Thursday, 28 February 2013

Men's groping hands

The kind of touching that some men indulge in when chatting to women is presently very much in the news, and I suppose I'd better throw in some remarks of my own. After all, I was able to observe these situations almost daily for over thirty years in my Revenue job, and so I know something about them.

I won't discuss the accusations being made against the particular political figure in the news, but will concentrate instead on the subject of Men's Wandering Hands in general.

I will say at once that although social attitudes have moved on a bit, so that it's no longer routine for a man to unthinkingly paw a woman he is sitting next to, I don't believe for one moment that human nature has changed, nor that the long-ingrained licence to touch, that many men have grown up with, has withered away to nothing.

Why do men touch women who are not their wives nor their acknowledged girlfriends? In completely private scenarios, just between the two of them, and where both are willing to let it happen, then it's a matter that hardly requires discussion. It's the public or semi-public situation, where a woman does not expect any touching, that I'd like to explore. Being a passenger in a car, and having one's knee fondled, can also be a molestation in public where there are other passengers. God knows why men will risk a protest in such a situation: they must feel very sure of themselves and their ascendency over all the occupants of the car. In my own view, that feeling of power, of being untouchable, is the main reason why men will try it on. So a man in a position of authority is the one most likely to play Let Yellow Pages Do The Walking up one's thighs.

In the office situation, there are many dangerous places for a woman to be. Classically, the closed windowless room of a more senior member of staff is the spider's parlour, and she the hapless fly. For instance, it may be necessary to examine papers sitting side by side, or with the woman standing next to the seated man. It's his room; nobody will barge in without knocking; he is immune from sudden interruption; and if he wishes he can brush against her arms or legs, and possibly go further. (Open-plan offices, with low partitions between desks, have done so much to prevent this kind of thing)

Then there is the storeroom, or the staff kitchen/coffee room/relaxation room/first-aid room, any of which may provide opportunities to entrap a woman and bar her easy escape.

Liquid lunches in bars provide other opportunities for a man determined to get intimate with a woman. Crowded bars make it easier to sit very close; the background din makes it natural to behave boisterously, and gesticulate a lot, and generally accustom the woman to all kinds of extravagant hand movements; the atmosphere encourages excessive bonhomie and over-familiar conversation; and the drink blunts perceptions and loosens inhibitions, so that after a couple of drinks, perhaps two more than she would really have had, the woman's instinct to be careful may be fatally compromised.

A man of experience will be perfectly well aware of all this. A woman of experience will also know perfectly well what to watch out for. But the conventions that govern office life - the imperative to fit in, to be a sport, to seem grown-up and adult and worldly-wise, to enjoy the goodwill and warmth so clearly offered, all conspire to place her at a disadvantage in a game that men are determined to win. Add to this an unwillingness to seem a prude, or to give offence to important people such as the boss, and the internal voice that says 'get away now, at once' may find itself crying out unheard.

Even a woman who has heard that voice loud and clear may face difficulties when she discovers that the man has manoeuvred her into a position where she can't just get up and leave. It is not unknown for the chairs and stools around a table to be so deftly arranged that the woman is corralled into a corner. Or for a man to simply sit on her coat, so that she can't get up. It takes some doing for the seating to be so packed that knees get intertwined, but in a sardine-tin situation, the woman may find it impossible to go to the toilet without making so many people get up to let her pass that the men present may playfully demand she pays a forfeit, such as a kiss. The scope for further forfeits is obvious.

I have observed all of this. It was standard in the 1970s and 1980s. After that, such behaviour became associated with boozy old lechers nearing the end of their careers; and younger men, especially once the first Recession of the 1990s began to bite, kept tenure of employment very much in mind and shied away from doing anything that might earn them a reprimand, or worse, an excuse to sack them. 'Last in, first out' was the rule, and it concentrated the mind. In any case the concept of 'political correctness' had taken hold. I'm too cynical to believe that a new and enlightened fairness to women prevailed, but certainly it seemed that men in general were treating women with much more respect. By 2000, in the Revenue at least, the normal standard of behaviour was a world away from what it had been twenty or more years before. Life On Mars no longer.

But one can never be complacent. All things tend to go in cycles, and I think there are signs that men are getting back the dominant self-confidence they lost for a while. I see it in the assertions made by men influential in the media and in sport and in politics. Women have barely won a first-class status, and then only by running hard and fast and in every way doing more than men need to. If we are not careful, men will feel it it their right to put an arm around any strange woman's waist, without her leave, and treat her as a swooning toy: just like they used to.

A man called 'Digger' Brown did that to my Mum in a golf club bar around 1976. She froze, and told him to take his hand away. He complied, but it was all very awkward for a while. Dad (then a member of that golf club) tried to explain that Digger was a harmless fellow, very popular, very much liked and respected by all, a great character. He did that to all the women he saw. It was just his way, and it meant nothing. Mum was not deceived. Nor was I.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Rupert and the Water-lily

Let's get on with the Rupertfest!

