustn't be left under the skin more than a couple of seconds. It kills the root by heat alone. The practitioner needs to have fine judgement on timing, otherwise the skin could be damaged. Even with the best skill, the skin will be stressed a bit more than it would with blend, and it will probably suffer local swelling for longer. I didn't find the discomfort any greater though - I dare say because the needle goes in and out so rapidly, so it's gone before the skin registers much pain.

Well, I quickly found myself convinced that flash was a good option. We certainly bumped off a lot of hairs. I did end up with roughly twice the degree of redness and puffiness compared to blend. Even so, I had no appearance problems after treatment and was able to walk back to Fiona without feeling that my face looked a sight. But whereas with blend my face would settle down to its normal state within the hour (two hours at most), with flash it still looked detectably puffy next day, and there was a slight tingling that I hadn't experienced with blend. But it passed. I'm satisfied, at least on first acquaintance with flash, that it will do me no harm, and that it ought now to be the way forward.

The use of flash, if I continue to respond well to it, means that faster progress can be made. Roughly speaking, it will clear twice the number of hairs in the same time as blend would. This offers the prospect of having a face cleared of all its wiry hair within twelve months, and then dealing only with regrowth.

One will at last be able to dance cheek-to-cheek! (Not that you'd ever catch me dancing)

Friday, 17 October 2014

That Spectator article by Brendan O'Neill

Say what you like, the trans world (like any other minority group) has eyes and ears, and can judge as well as anyone else. Some trans people have a public presence and can speak out against whatever seems wrong or prejudicial. A few shout a little too vehemently, and that attracts the attention of journalists looking for a good article to write.

This brings me on to a piece just published in the Australian version of The Spectator magazine, which you can read at I found out about it by reading Dru Marland's blog ( I saw that nearby blogger Andie Davidson ( had seen the article too, and had actually made a comment. Dru had declined to fan the flames, but had written a post about it. I decided to do both.

Nowadays I reckon my trans credentials are pretty thin. Essentially I'm post-trans. The process is finished, bar endless refinement and finishing off my electrolysis. People in general - I mean neighbours, the new people I meet around the country, and so forth - treat me as if it's all over and done with, to the extent that it seems pointless to ever bring up the subject. I really only talk about trans stuff on this blog, and with other trans people. Nobody else.

My blog is now all about my antics on holiday and things like that, and not much about the issues that gravely concern those teetering on the edge of transition, or swimming for their lives in it. And I dare say I've lost popularity with the trans world, because I want instead to discuss ordinary things - ho hum topics like rag rugs, say - or at least things that seem irrelevant to someone on the rack about whether, or when, or how, to commit themselves to a very different life that may destroy everything they have previously valued.

Even so, I know I will never lose the marks and legacies of the former existence, nor cease to be aware of how much my remaining life will be an ongoing compromise. So I haven't at all turned my back on the trans world, nor other trans people. And although I'll never now become an activist, nor would want to be, I am most definitely a supporter and upholder of the principle that trans people are part of humanity and require fair and equal treatment.

In this case, journalist Brendan O'Neill, to earn a few dollars, has been rather snide and nasty. He's had a go at the people who give the trans world a bad name. I don't think he understands much about the real issues. That, of course, never stopped a competent writer from turning out a publishable piece that will sell well and keep him (or her) solvent - and serve to enhance their reputation.

You can read my riposte if you follow the Spectator link above (scroll down quite a bit for the Comments section), but I reproduce it here anyway:

This sort of stuff sells magazines and so long as it does journalists will be able to make a living. If the public mood changes, another subject will get written about, and journalists will have to adapt.

I can't tell if Mr O'Neill really holds in private the views he has expressed, so it's pointless having a go at him. He may be sincere, or he may not. I suspect he is just cynically doing his job.

The article is certainly critical of trans activists with a strident political agenda. In so far as these people transgress the ordinary bounds of proper behaviour I'd say they set themselves up for a backlash, including a degree of ridicule and demonising. As any 'extreme' group could expect.

