Saturday, 30 November 2013

Golf, Henry Longhurst, and my gravestone

My Dad became a keen golfer when living in Southampton during the 1960s, and he played for the Inland Revenue all over Hampshire and Dorset, as far afield as Weymouth. He had just become a District Inspector, in charge of one of the several hundred local tax offices that served (and no irony is meant by 'serve') their local communities. It was a 'captain-of-your-own-ship' type of job, with myriad responsibilities, but not necessarily highly stressful. Most well-organised DIs outside London could contrive an afternoon off during the week. And when they did, golf was a popular activity for those hours of leisure, and naturally one talked shop while walking around the course. So all this was officially winked at. Participation in real golfing competitions was in any case encouraged.

Dad became a member of two golf clubs for weekend play. The first, while still working, was the Dunwood Manor Golf Club, near Romsey (which closed in 2012). Then, after retirement in 1981, it was the Hindhead Golf Club, near Haslemere (see http://www.the-hindhead-golf-club.co.uk/). He played on until arthritis got to his knees. Eventually he had a double knee-replacement operation in 1993, when aged 73. By then, he'd given up the game but he still followed it on TV, just as he always had. The SKY Sports package was a very good monthly investment for Dad!

His watching of golf on TV had begun back in the late 1960s, just after the BBC launched its first colour TV service on BBC2. It was one of those sports that looked very good in colour - just as snooker did - but with the additional advantage (lacking in a snooker table) that many golf courses were beautiful places with a bit of golfing history attached to them. The fairways and greens and bunkers and other hazards, plus the challenge of a brisk wind, all made the game interesting to watch, even for a non-player. I was myself hooked to the extent of learning the basics while at school with a local pro, and certainly making it a family ritual to sit down for an hour with Dad to watch the Big Three of the day go round together on a famous course.

I wonder if your memory stretches back to those BBC2 programmes? They featured Arnold Palmer (1929-), Gary Player (1935-) and Jack Nicklaus (1940-), accompanied by Henry Longhurst (1909-1978), who looked like a fatherly Oldest Member, and who provided the knowledgeable commentary. It was basically a grand tour, week after week, of all the most iconic courses of the land, especially Scottish courses, showcasing three world-class players. It must have been watched by millions. If you want to read a little about these people's careers, look at:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arnold_Palmer
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gary_Player
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Nicklaus
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Longhurst

Just north of Brighton, along the north side of the South Downs, is a string of villages. One of them is Keymer. And in the churchyard there, in sight of the Jack and Jill windmills up on the Downs (which he used to own), I found the grave of Henry Longhurst. Here it is:


The gravestone says this:

HENRY 
CARPENTER
LONGHURST
Writer & Broadcaster
18 March 1909-21 July 1978

and his loving wife
CLAUDINE
MARIE BERTHE
née SIER
18 Dec. 1908-3 Dec. 1992

Late of Clayton Windmills
Beloved parents of Susan & Oliver

Now that's what I call a gravestone full of relevant genealogical material! When erected, presumably in 1978 and then again (after Mrs Longhurst died) in 1992, it must have been a very handsome stone indeed. Sadly, wind and rain and lichen are starting to diminish its whiteness and legibility. I imagine however that this is Keymer's most 'famous' burial.

I did like Henry Longhurst. He seemed the epitome of gentle-voiced good nature, and his devotion to golf was part of his very soul. However, I have never read any of his books. Perhaps I should. Secondhand bookshops will still have them. I firmly believe that a good writer - someone who knows their subject inside out, and has the writing skill to express their profound knowledge and enthusiasm - is always worth reading, even if he or she writes about something that is no part of your own life. I would expect to be enthralled and entertained by Mr Longhurst, just as I enjoyed a book on 1940s poaching by the huntin', shootin' and fishin' country sports writer Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald.

But there is sadness here. We must all die, and for all his renown Henry Longhurst left the world 35 years ago. He must be largely forgotten now, except by his family. One day I too will die. Will I get a gravestone like his? Probably not. It might be prohibitively expensive to be buried, or cremation - or even some kind of recycling - might be mandatory by then. But one can still play with the epitaph that could be written on one's stone, if there is one. Now let me see. What about this:

LUCY MELFORD
née DOMMETT
Writer and photographer
6 July 1952 - whenever

She was a very special kind of woman

Yup. That should do it!

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Nelson, little palaces, and my escape to the sticks

Before seeing baby Matilda up in London, I stopped by for an early lunch at Morden Hall Park, which is a preserved part of the open countryside that used to exist south of Wimbledon, before all the housing estates were built after World War I. It's only a small area, and it looks much like a half-rough park, rather than anything in its truly natural state, but nevertheless it's an important expanse of grass and trees and bushes, with some nice old buildings, and a network of streams and waterways that once served the local mills, when water power was king. It's now in the care of the National Trust, and is a green amenity that the London Borough of Merton can justly boast about.

There are historical connections too, such as the one with Admiral Horatio Nelson, who bought a grand house with large grounds slightly north of the Park in 1802, and lived there with Lady Emma Hamilton in between his naval engagements, until his hero's death at Trafalgar in 1805.

I too used to live close by, from 1983 to 1989. I actually got married in 1983 at Morden Cottage, one of the white-boarded mill buildings, which has a water wheel at one end that Merton uses in its logo. I came here not just to grab a sandwich at the National Trust café, but to revisit Morden Cottage, and then make a quick circuit of the local roads, to see what my old house now looked like.

I allowed less than an hour for the entire stop. First, that sandwich. It was a disappointment. It was meant to be a 'luxury' cheese, ham and pickle sandwich, but the pickle was sharp, not sweet, and spoilt the whole thing. I couldn't finish it. Never mind. I left the café, entered the park proper, and headed for Morden Cottage.

