Friday, 31 January 2014

Schools for Young Ladies

I wonder how many MTF women think about how it might have been if they had actually lived the life of a young girl, including attending school as one. By all accounts, it would have been an interesting but not necessarily stress-free experience!

In my own case, I am talking about the years 1957 (when I was five) to 1970 (when I was eighteen), with particular emphasis on the grammar school years from 1963 to 1970. Forget how modern schools now are. Forget fantasy schools like Hogwarts. My real-life grammar school was a chalk-and-talk world controlled by bossy and fussy teachers in gowns who mostly inspired fear, and could freely inflict punishments on erring pupils. If you ever saw the film Dead Poets Society (1989), then you'll understand the ethos relentlessly imposed in any kind of 'good school' in those days.

My own grammar school in Southampton was not quite as strict and conservative as that. But I had nevertheless been terrified at the thought of going there, having unwisely seen the film Tom Brown's Schooldays (1951). I feared that I would be bullied by sadists, with some kind of monstrous Flashman as their leader, and quickly end up being roasted in front of an open fire with the full approval of the masters. The reality was, thank goodness, much more reasonable, although it was always a paternal, no-nonsense institution that tolerated no dissent or rebellion, certainly no individuality or difference, and only barely placed academic success above gung-ho prowess at games. I never came to change my views on 'school life' one whit. It was an open prison, a soul destroyer, and nothing else.

Obviously I can't say first-hand how it was at the equivalent girls' grammar school on the other side of Southampton Common. One could only speculate! But M--- had many dire tales of how it was for her at the Surrey County High School for Girls at Reigate, which I would jokingly refer to as 'Reigate High', with herself as one of the 'Class of 1955'. It seems that the sweet old dears who limply taught The Girls in gentle traditional subjects likely to be of use in the home were outnumbered by sharp severe spinsters with a taste for torture. M--- did mention that she and her special friends would giggle their way through every class, but even so, the sanctions imposed sounded very repressive. It seemed little different from what my Mum said of her own school in Newport, back in the 1930s, when for instance a strict keep-to-the-left-side system was in force on staircases, and she got slapped hard for having to step around two chatting teachers and thus being forced to break the Rule. Staggering unfairness! I sincerely hope that in 2014 no school in the land employs teachers who think they can behave like capricious tyrants. Indeed, I hope that nowadays both teachers and students know how to conduct themselves as adults.

Which brings me on to posh schools for Young Ladies. We have a very well-known one in Brighton: Roedean. It may have been the very model for The Girls of St Trinians in the past, but surely not now. Check out their website at http://www.roedean.co.uk/. The set-up looks fabulous. It might (were I now in my teens) transform my ideas on what a school is, and what it can do for me. There are a few preliminary considerations of course, the chief one being Daddy's income, with each term (as a day girl) costing around £6,000, or (as a boarder) £10,000. Naturally, the school uniform, extra-curricular activities, outings, trips, and so on are all extra. I doubt whether, if boarding, and participating fully in the opportunities provided by the school, it would cost much less than £40,000 each year. But let's dream on, and assume that the parental budget can cope. And that one would emerge as a perfectly-polished and confident person, fitted absolutely for Uni, a great career, and possibly a society marriage!

I'm assuming that the school is well-protected and beyond the reach of local drug dealers, and the sort of cynical young men who would corrupt a sweet girl of poise and sensibility. Indeed, for many years, one got the impression that Roedean was a fortress, a kind of Colditz Castle. Here's a photo I took in 2001, and even though it is a sunny day, the school looks grey and forbidding:


No escape possible! Doubtless the grounds were patrolled at night by guards with radios and dogs. At some point in more recent years the exterior got a makeover, and is now cream-coloured - much nicer. Roedean stands in an isolated position on the east edge of Brighton, with a sweeping sea view. These shots, taken the other day, show how it is:


Let's say 42 Commando plan to attack the school. Tide permitting, and on a moonless night, they paddle towards the shore at 3.00am in an inflatable launched from a submarine. Naturally, soaked in testosterone as they are, the vertical chalk cliffs are no obstacle, just a quick leap up really, and within minutes they are in close formation on the turf and moving stealthily towards the perimeter fence. The dogs are quickly dealt with. Skilfully stepping over the trip wires and ducking under the infra-red beams, they noiselessly enter the courtyard and prepare to tackle the front door with grenades and smoke bombs... Yes, it would be so simple. And how thrilling for the girls! Rescued by armed frogmen!

Nothing so exciting happened when I was at school. You too?

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The New Zealand legacy

M--- and I travelled around all of New Zealand from 4 March to 29 April 2007, mainly in a hired campervan. It was by far the best holiday I have ever enjoyed, and it has an ongoing legacy: I am no longer frightened of long-distance travel, and the supposed strangeness of foreign places. I'd most certainly do it again if I had the chance, even though I'd be picky about where I'd like to go, having now a very good idea of which places might be worth the effort, and which might not.

We took 6,000 photographs each while away: 12,000 altogether. Some of these shots were in Los Angeles on the journey out, and in Hong Kong on the journey back. But the overwhelming number were in New Zealand itself. M--- had the advantage that I did most of the driving, and so could snap away en route, recording many things as we bowled along that I couldn't, unless we pulled in specially. But we both blitzed the places we visited on foot, or by sea, or by train. I spent most evenings editing my daily haul of pictures. I got them down to a more manageable 4,000 or so, all of them properly captioned. M---'s collection remains unedited and uncaptioned to this day, and although they are a valuable alternative resource, I can't use any of her shots in my blog. But I can dip into my own.

What shots they were, what places we saw. New Zealand was such a lovely country. The very fact that it was so distant from the UK, literally the farthest away in the world, made it seem very special. When we went we were still very much a couple, and M--- thought we ought to publish a book together on our return, jointly-produced. So while I attended to photo-editing in the evenings, she created an impressive journal, which would later form the basis for the book. The notion of publishing 'a travel book with a difference' was the spur to reaching and photographing many out-of-the-way places, as well as the more usual ones. And a spur also to try one or two things that tested our nerve. Such as when we found ourselves on the narrow and crumbling Akatawara Road, rashly chosen as 'short cut' to Upper Hutt. Or when M--- got herself temporarily marooned on Te Wakatehaua Island, aka The Bluff, on Ninety Mile Beach, as giant waves thundered in. Here's an aerial photo of The Bluff, from a postcard:


New Zealand consists of two large islands, North Island and South Island, with a ship ferry to link them if one needs to take a vehicle from one island to the other. We went on almost every State Highway from 1 to 99, and on several unnumbered roads, some of them gravel tracks. We visited Bluff in the far south of South Island, and Cape Reinga in the far north of North Island. We saw all the cities, and most of the larger towns. Timaru in South Island was really the only place of any size that we couldn't sensibly fit into our itinerary. We covered 5,899 miles in the campervan during its 50-day hire period, and were pushing on nearly every day. It was pretty relentless. There were several places we'd have liked to stay a few days in, generally serene chill-out areas of great scenic beauty, often off the main tourist trail. But all we could do was make the best inspection we could, and mark the places down for a longer look on our next visit.

The next visit... It isn't likely to happen now, not since M--- and I have gone our separate ways. That book never got off the ground. (I wonder what M--- did with her journal, and whether she ever reads it?) And yet when I think of (for instance) the Cathedral Caves on the Catlins Coast that she so wanted to visit, but could not (the tide was wrong, and anyway we had no torch), I feel that there is a lot of 'unfinished business'. And I wonder whether, before she gets too old, she will bury the hatchet and accompany me there.

I could go on my own. I'm still up for it. Money is the only serious limitation. I would need to put together a lot of cash. As some sort of guide, the 2007 trip cost the two of us about £10,000 all in. But we found out that we need not have spent so much; and next time only certain favourite places need be visited. So it's a project that is difficult and long-term, but not impossible.

However, I would never again want to use a campervan as a way of getting around, for several good reasons: it wouldn't go everywhere, it was a big awkward beast to drive, and it was a horrible liability in towns. It was, besides, comfortless and worryingly insecure. Next time I'd want to hire a car, preferably a 4x4, and use cabins and the occasional hotel or motel.

I'd like to share some of that trip in 2007 on the blog. Just the bits that meant a lot to me, that made an impression. So during the months ahead I'll write some posts on the places I liked, or things that struck me.

