Friday, 28 February 2014

Who says honesty doesn't pay?

Or at least, that being honest - and owning up - need not mean a slap in the face for your trouble.

Sorry, this is another post about my car insurance dilemma - except that it's now resolved, and I have come out of it unscathed!

Having written what I did earlier today, indecision and worry kept nagging at me as to whether to tell my car insurance company about being caught by the Police camera for speeding, and then ending up on the Speed Awareness Course. No, I decided, it wasn't good enough to keep the information from them. It was something that they clearly might be interested to know about. I did see how speeding might be relevant to assessing my personal risk of having an accident. Keeping quiet was a deception. It was dishonest. I knew it was.

So at just after 4.15pm I picked up the phone and spoke to a very pleasant girl (all these girls seem to be very nice) at Liverpool Victoria, who, as 'LV=Frizzell', handle my car insurance through my membership of the CSMA, the Civil Service Motoring Association. I've been insured with them for years, even though from time to time I do check out alternative insurers for a quote. But I never move. LV always seem to have a good policy at a good price - and whenever I have had an accident over the years, they have been wonderfully efficient. Now that matters.

It did cross my mind, at the very last moment, that the CSMA - which lobbies for motorists - was unlikely to have a pet insurance company that clobbered their members in aggravating little ways. But I might be wrong. I went through with the call.

I briefly explained to the girl that I'd been caught speeding, and had been put on a Speed Awareness Course. And that I was telling her this because I understood the company needed to know of all material facts that could have a bearing on my cover.

But not so! She quickly made sure that I hadn't got penalty points and a fine. No, only the course. That was all right then. The course was not a conviction. It was instead of a conviction. They didn't need to know anything about the speeding incident, nor the course.

Not the place and date, for your records? No. Right. That's something cleared up then. Bye bye.

As you can imagine, I felt absolutely brilliant as I finished the call. The Melford Honour shone radiantly, unblemished! I'd done the proper thing. And no financial penalty had been imposed for doing something that certain people would certainly have considered daft, if not downright foolish.

I know there may be sneers. It's easy to say that I made that call just to get something off my mind - almost a self-indulgent act. Phooey. I now know exactly where I stand. I will positively relish the course!

You know, living without important doubts is a wonderful thing.

HRT heaven

And now for some different news. Some while back, I mentioned that the last test (in August 2013) for the level of female hormone (oestradiol) swashing around inside me was a matter for concern. It had sunk to only 146 pmol/L, despite no changes whatever in my medication or lifestyle.

Friends had pursed their lips in genuine concern. For, of course, I needed an adequate level of oestradiol to ensure healthy bones and to sustain proper ongoing feminisation. That looked in danger.

There is no absolute 'ideal' level for a post-op woman. It depends on the individual. I'd gathered from Dr Curtis in London that he was happy with anything in the 200-400 pmol/L range; but happier still if the level were at the lower end of that range. And when we had our final discussion in September 2013, he'd asked me to consider that the body's natural ageing might eventually mean it wouldn't tolerate anything but a low dose of female hormone, or none at all. Not that there was any significant evidence yet of how it generally went for old transitioners. But clearly he expected the dosage to decline in the long term, and with it the oestradiol level. And this might in any case be essential to mitigate the risks of breast cancer, thromboses, and all the problems associated with excess body weight, oestradiol making it difficult to control body fat of course.

I took all this on board. It was said to me that Dr Curtis was being too cautious. But although free to seek another opinion, I was disinclined to dispute the farewell advice of someone who had - medically speaking - successfully seen me through a comfortable and trouble-free transition.

And yet, why had my oestradiol level declined so much? It had been over 400 pmol/L during 2011. There was no obvious reason for the drop to 146 pmol/L. Would a higher dosage be the answer?

Then I looked at it not from the point of view of dosage, but from the point of view of delivery. I got my HRT from patches. They stuck to my skin well, but was the hormone actually getting through my skin and into my bloodstream in the required quantity? Was it simply a problem with the placement, where I stuck them on? I'd put my patches onto my lower tummy from the beginning. As I'd got fatter, had that had become the wrong place for their full effect?

I switched to sticking them on my bottom. That was about five months ago.

As time passed, I began to feel that I was on the right track. There was still no sign of any encroaching masculinisation. Body hair growth would have been a giveaway for that. But my body hair growth continued to slow down. I knew that because I'd been maintaining a body-shaving record in a spreadsheet since October 2011. It showed me that the interval between shaves for my arms and legs had been getting longer and longer. The trend hadn't altered a bit. In fact when I last shaved them, on 17 February this year, I hadn't needed to since 16 December, 63 days previously, which any schoolgirl can tell you is exactly nine weeks, or two months. And I had noticed a subtle increase in general prettiness over the last year or so. People had started to remark on it. I must have crossed an 'appearance threshold' - but clearly going forwards, and not backwards. So feminisation was being maintained.

Yesterday I got the results of the latest blood test on 19 February. Among other things, my oestradiol level had shot up again to 354 pmol/L. Quel relief! And a demonstration, I think, of how efficient delivery will make a big difference. It may not be down to dosage.

I'm seeing my GP again to discuss this and other results on 5 March.

And the testosterone level? Only 0.2 nmol/L - its lowest ever. Its October 2008 (pre-hormone) level was 16.0 nmol/L. My schoolgirl maths says 16.0 is eighty times 0.2. Coo!

Classroom update - and a car insurance dilemma

Being so upbeat about taking that Speed Awareness Course, it was a pity that I'd have to wait until 25 April to attend. But huge numbers of people get the chance to take them nowadays, and it was no surprise that I had to wait.

But now I've had a phone call from a nice girl at Kent County Council (who run the SACs for the Kent Police). She'd found some places for me at The Salomons Conference Centre at Tunbridge Wells, if I wanted to switch from Maidstone. The Salomons courses were on 20 March, 27 March, and 10 April. Unfortunately the first two clashed with my upcoming (and booked) West Country caravan holiday, but I went for the 10 April offer. It is at 10am, but Tunbridge Wells is only 40 minutes' drive away from me, via a favourite leafy route through Ashdown Forest, and The Salomons is slightly out of town, on 'my' side of TW, so I should have a clear run without encountering any of TW's notorious traffic. And 10 April is indeed sooner.

So that's fixed up, even better than before. The usual £45 fee for transferring from one course to another was waived.

Needless to say, I've discovered another issue to puzzle over. Even though I will not now be convicted of a motoring offence - at least once I have successfully completed the course - where do I stand on telling my car insurance company about it? I've found no definitive answer so far.

The Police used to say that attendance on the SAC wouldn't mean an increase in insurance premiums. But then in 2012 the Admiral group of insurance companies - that's the cheap ones in the market, possibly looking for ways to charge extra, like Ryanair do - began in 2012 to ask motorists insuring with them whether they had taken a Speed Awareness Course during the last five years. It was a straight question, and unless the motorist was prepared to lie (and possibly invalidate his/her car insurance), it would lead to a higher premium.

Admiral argued that whatever the Police did at their discretion, attendance on the SAC demonstrated that the insured had been exceeding the speed limit. The fact that they attended a course in lieu of conviction was irrelevant. They were in the same position as anyone convicted. And Admiral had their own statistical evidence showing that people with speeding convictions had more frequent accidents - hence the higher risk assessment, and the premium loading.  

And yet it seemed common sense that (a) speeding was general, almost all motorists exceeding the limit now and then, deliberately or not; (b) most people were not arrogant and habitual speed merchants; (c) anyone allowed to attend an SAC, and willing to do so, must be receptive to re-education, with a lasting improvement in their driving as the likely result - thus actually reducing their risk of having an accident; (d) the genuinely bad drivers were those who had driven too fast to be offered the SAC, or who had scorned the offer, and had instead opted for the fine and three points on their licence - they were the ones most likely to be repeat offenders, and to merit a higher insurance premium; and (e) extra insurance costs will discourage people from opting for remedial education at an SAC, leaving them as risky as before, which is against the long-term thrust of Road Safety initiatives.

