Caring

In 1971, Germaine Greer, debating with novelist Norman Mailer in Town Bloody Hall, destroyed the concept of the independent male artist; this year, Caring and Unpaid Work, an Irish Government study found that “45% of women and 29% of men provide [unpaid] care for others on a daily basis”; with my own experience of twice giving up fulltime paid work and relocating in order to care for elderly parents, I can corroborate what the lead author, Helen Russell of the Economic and Social Research Institute, states:

“Caring and other household work is vital for the well-being of individuals and society but because this work is unpaid, it is largely invisible”

Other than being a supportive uncle and friend, I have not had the opportunity to bring up children and I greatly admire those who do that very demanding kind of caring. At the other end of life’s journey, caring has a different aspect. Whereas the former, hopefully, ends in happy, healthy, well-adjusted children going off into the world and becoming (somewhat) independent of their parental carers, the latter situation, inevitably, ends in death.

Another difference is that, whereas unpaid caring for kids is considered (whatever the reality) both valuable and fulfilling, unpaid caring for elderly relatives is often seen as an inconvenience. While quality of life may influence decisions about care more than economics, a common view is that either those cared for at home selfishly restrict the life of their carers – or that the latter are so unsuccessful in life that they cannot afford to put their relatives into a carehome. This is even the case when there is some support at home by community professional carers.

This view of failure may be especially prevalent about (and among) men returning to live with an elderly parent in need of care. Because, at the end of the second decade of the new millennium, society still seems to judge female caring as both instinctive and praiseworthy – and male caring as both unnatural and embarrassing.

I started by referring to a famous feminist because unpaid caring is, clearly, a feminist issue. The Irish statistics show that it’s overwhelmingly done by women and I see no reason not to generalise those findings to other countries with a similar social set-up. In countries with more ‘traditional’ gender roles, I suspect the results for each sex would be even more imbalanced. And yet I feel that valorising the caring done by women is not the only answer.

We need to both make visible and socially acceptable the unpaid caring done by men. That way, more of us might do it!

Not in the way we are so used to seeing on TV: tall, dark-haired, handsome and athletic young man, in pressed white shirt and tailored suit, perfectly manicured and coiffured, gives a gleaming smile unblemished by the coffee, toast and fresh orange juice lovingly prepared by petite blonde attractive wife – in heels and apron in perfect kitchen – kisses her and their blonde girl, ruffles the dark hair of their boy and heads out to the office. He’ll kiss the smiling girl goodnight in another scene, may even read her a very short story, and most defiantly will be teaching small, dark and cute but frowning Junior to hit things, or, preferably, kill them.

That’s not caring. This is:

  • Constantly doing food shopping (with no car) cleaning, laundry and dishes.
  • Running up and down the stairs, breaking concentration, because you’re working from home and staving off domestic disasters.
  • Frequently phoning and meeting various social workers, careworkers and medical professionals.
  • Catching up on broken sleep (because you need time to get your head together before bed and are up early to let the paid carers in).
  • Not applying for fulltime work.
  • Deprioritising dates, meeting friends, practicing sports, doing creative arts and crafts.
  • Having the same conversation ten times in one hour, with decreasing length of answers, and patience.
  • Missing personal deadlines and renegotiating professional ones.
  • Not managing your own money effectively, because it’s not a priority.
  • Being unable to plan ahead.
  • Having friends (who’ve never cared one hour for anyone) give you unrealistic advice to ‘solve’ your situation.
  • Falling out with family and friends because you’re so stressed.
  • Alternating having immense patience with having none.
  • Having to apologise to people frequently for your short temper.
  • Not being able to turn your phone off when away from home.
  • Being grateful when family members arrange to take over caring for a weekend, once every few months.
  • Not going on holiday for years.
  • Suddenly bursting into tears because you realise the goalposts have moved and the situation has deteriorated.
  • Feeling guilty at feeling relieved when it’s all over.
  • Not, ever, seeing someone in your situation on TV.

Germaine Greer was right. None of us is independent. Some people provide us with services because we pay them to do so, some because they don’t feel they have a choice, some because they care about us. Society is better, more aware and more efficient, when we acknowledge the existence and unpaid labour of carers – and care about both.

(Thanks to George Hodan for releasing his image “Candle” into the Public Domain)

candle-1364404827mw2
Candle lit in darkness

 

10 Tasks to Survive Brexit

A clear Tory majority in the UK parliament and an eventual Brexit now seem inevitable. How do we survive? The British Left has the paralysing tendency to be so overwhelmed by corporate executive failure and structural injustice that the power of the individual, and of small self-organising groups, is neglected. We don’t have to live like that. Britain is broken, let’s fix it. And, yes, even if our constituent nations achieve independence, that won’t solve all our problems. Not now.

But here’s ten tasks that should help:

