------------ ---------- Diary of a Goldfish: January 2007


Diary of a Goldfish

Sunday, January 28, 2007

That was then, that was that, that is gone, that is what I wanted you to feel.

Today is my last day in Whitby. Official move is next... next week sometime, to be honest I am completely disorientated about such things and am merely doing what I'm told.

I am fine, somewhat tearful. No reason; we have nothing to lose. I think there are only a handful of things in life anyone can claim that they have actually lost. We have both had a great time in this place and nothing can ever take that away from us. Only it moves into the past tense and can only be revisited in the imagination. We never get to revisit the great times in any case; even if their locations have been frozen in time, we have not. And that's not a bad thing. There are other great times, new adventures to be had ahead of us, new places which will become special to us further along the road. There are friends out there who we don't even know yet, perhaps a few who are not yet born, let alone all those who exist who we are only going to get to know and love better with time.

Nobody has died; nothing to mourn.

But saying goodbye, even to a place, even when you know that it's time to go...

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Saturday, January 27, 2007

For he loved him as he loved his own soul

Anti-discrimination law is not about protecting people’s feelings. On the contrary; in many ways, anti-discrimination legislation is all about forcing people to behave contrary to their feelings. The law cannot and should not dictate what you think or say, but it can and should dictate what you do as regards your treatment of other people. I cannot agree with everything our own government has done in tackling discrimination, but the principle behind such legislation is very clear.

Prejudice causes people to make decisions about other people on factors other than those attributes most relevant to a given decision, such as their merits, their character, their capacity to perform a given task and so on. Such poor decision-making causes disadvantage to everyone; it causes the most obvious disadvantage to those on the receiving end of prejudice, but everybody else loses out because society fails to take best advantage of each person’s potential.

Prejudice is painfully slow to shift and thankfully, we are yet to develop a really effective brain-washing technique (I am working on this, but promise only to use it for good). The most effective way of changing prejudice is by demonstration. For example, whilst feminism was well established by 1914, it seems unlikely that sexual equality would have moved on quite as far in the twentieth century Britain had the two World Wars not forced a situation on our society where we had to take full advantage of a feminine workforce or else be doomed.

However, even in the face of all the evidence one might ask for, some people cling to prejudice for reasons I have touched on before. Whilst one cannot necessarily extricate this security blanket from a person's sticky fingers, one can and should prevent them from smothering other people with it and damaging the momentum of a positive social change. Thus we have anti-discrimination legislation.

The chief reason the Equality Act 2006 is causing a rumpus is that it outlaws certain forms of discrimination on the grounds of sexuality, as well age, ethnicity, religion and disability. Cardinal Cormac O'Murphy, who is head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales has suggested that this will force them to close their many adoption agencies because they will no longer be able to discriminate against same-sex couples simply on the grounds of sexuality. And naturally, if these adoption agencies close, a great number of children will suffer.

I am afraid I find this particular tack indefensible. To say that the tiny number of gay couples who might think to approach a Catholic adoption agency would pose a problem for them is one thing, but to threaten to shut down, effectively holding the welfare thousands of children to ransom, is cynical beyond belief.

Beyond that, these matters are always difficult for someone without religion to grasp. Naturally, Christians are divided on the issue of homosexuality and I am not about to enter into theological arguments which are really none of my business. However, even in my profound and heathen ignorance, I would argue that there is at least one inconsistency here.

The Catholic Church teaches that homosexual behaviour is wrong, although apparently
The Catholic Church utterly condemns all forms of unjust discrimination, violence, harassment or abuse directed against people who are homosexual.

Indeed the Church teaches that they must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity.
Fair enough. The Catholic Church also teaches against premarital sex and extramarital sex. It also still teaches that the only way out of a valid marriage is death, although if you got married outside a Catholic Church, a previous marriage can be annulled just as if it had never happened. Not all Catholics subscribe to these views absolutely, of course and none of this is necessarily problematic; people make a choice to follow these rules, and I for one have never had any problem being a friend and family member to some of those that do, despite the fact that I, and many others, follow a very different set of rules.

But because difference exists, it would be an enormous problem if Catholic adoption agencies only put children into the care of parents who followed their own rules to the letter. Indeed, my local Catholic Adoption agency, Adoption Yorkshire state on the front page of their website;
We welcome interest from people of any or no religion although we are only able to accept applications from people in Yorkshire, Humberside and Cleveland.
So clearly, they wouldn’t reject a couple because they had lived together before they were married, or a couple that denied the truth of the Bible or even worhipped more than one god. The suitability of individuals and couples as parents is absolutely paramount – and indeed, the vetting process for adoptive parents in the UK is famously gruelling.

It is thus rather difficult for me to imagine why homosexuality - which is surely no worse that worshipping several gods - can render a couple unsuitable as parents by default. Unless of course, a prejudice is not merely a matter of faith, and is to do with daft old ideas about homosexuals being out to corrupt the young, homosexuality being something a person is taught, homosexuals being inherently promiscuous and all that nonsense which the Church has stated that it rejects.

The very nature of anti-discrimination law means that if a law is sound, there should be no exceptions. It does not mean that we disregard sexuality or any other aspect of a person altogether in all conceivable circumstances; sometimes, perhaps it is relevant (there are many obvious examples where age, religion or disability would be relevant to a decision). And it doesn't mean that people must stop believing what they believe.

It only means that exactly the same rules apply to everybody and everybody can expect fair and equal treatment.

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Things I will miss about Whitby #2

Thanks for all your congratulations yesterday - that was really very lovely indeed.

The River Esk yesterdayI have to have a go at this, although it is impossible not to reach for the words which have been reached for time and time again.

I will miss the river. It is never silent and never still. It rises and falls twice a day, sometimes so low you could wade across it, sometimes so high it swallows half the street. And it is flowing constantly, sometimes very smoothly, sometimes drunkenly towards the sea. Drunkenly? Sorry, you know, when it’s a bit choppy. Sloppy. Schloppy, perhaps. As opposed to when you might be mistaken in thinking that the water is really some glossy fabric or foil.

