Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Boy life versus girl life - how one's activities change!

Another friend of mine, R---, has just bought herself a small tent in a '50% off' sale. It cost her £25. She is thrilled at the possibilities it opens up for an instant getaway to an Atlantic beach (she surfs) or a nature reserve (she watches birds and butterflies, and really all wildlife). Everything needed for a weekend in the open air is in her car, and, jobs on hand permitting, she can take off whenever she feels inclined.

What freedom! Even more than I have, because there are certain preparations I always need to make before I set forth with the caravan, and of course I load it up with clothes and food and a host of home comforts that R--- knows she can do without. She can literally be out on the road inside an hour, heading westward to where the surf is perfect.

R--- lives in Brighton, in the heart of it, but scorns the frenetic social scene that is the backdrop to my last few posts. Last weekend's Trans Pride wasn't her cup of tea. The upcoming Gay and Lesbian Pride weekend is a big annoyance and irritation, and not something to plunge into and relish. For her, it represents a succession of nights with sleep interrupted by drunken and loud-voiced celebrants, and the discovery of vomit or worse on her doorstep next day. I'm not knocking the G&L participants especially - all of Young Brighton tends to hop aboard and party loudly till they can't stand up. The other side of Fun City. If she possibly can, she'll be out of town.

I think R--- has a firm grasp on the simple things of life. Which brings me on to whether my life is full of simple things, or has it all got a bit complicated and fussy. Should I look at what else I could do with my time? Things that will suit my likings, but be worthwhile, and in some way good for me.

I made just such an appraisal six years ago, in 2007, and now I've done it again, to see what may have changed. Boy world versus girl world, you might say.

The 2007 appraisal was made after retirement had lost its first novelty, and I was thinking that I ought to consider some new activities to add interest to my life. It's a curious historical document, a relic of the Old Life. Of a moment before I realised that I'd need to transition, and look instead at a host of challenges that were not yet imaginable. It was all set out on a spreadsheet, which ranked a longish list of activities according to how each of them scored. The activities included ones I currently pursued, or had pursued in the past and enjoyed, and activities I had never tried. Every one was scored under two main heads, with subheadings:

1. THE POSITIVE ASPECTS FROM MY POINT OF VIEW
Exciting
Therapeutic
Mentally stimulating
Creative
Artistic
Gets me out of the house
Good in the evening
Sociable
Physical exercise
Physically skilful
Useful
Can produce income

2. THE NEGATIVE ASPECTS FROM MY POINT OF VIEW
No appeal
Stressful or potentially troublesome
Physical injury possible
Must join a group to pursue
Time commitment
Storage problems at home
Cost

I allocated a positive score from 1 to 3 against each of the Positive Aspects, and a negative score from -1 to -3 against each of the Negative Aspects. Or a nil score, if I was neutral about any aspect. In that way I arrived at a net score for each activity. I then sorted all the activities into order, with the highest-scoring at the top, and the lowest-scoring at the bottom.

It was a method of rationally taking into account all the key elements that mattered to me when deciding what to commit time to. The words 'to me' are vitally important - it wouldn't matter two hoots how someone else would approach these activities, or what their own score might be. I had to be completely honest about what I personally felt about these things, and not bow to conventional opinion.

So how did the 2007 exercise turn out? What seemed good or bad six years ago, when I was still stuck in the Old Life? Here is the result, the 'best' activities for me coming at the top, with their scores, and the ones I was regularly following at the time in bold:

Photography (14)
Writing (11)
Setting up a new home (11)
Caravanning (10)
Extensive travel (9)
Walking (9)
Cooking (7)
Learning DIY skills (7)
Painting (6)
Learning a language (6)
Genealogy (5)
Map collecting (5)
Reading (4)
Badminton (4)
Driving (3)
Eating out (3)
Listening to radio (2)
Watching television (2)
Surfing the Internet (1)
Listening to music (1)
Going to the cinema (0)
Going to the theatre (0)
Opera (-1)
Cycling (-1)
Dancing (-2)
Part-time job (-2)
Full-time job (-4)
Learning to fly (-6)
Voluntary work (-7)

There you are. Remember that the items in bold were the ones I was actually giving time to. And that while I loved doing some things, their score might be dragged down by high cost - driving for example. Strange that DIY ranked so high, and opera so low! But the runaway best activities are no surprise.

This obviously called for a retest! So I did just that, on the same basis, but adding girly things like blogging and pleasure shopping. This was the result now, in 2013:

Photography (17)
Blogging (15)
Writing (13)
Caravanning (13)
Driving (11)
Learning a language (11)
Seeing friends (10)
Perfecting my female persona (9)
Walking (9)
Extensive travel (9)
Painting (9)
Cooking (8)
Eating out (3)
Visiting museums and galleries (7)
Setting up a new home (7)
Opera (6)
Visiting historic properties and gardens (5)
Map collecting (4)
Badminton (4)
Surfing the Internet (4)
Reading (3)
Listening to radio (3)
Watching television (3)
Pleasure shopping (3)
Genealogy (3)
Going to the theatre (2)
Learning DIY skills (2)
Listening to music (1)
Dancing (1)
Buying artworks (0)
Going to the cinema (0)
Part-time job (-2)
Full-time job (-3)
Learning to fly (-4)
Voluntary work (-5)
Cycling (-8)
Horse riding (-10)

The front runners are still there, but several things have changed. Although I have lost many people from the Old Life, including my partner, my social life has blossomed, and with it the activities that go with having friends to see. And the discovery that I am good at some important new stuff (such as how I now speak) has clearly made some activities less daunting - learning a language for instance.

But there are still things with minus scores, which will almost certainly not be pursued, such as work on any basis. And there is no way I will be committing myself to a saddle. I've become very nervous of injuring myself.

Obviously, if you ever meet me and wish to grab my lasting attention, here is a ready-made list of things that I find interesting and would enjoy discussing! You know, we all could do something similar, and it might suggest who would make ideal friends. Or even partners, if the chemistry fits.

Only kidding!

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Stand-up poetry from my friend Alice

One shouldn't really use a platform like this to advertise a friend's artistic efforts, but I do want Alice to become as widely-known as possible, and be a success. And I can do my little bit by featuring her now and then on my blog.

This is the Alice who is my oldest trans friend, and was the subject of the short video mentioned in my post on 15 June 2013 called My friend Alice has made a film about being herself. Now a two-minute video of her reading one of her own poems is available on YouTube - see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=otVY1Juvewo.

Don't let the word 'poetry' put you off. I'd like everyone to see this clip, in order to get a more rounded notion of what Alice is like as a person, and also as a public performer who makes a gentle but well-received impression. The people she mentions in the poem are her encouragers and promoters, and the poem is about having your life half-wrecked because, thus spurred on, you spend every waking and sleeping moment playing with words and ideas, scribbling ideas on the toilet wall when a pencil is available, chanting the words like a mad woman while walking the streets when a pencil is not, so as not to let go of them.

Me, I'd just flop down onto the pavement and capture those fleeting words using a note-taking app on my phone - quick and simple - and cut-and-paste them later into the Word document that will become my on-stage crib. But Alice is delightfully old-fashioned where Tech is concerned, and in the moment of inspiration never thinks of doing what I would do. Each to her own methods.

Alice's promoters on this occasion are the duo who organise dining evenings for the paying public under the banner Come Rhyme With Me. These began in London, and have now taken off in Brighton. The idea is that you get a trendy dining experience, a chance (of course) to make new friends, and in any event see and listen to a succession of local poets and writers, who are presented to you like the dishes of a meal. A great idea, if you wish to mix good food with fresh and original verse.

I think Alice is gradually gaining a strong reputation in the Brighton literary scene. It's the very kind of thing that will expand her public presence beyond the quirky one she would in any event have had, for Alice plunges into Brighton Life with gusto, and seems to be known to and loved by everyone who takes any part in the frenzy to have a great time. She is however no prima donna. She is unselfish and unpushy, very concerned to nudge others into whatever limelight is going, and to introduce people she knows to interested visiting businessfolk with media connections. I hear that she spoke to an Amsterdam film distributor last weekend at Trans* Pride.

