Three Problems with the Trans Rights Debate

September 10, 2018 at 10:45 am (Politics) (, , , , , , )

I have been a regular Twitter user since around 2010, and joined the Green Party at roughly the same time. In that space of time I’ve seen a great deal said on Transgender issues. I’m a member of the LGBTIQA+ community and though I don’t identify as trans myself, I take a great interest in what is said on it, so that I might better understand it. Naturally, if you follow debates on trans subjects, you find people speaking both for and against that community. And what I often find is that people on both sides, however reasoned or logical they might be in other debates, suddenly start breaking all the tacit rules of debate that we hold dear. Straw men, ad hominem attacks and you’re-clearly-wrong-because-you-don’t-agree-with-me arguments find their way to the front on so many occasions.

Recent events surrounding Aimee Challenor have brought trans issues, and issues with debating trans subjects, into sharp focus. People on both sides of the debate have become far more vocal. But pro-trans as I might be, I cannot help but feel that there are three ways in which trans activists are doing their cause little favour at all – or are perhaps even regressive. I expect that some eyebrows will be raised at the points I’m about to make, but these are points that I feel would be relevant when debating any subject, and thus I feel that these are valid criticisms that trans activists need to at least take a step back and consider with an open mind – with all the current talk about TERFBlocker and allegations of silencing trans debate, it’s easy for people to get the idea that trans activists are only listening to people who agree with them.

So, firstly:

Point 1 – Who owns the definitions?

For as long as I can remember, I have had an interest in linguistics. Not one that has ever been pursued academically; just an amateur interest. I love how democratised words are – by and large, at least, they are not formed or meddled with by any government or official bureau. They are formed, changed, dissolved by public consent in an organic, if unwitting fashion, over course of time. Some words evolve from others, some change their meanings from one thing to another over time. Some die, some are ostracised from polite speech, some are stuck together to make glorious image-rich portmanteaux. Some derive second, third, fourth, nth meanings without changing the original. Some feel, in the latter case, that the original is no longer valid.

And if that happens, then who gets to decide what is the correct definition? My answer is everybody, yet nobody.

Everyone has the right, I feel, to choose how they wish to define a word for their purposes. However, I strongly believe that nobody has the right to tell another person what definition of a word they should use.

I have no doubt that many will see where this argument is leading, and who will disagree with me on this. But it’s a point that has neither pro- nor anti-trans agenda. It’s a simple question of our personal linguistic rights – we decide for ourselves which definition of a word we prefer to use. So, if it’s the case that a person wishes to define gender as something more emotional or psychological than a biological thing – we have to accept that. My copy of the Chambers Dictionary (2011) seems to be happy enough with that definition. But if another person’s definition of gender is the purely about the sex into which they were born, then we also have to accept that. As, also, does my copy of Chambers. Both interpretations of the word, it would seem, are common, and therefore are surely equally valid.

It is a controversial statement and one that I won’t, I imagine, be thanked for. And I make no pretence that it’ll solve any of the debates around trans inclusion. It won’t. If anything, it muddles them further. But my point here isn’t intended to win any argument for either side. It’s simply intended to show a fundamental principle of mine on the use of language – however inconvenient or unhelpful it may be to anyone. After all – it helps neither side.

It is dismaying that many people on both sides of trans debates forget this simple principle. They have their definitions to which they have their rights, yet are too stubborn to realise that the other side has exactly the same rights to their definitions. Does it really help anyone to argue over who has the correct definition, when both sides are using definitions that are in common, recorded usage? I think not, and to argue over it, I think, wastes much time that night be better spent making mare salient points for your arguments.

Point 2 – Difficult Conversations

Even if you don’t take a lot of notice of American sport, you’re probably aware of the “taking a knee” movement That sprang up in the NFL last season. A dignified protest over racial inequality in the USA, it sparked much heated debate both for and against the protests. Take a look at this clip of the BBC’s Mark Chapman discussing it with former NFL players Jason Bell and Osi Umenyiora:

The thing I want to concentrate on here is Jason Bell’s talk about having those “uncomfortable conversations” – and the possibility that change can result. Bell has no doubt suffered from racism in his time. He’ll know far batter than I do how it affects a person. It would be very easy for him to avoid those uncomfortable conversations. It’d be very easy for him to denounce racists as the racists they are and decline to talk about it further. It’d be very easy for him, knowing that he’s the one in the right, to simply ignore racism targeted at him and only talk about race topics with people who he knows agree with him.

But does that help anyone? Does it further anything?

In the wake of events surrounding Aimee Challenor, a great deal has been made of people being “silenced”. I’m sure we’ve all seen conversations surrounding block lists, we’ve heard of people being dismissed as TERFs and bigots for having opinions. We’ve had senior party members talk about listening to people whose ideas we hold contemptible. We know we’re in the right, we know nobody’s going to change our minds – so why discuss things?

The simple reason is that even if we are in the right, and have rock solid arguments to prove our points, we only stand to benefit from discussion, and it’s only to our detriment if we don’t.

