Earlier this month, for International Women’s Day, a friend on Facebook was making frustrated noises about an acquaintance of his who had whipped out the tiresome “BUT WHEN IS INTERNATIONAL MEN’S DAY” apparent-gotcha (it’s November the 19th, when these men mysteriously go quiet about male suicide levels, male rape victims, male domestic abuse survivors, the role of toxic masculinity in capitalism, or junk like that. Half of them don’t even use it as an opportunity to talk about cis-centric but well-meant topics like prostate/testicular cancer, for God’s sake); I tried to cheer him up by pointing out how angry the guy will be when he discovers greedy, greedy trans people have TWO international days! TWO! One to remind cis people we exist, and one to remind cis people that THEY KEEP FUCKING MURDERING US.
[Trans Day of Remembrance is also in November. Fairly close to International Men’s Day, in fact. Last year rather cruelly gifted me with someone to add to the list for the Day of Remembrance; I owe him a lot, and one of the best things I can think of to do is to pass on his assurances to others like him and like me].
It’s not all murder and toilets and gate-keeping insurance-providers and places where your actual existence as a human being is illegal, although those things do rather play on the mind (nothing so refreshing as needing a piss and having to wonder if you’re about to die from it in the literal, rather than figurative sense). It’s not even all continual rejection from people who are Absolutely Fucking Obsessed With Genitals and sudden, self-made (and wrong) experts on chromosomes.
[at point of taking, that’s 13 months on testosterone & 5 months after surgery]
I mean, my life has 100% improved since I stopped pretending I was ever going to Female Correctly. Side-effects have included health! Fitness! Confidence! Abandoning the need to check with other people whether I was allowed to like things, think things, believe things, or walk or talk a certain way! No longer shrivelling up like a dried plum in company! Finally making eye-contact! Enjoying being alive! Not constantly fixating on death.
Years ago I used to write regular blog entries acknowledging Self-Harm Awareness Day (March 1st), because, well, I did a lot of it. Continuously, from about 11 years old, until my early thirties, I hacked up parts of my body with a variety of sharp implements. There are scars everywhere as a result, from calves to face. Some people find them disturbing; some of them are very prominent.
There are lot of people I’d like to see change their position; there’s no arguing with some of them (committed TERFs who want to shout about “mutilating your female body” or whatever their bio-essentialist nonsense is this week; the creepy few of the cis lesbian world who feel entitled to any body born with a vagina but somehow angrily rebel against lesbian trans women who’ve had vaginoplasty; extremely paranoid cis gay men who are unnecessarily fixated on dick; homophobic & transphobic straight cis women convinced they’re being “lied to” because a trans man genders himself correctly; The Daily Fucking Mail, etc), but to the salvageable…
Cis men, straight or otherwise: please, if you think your masculinity isn’t tied to your noodle and nobbles (and it shouldn’t be, or you’ll have about forty crises all at once if you get fucking testicular cancer or the like, as a mate of mine did at 16), try to consider your feelings towards trans men. If there are cis men you admire for their masculinity or their achievements & trans men have managed the same kind of shit, your feeling should be the same. And yes while transitioning is hard for us it… actually needn’t be. There should be no fear involved, no terrifying social and bodily risk; so “these dudes are really brave” shouldn’t be the basis of your admiration, either. Jumping out of a burning building into shark-infested waters isn’t brave: we do it to save our lives. Making sure we don’t land in the fucking shark-infested water, to labour the metaphor, would be the sane and upstanding thing to do. Make that courage unnecessary by making it clear you already view trans men as men and admire at least some of us for the same goddamn reasons you admire any other men.
Hello, internet land. I’ve been very busy which is one of the many reasons I haven’t been updating here much, that and the overwhelming horror of the world and a complete lack of motivation…
What have I been doing?
Since the start of 2017, which I ushered in using the “start as you mean to go on” method of dancing drunkenly on a stage in West London, half-naked, covered in gold glitter, with at least one Radio Four comedian (how and why? Who knows), I’ve been engaged in a determined battle against middle-aged spread using the NHS Couch to 5k plan and various other gym-like things, having finally succumbed to Modern Life and begrudgingly forked out for a gym membership. This is partially mitigated by my workplace paying me some of the cost back (part of their attempt to encourage us into healthier habits than spending all night necking coffee and attempting to fight each other, which… we’re still doing), and partially by the fact that I’m very definitely getting my money’s worth.
Owing to a spectacular wobble in which I managed to get a wretch cold, bugger my Achilles’ tendon and inflict a fetching chest haematoma on myself, I’ve been stuck on Week 6 for what feels like eternity, but progress has been made on this front.
I’ve attended one (1) dance class, and learnt some of the basics of the Charleston, which I like to practice at the bus stop after work at around 5am, to the amusement and occasional horror of anyone else travelling at the time; my place of work has moved from the cosy hipster environs of Shoreditch to the alarming identikit irrational platform-borne archipelago of Canary Wharf, which is full of people I would ordinarily cross several roads to avoid and who, judging by the restaurants available, have the blandest and most middle-of-the-road tastes my snotty hipster palate can imagine.