I look on all this, on the entire Brighton scene - literary or hedonistic - with detachment. I salute it, I agree that it's colourful and exciting, and can be a lot of fun, but mostly I want to keep out of it.

For now.

I do however wonder what will happen when, only 464 days ahead - I am now counting - my State Pension comes into payment. I mean, I don't feel like an old-age pensioner, any more than Alice does. I intend to be very sensible, and save a big chunk of the new cash - that'll be for better holidays, and likely household contingencies, and, in the long run, my Medical Fund. But I'll still have cash left over for frivolity and simply having a good time. And if I keep my weight in check, I can if I fancy hit the Big Town in style, perhaps in the sort of get-up Lana Wachowski thought suitable for her Human Rights Campaign award acceptance speech (see yesterday's post), pink hair and all.

I mean, who is to stop me? What is there to lose? Where is the Regulation that says people of sixty-two shall behave in a seemly fashion? Alice knows of no such laws and prohibitions.

By that time, Alice may have gone viral. Supposing she has? It makes you think. Will caravanning be enough?

Monday, 29 July 2013

Traumfrau, Trans* Frau, and Lana Wachowski

A regular club event called Traumfrau has been running in Brighton since 2012, popping up in various venues but lately settling on the Blind Tiger Club. I'd best give you various links to click on. The home page for Traumfrau - which means 'dream woman' in German, if I'm not very mistaken - is at http://www.traumfrau.co.uk/, where they say this about themselves:

Music you actually like, talented performers and a touch of DIY.
 

Traumfrau is the new queer* night for Brighton and beyond, born to bring together and support queer performers, artists and DJs, and to generally just rock your pants and your dance shoes off. Calling all beautiful queers and homos, yes we want you to get involved! If you are a performer, an artist, a musician and want to get on board, or if you’re just a dancing queen and want to know what and when next, get in touch via our Get in Touch page!

*Traumfrau is a queer, non judgemental, inclusive, non ageist, non sexist, non sceney, non exclusive, safe space. It welcomes people of all age and gender in all their  fluid expressions. Please help keep this space a happy one for others too.


Well, that's pretty clear. Pension-age post-op disco dollies who like music will be welcome. But not only them.

Interesting that the word 'homo' is now in the process of being reclaimed, i.e. brought back from being a pejorative term for homosexual men, and rehabilitated as a word of pride, rather as 'black' has so gained in respectability that it has supplanted 'negro'. Homo is not there yet, but you can see how this word might, after generations in the wilderness, become standard, and let 'gay' usefully return to its original meaning of 'bright and joyful'.

I'll give you some more flavour of what Traumfrau is supposed to be like. This from BrightonSource at http://brightonsource.co.uk/reviews/traumfrau-review/:

There’s a great gay scene in Brighton of course, but as Traumfrau recognises it can be a little too shiny, young and pretty. The girls behind this exciting new queer – not gay – night try to be a bit more inclusive for those girls that don’t fit into the mainstream. Normally at The Tube, this jaunt over to The Blind Tiger sees Le Tigre legend JD Samson take to the decks, playing a hip and poppy selection that culminates in Deniece Williams’ ‘Let’s Hear It For The Boy’.

“I’m trying to be the cool kid at school because everyone is so cool,” Samson says, but the Traumfrauen are perhaps the most receptive and non-judgemental crowd around. As well as a live band and a theme – in honour of their guest this one was genderqueer – Traumfrau has interactive posters to encourage people to break down their barriers. This is not just a night to get drunk and dance at – it’s more playful than that.

JD enjoyed it so much that she wants to come back. High and deserved praise for this exciting queer night.


And this is from ZhooshBrighton at http://www.network.zhooshbrighton.co.uk/events/traumfrau-brighton-s-queer-night-for-girls-and-their-friends:

Brighton’s queer night for girls and their friends. Music you actually like, talented performers and a touch of DIY. Get in early if you want to catch some comedy gold with young and talented Canadian comedian Mae Martin. And as always expect a night packed with surprises, great music and 4 DJs on rotation - riotgrrrl/postpunk/electro pop/rockabilly - so you will never get bored, and glue and crayons for those who enjoy some cutting and sticking in between a dance and a drink.

A much needed girls - but not girls only - club night, Traumfrau was born for the joy of all those who love a night out, really good music and a queer crowd to share it with. An intellectual dancefloor for the unusual crowd. If you have joined it once, you will be back.


By the way, 'queer' in Brighton parlance - I'm not assuming it applies anywhere else, though it may do - merely indicates that 'my gender or sexual orientation is not standard', and that in turn might mean 'just a tad' or 'desperately in need of a life-changing makeover'. It doesn't mean 'gay man', although not so long ago it most certainly did. Helpful Brighton & Hove City Council officials know the term well. But I'd say it would still be unsafe to go up to the average male or female Brighton resident and say, 'Are you queer?' with full certainty of being understood. And don't try it on a tourist, no matter how hip and clued-up they seem.

Back to Traumfrau. They were much in evidence during Fringe time last May, and now, with Trans* Pride and main Brighton Pride upon us, their posters have been everywhere, updated. Their special Trans* Frau poster featured an eye-catching young lady:


Gosh, she looked good! Natal or trans? Really, I couldn't decide. She must be trans, but if so she'd had a marvellous job done on her face. The eyes, nose, mouth and chin looked as perfect as it gets, even allowing for the usual cleaning-up that publicity shots receive. I wasn't sure about the vivid pink dreadlocks, but had to admit they suited her, and were the finishing touch if the purpose of the photo was to get across the message that Trans*Frau was a confident celebration of life and fun.

It wasn't hard to trace who she was: Lana Wachowski, the trans-female half of the brother/sister Wachowski duo who were responsible for the film The Matrix, its sequels, the whole gamut of Matrix-related media products, and later films too. Plus much else, such as comics. See the Wikipedia article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wachowskis. In October 2012, after a reclusive ten years or so of changing from one state to another, Lana had received recognition in the Human Rights Campaign, for coming out as trans in an industry that is not well-known for being gung-ho about anything that might put off audiences. Although it'll take up half an hour of your time if you look at it all, this high-quality YouTube video - which, having watched it, I recommend - is all about her: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=crHHycz7T_c.

The greater part of the video covers her speech at the Human Rights Campaign award ceremony. An interesting speech, which may inspire you. I thought the end part, in which she speaks about her supportive mother and father, and her super-supportive brother, was especially worth watching. At the twenty-seven minute mark, she describes how her dad said this to her after she'd become Lana:

What matters is that you're alive, you seem happy, and I can put my arms around you and give you a kiss.

Gulp. My Dad never said that to me... As for her brother, she describes how they were both at a press conference, and her brother thought it best to say this to the reporters:

Just so that we are clear, if anyone asks my sister something I don't like, I will break a glass bottle over their head.

How protective is that? I have nobody who would say those words for me. You may be in the same boat too.

All right, Miss Wachowski was an established media personality with cash and family support, no worries about her industry credibility, and able to call the tune with the news people rather be their victim. Lucky girl! But she obviously does feel that she is an inspiration to many others, and although to my mind she does not come across as quite so young and bubbly as the Trans* Frau poster might suggest (she was born in 1967, and will be forty-six in December) I am happy to salute her as a trans icon.

Having seen her and heard her and watched her mannerisms on the YouTube video, I also admit to some envy. Yes, I know she's fifteen years younger than me. But these images are so much how I'd like to be sometimes:


The bald-headed man is her protective brother. Mine's dead.


Whereas this is me, taken yesterday:


Or - looking slightly less windswept - a month ago in St Andrews in Scotland:


Or, to be really fair, as I was in October 2012, perhaps at the very moment that Lana was making her award speech:


Hmmmm. She's still better-looking! But I can get over it. And I take consolation in five things:

1. I'm not famous, I'm not an icon, and I can live a private life.
2. I've got a better voice. Hers is very good, but I think mine is even better - so there.
3. I do it with my natural grey hair. That saves a fortune on pink dye.
4. You can pronounce my surname far more easily.
5. I've got Fiona.