  • Plant vegetables. Study and create a backgarden permaculture in synergy with your domestic heating and plumbing systems if you can, but even sowing seeds under cover on St Valentine’s Day and potatoes on Good Friday will help. Herbs near the back door – and in pots so the dog won’t pee on them! Connect up with your nearest smallholding or community garden. Find kindred spirits and help each other out.
  • Plant flowers. Any and all and all-year round. If you think Brexit is a problem, read up on the the crisis in pollinators! You will be repaid with year-long beauty. Plant a tree too!
  • Invest in solar panels. Yes there’s enough light. Even in December and January in Scotland. There are various schemes and you need to do your homework but the Government are under pressure to commit to alleviating climate catastrophe and energy is a key component so installation fees are likely to keep coming down.
  • Go vegan. Seriously. Not only will you significantly reduce your carbon footprint (and probably your waistline) but your conscience will be a lot lighter knowing that your dinner didn’t die screaming in pain or crying with fear. Massive health benefits are a bonus and, as we can no-longer rely on there being a free NHS, you really can only afford good nutrition.
  • Get a dog or two if you can and take them out for walks three times a day. That vitamin D will perk you up and you’ll need the serotonin to stop obsessing about whatever is happening on TV, phone and computer screens.
  • Make things. Learn to knit, crochet (buy wool in charity shops) weave, make macrame and ceramics and cook if you don’t know how – and branch out if you do. Home cooking can be therapeutic, social and far cheaper (and healthier) than over-packaged store-bought ready meals with way too much sugar and salt.
  • Repair things. Google: sewing, darning, changing a fuse, changing a washer on a leaky tap, learn bicycle/ motorcycle/ car maintenance – go to local classes or workshops.
  • Teach. You know things. Share those skills.
  • Reuse, recycle, upcycle and barter. There are lots of schemes, like Freecycle.
  • Try to be happy – and help others to be. I’ve lived in countries where the economy is a joke. It’s difficult but people are resilient and you adapt. You don’t have to wait for the glorious socialist revolution in order to share planned or spontaneous moments of joy and people are all around you.

Politics is to do with the polis – that means ‘police’ in Scotland but in Greek it means the city, the place where people live together. And even if you’re on a wee croft in the Outer Hebrides, that means you and the people around you. We are the people. We don’t need anyone’s permission to thrive. Just do it.

hintergrund-1540137371tsv

Thanks to Kai Stachowiak who has released the image “Brexit Background” into the public domain.

 

Writing About Sex

“Pushing her back on the veranda floor and ripping off her thin chemise, she knew she’d get more than splinters if he got his wicked way”

was how an arch undergraduate friend of mine sent up a certain popular genre of literature. But with reports of fatal ‘consensual strangulation gone wrong’ rising 90% in the last decade as a niche (gay/ solo male) porn practice became mainstream – note the massive sales of 50 Shades of Grey: book published in 2011, film released 2015 – surely writers have a moral duty to think carefully about the possible social effect of how we write about sex.

The romantic origins of “The Bruno Benedetti Mysteries” lie in my experience of flirty relationships between gay/bi and strait men. What fascinated me was that they tended to be mutually flirty. Bruno comments on this in Tricks of the Mind, where his libido-fuelled mind is playing very nasty tricks indeed!

Justin came out of the shower towel-drying his hair. With the towel he would otherwise be wearing. […] People don’t believe me that strait (sic., yes it is my revenge) men go on like this. A woman, despite a post-Freudian century of glossy shelf-fillers to the contrary, cannot convince a man of his masculinity: he needs a man for that. Prowess on the camp of Mars may simply lead to the conclusion ‘I am a good footballer/ ruggerbugger/ tiddlywinker’ but not necessarily to ‘I am a manly man’. That’s where we are called in – the ambiguous court of Mercury […] man enough to have an opinion that counts and guaranteed to fancy anything male and therefore affirm its shaky identity. And watch out if you don’t. The huff they go into!

Poor Bruno sublimates some of his frustration into massage – which Justin willingly accepts, and even asks for – but, despite his protestations of being undesirable, men do react to Bruno’s charms and, inevitably, they end up in bed.

Here I had a choice. The bookends of erotic writing are Victorian lovers sinking fully-clothed (with perhaps his necktie and her hair undone) into the long grass at the close of a chapter and blow-by-blow graphic descriptions of flushed erogenous zones and stimulated genitalia.

The first instance, in Tricks, is closer to the former:

I’d hardly slept for two days and the reason lay inches from my face. He had the perfection of an ice-cream sundae and I was the cat who’d got the cream. [He] stirred in his sleep, stretching a smooth arm over his head to rest it on the pillow, making his chest even bigger. […] I laid my head on his blond biceps, slipped an arm over the perfect plain of his waist, my nose lying next to his ear. As I drifted off I wondered if he could feel me purring.

By the time we get to Tìr nam Bàn, the fifth book, it’s definitely nearer the latter, especially in the passage immediately preceding this:

…the scene that [they] saw was no more scandalous than one of three fairly-clothed men lounging on cushions and having coffee out of earthenware demitasses. One man, admittedly, with his head on his lover’s chest having his hair tousled while the third massaged his feet (and occasionally sucked his toes). Had they entered just fifteen minutes before, the scene would have been one of three naked men covered in sweat, lube and semen lying in each others’ arms, panting and occasionally kissing.

The reason is not only that I was now less scrupulous (I’d banned my family from reading my novels and my brother, who did read this one, skipped some pages – and had the kindness to say he also did that with Ian Rankin). I also was more confident about my reasons for writing in a certain style.

The point of the passage in Tricks is (eventually) to establish Bruno as an unreliable narrator. He doesn’t know why people do things, but he thinks he does. In the later book, the details of this scene of joyful, safe and consensual adult gay sex are provided to problematise our assumptions of morality. One of the participants has just found out that unspeakable horrors are being carried out by supposedly respectable people. So the scene is meant to shock the reader into reflecting on the nature of innocence.

I don’t tend to write about heterosexual sex (with one exception and that, hopefully, written with respect). I find much of that kind of writing demeans women and, in any case, it’s hardly new. To read of gay sex, decades ago, was a part of my liberation. Some books at that time (and now) went over the score and were either just plain porn or gay sex manuals – but I believe that writing such scenes for a conscious purpose can contribute to the story in a way that writing about other biological functions does not. Sex is also social and at least has the possibility of romance.

Writing the seventh book, The Marrying Maiden, now, occasionally describing the sexual life of a couple gives me the opportunity to allude to their romantic history:

…he’d pounced on me. Taking full advantage of the thick walls of the cottage as he threw me around the bed with more than his usual display of strength. Since our painful separation last year, lasting from the previous year, he’d been markedly emotionally sensitive and physically possessive of me. His whole purpose seemed to be to avoid any possibility that I would ever feel unwanted again.