This, by the way, was the rather spartan campervan we hired from Maui, CYF 556. Here it is in the sun at Wellington:


And next in other places: approaching Mount Cook/Aoraki (South Island); and at Mahia, and near Cape Reinga (North Island both):


It did get us to some very scenic spots. But inside all was not good. The cabin was fine, apart from the manual gearchange that I never quite got the hang of:


But it was less agreeable aft. Behind the drivers seat, and opposite the sliding door at the side, was a cramped and uninviting toilet that never smelled fresh:


Further back was a narrow gangway between a sink and a gas cooking hob:


Lots of sharp edges at floor level, and access to the cupboards was terrible:


Beyond this was the 'lounge'. We made up one big bed:


It doesn't look very comfortable, does it? At bedtime, it wasn't so bad, but the awkward washing arrangements and poor toilet made getting ready for bed (or getting up next day) a bit of a mission. Once under the quilt (on loan from my step-daughter A---) it wasn't so bad, and we usually slept well enough. This early-morning shot will give an idea what it was like:


But in mountain areas the chill of the approaching New Zealand autumn might get a bit too much. We sometimes had to sleep in our clothes to keep warm. The campervan had no insulation, and the dark blue curtains struck a cold note that the poor lighting couldn't offset. We did not come to love CYF 556, and we were glad to hand the campervan back at Maui HQ in Auckland. This was our last sight of it, just before A--- picked us up in her car and carried us back to civilisation:


Never again. A pity that the cost of getting Fiona to New Zealand would be so prohibitive...

Monday, 27 January 2014

Ryvita - it's changed, and become naughty

Think of Ryvita - either the original plain rye crispbread, or its more recent variations - and you think automatically of dieting and sustainable weight loss. It's absolutely the thing to eat if you want a nibble. One 'slice' with something on it will do for breakfast; and perhaps one of the reasons I lose weight when caravanning is that grilling toast using my gas grill is a faff, so I make do with Ryvita.

But lately it's been repackaged, and the product inside is now slightly changed.

First, the packaging. There was nothing much wrong with the old 'waxed paper' wrapping. But now they've substituted a kind of plastic foil, which may keep the product fresher till opened, but I'm thinking has no extra effect thereafter. And it tears easily. Let's see some photos. I like the Sesame variety, by the way, which suits my tastebuds.


It resembles the old pack quite strongly, and the 'per slice' fat and calorie figures are still the same, still reassuring: 0.7g of fat, and 37 kcal. That's with nothing else loaded on top, of course! In one corner, attention is drawn to the 'new feature', the 'foil wrapped freshness'.


Ah, you've spotted that I close up the wrapping with a washing line peg. Not my own original idea, but it works for all kinds of things. Mind you, for the best style it must be the proper old-fashioned wooden pegs: Morrisons sell them. Now for the product itself.


It's the same length and width as the old Ryvita, with sesame seeds stuck on just as before. But whereas the old Ryvita was gently dimpled on its top side, this new version has yawning pits big enough to trap a lion. Imagine what will now happen when you spread on anything. It will mostly disappear into all those pits. And you will probably consume a lot more of whatever is spread, sabotaging your weight loss regime. I'm sure the Ryvita people did not intend to undermine their product's reputation for being the Dieter's Friend, but this will do it. The only workarounds are (a) consume the Ryvita slice unadorned, which isn't terribly palatable; or (b) spread your favourite goo on the underside, like I did:


This avoided using up half a tub of Lurpak in filling all those pits, but it felt exactly like eating something upside-down, and therefore rather silly and odd.

There's another thing. The new Ryvita slice has the same amount of fat and calories as the old, implying that exactly the same amount of raw foodstuff has been used in manufacture. And the new foil pack that contains the slices is the same size as the old pack, so far as I can judge. But turning those old shallow dimples into deep pits has made each new slice thicker. I'll grant that this improves structural strength. Ryvita is brittle, and it's now less likely to crack in two without warning, smearing marmalade and butter (or cottage cheese and tomato) onto your bosom. But if each slice is thicker, and the pack is overall still the same size, doesn't this mean that you get fewer slices in each pack?

That's naughty.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

House and garden

There, it's done. Five nights at the Caravan Club site at Cheddar for £61. Booked online. The first leg of my West Country holiday this spring. North Devon and West Dorset still have to be added. I'm planning seventeen nights away at an overall site cost of around £200. Plus £150 more for fuel and meals out, making £350 altogether. I'm satisfied that this is affordable, but who knows whether a domestic disaster of one sort or another might occur between now and late March. Last year the unexpected expense of a new cooker made a big hole in my 2013 spending, and holidays had to be cut back.

With all advance bookings you make a leap of faith about your ability to get away. A glitch in your funds, or your personal health, can spoil the carefully-arranged plan. But if you don't take the plunge, you go nowhere. And holidays undeniably do you good. I'm always more active on holiday than when at home. I get around, I walk about, I trek around towns, I explore country houses, I wander on beaches, I climb hills for a view. And the various caravanning chores play their part too. So I believe that any holiday, even a very wet one, will be better for me than just sitting around at home. I invariably lose a bit of weight while on holiday: it's the extra exercise.

But then, I could get extra exercise making my house and garden look beautiful.

I give holidays a very high priority. But I often feel a bit guilty about the state of my house and garden. Money needs to be be spent there as well.

It's not actually that bad. The house is structurally sound, and very clean and tidy. But the decor is a bit tired, and really the whole place needs a makeover to make it look modern and stylish. Essentially it looks much the same as when inherited from Mum and Dad in 2009.

My parents' tastes never advanced further than the 1980s, so my house has a faintly old-fashioned feel, despite the pictures and other little odds and ends I've put into it. For a long while I felt very reluctant to do more. I positively did not want to sweep away my parents' taste in wallpaper, carpets and furniture. It would have felt like a desecration. Their things were the last tangible connection between myself and them. The comfortable and well-equipped home they created, and left to me, was actually (in a very real sense) a life-support capsule in which Lucy Melford, roughly expelled from the Old World, could find peace, safety and security. I have always valued it immeasurably as my exclusive retreat and sanctuary. I don't think it's fanciful to say that their house has sustained me, seen me through a crisis period of my life, and now I want to do my best for it. That doesn't mean preserving it as a shrine, unchanged. It means putting an end to the slow fading of its former days, and giving it a modern look more suited to my own tastes.

The newest part, the conservatory built in 2006, definitely needs work. The floor tiles are coming unstuck. And in very wet weather, a little water drips down from two corner spots in the roof - something to do with overflowing gutters, I think.

As for the rear garden, my parents would be very unhappy to see it. I've kept the lawn immaculately mown, and the tall hedge trimmed. But the flowers and shrubs and other plants need far more attention than I've been giving them, and most of the colourful glories of 2009 have now vanished. The garden borders look untidy and neglected. That definitely must change. There are plenty of good plants still there, that need only reviving. Mum and Dad were fans of dense planting and I think, now that everything has grown larger, that a bit of simplification would help. In fact I intend to make a plan, and here and there remodel the garden. The patio and pathways need proper cleaning too. I would like to have it in a decent state by the autumn, just in case I have to be a Come Dine With Me hostess. At the moment I'd be rather apologetic.  

I want to make a start - but where is the money? Going on holidays! Given my present circumstances, it's a stark choice between home and holidays - and the delights of caravanning are winning. Roll on the State Pension. The first credit to by bank account (on 5 December 2014) is only 313 days away. I reckon I'll get (after tax) another £372 each month - that'll buy a few pots of paint!

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Waterloo, Iowa; the five Sullivan Brothers; and Private Ryan

I do like armchair travel. It's so easy nowadays, when Google Earth and Google Maps (with Street View) can take you almost anywhere you might feasibly want to go. For some strange reason - because I don't really like flat or featureless farmland - I have repeatedly been 'visiting' the American Mid-West.

The small towns there have a certain fascination. They all seem the same: rather stark, utilitarian places with a very wide and straight Main Street; acres of tarmac for parking in front of widely-spaced agricultural stores or public buildings; each house in its own vast plot of land; not much traffic; and very few people to be seen.

Nothing at all like the average small town in the UK. It's so alien to someone used to living on a crowded island with little houses densely packed in on top of each other, and buses and trains and cars, and lots of people walking around everywhere. It's hard to imagine these Mid-West towns having any community life as we have it here in the UK.

The nearest I've been in person to something similar must be one or two of the more remote towns in South Island, New Zealand, such as Tuatapere, right down in the far south-west. It had a look that is not so far removed from the average Mid-West town, strung out on some state highway:


Of course there are two obvious differences: New Zealand is greener, and the tractors there are as small as you'd get in the UK. But otherwise the same long straight roads, and the same low building density.