Last night's sunsetPeople add to the life of it. They add electric light to dance on it, add boats with their bobbing hulls and clanging rigging. There are river cruises (oh how I shall miss thee, Mini Endeavour, with your penetratingly loud yet incomprehensible running commentry!) and the Dregder that... dregdes and is always fun to watch.

The river carries souvenirs it has collected upstream. After bad weather, it will run brown with huge bigs the bits of tree and other organic debris as well bits of wooden fence, wire, sacking, a length of rope. And even on a calm day you can often spot a random object; a plastic football, a balloon, a hat. Everything travels in the same direction; some items turning and twisting as if resisting the inevitable, others surrendered to their fate, floating serenely towards the sea.

The Esk last nightThen there is the wildlife. The seals, which have far more grace and beauty than I had ever imagined. The swans, all white but one, which is jet black. The many and varied breeds of gulls and all manner of other seabirds; shags and wagtails, divers and guillemots and all sorts of things I have conscientiously looked up the names for and promptly forgotten.

Yes, I think I will miss the river more than anything.



In blog news, The 7th Disability Blog Carnival is up over at Disability Studies, Temple U. Meanwhile, please will you go and read An Unreliable Witness and having concluded that it is a truly wonderful blog, go vote for it as the Best UK and Irish Blog in the 2007 Weblog Awards. I will never ask you to vote for anything ever again.

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Monday, January 22, 2007

Care in the Community

Feeling guilty that I might neglect the second Disability Blog Carnival in a row, I feel compelled to recount a wee bit of disability history.

An illustration from the Lambs' Tales by Gertrude Demain HammondMary and Charles Lamb are famous for writing Tales from Shakespeare; the stories of the main Shakespeare plays written as prose suitable for young readers. Even though these were written in the early nineteenth century, many of us grew up with that book and it remains an important teaching tool today. For example, when I sat my English GCSE, I attended a few sessions with the mature group who were retaking the course having previously failed it (in some cases, more than once). Since the objective was to get everyone to pass by whatever means, the students were asked to read the story of Macbeth from Tales and then study just the one short passages from the play itself.

Both the authors, who were brother and sister, experienced mental ill health. Charles also had a speech impediment, as it happens. And in 1796, Mary experienced an episode during which she stabbed her mother to death. I’m sure it was all very dramatic and tragic with lots of blood and cries of anguish, but boring as I am, I’m more concerned with what happened next.

It was pretty fortunate timing. A few years later, in 1800, a man fired a gun in the general direction of King George III at the Theatre Royal. In fairness, it was during the national anthem - our national anthem can be very irritating - and this chap, a former soldier called James Hadfield, had previously bashed over the head several times with a French sabre, resulting in significant brain injury. Having missed – or perhaps not having meant to shoot the king at all – he declared his affection and loyalty to the monarch before being arrested and tried for High Treason.

Both Mary Lamb and James Hadfield were acquitted of any crime on the grounds of insanity. Mary was released into the custody of her brother Charles who guaranteed that she would be looked after and would never hurt anyone else. Mary almost certainly had manic depression and as such, went on to have further episodes of severe mental illness, including periods in the asylum, but otherwise had a full and apparently happy life writing books and rubbing shoulders with other notables of the Romantic Literary Movement.

James Hadfield, who hadn’t killed anybody, was less fortunate. The idea that one would let a man who had shot at the king roam free was politically unacceptable, however unwell he had been at the time. In response, the government passed the 1800 Criminal Lunatics Act, which meant that anyone who was acquitted of a felony on the grounds of insanity would remain incarcerated in an asylum, usually for life. And indeed Hadfield was to spend the rest of his life (less a brief escape) in Bethlem Royal Hospital.

The reason I think this is an interesting story is because it marks the beginning of a significant change in our cultural attitudes to mental ill health and the danger of violence (although this wasn't the only change taking place at the time). I'm not sure any profound conclusions can be drawn from it, but I guess it is a small piece of the puzzle of our history.

Do you have any idea how many times that, having published this, I then noticed some little typo or other and had to edit it again? The answer is many. I'm back off to bed.

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Sunday, January 21, 2007

"Can't we perceive beauty without comparison?"

asked Sage in the comments to Friday's post.

I think we do perceive beauty without comparison. We do not attempt to compare the beauty of a tropical seashore and the beauty of a mountain range. And we don’t attempt to compare the beauty of Marilyn Monroe and the beauty of Audrey Hepburn. Unfortunately, we are pretty rubbish at perceiving our own beauty without comparison to other women or cultural standards of beauty.

Excuse the gender bias chaps, but this remains primarily an issue for women at this time. Fortunately, you are vindicated; out of all the manifestations of sexism, the baggage we carry surrounding women's appearance has far more do with money than anything else. Not a sinister conspiracy to hold us down, but an unintentional consequence of good old capitalism: if one is in the business of selling things, one does what is necessary in order to sell them.

There are really three branches to this. One is in uniformity. Representing beauty in the same way over and over makes good commercial sense simply because it avoids unnecessary risk. So for example, if you are selling a movie with a heroine in it, it will be far safer if this heroine looks rather like the last heroine who sold the last successful movie. People watched that movie, that look worked. Doesn’t have to be the same lady, but it is significant financial risk to have a woman with a markedly different appearance – for example, a beautiful woman of colour instead of a beautiful white woman. Never in this day and age, of course...

Although few would argue that the only examples of beauty are as restrictive as Hollywood might present, commerical interest doesn't like to test this or indeed any of the flexibility in our aesthetic judgement. It is far easier, far safer to do the thing that worked before.

So you have uniformity, you have this comparison to a very rigid concept of a beautiful person which can be really quite demoralising to those of us who deviate from it, because of ethnicity, age, weight, impairment and so on, let alone the subtleties of skin, hair, muscle and bone-structure. Like I say, any fool ought to be able see beyond this stuff; otherwise very few of us ordinary folk would ever receive any positive comment on our appearance. But, I think something else comes into play when we are asked to look at our own beauty.