If we engage our detractors in debate, we may just get them around to our way of thinking (it is important to note that what we call transphobia isn’t always borne of hatred; it is often merely a lack of education, of understanding). We may not succeed in changing their mind – and if so, we’ve lost nothing. But if we do have a chance of changing at least one person’s mind, a person who might then go and do the same with other people – is that not a risk worth taking? As Jason Bell says, if we have these uncomfortable conversations, “things would happen, and there would be change”.
If we choose not to debate – if we no-platform, if we block, if we cry bigot and ignore, all that serves to do is to make us look bad, to make us look like we haven’t any good arguments to put forward.

There’s one final advantage to being open to debate. It’s always possible that you may find that your opponent’s arguments – even if they don’t change your mind – might just be informed by circumstances or experiences you hadn’t considered. And that might give you some valuable insight as to why any debate is even happening in the first place. An understanding of any type of prejudice is a key to defeating in in society as a whole. I’ll exemplify this in my third point.

Point 3 – The Horrible Irony

Death, taxes, and men complaining about women-only spaces. We hear it all the time. Women want a man-free zone at the party conference, and men who’re meant to be liberal and understanding are suddenly up in arms. “Why are you excluding us?” they cry. “Why are you victimising us? This isn’t equality!” – this often from men who don’t seem to have been so vocal about equality before.

Not ALL men, of course. I might as well get that in before someone else does.

The question that fails to occur to such chaps is that it might not be a problem with women’s prejudice, but with that of men. They fail to see that it might be the actions, behaviours or attitudes of other men – or, God forbid, their own selves – that warrants the call for a women-only space in the first place. And ironically, the ill-considered, knee-jerk reaction of such men pretty much vindicates that call. So I can see why women want that safe space, and I’ve no objection. Not that Womankind should need my approval, of course.

But where does that leave the question of whether or not trans women should be allowed into a women-only space? Fair question. And being neither a woman nor trans, I’m on the wrong side of two types of privilege to answer it. But I will happily offer a suggestion for a way of thinking about the problem.

And this is the horrible irony that gives this subsection its title. For so often, when the issue arises on social media (or anywhere else that gives everyone a free voice), when it’s suggested that trans women be excluded from women-only space, the reaction from trans-women can be depressingly similar, at least in tone or knee-jerkiness, to that from cis men.

Yes, yes, I know. Not ALL trans women.

One of the main arguments for exclusion of trans people in such spaces is the possibility, real or imagined, that trans women often live their formative years enjoying the privileges of and developing the attitudes and attributes of maleness and masculinity. As such, it is argued, they will conduct themselves in no better a manner than (some) cis men would. I can imagine that this will sometimes hold true for certain individuals, but I can also see (and do correct me if I’m wrong) that trans women might actually have lived their lives in a manner than tries to avoid being tainted by such toxic masculinity. However, this possibility is not likely to be immediately obvious to a woman who sees pretty much the same reaction from cis men and trans women for being excluded from a women-only space. And from that point it’s easy to form a correlation that may well be grossly unfair.

The solution to this? It’s an example of where we need one of those uncomfortable conversations. Even though you are sure that you’re on the right side of the argument, this is where you need to listen. And this is the example I said I’d give at the end of the last section. Discussing the inclusion issue might bring up a circumstance that you had not considered before. Just as men complaining about exclusion don’t often consider that it’s men who are the problem, you might find that it’s trans women – or some perception of them – that’s the problem.

For example, the woman trying to exclude you may had very negative experiences with trans women in the past. That doesn’t necessarily change your argument, and it would seem like she’s tarring all with the same brush – but it gives you an insight into why there may be opposition to your exclusion that’s not as black or white as simple hatred of trans people. And that insight is something that you might be able to address to help the cause of trans rights. Are there perhaps more who share such views, whether based on experiences they’ve had or simple misconceptions? Having that information to hand means that we may make major strides in overcoming bigotry – and the fact that you’ve taken the time to have the uncomfortable conversation helps to dispel notions of trans women being no better than an arrogant, ignorant alpha male.

Conclusion

There’s a good chance that I’ll make no friends with what I’ve said here (or that I’ll make the wrong ones). There’s a good chance that I’m talking from the overhanging cliff of privilege and if I am, by all means, educate me. I basically feel strongly about these points, I feel that they are worth applying to debate on any subject, and feel that they’ll help to make the LGBTIQA+ and trans communities appear more open and less hostile than, I’m afraid to say, they have appeared in recent days. Comments are open, no-one is silenced, say what you feel in response.

And if I don’t immediately respond to something, I’m probably taking that step back, as I would always suggest, to think about it. I’ll get back to you when I have a response, or more likely, when I can be arsed.

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Why I’m voting in – and why anyone proud to be British should do the same

June 10, 2016 at 8:09 am (Politics, Uncategorized) (, , )

On June 23, I think I’ll vote for the Kingdom of Northumbria to stay in the EU (the English Union).

There are plenty of arguments against it, and I can understand them. The English Union isn’t perfect. In Wessex, we have unelected bureaucrats, apparently making all sorts of laws that threaten our sovereignty. There’s all this talk of the money we give to London that we never get back (and both sides are probably wrong about how much that is). We have no say in some of the trade deals that Æthelstan of Wessex makes with the Normans. Some are even saying it’s Caesar’s plan B (Godwin’s Law klaxon!). And then there are all the arguments about what it does to our national identity, and the ubiquitous immigration question. But I wonder if these are problems – and if they are, then they are problems we ALREADY have within Northumbria – and nobody’s saying we should leave Northumbria because of that.