My goodness, things had changed! The National Trust had been very busy since I was last here in the late 1980s. Overgrown and half-ruinous snuff mill buildings, estate offices and stable yards had been restored and turned into places that explained the local industry of 200 years ago (for details of which see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merton_Place#19th_century), or were being put to educational and recreational use.


The waterways were much the same, including that famous water wheel.


I was eager to see the Cottage. It had been the local Register Office, and a 'character' place to get married in. In 1983 it was well-maintained, painted brilliant white, with polished wooden floors within, quaint and old-fashioned in a nice way - although the room used for the marriage ceremony was on the small side and a bit of a squeeze for a big wedding party. Outside were neatly-maintained flower beds with roses in them, very colourful for much of the year. I turned a corner and...


...Ah. Not quite as it used to be. It now looked a little forlorn, and not so well cared for. I quickly suspected that it was no longer used for weddings. Yes, the London Acorn School now leased it, and it was a day centre for pre-school playgroups and other activities for parents with very young children.

A couple of my age, with a little boy in tow, noticed me and we immediately started to talk. I explained that I was on a flying visit, and that I got married here thirty years ago. It was one of life's coincidences. The lady exclaimed that her son had also got married here thirty years ago. Was I still married? No, but it had lasted eight years before falling apart. And clearly I could look back on those years without flinching, and with a certain nostalgia, to the extent at least of wanting to see the Cottage again. And I was shortly going to take a peek at the old family house. We talked babies and young children, and the satisfactions of being a grandparent. She definitely took to me. They were both very pleasant indeed, and were called Doris and Tony. The little boy was patient and very well behaved. His name was Ethan. Here they are:


And they took a picture of me in front of the Cottage:


Having said goodbye, I walked around to the lawn side of the Cottage. A young woman followed me, as if looking for something. Sensing another conversation, I explained again why I was there. Oh, would I like her to take a picture of me, with the Cottage in it? Yes, please!


She was twenty-something, and from Poland. She'd actually been looking for the toilets. So I said, either go to the café, or try the stable block (top photo), where I'd noticed there were toilets also. She was very polite, and very grateful for the information. I know just how it is when you've got to go.

Once alone, I considered the Cottage and pursed my lips. It really wasn't in a great state of repair nowadays, and desperately needed repainting. And where had the rose beds gone? There was instead a vast shapeless evergreen shrub - off to the left of the scene above - exactly where we had all posed for pictures in the February frost, after the ceremony. It had been a very cold day! But getting married on St Valentine's Day had been my idea. Doris had thought it most romantic.

Time was ticking on. I walked out of the Park, and headed for 16 Windermere Avenue, SW19, the house I'd bought for myself, W---, and stepdaughter A--- to live in. I entered the road from the northern, Merton Park, end. Talk about a place being in a time warp. Almost nothing had changed since 1989. The cars were different, that was all. The curved high-rise bulk of Crown House (now the Civic Centre) was still the Big Landmark at the end of the Avenue.


I stopped opposite my old house. It's the one with the cream wash and bright red tiling above the front bow window, and the newish brick hardstanding outside. But in my day Number 16 had looked more like the house to the left, and the front garden was lawned. The family to the right always liked Mercedes cars, and I'm guessing they were still living there.


It had always struck me that, in London, no matter how ordinary or mundane the exterior of one's house might be - and this terrace of late-1920s houses was as ordinary as one can get for an outer-London suburb - the interior was likely to have real money spent on it, turning it into a little palace. Most people could not afford to live in big houses on posh estates. They settled for a small characterless house lost in a sea of identical other houses, and concentrated instead on making the interior as beautiful and as individual as possible. Same for the back garden, if there was one. In Windermere Avenue, we all had decent back gardens, but newer houses on smaller plots of land would have miniscule joke gardens, fit only for a table and chairs and very little else. So you tended to live indoors, in as much style and comfort as you could stretch to, and would pretend that the outside world didn't exist. I had little doubt that the interior of my old home would have been gutted, and everything replaced, at least two or three times in the years since 1989, and that I'd find no trace of my own handiwork.

Hurrying now, I turned left at the end of the road, and very soon came to Morden Underground station, which was also the hub of the local bus routes.


How typical of outer London. Even if you lived in a humdrum street, there would be shops and services, schools and day centres, doctors and dentists, and of course buses and trains - everything you could reasonably want - all within easy reach. It was a convenient payback for accepting bland and unexciting surroundings, and the mind-numbing routine of the daily commute, shut up inside a noisy tube train.

But I tired of it. And then began to loathe it. By 1989, after eleven years of living in London, I was desperate to get out into the country again. Too many houses, too little greenery, too many drab days, all these things had depressed me. Every time I drove down the busy A3 to visit Mum and Dad in leafy Liphook, the conviction was reinforced in me that I had to escape or go into some kind of terminal decline.

Thankfully in 1989 the chance came to move to Horsham in Sussex. I didn't hesitate. W--- was not so eager. She was lukewarm about it compared to myself, and almost changed her mind when things dragged on. But I never faltered. I bulldozed our Move To The Sticks Project through in a sustained effort of will that I still consider to be one of the most selfish things I have ever done in my life. W--- quickly hated her daily journey up to London.

It was not intended, but I could not have chosen anything more effective than this to wreck our marriage. By early 1991 she'd left me to live again in London, and I was left on my own to consider whether the joys of Worthing and Brighton and Chichester, and all the fine scenery of East and West Sussex, were really worth the destruction of my marriage.

But for me, there was no going back to London. And I never did return there to live, even when the commuting became very awkward.

And, of course, there was another matter that I was now free to explore, if I dared.