After I 'visited' Money, Mississippi in connection with the last post, I went north to Iowa and decided to look at a bigger place, a proper city called Waterloo. I suppose its name must have seemed marginally more intriguing than Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, or Davenport. Otherwise I knew nothing about it. But then I like to dip into places I know nothing about, and be surprised.

The main facts about Waterloo are at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waterloo,_Iowa. It looked much as I expected it would be in Street View, until I reached a large building that had big letters on the side that said: 5 SULLIVAN BROTHERS CONVENTION CENTER. Now that was unusual. Public buildings in America generally seem to be named after individuals - not five brothers. What was that all about? I invite you to read this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sullivan_Brothers. In brief, the five Sullivan brothers, all of them natives of Waterloo, died together in World War II when their ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. Their death was one of the particular tragedies that spurred the US War Department to make formal its Sole Survivor Policy (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sole_Survivor_Policy), which requires that if a family's sons or daughters are all on active service and might be killed, then they should be separated to avoid the risk of dying together, and the last survivor will be ordered home and kept away from combat, so that the parents will be spared the loss of all their children.

Which is of course a most humane attitude. I'd vaguely heard something about it; but fancy stumbling on the full story, chapter and verse, by idly 'travelling around' with Google Maps!

The heavyweight 1998 Steven Spielberg film Saving Private Ryan, which is thought to nod at the Sullivan brothers story, was on TV within the last couple of weeks. What a coincidence. I didn't see it: that kind of war film is not my cup of tea.

And just to show that I do know about these things - innocent and pure though I am reckoned to be - let me lift the sombre mood into frivolous crassness by mentioning Saving Ryan's Privates, a short film also from 1998, whose plot is described here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0221532/. I haven't looked at it. I have no intention of looking at it. But if, dear reader, you are male and like this sort of thing, then do have an adolescent giggle by all means.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Bobbie Gentry, what you get when you fall in love, and the Tallahatchie Bridge

Bobbie Gentry is an American singer/songwriter, who achieved chart success in the late 1960s. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bobbie_Gentry.

For a while she seemed to wear nothing but trouser suits, and indeed some may recall the zany Kenny Everett referring to her as 'Old Trouser Suits' on his BBC Radio 1 show at the time, although secretly I think he rather liked her style. Kenny who? Tut. Read about him here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenny_Everett.

Back to Bobbie Gentry. She is known now, if known at all, for two songs. One is from 1969, called I'll Never Fall In Love Again, which is all about the less romantic things that happen when you fall in love, a long list of pretty good reasons (sung to a catchy tune) why it just isn't worth it. And yet somehow you feel that she doesn't really mean it, and will fall desperately in love again in a single heartbeat. That said, I would say it's useful cautionary listening for a girl who will get a hopeless crush on a guy at the drop of a hat.

I have seen what victims of hopeless crushes look like. I well remember a scene at Newquay in Cornwall, at Fistral Beach. I was sitting with M--- in my parked car in May 2008 (the car was not Fiona: it would have been the Honda CR-V that came before) having a cup of tea from a flask, and something to nibble. Up from the sand came two figures in wet suits, quite close to us. One was a tall, muscular young man in his late twenties, every inch the Surfing Instructor. He wasn't swaggering. He was just a very fit and very handsome person. But he also knew that he was highly attractive to the girls. The other was a young lady who was also attractive in her way, but unfortunately for her, she was fat, and the very tight wet suit did not do her any favours. And yet the way she looked at the Instructor made it abundantly clear that she fancied him to bits, did not want the lesson to end, and desperately wanted him to ask her what she might be doing that evening.

M--- and I watched fascinated. You perfectly appreciated the body language. She was finding him totally irresistible, and could hardly hold back from flinging herself at him. Her face wore a yearning look. He, on the other hand, was the model of professional indifference. He must have been fully aware that this girl was besotted, and his for the asking; but he didn't want her, and wasn't going to compromise himself in any way.

As they parted, she was the very image of deflated dejection. There had been no physical contact, not even a handshake. He'd been careful to keep her strictly at arm's length. Her signals ignored and rebuffed, and no doubt feeling flabby and unattractive, she walked heartbroken to her car, still dripping seawater. Our hearts bled for her.

But better that, perhaps, than being cruelly taken advantage of, and then discarded. Pride matters.

The other song that Bobbie Gentry penned and sung was the earlier Ode To Billie Joe of 1967. I personally rate this as one of the best songs of all time. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ode_to_Billie_Joe. Here are the lyrics:

It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day
I was out choppin' cotton and my brother was balin' hay
And at dinner time we stopped and walked back to the house to eat
And Mama hollered out the back door "y'all remember to wipe your feet"
And then she said "I got some news this mornin' from Choctaw Ridge"
"Today Billie Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge"

And Papa said to Mama as he passed around the blackeyed peas
"Well, Billie Joe never had a lick of sense, pass the biscuits, please"
"There's five more acres in the lower forty I've got to plow"
And Mama said it was shame about Billie Joe, anyhow
Seems like nothin' ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge
And now Billie Joe MacAllister's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge

And Brother said he recollected when he and Tom and Billie Joe
Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show
And wasn't I talkin' to him after church last Sunday night?
"I'll have another piece of apple pie, you know it don't seem right"
"I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge"
"And now you tell me Billie Joe's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge"

And Mama said to me "Child, what's happened to your appetite?"
"I've been cookin' all morning and you haven't touched a single bite"
"That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today"
"Said he'd be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, oh, by the way"
"He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge"
"And she and Billie Joe was throwing somethin' off the Tallahatchie Bridge"

A year has come 'n' gone since we heard the news 'bout Billie Joe
And Brother married Becky Thompson, they bought a store in Tupelo
There was a virus going 'round, Papa caught it and he died last Spring
And now Mama doesn't seem to wanna do much of anything
And me, I spend a lot of time pickin' flowers up on Choctaw Ridge

And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

It paints a fascinating picture of a local suicide being casually discussed over the lunchtime meal, but without special concern, and seems to say much about attitudes in rural communities, where everybody knows each other, but that doesn't mean they care. It seems that nobody round the table has guessed that their daughter and Billie Joe have been romantically associated. I've always taken the fairly obvious (but not necessarily correct) view that in a moment of passion Billie Joe got her pregnant, and after a secret abortion they tenderly threw the little corpse off the bridge and into the muddy water of the river. But then Billie Joe couldn't stand the strain of keeping such a thing secret forever, or had already been found out, and so took his life. It looks thankfully as if the nice young preacher with very sharp eyes made no headway with the daughter: ironically, it must have been the death of her father, and her mother's loss of interest in life, that let her avoid being married off to the preacher. I wonder who was now doing the heavy farm work?

There really is a Tallahatchie Bridge. More than one, of course, but the particular river crossing associated with the song is at Money, Mississippi: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tallahatchie_River. It burned down in 1972, and was replaced. Personally, I don't think that it's really the right bridge, because it's set in flat countryside, and well away from any Choctaw Ridge. However, it was the scene in 1955 of a real-life dead body being cast into the waters. I'm thinking that maybe there was a veiled allusion in the song to that incident, bearing in mind that when the song came out in 1967 the famous black rights leader Martin Luther King was still alive, and the question of freedoms and life chances for black people was very much in contention. The body thrown from the bridge in 1955 was that of a fourteen year old boy who did something very ordinary but was savagely killed for it. If you have the stomach, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emmett_Till for the story.

It isn't ghoulish to view Money on Google Earth, nor to inspect the place in Street View on Google Maps. It will strike you as very rural indeed, very workaday, very dusty, very far removed from a bright and busy city street.

In such places small events loom large, and misbehaviours can be chewed over till they seem like enormous crimes. The characters and events in Ode to Billy Joe are fictional, but one can imagine the consequences of stepping even slightly out of line in the real-life setting. The need to keep voices low; the need to do all things with circumspection; and the walls that must develop between people in on the secret and those not.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Paulina

On the way to my session with Christella Antoni the other day, I passed a restaurant I used to go to with my Guernsey friend R---, and some others. That was in 2009, 2010 and 2011 - so it had been over two years since my last visit. More cash-strapped times had come; and if R--- and I now decided to eat out, we tended to choose somewhere in the countryside, or in Lewes or Haywards Heath perhaps, and not in Brighton. But it had more than once occurred to me that, given a reason to celebrate something, it might be nice to patronise D'Arcy's Restaurant again, and say hello to Paulina. Here she is, in a shot I took of her in January 2010:


She was chatty and very pleasant, looked after us, and we always had a nice time. I liked her. I took a visiting friend to the restaurant late in 2011, and we both had another good meal. Possibly to my friend's great astonishment, Paulina and I held an animated catch-up conversation. But that was the last time I saw her.

