Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Lord David Owen, Mark Horton and Vicky Pryce

It's always interesting to meet people who in some way have a public life, or at least you have seen them on TV. I've been able to see and hear three such persons in the last three days.

The first was Lord David Owen, a founder member in 1981 of the Social Democratic Party, which split from the (then) leftward-lurching Labour Party. Subsequently the SDP merged in 1989 with the Liberal Party (hence their still-retained 'LibDem' name) but Lord Owen, who wanted to pursue more robust policies than the Liberals, did not participate. He left the House of Commons in 1992 and was then active in the House of Lords until earlier this year. He might be described as a potential Prime Minister whose moment never came. As it was, he specialised in foreign policy, and I always credited him with having a firm grasp on what was needed for effective international relations: a credible deterrent, and an energetic, skilful and outward-looking Foreign Office.

So I was very interested in hearing about his latest book, The Hidden Perspective, which describes the extremely discreet discussions that took place between the British and French military from 1906, conversations that created understandings and expectations which committed the British to aiding the French if the latter were attacked by Germany - all behind the back of the British Cabinet, and without a hint to the wider British public of what was being negotiated. Lord Owen explained how these conversations at the very least paved the way to the First World War. As I liked history, and wanted to understand how this war began, I bought the book. I now expect to read a sorry tale of things done and said, that convinced people of certain things, and how it all slid out of control.

Lord Owen himself was now in his later 70s, and though he looked nicely suntanned he was white-haired and had the slower step of a man who feels his age. The very picture of the dignified senior politician-turned-historian. His voice had power and he spoke as a man who knew his subject, in this case the preliminary and clandestine exchanges between old-school military men, and then, as the Arms Race developed, the subtle manoeuvring of foreign ministers, all to no avail. The questions he replied to from an absolutely packed audience were equally erudite. He gave measured answers that were proof to me that he'd done an awful lot of research for his new book. Once or twice he was lost for the mot juste, and this (I thought) betrayed a mind beginning to lose its sharp edge, but I still felt that if ever I found myself caught in conversation with him, he would completely overawe me intellectually.

Later that day, the jolly and ebullient Mark Horton addressed another packed audience. This is the archaeology professor long associated with BBC's Coast programme, now in its ninth or tenth series. He was exactly as you see him on TV - brimful of enthusiasm, very lively, voluble, never lost for words, good at explaining how, for instance, the problem of ascertaining precise longitude was tackled by star-observation and calculation as well as by building reliable chronometers. He gave his illustrations a West Country bias so far as possible, and ended with a recommendation to the local Torridge District Council to amalgamate with other councils in order to support a team big enough to make scientific decisions on coastal management. (This went down very well - clearly a top local issue) I felt that with Mark Horton, 'what you see is what you get' and he provided the perfect contrast to Lord Owen's discussion of big-gun diplomacy and Germany's growing war machine.

Then last night it was Vicky Pryce, who was my age but looked younger, a mother of five (though presumably all grown up), a top economist who had advised the government, and had been married to politician and Cabinet Minister Chris Huhne from 1984 to 2010. Her husband, caught speeding on camera, had got her to say that she had been the driver. She saved him from a blemished licence and a possible career setback. The concensus when I discussed this with two women in Appledore's Seagate Hotel afterwards was that they knew wives who had done the same thing for their husbands, and they would probably do the same themselves. It was seen as a thing that a loyal wife would do, if they loved their husband and his livelihood were at stake.

That said, this concerned a man in public office, and therefore someone who must seem to be totally honest. But husband and wife had not been honest about who had driven faster than the law allowed.

Seeing and hearing Vicky Pryce now, I thought her a woman of character, not someone likely to give in tamely to a husband's bullying. I think they willingly colluded. I like to think that there were strong elements of loyalty spurring that collusion. This might explain why Vicky Pryce was angry enough to shop her errant husband later on. Love betrayed. I couldn't decide whether she acted on impulse, heedless of consequences, or took a calculated gamble that he would be embarrassed (and belatedly prosecuted for speeding) but that she herself would escape any criticism. Greek passion versus the cool head of the economics expert. If she gambled, then it came unstuck. They were both tried for perverting the cause of justice, and received short prison sentences.

Vicky Pryce's attitude to what happened to her was highly interesting. I should explain that former BBC journalist Simon Hall introduced her to the (once again very packed) audience and thereafter it was a conversation between the two of them with the audience looking on. There was an unusually long time allowed at the end for audience questions, some twenty minutes I thought. (She was a controversial figure after all)

She made it sound as if she had seen that a prison sentence was inevitable and needed planning for, exactly as if she were going abroad for a few months. Inevitable because they were both connected with the government, and she thought they would be made examples of. Also, she thought (correctly) that she would be demonised in the media coverage. Indeed, I had been influenced by the negative reporting at the time. I was seeing her now at least partly because I wanted to glimpse the 'real' Vicky Pryce. Well, she tried to work out how long she would be in prison, and made all sorts of forward arrangements, including how to pay everyday household bills, even to the extent of taking over £1,000 in cash with her on sentencing day, in order to pay for unforeseen bills that might crop up while imprisoned. The prison officers at Holloway Prison had never seen anything like it. Generally they dealt with women still shocked and confused at having received a custodial sentence, women who had made no forward arrangements at all, women who merely left their children with friends and neighbours for the rest of the day, and certainly not women who had come equipped with money and books and the paraphernalia of a top-level economist. The other women prisoners were equally astonished, because she mixed with them from the start, wanted to hear their stories, and did not stay in her cell all the time.

Simon Hall was amazed that she had taken the fact of incarceration so calmly. Vicky Pryce was adamant that facing facts and planning to cope had allowed her to keep positive. She found the prison regime for women easier to live through, more humane, than she had thought it would be, but it was certainly not something she would recommend anyone try. The loss of personal freedom was potentially devastating. Her cell was OK for size and comfort, but cold. All the vices of prison life were in your face every day - the drugs, for instance. There were people you quickly learned to avoid. Educational opportunities were meagre or non-existent. On the other hand, some prisoners had told her that the only reason they were still alive was the care and sanctuary they got from prison life: their addiction or mental problems would have killed them outside.

Reoffending rates were staggeringly high. A spell in prison would practically guarantee that you ended up there again. It seemed to her a most inefficient way of dealing with crime. It was terribly expensive to maintain people in prisons - she quoted statistic after statistic to illustrate this. All in her book, of course. I thought she saw prison life and its consequences mostly in money terms. She also spoke about the disruption of families, but I got no sense that, as a scientist in economic theory, she really knew what it was to be a member of a crime-ridden underclass. That said, nor do I.

Although she came across as a highly practical and resilient woman, there was no frank confession that she had lied to the authorities and deceived the police over that speeding affair. At one point, about halfway through, a man in the audience interrupted with a question: where was her contrition? He explained that he had been a prison officer during the 1990s. He had hoped to hear her say she was sorry for concealing the fact that her former husband had driven dangerously fast and might have killed someone. She hadn't expressed any shame at all. And with that, he left. It was only a momentary check in the smooth flow. I was certain that other people had stood up at other talks, and that she had an answer ready, if they stayed and persisted. This man had got it off his chest and walked out. It was however a fair point. Did she really feel she had done a bad thing? All she said was that she had 'made a mistake' - which is not actually admitting to a crime. Methinks a little self-exoneration here! Nevertheless she had spent time in jail. And that was undoubtedly a genuine punishment, even if she had come out if it with material for a book, and a career still intact.