Is the immigration thing a problem? I for one like having the opportunity to be able to move freely – to get a job in Mercia, or Kent, if I wanted to. Having that sort of freedom gives me more choice about what I can do in my life, it opens more avenues for me. It gives me more options for holidays, more cultures to learn about and to draw from, more choice of where to live and where I can bring up a family. Yes, not everyone wants the opportunity to move around – but why stop others, your own countrymen, doing that simply because you don’t wish to?

But people seem more concerned about others having those opportunities. They believe that if we don’t fully control our own borders, then all sorts of people – from as far away as Colchester, or Gloucester, or even Wales, can just move here and get any job they want. Why is that a bad thing? Shouldn’t we welcome new ideas and skill sets, rather than reverting to the call of “bloody foreigners, coming round here, taking our jobs”? And let’s face it, we get better takeaways (I love a good East Anglian) and it’s made it so much easier for our footballers to get international players. Before 871, who could have guessed that a small team like Pons Aelius United would ever have players from Manchester?

We might have unelected people in Wessex making laws for us. But that happens in our own government as well – nobody elected our Dukes and Earls. Plus, nobles of all of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms still have a say in the laws passed by England, so we still have control over what happens in our own land. We might give lots of money in taxes to London – but we give a lot to our joint capitals of Bamburgh and York – and we don’t always see that coming back. The English Union might not give us much say in trade deals – but neither does our King Eric Bloodaxe. He could make the same deals even if we were not part of England.

And what of our identity – do we lose that and all suddenly become English? Well, we do become English – we are anyway – but we remain, nevertheless, Northumbrian. And Bernician. And proud citizens of our towns and villages. It doesn’t remove from our cultural identity, it adds to it. We can be proud in all of that.

These are the same issues that cropped up when we had that referendum for Bernicia to stay in Northumbria. People had the same concerns. But look at what good it did for the Kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira to merge and form Northumbria – trade was more transparent, there was peace in the kingdom (especially as our armies were on the same side for a change), we could move about more and get better jobs, we became this great fusion of cultures that allowed us to learn from each other, to the betterment of our civilisation, even if the government wasn’t perfect. And I strongly believe that we’ll get exactly the same benefits if we choose to remain in England.

And yes, the English government may not be perfect – but neither is our own. And this is the point – what matters more, where we’re governed from, our the quality of that government? Does it matter to us more that we have a single government looking over us, able to do whatever they wish, or would we prefer that our government is kept in check by a higher authority, one who can draw from the experiences, ideals and mistakes of numerous cultures, to help (help, mind, not force) us to become a more progressive, fairer, happier state?

I can see a time in the future when the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms are united into one nation – perhaps there will be a day when the seven Kingdoms aren’t even a memory – England will feel like it has always existed. And then maybe, England will merge with the other lands of this island – Scotland, Wales, Cornwall. And I wonder if there’ll ever be a time when we enter into a union with the lands across the Strait of Dover.

I’m sure that on each of these occasions, people will have exactly the same reservations, the same arguments against. But I hope that they will see that we have gone through this, throughout history, again, and again, and again. Each time, despite what reticence there might have been, we’ve come through it as a better, stronger, more intelligent and creative nation. If this forward-looking strength in unity isn’t a British value, that we can all be proud of, then I don’t know what is. That’s why, being proud to be European, British, English, Northumbrian, Bernician and whatever else, I’m voting IN.

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Boardroom Quotas

November 17, 2015 at 4:11 pm (Politics) (, , , , , )

The idea of boardroom quotas, or any kind of employment quotas for women, will probably always be contentious. Accusations of “positive discrimination” will fly around, even from progressive people. I can understand both sides of this argument.

But let’s look at the idea of quotas from another angle.

Back in the 1940s, Major League Baseball in the US had an unofficial colour bar. There was nothing in the laws of the sport to prevent a Major League team from playing a black man, but it was something that just didn’t happen. There were many black players, but these men had to content themsleves with playing in the Negro leagues.

However, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey, knew that there was a vast amount of talent in the Negro leagues, and thought it foolish that he couldn’t use their talent due to an unwritten rule of the sport. So he decided that he would sign a single black player, to prove that their inclusion could benefit the game, rather than spoil it.

The player he chose was Jackie Robinson. On April 15th 1947, Robinson made his Major League debut. The debut was not a remarkable one (regarding his performance at least), but over the summer he grew to be a hit with fans and media. Other clubs took notice. Slowly, the colour bar crumbled and fell. Today, April 15th is celebrated as Jackie Robinson Day, his shirt number (42) is the only one retired from all MLB teams, and to look at any Major League team, no-one would imagine that there was ever an issue with racial inclusion in the sport.

Branch Rickey had essentially given himself a quota. One might say this was positive discrimination, that a white man might have lost his place in the team due to tokenism. One might also argue that Jackie Robinson might have been as good, or better than that white man, and was therefore deserving of his place. But this is a major point in my argument – it was important for Rickey to find a black player who would be a success and who could honestly say that he’d earned the right to be part of the team. Had he chosen just any black player for the sake of inclusion, that player might have proved a bad choice – which would have set the whole issue far back.

