Thursday, 4 September 2014


I'm speculating pointlessly about this article which reports that a 25-year-old man has been arrested in connection with a woman found beheaded in an Edmonton garden. The article repeats twice that police are confident that there is no terrorist motive. 

Now, people in London are perhaps more likely to suspect terrorism since this horrifying incident occurred only 16 months ago. So I'm not complaining about the immediate jump to omg terrorism that is helpfully fuelled by the press in situations like this (it's likely that the police wouldn't have said anything about terrorism, had not some journalist asked them if there was a link, forcing a response).

What's bothering me is this denial of "terrorist motives". At its most basic, the idea of terrorism is to inspire terror. A terrorist commits an action against a people (Americans, Jews, 'the West') or an individual who represents a people - intending to instil fear in everyone who is a part of that community. It is usually framed as vengeful, as in the case of Fusilier Drummer Lee Rigby, whose killers said of British soldiers "We must fight them as they fight us. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth", or as in the 7/7 bombings, whose perpetrator had been exposed to violent footage of "Muslim suffering around the world".

So, yes, obviously those events are terrorism. But - and here's where I start speculating - if the victim and the perpetrator knew each other, it's probably going to turn out that the beheaded woman had angered her murderer in some way - let's say, by refusing to have sex with him. Or by having sex with someone else. Or by not behaving with enough modesty, or with too much self confidence or education or personality. Perhaps they have children together and he has more or less contact or responsibility than he'd like. 

As I say, speculating wildly and perhaps unacceptably. But say that one of these things is true, and this woman has been killed for acting in a manner unacceptable to this man, as have thousands upon thousands of women the world over for time immemorial. 

How is this not terrorism? It is intended to subjugate women, to instil in them fear of behaving in any way other than how men would like them to behave. It is a punishment, and a warning, to women everywhere. 

And yet we reserve the word "terrorism" for brown men who object to the Western world's treatment of Muslims throughout history. 

Funny how actions against women aren't called terrorism, while actions against (white) women and men are.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Thoughts I had while watching Doctor Who: Into the Dalek

yay, vod! ooh, tyres!

ok, maybe i can get behind this one episode ...

 ... oh, ffs, daleks. as you were/


mr pink is hot

aw, and cute :-) 

(clara is of course sultry super-confident vampish type. CHARACTERISATION!)

clara, tell me - am i a good man?

oh, here we go. yet more episodes about how tortured the doctor is/


plotty plotty plot. can daleks be good? sass. betrayal. fall into a pit of liquidated people/


god it's fucking infuriating the way moffat thinks it's funny to have his protagonists insult the looks of beautiful women to show how not-attracted to them they are. (sherlock pulls this shit with molly all the bloody time and i am sick of it)/


oh, clara resorts to physical violence when she's angry with the doctor, because of course she does. LOOK IT'S NOT OK JUST BECAUSE SHE'S A WOMAN, PHYSICAL VIOLENCE IS NOT OK/


so what do we do? something better

god forbid any other characters come up with a workable plan, or even, like, just an idea/


is he mad or is he right? 


ohh great, missy. i'm sure she won't turn out to be river song with different coloured hair/


i think you're probably nice. underneath it all, i think you're kind and definitely brave. i just wish you hadn't been a soldier

what is with this show's weird attitude to soldiering? clara was condescending to mr pink about it, now the doctor is condescending to vod (oh god i didn't even learn her name). we're approaching endgame now, so maybe there'll be some grand point to make. oh, but first, clara's date. this'll be excruciating/


sort of short and roundish but with a good personality which is the main thing

oh god moffat you are a dick/

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Doctor who: Deep breath

I am so over Doctor Who that I can't even be bothered to do a proper review / deconstruction of Saturday's Season 8 premier, but that's not going to stop me ranting about a few things.

Firstly, how is it that even in the very first episode they failed to create a coherent plot? Perhaps I missed a few salient details when I was rolling my eyes, but if the robots were incapable of functioning at all when the humans weren't breathing, how come nobody said "Hey, guys, we're slightly outnumbered here so if it starts to get overwhelming, just hold your breath for a bit to give yourself a break, maybe back away from the pointy arms a touch"? How come Clara thought it was important to keep moving slowly and awkwardly like a robot while she held her breath, given that the robots were only awoken in the first place by hers and the Doctor's breathing? How come they didn't just - I don't know - hold their breath, leg it to the magic sofa-lift, and get out?

And don't even get me started on the 'kiss' between Madame Vastra and Jenny. It makes me sick to think of Moffat patting himself on the back for his peak time lesbian kiss, easily dismissed in case any dinosaurs start complaining, "what? of course not, they had to put their mouths together to share oxygen! it's perfectly acceptable family viewing!" Their constant harping on about being married does not stack up against that little trick, nor against Vastra's about-face on Clara's "judgement" of the Doctor.

To recap: When Clara is expressing concern about the 'new' Doctor, saying that she doesn't know him anymore, Vastra demands her veil, telling the room that she's among "strangers". Clara goes to speak to her, and Vastra tells her (not unreasonably) that Clara is being unfair, and that she should know that the Doctor is the same person, despite his wrinkly old face. Clara is terribly offended, and rants angrily for a while, finishing with "just because my pretty face has turned your head, so not assume that I am so easily distracted!" Instead of shooting this down as the lazily queerphobic bullshit it is, Vastra removes her veil, telling Clara that she hasn't really removed it, but that Clara has finally stopped seeing it. 

This is monumentally insulting. It's predictable that one of Moffat's two queer characters fancies Clara (the only other woman on the show), because Moffat probably can't imagine queer women who have tastes and preferences, and who don't fancy a random woman simply because she's pretty. This, however, is the lesser crime here: worse is that Madame Vastra, who has been written as a straightforward, intelligent and ethical character, apparently has lost perspective because she has a crush. Her removal of her veil is an admittance of her capitulation to Clara's version of events. I was hoping that she would shoot Clara's nasty little jab down, pointing out Clara's arrogance in committing the same logical fallacy that straight men do when they assume that gay men fancy ALL men, purely because they're men, and that would have been a pleasing way of dealing with the situation. But no, of course not, of course the queer woman fancies Clara, because who wouldn't fancy Clara? That's the whole point of Clara. 