Would I ever lie to get someone else out of a fix? A person of hard-and-fast principles has a clear answer: no, whatever the circumstances. I am not a person of rigid principles. I think a more nuanced judgement is always needed. But I hate to lie, and I am wary of ignoring the law. Perhaps I should just be very thankful that I am not presently so close to anyone that such decisions have to be made.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

The back pocket, and those bent iPhones

One of the many little things that made me question my role in life during past decades was the back pocket. That's the pocket on the backside of jeans, trousers and even shorts. I noticed that many men used this pocket and no other for whatever they had to carry - in particular their wallet, often a fat one full of paper money and latterly a credit card or two. I could not understand why men used this pocket so much, even when there were other pockets available, such as the inside pocket of a jacket.

It seemed not only to be the regular thing for a man to do, but one of those Real Man Things. A risky, dangerously silly thing that marked out the man from the whimp. A 'try if you dare' challenge to pickpockets and sneak thieves. A defiant gesture against physical laws that said one day, if wearing those jeans, if sitting just so, that wallet would fall out of that pocket of its own accord, and be lost forever. Such bravado could seem cool.

And it could seem very cool for a man wanting to pay for something (drinks or cigarettes, say) to make a big performance of reaching for the wallet in his back pocket, opening it out, peeling off a banknote or two, and then putting that wallet back. He could do this in such a way that the entire sequence of actions called attention to him, as if he wanted to be judged for style and competence with wallet and pocket, and not merely for the ability to pay.

It wasn't done to impress any lady friend. It was done to impress all nearby men, who would be able to see that (a) this man (doing the paying) was not worried about keeping his money in a sensible place, and therefore (using male logic) was no cissy; (b) he was able to put his hand unerringly on something he couldn't see - and put it back there - with ease and sureness, and therefore (using male logic) was a man of admirable dexterity and control; (c) the bulging wallet said he had a lot of money, and therefore (using male logic) he was a man to be respected, all the more so for being so nonchalant about trusting everything to that back pocket, with its obvious vulnerability to theft or mishap.

A man who had perfected the entire sequence of back-pocket-and-wallet movements might embellish it with a feigned lack of concern for the actual banknotes. It looked bad to peer anxiously at the money in the wallet, as if there might not be enough. Real men always had enough, and plenty to spare. This was the sign of a successful man of means. Real men took out a banknote without looking at it, treating it like a piece of waste paper, and never checking the change. All this was to impress lesser men, to signal that one was confident and assured, and pretty damned high in the pecking order. Juveniles would strive to emulate this kind of posing.

Mention of change reminds me that men most often kept coins in one of their front jeans or trouser pockets. They jangled this loose change when wearing trousers (jangling wasn't possible when wearing tight jeans), and the sound they made could signal boredom or irritation or impatience without having to say anything. Cigarettes went into their shirt pocket, and reaching for the pack and lighting one had its own associated ritual. I suppose this appropriation of front pocket and shirt pocket was a possible reason for consigning the wallet by default to the back pocket. But non-smokers also tucked their wallets away in the same back pocket, suggesting that using a safer place simply didn't look credible enough.

As you might guess, I rejected all this nonsense. It seemed insane, and I most definitely didn't want to be associated with Macho Men who gave pickpockets a good living. I wanted to be sensible. I used a purse for my coins, to stop holes developing in my pockets, and my wallet went into an inside jacket pocket - and not even the usual one, as I eventually discovered. Just as I tied my scarf the 'wrong' way, I unconsciously used the 'wrong' inside pocket. I liked to be different, especially if this was how a woman might do it. Once I became aware of these little feminisms, I continued with them as a deliberate policy. Long before I ever heard of 'gender dysphoria' I was eager to push against the male world and its conventions in all sorts of small and unobtrusive ways. I did not regard myself as a traitor, only a low-level rebel. In fact nobody noticed.

And now this latest news about some iPhone 6 owners - all of them men, I'm guessing - complaining that their new phone bends if they tote it around in their back pocket, and then sit down. Why anybody in their senses would think it a good idea to carry a valuable pocket computer around that way is astonishing. It's even more astounding that they should expect it to resist the large forces acting upon it when nestling against a muscular male bum. Of course it will be stressed beyond reason. And unless made of steel it will flex, and might get permanently bent. Phones are not meant to be stressed like that. But I suppose these James Dean wannabes have no sense. And of course it's a worldwide sport to savage Apple if any product falls short of perfection, or can't pass some absurd or unreasonable test.

It wasn't so long ago that tech websites were speculating about the next generation of mobile phones having curved screens. What's the difference between a screen bent by design, and one bent by self-inflicted stupidity, so long as the phone still works? But in any case, I couldn't see the point of designing a phone shaped like a flattened-out banana. Then I twigged. Of course - it was so that a Real Man could carry a high-tech phone in his back pocket with greater style and comfort, the curvature of the screen following the curvature of his bottom so much better. Hah. Well, I hope they do flat-screened versions for women's bags.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Naming Lucy

A trans girl presently named Aimee has had her post on choosing a female name featured on T-Central. This is a perennially interesting topic that I have visited once or twice before on my own blog. Well, it's a vital issue, isn't it? That female personality must have a name, and the choice will have consequences.

I think Aimee and those commenting have mentioned many of the most important things to keep in mind, but with two omissions: the surname that will be needed, and what the general public might think. Both first name and surname have to be fit for the real world, and seem right together.

Nearly everyone I've ever met has retained their original family surname, or, as an alternative, has adopted a surname that used to be associated with the family. My own switch from Dommett to Melford feels exceptional. Not extremely rare, but unusual enough to elicit surprise when trans people I meet discover that I wasn't actually born a Melford. Of course, ordinary members of the public raise no eyebrows. They seem to assume that Melford is a surname I acquired from my husband on marriage, and leap to this convenient notion as soon as I mention that I was once married.

I am quite cool and easy about explaining that I was born Lucy Dommett, which, after all, is exactly what it says on my Birth Certificate. This very fact, that I used to be Lucy Dommett, came up yesterday when visiting the churchyard at Broadhembury. I was still grave-hunting, and with some success. As I worked my way steadily along a row of gravestones, I approached two local persons. One was the man mowing the grass. The other was a lady who was probably a churchwarden. Inevitably we fell into conversation. I said, 'I'm looking for dead Dommetts,' and added, 'My name's Lucy Dommett.' The lady immediately took me into the church and showed me the record of burials and a plan showing where each burial was to be found in the churchyard. I'm sure she did this with every bona fide enquirer, but it felt as if the words 'Lucy Dommett' had had the magical force of 'Open Sesame'.

I also mentioned that - of course - my surname now was something else. But I didn't need to say it was Melford, nor that along the line I had got married. Given my apparent age, marriage and a change of surname could be taken for granted. And that's a point one should bear in mind. Women usually do adopt another surname in their lifetime. An older daughter will generally not have the same surname as her parents. So there is nothing odd or strange about choosing a new surname, as well as a new first name. The public at large expect it. It's the credible thing to do. Indeed I would say that unless one has an especially distinctive or attractive family surname that it would be unbearable to abandon, it's always best to change.

Back in 2008, at the start of my transition, I wrote an article for myself - it predated the blog by three months or so - called Naming Lucy. I added to it as time went on. It explains how I came to be Lucy Melford and not something else. Oh, by the way, I was called Julian Dommett by my parents.


NAMING LUCY 

With transition in mind, I had to think about a new name. But selecting one wasn't entirely straightforward. 

Personal security 

If I adopted something too close to my old name, my entire pre-transition history would be vulnerable to discovery. Did it matter? I wasn't sure. But I had a gut feeling that a minimal change to, say, 'Julia Dommett' might lead to problems somewhere down the line. If not for myself, then perhaps for my family. I didn't want this to happen, and so the new name - more especially the new surname - had to be very different.

New life, new name 

Whatever the personal security aspects, it felt right and necessary to adopt an entirely new name to suit my new life. Perhaps this was really the main reason. I wanted the new name to be completely my own choice: this was very important.