I’ve been to a tribute club night for the late, great George Michael, seen two Oscar-nominated movies, both excellent (The Eagle Huntress was sweet and uplifting; Moonlight was emotional torture, both were An Experience), had a sushi-and-matcha afternoon tea at Tombo in South Kensington, and taken a a Finnish friend to Chinese New Year celebrations and an accidental drag queen pub quiz over dinner in Soho. So far, Mission: Try To Live A Full Life Before I Am Inevitably Murdered By Nazis is a success.
That doesn’t mean I’ve been entirely slack on the creative front, although due to the constraints of employment, physical needs, and the linear nature of time I haven’t been as awesomely productive as my hallucinogenically ambitious 4am self thinks I ought to be: the year to date (and indeed the majority of December) has involved laborious attempts at editing 2015’s NaNoWriMo project Heavy (a semi post-nuclear apocalypse military espionage novel about the unreliability of memory, mutability of truth, and the intersection between loyalty and gaslighting, which seems horribly prescient now); what the late Terry Pratchett cheerfully refers to in his nonfiction collection A Slip of the Keyboard as “blind research” for the next project (working title: Tourist’s Guide to the Ideal London) and outlining and brainstorming thereof; two short stories under my queer-romance-writing pseudonym Melissa Snowdon, one commissioned but not-yet-published blog essay under an entirely different (anonymous) pseudonym which ended up running to around 3,000 words…
Let’s just say I’ve been keeping busy, and intend to remain that way. Exciting news may shortly be arriving on your blog feed. Eyes peeled!
That should cover the basics, I feel. I’m not a fan of making big announcements but as I made a song-and-dance about the last name change and this one is rather more important, it behoves me to at least have a hum and a shuffle about this.
For very few remaining people this will come as a surprise. The majority already know. I’m in the laborious process of flitting between private and NHS healthcare at the moment, trying to secure prescriptions and surgery, and spending a lot of my free time doing daft-looking and daft-sounding exercises to help shape my muscles and vocal chords so that strangers stop referring to me as “she” and making me feel like crap.
It should be noted that my friends have been exemplary about this, with almost no habitual slip-ups and immediate corrections. Not one of them has questioned whether I mean it, and not one of them has flounced off in a transphobic huff. I’ve spent years and years filtering out the arseholes from my social circles and it has paid off
In my job I read a lot of news articles, and it gives me the unparalleled opportunity to see how the narrative of transitioning, which seems to have been cemented in place a long time ago and which requires a fairly rigid set of boxes to be ticked, is usually told. It’s also given me the opportunity to see that while the media is pretty obsessed with trans women (whether deriding them, fetishing them, or actually managing to be respectful) there are still not very many mentions of trans men. There were even fewer mentions when I was younger, which I’m pretty sure was a contributing factor in me being blissfully uncomfortable and incapable of actually putting a name to what was wrong for so long. A list like this one might help, might have helped.
There is a traditional narrative of transition, of early discomfort, cross-dressing, and dysphoria, disaffection with social gender roles and clothing, culminating in a lightbulb moment. There are a few hiccups with that smooth narrative: cross-dressing is not necessarily linked to gender roles, clothes don’t really have their own gender, and thanks to tireless campaigning by women’s dress reformers in the 1800s and early 1900s, it is not exactly outre for women to wear trousers or suit blazers. Unfortunately for men who like dresses, Eddie Izzard has not had the same degree of success in ungendering the frock and lippy.
The bounds of gender are also elastic. If a cis woman can be butch, a tomboy, etc, without compromising her gender identity (and she can and should be allowed this), then why should a transgender woman not be allowed this? If a cis man can be a drag queen (and God be praised many are, drag queens are an element of entertainment culture I never, ever want to see pass away), or a metrosexual, or David Bowie, why can’t a trans man have purple eyebrows and a latex dress?
Discomfort with gender roles is, I’ve noticed, hardly restricted to transgender people. Straight, cis, male friends complain tirelessly of being boxed in by expectations of masculinity. The angry demand that women be allowed to damn well do anything that men do (including really stupid and damaging things) has been heard with increasing ferocity and eloquence for over a century in the UK alone.
Early discomfort is … well, it’s hard to separate from discomfort with other things, a factor which seems to be largely ignored in the WPATH standards of care. I was raised in a proudly and profoundly second-wave feminist household. Since the moment I could form sentences I have been aware of a) the millstone of partriarchal impositions on women’s bodies, b) the role of the partriarchy in suppressing women’s achievements and c) the phrase “internalised misogyny”.
In a world where a bleak division continues to be perpetrated between the power held by women and the power granted to men, is it really likely that every transgender child can tell the difference between being piqued that they’re prevented from having a pink doll or furious at being forbidden football for reasons of generalised unfairness and the stirrings of social dysphoria? We only have hindsight.
