Wednesday 29 October 2008


The books did indeed arrive yesterday, and are very nice. I'm getting ready for the launch event at Standfords Bookshop. I'm taking a big bottle of my damson vodka along to help things out. The damsons came from the Downs.... the vodka came from Sainsbury's...

I'm really poor about remembering anniversaries, but I was reminded of this date by a chance remark a few days back. So. Today is the second anniversary of my going into Charing Cross Hospital for a major operation. Seems a long time ago now. Well, two years is quite a long time, I suppose. So that figures.

Sunday 26 October 2008

another launch

At last! The books will be here from the printers on Tuesday, and we do a launch at Stanfords in Bristol on Wednesday evening.

It says I did 'over 200 illustrations'. Gosh. I'm sure it's right. No wonder it took so long.

universal sufferage

I finally found the problem with the car, whose worrying squeaking had developed into an even more worrying graunching noise, accompanied by juddering.

Reader, it was the universal joint.

It was quite a relief, because

  1. It's always much nicer to know what a problem is, than to have a problem and not know what it is
  2. It was something I could fix myself
So I crawled under the car and uncoupled the drive shaft from the rear axle and pulled it off the gear box, and contemplated the Workshop Manual.

In obedience to the instructions, I applied gentle blows to the yoke with a copper mallet.

And then rather less gentle blows.

and then I used the blowtorch.

And soaked it in release oil.

And hit it lots.

And put it on a piece of teak (rescued from a skip some time ago. I knew it would be useful one of these days) and whacked it even more.

And finally it came off.

And then all I had to do was cycle across to the south side of Bristol for a new UJ (as we mechanical types call them)

And put it all back together again.

And now the car is working beautifully. At last.

Wednesday 22 October 2008


Right, back to the ordinary stuff of life.

I see that Richard has posted up the piece he did for Arena magazine about "Becoming Drusilla" back in August. Reaching out to Lad culture, as it were. Is Arena lad culture? I dunno. Well, getting the word out there, anyway.

And this morning I shall re-set the tappets on the Trav, and take it out for a bimble to see if I can identify the irritating little squeak. For half-term is almost upon us, and that means Adventures.


Tuesday 21 October 2008

nowhere to run to

I said in my previous post that I wanted to look more deeply at the Vancouver Rape Relief centre business. I'll flag a few points and then move on to my own experiences and opinions.

Kimberley Nixon, a transsexual woman, challenged the centre over its refusal to accept her for training as a counsellor. Here's the chronology as stated by the VRR themselves...

...and, from a write-up about the court case,

"Vancouver Rape Relief Society v. Nixon et al., 2003, Ms. Cormier listed the collective political beliefs that the Society requires its volunteers not to disagree with:

1. Violence is never a woman’s fault,

2. Women have the right to choose to have an abortion,

3. Women have a right to choose who their sexual partners are, and

4. Volunteers agree to work on an on-going basis on their existing prejudices, including racism.

The requirement that a woman be a woman from birth was stated to be complementary to the tenets to which all volunteers and members of the Society must subscribe in the Court of Appeal case. "

First, what Julie Bindel said in 2004, and what she stands by still:

The arrogance is staggering: having not experienced life as a "woman" until middle age, Nixon assumed "she" would be suitable to counsel women who have chosen to access a service that offers support from women who have suffered similar experiences, not from a man in a dress! The Rape Relief sisters, who do not believe a surgically constructed vagina and hormonally grown breasts make you a woman, successfully challenged the ruling and, for now at least, the law says that to suffer discrimination as a woman you have to be, er, a woman.

A few pointers:

Kimberley Nixon had herself been sexually assaulted. She had received support from another women's organisation at that time. Had she attempted to access the VRR, she would have been excluded for the same reason that they wished to exclude her as a counsellor. She had begun training as a counsellor with this other organisation, and was described as "exceptionally gifted". (reference here)

More widely, from my own experience and that of my friends:

  • Men can be violent to women
  • Women can be violent to women
  • Women can be violent to men
  • Counselling can be a pretty intense experience. You can either work well with a counsellor, or not. And there can be any number of reasons for that. And there are always other counsellors.
  • There are transsexual women, both 'out' and 'stealth', who work and have worked in women's refuges

O heck, that's enough of that. There's plenty of info out there, and any amount of noise and clutter, and slinging of terms like "male privilege", "cisgender privilege", "transphobia" and even "lesbophobia". You pays your money, you takes your choice. Do you suppose that Julie Bindel had taken the trouble to acquaint herself thoroughly with the facts (which, presumably, one would expect her to, given that she is supposed to be writing about them) when she described Kimberley as "staggeringly arrogant"?

Thank goodness, I've never been sexually assaulted. I've had verbal and physical abuse, and vividly remember the wholly world-turned-upside-down experience, after I was assaulted, not only of no action being taken, but of being myself blamed and told I'd been 'asking for it'. Not a unique experience, of course, but bear with me; it's never easy, I'm sure.

Sorry I keep coming back to the P&O business lately; it affected me deeply, and this present silliness is bringing it back.

After it was all over, I joined the Gender Trust because I wanted to be able to help other people who may be going through similar difficulties to myself. Maybe it's fairly normal; after the trauma and healing, an ardent desire to go out and make the world a better place. It didn't work out with me and the GT, as it happens; I guess I'm just not suited to committees and politicking. Anyway...

...I am very careful about entering women's space, personally, although in practice I haven't really had occasion to, beyond changing rooms and loos, of course. But that's my own life path. Fairly late transitioning, with a few indicators of my male history about me, in my features and my voice. I recognise that for some people I may be "something rich and strange". It can be a nuisance: at a local photographers' meet, there was a woman whose work I admire, and I was looking forward to meeting her.

As it happened, I couldn't get a word in edgeways.

She mailed me the next day and apologised, because, she said, she had been nervous and afraid that she might inadvertently offend me. I told her that being open about things was the best way to not be offensive... for my female friends, I think that for some I was or am on probation. Still wearing the L plates, as it were. Fair enough. It's a hearts and minds thing.

Mostly, I get treated as, er, myself. The 'man in a dress' thing? I've had that from a few males cited in the harassment case. And, evidently, that's what Julie Bindel thinks too.

