That shallow decade

In an article in the Times today Libby Purves assures us that the Tories have changed. What’s more so has Britain and we’re all the better for it. She’s talking about the Tories and the Britain of the 80s: the decade of Thatcherism, loadsamoney, Section 28, miners’ strikes and the Falklands War. She says:

[T]hat shallow decade can’t be repeated. Britain is — believe it or not — much pleasanter and more thoughtful than it was on emerging from the bruising, punkish, strikebound 1970s. During the 1980s, remember, hardly anybody in government gave a damn about the environment: debates about badgers and newts were confined to the backwaters of the House of Lords, and welfare organic farming — when we took it up in 1990 — was widely and viciously mocked. Homophobia flowered into Section 28 of the Local Government Act. Racial discrimination was technically illegal but dislike was open: who can forget Lord Tebbit’s weird remark on the Today programme about the Ugandan-Asian born Yasmin Alibhai-Brown :“This Miss Brown may think she’s British . . .”

I can’t help but admire the way Purves deftly palms off the blame for the aggressive atmosphere of ‘that shallow decade’ onto the one that preceded it, or rather its tail end when Labour were in power; but the 80s was a far more abrasive decade than the 70s. Where the 70s spat, the 80s bludgeoned. And bludgeoned and bludgeoned. It was as though Mrs Thatcher saw herself as Churchill in drag and her battles – with Argentina, with the miners, with anybody and everybody (even members of her own party) – as a second Second World War.

In a way it was a war, but Argentines aside, it was mostly a war with ourselves as we tried to work out who we were and what we believed in because this was the decade when the consensus around our national identity and culture broke down. The 70s might have been a decade of ‘socialism’ but it was also the last decade it was possible to talk unchallenged of Britain as a Christian nation. I remember the 80s as the decade in which my family stopped watching the Queen’s Speech on Christmas Day; the decade in which it became acceptable, even in the more conservative parts of the country, to live together ‘outside of wedlock’ (what a quaint expression that seems now); and the decade in which we stopped thinking of non-white Britons as ‘immigrants’, or at least started the process. It was also, courtesy of AIDS, the decade in which we started to openly discuss (and accept) homosexuality.

It’s really only now that i can see, looking back, what a time of upheaval it was. Despite the way in which Purves contrasts the 80s and the more socially enlightened times we live in now, it was the 80s when, half-hidden by the belligerent materialism of the decade, the very developments she describes began to put out shoots. It’s ironic really that the things the Tories wanted to preserve – monarchism, Christianity, marriage and so on – are the very things their economic philosophy helped to undermine. The more individuals were ‘encouraged’ to be self-sufficient, the more their dependence on (and consequently attachment to) traditional institutions weakened.

Whether or not that’s a good or a bad thing depends on your point of view. It has certainly created problems for us as a society, problems we have so far failed to find convincing solutions to. Dispersed and disconnected families, buildings in which so-called ‘neighbours’ live side by side for years without so much as speaking to one another, an increasing fear of crime – of being robbed or short-changed by A.N. Other; these are less pleasant manifestations of our modern self-oriented culture.

I wonder if we really are more ‘thoughtful’? I think we are certainly more careful in what we say about one another. But how much does that reflect progress in our attitudes and how much does it reflect the fact that without a common culture it is hard to work out what the boundaries of the acceptable are? We over-censor or we fail to censor ourselves at all. The war with ourselves has gone undercover now: it’s waged mostly anonymously via comments on news articles, and to a lesser extent on blogs and social network sites. I don’t know about ‘pleasanter’. To my eyes it looks vicious.

Borders are cool?

“Borders are cool” croons Welsh artist MC Mabon in the song of the same name. They have certainly always fascinated me. It began with my childhood in a village-turned-suburb on the border of England and Wales. We lived on the English side of the border but my Nan lived on the Welsh side; and so my early years were spent shuttling to and fro, crossing and recrossing the invisible line that – according to the map – divided the two countries. It was the border which defined us as a community in fact. We were the people who lived on the border, who belonged to the border itself rather than the actual countries on either side of it – all the more so because many of us were of Irish descent to boot.