Let's say I make and sell Magic Wonder Potion. It is a moisturiser – add moisture to the skin and in the short term, it will appear slightly smoother for a short while (another trick is to immerse your face in ice cold water for half a minute). So anyway, I may legitimately claim it makes your skin look younger.

For younger-looking skin, try Magic Wonder Potion!

I sell a few bottles, but naturally I wish my business to develop to its maximum potential. There are a few things I can do to draw custom from my competition. I can change the directions so that my customers are applying twice a day as opposed to just the once, thus needing to restock more often – I can even develop a night-time formula and sell two bottles to every customer instead of one. But the most obvious, most effective way of increasing my sales is to increase my number of customers. I do this by adjusting my wording…

Suffering from unsightly wrinkles? For beautiful younger-looking skin, try Magic Wonder Potion!

Do you, dear reader, suffer from unsightly wrinkles? Put it another way, have you got any wrinkles? – I have already implied that all wrinkles are unsightly and result in an experience of suffering. Not sure? Okay, well let me show you a picture of a model who might possibly be your age, who is dressed nicely with immaculate make-up, a photograph taken in fantastic flattering light with every flaw subsequently airbrushed out.

Now, how does your mirror image, in the yellow light of your bathroom, compare to that? One or two unsightly wrinkles, aren’t there? Are you suffering? You don’t just need Magic Wonder Potion if you want to look beautiful – you need Magic Wonder Potion before you dare show your hideous face in public!

Advertising for anti-aging skin products has always struck me as particularly blatant bullshit because they have to make their customers feel a little bit ugly the way they are in order to sell a single tub. Unless of course, they’re selling it as a preventative measure to younger adults – and yes, they have done this – in which case they have to install fear of future ugliness.

However, the same mechanism takes place in very much of the marketing for beauty products, toiletries, cosmetic surgeries, diet regimes etc.. The worse you make someone feel about some aspect of their person, the more they are likely to buy your product. And whilst I wouldn't like to believe that it is ever thought about it in these terms, a woman with a rock-bottom self-image and a wad of cash in her purse is an ideal customer.

Patti Smith and her armpitAnd this means that we look at and judge ourselves very differently to the way we look at other people. For example, to find actual disgust in Patti Smith's hairy armpit would be quite irrational (not saying you have to find it attractive - that's a matter of taste). I don’t believe there are many people out there who feel that way – it is such a tiny pocket of history during which anyone has even considered removing that hair. However, there are very many women who have been programmed to feel total disgust about their own body hair, as well as their natural fragrance, the texture of their skin etc., without ever looking with so much as distaste at other women.

The messages themself are usually far more subtle than my Magic Wonder Potion campaign, but any woman who watches television, read magazines and go shopping is receiving these derogatory messages all the time. I did a brief recce for some of the concepts cosmetic companies implore me to be concerned about. One has to remember that none of these are medicated products; they do not propose to treat actual skin conditions like dandruff, acne, eczema etc., so all this has to be in the perception of the consumer. We are being asked to identify our own

Heat-traumatised hair / fragile flyaway hair / limp, greasy locks / extremely coarse, extra thick, frizzy, chemically-damaged hair [at that point, I think I'd shave it off]
Unsightly facial hair / unsightly body hair / unsightly nails / unsightly veins / unsightly feet and toenails
Orange peel skin / worn out skin / congested, oily skin / spongy skin
Enlarged pores [pretty gruesome for anyone examining your face under magnifying glass]
Prudish [sic.] lips and unattractive, dry flakes
Tell-tale dark circles / wrinkle furrows / colour imperfections / pesky imperfections [which can be disposed of for just £13.50 for a 6ml tube!]

And I can't help it; I find myself considering each of those concepts and whether they might apply to me. Deodourant is advertised in a different way. They won't spell out that you must use the stuff or stink, but they want you to know that you have something to be very much afraid of. So they offer that added security / extra reassurance / all day protection / 48-hour protection / maximum protection.

On top of these two factors, we also have a third branch, this strange but very powerful idea that it should matter terribly to women, the reasons why we spend so much time, energy and money on our appearance, when it's impact on our health and happiness is relatively very small. But that's another issue for another day and you'll be pleased to know I have now run out of steam.

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

Poetry Corner: Packing (a haiku)

We must try to put
Our lives in cardboard boxes.
Yet nothing quite fits.

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Friday, January 19, 2007

Five Things I Like About My Carcass

Bit better today. Zuzu at Feministe opened a thread in which readers were asked to state at least five things about ourelves and our bodies which we loved. Sage and various others obliged. At first I thought this was a dubious exercise, especially as many of the answers tended to focus on physical or aesthetic attributes. I am suspicious of the idea that we need to find our bodies beautiful in order not to hate ourselves as people. All physical things are necessarily transient and to me, to say “I have nice legs” generally implies a positive comparison either against other women or against the current cultural measure of what nice legs are like – cultural measures that as feminists, we should be trying to ignore.

I then went to The Gimp Parade and decided I was thinking about this the wrong way. Blue offers a characteristically sensible discussion of this, links to the excellent As The Tumour Turns and offers her own answers. Which in turn has inspired Mark Siegel, who hit the nail on the head;
Those of us with physical disabilities have a tendency to internalize some pretty negative messages from society regarding our appearance. We learn to regard our bodies as freakish, deformed, or simply embarrassing. The concepts of disability and beauty rarely intersect in our popular imagination.
Indeed. It is a similar mechanism with non-disabled women of course, who are often programmed with ideas of perfection to which they cannot possibly measure up to - not because they have any impairment, but just because they are human beings as opposed to architypes. But we all have things about our bodies which are attractive or otherwise enjoyable. We are none of us so elevated that we don't live in the physical world or lack appreciation for physical things.

As you can tell, brain fog and a tendency to think too hard aren't doing me many favours this week.