My 1958 Rupert annual contains five stories, with Things To Do on the pages in between. The first story is called Rupert and the Water-lily. This is clearly the main story in the annual, although not actually my personal favourite.


This is the opening format for stories throughout the annual: a double-page spread that shows some of the components of the story, to set the scene. You have to imagine a very young child curled up with Mummy, looking forward to being read to. Or an older child, who can read, getting a feel for the story from this scene before the story unfolds. But the only clues are the pink water-lily (top right), a guinea pig in Edwardian leisure wear, and a gypsy caravan with a pot boiling on an open-air fire next to it. Rather mysterious!

In the garden, Rupert and Mrs Bear hear a cacophony like 'hundreds of ducks', and he goes to investigate. He sees no ducks, but finds someting shiny in the stream, a kind of medal. Notice how little Julie, whose annual this was, has pencilled in little stick figures, who seem to link the characters in the pictures together, as if assisting them, or just to be with them. She does a lot of this in the first two stories. Perhaps the stick figures represent herself and her best friend, and in this way she has put herself (and anyone she likes) into the story, as participants. What a nice idea. And the figures are a direct link with the young Julie.

A friend, Gregory Guinea-pig, points Rupert in the direction of a pond where two Girl Guides are comforting a little girl called Sylvia. She's just had an upsetting experience:


Here you see three of the four levels on which the storyline can be apprehended. A large-font title at the top of the page:

RUPERT IS SORRY FOR SYLVIA

A rhyming couplet beneath each picture-frame:

'That lily moved away from me,' 
Sobs Sylvia, crying bitterly.

And of course, for any child who can't read, and for the rest of us too, the picture-frame that shows all you need to know about what's going on, courtesy of artist Alfred Bestall.

Although Rupert and Gregory are wearing clothes that scream 1905, the girls' own attire does look credibly 1958. It's quite subtle how the girls are differentiated. Sylvia is simply a tearful little child who is totally overwhelmed by one unusual surprise: a lily she reached for suddenly zoomed away from her. But the two Girl Guides, Pauline and Beryl, although still only young themselves, have a capable air to them, and are obviously equal to any challenge. The dominant Guide, Pauline, is caring and very adult. I bet Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady of the Conservative Party and Britain's first woman Prime Minister, was in this mould. Notice how the pictures make it absolutely clear that (a) this is an annual that both girls and boys can enjoy; (b) the upsets of little children matter; (c) it's the duty of everyone present to cluster around and give comfort; (d) children and talking animals really mix all the time, and it's perfectly normal. We could all learn from that.

Sylvia, shivering with shock, is led away by those managing Guides at a 'brisk trot to make her warm', while Rupert and Gregory puzzle over the fact that there is no lily there now. Then it reappears, moving around on the pond at a rate of knots, before diving and disappearing again. Then a big frog appears, and seems to be waving them both away angrily. Eager to ask someone who may know all about these strange occurences, Rupert finds Rollo, the gypsy boy, collecting firewood:


You can tell he's a real gypsy because of the knotted red handkerchief he's wearing on his head. Note that. Anyone without a red handkerchief worn in that fashion is just a tinker. Note also the 'Rupert sky' in the right-hand picture frame, a classic graduation from yellow at the bottom to deep blue at the top, a beautiful background feature that Bestall made his own. Rollo is not immediately going to accept Rupert's tale of self-propelling lily flowers and strange noises, and says:

'Oh come, that's going much too far,'
Grins Rollo. 'What a chap you are!'

Despite his outdoor appearance, Rollo speaks posh! Obviously a role model for all boys. Although inclined to chortle, Rollo nevertheless takes Rupert to see his Granny, who admonishes Rollo, and takes a much more serious view of it all. It's a forgotten Gypsy Secret. She is vexed to remember nothing about it, and urges Rupert to follow the noise and rediscover the Secret.

So, following the now-deafening noise, Rupert begins to make his way up a rocky but well-vegetated hillside. He sees frogs of all sizes and colours, and some of them are obviously not English frogs. He pluckily follows a stream that runs through a narrow cleft. It's impossible to climb out, but, looking back, he finds he is being followed by dozens of large frogs and can't retreat. Then he comes face to face with a giant frog with a stern expression. It's wearing an important-looking chain around its neck, a chain with medal-like pendants. One is missing. It's the Chief Steward to the King of Frogs. He really is very annoyed. He doesn't like it when Rupert asks him what the 'noise' is. Indignantly he explains it's the singing that all frogs make when their King is close by. Then he goes off in a huff, to attend on the King.