Where was the border? I was always trying to pinpoint it; but there are no physical barriers between England and Wales, except those imposed by rivers. Still i used to imagine – in my childish way – that there was a real line somewhere, a kind of energy line, that would zap you as you passed across it. My mum used to point out a pub: “The border goes through that pub”, she’d say. According to her, there was time when licensing laws were different in England and Wales. The pub’s customers would move from one side of the pub to circumvent them. Crossing and recrossing, just like us.

I don’t know if the story’s true. What is true is that people have very complex relationships with these lines we draw in our world. On the one hand you have people prepared to die to defend them, on the other you have people – like the drinkers in the pub – to whom they’re at worst a nuisance, at best an opportunity. And then you have people like me for whom they form a part of their identity.

I’ve been reading a lot recently about borders and the effect they can have in preparation for my forthcoming trip to Turkey (and hopefully Greece). Twice A Stranger* by Bruce Clark looks at the massive population exchange between Greece and Turkey which resulted from the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. Over a million Greeks/Orthodox Christians and half a million Turks/Muslims were forced to migrate to the ‘right’ side of the border, as dictated by their religious identity. An invisible line had appeared in their world and it wreaked havoc – although not as much havoc as did the line which a couple of decades later divided India from Pakistan.

Many of the people who had to move between Turkey and Greece had lived a long way from the new border. The ‘Greeks’ often came from places like Cappadocia in the Anatolian interior; while many of the ‘Turks’ had been resident in Crete or in Greek Macedonia. Their stories are often traumatic; but what was it like for those people who found themselves living on or next to the new line itself – the border which now goes through Thrace? And how do the modern residents of the areas of Greece and Turkey which lie on either side of the border relate to it and to each other?

In any case, that border isn’t too problematic: the population exchange produced relatively homogenous populations which were easily identified with their respective nations. What about the border between Spain and France, however, which cuts through the territory of the Basque people, dividing rather than delimiting it? And then there are those darker borders, the ones designed to act not just as fences, but as impenetrable walls: the old border between East and West Germany, the modern border between North and South Korea for example. I remember visiting Cyprus in 1991 and being chilled (yet also mesmerised) by the border which divided the Greek and Turkish portions of the island. The images remain in my mind: glimpsing the other side of Nicosia, visible yet unreachable; gazing upon the no man’s land of Famagusta through binoculars – there was a city that had been destroyed by a border, stopped dead in time by it.

Thinking about the place where i grew up: what would it mean if the invisible line which runs through it suddenly became a real boundary? It might seem fanciful but what if it did happen? It needn’t be anything as dramatic or even tangible as the barbed wire fences that run through Cyprus (let alone the terrifying walls the Israelis have built between themselves and the Palestinians). As it stands the Anglo-Welsh border is politically only semi-active: it has an administrative function, one which has gained some power following Devolution; but to all intents and purposes life flows back and forth across the border without regard to it. The shoppers, the buses, the people out for a stroll only notice it, if at all, when they look at a sign and see that it is bilingual. If Wales were ever to become independent however, it could be a different story. What future can there be in a nationalistic world for communities which straddle two (or more) nations?

Alternatively, what would it mean if the line was removed altogether? Again, it might not seem likely at the moment, but it’s not impossible in the long run. Wales is far more vulnerable to assimilation by England than is Scotland: it’s smaller, divided within itself between north and south and between language communities; and it has a long land border with the English Midlands, a much more densely populated area. What if it were to follow Cornwall and become merged into England itself? The border would cease to exist and with it would go the identity of the border dwellers.

Indeed both of these two possible futures threaten that identity; the current border is a kind of unresolved problem and an identity based on it relies on the problem remaining unresolved. It relies on stasis. Yet in reality things do not stand still – not even in Famagusta, which is gradually falling down. Of course it’s also true that the solutions themselves aren’t permanent. Whatever lines we draw now, whether on maps or elsewhere in our world, will certainly be redrawn again in the future; it’s just a question of when and where. The tension inherent in this is in fact what gives a border much of its power: we’re as afraid of it collapsing as we are of being trapped by it. Equally afraid of both.

