Sunday, 30 November 2014

A total loss wouldn't matter much (except for dear Ted)

Let's suppose that tonight at 3.00am my fire alarm goes off and wakes me up. I've got a fire in my house. There's an ominous glow showing under the bedroom door, and it feels very hot to the touch. I'd better not open it. I may have only a couple of minutes of safety left. I'm partially dressed - I sleep in a top and knickers. Slipping on leggings, some flats and a warm jacket takes only a few seconds. My bag, my purse, and my main keys are in another room, and I dare not try to get them. I do have my phone, and my spare car keys. That's enough. I live in a detached bungalow. Everything's on the ground floor. I open a bedroom window, heave myself through it, and drop down onto my front garden. I open up Fiona, start her up, and move her to a spot that won't hinder the fire brigade. I dial 999 and get them on their way.

Inside my car are spare caravan keys. Yes, I still have enough time. I wind up the corner steadies, let off the brake, and push the caravan away from the house and onto the front lawn. Now I'll have somewhere to live if the house is ruined.

I'm thinking of other things I'd like to save, but it's too much of a stupid risk. I couldn't reach Teddy Tinkoes, trapped in the lounge. I hope he'll be OK.

I take some general, from-the-lawn, shots with my phone. The insurance company might need them. And so I await the fire people. With huge thanks, I accept a nice cup of tea from my neighbours. I apologise for all the fuss, for ruining their sleep, for the smoke. The fire people arrive, and ten minutes later I have a smouldering wet shell of a home, but the danger is over. It'll need an extensive rebuild and total redecoration. My furniture, pictures, books and papers are all gone. My PC has melted. Poor Ted didn't make it: that's the one thing that makes me cry out loud, in overwhelming grief. The deeper pain of seeing my accumulated lifetime possessions charred or destroyed - and Mum and Dad's - will hit me later.

But at least I still have my phone, caravan and car. I have somewhere to live comfortably because I have the caravan. It can run on bottled gas, so I can cook there, and have some heating. I have access to all my computer records because I have Dropbox on the phone, and a complete backup of everything - photos included - on a hard drive that I keep in the car. My insurance documents are also all in the car: I set my claim in motion. I ring my bank and my credit card company. By the end of the day I'll be able to buy some new clothes to pop into the caravan wardrobe and cupboards, fresh food and milk to put in the fridge, new pillows and a snug sleeping bag.

I'm alive, alert, and organised. It crosses my mind that if I'd kept my bag and teddy bear in my bedroom at night, and not in the lounge, then I'd have them with me now.

It's a dire scenario. But as you can see, I've already imagined it and will cope.

Things work out a little better if the fire is not quite so advanced when I awake - still confined to the kitchen say - so that I can use the hall, and walk out through the front door with one or two extra things I can reach for, such as my bag, Ted, my main set of keys, and the phone recharger. If I'm actually away on a caravan holiday, then I will have half my clothes and shoes with me - but of course the alarm won't have been raised so quickly, and the house will be completely wrecked.

The funny thing is, I don't care if most things in my house end up charred and ruined. There are no 'family heirlooms' - Mum and Dad were always keen on throwing out whatever was old and no longer smart, and replacing it with something else. Hardly any of the objects around when I was young have survived. There's almost nothing left to feel sentimental about. Just a few of my own possessions.

And why am I talking about all this? Well, it's home insurance renewal time, and I've been considering my cover and its cost. Result: I've changed insurers. I'm also saving money on it.

I had been with Birmingham Midshires, an arm of Halifax General Insurance Services. I was with them because back in 2008 Dad moved his home insurance from Saga (who had become expensive after the first years) to Birmingham Midshires (whose quote was then very competitive). After Dad died in 2009, I stayed with BM because the cost remained reasonable. But now it had become less reasonable. They wanted £341 for the coming year. That wasn't scandalously high by any means, but, alerted by plenty of radio and online advice, I decided to get alternative quotes. An online quote from Aviva - with much the same level of cover - came out at £154. This was if I paid the premium in one go, rather than monthly - it would be a bit more if paying monthly, because of the cost of finance. I looked for another quote. Being a member of the Civil Service Motoring Association (which nowadays styles itself as the CSMA Club) I did an obvious thing, and enquired with their pet insurance company, Liverpool Victoria. For similar cover, they quoted a virtually identical £156. I went with them. The policy begins tomorrow.

Birmingham Midshires hadn't said what the cost would be if I were paying the entire premium all at once, and not monthly, but it could hardly be much less than £280-£290. So the Aviva and LV quotes were very much cheaper. I didn't bother with an extensive trawl of the online price-comparison websites. I'd heard they were too generic to find the very best deals out there, and in any case didn't include every insurer on their database.

BM were very sniffy about my leaving them, and pointed out that I was saving money because I'd reduced my cover.

True, the rebuilding cost insured was no longer 'unlimited' but 'only' £1,000,000. Which was still three or four times what a full rebuild would cost. And contents cover for my possessions was down from £29,246 to £25,000. And I'd opted out of cover for home emergencies - calling out a plumber or locksmith, for example - which I guessed added some £45 to the premium. It wasn't worth the money. The maximum cost they'd cover was only £500. They excluded any problem with my 20 year old boiler, the only thing really likely to go wrong. I lived in a village bristling with competent tradesmen. And if need be, I could now find £500 at the drop of a hat.

But I had also gained by moving to LV. I now had 'accidental damage' cover on both house and contents, plus cover for legal expenses. And the cover for possessions I had with me while away from home - my phone, say - was significantly better. My new LV policy was distinctly more suited to my real needs.

In particular BM's contents cover of £29,246 had seemed way too high. I didn't want to pay for so much. I'd queried it with them the year before. I was told it was a standard, minimum amount. I could request even higher cover if I wanted - but not lower.

But, I said, there is almost nothing of value in the house! Cover for £5,000 would be more than sufficient. All my furnishings and appliances were years old - certainly the items inherited from Mum and Dad - and effectively worthless. Nor did I want to perpetuate Mum and Dad's sense of style. It was too 1980s. It was quality stuff, but heavy and old-fashioned, when I'd be content with light, modern, unfussy, practical IKEA-sourced fabrics and furnishings. So I wouldn't be replacing their things on a like-for-like basis, if any were damaged or destroyed. Even the things I'd bought myself in the last five years (the washing machine and cooker, for instance) could be easily replaced for hundreds of pounds - not thousands. There were certainly no treasures or expensive jewellery, nor fancy electronic goods.

Indeed, it's sobering to reflect that at this point in time, in November 2014, the only thing worth anything much in the house, in terms of its cash value, is my Samsung smartphone. And what might that be worth after seven months' ownership? £300 at the very most?

I am not acquisitive of 'status goods'. I am happy to stay with nice-condition older stuff until replacement is a necessity, rather than because I fancy a swish new version. So thieves, take note! You won't find anything worth your trouble.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Cuckmere Haven at sunset

I have completely abandoned any plans to move to North Devon and the glorious coastal scenery there, but I can console myself with the coastal scenery of Sussex. It's not uniformly glorious, but it's very good in certain spots, and most of it faces exactly the right way for really great sunsets at any time of the year.

Not too far from me is a particularly attractive place, Cuckmere Haven. I've been going there repeatedly since the early 1990s. It's the bay you come to if you have walked all the miles westward from Eastbourne, past Cow Gap, Beachy Head, Belle Tout and Birling Gap, and then up and down each of the Seven Sisters, those very high iconic chalk cliffs set all in a row, that gleam so whitely. It's also the bay you come to if you struggle up Seaford Head, walk eastwards to Hope Gap, and then just a little further. It's the outfall of the River Cuckmere, which cuts a wide green valley in two, a mile of meadowland that separates the car park at Exceat (doesn't that sound such an ancient name?) from the shingle shore and the sea. A row of old coastguard cottages stand guard in the turf above the bay. They are holiday homes now, with private access only through locked gates and along a rough gravel track.