But then I met M---, and my life went off on a long fifteen-year diversion. Doris, Tony and Ethan did not learn anything of that.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Remembering the ones that weren't so lucky

The day after seeing baby Matilda in London, I attended the Transgender Day of Remembrance Ceremony in Brighton.

Fresh life, fresh death. The official statistics for those identified as having been murdered in the previous twelve months around the world for being trans were a bit 'better' than last year, but there was a word of caution. It seemed that some police forces in foreign countries were getting careless about recording the exact cause of death, which may have led to the undercounting of gender-inspired hate crimes. And, as ever, many countries simply didn't provide the necessary statistics. The true total of victims might be anything from 1,500 upwards. Or double that. It's impossible to say. Even one death was of course an outrage against the positive imperative imposed by modern civilisation to treasure all life and let it flourish, especially as many victims were young and might have contributed much to their societies if allowed to live.

Even if the Wall of Remembrance had fewer cards stuck on it than last year, it didn't seem so. The Wall looked pretty crowded to me:


Trans persons pushed into suicide were not forgotten - notably Lucy Meadows, the Lancashire teacher who gave up on life after attempting to transition on the job, and for whom the 'public interest' attacks from the Daily Mail were the last straw. There was a card for her:


Nor were murder victims from past years forgotten. 2009 saw two trans women murdered in the UK, one of them in Brighton - Andrea Waddell. Her mother, Sonia Waddell, was there, and placed this card on the Wall for her daughter:


Mrs Waddell knew me, and came over to speak. She gave me a gift, a copy of her daughter's poems::


The book says much about Andrea's achievements and the depth of her thought. Possibly she was untypical of most murdered victims, in that she came from a family who loved and accepted her without reservation, and that she received a good education. So many victims have been disadvantaged persons callously rejected by their families. Andrea's killer was sought, found, put on trial, found guilty, and sentenced to 22 years in prison in 2010. In that sense, justice was done. But the void left by Andrea not being there cannot be filled. I think that Mrs Waddell is a brave woman, to bear the loss of such a daughter. So are all the other mothers who lost a son or daughter to the bigoted cruelty of the world. I can't believe that deep down their hearts these mothers were not torn, even if their particular community and religion sternly and heartlessly forbade grieving for their 'deviant' child.

I keep going to these annual ceremonies. I feel I must. I could have so easily have been a victim myself, and there is nothing to prevent it happening to me at any time in the future. I may look safe, but I am not. No trans person is. Any of us might one day encounter a man, or a gang, with a psychopathic prejudice out of control. If the encounter takes place in circumstances where no escape is possible, in a private house or flat for instance, death will result. And hatred of trans people, a hatred driven by fear and loathing, seems to lead to extreme viciousness and a horrible end to life. I can't get it out of my mind that one day I will be faced with this. If ever I do, it will be literally a fight for my very existence, with no guarantee of winning.

I have little doubt that each murder victim through the years has known in their hearts that they would also, one day, have to fight for their lives. They were on the margin of their societies, they could not avoid trouble and risk, and it was inevitable that their luck would run out. I am lucky to live where I do, in circumstances that give me some control over the risks. They were not so fortunate. The least I can do is turn up once a year and salute them for coping with difficulties not of their own making, until they were picked on, sacrificed to someone's pathetic beliefs, and ruthlessly put down.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Lucy holds the baby

Two days ago I drove up to Roehampton in South West London to see my nephew M---, his girlfirend C---, and their baby girl of ten weeks, Matilda. It was my first meeting with this charming little person. I think she was a bit puzzled as to just who I was, but then it was also quite clear that her world was only now getting into sharper focus, and many things - in fact practically everything not within easy reach - was very, very puzzling to her! Her eyes were everywhere. But she knew who Mummy and Daddy were! And clearly she was very satisfied with the present state of affairs, and her entire life history so far. For their part, M--- and C--- were bursting with pride. Both said that having a baby, this baby, was all either of them ever really wanted. It was very evident that they were telling me the literal truth. Matilda is so precious, so loved.

I hope Matilda will bond with me a bit as time goes on. She is, of course, the first person born in our family who will know me as Lucy, and as nobody else. That's a reason, though not the only one by any means, why she's extra special to me.

Enough words. Let's get to the pictures! First, proud Mummy with the star of the show, then Mummy and Daddy:


And then that pesky Auntie Lucy gets in on the action:


Three generations there! M--- is of course my late brother's son. He resembles my late brother very strongly. There are thirty years between M--- and me, thirty years between himself and his baby daughter. For some reason, I seem to have the biggest nose. It didn't stop me holding the baby.


You won't have seen me doing this before! Matilda was very well behaved. I think you can see how I felt from the pictures.

Well, that's enough of my face. Shall we see some more of the baby? Oh yes, let's.


As I said, just ten weeks old. Her whole life ahead.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

The invisible handcuffs

The headline word is 'slavery' and it's much in the news at the moment. The latest victims, three adult women who lived in an ordinary house in South London, but in such conditions of compulsion and exclusion from ordinary life that they were prisoners, is simply one of a growing list of dreadful examples. The full details of that case are not yet known, and may not be known for a long time. Not before the ladies concerned are ready to speak. You can imagine how difficult that will be for them.

Let's hope that the police, and the staff of whatever refuge they are now in, can successfully hold off all the news agencies hungry for a sensational story. But short of keeping these unfortunate women hidden in another kind of detention, albeit a benevolent one, I doubt if they will be able to. That section of the news industry which is forever seeking a 'public-interest story' will never let them be. And let's face it, this is a story that many members of the public will take an interest in, and would like to read about, and hope that enterprising reporters will find a way of getting at these ladies, or subverting their carers. The kind of folk who like to hear about sex slaves and bondage, and abuse generally. And not people whose high-minded mission in life is to put a stop to all kinds of exploitation, rehabilitate the victims, and lobby for appropriate punishments for the offenders.