So here's mine, all physical stuff:
  1. I like my hands. Mostly because they are extremely useful, they type and write very quickly, they can do all sorts of weird and wonderful things. And they also look pretty good; they are slender but padded enough not be bony. My fingers are long and I manage to keep my nails in good nick, usually varnished in a rare display of vanity.
  2. I like the fact that, in my opinion, I can carry some extra weight without it showing as much as I might. This would be on account of my height and my bizarre shape, which means that even when I was properly obese, I still went in in the middle.
  3. I like the fact that I can walk. It is certainly overrated in the wider world, but it is a massive advantage. Just now (excluding this week) as I’m gradually able to stand up for longer and walk a bit further, I am bursting with gratitude that I have this potential.
  4. I like the fact that although I’m struggling to find things which I particularly like about my appearance, there is nothing about my appearance which I consider an ongoing source of misery. Which is nothing to do with the way I look, just the fact that I know it doesn’t matter that much.
  5. I like my capacity for pleasure. I have an entirely amateurish theory that illness and particularly chronic pain may actually increase a person’s capacity for physical pleasure. If you feel okay most of the time, then you’re only a few notches below feeling good. Whereas when you’re sick and in pain, feeling good is a far more significant improvement. The most obvious example being orgasm; orgasm kills pain, but if you weren’t in any pain to begin with, that’s not going to be all that spectacular. Hmm, perhaps I am at risk of starting the new fetish of stubbing one’s toe directly before making love… Anyway, I do feel that I get far more pleasure from food and music and all those kinds of things much more than a lot of people.
I could only think of five, but I'm quite chuffed with my own immodesty given the week I've had.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Living is easy with eyes closed

Having a run of crappy days, which is great timing when I’m off in less than a fortnight. When not asleep, I am not worrying about the move; everything seems to be going all right. Unfortunately my imp is instead bothering me with all sorts of unrelated and frankly paranoid concerns. Which I guess is projection, but frankly I would rather be worried about paperwork, packing and general stuff than the bizarre fantasies about my having upset and offended everybody I have ever met, all sorts of bad things happening to people I love and similar nonsense. Some of the scenarios it has managed to convince me of in the last few days - such imagination - it ought to be writing books!

Nightmare by Henri Fuseli (imp sitting on sleeping woman)I know this happens because I am extremely tired, sleeping sleep that isn’t vaguely refreshing and generally very frustrated. I am particularly pissed off because I think this was my fault. On Saturday I got a little woozy. It was an accident, I rarely drink and when I do, I do so in very small quantities. But suddenly I realised I had crossed that line. After a somewhat horizontal performance of The Timewarp, I got a little nervous and proceeded to drink two pints of water. Which may, in itself, have been a mistake.

But no, I reject the possibility of a four day hangover. I haven't even had a headache. It is just that last week I was doing really well, so I am really very cross and wanting answers. I need to be better at the moment. And naturally, inevitably, I am now shit-scared that I’m having a turn for the worse. But that's not happened for ages now; I will be much better in a few days.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Shopping for wheels

We're going to need to arrange some mode of personal transport once we move. This would be my current favourite...

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Reflect what you are, in case you don't know

I used to loathe mirrors. [...] felt differently, and overruled my objections to having several around the flat. If I didn’t like what I looked like, he said, I would simply have to wear a paper bag over my head.

The paper bag became quickly crumpled and torn and after a few weeks I caught a cold which made the whole thing completely impractical. So I just had to get used to them.

The wavy mirrors are my favourite. Nice and long, but impossible to examine one's overall appearance in on account of the fact they give you extra limbs, sometimes an extra head and they render your body twice as wide as you hope you really are. The novelty of this is yet to wear off.

Currently, however, these and the three others we have elsewhere are under threat. Not sure there'll be anywhere appropriate for them to hang in the new place. Thus they had to be documented in what is soon to become the most uninteresting collection of photographs since... actually some of these manhole covers are really quite pretty.

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Saturday, January 13, 2007

Things I will miss about Whitby #1

Whalebone Arch by Ian BrittonI like to watch people wandering about, particularly very early in the morning. Of course, the tourist industry stays up late and the fishing industry wakes up early so there’s very little of the night where there will be nobody about. However, it’s not only fisherman you see first thing, but all sort of people, walking, sitting on the fence overlooking the river, or just standing looking at it. Sometimes, if they look particularly intense, I become quite concerned and have to watch them until they go away.

When we have been in town on Christmas Day, there have been loads of people out, mostly by themselves, wandering around Whitby. Naturally, you make up stories. Are they by themselves today or have they escaped the chaos and tension at home? Are they perhaps having far more fun being by themselves, enjoying a nice peaceful stroll about on a glorious December morning?

The ability to wander about, to just taking off by myself with no particular object, is the one thing I mourn most about my physical limitations.

(Picture from freefoto.com)

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Friday, January 12, 2007

The Importance of Being Earnest

It continues, sorry, this is helpful to me. If you want to read anything worthwhile, check out the Disability Blog Carnival #5 should be up at The Life and Times of Emma shortly.

Boys, I thought, were all a bit rubbish. I would occasionally meet a boy who I found attractive, but disillusionment was usually crouching close by in the bushes, ready to leap out as soon as the object of my desire opened his beautiful mouth. I guess I did tend to pick the maudlin romantic types who were only after one thing... being to confide in me their deepest darkest, most tedious and pathetic secrets.

Heartless bitch, you say? Please. The most notable example of what I’m talking about was a lad whose appeal was sustained for some considerable time on account of the fact we hardly ever spoke to one another. Lysander (who wasn’t called Lysander at all) was a wonderful guitarist and resembled a very young bleached-blond and slightly better-looking Tony Hadley, sixteen years old to my thirteen. He was drop dead gorgeous; I was very much taken with him and very pleased about it. This, I felt, was a good sign.

When finally we had a proper conversation, within the space of that single conversation, he managed to confide his desire to end his life when he was twenty (what would be the point of living after that?) but only, of course, after he had become a very famous actor whose loss the entire world would mourn.

This was fairly typical. Once I had placed enough physical distance between us to stop me banging his head against the wall in frustration, I fell into despair. You must understand that it wasn’t that I wanted anything to come of this – I knew very well that Lysander was way out of my league; he was very much the sort of young man that my peers were busy blue-tacking to their bedroom walls. However, I longed to feel the way about boys – any of the them - the way I had felt about Bathsheba.