Cuckmere Haven is a very popular sunset destination, but it never seems crowded, because ordinary visitors can't drive to the sea there - everyone has to park and walk a distance. Photographers love it. There's a good shot to be had from any angle, at any state of the tide.

Today was, for once, a really sunny day, and I decided to go to the Haven for some fresh air and exercise. I hoped there would be a decent sunset too.

On arrival I thought that I'd left it too late, as the sun was getting pretty low. Nevertheless, with the shingle (and larger pebbles) in mind, I spent time putting on my Alt-Berg boots. It seemed likely that the sun would be set before I reached the first of several lagoons that lie between the car park and the shore. And indeed, the sun's disc was only just visible at the first lagoon:

But the horizon fell as I walked on towards the shore, keeping the sun in view just a little longer. Then, in the immediate afterglow, wisps of cloud became colourfully illuminated. I looked for eye-catching water-reflections. The coastguard cottages and their distinctive chimneys became evocative silhouettes. So did the people on the shore.

On my left were the beginnings of the Seven Sisters cliffs. They seemed a long way off, but I did make it to their foot, as you shall see.

Suddenly, from nowhere, a flock of seagulls rose from the beach and headed my way. My little Leica isn't the right camera for shooting fast-flying birds, but I did get these shots - one into the sunset, and one against the rising moon:

There were people on the shore. A lot of them seemed to be Chinese. Students, that sort of person. They were all watching the sun go down. The waves broke gently. There was almost no wind.

I came across a large white chalk pebble, upended on the shingle. There were plenty of similar pebbles around. Here's my right foot on one, followed by a view of this rather elegant complement to the sunset sky:

From this moment, the light began to fade fast. By the time I'd trudged up to the cliffs, it was twilight. But that lit-up wisp of cloud refused to die.

Satisfied, I headed back. The afterglow tempted me to keep shooting all the way. I couldn't resist.

Eventually I had to resolutely turn my back on the sunset sky, and point the Alt-Bergs firmly towards the car park. The light was getting very dim. And I was suddenly conscious that I was on my own, in the dark, and in a lonely spot. I felt exposed to potential danger. I wish I hadn't dallied.

I stepped up my pace and was very glad to catch up with, and overtake, a family party of eight. Normal people. They wouldn't stand any nonsense from anyone. They'd cover my escape. Then I was back at the car park. It was quite dark now. Boots off, socks off, shoes on, get inside Fiona, lock the doors, fire her up, drive off. Presumably the family party made short work of any mad axemen who had been on my tail.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Raising eyebrows

This was what my right eye (opened as wide as possible) looked like in February 2009. My eyebrows were in a transitional state from 'very bushy' to 'completely over-plucked'. Nevertheless, I considered the look OK for a print of this shot that I inserted into the address tag on my posh Prada handbag. Anyone contemplating an attack on my person - or the snatch-and-grab theft of my very expensive bag - would see this 'evil eye' and hopefully think again! I was more than half-serious about the 'evil eye' bit. I felt very vulnerable in those days, and any little thing that might ward off molestation found a place in my defensive arsenal.

I still haven't achieved elegance with my eyebrows, but they seem to be in a much better state than they used to be. More on that in a moment. Back in the Old life I had thick eyebrow hair growth, low over the eye on both sides of the face. I became frantic to get rid of so much unwanted eyebrow hair, and arrive at something not only shapely but elevated well above the eyes. In doing so I plucked and plucked until one day there was next to nothing left. Indeed, by the end of 2010 I was pencilling my eyebrows on every day! Here, for example is a shot of me in the restaurant at the Tate St Ives, in Cornwall:

I soon decided that this look was too artificial, quite apart from needing a level of skill with a pencil that I couldn't always come up with. So I stayed with the fringe, and let it conceal the (by now) barely-visible eyebrow lines.

Pathetic they might be, but at least my eyebrows were entirely natural. And well above my eyes too. Something had happened to my face, mostly induced by the hormones, but at least partly by retraining my facial muscles to adopt a wide-eyed expression as often as possible. The entire eye area had opened up, so that the eyes looked larger, and oval (no longer like slits) - and with the eyebrows perched well above them. But they were higher than they used to be only because of savage plucking. I kept on plucking, pretty well daily, to discourage the old hair growth that would keep coming back. It didn't make the skin around my eyes look pretty. But at least the low-brow pre-transition appearance was kept in check.

However, the eyebrows themselves remained stubbornly insubstantial. They never got thicker in their higher position. This was because they were in fact on the upper edge of what had once been there, and therefore above the most active growth area. And the hairs that did grow were coloured blonde, grey or white, and therefore didn't show up well. There were very few dark hairs, which would have given my eyebrows definition and character.

But now, in late 2014, it seems that the eyebrows are beginning to grow properly at last! It's as if the main hair growth area has shifted upwards of its own accord. Perhaps the plucking has, after all, had its intended long-term effect. Dark hairs are starting to appear in quantity, and over the next few months I feel confident that I will acquire eyebrows I need not feel ashamed of. Here's a shot I took this morning, in my study:

There's definitely more lurking under that fringe than there used to be. Here's another shot taken soon afterwards in the better light of my lounge, with a close-up, to illustrate what I'm talking about more clearly:

Next year's pictures will, I hope, show even darker eyebrows. I will be very careful indeed about plucking these new brows into a nice shape. I feel very lucky that I'm getting a second chance to have something attractive.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Whips and Plebs

Not knowing the man personally, I don't feel entitled to have a go at him. Nor excuse him, either.

I mean Andrew Mitchell, who in September 2012 had a bad-tempered exchange with policemen on duty at the main gates to Downing Street. Mr Mitchell, in a hurry, wished the gates opened so that he could ride his bicycle through, rather than wheel it out through the pedestrian gate off to one side. The policemen on duty refused his request, which annoyed Mr Mitchell. Some unhappy language was used by him. He was exasperated. He admitted that it was 'bad language'.

One policeman, sensing that this was an incident likely to be taken further, wrote down in his official notebook the gist of what Mr Mitchell did and said, and particularly recorded his saying the word 'pleb'. Mr Mitchell later denied that he had uttered this word, the use of which had of course insulted the police. His denial implied that the policeman had written down something he had made up. Reputations for honesty were now at stake. Mr Mitchell brought a libel action to clear the slur against his name, and show instead that the police were lying.

But the notebook entry was strong contemporary written evidence. It helped to persuade the judge in the ensuing libel action that the high words used did include this derogatory word, and that Mr Mitchell was not right when he stoutly maintained that no such word had passed his lips. He therefore lost the libel action, and it followed that the policeman who recorded the word 'pleb' had been an honest man.

Losing the case will cost Mr Mitchell dear. Not just the costs awarded against him. His political career is in tatters.

'Chief Whip' was Mr Mitchell's job just before this 2012 altercation with officers of the law. I had always understood that a Whip was a kind of political-party prefect who made sure that as many as possible of the MPs of his own party were present in the House for an important vote on this or that, and moreover voted in the way the party leader wanted them to. And not abstain, nor vote with the opposition. The Chief Whip was the ringmaster, the one who would lean on you most.

Well, I wasn't far wrong. Here for instance is the article in Wikipedia all about the office of Chief Whip: I now know from that more than I've ever realised before about the Westminster job appointment system! If I read it correctly, the Chief Whip never speaks in debates, but is a powerful person in the background. He's a kind of enforcer, whom you defy at some risk to your political career, because he has a direct mandate from the Prime Minister. I imagine that independent-minded backbench MPs must spend a lot of effort and ingenuity dodging the Chief Whip.

Given that the Chief Whip essentially has to bully MPs into toeing the party line, it requires a person of force and high self-esteem, who will snarl and threaten if soft words do not prevail. I can't believe this is a stress-free job, considering what depends on it. I'm thinking that if you or I were appointed Chief Whip, we too would find ourselves losing our cool now and then.

So such a person might well be angered, or take offence, if an ordinary police officer thwarted them for apparently no very good reason. You can see how that might easily be so. Certainly in the small matter of opening a security gate, whatever the rules. They might flip. Just as Mr Mitchell flipped.