But Rupert, remembering his earlier find in the stream, calls him back and shows him the medal:


This makes a huge difference. The Steward is very grateful. Is there anything he can do to repay Rupert? Rupert bowls him a googly. Could he see the King? And why did the water-lily move around and disappear? Oooooh, that's a toughie. But after much deliberation, his wish is granted - sort of. Rupert is directed to climb up further, and reaches a pond. Apparently the King of Frogs personally inspects all ponds on a two-hundred year cycle, and it just so happens that it's the turn of the ponds near to where Rupert lives. Hence all the excitement and jubilation and singing of the local frogs. As Rupert watches, the pink water-lily he saw earlier comes close. But where's the King? The Steward appears and tells Rupert to look under the lily, where he can now make out a truly gigantic frog. The lily is his crown, and he can breathe through it. A clever way to visit every pond incognito.

The Steward gives permission for Rupert to tell the Granny, and anyone else he likes. Tomorrow the King will be gone, and two hundred years will pass before there is another visit by his successor. So it doesn't matter if a few people do know. Off he rushes to explain to Granny, meeting the two Girl Guides on the way, and inviting them, Sylvia and Gregory all home for tea. (Let's hope Mrs Bear has made some scones!)

What a neat explanation as to why you and I have never heard the singing of the frogs: it only happens every other century. Lucky Rupert, then!

Turning the next page, there are instructions on how to make a frog out of a sheet of paper. Yes, a spot of Origami:


I well recall trying my very hardest to make this, but always doing it wrong. But I was very young, after all, and clumsy, and silly, and a bit impatient. I will now try again, and intend to succeed.
 
I hope you can see how absolutely charming these Rupert stories are. And how there is no such thing as a 'bad' or 'dangerous' animal in them: we are all equals.

The next post will find Rupert on a bus, and then in town, and reveal how well-accepted he is everywhere.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Little Julie Burchell's Rupert Bear Annual


I was in Lewes the other day, and bought this annual at The Fifteenth Century Bookshop. I'd been looking for it for years. Pre-1970 Christmas annuals are getting rare nowadays, because not all that many have survived in a state worth selling. They were of course bought for little children to enjoy until they fell to pieces - so some sort of wear and tear is always to be expected! Those you can see on the shelves of second-hand bookshops, generally dog-eared and tatty, are usually the most recent editions. The older ones are always 'under the counter' or 'behind the glass' to preserve them from further damage, and you have to ask the shop owner about them. 

Collectable examples in pretty good condition, with no pages missing or torn across, and the hardboard cover completely intact, including the spine, command serious money. This one was not completely unblemished, but it was definitely in pretty good shape. The lady who owned the shop had priced it at £40. I was crestfallen when I discovered this, but she was kind to me and let me have it for £35. She must have realised that I was genuinely eager to have it, and was not simply a tourist.

I was so very keen to buy it because although I must have owned at least two Rupert annuals when young, this is the one I remember. It was another link between the Then and the Now that I wanted to re-establish, so that I could recover some of my childhood, and if possible find out where I went wrong.

For I do regard myself as a 'failed child'. But not irretrievably so. Some bits can be mended. Maybe some bits can be understood as never before. I can bring the perspective of decades to bear (no pun intended). Besides, something like this is 'interactive' - you can read it again and again, and with each reading recapture something - what you loved, what it meant, how it worked on your imagination, and what it might have led on to.

So this was a door-opening purchase, even more so than the two Ladybird books I bought not long ago (see my post Hares, bunnies, wild flowers and wild cats on 31 January 2013).

For anyone not familiar with Rupert Bear, this article will give a brief outline, and includes references to follow up: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rupert_Bear.

Let's see what's inside. Inside the front and back covers is a lamplit scene, by a dark pool, with stars shining above; and a Frog Chorus:


This may vaguely ring a non-Rupert bell. And you'd not be mistaken. In 1984, a short animated film was released called Rupert and the Frog Song, a creative effort of Paul McCartney's (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rupert_and_the_Frog_Song). This was very well received, and won a BAFTA award. One song from it, which completely recalls the scene in my annual, was We All Stand Together (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/We_All_Stand_Together), which you either love or hate. I love it. I do wonder whether Paul McCartney (sorry, it's Sir Paul of course) secretly has his own original copy of this very annual somewhere at home. It's a thought. And maybe, just maybe, his second marriage to Heather Mills first went awry when she discovered it, and laughed. The rift wouldn't need any further genesis. Mockery of one's childhood treasures is enough to destroy the most perfect love. If anybody ever poked fun at (for instance) my Teddy Tinkoes, that would be enough to scotch any relationship between us, no matter how otherwise successful. (Paul, if my conjecture is correct, I feel for you. And if I'm wide of the mark, then I still unashamedly admire your take on the Frog Chorus)

Turning the page, there are the Contents, and a box to record who the annual belongs to:


A parent has written 'To Dear little Julie, from Mummy & Daddy, Christmas 1958'. And in the 'This book belongs to' box, is written 'Julie Burchell' with the address, '104, Bennetts Road, Horsham, Sussex'. I'm sure the Burchell family are long gone from there! But Julie must surely be alive (she'd only be my age, after all), and with a family of her own perhaps. If she is reading, I'd love to hear from her.