Another thunderbolt was on its way, but not the one I wanted. Angela (whose name was not Angela) was a few years older than me and good at all the things I wanted to be good at. She was a great artist and an exceptional actor. And it happened before I knew it; I was turning up where I knew she would be, I had joined the choir and I was spending even more time in the beloved Art Block than previously.

Then our school decided – in their rather finite wisdom – to put on a production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Our school had a purpose built theatre on site but seemed determined to choose the most inappropriate productions a person could dream up for a school of girls. I was in loads of plays and the only time I wasn’t in drag was when I was the most inappropriately cast Anne Frank you’d ever seen (Anne being by far the tallest person hiding in the annex). Notable productions included the Hobbit, where there were no feminine parts at all and The Beggar’s Opera where the only feminine parts were ‘whores’. Dido and Aeneas had a few more ladies it in, but everyone has to sing well, nobody knew what the heck it was about and the title to which the girls inevitably referred to it lead me to looking up yet another word in our doorstop dictionary.

The Importance of Earnest has a cast of nine, including the minor roles of the butler and manservant. One of the teachers took the part of Lady Bracknell – which is, of course, the best role by far (and in case she's reading this, by far the most charming and astute character in the plot). Casting for the eight remaining parts was restricted to sixth-formers. All of which I considered terribly unfair – and still do. I mean, it was all very sophisticated and amusing as an advert for the school, but it didn’t benefit very many of the students; the best choices for school productions and those that allow armies of extras so that everyone can be involved.

Anyway, Angela was a sixth-former and got a part, an important part. And what had started off as irritation at being excluded became a mission. I insisted on being involved in the play. Well no. I offered myself up, in a very pathetic and desperate manner, that the production could do with me whatever they wished.

So I made bad coffee. I moved scenery. I made scenery. I helped put people into costumes; I bound breasts. I sprinted up and down the aisles of the auditorium with messages and more bad coffee. I quietly vexed about the presence of fresh lillies on the stage (did these people know nothing?). I made myself very useful. So useful that I was excused from lessons throughout the dress rehearsals so that I could provide yet more bad coffee. The theatre at school was even more beloved than the Art Block and most especially beloved when I could sit and watch Angela do rehearse her lines over and over and over.

And Angela was nice to me. Everyone involved was pretty nice to me, since I was useful and sweet and prepared to bend over backwards for the sake of this production (unfortunately they cut that famous contortionist scene from The Importance in the end). But Angela was a genuinely lovely person, so much so that I don’t feel the need to disguise her too thoroughly; I don’t think she would be deeply upset to know she was the object of a teenaged infatuation. I couldn’t possibly have been the only one.

At the same time, this stuff was happening away from my peers in an environment where I was already marked out as a bit odd since I was younger than everyone and had so eagerly embraced and mastered the role of everyone's skivvy. I didn’t have anything to conform to, so I wasn’t afraid of standing out of line. I wasn't so afraid of being outed as a deviant. There was still the shame, terrific shame. During the short period I was involved in The Importance, I twice allowed myself to get hurt. Not badly, I’ve never been beaten up and was very rarely hurt at all, but there were two instances during this time when I didn’t shut up or run away when I really ought to have. I'm still not sure whether that was increased courage, shame or coincidence.

In any case, the theatre was beginning to play an important part in this story elsewhere...

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

They arrived at an inconvenient time, I was hiding in a room in my mind.

Just before Christmas I started writing about arguments and promised to write more about the mistakes we can make we can make in our search for the truth. Today I wanted to write about the dangers of received wisdom.

Most prejudice begins life as received wisdom; messages that we have received growing up from parents and peers along with all sort of perfectly useful information. If you grow up aware that you should never to journey into The Old Tooth & Claw Pub on a full moon, you’re probably better off than if you had to find out by yourself. And if your parents told you to never play cards with a Frenchman, you may well tell your own children to never play cards with a Frenchman. You never played cards with a Frenchman, and as a result, you were never cheated at cards - at least not by a Frenchman.

When we consider our own history and the history of prejudice, we like to concentrate on those occasions where prejudice has lead to full blown atrocity, and in particular, we like to concentrate on the genuine sadists of those stories. The slave-masters or concentration camp guards who performed acts of violence and brutality which you and I feel pretty sure we could not have brought ourselves to do. Because we are nice people. We are intelligent people.

We don’t like to think about the nice, intelligent people who nevertheless did participate in these atrocities, as well as the ongoing inequality and oppression that provided a sociological springboard for them. This is not to take the responsibility of their actions on our shoulders. However, we do need to acknowledge our own fallibility.

The great sin of those who remain prejudiced is a failure to challenge received wisdom.

Just how great this sin is depends on context. If you were an ordinary working person living in eighteenth century rural Britain and you’d never seen a black person, but you’d heard tell of godless savages, cannibalism and witchcraft in Darkest Africa, you really wouldn’t have a lot of reason to think very hard about the ethical questions surrounding colonisation and slavery. You’d also have very little power to change things if you did.

It is however quite difficult for us to imagine a person coming into contact with slaves and failing to see their own reflection in one another's eyes. But some people – many people – choose not to question their thinking in the face of massive evidence which suggests it may be in error. This not because they are malicious, unintelligent or mad, but because they have an awful lot to lose; sometimes materially or politically, but more often it is purely psychological. The fear of the prejudiced can probably be summarised in three trains of subconscious thought;
1. (a) I am better than this person. The possibility that this person is equal to me represents the possibility that I am not as good as I hope I am.

1. (b) This person is completely different from me. The possibility that this person is not so different from me represents possibilities about myself which I do not wish to entertain.

2. This person is my enemy. The possibility that this person could be my friend represents the possibility that bad luck or poor decisions have lead to the misfortune or dissatisfaction in my life.
It is easy to see how 1(a) operates in sexism and class prejudice. The idea that you may have lead a privileged life and that others who have less are just as bright, capable and virtuous as you are is a pretty scary one. 1(b) is perhaps at the heart of both disablism and homophobia – although homophobia cannot exist in the absence of sexism; all these things are interrelated.