I had other things to say, but I'm too mad. I'll just mention this, though: apparently, Peter Capaldi's Doctor refused to have a flirtatious relationship with Clara. I read about this before the series started and was quite hopeful, but from the first episode, it looks like since they can't have the Doctor and the Assistant flirting, they will just make everybody talk about flirting all. the. time. And other people flirt with each other. And ramp up some 'sexual tension' between Clara and Vastra, oh, and throw in another mad vampish dominatrix type to be all obsessed with the doctor. 

As Twelve says, tediously, during the episode, BORING. Come on Moffat, for goodness sake. Learn some new tricks.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Top surgery 3: post-op

I had top surgery on Monday 21st July 2014. This is a record for me, and for anyone who would find an account of the process useful.

Recovery: post-op appointment
(Pre-op and opFirst 10 days)

My post-op appointment was on Thursday 31st July. Andrew Yelland certainly doesn't coddle his patients! He and a nurse (I forget her name, I'm afraid) ripped the dressings away none too gently, and there it was, my new chest, open to the air. 

Honestly, it was a bit of a shock. I'm a planner: I've read accounts of this procedure, and seen endless photosets of Mr Yelland's work (and other surgeons' too), documenting the process from surgery to the faintest of scars, and I thought I was prepared for how my chest would look. I don't think I was, really. The wounds looked just how I expected - a little smaller, if anything - and the nipples were as gooey and swollen and black/green/bloody as I'd seen everyone else's look. Nothing was markedly different from photos I've seen of the procedure, but somehow it was still shocking. I guess the tenderness of my skin played a part - having been completely under wraps for 10 days, I felt very exposed and vulnerable. I've felt that a little just when changing my binder - it's surprising how quickly I got used to being bound up full time. 

Mr Yelland commented that I was unusually swollen at the outer edges of my chest - where I had noticed myself in the couple of days prior to the appointment - and that the big bruise on the left hand side (which was hard to the touch) was also a concern. He told me to keep an eye on it, and asked that I come back to him in a month so he could monitor it. He took photos of my chest, then removed the staples from my nipples and took some more. He put some large plasters over the nipples and told me to take them off when I got home. He also told me that I should leave the binder off for the most part from now on, putting it on only when there's a chance of impact (driving, going on the tube) and leaving the wounds open to the air as much as possible (when lounging about at home).

I was really emotional after the consultation. I had trusted that the swelling was, if not entirely my imagination, then expected - normal - and would naturally reduce as my healing progressed. Andrew Yelland didn't exactly start back in horror at the sight, but he did frown quite a lot, and ask me to come back, and sign me off work (partially) for another month. He was as calm and cheerful as normal, however, so I'm not devastated or despondent - but in the back of my mind there's a worry that wasn't there before the wrappings came off. I guess that won't change until I see him again in four weeks' time.

I'll admit to having a little cry in the bathroom before the journey home, and another one when I got home and took the binder and nipple dressings off. It was partly pain and sensation, and partly emotion - relief at being out of the dressings, distress at the state of my chest, and a certain sense of anticlimax. I guess that, despite knowing better, I had built up the post-op appointment in my mind until it was much bigger/further along than it was: as silly as it sounds, I think I expected to be better. I knew that this surgery with this surgeon gives you an automatic fit note for two weeks, and I think I had believed that since ten days was nearly two weeks, I'd be basically back on my feet by then. 

I wasn't. I'm not now. I'm moving even more gingerly than I was before, and the first evening at home after being unwrapped (I got home at 8pm), the feeling of a loose t-shirt on my bare chest was so overwhelming it made me feel sick. I was on the verge of tears the whole time, and could hardly eat. I couldn't really talk to my family - I felt guilty about feeling bad, about my weakness, about my expectation that I would be better by now. It seems, in hindsight, foolishly unrealistic. I've rallied now, and am settling in for the long haul, and am trying to involve my partner and family again, having rather shut them out in my distress after the appointment. But I think it will be a longer journey than I realised.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Top surgery 2: recovery

I had top surgery on Monday 21st July 2014. This is a record for me, and for anyone who would find an account of the process useful.

Recovery: first 10 days
(Pre-op and op)

I'm still alternating two binders; each morning I take the binder off, use baby wipes to freshen up, check that my dressings still look ok, and stretch out my shoulders a little. I take a few deep breaths (which I can't properly whilst wearing the binder) then line the fresh binder with absorbent lint and brace myself against the wall so my partner can wrap the binder round me as tightly as possible. 

I could do it myself, but when the nurse fitted the binder in hospital, she showed me both options - fastening in front, and fastening behind - and I found the latter vastly more comfortable. I'm sure I could fasten it myself behind my back, if I really tried, but I have a lovely partner who will do it for me, and there's no reason to risk stretching everything out and potentially slowing / harming the healing process if I don't have to. 

Donning the binder is about finding the right balance between being able to breathe and making sure everything is strapped down nice and tight, to prevent fluid build-up and make moving around during the day easier. It might sound counterintuitive, but the tighter the binder, the more comfortable I am (in terms of the wound sites themselves). The binder restricts movement, so the movements I do make are smaller and less painful. I wear my binder as tight as I can bear. Sometimes at night I will loosen it a touch, for comfort. 

My pain is almost always bearable. It's worst first thing in the morning and then from late afternoon onwards. I take 2 500mg paracetamol and 1 30mg codeine every 4 hours (ish). I usually take the first set at 9am, and the last at 9pm, and during the day I skip a codeine or two (the middle doses) so I can take one before I go to sleep and again if I need to during the night. Maximum codeine is 8 in 24 hours, so I've still got some to spare if I get desperate. I lowered my pain relief on the 3rd day, since I felt so well, and almost immediately regretted it, so now I'm back to the full dosage and will continue until it runs out. It's said that you should not 'grin and bear' pain during recovery from surgery, as that will probably make you more tense and slow the healing process. I knew that, but I still thought I knew better and started taking less pain relief too early. Don't do that!