Choice of first name 

Deciding on a new first name was definitely the lesser problem. It was simply down to personal preference. I seriously considered Stephanie and Joanna, but settled on Lucy. I liked the sound of it, it was easy to say, and it went with a gentle personality. I felt that most people would be kind to me if I presented myself as Lucy, as opposed to someone called Cruella, or even just plain Anne or Jane.

I later realised that 'Lucy' kept the 'u' and 'l' and 'i' sounds of 'Julian', albeit in a different order. Clearly my subconscious mind had wanted a little continuity after all!

Choice of middle name 

Did I want to bother with one? I was undecided. When young, I had written several poems in which I portrayed myself as a girl called Mary. So if any name at all, it might most appropriately be that one. It would then be ‘Lucy Mary Melford’, and the initials would be ‘LMM’. Hmmm. Plain ‘Lucy Melford’ with initials simply ‘LM’ had a lot to be said for it. And Mum had had no middle name, being just 'Dorothy Dommett'. I would have the same. It would be nod in her direction.

Choice of surname 

This was much harder. It couldn't be 'Dommett'. My recently-begun transition was still acutely embarrassing for my parents, and to give them some protection I needed to have a different surname. Of course, this actually suited me.

The initial letter had best not be D either. What then? I wanted something that was neither ordinary nor unusual. To avoid attracting attention, an English surname seemed best. It had to be nice to say, simple to spell, and easily handwritten - that last requirement ruled out a lot of names that sounded fine but didn't flow too well from my pen.

Front runners included Polwin, Polson, Preston and Longford. But in the end it was Melford, and when I first attended the Clare Project meeting in Brighton on 2008 1209, my public debut, I announced myself as 'Lucy Melford'. That sort of fixed it in stone.

I was however perfectly happy with this. 'Lucy Melford' was a pleasant, rather rustic-sounding name, containing only soft consonants. Although 'Melford' wasn't specifically a West Country surname, I felt it might easily be native to Devon or more especially Dorset, which was pleasing and appropriate. Anyway, a nod to Dad's origins in that part of the world.

Using my new name
• I first signed myself 'Lucy Melford' in a letter of thanks to [a vicar in Brighton] on 2008 1217.
• I told M--- that my trans name was Lucy on 2008 1228, after she asked me whether I thought Alice and Emma were nice names that I could use. It seemed opportune to let her know which name I'd already chosen.
• The first [non-trans] friend to be told about 'Lucy Melford' was G--- in an email on 2009 0101.
• By 2009 0108 M--- was able to speak the name 'Lucy Melford', even though she could not say it willingly. This was when we were discussing whether I'd have to get a new doctor, dentist, and so on. She mentioned that she'd done a Google search for 'Lucy Melford' but had drawn a blank. This ordinary-sounding name must in fact be rare! (See below)
• On 2009 0120 Alice said that ‘Lucy’ suited me.
• On 2009 0205 I began my Lucy Melford blog on Google, and the name 'went public'.
• On 2009 0206 I set up my Lucy Melford Flickr site. I noticed that an ordinary web search (using 'lucy melford' as the search words) would find both blog and Flickr site instantly, with both topping the list of results.
• Even by 2009 0210 I still hadn't encountered another Lucy at the Clare Project [the trans group in Brighton], out of 30-odd trans women met or heard of. It made me feel rather individual.
• By 2009 0301 Dad had become acquainted with the name 'Lucy Melford' and could speak it naturally and without apparent effort.
• At the end of March 2009 I acquired two discount/points-earning cards in the name of 'Lucy Melford' - Body Shop and Nectar.
• On 2009 0330 I had a consultation and made a [first] hair appointment at Trevor Sorbie in Brighton using the name Lucy Melford.
• When I visited her at home on 2009 0718, my niece J--- remarked that 'Lucy Melford' sounded like a name out of a Jane Austen novel! Not long after she began to use 'Lucy' when texting me.
• On 2009 0902 I put ‘Lucy Melford’ on my Electoral Register form.
• On 2009 1101 I executed a Deed Poll which made my name 'Miss Lucy Melford' for all purposes.
• By November 2009 [my cousin] R--- was calling me Lucy all the time and referring to me as 'she' when speaking on the phone to her son M---. And [my niece] J--- was going to call me 'Aunt Lucy' in front of strangers.
• I signed my first 'Lucy Melford' cheque on 2009 1204.
• My ‘Lucy Melford’ passport (with the ‘female’ indicator) arrived on 2010 0118.
• My ‘Lucy Melford’ driving licence (with the ‘female’ indicator) arrived on 2010 0128.

Other Lucy connections 

• A juvenile hominid discovered in 1976 in the Afar region of Ethiopia (and thought then to be a definite 'missing link' in the development of man) was nicknamed Lucy - apparently after the girl in the Beatles' song 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds'. Her scientific name was Australopithecus Afarensis. Lucy the hominid had a long reign as the possible direct ancestor of mankind, but in 2008 was finally sidelined as new evidence emerged. Oh well. She remained well known.
• Lucille Ball starred in the TV series I Love Lucy for many years. I remember liking that programme, especially when her husband Desi Arnaz was in it, although Lucy herself was a little too strident.
• Then there was the song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds already mentioned above, on the Beatles' album Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
• On 2008 1226 I saw the latest film version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on TV, and was pleasantly reminded that the younger of the heroines (the one who discovered Narnia in the back of the wardrobe, but wasn't believed) was called Lucy.
• On 2009 0116 I ran some searches on BT's online look-up-their-phone-number service. Searching for 'Melford' in 'Devon', 'Dorset', 'Cornwall', 'Gloucester', 'Wiltshire', 'Oxford', 'Hampshire', 'Sussex' and 'Brighton' got me nothing. 'Somerset' produced 'F C Melford' and 'Fiona Melford' at two different addresses in Portishead, and 'S Melford' in Bath. 'London' produced a 'J Melford' at two different addresses and an 'M Melford'. 'Kent' turned up a further 'J Melford'. So that's just seven Melfords with landlines for most of southern England. A pretty rare name, then. And so much for it being ‘typically west-country’!
• On 2009 0123 a quick search of the A-Z London Street Atlas revealed ten Melford Roads, Melford Courts, or whatever, mostly in east or south east London. There was a Melford Road, Court and Passage all in the one place near Dulwich Park in SE22. Named after which Melford, I wonder?
• Eastern England had a 'Melford' town: Long Melford in Suffolk - full of charming buildings. I went there on 2010 1002, looking in at Melford Hall!
• Oh dear. I discovered that a Lucy and Greg Melford were defendants in a Californian court case arising from a complaint filed by one Rachel Vargas on 2002 0319. I couldn’t find out what the outcome was. Trust someone to drag the Melford name down like this!

Further down the line: 2012 

By early 2012 my life had settled down after the surgery in 2011. I was very independent, very self-assured, and although my capital had gone forever with the sale of Ouse Cottage, I could at least make long-term plans without that financial time bomb ticking away in the background. Although still in contact with M---, we led entirely separate lives. I was free to do anything I wanted.

'Lucy Melford' still suited me very well as a name. And soon my Gender Recognition Certificate would fix me forever as a female person, born as 'Lucy'.

I wondered whether to revert to Dommett as a surname, in order to have a perfect tie-up with Dad's surname on my birth certificate - just as if I'd been Julian's twin sister. It would require another Deed Poll. I wasn't sure; I liked Melford very much, and it was easier to say and spell than Dommett! And it was, after all, my choice of surname, and not something pre-determined.

I wasn't the only 'Lucy Melford' on the Internet any more. A certain Lucy Billington had got married, and now took her husband's name, becoming Lucy Melford. She had children. She was on Facebook. I wasn't: and if you searched for me on Facebook, you found her, not me. I welcomed this. She stood between me and any ill-intentioned searching.