It's a complex social problem made harder in this instance by the fact that the arrested parties are not British nationals, and there will be scope for anti-immigration zealots to point the finger. You know: this is what immigrants do; it's disgusting; let's stop it by deporting the whole lot. Except that it wouldn't stop. You shouldn't in any case export a problem that needs a solution here and now.

The notion that treating people like slaves is something that only foreigners stoop to is false. Anyone can do it. It just takes a dominating person with the skill and inclination to exploit a dependency. It may start with offering something that another person will care passionately about, and then, with that other person ensnared, exerting total control without conscience or scruple. An awful lot of situations fit into that framework.

For instance, the charismatic leader who establishes a colony of idealistic people who are willing to obey his instructions (it's most often a 'he'). Think of religious cults, whose founder and leader insists on obedience to a particular creed that he has invented. But it might equally be a politically-motivated movement. These situations involve a person or clique at the top, and idealistic adherents who are inspired to surrender their free will, conform to rules, and serve without thought of rebellion. There is a collective sense within the group that the outside world is insane and hostile. Each member of the special group becomes united with the rest against the outside, and made to feel that any personal initiative - however small or innocent - is deviant behaviour, a crime against the group, a flouting of the leader's stern wisdom, and therefore to be justly punished without concession or compromise. Constant pressure to listen and accept saps the will to do anything else. Thus free-thinking is made psychologically difficult, and organising an escape from such a situation may be impossible.

Any situation in which some kind of dependency develops might turn into a horrible nightmare for someone.

It's not hard to imagine ordinary homes where one family member calls the tune, and achieves complete ascendency over the others. Who has never known a couple who live unhappily together, one 'wearing the trousers' and telling the other what to do, what to think, and how to live their life? Just how do you really stand up to a relentless domestic bully who has a stranglehold on home, food, and comfort, and would be a vindictive enemy if ever crossed? How can you actually leave? Supposing you'd like to, but there's not just you in the household. There are others whom you care about, possibly even a pet, and the threat is there that if you show defiance, if you ever slip out and walk away from it all, then they will suffer. The same, if you go shopping and do not return. So that, in effect, they are are hostages for your obedience and good behaviour. I don't think it at all far-fetched to suppose that all over the country there are households in which, over the years, a heavy-handed master-servant relationship has developed. And that some of these relationships will become so uncaring and exploitative that it amounts to life-destroying slavery.

I am not at all surprised to hear about these appalling stories of control and degradation. And I don't think it's a problem for cities only, or a problem confined to a specific age-group or ethnic origin. Nor a thing of the past, unthinkable in a modern society. I think it is simply the dark side of human nature, a constant tendency to cruel and outrageous behaviour, unquellable, always likely to get out of hand. It needs to be countered with awareness, alertness, recognition, and a willingness to challenge and report. We all need to be social workers.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Acting

I am sure that most people like me would deny that they are acting - that is, playing a part, a phrase that implies deception, and giving the impression that you are someone you are not. The whole point, surely, is that your female persona (hidden or exposed) is the everyday person, the real person, and that any other persona you may have to present is an artificial one, a contrivance, like the cover of a secret agent. Of course, the 'other persona' may indeed require acting skills of a high order for successful maintenance.

There is another objection to the accusation of acting. An actor assumes a part for a finite time, then puts the part aside and reverts to their ordinary self. It's a temporary business. He or she is someone else for a few hours on stage, and then, behind the scenes, quite a different person. The two existences never mix (or at least, never should). The audience always knows who the actor 'really' is. And the actor, no matter what the emotional demands of the part, always has the relief of putting it aside, letting go of it, and resting his or her mind in between performances. Whereas we are (mentally at least) in the role all the time, with no let-up, even if outwardly we may be forced by circumstances to switch from one kind of presentation to another.

Speaking for myself, I hate acting. Even as a child, I tried strenuously to get out of school plays. But it was not possible when very young. I can recall with particular horror a junior school play one Christmas, when I was eight or so. I was selected to be an angel - which I would leap at now, because I could be up there with the girls. But being dressed in a blanket didn't appeal then. Especially as I'd be watched by parents. On the plus side, the role of angel simply involved standing around in a white robe and tinsel halo, with nothing to do except be sweet and angelic, which I could have done to perfection at the time. But perversely I objected, and instead landed the role of page to some king. I hadn't wanted any role at all, but that was not an option, and this was even worse. Instead of standing around saying nothing, I had to learn a line, and at some crucial point thrust myself boldly forward with a flourish, and blurt it out. All I really had to say was, 'Sire, shall I call out the crier?' - meaning shall I ask the town crier to announce certain Glad Tidings of Great Joy. But being a nervous and easily-flustered child, I fluffed even this simple one-liner, which came out as a squeaky and hysterical 'Sire!!! Shall I crawl out the choir?', to the convulsed fall-around mirth of cast, teachers and watching parents. They all exploded with giggles. Mortified, I longed for a convenient oubliette, but with no opening to swallow me up, I had to survive the farce red-faced and on plain view. Such things warp you.

There was another junior school play, when I was nine or ten, in which I had to dress up in home-made armour that Dad had cunningly made out of cardboard and silver paint, complete with helmet and sword. Dad was a clever man, and it really was a wonderful improvisation, exactly what the part demanded - I was playing Prince Llewellyn or something. But it would only attract attention - by then the last thing I wanted - and I was totally embarrassed. The play must have been awful, as I can remember nothing about it, except that I gave all my armour away to the other kids afterwards, not even retaining the sword. Dad wasn't amused. But by this time, I had acquired a mental block against dressing up and performing in public.