Oh, I'm also taking arnica (2 'pillules' 3 times a day). My paperwork instructed that I do this 7 days before and after surgery. I'm still on the fence about it: I don't believe in homeopathic remedies, but this is prescribed by the hospital, so I guess I do believe in it enough to follow the instructions? If it's a placebo, well, the whole point of placebos is that they do in fact make a difference, and it can't hurt. 

I struggled to pee for a while after surgery - the nurse said it was due to a combination of the general anaesthetic and me being tense - but was going normally by the 2nd day. I'm still quite constipated, though, which is apparently a standard side effect of codeine.

As far as exercise goes, I have been diligently doing the physiotherapy that I was given at the Nuffield. The first time I did it (with the physiotherapist) it was difficult and painful, but the next time (2 days post-op) it was easier, and my range of movement was better, and it's been slowly improving ever since. Now I do it without thinking and it makes me feel really healthy. I guess I do it 6-10 times a day.

On the other hand, today I walked to the village (exactly half a mile) and back, and had to rest for the rest of the day. You don't realise how little you're doing until you try to do something! My advice would be, in trying to get a little exercise, take it very slowly and be prepared to stop a lot sooner than you think you should.

I have been sleeping upright. I'm not sure if this is recommended, but when I sleep flat, I am blissfully pain-free when I wake up, and then sitting up is agonising as the blood rushes back to my chest (this is my totally non-medical guess at what is going on). So I am choosing to sleep propped up, which is less comfortable overnight, but also less traumatic in the morning, and doesn't leave me desperate for my first dose of pain relief. I also try to stay mostly upright during the day (this involves sofas, armchairs and sunloungers). 

My appetite fluctuates a lot. On days 3 and 4 I barely wanted anything to eat, and sometimes I'm ravenous until I try to eat and then can't manage much. Most of the time my appetite is smaller than normal, but I drink as much water as I can (I'm terrible at drinking as much as I should) and eat lots of fruit and vegetables (which is basically my normal diet). Also, ice lollies, as it's been abysmally hot this week.

On day 8 I started to get some localised pain beneath my armpits, where the ends of the wounds are. I also noticed I was swollen above the top edge of my binder, at my armpits. The whole area was achey and tender. When this continued into day 9 I called Ginny (Andrew Yelland's secretary) to find out if I had anything to worry about. She asked me if I had noticed any visible changes through the dressings (I hadn't) and told me to loosen the binder, suggesting that as my swelling had gone down over time, I had probably been binding tighter and tighter and might have gone a bit too far. 

On day 9, incidentally, I met some friends at a local pub for dinner, and although I didn't feel up to walking there or back, I was pretty pain-free the entire time (although quite tired by the end). I feel like I'm getting there.

Coming up on day 10: post-op appointment with Mr Yelland.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Top surgery 1: pre-op and op

I had top surgery on Monday 21st July 2014. This is a record for me, and for anyone who would find an account of the process useful.

Consultation, pre-op assessment and surgery

I had my surgery with Andrew Yelland at the Brighton Nuffield Health Centre. I met him on July 1st for my consultation and pre-op assessment. He was really nice and relaxed: chatty, informative, unfazed by questions and concerns. In fact, according to my mum (who attended the pre-op with me), he was a little too blasé - but my mum is a worrier and his casual attitude didn't worry me or put me off. He had a look at my chest and told me I'd need double incision (which I had already assumed) and showed me how it would be done. He drew pictures and took me through a list of facts, risks etc.

At my pre-op assessment I had my blood pressure taken, was weighed and measured, swabbed for MRSA, and told how to prepare myself for surgery: remove nail polish and jewellery, wash with a special sponge they gave me, don't wear deodorant  / moisturiser / makeup etc. The nurses were lovely. Oh, something I wasn't told in advance was that they'd need to take a urine sample. So save some up for that!

My admission letter told me that I'd be admitted at 7:15 on the morning of my surgery, but when I spoke to Ginny (Andrew Yelland's secretary) the week before, she told me I was last on the list for the day, so could actually check in at 11. That made for less of an early morning, but also meant that the 6 hours of nil-by-mouth occurred over a much less convenient time. I didn't have anything between 9pm on the 20th and 5pm on the 21st (when I came out of surgery). I was starving!

When I was admitted, I was immediately asked to choose my menu for the stay. It made me even hungrier, but at least I could look forward to my tea - pasta primavera and a cheeseboard. Then I was seen by a nurse (she had a student nurse with her as well) who took another set of "obs" as they called them (observations: blood pressure, pulse etc) and measured me for my sexy surgery stockings. She took me through a pile of questions about when I'd last eaten, if I had any allergies, had I washed, had I followed all my pre-op instructions, did I have my binders, etc, and then supplied me with a wristband with my details on it. 

After that, I changed into my gown and delightful paper knickers and stockings, and hung out until Andrew Yelland arrived to draw on my chest. Soon after, my anaesthetist (Martin Street) arrived to say hello, check again that I wasn't allergic to anything, and it wasn't long after that that two porters arrived to wheel me off down the corridor. Nothing makes you feel sillier than being wheeled down a corridor under a duvet on a hot day, when there's nothing wrong with you. 

I was fitted with a cannula and then given the anaesthetic, which felt exactly as the anaesthetist said it would: cold in my arm, then a strange taste in my mouth, then nothing. I was a bit disappointed I wasn't asked to count back from 10. I guess that's just in the movies.

When I came round I was pretty panicky. There was a mask on my face and I couldn't breathe very well - I was very cold and uncomfortable, and I think I was thrashing around a bit. I asked if I could sit up, which made me feel a bit better, and then they gave me a bunch of morphine, which helped me calm down pretty fast. The nurses there were very kind and attentive, giving me little sips of water and chatting gently about music and weather and the like. It seemed like no time at all before they wheeled me back to my room.

