Tuesday, 30 December 2014

What is a boy? And what is a girl? Mr Beck knows.

It was only yesterday that I recalled a visit to a Cornish boat-builder's workshop in 1964. I was only twelve; my younger brother Wayne was only eight. We were there with Mum and Dad, calling on an old friend of Mum's whose husband was a boat-builder in Newlyn. I could visualise the small wooden fishing boat he'd made. I can smell the varnish now, as I write this.

Who was Mum's friend? Where was the address? I knew where the answer might well be. In an old biscuit tin, in my attic, was a collection of Mum's personal papers - among them a little soft-leather-bound address book. The lady's name could be in there. It was. A Mrs Glenys Peake. I promised myself that next time I planned a trip to Cornwall, I'd write beforehand to that address, in case someone in the family still lived at that house in Newlyn. I'd explain my connection, and see if I could arrange to call by for a chat.

I'd better do it soon...if she was Mum's age, and still alive, she'd now be in her early nineties.

I hadn't looked at that address book since Mum died in 2009, and never carefully. I found addresses for some other persons I'd heard about, but never knew. These had genealogical significance. I'd look into them as well.

And there were more items in that biscuit tin. One was a carbon copy of a typewritten short essay on what little boys were like. It was titled What is a Boy?

Mum had been a trained touch-typist when young, employed in the War Department, and becoming an established Civil Servant in February 1949, as this letter records:

It's addressed to 'Mrs Dommett', and yet confirms her employment as a permanent member of staff. I'd always thought that, at the time, women working for a Civil Service department were obliged to resign on marriage. Clearly that was not the case here! Perhaps the War Department had rules of its own. Anyway, the point I'm really making is that Mum was a very good typist, and would have been able to type that essay about boyhood as quickly as one might dictate it. So it could have simply been typing practice. But I don't think so.

As for the author, an Internet search rapidly established that this piece had been written in 1949 by a certain Alan Marshall Beck. It had been first published in 1950, then republished again (and at that point clearly popularised) by inclusion in a 1954 edition of the Readers Digest. I suspected that 'Alan Marshall Beck' was a nom-de-plume. It's obvious that he was an American, perhaps from a Mid-West state like Iowa. Beyond that, I couldn't discover anything else about him. He seemed to have written a number of short essays, full of sentimental but quotable observations on the nature of family members old and young. Let's look closely at what he says about the ideal little boy:


Between the innocence of babyhood and the dignity of manhood we find a delightful creature called a boy. Boys come in assorted sizes, weights, and colors, but all boys have the same creed: to enjoy every second of every minute of every hour of every day and to protest with noise (their only weapon) when their last minute is finished and the adult males pack them off to bed at night.

Boys are found everywhere—on top of, underneath, inside of, climbing on, swinging from, running around, or jumping to.

Mothers love them, little girls hate them, older sisters and brothers tolerate them, adults ignore them, and Heaven protects them.

A boy is Truth with dirt on its face, Beauty with a cut on its finger, Wisdom with bubble gum in its hair, and the Hope of the future with a frog in its pocket. When you are busy, a boy is an inconsiderate, bothersome, intruding jangle of noise. When you want him to make a good impression, his brain turns to jelly or else he becomes a savage, sadistic, jungle creature bent on destroying the world and himself with it.

A boy is a composite—he has the appetite of a horse, the digestion of a sword-swallower, the energy of a pocket-sized atomic bomb, the curiosity of a cat, the lungs of a dictator, the imagination of a Paul Bunyan, the shyness of a violet, the audacity of a steel trap, the enthusiasm of a firecracker, and when he makes something, he has five thumbs on each hand. He likes ice cream, knives, saws, Christmas, comic books, the boy across the street, woods, water (in its natural habitat), large animals, Dad, trains, Saturday mornings, and fire engines.

He is not much for Sunday School, company, schools, books without pictures, music lessons, neckties, barbers, girls, overcoats, adults, or bedtime. Nobody else is so early to rise, or so late to supper. Nobody else gets so much fun out of trees, dogs, and breezes. Nobody else can cram into one pocket a rusty knife, a half-eaten apple, three feet of string, an empty Bull Durham sack, two gum drops, six cents, a slingshot, a chunk of unknown substance, and a genuine supersonic code ring with a secret compartment.

A boy is a magical creature—you can lock him out of your workshop, but you can’t lock him out of your heart. You can get him out of your study, but you can’t get him out of your mind. Might as well give up—he is your captor, your jailer, your boss, and your master—a freckled-faced, pint-sized, cat-chasing, bundle of noise. But when you come home at night with only shattered pieces of your hopes and dreams, he can mend them like new with two magic words, "Hi Dad!

Yuk. It's so 1950. This is the sort of young chap that you'd see in Dennis the Menace (the late 1950s American TV series - see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dennis_the_Menace_%281959_TV_series%29) and to some extent (as the 'boys' were just that bit older and more modern) in My Three Sons (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Three_Sons). All of it pure fantasy, of course.

Mr Beck describes no boy I ever met. In particular, no boy that I could ever strive to be. But the preservation of that typewritten version among Mum's surviving private papers suggests that the essay exactly describes the sort of boy Mum and Dad wanted me to be. I'm guessing that my parents first saw this mawkish list of ideal attributes in the 1954 Readers Digest. I was born in 1952, and so at the time I was still a toddler. What high hopes they must have had of me. How they must have been disappointed, when I did not come home all the time covered in mud, and with frogs in my pocket.

I was not a complete mismatch of course. I did like trains and penknives and ice cream.

But I wonder how many little persons grew up with that long list of parental expectations around their neck? Even for Real Boys it must have been jolly hard work.

Mr Beck also did a piece on what parents should think is the ideal little girl:


Little girls are the nicest things that can happen to people. They are born with a bit of angel-shine about them, and though it wears thin sometimes, there is always enough left to lasso your heart—even when they are sitting in the mud, or crying temperamental tears, or parading up the street in Mother’s best clothes.

A little girl can be sweeter (and badder) oftener than anyone else in the world. She can jitter around, and stomp, and make funny noises that frazzle your nerves, yet just when you open your mouth, she stands there demure with that special look in her eyes. A girl is Innocence playing in the mud, Beauty standing on its head, and Motherhood dragging a doll by the foot.

God borrows from many creatures to make a little girl. He uses the song of a bird, the squeal of a pig, the stubbornness of a mule, the antics of a monkey, the spryness of a grasshopper, the curiosity of a cat, the speed of a gazelle, the slyness of a fox, the softness of a kitten, and to top it all off He adds the mysterious mind of a woman.

A little girl likes new shoes, party dresses, small animals, first grade, noisemakers, the girl next door, dolls, make-believe, dancing lessons, ice cream, kitchens, coloring books, make-up, cans of water, going visiting, tea parties, and one boy. She doesn’t care so much for visitors, boys in general, large dogs, hand-me-downs, straight chairs, vegetables, snowsuits, or staying in the front yard.

She is loudest when you are thinking, the prettiest when she has provoked you, the busiest at bedtime, the quietest when you want to show her off, and the most flirtatious when she absolutely must not get the best of you again. Who else can cause you more grief, joy, irritation, satisfaction, embarrassment, and genuine delight than this combination of Eve, Salome, and Florence Nightingale.

She can muss up your home, your hair, and your dignity—spend your money, your time, and your patience—and just when your temper is ready to crack, her sunshine peeks through and you’ve lost again. Yes, she is a nerve-wracking nuisance, just a noisy bundle of mischief. But when your dreams tumble down and the world is a mess—when it seems you are pretty much of a fool after all—she can make you a king when she climbs on your knee and whispers, "I love you best of all!”

Again, yuk. And much the same comments. How many little girls went off the rails trying to live up to the image Mr Beck had created for them?