Until last Sunday, a bit before six o'clock. As I walked by, I glanced into the restaurant (as I do every time I pass that way), but as before I couldn't see her. There was however a blonde girl adjusting the seating outside. Oh, somebody new, I thought. She happened to turn, saw me, and then greeted me with a big smile. 'Hello! How are you?' I immediately realised who it was. But she had changed! Her hair was different - worn long, down to her shoulders, with a fringe. And she was clearly very pregnant. She asked me to come inside and speak. We did for a couple of minutes, but then I explained that I had an appointment just a few minutes ahead, and couldn't linger. Come here afterwards, she said. I promised to. And I did. And, over a free coffee, we swapped news for nearly an hour.

Obviously I can't mention anything here about her personal or business life, except to say that she was by now five months into her pregnancy, and that we were able to discuss the progress of it, and the scans, just like any two friends might. She brought me up to date on her private life, and I did the same. I showed her the best shot of myself holding Matilda. She asked after R---, and I said she was well, and promised to mention Pauline to her when we were next in touch.

It was a warm and close experience, and I was reluctant to depart. I considered staying for a meal, but I couldn't afford a Dover sole that evening.

I said I would pop in next month, to find out how she was getting on. The baby is due around the end of May, and she wants a water birth at Brighton Hospital. If I am not already away on my Welsh Tour, I could go and visit her, and see the new baby - I'm a dab hand at visiting people in hospitals now, after all. Meanwhile, I told her that she looked wonderfully young and healthy. We implored each other to take care.

Take care. Yes, it was not an empty caution. She was a mother-to-be, a fundamentally important person. She must certainly take care. I had nothing to compare with that role, no obvious responsibilities of any kind. Still, my much smaller life might mean something to others. It was worth care and attention too.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Christella

Yesterday afternoon I had another voice session with the London voice therapist Christella Antoni, who had booked a room at the Thistle Hotel in Brighton.

For me, it was an annual checkup. Well, roughly annual! The last session (again in Brighton) was actually on 30 November 2012. I'd done well then, achieving a mean pitch of 193Hz, with a range of 134 to 243Hz. Christella had said that my speaking voice was warm and nicely nuanced, and she'd noticed that I had a natural high-pitched laugh. My voice hadn't been faultless: I needed to control some breathiness, as if I was doing a Marilyn Monroe, and I needed to put more power in my delivery - that is, give my voice more strength - to improve its depth and richness.

So, since November 2012, I had been working on those things, and this time they were no longer a problem.

In fact there was very little for her to criticise. Nothing came up in general conversation, nor in any of the exercises she set me. I stumbled only with the rather difficult reading passage, which was awkwardly punctuated and had some unfamiliar foreign placenames in it. It needed fiendish concentration. I let my voice drop too much at the end of sentences, probably because I was trying so hard to understand the sense of what I was reading.

It was about an athlete who had heard of the death of his sister just before an important race. Feeling devastated, he could not bear the prospect of winning, and so he had thrown the race. But now he was back, the mental block overcome, and he was doing his utmost for his lovely baby daughter (who bore his dead sister's name). He triumphed. But, concentrating on the difficulties of the passage, I'd not put in the emotion that it deserved. I needed to pay attention to that.

Indeed I did: with the prospect of more babies and young children coming into my life during the years ahead, the ability to read in a thrilling way to a child was rather important!

On the whole, though, I'd 'passed my MOT' and should be pleased.

But I knew that retaining a high-level female voice took unremitting work. It was so easy to get to a comfortable level, where the voice was good for every normal purpose, including phone calls, and stop there. Or never even get that far, being lazily content with a voice that simply wasn't right, just so long as most of the time it was 'good enough'. It was dangerous if one's social life was centred around people who were very tolerant of imperfections, such as trans women. I assured Christella that when socialising with a group of trans women in (say) a Brighton pub, I always spoke exactly as I would to any natal woman. Even if I seemed to be the only one using a high-pitched and nuanced voice on the table.

At least I hoped that was true. How you speak does tend to depend on who you are with. And I really don't think my voice sounds perfect, whatever its pitch. But then what does it really sound like? It must resonate in my skull as I speak in such a way that I can never hear it as someone else does! And all recordings sound strange, not as I hear myself at all, which may be down to defective hearing.

The best evidence must be natal women's reactions. The most I've ever heard said by other natal women about my voice is that I have a strange accent that they can't place. An accent? That's not the same thing as too thin a voice, or too low a voice, or a monotonous male delivery. When I explain they are probably detecting a residual Welshness, overlaid by tones and rhythms picked up in Hampshire, London and Sussex, the subject is always dropped, and we move on to much more interesting things. And I never get 'sirred' over the phone.

That then is my chief evidence that all is well. But I continue to strive for something better still. The practicing never stops.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Trojan horses: the latest BT Infinity offer

Sigh. Two days ago yet another missive came from BT, drawing attention to their fibre optic broadband, marketed as BT Infinity.

I already have 'ordinary' broadband. I switched to BT from Talk Talk in April 2012. The BT deal gave me (for the first time) wireless technology at home via a BT Home Hub router; and the package also included free weekend and evening landline phone calls (a redundant benefit now, because I've disconnected the handset to avoid those annoying sales calls, and rely instead on my mobile phone).

In June 2012, BT carried out some local infrastructure work that dramatically improved their broadband and phone call service in the village, and ever since then there has been nothing to complain about. I do perfectly see that things could be better still with BT Infinity, but I'm not prepared to pay for it. I don't download films, or stream sport, or otherwise make heavy use of the Internet. I haven't got a family with multifarious needs. I really can put up with the BBC iPlayer having to catch its breath every now and then, just as I put up with it when caravanning. Honestly, it's not a problem.

But BT keep sending letters that extol the benefits of BT Infinity to me. Go away!

I had three such letters in 2013. The first (in May) was a low-key announcement that fibre optic broadband was now available in my area. I think I checked and found that, actually, it wasn't. Not yet. The second (in September) was more pushy. It said in big letters Upgrade to faster, more reliable fibre optic broadband for free, and explained briefly what I could do with such bandwidth. I was unmoved. The third (in December) said Enjoy superfast broadband speeds - and great sport for free. Consumer programmes such as You and yours on BBC Radio 4 suggested that 'superfast' meant only 'rather faster'. And the mention of 'great sport' made me yawn.

And now their latest letter: You've been chosen for a free upgrade to fibre optic broadband. Chosen? That's an odd word to use. Surely they mean 'targeted for an offer, because your minimum contract term will run out soon, and we want to keep you as a paying customer, and if possible get more money out of you'. I suppose they wouldn't want to put it quite that way.

It's not really a 'free upgrade'. Even though they say this:

The upgrade is really free. We'll upgrade you to BT Infinity for no extra monthly charge. There won't be any installation costs and the terms of your existing contract won't change. If your contract is coming to an end, please ask about future pricing options.

Aha! Those future pricing options... An 'upgrade' will mean a fresh contract, with the clock reset and services rejigged and repriced. That will mean for instance paying my annual landline rental three months early, if I upgrade at once. That would be most inconvenient. And although I rarely now connect the handset to make a free weekday call, I see that after 'upgrading' I would face an unwelcome call charge if I did so. There are sweeteners such as half-price monthly payments for the first few months, but that honeymoon period soon passes, and then I would have to submit to an ongoing pricing regime that would prove costlier than now. After all, I'd have been given a greatly improved service: of course it will cost more in the longer term. Until it becomes old hat, and therefore cheap as chips - just as 'ordinary' broadband has.

I feel I should actually hang on, and see what happens to the pricing of 'ordinary' broadband. It ought to fall, so that BT Infinity can be mass-marketed as a premium service. And not just to the Chosen Ones.

I don't like BT's approach. I used them for broadband and calls some years back, and became very dissatisfied. The usual thing. An initial tempting offer, then left in the lurch when the service deteriorated, with an abysmal helpdesk; and obstructive behaviour when I attempted to leave them. In turn I became unhappy with Talk Talk, for similar reasons. I went back to BT to get wi-fi in my home, but that does not mean that I love them, or consider them reformed. I remain deeply suspicious of their attitude and their ethics.