The time after that is a bit of a blur. I know I was pretty woozy for quite a few hours - my mum and partner were there and apparently I was quite incoherent and fell asleep a lot. I also told them about four times (allegedly) that I intended to have a pedicure when I was better. They suggested I skip dinner (which was to come round at 6) as it might make me sick, but I wasn't having that! They brought it as promised, and it was the most enormous portion of pasta I've ever seen, and I slowly ate about a third of it. It was the best meal. After that I was allowed a pot of tea, and I managed to not spill any of it on myself, which was amazing. During this time I had a lot of care and attention from various nurses who took more 'obs' and kept my temperature sensible (I was freezing, then too hot, and generally just a pain in the arse). I had an automatic blood pressure check every ten minutes or so, thinning out as time went on. 

My visitors left around 8:30, and I spent the evening listening to the Proms on the radio, slowly eating my way through the cheese and biscuits, reading my book (well, looking at my book) and watching something with Trevor Eve in it on ITV3. I was given some antibiotics at around 10pm, and some time after that I called a nurse (as I had been told) to help me get out of bed for the first time. I was dizzy but it was ok - totally failed to pee though. I tried to change into my own clothes for sleeping, but eventually decided that the gown was probably more comfortable. I had been told - and this surprised me - that I should stay fairly upright for the duration. It wasn't as uncomfortable as I thought - and it meant that I never strained myself trying to get out of bed or reach for things on my table. 

I fell asleep easily enough, and was woken at about 1:30 for pain relief and more obs - after that, I slept straight through until about 6:30, when I had more obs, pain relief and the final shot of antibiotics. Then breakfast at 8, followed by a revolving door of visitors: Andrew Yelland came to see me, told me it had gone well, and undid my binder - blessed relief! He had a look at my dressings, poked around a bit, and told me I could leave it open until the nurse came to fit my post-op binder. It was nice being able to breathe for a bit. The anaesthetist popped in, checked I was ok, and left again; a physiotherapist came and walked me through some exercises to do once I was home. The nurse who had admitted me came to fit my binder, give me my prescriptions and talk me through my post-op care. I wish I could remember her name, because she was particularly great - although absolutely everyone I met at the Nuffield was lovely and helpful and reassuring and friendly. 

I had a nurse carry my bag downstairs, and sat on the terrace with a glass of water, enjoying the sun, until my dad arrived to pick me up. The drive home was appalling. DO NOT ignore the advice to bring a pillow to protect your chest from the seatbelt. I had one, also a very comfortable seat and a very good and considerate driver, and I was still in quite a bit of pain (my journey took about 2 hours). I dozed most of the day when I got home. 

I want to flag up the benefits of using absorbent lint to line the rough edges of the binders (you can buy these from the Nuffield for £10, but they're cheaper from Sports Direct). If I wear the binder as tightly as I feel I should, the edges chafe painfully, especially around the top (I'm very broad-shouldered, so your mileage may vary). If I'd known to do this before the journey home, I would have been in far less pain that day!

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Review: Big Brother

I read We need to talk about Kevin when it was published, along with everybody else I saw on trains, beaches, and benches, at coffee shops, hospitals and dentists. I was fascinated by it, and unsure how I felt about it. My Auntie J asked us "So, what do you think? Was it the boy, or his mother?" She herself was entirely unsympathetic to the mother, and used some uncharacteristically unfeminist language to condemn her. But then, Auntie J was (is) a mother herself. Maybe it's more tempting, from that position, to believe that a mother's character can influence her child's one way or the other. Maybe it's even true; how would I know? (I mean, my mother is the best person in the world, and I'm ... me.) But I know that I never had the conviction that Auntie J did to damn Eva unreservedly. It was more complicated than that.

If you haven't seen the film with Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller, you should. It's bleak and horrible and you won't want to see it again, but it's worth a watch. 

Anyway, the things I really loved about Kevin were the writing and the complexity. Something about Lionel Shriver's prose is deeply compelling, and I love to read even her books whose contrivances leave me cold (the story of The post-birthday world, for example, is complete nonsense, and I still enjoy reading it). But I was disappointed to learn that her most recent novel is called Big brother and centres around a woman whose brother Edison, once a "slim, hip pianist" turns up for a visit weighing roughly 386 pounds. To us Brits, that's 27.5 stone. 

Let me get this out of the way right now: I couldn't care less about all the handwringing regarding obesity epidemics and national averages and plane seats and fatties-cost-the-NHS-millions-of-pounds-a-year. Everyone has the right to be whatever weight they want, or whatever weight they happen to be, and in the UK, you additionally have as much right to be treated for any conditions arising from that as you do to be treated for sexual health, lung cancer, liver damage, gender confirmation, and a million other things. I have no patience for fatness-as-a-moral-failure narratives, nor for conniving arguments that try to make that statement without seeming to make it (see I'm only concerned for your health, I just want you to live a full life, I don't want people to be mean to you, wouldn't you rather have more choice in clothes, etc).

So that's why I was disappointed in Shriver's subject matter. The best thing about Shriver's novels is how deeply she examines complicated situations; how much nuance she reads into people and their lives. It's impossible to say that it's all Eva or all Kevin, or even how much blame should be assigned to Franklin. The novel twists and turns on itself with such dedication that you're constantly wrongfooted as a reader, and that kind of satisfying moral ambiguity is not something I want to see applied to (as the blurb says) "why we overeat". 

I'm going to spoil the entire plot of Big brother, including the twist at the end, so read on at your own risk.

The narrator, Pandora Halfdanarson, has grown up under the shadow of a famous father and a huge personality of a brother, but by the time we meet her, she is outranking both in personal and professional success. When Edison arrives for a visit having gained hundreds of pounds and lost friends, work, pride and possessions, she and her family struggle to ignore what they call "the elephant in the room". As he prepares to leave on a fictional jazz tour of Europe, she proposes that they get a house together for a year, where he will be put on a strict diet until he loses the weight. He succeeds, but when he realises that she will now go back to her family, he deliberately binges until he regains all the weight.

At this point it is revealed that the whole weight-loss story line has been Pandora's invention, and that Edison instead returned to New York, foundered further, gained more and more weight, and died at 49 of "complications of congestive heart failure". 