You must have realised by now that this particular Rupert annual couldn't have belonged to the other Julie, the well-known writer and feminist Julie Burchill. It's the 1958 annual, and she wasn't born until 1959 (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julie_Burchill). Even so, it's a remarkable coincidence of names. And the coincidences don't end there. Ms Burchill was born in early July, within three days of myself, so we are both Cancer people, and in theory - if you believe this stuff - we must share a basic character. Sobering. Scary. And I wonder if it's true. She lives in nearby Brighton, too, and likes lobster. Hmmm.

As for the Julie whose annual this was, there is another coincidence: my old name J--- was very close to hers. Isn't that strange? And she might be interested to know that I lived in Horsham too (well, Broadbridge Heath) from 1989 to 1996, so there's a connection of sorts there. At any rate, it's entirely a Sussex affair: all three of us living in the county at some time, and my buying the book in Lewes, the county town.

As for Rupert himself, he surely also lived (and continues to live?) in the south-east of England, possibly in Kent (though the scenery looks distinctly North Wales at times!) - as you will see from a post yet to come. The Rupert Bear Museum is in Canterbury in Kent, where lived Mary Tourtel, the lady who introduced Rupert to the general public - see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Tourtel. This is a shot of the Museum when I saw it in 2006:


When Mary Tourtel's eyesight failed another artist, Alfred Bestall, took over, and my annual is a classic example of 'mature Bestall'. He is reckoned to have given Rupert his definitive look. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Bestall) M--- (an ardent Rupert fan) loved the delicate watercolour skies that Alfred Bestall created in the background of each illustrated story, and she called them 'Rupert skies'. That was also the name we both gave to any real-life sky that looked the same. We shared many moments admiring such skies. You might say that this annual is a link to M---'s childhood too, a way of keeping at least one very pleasant part of our lost relationship alive in my heart.  

You can easily see that, for all sorts of reasons, there was no way I could have handed this annual back and walked off. I simply had to secure it and take it home, to cherish for the rest of my life.

The title page comes next. I have recorded the purchase details, and signed it in the fair Melford hand:


Look at that. Mum and Dad (and Julie's Mum and Dad) had to fork out 5/-! Five bob was a fair amount for a stocking-filler in 1958, and would certainly have bought a lot of groceries in any household's weekly spend. I dare say that despite Premier Harold Macmillan (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Macmillan) declaring in 1959 that the British people had never had it so good, an extra five shillings was still difficult for some parents to find, when Christmas was a season of big expenditure anyway. Quite possibly some children did not enjoy the adventures of Rupert Bear. Which is a pity, because they are lovely adventures.

I'm afraid the next few posts are going to be rather a Rupertfest. Sorry.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

A classically-inspired feast for friends

Yesterday I gave lunch to two friends, K--- and V---, at my house. It was a cold, rather bleak day, so I made sure that the conservatory, which contains my six-seater round dining table, was well-heated with both hot air from the adjoining kitchen and an electric heater that radiated warmth this way and that. This heating combination was adequate, although had the sun come out it would have been even cosier. But the sun made no appearance whatever, and despite the daylight it was vitally necessary to provide extra psychological heating, with hearty food and nice wine. But I had planned for that, and gave my guests a carefully thought out menu.

Both adored French food, and in fact V--- is a French lady; so really there was no choice but to shamelessly emulate the great Escoffier, and other chefs before and after him. It's mainly a question of getting one's timings right, so that several things come together at the right time for plating and serving.

Having picked my guests up from the station just as their train arrived - it was persishingly cold and I couldn't let them hang around - it was coats off, a tour of the house, and straight in to an already-opened bottle of red wine and the hors-d'oevres. My main course was doing well in the oven; and the starter and the dessert would only take ten minutes each. All under control, then.

This was the menu that I'd printed out for them, one copy each:


LE MENU AUJOURD’HUI

Les hors-d’oevres...
Du pain.
Du beurre.
Du pâté.
Du vin rouge. 

L’entrée
Deux gilbertins Charlotte Corday; avec des oisettes Picardie, un garni M. Guillotin, et des savards piquants. (Salmon with stuff) 

Le plat principal
Un grand-vambon Maréchal Ney, encrassé des fines herbes, et débuissé sur les feux terribles; avec rougeaux ibériques, et legumes de la campagne. (Lamb and veg) 

Le dessert
Demi-pérettes Agnes Sorel, sousades de Joséphine, coquailles au Prince; avec petits nou-nous du Baron Mouchard de Nazardrin, et un jus chinois. (Fruity things) 

Ensuite...
Une liqueur
Du café
Du chocolat
Le Can-Can


No, the Can-Can was in there just as a little bit of fun.