But my blog and my Flickr site were still the top results if you made a general Google search for 'Lucy Melford'.



So now you know! I will add that nowadays I am quite concerned about the other Lucy Melford getting unwelcome comments on Facebook in mistake for me. But there is nothing I can do about it.

I am ambivalent about reverting to Dommett as a surname. It would strongly link me by name to my nephew, his wife, and little Matilda. And I do feel very much a member of the much wider Dommett Family and its ramifications. But Melford is a nice name that feels oh-so-comfortable. And it was my own choice, which matters an awful lot.

Lucy as my first name is far beyond change now - too many people have accepted me under that name and no other. So many, that I conclude it must really suit me to a T. To be frank, it feels as if I've been Lucy all my life. And I am very happy with the thought of being Lucy till the end of my days.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Bad behaviour on both sides of the fence

Certificated Locations or CLs - that's Caravan Clubspeak for farm sites - can take only five caravans or motorhomes, and so they usually feel spacious and uncrowded. It mainly depends on two things: how big a space the farmer has allocated to the caravans, and where the electric hookups are located.

You can get a very big field, but with everyone clustered in just a corner of it, because the hookups are too close together. That's irritating and unnecessary, and indicates that the farmer is too mean to spend money on a lot of underground cabling. A bad sign all round.

I recall one CL in Hampshire that had a single post with five electrical sockets on it, so that everyone had to pitch within a cable's length from that post, say ten metres at most. Only those who had the foresight to carry a spare cable, allowing them to double their distance from that post, could pitch further away and enjoy peace and quiet. When M--- and I went there, we had to join the huddle, having just the one cable. It took the edge off our pleasure. Nowadays I always bring along a spare cable to overcome any unforeseen problems at sites that I haven't tried before.

Curlew Farm near Lyme Regis has a lovely view, and plenty of space to pitch in, with sheep to watch in the fields in the foreground. There's nothing not to like. Well, one thing does sometimes cause a problem: there are only two hookup posts, one with three sockets on it, the other with two. Two posts for five caravans. Human nature being what it is, caravans sometimes get plugged into the wrong socket. Occasionally a caravan at one or other extreme end finds itself without a socket within a standard cable's length. Someone else has rather stupidly used 'their' socket. The unwelcome prospect then arises of having to ask the offender to change to another socket. Unwelcome, because anybody who pays no regard at all to the needs of people yet to arrive is likely to be a belligerent moron who will respond badly to any such request. And sneakily replugging their cable without asking isn't on: they will immediately know whodunnit, and an angry thump on the caravan door will be the inevitable response. This is especially certain if disconnection upsets something left running while they were out for the day - a recharging device, or a recording TV programme, say. And you thought caravanning was a gentle pursuit? It's the Law of the Jungle.

Me, I avoid any such confrontation by dragging out my spare cable, joining both cables together, and running this trans-Atlantic sized leviathan from my caravan to the only hookup socket left vacant by the morons. I don't mind too much. I can wear the armour of clear necessity. I have to trail my cable close behind three or four other caravans, invading their space, stepping over their stuff, possibly disrupting their barbecue, and generally pissing them off. That's my revenge for the inconvenience they have caused me. And it's blindingly obvious that I have no choice. I give them a polite smile, and a polite 'good afternoon' in my poshest voice. They give me a bleak look, eyes blazing, fists clenched, teeth grinding, but they can say nothing because their error has been exposed, and it is embarrassingly crass and blatant. Some actually do apologise, but an apology from the inconsiderate or unthinking means nothing. I walk smugly back to my caravan wearing a haughty air of pure virtue, and leave them to choke on their raw prawns.

No such management has been needed on this visit. So I have been free to give my full attention to the view - and the little lambs. Except that they aren't little lambs at all, not even ewes, but proper rams. Six of them. That's unusual to see so many. Rams are rather like bulls: kept for one purpose only, and therefore not often glimpsed. I'm quite sure they are male sheep because they are more heavily-built than a ewe, have differently-shaped heads, and they move more deliberately. They walk in fact like John Wayne. And this is because slung between their hind legs is an enormous scrotum. It must be really awkward to have that weighty thing donging about with every ponderous step taken. Not once have I yet seen any of these rams run. My guess is that running is impossible.

There are more signs of maleness. They don't say much. No baaaaa noises. Ewes are much more vocal, especially when lambing, but these very macho sheep are strong and silent. I suspect they are grouchy, touchy, and not to be trifled with. I saw one butt another out of the way in a bullying manner. He definitely wasn't being playful. You could tell. There was an edge to it. The farmer has plonked a large plastic box of something at one end of their field. Presumably this contains pellets of some highly-nutritious food that rams love. Every once in a while they sashay up to this box, like mean and moody gunfighters with a horrible hangover from too much badly-made whisky, and nibble some of the contents. In the main they take turns, but sometimes they go in a gang and push and shove each other to establish who's top ram. Sounds familiar? How parallel human and animal male behaviour is!

Well, I hope they don't get ideas. The water tap is next to the fence, which is only waist high. I don't want a ram, high on pellets and all sexed up, leaping the fence and trying his luck. Yes, I know I'm not glamorous to human eyes, but I dare say I look pretty good to a randy sheep eager to get his end away.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Gravestones, ghostly passengers, and trams

Today started murky, turned into beautiful sunshine, and stayed that way until the sun hazed over around 4.00pm. I decided not to go beachcombing but to visit some churchyards instead, looking for dead Dommetts. This was 'work' in connection with Dad's family genealogy.

I went to Kilmington and Shute. It was rather pleasant, methodically peering at every gravestone, camera ready to record anything interesting. I was certain that I scrutinised all the legible gravestones in both churchyards. Some were of course too weather-worn or lichen-encrusted to say who might be buried there. I did have something to show for my efforts. I not only rediscovered Henry Dommett's grave at Kilmington, but found one for John Dommett. And at Shute I came across Robert Dommett's grave. These were all prominent local farmers in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Their gravestones are probably the only tangible things left of them. And only because their families could afford to have a stone memorial carved and erected. Many in Dad's family had no money at all, and were presumably placed in unmarked graves that I won't be able to find. I will only (at most) have birth, marriage and death certificates for these people.

It's sobering to think that, even today, few people will have enduring memorials to remember them by. That's partly due to the popularity of cremation and the high cost of the alternative, a traditional burial.

Mum and Dad set up pre-paid funeral plans, which included cremation. I had to abide by their arrangements. Consequently there are no graves to visit. Their ashes are scattered (and mingled together) in my rockery, but if I ever move house there will be no access. It's just not the same as a definite burial place in a country churchyard open to the public, with an inscribed stone that will always be there. The family children of the far future might feel this even more keenly than I do. My brother was also cremated, and there is a plaque in the ground where his ashes were interred. But it's accessible only through the London church he worshipped at, and by special request. I can't just turn up there and have a few quiet moments with him whenever I might want to. Nor can his son and daughter.

I intended to look in Colyton churchyard next. On the way, I stopped at the former Seaton Junction station. This was closed to passengers in 1966, when the branch line to Seaton was shut. It was an imposing station with a handsome red-brick main building and at least three platforms. There were two very long concrete footbridges across the tracks, one for passengers hurrying to change trains, and the other carried an ordinary country footpath across the railway from lonely fields to the south. Both footbridges still stand, although the one for former passengers can't be reached except by ghosts; it connects the main platform next to the station building - the old 'up' platform for London-bound trains - with an island platform, now choked with brambles. No doubt, if they cleared the brambles, they would find the skeletons of those passengers who missed the very last train to Seaton and were left stranded, complete with luggage.

