Wednesday, 29 July 2015

A woman off the street joins a great party in the park: Brighton Pride

I have trans friends to whom I feel very loyal, and so I wasn't really going to stay away from the big summer event for Brighton trans people. In fact I was there for three hours or so, and enjoyed myself - at least up to the point where I started to go deaf from taking pictures too close to one of the the stage loudspeakers. But in essence I was a casual visitor, dropping in for hellos and photography, who had only a tenuous connection with all the celebration, and who was dressed much too sensibly for an enthusiastic pink-and-blue party. I mean, was this the right thing to wear? (A shot taken just before I set off for Brighton)

Never mind. Nobody said, 'Oh you humdrum sobersides!' It must have been all right. And the silver-and-black wristband they gave me on arrival at the balloon-festooned park entrance was pretty tasteful. If you wanted to, you could collect a whole series of stick-on badges and ink stamps, as seen here on the legs of Lizzi, a close companion of outrageous but loveable trans man Vince:

Vincent himself was in great form, and gave me a kiss to prove it. The shot was with his own camera, wielded by Lizzi.

This is the same chap who authors Becoming Vincent (in my Blog List, right edge of page). In his latest post he claims to be an introvert at heart. I had a hard time seeing that at Pride, but he must know what he's talking about, just as I know what I'm really like inside. Or how you do.

Perhaps I'd best show a series of general shots, to sum up the feel of the event. Some of these include trans people I know, but for confidentiality reasons I won't name them (except for the 'public' people who perform on stage):

The Clare Project tent:

And the Unite tent:

The staff at The Marlborough (a nearby gay, lesbian, bi, and trans-friendly theatre pub) were providing the drinks:

Back to my overview:

Although it clouded over once or twice, the organisers of Trans Pride were very, very lucky with the weather. Most of the time, it was sunny and warm. The day before had however been very wet, as was the next day. Miraculously - I couldn't understand it - the grass was perfectly dry to sit on.

There was non-stop performing on the stage, some of it from angry speakers and poets who were commenting on the nastiness and exclusion faced by many trans people - which is still true enough, but not very jolly. I preferred people who were more upbeat. I did listen intently to friend Alice Denny when she took the stage in the company of Slum of Legs, a local all-girl band of which another friend, Michelle, was a member. Normally she did the drumming, but on this occasion Michelle was playing bass guitar. Here's a shot of Well-loved Local Poet Alice, waiting for her cue:

And Well-loved Local Rock Star Michelle:

The performance consisted of Alice delivering a high-intensity poem alongside a strong fiddle, keyboard and percussion accompaniment. It was very lively, with plenty of punch. The audience raved.

Alice gave it her best, and had no energy left for a graceful exit. But hey, it had been fun.

Meanwhile Slum of Legs continued with an earth-moving, ear-shattering little number - which shattered my ears anyway! My hearing became all muffled for a while. But definitely a great band.

After this, I drifted back to the much quieter Clare Project tent, and made myself useful when it came to packing up. I felt pretty Prided-out. Here I am, resting, in the adjacent Dorset Gardens Methodist Church:

But my day didn't end there. Along with friend Kim (one of the Clare Project organisers) I had an invitation from French lady friend Véronique to dine at her house with her daughter Lily, son Billy, and boys-over-from-Paris Rémi, Simon and Iksander. Kim and I bought some decent bottles of wine on the way. The Parisiens were cooking. They took their time, naturally. The food and wine and conversation were good. Billy's card tricks (he is a marvellous magician for a twelve year old) astonished me - I couldn't see how he did them, and I didn't want to spoil the wonder and astonishment by finding out. Véronique's little dog Co-Co was hysterically pleased to see me. As usual, if I lifted my face to the ceiling and howled, Co-Co did the same - why, I really don't know, but she clearly liked my doing it!

Later in the evening, and particularly after the three young men had gone out, we had a bit of a round-the-piano singsong with Lily. Here are mother and daughter, consulting on which key to use:

Now this is a house in Brighton. But doesn't it look like a little bit of France, the recreation of a home in Dieppe, perhaps, and not a domestic English scene at all?

The Flickr puzzle

My Flickr site started up at the same time as this blog, way back in February 2009. Gosh, that seems a long time ago! But of course, it's only six and half years in the past.