I'm trans myself, but I quietly get on with an ordinary life, and the straightforward contentment that brings is proof to me that (a) my life is true and natural, and (b) it's all about personal feelings. There's nothing to debate. I took my feelings about myself to the medical world and got fixed at my own expense, and I see that as the best thing I ever did. It was a break with convention and the culture of accepting the identity thrust on one at birth. I feel I acted honestly.

The activists are of all sorts. The ones who engage in undramatic but insistent pressure for change have my tacit support. The ones on a hate offensive do not. As for people who claim to be, say, women, but keep the appearance of men, what can one say? Why wouldn't a genuine woman be frantic to lose all signs of excessive hair growth, and get voice therapy? So I too don't 'get' performers with beards.

The spotlight is on women escaping from a male appearance. Don't forget the men escaping from a female appearance. And the ones who cope with a life as a 'normal' masculine-looking woman, or as a 'normal' effeminate man, who may not reckon themseves to be trans, but might be. All of us are to some extent touched by transness, just as all of us are touched by gayness. In most, obviously, the touch is unnoticeable. In some it is more evident. And in some it's the driving force. Think of a spectrum.

Articles on any topic like this one play on the widespread human fear of being different. Most of us are timid sheep, who play for safety. That's why it's easy to see the ones who turn their lives around not as heroes and possible role models but as a dreadful menace. Wolves, in fact. And you know what happens to wolves. People want to shoot 'em.

Lucy Melford

It was useful to write that. I'd wanted an opportunity to encapsulate my current attitude on trans matters, and where I stood. Even if it's wasted on The Spectator, I can repost this anywhere I like now, as a standard comment to make whenever someone sounds off against brave men and women struggling to escape from their birth appearance, and the social conditioning that was thrust upon them without the option.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The perfect voice, but with consequences

BBC Radio 4 slipped in a short news item this morning about a 39 year old radio DJ in Yorkshire, Stephanie Hirst, who came off the airwaves last June 'to focus on the process' - the 'process' being, of course, her MTF transition. A decision was made to cut her breakfast radio show without prior announcement. There is a suggestion that basic commercial interests drove this - the jittery feelings of advertisers obviously mattered to the company owning the radio station - and the report does say that no special programme to say au revoir to listeners was allowed. The story is here:

Whatever the hard-headed commercial considerations in the background, I dare say a deal of some kind was done, and that Stephanie Hirst was not actually shoved out naked onto some cold back street in Hull (or wherever the studio was), with just her bus fare home. I haven't been able to find the BBC Radio 5 Live clip from last Saturday, in which she explained about her transition, but maybe you can. There are other online reports, with some pictures of an attractive woman clearly enjoying a wonderful sense of new-found freedom. Just search for 'Stephanie Hirst'. Apparently her former radio show fans are clamouring for her return.

A few things strike me.

First, I think this is a fair-enough 'celebrity' or at least 'entertainment industry' story, and I personally have no beef against the media for reporting it. Public figures must expect some coverage. And it could be that Ms Hirst wanted her story made public anyway, to prepare her listeners for something new to come.

Second, the various reports are not sensationalised. There has clearly been some growing-up in editorial circles, or at any rate the adoption of a stance that leans towards saying 'Now look at this, here's an amazing human-interest story, showing how someone can absolutely turn their life around - and good luck to her, don't you think?' Which is a vast improvement over the mocking and sneering look-at-the-freak bad taste of the past. A pity that the BBC's own report had to use the outmoded phrase 'sex change', but possibly they took 'expert advice', and were told that the sting had gone out of such words, that they had passed into the realm of 'harmless idiom'. If true, I wonder who those experts were?