The station building is eerily intact, and looks as if it could be brought back into use very easily. But it won't be - I saw a notice about Planning Permission being sought, to convert the building into residences. Hmm. The occupants will have a country view compromised by two indestructible concrete footbridges that lead nowhere. Plus the luxury of a nicely-preserved main platform from which to watch the hourly London-Exeter trains flash by. These trains can't stop - when they singled the track, they moved the rails many feet away from the platform. Of course, if the double-track is ever restored, the sound of the trains will come closer. Buying a station property is always a dubious idea, unless you really like noise and vibration for eighteen hours each day.

Approaching Colyton, I abandoned my proposed scrutiny of the churchyard on seeing signs to the Seaton Tramway. This follows the line of the former single-track railway between Colyton and Seaton, with a new terminus at the Seaton end, as the original (a classic Southern Railway seaside terminus station designed for teeming pre-war holidaymakers) was bulldozed after line closure. A tramway enthusiast got hold of the land and opened a first section of 2'9'' track for miniature trams in 1969. The full length from Seaton to Colyton was open by 1980. Although not full-sized, these trams have a proper upstairs and downstairs, with spiral stairs at each end. I was just in time to board the 3.00pm Seaton-bound tram, sitting upstairs to enjoy the view. I will tell more - with pictures - once home again. I can say it was one of my better sudden impulses, to buy a return ticket. It was far more exciting than looking at gravestones!

Monday, 22 September 2014

Sunshine and twinges

Well, what a lovely drive down to Lyme Regis! Incredibly sunny and warm all the way - that's five hours of travelling - unheard of for the 22nd September, which is a bit late in the English Year for sustained good weather.

I pitched at Curlew Farm in the late afternoon, and by six o'clock my evening meal was fully defrosted and ready for heating up in a pan, with fresh sprouts in another. This was half of a delicious casserole I'd made four weeks previously, with this first night of my holiday actually in mind. It turned out to be way too much to eat. But the challenge was on the table, and I ate it all - a small mountain of chorizo sausage, red pepper, onions, carrots, parsnips and potato, with the sprouts for extra company. I skipped the usual apple to follow - there was just no room left inside. It was tasty and hot and very nourishing, but I was seriously bloated.

So I fired up Fiona, and we went into Lyme for a long evening walk. My favourite route is to park above the cinema, then stroll down to The Cobb through the gardens. Then, having shot the sunset and the boats, back along the sea front to the town centre, then up to Fiona again, on the way calling in at the Royal Lion Hotel for a glass of wine - which I am enjoying as I write this.

One of the films on at the cinema had caught my eye. It was called Lucy and a quick look on the Internet while I stood outside revealed that it was about a girl who involuntarily absorbs a drug that makes her hyper-intelligent with tele-kinetic powers. Not a bit like me, and it didn't sound my sort of film, so I wasn't tempted to give it a go. I thought the money would be better-spent on refreshments at the Hotel.

I woke up this morning with something that may spoil my holiday: twinges from my teeth. I think my recent cold has affected my sinuses, and this has in consequence made my teeth very sensitive. While driving along this afternoon, I could feel these twinges 'move' progressively along my upper row of teeth. I hope this quietens down. I am presently 160 miles away from my dentist, and by the end of the week (when I move on to North Devon) I will be some 250 miles away - and a fixture there for ten nights. It will be awkward if my teeth play up.

Tomorrow promises to be another very sunny day. I will find a beach, I think. It may be the only day for sandals in the entire holiday!

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Vintage clothing fun


Yesterday I spent a few hours on Brighton with my friend Alice. This is the one who writes poetry and gives passionate performances to appreciative audiences. She is now one of the Faces of Trans in Brighton, a public figure of a sort. I kid you not. This poster has been current in all trans-friendly places this summer:


When the local TV people wanted someone from the trans world to give a comment on Kellie Maloney's coming-out, Alice obliged. I didn't see the interview, but I'm told she came across like an old hand - cool, clear-speaking, and very sensible. Alice's public appearances have clearly given her confidence! Me, I'd freeze with naked fear if a TV camera were pointed at me.

Anyway, I'd just had a pre-holiday fringe trim at Trevor Sorbie, and we met up in Bond Street for coffee, cake and a good chat. We plonked ourselves on window seats in Caffé Nero, and tucked into all this:


And here are Alice and myself, as the passers-by saw us:


As you can see, Alice likes to wear retro dresses with flowery designs. They look great on her. I'd passed a couple of shops on the way to Caffé Nero that sold what is known as 'vintage clothing'. That means new clothing based on 1950s designs. These shops had dresses in their windows that I knew Alice would like very much. So afterwards we looked more closely.

We spent a lot of time in a shop called Collectif. So did plenty of other women. We all chose about six or seven items to try on, and chatted with each other while we waited to get into a cubicle. It was one of those shops where you can ask a total stranger what they think of your choice, now that you've squeezed into it. One girl with an ample figure sought my opinion of a blouse and skirt combo. I gave it some serious thought, but had to tell her that the blouse gaped a bit too much at the bosom. It depended on what she wanted to accomplish. If it was to look voluptuous and very interesting at a party, then yes, this was just right. But it wouldn't do for a wedding.

At least she could get into these clothes. I couldn't manage it at all. Most dresses required you to be very trim, with a definite waist. So this dress, which looked so nice on the mannequin, was not for me:


Matrons like myself were wasting their time. But Alice (who has the slimness of a teenager) had no problems whatever, despite the recently-scoffed Caffé Nero croissant, and could twirl with the best of them. She had no hesitation buying this dress:


Only one of my own selections looked good - a short jacket in black with striped red collar and cuffs, and two big red cherries sewn into the front. It was £55. I bought it. Here it is, as worn next day with a black skirt, when I went up to London to present little Matilda with her teddy bear:


I also bought this trenchcoat, found on a sale rail:


£95 marked down to half price. And it made me look like a Girl Detective. I could go looking for clues. I could solve crimes. And all the while saxophones would drone in the background, and someone would hammer moodily on a piano. It was impossible to walk away from it.

There were plenty of accessories too, all of them with that classic 1950s look. Alice tried on a perky little red hat:


Both having spent rather more than was sensible, we went next to the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery for a sit-down, a glass of wine, and more chat. At the entrance was this giant cat, which was a big version of Wemyss Cats like Rosie. A group of ladies posed with it, then I did. It made purring noises from a motor inside.


We eventually began to run out of time (or at least I had to get back to Fiona before the parking ticket ran out), and we had to go. On the way out we passed the Punch-and-Judy tent, and I got Alice to be a Professor and try her hand:


That's the way to do it! What a fun day!

Friday, 19 September 2014

A holiday in Sweden then?


I gave the BBC's latest detective series from Sweden, Crimes of Passion, a look last week and was instantly hooked. I loved the 1950s setting. I loved the sunshine and colour and nice clothes and all the politeness. It was a timely antidote to the bleak darkness of so much of Scandinavian TV crime in recent years. I didn't miss the squalid deaths, and the grime, and the awkward character relationships. This was much nicer stuff, full of good humour and civilised behaviour, even if lust and greed and dishonesty and a morbid dread of scandal was smouldering away underneath. There were still plenty of dead bodies, but no berserker psychopaths being unbearably cruel. The 'detectives', official and amateur, male and female, were likeable people I could relate to. I'm tired of the cold, moody, emotionally-damaged sort. And the actors spoke crisply - you could make out every Swedish word. So different from the slurred mumblings on Wallander, or the Danish dramas.