It's much the same with all commercial companies. Behind every deal there will be a snare. Deals are devised simply to hook customers in, and make money out of them. Sometimes the deal will work out well. You get the desired new toy, and are very happy for a while. But in the long run it will inevitably become humdrum and not special any more. And the contract may turn sour.

I am sure that - for me - 'high-speed broadband' can deliver nothing that will significantly add to the joy of living. So no thanks. Or at least not until I have a clear personal reason for having it.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Blogging mistakes, part 3: Needless self-exposure

I made my mind up when the blog began in February 2009 that being 'out' on the Internet would not matter.

There were no workplace issues - I was already retired. And no relationship would be put at risk - those who wanted to abandon me were gone, or going; and I felt too old and emotionally battered to care whether I found anyone new to share my remaining life with.

In fact I soon decided, as a matter of public policy, that I was going to remain fiercely independent and unattached. If that sounds self-defensive, bear in mind that the mass-departure of people from my life in late 2008 and early 2009 was like a searing wind from icy wastes. I felt hated, an outcast, a criminal, condemned to the gulag. Coming in from the Siberian Cold has been a slow and difficult process, and I am still completely unable to contemplate anything resembling intimacy. Sharing a home would be out of the question. It's often remarked on, that if away from home I won't accept a bed for the night. I need my own space, and I fly back to it at the end of the day. It's still a necessary sanctuary, a citadel.

It struck me that if I avoided stealth, and instead made a point of mentioning my trans origins, I would have a means of nipping unwanted attention in the bud. Attention from certain non-trans men, for instance. I'd simply go into full-disclosure mode straight away. Or tell them that I had a blog, and suggest that they looked at it. That would quickly stop 'em in their tracks! Or at least the kind of prejudiced person that I wouldn't want near me.

Keeping people out of my home was not the only possible motive for being up front with my past. There were other considerations.

I was not ashamed of my past life - not at all - so why should it be hidden? And if I presented it with complete transparency, wouldn't that bolster my credibility? I did not want to invent a sanitised past that was a big fat lie, with big fat consequences when the lie was inevitably discovered. It surely would be. If I was 'out' in a public blog, it was surely a safeguard against accusations of dishonesty and duplicity, and indeed such openness would spoil the game for media reporters looking for a story.

There was more. Discussing my past, sharing it, might lead to insights. Let there be a forensic exercise in self-discovery. I wanted to delve into my personal history as one delves into an archive, searching for evidence, examining it, looking for answers. I could not see how it was possible to move forward without acknowledging the past and coming to terms with it. It couldn't be ignored, nor could I pretend that some of the past had never been.

The only other aspect to be considered, and one that I took very seriously, was the impact personal frankness and honesty could have on those close to me. I didn't want anyone embarrassed or dragged down by association. So the names of friends and family had to be disguised, or not mentioned (and this still applies unless they themselves have 'gone public'). But as for myself, I grew bolder, to the extent of writing posts that included a series of photos of myself over the years.

Once you feel secure enough to do it, it is quite exhilarating to show a series of pictures that reveal definite progress in the desired direction. I suppose the prime motivation is the likely responses: You've changed out of all recognition! You've become so pretty! You've blossomed so much! and so on. From that point of view, it's all highly validating, a psychological boost.

It's also very risky, and I'm not doing any more of it.

Why? Well, after publishing a post titled Six years of physical change - the gallery on 2 January 2013, a radfem commentator seized on a shot of me taken in 2007, the year before I started my transition. I won't reproduce it here, but it showed myself in a church crypt café, with short hair and wearing a man's leather jacket, smiling into the camera. I went on to show five more photos, the earliest not so smiling, that revealed a gradual physical change. The piece was meant to be encouraging in tone, and in its small way inspirational to anyone who might be slightly down-hearted about their hormone treatment not having an instant effect. But I should have realised that not everybody was going to see the thing in the same spirit.

Some of the responses were nice. I rather liked this one:

I must say, the gentleman in that first photo was rather good-looking! It's kind of a pity that he is no longer around, but I totally understand why he isn't. One thing I have noticed each time I have seen a photo series like this is that as transition progresses, the person smiles more and more... and you do look quite happy in your latest photo. That is what really matters.

But meanwhile GenderTrender had spotted my New Year's Eve post on drinking. The only photos in that were of Babycham bambis, glasses of beer and wine, and a cup of black coffee. But a radfem commentator had seen my gallery post too, and promptly told everyone else, reproducing the 2007 'happy man' picture in giant size. More than forty sharp comments tore into me. Ouch. Never again!

It was, fortunately, the only occasion that GenderTrender have had me in their sights. I mean to keep it that way. So there will be no more 'then and now' galleries!

Lesson? A face shot from way back can be lifted from your blog and recaptioned to depict a misguided saddo, or worse. Don't risk anyone having access to it, even though you no longer look like that.

In fairness to the radfem woman who reproduced my pre-transition photo on GenderTrender, she did say this:

Lucy, dear, you make a very handsome man. And you’re flirty in dresses. Please do not condemn yourself: your nose is not too big for your face, your eyes are very fine, and you are'nt jowly at all. Please stop hating your body. 

The post that you put on your blog about drinking was all in good fun, but I hope that you can understand that it is sexist to portray one style of drinking to women (dainty, stem-holding, sipping) and another to men (hearty, planted, draughty gulps). It’s very damaging to point to one set of actions and proclaim that they are female and another set that are male. It enforces stereotypes that are keeping women in chains around the world. 

I don’t believe in gender. I’m not a very gendered person, actually, but I’m happy in my place in the world. I wish that you find that place for yourself. 

I was 12 years old when schools in the USA started letting girls wear pants. We were only allowed to wear them from Thanksgiving (last week in November) to Easter. And they had to be corduroys or slacks. No jeans allowed. I remember the uproar in our church that the girls and women were going to be usurping men’s place. That we’d want to tell them what to do. 

There might have been some truth to that.  

It was the beginning of breaking the idea that women were inferior. No one blinks an eye when a woman wears pants now. But we have such a long way to go. These gendered stereotypes are not helping that path. And the transgender community celebrates them and enforces them on us. They’re a particularly joyless angry lot that want to eradicate gay men in drag or anyone else who doesn’t want to transition to womenhood wearing a dress. And they keep wishing that all of us radfem women would die in a fire. It’s really apparent when you read some of the transgender support forums. 

You know what happens when you are hated? You begin seeing the hater in a lens of that reflected hate. And positions harden. And no dialogue can happen. RadFem 2012 in England. Dyke March with …no real dykes. Butch Voices without any born women whatsoever. (oh wait, one workshop for crones. Because they want us to die soon.) Michfest with deranged boys in dresses carrying spears outside the gates. Really, it sounds like a bad conspiracy novel. But these people are vicious. 

I’ve heard transgender men say that wearing women’s clothes helps them relax. Personally, I don’t see how anyone can relax in pantyhose. They’re quite binding, don’t seem to want to straighten out to fit your bends, and always seem to end up with holes somewhere no matter how careful I am. I think they were originally designed by a guard in a mental ward looking for a new straightjacket to keep the patients from running. It’s obviously not my cup of tea, but you are quite welcome to whatever you need to make yourself happy. (To a point.) 

I will admit to inner conflict on deciding whether someone gets a female pronoun or not. I don’t think transgender MtF are women –they’re simply men with a lot of cosmetic surgery and a need for clothing that brands them as women to the world. If I tattooed my face brown, I would not be black. Neither can men really be women. Though I’m not as strict about using only male pronouns to refer to transgender MtF because….well, I’m not really sure. I guess I feel like it harms no one to use a state of address that the other party likes. But do I feel you are female? Not really. I think of you as yourself. Which is a better frame of reference. If I feel that actions have threatened women, I refer to that trans as male. 

I have two bright lines that I will fight and die for: 1) No opposite sex genitalia in nudity areas and 2) No drugs or surgery for children. Women should have the right to be comfortable in women’s spaces without feeling the pressure of a penis. Men shouldn’t have to be confronted with a vagina. And children should be free to grow up supported and loved for who they are. 

I’ve talked too much here, but honestly, I can’t condemn you. You’re actually one of the few MtF transgenders that doesn’t seem to howl for blood in a fire. Or sound utterly bonkers. That second picture in your transition series really tears at my heart. You look so sad. And I see sadness in many of those photos. I wish you happy, Lucy. I hope that you see the person in those photos and not just the clothes or flaws.

... It’s not your appearance. Your appearance is fine. I really can’t help feeling sympathetic to your dilemma because I spend my life trying to heal internal pain. But I can’t support it. It isn’t real, and it damages everything I try to promote for my own daughter.