It's a shame that there's so much shoutiness and divisiveness going on out there. While a major architect of it keeps quiet.

Monday 20 October 2008

Stonewall and Julie Bindel

So I wrote to Ben Summerskill at Stonewall this morning, adding my voice to the protests against Julie Bindel's nomination for the Journalist of the Year award. Text as follows:

Dear Mr Summerskill,

You’re probably sick to death of the finer points of this business by now, but I would like to add my voice to the protests at the Bindel nomination.

I believe that, by Stonewall’s own definition, Julie Bindel is transphobic. Nothing she has said since the notorious Guardian piece in 2004 has indicated that she has changed her opinion that transwomen are really men.

I understand that you are an LGB organisation rather than LGBT. But as a transwoman and a lesbian, I feel betrayed by this nomination. I urge you to withdraw it, however late the stage in the proceedings.

Yours faithfully,

....and then we had a chat on the phone. He said that, as the nomination had been made by Stonewall supporters, it would be impossible for the organisation itself to withdraw it. I suggested that Stonewall make some form of statement deprecating Julie Bindel's stated position on transsexuals, which ticks several of the boxes on Stonewall's own checklist of "what is transphobia?". Which includes these items:

• the belief that trans women are not “real women” because they have been raised and socialised as men
• the belief that trans men are not “real men” because they do not have, or were not born with a penis
• the belief that transsexual people are actually gay people in denial
• the assumption that transgender people are “sick” or that they are psychologically unstable
• when a transgender person is excluded from services, activities, discussions or decisions because it is felt that that person doesn’t “fit in”
• the refusal to recognise or acknowledge the true gender of a trans person and the continual insistence to refer to them by their former name

Meanwhile, Christine Burns, formerly of Press For Change, had lunch with Bindel and recorded the conversation. Some key points:

Julie acknowledged that "some of the things I said in the 2004 column were hateful and offensive and could actually incite offensive behaviour towards transsexual people"

(no fooling; I've been at the receiving end of precisely that sort of behaviour. The language used by Bindel in this article could just as easily have come from the hairy-arsed seafarers I was getting grief from at the same time... )

However, she said "I absolutely stand by the core premise which was my anger at a particular member of the community who almost brought a rape crisis centre to its knees; I have not changed my position on that case at all".

(...she refers to the refusal of Vancouver Rape Relief to employ Kimberley Nixon, a transsexual woman who had herself been the victim of domestic violence, as a counsellor. I want to examine this business at greater length. Later)

When Christine asked, "Am I a woman, for instance?" she replied "You have a right to self-determination. ....what do you mean by that? What makes you a woman? ...and part of that has to be the socialisation that we experience when we grow up girls in girls' bodies as they're growing up."

So that's 'no' ,then.

On what Julie characterises as the "sex change industry" "....traditional psychiatrists and medical practitioners see men and women as odd or suffering from a syndrome if they behave outside their gender norms, and I do think that practice continues in diagnosing people as transsexual", Christine quoted Stuart Lorimer, consultant shrink at Charing Cross, who said that, on this matter, Julie was "spectacularly ill-informed".

"There's a difference between being spectacularly ill-informed and having a different opinion", said Julie.

Now, I've been to Charing Cross. I've seen several shrinks there, including Stuart Lorimer. I agree with him, and not because I've got Stockholm Syndrome but because he is intelligent and questioning and knowledgeable. Julie is consistently missing the point about transsexuals: it's not about gender roles, it's about being the sex we identify as. She misrepresents what actually happens in gender clinics. Given that this is supposedly her specialist subject, in my book I'd call that pretty spectacularly ill-informed.

Julie says she wants to "continue a debate about the so-called condition and about surgery as a solution to the diagnosis of transsexualism".

Well, yes, of course she does, because it's column inches for her, but why indulge her? -and is it a debate anyway? In these four years, she hasn't really changed her position, which is based on ideology, always a bad starting point for a discussion on medical matters. Why should we be constantly expected to explain ourselves to her, when she doesn't actually listen? -why does she want to explain us to ourselves or to deny us treatment (beyond 'talking therapies'), when she doesn't have the courtesy either to study the subject properly or to think outside her own box?

Hopefully, Julie and her moth-eaten and simplistic theories will slide into the dustbin of history. Along, perhaps, with Stonewall, who don't seem to want to or be able to shift on this one.

Friday 17 October 2008

the emperor's new sock puppet

Peggy (an artist's impression)

Back to the Bindel story. Now, a few years ago, in the aftermath of her Gender Benders Beware piece in the Guardian, there was a lively discussion going on about it on Technodyke, an internet forum which does what it says on the tin. Or did; it no longer exists in quite the same form, alas. Anyway, a newbie, Peggy by name, weighed in in support of Julie Bindel, and said nice things about her and snarky things about the trans women on Technodyke. Only it turned out that it wasn't Peggy but Julie, using an assumed identity. Peggy/Julie was thrown off Technodyke by the site owner, who deprecated her narrow-minded divisiveness. Life went on.

Apparently this practice of using an assumed online identity to promote one's own cause or, heck, create mayhem or whatever, is called sockpuppeting. This word makes me happy, and here in the Schloss we adopted it for a while as a gentle term of abuse.

OK, here's what's been happening over the last few days.

Stonewall and the Gender Trust have had a little chat, which went something along the lines of:

Gender Trust: We are unhappy that you have nominated a transphobic woman for your journalist of the year award

Stonewall: We understand that you are unhappy, but there aren't that many journalists on the national papers who identify as lesbian, and she hasn't written anything particularly transphobic in this last year, has she?

Gender Trust: Oh all right then, let's do lunch sometime. What're you drinking?

This didn't go down too well with the hoi polloi. There have been resignations from the GT. Other people, including myself, would have resigned if they hadn't already resigned for.... other reasons.

Plenty of seething grassroots activity going on . There is going to be a protest outside the V&A on the night of the Stonewall beanfeast. Julie has told Sarah, one of the more articulate objectors, that she has shown her stuff to a libel lawyer. It's nice to be appreciated, Sarah...