Oddly, on re-reading these paeans to childhood, I notice that boys and girls do share one characteristic: Mr Beck says they both have the curiosity of a cat. And by and large I can agree! But as for the rest...it's hardly a true-life portrayal of how kids really are. Just how parents wish they were.

I think Mr Beck did a gross disservice to children, publishing this stuff. It gave parents the wrong idea. It unnecessarily and cruelly segregated boys from girls as soon as they were old enough to walk and talk. It emphasised false differences between them, and imposed gender-based models that would straitjacket more than one generation. Clearly Mum and Dad believed in the myth. I was conditioned accordingly. So was my brother, and millions of other kids.

I've got to be careful here. For all I know, the man was a modern Mark Twain, revered in America - or at least in the state he was born in, and especially his home town. I don't want to cause offence.

But if in fact he wasn't a modern Mark Twain, and has no especial standing nowadays, and can be freely castigated by anyone, then it will go very hard with him if we ever meet. I will slap him in the face, fiercely, and dare him to retaliate. His nonsense turned my own childhood into a disaster.

But I don't suppose we will encounter each other. Even if he was only forty in 1950, he'd be aged nearly 105 now. Surely he's either dead, or so frail that no burning sense of anger could justify upsetting him. Damn.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Planning my holidays in 2015

I'd already been talking generally about Spring visits to see my aunt in Newport, and to enjoy a few days in North Devon, and now I've gone ahead and booked the most hard-to-get-in of the caravan sites involved, the Caravan Club site at Tredegar House Country Park on the edge of Newport. The other two, both farm sites, won't be nearly so difficult to book - a ring in early February will get me in. But the Newport site, open all year round and much used as an open-air hotel by Caravan Club members, is best sorted out well in advance. It's done. I'll be there in early March.

Then there are two other big caravan holidays I want to take in 2015. The most ambitious will take me north to Scotland, and much of June will be devoted to it. The other is to North Devon again, to attend the autumn Appledore Book Festival, which for me has become an annual event. That'll be the end of September and beginning of October.

Well, that's about eight weeks of holidaying already!

In between these jaunts, I am thinking of some other destinations. This year will probably mark a return to Eastern England - Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk and Lincolnshire.

I've been to Suffolk more than the rest, most recently in 2005 and 2008 (both times with M---), and then on my own in 2009 and 2010. But not since. It's time to renew my acquaintance. The other counties were all last visited in the M--- era: Essex in 2007, Norfolk in 2008 (a difficult holiday, taken after coming out to M---), and Lincolnshire in 2006. I haven't seen the city of Norwich since 1995. The city of Lincoln not properly since 2006. So there's plenty to see again, and plenty more to seek out.

At the moment, then, I've sketched in about 85 days' holiday time - roughly twelve weeks, or three months - of caravanning, going from place to place every few days. I'll probably have to trim that a bit. I've budgeted for 80 days away during 2015, at a site cost of £1,000, and a fuel cost (for towing between sites, and driving around while on site, less what I'd spend anyway at home) of £1,200. This compares to the actual costs in 2014 of £794 for sites and £1,116 for fuel. I certainly expect site fees to increase, but who can say what fuel costs will be in 2015. I'm assuming that the price of diesel will remain lowish - it depends chiefly on world production, but the present government won't want to be responsible for a price hike in this important Election Year.

£2,200 for my holiday expenditure in 2015. It seems a lot to me. I do know people who can't spare much or anything at all for holidays, or at least never go away. But some will spend much more, and travel far. It's worth it, whatever you do. A change of scene, an escape from routine: it does you good, be the break ever so short. And it puts your feelings about your own familiar back yard into perspective. I love seeing new places, and some make me consider moving there. But increasingly they make me value where I live in Mid-Sussex all the more.

I'm definitely in a minority, going away on my own. A lot of people won't do it. I think that's such a pity, because with a bit of imagination it's simple to fill up your holiday time with very nice things, and indeed very interesting things.

And - although this is an unpopular view - I think that the solo traveller gets many more opportunities to meet people and make new friends. You have the time and the freedom for it. You can change your plans for the day, or the evening, in an instant. Nobody else will be affected, or let down. You have the flexibility.

OK, you need people-skills and confidence and self-belief, but phrases like it's now or never and if not now, then when? come to mind. Life's short, and passes exceedingly quick. And it's the only one you have. Seize the moment, I say. Even if the moment happens on a cold and windy day at such spots as Skegness, Mablethorpe or Donna Nook. Cue my finest shots of these places (is there nowhere I haven't been?):

That sea air! So bracing!

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Imminent death of my tablet

I refer to my Sony Tablet S, bought in April 2012. Here's a shot of it when new, illustrating one of its core uses, as a digital road atlas when driving around:

It still has three other core uses: (1) as a device for looking at websites, documents and spreadsheets; (2) as a small TV screen for BBC iPlayer; (3) as a device for playing card games on. But for how much longer?

Almost exactly one year ago, the SD card slot failed. More recently it has been having trouble picking up my home Wi-Fi, when the router is fairly close by - and it's only a small bungalow! It isn't because the Wi-Fi signal is poor - my Samsung Galaxy S5 phone gets hold of it in an instant - the Sony tablet has just become less sensitive than it was, or is behaving as if that is so.

And now the on/off button has partially collapsed into the body. It still works, if you press it in the right way, but it has no travel. If it fails completely, I can still turn the tablet on by dropping it into its charging cradle (not very handy if away from home), and turn it off by letting the screen timeout kick in. But that's not how things should be.

What next? Will it just suddenly die on me?

It's a model from 2011, of course, with a long-superseded processor running Android Ice Cream Sandwich (4.0.3) - so technically speaking, it's old hat. Well, I can easily live with mere technical obsolescence. But I don't expect important hardware let-downs after less than three years' ownership. After all, my Asus laptop, bought in January 2006, and taken to New Zealand and back in 2007, still works faultlessly. Sorry, Sony: I won't be buying one of your products again. My enthusiasm for 'Sony style' has been eroded to the point of no return.

And I don't think I'll be buying another tablet again, either. The original attraction was to have something that was a lot lighter to carry about than a laptop, and yet was still endowed with a decently sized screen, and (if kept on standby) an instant start-up. Back in 2012, the Sony tablet was all of this. It was a very pleasant revelation.

Now I'm not at all convinced. I see the severe limitations of all tablets - their lack of processing power and lack of internal storage. I think the latest and best Samsung tablet would be a big step up from my Sony, but I won't be buying one if the Sony kicks the bucket. I'll get a modern laptop instead.

It won't be a laptop for carrying around. For out-and-about use, I'll be content with my phone. I might miss not having the Sony's larger screen, but my Samsung phone's screen is brighter and sharper. You can see the difference in this picture, which has the Sony tablet and the Samsung phone side-by-side:

The Sony hasn't yet given up, but I expect its imminent death in the New Year. An announcement will be made. Watch out for the obituary. I can't see myself shedding tears. I used to love her, but it's all over now.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

What to do on New Year's Day

You know, I rather fancy an adventure. Nothing is yet quite finalised for New Year's Eve - in fact I have two standby invitations to consider, but I haven't totally committed myself - and it would still be possible to avoid all the celebrations, go to bed early, get up at 3.00am in the morning, have a fortifying cup of tea, and set off in Fiona before 4.00am. It would of course be pitch dark on departure, but I could reach Stonehenge or Avebury by dawn, and get some amazing sunrise photographs. Something on the lines of this for Stonehenge (a 'sunrise' version of a shot I took in 2008):

Or these for Avebury ('sunrise' versions of shots I took in 1993 and 2005):

One gets some extraordinary light effects on a winter dawn!

And, who knows, I might have these places to myself. I mean, who else would have an insane notion to travel through the dark night to a frosty dawn rendezvous like this? Especially on the first day of January?