Physical dysphoria (as opposed to social dysphoria) which is not a requirement for a non-cisgender identity, is more concrete. And so we’ll begin my Classic Trans Narrative with that.
It is a curious thing to look back over the experiences of your life and realise that your uncategorisable weirdnesses, over which you’ve experienced shame, guilt, anger, and a sense of dislocation from yourself so deep that you’re still plagued by doubts that you exist at all, and find that you are, in fact, categorisable. To turn to other people who have had similar experiences and find that they fit, to a degree, within an existing framework of which you’ve been utterly ignorant. To go back and fit the disjointed, glaring moments and current of Wrongness into an actual picture which, viewed from the position of already having the answer, suddenly and finally makes sense.
A bit like a historical Magic Eye Picture.
If I was preparing a slideshow I might, for example, include childhood instances of trying to create an STP harness out of a toilet roll tube. I might mention the virulent jealousy of my male best friend and his stupid weird testicles when I was 7. Children are weird, naysayers would say. I might mention the utterly alien experience of female puberty, bringing with it the start of no longer feeling as if I was in my own body – a sensation which has sent me through all kinds of risk-taking behaviour, depths of despair, unwanted pregnancy (why care about contraception when you barely believe it’s you having the unprotected vaginal sex?), eating disorders, obesity, self-harm, and a long-term indifference to my own survival. Internalised misogyny, naysayers would desperately reply, on being faced with these Powerpoint slides.
It is also curious to think that the answer was so flatly denied with such a contradictory blend of “everyone feels like that” and “you’re weird”. Make up your minds, Society!
Physical dysphoria takes many forms (please note 2). For the most part I’ve been lucky. Feel revulsion and discomfort would require a sense of association with my body and over a decade of starvation, substance abuse, shitty behaviour, and just plain continually distracting myself has stopped that nonsense. Getting back in contact with myself – mainly through exercise and testosterone – has been, to put it mildly, frightening. Having a damageable human body instead of a vague idea that something I don’t like will be got rid of if I get hit by a truck is something I’m still adjusting to.
That feeling of alien disconnect was so pervasive, so normal to me, that I didn’t think it worth investigating, after a while. Internalised misogyny. A refusal to Play Nice With The World. My mother, working within her own framework of beliefs which include some interesting approaches to reincarnation, decided that I “didn’t want to be on the Earth”, which is hardly a perceptive leap after your only child has persistently attempted suicide and spends most of their time lying down or bleeding on things while crying.
It remains difficult to talk, or think about.
For the sake of the Narrative, let us assume there was one lightbulb moment, instead of a series of ever-increasing lightbulbs hastily switched off for fear of being ridiculed, accused of attention-seeking, and dismissed by all and sundry. Let us not compare the road to openness about gender with my progress to the same with sexuality, where I did the fucking Closet Hokey-Cokey for a decade and still operate, largely, on a need-to-know basis where I judge almost everyone as Not Needing To Know.
Let’s. It’s true. I’ve wandered back and forth on pronouns, accepted my position and rescinded it, panicking at the breadth of the implications and the apparently insurmountable obstacles, convinced the response would be the same: You’re Making It Up. And let’s, for a moment, regard with outright suspicion the people who believe that wanting to keep elements of one’s life and identity private, or not wishing to disclose, for example, the content of one’s underwear to hostile arseholes from every walk of life, means one is not sincere.
And let’s also talk about wishful thinking, the main outlet for someone too fearful of rejection to actually pursue the increasingly obvious: an avowed atheist, I’ve lobbed pennies in wells, made wishes on candles, submitted prayers at Sacre Coeur on a Christmas Holiday, sought out shooting stars, made weird bargains with the universe where on a set time and date (compliant with what I was raised to believe: manifestation, and positive thinking. Turns out, by the way, you actually have to do something instead) I would just wake up and everything would be fine. No more heinous female body. No more womb torment, no more stupid voice, and could I maybe please also grow six inches?
The universe, unfeeling and indeed non-cogitating bastard that it is, has not obliged me. Thankfully I’ve never been nuts enough to think that what it wants from me is human sacrifice, because I’d have been willing.
This is understandably a question I’ve been asked a few times by medical professionals. They are required to ask, and if I’ve been effectively sitting on a suicidal ideation landmine for 30+ years the question of “why now” does seem pertinent. There are a lot of factors: the presence of the Resident Australian and the sense of security and stability in my home life has helped enormously, as has the increasing number of transgender friends I’ve amassed who are, by virtue of who they are, more inclined to take me seriously. Media concentration has made it less likely that I’ll be met with total bemusement; indignant support by acquaintances for the gender identity of Chelsea Manning (for various reasons the fact that this is a Wikipedia link is highly ironic) was a boost, as was the delighted reception of Laverne Cox into the public eye.
Also, and less pleasantly, people have persistently been dying – in 2011 a series of friends and acquaintances committed suicide, in 2012 two deaths occurred in my family in the same week – which despite a long and by then almost-habitual familiarity with suicidal ideation and an indifference to my own survival, did also give me the impetus to think about how everyone else conducted their lives.