*Twice A Stranger. ISBN: 978-1862077522; author: Bruce Clark; pub. Granta Books (2006)

Eight rooms

On Saturday i went with a friend, B, to check out the Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition: Eight Rooms, Nine Lives. This is part of their season looking at Identity and Identification – of obvious interest to me as a trans person, especially as one of the ‘rooms’ was devoted to April Ashley, one of Britain’s most famous trans women.

As it happened, although Ashley’s room was interesting – especially the footage of her being interviewed by Michael Parkinson, it was the one which focused on the actress Fiona Shaw which made the greatest impression. It was supposed to demonstrate the multiple identities that an actor takes on; and, to this end, there were four or five TV screens on which you could watch Shaw playing various roles: for instance a mad woman in Gormenghast and a rather overwrought lady in an Ibsen play.

I can’t honestly say that i looked at these and saw someone changing their identity; but they were thrilling performances – Shaw is a true virtuoso. The standout was her portrayal of Richard II. For some reason though this only worked for me as an audio experience: if i looked at the screen there was no magic; but if i looked away and just listened I got goosebumps. It was that powerful.

I don’t think the issue was the ‘cross-gender’ casting – after all, her voice is just as female as her appearance; but rather that the physical aspect of her acting style is overdramatic. She has a tendency to gesture abruptly and stare wildly. Yet this exaggeration doesn’t carry through to her voice, so as long as you don’t look at her you aren’t bothered by it.

Not surprising then that the other exhibit which made a great impression on me was also audio-only. This had Shaw and her mother reciting a poem together. The idea here was to examine similarities and differences in their voices. For me, however, it was the relationship between them that was captivating: identity is interesting, human relationships are fascinating.

Other rooms focused on people such as Alec Jeffreys, who pioneered DNA testing, and Samuel Pepys – although in truth this room was really an exploration of diarists more generally. Some of these were interesting, but not always for reasons related to identity or identification (an old computer made you think of how technology had progressed, the cover of an old novel caused you to reflect on how illustration styles have changed). Only one disappointed where I’d been expecting great things: Claude Cahun, a French photographer obsessed with androgyny. The endless self-portraiture was exhausting and really rather boring: self speaking to self in a vacuum.

Overall, it was an interesting exhibition, if a bit uneven. B commented to me that she felt there was a lot of padding – exhibits that were very similar or of little relevance – and i agreed with her. I was also disappointed with the presentation. The rooms were little more than wooden partitions; little attempt had been made to make them feel like rooms or individual spaces of any kind.

More satisfying than the the exhibition is the book, ‘Identity & Identification’*, which has been published to accompany it. In it you find interviews with people as diverse as the singer Billy Bragg, the Jewish-British journalist Jonathan Freedland, the philosopher Julian Baggini, trans woman Roz Kaveney and the Somali-Dutch former politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Each interview is a thoughtful exploration of the person’s identity and in the case of the philosophers and scientists of identity as a concept and neurological phenomenon.

The depth and subtlety of the interviews is wonderful. Reading through them it came to me that identity is rather like an iceberg: we conceal more than we show. I can see two obvious reasons for this: the first is that aspects of our identity may rest on things which we feel might be contested or not understood by others; the second is that we take much of it for granted, so don’t think to ‘perform’ it. Unless asked, we may not even be aware of why it matters.

There’s a beautiful example of this in Jonathan Freedland’s interview. He says he identifies as Jewish, male and British in that order. When asked why he has singled out the fact that he is male, Freedland replies:

I suppose because i think it goes to something quite psychological – the inner voice as it were… And that, to me, feels like such a male voice.

As soon as i read his words i realised that this is also true for me – so true that i’d never even noticed. Fascinating from a trans point of view but also illuminating in a broader sense: we only really come to understand who we (feel we) are when we engage with others. Human relationships: not just more interesting than identity then, but essential to it.