The issue of female quotas bears little difference to this – if a woman’s skills prove that she is good enough, a quota should not be an issue. It may indeed prevent a man from getting the same job because of his gender – but what’s often forgotten is that to redress any inequality, one must take an action that is itself unequal. Looking at it mathematically, if we have two numbers, 3 and 5, which we want to make equal, we must do something to one number that we don’t do to the other.

This is why we have International Women’s Day but don’t really bother with the male equivalent. It’s why we have an LGBT rights movement and not a straight/cis rights movement. Use the term “positive discrimination” all you like, but take a moment to remember what “positive” means. It’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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The 2015 General Election

May 3, 2015 at 5:44 pm (Politics) (, , , )

About this time in 2010, the run-up to the general election had a bit of a 1992 feel to it. Back then, when the protagonists were Kinnock and Major, was the last time that people had seriously talked about hung parliaments and coalitions. We’d had nothing of the sort since 1974, and so the idea of one party not gaining a Commons majority was, by 2010, something completely new to almost two generations of voters. In Britain, anyway – many countries in Europe have been used to them for some time. Now, it’s almost the reverse – talk of any party having a Commons majority seems like pure fantasy.

Shortly before the 2010 election, I wrote this blog post on the subject, explaining whom I was voting for (Greens in the locals, Liberal Democrats in the general) and why. On re-reading it, I noticed the following:

…without the Green option, it [voting Lib Dem] appears to me to be the best way to try to bring some better politics into Britain – even if we get a hung parliament

When I first read that, I had to laugh at how stupid that seemed, in retrospect. But then I realised it was correct, although not in the way I’d intended it to be. The political landscape has changed massively, and that (at least partially) is thanks to the Lib Dems – unfortunately it was bad politics that did so.

The reason for the change is easy to see. People of my age (born late seventies) will be used to seeing a major party hold onto power for at least a decade, whereby the electorate would become sick of them, and they’d vote the other major party in. The Liberal Democrats would make some gains here or there, and remain the stock protest vote. However, the coalition’s seriously bad politics have worn down the popularity of not only the senior partner in the coalition, but also the junior partner. And they can still recall how much they disliked Labour. So for once, people are looking away from even the traditional protest party. And fringe parties have become a big thing, so much so that a “rainbow coalition” is a serious possibility.

That, in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing – a good coalition is better than a bad majority government. How successful a coalition is depends on what each partner can offer the electorate and how hard they fight for it. And this is how I’d see each of the main parties in their likely coalitions:

The Conservatives have been the school bullies of the coalition. They’ve picked on the weakest in society, with very little care for what their junior partners wanted. And I’ve no doubt they’d do it again. Their likely coalition partners are either the Liberal Democrats, once more, or UKIP. The former would be five more years what we’ve just had, but the latter, I think, dangerous. I can’t see UKIP being as willing to bend to Tory will as Nick Clegg’s party, and I fear that some very right-wing concessions would need to be made by the Tories to allow this coalition to happen. It could be very bad for the country.

Labour will, I’m sure, take back votes from floating voters that they lost in 2010. But for me, they have not changed enough to be what they’re supposed to be – a party that represents the workers. If we’re to continue the school playground analogy, Ed Miliband seems to be the kid who wants to be in with the in crowd, but somehow just tries a bit too hard to be cool and likeable, and comes across as bumblingly false as a result. But even so, there’s a very good chance of a Labour/SNP coalition. Miliband has ruled this out, but I’m sure that if the job of Prime Minister hung on it, he’d take it like a shot. A coalition with the Lib Dems, or with a whole group of other parties (The Greens, SNP, Plaid Cymru and SDLP has been suggested) stands within the realms of possibility, but I do wonder about the possiblity of Labour/UKIP. That’s a very scary one, and could be a nail in the coffin for the party, given that its grassroots are so much more to the left than its parliamentary contingent.

The Liberal Democrats have spent five years being the kid who hangs out with the school bully, basking in reflected menace. The Lib Dem likes the apparent power, but has no personal power to wield – and when caught out, is always not to blame, as bigger boys made him do it. Will happily go into any coalition, but will never want to take the flak for their own spinelessness.

UKIP – The class clown and loud-mouthed bigot, often not in the playground due to truancy. No apparent care for doing a decent job, or for the welfare of anybody not in their circle of friends. I despise this party, and I can’t see any coalition with them as being anything other than a disaster for the country.

The SNP, or more accurately Nicola Sturgeon, has been the star of the TV debates. In our political playground, she’s the strong-minded one that the wannabe-cool kid fancies, even though he never admits it, but we all see how glum he looks when she gets together for a group hug with her mates. It’s likely that SNP will have a landslide in Scotland, and that they’ll end up in some form of coalition with Labour. There are some saying that this could be the start of the independence debate again, and that it could ruin the Union, or that they’ll only think of Scotland, and such. Are those big problems? For one thing, I think they’re untrue. And I think a Scottish voice in Government could represent people of the North-East much better than the Lib Dems have done in the previous coalition.

