Friday, 30 November 2012

Still working on my voice

There are several things that trans women have to pay attention to, if they are going to venture beyond a safe circuit of trans-friendly pubs and clubs, and 'safe houses' where they can dress to their heart's content. I think I'd get affirmative nods if I said these things include:

# Dressing in the right kind of female clothing, having regard to the season, the weather, the occasion, the company, and whatever style will play down your height and girth.
# Growing and restyling your hair (or wearing a wig or hair system) to achieve something decidedly feminine.
# Eliminating body hair, and especially facial hair - or at least disguising it with makeup after meticulous shaving.
# Developing the right body movements, especially a female walk, but not neglecting posture and gestures large and small.

So far, so good. You could do all these things without securing a course of feminising hormones, and still look great in public. And if you managed to get those hormones, you would soon look even better...until you have to speak with anyone. Then it may all unravel.

You need to get the voice right as well. Yep, I'm up on my high horse again, ranting on about getting some expert voice training - and building on it!

I really find it strange that so many trans women don't put 'voice' right at the top of their Action Plan. With only a good feminine voice, and nothing else, you could arrange and manage your life entirely over the phone, even if you never went outside your home. With a good voice, plus the rest of the things listed above, you could go full-time straight away with complete confidence. Getting a good female voice is the most liberating skill you can acquire during your transition.

You will be taken as a woman even if you are as ugly as sin - if you have a female voice.

Natal women will confide in you - if you have a female voice.

Nobody will bar your way to the ladies' loo - if you have a female voice.

Everywhere you go, you will get proper courtesy, consideration and respect, if you have a female voice. It eases away all difficulties, because it's the one thing that all women have, this voice. Any man can dress up, and wear wigs and padding, and pop on some makeup, and totter around in high heels. But it's the voice that matters. Convention has it that all men have deep, gruff, rather monotonous voices; and that women's speech is high-pitched, sweet and nuanced. Put it this way: if you hop down the street in a big sack with eye-holes, so that people can't see what you look like, you will be taken for a woman if you speak in a woman's voice as you go.

Most of my trans women friends have OK-ish voices, by which I mean that they get by quite well with them. Most of them agree that having a really good voice would be great. But I don't think many of them are trying hard to get one. One friend actually said to me when I last saw her that she 'couldn't be arsed', which I thought was astonishing. It's an essential. It's not a 'maybe when I get the time' female add-on, like learning to cook or knit.

This afternoon I had my annual voice checkup with the London voice specialist, Christella Antoni. When I first went to her, in December 2009, it was a full year after my public debut as Lucy Melford. I should really have begun my sessions with her more than twelve months before. Then I would have spared myself a lot of public anguish whenever it was necessary to open my mouth and ask for something, or answer a question put to me, or just engage in casual conversation with a stranger. But I didn't, not realising what a difference it would have made. And I had perfect conditions. I lived on my own at the Cottage from January 2009, and could have pacticed and practiced till hoarse. What a missed opportunity! However, once I began to see Christella, I was determined to plunge in and make progress.

But my first pitch measurements were dismal. In December 2009 my ordinary speech was pitched around 90Hz. That's very much in the male range. When carefully reading, I could get it up to 120Hz, still well below the 150Hz needed for even a deepish female voice. And my voice was shot through with 'croak' - miscellaneous buzzes and distortions that meant it was not clear and distinct.

I wasn't going to tolerate this, and with assiduous practice at home I rapidly improved. Soon after, in January 2010, I was able to walk into the Volvo dealership in Portslade, and get them to take me seriously. That resulted in a two-hour test drive on my own in a sports version of Fiona. Then I managed a long discussion on the precise specifications of my order. My look wasn't perfect at the time, but I had the voice, and it didn't let me down. In May 2010, Fiona arrived from the factory, and I had another session at the Volvo dealer going through all the paperwork and being taught the basics of how to start her up. (She was a complicated car, very different from my others!)

Roughly one year on, in October 2010, the average pitch for my speech was up to 180Hz, and it ranged up to 200Hz at times. And no 'croak'. My regular sessions with Christella ended there. I'd had 21 sessions, mostly one-to-one, a couple of them in groups, for a total session cost of £1,720. I felt it was money very well spent. (I'd also spent £113 on CDs produced by Andrea James in America - useless for British speech - and £190 on an Olympus digital voice recorder. I don't include these items in the 'well spent' category)

Forward another year or so to November 2011. I hadn't slacked off. The average pitch when speaking was now 187Hz, and Christella thought I'd made my voice sound strong and warm.

And now today, yet another year forward and roughly three years from that first result. I'd now raised the average pitch for speaking to 193Hz. The range was in fact 134Hz to 243Hz. Christella had once told me that her own voice was pitched just under 200Hz. So this was a really good result. She also said my voice was well nuanced, meaning that I had mastered the right intonations and rhymns and rises and falls that characterised female speech. And furthermore, that I'd got an entirely natural high-pitched laugh. Wow!

My voice still wasn't perfect: there was a little breathiness in there, which made my delivery slightly lacking in strength and richness. But I will put this right in the year ahead. Depend upon it.

We had an interesting five minutes speculating on why some trans women find it really hard to get their female speaking pitch up to a decent level. Despite the 'male' anatomy, it's not normally an impossible feat. I went from 90Hz to 193Hz without laryngial surgery. Nor am I the only one to do this. The girls who are having problems sometimes say that attempting a really high pitch (say over 200Hz) makes them sound silly and unnatural, as if they were squeaking. But they don't sound like mice at all. They only think they do. So perhaps it's a psychological thing, a self-imposed barrier. Christella said that many women's voices were very high-pitched indeed, and really no ordinary trans woman was likely to reach or exceed these high pitches, and sound odd. So I may experiment with busting through the 200Hz barrier myself, so long as I can still control my voice properly, and still inject it with warmth and liveliness.  

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Losing some weight, but still eating heartily!

My weight is now slowly going down. I've lost 3 pounds in the last two weeks, which isn't a lot, but it's a welcome reduction which encourages me to carry on. My method? Slightly smaller portions, a lot less snacking between meals, plenty of fluids throughout the day, such as tea and water, and walking around just a little more. Things I can make part of my ordinary life, and keep up indefinitely. After all, there is the sheer pleasure of eating to consider. I still want to enjoy one of life's greatest sensual pleasures. A pleasure one can rein in a bit, but surely not forego entirely.

It's no good rushing at weight loss. You need to get accustomed to a permanently better regime, so that after the initial zeal has worn off you can happily continue with it. You have to think in terms of months and years, and the health benefits that will gradually stack up in your favour. Crash diets (or unnatural abstinence from certain kinds of foods) may give impressive short-term results, but they are a pain, and very hard to stick to once some target is met. Apart from that, I'd worry about being deprived of a balanced diet.

I've crash-dieted on two occasions in recent years.

The first was from July to September 2008, at the very start of my transition, when I was frankly disgusted with my slob-like body and wanted to purge it of excess fat. But I didn't go about it very scientifically. I lost two stones all right, but my arm and leg muscle wasted away too much and I actually started to feel pain in my limbs, the remaining muscle protesting against the deadweight it needed to hold up. So I had to ease off. I stayed thin for months after, but gradually I fattened up again.