...and a Facebook group has formed to muster support for Julie, proposing a counter-demonstration in favour of her. It will be interesting to see how many of this group owe their origin to the hosiery section at Marks and Spencer.

If you would like to sign the petition deploring Stonewall's invitation to Julie Bindel, then here it is

...there is change in the air, I feel. This may be only a small pond, but it's the one I'm swimming in. Bear with me.

Wednesday 15 October 2008

through the square window

This is to illustrate Geraldine's latest piece for the Bristol Review of Books. I am very pleased because I couldn't think of anything for ages and ages, and then I started it this morning and just did it. And now it's done and I can stop worrying about one more thing.

The other thing I can stop worrying about is the car.

After rebuilding the engine, it was still getting too hot, and I decided that having eliminated all the other possibilities, it was time to bite the bullet and change the radiator. So I did. And now the temperature climbs sedately to 80C, then slowly drops down to 70ish as the thermostat opens, and then climbs back up to 80 again, and so it see-saws up and down as we bowl along. Better than the telly, it is.

Monday 13 October 2008

an owl's cry, a most melancholy cry

I spent some time driving up and down motorways this weekend, taking K to and then from the Other Parent. It was a beautiful autumn day, and very hot. So hot indeed that I was worried about the engine temperature, and drove with the heater on full blast and windows wide open. When I arrived at the rendezvous, Checkpoint Chav, a motorway service station in the Midlands, I brewed up some water on the Trangia...
(Richard demonstrates the lighting of the Trangia) top up the radiator. It was fun. I must remember to pack all the stuff for making a brew, so I don't have to buy the expensive drinks they sell in these places. Though brewing up in service stations is hardly The Call of the Wild...

Heading home again, we came down the Welsh border. I'd hoped to make it to Symond's Yat in time for the sunset, but at least we were there to admire the mist in the valley below. And the moon glinting on the river, and the lights of two anglers wading far below. And the bats. And the owls, which were hooting up and down the Wye gorge. Hence the title of this piece, which comes from an Edward Thomas poem I remember from school. Although for me it was a nice melancholy. Must be that Welshness rubbing off on me.

Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved,
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.

Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl's cry, a most melancholy cry.

Shaken out long and clear upon the hill
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.

And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered too, by the bird's voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.

Saturday 11 October 2008

o look a dinosaur

Way back in January 2004 I sailed off to Falmouth on the Pride of Bilbao, for its annual refit in the shipyard there. I was a bit concerned about my personal safety; a few months earlier, the storekeeper (and RMT representative) had shouted at me, in front of the engine room crew, that I was "going to get done.... not if, but when", after I'd ripped up a pornographic calendar which had been graffitied with an obscene reference to me. Since that time, I'd always watched my back. But shipyards can be dangerous places in the dark. So I was worried.

Fortunately (and I use the word carefully) this fellow had been involved in a car accident, and had gone on what proved to be a protracted sick leave. So that was one thing less to worry about.

Eventually, of course, I was actually assaulted by someone else, and that brought to an end my time working for P&O. Not the end of my experiences with the company, though; I prosecuted a case for harassment against them, of course. It was funny, in a not-very-funny sort of way, hearing the stuff about me that the engine room troglodytes came up with during the case in an attempt to exculpate their behaviour. It was as though they were talking about a different person. Which they were. There were two versions of me; the actual me, and the one that the trogs described, which had no basis in reality, but was cobbled together from a ragged fabric of prejudice and bigotry. Very odd experience, let me tell you, encountering a bunch of people who look at you and perhaps even talk to you but don't hear you and don't see you but see something else entirely. But that's another story. Sort of.

Anyway, back in Falmouth. I bought a copy of the Guardian, and found an article by Julie Bindel called Gender Benders Beware, in which she exulted in a court ruling in Canada which vindicated the refusal of Vancouver Rape Relief to employ Kimberley Nixon, a transsexual woman who had herself been the victim of domestic violence, as a counsellor.

The arrogance is staggering: having not experienced life as a "woman" until middle age, Nixon assumed "she" would be suitable to counsel women who have chosen to access a service that offers support from women who have suffered similar experiences, not from a man in a dress! The Rape Relief sisters, who do not believe a surgically constructed vagina and hormonally grown breasts make you a woman, successfully challenged the ruling and, for now at least, the law says that to suffer discrimination as a woman you have to be, er, a woman.
A pretty odious article all round, really, and a bit of a surprise; I knew that opinions like that espoused by Bindel had been around in the 70s and even 80s, but had naïvely assumed that they'd gone the way of the dinosaurs. Apparently not.

"...those who "transition" seem to become stereotypical in their appearance - fuck-me shoes and birds'-nest hair for the boys; beards, muscles and tattoos for the girls. Think about a world inhabited just by transsexuals. It would look like the set of Grease."

Bindel does pop up now and then, repeating her party line that gender is a social construct (and so is sexuality, apparently). Maybe she thinks that if she shouts the same thing over and over again it makes her an expert on the subject. Sadly, she gets platforms for her views. She was doing it again on the BBC last year, when she proposed the motion, on the programme Hecklers, that "gender reassignment surgery is unnecessary mutilation". I think that it works something like this: as I am a gay man, I wanted surgery so that I could have relationships with men in a socially normative way. Whereas what I really should have done was challenge stereotyping and be myself. A gay man, out and proud, presumably.

Unfortunately, from that perspective, I fail on two counts. IDing not as male but as female, for one thing, and not being attracted to men but to women, for another. Which makes me a lesbian, in my book, and therefore one of those letters in the LGB, but not the same as the one Ms Bindel wants to assign me, which is at least disrespectful of her. And another thing. My personal experience, and that of many people I know personally, runs directly counter to the view expressed by Julie Bindel here, in the Guardian again:

"Feminists want to rid the world of gender rules and regulations, so how is it possible to support a theory which has at its centre the notion that there is something essential and biological about the way boys and girls behave?"

O well. It's a living, I suppose. As it happens, I think that 'gender rules and regulations' are silly and limiting, and adhered to by boring people. But I do wish she wouldn't take it upon herself to keep telling me what I am, or am not, with ideas based upon a flawed ideological approach rather than the inconvenient observable facts. Because there is something essential and biological about the way boys and girls behave. As any fule kno.