Finally, to the Greens. Many reading this blog will know I’m a member of that party. Obviously I’m biased and want you to vote for them. Many say that’s a wasted vote, I feel not. There’s every chance that if Labour gain a plurality, they’d need SNP seats as well as others to get a majority. The Greens could be part of that. Plus, I want to vote where my beliefs lie than tactically. However, I know that all of you are waiting for me to say who Natalie Bennett is in our fictional school. Natalie is the girl who might not be the most popular (although she’s recently had a massive surge in friends), but is highly intelligent and respected – although the boys won’t admit to it. They’re especially annoyed that while they were doing their PPE GCSEs, she was doing science, and therefore knows what she’s talking about. Also, she’s had a proper job, and has some actual working class integrity, which even daddy’s money can’t buy.

You’ll have your own views on everything, of course, and you’re well entitled to them. One thing I think we’ll all agree on, though, is that this election is very difficult to call, and should be the most exciting for a long while. But whereas last time, I said I’d vote Lib Dem but would back the Greens in spirit, this time, at least I have the choice. And that’s what’s so great about it, we all have more choice, whatever our political views.

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Apples on Tour – Cambridge and East Anglia

May 3, 2015 at 5:18 pm (Apples on Tour, Stuff I do, Uncategorized) (, )

It’d been a while since I’d attended one of FifteenSquared.net‘s meet-and-greets, and a while since I’d visited Cambridge. My previous two visits had been flying ones, spent mostly in pubs. Granted, I’m not complaining about that, but some extra time to look around what was clearly a beautiful city would have been a bonus. So when I heard that the next gathering of cruciverbalists would be held there, the chance was leapt upon.

But with train prices being as hideous as they are, and coach journeys taking around 10 hours to get there via Birmingham, the car was the only viable option. The A1 isn’t the most inspiring drive, especially when you have four hours of it, but at least that could be punctuated by a stop at the Friendly Farmer, just off the junction of the A1 and A17. It’s a cafe and farmshop that I’ve been to before. The breakfasts are a topping hangover cure, though today I availed myself only of a sausage roll. A very nice one, at that. And a few bits and bobs from the shop before I left (looking forward to the Lincolnshire Poacher).

An hour or two later I was in my guest house, Tudor Cottage. Four star, and worthy of the rating – even better, £50 a night isn’t bad for Cambridge. Comfortable room with all the things you’d expect – TV, tea & coffee. But it’s the little things that make a difference. Free Wi-Fi offered by hotels or B&Bs is often intermittent, or only works in the lobby, or only works when it’s in the mood. No problems here. The tea choice was very good, too – as well as the usual, there were also others from the Twinings stable, one of mine being salted caramel green tea. Not unpleasant, but I’m not sure I’d consider my life incomplete if I never experience it again. The breakfasts too, were worth it, with plenty of choice on the menu. Proprietors were helpful and friendly, to boot.

So the Friday night was left over to a wander around Cambridge. Tea was a fish pie in The Eagle, former haunt of Crick and Watson. Expensive, but enjoyable. Then off to the Cambridge Arts Theatre for A Mad World, My Masters, adapted from the original Thomas Middleton text and set in 1950s Soho. Adapted, that is, by throwing in loads of knob gags and set in Soho by virtue of looking anywhere vaguely iniquitous. Ham acted, but it seemed to have been directed like that, so it was underwhelming to say the least. And that’s the RSC.

Saturday had more promise. Because of the insistence of some museums and galleries in Cambridge to stay closed on Sundays and Bank Holidays, I was going to have to do some of that on the Saturday. Except the God of Laziness had other plans, and so I only had time for a bit of a wander and a cup of tea before heading out to the crossword meet-up. That particular event was to be held at the Castle Inn, an Adnam’s pub with an apparently good reputation for food. A deserved reputation, one would say, from the quality of their Castle Burger. And a fine selection of real ales, too. The beer and crosswordy talk flowed for hours, culminating in a quiz mastered superbly by John Henderson, setter for the Guardian among others.

I chose to leave after the quiz and venture forth to find some theatre or other entertainment, and found it at the ADC Theatre, in the guise of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams’s verbose but much-acclaimed classic. This was an amateur production by the Combined Actors of Cambridge, and a very well-worked one. The action of the play is mostly carried by three characters – Maggie, Brick and Big Daddy – who all have a scary amount to do and say. And they did it superbly. The technical side of things was equally impressive. Given what I experienced the previous night, I can only reiterate what I’ve said many times before – that often, the difference between amateur and professional theatre is that amateurs simply don’t get paid.

Sunday brought me even more time to mooch about, seeing sights. Which is good, because if I was seeing sounds, or smells, or tastes, I’d be worried. Cambridge is a beatiful place to look at, but one must be careful of just staring at the lovely tops of buildings for too long, lest a stray temporary road sign gets caught under one’s foot and sends them tumbling over. Thankfully, I had my wits about me and just about managed to keep my footing, though passing motorists probably had a chuckle. In the afternoon, I met up with my old friends Steve and Sarah, now residents of Cambridgeshire. Both are fans of the ale, so it was inevitable that our meeting would involve a trip to a local hostelry. About four or five of them in fact. Or six. After a while, it was hard to keep count. But much real ale was enjoyed.