The second occasion was in the run-up to my surgery, during late 2010 and early 2011, when the surgeon-imposed weight loss target was one and half stone, and I tackled it with a proper calorie-controlled diet. It meant a lot of portion-weighing and record-keeping, and it left me a little peckish at times, but I had balanced and interesting meals to eat, and this approach was in no way fanatical. I could if necessary go back to it without trouble. However, I think my present less-demanding method will do, provided that I show a consistent weight loss of five pounds each month. In theory, that would be four stones over the next twelve months, which seems an unlikely loss to me: three stones will be quite sufficient, and I won't feel a failure if it's only two.

So what am I still eating? Ah, I have photos to show you - you don't have to rely on my unsupported word! I don't point the camera at every meal I cook, but I have been fairly assiduous recently. It's very nearly a complete record.

I usually have a very light breakfast, mainly cereal with cranberries or blueberries in it, and coffee.

Lunch is often (as today) just two lightly-buttered crackers with a little salami on top, accompanied by a small hunk of cheese, and followed by an apple. It depends on how active I'm going to be in the hours ahead. I cooked this mushroom-and-bacon lunch last week:


I generally cook an evening meal that is hot and filling, even though it's only for myself. I regard adequate nutrition as very important. I want to keep myself topped up with a broad range of foodstuffs, and all the vitamins required. So takeaways are a no-no. So are sugary snacks and soft drinks. I don't as a rule drink any alcohol at home, preferring water or elderflower cordial with the meal. I'll invariably have an apple for dessert, then coffee.

In the last two weeks or so, I've  cooked these things at home in the evening. First up, a Chinese wok meal with marinated chicken (a whole day in the marinade), stir-fried vegetables and fresh stir-fried noodles. The following evening was a French meal at a friend's house, of pork, crushed potato gratin and salad, washed down with wine. But the next evening I had a simple meal of haddock, new potatoes, green beans and tinned tomatoes:


Then it was the beef-in-red-wine stew (featured in the post on Bosham) that I cooked up and shared with my friend R---. And the evening after that, sea bass with new potatoes and courgettes:


Next up, lamb chops, new potatoes, carrots and brussels sprouts, with a rich gravy. Then the following night, a lighter meal of black pudding, bacon, new potatoes and tinned tomatoes:


On the next two nights, sirloin steak, new potatoes, courgettes and mushrooms. Then a pizza from Waitrose (tomato, goat's cheese, onion and spinach) enhanced with tinned anchovies, pesto olives and a drizzle of olive oil:


Mmmm. That pizza was good. I ate both halves! Fancying fish again, it was then haddock with new potatoes and chopped spinach; and last night it was gammon with new potatoes, green beans and mushrooms:


Somewhere in between these home-cooked meals was a Waitrose (or was it a Sainsbury's?) curry with rice, and last Sunday evening I shared tapas at La Tasca in Brighton with the same R--- who came to Bosham with me.

I also eat eggs - I can do a good omlette, for instance, and lovely yellow, moist, flavoursome scrambled eggs - but eggs are something I eat rather less often. I've got to be in the right mood for eggs.

I think you'll grant that I like (and can churn out) tasty, colourful meals! But they are not artistic in the Masterchef fashion, even though I could achieve a better result if I applied the kind of skill and close attention to detail that the contestants do. In fact, my simple peasant meals are produced with only humble technique (read 'crude technique'), and are very much a dole-it-out-of-the-pot-and-slap-it-on-the-plate exercise. Well, hot and hearty doesn't have to mean sophisticated, and perhaps ought not to be. So it's all quick and easy, none of these plates (except the beef stew) taking more than half an hour to prepare and cook.

And despite eating them, I've lost three pounds in two weeks. This must demonstrate something.

Monday, 26 November 2012

The Leveson Report is almost here

In two day's time, all will be revealed. Apparently Sir Brian Leveson - Lord Justice Leveson - has produced a monster of a report about Press Standards. It will certainly take some time to digest, although one can anticipate that passages will be lifted from it at once, and flaunted out of context by all sides affected by what the Report may say. Which includes the press chiefs and politicians of course, but ought to include all the rest of us. So I do hope the Report will be published in full on the Internet, and straight away, so that all can study it for themselves, and not have to rely on quick and dirty appraisals in the very papers who may be getting a hammering.

Me, I'll be relying on the BBC to give me the gist, but I'll be wanting to look closely at the bits that deal with the mocking harassment of fringe minorities (trans people, for instance) and form my own impressions of the Report's worth, rather than have anything spoonfed to me.

There is some evidence that the press has lately changed its approach and learned a little sensitivity. But this may be only temporary, and if the government proves unwilling to legislate, then the papers will surely revert to their old ways. I don't see how they can do otherwise if they want to keep selling. In a world where detailed genuine news and analysis is available 24/7 on your phone or tablet, free, courtesy of the Internet, the none-too-cheap newspapers must offer something extra to keep up circulation and generate revenue. That extra is going to be 'human-interest' or 'public-interest' stories full of sensational disclosure, and short on correct information. Stuff calculated to appeal to the prejudices and preconceptions of the hard-core tabloid-buying public.

But even if newspaper stories have recently changed their tone a bit, there is counter-evidence that all is not well, that the news media as a whole - TV, radio, the Internet, as well as the newspapers - is still capable of poor journalism, and cannot be left to function without effective legal sanctions in place. Consider, for instance, the damage done by BBC's Newsnight gaffe, followed by ITV's own blunder when Phillip Schofield ambushed David Cameron with that list of possible paedophiles, derived from rumours on the Internet. As a result of these actions, Lord McAlpine was smeared, and I dare say he is right in supposing that for the rest of his life his name will be connected with child abuse. He has agreed settlements of £185,000 from the BBC, and £125,000 from ITV, which are actually rather small sums for a reputation forever besmirched. His lawyer has also invited 'sensible and modest amounts' in settlement from those who used Twitter to spread the rumours about him.

I don't know how practical it will be to collect such guilt-money, but this is an interesting development. It shows that nobody should now expect to post scurrilous tweets on Twitter, or make abusive comments on Facebook, without at least the possibility of legal comeback. On the other hand, I believe this is no more than an extension of the existing law on libel, and it still means that only the well-off can afford to pursue an offender for redress. We really want a system that will prevent the media defaming anybody, or, if they do, then there must be a way for their victims to get full compensation and a front-page apology - without risking their home and life savings on court costs.

But at the end of the day, it comes back to the newspaper-buying public. If they didn't buy these tabloids, they would cease to be published. That the public still do, suggests that on the whole millions of rather traditional Britons like what they read. They are not objecting to mocking stories about vulnerable people, nor are they clamouring for new press laws. None of this has become an issue with the general public, and it's certainly not an election issue. Nobody has said they will boycott The Daily Mail or The Sun, if they go back to their old ways - unlike the many (clearly a different kind of person) who have said they will boycott buying things from Amazon, or having coffee in Starbucks, if they don't start paying more tax.

Newspaper chiefs know that millions love The Sun. They also know that modern governments have always hesitated about legislating against the media. So the real point of interest is, will this government have the courage to confound them?

What sort of legislation, anyway? I think we deserve, at the least, a government-sponsored Regulator (call it Ofmed?) who can work to statutorially-defined standards, and will possess legal powers to impose vast fines on all parts of the media, paying just compensation from those fines to the victims of the offences committed. What we actually get is anyone's guess though.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Being stalked

Thankfully I've never knowingly been stalked. Yet. It remains a possibility. All women face it.

I've had something to say on this topic before - see my post Men who are fixated on 30 October 2011, which covered the Joanna Yeates/Vincent Tabak case in Bristol, and the chilling short story The Octopus Nest by Sophie Hannah.