I only bring the subject up again because I learned today that Stonewall, who describe themselves as an LGB campaigning organisation, have shortlisted Julie Bindel for their award of Journalist of the Year.

Maybe I shouldn't get worked up about it; at £150 a ticket for the event at the V&A, it's a bit of a champagne gay event, and I'm far too busy getting on with life, fixing engines, cooking, cleaning (well, sometimes), drawing, and being a single parent, thank you very much. But I am a bit disappointed in them. I know that Bindel has written on other topics too. But I suppose it's as if the RMT had shortlisted Mussolini for the "getting the trains to run on time" achievement award at their annual bash. Perhaps I shouldn't take it personally, but I do.

Bright Field

I was talking about poems with Anji, and how I found my way to some of them, and I wondered if I could find the picture I did to accompany this poem by RS Thomas, which I did as a sort of goodbye to a place and a person.

And I did find it.

And hey, it's an autumn morning and that is reason enough for a spot of hiraeth.

The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

R S Thomas

Friday 10 October 2008

wonderfully far and high

...a star shone over Bristol, wonderfully far and high...

I had a very Useful day yesterday; the tandem that we do the school run on had shed its chain the day before, so I had to do a bit of repair and adjustment. Then I painted the woodwork on the Trav with linseed oil, to keep the weather out. And repaired a drainpipe on the porch, which had been left unrepaired by the useless clots who had come in to repair the damage wrought by the rainwater that had escaped from the broken drainpipe... and when I came out of Wild Goats with the flour for the breadmaking, there was a woman whose bicycle chain had fallen off the sprocket and jammed. So I fixed it. She was happy, and bought me a couple of samosas from Wild Goats as a thank you. And most annoyingly, I'd forgotten her name by the time I got home, because I am useless at remembering names unless I go out of my way to create a mnemonic. And I really want to be able to remember names, because I think it's rude not to.

But I really should be getting on with Big Projects.

Richard has disappeared into the desert. He is wandering around somewhere in Israel, for purposes which will doubtless become apparent in due course. I think that there may be Anglicans involved. It all makes me think of Sir Walter Scott's The Talisman, which has got a Crusader stumbling upon a secret Christian sect in chapels and tunnels carved out of the rock under the deserts of the Holy Land, and is totally barking. Like, several days into barking country, if you see what I mean. I'm sure that Richard's experience will differ radically from that of Sir Walter Scott. Well, I hope so.

Tuesday 7 October 2008

canoeing to Chepstow (part 4)

From the archives... this is an account of a canoeing trip from Severn Beach to Chepstow that Richard and I did, ten years ago. Serialised, for ease of digestion.

Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4

A dark shape flitted across the water. "Porpoise!", I cried, pointing helpfully. Richard raised a quizzical eyebrow. I looked up. "All right, then, seagull's shadow. But it might have been a porpoise." The eyebrow remained quizzical. We paddled on in silence. Occasionally, as is the way of canoeing, the front end would spontaneously decide to swing off in an entirely different direction to that which we intended, and we, having no apparent say in the matter, would follow it. So we would pause, and review our progress, looking back at the rather dull suburban houses of New Passage, growing smaller with each gyration, and fail to make out either P or Sprout. And we would propound theories about why canoes do that, or at least, why this particular one does it. Richard opined that it was down to eddies. I took the engineering approach, maintaining that it was just one of those things.

We were getting along just fine.

"Proper Preparation and Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance," Richard intoned portentously, or, indeed, Portentously. Certainly, we had left little to chance.

Richard and P had been alarmed at Clive's reaction to our proposed voyage. Clive is very much the outdoors type; he has climbed just about every vertical inch of the Alps and the Himalayas, and probably the Andes too, as an afterthought; and, more pertinently, he has canoed about a bit, including an intrepid trip through the dank and rat-infested tunnels under the centre of Bristol, where the River Froome has got swallowed up by the city over the years. But Clive seemed rather to balk at the notion of crossing the Severn Estuary, when we mentioned it while we were round at his house, borrowing a replacement paddle. Richard got nervy at this reaction. He got on the phone to HM Coastguard Centre at Swansea, and was told austerely that "As long as you take the right precautions, I don't see why there should be any problem." This slightly Delphic utterance was, of course, a standard “cover your arse” sort of response; but Richard seemed slightly reassured.

I pored over OS maps, the Admiralty Tidal Stream Atlas, and the Bristol Channel Tide Table. Having things quantified and down in print on a page in front of me is vaguely comforting, even when they are incorrect or they say things like


The waters from the Severn Bridge to the River Avon can be rough and there is virtually no shelter. The tidal streams are very strong, reaching 8 knots on full flood and ebb and sea conditions can deteriorate sharply when the wind is against the tide.

I didn't let Richard see that bit; he would only have worried unnecessarily.

The weather forecast, at least, couldn't have been better- "Lundy, south westerly, two, occasional three, fair, good." So the wind and the tide would be in the same direction. And the tide was a neap. This confused Richard, who thought it only fitting that, at this season of the year, it should be a spring tide.*

And now here we were, bobbing around, several fathoms above the ooze where old shipwrecks lay swallowed up and forgotten, looking like a regular pair of cockleshell heroes rigged out in waterproofs and lifejackets, with smoke flares taped to our arms (so they wouldn't get lost in a capsize), a useful Tupperware item to bale out water, should it get in in any quantity, a map and compass and pencil in the unlikely event that I should have the opportunity to fix our position by triangulation (something of a waste of time in these circumstances, but fun to try), and boiled sweets and, in Richard's case, cigarettes. And, where a sailor of old would wear a gold earring to pay for a Christian burial wheresoever his corpse may be washed up, I, more practically and more optimistically, had a five pound note in my pocket to buy beer.