I wonder if a different form of words would have opened that gate? Something on the lines of Hello, you scallywags. It's only me. Any chance at all of letting me through the gate like you did at lunchtime? Which, if met with a Sorry, sir. Can't oblige, not this time. Not even for you. Everyone has to use the side gate tonight. Thank you very much, sir. Have a good evening would not involve a slur on anyone's dignity or honesty. An impossible counsel of perfection, perhaps.

As for the word pleb, it is indeed redolent of betters talking down to inferiors. I wouldn't use it. It's too suggestive of the public-school attitude. And I'm a grammar-school kid.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Thinking about Scotland in June next year

The November weather gets ever murkier. So naturally my thoughts are drifting towards next year's holidays! One trip will be another tour of Scotland, a place not visited since June 2013.

Last time I kept to East Lothian and Edinburgh, with one foray into Fife. The journeyings in 2015 will be more ambitious. I plan to have a jolly good look at Aberdeenshire, and most of north-east Scotland. I'm talking about that big wedge of land north of Dundee, between the A9 and the coast, but excluding the Grampian Mountains.

Within this extensive area, which I'm thinking will need a full two weeks to do justice to, I'll be pitching the caravan at three centres: Cruden Bay (on the coast near Peterhead), Huntly (in the centre), and Culloden (for the Moray Firth area). I particularly want to visit the coastal towns and villages between Fraserburgh and Forres: for me this is something of a pilgrimage, postponed since childhood, to finally see these places for myself, in real life.

Some bits of the area won't be new to me. On my very first visit to Scotland (with M---, in 2002) we went to Banchory (and the Dee valley generally, plus excursions into the Grampians - for example Glen Muick), Dufftown, Alford, Aberdeen, Findhorn, Nairn, Cawdor, Ardersier, and Fort George. Then in 2010 we returned and took in Aberdeen (the Gordon Highlanders Regimental Museum), Cruden Bay, Peterhead, Fraserburgh, Huntly (especially Kinnoir, where M---'s great-grandparents had crofted) and Old Meldrum. So in a way I've already travelled across the entire area, but not really in depth except places connected with M---'s family history.

There is an awful lot else to see - even though, compared to other parts of Scotland, this isn't really a prime tourist area. Of course there are the many whisky distilleries, but nip-nipping at whisky won't be high on my list of things to do, especially as Fiona will be kept very busy every day, and will need a scrupulously sober driver! It'll be a mixture of visiting places already seen, but with fresh eyes; and discovering others for the very first time, with all the thrill of an explorer whose time is her very own.

Here are some personally memorable scenes from the past. Aberdeen, Fraserburgh, Nairn, Fort George, Huntly Castle, Loanhead of Daviot stone circle, and a yummy dessert at the Redgarth Inn at Old Meldrum:

On the way up, I'll be pitched near Edinburgh and St Andrews. I'm not yet sure what route I'll take to get home, but I'm guessing that I'll feel inclined to head towards Wigtown Bay before saying farewell to Scotland. The shelly sands and the seagulls call. Cue some shots from 2002.

Alice is featured on the Heroines blog

Returning from Prague, where she had been filming, my friend Alice mentioned that she had been interviewed (presumably on Skype) for the Heroines of My Life blog - which is now in my own blog list (see the left edge of this page). The interview is dated 2 November 2014. The lady who runs the blog seems very busy indeed with her interviewing, and Alice is already moving down the long list of inspiring persons, so you'll need to scroll a bit! Or here is the direct link:

Alice gives the Brighton viewpoint, yes, but it's also a very personal take on what it means to be trans. I'd best attempt to say no more, and just let her speak for herself.

You know, I can't understand why I haven't popped Heroines into my blog list before. Nowadays I like to read about those poised to make a decisive leap into full transition, or, if they can't progress, how they are coping. And naturally I like to read about those who have done it, and how life has turned out for them.

A little while back the usual thing was for full transitioners to scuttle into deep cover shortly after surgery, and not be heard of again. Now I think the prevailing mood is changing, and many realise that they can live a normal life and do their bit for getting public acceptance for trans persons. Individuals need not do much themselves - but a little here, a little there, in the same general direction...

Monday, 24 November 2014

Doing something about it

So I attended my fifth Transgender Day of Remembrance service in Brighton yesterday. The usual place, Dorset Gardens Methodist Church. Even more people were there than before. It was not a dreadful year for reported victim numbers, but quite enough to jolt anybody out of complacency. The violence still goes on.

There were several impassioned or thoughtful addresses and readings.

I was moved by a memoir written by a young author whose life had been touched by a Canadian trans woman who eventually disappeared south to the USA, in search of the hormones her doctor could 'no longer ethically prescribe'. This transwoman had cancer, and a very poor prognosis, and her doctor had decided unilaterally that this life-threatening disease needed the prior attention. He did not understand that, for a trans person, becoming who they should rightly be overrides everything, cancer included, and that a person's free will on matters affecting their life - to the point of preferring an early death if need be - is paramount. Well, this Canadian trans woman was at least able to drag herself somewhere else in search of what was important to her. So many have no such ability to up sticks and look for better conditions.

There was also music - moving vocals from the local Rainbow Choir, who sang several uplifting hymns and songs. Interestingly, at least two hymns sounded African, and I thought this might be a way of reminding those present that the huge number of trans people on that continent were as isolated and oppressed as any in the world, and that their individual troubles were largely unreported. A singing voice for the silent, then.

Mrs Waddell - mother of local 2009 trans murder victim Andrea Waddell - came over to me and we hugged. I was glad to see her.

I stuck a memorial card up on the wall:

I deliberately chose someone who had died anonymously, unloved because unclaimed, someone hardly more than a murder statistic in a country notorious for its murders. But I found myself putting another twenty-odd other cards on the wall. Someone had to. I could do it without being overcome with emotion.

I noticed one trans woman trying to stick up three cards. She was sniffing as she did so, almost crying. She fumbled. She wasn't quick and nimble with her fingers. Her brain wasn't working. It took her five minutes to stick up just three cards. Nobody noticed her. She wasn't young and pretty. She was one of those trans women who do not pass well, probably not at all. I could imagine she took verbal abuse on a day-to-day basis, because she looked too masculine. I wondered if she'd had a special friend just like her, a friend who had taken so much abuse that she killed herself from depression. And that was why this simple act of sticking up memorial cards on a wall was so hard. Perhaps everything in her life was now hard, being without her friend.

Someone did at last come over to hug her. But that person wasn't me.

I was too detached and uninvolved - not unmoved, and not unthoughtful nor unheedful, but I hadn't experienced the horrible side of being trans, only the wonderful bits, and I lacked the direct experience of personal grief to make me impulsively empathetic. I felt unqualified to be emotional. And truth to tell, I hope I stay like this. I hope I will never know what it is to lose a close friend to transphobia, nor the depression that comes when a longed-for transition fails to deliver. But surely I won't be so lucky. Some of my friends are brittle. A few of them certainly won't make it.

So very many cards on that wall...

...each one a life snuffed out, a person gone. Murder and suicide. I really think those who still mock or denigrate trans people ought to stand in front of those cards and read every one. It's a pity the mode of death isn't mentioned any more. It was found to be too harrowing. But it would be salutory for those sneering holier-than-thou folk to read how heartlessly cruel many of these deaths were, and ponder their own lives.

Coming together to remember 'the fallen' (was the repeated mention of this phrase a nod towards the slaughter of the First World War?) is a privilege easy to exercise in the UK. You simply turn up on time, openly and in perfect safety. And afterwards there is no mob waiting outside to tear you apart. You can saunter down to the pub, enjoy the cheer, and then go home. This year's victims did not live or die in such congenial circumstances. Nor did those that died before them.

How many next year? The minister at the church asked us, when it was his turn to speak, not just to attend these memorial services. He begged us to do something in the intervening months to change the pattern, to bring about change, and prove that those who stoutly deny the possibility of change are lying. He was quite right to challenge the inertia of the majority. Who will respond?