The menu was slightly opaque, I agree, but then I wanted to tease and not give the game away. I did, as you can see, supply a succinct English translation for the starter, main and dessert. But that wouldn't have told you a lot. The menu required interpretation, and I thought that my guests might like to puzzle it out while I attended to a couple of things in the kitchen. Some photos may assist. These were the simple hor-d'oevres:


A fresh flute thinly cut, coarse pâté with mushrooms, and red wine. Easy to enjoy. And here's me in cheffing outfit, enjoying myself:


After a while, it was time to prepare the starter for serving at the dining table in the conservatory. Two components (the asparagus and the quails' eggs) needed a little cooking, but otherwise this was laughingly straightforward:


The gilbertins were the asparagus spears rolled up in smoked salmon. I conjured up Charlotte Corday (the girl who stabbed Marat during the French Revolution) to suggest an especially French dish, redolent of high ideals and direct action. I chose the quails' eggs (the oisettes) mainly because they were so pretty, suggestive of birdsong and tweeting from little nests hidden among the salmon-coloured poppies, or the pretty cornflowers, that bloom in summer in the fields of northern France (and hence the reference to Picardy). Unfortunately I boiled them just a little too long, and the yolks weren't molten as planned. Never mind, there were no complaints.

The chopped parsley (demanding a nod to Monsieur Guillotin's invention) was there primarily for the aroma, but, along with the savards (a savard is any big-flavoured savory tidbit, in this case pickled capers) the two garnishes helped to stop the eggs rolling about. Both my guests thought the capers were much more than merely functional: they said they were a jolly good foil for the succulent Scottish salmon.

After a pause (this was a deliberately leisurely meal) I quickly cooked some sweet-stemmed broccoli, and courgettes sautéed in butter. The star of the main course was the grand-vambon, a large boned piece of lamb, studded with garlic and rosemary, and tied in string to keep it in one piece. I cooked it in lard, with only the little roast potatoes for company. Solid soldiers' fare - hence the reference to Marshal Ney, Napoleon's best general, who like all generals had to feed his army with whatever might be stolen from the nearest farm and slaughtered, a flock of sheep for instance; and besides, I wished to continue the Revolution/Empire theme. I should have basted the lamb slightly more than I did, but what I did was sufficient: the outer layer of fat was crisp and brown.

The rest of the vegetables had been slow-cooked with slices of best chorizo (the rougeaux ibériques, i.e. the 'red spanish things'). This linked with Marshal Ney again, who had successes in the Peninsular War, and, when things went against France there, fought a brilliant series of battles in retreat. In the pot were also onions, red peppers, carrots and parsnips. All were quickly pre-fried in lard, the spicey essence in the chorizo infusing the melted fat with the particular red of the Spanish flag. I made a rue, and added stock, red wine (lots) and a mushroom essence; then gave it more than two hours, longer than the lamb, but all to be ready at the same time. This was the result, once the grand-vambon was sliced and plated, the potatoes arranged, and the Iberian sausage and vegetables added. The green vegetables I served in a separate dish:


All the time wine was being drunk, and a lot of conversation was going on. It didn't actually snow outside, but as the conservatory got warmer (or was it the food?) we all hankered after a feathery downfall to watch as we ate and drank.

Then it was time for the very easy dessert. I had two tubs of half-melted sorbet, raspberry and mango: I dipped into each and spread the red and orange 'juice' over the plate. If any of the sorbet had been more solid, there would have been demi-pérettes, that is, half-spheres of sorbet, but alas that couldn't be managed. My guests didn't mind.

I added lychees (without juice, the 'jus chinois' now being supplanted by the melted sorbet), blueberries, pomegranate seeds, and coconut chunks.

Agnes Sorel was a name I'd read in a book by P G Wodehouse, one of the Bertie Wooster stories in which his Aunt Dahlia's French chef produces a dish called Nonnettes Agnes Sorel, a dish into which he had put his very soul. But of course Bertie offends him by recommending everyone at the house party to refuse all food - the bright idea behind this being to signal to one's partner that despite having a tiff one was still deeply in love, the plot depending on patching up various romances so that certain good things will flow from the reconciliation. And most importantly, if the engagement of gormless Gussie Fink-Nottle and soppy Madeleine Bassett remains 'off', Bertie, being a gentleman, will have to man-up and marry the said Bassett instead, a dreadful fate. In the end Jeeves his clever and resourceful valet saves him from that, and puts everything right, but not before Monsieur Antoine, the irreplaceable chef, goes into retreat and threatens to leave. Which is all totally irrelevant to my meal really, but I liked the 'Agnes Sorel' name.

The sousades (the coconut chunks) were there to evoke the semi-tropical Martinique background of Joséphine de Beauharnais, Napoleon's first wife. The Baron Mouchard de Nazardrin was, if you recall, the Nature Baron who, disgusted with the vain and pompous extravagances of the noble way of life, made simplicity his keynote, eating lots of fruit for one thing - much on the same lines as people like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and much later, Henry David Thoreau of Walden fame. The blueberries are therefore a healthy gesture at natural goodness.