I think I understand the situation well enough. Many (perhaps most) stalkers are clearly well-known to their victims: a jealous ex-husband, say, who keeps tabs on his former wife. That's bad enough, but at least the man's identity and address are known, and to some extent his actions can be anticipated and made subject to police intervention. The maverick unknown stranger is the one who creates the nightmare scenario.

Some man will fixate on a woman, and follow her to see what she does, and where she lives. Who she knows. Who's living with her. When she will be alone. If he is intelligent, the stalker will find out exactly what this woman's routine is, so that he can get on with his own life but still catch up with his victim whenever he wishes, turning up in the background at odd, disconnected times. He might be able to do this again and again for a long time, until one day the victim notices him, and then her terror will start to grow.

The feeling that one has been singled out, specially selected, and closely studied by an obsessed and presumably dangerous stranger is much more frightening than merely attracting some one-off casual attention. The very fact that she might be mistaken - because the stalker is not always there - is horribly unsettling. An alternation between feelings of fright and relief. The unpredictability of his appearances is part of the stalker's technique to reduce his victim to a state of utter distress. It isn't a demonstration of love, like Romeo turning up unexpectedly and serenading Juliet up there on the balcony. It's hate, the wish to play with the victim in a cat and mouse way, and then ultimately destroy her.

The foregoing reads like a film plot, but then whether real-life stalking follows this pattern or not, it is the pattern we all expect. These are the signs that we would recognise a stalker by, and how we'd discover what it is to be the victim. 

There was a period, not so long ago, when I feared I might be stalked by someone from my pre-transition past. Someone who wanted to vent their impassioned anger on me, who might become obsessed with making my life hell. And I imagined the phone messages and letters that might go with this. And maybe waking up to find that paint had been daubed over my car or caravan. All to punish my perceived selfishness and 'teach me a lesson'. It didn't happen, but throughout 2009 I was nervous that it might.

And now, in a different life, I am as vulnerable as any woman. Maybe more so. There is something subtly 'different' about the faces of most trans women. I think men notice it, and some of them will be fascinated by it in a way that will push them into stalking. And of course the outcome for the trans woman, if and when the man shows himself to her, might be fatal.

So I think I'm justified in regarding myself as high-risk where stalkers are concerned, just as any trans woman is. And that far from being a preposterous waste of money, my use of Fiona to go everywhere, so that I can't be found waiting at a bus stop, can't be found waiting on a railway platform, and can't be followed on foot down dark streets on my way home at night, makes complete sense to me. Never mind the fuel cost and the expense of parking. It's the price of security. I can be tailed only to my car. It locks as soon as I'm aboard. My personal travel capsule. If anyone wants to follow me home, they must be prepared to do it at 80 miles per hour, because I drive fast to get well ahead of the pack, and I'd have no hesitation in calling the Police if I had the least suspicion that I was being chased.

But I can't be locked in my car or my house all the time. And although my personal radar is sharper than it ever has been in my life, I may at this very moment be subject to some man's surveillance.  It could be a near neighbour, or just someone elsewhere in the village. Who knows.

Well, life is full of risks, and I refuse to worry unless I have clear evidence that I should. The new law on stalking, introduced today, will punish stalkers once detected and caught. But I'm not convinced that it will deter any. Since when did people with obsessions heed the law?

Friday, 23 November 2012

The strange problems of some men

Oh dear. I've just heard that the husband of one of my female cousins 'can't handle' a pre-Christmas meetup with me. And so an encounter I was looking forward to will be cancelled so that this man's comfort will be preserved.

It is commonly the case that men who consider themselves to be particularly masculine find it difficult to cope with trans women. I can understand how a trans woman could be a problem for a macho man who would ordinarily enjoy female company, and yet can't get past a trans woman's perceived 'male origin'. But I have no idea what the precise problem is here.

The man concerned was very civil to me when we last met two years ago at a family funeral, but we said little. I suppose he was embarrassed how I looked, which was not surprising as my appearance was still evolving. He might think that I'm still the same as I was then. But even if he realises that my appearance and manner must have improved, there could be a problem - that little issue of his body reacting to strong female signals while his mind pulls sharply the other way. If that's how it is, then he'd naturally want to avoid a meeting.

But I don't really know, and I won't find out if he keeps his distance. The pity of it is that while he feels this way it inhibits my opportunities of seeing his wife, my cousin. The situation is much the same with my step-daughter: a particularly masculine husband who can't help feeling uncomfortable. I don't know how to tackle this. There is certainly no solution if a perpetual standoff is kept up.

It's really quite a shock to be reminded that the world is not composed solely of supportive friends, accepting neighbours, and unconcerned strangers. There are people out there who can't embrace you, either literally or as a concept. And they feel they have good reasons. But sadly their attitude achieves only alienation and unhappiness.

War Picture Library



One of the jibes thrust at me early in my transition was that 'in every way' I thought like a man and had the habits and interests of a man - and 'therefore' I was deluding myself if I thought that I had a woman's brain, or at least a woman's consciousness.

I was on my own against my partner and both parents, with nobody else in my daily life. The pressure heaped on me was immense. It would have been so easy to cave in, to meekly agree that I was mistaken, that they were right; to accept the rewards that would be given to the prodigal son, returning into the family fold. I had only to acquiescence to the will of those who said they loved me. Just as I'd been doing all my life.

The persons saying such things were of course in denial, and desperate to persuade me that I had turned up a blind alley - that I was simply experiencing 'what all middle aged men go through' - the classic 'mid-life crisis'. And that I'd snap out of it soon enough. Meanwhile, would I please desist, and stop this distressing 'I know I'm a woman' nonsense?

But I could not. Not this time. I knew what I felt, and they didn't know, and that was that. Thus commenced the overturning of my settled existence, and my expulsion from Eden.

But that thrust, that I thought like a man and therefore (whatever I actually felt) must have a male mind, bothered me. I did rationalise it eventually. The male thinking was the result of decades of conditioning. I'd been brought up to believe that I was a boy.

The way things were in the 1950s, the worlds of little girls and little boys diverged early, and were sharply defined. Girls played in this way; were encouraged to do this, and not that; they were moulded into junior versions of their mothers, a trend reinforced if there was an elder sister. Boys played and behaved in quite other ways. What a girl should look like and be, and what a boy should look like and be, were quite different things, and the stereotypes were enforced by parents and adult neighbours and teachers and really anyone in authority that the child might meet, such as the family doctor. In particular the stereotypes were enforced by other children: nobody is more alert for difference than a child. Conform or suffer. There was absolutely no escape from this. If a child felt they were different in any way, and said so, they risked a good slapping or worse.

It was a world in which there were (for instance) no left-handed kids. They were either forced to be right-handed, or, if bright, instantly realised for themselves that they must defy their natures and try to be right-handed like the rest. So their handwriting (with scratchy nibbed pens) was poor, and they got belted for that instead. Looking back, there must have been half-a-dozen kids in every class who had an issue of some sort or another, but they would have sat on it. Survival demanded that they had to. Of course some could not manage it all the time, and got punished. I knew I was a misfit too, but I succeeded in avoiding the wrath of teacher and child alike. I can't imagine how it would have been possible to announce that I hated being a boy.