So what social effect do I want my writing on this earthy topic to have? I leave you with the prophetic and mysterious words of Imogen, in the fourth book, Qismet:

“No. You have to hear this. ‘Malkhut’ is the Creation. The world and all that’s in it. The universe. My father, G_d rest him, forgot that it’s good. The word in Hebrew is ‘tov’. It’s used seven times in the beginning of the Book of Genesis. […] The seventh use is ‘tov meod’. It describes all of Creation, including human beings, all of Creation. It’s the first description of the whole thing, in a book where words matter so much, and it’s not just a description, it’s a judgement. ‘Tov meod’. It’s such a simple phrase in Hebrew, we use it all the time. For a nice meal, for a good plan, ‘tov meod’, it just means ‘very good’.” There were tears in her eyes now. “My father forgot that Bruno. He died in Sfat, it Safed I mean, raving about the angels of the upper sefirot. He’d forgotten about the lowest one. The one where we live. The one that’s very good, in the eyes of G­_d. I know you think I’m a materialist bitch. No don’t deny it, I know. And yes we did nickname my mother ‘Imelda’ because she likes shoes. Why not Bruno? Shoes are pretty! They’re very good! You go about disdaining human handiwork and ultimately, in materials, in ingenuity, the work of G_d! But Bruno, men no longer regard the world as the worthy object of their admiration and reverence. This All, which is a good thing, the best that can be seen in the past, the present and the future, is in danger of perishing…”

A chord sounded from the guitar she was holding, and broke her trance. I sat rooted to the spot. I recognised those last words.

Tricks of the Mind is free, in various eBook formats, on Smashwords.

Walking: Falkirk to Linlithgow

With the world on climate strike, one academic year barely over and the next about to begin, I decided to enjoy the rare Scottish sunshine and walk the next section of my good days journey to Edinburgh along the Forth & Clyde and the Union canals. Ben, my faithful doggy companion, had already proved his worth in the 2.5 hours it had taken us to get to Falkirk High, by train, bus and walking (which should have been a half-hour train ride) as he’d simply flirted with everyone in sight and taken their minds off broken-down trains. We really didn’t mind and Falkirk Arts Festival was looking bonny in the sun.

Falkirk Arts Festival bigger

We’d done a side walk from Falkirk High to the Kelpies in February and back but the last section, from Auchinstarry in October last year, had also ended at this canalside train station so that’s where we started – at the famously long and eerie tunnel with its fairy lights and red-green traffic lights at either end.

The tunnel wasn’t just eerie it was also wet! I put Ben on the lead and walked warily over the cobblestones further into a fairyland under the hill. Not a place for the claustrophobic – although you can always see the light at both ends – and we had to flatten ourselves against the wall to let a couple of cyclists past. But, if you manage to miss the narrow streams of falling water, when your eyes adjust, it’s rather lovely.

Outside again and the warmth of the air and blue skies were a pleasant surprise. After all, this was Scotland, in September! (If there’s an R in the month, it tends to rain almost constantly; if there isn’t, it just rains a lot.) The Union canal, narrower than the Forth and Clyde, was popular with cheery narrowboaters, who (from their accents and amiable incomprehension of mine) hailed from Across the Pond and Down Under.

It is also full of beautiful old bridges (the newer ones are more functional than aesthetic) whose builders weren’t always happy with their financial lot, as a sign explained.

The milestones intrigued me and it was only further on that I worked out what the numbers referred to: we were 2 miles to the west of the beginning of the Union canal at the Falkirk Wheel; 29.5 miles from its Edinburgh end. There was also a sensible notice for cyclists (though the rude ones would be going too fast to read it):

Old stone is quite a feature of these canals and the next example was a weir with an overflow burn below, keeping the level of each reach (canal section from lock to lock) – and providing Ben with his favourite tipple: rainwater.

Further along, I spotted white deadnettle among the ferns, which look a little like snapdragons but the leaves sting! At the next bridge was a spray of rosehips.

And then, unexpectedly, a field of pinto ponies! And was that smoke from Grangemouth? Yes, then that must be the Forth, flowing majestically down from Stirling, under the Kincardine bridge towards Queensferry and the North Sea. And the lovely Kingdom of Fife, the setting for my latest Bruno Benedetti Mystery – which I must get finished! And another lovely bridge.

Some Ben action shots now: (if you flick through them quick you can see him jumping around happily):

Purple clover hiding in the grass, a stark star of cow parsley and the delicate violet-coloured flowers and large , typical geranium leaves of wood crane’s-bill.

On to Polmont where there was a nice long quay with mooring rings and a shut-up narrowboat snugly tied up, with another one chugging along.

The town is famous for its prison for young offenders but, before that, the ambiguous legacy of Alfred Nobel. Not exactly peaceful!

In prison or out, life goes on, and so did the path. With Ben irrigating the vegetation and another narrowboat approaching. I spied a great big clump of yellow vetch and took a close-up.

A welcome rest! I sat on the milestone while Ben had his lunch then, in solidarity with our Greta, went on strike. Right in the middle of the path. I persuaded him to sprawl on the grass just before a cyclist happened by.

I had been dawdling. I knew it. I’d stopped so often to get my phone out of my backpack to take photos that I finally gave up the pretence of being technology-free. And I’d just ambled along chatting to everyone, who chatted back. It was that kind of day. But, when I saw this sign, I realised that I really should get a move on. Later on I worked out that, at this point, it had taken us 2.5 hours to walk a total of 2 miles! It really didn’t help that Ben occasionally walked back the way we’d come.

But there were quiet meadows to contemplate, lovely old stone bridges and sheep lying down in shady pasture.