I would however suggest that 2 is the most powerful and dangerous, the one that fuels the fire of racism. Racism has manifest itself in extreme violence and cruelty on a much larger scale and on a far more regular basis than any other prejudice.

We all have misfortune in life, whether through our own mistakes, the mistakes of others or sheer bad luck. However, it is much easier to understand and cope with our own hardship if we have some focus for our distress, anger and frustration. And if this focus is a person, much better a caricature of an entire group, well then, that’s just super.

And it doesn’t take that much misfortune. Can’t get a job? Johnny Foreigner took it. Strapped for cash? Johnny Foreigner is costing you a wedge in tax. Anxious about crime? Johnny Foreigner is a law unto himself. Any fear or failure you experience in life can probably be traced back to Johnny Foreigner if you have the imagination. And we do.

We do. None of us are immune to this way of thinking. Sly Civilian has covered a number of instances where anti-racists and feminists have accused their opponents of being mentally ill. In other words
1. (b) This person is completely different from me. The possibility that this person is not so different from me represents possibilities about myself which I do not wish to entertain.
Which is deeply insulting to people with mental ill health, as well as an incredibly lazy way to view people who hold prejudice. If we simply dismiss their view, we will change nothing and are likely to become complacent of our own arguments.

The good news is that by acknowledging that the error is a logical one, we acknowledge that we can change our own thinking and the thinking of others in our pursuit of the truth.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

There are places I remember

A triangular lampshadeIt’s all a bit tedious here just now. We're busy trying to get ourselves together, sorting out all the paperwork involved in the move and trudging our way through various telephone menus. Your call is valuable to us, as if they know; I could be an absolute time-waster whose call isn't even slightly valuable to them. Meanwhile we have managed to tell the most important people in town that we're leaving and this hasn't been quite as painful as I imagined it might have been.

I have been taken photographs of random bits of the flat. We have lived here five years, and it is a good flat. The best bit is, of course, the view over the river, but there are odd bits and pieces I suddenly feel compelled to record.

Some pink and green patterned wallpaperLike this foul wallpaper. It is not the most hideous wallpaper I have ever seen, but it is pretty gruesome. It is one of those items which someone must have designed, but you can't really imagine anyone sitting down and creating it, thinking, "Hmm, I'm sure somebody would like this pattern, in this style, in these particular colours on their walls."

And you can't imagine anyone choosing to buy it above any other type of wallpaper, above the inoffensive plain textured wallpaper we have almost everywhere else.

Fortunately, we have managed to keep most of it out of sight for the duration of our time here, behind bookcases and pictures.

A mural of a bright yellow sun against a blue sky backgroundWhile I was thinking about such things I fished out an old picture of the mural on the wall in my bedroom in Ipswich. It is not a good picture, having apparently been taken from lying on my old bed.

It was still there when my folks sold the house a few years ago and I do wonder whether the people who moved in there have kept it or destroyed it within weeks of their arrival. I have a secret hope that they may have covered it up so that someone might uncover it decades later and wonder who put it there. Before promptly destroying it themselves.

The other walls in the room were green, the woodwork was yellow and the carpet was dark red. But it all sat together very nicely. Honestly. No really, it did, I swear.

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Sunday, January 07, 2007

Venetian Tendancies. Florentine too.

Back in Whitby. This is continued from Thurday's excruciating post, about my falling in love with a girl.

Being a resourceful child and with nobody I could confide in, I sought out information on my problem at my local library. Here I met and befriended a dead bearded Venetian named Sigmund. Come on, twelve or thirteen years old, I felt there was something wrong with my mind and it seemed sensible to start with the one psychologist I had actually heard of. I didn't realise that he would be obsessed with sex. Naïve isn't the word.

I soon found that on best prognosis I was
"amphigenously inverted (psychosexually hermaphroditic); i.e., their sexual object may belong indifferently to either the same or to the other sex. The inversion lacks the character of exclusiveness."
I had always suspected that whatever was wrong with me would involve long words. I was amphibiously perverted, like some sort of deviant newt! Sigmund at least reassured me that I was not a "degenerate". People like me existed throughout history, he said and didn’t usually have any other sort of mental problem. In fact, some of us had achieved remarkable things. Woopey.

However, elsewhere in his works, I began to suspect something else entirely. I appeared to have become completely unstuck from Freud's psychosexual stages of development. I had sucked my thumb, but years had passed since I grew out of that and it hadn’t once occurred to me to stick anything up my arse.

In all seriousness, everything that I read even about infantile sexuality was so alien to my own experience that I began to entertain the possibility that I wasn’t developing normally. And truthfully, this was a far happier prospect than being ambidextrously diverted.

I may well have been a bit behind my peers with the old psychosexual development. I don’t know, because sex was only ever spoken about in the vaguest of terms. What I did know was that I remained more or less completely disinterested in the contents of my own or anyone else's underpants, whatever disgusting practices I read about in books. I did, however, develop a healthy preoccupation with naked bodies.

I’m not entirely sure how I managed to fill my official school sketchbook with (largely imaginary) nudes, produce a pop art version of Botticelli’s Venus and illustrations for The Emperor’s New Clothes as part of my school projects without anybody batting an eyelid. But the teachers, in that precious gouache-splattered sanctuary that was our Art Block, remained unfazed. One particular sketch in vigorous 9B pencil, of a naked man from behind, standing on a cliff edge with legs slightly apart, buttocks clenched, face and fists raised to the sky, was described as "Rather jolly!"

Venus from The Birth of Venus by Botticelli (naked lady)David by Michelangelo (rudey nudey man)Through art and its appreciation, I could identify a palpable, if entirely aesthetic crisis. This is beauty, that is beauty. They are different. But is one better than the other? Perhaps.

I am unconvinced by the slope of Venus’ shoulders and David was obviously posing on a cold day. But that's accuracy, not beauty.

I am in far more awe of David as a work of art. I could (and did) copy Venus, whereas I couldn't sculpt something close to that in any medium. But that's skill, not beauty.