There is much in there that could have formed the basis for a meeting of minds. How I wish she had been the only radfem commentator.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Blogging mistakes, part 2: Challenging the invisible bandits

This continues my examination of nine posts published in December 2012 and January 2013 that I took down on 6 January 2013, because they had been unwisely written. I am drawing lessons from them.

On 17 December 2012 I published a post titled The rules of the game. It was about comments made on one's posts - often uncomplimentary, perversely argumentative, or malicious - by people who were anonymous. This is what I said:

Recently I've noticed some comments, on this blog and others, from persons called 'Anonymous'. One anonymous comment actually came from a friend who didn't blog - that was perfectly all right. But who are the rest? I have no idea whether it's one person commenting, or a dozen persons working in a team. How can you tell? They don't say who they are. Even when you ask. It wouldn't matter, except that often these comments from 'Anonymous' have an edge to them, and may be downright provocative - making you wonder why they have been made.  

It's never explained how they are qualified to express an opinion that you should take seriously. I'd be quite happy to engage with someone who identified themselves and said, 'I'm Dr So-and-so, with eighteen years experience working with trans people who have made failed suicide attempts, and my own case notes, research and experience suggest that...' because that's a real person who has evidence. I can look at his evidence, especially if he has published it for me to read in full, and tells me how to access it. I don't promise to agree with his conclusions, because I might interpret the evidence differently. But I won't dismiss him as an uninformed, troublemaking idiot either.

Is 'idiot' the right word to use? Well, if you do take these unnamed people at face value, and answer their points intelligently, they seem to ignore what you said. They just come back to you, spouting another set of standard comments, as if working from a script. I conclude that two-way communication is not the name of the game here. They are not going to accept a word I say, and in fact it wouldn't matter what I said.

I must be dealing with a troll.

It's so easy to be a troll. Here are the rules I think they play by, when the target is the trans community:

1. Find any trans blog, and make a comment that will upset the author and most of the other commentators. You want to stir them up and watch the fun. Any comment will do, so long as it will needle and irritate. 

2. If possible, pretend to be sincere. Then they may try to reason with you. And that gives you plenty of ways to prolong the game.

3. There are lots of ready-made clichés to hand that will push a tranny into an anguished response. Hackneyed phrases like 'men in dresses', for instance. Pronoun misuse will always inflame the trannies. Keep the pot boiling by constantly using these trigger phrases and trigger words.

4. Play hard and long. See how wound-up they get. If they lose interest, reignite the argument.

5. You win when someone loses their cool bigtime.

6. Keep a score on a spreadsheet - how many comments it took till a tranny started to cry. Share it with friends. Copy and save their distressed and angry comments, to laugh at later.   

7. Remember: they're not proper human beings, just deluded saddos, so it doesn't matter one little bit who gets upset or why.

8. The Big Rule: never, never, never say who you really are. They can't get at you then.

So, in future, I want no more 'anonymous' comments, please. I simply can't tell who is genuine and who is a troll. Genuine people can email me, and enjoy free speech that way. Trolls will be deleted. That's my rules.

Well, that was throwing down the gauntlet, and no mistake! I still think I sussed out the trans blog troll adequately. But the post was a mistake. I was bound to get some hard-to-handle comeback. And I did. Eventually I stopped allowing comments from anyone but registered users of a blogging platform, a restriction announced in a post titled Death to the nameless ones! on 31 December 2012. Here is an extract:

With some reluctance, because I don't like putting up barriers, I've decided to stop anonymous comments completely...So it's goodbye to everyone who has been commenting as 'Anonymous' since 2009, unless you expose yourself to comeback by becoming a 'Registered User'.

In my experience very few anonymous commentators are friends who wish you well. So just as I wouldn't want to listen to a tirade from some aggressive person in the street, I don't want the same tiresome thing on my blog. The right to free speech ends when the words are designed not to seek understanding, but to wound and do harm.

And then, having committed another kind of blogging mistake (to be discussed tomorrow) I became a victim of the dreaded GenderTrender. They pounced on a New Years Eve post of mine, and I felt pushed into responding with a defiant (and unwisely flippant) post titled GenderTrender gives me some attention! Cult status beckons! on 3 January 2013. It makes me cringe now:

Well! I'm amazed. The GenderTrender blog has featured my recent post on drinking in its own New Year's Eve post titled In case you will be drinking tonight (the blog is at http://gendertrender.wordpress.com/). Do have a look at it, and the kind of posts they publish, and indeed click on some and study the kind of comments made in support of these posts. It's another point of view, after all. I was inspired to add a comment of my own, thus:

Dear ladies and gentlemen,

I'm glad to see that you appreciated my post on drinking! I am a bit puzzled, though, because the post was aimed at trans women who might need a little lighthearted guidance...and I don't think that any of you are trans women. That's so odd.   

Never mind. It's good to be noticed, and in a strange way it's very, very complimentary.  

Anyway, I'm bringing this post and your comments to my readers' attention on my own blog. This will do you a favour, because I think GenderTrender isn't much known about in the UK, and obviously you'd appreciate some publicity. 

Quite possibly a lot of curious new readers will be coming your way - although I can't guarantee that they'll enjoy your sense of humour. Be warned. Regard these readers as 'the judge over your shoulder'.

By the way, the yellow-scarf photo is from 2007 and is one of a series that shows my personal development over the last six years. I'd draw your attention to the one taken two days ago, in which I'm having a great time (did you?) and I recommend that you read the post in full ('Six years of personal development - the gallery', dated 2 January 2013). In fact I hope I can tempt you to delve into my past posts, and find out what I'm really like as a human being. That would be nice, if you're up to it, but if not, then I promise not to worry. 

Remember, each click on my blog increases my pageview total. See if you can raise it beyond 20,000 a month. I want to get it up to 50,000 a month by the end of the year, and you GenderTrenders could all do your bit. 

Happy New Year.

Lucy 

Not only did the post on drinking get examined, one of the lady commentators looked at yesterday's personal development gallery and used it to illustrate a point she wished to make. I'm immensely flattered. As they say (well, someone does) 'there is no such thing as bad publicity'. It's so true. The big thing is to have one's name bandied about, so that you get terribly well known. If you can actually become a cult figure, whatever the reputation, that's even better. So whether it's fame or notoriety, I might as well go for broke! 

Why, there could be a New Year's Honour in it for me, for Services to Internet Blogging. In the 2014 List as Dame Lucy Melford. Aaaaah, yes!

However, at the time of writing this, my GenderTrender comment is 'awaiting moderation'. And, you know, I fear that it will be misinterpreted as scurrulous and irrelevant. That pageview remark at the end does introduce a dirty commercial flavour (some would say 'taint') that GenderTrender may consider inappropriate. Their standards are pretty high! So alas, my comment may not actually get published. Not to worry, you have it above.

Ouch. I so wish I hadn't written that. It was stupidly frivolous. It was also unnecessary and dangerously misjudged. I was quite new to GenderTrender (henceforth 'GT') and really hadn't understood what GallusMag and the other contributors there were about. Nor, really, what the broader radfem movement stood for. I should not have stooped to ridicule - in effect baiting them, and inviting hostility.

I suppose that at the time I could have been forgiven for not knowing what radical feminism was: the ordinary women in my life from whom I took my cues, such as my neighbours, and people I chatted to in local shops, might agree that men still had the best of it, but they never mentioned radical initiatives and radical action. They were not revolutionaries, and did not hold strident views. Nor do they now, in 2014.

I believe I am correct in thinking that at the heart of all feminist movements, radfems included, and even those radfems who adopt the GT point of view, is a high principle: that all human beings should have complete equality, and that nobody should enjoy any privilege. It naturally follows that all girls and women must have the same opportunities and chances of happiness and success and respect as all boys and men. Which (to cover a GT preoccupation) certainly includes feeling untroubled in specifically female public spaces, and not having one's body invaded against one's will by a man.

The sexes are not inevitably at war, even in an imperfect world. Nor is mockery and vilification the best way to control stupid, rednecked men with sex and female subjugation on their minds. They need instead to be irresistibly coerced by a general shift in public opinion, supported by effective legislation.

So I think that the likes of GT are barking up the wrong tree, using the wrong methods. It's no good grumbling away anonymously in the darkness. They need to be out in the open, winning hearts and minds. They should form a political party, jettison the jargon, learn to be appealing to the electorate, and get influence. And do it in every country in the world, not just safe, easy, civilised places like the US. Forget peccadillos in restrooms. Why isn't GT fighting the just cause of womanhood everywhere on the planet, everywhere that girls and women are at knifepoint denied personal control over their own bodies and their own future?