I then managed to avoid treading the boards until 1989, when in my late thirties. I was working in Bromley 1 tax office. It was decided that the Inspectors would put on a Mystery Play for the entertainment of the staff. The District Inspector, the boss, was exempted from this potentially humiliating lunacy. Her deputy was also let off the hook. I was third down the chain of command, the Investigation Manager, and not quite senior enough to escape. Indeed, it was deemed vital that I take part. I gave in with a groan. Thankfully, it was not necessary to play any of the main characters, such as Father Christmas, St George, the Turkish Knight, the Doctor, or the Dragon. I got away with playing a kind of jester, who connected the turgid scenes, full of strange talk and half-hearted sword-wavings, with ripe explanations addressed to the audience. Bad enough, of course.

If you have never come across a Mystery Play, don't go out of your way to see one. They may have seemed wondrous fun to country bumpkins in centuries long past, but I thought they were unsuitable fare for sophisticated London office staff, used to the glitz and glamour of a polished West End show. Such plays often begin with a mournful Father Christmas shambling onto the stage. Ours did. On he came, drearily saying:

Here I am, Old Father Christmas.
Welcome or welcome not, 
I hope Father Christmas will never be forgot.

This might have been lifted almost verbatim from an original play whose ancient script was recorded in 1852 by an interested antiquarian, and which can be found at http://www.folkplay.info/Texts/85----sw.htm. Except that ours lasted much, much longer, and was studded with topical references to tax avoidance cases then in the news, but not topical enough for the staff in general. I foresaw that the whole thing would bomb, and it did bomb. But I was determined to make the best of it. In a sudden fit of 'too hell with it, let's dress up and surprise them all', I went out shopping and bought a red-and-green outfit consisting of long red jersey, green tights, green hat, red boots, red scarf, and matching Christmas tree tinsel. I think I also made a wand to wave around in my caperings, with a balloon attached. I was doubtful about the green tights, but hey ho, in for a penny...

I achieved the surprise element, but had my leg pulled for weeks afterwards about the green tights. Secretly of course I had enjoyed putting them on - and what an excuse to do so! - but I had to donate them to my spouse's wardrobe afterwards. It marked the beginning and end of my adult stage career. One performance only. No more. Ever. And that is one reason why I resent insinuations that I must be a 'born actor'.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Accents

In Britain accent used to matter a lot. It was linked with social class, upbringing, education, career, position in the community, and general outlook. The ability to 'speak well' could mark you out for advancement. My father's Londonised accent got him an offer in wartime that most might have leapt at. He'd had a scanty formal education, mainly in a dame school in rural Devon, but when younger had spent time with an aunt and uncle who were on the fringe of the BBC world in London. That cosmopolitan environment had given him a 'good accent', and clearly a certain 'cut' that got him noticed. These are his own words, taken from his autobiography. It was 1941. Dad was then nineteen, and had been freshly inducted into the Army, straight from service in the Post Office, to commence training at Bulford Camp on Salisbury Plain:

Our hut was No. 21 and its inmates formed a platoon with a corporal, a sergeant and a Lieutenant. The Lieutenant interviewed me. 

‘I see, Dommett, that you were a Sorting Clerk and Telegraphist. Why are you not in the Signals?’ 

‘I do not know, Sir,’ I replied. ‘Most of our chaps were called to the Royal Corps of Signals but perhaps the RASC [Royal Army Service Corps] needed me. Frankly the title 'Telegraphist' means very little. We did nothing more than answer and speak on the telephone.’ 

‘You speak rather well, Dommett. Would you like to be an officer?’ 

I thought this one over and replied, ‘I think that I might be at a disadvantage, Sir, because I did not receive a formal education. And, in any case, there is nothing in it for me financially as I receive the balance of my civil pay.’ 

‘What do you mean by that,’ he asked, and I explained that the government made my army pay up to what I was receiving in civvy street. 

‘Do they by Jove. Very well, carry on Driver.’ End of interview.

That’s the nearest I came to being a commissioned officer. Over the next two and a half years, ignoring the privileges of rank, I successfully repelled attempts to promote me to non commissioned rank by using the 'balance of my civil pay' as my excuse. As it turned out I had not realised that my civilian pay figure would remain at the amount paid when I joined up, while my army pay with allowances, etc over the years increased, closing the gap until in the end little balance became payable. Nevertheless over £200 awaited me in a bank account [my Aunt] Elsie had opened when I was released in 1946, quite an appreciable sum in those days.

I hope I make my point. It was only a lieutenant, the lowest rank of commissioned officer, but Dad got 'rather' and 'by Jove' out of him, and was regarded as 'potential officer material' on the strength of using words like 'chaps' and 'frankly', delivered in a 'good' accent.

But this was typical for 1941. Think of the British films of the wartime era, and after, whether newsreels or films, that showed brave Brits coping with wartime tragedy and personal heartbreak. All the men and women in them have a controlled and clipped way of speaking, and accents that, if they were not naturally derived from 'good homes' or a 'good school' or a 'good university', had at least been carefully taught at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. The beautiful but artificial RADA accent, essentially the same accent as BBC announcers, both accents modelled on the speech of those with prestige and power, prevailed until the 1960s. After that, something important started to happen. I'll get to that.

Meanwhile, for the entire first half of the twentieth century and before, if you had the 'wrong accent' you could be dismissed out of hand as a person of no account, or at best condescendingly labelled 'provincial'. It was a real handicap for men and women of culture who came from beyond the Home Counties but wanted to make a mark nationally. They had first to overcome a bias that gave preference to the speech habits of Oxbridge types, or the cream of London society.