And, brainwashed into believing that I was one, I did my unwilling best to embrace what boys did. This included reading boys' comics. I liked The Eagle, but it was expensive and a rare treat. My usual comic was The Beano. But it didn't grip me for long. By the time I was ten I'd moved on to other fare. It was an odd mixture: James Bond, travel books, history books, and for a while the little booklets of the War Picture Library. They were cheap enough for me to buy an occasional one with my pocket money. I read them until I was thirteen or so.


What was the appeal of these war stories? I can only remember a few. In no particular order, here they are:

Baptism of Fire
This was about a British soldier of Greek origins and puny physique, who finds himself defending a vital mountain pass on Crete against vast numbers of invading German paratroopers. He is mortally afraid, but puts up an absolutely heroic single-handed resistance, defending his position against fantastically superior odds until his ammunition runs out. Then he dies when his position is overrun. The Germans are amazed, and honour him in death. So do the invisible ghosts of ancient Greeks who witness his brave stand, and salute him for defending Greece in her travail.

On the subject of redemption, there is the story about an infantry officer who makes a mistake that costs the lives of his men. By way of self-punishment, he voluntarily resigns his commision and tries to become a humble private. But he finds that this act is scorned by officers, NCOs and fellow-privates alike. Then there is an enemy attack, and a crisis develops. The British positions are in grave danger of being overrun. His natural qualities reassert themselves, and he tries to organise a coherent defence. But, being a mere private, he has no authority, and he is ignored. So he strips a dead major of his jacket and cap, and now, apparently a senior officer, with the right badges and red tabs, men will obey him. He saves the day with adroit commands and inspiring leadership. Afterwards he faces a court martial for impersonating an officer, but is justly acquitted.

Rogue Lancaster
This is about a squadron of Lancaster bombers who run the gauntlet of German anti-aircraft defences at night, on their way to bomb factories and other plant that must be knocked out. Unknown to them, the Luftwaffe have captured an intact Lancaster, and with this they tag behind the other planes until the anti-aircraft fire begins, when the Germans in the fake Lancaster train all guns onto the other aircraft round them, and shoot them down. On this first occasion, it's all put down to well-aimed anti-aircraft fire from the ground defences. Then it happens again, and again. The crews get jittery. There is talk of a phantom bomber from Hell that is seeking victims. I forget how, but eventually the Germans are rumbled and get shot down themselves.

Then there is story set late in the war, presumably in the winter of 1944, in which a British anti-tank gun battalion digs in to repulse German tanks ordered to make one last desperate push. It's a classic tale of two intelligent commanders who have encountered each other before. They must, as a matter of duty, slug it out, but they respect each other and see the pointlessness of it all. The German commander, skilfully outgunned, eventually makes an honourable surrender, ending the destruction.

One story that I especially liked involved three generals and a British corporal, marooned by snow in an Italian mountain farmhouse. The generals are American, Italian, and German. The German and Italian generals are of course prisoners under escort to HQ. They all agree to call a truce for the duration of their stay, which may last a couple of days. The local roads are impassable and they are stuck there. The British Tommy is something of a cook, and he forages around the farmhouse for something to eat. Meanwhile, the three generals start to bicker. Recriminations are made; personal and regimental honour is impugned; insults fly; and the next thing you know, they are going to settle the matter by playing Russian Roulette - taking their turn to put a revolver loaded with just one bullet to their head, as a demonstration of bravery. Five chances of a blank to one with a bullet. The monocled German general, more than any of them, feels he must defend the reputation of the Wehrmacht, but he thinks it is a stupid way to end a brilliant career. In the nick of time, the British Tommy reappears, with three hot meals and some chianti. He has found a couple of scrawny chickens and has cobbled together three variations on a basic chicken dinner. But to the generals, used to army rations for so long, it seems that the clever Britisher has created for each their national dish. It distracts them from the Russian Roulette, and all is soon good cheer. They become very mellow. Next morning, American army jeeps arrive, and reality returns. But all are still alive, and they gratefully salute the cook.

Finally two odd stories involving the supernatural. One is set in Viking times, and is about a fierce berserker plagued with strange dreams that feature invincible one-horned monsters. These are in fact German tanks spearheading the invasion of Norway in 1940, and his dream is a frightening premonition. The other story is set in Egypt. A British army officer accidentally disturbs an ancient tomb, and becomes haunted by the angered occupant - Curse of the Mummy stuff. There is one scene where he wakes up from a nightmare in which he has been wound tightly in a mummy's wrappings and sealed in a tomb. In fact he is simply stuck in a sleeping bag and can't find the zip. But it gets worse...

Well, there you are. These are the stories that I can still recall after fifty years, so they made a strong impression on me. I can't see what the common theme is, but all of them are oddball stories that somehow had a message for me.

There was another kind of war story that fascinated me in my early teens: life in prisoner-of-war camps. The grammar school library had some books on this. Heroics in Colditz, that sort of thing. But I also found one book that discussed life in more ordinary camps. The author was unusually frank. He described (for instance) what prisoners did for sex. And he described a curious type of person who would eagerly dress up for the women's parts in the shows and entertainments that the prisoners would organise for themselves. Not only would people like this dress up, but mentally they would seem to become women, as a full-time thing. They were a fascinating study. He wondered what became of them after release in 1945, because by then they would certainly not be able to go back to any kind of ordinary life. I wondered too. There was no name for them when the book was published. Nor when I was reading about them in 1966 or thereabouts. I have more than once wondered what might have happened to me if the author had been able to use the word 'transsexual', and there had been some way of researching for myself what this meant as a clinical condition.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Proud to be trans

As planned, I got back tonight (on iPlayer) to BBC3's documentary Transsexual Teen, Beauty Queen, about Jackie Green's progress at becoming Miss England as a first step in a career on the catwalk. I'd left it at the point where she was preparing for the initial selection. If she got through that, then she woud take part in another event at Nottingham, and if successful go on from there to the semi-final for Miss England at Watford.

It became clear that although deportment and an ability to move gracefully were important, the judges were impressed most by a girl's personality. Jackie did not do as well as she'd hoped at catwalking in the initial heat, but then found that she'd won the 'Miss Personality' prize, and was able to go through to the next stage after all. That seemed due, at least partly, to the interest the judges took in her personal history and motivation. This success was repeated at Nottingham. But then, at Watford, at the semi-final, she said not a word about being transsexual and made less of an impression. She explained this by saying that she wanted to be on the same footing as all the other girls, as she was after all just the same as them. Her trans history ought not to matter, and indeed if disclosing it could affect the outcome, then it would be wrong to mention it at all.

In other words, she wasn't going to play the Trans Card, and possibly win an easy advantage. She wanted to win solely on her looks, her poise, and how she came across to the judges. The narrator was surprised at this low-key strategy. It didn't succeed. Not mentioning her trans history made it hard to explain the driving force behind her taking part.

As the competition was tough, she actually did very well to come 18th out of 60 contestants, but she wasn't one of the twelve girls who went forward to the national final. What a good effort, all the same!

The last scenes were devoted to a trip back to Thailand for breast augmentation, not because Jackie's breasts were inadequate, but a larger size would help her further her career in modelling. I was touched that she'd overlooked the need to have larger tops to put on after the op. I'm not sure that I'd have thought of it, either.