Saturday, 22 November 2014


I ended my working days at a big Inland Revenue office in Croydon. I was there for the last five years until I retired early at age 52 in 2005. That sounds like a rather short career, but in fact I'd been working continuously since 1970, and had put in very nearly 35 years. So I was ready to go, and delighted when the chance came, quite out of the blue, with an offer of early severance - provided I accepted a reduced Civil Service Pension. For me the terms were just about good enough.

But I was really a bit too senior and skilled to be released. The government had wanted junior staff to leave, and in droves - the ones on lowish salaries, with short or part-time careers, who would be cheap to get rid of. It was a political matter - Gordon Brown, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, had announced job cuts of 10,000 or so right across the Inland Revenue and Customs & Excise, which were to be combined into one Department (the present HMRC). It was vital to cut away surplus staff.

A massive response was expected from the junior staff. But for them the offer was not at all tempting. So the government didn't get anything like the numbers wanted, and was forced to give early retirement to the few who had actually applied - people like me - just to show some progress in getting staff numbers down. I went in the very first batch. It seemed like marvellously good luck, especially when subsequent severance offers effectively excluded senior managers and caseworkers from applying. I had escaped at the right moment.

I was very glad to contemplate all the freedom and leisure to come, but I wasn't satisfied with what I'd managed to achieve in those 35 years on the job. This was a niggle.

All along I'd privately considered that I'd been in the wrong job, one that hadn't made the best use of my talents, such as those were. But it had still been a good job, and besides paying the mortgage it had given me (as a tax investigator) many useful skills, and many insights into what people got up to in their financial lives. I suppose it had in a sense been a job that did suit me, in that I could use my eye for detail, and my talent for bringing many apparently unrelated facts together to form a big picture. This would reveal what the key issues were, and where the case needed to go next. I was good at formulating the questions to be asked, and I was good at parrying irrelevance, and insisting on clear answers. I certainly got some breakthroughs and some good results. But, hand on heart, I was quite certain that no case of mine ever realised its full potential. I did a satisfactory job, but I was no star. Some colleagues were absolutely stellar. I'd felt a bit lightweight at times.

My chief weaknesses were (a) a lack of 'killer instinct' - when to go in hard, and know that it would pay off; and (b) over-caution in negotiation (although to compensate I had excellent backup and advice from my senior managers).

The real trouble was a basic lack of self-belief. Of course, in retrospect, I now perfectly understand why this was! And although I can't prove it now, I believe that if it had been the 2014 self who had tackled those cases, the Revenue would have had much more value out of me, and I would have enjoyed my work a lot more.

Oh well! That will forever have to remain a conjecture. But I think the modern me would have stuck her neck out much more, and would have spoken with all the authority and persuasiveness that come from an unleashed personality.

I dare say many a person like me must look back at their former job, and feel quite certain that they could have done it in a better way - and could do so now, if ever they had another chance.

But I didn't myself want another chance, and after retirement I looked back on those 35 years as a finished era, never to be revisited. In August 2006 I completed a long essay about that time. I eventually published it on this blog, in a post dated 24 February 2010, called The Job. Its closing words were these:

Looking back
I feel some nostalgia, of course, but this is for the offices I attended and the people I worked with, not for the cases. I met some very pleasant people in a variety of offices; even so, with one exception they did not become permanent friends. I dare say I would be happy to reminisce with many of them if we ever meet in the future, but this doesn’t seem likely, and I am not going to seek anyone out. I also encountered some interesting taxpayers and accountants, but all of them must stay buried in the past. 

Dad advised me never to go back: to turn down, as he had, dinners, lunches and reunions. Certainly never to visit the office again. I knew he was right. Once gone you were old news and just a ghost from the past. What indeed was there to discuss, cut off from the day to day life of the office? Did people really want to know how much I was enjoying unlimited leisure on an ample pension? And would I want to learn that all my cases had been completely forgotten? Or that one or two had embarrassed the department?

Who would know who I was anyway? I had expected to slip from people's minds within six months. Even if this were not true, and I was long remembered, I was in effect a dead person, and must not return to haunt the living.

And yet I did eventually meet up with a few friendly colleagues from that time. Not at first. But, by 2011, I was ready to attend a lunch in Croydon, and to see what would happen. Well, here I was at the first of these lunches in February 2011 (only a week before my surgery, by the way):

I'd best not name my former colleagues, of course. But they seemed happy to be with me. They were still happy when we all met up again in April 2012 (and yes, my pizza really was that large!):

And we did it yet again a couple of days ago. This time my old boss came along. He is three years older than me, and is five years retired, as against my nine years. Here we are:

This 2014 reunion went especially well. I am now invited to an HMRC Christmas lunch in Croydon on 17 December, and we are all planning to meet up for an evening meal and drink in the New Year, probably on 29 January. I can use my new Senior Railcard for these trips, which, by the way, has now arrived:

So my Dad's advice about avoiding all reunions was perhaps a bit too negative - although I'm sure they can be deadly dull, and the food and drink awful.

Back in May 1992, I revisited my old grammar school in Southampton. It was on impulse, a sort of personal dare combined with a morbid desire to exorcise my dislike of the place. By then it was a co-ed college. I was aged 39 and rather young-looking, and very casually dressed - much like a student in fact - so I wasn't conspicuous, and nobody challenged me. I walked the corridors. I saw what had changed, and all the things that hadn't. What an odd sensation that was, to trespass without hindrance!

Curiosity got the better of me, and I looked in at the office and said who I was. To my consternation, I was immediately taken to the Staff Room and presented to the Vice-Principal. He was my old A-Level English master. Not someone I'd really wanted to meet again. He'd been scornful of me back in 1970, when I'd seen him last. But back then he'd been thirtyish and athletic and sharp. Now he was fat and grey and vulnerable. He'd hung on, and simply by staying put had made it almost to the top. I felt he'd sold out, lost his fire, and had become just a time-server. Because of that, I wasn't overawed - not that I should have been at age 39. But it's always potentially difficult to be assertive when meeting a person who once had the whip hand over you. I felt however strong and resilient, and when he asked me - almost instructed me - to come to a very boring-sounding Old Tauntonians' reunion, I was able to firmly quell the impulse to say 'Yes, sir', and instead declined the invitation with smooth and graceful words. That was one event I did not want to get sucked into. And the people he mentioned, my contemporaries, had not been the sort I'd got on with twenty-two years before. I wouldn't get on with them now. It would be a disaster.

I did wonder whether meeting my old boss a couple of days ago in Croydon would also be awkward - not because we hadn't worked well together, but because he'd never seen me as Lucy. He hadn't in fact seen me for nine whole years.

But I was silly to worry. He was joviality itself. The lunch, and the drink that followed, went beautifully well. There was no problem at all. When he did accidentally misgender me once or twice (I could tell he was trying very hard not to), I just gave him a playful slap. It seemed to be appreciated. That's why I feel no qualms at attending the larger social event on 17 December. I probably won't even have to explain my presence, nor say anything much about myself. I'll just chat away in my ordinary style, and eat and drink a lot, all the time with a daft but colourful paper hat askew on my head. Easy.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Modest cork-popping is in order

I apologise for yet another post on getting cash out of the government, but today is most certainly a day to pop the corks and celebrate!

When I retired on 31 May 2005, today was over nine years ahead. Now it's come.

So, bracing myself for a possible big let-down, I fired up my bank's app over breakfast, to see whether the very first payment of my State Pension had actually reached my account. It was all right. It had. Relief and joy! Today will now go down in history as the day my gross income went up by £6,516 per annum. (It sounds more, expressed like that!)

Not only this. Amazingly, the monthly amount of Civil Service Pension had been correctly reduced. By £108.60. This meant that, after all, the Department of Work and Pensions had managed to co-operate smoothly with HM Revenue and Customs, so that the right tax deductions would henceforth be made to collect the tax on two pensions instead of just one - and no arrears would build up. A financial mess has been avoided.