The pomegranate seeds recall the red fins on the blue dolphin that appears in the coat of arms of the first-born royal prince of pre-revolutionary France, the Dauphin. Red was also a favourite colour of Monsieur François Vatel, one of Louis XIV's favourite chefs - the one who, when a fast rider from the coast brought news that no lobsters had been caught that day for a vital dish to be presented to the King and his important guests, needlessly committed suicide. Needlessly, because very soon afterwards another rider galloped into the courtyard at Versailles to report that, after all, lobsters had been caught. Highly strung, these French chefs! Oh well, I suppose he believed he was facing shame amd humiliation, and possibly death by torture.

This was my own dessert anyway:


It went down well. I was able to gloss over the missing demi-pérettes!

And to prove that we drank some wine, here are the three empty bottles. So there!


But we didn't do the Can-Can.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Going back, and risking recognition

This is basically about going back to old haunts, and risking recognition. And even if one could get away with it, whether it would be right to try.

Not being recognised might seem to rest on whether there had been sufficient physical changes, but I think the issue is more complex than that. For instance, if your demeanour and attitude and degree of self-confidence have all markedly changed, these things can disguise you as much as how you might look or sound.

I must say at once that I owe a huge debt to my ex-wife W--- and my long-term ex-partner M---. Both showed me how to tackle many things that, left to myself, I would have shrunk from doing. Both were, in their different ways, feisty people who would not be rebuffed, nor take 'No' for an answer if they felt that they were in the right, and could make it a 'Yes' by pushing a bit.

M--- was especially good at weighing up a situation, seeing the justice of the matter, the strengths and weaknesses of a strategy, and persevering to obtain the result that she wanted. She took on care homes (neglect of an elderly aunt in their care), difficult tenants (who left a rented house in a dreadful state), and belligerent neighbours (thwarting their unreasonable planning application, taking it up to Government Inspector level).

I can't remember W--- embarking on anything so spectacular, but she too had steel in her and would not be put down. I think her main specific achievement was surviving a series of appalling temp jobs that started well but turned into nightmare assignments. I do recall wondering how anybody could put up with her bad treatment: the commercial world seemed full of selfish and backstabbing go-getters, who would trample on anyone, and betray trust without a qualm, no matter how hard and meritorious the work done for them. Not that the Revenue was free of obnoxious and over-ambitious folk: but compared to the commercial sector, Civil Service conditions were benign and congenial and utterly fair, with everyone abiding by the rules, even if the financial rewards were distinctly less. I had plumped for safety, and being a sheep suited me much better than being a tiger. I was glad of my choice. I never thought I could be other than a sheep.

Neither of these women in my life, whom I knew and observed over a long span (from 1982 to 2008, taking them one after the other), achieved their triumphs unscathed. All the battles they took on and fought wore them down, and used up their stock of personal strength and courage. It was clear that nobody could come though periods of unrelenting stress without some damage. But they still considered the effort well worthwhile, even if their resilience and stamina had taken a battering.

M--- especially would take on big battles, never with any relish, but she had determination and a high sense of what was right or wrong, and although I sometimes thought (and said) that she ought to say 'sod it' and not pursue a matter further, that was the timid me speaking. M--- was not timid. It was not her way at all. If she felt she was morally and legally right, she would persist to the end, and had the knack of presenting a very good case at a hearing. I could only admire this, and wish that I were as strong. It was not lost on me that clear thinking, good organisation, foreseeing different outcomes and what to do next, all won battles, just as much as a stomach for conflict. It was really what my own Revenue job was all about. But here was a woman of no special training taking on issues that disadvantaged or threatened her, or her nearest and dearest, and winning. And showing a degree of moral courage that I had never shown.

My own role during these ongoing troubles was to remain a background support, just to be there and see them through each contest (whether chosen, or thrust upon them), and comfort them in those moments of frustration and doubt. I did not think myself capable of ever standing up to the kind of situations they faced up to.

M--- was undaunted by strange and novel situations. I saw how, in New Zealand, she would speak to Maori landowners, seeking permission for us to take the campervan along some farm track to the sea. And when in Hong Kong, when we were looking for something to eat for lunch, and we strayed into streets where only the locals went, she overcame the language barrier with a mixture of pidgin English and gestures. I stood by amazed. But I took note. Nothing was impossible, given effort and daring and a need to succeed. Well, one thing defeated her determination: my gender dysphoria. But then it wasn't a challenge she or anyone else could have overcome.

And now, on my own, and facing challenges all the time, the strong examples that W--- and M--- set me have been an inspiration. My attitude now is: I do need, I will ask, I am determined to get. In two words: I can.

That's so different from my former wishy-washy approach, where I was putty in my parents' hands, or happy to leave it all to the stronger women in my life. So different, that on attitude alone I don't think anyone who knew me ten years ago would realise that the confident person before them was in fact that amiable but insubstantial person they once knew. Add to that the different voice, the different clothes, and the physical changes, and I do wonder whether I would ever be recognisable as J---.