Venus is, perhaps, more beautiful. Her hair is fantastic and she has a softness to her. Her pose actually seems more natural, she is more animate, more sensuous...

And even trying to write about her I falter completely, because I have spent so much of my life trying not to arouse suspicion. It is quite hopeless.

Adam from the Creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel Ceiling Then there was the difficulty of interpretation. I loved all Michelangelo's naked chaps, particularly the painting on the Sistine Chapel Ceiling. And particularly Adam, I guess. I mean look at the guy. Is he not beautiful? He is stunningly beautiful. Once again, he was created on a very cold day, but hey.

And the other chaps on the Sistine Chapel Ceiling are similarly lovely. Muscular, but well-padded with it, wonderfully curvaceous and powerful and generally a bit of all right. See, I ought to be writing erotica, I'm so good at this.

And naturally, I said to an older friend who was about to go to Florence on a History of Art trip, "Those men on the Sistine Chapel ceiling are really sexy!"

My friend thought this rather funny. "But they all look like fat women," she said. "Michelangelo was gay, so he painted men who looked like women."

And for the first time I began to entertain the possibility that the lines we draw around this stuff might be completely wrong. There seemed no reason why sexuality would hinder a person's aesthetic frame of reference. Botticelli was also homosexual, but Venus isn't masculine. She isn't even slightly androgynous. She might not have the large breasts and flat stomach which characterise the current feminine ideal, but that is what some beautiful women look like in their birthday suits. I knew because I'd seen them.

And Adam is the same. He is not something out of Cosmopolitan Magazine; he does not fit with out modern ideal of masculine beauty, which is far more svelte - far more like David, in fact. But there are certainly some beautiful men who like that in their birthday suits. I'd seen them as well (I was on the school French Exchange Program, you see).

Unless sexuality could be reduced to a fetish for one set of goolies or another, we were surely attracted to degrees of masculinity or femininity (plus either, neither or both)? Masculinity or femininity are the cultural constructs we project onto the biological reality - in all its wondrous and complex variety - of maleness and femaleness. They are transient and often contradictory, but they do have a massive bearing on sexual attraction and how we understand our own sexuality.

Take the beard. Fortunately, we’re now reaching a stage where men tend to do whatever suits their own looks and tastes, but there were very few twentieth century heartthrobs who had beards. Meanwhile, there have been many cultures in history, as there are in the world today, where any man without a beard would be considered effeminate and thus not at all attractive.

A beard is a biological indicator of a sexually mature male. The idea that one can be attracted to a person without this feature is not at all surprising, because there’s so many other indicators we have to work with. However, that this - or underarm and other body hair, broad hips on a female, the foreskin etc. - might be treated as positively unattractive would be very surprising if we were to consider sex as a perfectly binary, purely biological, impulse.

You’ll be glad to know I wouldn’t have put this in quite so many words when I was a child, but I was beginning to see it.

Still, I couldn't get away from what seemed a very obvious fact: that in general, women seemed more beautiful than men. This was especially the case back then when boys were all sorts of weird shapes, sizes and textures, the poor things. This seemed so obvious that I wasn't afraid to say as much. The conversation would go like this;
"Don't you think that women are more attractive than men?"

"Of course not, I'm not weird."

"But surely you can see that women are better looking than men are?"

"Yes. But that's not the same thing. If I was only attracted to people because of their looks, I would be very shallow indeed."
So maybe that was my problem. Maybe I was not ambiguously inserted at all, but just extraordinarily shallow. After all, beauty did matter to me. Not the sort of uniform geometric beauty that might get a face on the cover of a magazine (and, as I say, varies from age to age), but something more universal, something which it would be impossible to elaborate further on without sounding extremely pretentious. Possibly because it's not universal, but something entirely personal to me. But I hadn't worked that out yet.

There's going to be more after this, sorry. Has to come out, but I will pace it...

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

House

So we went to look at this place. I was in that sort of adrenal high you get sometimes after a bad night where you feel like you’re positively buzzing, but actually nothing is working properly. Inhibition, for example.

Moved three times but I’ve never dealt with an Estate Agent before. Bless the poor chap, he was very nice and friendly, but he did live up to the stereotype. Convertible Beamer, immaculate dress and hair, insisted on calling me Debbie even when [...] gave me the rather over-familiar introduction of Debs and came out with some smashing lines, such as
“The decoration isn’t in bad nick, but it is rather… striking.”

“Of course, the colours look less vivid when the curtains are shut.”

“If the landlady would only go through and paint it beige, she could put the rent up by two hundred pounds and get some Americans in here.”
I’m afraid he was perfectly serious and I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. Fortunately, we redeemed ourselves by agreeing to rent it. The room with blood red walls and navy blue carpet was the most extreme, but there was nothing you’d actually need sunglasses for. And in fairness, the colours did look less vivid when the curtains were shut.

But crucially the chap implied, if it wasn’t in a bit of a mess, it would be well beyond budget. It is a detached bungalow, with central heating, good sized rooms, space to park and a bit of a garden. That is pretty damn luxurious for us. It is in a very quiet area, it is close to my folks without being within within walking distance. And despite the wrenching loss of the moors, we’ll be just inside Norfolk, between the Fens and Thetford Forest. So the countryside is very pretty, if somewhat lacking in breath-taking rugged beauty and seagulls.

This is, of course, complete madness. In the space of two weeks, we have decided to move two hundred and fifty miles down the country - something which needs to be achieved by the beginning of February. We don't have our own car just now, we'll need one very soon. We haven't told our Whitby friends we were even thinking of moving. The water tastes horrid down South. Stark raving bonkers.

However, despite being actually quite frightened about all this, I don't have any doubt that this is the right thing to do and that we'll be able to do it all right, somehow.

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When you were here before, I couldn't look you in the eye

I made several New Years resolutions. Some were extremely dull and others rather vague and personal. I decided I would start to write about my Teenaged Angst, which should help me with two of them. Won't all fit in the one post, but this will be the scariest for me, which is why I will only get the courage to post it at two in the morning having travelled down to Suffolk today; extremely cold, extremely tired and unable to sleep for worry about entirely unrelated matters. I have to apologise in advance for the use of the word c*nt four times in this particular post. I have put an asterisk in it to avoid offending my own sensibilities. I am pathetic.