What the hell, I thought, and had another sweet. This was the placid part of the voyage, in limbo between the bustle of departure and the bother of a landing. Scarcely a ripple disturbed the water, save where a distant catspaw idly dabbed the surface, or where a back-current running alongshore over the nearby Mathern Oaze* swung out into the main stream. The little boat which we had seen the day before continued to ply its way to and fro, to and fro; then, losing interest as lunchtime drew nigh, it diverged on an urgent voluntary errand, and went chugging off in the direction of Avonmouth. To the south, the Avon and Somerset Constabulary's Twin Squirrel helicopter patrolled the complex of motorway junctions, looking for trouble. There'd be no shortage of people to spot our smoke flares in the unlikely event that we should come a cropper; nor of people to come to our aid. I quite fancied the idea of being winched aboard a helicopter and plied with black coffee laced with rum. On the other hand, I also quite liked it where I was; the spring was well advanced in the direction of summer, and the water, if not actually warm, was at least not of a temperature to knock the breath out of you and give you a life expectancy measured in minutes. We could always swim ashore, or just lie back and be carried to our journey's end.

Presently, and all too soon, we approached Beachley Point, crossing the area where the flood was making up its mind whether to swing left to Chepstow, or right to Gloucester. We took to the paddles, heading north for a while, in case it decided to take us with it up the Slime Road. The water eddied and whorled, and gobbets of sediment, of varying degrees of opacity, rose to the surface, in a manner reminiscent of those revolting lava lamps which enjoyed a vogue back in the wild days of the 1970s. Where yesterday all had been greyness, now every shade of brown seemed to be represented here, under the beneficient agency of the sun.

* Tidal range (the difference in height between high and low tides) is at its greatest at the full and new moon. Tides at these times are called "springs". And the tidal range is at its least at the time of half moons. Tides then are called "neaps". Because of all the extra water at spring tides, currents tend to be at their greatest then.

* Some local names for features in the landscape of the shores of the Bristol Channel:

Oaze: a mud-bank. The term is described by OED as obsolete.

Pill: a tidal creek

Rhine, or reen: "a large open ditch or drain" (OED)


The banks drew closer on either side. We shot under the motorway, and rounded the bend which cut off our backward view of the Severn and made us feel that we were now on a proper river. The banks remained estuarine, though; in the rank sedges and the pills, flotsam and jetsam (but chiefly flotsam) lay higgledy-piggledy; plastic drums, plastic bottles, plastic everything, bits of old tat, oil-stained, mud-stained, unloved and unlovely; or, dislodged by the rising waters, it bobbed along in search of a new home. A digger was at work banking up soil in the region of some rather nasty new bungalows, perhaps to keep the water at bay, perhaps to hide their faces for shame. They looked forlorn and exposed. Still, better to stick nasty bungalows there than somewhere nice, I supposed. An elderly couple stood by a For Sale sign. Perhaps they liked the view of the motorway.

Just behind where they stood, on a rise called Buttington Tump, a Danish host which had come across from Essex back in 894 had been encircled by the a force of King Alfred's levies and a contingent of Welsh . A stand-off evolved, as Alfred himself was busy in Devon with another host, and his thanes were reluctant to take the initiative; until they had run out of food and finished eating their horses, at which point they rolled up their sleeves and got stuck in. 'And,' as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle puts it, 'the Christians had the victory.'

There was much of this sort of thing going on in those times, with bunches of Danes wandering about, acting loutish and stealing whatever they could, in a manner rather akin to the more imaginative gutter press descriptions of New Age Travellers. What with the ratepayers enduring these antics and having to support Alfred's men as well, it was scarce any wonder that food and the lack of it was a constant preoccupation. In 915 the remnants of another host, finally beaten after ravaging their way up the Welsh bank of the Severn estuary, were trapped on the island of Steepholme, where some of them starved to death, and the remainder eventually escaped through Dyfed to Ireland. Presumably they had been waiting for a favourable wind. More peacably but perhaps rather alarmingly, the seas were also occasionally punctuated by boatloads of pilgrims such as those who, in 891, were washed up in Cornwall, having set off from Ireland without any means of propulsion 'because they wished for the love of God to be on pilgrimage, they cared not where'.

I certainly cared where, for my own part; the afternoon had now arrived, or, more pertinently and bearing in mind the five pound note in my pocket, the sun was over the yardarm; and the flood tide was beginning to fail. We passed wharves and jetties, where well-tended boats bobbed jauntily, and ill-tended boats, attaining a level of decrepitude unattainable by any other form of transport, sank uncomplainingly into oblivion. Close by an imposing cluster of industrial buildings, equally idle, sat a group of workmanlike boats; Resolute Lady, a tub of a thing with a mechanical digger lashed onto her front end, thus transforming her into a dredger; Hook Sand of Hull, a purpose-built dredger, with a large portable generator lashed onto the after deck, thus, presumably, transforming her into a dredger with an auxiliary power supply. Here, clearly, was an outfit with a talent for the ad hoc solution. A caterpillar digger on the quayside was paused from the work of unloading, while the driver welded something back onto it. Above and around him, oil seeped from leaky hydraulic seals on the digger arm and dribbled, disregarded, to the ground. It was heartening to see some evidence of industry in these otherwise neglected wharves.

We rounded the last bend, beneath a railway bridge which appeared to have been built upside-down, and sighted the rather charming iron bridge and, beyond and above it, the castle of Chepstow. On the town side of the river, elderly people, singly, in pairs, or with small dogs, promenaded by the bandstand, or supped tea and buns at the Wye Knot cafe. A pleasure boat, Toura D, fluttered a red dragon ensign, defying the slightly irregular Union flag which had been painted on the lower reaches of the cliff which rose on the English side of the river. The cliff rose sheer for a couple of hundred feet, to where villas peeped coyly from the wooded upper slopes. Less coyly, a gardener appeared at the top and hoiked a pile of garden rubbish over the edge, and followed it with a black plastic bag which disembowelled itself on the way down and garlanded a bush above the water.

"Bloody English," I said, taking the Welsh part in this case, on the grounds that I have lived among these people and do not understand them. But then, this was more an example of people's attitudes in general to waterways and their use as an oubliette. Up there in the castle, there still exists a rather dramatic privy, poised over the clifftop with a view of the water far below through the aperture. It looked rather fun, though I wouldn't like to use it when an easterly was blowing. And it was at least disposing of something the fish might gain something from.