But I've got no brother. And no mum and dad. Boo hoo.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

A rainy afternoon in Brighton: my Trans Pride report

Let me say at once that I didn't actually make it to the Trans Pride event, although I drove into Brighton with every intention of showing my face there.

Despite the title of this post, it had been sunny all morning, and remained so until about 2.30pm when steady rain began to fall. But that petered out by 3.30pm, and the rain did not come back till later. So, weatherwise, Brighton's first Trans Pride was reasonably lucky. And in other respects it must have been nice to attend - I saw some pictures taken by a friend who was there at the New Steine venue. Apparently trans folk from all along the south coast, and from London too, attended, maybe three hundred altogether: the New Steine looked pretty well populated.

But I'm leaping ahead. As I said, I drove in, not terribly hopeful of being able to park. Weekend parking in Brighton is always problematical. I was in a fatalistic frame of mind: 'If the gods have decreed that I shall attend Pride, then they will give me a parking space.' Well, they had clearly debated the matter up on Mount Olympus, and had reached a concensus in my favour, for lo, there was a space. Right then: all I had to do was saunter over to nearby New Steine.

But I was waylaid by two friends, K--- and N---, who had finished their voluntary three-hour stint on the Claire Project stand there, and were disinclined to get soaked in the now-falling rain. They were on their way to a cosy trans-friendly pub. Apparently the event had now entered its 'music' phase. That didn't interest me at all, so I went with them, preferring wine and chat to music no matter how inspired. Once ensconced, N--- showed me the pix referred to earlier.

Well, at least I had witnesses that I made the effort to drive in, even if I didn't end up at the daytime event itself. There was an evening event too, starting at 8.00pm: music at the Blind Tiger Club. Quite apart from its dodgy-sounding name, the club scene was not my scene, and being deafened by rave music, or even Teletubbies family-friendly music, wasn't my idea of fun.

So I decided to sip white wine, and then go home. But it didn't end like that. I eventually made up another threesome with friends M--- and C--- for an early-evening meal at a serve-yourself eatery in North Street. It was 'healthy food' and worked out at £8 a head. Two full plates, plus apple juice, were all I could manage, but stuffing myself completely countered the effects of the white wine earlier. Nary the slightest sign of a hangover later on. So the advice of the Epicurean Roman poet Lucretius in De Rerum Natura ('On the Nature of Things') was confirmed: If thou wouldst avoid possession by Bacchus, then let the fruits of the table be your antidote. Wise words that plainly justify a jolly good nosh. I believe St Augustine also had something pithy to say on the matter too, but we won't go into that.

Today I hanker after forests and lakes, on my own. So once ready I'm off. A few hours on the heathy wastes of the Surrey/Hampshire border will do nicely.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Agatha Christie and murder mysteries

A few days ago I drove down to Arundel and bought two works of fiction at Kim's, the secondhand bookshop there.

One was The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers. This was published in 1903, and the plot centres on secret German naval preparations in the years before the first World War, as discovered by intrepid Britons in a sailing boat. It caused a great stir. It seemed like a wake-up call, a trumpet blast when the serene reign of Victoria was as yet hardly over, and the pompous but frivolous new reign of Edward VII hardly begun.

I see the entire period since 1900 as a prolonged effort of the British people as a whole to get to grips with the realities of the world, an effort that is still going on. Immigrants are as guilty as native Anglo-Saxons in maintaining an image of Britain that is always behind the times, always stuck with certain illusions that carry on through generations, as if they were viruses that can mutate to resist demise. I dare say all countries are the same. But we live on an island, and still have some prestige and influence and clout, and these facts make it all the harder to discard old attitudes. There is in fact no pressing need to. We muddled through in 1914-18; we did so again in 1939-45; and we are still muddling through, never quite sorting out the important issues of the day, merely tinkering, like a committee that likes to be fair to all points of view but ends up being fair to nobody, and making no decisions worth the name. Inertia is a national failing and a national disgrace. The Riddle of the Sands was a book to disturb the complacency of 1903. I look forward to reading it. I expect to find that it somehow has a modern ring.

But just now I'm well into the other book, Agatha Christie's murder whodunnit, Cards on the Table, published in 1936. This seems to be classic Agatha Christie. In the 1960s and 1970s I owned quite a collection of her novels, and was a big fan. I admired her Hercule Poirot very much, although I never cared for Miss Marple.

Then I got tired of her, and in the 1980s I turned instead to Dorothy L Sayers, whose Lord Peter Wimsey was by then more to my taste.

Lord Peter was a more interesting character than you might suppose: he had seen the horrors of the first World War, and it had moulded him, put him in touch with the common man, so that although he remained a rich aristocrat, and one of effortless talents at that, he strove to be down-to-earth.

The key books for me were Have His Carcase (1932), about a man found murdered on a Devon beach; and The Nine Tailors (1934), about the death of a man in a church bellfry and set in the Fens. Dorothy L Sayers was very good at creating atmosphere, describing a local way of life and the local people that fit the scene. Have His Carcase is a summer season world of hotels and tea dances, immigrant waiters and lonely ladies on separate tables. The Nine Tailors is a world of agricultural tradition in which passions are kept well hidden, about the mysteries of church bells and how they are rung - she spent a long time learning all about bellringing in order to lend authenticity to the plot - and the ever-present threat of catastrophic flooding in this, the most low-lying part of East Anglia. (The ending is biblical in more than one sense) There was also the ongoing attraction between Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, whereas Hercule Poirot, though gallant, was too old and dignified to woo anyone.

Eventually I got tired of Dorothy L Sayers too.

I flirted with yet another British writer, Margery Allingham (the Albert Campion books), as well as American writers such as, obviously, Raymond Chandler (with his creation Philip Marlowe). I also tried 'historic' whodunnits, such as Judge Dee in the books of Robert van Gulik, and in the 1990s brother Cadfael in the books of Ellis Peters. More lately I have acquired a collection of Henning Mankells (that's the police detective Wallander, in Sweden).

To a greater or lesser extent these were all worth reading, but ultimately they didn't hold my attention. Somewhere along the line, in one of my house moves, I jettisoned nearly all of my Agatha Christies and all of my Dorothy L Sayers. Now I expect I'll be looking for some of them again in secondhand bookshops!

I still have a little-known Agatha Christie book, Death Comes as the End, which I bought when on holiday with my parents in Cornwall, maybe in 1967. This is set in ancient Egypt, and is a sort of murder investigation at a time when the accepted methods of sleuthing were unknown. She knew what she was writing about, having an archaeological connection, and the book is pervaded with the heavy atmosphere of the tomb, but I don't recommend it if you like swift action. I also used to own Ten Little Niggers, which is about ten people who have committed murder - or have at least been morally or carelessly responsible for the death of someone else - but were beyond the reach of the law. A retired judge invites them to his Devon island, and then bumps them off one by one. It was made into a successful film. In recent decades the title of this book, which refers to a macabre nursery rhyme, has had to be changed, and I doubt whether it's now possible to find an original copy.

What is the charm of the Agatha Christies of the 1930s? Take this book I'm into, Cards on the Table. It's about comfortable pre-War London, and airy villas in the country that you can reach easily by catching the 4.48pm from Paddington. It's about dinner parties with bridge afterwards. About one particular dinner party, in which the caddish host gets a stiletto plunged into his chest while a game of bridge takes place only a few yards away. About the four persons who were playing that game, who may each have had a past death on their hands, who were afraid of exposure and instant arrest at the word of their host. One of them must have done it. Four other persons, including Hercule Poirot, who were in another room and could not possibly have done it, set about sifting the evidence. Great stuff.

But the book is interesting also for the characterisations and the attitudes. One of the four possible suspects is a nervous young woman, so lacking in self-confidence and nous that I can't imagine her existing today. Another is an older woman of my own age, shrewd and full of life's wisdom, who could also be a cool and efficient murderer. Then there is a doctor, a clever and quick-thinking man with, of course, handy clinical knowledge. And, last of the four suspects, a military man of action: Major Despard (he might as well be called James Bond). Apart from Monsieur Poirot, the other four - the investigating team, you might say - consist of a police Superintendent, a female crime novelist, and a secret service Colonel.