Somehow I managed to end up where I needed to be for that evening’s entertainment – Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman at Cambridge Junction. I’ve seen Sean’s brother Seth a few times; they’re from a Cornish musical family who have a great line in folk music and have always been very much worth watching (and crucially for musicians, worth listening to). This was no exception, despite being a smaller-scale concert than Seth’s shows – but where folk music’s concerned, scale is hardly a major factor. Hattie Briggs, the support act, put on a fine show, too.

Monday morning saw me leave the guest house and head back up north – but not before some further tourism. It’s a lesson I should have learnt a long time ago,but checking when museums are actually open is not my strong point, so I left Huntingdon having more experience of the local pie shop than the Cromwell Museum. So I wouldn’t say my time there was wasted. From there I headed to Peterborough, hoping to see their museum. Before that, however, I chose to have a look at their cathedral, knowing nothing of it. A beautiful building, as one expects from cathedrals, but I wasn’t expecting to see the grave of Catherine of Aragon, bearing the pomegranates (her symbol) put there by well-wishers. I’m no Monarchist, but to see the grave of someone of such importance to England’s history was moving.

After finding that Peterborough’s museum was also closed, Lincoln was the next stop. Steve and Sarah had given me tips – a whisk(e)y shop and a cheese shop were among its attractions. Hence the Cheese Society and the Lincoln Whisky Shop both got a little extra custom that day. I had a brief look at the castle, whose modernisation in parts made it feel tacky, and also at the cathedral, who wanted £12 for me to look at it. It didn’t get it. The Usher Gallery at The Collection was the first chance I’d had to visit a gallery all weekend, and despite being fairly small, didn’t disappoint.

But that was it for me, and soon I was back on the A1 after a memorable weekend.

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Ruth Ellis

February 19, 2015 at 10:28 pm (Theatre) (, , , , )

July this year will see the 60th anniversary of the last hanging of a woman in the United Kingdom. The woman was Ruth Ellis, a London nightclub hostess, divorcée and mother of two. Her crime was murder; she shot her lover, David Blakely, four times. The crime attracted a great deal of press attention, and her death sentence provoked angry protests by those wanting abolition for the death penalty.

At the time, and often since, Ruth Ellis has been painted as nothing more than a jealous, cold-hearted strumpet, who shot her boyfriend – the well-to-do, promising young racing driver – in a pique of jealousy. But that is to only give a blinkered view of the situation, to not look at Ruth’s life and what might have prompted a woman – who ran a high-end nightclub, who had celebrity friends and who’d even had a minor role in a Diana Dors film – to throw away a promising future when she would have known the penalty that faced her.

In truth, the domestic violence that Ruth suffered at the hands of David Blakely, only the latest in a string of abusive men in her life, was a crucial side of the case that many either failed to see or chose to ignore. So too were the personal tragedies Ruth suffered in the months before the shooting, which must surely have affected a usually calm and level-headed woman in a way many of us would find hard to imagine. There’s no doubt that she committed the crime – but what we can doubt is whether the abuse and mental suffering was ever given the attention it deserved.

In 1955, nobody really spoke about domestic violence or mental heatlh. Even in what we like to think are enlightened modern times, people still close their eyes to them – on the rare occasions they can be seen. Ruth’s story is as relevant today as it was 60 years ago.

And this is where the shameful plug comes in. Amanda Whittington’s play, The Thrill of Love, looks at Ruth’s story with all due sensitivity – showing, from her perspective, the troubled private life that led her to commit murder. I’m directing this play at The Royalty Theatre, Sunderland, with performances from 23rd to 28th March 2015. This paragraph might seem like cynical commercialism, but it’s an amateur production, not for profit, and for the reasons given above, it’s a story I believe needs to be told. Please come along if you can.

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The Scottish Referendum

August 30, 2014 at 3:52 pm (Politics) ()

The Scottish Referendum interests me greatly. My generation of fellow Englanders has only usually seen borders rearranged from a distance; they’re something that usually only happens to ex-Communist nations and war-torn parts of former empires. So it’s a breath of fresh air to see this happening close to home – in fact, only about 50 or 60 miles from my home.

From a moral point of view, I think it’s the right thing to do. The Scots should all have a chance to air their preferences, and the majority preference should be honoured, whatever that is. Personally, were I Scottish and had a vote, I’d probably vote yes – for the opportunity to have a government that’s more likely to understand me, my culture and my heritage. A number of people have suggested that all in the British Isles should have a vote, which I can understand, but having no Scottish heritage that I know of, I’d feel as though I were interfering by exercising that vote.

That aside, I’m looking forward to seeing what would change if we did vote yes. For instance, what would happen to the title of “Duke of Edinburgh”, and indeed its present holder? We’re told that we’d keep the Union Flag in its present form, but then we’d have a flag that represents Scotland, but not Wales. When Gibraltar come over to play Scotland in European Championship qualifiers, the Mediterraneans will be my compatriots, and the Scots the foreigners. Bizarre.