Namely, right up until those friends lost their grip on the battle with their own mental health, and until those family members no longer had the physical wherewithal to keep kicking death in the bollocks, none of them had to my knowledge spent their entire lives hiding under a rock and drifting into and out of things without my sustained enthusiasm because they felt like a shadow of a person. In fact, they’d done the opposite – pursued their interests and passions with zeal and vigour, and in every case the world will be the worse for not having them in it. I wasn’t sure the same could be said for me.
The same very much cannot be said for me, in fact. A lack of confidence has dogged me most of my life. I’ve walked into achievements with the blunt sense that I don’t deserve them and that they belong to someone else. The BA I earned was an aberration. The literary competitions I won were probably a mistake. The relationships I had were just because people hadn’t realised I was a fake. And so on. I pursued almost nothing, I settled as quickly and as easily as I could and tolerated things that should not have been tolerable to anyone simply because I couldn’t bring myself to care about them. My body wasn’t right, I wasn’t right, so what did it matter if I did or did not go anywhere in life?
Flitting in and out of unemployment and bashing out books did give me a chance to consider this, too. What exactly was I avoiding in not doing anything about a problem that was destroying me, body and mind? “Things might be terrible?” Things were already terrible.
As I said, I’ve never been a terribly motivated person. If there is even a sliver of doubt in the likelihood of me getting to point B from point A I hang back and don’t get off the sofa. There was no guarantee that I wouldn’t do with this as I had with, say, my attempt at a career change five years ago, when I chucked some redundancy money at getting an HNC in Music Production: pursue it enough to get over the quantifiable hurdle (I passed the HNC with a Distinction because if there’s one thing I am it is painfully, pathetically academically competitive when I already know I’m doing better than the rest of my class) and then abandon it as too hard, requiring too much interaction.
That’s another thing, by the way. When you live your life in a constant fug of Wrongness and misgendering you don’t really want to interact with people very much. It drains the living shit out of you because you’re having to realign yourself, continually, to a gender that’s not yours, and rise above feeling like utter pants in order to communicate/remember how to perform that Not Your Gender.
I lined up all the possible objections to my transition and started to tackle them with a determination I had no idea I actually possessed.
I was worried that, being a long way “obese” on the BMI scale when I went to see my GP, I might be refused treatment on the basis of physical health. Testosterone raises the blood pressure and cholesterol, and both are associated also with elevated weight. As it happens, my cholesterol levels were entirely fine and my blood pressure was “surprisingly good” for someone of my total lack of fitness and dislike of being in a doctor’s surgery talking about My Feelings.
But I didn’t want to encounter any potential resistance later, either. So I hurled myself at what is looking to be a permanent lifestyle change: I now walk around 5 miles most days, lift weights, and eat less than a third of what I was eating before: completely different foods. Since August 2014 I have gone from 113kg to 73-76kg depending on the week.
I was aware this was going to take a long time, and also aware that I am not a patient person. Cowardly, yes; patient, no. And the one thing I know about medical processes is that if you want something doing quickly, you have to pay for it. For which I would need a regular source of income that wasn’t in the doldrums. I would also need to not be constantly at the mercy of some spectacular dickheads higher up the food chain one of my seasonal work go-tos, which was also something of a foot in the arse for what happened next: I changed gear, and went after a job with the kind of direction and determination I have, again, never actually managed before.
I got the job.
I passed my probation, which has also never happened before.
I’m good at my job.
Which is weird.
I’ve actually started looking into savings schemes and planning ahead. For the future. The one that I’m actually convinced I’m going to have now. I’ve stopped behaving as if I’m going to die tomorrow.
The path hasn’t been easy. There have been setbacks, misunderstandings, lost documents – a grim period in which a lack of information from the Passport Office website meant I didn’t have the right paperwork and effectively had my passport confiscated, putting me in the same category as people who want to take their daughters abroad for FGM because they hadn’t been clear about what degree of medical professional they wanted a letter from. There’s been money flying about like the trading floor of a stock exchange. And instead of toppling over the minute things get difficult, as has typically been my wont (“This is hard! I’m not doing it!”), each time I’ve taken stock, collected advice, asked for clarifications, and attacked the problem anew.
People have been helping. Not just a battery of deeply, deeply appreciated friends, not just the people I live with, not people with a stake in seeing me happy. Doctors. HR managers. Even, once I had the right damn letter, the Passport Office. Who have expressed sympathy and the desire to be supportive. Who have listened to me. Who have, instead of treating me like I don’t know my own mind, responded to me behaving like an actual damn adult and saying “I do know myself better than you do, and what I know is that I am not going back on this” by agreeing that I know what I am.
Why blow my own trumpet in such a vulgar fashion?