This prejudice sustained the great North-South social divide in England between the supposedly sophisticated South (especially of course London), and the supposedly rough and crude North. The whole point about progressive British books and plays and films of the late 1950s and early 1960s was that the North was not simply a place full of unvarnished characters with flat vowels and limited horizons. It was a seething hotbed of undervalued creativity that was going to burst forth, but had first to explain itself. Thus Billy Liar and many other works that seem museum pieces today.


The East and West of England - and Wales - were not part of the aggressive North-South standoff, but just as idiotically treated. They were seen as agricultural backwaters, filled with inbred yokels and fisherfolk with strange accents. As for the Scots and the Irish, their supposed typical behaviour - parsimony to the point of meanness in Scotland, and dimwittedness to the point of insanity in Ireland - were a cruel and lying joke that had an extraordinarily long run. I remember hearing standard Scottish and Irish jokes on TV until well into the 1970s. Even as I retired in 2005, you could call a male Welsh colleague a 'sheep-shagger' at work and still raise a laugh, and get away with it (I didn't join in, of course, being Welsh myself).

Thank goodness these damaging and divisive attitudes were swept aside with social change, and became old-fashioned and then eventually the mark of the ignorant and ill-informed. Events such as the rise of 'youth culture' from the late 1950s, at first seen as a worrying but controllable threat to society, but ultimately beyond all repression as the 1960s progressed, introduced new voices and new standards. Fresh home-grown music from all around the country burst forth in a flood, and made accents from Merseyside, and the North generally, familiar to Southern ears and no longer a matter for snobbery. It also helped that accents from elsewhere, from Jamaica perhaps, were added to the vocal mix that in time toppled the RADA accent off its pedestal.

I'm not saying that the old condescension towards the North or elsewhere died overnight. Nor that it couldn't be learned and passed on, once the 1960s arrived. I remember mimicking at school, in 1966 or so, the Nottingham accent of one of the other pupils. Somehow I'd picked up the notion that this was a cool thing to do. I got slapped across the face for it. And rightly so. I never did it again. It woke me up.

And I'm not saying that elitism and elitist accents are now dead and buried. Far from it. It's a human characteristic to believe oneself better than some others. But nowadays elitism is perhaps based differently - more on what you know, what your lifestyle is, what trendy social group you belong to, and (as ever) how much financial clout you have - and not simply (or mainly) on educational background or way of speaking. Here and there the old world still holds sway, but most of us do not have to endure daily condescension, on the radio, on the TV screen, or in the streets, from self-satisfied folk with very posh accents. I'm not accusing Kenneth Clark of smugness in this shot from his 1969 TV series Civilisation, but he did have a very upper-class accent indeed:


That said, irritatingly posh accents are not hard to find in 2013. On the afternoon that I went to Upwaltham and Goodwood (see recent posts) I drove along some deeply rural lanes in West Sussex, and encountered several couples out for a Sunday afternoon stroll with their dogs. These 'villagers' had a casually well-off look to them. They made a performance of watching me approach in Fiona, and then of stepping aside onto the verge. It was done in such a way that I felt compelled to wind my window down to say 'Thank you' to them as I passed. Each time they'd get in first with a 'Thank you so much' said in a certain kind of accent, and with a certain cold intonation, that, beyond any possible mistake, conveyed a quite different message. The velvet words in fact said 'You are in our private local lane, damn you, and have no right to be here. You are not one of us, even if you do drive a nice car. We don't want to see you here again.' It quite upset me to be judged - wrongly judged - as a crass and insensitive intruder. I soon shrugged that feeling off, but thought to myself: snobbery and elitism is not dead in Britain!

My own accent? Well, it's my father's BBC accent. Transformation into Lucy Melford hasn't changed it. Some of you will have heard it face-to-face. It's unashamedly a Southern accent with faint Welsh echoes. I would be most unhappy if anyone described it as 'ineffably upper-class'. It isn't meant to be, and I have no background in my life to justify that awful description, except a deeply disliked grammar-school education that I'd like to think made no indelible mark on me. I suppose it is however telling that I was sometimes jokingly chided as 'posh bloke' in the past, and have since been referred to as 'posh bird' more than once. That's amusing, but I hope it's not really my public image. I want to be completely accessible and approachable, and I don't want an accent getting in the way.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Not such a wasted life as I thought!

Late transitioners may put a brave face on it, but you can't escape the feeling that the greater part of your life has already passed, and that you haven't got much time left to savour life as you really want to live it. But I've done some figuring, and the situation now seems much better than I thought! It's quite heartening.

In my case, I officially went 'full time' on 1 November 2009, when my Deed Poll was executed and the two-year countdown to qualifying for my Gender Recognition Certificate began. It's a convenient date to use. It means - on the face of it - that the first 57.3 years of my life were lived as least partly as J---. Assuming that I might (with luck and care) live a further 30 years, you can understand why I'd regard 57.3/87.3 = 66% of my life (two thirds of it) as over. And, in the sense that I hadn't been able to present myself as Lucy in that long span of time, why I might feel that two-thirds of my life had been wasted.

It wasn't a complete waste, of course. You don't have to be your 'real' self to enjoy all sorts of things, and for your life to be greatly enhanced by them.

Think of any of those experiences that simply depend on being alive, and possessing the faculties to appreciate them. The joy of a glorious sunset; the joy of a song that moves you to tears; the joy of a wonderful book or a marvellous work of art; the joy of a carefree morning spent striding an empty moor in sunshine; the joy of a fast drive in a powerful car; the joy of personal creation; the joy of a meal you will never forget; the joy of a gift that lit up someone's face. And so on. I've had many of those moments. And there were many times when simply 'being me' and 'being there' made a huge difference. Those things can't be regarded as a waste of time.