In between, various little details were touched upon but not made too much of. Such as how Jackie was the target of vicious personal attack at her secondary school, and how she made some suicide attempts when it got too much to bear. How her mum took out a second mortgage to raise money so that Jackie could travel six times to the USA to see Dr Spack at the Boston Children's Hospital, Dr Spack being an internationally known transsexual specialist and one of the only doctors in the world who will prescribe puberty-blocking drugs to children. (In the UK you can't get them until you are 16, which is too late to avoid the onset of unwanted and irreversible physical changes) How Jackie went to Thailand for her genital surgery, her mum explaining with complete frankness that the puberty-blockers had been so effective that the penile-inversion method used in the UK wouldn't do - not enough tissue - and so it had had to be one of the alternative methods used by Thai surgeons.

This was all mentioned without dramatics. And no visceral hospital scenes. That made a welcome change, and enhanced the credibility and impact of the programme.

What do I take away from this? For me, the programme connected with some aspects of my life much better than any previous trans documentaries. Like Jackie, I was full of suppressed anger at school from an early age. She knew exactly why; I didn't, but I know now. Barren, wasted years. I identified with her insistence that she'd always been a girl, and what nonsense it was to say that she'd ever been a boy. I identified with her ambitions, getting on with things to ensure that there was always something to look forward to in the future.

And for the first time since I transitioned, I felt a sharp pang at not being young, not having a mum who was on my side. Not having a mum who was proud of me for what I was.

I'd had four testing years of transition. Nobody could scoff at that, who realised what it meant. I just wish my mum had lived to see me now. Then she might be proud too, as proud as Jackie's mum was.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

BBC3: Transsexual Teen, Beauty Queen

Yesterday it was the Transsexual Day of Remembrance worldwide, and in Brighton there was a vigil from 7.00pm in the Old Steyne to remember the murdered victims of transphobic hate crime during the last few years, and especially the last twelve months. The total killed for being trans has started to increase again lately, and while the reported numbers are 'small' - 265 during the last year seems to be the official figure -  this total is (as before) mostly from Latin America, and does not include victims from large areas of the world where statistics are lacking or not made available, such as Africa and China. So the real total of people killed through prejudice and misunderstanding, sometimes regime-sponsored, might be a thousand or two - or really anyone's guess. It should of course be nil.

I didn't go to the outdoor vigil last night, but I will be going to the service in the Dorset Gardens Methodist Church in Brighton this coming Sunday afternoon. And wherever I am in future years, I will somehow mark the occasion. Meanwhile I'm inclined to be very negative about holidaying abroad, because I don't want to be a casual victim of someone's irrational hatred. That may mean never leaving the British Isles again. A prisoner of potential foreign violence. Not good, but I do take this special risk of a cruel and heartless death very seriously. After all, whatever the good effect of hormones, and cultivating the right social skills, I still don't have a perfect look; and I'm vulnerable to being spotted by people with a problem, and being pursued to destruction.

But young Jackie Green on BBC3's documentary Transsexual Teen, Beauty Queen last night (which I watched a bit of this morning on iPlayer) had no such problem with her looks (pretty, slim and willowy, absolutely the right shape), or voice (perfect), or demeanour (perfect), or her grasp of what and who she really is.

She was the youngest person so far to have genital surgery in this country (at 16). I imagine it could not come too soon for her, because she was one of those transsexuals who felt very young (in her case, when only 5) that she'd been placed in the wrong Gender Box, and she has never deviated from that conviction. Eleven years of waiting! I'd say that here is a shining example of why children should be taken seriously, and listened to, and believed. Now she wants to become Miss World. To do that she must first complete with 10,000 other girls in the selection of Miss England. Her initial motive is to raise awareness of trans people: to show that an ordinary girl from Guiseley, who just happens to be trans, can make it.

But beyond that, to become a top model. This is looking rather beyond the horizons of the girls on last year's My Transsexual Summer. If it's difficult to get chosen for a top beauty contest, it's notoriously hard to be rated good enough for the fashion show catwalk. So I admire her ambition.

When asked by the narrator early in the documentary about her origins as a 'boy', she was quick to correct him, saying firmly that she had 'always been a girl' with 'a girl's brain and a boy's bottom part', and she added that the average trans girl would assert exactly the same, rejecting any notion that they had ever been male - whatever their outward appearance. And that he should take care with questions of that sort, in case he got slapped on the face by an indignant woman! Absolutely right. That's what I'll do next time some daft man blunders with a question to me like that.

Back to the auditions. She quickly found that all successful contestants need something extra about them, a certain poise, a flair for movement, some special way of walking and twirling around, some eye-catching spark, that will mark them out from the rest. I saw her first attempts at demonstrating this. Hmmmm. I didn't watch anything after that, wanting to get on with other things this morning, but tonight I will catch up with how she got on. I do hope she ultimately did well, and if not, that she gained valuable insight into what the knack was, and hasn't had her confidence shaken. She deserves much better than a waitress's job in Wakefield.

Monday, 19 November 2012

High tide and sunset at Bosham


Sussex has two halves, East and West. East has high chalk and sandstone cliffs and shingle beaches. West has no cliffs at all, but it has a lot more sand, and it has big watery inlets that are havens for bird life. The biggest inlet is the vast Chichester Harbour, which has many branches and tucked-away creeks.

Deep inside the harbour, right on the water's edge, is Bosham. It's a very old place, and the church is actually mentioned on the Bayeaux Tapestry. There's a scene where in the year 1064 riders approach and enter a church, with this commentary sewn in: '...Harold Dux Anglorum et sui milites equitant ad Bosham...ecclesia...', which translates as '...Harold the Leader of the English and his soldiers ride to Bosham...to the church...'.


He took mass at the church before sailing for Normandy. The trip achieved nothing good. The Duke of Normandy - aka William the Conqueror - was minded to dispute Harold's right to the English throne, wasn't going to be persuaded otherwise, and two years later asserted his will by invading England with an outcome we all know about. The makers of the Tapestry thus took care not to call Harold Rex Anglorum (King of the English). William wouldn't have liked that at all. You really didn't want to irritate Willam.

Bosham is nowadays a well-off, boaty sort of place, very attractive, and much visited by those who like seabirds and harbour scenes and glorious sunsets from west-facing Bosham Quay. I went down there yesterday afternoon with my friend R---. We arrived at three in the afternoon, when the tide was at its height. The tide at Bosham is a subject on its own. It can entirely cover the road that skirts the harbour, and if the tide is coming in, and you stay too long in the Anchor Bleu pub, you may find that your car is half-submerged. It regularly happens. It nearly happened to Fiona when she was brand new, and I went down to Bosham on an inaugural run. The tide creeps in quite fast, you see. Here are two pictures I took on Boxing Day in 1995, with the harbour road deep under water:


It was similar on Sunday, and to cap it all, a lovely sunset was developing. Here's a few shots of that:


R--- and I adjourned to the pub, the Anchor Bleu, for coffee:


Refreshed, we went out for a final stroll around. The tide was starting to go out a bit, and the moon had risen. The afterglow was magnificent:


Funny how the sunset itself, although stunning, is unsubtle compared with the colours you get in the afterglow.

It was time to go. It was getting dark and cold. I fired up Fiona, and we sped back to my house for a heartwarming stew, composed of beef slowly cooked for three hours in red wine, plus carrots, potatoes, onions, seasoning, and freshly-cooked broccoli. It wasn't Masterchef, it was inspired by my Good Housekeeping cookbook, but it was absolutely delicious.


Saturday, 17 November 2012

Meet my great grandfather and great grandmother

Photographs do of course play a very important part in my life. I consistently take around 10,000 a year, and many of these record the pattern of my ordinary life. I'm certain that a psychologist would say they are necessary for my mental comfort, quite apart from any creative element. I like to regard my very large photo collection as an historical record that I can delve into to see how things really were. That's important to me. I don't live in the past, but I don't want to forget it.