This series is based on the novels of a lady called Dagmar Lange (1914-1991), whose pen name was Maria Lang. Look at http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/marilang.htm for a summary of her life and a list of her books. As you can see, she got into her stride in the 1950s, and, on the face of it, her output and style might be compared to Agatha Christie's. I would very much like to read some of her books, which is an incentive to brush up my Swedish. In later life she lived in Nora, situated on a lake in central Sweden north of Örebro. This was called Skoga in her crime books, and was the scene of many of the fictional murders to be solved by her characters. 'Skog' is a not-uncommon element in Swedish place names, and indeed surnames, and means 'wood' or 'forest'.

So my interest in going to Sweden, already reawakened earlier this year when my cousin M--- gave me a great deal of genealogical material bearing on my Swedish ancestors, has now been intensified.

Over the years I have in fact put together a fair collection of books, guides, maps, atlases, and language-study items. I have, for instance, two books on Stockholm and Sweden generally that were published in the mid-1960s (at least ten years later than the period covered by Crimes of Passion, but still rather 1955-ish in feel. These show Sweden as it used to be:


I also have books that deal with modern Sweden:


And maps and atlases to go with them:


And finally, books and so on dealing with the language, for it is quite apparent that I can't rely on everyone speaking perfect English. I will need fairly good and idiomatic Swedish for any conversations I get into:


I bought that yellow-and-blue Teach Yourself book as long ago as 1970. The blue-and-orange grammar book was bought at Foyles in London on 13 October 1973 - I wrote the date inside the cover. I was studying Swedish at the time on an evening course at (what was then) Southampton Technical College. I used to have a fat folder of notes and exercises and reading passages, but it got thrown out in 2005. A pity. If I still had it, it would now be useful stuff for a holiday in Sweden.

The couple who have moved in next door to me are friendly, and the wife C--- is Swedish. She talks to her two very young children, a boy and a girl, in a mixture of English and Swedish. They will grow up bilingual. It would be lovely if we get to know each other well enough for me to get back my lost vocabulary. Nice for the kids too, perhaps, if Auntie Lucy next door is able to ask them how they are today in the way Mama does.

And how would I do the Swedish holiday? I'm sure you can guess - by caravan! Over to France, and then all the way along the North European coast via Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany and Denmark to Skåne (the southern end of Sweden). Then up to Stockholm, and further north to Norrland, where a lot of my family originally came from. And then? Who can say.

I don't know when I'd be able to afford such a trip. It's really only lack of money that stands in the way. I certainly have the time. Maybe my State Pension (getting closer!) will go further than I think? It would, anyway, be nice to see the land of my ancestors in the next four years or so.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Toy Story: a new teddy for Matilda


The Bear Hunt is over already. The Quest has been successful. I have fulfilled all my oaths, and can depart in peace. But first, let me remind you that the bear I have found is intended for this young lady, who has just turned one:


I was determined that Matilda should have not just any bear, but one that ticked all the boxes. For what those were, see my last post. It was (I thought) absolutely essential to make a significant personal effort - this to include much travelling around, whatever it took to find the right shop. It was also essential to personally handle the bear, for it was vital to assess its size, weight, colour, type of fur and softness, and of course whether the facial expression was pleasing. I also wanted to see reassuring signs of quality and durability. Not least, I needed to ponder the overall impression it gave: was this bear of stout character, worthy of my only great-niece? Could it really be her faithful friend for life? Or was it going to be as wayward and feckless as a Mississippi riverboat gambler?

I really didn't think that it would be Mission Accomplished so easily. The very first shop, on the first morning of my three-day quest.

I'd done a bit of Internet research, and discovered that the bear market is broadly split between seriously well-made bears, the more expensive of which are collectable and not for little children at all, and soft toys that may delight for a while, but will soon fall apart in ordinary play. The first category is typified by German makers such as Steiff, and they look uncannily like real bears, for admiration rather than for cuddling. Nevertheless I was instinctively drawn to the upper end of the market. It seemed a guarantee that the bear I bought would at least be made of good materials, and wouldn't burst at the seams, nor present a safety risk.

Such a bear would probably be found only at specialist shops. I'm not knocking High Street retailers - they can be very good, but they are not specialists. I went into one this afternoon, in passing, hours after I'd bought Matilda's bear. They had a number of toy animals, but they were all squashed into limited shelf space. Some looked a bit forlorn to me:


I found Matilda's bear in The Lanes at Brighton, at a shop in Ship Street (opposite Fat Face) called Borsa, which devoted its upstairs to a shop-within-a-shop called Bears Galore. Ah, here was sunlight and space and plenty of happy bears waiting for a new home!


As you can see, there were all kinds of animals, not just bears, but bears were the main thing. This chap caught my eye almost at once. I took him off his shelf, and propped him up on another stand, in better light, for a photo:


There was another lady up there in Bears Galore, younger than me, forty-something perhaps, and her name was Tracey. She was very nice. She was buying herself another bear, and I have to say she chose a gorgeous dark-brown one with tufted ears and a most appealing face. I explained my quest. We chatted quite a bit really. Then she went downstairs to pay, while I checked out the other bears. But I kept thinking this first one I'd seen was the nicest for Matilda. I was putting myself in her place, trying to imagine what it would be like aged one, with a bear almost as big as yourself to play with. She wouldn't be able to throw a bear like this around, not at first anyway (which might let him survive his first years in one piece!) But he was definitely cuddly.


He wasn't quite the laughing bear I'd first had in mind, but I decided that the lack of an inane grin didn't matter. He seemed to be a quietly cheerful, optimistic, dependable, reliable, kind-hearted sort of bear. And certainly truthful: a bear likely keep any promise he made. All rather like me, in fact. I thought him Very British.

He was a Charlie Bear, and his official name was Lionheart. It seemed to suit him. But Matilda would rename him soon enough, even if she couldn't yet say the words. He had a collar around his neck, with soft bells attached to it. She'd love that.

It was settled. Tracey was still paying for her bear. I joined in the chat, and eventually paid. I went straight home. On the sofa, Lionheart and Ted eyed each other, but not with hostility:


The other two (Rosie and Fang) came in to view the newcomer:


It must be quite an experience for any bear, being brought home, and wondering what lies ahead. Poor thing. He looked dazed and puzzled, and rather at a loss. It was all very new to him. The other toy creatures at Bears Galore couldn't have told him what to expect. They didn't know themselves. They may have heard a few rumours, and they may have gleaned a few things from customers coming in to look at them, but none of them would ever have seen the inside of a house before - nor met real-world animals like Ted or Rosie or Fang.


I picked up Lionheart more than once, to reassure him that all was well.


An excellent bear. I do hope that Matilda takes to him. The bond between a toy bear and its owner is very special - if it develops. The following pictures will tell you all you need to know about what developed over the years between me and Teddy Tinkoes:


It's a jolly good thing that Ted isn't camera-shy!

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Hunting the bear

I'm not feeling very well just now. A cold came on three days ago, and I've reached the worst stage, where the runny nose and sneezing has gone, but I'm constantly coughing. Actually it's getting easier by the hour, but it'll be Tuesday before I am ready to do very much again. That's OK: having a cold is a grand excuse for being lazy and cosseting oneself, activities at which I excel. And on Wednesday, I can go out bear-hunting in earnest.

No, not with a gun! On Tuesday (that is, the 16th September) my great-niece Matilda is one year old. No doubt she is quite unaware of that, and oblivious to any birthday cards that may come for her, and she will be puzzled about any departure from her routine, such as a little birthday celebration - although she might quickly understand that she is the centre of attention! And don't children - well, many of them - love to be the centre of attention?

When I was aged one (an occasion I have no memory of) I was given a toy bear, whom I named Teddy Tinkoes. He is still with me, sixty-one years later. Ted is the man of the house. You have met him before in these annals. Here is my oldest decent picture of him, taken in 1981, in the kitchen of my flat in London. We had already known each other for twenty-eight years:


And here he is, dwarfed by my bed, as I left him when departing for my Welsh Tour in May this year:


I assure you, he hasn't changed at all in decades. He became threadbare and loose-limbed in the first two or three years of his life. He was a toy I played with very, very much, just as a solitary child well might. Mum knew I loved him, and sewed him up, and gave him a new nose and new eyes, and darned his paws. But by the time I went into hospital at age seven, he was a battered, much-repaired, but dearly-loved and cherished friend that henceforth was to suffer only gentle cuddling and extreme tenderness.