Like the blog, Flickr automatically totals all the viewings I get. And like the blog, these have had their ups and downs, but have mostly accelerated in the last three years. I suppose that once a website reaches a 'critical mass', so to speak, it can't help sucking in more and more viewings, be they ever so casual or accidental. An analogy with the hoovering behaviour of an astronomical black hole suggests itself here, but perhaps that would be too fanciful, apart from being an unnecessary digression! What I'm saying is that with more and more viewings, both the blog and the Flickr site have become bigger targets for people searching the web for something they want, and this may explain the accelerating accumulation of hits - rather than any intrinsic merit in the posts on the blog (i.e. exciting and original writing) or the photos displayed on Flickr (i.e. exciting and original photos).

I'm not putting myself down. Occasionally, like everyone else, I do write a post worth reading. It shows up in the viewing figures. And I'm happy when it happens. But I also write a lot of stuff that, frankly, has limited interest for anyone else, though justified because this is supposed to be a write-as-you-go 'autobiography'. And in any case, this isn't a blog in hock to advertisers who can insist on what I can and can't write about. Similarly with the photos on Flickr: my shots of, say, New Zealand or Stonehenge or some event in Brighton are nothing special; but once in a while I do capture something unusual, or unrepeatable, or in a way that nobody else has. But then everyone has luck like that now and then.

Nothing goes 'viral'. But at the same time certain posts have proved very popular. At the present time, for instance, my top ten posts have garnered a total of 87,000 viewings between them. That's insignificant in terms of national media broadcasting, or the book sales (and tweets) of the most well-known authors. But to my mind it's some evidence at least that I ought to carry on, making myself ready for the moment that My Book - we all have at least one book in ourselves - clamours for creation and release, like a literary Frankenstein's monster. (I have the blood all ready)

As for the Flickr photos, the top ten there have gathered in a more modest 14,000 viewings between them. But the total viewings for all the photos set up on Flickr has now exceeded 802,000. This was what I saw on my PC screen last night:

That's 802,362 to be precise. Which blows the mere 595,000-odd viewings on the blog right out of the water.

I am in awe of as many Flickr viewings as this. I struggle for an explanation, because while a blog may get itself a loyal or cult following - perhaps because the author writes in a distinct way on lively topics - it's much harder for a motley collection of photos to have that kind of appeal, especially when they don't cover anything more than what a very ordinary senior person happens to get up to. I'm puzzled.

All right, I can see that Flickr is a broader, much more 'public' platform, likely to be searched by all kinds of people, including those wanting to find free or minimal-cost shots of something they want to illustrate in a publication. I've been approached from time to time by tourist boards, special-interest societies and authors for such pictures. The latest, within the last few days, was the New Zealand children's author Philippa Werry (see and, who wanted to use a shot of mine, taken in a church at Tiki Tiki on the remote eastern seaboard of North Island, New Zealand.

But what motivates most of the other 802,000-odd people who have bothered to look at my pictures? It's largely a mystery. I can't see any pattern. Perhaps they hope for glimpses of my car, or latest bag. Who can say.

As for the future, I will continue to write blog posts and upload photos for as long as doing so gives me pleasure and seems to have some point. And the viewing numbers will of course steadily grow. But to get all this in perspective, even if we assume (when the viewing totals on Flickr exceed one million) that literally one million individuals looked at the pictures on display, that would still be only one in seven thousand of all the people on earth. Huh! Not so impressive!

And why should I care, anyway? I'm not in a ratings war. I just like sharing my life.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Three very different castles

The UK is stiff with castles big and small, but Scotland is the clear winner, with most of the very best.

Unlike England (brought under firm central control by 1500) or Wales (subdued and brought to heel even earlier), uprisings and general lawlessness continued in Scotland until the mid-1700s. It was necessary for a chieftain - and lesser mortals, also - to possess a stronghold that would resist attack, and function as a place of safety for his kinsfolk and faithful followers. Thus immensely strong castles were built, often taking advantage of the rugged terrain. Within the walls, the chieftain and his immediate family could live a civilised life, with fine stonework and plaster ceilings, and all the trappings of a cultivated gentleman - but always with an eye to the trustworthiness of his retinue, and the strength and reliability of his defences. And yet beneath the fine staterooms shoehorned into the thick walls would still be the dungeons vile, and flame-lit cells full of the gruesome instruments of torture.