Well, an army of mad Wiltshire photographers would... But I'd tolerate them, if they kept out of shot. And then, with a bevy of superb dawn images in the bag, I would hie me to a roadside hostelry, greet the jolly landlord, and the following cheerful conversation would ensue:

Lucy (stepping out of Fiona, and slapping thighs): Landlord! A breakfast fit for a princess, if you please!
Jolly Landlord (laughing heartily): It shall be done! Upon my word, where is that boy? Josiah! Mind this lady's steed! You maids, lay the Great Table! The finest silver and plate! This way, honoured guest! We don't get many princesses round here! Your lightest wish and whim will be our pleasure!

Wiltshire hospitality is proverbial. This would be merely a churlish, low-end example of it.

There is a slight cloud on the horizon. In fact, quite a lot of clouds. My BBC Weather app tells me that the early-morning forecast in the Stonehenge area is unpropitious for any kind of dazzling, magical sunrise. It may in fact be dull and very wet. But hey, that would be a great excuse to stay in bed at home. Always look on the bright side of life.

Friday, 26 December 2014

My new personal breathalyser

Let me say at once that I am not evangelical about drinking and driving. I certainly recognise that drinking and driving do not mix, but I don't live in a city, and for most practical purposes I must drive if I want to have a social life. So for me it's a question of how to stay within the limits of the law. And not about adopting an idealistic stance on drinking. I never nanny other people where their drinking is concerned. It's entirely up to them. I expect no nannying in return.

And I don't think I deserve nannying anyway. Consider these points.

1. Lots of people love alcohol, and eagerly go for whatever it gives them. But I've never really liked the taste of the stuff. Unless on holiday and having a meal, when I'd normally be on my own, I drink only in company. I drink only as something one does on a social occasion, and that's the context in which I've got used to how alcoholic drinks taste. It's part of the ritual of social engagement, and if I seem thumbs-up and positive about the merits of this or that wine, it's simply that if drinking is called for, one might as well take an interest in the business, and learn some discernment.

2. But alcohol is one of those things I wouldn't miss if cast ashore on the proverbial desert island. There wouldn't be any cravings, no cold turkey, because I don't drink enough to need it as part of my daily routine.

3. I've never turned to alcohol to solve my problems, or anaesthetise myself against them. For most of the week - five days out of seven - I drink nothing but tea or coffee, water or cold milk. Occasionally some elderflower cordial. When I do drink, I drink wine, sometimes gin-and-tonic. And, unless it's a very unusual occasion, that is all. No beer. No other spirits. I know there are some amazing cocktails out there, and I've tried some, but as an almost invariable rule I like to keep my libations simple and straightforward.

4. I hate feeling not in complete control. I need to be focussed all the time on what I'm doing and saying. I want my world to be sharp and distinct and keenly-felt. I don't want to feel tipsy, or talk too loosely, or spill my drink, or knock things over and generally be unsteady. That's all embarrassing and shaming, and gives people the wrong idea about me. And it's especially awful when alcohol brings on a bad headache. I haven't felt queasy or in any way ill for a very long time (only my late teens around 1970, and after-office boozing in the early 1990s, come to mind) but I haven't forgotten what it's like.

5. And I so love driving! If deprived of it, I'd miss it terribly, quite apart from the fact that my life is built around my car, and that I fear the many inconveniences of not being able to use it. Ever since my childhood, when I watched fascinated as Dad drove us about, I have been in love with driving. And now, as a woman in her sixties, I am terribly conscious of how vulnerable I might be if I had to use public transport all the time, and not my personal safety-capsule.

6. I know how cars work, and I'm savvy about signs of trouble, and get anything amiss fixed straight away. But I'm not hands-on under the bonnet, and I won't get my hands dirty. It's the on-road experience that I love. Throughout my adult life, for decades, I've loved the skill, and the thrill, and the extraordinary satisfaction of driving. Best of all in Fiona, the only car I've ever bought new, the most powerful, the most capable, the most high-tech, and (by a big margin) the best-quality and most prestigious car that I've ever owned. And by far the most expensive - the one I invested a small fortune in buying. I bought Fiona to last. I'm proud of her. I'm very, very fond of her. I would cry if she were involved in a crash. In fact I'd be distraught. I am never going to risk that happening, insofar as I can control what occurs out on the road.

7. You may recall my posts earlier this year when I inadvertently did 60mph on a clear stretch of 50mph country road in Kent, and got caught for speeding on a police camera. Instead of being fined and having penalty points on my licence, I was able to attend a Speed Awareness Course. It changed my views on speeding - permanently. I am no longer casual about going faster than the legal limit. I see exactly why I should not. I now enjoy being skilful about making good progress within the limits of the law.

I say all this to drum home various things about my attitude to alcohol, and my attitude to driving. I have in the past had a couple of drinks and still driven. And I can't always avoid doing this in the future, not where I live. But I can place more effective voluntary limits on my alcohol consumption. I respond to gadgets. The suggestion of a friend has made me purchase my own personal breathalyser.

It's an AlcoSense Elite. It cost £59.99 at Halfords. They do less expensive models, including a no-nonsense single-use kit for a fiver, but I wanted something that was very accurate and would last me a long time. Here it is in its packaging:

Opening the box reveals the device, which is the size and thickness of a mobile phone from a few years back, before there were large touchscreens, when you slid out the keyboard:

As you can see, it comes complete with batteries, plastic tubes to blow into, and an instruction booklet. It seems to contain crystals, and it has a sensor. It measures, very accurately, the alcohol content of the air from one's lungs (which is directly proportional to the alcohol in the bloodstream). The batteries are there to power the display and to heat up the sensor to its operating temperature. To use it, you slide out the bottom, and attach a tube. The sensor takes 20 seconds to heat up, and the display shows a countdown. Here the device is three seconds away from telling me to blow into the tube:

You blow with normal exhaling pressure, and the device tells you if you get this right or wrong. It then gives an immediate reading of the alcohol content of your blood at that moment. The limits in England are presently 35 microgrammes for every 100 millilitres of breath, equivalent to 80 milligrammes of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood.

# If the amount is zero or (in blood terms) below 20mg/100ml, the screen is amber and the reading shows 'LO'. It's safe to drive - though with the caveat that even a trace of alcohol could lead to some impairment of driving alertness or performance. This is what you want to see in the display:

# At alcohol concentrations from 20mg/100ml to 49mg/100ml the screen is amber and you get a figure - for example '0.46', meaning 46mg/100ml. This means you are still below the legal limit, but the recommendation is that you don't drive.

# At alcohol concentrations from 50mg/100ml to 79mg/100ml the screen is flashing red and amber and you get a figure - for example '0.73', meaning 73mg/100ml. This means you are still below the legal limit, but quite close to it, borderline legal. You should not drive.

# At alcohol concentrations from 80mg/100ml to 149mg/100ml the screen is red and you get a figure - for example '1.19', meaning 119mg/100ml. This means you are over the legal limit, and must not drive.

# At alcohol concentrations upwards of 150mg/100ml the screen is red and shows 'HI', meaning that you are well over the legal limit, and must not drive.

In order to get a meaningful reading - and to avoid damaging the sensor - you have to wait 30 minutes after your last drink before testing yourself. The results are sensitive to contaminants such as mouthwash, breath spray, cough medicine and anything else that may contain alcohol.

As for interpretation, there are several things to bear in mind, but most obviously the rate at which your own liver can process the alcohol in the bloodstream. I can see that in the past I've felt perfectly OK to drive simply because the big meal I'd been eating while drinking, or soon afterwards, would have slowed down the absorption of the alcohol into my bloodstream. That didn't mean that a few hours later, and safely home, I would still be under the legal limit. The alcohol intake would have to be dealt with sooner or later; eating food only delayed its impact. No wonder I've sometimes felt fine late in the evening, but have woken with a slight headache in the morning. I should now expect to see a 'LO' (and perfectly legal) reading at going-home time, but a higher reading on a retest once back home. Putting this another way, it might not be a great idea to eat and drink far away from home, then attempt to drive back, without working out when (and how badly) the alcohol might kick in. Something to be aware of.