Because, pathetic as it is, this is amazing to me. After three decades of being a spineless, directionless, worried idiot who lived so constantly with the desire to die or at least not live, I can now make long-term plans; I don’t walk around feeling like I’m slowly suffocating. I have things to look forward to. I have determination to make those things happen. I have contingency plans. I am prepared to kick and kick and kick until I get a body I can live in; now that there is a route out of this situation that doesn’t feel unreachable, I feel like I have the power to reach for it; now that there’s a way out that isn’t just “die”, I don’t want to die any more.
As I told the first therapist I saw about this, I didn’t know I could do this. And now… what else could I do? What else am I capable of?
Most of the resources online for parents dealing with their children transitioning are aimed at the parents of young children and teenagers. I’d like to think that means that parents are becoming if not more accepting (lunatics and bigots will always abound), then at least better-informed. When I was younger there was none of this, no framing for what I was feeling, and no point of reference. No depiction of trans men in the media or in the books I read that would have given me a handle on how to phrase what I experienced.
Trans men and women before me have fought like crazy to get us we were are now: talking about Caitlyn Jenner’s dress and Lana Wachowski’s mad sci-fi. Presenting narratives about transgender men and women that don’t end in suicide or murder, so that the next generations have something to look forward to, something to hope for.
If it’s not too late for Caitlyn Jenner to get her life working the right way for her, then it’s not too late for me.
These links are intended for the further education of people who have recently discovered a friend or family member is transgender, rather than for the support or assistance of those who are trying to transition. I also recommend reading the links in the body text.
A very long time ago, before the fall of the Roman Empire, before the evolution of warm-blooded life, before Mars lost its water, I did not live in London, but a place that can most charitably be described as a damp rural backwater littered with increasingly impoverished farmers and a lot of hippies who really ought to have known better (about what? About everything). This was less a matter of my own choosing than of financial and legal necessity, as I wasn’t yet 18 and had saved up slightly less money than it takes to get one student rail fare the hell out of dodge.
In my glorious West Country arsenic dump, there was then as there is now a strong movement towards Organic food. Now, my views on most things have changed a lot since I left home: for one thing, I no longer think vaccines are the devil’s work and nor do I subscribe to any explanation that involves handwaving about “energy”, which is problematic for NPower when I start being cranky about bills. I’ve drifted away from the stridency of support for organic farming and now occupy a position of moderate ambivalence about it: I think the option to buy that way should exist in a choice-driven economy and I think the opportunity to buy more cheaply should be available while we live in a capitalist hellscape where a large portion of the population are more concerned about not letting their kids die of malnutrition than they are about whether or not pesticides on their apples will accumulate to cause Little Phillippa to break out in a bad case of dysfunction.
Back in the glorious day, though, I worked for an organic seed/growers’ equipment mail order company, in a warehouse in a plantation in what definitely felt like the frozen, musty middle of nowhere. They had a compost toilet, which I think is about as much as you need to know about that job.
Via this job, and via my mother’s impressive network of people who were determined to save mankind, the planet, and all the structures and organisms there in, yea, largely by Centring Themselves, Practising Forgiveness, and growing stuff, I was quickly acquainted with the existence of Riverford Organic Farms. Somewhat earlier than the Trendmongers of Islington, owing to them being a supplier of ours and Riverford being significantly closer to Wet Nowhere than to Canonbury.
Thus when I finally snapped this week and insisted that, in an attempt to reduce the amount of time I spend walking to and from Morrisons on a work week (this may sound petty: it is less than a mile round trip, but night shift and 2-3 mile walk commutes don’t agree with grocery-shopping) trying to make sure there are enough fresh vegetables in the house to stave off my persistent and possibly slightly delusional belief that I am one missed lime away from apocalyptic and fatal scurvy, I already knew where to look for “people who will bring vegetables to my house”.
The first, one-off, experimental box arrived today, and with uncanny insight they’ve predicted at least two of my current eating fads: bloody big mushrooms (I started on this because it was 39p for 3-4 of these in Morrisons and they’re practically a meal in themselves), and fried carrot hash.
It also came full of fantastic-looking fluffy heads of lettuce, which is how the following recipe came about.
Vegan, Gluten-Free, Summer Snack “Wrap”.
YOU WILL NEED
Possibly some other root veg, I’ve tried parsnips so far
Several leaves of a big, floppy lettuce like Batavia
Whatever spices/salts/peppers you’re into
A frying pan or wok or chef’s pan or something
A heat-proof spatula
A means of heating your pan.
WHAT YOU SHOULD DO IS
Get that pan hot.
But with oil in it. Also put in the spices at this point if you’re using them, so that the oil tastes of stuff.
When the oil is hot, grate your root veg very finely into the hot oil, or if you enjoy making washing-up for yourself, take pre-grated veg out of a bowl and dump it in the hot oil. Do not, as I did, grate part of your knuckle, as blood is not vegetarian.
Let the gratings go a bit crispy, maybe a little burnt (but not a lot), then move them around a bit.
Keep doing this until you have a darker, more crispy mass than you started out with.
Divide this up into golf-ball-sized amounts.
Wrap in your big, floppy lettuce leaves.
Feel powerful and virtuous and full of carrot.