Mum and Dad possessed very few photographs of their parents (one in Dad's case, two in Mum's case) and none at all of their grandparents. So it's been very hard to visualise anyone from that older generation, especially as the only grandparent who was actually alive during my childhood was (very briefly) Dad's father, everyone else having already died.

I can't remember much about Dad's father. I only have a vague personal memory of him in the late 1950s, when he was old and in poor health. I know that he was born in Devon around 1880, married when forty or so in 1920, and died around 1960 after being cared for in a sanitorium at Aberdare in South Wales. He was widowed in 1922, which meant he experienced a great personal loss halfway through his lfe. (It also meant that Dad was deprived of his mother when still a baby)

The one picture I have of Dad's father shows him in a garden around 1930, with his shirtsleeves rolled up, presumably earning some casual money. In his autobiography Dad explained how his father failed as a parent, placing Dad first with an aunt and uncle in London, and then with a rough farming family in the deep Devon countryside, paying them to bring Dad up. I can't say there is anything I know about Dad's father that commends him to me. However, he was part of my rather small family, so I do count him in as someone I want to remember. And I wish I knew more about him, and had a few more more pictures, to flesh him out and make him seem more real.

I promised Mum and Dad long ago that I would explore Dad's family tree, and set it all out for future generations. And over the years, I have indeed constructed a basic family tree, presently enshrined on a giant Excel spreadsheet with backup copies. But there are many gaps and many guesses. The trouble is that the Dommetts, so far as I can see, were mainly tenant farmers and itinerant labourers, and fond of calling their sons William, and the daughters Mary, so that there is endless confusion as to who's who, even if any records at all can be traced.

Some hard and clever work will sort it all out one day, but this remains a project waiting for the right moment to take it forward again. After all, I am unlikely to find out anything very interesting, nor establish that I am the rightful Duchess of Devonshire!

And I am equally unlikely to turn up any old photos. Ploughmen and dairy maids never had cameras or much reason to be in someone's photograph. Documenting the family in that way really only began once Mum and Dad married in 1946, but even so, apart from shots of myself and my brother as babies and young schoolchildren, and some holiday snaps, there is little to look at. Alas, comprehensive photo coverage, with exact dates and locations noted in a daily Photo Diary, and a properly organised collection, all begin with me. In a very real sense I am the Dommett Family Archivist!

On my Mum's side it is a different story. She was born in South Wales, but her people, the Carlsons, came from Sweden. Her mother, Eva, was the fifth child (born in 1894) of Carl Johan Adolph Carlson and Laura Amelia Gould. I have two photos of Eva, taken at my Mum and Dad's wedding in 1946. It was just two years before she died. I was born in 1952, so I never knew her. Which means, of course, that I have never known what it is to have a grandmother.

Carl (born 1857) and Laura (born 1860) were married in 1879, when he was 22 and she only 19. They had six children altogether, the first being born in 1880. This was my Auntie Lizzie, who I still remember fairly well. She died in 1971. One of her sons was my Uncle Laurie, whose funeral I attended in 2010 - my first funeral as Lucy. He had three daughters, all of them very clever and active people. The eldest, M---, has made herself the Carlson Family Archivist, and, my goodness, has she done it thoroughly! She has made many trips to Sweden to inspect old records, even learning Old Swedish to help her read the records in the original, and she has been assiduous in hunting down all kinds of other material, including portraits.

The other day, I was able to take copies of two prints that M--- had unearthed. Here they are. They are of that very Carl Carlson and Laura Gould, Eva's parents, and therefore my great grandparents:


I think these are hand-coloured photographs, taken after they were married in 1879 (because she has wedding and engagement rings on her finger), and her gathered sleeves suggest some date in the early 1880s. If 1884, she would already have given birth to my Auntie Lizzie (in 1880) and my Auntie Ada (in 1883), and yet somehow recovered her figure. Perhaps a corset helped. (Or is this unkind? She'd still be only 24 in 1884)

Carl was born at Arnäs, a smallish place in northern Sweden, not far from the coastal town of Örnsköldvik. Naturally, he went to sea, and it is surely not remarkable that he met Laura in Liverpool, then a most important English port. They both died in Newport, in South Wales, itself an important port in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I have to say that Carl looks quite a man of substance in his jacket, waistcoat and trousers, with the gold watch on a chain. And Laura has poise, presence, good looks and an eye for style. No wonder she caught Carl's attention. But the photos can't tell me whether they were madly in love, and devoted to each other. I hope they were. Carl died in 1932, Laura in 1946, so they had 53 years together.

I am delighted to have these two pictures. Now I can put faces to two of the people in my Carlson family tree. If only I could do the same for the Dommetts! 

I must have a look at present-day Arnäs on Google Street View, and if I ever take Fiona to Sweden, make a point of visiting the place.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Who are they?

The number of viewings on my 'Lucy Melford' Flickr account exceeded 100,000 this morning, after three years and nine months' existence.

In a world where every person and their dog uploads shots all the time, so that the grand total on Flickr alone must be a few billion, I think that's a fair achievement. After all, casually chancing on any one Flickr site, unless the owner has published some very rare photos indeed and has properly tagged them, must be as unlikely as winning the National Lottery every day. I have only 7,250-odd shots on display, so my Flickr account is a pretty small target for the casual websurfer.

I'm thinking then that either my tagging is first-rate, or there are lots of people who regularly dip into my pictures to see what I get up to. It is partly a visual diary, to compliment the blog - hence the choice of three links to my Flickr site at the top right of this webpage.

Judging from the daily Flickr stats, there are also some people who are examining pictures of me (with what intention, I'd rather not speculate), and there might be the very occasional person who really likes my photo technique.

I do get regular requests to let some magazine or tourist board or special-interest society use one or more pictures. So long as I get a credit as the photographer, I have (so far) let them all have a licence to use the shots they want for nothing - although it does strike me that a small charge for each one wouldn't break their bank, and usefully swell the Melford Treasure Chest! But for now, I'm simply pleased that anyone likes my shots enough to email me and ask about them.

Now I'm pretty certain that the crowd who have been ogling my Flickr site since February 2009 are not, by and large, the same people who have glanced at this blog from time to time. For one thing, the pageview totals don't match: Flickr 100,000; Blogger 150,000. For another, I'm convinced that almost nobody actually uses the links from this blog to Flickr. For yet another, there is no reciprocal link from Flickr to here, because Flickr doesn't allow it. So I think that I've created two more-or-less separate and independent followings with minimal overlap, and that the combined pageview total may actually be in the region of 250,000.

If true, I'm amazed and impressed, even though (a) this is the cumulative total over the best part of four years, and (b) I'm not in a competition to gain viewership, and (c) there must be blogs and Flickr sites that have pageview totals in the millions annually, so that my own efforts are tiddlers in a vast sea. But the attention that I have got still seems much more than I ever thought could be possible - certainly an encouragement to continue indefinitely.

Ominously, I think that these pageview totals have reached some kind of critical mass, because I'm now getting the occasional email inviting me to monetise my blog. This means (if you haven't looked into it) that you get paid to carry advertising that might appeal to the readers of your blog. Google themselves have two schemes to get you started on this. My answer is 'no thanks'. I dislike ads on any website, and I am sure that the kind of person who reads me would be put off by them. I want to be pure, unsullied by commercial strings. (Although that doesn't sit well with vague ambitions to write a bestseller!)