I am definitely going to drink less in future. It's something I can easily do, and want the health/weight benefits in any case. My new personal breathalyser will help me into a better social drinking habit. If I can, I'll avoid the whole drink-and-drive problem by using my Senior Railcard to take the train at reduced cost. 'Oh, take the train, then you can drink as much as you like!' some friends say. But, actually, only a couple of drinks are 'enjoyable' - beyond that, I'm really drinking for the sake of it, and not for pleasure. I don't want a great excuse to drink my head off. Thus it was on Christmas Eve. Even though I could have been very relaxed about it, I didn't over-imbibe. I was home by 9.00pm, and got a 'LO' before I went to bed.

Just to polish my crooked halo, I'll mention this last thing. When you first set up the AlcoSense breathalyser, you have to activate the sensor, and this requires letting it 'sniff' a white-wine-and-water mixture. Fortunately I had a bottle of white wine on hand (for taking to a future meal at somebody's house). It was decent stuff, costing me £8 at Waitrose. Unfortunately it wasn't open. But it had to be opened, in order to provide a little fluid for the activation process. Did I drink the remaining wine up? No. I told you: I never drink alone at home. I poured it away down the sink. Then rinsed the bottle, and dropped it into my recycling bin.

Are you shocked at this 'waste'? I thought I did the best thing, pouring it away, and this was certainly the thing I was most inclined to do. What would you have done?

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

An afternoon in Hastings - and a new party dress!

A typical Hastings resident - an inflatable Father Christmas. I'm sure he was tethered there last Christmas too. That new block of flats on the Stade (the Fishermen's Quarter) has taken an awfully long time to build! Things happen very slowly in Hastings.

Two days ago I met up with Emma - now a forty-something married lady with three children in their late teens - but once my step-daughter's teenage school friend. That was during my London days in the 1980s, when essentially I was (in relation to her) in the same position as a parent. Since then I've sort of transitioned from amiable parent figure to older woman friend, because, of course, in later life an age difference of eighteen years is nothing much - or it isn't, if you have a similar outlook! But I will still say 'sort of transitioned' because I can't help feeling, even now, just a bit responsible for her welfare and happiness, despite the levelling-up of our relationship in adult life.

Nowadays we meet every couple of months for a day out, and go off for lunch and (depending on the weather and the season) either somewhere interesting, or somewhere we can shop a bit. But in any event, to have a great day out, and a good catch-up. Last time it was Knowle and Sevenoaks. This time, Hastings (of 1066 fame).

For those who don't know Hastings, it's generally perceived as the Cinderella of the big Sussex resorts. It has merged on its west side with St Leonards, once a very grand place indeed (especially around Warrior Square), but now rather sad. On the east side, high sandstone cliffs loom, from which the whole town can be seen in magnificent panorama. Hastings had its 'modern' heyday in the stylish 1920s, and has been in decline ever since. It's full of fine buildings, and has a quaint Old Town, but it all looks decrepit, and seems largely unchanged and unpainted from when I first saw it in the 1970s.

Piers are great indicators. It has a burnt-down pier.

It's become tatty and unfashionable, rather than merely cheap and cheerful. It's lost its way. It lacks good road connections with the rest of the south-east, and there are no big employers except possibly the Conquest Hospital. (The hospital's famous Eye Unit was set up after King Harold caught an arrow in his left mince pie* in 1066) Apart from its summer role as a traditional fish-and-chippy seaside resort, there aren't any really compelling reasons to visit Hastings, except as somewhere else to go to, just for a change. It hasn't even made itself a prime centre for the Arts, as Folkestone has, although there is now an attempt at a 21st century gallery on the sea front.

If it ever becomes once more an 'in' place to live, and receives a massive injection of EU funds to brighten it up, Hastings will certainly bloom again. All it needs is a colossal team of painters and carpenters. Until then, all one can do is savour its highly individual, decayed character - and it does have a lot of that!

Did I mention fish-and-chips? To give Hastings its due, it is one of the best places in Sussex - nay, in England - to eat this traditional British seaside hunger-busting standby. Em and I headed straight to The Mermaid Restaurant in the Fishing Quarter, for a great-value lunch. Here's myself, about to tuck in, complete with mug of tea:

The restaurant makes a lot of its 'mermaid' theme, and we were sitting beneath a big painted mural, depicting a rather scary-looking mermaid hitching a ride off a passing dolphin. Note particularly her Medusa-like hair, elbow fins, and super-sharp fingernails!

The wide-angle lens has of course exaggerated the size of her boobs, and I thought that mermaids were always completely bare-breasted anyway, but essentially this is the old-time sailors' dream: a sexy siren with unearthly commanding eyes and Boots No7 lipstick, who lures men into the green depths. Even though the old-time salts and jack tars fantasised in the f'o'c's'le about making love to such a hybrid woman, I've always been puzzled about the practicalities. I mean, where would her naughty bits be? Under that red-finned fish's discreet dorsal fin? Who can say.

Well, leaving aside such imponderables, Emma and I headed along the seafront into the town centre. We went via George Street, which is a pedestrianised street full of very individual quaint-and-quirky shops and eateries (actually, here is a special reason to visit Hastings, just for this street). Emma spotted a lovely red and black cardigan with a huge, luxurious, black faux-fur collar - very French - and tried in on. It was fatal. She bought it as a Christmas present to herself. I resisted buying anything on this occasion, but succumbed within the hour, as you shall see.

On then into town, passing shops which sold stuff like this:

Not my kind of look, but somebody would like wearing it. Queen Boadacea? (or Boudicca, if you must) You know, the Essex chariot lady.

We came across a blue Police Box. Not one belonging to Dr Who! A real, genuine Police Box, with an official Sussex Police sticker on it. The sort policemen nip into when they want a cuppa. Or to try on ladies' underwear. Note the padlock. A photo opportunity.

Hastings did have a modern shopping centre full of the usual High Street retailers - so up-to-date, it seemed a very odd contrast with the rest of the town. We had a good mooch around that. Here we are messing around in Bhs, for instance:

Then suddenly it was almost 4.00pm. We headed to Debenhams. I wanted to find a superior party skirt - or even better, a dress - at a sale price. And I found it! I tried it on:

I know, I look ever more whale-like. But it was exactly what I wanted. The fabric was silver and gold. It emphasised my bust, waist and hips in a way that would look good in a party situation. Emma approved. Its new price was £55, and it was marked down to £27.50. It seemed to have my name on it. It was a deal.

After our day was over, and I was back home, I liked it even more. Here are some evening shots, plus a daytime shot:

As you can see, it looks more silver, or more gold, depending on the light source. It has a grey lining. I will wear black tights and my new black flats with it, nothing around my neck, and, for travelling to the party in, my posh dark grey Windsmoor winter coat. The party is in Brighton this very evening, and I'm taking the train, and need to wrap up well. That's a lot of grey, black and silver; so, to introduce a bright colour accent, I have bought some red-purple lipstick by Rimmel - definitely more stand-out than my usual plum shade.

All set, then!

Between now and 3.00pm (when I trek off to the nearest station) I may if there's time visit Halfords in Burgess Hill to check out their range of breathalysers. I see on their website that they sell three or four kinds. The Police are cracking down massively on drinking-and-driving, and so henceforth I'm going to be very careful about my blood-alcohol level. There's another motive too. I suspect that my inability to get the fat off myself may be partly due to too much white wine, even though I usually touch the stuff only on Tuesdays and Sundays. A psychological nudge from a little, easy-to-carry, blow-into digital breathalyser would help.