Other upsides to this recipe: it’s easy to make lots of servings if you happen to suddenly have a lot of vegans who want feeding; anyone who doesn’t like carrot is an actual monster and may be disregarded; it’s adaptable; it is very quick which is good if you suddenly have lots of vegans; it’s immediately portable because the big floppy lettuce leaf acts like a tortilla/wrap; the hot/cold combo is really satisfying; uses virtually no equipment so washing up will not result in agony and woe.
Well, I finished writing the first draft of another book, which took up a lot of my brain power if not strictly speaking all of my time (and which I may have used as an excuse not to do a great deal else).
I’ve had a collaborative work published, by someone who isn’t me, at a place where people can read it for free rather than having to pay out their hard-won beer tokens to judge me.
I’ve finally seen 2001: A Space Odyssey at the BFI’s NFT1 (for the acronym-allergic: the British Film Institute’s National Film Theatre 1 – there are three at the Southbank arm of the Institute). I have to say I’m not overly impressed. It was very pretty, but I think I’d have enjoyed it more if more of popular culture hadn’t gone in with the idea that it is in some way a narrative rather than three arthouse movies stitched together for no discernible reason. The movies in question: Tapirs In Africa (Yeah Okay Then); Space Travel Is So Boring Even Computers Go Mad (With Preceding Conspiracy Drivel That Goes Nowhere); and finally I Took Acid Let Me Tell You About It For An Inexcusably Long Time (The Universe Is A Baby I’m Deep).
However, it was not an entirely wasted trip – the view on the walk to the BFI from King’s Cross was beautiful, and the BFI Riverfront bar have brought back their exemplary Hot Apple Pie cocktail.
11. Le Bec du Hoc, Grandchamp, Georges Seurat (1885)
So far I have written a great deal about paintings and photographs with which I already have a relationship, but I thought now I might say something about a work of art which I came to only recently. Being engaged in a leisurely stroll through the vast wonderland of the National Gallery once more (isn’t it lovely that it’s free? Let’s keep it that way), I passed through to the more modern rooms by accident more than by design. My habit at that gallery is usually to visit L’Ortolano, to gush over some Caravaggios, snigger at Marriage A-la-Mode by William Hogarth, and then mill around the more bonkers bits of medieval iconography before exiting as all good museum-goes do: through the gift shop. I have, for example, a positive allergy to entering the Flemish rooms.
However, the Degas and the Monets and the Seurats are gathered about not far from the main entrance/exit, and I was happily cataloguing paintings for my vast imaginary gallery of stolen art that I will have when I am a criminal mastermind, so I popped in and stumbled all the people looking at whichever version of Van Gogh’s bloody Sunflowers the National has got.
After a certain amount of thought I have in my head what it is about this painting which caught my eye. Pointilism is a strange and alienating technique which, to me at least, renders an image a lot like a grainy photograph of a memory. A sort of Instagram for an image which already exists only inside your mind, if you will. And something about the colours and the quality of like in this unassuming piece of French landscape as preserved by Seurat puts me very strongly in mind of “The Island” at St Ives (it is actually a promontory).
Sadly for anyone who is looking for analysis of this painting beyond my enjoyment of the colours and the bright summer coastal feeling it inevitably evokes, this means the rest of this entry will be not even an anecdote, but a smear of memories from a decade ago.
I am very fond of The Island, and when I was a teenager I was adamant that I was going to live on Teetotal Street, for reasons that time and, ironically, alcohol have hidden from me. One exceptionally fine summer’s day about ten or eleven years ago, my darling mother dumped me in St Ives for the day with some money for food so that she could go to a dance workshop somewhere and I wouldn’t annihilate the house with boredom remaining at home for yet another day.
It was one of the most delightful days I’ve ever spent in my own company. I had a library book (I Sing The Body Electric, relevant perhaps in light of the recent death of Ray Bradbury: it inspired me to write a short story about a man who was in love with the sea as if the sea was a person, and I believe I still have that somewhere), a sketchbook, and took a proper breakfast at a harbour cafe for over an hour. At that point in my life, the idea that I could just eat whatever I wanted and damn the cost, that I could sit in a cafe by myself and read and perhaps have a second drink if I felt like it, was new and exhilarating and, I dare say, it still is a little.
Over the course of my day I was assaulted by a seagull which nicked my Battenberg cake while I was reading on the habour wall (not so good), visited the Tate St Ives and was intrigued by the single-line drawings of an artist whose name I have since forgotten (else he’d be included too: Richard someone…), which led me to the cafe at the top of the gallery. Here I drank a pot of tea and attempted some line drawings of my own of the view from the window, which included a tiny, tiny church.
I made up my mind to visit the tiny, tiny church, and somewhere between the gallery and making my presence felt upon The Island, this turned into me scaling a semi-sheer cliff face in platform boots, a tattered black ballgown, and a corset while carrying a parasol and a bag with some books in. The sea was the same colour as this Seurat painting, the grass the same grass, and the sense of the world going on forever beyond the edge of the land was the same, too.