I say the 'right deductions'. The extra tax taken seems approximately right to me. It's difficult to work out exactly what should be taken. The payment dates and payment frequency of my two pensions do not match up. The CS pension is paid religiously on the 22nd of each month, with twelve payments a year. But the State Pension is paid every four weeks, with thirteen payments a year, and its payment date is constantly creeping forward. In one month (I think it will be every May) I actually get two dollops of State Pension in the same month. Not that I will complain!

But this creeping-forward of the Sate Pension date will make my monthly budgeting tricky - I mean knowing, at any given moment, just how much is available at the bank to draw on, and whether that will cover my outgoings until the next pension payment replenishes the account. For of course, even with this new income boost, I will still have to watch my cash flow, and make absolutely certain that I never go accidentally overdrawn. Oh, to be so well-off that such things can be disregarded! But although in comfortable circumstances - I can't deny that - I still have to be a good money-manager like most other people. And that means endless ongoing planning and monitoring of income, expenditure and savings.

I take a positive view on this, and try to run my financial life as if I were a business with a steady revenue stream that I can't change, but with outgoings and capital requirements that I can influence by prudent spending and saving behaviour. It isn't exactly fun to keep an eye on all this, but at least I am using analytical skills I learned when working (it's good mental exercise, after all) and I'm getting satisfaction out of each completed year that went to plan.

So, as the sole director, shareholder and chair of 'Lucy Melford Ltd', I have said (in my latest financial bulletin) that the trading outlook for the medium term is most encouraging. Even so, I believe that a policy of selective refurbishment, upgrading and investment is a better course for the foreseeable future than extravagant spending on a new office HQ - or a series of fat bonus payments to myself! So only a modest amount of cork-popping then. Cheers.

Monday, 17 November 2014

A free pass - to adventure and romance, perhaps?

I've done it: sent off my completed application form for a rail pass.

It's an old cliché that, once a Senior Citizen, everyone gets a free bus pass, and can enjoy unlimited free bus travel. That's it, a pass that lets you gleefully hop on and off buses anywhere in England, paying not a penny. It must be ordinary buses and it must be after 9.30am; but otherwise it's any day, any time, and as much as you like. If you have nothing better to do, you can spend all day on a succession of buses, breaking only for tea and buns and afternoon bingo. What a lark!

My older Brighton friends insist that they've had this amazing privilege since they turned sixty, and that the same must apply to me - but they're wrong. Each local council has its own rules. I live in the sticks, not Brighton, and my local council insists that I have to be of State Pension age. That for me is sixty-two, not sixty. So for two years I've had to watch on the sidelines while my older Brighton friends bludgeon their way onto the super-frequent Brighton buses, flash their passes to the driver with disdain, smirk their heads off as they collar the seats reserved for the elderly and infirm, and give the finger to younger fare-paying passengers. But my chance to do the same has now come.

Except that, now I can, I'm not going for a bus pass. My local council offers an alternative, if I prefer it - a free rail pass, aka the Senior Railcard. I've applied for that instead.

For me it's a much more interesting option, much more likely to to be used.

Ordinarily there'd be £24 to pay for one of these, but I will get mine for nothing. I won't get free rail travel with it, but I will get one third off the cost of an off-peak ticket. So, for example, if I bought a return ticket mid-morning from (let's say) Burgess Hill station to East Croydon station, it would ordinarily cost me £14.30. With this Senior Railcard it would cost only £9.53, which sounds like an attractive proposition. As it happens, I will be making just such a journey shortly, though the rail pass won't arrive in time for it. But it'll be there for the future. I'm thinking especially of days out when I'm away on holiday. I'd certainly consider taking the train somewhere, if paying a third less. I wouldn't mind if it had to be off-peak. I'd get a seat, for one thing.

Oh, my Brighton friends will say, what a mistake! You still have to pay something! We go absolutely free!

But look. As you might expect, the bus service in and out of my Sussex village is not frequent. And it takes a picturesque but meandering route. It's useless for late-evening travel. It's useless for getting anywhere fast. Why would I ever want to use it? Free travel is not worth having if it gobbles up your time.

Besides, where public transport is concerned, I'm naturally a train person. Train travel still has a faint air of adventure and romance attached to it. And it's usually rapid - no traffic jams to hold you up. And while there's no guarantee of not sitting next to an annoying idiot, by and large it's for serious travellers with purposeful lives. You might even be able to enjoy an illuminating conversation with a person on the same wavelength as yourself.

Whereas buses are the mode of travel for all the people I do not want to sit next to - people with colds or contagious diseases; people with smelly dogs; old bombastic unhappy people who talk utter nonsense when they should know better; cheeky schoolchildren who fidget and talk too loudly; angry oddball rebel types sporting tattoos, piercings, and far too much attitude; sad but irritating local characters filling their days up, using a bus ride as their substitute for a social life. Buses are for people who can't afford cars and don't mind a grindingly slow journey. Being stuck on a steamy, crowded, condensation-ridden bus on a wet day would be torture, free bus pass or not. I haven't the time or patience. I do have a choice. So no thank you.

And when will my rail pass come? Who knows. They say it might take three weeks. It could be my useful Christmas present - if any trains are running.

But mark my words - any rain, frost or snow and I'm in Fiona.

Tech purchases on the horizon

Next year, or certainly in 2016, I will have to think seriously about buying newer technology. The PC (bought in 2007, and running Windows Vista), the laptop (bought in 2006, and running Windows XP) and the camera (bought in 2009) are all out of date and - certainly in the case of the camera - are showing clear signs of wear and tear.

Bear in mind that I am a heavy user of electronic equipment. Not a sophisticated user - I couldn't claim that - but my PC, tablet, phone and camera all get used every day, and the phone and tablet many times during the average day. I can justify the expense of replacement because whatever I buy will get used an awful lot.

And not just to play around with. These are the gadgets that help me organise my daily life, and let me pursue my love of taking photographs and enjoying the results, including publishing some of them on Flickr. They are my window on the world - much more so than those last-century appliances, the TV and radio. In fact getting a newer TV is not a high priority at all. If I want the BBC news and weather, the phone provides - on demand. If I want to watch a particular BBC TV programme, or listen to a particular BBC radio programme, then it's generally much more convenient to watch or listen on iPlayer, using the tablet or the phone, post-broadcast, and exactly when it suits me. And that could be at any time of the day. I have no 'couch potato' evening routine.

The phone is also a heavily-used music player. I always say that I have no musical ability or taste, but I do like to listen at random to my favourite 1,500 tracks. Daily, in fact - when in the bathroom, or when doing the washing-up or ironing. So actually I clock up a significant number of hours' listening every week.

But the camera is the key gadget, the one that records my travelling, and my social life. And after nearly 55,000 shots the little Leica is feeling a bit tired. My Shetland holiday in 2017 is still on. I'll definitely need a new camera by then, both to do full justice to the landscape and whatever I experience, and to be quite sure that I don't find myself with a dead camera at some critical moment.

So, this is what I have in mind, spread over a year or two from late 2015, in the order of purchase.

1. A new laptop
This must be fast and powerful. It's primarily for photo-processing, photo-viewing, catch-up TV and blogging. I need a wide HD screen, a great keyboard, and at least 2TB of storage space for all my photos. When I'm seated in the throne-like reclining chair in my lounge, measurement tells me that the new laptop could be up to 17 inches wide, to get it between the chair arms. So it could be quite a big machine. I'd avoid excessive weight however. I'd use it mainly at home, on my lap, or (if watching TV) on a small table in front of me, with earphones. I'd also use it on holiday in the caravan, on a tabletop or shelf. I wouldn't be carrying it around in public.

The target price is going to be at least £1,000, I'd say, and possibly as much as £1,500. A major investment. But it would replace both the PC and the tablet. A fixed-position PC is an outmoded and inconvenient piece of equipment. A tablet is tiring to hold, and doesn't have the photo-processing capabilities that a laptop would have; nor is it as handy or useful as a smartphone. I won't be buying another.