Naturally, W--- and M--- would always instantly know me; but what about the owners of hotels, guest houses and caravan sites that M--- and I used to visit together? Because I'd like to go back to some of them.

We had some favourite caravan sites, usually farms in lovely spots. M--- didn't ride, but she loved horses, and there was for instance a farm to the east of Salisbury whose owner bred racehorses, beautiful creatures, and even employed his own jockeys. She would haunt the stables. There was another farm, nestling against Maiden Castle south of Dorchester, that didn't have horses, but it was in magnificent countryside, a sunny place, and so convenient for the coast. Closer to home, there were two favourites, reachable in only an hour: one near Wadhurst, with a horse and chickens; and one run by an old lady down near Polegate, with fields of fresh-mown hay and a delightful pond. In all these places, M--- built up a friendly relationship with the owner, which made our frequent visits all the nicer. I am sure that when our visits ceased after early 2009 all these owners must have thought it very odd. None knew the reason. I had kept in the background, just as I usually did, but I felt for a long time that if I had returned on my own it would have caused consternation. I would have been recognised. And I couldn't count on Lucy Melford being welcome.

And yet these were such pleasant places...

It's 2013. Do I now dare? I certainly think I might try the one near Dorchester again. The others? Well, I think those 'belong' to M---, and I don't want to take them from her. I can do what I like, of course, but even if I booked a few days over the phone, turned up, chatted with the owners, and remained unrecognised, I would still somehow feel that I had stolen something from M---. I'm not prepared to do it.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Sunny days - I wish I were off touring!

Two mornings in a row have been gorgeously sunny down here in Sussex. Cold, of course, but so bright and energising, a lovely change from the drab winter world of rain and mist and leaden skies. If it were just a little warmer, you might assert that spring is here; but I don't believe that winter has done with us all yet.

Yesterday I towed my caravan over to Peacehaven, a town on the cliffy coast east of Brighton, to the premises of Stewart Mouland Motorcaravans. They are the local agents for Speedcoat, whose repair product will fix the cracks in the shower tray on the caravan, and extend its holiday life for years ahead. Originally Stewart Mouland were going to do the job on the drive outside my house. But the cold weather, especially the very cold nights, would make it difficult for the various stages of the treatment to set properly, and so carrying out the work inside their workshop would be best. I agreed, and so I hitched up and took the caravan down to Peacehaven. Surprisingly, it was an indirect drive of some twenty miles, as I wanted to stay on good roads, and avoid narrow village streets. But it was a lovely experience. I'd spring-cleaned the interior of the caravan, checked the tyres, and was really in the mood for an extended tour! I grew very wistful. But just now I can't afford it. My first outing will have to be a few days in south Wales in late March - over a month ahead.

My caravan was bought new for about £11,000 in December 2006, jointly with M---. We put in the same amount of money. After she asked for the return of her share in July 2009, I became the outright owner. But for a long time I made no alterations to suit myself. I felt it would upset and alienate M--- if I did. But of course all that has receded into the past. So I'm now looking at ways to usefully customise my caravan. Only little things, but they can make a difference.

One problem with small spaces like a caravan interior is where do you hang up things to dry? Sopping wet items, like a rain-soaked jacket, can be hung over the bathroom basin. But items such as towels and flannels, or clothes that are only slightly damp, or anything that merely needs an airing in warm air from the sun or the electric heater, pose a problem. There's a dearth of hooks and lines. I'd been hanging things up on cupboard door handles with clothes pegs! But now I've finally added some proper brushed metal hooks at the front end (just under the Sony speakers), and strung curtain wire between them, so that things can dry off overnight, or while I'm out for the day:


For an encore, I've put some more curtain wire up just inside the entrance door, to hang damp rain jackets from:


That'll do for now. But I may think of other little innovations that will make caravan life more convenient.

The caravan is now six years old, but still looks good. Here it is, as left at Stewart Mouland yesterday:


A bit like a wedge of Cheshire cheese on wheels! Once it's had an exterior wash, it'll look even better. I haven't researched this carefully, but if I were selling it privately, I think I would still expect to ask £5,000 or so. But if trading it in to a dealer, I would get less of course; and I wouldn't be surprised to see it subsequently offered for £7,000 or more. Well-maintained caravans and motorcarvans are expensive, even second-hand examples. They last a long time, and depreciate slowly. Which may explain the £6,000 Stewart Mouland were asking for this rare motorcaravan combo:


A Mark II Ford Cortina married to a Luton body! I'd never seen one of these before. The front end looked immaculate. The old 'R' registration mark indicated a date between August 1976 and July 1977, and the 'PAH' part of the registration mark meant Norfolk or Norwich. And here it was in Sussex, after one or more caring owners. Somebody will buy it. It's different, individual, a bit whacky. Someone who likes weekends away, perhaps at a Cortina rally, or simply to attend a boozy Rockabilly get-together at the Hop Farm near Paddock Wood in Kent.