This feels like such a cop out. I'm not saying I was happy with the 'I love my bro so much I'm gonna force him to crash diet for his own good, bravely risking my own health and marriage in the process' story, but this 'and then I woke up and it was all a dream' thing? How has that been allowed in a successful writer's fourteenth novel? It's not that it isn't subject to similar complexities as Shriver's usual narratives - I would be far angrier if her 'dream' had ended successfully rather than with a reversion to eating-as-emotional-weapon - but it does have the effect of declawing everything about the preceding 200 pages. In those pages Pandora gets to know Edison, and herself, and other characters develop alongside them. Employing the silly 'it was all a dream' contrivance cheapens the development that has occurred throughout the novel, leaving you with a crushing sense of anticlimax. "Oh yeah, this didn't happen and could never have happened, and he's dead now anyway." It's just poor form. 

This book has all of Shriver's signatures: complicated, often unlikeable characters with unusual names and esoteric occupations; multi-faceted musings on place, identity and fame; an obsession with food and eating; a focus on familial ties and responsibility. The complexities are great, and her fascination with the strive for satisfaction, challenge and meaning in life is as compelling here as it is in Kevin. There's a really interesting discussion to be had about their portrayals of 'normal' life: ambition, achievement, stability, adventure - what 'normal' means and if it's worth it. But I feel so let down by the subject matter, and even more so by the cowardly ending.

Reading the notes at the back reveals that Shriver's older brother died in the same circumstances as Edison. So that pretty much explains why this novel feels more like a vehicle than fictional craft. It also gives us this gem from Shriver herself: 
I faced a range of obvious end points, none satisfying: a) Edison stays fat (static, not a story); b) Edison loses the weight and lives happily ever after (didn't sound like a Shriver novel to me); c) Edison loses the weight only to gain it all back again. Now, the latter structure would engender an appealing pathos. Yet as a matter of principle I could not publish a novel with the implicit message that in the long run it's impossible to lose weight, and thus it's pointless to even try.
So I chose d). 
I mean, this could take days to unpack, and I'm trying to practise brevity. (But I have to say this: a character getting really fat and then living their life is not "static". That is frankly insulting.) Shriver's anti-fat bias is summed up in the closing point: she thinks losing weight is so desirable that it would be morally wrong to publish a piece of fiction suggesting that losing weight is impossible. And that's disappointing from someone who wrestles with moral ambiguities the way that Shriver normally does. To be clear, I'm not advocating for a debate about the rights and wrongs of weight loss, fat-hatred, obesity scaremongering and the like. I think I've made my own views clear. But this moral high-handedness is not what I expected from Lionel Shriver, and it's not what I wanted.

Sunday, 23 March 2014


I had wanted to see S Bear Bergman speak at Bar Wotever, where I was sure he would be far queerer and less 'family friendly' than he would be at JW3, a Jewish community centre in North West London. But I was away for that event, so off to JW3 I went, along with another queer Jew of my acquaintance who was in a similar position, although more worried than I about drinking the tea of the occupation. (It was Oscars night at JW3, and my friend and I were surrounded by opulently dressed, exquisitely-groomed Jews who politely skimmed their eyes over us, the raggedy queers drinking g&t and peppermint tea in their midst. Apparently there was a real Oscar statue there, but I didn't see it.)

There were maybe 40 people in attendance, and I assumed that people had taken the write-up seriously, and brought their parents and grandparents to the event. It was nice, I thought. Bear's storytelling was marvellous, of course, and there was a lovely jumble of queerness, Jewishness and family in every story. 

It wasn't until the q&a at the end that things went awry. The very first question was "So ... you mentioned the word 'transsexual'. What ... er ... can you ... say more about that?" Bear answered that he is transsexual, and apologised (in a gloriously polite 'sorry not sorry' way) for not including the information as part of his introduction. Then he quipped that the line about his grandma asking him, as a youth, if he had a boyfriend yet, would have made a lot more sense with this information, and something about the amount of head-nodding in the room must have given the game away.

On going round the room, Bear discovered that there were 3 separate groups of people who had had no idea what they were coming to: about half the audience in total. At least one of the groups was a work outing. And in another group, one man explained their presence thusly: "Well, it was this or Wolf of Wall Street."

Another man, sitting right at the back, tried very hard to be polite as he explained that queer means homosexual, and that we don't really use the word here, as it's derogatory. (Outraged gestures no it doesn't! yes we bloody do! from the queers in attendance.)

Bear, to his credit, handled the whole thing tremendously. He was nothing but polite and sympathetic to the confused and they, for their part, were mostly respectful and seemed genuinely interested. There were some awkward questions ("So how long ago were you a woman?") but Bear handled them all with aplomb, and at the end, while the queer side of the audience huddled together to recuperate, it was wonderful to see that the other half of the audience had gathered around Bear. I was in the other half, of course, but I hope they were being nice to him. Maybe apologising a bit, or asking more questions, or just getting to know him.

On our side of the room, we were conducting shaky post-match analysis. I don't think I was alone in finding the q&a quite traumatic: for much of it I was near hysterical with a laughter which wasn't always happy, and others were acting similarly; I can't know their feelings, of course, but my companion confessed afterwards that she had felt the same. After things had calmed down, I found myself so shaky and short of breath that I recognised the sensation of an anxiety attack. Texting each other afterwards, S and I discussed the strange feeling of 'coming down' that we were both experiencing; S said her immediate response had been to want to get drunk, and that she knew she'd feel very tired soon. That's not how I processed it, but it certainly feels familiar! In the immediate aftermath, there was a feeling of euphoria amongst the leftover queers - we were laughing and talking, greeting old and new friends, bonding in a way that reflected the strange intimacy of what had just happened. I'm not overstating the post-traumatic feeling, for myself at least. It felt like we'd survived something together.

The leftover queers
And that brings me to machatunim. Properly, this Yiddish word means 'the parents of your child's spouse', but in his book Blood, marriage, wine and glitter, Bear expands it to refer to a kind of 'chosen family' which resonates particularly with his queerness: whilst queers might not have uncomplicated access to the traditional family framework that most people operate within, in its place we can access a different kind of family - a deliberate family. Bear's most recent book is all about this kind of family: mixed in with tales of his parents and grandparents and brother are stories about people tied to him not by blood but by love and kindness and choosing - wine and glitter, in fact. I've written before about the homo head nod, the sense of safety and support that can come out of being similarly marginalised, and this is what machatunim means to me. 