2. A new camera
Size and weight are the key limitations here. I always carry a proper camera with me all the time, in my bag. My ageing Leica D-Lux 4 is perfect for the kind of pictures I take. A straight upgrade to the latest version of this camera might be the answer. Or I could consider one of several worthy alternatives. I want a fast lens, a large sensor, and the latest electronics. I'm content with a limited zoom range. I don't want to carry (nor fiddle around with) a collection of prime lenses of various focal lengths. As a glasses-wearer, I don't like viewfinders.

The target price is at least £500. Not much when you shoot 10,000 every year.

3. A new phone
The Vodafone contract on my Samsung Galaxy S5 smartphone doesn't expire until August 2016. 2016 would be the right time to get an upgrade to the S7 (or whatever else looks good). The only question is whether to painlessly pay the same each month (or just a little more) on a new contract - effectively getting a new phone for little or no extra expense - or buy what I want outright, but trim my running costs with a SIM-only contract.

If buying, it will cost me £500 at least. Having got used to the monthly payment way of doing things, I might well stay with this, and not dip into my savings. Not for a phone. A laptop and camera can have a useful life of at least five years, possibly more. A modern top-end mobile phone quickly gets obsolete, and needs to be replaced much sooner, so that a two-year cycle of fresh monthly contracts makes sense.

4. A large paper road atlas
Isn't it strange? These are still convenient and practical!

Nowadays, I use the tablet only for catch-up TV, and as an electronic road atlas. If the new laptop takes over the TV side, what is left for the tablet, except mapping? And yet, there are drawbacks, even with this. The screen is not all that big (so you can't see a large swathe of country, and plan really long journeys), and it's hard to read the screen in bright sunshine. Either you keep it on all the time (draining the battery) or you must keep switching it on and off (wearing out the on/off switch). But a paper road atlas has none of these snags. And it's awfully cheap.

Target price is £10. In fact last August I bought my 2015 edition of the attractive and very clear Philip's Motorist's Road Atlas of Britain for only £9.99. I usually buy a new edition every two years.

Let me see, then. Real money need be spent only on a laptop and a camera - a maximum of £2,000 by 2017, possibly less. I think I can afford that.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

The Third Man

What the hell's going on? I've now been approached three times in less than a fortnight by a man wanting to talk with me. OK, these were all fifty-something men, but even so. It's a bit much, all at once. This is the story.

Tonight I had been going out to a bistro in Shoreham-by-Sea with three other friends, Emma, Amanda and Jane. But one of them wasn't feeling well, so at almost the last minute we agreed to cancel and rebook for the following Saturday instead. I have to say that I was at something of a loss. I had nothing ready to eat at home. It was gone 6.00pm. I'd just washed my hair, and was mentally geared up to going out all dolled up, and spending a bit of cash on my share of a nice meal (we all like to eat well).

Well, I decided to drive over to Lewes and get something special from Waitrose, and cook it at home. I was dressed tidily but casually in black leggings underneath a black mini-skirt, with a brown top, brown flats, and for outer wear my aqua hooded jacket. It was a damp and chilly evening.

So I set off, and as half-expected it began to rain. It's only 15 to 20 minutes to Lewes, but it suddenly seemed a long way to go, and an unwelcome journey to make in the dark. I was on the B road between Ditchling and Lewes, and a lit-up pub came into view. It was the Half Moon at Plumpton, just beyond the Agricultural College. Why not? I turned into their car park, and with the jacket hood up against the driving rain, went in.

They seemed a little surprised to see someone dressed for shopping rather than for a Saturday evening out, but I got a table and ordered something from their interesting menu. I hadn't been to this pub since the 1990s. Back then it was very much the country local, with patronage from the students at the Agricultural College. It served hearty but plain pub grub. Now it was in different hands, and had gone upmarket. Not so much as, say, the Jolly Sportsman at East Chiltington, but it had definitely become a dining pub, with a leaning towards fine dining at that.

So, for starters, Andouillette sausage (a French pork, tripe and intestine sausage: see; for main, red partridge; and I finished off with home-made ice-cream and coffee. And I sunk two large glasses of Sauvignon Blanc. This was basically a good tasty substitute for whatever I would have enjoyed at the Shoreham bistro. They gave me prompt attention, and seemed keen to know what I thought of the dishes served. I gave them considered feedback. Presumably they regarded me as a serious diner!

It was still a pub, however, and there was a bar, and sat at it was a local man. He seemed friendly and pleasant, and exchanged a few words with me when I was selecting a table. I ended up sat a little distance away from him, but in his clear field of view. I felt sure he was giving me the eye. For much of the time, however, he was busy talking to other people who came in. Clearly a chatty sort, happy to speak to anyone nearby. I didn't encourage him by looking in his direction, but intuitively I knew he was trying to listen to what I said to the staff, and to another (much younger) chap sat at a table close to mine, who had tried the ice cream. I feel perfectly able to ask total strangers for their opinion on things worth ordering. As I spoke to this younger man, I sensed someone else's ears flapping.

At length I paid my bill and left. It was after 8.30pm by then, but by no means late of course. The car park was lit up a little, and it had stopped raining. I had nothing in my mind but the drive home, and had opened Fiona's door, had sat in, and was about to shut the door and fire her up. But just at that point, Mr Man-At-The-Bar spoke. He'd left directly after I had, and had followed me out. He was intent on having a conversation with me. Ah, right.

He was still pleasant, but clearly eager to establish some key facts about me. He already knew I was well-spoken, confident, chatty to strangers and staff, could afford a jolly good meal, and drove a nice car. All these things had raised his hopes. He now found out by asking that I was fairly local, had been married but was presently single, and had no children of my own but did have a step-daughter. All this with my car door open. I was trying to be politely friendly but not available for a prolonged chat, nor a return to the bar, and certainly not for a rendezvous somewhere else that night or any other night. So the point quickly came when I said I must now go home. I had things planned for the rest of the evening. He seemed pained, not being part of these plans. We left it at that. He walked over to his van, and I drove home.

So nothing very startling had happened. But it was disconcerting to be followed out to my car. Once again I was amazed how it was that I could seem so attractive to a man, that he'd make a bold effort to catch my attention. Also that it was OK (in their way of seeing things) to ask me all kinds of personal questions.

When, I wondered, would the questions begin to get really personal? In fact, absolutely to the point? I suspected that my getting used to these approaches was going to be both good and bad. On one hand, I'd acquire better skill and confidence when a man spoke to me, and not be thrown. But that very confidence would encourage the man to be frank, and not beat about the bush.

Hmm. I did not want to be on my guard all the time. Was life as a single woman going to get a bit complicated from now on?

Matthew/Chelsea/Matthew Attonley and issues arising

Here's a 'news' item from early October that I missed. Clearly I ought to read tabloid newspapers, and watch TV that carries ads, and not just rely on the BBC's national output for everything! If you are snooty and suspicious about non-BBC coverage you do miss an awful lot of stuff.

Well, I stumbled on  Matthew Attonley's story only a couple of days back. Here, for instance, are two links to look at:

So far as I can gather from the publicity, Matthew grew up feeling uncomfortable with life as a Derbyshire lad, had leanings towards feminine things, and in his twenties became a polished drag performer. Then, inspired by Katie Price, aka the (then) bosomy model Jordan, Matthew (by now Chelsea) embarked on transition using the NHS, and therefore obtained free treatment - the necessary hormones, and the coveted genital surgery. The figure quoted for the cost of the MTF surgery is £10,000. That's about right. A seriously large amount of money to many people.

But, it is reported, she found female life as Chelsea hard to keep up. It lacked fulfilment. And she had self-image problems, although, so far as looks are concerned, it's hard to see why. She looked great. I'm sure most would agree with that. But of course self-perception is everything, and she didn't see in herself the complete woman she wanted to be. Nor was she able to function socially and romantically as hoped for. I'm tempted to say that her expectations were too high; but a remark like that would be fair only if I knew her well.