Perfectly typical 1930s people! No doubt the two military types smoked De Reszke cigarettes.

The thing that strikes me is how straightforward it would be to hold a conversation with these people. Mostly the language hasn't changed. Much the same idioms and expressions. But with of course a few jarring notes here and there. For instance, Colonel Race insisting that Major Despard couldn't have done it because

'...he's a stout fellow. Record quite unblemished. Strict disciplinarian. Liked and trusted by the natives everywhere. One of their cumbrous names for him in Afica, where they go in for such things, is ''The man who keeps his mouth shut and judges fairly''. General opinion of the white races that Despard is a Pukka Sahib. Fine shot. Cool head. Generally long-sighted and dependable...Despard's a white man, and I don't believe he's ever been a murderer. That's my opinion. And I know something of men.'

Ouch. The forthrightness and condescension of 1936! Or this exchange between Anne Meredith, the nervous young woman, and her much-less-nervous companion Rhoda Dawes about the solicitor Anne had just seen, at the suggestion of Major Despard:

'...What was the solicitor like? Very dry and legal?'
'Rather alert and Jewish.'

Ouch again, although the solicitor's alertness won Rhoda's approval:

'Sounds all right.'

And so on. The prejudices of the inter-war years have largely been replaced by new modern prejudices that will themselves take decades to recede. I suppose the 1930s attitudes expressed by Agatha Christie's characters seem 'in period' nowadays, a passing fact of historical record, as innocuous as anything expressed by a Dickens character. But if you happen to be an African, or a solicitor who lives in north London, then passages in this book could make you feel uncomfortable. I remember another 1930s book, possibly also by Agatha Christie, that featured a homosexual man. His flat had a cliché green decor. The investigating police inspector sneered at it, with 'Pretty, very pretty' on his lips. There were lots of ways in which to seem questionable and unpukka before the War. She was reflecting what her readers thought at the time, and it wasn't always nice.

All this said, it remains a fascinating era. I'm still wondering who stuck that knife in, and what will happen when the truth is revealed. I bet it was Major Despard after all! (Maybe)

Sequel
I've finished the book. A clever ending, but I'm not saying who did it!

Friday, 26 July 2013

Strange envy

The world of trans women is a very topsy-turvy one. What would otherwise be fine and very practical, such as big strong hands, serious musclepower, and height sufficient to reach whatever is on the top shelf, is actually regarded a misfortune, because women typically have little hands, no strength, and are short.

Nothing much is said, or at least I've never heard much said, but I suspect that some trans women are seriously envious of other trans women whose physical characteristics are closer than their own to the female norm. I've been guilty of it anyway. And the joke is, ordinary women don't find weakness and shortness very amusing. It may make you look cute, but it's just not practical and makes life difficult. There must be a lot of women who would like to be stretched somehow, so that their squat dumpiness would turn into slim elegance. And a bit of height and clout does make a woman harder to browbeat and treat badly.

And yet (it seems to me from observation and conversation) most trans women have this tendency to be unduly self-critical of their bodies, and tragically envious of a life with small extremities and a permanent crick in the neck from having to look upwards too much. It's an understandable envy, but it's a bit strange all the same, because Big and Strong can indeed be Beautiful. Or at least Very Useful.

Believe me, when I'm trying to clean the outside of the caravan, or push it about, I'd welcome a longer reach, more push, and more power in my grip. I've got some heft (meaning fourteen and a half stone) but that's not terribly helpful. There are times when I wish I could bend iron bars, ot at least unscrew bottle-tops without spraining my wrist. For a solo lady who has to do it all herself, bulge is no sustitute for brawn. I think that I would find changing a tyre on Fiona or the caravan truly beyond my capability. In fact, that's the real travelling nightmare: not getting lost, nor getting stuck in traffic: it's actually the fear of picking up some sharp object and suffering a flat tyre as a result. No, not even that, because I'd just call the breakdown people. It's the wait for a fix, knowing that you can't do it yourself. 

I've twice had a breakdown towing. The first time was in September 2006, in daylight, when a caravan tyre burst far from home in Shropshire. The second was in October 2008, in the dark, on the M11 in Essex, when I lost power in the engine. The first incident was part of the Old Life. The second was at the beginning of my transition. Both incidents involved the old car, the Honda CR-V, which was getting old and less reliable, and not super-reassuring Fiona who came along in 2010. But even Fiona has had her punctures.

Lack of strength sometimes doesn't matter if one has an inventive mind. My cousin R---, a retired headmistress a few years older than myself, has a maxim that there is always a way of approaching any lifting problem. She is clever enough to figure out the workaround. I'm not. So there is a lot of physical stuff that I've mentally dismissed from my DIY repertoire. Such as shifting furniture from room to room. Or landscaping my garden. That actually sounds quite feeble, but I honestly feel that the Melford physique isn't up to it, at least not without risking injury.

My take: don't knock natural advantages too much. Think in terms of uselessly short weak fingers, and a frustrating lack of height. And being ignored or pushed around because you are small and lightweight. I'm even thinking that my big conk may be better than a tiny retroussée nose: it has more presence - more force and individuality. All the most famous Romans, male or female, had big noses.


Thursday, 25 July 2013

Trans Pride in Brighton this weekend

The first-ever Trans Pride for Brighton kicks off tomorrow (Friday) evening, and goes on till Sunday. An overview can be found at http://transpridebrighton.tumblr.com/.

It's actually Trans* Pride, the asterisk meaning that all kinds of trans people will be welcome. So not just full-blown transsexual boys and girls; it's anyone at all with a gender issue. I am not involved in any way with its format, organisation or anything else. I am simply a possible spectator.

As I say, it's the first such event. It'll be feeling its way, and there's no loud march through the town to Preston Park. The accent is on quiet celebration, and quiet explanation to those curious to find out more. There is entertainment. The programme begins on Friday evening with films at a cinema; Saturday sees the big gathering just off the seafront, with a club event in town later; and Sunday is a big family picnic. It should be a great way to spend a sunny weekend in Brighton, and meet up with many people.

This event is not to be confused with the well-established annual Brighton Pride in early August - see http://brighton-pride.org/ - where the big thing is your gay or lesbian sexuality, and to celebrate it in huge style with a series of massive happenings.

The late-July Trans Pride is about gender only, which may seem to the ordinary public much the same thing as one's sexuality - in other words, who you fancy. But look at it this way: being trans says nothing specific about your sexual orientation. You could be gay, lesbian. bisexual, asexual or simply not bothered. If some trans people are also gay or lesbian, they might certainly be interested in both types of Pride. But being trans does not automatically mean you want to wave a big rainbow flag.

So will I be there this weekend?

Well, I wasn't going to be there at all. Saturday is the twentieth anniversary of a meal in Henley-on-Thames that M--- and I shared in 1993. We weren't a couple then. We were still just friends who went walking together, and we planned to try a hike on the Chilterns. M--- also had some relatives in Henley, and if they were in she intended to say hello. They were out, and, feeling hungry, we had a meal in an Italian restaurant that was still there some years ago. It's therefore also the twentieth anniversary of my being introduced to tagliatelle in basil pesto with parmisan cheese on top. So this Saturday I was going to drive to Henley, find the restaurant, and have the exact same meal. I really place that kind of value on anniversaries! And then take it from there: there's plenty to see in that lush part of the Thames valley, and plenty of breeze up on the Chilterns if it felt a bit too hot.

You must be mad, you might say. What is the point? But you are not me. There is no law that says pointless anniversaries must without fail be deleted from electronic diaries. I would not obey such laws anyway. There are in fact many events that pop up in my diary, to remind me of this or that, and not just things M--- and I once did. I like to be reminded of them. I'm historically-minded.

But not all of them can be observed.