Bathsheba (who wasn’t called Bathsheba at all) taught me the meaning of the word c*nt. It was that deeply formative moment in a young person’s life when this fragrant young girl sitting next to you, this heavenly being with so much more grace, charm and sophistication than you could ever hope for, turns to you and says, “You are such a c*nt.”

And somehow you've never heard such a word up until now, but because she had said it, you become totally preoccupied by it. It is not to be found in your school dictionary, so that evening at the dinner table, you see no problem with asking your parents, “What exactly is a c*nt?”

And your father advises you to look it up in the doorstop dictionary whilst your mother recovers from her choking fit.

This was one of the two main reasons that I knew that there was something wrong with my feelings towards Bathsheba; she wasn’t a very nice person. Or at least, she wasn’t very nice to me. And given that she made it pretty clear she disliked me, she did have an infuriating habit of tolerating my company and using me as a partner in various classes when there was nobody else convenient (oh God, even Self-Defence). And just occasionally, when we were alone together, she would say or do something pleasant, worst of all touch me and I would be in torment, unable to think about anything else for a week.

The other reason was, to be frank, that she smelt nice. Considering her the most lovely human being that ever existed, I could have got away with, but we were twelve years old and nobody smelt nice. Clearly there was something very wrong with me.

At first, I wasn't sure what I had to be afraid of. I decided that the problem was that she was perfect and I was abhorrent. She was beautiful, charming and all those other things that make a person adorable whereas I was ugly, socially inept and evidently, a bit of a c*nt. I didn’t deserve to look upon such a creature, let alone love her as I did. And if she had an inkling of the way I felt about her, she would undoubtedly have had me beaten up.

By itself, this would not have been such a miserable position to be in. Infatuation does not need to be really unpleasant. We have all loved people who didn’t love us back. In this case, I didn’t have any expectation, I didn’t have any object, so I could not be disappointed or even particularly frustrated. All I wanted was to be near her, to see her and to hear her voice as often as possible without annoying her or arousing any suspicion.

Hmm, yes, the danger of arousing any suspicion. This I was very conscious of.

Bathsheba was not the first. When I was about nine or ten, I fancied myself in love with a much more tolerant individual who, despite my having no mental image of the lad above the age of eleven, still makes the occasional cameo in my dreams today. But that was all right. I couldn’t tell him and I knew he didn’t love me. But I could tell my friends, I could write his name in piles of dead leaves on the side of hill so that the angels could read it and know to take care of him (eek, well, I was only ten). Discovery would have been extremely embarrassing but he wouldn’t have hated me for it. He laughed at my jokes when nobody else did; he would forgive me that.

But nobody would forgive me should they learn of my feelings for Bathsheba. It was inappropriate. And of course, these things don’t happen in isolation; there was a difference here I was already conscious of. It made me feel like a rotten apple, festering with mould and maggots and all sorts of sliminess in a cartload of healthy, shiny, rosy red specimens. What if the way I felt about everyone and everything was wrong? What if all my feelings towards other women and girls were inappropriate?

So I became anxious about the frequency with which I hugged my friends or expressed my affection. I withdrew from them. As I have written about before, my imaginary friend turned up rather late in my childhood. At one point a close friend was very seriously ill in hospital and living close to the hospital, Iisited her everyday. Someone joked about me visiting so often she would be sick of me, and I began to worry terribly that I had overstepped that all-important boundary. My friend had had a brush with death, she had shards of glass imbedded in her neck and skull, and there was I, anxious that my reaction might seem over the top...

I was terrified of discovery. Not that there was anything to discover; I never did or said anything that would give anyone a clue about this. At this time, I had never even had anything which might pass as an unclean thought. I was extremely innocent - perhaps extraordinarily innocent. It was all to do with love, with affairs of the heart; not affairs of the goolies, not sex.

And for no particular reason other than the fact I've just worked out how to do this, before the “To be continued…”, I will leave you with perhaps the best song from one of the best musicals on film, which I’m always mentioning but nobody has seen. The film itself is very silly and quite rude, but it does have some very good songs in. And some remarkable lipstick.

Origin of Love from Hedwig and the Angry Inch (no subtitles, but the lyrics can be found here)


To be continued...

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Moving

Another reason our trip to Suffolk was quite stressful was that we decided to move down there. Which means we’re actually travelling back down there tomorrow to look at a place.

We did talk about heading South this time last year, after Rosie announced she was pregnant. We speculated moving to Hampshire or Dorset, close to where they live or else East Anglia, where my folks and the rest of my family are. We discussed it at length over the first few months of this year, looked at Estate Agents etc., but then we decided that too much was going on and we’d stay put for the time being.

This time was different. On our way down South [...] stated that this was really something he thought we should do. I agreed we should think about it. But then a few days later, [...] popped into an Estate Agent near where my folks live and found somewhere that would have been absolutely ideal. Within a very short space of time we decided we would go for it, only then the landlord said that he had received an offer to sell and so that fell through.

Rainbow over Whitby, this morningThe fact that we had even entertained moving so very quickly brought it home that this is really something we want to do now. And frankly, it makes me a little sad. Because I really love Whitby. I am not someone to have a great affection for places, but Whitby is a very special place. It has a great history, a thriving and very tolerant culture and it is a beautiful, beautiful town in one of the most beautiful areas of natural beauty in the whole world. I honestly believe that.

Unfortunately, over the past three or four years since my health deteriorated, I have lost access to very much of what I love about it. I’m not getting out so easily, I’m not socialising much, and indeed, the local culture revolves around drinking in smoky places which was always a difficulty for both of us. The wheelchair keeps me off the beach or from having picnics in the Abbey Grounds. And at the same time, we are making regular trips down south where all my family are, and where we have better access to a greater number of our friends.

Oh no, I know, we are completely mad. We could be moving within a month...

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