The problem was that nobody had been able to gather together any statistics to prove that SACs were effective in reducing driver risk.

The result: each insurance company has been taking their own view on their own experience, some doing what Admiral has done, and some saying they won't charge extra - possibly as a commercial ploy to attract business from disgruntled drivers who feel that their SAC has made them safer on the road, but the fact isn't being recognised.

One of the best recent overviews of the current situation that I have so far found is at The Actuarial Post at http://www.actuarialpost.co.uk/article/speed-awareness-courses-and-insurance-premiums-3919.htm, and the Chartered Insurance Institute's report they refer to is at http://www.cii.co.uk/media/4048082/cii_new_generation_uw_group_-_speed_awareness_courses_-_the_implications_for_insurance.pdf. Interesting reading. I think the Institute is mostly against Admiral's thinking, but would in any event like to see the proper evidence gathered, so that not only could insurance companies uniformly assess the real risks involved, but the public would know exactly what they should be doing. The Institute has proposed a detailed study plan, but so far, it seems, progress has been stymied by lack of insurance industry backing and perhaps lack of access to the appropriate data.

So far as I can see, the best advice at this time is this: If the insurance company asks a direct question about attending a Speed Awareness Course, they must be given a truthful answer, regardless of any financial consequences. Otherwise, there is no present requirement to volunteer the information, because the SAC is not a conviction, and therefore attendance at one is not a material fact that the insurance company need to be told about.

I will however ask at my own SAC on 10 April, and find out what the instructors are prepared to advise.

I expect to get the usual invitation to renew my car insurance around 1 May, and the new policy will come into force from 24 May. So there is plenty of time to consider the proper way forward. I'm rather hoping that my insurance company will relieve me of doubt by drawing attention to its attitude on Speed Awareness Courses.

If it doesn't, then, knowing me, I will probably play for safety and phone them when I get the renewal invitation. Even if I shoot myself in the foot, so to speak. I would never want to lie or conceal material facts where insurance is concerned. I can't risk not being fully covered.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Back to the Classroom!

I had a letter from the Kent Police yesterday, offering me a chance to take a Speed Awareness Course instead of having my licence endorsed with three penalty points and paying a £100 fine - or the formal option of a court hearing. Their words: If you successfully complete the course you will NOT have 3 penalty points endorsed on your driving licence.

Well! Whether this was their standard policy (and the outcome I should have expected all along), or whether the letter I sent them on 8 February (see my post A tactical mistake on 20 February) had had a good effect, I was being given a chance to go back to school, pay attention, and learn to be a better driver.

I felt so relieved. I'd been worrying about what the Kent Police might actually decide to do with me. Now that worry has been wiped away.

The prospect of a £100 fine had been unwelcome, but the chief financial concern was what my insurance company would think, if the speeding conviction were confirmed. I'd checked my insurance documents. Oh yes, they would most certainly have wanted to know about any such conviction. They'd purse their lips, shake their head sadly - or more likely sternly - and with a scratching noise from their quill pen increase my car insurance premium. Not savagely perhaps, but enough to upset me, to blight my life, to make me join the French Foreign Legion (assuming women can) and Try To Forget. Sacré bleu! It was bad enough to be the Convicted Felon Melford, with three points on my licence written in blood, damning me as a Social Outcast. It was almost the last straw to be reviled as a Bad Insurance Risk as well.

But now there would be no conviction, no transportation for life, and my licence would remain unsullied, a licence as pure as snow, the licence of a woman who had briefly fallen, had been seduced by Villain Speed, but had then stood before her captors - her rescuers - in humility and repentance, and had been rewarded with a chance to redeem herself, to accept corrective re-education, to expiate her sins and spend her remaining days as St Lucy. She would not be burned at the stake as a witch.

What else did the Police letter say? I am of the opinion that your attendance at a Speed Awareness Course will be beneficial to you, which is why this option has been offered. I must emphasise that not all drivers caught speeding are offered this opportunity. Oh thank you, thank you! But there was a warning note: In order to successfully complete your course you MUST show a positive and willing attitude to the course and take part and contribute to the whole course (theory and any practical sessions). If the instructors are not satisfied that you are displaying an appropriate attitude...[your file] will be returned to the Police and they will decide what action to take. So they'd have a fat dossier on me. And if I fell short, if I showed flippancy or arrogance, I'd be in the dock, on trial for my life. And no demure behaviour in court, no fragrant perfume, no sexy wink at the judge would get me off. So I must satisfy the instructors. That's clear.

But I had to get on the course first. The Police had imposed a time limit for booking. I had until 15 March to do it. And I had to complete the course to the instructors' satisfaction by 5 July. I bent the Melford Mind to it. They wanted you to book online, but it wasn't easy. There were glitches. One website didn't agree with another. It was a test of resolve. I had to phone Kent County Council and speak to someone. But now I'm pleased to announce that one sunny afternoon in April I'll be making a grand entrance at a Maidstone conference/wedding venue, Oakwood House.

I will show great attention. I will be a model pupil. I will participate fully. I'll show so much good attitude that there will be declarations of love and offers of marriage. My dossier will be sent to The Palace for a special New Year Honour. I will be the next presenter of Crimewatch UK on TV. Who knows how my good behaviour will be rewarded.

A sunny day in April, in the Garden County of England. A classroom situation. Now what shall I wear?

A lovely flowing dress and wide-brimmed hat? So chic.

The schoolgirl outfit worn by Britney Spears in her video for Hit Me Baby One More Time? Racy.

A Top Gear tee shirt? Ah, perhaps best not.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Men have always had a down on women

I have before me a scholarly Faber paperback that I acquired in 1997, titled Medieval English Lyrics (ISBN 0 571 06571 6). These are poems from centuries back, some of them no doubt sung. Many celebrate women in idealistic terms, most often as the Virgin Mary; or relate how the poet, a man, has suffered the pangs of unreturned (or unreturnable) love while still venerating his lady, and placing her on a high pedestal. In the background is the popular notion of courtly love, and all the artificial conventions of chivalry.

But some poems discard those conventions, and openly criticise women as deceitful harpies, more on the model perhaps of Eve dragging down Adam. And you can't help feeling that such verses probably reflected a general feeling of resentment among medieval men that women, for all their daintiness, prettiness and allure, had spoiled the game from the very beginning, had made life hard and difficult, and were still bad news. So there are misogynistic and even vicious poems that condemn women and their ways. And if Western attitudes have this kind of centuries-old foundation, then perhaps it is little wonder that, even today, women can't get an absolutely fair deal, and are mistrusted.

Let's have a look at two bad examples, both from the fifteenth century, which means 1400 to 1500.

The first is by Thomas Hoccleve, described in the book as a 'clerk in the office of the Privy Seal [the Lord Privy Seal was an important figure at court] about 1378-1425, and a gay bachelor who eventually married'.

A DESCRIPTION OF HIS UGLY LADY

Of my lady well me rejoise I may!
Hir golden forheed is full narw and smal;
Hir browes been lik to dim, reed coral;
And as the jeet hir yen glistren ay.

This is the same language as Geoffrey Chaucer, of Canterbury Tales fame. It isn't that difficult. My own idiomatic 'translation' of the first verse, assisted by the glossary in the book, goes as follows:

There's a lot to please me about my girl! [clearly meant ironically]
She's got a sallow - and shallow - forehead,
Heavy brows as red as coral,
And her eyes are jet-black and sharp.