Not for me. I had my fill of motorcaravanning during those two months in New Zealand in 2007. This was the offending beast, in a variety of locations in the North and South Islands:


It got M--- and I to all sorts of places, and it ran faultlessly, but it was uninsulated and comfortless. The next time I 'do' New Zealand - if there ever is a next time - it'll be in a car, staying in cabins and guest houses. And that might actually work out cheaper.

Monday, 18 February 2013

The price of popularity

Everything has its price, and popularity obeys this rule. I've had a taste of what an increased readership can bring, and I've turned my back on it. 

About six weeks ago, the number of daily pageviews on this blog (a measure of readership, even if the typical visitor actually reads only a few words before clicking away) was commonly over 600, and the monthly total was 18,000 and getting higher. Not stratospheric figures, but remarkable when you consider that this remains chiefly a trans blog, and therefore of marginal interest to most of the people who access the Internet and have the time and inclination to look at blogs. And away from the Internet, in ordinary face-to-face life, there would be no chance at all to get read by so many people in a month, perhaps not even in a lifetime, unless one wrote for a national daily paper, or a magazine, or contributed articles to a weekend supplement. Which puts things into some kind of perspective.

In one respect a readership building up to 20,000 a month and beyond was very gratifying, even exciting. Ah, I said to myself, my choice of topics is making me more popular! How nice to be appreciated! And another thought: well, I might never come up with a best-selling novel, but I can make it in the blogosphere!

However, a moment's reflection took me to a darker way of thinking. First, I'd recently strayed into areas that included feminist, political or religious territory. I was trying to get away from purely trans stuff, but having firmly established my 'credentials' as a trans person, I should have realised that any experiments in unfamliar areas were fraught with risk - as I soon found out.

Not everyone who might read me was going to accept my self-image or take my sincerity for granted. And what I thought was a positive strength - that the blog was clearly written by an actual person with a definite geographical location, who had a recorded life and a personality that anyone could assess for its worth - might on reflection be a dangerous weakness. I was believable and genuine, yes: but I was also very much exposed to those who might merely want to pull me down, and trample on my corpse in triumph.

One friend feared that one day, out of the blue, I would be accosted in the street by one of this army of new readers, and physically attacked. Simply because they didn't like my face, or my attitudes, or my beliefs, or because I'd started to cover subjects that were not my business to write about.

Out of the blue, with perhaps no warning. They would track me down and harm me - and anyone who happened to be with me. And I wouldn't know who they were, because the kind of person who might do this blogged or commented under a pseudonym, and was effectively anonymous and faceless.

If it were a man, then I'd be at a grave disadvantage. A crazy man with a mission to inflict punishment (knife, acid, a beating, whatever) was not what I wished to encounter one evening in Brighton or anywhere else. The idea was very scary. I didn't think that my danger was imminent or severe, but while any of these malignant readers continued to visit my blog there was the possibility of grief.

So as my monthly pageviews grew larger, I had mixed feelings. Yes, it seemed to be a sign of success. But I did not think that this doubling of the readership indicated a new wave of friendly trans readers. I suspected that the eyes of the radfems and their allies were on me, watching for anything they could use as fodder for their own blogs. Or, much worse, and horrifying really, that an army of unsavoury men who fancied people like me were paying attention - and there were one or two strange emails, and requests to chat, to lend some colour to this disturbing notion. I blocked them or binned them.

So instead of popularity tasting sweet, I felt threatened. The price of success.

The solution was to shift away from all but occasional posts on political matters, and leave the feminist arena at once. So since the start of January you'll have noticed posts of absolutely no interest to radfems, bomb-throwing politicos and male perverts. My pageview total has shrunk to its old level of 9,000 a month. I honestly do not mind. It means that whoever used to read me (and seemed to like what they saw) is still with me, but that I've put the 'dangerous crowd' to sleep, or else bored them off my doorstep. I intend to keep it that way.

There is also one other effect of running a popular blog, also unwelcome. Websites such as Alexa provide pageview information and analyses for businesses who wish to advertise. Once your pageview total reaches a certain point, it becomes worthwhile for a business to 'comment' on a post - but that 'comment' is really an advertisement for their services, with of course a link to their own website. I've lately been getting several of these 'comments' from businesses in India. I've immediately deleted them on detection, but it's annoying that they make these attempts to steal free advertising.

I imagine that if I ever drove again for increased readership, this slight nuisance would become a plague. It's one thing to create such a big readership that you can sell advertising space to world-class businesses (apparently possible once the monthly pageview total exceeds 100,000), and thereby generate a small extra income for yourself (although remember that it's taxable!); but quite another to let tinpot firms in Rhinoland or wherever use your blog to promote their stuff without asking, and without paying you for the privilege. Grrrr.