Last night I rediscovered an alternative strategy: drink tasty but low-calorie concoctions. I was being treated to a drink, and wanted something that wasn't alcoholic but still interesting. What about a tomato juice and Worcester sauce (with ice, but without the vodka)? Yes... Well, it was spicy and savoury and utterly delicious. So, if I drive, I'll now have my initial glass of wine, then go onto something like this. Looks like a good plan to me.

* 'Mince pie' is Cockney rhyming slang for 'eye'. I thought everyone knew this, but evidently not.

Monday, 22 December 2014

The Aldi thing

Kim, one of my Brighton friends, is an Aldi enthusiast. She happens to live quite close to an Aldi store, and for some time now has been serving up rather classy foodstuffs bought at this supermarket. In the poultry line, I particularly remember a very good goose, but Kim has bought wines, vegetables, yummy desserts and many other things from Aldi, and reckons that Aldi rivals or beats the likes of Marks & Spencer and Waitrose on quality, and most certainly on price. She says that Aldi is very much for the discerning shopper.

And indeed she is not alone in her opinion. Nowadays you often hear that Aldi, and that other German chain, Lidl, are taking sales away from the big British supermarkets because of their low prices. The quality aspect is less stressed, but it still matters. It matters very much to me. I am not buying for a family, only for myself, and so price is not the key concern. I can place quality above price. But I too take notice if I can get high quality for little outlay.

So I decided to give Aldi a try. I found out that there was an Aldi store at Lewes, and so I went there to make a small number of trial purchases.

On the outside, the Lewes Aldi looked like any other small supermarket. There was adequate parking. There were trolleys (irritatingly, you had to pay a returnable £1 to use them) but also baskets (perfect for my three test purchases, and of course free).

Inside it was somewhat underwhelming.

The product labelling was on plain light-blue cards that were informative but looked basic, and had none of the visual impact one is used to at, say, Tesco. Aldi's colour scheme was cold and pale compared to the strident yellow, blue and red motif you find in Lidl. Colour schemes do have a psychological effect on shoppers, and I couldn't help thinking that Aldi's ideas on that were off the mark.

The arrangement of the goods seemed a bit haphazard, but then that would be the first impression in any unfamiliar store, and I did manage to find exactly what I was looking for. Although Lidl always has some one-time-only limited offers - goods not ordinarily associated with a foodstore, such as toolkits, garden furniture, toys, and clothing - Aldi had much more of this stuff. None of it was a temptation. It looked too cheap and unlovely to consider. Thus I came away with only the trial purchases I'd had in mind, and nothing more, despite the impressively keen prices.

So what did I buy, and what did I think of it? Here are my three purchases back home:

A large packet of mature Cheddar cheese - I can't tell you the weight now, but when grated for freezing there was enough for four very generous portions of Welsh Rarebit. I've tasted tangier cheddar, but it'll do fine. The cost was £1.75. No complaint about that!

A vacuum-packed dry-aged beef joint - topside no less. The weight of this was 872g, and it cost £8.71. I cooked it up a couple of nights later. The recipe I used from my Good Housekeeping cookery book (it's the 1989 reprint) recommended smearing mustard over the joint, hence the yellowy look in this pre-cooking shot:

My gut feeling on cooking time was to give it two hours at gas mark 4. But I went with the GH cookbook's recommendation (if I wanted a medium-cooked result) to roast it for only one hour at gas mark 4. But despite pre-heating the oven according to instructions, I wasn't happy with this, and to ensure proper cooking I turned the heat up after half an hour to gas mark 6. When taken out of the oven for resting, the joint looked OK, but when I started to carve it I soon decided that my original thinking (giving it two hours, not one) would have produced a better result. It was nicely pink, but there was too much fluid. The meat juices did however help to make a jolly good gravy.

The beef was pleasant to eat, and the flavour was fine, although it wasn't quite the tender, melt-in-the-mouth experience I'd expected. I carved off three slices for my meal that evening, then later on, after eating, cut up the remainder for freezing. When I next have some, from one of the freezer packets, I'll cook it a bit more.

The third item was a normal-sized bottle of brut champagne, costing a remarkable £9.99. I bought this with a Christmas Eve party at Kim's in mind. I wanted to bring champagne to the party, rather than the usual bottle of red wine. At the same time, I wanted to demonstrate that I wasn't wedded to Waitrose. I had been to Aldi, and here was the proof! And maybe Aldi's dernier cris in the champagne department will  turn out to be a good solution. I'm assuming that this decidedly bargain-priced bubbly will be at least 'acceptable' as a drink, although I can't see how it can match the finesse of a champagne costing £30 or more. But we shall see.

I think that with places like Aldi you have to be selective, and just buy the particular things you are looking for. I wouldn't use it for a comprehensive shop, because it doesn't stock many of the items I'd want to buy - whereas Waitrose does. And another thing: I feel very much at home in Waitrose stores. I like the look of them, the staff are welcoming, and my sort of people seem to shop there. I won't say that Aldi is alien or unfriendly territory, but regardless of how low their prices are, the atmosphere didn't appeal, and I feel no great keenness to go back.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

500,000 clicks on the blog!

I am quite sure that all my regular readers will be expecting this post!

Gosh, 500,000 clicks to see what I've been writing about since February 2009! I hope nobody came away grievously disappointed. But of course there must have been some who were, who perhaps thought such things as...

This woman is trivial and intellectually lightweight.
This woman is mad and deluded.
This woman doesn't believe in anything.
This woman is far too cheerful to be true.
This woman clearly hasn't suffered nearly enough - where is the pain and anguish?
This woman is too organised for her own good.
This woman may be able to take nice photos, and compose grammatical sentences, and punctuate correctly, but where is the substance?
Why doesn't she tackle all the burning issues of the day?
What use is she, if she doesn't try to be committed, and provocative, and challenging?
Why doesn't she stick her neck out, and name and flame the people who deserve it?
Why hasn't she got the answers?

...and having snorted in disgust, clicked away from the blog, and never came back.

Well, I'd rather be good-natured and positive and hopeful, than a constant bringer of bad news, and endless things to complain about. Or write in the style fashionable in some quarters, a style that passes for 'good journalism' and takes waspish, crowd-pleasing swipes at people who are 'different'.

In any case, this isn't a blog that has to earn a living. I'm writing for the love of writing, and not to generate pageviews and clickthroughs at the behest of advertisers. This is one of my hobbies. It also explains what makes me the person I am. You can get to know me through the blog, even though we may never meet. I think that's valuable, being knowable.

Of course, I'm sure that now and then I say some silly things. And sometimes things that are offensive to certain people. I haven't forgotten the fuss made at the start of 2013 by one American trans woman, when I described the good impression a female work colleague of Jewish background had made on me twenty-five years earlier. She was incandescent about what I said, and accused me of racism. When you get reactions like that, you keep away from certain topics for evermore, simply to avoid vitriol. Playing for safety too much? Well, if I were 'courageous' and deliberately controversial, and completely insensitive, then I might by now have generated five million pageviews. But I'd be hated and reviled by many, and my friends would be embarrassed and worried for my safety.

And keeping the topics low-key is really not inhibiting. It suits my agenda. The blog is not a high-profile political platform, nor a tub-thumping crusading organ. Nor am I a cruel debunker of other people's cherished beliefs. I do support the trans cause. But I am not going to make a career out of it.

I want instead to reveal, through my little adventures, that there is a satisfying and interesting life to be had for anyone who confronts their need to transition. The Prize is not a beautiful body, nor great sex, nor true love, nor celebrity and influence - although those things might be achieved; it's the chance to experience an ordinary life as one's real self, with daily, routine acceptance from the world at large. That's the key message the blog pushes, that such a life is possible; and for proof, people like me are living it.