It means silent, fleeting recognition on the street, and heartfelt welcome in a hug. It means webs of connectivity across facebook and tumblr and gay bars and queer book readings. It means the shaky, euphoric release felt as we exchanged with one another broken fragments of the strange thing that we'd experienced. The ease with which we opened up. Becoming more than a handful of strangers in an anonymous room. Becoming, just for a moment, family.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Review: The Goldfinch

I fell in love with Donna Tartt's The Secret History when I was 15 or 16, in France with my family,  and my aunt lent me the copy she had brought with her as holiday reading. (I discovered We need to talk about Kevin in the same way: thanks Auntie J!)

Although I knew even as I was reading it that it was angsty, pretentious nonsense, I couldn't help myself - I was an angsty, pretentious, teenager and it spoke to me. It was about college, about people only slightly older than myself who seemed worlds away. They wear knee-sprung trousers and long woollen skirts and "unexpectedly beautiful" jackets: "old Brooks Brothers, unlined silk, ivory with stripes of peacock green." They have "off campus apartments" where they invite each other for dinner, bringing bottles of wine and champagne, about which they know a great deal. They buy each other books and cufflinks and go on holiday to somebody's enormous house "in the country". Their conversation is erudite and full of obscure quotations which they all recognise - a truly secret language. 

For a geeky, sensitive teenager, full of love for language and learning and literature, resenting the hell out of people who didn't love these worthy things but seemed to be far happier than I was, it was like a hand reached out to me from far away. There are people like this, it said. Places where these people are. Bring to me your freaks. And despite the fact that these are mostly terrible people - arrogant, snobbish, unkind - there is something awfully seductive about the whole deal. And that, I always thought, was one of Tartt's underlying messages: hateful things can be tempting; fatally so. It's the worst kind of cliquishness, making you want to be on the inside not solely because the inside looks so lovely, but because being on the outside is so cold. The students are sneeringly indifferent to what they see as the lesser lives of the people around them; people who don't study Greek or wear suits and who prefer house parties to dinner parties. Being on the inside of that is shamefully tempting, especially for someone who has never fitted in - like Richard.

Richard, the narrator, is a kind of everyman interloper to this rarefied world, desperate to fit in, constantly terrified of being discovered to be fraudulent, masking his inadequacies with drugs and alcohol and Ancient Greek. It feels unfair to make generalisations about Tartt's writing based on only two books (I didn't read The Little Friend), but having just finished her most recent offering, The Goldfinch, I find the similarities uncanny. Both have young male protagonists cut adrift from family and stability (Richard and Theo); both have an esoteric but richly detailed and narratively important background subject (Ancient cultures and art/antiques); both are full of alcohol and drug use both as an escape from life and a cleaving to it - a desire to experience things more fully, to "wade straight through it, right into the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open" (Goldfinch); both feature beautiful, mysterious, unobtainable women (these women are "quirky", have unusual and passionate interests, and are generally loved and wanted by every male character (Pippa, Camilla, Theo's mother)), alongside women that the protagonist must settle for (who are beautiful, cold, tasteful, shallow (Kitsey, Mrs Barbour, Judy, Sophie)); both feature wild, destructive forces in friends (Boris, Henry) and absent and inadequate fathers replaced by cool, wise, sexless father figures (Julian Morrow, Hobie) who draw the innocent, wildly grasping protagonist into an elevated world in which they flail about desperately, in way over their heads, courting trouble that the detached elder finds both horrifying and secretly compelling. 

They also share Tartt's idiosyncratic prose style, which I love and could pick out of a line up (there's an idea: a quiz on style, matching the writer with the writing!), as well as of course the deeper themes of her work: beauty, madness, lust, the death drive, timelessness, love.

Her characters, if not always likeable or the littlest bit realistic, are always so well-drawn that you want to know them, and her characters' descriptions are always at once trivial and vivid ("lovely, dusty-soled boy feet"). 

She also does that wonderfully silly thing of cameoing a character from one book in another for no apparent reason: in this case, Boston-born Francis Abernathy, one of the main characters in The Secret History, is mentioned in passing at Theo's engagement party in The Goldfinch (" ... Harry's cousin Francis - the Longstreets and the Abernathys are related on the father's side, Boston branch of the family ... "). Although this slightly saddens me by putting The Secret History into a time frame, when the novel itself works hard to keep even the smallest contextual reference hidden, I love it when characters cross worlds. It's the geek in me, probably - it's satisfying to realise how well you know a work, when the smallest reference in another place seems made just for you. 

Quite apart from all these details, what Tartt's novels share above anything else is a sense of intensity. Her characters feel things compellingly deeply and that, I guess, is what keeps me coming back to them. Both protagonists feel the same sense of connection to (although also isolation from) the world, one which, when they achieve it bridges continents and centuries. They talk of the light that suffuses a page of Greek prose, a light than exists in no other language and that they feel bonded together by understanding. They talk of the brushstrokes which capture the goldfinch, bringing a centuries-old bird into the contemporary in a way that seems personal to each viewer. They talk of the timelessness of art, the essentialness of it when compared with brief, pointless human life. It is at once a nihilistic and joyful worldview, and one which the most compelling of Tartt's characters (Henry, Boris) share and her hapless interlopers (Richard and Theo) ceaselessly aspire to. The death wish and the life wish together. 

For whatever reason, however pretentious or sentimental, I love The Secret History and will always love it. I really enjoyed The Goldfinch, and I will give The Little Friend another try, but for me, The Secret History is that book. I hope Donna Tartt doesn't leave it another 10 years before publishing again.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Context Is(n't) Everything

Just found this in the Draft folder. Many moons out of date, and clearly unfinished, but I actually didn't mind my own voice in it, which is rare enough that I'm going to publish it anyway.