Third, Ms Hirst is most certainly lively and agreeable, and definitely not a child, nor someone working in a sector where her transition might be an issue of concern, to parents perhaps. These things help a lot to make her story seem entirely positive and uncontroversial. The coverage is therefore upbeat and supportive. Well, if it accustoms the general public to the idea that there are many, many similar people in the population who need to be their true selves, and that it's normal for such a person to take time out to make the change, then that must assist all the 40-something trans people who feel trapped in the closet.

Fourth, and this is not so good for Ms Hirst personally, her voice will be a make-or-break issue. She looks fine. I wish I looked so good. But her voice? She will have to give it attention. She must have a brilliant voice for radio broadcasting. And yet, acquisition of such a voice could spell career death. Or at least she will have to begin again, reinvented. What I'm saying is this. On radio, a presenter's voice is terribly important. It's the link between the presenter and the listeners. Listeners become highly attuned to it, identify with the voice, and even imagine what sort of person the presenter really is from his or her voice. If they like it, they will like the presenter.

The audience does not want changes. I can't think offhand of any past radio presenter who survived a major modification of their voice through illness or surgery.

In this case it will be a major change through necessary voice training. To equip herself for ordinary living, to have vocal abilities that are absolutely right for the purposes of everyday life, Ms Hirst's voice will end up sounding very different from the old voice that her fans grew to recognise and love. The pitch, rhythm, cadences, vocabulary, and many other nuances will all have to be quite different. And she will end up sounding like another person. It won't be 'Hirsty' any more. You see the danger.

Most MTF trans people, based on the ones I personally know, never acquire a completely convincing and natural female-sounding voice. It may indeed be 'OK' or 'good enough to get by' or even 'really quite good'. That kind of ability is not uncommon. But I am speaking about 'a completely convincing and natural female-sounding voice' and I mean something in a different league. Not only a sustainable, tireless voice for all occasions, one that never wobbles or degenerates, but something that stands comparison to any girl or woman. I can (hand on heart) count on a couple of fingers the number of persons I've met in the last six years who have such a voice, who would without question be taken for ordinary women on the strength of their voice alone. Literally less than five, out of well over a hundred people. Call it two per cent. Not more. It's a rare and unusual skill.

Ms Hirst will surely be assiduous in acquiring a very good female voice. And it can be done. It costs money, and intense personal effort, but there is no ordinary male voicebox whose croaks and rasps can't be hugely modified through tuition and practice. And yet the more perfect she becomes, the harder it will be to recognise her established radio persona - with big, possibly negative, consequences for her career. How ironic.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Masterchef lunch and rag rugs

For some time now I've been eager to take up a craft, and make something useful for the home, or to wear. I'm drawn towards fabrics, and had been considering (for example) sewing and knitting. My Mum bequeathed to me an awful lot of wool, her electric sewing machine, and a complete range of needles and other equipment - so I was ready to go. I just lacked the skills. I did dabble with knitting in the mid-1970s, but didn't get far, and I've always thought it would be really nice to learn the basics properly and then eventually produce some knitwear for myself using modern designs, such as you see in expensive craft shops.

Getting started though was daunting. I needed to join a like-minded group of local women - but in my village that was difficult, though it wouldn't be somewhere else. Meanwhile, the urge to create had not gone away.

But I think I now have the answer. Rag rugs! And this is how the idea of making them came my way.

When I was in North Devon recently, attending the Appledore Book Festival events, I found myself seated by a most friendly lady at the Masterchef Lunch at The Seagate, a hotel on the Quay with a bar and a restaurant. Here we were:

Her name was Jayne, and she's wearing the red scarf. The guy on the right was called Ashley, and he was one of the chefs at The Beaver, a very good pub elsewhere in Appledore. His boss, Graham, and Graham's wife Helena, were seated opposite. Incidentally I can recommend The Beaver for its great atmosphere and its food - I had two meals there - and I've also got to know another member of their staff, a friendly lady called Ally. (You can see that I am assiduous in making local contacts!)

It was a lunch exclusively for Friends of the ABF (I'm one), and 2010 Masterchef Winner Dhruv Baker was there. Here he is, with ABF Friends Group Coordinator Celia on the left. A pleasant man indeed.

