I want the dog

I want the dog to come back
running
across the wet grass –
wet tongue hanging from
her happy mouth,
her tail wagging and snagged with
brambles.

I want her to bark.
I want her to have dirty paws
and one ear
folded back on itself.

But most of all
I want her to smell
of dog
and feel like
a dog;
and not just to look like
a dog
sitting in a field in a photograph.

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)

Salisbury and Stonehenge: touch and see

I spent the weekend visiting Salisbury with a friend. The trip wasn’t supposed to be quite so Salisbury-centric, but the weather and the tail end of a cold put paid to our original plans to go walking each day; and in the end all we managed was a five mile excursion round the barrows near Stonehenge.

Stonehenge i’ll come back to: i’d like to start at the beginning with Salisbury Cathedral. I have never thought of myself as the kind of person who enjoys visiting churches – or great buildings of any kind. Architecture is something i prefer to enjoy without analysis and formal gardens generally leave me cold. If i’m honest it was mainly the thought that the Cathedral would be drier – and maybe a bit warmer – than the streets and the hope that it’d have a bookshop that made me suggest to D that we visit it.

On arrival though it was love at first sight. Truly. It was a response that startled me and began even before we entered inside. The Cathedral has… an atmosphere… an ambience… that special something you can’t put into words without gushing or sounding like a ‘psychic’. Was it the proportions? The impression of simplicity? The setting? I don’t know but it had me hooked.

Inside my mood faltered momentarily in the face of a coachload of rude French tourists but was soon restored by the beautiful stained glass windows: blue and red; the light coming through the dark grilles; and the old wooden carvings. I lit three candles to departed loved ones in a side chapel – how rarely i have the chance to do this these days; i watched the workings of the mediaeval clock and i felt strangely touched by the sight of the crumbling 13th and 14th Century tombs. These were the kind decorated with a figure of a knight, apparently asleep. Some of them had been severely damaged: one was missing his nose, another his sword. We wondered if this had occurred during the Dissolution or if it had been inflicted by puritans during the Civil War.

What i loved more than anything was that you could touch as well as look. The lack of (refusal to grant) this is what frustrates me about art museums. What is the point of sculpture you can’t touch? I remember going to the Tate Britain just because they had a sculpture by Henry Moore which i was crazy about. I was frustrated beyond words by the fact that, though i could walk round it and look at it from nearly every possible angle, i could never run my hands over the statue’s stone curves.

What a contrast with Salisbury Cathedral. There was a sculpture on display called the Thornflower*, the work of an artist called Charlotte Mayer. Viewed, this wasn’t anything particularly special to tell the truth, but touched it was a miracle: the abrasion of the thorns contrasting the smoothness of the leaves. Pain and Suffering, pleasure and comfort, beneath your fingers. Even D, who’s a much more practical type of person than me, was affected by it and we both agreed it was the standout experience of the visit.

On to Stonehenge, which we visited on the Saturday morning – the only time it stopped raining all weekend for more than a few minutes or so! With Stonehenge you’re back to an art museum type of experience – albeit in the open air. You can walk around the Stones, following a path that’s been laid out; but you can’t approach them and definitely can’t touch them. I can understand this: the henge is 5,000 years old and even the most recently arrived stones are 3,000 years old. Nobody’s going to build another one. Yet out of reach Stonehenge feels like an image of itself rather than the thing itself. Awestruck and disappointed all at the same time i took photo after photo, trying to make contact with it via the camera; then i went inside and bought books, postcards, even a fridge magnet. Still, i came away feeling that i hadn’t quite been there.

*”A bronze and steel sculpture which grew out of the artist’s reflections on the death of her grandmother in Treblinka and ‘man’s inhumanity to man at other times’” according to an article in Inspire magazine.

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.