Fast-forward to now. He is still the one I love. Really, there is hardly room for anyone else. He gets a big hug when I go on holiday, and a big hug when I come back safely; and, if I am at home, a fond pat on the head every single night. I couldn't possibly go to bed without saying 'Goodnight, Ted!' Anyone who is inclined to scoff at this must understand that they will be persona non grata if I catch them doing it, and I will expunge and revile them forthwith. I mean it. They will have revealed themselves as not my kind of person.

I have always regarded Ted as my most understanding, most faithful, and truest companion. A little personality who never has, and never will, let me down. And believe me, I have known some awful moments when I badly needed such a staunch friend to cling to, when nobody else would do. Ted has helped me survive many low points in my life; and no doubt I will call on him again to get me through, say, some dire illness or misfortune that is bound to hit me in the years ahead.

This is all quite apart from his being the main tangible link between the present me and the child who was. Even now, I have hardly begun to investigate my lost childhood. I remember unusually little about it. I want to see what can be recovered. Ted will assist when I am ready to delve deeper.

Meanwhile he guards the house and welcomes me home. He seems to be pretty good at this. And he's not possessive. He doesn't mind sharing the sofa with Fang the collie dog (whose normal domain is the caravan) but I'm careful about placing Ted and Rosie in the same room. I suspect that Ted doesn't quite trust Rosie yet. You have to give these things time. (A bear and a cat are not a natural mix)

All the above should convince you that my teddy bear is a big thing in my life. I want to give Matilda the same chance of forming a lifelong bond with a little friend of her very own. It may not work, of course. She may not like bears, or at least the one I select for her. But let's give it a go. I am going up to London to see her, and her parents (my nephew and his wife), on Saturday the 20th. That's when the 'introduction' will be made. And then we shall see.

So what will this bear-hunt entail?

First, the shop. I shall look in all the obvious toy shops, although somehow the notion of buying a Special Friend for a Special Little Girl from a Toys R Us warehouse seems wrong, wrong, wrong. I've identified three specialist shops in Sussex that sell bears - at Arundel, Lewes and Rye. And I know of one in Ryde, on the Isle of Wight. You can see that I'm willing to traipse all over the place to get exactly what I want!

The bear itself needn't be very big. Teddy Tinkoes is about 40cm (say 16 inches) tall. The one I get for Matilda could be a little shorter. But I will consider Ted to be roughly the target size. The bear must be soft and cuddly, but not floppy. Its limbs and head must move as a human's would. (I mean a human who can't bend their elbows and knees, but can still move their entire arms and legs back and forth). At least when new and stiff, this bear must be able to stand up and adopt any gesture or stance. I won't buy a bear that is stuck in one position. Colour? Any kind of brown from gold to light chocolate, but a lighter shade will make the nose and mouth and eyes easier to see. Clothing is not an issue: a neck-ribbon will be sufficient. (I can make a nicer one if the original isn't good enough)

The really important thing will be the face. This bear must be lovable, and exude friendliness and good cheer. Quite a lot of posh bears look rather cross and sulky to me. That's no good. I don't want a bear with psychological problems. I want a merry bear with a smile and a twinkling eye, a bear that will comfort and console a little girl when she's perplexed and sad and woeful. A bear that will whistle away any fears, tribulations, and bad dreams she may have; and protect and reassure her in the dark. A bear that will laugh heartily in happy times, and be a big part of Matilda's make-believe world - jungle adventures as well as tea parties - and, later on, an encouraging screen-side companion when she is learning. A lot rides on this bear!

What a challenge. I can't wait to get better and start hunting.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

The Twelfth of September

Yesterday there were two Calendar anniversaries on my phone and my tablet. They came up automatically, as they always do. And they will do so next year, and every year, as they will if one uses an electronic calendar. The odd thing is that these are not anniversaries that have anything directly to do with myself, and certainly not my life as Lucy Melford.

One reminds me that on 12 September 1994 - twenty years ago - M---'s husband died in hospital. He was only fifty-two. I got to know him in the last two years of his life, as he battled with emphysema, when the oxygen bottle was his constant companion. I thought him astonishingly brave and philosophical in the face of encroaching death. A model of patience and fortitude in fact, when lesser men would have fallen to pieces. He did not. He struggled into work, on oxygen, until he could do it no longer. He struggled to build up the minimum number of days necessary to give his widow-to-be a sufficient pension (he had switched from teaching to a less demanding career late in life). He didn't quite achieve his aim. But in every way he commanded respect, and my Calendar entry is, if you like, a small salute to a fine man's memory.

M--- did more than just remember the day he died. This is the other annual event recorded still in my Calendar. At noon on every 12th September, wherever we happened to be, she would choose a quiet place where she could read out passages from her own religious and philosophical books as an annual act of remembrance, dedicated to her late husband. Sometimes this would actually be at his graveside. But we were often away on holiday, and so she would then read for him at some spot away from passers-by, into the wind. Just her and her husband, for I would retire to a distance, and probably go for an hour's walk. In 1996, for instance, she stood way out on the beach at The Mumbles, near Swansea. In 2008, the last time I witnessed her engaged in these readings, it was at his graveside in Crawley. I feel sure (even though I can't possibly know) that yesterday she would have read to him, wherever she was.

M--- had long ago embraced the Baha'i faith, and took it seriously. For a summary of its origins and principles, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bah%C3%A1'%C3%AD_Faith. She was drawn to it because it seemed to her eminently reasonable and direct, and capable of evolving with humanity's progressive growth towards fuller enlightenment. It seemed to her full of wisdom. But although appreciative of M---'s faith, which enjoined her to live an exemplary life, her husband was not a Baha'i.

And nor was I. I'm not the kind of person who ever adopts any official system of belief, and I've become ever more resistant to living by someone else's rules. I think beauty, wisdom and good actions are possible without adherence to any creed. I can't dismiss the possibility of something beyond and above human consciousness and understanding, but my gut feeling is against the idea of an entity, power or force that has a distinct personality. So the individual that Christians and others (Baha'is also) call God is in my view unlikely to exist.

In my only exposition on such matters (in a post in September 2010) I said this:

I used to say I was an atheist. But nowadays I'm not happy with that. It seems too dogmatic. How can I claim to be so certain that there is no supernatural agency at all? On the other hand, the notion of entities like humans but of godlike stature, understanding and capability seems mistaken. It seems like the kind of limited thing a human being would imagine. If a supernatural agency exists, then my personal belief is that it would have no physical form and be quite unrecognisable. And it would be non-personal: this entity would not be a person like ourselves, and would not be 'aware' of individual human beings. We could not speak to it in English or whatever. So prayers, incantations and spells would be utterly ineffective. We could not invoke it, nor would it intervene. But it would influence our lives. Not our fortunes, though: it wouldn't make us richer or save us from harm. It would shape our development and growth, like breathing the right gas would, or being subject to the right gravity. Yes, it would drive evolution. I don't think that calling it 'the collective forces of Nature' really describes what I'm getting at, but such a phrase seems to mean something, and allows some mental grip on this vague and slippery notion.

Nothing has occurred since 2010 to make me change this 'collective forces of Nature' idea.

There's no formal system of belief in my world-view, no principles to keep to. I actually like not having to follow pre-determined lines of action. I like to think for myself what's best, what's just, what will lead to the happiest consequence. By not being bound, I'm free to do the thing that most suits the requirements of the moment. And I can still do the noble, quixotic or irrational thing. Indeed, no matter what I do, no divine praise or punishment will come.