It continues:

Hir bowgy cheekes been as softe as clay, 
With large jowes and substantial.

Her baggy cheeks are soft as mud,
And her jaws are massive.

Hir nose a pentice is that it ne shal
Reine in hir mouth thogh she uprightes lay.

Her nose is like an overhanging roof
So that she'll never get rain in her mouth when looking up.

Hir mouth is nothing scant with lippes gray;
Hir chin unnethe may be seen at al.

Her grey-lipped mouth is so big
That you can hardly see her chin.

Hir comly body shape as a footbal,
And she singeth full like a papejay.

She's as fat as a football,
And her voice is just like a parrot's.

Well, how charming is that? Hoccleve doesn't say so, but one imagines his girlfriend is short and squat, otherwise she wouldn't have to look up to him before squawking at him like a parrot. So the poor girl is rather a hefty lump, and no looker at all. But that's no reason to be so nasty. If anybody said any of this of me, I'd be highly annoyed. The man has no manners at all.

Here's the other poem, a bit more subtle in its venom, but still hurtful.

WHAT WOMEN ARE NOT

Of all creatures women be best,
Cuius contrarium verum est.

Women are the best of all creatures!
(The opposite is actually the truth)

It was obviously assumed that most women of the time were uneducated, and would not understand what the Latin phrase 'cuius contrarium verum est' meant. Sneaky and condescending.

In every place ye may well see
That women be trewe as tirtill on tree,
Not liberal in langage but ever in secree,
And gret joye amonge them is for to be.

You are likely to see wherever you go
Women cooing lovingly like turtle doves in a tree,
Whispering so that their words can't be heard,
What a pleasure they take in being like this.

This is of course all ironic: apparently commending women for their quiet and demure talk, but in fact having a dig at their sly gossiping habits.

The stedfastnes of women will never be don,
So gentil, so curtes, they be everichon, 
Meke as a lambe, still as a stone,
Croked nor crabbed find ye none.

Woman are eternally reliable,
They are all so well-bred and courteous,
Gentle as a lamb and silent as a stone,
You won't find a woman who is vicious or perverse.

More irony, of course! It only gets worse:

Men be more cumbers a thousandfold, 
And I mervail how they dare be so bold
Against women for to hold,
Seeing them so pascient, soft and cold.

Men are a thousand times more troublesome,
And I'm amazed how men have the gall
To set themselves against women,
Considering how even-tempered, compliant and slow to anger women are.

For tell a woman all your counsaile
And she can kepe it wonderly well:
She had lever go quik to hell
Than to her neighbour she wold it tell.

Tell a woman your secret
And she'll know how to keep it wonderfully well:
She'd rather go to Hell in a fast train
Than share it with her next door neighbour.

Now say well by women or elles be still,
For they never displesed man by ther will:
To be angry or wroth they can no skill,
For I dare say they think non ill.

Now say something good about women or keep quiet,
Because they have never wanted to do anything that might displease a man:
They have no idea how to be angry,
Probably because they think only beautiful thoughts.

Trow ye that women list to smater, 
Or against ther husbondes for to clater?
Nay! They had lever fast, bred and water, 
Than to dele in suche a matter.

Do you believe that women like to complain
About their husbands and make trouble for them?
No! They'd rather fast on bread and water
Than do a thing like that.

To the tavern they will not go,
Nor to the alehous never the mo,
For, god wot, ther hartes wold be wo
To spende ther husbondes money so.

You won't catch them going to the tavern,
Nor ever to the pub,
Because, as God knows well, it would break their hearts
To spend their husband's cash like that.

Surely that last bit of sniping is unrealistic. No doubt women would have liked to have a quick one now and then - considering what they had to put up with - but the chances are that their husbands would never give them the wherewithal.

These verses are nearly six hundred years old, but there's something of a modern ring to them, isn't there? The same old assumption that women are wayward, empty-headed, ignorant chatterboxes, and can't be trusted. Sigh.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Claiming benefits

Would I claim a social security cash benefit if I discovered that I qualified? You bet, like a shot. You won't hear a sanctimonious 'I'm too proud to claim' from this quarter. Nor a smug 'I don't need the money' either. If I were entitled, I'd claim it, and be very glad to have the money. An entitlement - enshrined in legislation, or in statutory instruments, or in official regulations - is not a charitable handout. It's a right. There's no shame in enforcing a right. While one can.

And it's not much income at that. Take the State Pension, for instance. That's a big, flagship benefit. I'm expecting £116 a week when my own kicks in later this year. Or £93 after tax. Very useful money to me. But it's pocket money to a salaried person. £93 is what a posh evening meal for one might cost - see my post Stamford - Lunch and dinner at the George Hotel on 3 November 2013 - towards the end - when I describe the menu and prices. One meal! The sort of meal that popular lifestyle programmes like Masterchef promote. You can easily spend £93 at a hairdresser too.

Nobody now pretends that the State Pension is enough to live on, but for an awful lot of old people it is the largest part of their total income. The part they count on. The part that covers the most fundamental costs of living. It's vital to keep its value up, and protect it from the ravages of inflation.

The State Pension is in fact the only cash benefit I can ever claim. I never qualified for anything in the past. This was because my in-work earnings (and latterly my occupational pension) were always too high.

I was entitled to claim Unemployment Benefit immediately after leaving school in 1970, in the weeks before I commenced my career, but I didn't know that I could. The school hadn't thought of telling me, nor how to set about it. I found out only when I applied for a National Insurance Number at the Southampton social security office. I got ticked off severely for not paying my National Insurance stamp during the previous few weeks, and also for not signing-on and drawing the Dole! This unhelpful slap in the face was probably designed to put me firmly in my young place. To convey to me that without a job I was just one of the faceless Little People, a person stigmatised, a person liable to be pushed around or kept waiting.

I did not forget the attitude shown to me, nor the lesson learned. Next time I would come armed with information on my rights, and refuse to be talked down to.

But the 'next time' never came, not until after my retirement in 2005, when I had to visit the Job Centre in Haywards Heath. And that was not to claim anything, but to get an officer there to inspect and copy my Decree Absolute, so that my National Insurance record would show that I'd been divorced in 1996. The atmosphere was very different - friendly, smiling, nothing too much trouble. But I do wonder how it would have been if I'd wanted to claim a benefit.

Benefit claimants are now enemies of the State. I can see a time coming when all benefit payments will stop. There will then be two types of people. On the one hand, the dependent poor, who would get only benefits in kind - approved accommodation with standard meals, strictly rationed travel vouchers, strictly rationed education, strictly rationed healthcare - coupled with compulsory activities such as community work to keep them usefully occupied, and obligatory confiscation of any savings or personal assets. On the other, the independent people with their own money.

People with no choices at all, and people with some choices.

People in bondage, with no dignity; and people whose illusion of freedom is scarred by the fear of falling into indignity.

I think I may see it, or something like it, in the next thirty years. That's why I would most certainly grab whatever cash I could, if it were being offered, as a sensible strategy.

But I think I'm already too late. I'm thinking that the Chancellor's Autumn Statement, the last one before the General Election in 2015, will reaffirm the principles of cutting-back. All the more so, now that the economy is picking up, and apparently 'proving' that the government's financial policy has been correct. I expect my Christmas Bonus, and my Winter Fuel Allowance, and possibly even my free Bus Pass to be snatched away just before I would have had them. And if the government gets away with doing that, then expect much more of the same.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Juke Box Jury, Simon Dee, Sooty, Dr Who, Dixon of Dock Green and Crackerjack.

Yes, it's another trip down Memory Lane!