The lessons I learned from these three posts:

1. Don't throw out challenges to people who are hidden, and can hit back from the shadows. They can hurt you, but you can't hurt them. Exclude or delete them with the tools on the blog, and resist responding to provocation. Don't play their game.
2. If a response simply has to be made, then make it in terms that are low-key, utterly reasonable, and do one credit as an adult of some sense and perspective. Then leave it at that.

But it's terribly hard to resist having the last word, or making a point with a stabbing finger, isn't it? Look at that paragraph above, exhorting GT to get out of its comfort zone and start campaigning in places around the world where women have much more to cope with than nervous cross-dressers in dodgy make-up. Ah well...

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Blogging mistakes, part 1: Controversy and misunderstanding

I think I'm qualified by now (after 1,060-odd posts) to take a view on what subjects, or presentations, make for a decent post, and what is best avoided. Believe me, I can recall quite a few posts of mine that were ill-considered!

About a year ago, early in January 2013, I did in fact take down nine posts mostly published During December 2012 that got me into trouble, or could easily have done so. I think it's worth examining them now, to see what lessons can be drawn. In fact, I have recent encouragement to write at least one post about this.

By the way, I don't want to lay down any rules. The whole delight about blogging is its freedom. So if someone deliberately wants to write a post guaranteed to shock or offend or bore every other person on the planet, then, subject to local laws on menacing behaviour and defamation, that is their prerogative. Thus muddle-headed, unrewarding posts written in code on obscure and trivial topics that don't matter two hoots to anyone are perfectly all right: of course they are. Some of mine are like that, after all. Think of those Rupert Bear posts, for instance!

On 13 December 2012 I wrote a post titled Husbands behaving badly: Christine Benvenuto's experience. And at once you can see a risk: a book written in America by the wife of a trans woman whom (as Christine Benvenuto saw it) had decisive cultural support that was denied to her. It was certainly in the trans and radfem news at the time, and apparently a fair-enough subject to tackle. But (a) I was not American, and missed the nuances that hinged on that; (b) I was not a member of the Jewish community and therefore ignorant of what was expected of each partner; and (c) the way I wrote it, it appeared that I was taking sides in favour of Ms Benvenuto, when I should have taken pains to seem impartial. See what you think.

This morning I was asked to comment on a quote from a book which recounted the story of a wife's experiences when her husband aggressively pursued his need to transition. It was Christine Benvenuto's Sex Changes: A Memoir of Marriage, Gender And Moving On, published recently in the US by St Martin's Press (ISBN 978-0-312-64950-0). You can read a longish extract here (http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/nov/02/my-husbands-sex-change), which includes the passage that was brought to my attention. It is the latest of a type of book that reveals the wife's or partner's viewpoint. 

Christine Benvenuto's marriage had lasted for a very long time, over twenty years, then took a mere two years to disintegrate while her husband made more and more space for his feminine life. He stayed at home. He insisted on his rights to do so. He kept most of his feminisation from their young children until it was nearly time for him to leave. But Christine felt that in their private, away-from-the-children moments he was smugly flaunting his new persona at her, and she couldn't ignore the stress and the hurt this kind of assault heaped on her.

She has been criticised for not supporting her husband, for portraying 'him' as an uncaring, calculating and unsmiling deceiver. A good Dr Jekyll who became a heartless Mrs Hyde. I won't know whether such criticism is justified until I get hold of her book.

I've been thinking how I might feel if someone very close to me announced that they must push ahead with a relationship-busting project. And they did it in a way that seemed selfish and insensitive. It's not so hard to imagine, even if the raw pain is missing because it's only a thought experiment. I certainly can see how Christine could arrive at a negative point of view - although my impression is that she does not condemn her former husband simply for being trans, only for the ruthless way he embraced his destiny, how he became hard and angry, pushed her feelings aside, and coldly walked away.

I think that her husband was far from typical. Most trans people I've met are just as definite about their real gender, and feel driven to do something about it, but none of them have proceeded without considering the other people in their lives. And such thinking very easily leads to fear, fear of adverse reactions, and of losing the love of parents and partners. And ongoing guilt for making people cry, and forcing them to change their lives almost as much as one's own. The fear and the guilt are emotions that somehow have to be managed. That can be a full-time job. There is not much left for displays of righteous self-justification.

I am in fact continually struck how gentle most trans people are. How far they will actually go to accommodate family wishes. This can easily become a life of constant appeasement, of getting nowhere. The first six months of my own transition were like that. But I couldn't keep it up, and eventually I pressed on. However, the last thing I ever wanted to do was bully my way to the desired end state. So I think Christine Benvenuto was especially unfortunate. 

This drew fifteen comments, including one from Joy Ladin, the apparently erring transitioner, who had written her own book about the affair. I quickly realised that I had fanned the already-roaring flames of a very hot topic. I should have stayed out of it. I tried this:

It's only fair to hear both sides of the story.

I do have a lot of sympathy with any non-trans partner who finds it all too much of a struggle. The most one can reasonably ask for is time and space and goodwill. It's demanding too much to insist that they go on loving you just the same. If they can, then fine. If they can't, it's sad but an ending must be faced. 


The husband in this case may have found himself misunderstood and misgendered, and his dogged defiance misinterpreted. As you say, I need to know both sides.


Then someone called 'Anonymous' commented, and it became a serious firefighting exercise. I went on to make this comment:

I've now seen references to Christine's book in several places on the Internet, and I'm getting wary of making any further judgement. Don't get me wrong: I've no reason to think that she has misquoted real conversations, nor to doubt that this is her sincere point of view. On the other hand, there is another point of view here too, and it's difficult to see exactly what the truth is. 

It is almost axiomatic that the female in any partnership is less likely to be in full control than the male, and here was a case of a wife who had married into a male-dominated faith she wasn't born to. It looks as if she embraced her new faith and liked all that was good about it. But she'd have to observe its rules, and couldn't cherry-pick. And the rules favoured her husband. I'm not sure whether it would be fair to say that the rules were completely behind the husband, but surely he was in a stronger position to invoke any that he could. This aspect might have made her feel isolated and bereft of allies in her adopted world, and that lack of power might show in the language of her book. Anyone who has to fall into line with established custom and observance might feel browbeaten. 

From what I know of my own position, the feelings of both parties, when one of them needs to transition, can be very complex. Neither necessarily has instant and complete comprehension of what it's all about, what the real driving motives are; and that love need not be a casualty, although it frequently is. There is no official guide to the best way forward, and how to avoid polarisation and exclusion and emotional devastation. 

I'm thinking that both parties here have written their books not only to put across their experience of an awful situation, but to externalise a mass of damaged feelings and raw hurt. A catharsis that both require.

Perhaps there is in one the anguished cry of a victim, and in the other the anguished cry of someone misunderstood. Perhaps both have wanted to persuade outsiders to their own view. 

I can indeed understand all of that, if it applies here.

Anonymous wouldn't have it. They attempted to move the discussion on to censorship and male privilege, and cited instances of provocative behaviour from American transgendered persons wanting to make a point, or simply to stretch the law. The suggestion was that Joy Ladin was like them. But they tripped up on the cultural differences between the States and the UK. That allowed me to say this:

You seem to be referring to the situation in the US, and to a somewhat wider trans community than in the UK, where 'transgender' is a more general term than specifically 'transsexual'. I assure you, it would be a major provocation here - and certainly counter-productive - if a non-passing trans person attempted some of the stunts you can cite. There is no culture here of pushing boundaries to their limits. 

Most trans people in the UK are relying on gradual public education, a drip-drip approach, and the uncertain effect of things like the Leveson Inquiry into press standards. It's getting better for trans people here, but we're not mainstream yet. I for one would rather concentrate on winning hearts and minds through meritorious achievement and behaviour, and not by getting up people's noses.

Anonymous bowed out at this point, although I felt they could easily have said much more. I was lucky to be let off so lightly.

Lessons?

1. That British people (such as myself) may have limited appreciation of American conditions, and may be unwise to comment, however benign the intention.
2. That the reverse is equally true.
3. That speculation on human relationships and motives is pointless unless one really knows the parties involved. I could have posted with authority if either Christine Benvenuto, or Joy Ladin, or both, had been a close friend and had taken me into their confidence. But I wasn't in that position. And for all I know, I hurt their feelings, or frustrated them with my lack of understanding.

That's three types of blogging mistake. More to come!