So, that Suzanne Moore, eh? She wrote a little article in the New Statesman, and all hell has broken loose. There are accusations of Islamophobia and language policing, there is sympathy from Caitlin Moran and Frankie Boyle, and there are defensive responses from Moore herself as well as the Julies Burchill and  Bindel (two people that everyone wants on their team). There are also a lot of responses from within the blogosphere; some are thoughtful, and some, like this one, are less so.

I think we can all agree that the attempts by Burchill and Bindel are nothing more than disgusting hate speech doubling down on Moore's own exposed hatred of transsexuality. For me, though, it's the subtler support that is the most upsetting.

I don't want to pick on Stella Duffy, but her argument seems to boil down to her feeling sad that she is now scared to say "trans", even though she ought to be exempt from criticism because 20 years ago she wrote a "lovely, loving, sympathetic trans character". She seems to be proud of the fact that she, a professional LGBT-focussed writer (by which I mean LG-focussed), wrote a trans character twenty years ago. Is this like the I-have-black-friends approach? Or its lesser-know cousin, the my-best-friend-in-nursery-school-was-black? As if the longer-ago something happened, the better your claim to progressiveness is. I see where Duffy's trying to go with this, but really she's just highlighting the vast disconnect between how much insight she has into transgender issues and how much insight she thinks she has. That in itself speaks volumes, and doesn't even take into account the fact that Duffy claims to be "the only person [she] know[s]" who has written such a character. I don't even know where to start with that. Suffice to say, Duffy is not the expert that she thinks she is. And perhaps she ought to hesitate before speaking on trans issues, particularly when "speaking on trans issues" means "coming to the defence of an unapologetic transphobe".

Now, for a more nuanced take on the issue, take a look at Pissers vs Wankers: The state of left-wing feminist debate?. I'm going to throw myself into the quoted circle jerk here, and to hell with the consequences. Here's a quote from glosswitch's worryingly relevant post:

"I wouldn’t have known the word “transsexual” alone could offend. I might have used it – I probably have – in a different context. Now I won’t. But if I were called out on it, I might have thrown a strop."

I think the point about this is that although the word 'transsexual' alone is often used in a purely descriptive (although outdated) manner, one's use of it can be something of a red flag, pointing to worrying attitudes towards trans people (almost always, and not at all coincidentally, trans women).

Partly this is because of the fact that it's outdated: generally, if one has engaged with trans issues at all over the past decade, one knows that the word "transsexual" now has a much more specific meaning and isn't used as a catch-all, having been replaced (ish) by transgender. So I generally assume that if someone uses "transsexual" as a catch-all or a punchline, they haven't bothered to engage with current trans issues and debates, which can be (although isn't always) a red flag.

Secondly, Moore's use of it ("a Brazilian transsexual") is indicative of some nasty attitudes behind the flippancy. For me, using "a transsexual" is unpleasant (like calling people "gays" or "blacks"), and the word "Brazilian" simply reinforces the idea that Moore has only one stock image of transgender people, and it just happens to be the most outdated, racist one of them all (bar perhaps going with the Thai version of the same 'joke').

And the point about context is important. The word "transsexual" is innocently descriptive in certain contexts, and is wildly offensive in others. An article about gender and feminism and the beauty myth and anger is not an innocent context for a throwaway one-liner about "a Brazilian transsexual". 

In my opinion, people's ears pricked up when they caught that usage of a word that isn't always on its own offensive, but can be when used in a certain way. Those of us who have to be alert to transphobia may have picked up on those little signals, and prodded a little, and unhappily discovered the seething pit of anger and disgust and condescension that lies beneath. That, sadly, isn't uncommon. It's like hearing the word "homosexual": inoffensive in itself, but often indicative of offensive attitudes.

Context is everything, but some words create their own context, and use of them can be a handy warning that someone is about to blow your mind with their factually inaccurate, morally indefensible "opnions". They'll probably also be quick to tell you that everyone is entitled to their opinion, and that haven't you heard of free speech?

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Tim Wise

I was clearing out my old, dormant Facebook account before deleting it, and I came across a few notes that I had written years ago, including this one about Tim Wise's Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity. Unfortunately I didn't notice what date this was written before I deleted it, and honestly my first instinct was to roll my eyes and delete it permanently. But then I changed my mind. It's good to have a record of one's own feelings and thoughts, no matter how misguided!

It's not like Tim Wise doesn't make good, relevant points in his book (from what I've written here, anyway), so I'm not embarrassed about the understanding I took from it. I am embarrassed that I didn't even think about the implications of the positioning of a white man as a pioneer of anti-racism, and about the fact that it sounds like I hadn't come across these ideas before elsewhere. 

The worst thing to realise is that Wise's whiteness was so unremarkable to me that I didn't even bother mentioning it. I write about my own relation to racism and my privilege in not having to think about it, but I don't extend that thinking to Wise, in either a positive or negative way. 

I just looked up its publication date and these words are at most 4 years old. I thought better of 4-year-old me. Anyway, here it is, in all its insightful glory.

I read a review of this on one of the blogs that I keep an eye on, and while my tastes in non-fiction tend toward things that I feel more personally about, I felt I couldn't pass this one up. It took ages to arrive (I got it from The Book Depository for about £5 less than it's going for on Amazon) but it was definitely worth the wait. 
I find myself trying to justify my what I said about feeling 'personally' about an issue. There's no justification - racism, racial politics, white privilege and social injustice should be personal to all of us. If I am more interested in reading books about gender and sexuality, that's because I have the privilege of not having to be affected by racism every day. That's selfish, sure, but it's still personal. All of us, of any race, should feel strongly and personally about racism - it is a strong and dangerous issue that isn't going anywhere soon. 
So back to the book. Color-Blind is very US-focused - Wise is specifically interested in what is referred to as the 'age of Obama' and the prevalent American narrative that having elected a black president, the USA is now post-racial. Wise interrogates the drive behind the rhetoric of post-racial politics and so-called 'color-blindness', exposing the danger of such narratives and their likely result of making America more, not less, racist. 
It's a really interesting argument. Wise uses relevant and damning facts and figures to argue that racism is ingrained in American life, and that calling America post-racial is a cowardly and disingenuous move designed to force open and honest discussion about racism into the dark corners of society. Some fascinating research has been done into conscious and unconscious bias. Wise illustrates how bias is often exposed when discussion of the issue isn't present - so, for example, a person is more likely to reveal racial bias if racism as a topic isn't introduced into the discussion. It follows that racist practices in employment, housing, education and health are more likely to occur if there isn't honest acknowledgment of racism, not just between individuals but in policy-making and policy itself. Colour-blindness treats poverty, for example, as a race-free problem which should therefore be dealt with in a race-free way - the argument being that blanket poverty-relief laws will lift all boats equally, regardless of race. But if racism is written into America in the way that Wise argues that it is, colour-blind poverty relief will not be enough to narrow the statistical gaps (in wealth, health, education, housing and employment) between whites and non-whites in America. 
As I've already said, it's easy to dismiss this issue as something that isn't relevant to me, particularly since this book is so US-centric. And it's even easier to read it and say, phew, at least England isn't like that! There goes my white privilege again. It would be really interesting to see a similar study of UK laws and practices. I suspect we wouldn't be as comfortable as we think we are. Regardless of my location and my race, this book resonated with me and made me much more aware of the problems inherent in colour-blindness. 
Anyway. I just wanted to get my thoughts about this book down somewhere, and who knows, maybe someone else would like to read it as well. You can get it pretty cheaply online or, if I like you enough, I'll lend you my copy :-)