As you may know, I collect maps, and I was searching for a couple of detailed US maps from the 1950s (covering Maryland and West Virginia from Baltimore westwards) about three weeks back, which I thought were rolled up in my attic. Why I wanted those maps is another story entirely. It was to do with the old Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. (If I temporarily run out of things to post about, I may reveal what made me conduct a little research into the B&O) Anyway, the maps in question were not in the attic, flat or rolled. Where could they be?

Eventually I remembered that I'd put them under my bed. Yes, there they were. And I also found some other items. Such as the very first issue of The Independent newspaper in 1986, when it was a broadsheet publication: I'd bought it as a souvenir. And some old issues of Radio Times and TV Times, bought by my parents when we were living in Southampton in the 1960s, when I was still at school. This post is about one particular issue of the Radio Times.


As you can see, it's the issue covering 30 September 1967 to 6 October 1967, the week in which it was All Change at BBC Radio. Out went the old Home Service, Light Programme and Third Programme. In came Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3 and Radio 4, which are all still with us today, forty-six years on.

The cover highlights the arrival of the new Radio 1, and shows a smiling, swinging blonde girl ('swinging' in the groovy, discothèque sense), dressed in a plastic dress and sharp shoes, with a transistor radio close by on the floor. A very up-to-date and 'now' image for the already august and venerable organ of the nation's only official broadcaster! For the launch of Radio 1 represented a belated, overdue wooing of the the UK's teenage population. Most of the Pirate Radio DJs who had been on air illegally, broadcasting what young people really wanted to hear from hulks and rusting forts in the Thames Estuary, now came in from the cold, their sins forgiven. The full crew was shown inside this landmark issue:


Tony Blackburn, Emperor Rosko, Pete Brady, Alan Freeman, Mike Raven... Not all of them lasted. The new Radio 1 set-up didn't suit them all. They were joining an Institution. They had to become subservient to Aunty's whims and strictures. Free spirits eventually went elsewhere. A few quickly found their feet and became legends. Note that old timer Pete Murray, even then described as the 'World's Oldest Teenager' was one of the Radio 1 team. He had for instance a 4.30pm Wednesday spot called What's New, in which he presented 'the week's 'newly pressed' pop records'. How cool was that? It would make anyone get on their feet and snap their fingers. And David Jacobs had a Sunday night spot, The David Jacobs Show, billed as 'the best in good music' which included 'good talk with people of choice'. The guest that week was Julie Andrews (of Sound of Music fame - clearly one for the mums).

There were of course young guns like Tony Blackburn with his 7.00am Daily Disc Delivery (although he called it The Tony Blackburn Show in his jingles; and it might as well have been called The Arnold Show, as he was a bit too fond of playing a barking-dog tape that went 'Woof! Woof!', the dog being called Arnold). And there were older but likeable DJs like Alan Freeman, whose Sunday at 5.00pm programme Pick of the Pops was unmissable for me right into the early 1970s. Even though at some point he revealed that his nickname was Fluff. Fluff? What was that all about?

The thing I chiefly wonder about now is who was the trendy girl on the Radio Times cover? I've tried some Internet research, to no avail. I wish I knew. She looked fab. Yes, an iconic look. She deserves recognition, as much as the young girl in the BBC TV testcard has had; this girl (my shot dates from 1993):


Inside this issue of the Radio Times there are so many other things that stir the memory. TV programmes I watched avidly like Steptoe and Son. Dr Finlay's Casebook. Bewitched. Tom and Jerry. Harry Worth. Tomorrow's World. Top of the Pops. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The Newcomers. The Andy Williams Show. Going For a Song. And naturally, Dr Who:


And Call My Bluff. The ad beneath is a reminder that in 1967 women were supposed to get delirious over household gadgets like tumble driers:


And Softy, Softly. Remember big, hard, cross Charlie Barlow?


Or in contrast, elderly, benign, avuncular Sergeant Dixon of Dixon of Dock Green?


Dee Time and The Monkees, anyone?


David Jacobs' TV slot Juke Box Jury was still going strong, but I think the great days of guest juror Janice Nicholls saying 'Oi'll give it foive' were long over:


By 1967 I had well outgrown most children's TV, but I might still nostalgically dip into Harry Corbett's The Sooty Show:


The same for Crackerjack. Anything to delay getting on with the evening's homework, I suppose.


But I hardly glanced any longer at Blue Peter. The Magic Roundabout was however still a credible viewing choice, because of its many supposed references to the Drug Culture then in vogue (of which I knew absolutely nothing, but you could adopt a hip and knowledgeable pose at school if you had to. My inscrutable-faced bluff was never called).

The adult world was on the horizon. I was fifteen. I was already thinking about driving lessons. I was beginning to notice things that affected people who had cars. Such as this ad on one page all about the Breath Test for drunk drivers:


What a snapshot of BBC fare so many decades ago! This issue of Radio Times - any issue like it, really - is an historical document. Is it worth anything? No, not much. In the 1960s the Radio Times had a print run of millions of copies every week. I dare say hundreds of thousands of this particular issue were saved as souvenirs. Even allowing for the inevitable turn-outs when people move house or die, thousands of copies must still exist, some of them in pristine condition, which mine is not. So it isn't rare or 'mint'. A quick look at eBay this morning suggested that if selling I'd be lucky to find a buyer willing to pay more than £5, if that.

So I'll hang onto it.

No doubt you've now had by now quite enough of vintage Radio Times. But there's still TV Times, the major mag for Independent TV at the time. You know. The Avengers. Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. Opportunity Knocks! Peyton Place. The Prisoner. Crossroads. Coronation Street. The Adventures of Robin Hood. The Rifleman. Man in a Suitcase. University Challenge. The Flintstones. Take Your Pick. The Untouchables. Candid Camera. Never mind the Quality, Feel the Width. The Golden Shot. Cimarron Strip. Sexton Blake. World in Action. Popeye. No - That's Me Over Here! Dragnet. The Saint. The Frost Programme...

Friday, 21 February 2014

In a different skin


This is Sherry. Just as you might have seen her, if you were strolling on the pier at Newport Beach in California one sunny afternoon in 2013. If you were a man, she would have caught your eye as an attractive forty-something woman in sunglasses, all on her own. It would have seemed almost unnatural, that such an attractive woman should be walking by herself. Where was her guy?


Very smooth, almost flawless skin. Very pretty for someone who must be forty-five or so. Tallish, statuesque, impassive. You'd want to get closer. And that would be potential terror to her. For this was her first public outing. She was taking the plunge, driven by an urge to get out of the closet and into the real world. It was a step into the unknown for her. But you'd never know, because the look on her face stayed the same and would not crack. And yet behind that black throat-band she must have been gulping with apprehension.


All things considered, she looked astonishingly confident. Sherry was experiencing for the first time what it is to walk around in a public place, and meet other people. My goodness, that takes courage. And I say that with feeling, based on my own past experience. And if you are like me, you'll agree too. This lady had guts. But it went all right. For instance, she met a man who really liked her, and said so:


So who was she? By now you may have guessed. Back in January, Channel 4 screened a TV documentary called Secrets of the Living Dolls. I missed it at the time, but it was screened again four nights ago on More 4, and I made a point of watching it. I had an idea that it would have something to say to me, some parallels, some resonances. I wanted to know who Sherry and the others shown in the programme were. Apparently 3.7 million viewers were similarly intrigued back in January. Presumably not all for the same reasons, but 3.7 million is still an impressive figure for such a documentary. If you still haven't seen the programme, there are reviews and comments and YouTube clips that you can dip into on the Internet. I've picked out what I consider the best of these. And in this post, I'm giving you my own take.