Already the tide was ebbing. We disembarked gingerly on a pontoon, and scrambled up the bank. Alas, no welcoming committee. An elderly couple paused as we removed the more outlandish features of our canoeing garb. "Where've you come from?" the man asked. "Bristol," I replied, in a pathetic and not entirely honest attempt to sound impressive. It didn't work. They were entirely unimpressed.

canoeing to Chepstow (part 3)

From the archives... this is an account of a canoeing trip from Severn Beach to Chepstow that Richard and I did, ten years ago. Serialised, for ease of digestion.

Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4
Meanwhile, back in the 19th century, the advent of steam had increased the degree of reliability of transport up and down the estuary. Several city-to-city shipping services were up and running; the St George Steam Packet, which called in at Tenby on its way from Bristol to Ireland; the Merthyr Packet, which sensibly ran from Bristol not to Merthyr but to Cardiff; and the Bristol and Chepstow Steam Packet, whose 'fast-sailing iron steam packet WYE' offered a passage in under two hours for anything from a foot passenger (1s 6d) to a four-wheel carriage (15s), and a linked coach service to Monmouth. But the timetabling of the services was, as ever, subject to the tides.
Then came the railway tunnel. Construction began in 1873, and, despite serious flooding when a huge underground spring was struck near Sudbrook, followed by inundation by a tidal wave in 1883, passenger services began in 1886 "without fuss or demonstration of any kind... with a freedom from smell truly marvellous." This spelt the end for ferry services, which would not revive until motor vehicles started making their presence felt.
Messing about in boats became a popular recreational activity, though. In 1887, P&A Campbell moved to Bristol from the Clyde, where their passenger service had likewise been rendered obsolete by the railway. They operated a fleet of paddle steamers, which ran into pretty well all the Bristol Channel ports until 1971, when they withdrew from the upper Channel. Today a summer pleasure cruise service is provided by Balmoral, an old Clyde motor ferry; and, occasionally, Waverley, a paddle steamer from that same region.
We Britons are proverbially endowed with a genius for queueing; looking at old photos of the Campbell steamers, one sees this genius in its expression. Long, long ranks of trippers stand stoically along quaysides and decks from Bristol to Barry (not in one continuous queue, obviously), awaiting their turn to embark or disembark. Scarcely to be wondered at, then, that, when motoring became affordable to the masses, those masses took readily to the relative freedom of the road. The native genius could not be kept down, though; presently, the little ferry boats carrying cars across the Aust Passage enjoyed their own ranks of stoic supplicants. Queues, now, for the Modern Age; at once in close proximity to our fellow citizens, and cut off from them, ensconced in their beloved motor cars. Presently the passengers were able to entertain themselves, while awaiting their turn on the boat, by watching the construction of the new Bridge, right there above them. When the Bridge opened, in 1966, people came in their cars from miles away for the privilege of queuing up to drive across it. And then off they went to queue somewhere else. Until so many of them were doing it, that the Bridge itself became a bottleneck, and a second one was deemed necessary. And behold, in 1996 it too opened. But this time, not so many people came to queue up for the first mad scramble to, or from, Wales. Alas, we are become old and cynical.
Back at the observation platform at Aust, I wiped the lenses of my field glasses, which had become spattered with rain, and looked again at the little boat chugging to and fro just below the Bridge. From the pier where the electricity pylon hefted its lines far above the water; across to the islet at Beachley Point where the ruined chapel of St Tecla failed to look romantic; then round and back again. What was he up to? Taking soundings? Practicing for an invasion? Well, whatever; who could say; we had problems of our own.
Richard peered glumly through another pair of glasses. P, my partner and, for the purposes of this expedition, transport manager, turned in disgust from the coin-in-slot binoculars which she had just fed, and which had repaid her with a fuzzy and not-very-magnified view. Sprout snuffled in her harness, snug inside my coat, and dislodged her hat. We were a ghastly crew. I thought of that bit in the film "The Battle of Britain", when the head Nazis stand on a clifftop in the Pas de Calais and peer at England through their great big binoculars, smacking their lips all the while in a Hunnish sort of way. I hoped that our projected expedition would enjoy better success than their little venture.
From the south-west came a vigorous breeze, which felt every bit of the Force 4 which had been foretold on the shipping forecast that morning. It harried the grey clouds towards us. It chivvied the flood tide in the direction of Gloucester. Round the bridge piers, the grey water eddied and churned into a lighter shade of grey. The distant hills were grey, before they became blotted out by the mist. Only the complex of chimneys and inscrutable tall structures at the Avonmouth chemical works, a few miles downstream, failed to look soluble; but they made up for this with the vapours which emerged from their top ends and contributed to the general airborne greyness.
The plan had been to launch the canoe at the old Aust ferry slip. It being four miles from there to Chepstow bridge, I figured we'd need an hour to get there, and that, if we started an hour before high water, we'd be carried up the Wye on the dying flood. It was now apparent that this would be impossible, a prognosis which confirmed the admonitory tone of my Bristol Channel tide table;
"In position 51º 36'N; 2º 36'W* (The Shoots), Tidal Streams attain between 3 and 8 knots. There is virtually no slack water period."
At least we could savour the descriptive nature of place names like 'The Shoots', whence the tidal stream was even now being propelled up through the straits towards Whirls End, a point a little beyond the Hen and Chickens, a rock formation the inspiration for whose nomenclature required a prodigious leap of imagination; and then, should the water, having tired of whirling, choose to veer to the left a little, it would find itself travelling along the enticingly-named Slime Road, hard by Sedbury Cliffs. As, indeed, should we, were we foolish enough to try paddling from Aust.
An alternative plan suggested itself. The turbulent and fast-flowing nature of the water here was exacerbated by the constriction of the river at this point; a mile from shore to shore, rather than the two miles or so which were more the norm for some distance both upstream and downstream. Were we to launch from New Passage, a few miles down the coast, we could paddle in a north westerly direction; the tide would carry us to the north east; and, in the elegant way of those vector triangles which were such fun to draw in long-ago maths lessons, we should find ourselves propelled rapidly to the north, straight up the Wye to Chepstow.

go to  Part 4

* I would not knowingly reproduce incorrect information without qualifying it. These co-ordinates actually give the position of a field between Aust and Littleton upon Severn, Gloucestershire. The field contains an electricity pylon and the Old Splott Rhine. The Shoots may be found at 51º 34' 30"N, 2º 42'W. I am a bit of a pedant, as you see.