Monday, 13 January 2014

A brand new year, a brand new phone

Strapped for cash, I was unable to buy a new SIM-free mobile phone in 2012, and got one on a 24 month contract instead. Strictly speaking, that contract expires on 9 August 2014. But, of course, Vodafone will let me upgrade from 26 May, which isn't so far ahead. It's time to think about what I will do.

Some will say: For goodness sake, this isn't worth powder and shot. If you've got a working phone, just go for the cheapest possible option, whatever that is, and then focus on Other Much More Important Things instead.

But I think that mobile phones (which are little computers) have become an essential part of modern life, and, like it or not, an awful lot of modern life is based on the assumption that one owns an up-to-date model with comprehensive capability. Indeed, if you don't own one, and know how to use it, you are severely restricting your options for being connected to other people and services of all kinds. Even if I were a self-sufficient recluse, I'd still want news and information: and a modern mobile phone is beautiful for providing a window on the world, and therefore for self-education and widening one's outlook. It's an indispensable companion, but also a tool. And you should always use the best tools, and keep them sharp.

So, what will I do in May? Certain choices are no-brainers.

First, I am happy with my phone company, which is Vodafone. Their coverage is fine, their website works, and their phone app works. They may not be the very cheapest, but they give me what I want with no hassle.

Second, I like my phone number, and I want to keep it. This rules out going for special 'new customer' deals which entail having a new number. I don't think I would have to change my phone number if I switched to a SIM-only contract instead of a phone-and-SIM contract, provided I stayed with Vodafone.

My next phone of choice - if I am sensible about what I am prepared to pay - would be the Samsung Galaxy S4. I'm using a Galaxy S2 at the moment, and I'm very happy with it, subject to one important reservation: the screen is not quite large enough. My tired eyesight and fat fingers need something slightly bigger. Having held one, the Galaxy S4 seems ideal. And no doubt the Galaxy S5, due shortly, will be ideal too, with knobs on - but I won't be able to afford it. Similarly Samsung's Note 3 will also be too expensive, but with the additional snag that it's too large for my hands. I don't want to change brands because (a) I want another of Samsung's bright and colourful screens (and the S4 offers a Super AMOLED HD screen, no less); and (b) I've come to like Samsung's implementation of Android very much. So for me the choice of 'next phone' is easy.

Given all this, where do I go?

The cheapest option is to keep my Galaxy S2 and switch to a 12-month SIM-only contract. That brings my monthly mobile phone cost down from £21 to £14, saving £7 a month. Vodafone offer cheaper SIM-only deals, but if I want 750MB of Mobile Internet data usage per month - which I well might - £14 it must be.

Upgrading to a Galaxy S4 will currently cost me a minimum of £29 a month. But once the Galaxy S5 is launched, the cost of an S4 might well come down to £25. Which is £4 more than I pay now. It would be affordable, and I'd fix the small-screen problem. And it might be that I could negotiate something off the monthly cost, or get something extra thrown in (such as a larger data allowance).

What about buying my own SIM-free phone, and popping a £14 per month Vodafone SIM card into it? Just now Amazon will sell me a white SIM-free Galaxy S4 for £390. But by May the purchase price could fall to around £300. The monthly cost would still be only £14, but I'd have to stump up £300 in cash. But hold on - Fiona is having her annual service and MOT in May, and there's my Welsh Tour to fund in June... No, £300 for a phone on top of all that would break the bank! It can't be done.

It can't be done even if another factor is brought in. Yesterday evening it was brought to my attention that whether I upgrade to a fresh contract, or buy a new phone outright, I would still be able to sell my Galaxy S2 to one of those online companies who specialise in buying used phones. Envirofone was mentioned. Feeding in my phone's IMEI number on their website brought forth an offer of £46. That's not to be sniffed at. Yes, it's a deal I would take. But it isn't enough to make a big difference.

It'll have to be the £25 monthly contract, I'm thinking. At least eyes and fingers will feel pampered!

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Alice live on stage in Brighton

My friend Alice continues to appear in Brighton at various venues, giving readings of her poetry. I hadn't actually seen one of her live performances in person, but now I have, just a few days ago. It was at the Green Door Store, at Trafalgar Arches, down by the side of Brighton railway station. Here's a general view of Alice doing her stuff there, with an intimate audience looking on:


But I am leaping ahead.

It had taken me a couple of months to get round to watching Alice. I finally committed myself just before Christmas, and despite reservations I intended to loyally fulfil my promise to come. What were the reservations? First, although poetry readings were big in Brighton, part of the scene, poetry wasn't really my thing. Second, Alice favoured places where a loud and raucous band might head the bill - she'd think it wonderful, energetic music, but it would be just noise to me, and I might feel out of place and fuddy-duddy. Third, getting there would involve a walk on my own through the more down-at-heel parts of the North Laine. I'd have to be brave.

Fortunately two other friends decided to come with me. One was Michelle, who was herself a drummer in a local band, Slum Of Legs (their Facebook page is at https://www.facebook.com/SlumOfLegs); and the other was K---, who actually lives in the 'nice' part of North Laine and can move about the area with knowledge and assurance. A trio of stalwart ladies then: we would fear nothing. So bold were we, that K--- proposed a Mystery Tour of the North Laine, and she took us along little-known streets and passageways, such as this one:


It was very Dickensian. At any moment we might have been set upon by footpads, or cornered by whining beggars, or be importuned by crones offering their shoddy wares for pennies. Thankfully we were not. But the bleak approach to the Green Door Store was not reassuring. Graffiti everywhere. And the entrance (through a green door) was not especially inviting, nor was the dim green interior:


The premises was, I suppose, originally a basement store for station goods, perhaps a repository for lost property that no passenger had ever come back to claim. Locked trunks with bodies in them, that sort of thing. The sort of place that stayed dark, old-fashioned, dingy and very pre-war while the rest of Brighton station was modernised above it. A relic from the Brighton of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, perhaps.

The sound of something that could have been music came from within. We advanced into a big room, containing a bar, a brick floor, and a scattering of tables, chairs and stools. I expected to see the dregs and scum of a forgotten subculture, ruined creatures beyond all hope or redemption: petty thieves, pickpockets, pimps, broken servants, fallen women, escaped slaves, lascars, lazars, lepers, and every type of low life. But in fact the clientele consisted of bright young things from Brighton Uni, and the cheerful bar staff did a very pleasant house white. It was actually quite a jolly place, just a bit lacking in the lighting department.


The stage was through the black curtains visible in the photo. It was £4 to pass through. As people came and went, one caught glimpses of a small stage and a tightly-packed audience mostly standing up. We duly paid, and had our hands stamped. There was no sign of Alice, but she was supposed to be on at 8.30pm sharp, and was no doubt psyching herself up for her spot, somewhere backstage. It was almost time. The band came out for a break, and we went in. Alice was already on stage, and warming up with a couple of short pieces. There was a girl toting a couple of digital SLR cameras with big flashguns. The official photographer. I asked her: was it all right to take the odd shot with my unsophisticated little toy Leica, without flash? Oh yes, of course! I placed myself on the opposite side of the stage from the official photographer, and, after a while, snuck through the side-curtains to get closer to Alice, shooting from the shadows behind her. This is how she looked:


Alice seemed to be doing it all from memory - rather amazing. She was clear-speaking, confident and impassioned. She certainly held the attention of the audience. So! This is what 'live poetry' is like! I was impressed.

Afterwards, she joined us for some shots, delighted to learn that the three of us had come:


I think Alice looks very pretty. Odd that we are all blondes!

The Green Door Store says this of itself: A showcase of Brighton's best female-fronted performers for our queer and feminist friends. The words 'queer' and 'feminist' having their local meanings, of course; for Brighton is not quite like other places. The night's entertainment was called New Years Revolution, which gives you a notion of its vaguely anarchic style, as will the leaflet I picked up, listing the performers. It shows Alice providing the 'spoken word':


To wrap this up, I'd like to mention a near-coincidence. On 22 January 2009 (January again), almost five years ago, I went to another similar venue in Hove called The Greenhouse Effect (green again) to meet Alice (Alice again), who was then a brand new friend. On the bill were four experimental bands: Sly and the Family Drone, Blue House, Picore, and Projections. All played with extraordinary vigour, and at such volume that the speakers almost exploded. A night of crashing drums, tortured guitars, and hoarse vocals. Alice's son T--- was the leader of Blue House, and she was supporting him. It was the only occasion that M--- (my ex-partner) ever came along with me to meet another friend; and therefore Alice is the only one of my friends who has actually met M---.