Let's begin with Sherry. She was clearly the most engaging of the 'living dolls' featured on the programme. Two of them were shown 'coming out'. Sherry was one. What you see of her is a silicone skin that a male person puts on, to make himself look like a woman. It's a bit like donning a breathable wetsuit, except that it comes in sections. A main one (the torso and legs), then separately the arms, the face, and whatever hairpiece is desired. The face is effectively a mask. The men who put on a costume like this are called 'female maskers'. On the face of it, it looks like a form of cross-dressing, to achieve a look and shape that cosmetics and conventional padding alone cannot match.

There is a tendency among post-op transsexuals to regard cross-dressing as a lower-level manifestation of gender discomfort, or merely a fetish. I'm inclined to take a more sophisticated view of it, but hadn't come across a coherent explanation of what made cross-dressers tick until I read the latest post featured on T-Central this morning (Alice Jane in Newcastle's post on 16 February titled An Essay on Sex and Gender). I feel better-informed now. And I think that what Alice Jane was saying must have some bearing on women like Sherry. By the way, I'm perfectly happy to call Sherry a woman, because she is shaped like one, and besides it's the mental self-image under the skin that matters, not the details of the presentation. Even though Sherry's appearance (as with all the dolls) depends on a manufactured skin, and is not natural flesh.

This is Sherry unmasked:


He's a retired, divorced property developer who (for the purposes of the programme) calls himself Robert. There is nothing wrong with his looks, as a man of 70. But though vigorous, he is conscious of his age, and of having a skin so tanned that he has almost acquired that leathery 'Rolling Stones' appearance. Think Mick Jagger. It's too masculine. It can't be softened and transformed with make-up. He's tried to do it (there's a woman inside him that needs to come out). Then six years ago, he discovered FemSkin, a Florida-based company who make silicone body skins to wear. And that's how Sherry has come to be.

Robert has an explanation for needing Sherry. Since his divorce, he has wanted to date women in their fifties and sixties. But although he admits that some of these potential girlfriends are remarkably well-preserved, none of them look as good as Sherry does. He puts her on, and becomes his own beautiful woman. I think this means that he adopts a different personality as soon as he steps into this other skin, and has attired her suitably. His new persona is much, much prettier than his male self. The various masks he uses with the body skin all have a mouth that is slightly open, like a woman ready for a kiss. For him, she projects sexiness and allure. I can see that, although to my own mind there is also something rather innocent about Sherry's face and blonde hair. She looks like a nice lady with straightforward, uncomplicated appeal. I have no idea what Robert's real character is like (he was a successful businessman after all, and owns a large house), but if his notion of a pleasant but sexy girlfriend is this, and not something garish and hard-faced, then I commend his judgement.

The silicone skin is apparently breathable, and doesn't mind getting wet. Robert can do some everyday things wearing it. Such as enjoy the sun on a lounger by his own poolside:


I think those are Robert's arms, but the rest is genuine Sherry. Blimey, I wish I had a lower body and thighs as shapely as that! FemSkin evidently make very good products. Here is Sherry in the water, after a plunge off the diving board that seems to have whisked off her bikini top. Fortunately only the film crew were witnesses:


As it's California, Sherry has many opportunities to wear summery things. Here she is, putting a yellow outfit on:


Right. Let's take stock. A retired man needing female expression has tried ordinary cross-dressing, hasn't been satisfied with the result, and has turned instead to a putting on an outer skin that transforms his appearance into what he wants. He can dress or not, as the need arises. He stays sane, and has a glamorous solution to late-life loneliness. The inner urge to be Sherry in some form has been a personal secret for some years, but now he is ready to be open and public. Sherry, his alter-ego, doesn't look freaky; she looks pleasant, someone you'd want to know. Close-up, it's obvious that her face is a mask, so nobody can be fooled. She seems harmless. Perhaps you can pick holes in this scenario, but I for one am not inclined to.

Let's shift to another doll. This one is Jessie (although The Mirror Online seems to think that her name might be Viktoria):


Jessie lives in Southend, that big seaside town in Essex. It's the UK. Jessie is still housebound, and not even the neighbours know about her. She is well aware that it's best to keep it that way for now. But her girlfriend, a care worker, who shares the house, knows and accepts.


And Jessie has a doll friend, Tiff, who is 'out' and comes around to help her dress.


The situation is not like Robert's. It's much more social here. A small number of people do know. That small circle is bound to grow. Jessie is otherwise a 28 year old pub worker called Joel:


Joel has been experimenting with masks since his teens. He originally began with a fascination for exotic masks of the Hallowe'en variety - a fascination shared by his girlfriend - and it progressed to female masks. Plus of course the rest of the attire. He says it's an escape, an outlet. Yes, it clearly meets a need. I also think that here is another person with a feminine side, and finding expression for it. And here is the same drive from within to let Jessie, the alter ego, be shared with more people. The programme makes the point well that this urge to be open has consequences. At one point Joel introduces Jessie to two close friends who have never met her before. I didn't catch the male friend's name, but his girlfriend is called Clare. She's the one to watch. In comes Jessie. They hug.


But commenting afterwards, you can see that Clare is wobbly, upset, fighting back tears.


Perhaps Jessie was too much to take in all at once. Perhaps she liked Joel as he seemed to be, and now he isn't the person she thought he was, and can never again be that person. A much-valued friendship may be on the point of collapse. You've got to empathise. Clare does in fact find a way to deal with Jessie. In another scene, she is in Jessie's garden - so far as 'going public' is concerned, this is the equivalent of the pier at Newport Beach - with Jessie and two other dolls. It ends in another hug.


I really do admire Clare's behaviour here. She is the odd one out, in more than one sense, but she copes.

The programme also had much footage of the Rubberdoll Rendezvous convention for female maskers in Minneapolis. Sherry attended:


There was a sort of requirement to dress over the top. And some of the American maskers had attitude. Perhaps, as they were most definitely 'out and proud', they needed to look pretty assertive. Here are some shots:


Sherry looked much too gentle for this company.

During the Rendezvous, FemSkin gave a talk about their products, and how they could help people who wanted to cross-dress using a silicone female skin. If you want to see what FemSkin are offering, their website is at http://www.femskin.com/home.htm. And a detailed look at their products is at http://www.cinderelladream.net/femskin2.html.

As I said, there have been plenty of reviews and comments on Secrets of the Living Dolls. I would draw your attention to The Guardian article by Angelina Bouc at http://guardianlv.com/2014/01/men-who-dressup-as-rubber-dolls-star-on-secrets-of-the-living-dolls-video/, and the Daily Beast article by Nina Strochlic at http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/01/07/the-secret-world-of-men-who-dress-like-dolls.html.

And what of the trans point of view?

Helen Belcher of Trans Media Watch, who gave evidence at last year's Leveson Inquiry into Press Standards, wrote this Pink News article, at http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2014/01/09/comment-channel-4-did-not-help-trans-people-by-broadcasting-secrets-of-the-living-dolls/. The thrust of this is that Channel 4 has regressed, and produced a 'freak show' documentary that does not help the trans cause. But I don't think that many viewers would have made a connection between female masking and MTF transsexuals. I'm not even certain whether many would place the maskers with mainstream cross-dressing. Inevitably some viewers would obsess about the 'rubber suits' and the 'realistic anatomical details' and the apparent artifice of it all, connecting it perhaps with fetishistic bondage wear. Tsk. Trans people have been there before: the same misunderstandings, the same fixations on irrelevant prurient detail. Hmmm...maybe Helen Belcher is making a good point after all.