But if I consciously do the wrong thing, the mean thing, the thing that shames me as a human being, then I do know it. Everything is on my personal responsibility. I can't plead that 'God (or the Devil) made me do it'. The act was my own; the result all of my own making and mine to deal with. Something badly done requires sincere confession and apology. Something done well justifies self-congratulation. In either case, there is a lesson to be learned, so that bit by bit one improves.

And I do think I have improved as a person in recent years, when I have been able to live my life as seems most natural to me. I regard this as at least some evidence that high personal standards of personal behaviour, and the showing of kindness, empathy and consideration towards other people, can come simply from personal resolutions and inclinations, unsupported by religion in any form.

You can probably see that M---'s spiritual ideas and my own were a very long way apart. One was formal, with definite guidelines; the other was undefined, without rules of any sort. That didn't prevent us both having, in our different ways, the capacity to be decent persons.

And I did not think that M--- was wasting her time when standing on some headland, or out on a beach, and reading from her books of Baha'i prayers and the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh. It seemed to me that she was reaching out to her dead husband, taken so early by a cruel disease, and offering his spirit, wherever it was, the reassurance that he was cherished and not forgotten. How could one not encourage and support such a thing?

I have to say also that whatever the Baha'i teachings were on partners that discover they are transsexual, they did not give M--- the right answer, nor even the ability to cope. That does not invalidate the religion, but it failed M--- when stormy seas were washing her world away and she needed a rock to cling to. I hope she did not suffer a double loss - not merely me, but her faith as well.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Scotland comes to it at last

The Scottish Independence Referendum is but six days away. Scotland's residents - including crucially teenagers who are young enough to be idealistic, but old enough to be thoughtful about their career prospects - will be able to show what they want for their country. It's no hard thing to predict an outpouring of passionate last-minute appeals from both the 'Yes' and the 'No' camps.

Why shouldn't it be Yes? Scotland has always been a separate place from England. There has always been a border region - 'debatable lands', certainly, but a definite swathe of largely empty upland that emphatically divides The Scots from The English. There is an actual, official Border right now. Scottish Law and social customs on one side, English Law and social customs on the other. There is a Scottish flag. In many ways Scotland is already a separate country.

And is it so far-fetched, when you consider other European countries of similar size and population, to imagine Scotland managing well enough as an independent entity? I speak of Denmark, The Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, The Czech Republic, Croatia, and The Republic of Ireland. The wealth and world status of these countries varies quite a bit, but they are all small and all are respected. Physical area isn't the crucial thing: it's what a country can provide for its citizens, and its importance in the wider world. Scotland is undoubtedly in a good geographical place. It isn't land-locked. Even if England closed the land border, Scotland would remain wonderfully accessible by sea and air. And it has natural assets. Energy-wise it has oil, coal, plenty of hydro-electric power potential, plenty of wind and wave-power potential. Its tourist attractions are legion. It has manufacturing capacity. It has intellectual assets. It has a distinctive culture and outlook. Its weather is often dire, but as the world warms up, Scotland's climate may become milder and kinder.

So I think Scotland could, if it wished, turn its back on England.

The fear of course is that this is what an independent Scotland might just do, so that England would have a country right on its doorstep forging new links with all sorts of allies and trading partners that the government in Westminster might disapprove of. And what if Scotland did better than England, and attracted both investment and the 'right kind' of immigration - meaning people and businesses? Scotland could, with the right management, rival England, and grow rich. And with only a tenth of England's population, there would be more wealth available per capita.

But an independent Scotland wouldn't be free of problems, not at all. Issues that get scant attention at distant Westminster would quickly loom much larger, and have to be addressed, by a closer-to-home Edinburgh government. Scotland is not one uniform nation. It has distinct and sharply-contrasting regions. What will it do, for instance, for the 'Scandinavian' Orkney and Shetland Islands, who will argue for a big say in what is now done with those vital oil revenues? What will it do for the Gaelic Western Isles (who have a culture and outlook very different from that of the urbane City Folk in the Central Belt)? Will Scotland's fishermen clamour for unilateral rights to fish their own waters as much as they like, and keep foreigners out (much as Iceland has historically wanted to do)?

I can see the Edinburgh government being besieged by regional and sectional aspirations. Perhaps it will be the Scotland v UK story in miniature: devolution for Scottish regions, perhaps even demands for local independence. The broad initial vote for Scottish independence could lead to the disintegration not only of the UK, but of Scotland itself.

Who knows. That's the trouble. In so many ways the Referendum, and its outcome in political terms, will be a leap into the dark, its ultimate effects incalculable.

What's driving this bid for Absolute Independence, regardless of where it may lead?

I think the personal ambition and nationalistic vision of First Minister Alex Salmond is a hugely important factor. He's the lever. Without him, Scotland would not going to the vote next Thursday. He has tirelessly campaigned for an Independent Scotland. He will be a shattered man if his life's work comes to nothing, if the Scottish electorate decides not to go with him, and make his dream a reality. On the other hand, a man already inclined to hubris will smirk with triumph if the vote is 'Yes'. I don't mind, so long as he cuts the celebrations short and gets down to business fast and effectively - for there will be a mountain of no-nonsense Scotland-England-EU negotiation to get through asap. Everyone will want to know the real-life consequences, and where they now stand.

Why should I mind anyway? I am not Scottish. Nobody in my family, on either side, has any connection with Scotland. I live in one of the Southernmost counties of England, almost as far from Scotland as one can get on the mainland of Great Britain. For me, Scotland is an exotic holiday destination that has called to me since my youngest days. And only three visits so far. I want to be able to return, and enjoy. I can accept passport controls at the border. I won't find using Scottish money any different or more inconvenient than it is now. I won't mind seeing signs of great national pride and celebration when I travel up there next summer. I will mind seeing anti-English feeling expressed, although I am unlikely to fall victim to it because my car has a Scottish registration (so it won't suffer vandalism) and if necessary I can turn up the Welsh accent.

Where Ireland has already gone, where Scotland is making a bid to go today, where Wales will try to go tomorrow, all of us are sister countries wanting to be free of England - overbearing, parental, condescending, exploitative England. It may be as simple as that. The kids have grown up one by one, and want to make their own way. So much for 'The United Kingdom'.

Well, that's one way of looking at it. Personally, I am content with my life in Sunny-Sussex-by-the-sea, and Sussex is in England. And most other favourite places of mine are in England, particularly in Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. I was not born in England, but I have made my life here and - more to the point - I feel 'at home' here. I do not hesitate to mention my Welsh birth, but I don't think I will ever want to move to Wales, whatever its beauties, because the affinity is lacking.

To be frank, I feel rather rootless, my political allegiances weak. British yes, and happy to be called that. But the 'United Kingdom' is for me a name rather like the 'European Union', a somewhat bland entity. An administrative, statistical and electoral concept only.

I'm not a traditionalist either, so I don't care about The Fabric Of The Nation Being Torn, nor the ending of a three hundred year old agreement to be one united nation. The fate of the Scottish regiments, and whether the Queen will abandon her castle at Balmoral, are other matters that are not going to lose me any sleep. I am unimpressed by the tears on Westminster party leaders' faces.

I am in thrall to local places, not national concepts. Evocative landscapes that have meaningful associations for me, that speak to me; a local culture that welcomes and includes me; good local services, so that I can live well in every sense; the friends and neighbours I know and count on - these call to me.

Not flags and all the other national symbols that imply borders, languages, separateness, orthodoxy, authoritarian governments, discrimination, civil strife, hate, soldiers, secret police, tyranny, deportations, and compulsory ethnic cleansing.