The other thing offered by these people who get in touch is to promote your blog with social network links, so that many more people become aware of you, resulting in an explosion of readership. Well, that might sound nice, but I don't want to feel that I must come up with a cosmic post every day, or else a hundred thousand people, including some advertisers, will be dissatisfied and start to complain! And if the readership explosion did happen, the automatic engines that pick up significant pageviewing totals would alert many more advertisers, and they'd be on my back, pestering me with offers that - let's face it - would chiefly benefit them, not me.

Anyway, what kind of blog is this? It began as an outlet for personal expression after my Mum died, and became an autobiographical journey with, of course, much material devoted to trans things. Then other elements were added: where I went, what I saw, who I met, what I ate, and musings on these. With pictures. More lately, bits of history, and some political and social comment. It's a hotch-potch of everything now, albeit still presented from my personal worm's-eye view. But the posts are a perfectly serious set of writing nevertheless. I wouldn't want to turn each post into something akin to a Sunday Supplement article, so that the blog becomes just a glossy crowd-pleaser.  

Back to the figures. Who are the people who have built up the 100,000 pageviews on this blog, and (if you believe it) the grand total of 250,000 when the Flickr viewings are added? Only a very few on both sites say they follow me officially, and have thereby identified themselves. Take the blog only. 750 posts over the years. Divide 150,000 by this and you get to an average of 200 pageviews per post. Well, I've only 72 followers! Who are the rest then?

I'd love to know.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Police and Crime Commissioner elections, pirate radio, and Dad's Army

Before me, as I write, is my Poll Card, authorising me to toddle across the park to the Village Hall and vote for a Police and Crime Commissioner for the Sussex Police area.

Ever since 1970, when I became 18, I have made a point of voting in every election going.

I could not actually vote in the 1970 General Election, as I became 18 too late, and missed the chance by only a few days. This was the one in which Ted Heath carried the lance for the Conservatives, and unseated Harold Wilson from his lumbering horse in a decisive victory long-awaited by the country. Most of us had had quite enough of Harold's pipe, and his weasel voice, and his wife's poetry, and tales of their holiday home on the Isles of Scilly, and the Labour Party's kissy-kissy relationship with the Unions (then the real power in the land), and George Brown's ludicrous escapades, and Lord Beeching's trashing of the railways, and the forced introduction of Comprehensive Education, and the Labour Party's failure to deliver the White Heat of Technology as promised.

Not to mention the devaluation of the pound, and the tremendously unpopular abandonment of shillings and pence for a soulless decimal coinage. Decimalisation arrived in February 1971, on the Conservatives' watch, but the Labour government had committed the country to it years before, the first decimal coins appearing in 1968, equavalent to the old florin, shilling and ten-bob note. At least the pound was kept: but it was never the same animal as the old pound, and something important - an aspect of historical continuity - was lost forever. In fact it seemed that the country's distinctive way of life was being undermined and dismantled, and that by 1984 the country might indeed be called Airstrip One, and Harold might be Big Brother, and you could end up in Room 101 if you whispered anything that was not allowed. It was a doubleplus ungood situation.

But Ted and his Team triumphed, helped not a little with an election radio jingle based on the opening song in a certain already-iconic TV series, the one about the Home Guard in World War II. It went something like this:

Who do you think you are kidding Mr Wilson
If you think we're on the run?
We are the Boys who will stop your little game,
We are the Boys who will make you think again...

And so forth. It was playful but catchy, and for me still memorable, but as unfair as the Conservatives' much later, and far less playful, poster campaign against Labour in the 1990s that showed Tony Blair's grinning face with red demon eyes and the caption, New Labour, new danger.

As I could only watch from the wings in 1970, I was determined in the future to exercise my democratic rights whenever I had the chance. And I did: local council elections, general elections, referenda on this and that. I was punctillious about it. After all, it was the only opportunity to change or influence the People In Charge, and it didn't come often. It was criminal to waste the privilege. Voting was also a way to register disapproval for all the broken promises and failures of each successive government.

Getting back to today, who might I vote for? There are five local candidates, four of them representing parties (Conservative, Labour, Liberal, UKIP) and one Independent. So apparently a decentish choice. But because most of the candidates are party-backed, the suspicion must be that they will adhere to the national party line if they get elected. If they intend to do anything very different, they will run into trouble. This might easily mean that some local viewpoints on policing won't ever get taken into account.

What are these Commissioners supposed to do, anyway? They are not Investigating Judges. They are not Ombudsmen. Will they really have the power to force the police in my area to adopt any priorities that local people want? Will they really be able to demand from central government the proper funding for some local police initiative? Or will they simply be tacit observers at the police and council meetings they are invited to? The impression I have is that they will be toothless and easily-ignored, and will make no difference whatever.

So I can't be bothered. And this will be the first local election I won't have voted in.

Postscript: Curious to find out more about the 1970 Dad's Army election jingle that was such a gift to the Conservatives, I've discovered that it originated from a pirate radio ship! Of course: Labour didn't want to legalise commercial radio, and especially not stations broadcasting pop music...all against socialist principles...whereas the trendy Conservative party was all for such enterprising and freebooting things. So the jingle was born, less than a week before the election, and was heard all over the place. The second line in fact officially went If you think free radio's down. But I'm sure that there were several versions current. LM    

Haunted house

Tucked away on the far western edge of Oxfordshire, in hard-to-get-to countryside, is Chastleton House, built between 1607 and 1612 by Walter Jones, a Welsh lawyer who had done well for himself.

He bought the Chastleton Estate from a man desperate to sell it. A man in fear of the rack and a dreadful death, the sort that traitors might suffer. That man was Robert Catesby, a Catholic and the driving force behind the infamous Gunpowder Plot, which is what the bonfires are all about on 5th November each year. Catesby did not suffer the horrible death meted out to co-conspirator Guy Fawkes. He was offered the chance to buy his life if he paid an immense fine. He sold nearly everything, his home included, to raise the necessary money, and I imagine that Walter Jones was in a position to drive a hard bargain. At any rate, Jones had cash enough to pull down Cateby's house and build an entirely new one on the foundations.

Naturally, given the dangers of the times, the house has its Secret Room, which forty years later was actually used by a descendant, Captain Arthur Jones, one night in the later Civil War, when he was hotly pursued to the house by Roundhead soldiers. They couldn't find him, but refused to go away, announcing that they would all make their quarters for the night on the floor of the very room containing the entrance to the secret hiding-place. They loudly ordered food and refreshment from his wife. Unpurturbed, Captain Jones' wife gave them a good meal, but drugged their ale so that they all fell soundly asleep. Her husband could then come out of hiding, treading carefully over the soldiers, and he got clean away on a fresh horse.

Backtracking a little, the nouveau-riche builder of the house, Walter Jones, went on to make an advantageous marriage. This established his family among the nobility of the land, and naturally in the years that followed their sympathies and loyalties were entirely Royalist, supporting Charles I against the rising tide of Puritan feeling.

The Royalist cause was of course doomed. Charles I was beheaded in 1649. As he finished his prayers on the scaffold where the axe would shortly fall, Charles handed his Bible to faithful Bishop Juxon. This Bible was taken into retirement by the bishop, but he gave it to the Jones family as a cherished momento of Charles, to whom they had been so loyal, and it is still there in the house. An unlucky gift perhaps. After the Parliamentary forces won the Civil War, and Oliver Cromwell had established the Commonwealth, the Jones family were singled out for special taxation. It was intended as a heavy punishment for being on the losing side. Starved of money, the family had to sell of bits of the estate to get by, and because acreage mattered - noble landowners had to live off their rents - they sank into relative poverty. They never recovered financially.