I didn’t notice this sinister thing lurking in the murky waters when I took what I thought was a poetic shot of riverbed reeds. Bicycle inner tube? Freshwater eel? A very lanky pike? Then I spotted this keystane and thought of Burns’ immortal line about midnight’s black arch.

On the other bank, a herd of bulls and one on his own. I turned veggie at the age of eight and vegan a few years ago. Since seeing sheep carcases hanging on the walls of a slaughterhouse, I’ve avoided farmed animals. I watched The Animals’ Film with my brother decades ago (it turned him veggie, again) but I don’t watch all the shocking footage that’s so widespread these days. I know what goes on. When I lived on a small Hebridean isle, the only beings I didn’t connect with were the cattle and sheep. I knew their fate. I didn’t want to get to know them.

bullsBut recently I’ve been following some animal sanctuaries on Instagram. The pigs that have names and get butternut squash and bellyrubs are the same of sentient  species, more intelligent than dogs, who are imprisoned in cages as piglet-making machines, who scream in terror before being clubbed or shot or knifed or skewered or gassed to death. Male chicks, considered as non-profitable processes in the egg industry, are suffocated or mechanically shredded – human hands pick them out on purpose and set them on that conveyor belt. Cows cry at what awaits them, as the deception of the kindly farmer finally hits home.

bull

So I was glad that these ones were out in the field in the sun. And I was sad that human greed, for milk and meat (ignoring the effect of both on the body and the planet) meant their early and terrifying death.

But then there was the sun reflected on the water. Which must have meant something. And the path went on – and here’s a bicycle! Okay it’s got no brakes and the back tire needs pumped up, at least, but it’s free and yours for the taking!

The picnic place beside the canal basin looked nice and, before another lovely bridge, a sign that we were nearing…ah but you’ll have to wait and see!

And then a ford and, past a wee narrowboat shimmering in the sun, and an ivy-covered tree in a lovely wood, there was…

Well you’ll have to wait because, at this point, Ben bolted ahead – straight for what appeared to be a very small sausage dog on a lead which was promptly hoisted to shoulder height by his owner (clearly used to this) and turned out to be a ferret! I apologised and the unsuccessful (and unrepentant) murderer went back on his lead.

The Avon Aqueduct! (And we’ve come a whole 3 miles since that last sign – which is 5.5 altogether. In three hours. Oh well.)

It was beautiful. I’m sure Hugh Baird was proud of his creation. I really got the sense of crossing over towards the east coast. The canal continued and Ben seemed happy to, and there were lots of pretty flowers along the way.

This may be water mint and that’s bullrush – but the tower is definitely not the Wallace Monument. I think the sun was getting to me when I came to that conclusion and forgot my Central Scottish geography.

A wee burn below the canal, a milestone to show how brave we were (seven miles – fancy!) and some splendid huts that may or may not have been for boaters.

I fell in love with Linlithgow. What’s over that bridge? Look at those cute canalside cottages! What a lovely spire! What is it? (St Michael’s Church, with the Palace behind it – or St Michael’s Kirk, wi thi Palace ahint it, in the vernacular.)

Journey’s end was the sight of these lovely old canalboats, including a workboat tipped a bit astern as the ballast would be heavier forrard, and a teashop.

Well I know what’s my first stop for the next stage: Linlithgow to Ratho. But that, as they say, is another story. My last photo: a lovely veranda and Linlithgow Loch behind.

lovely veranda

[All photos (descriptions more accurate than titles) are copyright the author and may be used with a link to this post.]

 

ID, Memory and Me

It was a painful time and a shameful time, and many who lived through it would rather just forget. If you are younger than 30, or even 40, you may never have heard of it. Many will speak about it only in general terms, talking about friends, or family, never themselves. The wounds of that time still smart. Some families, some marriages, some friendships, never recovered. People killed themselves in shame, spiralled into addiction, moved away and broke all ties, or just shut down emotionally and traded life for existence.

That’s not what was supposed to happen. The therapists, and all those who wrote books and recorded cassette tapes (remember them?) and spoke at conferences, they all found fortune and a few found fame. They promised a panacea, an all-healing explanation for everything in your life that you didn’t like. Or that you did like.

The Recovered Memory Movement, as it came to be known, implied, forcefully, that:

  • If you were fat
  • If you were thin
  • If you were promiscuous
  • If you were frigid
  • If you drank
  • If you did drugs
  • If you abstained
  • If you had nightmares
  • If you had daydreams
  • If you were musical
  • If you were artistic
  • If you were organised
  • If you were chaotic
  • If you were human
  • If you were inhuman

You had, most likely, been sexually or emotionally abused as a child. Probably both.

The RMM depended on a specific, post-structural reading of the work of Sigmund Freud. Which – given that his work is the basis for post-structuralism (reading against the grain, turning things on their head) – is quite specific. And psychologically unfounded. Therapists, belatedly – after about a decade of accepting fees to encourage mostly young people, mostly female, to rehash memories they’d read in books and heard on tapes, mostly – admitted that they were now more ‘cautious’ or even ‘wary’ of diagnosing someone as an Adult Survivor of Childhood Sexual or Emotional Abuse; but they didn’t follow up that admission with an offer to repay any fees. People were generally too ashamed, or broken, to sue them.

Need I say that some children are indeed abused and there is no doubt of the trauma that causes? I hope not. Would that it were not so, but it is. That is not my topic here.

Rather, I want to highlight the effect on the collective psyche, the, mostly, White, western, middle-class, post-industrial, liberal psyche of widespread shame, rage and moral panic from the late 80’s to the late 90’s.

This was the time when disillusion with monetarism, and even with capitalism, was general on the Left. Reagan and Thatcher had fallen, Bill Clinton followed George Bush the elder and John Major was hardly charismatic. Ecology and demilitarisation (especially after the first Gulf War protests) could have had a chance. We could have taken action then to avoid the ecological crisis we’re in now.