On this occasion, I shall bow to urgings and persuasions and turn up in Brighton around 2.30pm, park Fiona on a day visitor's parking permit, and sashay along the seafront to the New Steine venue. I shall be dressed as my usual self, and behave normally, and hope to spot some faces I know. If I see nobody, I'll try a text or two, and if that draws a blank I will melt away and go home. But at least I'll have come into Brighton and made a gesture of support.

You never lose the T in the word lifetime

I am still looking at the posts on T-Central. You might suppose that by now - almost five years from coming out, over four years on hormones, nearly four years full-time, two and a half years post-op, I would be past all that and living life without a heed to what other people in my position - but at an earlier stage - are going through. But you never lose the T in the word lifetime. It's always there in the word lifestyle too, no matter how cool and trendy and confident and fabulous you think you are.

And if you care at all, if you have any interest at all in other people, you will follow your own story again and again in whatever those other blogs have to say. Perhaps not in the detail; but in every case there will be that same series of all-too-familiar self-realisations, those moments of what-the-hell-do-I-best-do-now, the crunch times, the searing crises, and, eventually, some place reached in which peace of a kind has been achieved. Though never without a cost. Nothing whatever is without a cost of some kind.

I was going to post about something quite different today, but A Woman Named Sophie (see her in my Blog List off to the right, or visit T-Central also in my Blog List, or go directly to http://sophielynne1.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/she-decided.html) wrote a piece entitled She Decided yesterday, and I felt that I had some more to get off my chest on the whole business of relationship break-up and its fallout. Don't worry, I won't bleat on about my own case. You've heard it all before anyway, ad nauseam. I've found my plateau of relative peace and contentment. But that doesn't mean I can turn my back on all those parallel lives going on here and there, as if I've survived and that's all that matters. Even if nearly all my posts nowadays read as if life is now one uninterrupted garden party, with myself in full control of all arrangements, including the weather, and not a care in the world. The flip side is always there. It would only take one incident, one horrible experience, to set me back. To remind me that I'm an invention, a constructed person, a polished performer maybe, but nevertheless different from most other people. But even this situation is bliss, truly a state of grace, compared with the old life in which I never felt right.

And yet at first the old life was so hard to leave. For one thing, nobody really wanted me to leave it, and some did fairly extreme things to block my way, such as emotional blackmail to keep me in line. I think that's simply human nature: the dislike (or intense fear) of change or disturbance in the 'natural order', the unwillingness to face a real world in which things shade off into each other, with many states of being existing, all valid and viable, not just two clear-cut, well-defined states.

I personally had no fear of becoming another sort of person. After all, I was still going to be a human being, I was still going to be the child of my parents, I was still going to have a position in my family hierarchy (and a senior one at that).

And I would remain a village resident, a neighbour, someone who could do useful things in the community if so moved, someone whose monthly spending, and taxes paid, would help to keep the country's economy afloat. If asked, I would gladly serve on a jury. I would certainly hold an opinion on what politicians should do, and vote accordingly. Given all this, why was there this resistance to my becoming someone different, especially if I would certainly become a more relaxed, more confident, more emotionally unchained, more effective person?

Sophie's ongoing story and many other stories like hers provide the reason. Becoming someone different means abandoning a role. No longer looking like a man or a woman. No longer looking like a father or a mother. Appearance is everything to some people: they will not accept that the person within is basically the same, and that it's a question of identity, of self-perception, not a failure of love. The yearning of a slave for freedom and a new status, and not the desperation of a madman or coward to push others off one's tiny liferaft after the ship has sunk.

It seems that a small percentage of relationships, obviously very special ones, do survive the shipwreck. Sophie put it at 3%. I'd put it at less than even that, not because I'm a pessimist, but because relationship breakup seems so universal. I personally know of one or two that are bucking the usual rule, and I hold onto them as if they were Glad Tidings Of Great Joy in a religious sense. They say: it can be done.

But I keep coming back to the cost. It's like a Law of Physics. Every action has its reaction, so that things stay in equilibrium and the energy balance is maintained. Perhaps the chief lesson in life, made vivid by having to become someone different and unfamiliar to others, is that there is no such thing as an act with no consequences.

Regret is something else. Regret has its place, but in a survival scenario it is a luxury no living thing can afford. It saps courage and the will to fight. But regret is not the same thing as sorrow for what has been lost forever. Every person, every animal I could say, experiences sorrow. It's a natural emotion. It makes your heart heavy, your throat tight, your eyes brim with tears. And then, having mourned, you step forward along a path that leads to who knows where, even if you have a map and think you know where you're going.

I've not gone far down that path yet. I still think I know where I am. But I'm already lost. It doesn't matter: the adventure is enthralling all the same.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

One fine day in the Lake District

I'll make this the last of my holiday travelogues for now. Presumably those interested in the glorious Lake District scenery will have already absorbed all they want from my Flickr site. There will however be groups of nomads in Outer Mongolia who like to have it in words. So this is for you especially.

The English Lake District, a National Park, is that area in the north-west of the country which is full of mountains and lakes. It is celebrated as possibly the best walking country anyone could wish for, certainly by fans of the late Alfred Wainwright (1907-1991) whose books on how to walk up each peak, and then what to see there, have been venerated for decades, and in recent years made even more famous by Julia Bradbury's Wainwright Walks on TV. But of course the area attracted the much earlier attentions of the Romantic poets of the early nineteenth century - famously William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas De Quincey - all of whom found sublimity in what they saw. Since they were all tortured souls, there must have been something about the scenery that could lift them out of depression. Alfred Wainwright was far more down the earth, and not plagued with the same dark mental overburden, but he too conveyed the ability of the high fells to banish all despair in these words about Haystacks, his favourite summit:

Haystacks stands unabashed and unashamed in the midst of a circle of much loftier fells, like a shaggy terrier in the company of foxhounds, some of them known internationally, but not one of this distinguished group of mountains around Ennerdale and Buttermere can show a greater variety and a more fascinating arrangement of interesting features. Here are sharp peaks in profusion, tarns with islands and tarns without islands, crags, screes, rocks for climbing and rocks not for climbing, heather tracts, marshes, serpentine trails, tarns with streams and tarns with no streams. All these, with a background of magnificent landscapes, await every visitor to Haystacks but they will be appreciated most by those who go there to linger and explore. It is a place of surprises around corners, and there are many corners. For a man trying to get a persistent worry out of his mind, the top of Haystacks is a wonderful cure.

You can feel his love and respect for the place. He goes on, speaking now of the actual summit:

Haystacks fails to qualify for inclusion in the author's 'best half-dozen' only because of inferior height, a deficiency in vertical measurement. Another thousand feet would have made all the difference. But for beauty, variety and interesting detail, for sheer fascination and unique individuality, the summit area of Haystacks is supreme. This is in fact the best fell-top of all - a place of great charm and fairyland attractiveness. Seen from a distance, these qualities are not suspected: indeed, on the contrary, the appearance of Haystacks is almost repellent when viewed from the higher surrounding peaks: black are its bones and black is its flesh. With its thick covering of heather it is dark and sombre even when the sun sparkles the waters of its many tarns, gloomy and mysterious even under a blue sky. There are fierce crags and rough screes and outcrops that will be grittier still when the author's ashes are scattered here. Yes, the combination of features, of tarn and tor, of cliff and cove, the labrynth of corners and recesses, the maze of old sheepwalks and paths, form a design, or a lack of design, of singular appeal and absorbing interest. One can forget even a raging toothache on Haystacks.

But he gives a warning about being caught on Haystacks in bad weather, when you can't see where you are going and might stray near the dangerous north edge of the summit:

The only advice that can be given to a novice lost on Haystacks in the mist is that he should kneel down and pray for safe deliverance.

Wainwright nevertheless felt that Haystacks was the right place for scattering his ashes after death. In Memoirs of a Fellwalker (1990) he wrote this:

All I ask for, at the end, is a last long resting place by the side of Innominate Tarn, on Haystacks, where the water gently laps the gravelly shore and the heather blooms and Pillar and Gable keep unfailing watch. A quiet place, a lonely place. I shall go to it, for the last time, and be carried: someone who knew me in life will take me and empty me out of a little box and leave me there alone. And if you, dear reader, should get a bit of grit in your boot as you are crossing Haystacks in the years to come, please treat it with respect. It might be me.