Dhruv Baker had just published a book devoted to spices. He didn't actually cook anything at this lunch - that was in the hands of the two local chefs, who strove to do justice his spicy recipes. Their menu and their kitchen offerings were kept simple (very wise) but, in my view, they turned out something pretty tasty:

Here they are getting thanked later on:

Anyway, Jayne and I chatted away and got on very well - to the extent that after the event she invited me to her home nearby, to see it (she was a relative newcomer to Appledore and had only just finished the decorating and furnishing), and then to take her golden retriever Cally for a walk. She had a very stylish home. Inside it was full of lovely little touches, a mixture of modern and traditional. You couldn't help noticing the rag rugs here and there. She'd made them herself. They looked terribly inviting. You felt you wanted to stand on them with bare feet, clenching and unclenching your toes in the deep pile! I resolved there and then to look into this. I told her that she had inspired me.

And today I have been researching how to make them on the Internet. I looked on a number of sites, but this one, the Makings Handicrafts site, seemed the best for my purposes: I've ordered one of their Rag Rugging tools, and will source a supply of hessian locally. Then it's just a case of thinking about designs and colours, and gathering together a suitable collection of cotton fabrics for cutting into strips. I can see that if one is particular about getting the right colours in the right quantities, it might take some time to get ready to begin. But perhaps charity shops will be the best source of fabrics - any old clothing in any size will do, even curtain material. I have no idea how long the average rug might take to complete - a couple of weeks at least, surely? - but this seems just the thing for a winter pastime.

And the results will have immediate use. I want a rag rug for the floor of my caravan, two for the floor of my bathroom, and a couple for my bedroom. It'll be fun creating bold designs in strong colours, and what a sense of accomplishment I will have!

Monday, 13 October 2014

Ding! Ding! All aboard for a tram ride through the countryside!

At the very start of my recent holiday I spent four nights (and therefore three full days) at Lyme Regis, at the westernmost end of the Jurassic Coast of Dorset. Well, strictly speaking, the farm I was pitched at was in Devon. Lyme Regis nestles right up against the Devon-Dorset border. This convenient geographical fact must have been very useful indeed in the old days for Smuggling Gentlemen engaged in the lucrative Fossil Trade. They could play one set of constables and revenue men off against the other. Even today, it pays to ask no questions in Lyme, in case Smuggling Gentlemen take exception to one's curiosity. After all it's still a swinging offence to smuggle a fossil. The crime has never been struck off the statute book, and memories of the savage Bloody Assizes conducted by Judge Jeffreys linger on. His nickname was 'The Hanging Judge'. So it's 'ask no questions, and be told no lies'!

Anyway, one afternoon I took time off to park Fiona at the Colyton terminus of a most unusual tramway system. It was a 2 foot 9 inch tram line, only a few miles long, with termini at Colyton and Seaton, and an intermediate stop at Colyford, where hungry and thirsty passengers could alight and refresh themselves at a pub called The White Hart (which my good friend Angie says is well worth visiting). For a tenner I bought a return ticket to Seaton and back. Trams were still running every half an hour even at the end of September - I was surprised at this frequency so late in the season - but it's clearly a very popular attraction, and indeed my Seaton-bound car was packed.

They make a big thing about (a) the glorious meadow, wetland, and river-estuary scenery you pass through (completely justified); and (b) the fun involved in spotting all the trams they use (they have fourteen, all different, all in different liveries, and kids (of all ages) can certainly have a great time looking out for all of them, whether it's at Colyton, Seaton, midway, or inside the tramshed). Naturally, it's an event when two trams approach each other at a passing loop!