Monday 6 October 2008

canoeing to Chepstow (part 2)

From the archives... this is an account of a canoeing trip from Severn Beach to Chepstow that Richard and I did, ten years ago. Serialised, for ease of digestion.

Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4

The canoe seemed tatty but chiefly sound. We took it to Bristol Harbour to test it. Ten yards out, the blade of my paddle snapped off. Thrown off balance, I dropped the remainder of the paddle. Richard back-paddled, but both parts had sunk without trace. We meandered about in the freshening breeze, getting splashed by the odd overenthusiastic wavelet. The sky turned even more grey than it had been. Odd drops of rain spattered us. It was a cheerless prospect. But we didn't sink. So we went to a dockside pub instead, and toasted our endeavour. Richard, at least, seemed sanguine. I was being ambivalent, although I wasn't going to let on. I thought of the words to the old Royal Flying Corps song, "...a drink to the dead already, Hurrah for the next man who dies."
People have been going to Wales by boat from Bristol for ages. Just up the way from where I live in Bristol, at Sea Mills, or Abonae as they called it, the Romans did it, initially as part of their vigorous foreign policy, biffing the Silures, the Celtic tribe of the Fisher Kings, who occupied the south east corner of the country and looked out from their hilltop fastnesses across the rich coastal plain to the Severn, or Hafren, at once a barrier and a handy source of food. The Silures took some beating; they were defeated under Caradoc in 51 AD, but were still being turbulent until Agricola moved west in 78 AD, when, it is to be presumed, they stopped their nonsense and settled down under the Pax Romana.
Time passed, but there was not necessarily much improvement in the cross-channel service. When Daniel Defoe wrote, in 1724, of his journey to Wales from Bristol, he told how he opted to go the long way round via Gloucester rather than risk ugly, dangerous, and very inconvenient ferry over the Severn, to the mouth of the Wye; namely, at Aust; the badness of the weather, and the sorry boats, at which, deterred us from crossing there.
He was not alone in his misgivings; in the early 18th century, an alternative service was inaugurated from Chissell Pill, just north of Bristol, to Black Rock in Monmouthshire. It was called the New Passage. (The Aust service, naturally enough, became known as the Old Passage.) By 1820, the New Passage service had gained the contracts for carriage of the mail. Reliability remained a problem, though; and the mail did not always reach the Welsh side promptly enough for the Milford Haven coach which carried despatches from London for the Irish packet. A Select Committee was convened to look into the problem. They found in favour of the Old Passage, improved by the construction of stone piers and the introduction of a steam vessel; the wisdom of their choice was demonstrated in 1839, when the sailing packet Jane was lost there with all hands in a squall. In 1855 came another disaster with serious loss of life. Then in 1864 the Great Western Railway opened a steam ferry at the New Passage, and the Aust ferry closed down, not to re-open until 1927.
Richard had finished his cigarette, but the butt was keeping us company, bobbing companionably alongside as we idled further, crunching barley sugar to keep our blood sugar levels up. It was a fine day, and we were in no hurry for the moment, having already crossed the invisible dividing line and entered, as it were, Welsh territorial waters. They didn't seem that different from English territorial waters. Nor, for that matter, did the shore which we had left look much different from the shore to which we were headed, beneath the superficial differences; a steelworks here, a nuclear power station there, a chemical works over there. Between the business parks and the burgeoning housing estates on both sides lay similar water meadows, grazed by similar cattle, separated by similar hedges of thorn and withy, intersected by similar rhines in which similar herons stood impassively. 

 go to  Part 3

Sunday 5 October 2008

canoeing to Chepstow (part 1)

From the archives... this is an account of a canoeing trip from Severn Beach to Chepstow that Richard and I did, ten years ago. Serialised, for ease of digestion.

"It feels rather cosy, really, between the two bridges... like being in a pool," Richard mused.
I rested my paddle and looked over to the south-west at the new Second Severn Crossing, close by- the road scarcely ascending in its transit from shore to shore, and, at the big span in the middle where the ships go through, the suspending cables radiating out from the towers like kipper bones. A pragmatic bridge, tiptoeing on concrete stilts through the shallow bit where the reef of the English Stones is exposed at low tide; then hopping across the deep channel of the Shoots, and tippy-toe ashore on Caldicot Moor. Then I looked to the north-east at the old Severn Bridge, the elegant curve of the roadway in mild opposition to the swooping catenary of the main cables, an arc swung from shore to shore, a proper bridge; and the stream of vehicles, high up there, heading for Wales, silent at this distance. Impressive, certainly, but- cosy? Tosh, I thought.
But then, Richard is a rugby player. Perhaps the twin towers of the two bridges bounding our portion of the estuary suggested goal posts, and a tidy game of two halves, between equals, playing to the rules. A consoling notion. For my part, I viewed the lower reaches of the Severn with the utmost mistrust, for all that, on this spring morning, the water lay smooth and apparently placid, with only the occasional dappling where the flood tide eddied around unseen banks; and the rich silt suspended in the water was a cheerful shade of orangey-brown in the late morning sun. You never know quite where you are with water, particularly water that doesn't know quite where it is, here at the meeting place of river and sea.
Away and ahead of us to the north lay the Caldicot Level, the flood plain of the Severn on the Welsh side, stretching from the mouth of the Wye to the Usk. We had been looking at it for some time now, as we paddled in its general direction, without any obvious sign of progress. But now, it was possible to make out individual cows, grazing placidly in the April sunshine; and, beyond them, I saw the tower of a church... a squint at the map prudently stuffed into a plastic bag... the church at Mathern, standing steadfast and unmoving, as church towers should, while the wooded hills of Wales on the horizon beyond slid smoothly from left to right, towards the border.
"We're getting carried along at a fair old lick," I said, pointing out this phenomenon.
"Yes, and we're going the wrong way," Richard replied, with a disgruntled tone creeping into his voice.
"No, it's the right way, all right," I said, again resting my paddle either in front of me, or, if you will, athwart the gunwales. Any excuse for a rest and a spot of didactics, and Richard is, or pretends to be, obligingly naive in several areas of practical mechanics. I held up my index fingers in line ahead. "Look, this finger's the church tower, and this finger's the hill. Now, my head's the canoe, and if I move it to the right, the hill appears to move right as well.... see?"
Because, for Richard to see, it was necessary for him to swivel around in the limited space afforded him up there at the sharp end of our rickety boat, we wobbled alarmingly and shipped some water. Furthermore, he remained resolutely unconvinced. He resumed his position, lit a cigarette, and contemplated the shoreline. I idly dabbed the water with my paddle. After all, the tide was doing the work for us. Or not, depending on how you looked at it.
The day before had seen us at the observation point, overlooking the Severn Bridge, at Aust Service Station, an hour before high tide. We were observing the state of the water, with a view to navigating it. Richard had arrived in Bristol with his walking gear a few days earlier, declaring his intention to 'do' the Offa's Dyke Long Distance Footpath, having been thwarted in an attempt a few years back by foul weather. This plan chimed in with my vague notions of a walk across Wales, in the direction of St David's, and mixed itself up with the urgings of the time of year and a smattering of Chaucer-
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweet breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes,...
And smale foweles maken melodye,...
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes* ...
Both our walks would begin at Chepstow, Gateway To Wales; but I was concerned that we should arrive there in a manner rather more intrepid than simply hopping onto a bus. Travel has become too easy these days (unless, that is, you are obliged to use the M25 or the rail network), and it is possible to arrive somewhere distant with your brain still at home. Entering a town from the sea, however, emphasises its foreignness, making it, indeed, a 'straunge stronde.' It was, I thought, time to dig out the canoe from the back garden where it had long lain disregarded, and evict the snails which had occupied it in droves, and survey the damage wrought by three years of neglect. 