But, apart from demonstrations, the 90’s was the beginning of political apathy for young people especially. The numbers of non-voters rose massively: researchers at Royal Holloway, University of London, looking at voter data from 31 European countries from 1918-2016, “found that from around 1990, non-voters made up the single biggest block”. Other reports confirm this as a global phenomenon among (comparatively) well-off Millennials.

The RMM spread a gospel of interiority and selfishness. Being a ‘caretaker’ (caring about someone else) was one of the worst things you could do. A better use of energy was to devote it all to ‘me time’. This was also the period of the rise of co-dependency, an addictive add-on with a definition that became so vague it eventually just meant ‘wrong’. Anyone who was anyone who was politically (which meant personally) sensitive during that time was either realising that they been abused or was supporting a survivor. Usually both. Which was caring and caretaking and co-dependent and therefore wrong.

The holy book was The Courage to Heal and the sacred mantra was: “I’m not crazy and I’m not making this up!”

Many of us who were in our twenties in the 90’s are now in our 50’s, many of us have raised children, especially girls, to believe in ‘me time’ and not listening to friends or family who don’t believe in ‘my truth’ and that ‘what I feel is my truth’.

Does this sound familiar? Did you think the trans phenomenon came out of nowhere? Now, of course, kids don’t depend on books (what are they?) or cassette tapes (museum much?) for social contagion. They don’t depend on their parents or elders for support and advice either. One generation has taught the following to be wary of older people, especially men, but also of women who are complicit in their machinations – enablers.

So we have an entire generation across the comparatively rich world of independent, vulnerable, inexperienced young people, mostly girls, brought up to focus on themselves, to see themselves as victims, to embrace an ideology that explains why they feel socially awkward or depressed or angry or embarrassed about their bodies.

It’s a club. Non-members are not invited. Girls are going to take over the world. Even if they have to stop being girls to do it. And boys are slipping into the gaps they leave behind. Anyone who doubts must be barred or cast out. They’re not crazy and they’re not making it up. That’s their truth.

That’s their pain. That’s what they’ll have to live with, and regret, for the rest of their lives.

Meanwhile, our planet home is dying. Because our selfishness and self-obsession is killing it. Think of all the people who could make a difference – if we could just stop tearing each other apart over identity politics.

The personal may be political but, right now, the politics that counts is planetary. It’s time to forget me time and devote ourselves to Earth time. While we still can.

I’m not crazy and I’m not making this up.

unicorn-beach-swimming-ring

Thanks to Video Girl for releasing ‘Unicorn Beach Swimming Ring’ into the Public Domain.

The Silence of the Men

My most popular tweets usually get a handful of likes or retweets; the one I posted on the evening of Friday 13th this month got almost a thousand and my followers are nearing that figure (from 770). Women from New Zealand/ Aotearoa to New York expressed their appreciation. So why was what I said spread so far and wide?

“If anyone at any university in Glasgow is being bullied – for refusing to push reactionary gender stereotypes, refusing to silence women’s concerns over physical safety, or simply for insisting that Equality Impact Assessment is carried out *as provided for* in law – contact me.”

A few years ago, okay maybe about ten, the reaction from women might have been along the lines of “cheers mate but why would women need male support to combat gender stereotypes or ensure safety or enforce the law on a university campus in Scotland?” Some might, quite rightly, have been a bit more vocal about male presumption, implied aspersion of female agency or ignorance of robust anti-bullying regulations at UK institutions of higher education.

Not one woman said anything of the kind. I rather wish they had. Because that would mean that the reported imposition of gender ideology, the intimidation of academic women, the mobbing of any woman who even intimates that there may be a debate about gender self-identity and its implications for female safety, isn’t actually happening.

But it is. Massively. On campus.

As for me, the only not-entirely positive reaction I’ve had this weekend is a couple of supportive but confused guys (who apologised) and a couple of good caveats from women. One guy said that 99% of men were supportive of what I said.

So my question is: where are all these men?

I think men aren’t speaking up on this issue for a variety of reasons:

  • They’re confused by the language of the debate
  • They think it’s a ‘gay [LGBT+] thing’
  • They think it’s a women’s issue
  • They’re rightwing
  • They’re leftwing
  • They’re apolitical
  • They don’t see what the problem is
  • It’s not on their radar
  • They don’t want to look ignorant
  • They don’t want to look closed-minded

Of course, these 10 reasons may not be the biggies. Maybe men just can’t be bothered to speak up. Or are afraid. But let’s address them anyway:

  • ‘Transgender’ = ‘transsexual’ and/ or ‘transvestite’, basically; ‘transactivist’ means someone pushing for gender self-ID (that means unquestioned male access to female safe space – such as women’s shelters, showers, bedrooms, prison cells); ‘gender-critical’/ ‘gender abolitionist’ means refusing to accept a return to 1950’s White Western stereotypes of male and female – because the whole concept of social ‘gender’, as distinct to biological ‘sex’, is built on them which is why wee boys who wear pink and wee girls who play football are being manipulated into believing that they really are the opposite gender.
  • It was. Now it’s at a Primary school near you and your son or daughter could be next from mutilating surgery that will leave them sterile and scarred for life – along with perhaps an addiction to plastic surgery and a whole range of other medical disorders. And, no, it won’t make them any less depressed or suicidal.
  • See above.
  • Some people who resist transgenderism also resist sex-selective abortion and/or ableist abortion (and some any abortion not life-saving for the mother); some resist the sexualisation of children; some any definition of children’s sexuality; some also support religious freedom – none of this means they can’t support women’s safe space.
  • Conversely, some who are gender-critical are actively pro-choice and espouse a variety of opinions regarding sex-work, fetish freedom and the evils of religious ideology – none of this means they can’t support women’s safe space.
  • The personal is the political.
  • See 2)
  • It should be!
  • Understandable, but, as it does concern them, they should at least learn the basics.
  • Again, understandable. Men supporting female safe space can be condemned as rightwing bigots or leftwing traitors.