But interpersonal relationships were indeed badly compromised, whether it was family, friends, neighbours or work colleagues. I look back on the confused way I felt about myself as a child, as a teenager, as a 'son' to my parents, as a supposed 'man' looking for love, as a supposed 'man' in leadership roles at work, as a supposed strong force and dependable provider and protector, as a marriage partner, as a step-parent, as my parents' eventual carer if they lived long enough. I look back, and I think to myself that all of these roles were a bodge. They were bodged because I was considered to be male, and conditioned for a male role in life. And because, believing I was what people said I was, I attempted the impossible and tried to be a man. It's a cop-out to say that 'society is to blame', but I now see myself as duped into living my life on entirely the wrong basis, with consequences (sooner or later) that nobody should have been surprised to see.

In fact I am developing quite a lot of anger about how I was made to conform and live up to expectations. I'm going to let it out, not bottle it up. But gently. I don't want the time ahead to be scarred by thoughts of what might have been if everyone had had a different mindset, and could have recognised me then for what I really was. I like being happy and optimistic and upbeat. I don't want resentfulness and regret to take me over.

As I went to bed last night I had those wasted years on my mind. Over five decades, whichever way you look at it. Then one or two notions occurred to me. Surely it was not so bad as I thought?

For one thing, even if I had been aware as a four or five year old child that I was transsexual, I was nevertheless a careful and wary child who quickly recognised danger, and I wouldn't have 'come out' while parents, doctors, schoolteachers and authority in general could have intervened in my life. I would have most certainly sat on my self-knowledge, and waited until I was officially an adult - which happened in 1970, when I reached the age of eighteen.

I'm quite sure I'd have bided my time, and not impetuously blurted out my awful secret. The consequences of a premature disclosure would have been frightening. I can think of two likely scenarios. First, I could have stayed at home, but the doctors would have examined me. The diagnosis would have been misconceived, the correction treatments at mental hospitals dire. Once an adult, I had safeguards. I might still be 'sectioned' and end up in a mental institution to be drugged or electrocuted, but it would be much harder to get me there. Or second, I would have fled home and tried my luck in London - but without money, and without a completed education. I would most likely have faced a short-and-dirty existence out on the streets, with only crime and addiction to look forward to.

No, I would have hidden the girl inside until it was safe to emerge. I needed my education, so that I could get a job and earn money. Getting an office job in 1970 was easy if you had good qualifications. It wouldn't matter if your appearance was a bit strange, so long as you spoke well, were smartly-dressed and intelligent, and properly deferential to your employers. It was an intolerant world in many ways, but my goodness, I know for a fact that during the early 1970s local recruitment in the Inland Revenue accepted many oddball characters. I'd have been all right. It would have been worth waiting. Once safely in a job, safely in a home of my own, however humble, I could have gradually turned J--- into Lucy.

But all this caution means that there was never a possibility that the real me, Lucy, could have had any kind of expression before age eighteen. So at a stroke it becomes unrealistic to assert that all of those 57.3 years as J--- were wasted. I must take off the first 18 years. Ah...only 39.3 years wasted now. That's a bit better.

What about my time at work? Even if I changed my name and appearance on the job, as I now know (in retrospect) could have been have done in my particular Department any time from the year 2000 onwards, the duties were the same whether male or female, and feminine expression was limited. 'Being Lucy' would amount to little more than dressing the part. I don't think that counts. So let's exclude the time at work, all of it after my eighteenth birthday. I'll spare you the calculations, but I've worked out that in all I spent about 58,000 hours at the office in my thirty-five year career, the equivalent of 6.6 years. We're now down to only 32.7 wasted years (39.3 less 6.6).

Of course, while asleep and unconscious, you are not living in any mode, so let's now deduct the time spent sleeping. I have, for as long as I can remember, been happy with six hours each night. Let me see: in the pre-November 2009 period after age eighteen that would be 6 hours x 365 nights x 39.3 years = 86,067 hours, or 9.8 years. And in the post-November 2009 period, 6 hours x 365 nights x 30 years = 65,700 hours, or 7.5 years. If you are still following this, the wasted years now reduce to just 22.9 (32.7 less 9.8). As against a net 22.5 for the Lucy years (30 less 7.5).

Now that's much better! It means that when I changed my name by Deed Poll in 2009, I had 22.5 of the 45.4 (22.9 plus 22.5) possible years of 'conscious Lucy living' still ahead of me. I was still only halfway through them. That's not so bad. In fact, three cheers!

It still doesn't tidy up the dreadful fallout from transition - the 'collateral damage' and the losses and the hurt - but at least I no longer feel that I've embarked on a new phase of existence so short that it's not worth the effort.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Tresspass at Goodwood

Towards the end of that sunny but chilly afternoon a week ago in West Sussex, I arrived at Goodwood Racecourse. This is situated right up on the South Downs, on a ridge, with views to the north and south. You can see the sea, and on a beautiful summer's day, when Glorious Goodwood is in full swing, it must (geographically speaking) be an exhilarating place to be, with the sky blue, the grass green, the views clear, and the distant sea glinting in the sunshine; the Isle of Wight a dark cliffy shape on the south-west horizon, like a huge boat moored there. These 2011 shots will give you an idea of Goodwood's situation:


It looks pretty good, but the close-up downside would I think be the crowds, the noise, the snobbish behaviour, the enforced dress codes, the drinking, the betting, and the ghastly contrived horsiness of the occasion. But I'm letting my imagination say all that, as I've never actually been to Glorious Goodwood, although the website is revealing - see http://www.goodwood.co.uk - where it says:

More than 100,000 people flock through the gates during our showpiece five-day Festival to enjoy the chic, relaxed and incredibly stylish atmosphere. Widely acknowledged as the 'sporting and social highlight of the summer', Glorious Goodwood is a quintessentially English event, where Champagne and strawberries are in abundance. It has none of the formality of a great occasion but most certainly all the glamour. Glorious Goodwood has always attracted the very best from the international world of horseracing and the likes of Frankel have graced the Downs in recent years to the delight of race-goers who come from far and wide to experience our iconic Festival.