A while back someone asked a question on Roses - or it might have been The Angels - anyway, one of the serious trans and cross-dressing online forums that cater for The Community. This person wanted advice on whether it would be a good idea to wear a female face mask - a close-fitting one that would allow proper facial expressions - as a way of presenting a pretty face while undergoing the tricky initial stages of transition. The question was met with puzzlement and disbelief. Why would you wear a mask? Yes, your face would take time to soften and feminise, but surely it was better to endure a few months of that, while still presenting a natural face to the world - your own face. Certainly if you wanted to make new friends, and keep them, a mask wouldn't help at all. At the time I thought so too. And yet there must have been a female masking community online somewhere. Nobody seemed to know that. Well, they do now.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

A tactical mistake

Well, this is a bit annoying. More than a bit. I'm talking about that speeding business. If you remember, on 5 February I was caught on camera doing 61 mph on a 50 mph stretch of country road. Very soon afterwards I received a Notice of Intended Prosecution in the post. I had to confirm that I was the driver. I replied at once, saying that I was indeed the driver, and I attached a covering letter, as follows:


8 February 2014

Driver Diversion Team
Kent Police Headquarters
Sutton Road
Maidstone
Kent
ME15 9BZ


Dear Sirs

Notice of Intended Prosecution no. 47644753
Excess speed offence: 61mph recorded as the speed of my car on a 50mph section of the A228 road, on 5 February 2014

I attach a completed Section 172 (Driver/Keeper) Statement. I cannot argue with the speed measured by the Police camera van. I had just left a dual-carriageway section of the A228, had slowed for the roundabout (that was the junction with the B2015), and had picked up speed again when the offence occurred. I know it’s no good saying that I was running behind time, wasn’t a local person, and that this was a fast, clear section of road on which one might assume a 60mph limit. I’ve had a look at Street View on Google Maps - and there is a 50mph sign plainly visible as you come off the roundabout and enter the section of road on which I was seen speeding. I should have heeded it. I’m very sorry that I failed to do so.

This is my first speeding notice since 2003. I’ve been discussing the incident with my cousin, who lives at Rainham (near Gillingham), and she tells me that an elderly neighbour of hers was recently caught in the same way, but was offered the chance of a Speed Awareness Course instead of formal proceedings. Apparently the Kent Police are keen on re-educating drivers who are not habitual offenders. Could you consider this in my case, please? I do understand that the cost of the course, with travel and parking added, will actually exceed the fine that might otherwise be imposed - but I am willing to attend, and believe I would benefit.   

Yours faithfully

Miss Lucy Melford


That was on 8 February. It's now 20 February. It's about time that they replied, to let me know my fate. I'm almost certain (having researched this on the Internet) that the Speed Awareness Course will not be offered, and that I'll get three penalty points on my driving licence, plus a £100 fine. So be it. I'm ready to comply. I want to get it over and done with. In particular I don't this hanging over me for weeks - or months. I have read somewhere on the Internet that the police have up to six months after the offence to bring this to court. Six months! Yikes! I don't really think I face a court appearance, not for a straightforward speeding offence, but you do wonder why they haven't requested that £100 sooner. Do they have something else in mind? What, for instance? I had difficulty getting to sleep last night, imagining that somehow the offence had been enlarged and exaggerated, and that I was on trial for my life and liberty. Unrepresented too. Disturbing. It's on my mind constantly. 

The postman is due shortly. Come on, let me know the worst.

My speed-observance while driving has of course become impeccable. But it's a compliance born of fear. Despite sticking to the speed limit being the correct thing to do, I've already been hooted by other drivers for going 'too slow'. And paranoia about exceeding the limit, even by a little, means that I'm giving the speedometer a dangerous amount of attention. My eyes should be on the road. 

Perhaps the letter was a tactical mistake. Perhaps it has thrown a spanner in the works, complicating things so that so that the matter can't be routinely processed. Some clerk has wondered what to do. So the completed form attached to the letter has been logged in (at least I hope it has) then popped into a big tray marked 'Decision Needed'. Later on (who knows when) some more senior functionary will go through a mighty pile of letters like mine, with a big sigh. I can see that my letter might tend to puzzle him. What am I saying? That I did it all right? That's all he needs to know. He needn't bother to read the rest.

If however he does have the time to read the entire letter, he'll see my apology, realise that I'm not a regular offender, and appreciate that I'm a Responsible Citizen with a good attitude. But none of that will help. It'll just confuse the simple issue. So my letter might then go into yet another tray, for a proper police officer to assess. Eventually. When he has a free moment. And he's bound to bounce it back with 'fine and three points' stamped on it. Especially if he has a headache, and wants to go home. 

My fear then is that the legal request for money and my licence will arrive weeks from now, while I'm on holiday. And I will miss some deadline - with dire consequences. There's also my car insurance company: they must be phoned as soon as I know the offence is confirmed, so that I remain covered. I can't leave that till I return from holiday. 

So I'll need to make special arrangements. I'll have to ask J--- next door, and T--- my cleaner, to look out for anything from the Kent Police, open it up, and text me at once. Then I can at least dash home to deal with it. Even if it disrupts my holiday in March. Or June.

Grrrr. Don't say it. It's all my fault, every part of it. I know, I know.

Monday, 17 February 2014

The Welsh Tour is booked

Yesterday was, for once, a dry and sunny day with no wind. I could have driven off to some beach in West Sussex - to West Wittering, say - for a stroll, but instead I tackled two pressing tasks.

One was to fix a slipped roof tile. I'd already pushed one back into position on the side of my house (it was accessible from the top of a step-ladder). Now I'd spotted another, equally 'repairable', at the rear of the house. I don't like getting up on ladders, even a relatively low step ladder, but it had to be faced, and I was rewarded with success for the second time. These tiles are thick, heavy, concrete ones, original to the house. They are fifty years old, roughened with weathering, but that does mean that short of another bad gale they will stay put by weight and friction alone. They remain effective at protecting the house from rain and snow, but one day they will need replacement at God knows what cost. But that day is not yet. I'm thinking that if I refrain from too many ambitious holidays I can build up a New Roof Fund over the next ten years. Mind you, it will be in competition with a New Front Drive Fund, and a New Kitchen Fund. And you can't afford it all. Sigh.

The other task, which took me two hours, was to book the various destinations on my Welsh Tour this summer. This Tour will begin soon after the wedding at the end of May.

The task was actually not difficult. All but the last place I'm staying at could be booked online at the Caravan Club website. Which saved an awful lot of phoning, and I could backtrack, and ponder what to do, if I couldn't get all the dates I wanted. I was doing the booking now, four months ahead, to have a fighting chance of getting in where I wanted to go. Even so, one or two club sites were already full for some of the dates I had in mind, and I had to either shorten my stay (which had a knock-on effect on the itinerary) or chose an alternative site to be on. But I eventually got fixed up without too much trouble. Seven Club sites in a row, like a string of beads on a necklace. Then a favourite farm site on the way home. 25 nights for £313, or an average of £12.50 a night. Plus drinks for Fiona, of course.

So another big event planned and sorted well in advance. The site costs won't change, except to give me a discount here and there, if a special deal not yet published saves me a little money. No last-minute panic, no last-minute booking disappointments.

It struck me how different this approach was from how it used to be when M--- and I went caravanning together. She was inclined to pooh-pooh the need to book well in advance, which occasionally led to consternation when we couldn't find a place to go. She didn't mind taking a chance on finding a pitch at some farm at a couple of hours' notice, something I've never been happy to do. And she imposed all kinds of restrictions on what sort of site it could be. Generally, club sites were to be avoided, mainly on grounds of cost (in the early 2000s, Club sites were markedly more expensive than farms), but also on other grounds, such as their not having a scenic view, or not being peaceful enough.

So we stuck to farms in the main, and I will admit we found some delightful places to stay - but also experienced the odd disaster. But then there were two of us. One was a support for the other, and any mishaps and problems could be shared, and made light of. And two were better than one, if it came to any complaint.