In summary: women need our help, guys. They shouldn’t, but they do. They are being physically threatened, trolled online, stalked along streets, intimidated at their places of work – all for trying to protect the most vulnerable women as well as impressionable children. No-one is ‘anti-trans’. If adult men or women want to cross-dress or undergo surgery to alter their primary or secondary sexual characteristics, as long as that’s not the only option for them (as it is in repressive regimes for lesbians and gay men) then fine. Whether that should be on the NHS is another question.

What shouldn’t be a question is the safety and support of all vulnerable people. How we do that, fairly and safely, is very much up for debate. Men, please speak up for women whose voices are being silenced.

     cover-image

Image: front cover of Kindle version of I Like Being ME!

 

 

 

Below the waterline

Having replaced the broken forward transom (bow) of my Mirror dinghy, I now had to deal with the peeling paint, rotten wood and delaminated plywood below the Plimsoll line. I wasn’t looking forward to it. Inching the boat off the trailer was fun – involving two large trailer straps with hooks and ratchets, an empty oil barrel and a conveniently-placed ring on the side of a concrete shed. I could have asked for help but I’m a bit impatient. (Which is what led to all the damage to the bow and the hull in the first place!)

Boat on a barrel
Boat on a barrel with lifting straps

Boat lowered onto the grass and turned over onto planks, I could survey the hull. The sensible long-term solution was to replace the damaged plywood but (as it isn’t part of the hull per se but rather supports running parallel to the keel which seemed principally to bear the load of resting on the trailer, and as I really wanted to get the boat out while there was still some good weather) I decided to remove what I had to and epoxy the rest.

And so it began. Removing the peeling paint was easy enough. It just peeled off. Unfortunately the same was true for much of the first two layers of plywood. Faced with not enough support if I kept removing layers, I decided to only take off what was rotten and stick the rest down. That, at least, was the plan.

Paying attention to what lay beneath the paintwork, I discovered some other areas of the hull (along the keel and mostly on either side of the centreboard slot) that needed attention.

Rotten wood had to be scraped out with a wire brush, and flaking paint and epoxy removed between the keel and its metal strip protector.

Fortunately this repair coincided with a fortnight of fabulous weather, so I could be confident that the exposed wood really dried out. That, however, was the limit of my confidence. If I did all this and the boat didn’t float, Plan B was to sell it, with full disclosure. To cheer myself up, after replacing the bow, I’d decided to put a fresh coat of Bondi Blue topcoat on the topsides and finally affix the name of the boat: Harmony. Henceforth ‘it’ would be known as ‘she’.

Below the waterline, the forward hull wood and paintwork was undamaged but looked more cheerful with another coat and gave me something to do while other places were drying out.

That done and dried, I started sanding the mid and aft hull, especially where the wood was newly exposed.

Finally satisfied that the surfaces were ready, I prepared to apply the marine epoxy and glasscloth as I’d done for the forward transom and gunwales.

This stuff I’d bought from Trident UK and (unlike the Galeforce 1:1 ratio) it needed 1:5 hardener to epoxy so this time I did use the calibrated syringes. I also donned my protective goggles and pulled my neck warmer up over my nose.

I won’t bore you with all the details of the various applications of fibreglass cloth and epoxy but I soon realised that I’d need to get more if I wanted the plywood surface more even.

A mate sold me some polyester resin (with hardener) to save me the trip to the chandler’s – and I soon discovered that everything they say about the fumes from this stuff being noxious is true! And much more than epoxy. Even outside, with a breeze blowing and looking like a Martian, it was making my head spin. So the advice to use a particle mask or respirator – even when just sanding the stuff down – is sound.

As before, the sticky strands of glasscloth drove me crazy when I was trying to get the cloth to stay in place.

Polyester 3
Strands of glasscloth fraying on plywood

You really need to pay attention to the amount of hardener (1-2% only!) and mix mix mix before you apply it – otherwise, as I found out, the 20-30 minute application window shrinks to 5-10! So it was all very tedious but eventually the hull stopped looking like the surface of the moon as layer after layer of cloth and resin approximated the levels of the surface of the hull planks and protective plywood.

It didn’t help that one fine day I was sanding down the surfaces (which I did between each application) and managed to get some hardened resin dust in my eye. That served me right for thinking I could get away with not wearing goggles and put me out of the game for a few days with a painful swollen eye – which I had to bathe every few hours.

Robert M. Pirsig, the “engineer’s philosopher” who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, warns against trying to fix a machine when you’re in a bad mood (cos all you’ll do is damage). A wooden boat, nowadays, maybe doesn’t strike most people as mechanical but it floats because of the physics of opposing forces and I think that’s sound advice. So, even though the sun shone, I resisted the urge to just get it done and instead did some jobs around the house I’d been putting off.

Recovered and refreshed, I did one last lot of sanding down the globs of resin that spattered the hull – despite my best efforts – then wiped down the whole upturned boat with a wet cloth, then a dry one, then wiped the resin with white spirit (to ‘take the bloom off’) dried that and started to paint.

The undercoat covered a multitude of sins, I knew, and I really should have applied another coat, and maybe primer (though I wasn’t sure of the order) but there was either a previous layer of paint or of resin underneath and with midsummer approaching I really wanted this boat on the water. So the Rustic Red went on (and ran over the Bondi Blue in places and had to be sanded off).

Not the prettiest paintjob but Harmony, after weeks out of the water, was finally ready for the big moment: would she float?

And, with the help of a good strong mate, I soon found out. YES!