By the way, although that 500,000 click total may seem commendable, it's eclipsed by what's happened on my Flickr site. The viewing total there now stands at 605,000. I'm really really pleased with that, as I value my photography above the blog.

No more silver foil to play with!

Oh no. Another iconic thing from childhood gone! I refer to the silver foil that wafers of KitKat used to be wrapped in. It's been discarded in favour of a sealed plastic wrapper, like this:

I hadn't had a KitKat in months, but bought a pack of seven the other day, as I was shortly going to have Jackie, my next-door neighbour, over for coffee; and any KitKats not consumed by us both while chatting would become my 'Christmas treat'. You can imagine my surprise when I found out that the unstoppable March of Progress had done away with yet another relic of the past! (Although, to be honest, the old wrapping was an anachronism - albeit delightful - and it was amazing that it lasted up to 2014)

But it was always fun (sort of) to rip away the paper red-and-white outer wrapper, and then tackle the silver foil. It was vital not to tear this foil in one's eagerness to get at the chocolate-covered crispy wafers within. It had Uses, you see.

The foil - in my childhood we called it 'silver paper' and made no distinction between this kind of foil and the definitely more papery wrapping used for cigarettes - could be made into miniature darts for throwing, or into little cups that stood up, or even into tiny hats (very useful indeed, if you were a pinhead). No doubt kids who were black belts in Origami made many other wonderful things with it. As for grown-ups, it was well-known that the silver foil from a KitKat was an excellent standby for connecting bare wires around the house, or in one's motor car.

Or was it in fact used to repair the electrical circuit in badly-corroded metal battery torches? In the days, that is, when your average Ever-Ready battery was a big, blue, paper-covered thing that tended to leak a messy fluid? It's hard to remember, and there's no advice on this in my 1958 Rupert Bear annual.

If you want to know an awful lot about KitKat, then this Wikipedia article delivers: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kit_Kat.

Perhaps they changed the wrapping because they had bought a New Machine for the job. It surely couldn't have been because there was a problem keeping KitKats fresh. I mean, they fly off the shelf, don't they?

I'm glad to say that the chocolate wafers were as nice to eat as ever! And only 107 calories, and each wafer a proper knock-'em-cold, take-no-prisoners hit of chocolate. (Just don't get addicted)

Friday, 19 December 2014


I've been listening to BBC Radio 4's programme Becoming Myself: Gender Identity, part 1 of which was broadcast last Friday, and part 2 today. Both parts are presently available for playback using the BBC iPlayer Radio app.

Part 1 dealt with the aspirations and progress of trans men through the long-established Charing Cross Hospital gender clinic in London. Part 2 dealt with trans women passing through the hands of the same clinic.

It was no surprise to find the cases of the featured men and women were reported with care and balance. The editing let them come across as well-rounded human beings with realistic self-perception. Some of the professionals were also interviewed, and they came across well too, as people who knew their stuff and wanted to assist their patients through a demanding process. It seemed that, on the whole, the set-up at the clinic was distinctly better than it had been in the past, just as the outside world was more accommodating and understanding of trans people than it used to be. But there was no disguising the protracted nature of the process for those referred to the clinic.

I asked myself whether, if I were now at the beginning of transition, and choosing between the private route (very expensive, but fast-track) and the Charing Cross route (free on the NHS, but awfully slow), whether I would feel tempted to go for Charing Cross. I decided that if I were young, in my twenties say, I might. But if I were older, and especially if I were my actual age, sixty-two, then no. Time matters much more when you haven't a lot of it left. Even though I would be impressively well-organised, and very pro-active and persistent, and scrupulously meet all of Charing Cross's requirements, and never be late for an appointment, I'd find it all too frustrating. I'd want to get everything done quickly, by a team of professionals of my choice, and to a timetable that I had some say about.

So I would still find the money, and go private.

In this country it's easy to feel uncomfortable about 'jumping the queue' or 'opting out of the ordinary system, and enjoying something better' if one has some cash. But I'm pretty sure that my decision to go private in 2008, and in particular my putting up £10,500 of my own money for the op in early 2011, must have taken a little pressure off the NHS gender clinic budget and its facilities, and must have enabled someone else to progress a bit faster through the NHS system.

Getting back to the level tone of the programme, I wondered whether the days of lurid documentaries were now over. Here were a set of individual stories, related in the trans person's own words, without third-party interpretation, and certainly without any suggestion that these were strange people with a bizarre problem. I would expect nothing less from the BBC; but across the media, sensational stories about trans persons are surely getting rarer. It gives one hope. It would be very pleasant indeed if, during the next five years or so, it became usual for a trans person to go about their daily activities without being especially noticed, because public opinion had moved a few critical steps down the road to total acceptance, and only diehard idiots were standing firm on their prejudices.

Perhaps I am being too optimistic about the timescale. But the trend to acceptance seems to be establishing itself. Certainly, I already feel perfectly easy about going to most places in the UK, or at least those that a woman can go to on her own. That's a big gain. I haven't forgotten the terror I felt when appearing in public during the winter of 2008/2009 - and with reason: I didn't look good at all. I measure my personal progress from that era. No wonder it feels like I've come a long way since then.

If trans people are going to be talked about without sniggers or frowns, then we will all feel a lot happier in our minds. I really don't mind being recognised as a tiresomely chatty female pensioner first, and a trans person second, so long as a decent, courteous response to me kicks in - and not a wish to poke fun at me, or ignore me, or do me harm.

I never thought I would do this again

I'll have been retired ten years next May, and I had thought the days of office parties were long over. But no. After not going to one since 2004, I finally went back and attended a Christmas Lunch with people presently working in my old office. The event was at Croydon in south London, at the Porter & Sorter pub, so-called because it's next to both the main-line East Croydon station and the town's main Post Office. It's a big pub, very well geared up to office gatherings.

There were twenty or so of us at this Lunch, drawn from two of the dozens of teams at the giant HMRC office in Croydon. Surprisingly, I knew at least eight people present, so I was far from being a total stranger, although younger members of staff, or those who had transferred in after I'd retired, obviously hadn't met me before.

So some would remember me as I used to be. And a somewhat larger number had no such memory, but might have been briefed on who I was, so that there would be no slip-ups over the proper way to address me. I wondered about that. On one hand, everyone in that office would (as a matter of course) have had general awareness training about misgendering anyone like myself, or committing idiocies like calling me by my old name. On the other hand, to be on the safe side, I might have been discussed as a special topic at a pre-Lunch team meeting. But I hoped not. I didn't want to be treated as a sensitive issue. I wanted the entire occasion to be natural and full of fun.

And as the event got under way I found good reason to think that, in fact, there had been no team briefing at all, because the people I hadn't met before treated me simply as a visiting former female colleague whose name they didn't know. I was able to introduce myself as Lucy without any explanations. Wonderful!

However, the managers present, two of them of my old grade, two of them a little more senior than I had been, must surely have been 'in the know' and painfully aware of the need to call me Lucy, and nothing else. And to do them credit, they managed it perfectly: it was Lucy every time, without any slips, and they even gave me hello (and farewell) embraces and kisses with Gallic abandon! Well! I'm sure the more junior staff members took note of this lead.

Since my day the idea of Secret Santa had taken hold, and everyone (including myself) had had to buy a small gift for somebody else. The recipient wouldn't of course know who the giver was because each label would say something like 'To X from Santa' - although I dare say a certain amount of handwriting-recognition might go on! I had to buy a gift for one of the other girls, someone I had occasionally travelled home on the train with when I was still working. But I hadn't seen her since 2005, and didn't know what kind of gift would appeal. I could of course have bought a jokey gift, but I played for safety and gave her a set of colourful silicone kitchen spoons, the same sort I'd bought for myself earlier in 2014 and loved to use. I knew she had a family, and might be a cook, and I reckoned that she'd prefer something genuinely useful. Well, I think the spoons were something of a surprise. I couldn't tell whether the gift was welcome or not - obviously she didn't know it was from me, and I couldn't let on - but I may find out. She asked Gill, an old friend of mine and the girl on the left edge of the picture just below, for my email address, and we may have a dialogue at some point in the coming weeks. I shall look forward to it.