It was a remark perhaps inspired by or based on the final sentence of Book Seven of his renowned Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells, The Western Fells (1966), the last of the Guides in a series that was the fruit of a detailled personal programme of mountain-walking, note-taking and sketching that began  in 1952 (when I was born) and was completed, one week ahead of schedule, in 1965. Here is the sentence:

The fleeting hour of life of those who love the hills is quickly spent, but the hills are eternal. Always there will be the lonely ridge, the dancing beck, the silent forest; always there will be the exhilaration of the summits. These are for the seeking and those who seek and find while there is yet time will be blessed both in mind and body. I wish you all many happy days on the fells in the years ahead. There will be fair winds and foul, days of sun and days of rain. But enjoy them all. Good walking! And don't forget - watch where you are putting your feet.

All this is heady and inspirational even for people like me who love driving powerful automobiles though snaking mountain passes, pausing only to photograph some splendid view. I am not the same as Alfred Wainwright. I prefer water to rock, lakes and sea to mountains, roads to tracks, and while I will renounce everything for a life of freedom and solitude, I will not put up with excessive discomfort or inconvenience. So Wainwright, if still alive, would gruffly despise me and banish me from his sight. He would do so anyway, of course, because he had a low opinion of women. In his Pictorial Guides he always seems to assume that the people who surmount the more challenging summits use the pronoun 'he'. Thank goodness the likes of Julia Bradbury have demonstrated that women can make it to the top too.

For the record, I own three 'original' Pictorial Guides, 'original' meaning that although they are by no means first editions, they are entirely Wainwright's original writing, and predate the 'updating' of the series from 2005 to 2009. Here they are:

Book Four - The Southern Fells - first published 1960. I have a much later impression from the 1990s, bought at a secondhand bookshop in Swanage in September 2009. It contains a handwritten note that says: 'To Tony, from your walking companion, Hazel'. Ah, where are they now? I think Tony did use the book: it has lost its dust jacket.

Book Six - The North Western Fells - first published 1964. I have a much later sixtieth impression, again from the 1990s, bought at a secondhand bookshop in Worthing in January 2007.

Book Seven - The Western Fells - first published 1966. I have a later twenty-fifth impression from the 1980s, also bought at a secondhand bookshop in Worthing in January 2007.

The updated edition is readily available to buy new, but the old edition seem to have vanished from the shelves of secondhand booksellers, and I doubt whether I will ever now be able to expand my own little collection, unless I wish to pay through the nose on eBay - which I don't. Clearly all those who could, snapped up at least one copy while they were available; or else an international syndicate decided to buy up all that there were, sending its agents all over the land, with the intention of stashing them in a hidden warehouse, and then leaking them onto the market for a ridiculous asking price.

Setting aside his slight misogyny, Wainwright's writing style, his dry sense of humour, and indeed his personal philosophy and reflections, are all beguiling and rather appealing. He was also brilliant with a sketchbook. But of course I like photographs, and what follows is the best of the bunch I took on my first full day in the Lake District on 1 July, the day before the weather turned wet, and my caravan suffered an electrical fault, events that together made me cut my stay short and head for home.

So first, peaceful Ullswater, my favourite Lake:

You can see how the sun comes and goes in the space of a minute or two! Typical of the changeable Lake District weather. Next, the Kirkstone Pass, the highest in the National Park:


And Little Langdale, with Horse Crag, Blea Tarn and views of the Langdale Pikes:


You really can't reach much of this scenery just by car. There aren't many roads, and not many stopping-places where you can leave a car and set off on foot. The roads are generally narrow and twisty, and busy enough with people like me to ruin any sense of having the place to yourself. Cars chug by all the time. At this time of the year, so do lumbering agricultural vehicles, and Fiona had a few narrow escapes as they charged down lanes that offered no easy place to pull in. As regards ordinary traffic, it's frequently necessary to stop and reverse for long stretches, so that an impatient string of cars ahead can get by. In short, you need to be alert when driving about in the Lake District, and often it's not much fun.

Not that it would be a laughing-party on foot. I saw plenty of rather hot and weary couples who looked in dire need of a nice cup of tea and a piece of cake. I also saw plenty of folk in saturated clothing, having been caught by a sudden shower. A hot bath and a tasty meal was probably much in their minds.

The geography of the Lake District is all wrong for seeing it by car. Fine for Ice Age glaciers, but not for cars. You can travel with some ease around the edge using the A66, the A595, the A590 and the A6, but not across it. The only 'fast and easy' routes through the area, the A591 and the A592, run north-south, and even they mean encountering heavy summer traffic at Ambleside or Windermere. I went to both places. I could imagine being caught in a really grotesque snarl-up at Ambleside.

There is no good east-west road of any description, unless you count the very minor road full of extreme gradients that runs westwards from Ambleside through the Wrynose and Hard Knott Passes. I did consider letting Fiona rip along that road, but realised that I'd simply end up hustling lesser cars on the verge of overheating and breakdown, or burning their clutches out, and in any case arriving on the west coast of Cumbria with a long, long journey back to Troutbeck Head in the north-east. Not worth it. Better to pitch somewhere near St Bees or Ulverston on another occasion, and see the western fells and lakes from there.

And when will that next occasion be? Not next year. If I can afford to go North, I will devote my attention to Scotland. Maybe 2015, unless I decide that Wales, the Land of Song, my country of birth and early upbringing, finally deserves a Grand Tour. There are huge chunks of Wales I've never yet seen. I'd say I actually 'know' Scotland better than I 'know' Wales. Which has my heart? Ask me once I've taken Fiona to the the most northerly car park on the most northerly island of Shetland, or spent a whole day on Hoy in Orkney, or slowly explored Mull, or the lesser-frequented parts of Aberdeenshire, or called to the cattle on the Sands of Luce.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The questionnaire and the oak tree

A questionnaire from the South East Region group of Conservative European MPs, individualised to me by name, popped through my front door yesterday. I didn't mind filling it in. If the Labour and LibDem people send me similar questionnaires, I'll fill those in too.

They wanted my views on European-related issues mainly, but the thing began with two general sections. The first was entitled What matters most to your family, and offered a range of statements to tick three of. Well, in my household 'my family' means me and Teddy Tinkoes, both oldies, and so I could selfishly say, and with a clear conscience:

Care and support for the elderly
The NHS
Crime & anti-social behaviour

Then, What matters most for your country. I'm clear on that too:

The EU
The environment & climate change
The cost of living

After that, a section on Europe & Immigation. Immigation is a complex subject. I don't want to feel that my country is being swamped by foreigners, and its culture diluted out of existence. I don''t want to see the strife and intolerance of some foreign lands imported. On the other hand, I don't want Britain to be isolationist, a closed society, with defensive racialism and prejudice rampant. I want a society enriched and made vibrant by fresh modern ideas from outside. So on the whole I'm in favour of immigation, but sensibly controlled. I'm in favour of opt-outs that make this possible. I therefore found myself ticking the boxes as if I were responsible for current Conservative policy in this area.

Next up, Your views on the economy and other issues. This was a mixed bag of things to tick, including such statements as 'What happened in Greece could just as easily have happened here', and 'Gay couples should have exactly the same rights as heterosexual couples, including the right to marry', and 'Educational standards have been steadily improving in Britain over recent years'. I was moderately in agreement with the Greece statement, and wholeheartedly in agreement with the gay couples statement, but slightly doubtful about the educational improvements. But you were stuck with what they put to you. There were several issues I'd have liked to comment on, but couldn't.

Then, Other important issues. Another mixed bag, in which you had to say where you stood on pairs of statements such as 'I look forward to the future with optimism' and 'I look forward to the future with anxiety'. With much optimism in my case, but then that's how I'm made.