The tramshed (where the cars are stored and serviced) occupies part of the site of the old Seaton railway station, which closed in 1966. In fact the tramline was laid on the trackbed of the former Seaton Junction to Seaton standard-gauge branch line, which once saw Saturday trains from Waterloo in London. The tramway's own Seaton terminus, reached by a series of sharp bends, is right next to a big new Tesco store, and faces a modern square. This square is quite the most modern and stylish thing in Seaton, a town sometimes called 'the poor man's Sidmouth'. It's true that Seaton is a bit amusement-arcady and fish-and-chippy compared to the high tone that prevails in Sidmouth. No big exclusive hotels. No Fields department store. No Connaught Gardens. Noticeably short on posh villas. Sidmouth is Blue Plaque City, and it has a Waitrose to boot. Seaton has no blue plaques to commemorate famous residents and events, and it has a Co-op and a Tesco. Seaton is decidedly downmarket, although at least there's no ASDA, and hey, it has the Tramway!

So there I was at Colyton, with a pink tram ready to go. I looked wistfully at the café - I'd been traipsing around looking for dead Dommetts in churchyards, and ideally would have tucked eagerly into tea and cake. But duty called. I climbed aboard, went atop, and we were off.

We were soon whizzing along at 10mph or so. It felt like more. The view opened out. It was very bucolic, quite unlike what you usually see from a city tram! Real cows, crows, herons, the lot.

Colyford approached. The driver stopped the tram short of the level crossing on the A3052, pressed a button to operate the crossing lights and halt the road traffic, and when he got a white light (not a green? I thought this a bit odd) we whistled and ran slowly into Colyford. This tram stop is notable for the level crossing, the proximity of The White Hart pub, and the green gentlemen's urinal left over from railway days - and still in a fine state of preservation!

I wonder if The Men felt any sudden urge to have a pee? Nobody got off, however, and we sped on. Anon it was a wetland nature reserve on the right (to the west), and the River Axe on the left (to the east), with charming views of Axmouth across the estuary. We passed another tram too.

Then the tramshed came into view. We trundled by slowly, and were able to give its dimly-lit contents a jolly good scrutiny.

Now it was the final approach to Seaton. The tramway doesn't terminate where the old railway did, on the outskirts of town. It goes right into the town centre, via three right-angle bends that only a tram can cope with. The terminus is a flower-bedecked piece of mock-Victoriana, a bit breezy and spartan from the point of view of waiting for a tram on a cold or rainy day. But then it's next to the Costa coffee shop that's part of Tesco next door, and I imagine most passengers would wait in the warm there.

This being a half-sized tram, climbing down from the top was a bit of a squeeze!

I had half-an-hour at Seaton before the last tram to Colyton departed.

I made sure I didn't miss it! It was this blue one:

All the seats can be sat on facing either direction, and have backrests that can be moved to and fro:

As part of his duties, the driver reverses the direction of all the backrests by hand before any passengers are allowed on board. This makes a loud clack-clack-clack-clack-clack sound.

The return journey to Colyton was just like the outward one. Once again we passed another tram:

But it was getting late in the afternoon, and the air was chillier. I put a cardigan on. When we reached Colyton, I asked the driver about the lack of signals and the lack of any obvious mechanism at passing loops to switch cars onto the right part of the loop. If I understood correctly - don't count on it! - his reply was that drivers had to be in possession of a token to electrically unlock sections of line in their direction of travel, and this also ensured that the points at passing loops opened correctly against a spring. He was clearly impressed with my craving for knowledge, and asked me if I would like to photographed by the tram, and then in the driving seat. 'Ooh, yes please!' I gushed with girlish pleasure. Here is the result:

The picture of the 'controls' just above was taken in the pink tram that I first rode, and not the blue one I came back on, and posed in. But I couldn't see any difference. Tram controls all look the same to me!

The tramway is open on and off in late autumn and in the winter. They were advertising a ghoulish and bloodthirsty Hallowe'en Evening. Had I been around, I think I might have joined in the fun on a Death Tram, fake gore on my teeth, lips and chin and all. So Gothic.

Why not? Live, dead, or Undead, life's too short to hesitate.