As you can see, someone gave me a cowboy hat with KISS ME QUICK on it - just right for a girl from Sussex-by-the-Sea! Everyone was keen to try it on, so I let it be passed around so that people could pose in it, as one does after a bit too much to drink at an office Christmas Lunch...

Someone else was given a black wig, and for some reason this was also passed around, particularly between the guys who were a bit thin on top, and (it must have been the booze again) everyone with a camera or a phone went straight into snapshot mode. But it was all great fun.

The meal itself was pretty good. You had to choose your courses in advance - I had a duck pâté starter, turkey with all the fixings for main, and Christmas pudding for dessert. The meal cost £21, but as part of the deal you got tear-off drink vouchers, entitling you to three drinks. On arrival I'd bought myself a gin-and-tonic. With each of my three vouchers I had a medium-sized glass of white house wine. Following that, I was treated to a big glass of Sauvignon Blanc. The drinking need not have ended there, but at 4.15pm I finished my wine, made my farewells, and went home. I could see the Lunch turning into a headache-inducing bacchanalia. And I'd already had one the previous evening.

Needless to say, I'd left Fiona at home, and wasn't driving. That was partly to enjoy using my new Senior Railcard!

This Christmas Lunch had been a great social success for me. I'd always wondered how it would be if I met not just a few selected former colleagues in a quiet venue, but a lot more of the staff, on a lively no-hiding-place binge. Now I knew what it was like. No problems at all. 

This 2014 result made me speculate afresh on how it might have been if I'd discovered the truth about myself back in 2003 or 2004, and had attempted to transition at the office. It might have gone very well. And I'd have had every possible assistance from an officially-supported internal organisation called A:gender (see http://www.agender.org.uk/). But I didn't hear about A:gender until March 2009, nearly four years after retiring...  

Oh well. You can't turn back the clock.  

Monday, 15 December 2014

Sending ecards

It took me a long time to get down to the annual task of compiling a Christmas card list, and then actually writing the things, but I've done it. The job's done. It's finished.

There may be the odd card now from somebody not on my list, but I think I've covered everyone who would expect to receive a card from me. That's 44 cards I've posted, or handed over in person. Not a bad total for someone who has emerged from a life that some would have written off back in 2008.

None of the cards I've sent are for close family. I have no parents, no brothers or sisters, nor children of my own. They're all dead or never were. I'm a sole survivor; and consequently my less immediate family - niece, nephew, their mother, some distant cousins - have a great importance to me. So do friends. And so do neighbours, and those persons in my life who give me personal service: my cleaner, my hair stylist, the lady who does my electrolysis. They were all on my list. They have all got nice cards.

But not necessarily traditional cards. Five persons were sent ecards.

I had vaguely heard of these before, but then one of my new North Devon friends, Sara, sent me one and I was charmed to death by how nice it was. She had paid her subscription to Jacquie Lawson.com, and this entitled her to send an unlimited number of cards (not just Christmas cards) to anyone with an email address. You can view the selection she chose from at http://www.jacquielawson.com/cards/christmas. She sent me 'Northern Lights', which I think is beautiful. It came with a very Christmassy musical accompaniment: O Tannenbaum. (That's 'We'll keep the Red Flag Flying' to some)

You can add a message of any reasonable length. She did.

Thus encouraged, it was entirely natural that I should join this website too (spending £11 on a two-year membership), and send her an ecard, also with a message. Somehow it was much easier to think of merry and/or witty things to say - probably because you could preview the card before sending, and go back to rearrange or modify what you had already written. You didn't have to get it right first time - the card wasn't ruined if you made a spelling mistake or whatever - and so the words came freely.

I sent an ecard to another North Devon friend, Jayne. And to friends in Wales and Scotland, and to my step-daughter in New Zealand. 'A Winter Waltz' seemed just right for most of them, but one friend got 'Northern Lights', as I thought it more appropriate.

I do see that ecards are best suited to people who will be away over Christmas, or who live in other parts of the world. And they must of course be computer users who know all about emails, and what to do when a link to click on is presented to them.

So I wouldn't dream of sending an ecard to, say, my elderly aunt in Newport. And I also do understand that many people appreciate having a collection of 'paper' cards to adorn their mantlepiece with. I do, for one. They are a sort of Christmas decoration!

On the other hand, an ecard can be viewed on one's phone at any time, and in that sense carried around. And if they ever become the norm, think of how much forest will be saved - although I think the day that ecards supersede traditional cards is as far off as the day that ebooks supersede traditional books.

Meanwhile they get the seal of approval from me!

Saturday, 13 December 2014

The doorbell rings at night

A couple of nights ago my front door bell rang. I wasn't expecting any callers. I was on my own. It was 8.30pm, and dark outside.

It might have been a neighbour, but without opening the door I couldn't possibly say. Well, should I open it and find out?

I didn't. I decided that 8.30pm was too late in the evening to risk anything. A friend - or my next-door neighbours - would have my mobile number, and text or ring to say they were outside. So it wasn't any of them. Someone like the police or an emergency service would ring my doorbell again and again, and generally make properly persistent efforts to attract my attention.

But the bell wasn't rung again. Odd. No, this was positively creepy! 

Who could it have been? Were they still standing there? Anyone could see my car outside, and the lights on inside the house, and therefore know that I must be at home. Were they waiting patiently in the dark for curiosity to get the better of me? So that if I went to the front door, and opened it even just a bit, they'd step forward and force their way in? I decided there was no way I'd open that door. My apologies to any innocuous caller, but I was, after all, a woman living on her own, and such a person is entitled not to open her front door after dark. I stayed away from it, not even peeping out hours later when going to bed. I felt this was the right and sensible thing to do. What the police would have advised.

In the morning, at breakfast-time, I opened the door and looked out. Perhaps it had been someone selling something, or collecting for some charity, or a neighbour with a parcel, but there was no leaflet through the flap, and nothing left outside on the doorstep. That was two mornings ago, and nothing has happened since to explain the ringing of my doorbell.

Was it rung by mistake, someone genuinely visiting a house on my road but getting the address wrong? Could it have been that builder chap from a short while back, who told me about my loose roof tiles, then chatted me up? Was it a deranged killer or rapist, seeking a victim at random? Who knows.

In the Old Life, I might have opened that door. I still remember an incident during the winter of 2001/02, when M--- and I had stayed up very late, her elderly mum (who was by then being looked after by M---) feeling poorly and needing comforting. It was about 1.00pm on a very foggy night. Suddenly M---'s doorbell went. I grabbed a powerful torch, and went out to see who it was.

It was a slightly tipsy man in his twenties. I shone the torch light into his eyes. He said that he was lost. He'd come out of the pub, had turned the wrong way, and had eventually seen our lights. Could he use our phone to call a taxi? It wasn't my house, and it was imperative that M---'s mum wasn't frightened - and so I said no, and asked him to go away. He got rather annoyed by this refusal. So I snapped directions to the main road at him, and told him to push off now - and was very aggressive and unfriendly with my torch light. It clearly dazzled him, but then I intended that. He did go, muttering and swearing, and quickly disappeared into the fog. He didn't come back - but as you might guess, we didn't sleep easily.

In the years since, I've become much less bold. I'm much more nervous now about who it might be, and what might happen, when the doorbell rings unexpectedly. A pervading feeling of vulnerability has grown.

I feel that I shouldn't be like this. It's really most unlikely that anyone with criminal intent is going to burst in halfway through the evening, when the street lights are still on, when nearby neighbours are still up and watching TV, and would see and hear any commotion, and could intervene. But I don't want to take unnecessary risks.