 

 

Trans of the City

Of course I cried at the end of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, a limited series just released on Netflix based on those books of that author. The showrunner Lauren Morelli “cultivated an all-queer writers room”, according to The Hollywood Reporter. And it shows. Out of the eight main characters, three are trans – or are portrayed as such. (But no plot spoilers!)

I’d reread the books, again, after a year spent around San Francisco and Sinaloa (across the water from Baja California). I was living in community in an area of multiple deprivation in Edinburgh, working in a nursing home. I found the former more challenging than the latter and the series was a form of solace. I’d read them in the bath, by candlelight, with incense and essential oils, switching off from my unhygienic passive-aggressive alcoholic flatmate, my actively-aggressive neighbours, and whatever craziness was happening on the racist and drug-ridden housing estate.

Some years later I felt I understood the main character more when I dated a guy who introduced himself as “a female-to-male transsexual”. (Even though Anna’s transition was the reverse.) No-one prompted me with pronouns, in those days, but my guy was ‘he’ to me and that was fine. I’m a bisexual man; nothing about him threatened or repulsed me. We were great in bed; it was just all the other times when his insecurity, selfishness and obsessive personality were so trying.

But, like the Netflix series, we’re all limited – and I’m certainly no saint. The limitations of the series are obvious when you expand the view to the minor characters (especially including the 1960’s vignette). Most of them are under the trans umbrella. Let’s remember that the books were written by a gay man – so he, like me, is not.

It’s no news that trans is the new gay. And, to give the all-queer writers their due, there is some portrayal of the tensions between young intersectional queers and the older White queens; and between individuals who transition and their partners who have a new identity thrust upon them – one that includes them. I wonder how much input Armistead, who “also spent time with the writers”, had.

Director Alan Poul says:

“There were lots of different voices with a lot of different opinions so it was a very vigorous room but[,] at the same time, nobody had to explain queer 101 to other people in the room.”

I welcome this series, despite its limitations. The character of Anna Madrigal (wonderfully portrayed both by Olympia Dukakis and Jen Richards, in her earlier incarnation) may believe in magic and utter the occasional spiritual insight but her appeal is always in her compassionate humanity.

So it’s a pity that, in this very politically correct series, the issues of coercion and ideological purity aren’t addressed. “I know I’m not supposed to feel this but…” says Margo, the partner of Jake, who transitioned and who censors her speech when she says, “I miss when we were lesbians”. And the only mention of the issue of safe female space, based on sex not gender, is a clear invitation to laugh at the dumpy older lady being sarcastic about having to share an open plan unisex bathroom with 15 other people in the intentional living community that Michael is (not) considering joining.

There’s a lack of honesty here. Something that this all-queer writers room didn’t address. And that’s a shame because so many of us, in what could be termed the queer community, have been moved to tears by these books – and also moved to contemplation of ourselves, our lives and our civil situation – and so moved to action.

These are my fears for the future:

  • That we continue to divide into intolerant camps policed by an unordained and unelected priesthood of ideological purists
  • That we refuse to consider each ethical issue separately and continue to lump them all together in an all-or-nothing party politics of right or left
  • That we are so unrestrained in our virulence towards each other that we ignore the backlash that our enmity must certainly cause, as every action provokes a reaction

Here are my hopes:

  • That we each take responsibility for our words and actions, and their lack, and the effect they have on others
  • That we learn to value the truth that someone else expresses, even if it conflicts with our own
  • That we hold each other in a gaze of compassion

Catherine Zeta-Jones, playing Olivia de Havilland, in the memorable TV series Feud: Bette and Joan, said these words:

“Feuds are not about hate, it’s never about hate; feuds are about pain.”

I find I’m a better human when I allow myself to feel my pain, when I’m conscious that I’m not the only one in pain, that it’s an inevitable part of the human condition. Every single character, in all incarnations of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, is in pain. The best ones, in their best moments, temper that pain and even heal some of it when they remember that and reach out in recognition – rather than in rage. Or simply respect that someone else’s pain may be, despite our best intentions, unfathomable.

Armistead and Christopher at the wedding

Photo of Armistead and partner Christopher in cameo shot from Gay Times

When the bow broke

It was all going swimmingly. I’d shipped the oars and the Ship’s Dog and I were floating along the Forth and Clyde canal, watching the reflections ripple across the old stone bank and listening to the birdsong.

Bow and canal
Bow and canal

(Actually the Ship’s Dog was too busy lazing in the stern of my Mirror dinghy to bother about the banks or the birds.)

Ben astern
Ben astern

And then, disaster struck!

Bow broken
Bow broken

I did know that the forward transom (as the rounded triangle at the end of the bow is called) had a line of fracture running along parallel to the deck and up to the top rail. When I’d bought the boat, I’d seen it had been repaired at some point and a mate had just filled in the cracks with some epoxy (very strong glue) and we’d hoped for the best. I remember him saying something about having either some resin or some hardener left over, and me being surprised – as it said to mix them equally on the tin.

Now, the original fracture, resulting rotten wood, the weakness of the epoxy mix (maybe on both occasions) and my impatient hauling on the bow rope to drag the boat onto the trailer (which doubles as a launching trolley) instead of positioning it correctly in the water so it would just float on – all combined disastrously and the bow broke.

I was not happy. Would I have to sell my beloved wee boat, Harmony, after only a few months of ownership – and most of them over the winter? I couldn’t afford a professional, so I emailed a Glasgow charity that specialises in boatbuilding but they failed to reply. I could have phoned them but, at that point, I was getting over the initial shock and decided to take up the challenge myself.

Onto the Trident UK website, where I purchased a forward transom kit.

New forward transom & bow heart
New forward transom and bow heart

Before doing anything, I had to remove the old forward transom. I’d toyed with the idea of leaving the sound bottom part in, but I knew the join had to be sturdy so that the top part didn’t rip off again. Especially, with the mast and sails up, in a strong wind in the middle of Loch Lomond! So, out with the old and in with the new. (I didn’t like the look of the hull, once the old fibreglass sealing tape had come off the inside.)