All in all: 7/10 for the exhibition; 9/10 for the book of the exhibition.

* Identity & Identitification: ISBN 978-1-906155-86-5 (Black Dog Publishing)

Pictures of happiness

I’m currently reading Camera Lucida*,  a kind of meditation on the meaning of photography by the French philosopher Roland Barthes. It’s rather a mixed experience: one minute i’m thrilled, the next exasperated. Let’s leave that aside however; what i’d really like to talk about is a passage on page 10 where he writes:

… once i feel myself to be observed by the lens, everything changes: i constitute myself in the act of “posing”, i instantaneously make another body for myself, i transform myself in advance into an image. This transformation is an active one: i feel that the Photograph creates my body or mortifies it, according to its caprice…

Do you recognise what he’s talking about? Maybe it made you smile? Well, for me, reading those lines was like being struck by lightning.

Instantly, i remembered how in the years before i transitioned, i would smile as brightly and as widely as possible whenever i was photographed. This was truer than ever during the years of my marriage. I beam like a sun in practically every picture taken of me in that period; i gleam ecstatically. Yet that was the beginning of the long, slow unravelling that brought me to the point where i finally understood that i had to transition. It was a time when turmoil, pain and confusion reigned inside my mind.

So why the smile? The reason is simple: i believed that if all the pictures of my life showed me to be happy, then i would have been happy – not simply seemed to have been happy, but actually been happy. It was one of those beliefs that possessed me so deeply that i wasn’t aware of its existence.

Now it shocks me: not just the power i ascribed to photography, but the thrall that i was in to images in general. It’s as though i thought that they were realer than reality itself. My life at that time was a constant parade of impersonations of the female sex: i was ‘earth mother’, ‘sophisticated lady’, ‘out and out tart’ – sometimes all in the space of an afternoon! Even after my marriage broke down i didn’t abandon the attempt. It was only after i’d exhausted every version of ‘female’ i could think of that i gave in and bowed to the inevitable.

My naive belief in appearances reflected my own inability to understand why i couldn’t be a woman. I didn’t – couldn’t – recognise that gender identity has to have its roots inside a person. I thought it could be planted on the outside and cultivated till it flowered within. It also showed how deeply ashamed i was of my own unhappiness, the misery i didn’t understand and couldn’t name. What better way to hide a big, big sorrow than with a big, big smile?

* Camera Lucida (ISBN 978-0-099-22541-6; publisher: Vintage Classics)

A remarkable panorama

Yesterday i visited the British Library to see an exhibition of 19th Century photography. From my notebook:

Remarkable panorama* at the British library. Photographed in two halves in what looks like a back garden. Some of the people are in both parts. Doubling, mirroring, halving. The repeated figures are both more present and less. Are ‘they’ aware of one another? Alarming if they are, sad if they’re not – disturbing either way.

At first i found the idea of the Victorians playing with identity anachronistic. Could it really be the case? Perhaps they weren’t aware of the effect of multiple instances of the same person in what purports to be a single image. Was it just a matter of convenience? Was i only assuming that the violation of reality was deliberate?  Techniques like these are often used by artists in the 21st Century because we’re so conscious of our uncertainty; whereas in the 19th Century people’s sense of themselves was surely as solid as their furniture.

Yet when i thought again about the Victorians i began to wonder: in what way was their experience one of certainty and stasis? They were in the midst of the Industrial Revolution – has there ever been anything more disorienting or disruptive? If anything, the pace of change may have felt more dizzying than is the case today because we have habituated ourselves to instability. We have trained ourselves to throw away, to upgrade, to relentlessly move on. Were the Victorians the sure, stolid figures of our imagination or is our image of them as illusory as Fox Talbot’s panorama?

* The panorama was the work of photography pioneer, Henry Fox Talbot. The figures who people it are his employees. Unfortunately, it’s not among the photographs in the online slideshow which the British Library has created for the exhibition.