Would I need a passport to get to the Edinburgh Festival? How would that sit for Berwick Rangers’ travelling army of supporters? I’m told by a Shetlander that Shetlanders don’t consider themselves Scottish, and that there are some who would prefer being part of Norway (that being closer) in the event of a yes vote. At the very least, English barmen may no longer have to listen to cries of, “but it’s legal tender” when being offered a Scottish banknote.

My fear, however, is that people don’t listen to their own heads and hearts when deciding which way to vote. It’s not your standard election for a regime that will only last four or five years; it’s to all intents a lasting choice. Whether you think Salmond or Cameron is the right person to represent you is of no consequence – odds are in ten years neither will be any great shakes. Twenty, fifty, a hundred years down the line, even less so. Arguments about how good/bad either choice will be for the economy are specious – politicians have loved to use such arguments in recent years, hoping that there are enough people who don’t understand economics who’ll simply take their word for it. Even if either vote has a bad effect on the economy, that won’t last forever, and I repeat – this is a vote for the long term, not the short term, which ever way you vote. I really don’t want this to end like the AV referendum – bad politics on both sides, which leaves many voters confused and undecided, and simply voting for the devil they know, or abstaining altogether.

The short-term parliamentary impact is nevertheless another interesting aspect. Scotland currently has 59 Westminster MPs – 41 Labour, 11 Liberal Democrat, 6 Scottish National Party and a lone Conservative. Should a yes vote come through, independence would only happen in March 2016. If Labour win the general election in 2015, odds are that their Scottish MPs would make up a large part of their majority. It’s therefore possible that ten months into a new government, we’d need another general election – something which, again, few of my generation have ever seen.

So I’m supporting a yes vote, more for the moral reasons, but also from a sort of morbid curiosity. But I think it’s more important that people have a good think about their choice, whatever it is, and understand that it should be about Scotland’s WHOLE future, not merely about the next few years. Because that’s just voting for your own interests, and not for your country’s – whatever you consider your country to be.

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Washington Redskins – Back to the Present?

June 19, 2014 at 12:01 am (Politics) (, )

Interesting developments in US sport. The US Patent Office has, as of June 18th 2014, annulled all trademarks of the Washington Redskins NFL team, stating that their name was “disparaging to Native Americans”. This covers all references to “redskins” that they own, including the intersectionality-tastic name of their cheer squad, the Redskinettes.

This probably doesn’t come as any surprise, regardless of which side of the fence you take in arguments about political correctness. Indeed, the real surprise to me is that this has taken so long. It’s been a constant source of morbid wonder to me that a team in the 21st century was still allowed to carry such a moniker. We’re all very sensitive these days, and rightly so, about using racial slang, often just in case it’s considered offensive.

It seems, though, that there’s been a movement for a name change for some time. It’s interesting to note that numerous polls have been conducted on the issue, often with a majority of Americans not favouring a change. the majority, one assumes, would not be Native American. In polls exlusively among the latter, however, it seems that the name and logo of the Washington Team have long caused upset to Native Americans. That’s something that really shouldn’t be ignored.

How the team will react to this, especially with (I assume) no further control over use of their names and logos and therefore their corporate identity, remains to be fully seen. It would interest me, however, if a name change would open the doors to further changes in American sport. You might not consider the Cleveland Indians or Atlanta Braves to be as extreme as this example, but that might not be your choice.

I’d also be interested to see if this affected the Cleveland Browns – their name being a reference not to one of their early owners, Paul Brown, but to boxer Joe Louis, nicknamed by the white press of the day as “The Brown Bomber” – one of a number of sobriquets applied to him that included “Chocolate Chopper” and “Mahogany Mauler”. Again, you’ll have your own opinion on the acceptability of that case.

But it’s ironic that the sport which just drafted it s first openly gay player is still, in parts, stuck in Blazing Saddles-era America. I hope that the Washington franchise responds positively to this, listens to the concerns of the Native American community and thereby shows that American sport can be fully progressive.

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Retrospection

February 16, 2014 at 8:11 pm (Retrospection) ()

The usual end-of-year roundup. And not a bad one.

January: Performance of The Day after the Fair at The Royalty, directed by little old me. Supremely proud of the production and the response it got.

February: Saw The Mousetrap. Baffled as to why it’s so famous.

March: Trip to York to see Tara Fitzgerald in The Winter’s Tale. Worth the trip.

April: Performed in Proof at The Royalty, playing a Mathematician with mental issues. Worth seeing the film if you can.

May: Trip to Manchester for poetry, art and theatre. And real ale and and Hats. That’s like a holy pentanity, or something.

June: In the tech box for once, running lights for Deathtrap with Washington Theatre Group.

July: A camping and swimming trip, around the Northumbrian Coast. Swam at Low Newton and Sugar Sands, freezing cold but worth every penny of the wetsuit. Became vice-chair of the Royalty Theatre.

August: A break in the Lake District, firstly staying in Keswick and seeing some of the finest theatre I’ve ever witnessed, at the Theatre by the Lake. This was followed by some camping in Grizedale, now becoming a favourite camping haunt. And some swims in Grasmere and Rydal water, on warm sunny days in beautiful surroundings. Played the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland with Washington Theatre Group.