I visited three castles on my Scottish Tour. The first was Dunnottar Castle, on the Aberdeenshire coast just south of Stonehaven. It's privately owned, and the entrance fee for me was £6. You pay just inside the castle. This is literally a cliff-top fortress, but built on a detached outlier - so it's even more secure and difficult to attack. To get to it, you must descend to the shore, then climb up again to the main gate, then climb further to the main part. Possibly that's all right if you have a pack horse. On foot, it's a bit fatiguing!

To be honest, you could simply admire the castle from the shore, or even from the adjacent cliffs, and still not miss anything essential. In this it's on par with Tintagel Castle in Cornwall - the drama of the whole scene is enough. But of course, I cheerfully paid the entrance fee, and saw it all. 

Once up from the entrance, and onto the level part at the top, you are faced with a complex of stone buildings, nearly all in a ruinous condition. Some of them are partly subterranean, and seemingly older and cruder than the rest. But it's all evocative. You could easily imagine how it might be, on a winter's night, with the sea crashing against the rocks below, and a besieging army waiting for a chance on the surrounding cliffs. You'd feel safe from effective attack, to be sure; but still pretty cold and uncomfortable, if keeping watch in the biting wind.

The cliffs are formidable. I suppose the place could have been provisioned from the sea, but it would need a very calm day.

On the seaward side, there was a network of interconnecting basements or cellars:

In one long, sloping cellar Dunnottar's Big Crime was committed. In 1685, 167 men and women, all of them Covenanters - people unwilling to give alleigance to the English King and imprisoned for that (see - were kept here in this cellar, now known as the Whigs' Vault. Five died in the appalling conditions of their imprisonment, two more trying to escape, and many more on the voyage across the Atlantic, after the survivors were sentenced to transportation for their defiance and disloyalty. Imagine spending any time at all in this unsavoury and insanitary dungeon, in practically Black Hole of Calcutta conditions:

Another room commemorates something brighter - the saving of the Honours of Scotland, the Scottish Crown Jewels, which were kept safe here when The Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, ruled England after the beheading of Charles I.

Now my second castle, Duffus Castle, which is situated in farmland south-west of Lossiemouth on the Moray coast, and pretty well at the end of a busy RAF runway. Jet aircraft were taking off every few minutes when I was there. 

This is another old castle, built with strong walls, but now ruinous. It's in the care of Historic Scotland, and there is no charge. I like free castles very much! I had it to myself, apart from some workmen engaged in repairing a section of wall. Although a ruin, it seemed impressive. I've paid good money elsewhere to see something very similar.

I had a free air show too. Back at the castle car park, it was very difficult to scoff the sandwiches I'd brought along for lunch. I kept on having to leap out of Fiona, in a largely unsuccessful attempt to photograph the planes. They seemed to whizz overhead very fast. These were my best results. If you are into aircraft, I dare say you'll know at once what I managed to shoot. I have no idea myself.

Finally my third castle, set in the heart of the Grampian Mountains, just off the A939 between Tomtintoul and Ballater. It's Corgarff Castle. I approached it from the north, along the desolate Lecht Road, which I imagine must be a nightmare of thick snow for two or three months of the year. The surrounding hills are almost empty - not a place to linger, even on a summer's afternoon. Here is a view of the Lecht Road, taken through Fiona's windscreen, with its snow poles; and a view of the mountains in the middle and far distances.

In the turbulent 1700s, these bare and apparently empty hills would be no barrier to a band of highland fighters intent on raiding. So the English Army built military roads, and here and there established a defensible strongpoint. Corgarff Castle was one of these: an existing tower house with a wide field of view, now strengthened by a star-shaped curtain wall with ports to fire muskets through. It was a lonely outpost. The first glimpse I got, as the A939 descended into a valley - the River Don, no less, one of the two rivers that flow out to sea at Aberdeen - revealed how completely Corgarff Castle was lost in the bigger scene. It's that tiny white thing in the centre of the next shot:

I looked forward to seeing something of the castle before it closed for the day, but I was too late by half an hour. It didn't seem to matter. One could still walk up the track, and view the exterior from all angles.

That star-shaped outer wall is rather fascinating, don't you think? To my mind, the whole building lends itself to an abstract composition, with the dreamy clouds playing a key role. 

I didn't stay for very long. It was getting cold, I felt hungry, and it would take me an hour to get back to Huntly. I hoped that the soldiers barracked inside this little fort during the mid-1700s and later had plenty of hearty provisions - including firewood! This would have been a very exposed spot in the winter.