It’s not my belief that all works of art should trigger some personal connection in their audience: some should be meaninglessly beautiful, some should start riots, some should remind you of things, some should make you fall in love, some should make you want to destroy them. My feeling is mostly that good art results in a reaction of some sort. I never like to be indifferent to these things. And therefore, it’s reassuring that even an alien, quiet Pointilist painting of a rock outcropping on the coast can conjure up a whole happy, entirely personal and private memory. Not least because that was a day that I made pleasant, without needing anyone else at all. Similarly, the communion between artist and viewer, the art, is something that is experienced on a private level.
One of my chief pleasures about the spring after the long misery of the winter is that I can return home from work in daylight. Sometimes this results in moments of exquisite beauty, such as when the vapour-trails of the planes overhead, illuminated in gold by the setting sun, line up perfectly with the route one’s bus is taking. Sometimes it merely means the hordes of schoolgirls swamping one’s bus are visible as human beings rather than a terrifying mob of shrieking zombies.
Yesterday it meant that as we passed before a wooded section of waste ground near the old railway bridge, I looked down from my lofty bus seat at a brief tableaux:
Two men had evidently been running, and had stopped for a break. One was drinking water. The other, heavily-built and muscular with it, clad entirely in black, was leaning against the iron railings separating the pavement from the woods. He was panting from his exertions, but he was also leering.
The object of his interest was trotting quickly up the road, under the bridge, in a red coat with the hood up. This really happened. She was really wearing a red coat which came down to her mid-thighs, and whatever she was wearing underneath didn’t. She had the hood up, and there was a lupine if barrel-chested gentleman panting after her in the woods.
Now tell me you didn’t immediately think “Hang on, that sounds familiar” too.
Our landlady has very kindly decided that since our house is, not to put too fine a point on it, falling down, we have to move out. She’s not given us the hugest of windows to get on with this, there aren’t many places I really want to live, and we own a lot of things (this is primarily my fault because I am to books what magpies are to tin foil). As a result of this I’m even less able to get my head around writing anything intelligent at the moment, so here’s an extract from a letter I started writing during my lunch break today.
Almost anything can be an act of devotion if you want it to be one.
We have beautiful churches here. What makes them ‘holy’, or gives them a sense of the divine, is the shape. It produces echoes that move upwards, and keeps the place cool and strangely silent: there is self-imposed order in these buildings designed to make you feel small but in touch with something bigger: Leonard Cohen captures it sometimes in his songs of adulation, sacrifice, and self-abasement. His passion is masochistic, religious – whether sanctified or decidedly profane, he understands that there is pleasure to be found in kneeling before something.
One of the beaches we used to drive to in the evenings was a long narrow scar cutting inland between a huge high cliff and a lower one made of sandwiches of dark rock run through with wide quartz seams. It was a terrible place for swimming – I nearly drowned myself on a number of occasions – but on our way in and out of the deep valley there was a graveyard up on the cliff top.
It was small, full, and completely surrounded by a stone wall that came up to my chest – filled with plants and birds’ nests – and with a roofed-over gateway of the sort that is common in churchyards in Southern England. But if there was a church it had gone. The graves lay in a sort of order, but the rows had grown higgledy-piggledy and everywhere long pale grass was taking over the land of the dead, just as the branches scaled the walls. I have always loved cemeteries of the old English sort because they are quiet, empty, and home to exciting wildlife, but this one, with its view to endless blue skies and nodding ox-eye daisies, with the wind bringing the sea into my hair at sunset, was always my favourite.
It was unusual for an English graveyard for its lack of trees, specifically the heavy yew that haunts most. Somehow the bright and breezy loneliness of it seemed more appropriate than the stifling mourning-scent of yew, a bit like the Chinese preference for white for mourning being somehow more sensible than the European predilection for black.
It is a very long and meandering letter of the sort I haven’t written in a good long time, and I’m fairly pleased to find myself in the right frame of mind for writing to people at all. It places the sci-fi short out of commission for the time being, perhaps, but there was no deadline on that.
Currently reading: The Charioteer by Mary Renault (a reread and a comfort read, which I’d already found I needed before the eviction notice), and Where Angels Fear To Tread by E M Forster, with occasional digressions into David Cronenberg by John Costello as I have returned to my old, bad habit of reading several books at once.
Currently listening to: A return to obsessive re-listenings of Virtue by Emmy the Great, although I have promised a friend I would give her my thoughts on England Keep My Bones by Frank Turner.
Currently watching: No television, although I intend to catch up with The 10 O’Clock Show to mitigate the poisonous seepings of the newspapers I can’t help seeing on the way to work, and a kind of fervent fascination with cut scenes from the 1987 film adaptation of Maurice.
And a small favour: If you have been eyeballing anything in my shop, between now and early May would be a lovely time for you to buy it, as I need to get stock out of my house before I move.
I have taken on full-time work again, which is thus far pleasant as I was becoming restless and bored with my idleness and not really making the most of it at all. This return to the world of work means that I get to people-watch or read for two and a half hours every day on my commute: to other people this bumpy, crowded squeezing like toothpaste through the Tube is hell, to me it is free entertainment.