September: Another North-East Skinny Dip, preceded by an evening swim around the Farne Islands surrounded by seals. Easily the best experience of the year. Also, a trip to Brighton.

October: Playing Lennie in Of Mice and Men at The Royalty; easily the biggest acting challenge I’ve ever had. Still surprised that I got through it.

November: Finish playing Lennie. Suprised I got through it.

December: Crosswords turn 100. Well, it’s a big deal to me.

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Apples on Tour – The Lake District

December 30, 2013 at 6:44 pm (Apples on Tour, Stuff I do, Theatre) (, , )

Just realised I forgot to post this in August. I apologise sincerely to those whose lives have been irretrievably ruined by the transgression, and will undertake to have myself ritually flogged with an electric eel as soon as I can be bothered.

I’ve been visiting the Lake District regularly (at least once a year) for the past few years now, though only for camping trips to Grizedale, set nicely between Coniston and Windermere in the South Lakes. Last year, the trip was memorable for the wrong reasons – it was abandoned after half of the campsite nearly ended up as part of Morcambe Bay after a downpour that even surprised the local farmer. This year we decided on August instead of June in the hope of better weather, but I’d decided to test the humour of the weather gods by adding a stay in the North Lakes – Keswick, to be precise. I’d been once before, but then only for an afternoon about fourteen years previously – and a town with its own pencil museum cannot be disregarded so lightly.

The journey from Sunderland began with the A1 south as an entrée that I’m quite used to by now, nothing spectacular there. The main course of the A66 over the Pennines was still familiar, but much more beautiful as the Backbone of England rose on either side. Once into Cumbria, dessert was sumptuous. Huge green hills and valleys to the left and right; I have to admit that I was keeping somewhat under the speed limit to be able to appreciate it all (while keeping eyes on the road, obviously). Past Penrith and heading toward Keswick, all else seemed dwarfed by Skiddaw and other local peaks. Just before hitting Keswick centre, I stopped at the Castlerigg stone circle – a prehistoric site of the Stonehenge sort, just with smaller stones and no crossbars (which changed prehistoric football forever). But of more interest is the view – mountains all around: Causey Pike, The Catbells, Blencathra, Castlerigg Fell and Helvellyn – the best name of an English mountain ever.

That evening saw the first of three trips I’d planned to the Theatre by the Lake – this for See How They Run, a classic farce by Philip King with the standard mistaken identities and fast-paced comings and goings. Plus a bishop who looked a little like Bishop Brennan. A very good production, and a humorous way to begin the holiday.

Wednesday morning saw a trip to the Pencil Museum, Keswick having been the first pencil-producing place on the planet. Small, but perfectly formed, which is more than you could say for the Puzzling Place – a small museum about optical illusions. Probably more for kids, to be fair. The weather put the kibosh on plans to do a bit of walking, but another trip to the theatre later on proved a treat – Vincent in Brixton, a studio play about Van Gogh’s early adulthood in London, has to be one the finest pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen – acting spot on, set perfectly detailed and a captivating story.

Thursday’s weather was a lot better, so I took a trip to Ullswater in the hope of seeing those daffodils of Wordsworth fame – failed there. Maybe the wrong time or the wrong place, but I wandered lonely as a cloud around Glenridding anyway. Stunning views around Ullswater in the bright sunshine. I really need to go back to the lakes at some point and do some proper fell walking. The evening saw a walk around the Derwent close to sunset, before a final trip to the theatre – this time for ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore – a revenge tragedy in the Shakespeare mould, but with more sex and violence. And blood. I’m sure that was a real heart and blood in the final scene, though we’ll assume not human. But effective nonetheless.

So, that was three plays in three nights, all excellent productions drawing upon similar casts (six plays to choose from over the week; a good number of their actors appeared in three shows each). If I’m ever back in Keswick, I’ll have to visit again.

On Friday I checked out of the hotel, and headed for Grizedale, with some Wordsworth tourism on the way. Grasmere is home to his grave, as well as those of a number of his family, including his noted sister Dorothy. I saw those, and then headed to Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Museum, both worth a look if you’re a fan of the poet, or even of Dorothy. Grasmere is also home to Sarah Nelson’s Gingerbread shop. I’m no gingerbread connoisseur, but it was fine, fine gingerbread. Then, onto Grizedale to hope for great weather, which the BBC was not promising.

But the BBC weather people once again proved as useful as a sundial in Castle Dracula. Saturday was nice and sunny, so it was back off to Grasmere for a swim in the lake. Not too cold – certainly better than the North Sea was the previous month, and made all the better by beautiful mountainous surroundings. An hour’s dip was followed by pub lunch in the Eagle’s Head at Satterthwaite – the game pie there is one of the miracles of the modern world. It was the highlight of our ill-fated trip last year, and was no less wondrous this time around.

The downpours forecast by the BBC even stayed away on Sunday, when the weather was even better – only one cloud in the sky, wandering as lonely as Wordsworth. Thus a second swim in Rydal was enjoyed, again with mountains and trees and pastures and other assorted greenery all around. And again, followed by a pub lunch, and finally, the trip home. A wonderful few days spent in what I believe is the most beautiful part of the country.

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