So, reverting to Matthew again, he is now living in male mode and is seeking reverse genital surgery to help restore a male appearance. The figure reported for the reverse surgery is £14,000, which seems surprisingly low to me. But then if he'd had the standard NHS operation for MTFs, he'd at least have a recoverable tube of tissue that could be refashioned into a penis, even though it would lack most of the original filling. It might look quite good, and the surgery surely wouldn't be anything like as extreme as the horrendous cycle of ops necessary to create a penis out of nothing for FTM patients. So Matthew will (mostly) be physically restored. But £14,000...another small fortune.

And the surgery won't address that lingering identity question. If Matthew originally felt rather a misfit in the male role, then the old problems are bound to resurface. I'm thinking that while he may find life easier to cope with as Matthew, complete happiness will elude him. But let's hope the fix does work.

The Mail made a big thing about his expecting the NHS to fund the reverse procedure. So that he has clocked up not one but two free ops. Clearly it felt its readers would be outraged, learning that their taxes could be spent in this way. And that this person was coolly insisting on it, not caring what other NHS users might think.

Well, I do agree that this is a proper public issue, concerned with (a) what the NHS should be providing, (b) the proper use of public money, and (c) how to resolve conflicts of expectations and priorities.

Let's get away from Matthew himself, and consider the general issues of regret, reverse surgery, and who ought to pay for it.

Supposing I go to my doctor and beg him to fix my big nose - the nose that I insist is ruining my life - and he refers me to a specialist. And suppose I convince the specialist that only drastic nose surgery will transform my life and make me happy and fulfilled. And so the operation takes place, on the NHS and at no cost to me. My hooter becomes small, sweet and retroussée. Job done. I've got what I wanted.

But then it makes my life worse. People think my little nose is a joke. They laugh, and won't take me seriously. I can't cope. And so I return to my doctor, and insist on another operation to give me a nose with the noble characteristics of the original. I think it's my right. I am petulant, make a huge fuss, enlist the help of tabloid newspapers, appear on TV, and get my way. And so, with the NHS picking up the bill again, I get a restored conk. And let's say it was £5,000 for the first op, and now another £7,000 for the second. Quite big money.

Some important and deep points here.

Facial deformities and abnormalities can utterly ruin a person's self-confidence. So a very oddly shaped nose should certainly be dealt with on the NHS. And that means for free.

But who can say what is an odd nose? What if it doesn't look odd at all, but still causes distress?

Supposing I exaggerate this distress, consciously or not, to ensure that I get the operation that I sincerely believe will make my life better? Am I wrong to play up the agony and push so hard?

Is the NHS at fault if, impressed and convinced by my representations, it diagnoses 'severe nose dysphoria'?

Is it liable to pay for a corrective operation, if - later on - we come to realise that a nose fix wasn't really the solution to my personality problems, and that a misdiagnosis was made? In other words, even if it isn't in the normal remit of the NHS to fund a second operation, it is nevertheless liable to stump up compensation for a misdiagnosis - and, in that way, still pay.

Given the basic duty of the NHS, and its prime reason for existence, am I right to expect and insist on whatever medical treatment becomes necessary, even if it results from a change of mind, and costs rather a lot?

Is my intense use of medical resources any reason to consider the cost, and perhaps withhold treatment? Is treatment rationed? Are people allowed only so many lifetime operations on the NHS?

If I were denied whatever it took to fix my medical problem, where do other service users stand? Users who knowingly and repeatedly abuse their health through smoking or alcohol or dangerous sports, for instance?

Who decides? Is it all down to medical experts? Do the views of outsiders carry any weight here? Indignant Mail readers, for example?

Should one judge between cases? What is a 'deserving case', really? How do you decide that fairly and reasonably?

Big questions, all of them. Personally, I think there will always be the occasional transitioner who finds they have made a mistake. It's clearly very important for anyone who has gone through a major operation to be happy about the life that follows. Some won't be. It may then be right to give them a second chance. Does it really matter if Matthew Attonley is able get an expensive corrective operation out of the NHS? Would it really be a good thing if he were left as 'a male trapped in a female body', and forever depressed, out of work, and a burden on society?

If he is never happy, he won't be able to make others happy either. That's a point I kept in mind about my own transition. Make me the person I should be, and I can give something back. I will be much more confident, far more outward-looking, a force to be reckoned with. Someone who is their true self, who has that true self-assurance, can step forward and achieve. And eventually pay that £14,000 back in taxes.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Fat bits and scars, and an explanation I do not want to give

Three and half years on, there is not at lot showing that would give away my vaginal surgery. I still can't take that surgery for granted. It has so drastically transformed how I look down there. It's something that I notice every morning, when I get up, when I wash or shower, when I use the loo, and when I go to bed.

But it's actually not the main thing that, if I were seen nude, a man or woman would fix on. I have developed a belly. And bulges and saggy bits below that. It's all about fat, and the sheer weight of the belly: if I hoick it up - voila! - the bulges and sags vanish, or at least don't protrude nearly the same. So if I could reduce the size of this belly, I'd look a lot less plump and Rubenesque. You've seen his fleshy beauties before, I'm sure:

I'm nowhere as extreme as this, but would definitely describe myself as an 'oestrogen casuality'. Oestrogen will help you pile on the fat if you have a good appetite. You can certainly try eating less, and taking a lot of exercise (an awful lot to be really effective, but any on-your-feet movement is good), and avoiding foods and drinks that will encourage the accumulation of fatty tissue. But in truth fighting the effects of oestrogen is a battle you can't easily win. I've presently stabilised my weight, with room to do better. If you like, oestrogen and me have called a truce. But oestrogen is not going to concede defeat, and I must remain vigilant.

The irony is of course that my HRT must continue forever, both to keep me generally healthy, and in particular to ward off osteoporosis. I can't do without it.

Mind you, if it makes me chubby, it also makes me look younger and less haggard than I might otherwise expect to be at my age. It's swings and roundabouts. And it's always possible to conceal the excess flesh beneath dresses and skirts. That's why I'm wearing more of those nowadays. Meanwhile, were I to be glimpsed naked, I would be notable for my big belly. Which I'd have to laugh off as 'my pregnant look' - although the joke would be very transparent, as I am clearly too old to be pregnant!

Let's get back to my March 2011 surgery. The surgical site recovered long ago, and within months things had settled down nicely. Roll forward to 2014, and I have a genital area that I'd be happy to show off anywhere, provided nobody minded the fat. I have thick outer labia and a very pronounced Mound of Venus. It's not young-womanish. It's plump old girl stuff. But hey ho, it's what I have, and it's all me, with nothing artificial about it. When remodelled, it was simply a question of rearranging my own flesh and tidying up. No implants or anything else. Bits of tissue that hadn't been neighbours before now greeted each other, liked each other, and became very good friends.

Not everything could be remodelled to the 'standard pattern'. A casual peep suggests that I have inner labia, but that's just the way the pubic hair grows: there are actually no inner labia. I've got the streamlined Scandinavian vulva (or Volvo). And my clitoral hood is a bit vestigial, nothing much there really, but it does its job when everything is at rest, so that I don't have an exposed clitoris that is constantly raked by public hair. Not that a constantly-stimulated clitoris is necessarily a Bad Thing - I'm sure some women would love to have one. Personally it think it might be too much of a distraction from the serious issues of life, such as cooking and ironing, washing dishes and making beds.

I have to purse my lips at some of the daft things I used to read about genital surgery, mainly from people who hadn't had it, and were simply passing on things they'd read or been told. Such as that vaginal surgery created an abdominal wound that gaped and bled, and would never heal up. So that any subsequent penetration ruptured it and caused bleeding, pain and infection. What utter nonsense. I hope nobody ever believed that. 