Whatever my knowledge of racism is now - and it will be no less irrelevant than it was then - at least nowadays I take my cue from people of colour, and privilege their voices over the voices of people like me. 

I recommend all the voices at the links below as great starting points.
Trudy at Gradient Lair
Red Light Politics (Flavia Dzodan)
Black Girl Dangerous (Mia McKenzie and others)

Monday, 20 January 2014


In December, I started called the Charing Cross gender clinic repeatedly every day, as often as I could. At first I went out of the office, but after a while I started dialling and redialling from my desk. You know how when a phone isn't answered and isn't answered, after a while you sort of forget it might be answered? It became routine to hit redial and half-listen to the rings while I carried on working. This went on for a couple of weeks.

On 20th December, my last day at the office for 2013, the phone was finally answered. Turned out they had received my confirmation paperwork at the beginning of August, after my referral, and they had received my name change paperwork at the end of October. I wasn't hassling, I said, because I knew how busy they must be, but I just wanted to make sure I was in the system. When might I expect to hear about an appointment? If they'd had my referral before April, she said, they would probably get to me in January. If later, they wouldn't look at it until at least March. 

Lucky it was my last day at work! I'd been putting in mad hours so I felt justified in having a complete meltdown and leaving work at 2:30. I spent the afternoon having tea, biscuits and comfort sex with a dear friend, then went home to regroup. 

I spent Christmas with my family - nearly two glorious weeks with no jobs and no commitments, just games and food and jigsaw puzzles and wine and cuddles with my boy on the sofa. And when the offices started reopening in January, I booked an appointment at Transhealth

It's on Wednesday at 14:30. I'm anticipating it intensely - I always know exactly how far away it is - but I'm not sure whether with excitement or fear. Probably both. Since the initial GP consultation my feelings about the whole deal have been oscillating wildly, and that's taken a certain toll on my general health and wellbeing - not to mention the health and wellbeing of those closest to me, who have to deal with my angst all the damn time.

I don't know what's going to happen. I am very frightened - for no good reason - that I won't get what I want. I feel like it's a test I have to pass, but I don't know how to. 

Anyway, I am thinking of blogging my progress, assuming there is any, partly as a way of getting back into this blog, sadly neglected as it has been, and partly as another personal resource for anyone else scouring the net for information. You never know what's going to be helpful or reassuring, or what tiny insignificant detail will be the very thing that some other soul is searching for.

Having said that, I have been pretty flaky lately, so maybe don't hold your breath. But wish me luck for Wednesday.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

I see you

Queers and weirdos can spot me a mile away and for some I’m a safe space to gush about a secret girlfriend or the good old “I see you, you see me” homo head nod.  The speakeasy undertones of my queer existence are so badass, I love the code-switching and the acknowledgment of my existence from others like me.
An article popped up the other day and this bit jumped out at me. It's a great article - nuanced and perceptive and far-reaching - and there's a lot of it that I can relate to. Words for clothes aren't always foolproof, so I don't know if leggings are the same thing as skinny jeans (they could be jeggings, which I think are slightly different?), but I definitely get the point. Figure-hugging bottoms, whether they be skinny jeans or jeggings or 'yoga pants' or (good lord) meggings, can be a minefield to navigate gender presentation in. Luckily for me, I live in a city where people of all genders and sexualities wear the stupid things, and that's probably why it wasn't a huge deal for me when I bought my first ever pair last summer. I loved them (I have two more pairs now) although that much figure-hugging took some getting used to. Angsty little queer that I am, I can make a big deal out of anything, particularly clothing, so you know skinnies can't be that much of an issue if my main takeaway is "super comfy, great for drawing attention to amazing shoes and colour-pop socks, and I can get away with wearing them at work".

(Who ever thought I'd care about socks and how they go with my outfit? Amazing.)

Anyway. My point (I don't really have one) is the quote above. ""I see you, you see me" homo head nod." Now, I'm not a homo, but that head nod? I am all about that. Luckily for me (again) I live in a city that's full to the brim of queers of various stripes, and god, sometimes I live for that head nod. There's zero queerness in my new industry, but out and about at lunchtime and in the evenings, we're everywhere. Yesterday I shared a bench outside a coffee shop with one of them, and although we didn't even really look at each other, and not a word was said, that fleeting moment as our eyes met when I got up to go was unmistakeable.

You know that moment of fizzing connection you feel when you flirt with a stranger? Not flirting like witty repartee and flipping your hair, but flirting like an extra moment of eye contact or a slight smile across a room? Recognition. A secret, sparkling pulse of promise. It's like that, but quieter. Comfortable, and comforting. Recognition - allyship. I got you.

I love being a safe space for the secret-girlfriend-gushing, or the "so, how do you know you're ... ?" tentative push for understanding, but what I love most of all is the quiet camaraderie of the homo head nod. I got you. We're here.