now go to  Part 2 

* Chiefly self-explanatory, but:
a 'palmer' is a pilgrim with a frond of palm worn as a symbol of their having
visited the Holy Land
'straunge strond' is 'foreign shore'
'ferne halwes' are 'distant shrines'
'kowthe' is 'known'

owls of frustration and delight

I remember in my slummy days in Portsmouth someone once saying, "We are fall-out from the Clean Generation".

I continue to try to find a pragmatic balance between casually disarrayed and a-place-for-everything-and-everything-in-its place. At the moment, after a week of overhauling a car engine on top of everything else, things are most definitely tipped in the direction of disarray.

OK, make that 'several days into disarrayed country'.

I've been trying to get young K involved in the process; shoulder a portion of the domestic routines, that sort of thing. She has cheerfully given a few things a go; like mopping the kitchen floor, doing the washing up, that sort of thing. Unfortunately, having done these things once, the novelty has worn off and she can't see the point in doing the same thing again.

So things have been a bit tense.

Now and then.

Oh well, it could be worse.

We were driving through St Pauls this afternoon on our way home from the swimming baths, and I spotted a car parked on the double yellow lines on City road, looking as though someone had made a half-hearted attempt to compost it. Looking more closely, I saw that the interior was full of vegetable material and old boxes, and a familiar dreadlocked face surmounting a wispy beard.

"It's Ian the Hippy!" I said, and swung in to the kerb.

K went into advanced horror mode, and remained frozen in her seat as I jumped out to say hello.

Ian used to live in this very house, and ambled between his allotment and the skips of Bristol, carrying the unlikeliest trophies and leaving a trail of soil. There were things growing in the carpet of his room. He came home with a bus one day, and it stayed in the road for months and months before he got it together to reverse it back out again. Fortunately, it was stolen just before he disappeared to the Far East.

Things could indeed always be worse.

So we caught up with each others' news, and K eventually regained the power of movement and came out and said hello.

Later.... I'm cooking dinner and there's a phone call from Mal and Annie, who are under a tree in the University grounds admiring an eagle owl. So of course we scramble for it, and I get a photo as the light begins to fail.

Saturday 4 October 2008

heaven is a place

(something I wrote some years ago; I was reminded of it the other evening when we were out admiring the conkers...)

So the annual blitz on the conker trees is under way. Broken branches lie among the discarded husks all across the Downs, and Miserable Loony, who piles up dead branches for inscrutable reasons of his own, is looking more miserable than ever. It calls to mind the old saying, "A woman, a dog, and a walnut tree; the more you beat 'em, the better they be." This is the sort of thing trotted out by blokes with beards, over their tankards (always tankards) of real ale, who don't actually have women, but, hey. These men are probably also the only people left in Merrie England who actually play conkers these days. And experiment with vinegar and baking the in the oven to make them tougher.

So what does motivate these people who trog along with their Waitrose bags, the children stuffing them full of these inedible nuts, while Father imperils their young brains with ill-aimed hurlings of sticks, in attempts to dislodge more? -I think the idea of playing a game with them is just a front. We are impelled to do it, for the love of the thing. The beauty of conkers is more precious than that of pearls, because it is so transient. Take them home, and in a few days the marbled sheen has faded, the skin has begun to wrinkle, and that's that for another year. You can get strawberries all year round, if that sort of thing appeals to you; but conkers? -blink and you've missed them. I stood with my small daughter under one tree that was at the peak of fruitfulness, and the things were raining down around us. "It's heavened with conkers," she said. That was it. The nail had been hit, right on the head.

One autumn I was in Marseilles. The boulevards were lined with conker trees, and the gutters brimmed with conkers. They were entirely disregarded by the locals. My companions and I attracted some funny looks as we jubilantly stuffed our pockets. The French, you see. No poetry in their souls.

What of the squirrels, though? I see that they have taken to dashing around nibbling a bit off as many conkers as possible, thus rendering them useless to the discriminating gatherer. Presumably they will go around later, gathering them up and burying them for the winter. This is the sort of initiative that has got Grey Squirrels where they are today; all over the country. I used to shoot the damned things as vermin when I lived in Wales, but now I have surrendered to the inevitable.

And, when my daughter's conker collection has been laid aside and forgotten, I sneak them out in the dead of winter and scatter them for the squirrels. It's a sort of peace offering. And squirrels are useless at finding their own stashes.