What is it? Modern times? An exaggerated fear of crime? Or just the creeping natural anxiety of old age tightening its grip on me?

Friday, 12 December 2014

Objects of Desire - were they worth it?

Ah, the season of frenzied present-buying is well upon us all, and those who can afford to - and probably an enormous number who can't - will be spending plenty of money on Christmas gifts. I rather fancy that 2014 is going to be a bumper year for spending, fuelled partly, I dare say, by a feeling that the Recession is beaten, and better times are round the corner, pay rises especially. Even if this turns out to be true, I don't personally think we will quickly get back to the spurious prosperity that seemed to be around in 2007. But it doesn't take much to regain an appetite for spending up to the hilt. Many people must have a bottled-up urge to buy a few nice things, for both themselves and their nearest and dearest.

And up to a point, why not? The trouble is that if you do suddenly have some spare money in your purse or pocket, or you feel you have, it tends to say 'spend me, give me my freedom', and you find yourself conniving willingly at its escape. It would be more prudent to tuck it away for leaner times that are certain to come again - or at least to spend it very carefully on things that will have enduring worth or usefulness.

I wish I had used such good judgement, when I had real money to spend in 2009, 2010 and 2011. But instead I blew it on all sorts of things connected with setting up my New Life. This post is about some of the more expensive things I bought, and examines whether they were really 'good buys' - or instead Awful Warnings From History. Reckless ways to spend cash, that seemed right at the time, but now look like rather crass mistakes.

They split into four convenient groups: clothes, boots and shoes, bags, and jewellery. Standard girly stuff. A poverty-stricken saint could have avoided the errors I made. A headstrong sinner with a nice bank balance was sure to fall!

It really is so easy to make mistakes. Not so much in sizes or syles, but in wanting new things, and above all wanting the 'best' labels. I hankered after owning some signature garments for the posh occasions I imagined would come. For example, once 'fully converted' and glamorous, I would need a correspondingly glamorous wardrobe for cruise holidays. Such is self-delusion. And I was in a frame of mind to be easily seduced by the flattery that came my way in posh boutiques. It seemed so affirming at the time. You know, 'they see the woman in me'. I put up no resistance. Buying expensive stuff seemed not only a way into a dream life, but a way of saying 'I really am worth this' at a time when my self-image was fragile. The clothes also looked amazing. So I got tangible things to fuel that dream. Let me list the most expensive clothing items, in the order of purchase.

12 November 2009
A blue knitted wrap for £150.

16 November 2009
A Windsmoor winter coat for £199. Here it is on its first outing. I still have the scarf. The bag is discussed further on!

19 November 2009
A black Diane Von Furstenburg dress for £313.
A multicoloured Diane Von Furstenburg silk dress for £271.
A Ralph Lauren wrap for £288.

20 November 2009
A red Diane Von Furstenburg dress (ordered on the Internet) for £392.

November 2009 was clearly a mad month for me! And some of this stuff was hardly ever worn. It may have graced my wardrobe for a long time as 'trophy clothing' but in the end it was passed on to charity shops. The red DVF dress had one outing in Brighton in December 2009 (the last time I ever wanted to go to a disco; it was a big one in Brighton, where Boy George was the DJ) - and then never again.

The only item listed above that is still in my wardrobe, though now reserved for really smart winter occasions, is the Windsmoor coat. I own another Windsmoor coat found for £25 in a local charity shop - it's almost as nice, and I generally prefer to wear it instead. (And it gets as many admiring remarks as the one bought new does. There's a lesson in there)

Boots and shoes
I have never bought any high heels. I have bought a few medium-heeled boots and shoes, but rarely wore them, and they have all now gone to charity shops. I'm not a 'heel person'. And despite all the money I've thrown away on expensive clothes that were never much worn, I can say with justice that I'm not guilty of spending lots and lots of money on outrageously expensive shoes! But I did buy one pair of very expensive Dubarry boots on 14 October 2011 for £332.

Although leather, they are really luxury wellies. You can wear them in town, but, though handsome, they are not meant to be the last word in elegance. They are posh country wear, like a Barbour jacket is. They create the right impression, if you want to show off your 'county' credentials. But they are unsuitable for a proper long-distance walk or ramble, and certainly too nice to mess up in mud or mire. I have however regularly worn them, and I still like them. So they have not been a waste of money. But I wouldn't nowadays pay so much for a pair of boots, unless they were the best and most comfortable boots in the world.

I admit to having a weakness for bags going back a very, very long time. I was once notorious for spending ridiculous amounts of money on leather brief cases for work. (I see it now as a clue to my real frame of mind!) At the (quiet) start of transition, I went through a phase of buying 'man bags', which satisfied the dress code imposed on me by parents and partner. But that didn't last. The dam burst on 13 March 2009, when I took myself off to London Town and bought a luxury black leather Prada handbag at the firm's Sloan Street shop. It cost a cool £910. But I thought it looked every penny of it, and I still think so.

Like the original Windsmoor coat, this bag is now reserved for big occasions when I want something more glamorous than my ordinary day-to-day bag. I have no intention of parting from it. It's not for sale. It epitomises a significant stage in my personal history.

There were other bags too. The most expensive cost £440. They have all been passed on. I kept going back to a less expensive but entirely practical black Radley bag bought in August 2009, until I adopted the orange Italian leather bag (originally bought for M---) that is often now seen in my photos. It's the closest to the 'perfect' bag that I've ever had. Long may it last.

Two items to mention here.

29 January 2009
A TAG Heuer ladies' wristwatch for £950.

This watch looked great on my wrist until the battery needed replacement in 2011. By then I'd found out that I'd be charged £65 for it to be sent away, opened, serviced, and resealed so that its 'underwater performance down to 30 metres' would be maintained.

£65! And the watch gone for a month! I wasn't going to play that game. So for the last three years it's been sitting in a drawer. For a while I used a cheap but entirely reliable and quite-elegant Timex wristwatch instead. Then I decided that I didn't need (or want) a timepiece on my wrist at all. The phone would do. And that's how things stand: if I want to know the time, I consult the phone. In the car, there's a very clear digital clock on the dash. I don't need jewellery like this any more. I'd rather like to give the TAG Heuer away to a friend, but I have hesitated, not wanting to lumber them with an expensive cycle of battery-replacements...

25 June 2010
A pearl necklace made up of 69 sea-water pearls, for a total cost of £638. I bought the necklace in Guernsey, and I include the £112 VAT imposed by HMRC when I arrived back in the UK. But this was a superb souvenir of the island, and gave me a luxury item to treasure.

I wear them as often as I can, but of course they are 'special' and not for the supermarket - nor for ordinary country walks, when more robust jewellery is appropriate. Nor for encounters with baby children - groping, grasping little fingers and pearls are not a good mix!

So these have been my personal Objects of Desire. And most of them have been discarded - only the Prada handbag, the Windsmoor winter coat, the pearls, and the Dubarry boots, remain loved and used.

You know, I really have wasted an awful lot of money! I've got to own up and admit it. However, I have also learned some wisdom, and I've become accustomed to curbing my impulses to spend.

Here's a statistic or two to prove this. In 2009, I spent £4,982 on clothes alone. In 2014, I have (so far) spent £611 on not just clothes, but all shoes and all accessories too. Quite a difference! I'll need to spend a little more in 2015, because I am very poorly off for shoes; but not now quite as poorly off as I was, because one long-needed item, new black flat shoes, is in the bag. I got these in Canterbury the other day (and the cost is in that 2014 total of £611):

There you are, Hotter's finest. More expensive than M&S, yes; but priced at only half what Russell & Bromley would charge. I now turn away from the expensive shops and the top labels. I want to spend my cash on other more down-to-earth things.