I’d only be using glass tape from the outside – as I wouldn’t have access inside without removing the deck and I didn’t want to go that far. I hoped the new seal would be watertight! First I had to fit the new bow heart (the darker, thicker small spearhead of wood) to the new forward transom (‘the transom’ usually means the more rectangular one at the stern, not this roughly triangular one at the bow). Then, see how the new forward transom would fit. (The photos are out of proportion but they show the same pieces of wood.)

Now to refit the ring fasteners for the bow rope and the forestay (the front cable that holds up the mast).

Outside of new transom with fittings
Outside of new transom with fittings

Next I had to fit the new top rail. That involved removing all the old copper ‘stitches’ so the new wood could fit. And also removing the rotten wood at both bow ends of the gunwales (the long, narrow, curved pieces of wood running around the top edge of the hull.

Removing the old fibreglass tape uncovered the irregularities of the join. Here’s the starboard side of the hull, with the new forward transom nailed onto the wood running under the deck (perhaps not advisable, as it introduces a breach and the nail can rust, but I’d no other option).

Close up of space between transom and starboard hull
Close up of space between transom and starboard hull

Then the sanding began! Port and starboard sides of the hull, and the bottom. Not forgetting the inside, on and above the deck. This took forever. And the metal tip at the hull bottom broke off.

The insides, above the deck, needed sanded too. Forever, and a day.

Sanded deck
Sanded deck

The rot in both gunwales, hidden under the old epoxy and paint, was more extensive than I’d thought.

Extensive rot on starboard gunwale
Extensive rot on starboard gunwale

I was tempted to ignore it but it would cost more effort eventually and I didn’t want to end up having to replace the gunwales entirely. So out it all had to come – including the nails that had gone through the damaged upper edges of the hull (that metal clip was useless). And all that needed sanding too.

So now it was time for the epoxy. I used the West System.

West system
West system of marine epoxy, brushes, syringes and glasstape on deck

I didn’t use the syringes with these 1:1 tubs of resin and hardener from Gaelforce, or the brushes, because the mix was as thick as peanut butter. I also didn’t need the clamps to keep the inner and outer gunwales together, as replacing the only screw almost at the end, with a slightly longer one, did the trick. I filled the gap with epoxy and strips of glasscloth then more epoxy. Then I had to face doing the same thing, but now further down. Where it would have to cover up a multitude of sins – and, below the waterline, make the difference between being watertight and springing a leak!

The glasscloth was sticky (I troweled the epoxy onto the wood first) and the single strands of the weave got everywhere. Finally, the first process was complete but would need another application to fill in the gaps.

So then came the next coats, using a 1:5 mix (which the syringes came in handy for) from Trident of 105 (resin) and 205 (hardener) epoxy – with some 403 microfibre white filler powder to add to the mix to get it to a thicker consistency. I also filled in the gap between the bow heart and top rail, and coated the nails.

Port and starboard sides, after a lot of sanding, were now looking much better.

Time for the undercoat, with white Pre-Kote International.

At this point, I was beginning to feel hopeful again. It looked good. Would it be watertight? I painted on, with blue Toplac International.

Finally, with all the topsides done, my (fairly bad) paint job was complete!

Would she float? Before I find that out, I need to sort out the warped planking and flaked-off paint underneath the hull. Till next time!

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

Having played one of two or three men dressed in rags chained to the floor for two hours, I know what it’s like to have a lot of lines and few props. Lewis Baird and Abbie McIntosh, bringing life to the lead characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, have a lot of lines with not a lot of sense (in the absurdist tragicomedy at the Turret Theatre this week) so their challenge is even greater. Fortunately they not only have a great memory for them but also the charming youthful bewilderment that aids their delivery in this terribly bewildering play.

My theatre companions loved it but I personally don’t like absurdist drama. I like a play with meaning and I resist the kind of meaningless repetition in Tom Stoppard’s script because I find it excruciating. It makes me feel like all the times I’ve waited for annoying boyfriends to change their annoying behaviour (spoiler alert: they never do) or all the times I’ve cared for people with dementia and had the same conversation over and over again. I just can’t stand it.

And neither can Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (interchangeable in this play). And maybe that’s the point. So I knew what I was letting myself in for; and while I can’t say that I was really into it, I also can’t say that I didn’t get something out of it. But what that is, is anyone’s guess. What I do know is that The Player, Hilary Lynas, as always, shone. And her poor Players, Adam Cooper, Chris Dunn and Patricia Leeson, adapted themselves (indeed contorted themselves) into their sundry situations hilariously.

Claudius, Gertrude and Polonius (Robert Benison, Elaine Martin and Jillian Vincent, respectively) have a difficult role in that their characters lack the comic appeal of the above-mentioned actors and yet must not eclipse the aloof gravity of Hamlet (played magnificently by Andrew Henderson). Theirs is the dialogue that should make most sense but, presented piecemeal, sounds most ridiculous. They all walked this theatrical tightrope very well.

A good stage manager’s work is not only never done but also invisible and such was the case with Gillian Monroe’s, ably co-ordinated with her sound and lighting colleagues, Robbie Soutar (kudos for the unexpected selection) Michael Hand and Ian Atherton. The set, basically a black diorama curtain, was suitably minimal but I did like the chessboard floortiling – foregrounding that it’s all a game (with apparently no rules) as Sheila Todd’s semi-adjustable costuming showed that, dressed in rags or riches, the play’s the thing.

Even if it really doesn’t make any sense.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, at the Turret Theatre, Kirkintilloch, runs till Saturday 4th May 2019. Tickets: http://www.kirkintillochplayers.co.uk/tickets/