Solo caravanning, as I do it now, is quite another thing. I have no backup, except whatever the site owner and fellow caravanners might provide. I am also physically older and not nearly so strong. It matters a great deal nowadays to stay where help is always on hand, where there is an organisation to give sympathy and comfort, and to act as a safety net. That's chiefly why I stay so much at Club sites, where the set-up is standardised, and the facilities predictably good. I don't care so much about having a scenic view, or just the silence of the lambs in the adjoining field.

Mind you, there are many Club sites that do have amazing views or backdrops. Inevitably these are going to be in Scotland, Wales or the West Country. For instance, the Camping & Caravanning Club Site at Rosemarkie in the north of Scotland, right by the beach:


Or the Caravan Club site at Morvich, in the West Highlands of Scotland, not far from Kyle of Lochalsh:


But M--- had a point about farm sites. Here's one from the beginning of our caravanning in 2002. It's Newton Farm, on the coast near Gatehouse of Fleet in south-west Scotland:


We had a huge field to ourselves, the other caravanners electing to pitch next to the beach:


And of course, M---'s delight was the view out of the front window of the caravan:


She always tried to orient the caravan to get the best view, wherever we went. Which sometimes meant faffing around, as we shifted from this position to that on the site, or tugged our beast this way or that to face the view, or the sunrise, or the sunset, or whatever M--- wanted to see from the front or side windows during our stay. This was her prerogative. I was just the 'man' and it was my job to make it happen without demur. Sometimes I didn't mind very much, and appreciated what she was trying to achieve. She knew her business, where views were concerned. But as the years went by, I objected more, especially if it was only a one-night stay, and we had travelled two hundred miles to get there, and were tired from travelling, and chiefly needed to get set up before energy and good humour were entirely spent.

It was however hard to argue with a view like this one, on Chapel Farm at Edmonton in Cornwall. As you can see, we had a grandstand view of the Camel estuary, with Padstow in the distance:


And - as so often is the case on farm sites - the farmer had work to do, which for us, sipping a nice cup of tea, and flicking through magazines, was simply visual entertainment:


None of the sites on my Welsh Tour are actually on the coast. They would be more expensive if they were, but apart from that, I don't want to risk a battering from wind and wave if the weather is foul. And for the same reason, none of my chosen sites are near a big river, with the risk of a flood. But the beautiful Welsh coast won't be far off. The mountains, too. Expect some nice shots.

The Tour then is from this moment fixed in concrete so far as dates and locations are concerned, and all other activities and appointments will have to be fitted in around it. The route is a big anticlockwise loop that goes from home in Sussex to the Cotswolds (Moreton-in-Marsh), nudges the Welsh Border in Shropshire (Much Wenlock), gets a taste of the North West (Chester), then runs along the North Wales coast to Anglesey (Benllech), down south again into the mountains of Snowdonia (Ffestiniog), south west along the Cardigan Bay coast to near Aberaeron (Oakford), south east now to Newport in Gwent (Tredegar House Country Park), and finally back home again via Coombe Bissett near Salisbury in Wiltshire. All of North Wales will be territory I haven't visited since the 1970s. I'm very much looking forward to seeing it again.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Call yourself what you will on Facebook

That's interesting. I saw a BBC News online item titled Facebook allows users to customise gender - see it at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-26177050 - and had a look.

Well, well! Somebody at Facebook has thought of a new wheeze to make the website frendlier, more individual, and more expressive of one's true identity. Users now have 50-odd ways to describe their precise gender status. It won't affect anyone acrimoniously divorced from Facebook, such as myself. But (as the Facebook spokesperson said) it will mean the world to some.

For the moment, this gender choice is confined to users who opt for 'US English', but surely that is bound to be extended.

I can imagine some people in Brighton and elsewhere leaping at this - basically organisers, committee members, artists, film-makers, writers and poets - people who are involved in flying the LGBT flag, or specifically the Trans flag, in a prominent (and perhaps even official) capacity. But I am bound to say that were I to rejoin Facebook, I would not myself describe myself as anything other than 'woman', the self-description I always use in day-to-day situations. Or 'female', in an official or medical context. The range of natal female types is so diverse that I don't feel I need to particularise further. I'd even say that drawing finer distinctions would tend to confuse ordinary folk who simply want a general idea of what one is, so that they know without doubt how they ought to behave on meeting. Declaring myself as a 'woman' or 'female' gives me all the recognition I need. So far I'm perfectly content with the responses.

That said, it will be meaningful for some to be thoroughly particular, and indicate a shade of difference that they feel is important. In their own circle, it will be understood and saluted.

I do however confess (going off on a tangent!) to a growing irritation and impatience with much gender-related language. Take 'queer' for instance. When I was very young, this word simply meant 'odd', 'strange', or 'very unusual.' You could apply it to something that had happened, or to an ornament, or to words spoken, or even to a smell or taste. Then an underground meaning, 'homosexual', became the main meaning. And then for a long time 'queer' was an Older Generation word for 'gay'. But in recent years, the meaning has shifted, and become much vaguer. It can now signify simply that the person describing themselves as 'queer' regards themselves as non-standard in some way. Possibly because of some gender issue, but nobody can know without closer enquiry.

Perhaps 'queer' is a mild example. At least the essential meaning of the word ('different' or 'not like most others') is easy to apprehend.

What about words like 'cis' though? It's not, as one might think, a piece of made-up, specialist cant or jargon. Cis is a Latin word (used also as a prefix) meaning 'on this side of'' (see http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/cis-). But it's an obscure Latin word or prefix that I for one wish had remained buried. Where is the advantage of saying 'cis' or 'cis-gendered', when short phrases like 'ordinary people' or 'non-trans people' will do instead? You can't possibly use the word 'cis' in ordinary speech - while chatting in the proverbial bus queue, for instance. Nobody will understand what you are talking about. It's a word for insiders when they communicate between themselves, not caring whether an outsider understands or not. Not my sort of word.

Friday, 14 February 2014

No love in my life

I've mentioned St Valentine's Day quite a bit on this blog - just do a search using the word 'Valentine' if you don't believe me! - so I can't be accused of ignorance where the Day of Lovers is concerned. And yet this year I failed to see it coming up. That was why I suggested yesterday, in a text to my nephew M---, that I phone him tonight to arrange when I'm next seeing the baby. He responded with a text saying that tonight was a bit difficult, but a call anytime tomorrow or the next day would be fine. I didn't twig until just now why he didn't want to be disturbed. But of course! The romantic young devil probably had a Candlelit Dinner For Two all set up, and didn't want to break off to hear an old aunt gibbering down the line.

The said old aunt had nobody to love, nobody to care for, and she Hadn't Realised.

Well, I hope and trust that love-struck couples everywhere are enjoying a lovely evening tonight. They'll have to be Hardy Types though, if eating out, considering the howling wind and the driving rain. I'm not sure where Cupid lives, but if it's Tewkesbury or Worcester or some place close to a big river, he must have been fretting all day about how many sandbags he'd managed to get hold of, and whether his stock of little arrows will stay dry.

All right. Let's now face the unsaid question squarely. Am I not a bit wistful that I'm not myself being treated to a candlelit dinner? And not being told that I'm the centre of someone else's universe?

Well, I'm not saying it wouldn't be pleasant. And I'm sure that soft words, and good food, and wine, and fine eyes, could all enchant me. But I don't want to be enchanted. Not even slightly swept off my feet. I've done all this before. I want to be free of it now. Falling in love would mean a disruption in my life, the end of my independence. I won't even risk a one-off romantic evening: it might set up a certain obligation to meet again, with consequences that I might well find difficult to handle. Putting it another way, anybody who gets the chance to have an evening's intimate conversation with me will learn my weaknesses. They will discover, for instance, that I find it very hard to be rude. Or to express anger. So they might push, knowing that articulating a blunt, definite 'no' is not going to be easy for me. I'm not letting anyone have that opportunity.