Goodwood is a premier racecourse throughout the season, with fashionable events that have been part of the racing calendar for a very long time. This was Goodwood on a summer day in 1912:


It's all still done in that spirit. I suppose that if you enjoy crowds and showing off and having a flutter, it's all right. Twice in recent years I've had the chance to attend Ladies Day at Ascot. I've twice had to say no, both times because I was on holiday at the time. But it's not an event I yearn to see. I've no desire to dress up in a very expensive dress that I may never wear again, and a big heavy hat, and pander to conventional pretension, and impoverish myself with silly enclosure fees, silly bets, and dainty foodstuffs at silly prices. It may be a spectacle, but turning up on a major racecourse day really has no appeal, apart from the opportunity to take cynical photos of the British Public showing off.

All that said, curiosity is strong in me. So I thought an off-season visit might be interesting.

Having parked Fiona close to the entrance, I wandered over to the ticket offices, closed now, but still showing what you'd have to pay during 2013 to enter one or other of the public areas.

There was the Gordon Enclosure, clearly for the common riff-raff. £23 would get you in there, although that would still be a wallet-shrinking £46 for you and the missus, just to rub shoulders with the posh sporting world. For this is of course the Sport of Kings. The Members section of the website entices you to invest a stupifying amount of cash in joining, by saying that 'Some of the most influential and well-known figures in social history have graced the Richmond Lawn as members of Goodwood Racecourse – including sportsmen, statesmen, artists, diplomats and even Royalty'. This is a perfectly serious claim.

Then there was the Richmond Enclosure - the man down at Goodwood House, who owns the racecourse - and a lot of other things in the vicinity - is the Duke of Richmond. This is for suave people of poise and elegance, and of course significantly deeper pockets. You are buying some exclusivity. The price to mix with the better-behaved and better-dressed was a cool £32. That's £64 for a couple, before you even order lunch. That must be a bagatelle compared to the cost of a room at a posh local hotel, but it's still a lot to pay, just to get through some gates.


The small notice touches on the dress code. In the Richmond Enclosure this is the minimum standard:

At all race meetings in the Richmond Enclosure, gentlemen are required to wear jackets and ties, cravats or polo-neck sweaters. For the traditional, linen suits, waistcoats and the archetypal ‘Goodwood’ Panama hat can be worn, as popularised by King Edward VII in the early 20th Century. Ladies should also dress smartly and are encouraged to wear hats at the Festival Meeting. Jeans and shorts are not permitted at any meeting, for men or women.

On Ladies Day during Glorious Goodwood, the standard is even more particular:

Goodwood is famous for being a stylish yet relaxed occasion and gentlemen are required to wear jackets and either ties, cravats or polo neck sweaters in the Richmond Enclosure. Linen suits and Panama Hats are traditionally worn by gentlemen. Jeans and shorts are not permitted in the Richmond Enclosure. In other enclosures dress is smart casual. Bare tops and fancy dress are not allowed in any enclosure. Due to the terrain and areas of decking at Goodwood flat shoes are recommended.

I'm not poking fun at this, just noting that you must conform to a standard that enforces a high tone. And the tone presumably 'justifies' the prices asked, and puts you in a frame of mind to spend whatever it takes. I hate to think what a couple of drinks and a baguette would cost.

Well, there I was. Could I get in?


Indeed I could. One of the iron gates was unlocked and open, the one in front of the car in the photo above. Nobody was about. I just walked in. Somewhere there would be a skeleton staff - there were a handful of cars parked inside - and somewhere a camera must be trained on me. But nobody said 'Oy! You can't come in here!' and no dobermanns ran towards me with fangs bared. My one real concern was that they would close up the place for the afternoon - it was almost sunset - and lock that gate while I was still inside. I'd have the dickens of a job to get out then. And although I'm much more daring than I used to be, and ready to bluff or charm my way out of any likely situation, I am wary of committing clear and hands-up-guilty tresspass. But this was a chance not to be missed.

I decided to have an objective, if somebody did appear and asked why I was there. In the distance I saw a huge horse's head. I would say that I'd wanted a closer look, and found I could wander in, and so sorry if that wasn't actually allowed. This is my standard way of explaining my presence where I shouldn't be: curiosity fuelled by lack of barriers. Well, I got to the horse's head.


It was very big, but it was set at an odd angle, and wasn't a very inspiring creation to my mind. It wasn't really worth the effort of seeing, especially as I was by now very conscious that I was way out of my comfort zone, and likely at any moment to be challenged by no-nonsense security people with sticks and snarling dogs. I wanted to go a little further, but decided not to, and began to walk back to the gate as nonchalantly as I could. It was tempting to look at the course, between the two main stands:


It would be bathed in sunshine, and I might get a nice shot of the front of the March Stand, the Winning Post, and a fine sweep of railed course. But I chickened out. I was pushing my luck too far.

It was a relief to find the gate still unlocked, and to get back onto ground that I was entitled to walk on. As I opened Fiona's door - she was thankfully still quite warm inside: amazing insulation these Swedish cars have - I saw something move through a window in the other grandstand, the one with white pinnacles. A camera swivelling, to track my movements? A man with binoculars? I sped off, wondering whether they'd got Fiona's registration number.

No early-morning knock on my door yet.