But they did manage to keep the house going for some 400 years altogether, though without adequate repairs. The house therefore remained in its original 1612 state, never modernised, and was still like this when it came into the hands of the National Trust in 1991. It was by then a very rare example of an intact Jacobean house with a period garden, and the Trust decided to keep it largely as they found it, and not embark on extensive restoration work.

So the visiting public sees a house that has all its original features and furnishings, except of course those that had to be sold to keep things going. The house has a bareness and half-emptiness that accentuates things you might not otherwise notice, such as strange, dark and curiously-carved wall panelling, heavily plastered ceilings, the unevenness of very old wooden floor planks; and just under the level of awareness, sundry mysterious echoes and creaks. This is a house that talks to itself.


The house does not look unusual from the outside, but inside, towards the end of a late autumn afternoon, as I saw it recently, when the sun is low, and the desolation of a cold evening is growing, then you might be glad of company when walking through the maze of rooms. The Great Hall, with its roaring fire, is cheerful enough, but the passages leading off, that twist and turn, and the odd way that rooms interconnect, all disconcert you. You might easily get lost on the upper floors; you would certainly not want to be caught there in the dark. And all about, faces leer at you from the dark oak panelling:


The staircase is very spooky indeed. It winds up and up, full of blind corners, those sharp-pointed bannister spikes, so much like the spikes traitors' heads were once impaled upon, follow you up as you go and would cast menacing shadows if a flickering candle was your only light:


I looked down near the top, but all I saw was the stairwell of a screaming dream, spiralling down to infinity:


Upstairs is the Long Gallery. It was built to enable the people in the house to get exercise, and read, and sew, when the weather was too wet or too cold to venture outside. It catches the sunset, light streaming down its entire length:


But after dark this place would be full of unsettling silence, a place of whispers and vague, impossible movement, like old portraits that seem to come alive once the sun has set. Scattered about the house were paintings such as this. I was much struck by this one at the foot of the stairwell:


This very careworn lady, holding a hymnal in her hand, seems hemmed in by the dark background. I couldn't make out which hymn was her particular comfort against the things she was afraid of. What was there in the house that made her afraid? I rather fancy she prayed constantly under her breath, as a way of defying the devils that made those stange and insistent little noises upstairs that she couldn't quite be certain about.

In the middle of the house was an empty area, closed in except skywards, a gloomy place of blank, staring windows:


Perhaps another place not to go after dark. Especially alone. If you look closely at the dark window (bottom centre) there seem to be two points of red light. Something electrical? Or red eyes watching? Whose red eyes?

Finally (the last place I went) there were the cellars. First, a fairly ordinary subterranean space with a big ladder in it and not much else. But then, there was a deeper chamber with strange columns, that reminded me of the columns in the Temple at Luxor in Egypt. But there were no hieroglyphs on these. It was only the Beer Cellar. But it was as silent and oppressive as the grave, a place in which you would take care not to shut the door on youself, and not let your candle blow out. You wouldn't want to see any red eyes in the darkness, would you now?


Two women with a little boy followed me in. I was surprised to see them, but relieved that they had joined me. Back in the main cellar was a slightly older child, a girl who might have been twelve or thirteen. She had hung back. She looked defiantly at me. 'I'm not going in there!' she said, 'No way I'm going in there.' I assured her that I wouldn't make her. We agreed it was really creepy. Children know.

No question, this was a haunted house.

Monday, 12 November 2012

On the deck with Captain Horatio Hornblower

In my teens I discovered the novelist C S Forester, famous of course for his fictional books about Horatio Hornblower, the complex and heroic Royal Navy officer of Napoleonic times, although he also wrote The African Queen, which was made into an iconic film starring Humphrey Bogart. Lesser-known are a string of other books dealing with aspects of war and crime, such as The General, Brown on Resolution, Payment Deferred, Plain Murder, and Randall and the River of Time. They are all marked by an attention to character-study, the often perverse misunderstandings that arise between people, and the profound consequences of chance events.

Forester's writing style was distinctive and one to emulate. I think he believed that single individuals mattered, and could transcend all their difficulties if they were driven by a meritorious sense of duty, or a worthy ambition. I also think he recognised the many weaknesses and shortcomings of the average person, and was much on the side of the plain unvarnished human being, so long as they had courage and strove to do their very best. All this spoke to me during a very awkward period in my life, when I felt socially dysfunctional and yet full of undirected capability. His books were inspiring and consolatory at the same time. In particular I appreciated (and could identify with) Hornblower's introspective and self-critical nature, and the loneliness of his position as commander, even though I was myself anything but 'in command'.

One of the novels, Hornblower and the Atropos, set in 1805, opens with him on a canal barge in Gloucestershire. He is with his wife and child, and because it is winter, and because his wife is very pregnant, he has decided to take the inland route on the Severn and Thames Canal, opened in 1789, rather than sail around Cornwall and up the Channel to London. It is a novel experience for Hornblower, gliding down a peaceful narrow waterway, without a deck heaving beneath him, and so slowly; and himself with nothing to do - although he does take a hand when the one-man 'crew' gets incapable.

At one point they negotiate the very long dark Sapperton Tunnel, between the Cotswold villages of Sapperton and Coates. This tunnel, which is 3,817 yards long (over two miles) and in places as much as 200 feet underground, is without a towpath, and the only way to propel the barge when it was in active use was to push it along with poles, or by legging it, meaning that the bargeman lay on his back on the roof on the cabin, or on a plank at the bows, and 'walked' on the bricks lining the canal tunnel roof or sidewall. Quite a tiring performance in real life, I'd say.

The location had stuck in my mind. And when staying at Cirencester (not far away) in May I'd noticed brown tourist roadsigns pointing the way to the Tunnel Inn and the eastern end of the tunnel. A lunchtime meetup two weeks ago in Oxford with Jenny Alto settled the matter. I decided to go and see what was still there.


Well, from a roadbridge a bit to the southeast of the tunnel, there was the towpath, but the canal was dried-up and overgrown, having fallen out of use in 1933. However, a short section, several hundred yards long, had been partly restored in the direction of the tunnel. It looked picturesque with the trees in autumnal clothing on either side:


I went to view the eastern portal of the tunnel itself. Here it is:


As you can see, weed has gathered near the tunnel entrance, but there is clear water just a little way along, and you feel that it wouldn't take a huge effort to fully reinstate this section. This is the view back towards the roadbridge in the first shots, from the bay that barges could tie up at, if the bargeman on board, or his passengers, were minded to refresh themselves at the adjacent Inn (which of course is a modern-day option as well):


The tunnel is presently blocked by two falls at its western end, and you can't get through to Sapperton. At this end, at Coates, the tunnel entrance is sealed off with a wire mesh gate and padlock, presumably for safety reasons. But given the funding, the tunnel and its approaching sections of canal could be brought to life again and re-connected with the national network of waterways. I'd be surprised if it doesn't happen within my own lifetime.

Worth a revisit meanwhile, anyway, just to walk the towpath and have lunch at the Inn. It was mid-morning when I went, and it wasn't open. I had lunch instead by the River Severn at the Anchor Inn at Epney, en route to Gloucester. If you go there, have their ham, egg and chips. I recommend it!