Fortunately there are trump cards up my sleeve. I can play the age card, for instance. That's the one that goes with the statement, 'You know, it's very sweet of you, but I'm really old enough to be your mother'. That ought to put off anyone under forty. But supposing they say, 'Ah, but I'm older than you suppose, and besides your wisdom and experience both appeal to me.' Then the independence card comes into play: 'I've had the single life thrust upon me, and that was hard I admit, but actually I love my independence and mean to keep it.' That'll foil the half-hearted for sure. But if determined they might counter with, 'Oh, we need not live together; I like plenty of personal space too. But how lovely it might be to have someone special to call on, whenever you need a partner.' To which I play the defective personality card, saying, 'I have to tell you that despite several significant relationships, including two especially deep and long-lasting ones, I have never learned the art of sharing my life, nor what compromise and commitment really are; and I'm convinced that I don't know the meaning of True Love.' That should stymie almost everyone. But if they then say, 'But you can learn anything with the right teacher,' it's time to play two final cards. First, the lesbian card. 'Men are very interesting to talk to, but actually I'm attracted only to women.' And if that doesn't work, the trans card. 'Look. I'm trans.' But the last only as an exit line, with Fiona fired up and ready for an instant getaway.

It all seems like running away, and being afraid of my emotions, doesn't it? Absolutely right. Heaven knows what emotional nooks and crannies would come to light if I abandoned my usual control, and let go. I've little doubt that oestragen has shaken up my brain, and has sabotaged the garnered common-sense of five previous decades. I'd be vulnerable, and easy prey. Remember the saying: There's no fool like an old fool. I can't help feeling that accepting a dinner date would be fatal, a step onto a slippery slope. I'd be like a fly falling into a pitcher plant.

So I can contemplate all those people enjoying their St Valentine Day evening (and its aftermath) without a sigh. In fact it feels like a Good Move to be at home, all alone, and engaged in nothing more than typing this post. You can say to me, 'You can't hide from love forever,' if you want to. So far as love is concerned, I'm not playing. In fact, given the choice between love and a sausage roll, guess which I'd go for! Sorry, Cupid.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Dollops, hunks and smidges

It may seem surprising, but in the past week I have been able to curb any tendency to wander over the speed limit when out driving. Part of it is fear of the dire consequences if I get caught again so soon after last week's incident. That really would be awful, and I feel I mustn't tempt fate. So I've been a very, very good girl indeed.

Oddly enough, this restraint has made driving both more relaxed and more interesting. More relaxing, because I am going a bit slower, and there is more time to assess what is going on around me, and how to best carry out the next manoeuvre. Plus of course I know that I am not breaking the law, so I've got peace of mind as well. More interesting, because it's a real challenge to keep ahead of the pack (or ahead of 90% of it, anyway) when you stick strictly to the limits. It makes for increased alertness, looking out for a safe overtaking opportunity, and skilful timing.

But this close attention to the rules of the road chimes in well with another kind of self-restraint.

My diet is producing results: four pounds lost in the last three weeks. I've refined my method. The target daily calorie intake is now 1,800 calories, while I'm reducing my weight and gaining a better shape. That's generous enough to avoid persistent hunger; and I avoid it also by having five eating occasions through the day: breakfast, lunch. afternoon snack, evening meal, and supper late in the evening. No snacking in between, of course.

But how to count the calories, without it becoming a chore? Well, I still have a mass of written data for the early part of 2011, when I was trying to lose 10kg (22 pounds) in the run-up to my surgery, and was following a traditional calorie-controlled diet. That entailed noting down the precise weight and calorie-value of everything I ate and drank. With practice I devised some very tasty evening meals that averaged around 600 calories, with an apple for dessert, and coffee to follow. (See my post Deceptive meals on 28 January 2011) I can therefore now reckon 600 calories as a ballpark figure for a 'sensible' evening meal cooked with fresh ingredients at home - meaning lean meat or fish, and a lot of vegetables. That's my main meal for the day, leaving a balance of 1,200 calories for the other four eating occasions.

The trick to the current diet is to manage those 1,200 calories. I use a 'fuel tank' approach. I dip into the 1,200 calories as my activities for the day demand. So a light breakfast of 200 calories would do amply for a morning sat down at the computer. But it might be 400 calories if I were going to sweep up leaves in the garden. Supposing it was a 400 calorie breakfast, I'd tell myself that I had 800 of them left in my tank for lunch, afternoon snack, and supper. You get the idea. The object is to get to the end of the day with 50 or 100 unused calories in hand, or at worst a completely empty tank.

So how do I know how many calories I've consumed? Weighing things is so boring! My carefully-preserved 2011 data comes to the rescue. Using it, I have put together a list of all the things I might eat or drink away from the main evening meal, with the calorific value. Here it is:

Possible items for breakfast, lunch,                         
afternoon snack or supper

Cooked
2 eggs, scrambled    225
2 slices of Spam    170
2 black puddings    150
2 rashers of lean bacon    140
Mushrooms    20
Large knob of butter in a pan (absorbed into the food)  150
Small knob of butter in a pan (absorbed into the food)    100
Small tin of baked beans    170
Small tin of spaghetti    125
Soup    200
1 slice of toast, buttered    150
1 slice of toast, not buttered    90

Not cooked
Small bowl of Alpen muesli with milk    300
4 dried apricots    50
2 dried apricots    25
Supermarket sandwich    300
Cold chicken breast    200
2 slices of ham    150
2 slices of tongue    130
2 slices of corned beef    110
2 slices of salami    90
5 olives    15
Tin of red salmon    220
Tin of sardines    200
1 slice of bread, buttered    150
1 slice of bread, not buttered    90
1 slice of Ryvita, buttered    70
Dollop of marmalade or conserve for spreading    20
A smidge of Marmite for spreading    5
Small hunk of cheese    90
1 Babybel Lite    40
1 apple    100

Drinks
Milk    130
Diluted elderflower cordial    70
Tea with milk, no sugar     25
Coffee, black, no sugar    5
Water    0

Remember these are the portions that satisfy me.  Your slices might be thicker than mine; your dollops and smidges might be larger. And I'm sure that my idea of a hunk is not the same as yours!

Remember too that this is my calorie menu for any of the four minor meals. Such things as sirloin steaks, sea bass fillets and avocado pears are a matter for the main evening meal, and so do not feature on this list.

Note that I drink no alcohol at home. And that there isn't a biscuit or bar of chocolate in the house. It helps immeasurably that I haven't got a sweet tooth.

Ah, you will say: you eat out at least once a week, don't you? You're always posting about restaurant meals, or meals at friends'. Doesn't that spoil the scheme? Well, it doesn't. I simply reckon 1,000 calories for any meal out, and restrict the calorie intake for the four other meals to just 800 calories, spread how I want. So it's always around 1,800 calories a day.

And to record my intake as the day progresses, I use the ordinary built-in Calculator app on my phone. It was sitting there unused. I simply keep a running total, and ensure that this total never exceeds 1,200 on a day when I am cooking my evening meal at home, or 800 if I'm eating out. I don't bother recording what the total actually was. I wipe it next morning anyway, and start again at zero. Minimum fuss.

I'd like to say that the self-restraint has extended to impulse-buying. Unfortunately that wouldn't be true. This morning I blew £17 on 20 mp3 music tracks bought on Amazon. And this afternoon another £17 on a secondhand book (the 1982 reprint of The Penguin Book of Card Games) and a dozen old Ordnance Survey maps of Scotland at the 1:25,000 and One-Inch scales, dating from the 1950s. Weak, weak!

I wonder why I didn't look for a book on Wartime Cookery? An opportunity missed. Corned beef and cabbage, that sort of thing...