Finally, Priorities for the South East. Hmmm. Some are saying that the South East is now regarded as a separate nation in its own right. Having recently seen the rest of the country, I disagree. The questions to comment on were: 'Re-negotiating the UK's relationship with the EU is important for the South East region's economy, people's job security and inward investment?' I mildly disagreed: the South East will always do well. It's the other parts of the country that need EU investment. (Sorry, Folkestone and Hastings) Next: 'Which Party Leader do you think most closely represents your view about what the South East Region's relationship with Europe should be?' I ticked the 'Cameron' box. (Sorry, Mr Farage) Lastly a question with a free choice of answer, on which other issues I would like my Conservative MEP to tackle on my behalf. I put:

Better consumer protection

That's something the EU is quite good at, and it will benefit us all.

Then a section About you. A tickbox to confirm it really was Lucy Melford replying to the questionnaire, my age group, whether I had any children, my email address and my phone number. I gave replies on all those. It won't matter to me if there is any comeback. If they seriously want my further views, it's an opportunity to influence their thinking. If they don't, I'm not going to worry.

The thing is ready for posting back this afternoon in the envelope they provided. It's really nice to be part of the Big Society.

Changing gear, what must the rest of Europe think of this kind of consultation?

The British attitude toward Europe must seem puzzling to outsiders. A glance at a map suggests that the British Isles are most definitely part of continental Europe, and to deny it is like saying that Cuba or Jamaica aren't really Caribbean islands.

But that strip of sea between England and France makes all the difference. It's a psychological moat. Literally so, when taking to a ship was the only way to travel between the two shores. But it still is so, even in these days of easy flight and even easier fast ferries.

The Channel Tunnel has made no difference whatever. Kent has not turned into a department of France, nor has the rest of the country adopted the social rhythms and lifestyle of the continent, unless you consider the institution of self-conscious 'French markets' in town squares here and there as such an embrace. Rather, the Tunnel has become a control point in the National Border, bearing in mind that if necessary it could be flooded or otherwise blocked off should an invading menace gather on the continental side.

The British have retained their island mentality. This is still a place of refuge, where we are, and they are not.

My late brother once declared that 'Britain is the best country'. That was in the 1980s, perhaps not the finest decade in British history, although it was (for many, though not all) a boom time when economically things seemed good, when we had recently sent the 'Argies' packing out of the Falklands. National pride was riding high. So were house prices. Lots of people gloated. It all came to a shuddering stop in 1989 when the Recession cut in, and the sinister terms 'last in, first out' and 'negative equity' became current. A sharp reminder for some that you should never take on more debt than you can afford. Did we learn? The 2007 replay suggests not.

My brother's words were not just about gung-ho pride and a white-hot economy though. He meant the whole collection of things that make up what a country is all about. Its history and scenic beauty; its literature and music and pageantry. Britain has these in spades. Its freedom and tolerance and just laws - more debatable that, but certainly this country was not, and still is not, a police state with a slave judiciary, show trials and ghastly labour camps. Its artistic and design flair - great paintings, great sculpture, great buildings, great fashion, great expertise in putting on a show to remember. The British sense of humour. Fish and chips.

And more than anything else, the chance of every person to walk quietly down a country lane in pleasant weather, with just a cuckoo's call for company; to watch the trout take flies in a river so clear that you can see the pebbles at the bottom; to enjoy the lush greenness of a peaceful village green, with that special smell of newly-mown grass; and to feel mellow and contented sitting outside a very old pub, with a ploughman's lunch, while the church clock chimes the hour. No mosquitos, no earthquakes, no disturbance of any kind.

That's what he meant.

And the current Conservative logo, the spreading green-leaved oak tree, hooks into that.



How different from the strident 'torch' logo of an earlier era. And how different from the formal and carefully symmetrical European flag:


The Conservative logo is really quite cunning. It has a simplicity that suggests their policies are natural and easy to digest. The sketch-like fluidity of the design is a gesture against formality and burocracy. The greenness of the tree suggests that the welfare of the environment  is uppermost in the minds of Conservative policy-makers. The shadow thrown by the tree suggests shade and shelter, an umbrella, a protection from rain or enemy missiles. And the fruit of the oak tree, the acorn, is a metaphor for ideas, or savings, that grow.

Oak trees epitomise most of the English countyside, and recall Robin Hood and other myths dear to the traditionalist. The future King Charles II (reckoned to be a goodie) hid in an oak tree, to escape the nasty Roundhead forces (the baddies) who were searching for him. The village oak has always been the tree under which the folk of Merry England enacted its annual ceremonies of good luck and fertility, and settled its disputes. It was also the favourite place for lovers to keep their trysts. The logo therefore speaks not only of the land and its people, but of the deep satisfactions of English life as lived in the counties. It certainly has relevance and resonance in a Sussex village like mine. But it's not a logo that most big-city dwellers would think relevant to their needs. Nor would it speak to the Welsh or the Scottish, who, as nations in their own right, have symbols of their own.

If you think that I'm a closet Conservative because my Dad was a Conservative, you'd be wrong. For thirty-odd years I decided to vote Liberal (and then LibDem), and have in most elections given them my support, not the Conservatives. I even gave Labour my vote in 1997, not something I say with much pride nowadays.

The trouble with the Conservatives was that although they spoke to the individualism in me, and usually governed with conviction (some would say perverse stubbornness), there was sleaze, and too much in their programme that I didn't care for. With Labour it was the opposite: they had a good programme, but were soft on putting it into effect, didn't pay attention to the consequences of sloppy laws and laissez-faire government, and failed to make me feel that I personally mattered. The LibDems were a reasonable compromise in most respects, with decent people at the top. But you have to understand that reasonableness and likeability are secondary to being effective in power. Running a country is a dirty job. When it comes to it, the voting public wants a government that can hack it. For decades they had more faith in the two main parties, unattractive though they both were, than in the nice LibDems.

It's a bit different now. A handful of LibDem people in the Coalition Cabinet have shown they can do the job. The problem is however that they seem like Conservatives. As the next General Election approaches, they will have to somehow differentiate themselves from that oak tree party, so that if one votes LibDem it will be for a party that stands for something that isn't Conservative at all. That'll be a hard accomplishment.

But I think the Coalition will have a lasting influence. It has proved that two parties can share power, albeit with one of them holding most of the reins. It has proved that despite the apparent handicap of having to compromise, things can get done. And if things buck up (as they seem to be doing) I may be minded to vote for that oak tree next time.

Monday, 22 July 2013

The most desirable accolades

That ever-growing (and possibly irritating) pageview total you see off to the right is there for a genuine purpose. It's there for those who have withdrawn from my life with a sharp intake of breath. It's there for people who don't 'approve' of me, who don't like my attitude, or my style, or the way I put things. Who think the whole basis of my life is misconceived. And that I'm going to be destroyed one day when the penny drops, and I see life as it really is, and the calamity of my self-engineered position.

But if they come back and check up on me, hoping to find that my life is falling apart, they will see that magic pageview total.

And, if they are reasonable people, they will wonder why it continues to increase. You can't argue with it: it's not my figure, it's Google's, and it says that people keep on coming back for more. So my blog must speak to them in some way, and is not just a stream of fluffy deluded fantasy. And if that is so, then my life (and lives like mine, which might mean your life) have validity, and, whatever the point of view, are a success story.

But don't press me on who these readers are, and why they take an interest!

I know that a few bloggers personally known to me check in from week to week, perhaps every few days. A couple of them regularly leave comments. But that's just a handful of people. My Brighton friends and acquaintances largely don't follow my blog: they are mostly devotees of Facebook, and even if they also write poetry or short stories, or do enormously worthwhile things in the community, they are not bloggers, and tend not to look at blogs - mine included. I really don't know who else keeps the pageview total increasing at a rate of around 10,000 a month.