Cosmetic surgery in the vaginal area is now common, and trans women have long had the option (if they can afford it) to buy something more than the standard job obtainable in the UK, either privately or free on the NHS. I'm speaking of such items as seriously frilly inner labia, a massive clitoral hood, and a deeper vagina (if, that is, there is room inside for it). For Brits, Thailand and the USA are - or used to be - the places to go if these refinements were wanted. Thailand especially, which offered amazing value for money, even if one selected one of the best two surgeons and a whole month's aftercare.

I did consider Thailand for myself. But there were problems. One biggie was the enormous distance involved. Remember that I'd flown to New Zealand and back in 2007. I knew exactly what long-haul flights entailed. I just didn't fancy an exhausting journey home so soon after surgery. The distance also meant that if any post-op dissatisfactions or complications emerged, getting back there for remedial work might be beyond my inclination or ability to pay the air fare. In any case, I didn't want to wake up from surgery (assuming I survived the trauma) and not find myself in a comforting and reassuring English environment, no matter how kind the local nurses.

And there was something else. It was obvious really. Elaborate surgery (to give one's vaginal area that super-convincing, porn-website look) meant a lot of skin-processing, a lot of stitches to join everything together, a lot of luck in the healing, and a lot of extra-careful post-op maintenance (washing and so forth). It might look fantastic, but one could expect intricate healing procedures (and even trouble) for a long time ahead. One trans woman I knew, well enough to discuss these things frankly, told me that she'd ultimately been very happy with her Thailand surgery, but it had taken ages to heal up properly, it was prone to minor infections, and it remained a nightmare to keep all those amazing skin flaps and so forth scrupulously clean, the tissue being delicate and easily-damaged. She thought it all worth it. I thought what a palaver. After all, I'd be living with this major surgery for the rest of my life. Something more straightforward had a lot of appeal.

So I decided not to risk Thailand for anything. Besides, with the Brighton Nuffield hospital almost on my doorstep, it was as if fate were pointing me in the direction best for me. Why resist?

As I said, there is little sign of the surgeon's knife now. But there is a criss-cross of short white scars on my perineum. Until recently, I was a bit unhappy about their being there. Any surgeon specialising in abdominal procedures, and understanding the various possible techniques, would know what to look for and instantly spot the tell-tale signs of what I had done.

I thought that even an ordinary person might, if in an intimate position, see these little white perineal scars and guess what they meant. It would have to be an intimate position - nothing showed if I were just sitting or standing. These scars were one of those little things that made me reticent about having sex. I didn't want to be asked, in a moment of passion, what the scars were all about. And of course there was nothing simple that could be done to disguise or conceal them.

Then a couple of days ago I finally looked up 'perineum' on Wikipedia, and this led me on to a fact that I'd overlooked. That quite a number of women have perineal scarring. It happens when the skin there splits in childbirth. Occasionally the splitting affects the deeper tissue and tears muscles too. That all requires stitching to bring the ripped flesh together for healing. These links, found with very little searching, explain it all:

And so my own scars, the end result of cutting and stitching, are nothing special or unusual in a woman. That was a relief!

And yet I now see another difficulty. Yes, the scars look like the natural outcome of a difficult childbirth, the delivery of an awkwardly-positioned baby for example. Yes, I can now (if I wish) flaunt my scars, knowing that some men, and all women, will assume that I got them giving birth, presumably long ago when much younger.

But I have no children of my own. That's the problem. Think about it. If I gave birth, but have no living child to show for it, then it means that the birth ended in tragedy. And any woman will at once want to extend her deepest sympathy towards me, for losing a child. And for possibly being so physically or mentally damaged by the birth process that I never again gave birth to further children.

I can't let that happen. It's a dreadful deception.

So if those scars are ever questioned, it'll be explained by 'vaginal surgery' and not by a delivery that went horribly wrong. Because allowing any woman to assume that I suffered like that - and have been living all my adult life with the pain of it - would also be horribly wrong.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Sex in public places; and now two offers from men in one week

Two trans girls were enjoying each other in a Brighton pub last night. It was very hard not to look, because they were standing up, and nearby.

One was a bit younger than the other, and this younger girl was distinctly pretty. It's always difficult to guess at ages, but I'd definitely put her under twenty-five, and therefore a person who'd had a fighting chance of acquiring a feminised body very similar indeed to an ordinary girl's. She had lovely, smooth, very rounded legs and arms, free of all blemishes and any suggestion that they might have been boyish at one time. A body so feminine in fact that any man (or lesbian woman) would notice her at once, and probably lust after her. A man (or lesbian woman) would notice her anyway, because despite the November evening being damp and chilly she was skimpily dressed in a silky, clingy, dusky-pink dress that only just came below her black knickers, which were perfectly visible when she sat down. If I were being objective, I would say that her legs were her very best feature; but all of her was eminently touchable and caressable, and this is exactly what happened, the two girls ending up in a clinch that went on and on, with hands gently exploring each other all the time. They didn't go so far as to take anything off.

Did I mind this in-your-face sex? Of course not. Not in a Brighton pub. It's only what I'd expect to see. Putting it in another way, defenders of 'proper' or 'conventional' behaviour cut no ice in Brighton, and have no right to criticise the locals.

Good luck to those two girls, I thought. And how nice it must be, to be young enough to have not only the chance of such intimacy, but the confidence (or unselfconsciousness) to make the most of it! And they weren't actually making any noise, nor were they actually invading my personal space. (I can't speak for the other people with me)

Would I do the same? Ah, that's a different matter. Although my old inhibitions and conditioning have had a drastic shake-up in the last few years, I still wouldn't feel comfortable about being groped in a public place. I'd want it to happen in private. A clinch on a nice sofa inside a quiet, comfortable house, just the two of us, and all alone, would be much more my cup of tea. Partly it's because I don't want our intimate moment to be a public peep-show. Partly it's because I am older, and feel more vulnerable - and potentially ridiculous. Fresh-looking, attractive young people can be bold and daring and carefree, and it looks right. The mature, the fat, and the flabby of this world are best advised to find a quiet corner to kiss in, where no-one can stare at them.

The question of what I'd do is of course entirely hypothetical. I am still a post-op virgin, never been kissed, and not even looking for love. It's the HRT - it's made me rather indifferent to sex in any form. Sex has become a theoretical pursuit only: something to talk about at length, but not to actually indulge in. I'm not saying I couldn't be awakened - one should never say 'never' - but I'm not going to set anything in motion myself.

And to be honest, if I were avid to get myself some sex, I'm not sure who would be my target. A man or a woman? I'm not at all certain which I'd prefer. Being female, the social pressures are on me to try a man. That's the expected thing, so far as ordinary people are concerned. It's the easy, straightforward, uncomplicated way forward. And the two offers I've had in the past week have come from men.

I told you last week about the man who ambushed me with an offer of a drink. Well, at lunchtime yesterday a builder chappie knocked on my front door, to tell me that my roof tiles were loose (I already knew they were). Even when I explained that I had no money just yet to have the work done, he kept the conversation going. In fact he wasn't in any hurry to leave. Somehow he managed to ask me directly where my husband was. I said I'd split from my partner some time ago. We then discussed the pros and cons of my being a retired single lady. That seemed safe. But then he said oh yes, I could do this, and have that - but what about love?


As you can imagine, I quickly nipped this in the bud. Not that there was anything wrong with the chap. I just didn't want to let the conversation go further. He had creaking bed-springs on his mind, for sure. I discussed the encounter with Theresa (my cleaner) shortly after. In fact we discussed men and their attitudes quite a bit, as women naturally like to do.

So it's two definite offers, two unequivocal refusals. Will it always be a refusal? It's clear that speaking with men at length doesn't throw me, and indeed it has so far been a pleasant pastime for both of us - until they overstep the mark and start making suggestions.

I'm amazed that they try. Clearly the Melford face, the Melford voice, the Melford cheerfulness, the Melford boobs, and the Melford curves and bulges and sags, all have a combined allure for some men of fifty or more. God knows why, but there you are. Friends point out that it's highly flattering, this occasional attention. Yes, but it's also awkward and no part of my life plan. I like to be in total control. I don't want random, unpredictable approaches that may lead somewhere I don't want to go!