Recently I had the supreme pleasure of seeing a moment of exquisite Englishness on the Victoria Line: a pregnant woman with a London Underground “Baby on Board” badge on her lapel and a red face, tired and clearly out of sorts, got on the train at Warren Street.
It was crowded. Everyone in the standing area nearest her began shooting her worried looks, then anxious ones at the people sitting in the priority* seats who, because of the crush, couldn’t see the woman and her internal passenger and obvious fatigue.
There was a struggle taking place within the souls of two men in particular, who performed this meerkat dance of concern repeatedly:
Conflict! We are English! We can’t make a scene, we can’t draw attention to this woman or to ourselves, but no one has given up their seat for her.
Two powerful social taboos in a head-on collision: one does not cause a scene but one does not allow a woman in need to stand but one cannot order a stranger out of their seat but she is pregnant and needs to sit down and there are rules! RULES.
Happily for their souls the conflict was resolved: at Euston someone got off the train, and one of the men began guarding the empty seat while the other hesitantly asked the pregnant woman if she’d like to sit down. When she sat, these two men – strangers to each other – exchanged a pink and satisfied look:
We have done an acceptable thing. We are not arseholes.
I am currently reading A Room With A View by E M Forster on the Kindle, and enjoying it a lot. However, I am glad I’d taken a break at this point, for if one does not occasionally stop reading and watch the world, books like that never get written because one never gets to see moments like this.
* Priority seats are the ones nearest the doors on public transport that you’re supposed to let people sit in instead of you if they are more physically in need of it: elderly, disabled, pregnant, or (as far as I’m concerned) just looking like they really need to sit down).
I moved to London in 2001, about a week after one game-changing tragedy had struck the East Coast of the United States, and proceeded to inflict one on The Smoke. I did this by depriving the West Country of one perfectly clichéd 18-year-old goth who wrote achingly terrible poetry under candlelight in an apparently sincere attempt to become a walking joke, and proffering to London a bundle of neuroses who manifestly failed to do much beyond drink Sainsburys Own Brand vodka, sleep with unsuitable people, and use up all the eyeliner in the vicinity for three years while claiming to acquire an education.
In the 10 and a bit years I’ve been living in London as a legal and supposedly responsible adult (“responsible” currently means “I have not yet given in to my urge to buy a LEGO bucket and try to make a scale map of the London Underground in my flat”), I’ve learnt a lot of things, mostly usefully a reasonably accurate mental map of most of the centre of the city which only works for pedestrians. I’ve acquired a couple of unhelpful habits (like being outraged when i have to wait more than ten minutes for a bus, despite growing up somewhere buses only visited on alternating days), and one or two very useful skills which I thought were universal until I met tourist friends.
I don’t mean obvious things like “the ability to understand a Tube map”, or the achingly logical “don’t stand in the middle of the bloody pavement”, but more esoteric but highly useful skills:
How to walk down a flight of stairs while that flight of stairs is violently jerking about without warning and constantly changing direction. This is otherwise recognised as “how to get down from the top deck of your bus to the doors in time for your stop”, because if you want until the bus has actually stopped during rush hour you will not make it out of the doors before the bus driver decides he or she has had more than enough of letting people off the bus and plunges onward with you shouting futilely “I WANT TO GET OFF” from the foot of of the stairs. Or you fall and hit your face on someone’s laptop bag and they shout at you for potentially damaging their MacBook.
How to write legibly on a moving vehicle, even when said vehicle is being driven by a wannabe rally driver with a fetish for abrupt hammering of the brake pedal. Again, buses. Participating in NaNoWriMo during years when I was working through November meant limited time afforded to writing, and I got into the habit of beginning my day’s writing standing at the bus stop in the dark. Then continuing it on a freezing bus while the lunatic behind the wheel tried to take out every pedestrian foolish enough to be on the road at 6.15am; since typing up these spidery travesties while braindead from work was a lot easier if I didn’t have to decipher my own hieroglyphics every five words, I learned.
How to text while crossing a busy road. I am late for things a lot these days because of a catastrophic inability to persuade myself to leave my house. This usually involves having to tell someone I’m late, via text message; said text message gets a reply with a change of venue or time, and I have to reply to that. While en route. Usually while en route at speed trying to get from the Tube station to wherever I’m meeting someone, which involves dodging past black cabs, psychotic cyclists, and the massed ranks of humanity also trying to cross the road. Composing against counter-productive predictive text, trying to communicate with someone half a mile away while using only the side of your thumb because your thumbnail is too long, while springing out of the way of some utter [c-word] in an Audi is, I am sure, what Alexander Graham Bell had in mind when he stole the design of the telephone from his less well-known competitor.
One might suggest, given the number of times I have almost been run over in the pursuit of 3., that I haven’t entirely mastered it yet. I would counter that I am not dead yet, and therefore am clearly brilliant at it.