Every now and then a particular post makes the pageviews surge, then it dies down again to its normal level. It happened over the three days from the 17 to the 19 July. Look at this graph off my Blogger stats page:


Some 5,000 extra people suddenly took an interest. What was that all about? Because although Google wouldn't say who made up that 5,000, they could tell me they were all in Germany. It followed the post on Concorde - so maybe that was the answer, although I would have thought that aircraft buffs all over the world would glance at that post, not just those in Germany. So maybe it wasn't that at all. Who can say. If I knew exactly what those 5,000 Germans especially liked about my blog, I would do more of it. Especially if it was something that was relevant to writing a best-selling book! (I'm not quite as daft or uncommercial as I may seem)

However, a note of caution. Immediately after this temporary increase in readership, I received an email from someone called Vanessa Crane of TheLAShop.com, wanting to sponsor one of my blog posts in return for 'initially $20' per post, but with the possibility of an annual arrangement. Well, let's see: a minimum of $20 per post for say 200 posts in a year - that's $4,000, or £2,700. Such is the return for selling advertising space to a tattoo equipment company, for that's what Vanessa said they are. I don't do tattoos, so no thanks. I didn't reply. Now that the pageview level has receded to normal, I don't expect to hear more from her. But you can see that really popular blogs must get absolutely besieged by offers like this.

I understand that all blogs are monitored for what these people call 'traffic', and it's based primarily on pageviews. There are several respected agencies who do this automatically, and rank blogs from various aspects. The blogs they like are not only the most popular, but the ones that will steer readers towards links, so that they 'click through' to businesses that want the custom. So a blog with many important key words in it, and many links, is ideal from their point of view.

Of course there's a cash kickback for the blogger. But you may have to accept 'advice' on particular words to feature, and layout, and of course banner advertisments - some of them out of your personal control - must be featured. I don't think the game is worth it unless your blog is so popular that you have significant marketing clout, and can command proper direct contracts, checked by your own legal people, with the big advertisers - airlines or banks, say - on terms that make it truly worthwhile. And then only if prepared to sacrifice some integrity and control. I'd consider it, if it would earn me at least £250,000 a year. Minimum. (I hope that now ensures that I am left to blog in peace)

Which brings me on to accolades and awards for writing stuff. Who isn't vaguely interested? Perhaps the big literary awards are well out of reach, but here are a few of the prizes that I would like to be known for, in relation to my blog:

# The Prize for Good Grammar, Correct Spelling, Proper Punctuation, and no typos.

# The Prize for Non-use of Smileys and silly abbreviations like LOL.

# The Prize for Never Using Obscenities.

# The Prize for Best Illustration with photographs I took myself.

# The Prize for Best Layout, and for being Easiest On The Eyes.

# The Prize for consistently Blogging Under My Real Name, and Presenting My Real Life in words and pictures - and for not hiding behind an avatar, or presenting personal information so scanty that it lends a cloak of anonymity.

# The Prize for being Positive In Outlook and Undefeated By Bad Events.

# The Prize for Not Spreading Disrespect or Hatred.

# The Prize for Doing Most to show that trans people are utterly normal people, with worthwhile and enjoyable lives.

Of course, none of these will ever come my way because there are so many who merit each prize more. But then I would rejoice that there are.

Some would quibble over my contending for the last two prizes, but hey ho. Let 'em cavil if they wish.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Edinburgh with Brenda and Morag, part 2

Part 1 left us at the entrance to the Scottish National Gallery, a large colonnaded building in the classical style, overlooked by the Old Town of Edinburgh up on its hill, the castle on its crag, and facing the well-planned eighteenth-century New Town where the modern shops are. Beneath runs the railway out from Waverley. This is a building at the very heart of the Scottish capital. Here are some shots from my last visit to the city in 2010, when the sun shone just a bit brighter, and the crowds were absent:


Admission was free. I asked an official whether photography was allowed. Yes, he said, with the exception of individual items marked with a 'no photography' symbol. Perfectly all right. Our little Gang of Three proceded inside. I'd not been in here before, and was very struck by the spaciousness of the rooms, and how nicely they were decorated. The lighting was very good. This is how it looked, near to where you might begin:


In the distance ahead was Rodin's The Kiss, and this is a close-up of it:


It's not the original sculpture of 1898, always at Paris, but a copy Rodin made in 1900 for an American art collector resident in Sussex. It's usually at one of the Tate galleries, but was here on loan. Numerous bronze copies also exist. Sink me, it was only last March that I saw these same lovers at it in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff:


Kissing must be a popular thing to do, especially in the nude. There were other sculptures too. I liked this:


The main exhibits were paintings, of course, some very famous ones, too many to show here, although a selection of them appears on my Flickr site. We each had different tastes in art. Morag of the Magic Mountains wasn't much interested in the pre-modern stuff. Brenda of the Seven Secrets had a particular regard for seascapes. I liked most of what was on offer, but especially things from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries.

At length we met up again and decided to have some afternoon tea. We gravitated to the Scottish Café on the ground floor of the Gallery. A rather upmarket place. I liked it. We got a decent table with a view.

Unwary folk commonly misunderstand what a 'Scottish High Tea' consists of. It's a proper meal, not merely lots and lots of buttered scones plus a large pot of the finest. The thing to go for is 'Afternoon Tea', which is still substantial, but it won't necessarily ruin your appetite for an evening meal later on. I ordered one, with the intention of sharing it with my two friends. At first, there was just the tea to drink, with a small biscuit:


What? Surely that wasn't all? But I need not have worried. Soon a miniature cornucopia of goodies arrived, some sweet, some savoury, arranged photogenically on a three-tier carrier. They looked fabulous. Just look at my face!


So: dainty little pastries on the top tier, surely the prettiest things you ever saw in your life; currant scones and cream on the second tier, with edible flowers; and at the bottom, a scone filled with smoked salmon, a ham and tomato sandwich, a brie sandwich, and a sandwich that might have contained coronation chicken, but which actually contained egg. I managed to secure the scone with smoked salmon in it, and the ham and tomato sandwich. Brenda scoffed the brie sandwich, and Morag hoovered up the one with egg in it. I had one, maybe two, of the dainty top-tier cakes, but, eager to maintain my ultra-trim figure, and of course not having a sweet tooth, I left the rest to my companions. I think we agreed, speaking thickly with bulging hamster cheeks, that it was all delicious.

It was my treat. Considering the venue, the visual presentation, the pleasant service, and how nice and tasty it all was, I had no complaints about the bill, which came to £25 including something for a tip - and let me offload one of my Scottish banknotes:


Then we walked up to the Old Town before returning to Waverley station in good time for our respective trains. Some very touristy things were going on down the length of the Royal Mile, such as people posing in front of the statue of Hume the philosopher (who for some reason had very shiny toes), people snapping actors dressed in tartan and carrying bagpipes, and people watching a street comedian, apparently limbering up for the forthcoming Edinburgh Fringe Festival:


She of the Magic Mountains told me that during the Fringe it was totally impossible to walk normally down the Royal Mile - it would be packed with performers and their audiences, and you'd have to push through very, very slowly. We passed the house in which John Knox, the leader of the Scottish Reformation, is thought to have lived before he died:


It's now a café. The gold lettering at head height says 'LUVE GOD ABUFE AL AND YI NYCHTBOUR AS YI SELF'. Personally I think this may not be original, meaning not actually Lowland Scots of the late 1500s, but the message is a decent one to follow. I wonder what Knox would have said about the Fringe, or about Hume come to that. Or this tat in a nearby shop window - a plastic bagpipe kit, and catwalk versions of traditional Scottish dress for the fashion-conscious tourist with money to waste:


We descended from the Old town and approached Waverley station. Morag pointed out a turreted building that overlooked it.


Apparently the First Minister, Alex Salmond, was pressing to have this noble skyline edifice turned into the official residence of the First Minister. It seemed prone to electrical storms, however.

We turned into the vast station. It was already 6.00pm. Waverley has twenty-odd platforms, and is always busy with commuters or shoppers, or travellers generally.


But in a quiet corner was a plaque concerning Sir Nigel Gresley, the famous LNER engineer who designed the Flying Scotsman, and the record-breaking Mallard, still the fastest steam locomotive ever built. Both trains are now at the National Railway Museum in York. One day I'll have to see them for myself.


The time had come. We said goodbye - or rather au revoir, because I shall be back. What a great day!