Monday, 17 October 2016


When I listen to Inuit throat-singing I think about the arrogance of the Eurocentric mind (which is still, it must be said, in these terrible times, itself bigger and yet humbler than the Anglocentric mind).

I listen to dogs and for all the variety of pleasant noises they can make I know science has measured and concluded dogs can make only 14 distinct vocal sounds.

I listen to the colloquy of cats and understand that science has concluded they can make ten times as many.

'How sophisticated!' I say. 'And by comparison how superior am I, who can make so many, many more!'

Then I watch throat-singing videos on YouTube, and feel ashamed to have wasted so much of the noise I could make on speaking - or, at best, shouting or whispering - only words.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

In Praise of Tough Girls and Beautiful Monsters

There are as many kinds of female beauty as there are of male attractiveness. This seems obvious, but like a lot of things which at first seem obvious it bears investigation. Men can have dad bods. Men can be attractive in spite of what they do. Men are allowed to age well. Men are allowed to be monsters.

Women are not accorded the same aesthetic dignity. Being a MILF is not the same as having a dad bod. The dad bod is in the possession of its owner; MILFery is in the eye of the (usually male) beholder. And as to aging well…

And being monsters?

I don’t mean murderers. I never had a thing for Myra Hindley. But I did have a thing for the tough girls at school, the girls who did what they wanted and weren’t afraid to fight and who, yes, sometimes beat me up. There is something attractive about female toughness, about women who don’t mind a scrap. A friend and I have been rewatching Ab Fab on Netflix, and we agree that one of the best things about Joanna Lumley’s Patsy is her willingness to turn to violence as a first resort. Ditto Bridget Everett’s Dagmar in Lady Dynamite, and Steven Universe’s Amethyst.

Anna Konda is a beautiful monster. In the photographs taken by Katarzyna Mazur for Dazed and Confused we see her standing, squatting, having her face wiped between bouts, and wrestling – shoving a smaller woman up against a wall, pushing against a woman’s thighs to stop her wrapping those thighs around Anna, getting her in what Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioners and MMA fans call the guard.

The guard looks like a vulnerable position. You’re supine, and your opponent is above. But if you can get your legs around them, and your arms are free, you can control a lot. For one thing, if they’re on their knees – which is likely in this situation – wrapping your thighs around their midsection forces them to rely on their arms, much weaker than the legs. If you can tie their arms up as well, and if your thighs are sat just right on your opponent’s floating ribs…

Fans of the more brutal sports and spectacles invoke chess so often that it seems, at times, like special pleading, but looking at a still from a fight can evoke the same thoughts as the illustrated diagrams of disposed pieces in newspaper chess columns. We can (or like to kid ourselves we can) extrapolate the course of the fight from this one frozen moment. She has her in the guard, she has one arm locked up – her opponent can only attack with the free arm, but if she twists just so…The pleasure here is that of watching things play out. There are, of course, other kinds of pleasure at play too.

One reason for the popularity of scissor shots – the bodyscissors, with the thighs wrapped ‘round the torso, and their head variation, in which the thighs pressure the skull and the neck – is their similarity to the sexual act. We may as well admit this to begin with: but we ought perhaps to admit alongside it the fact that this resemblance can be found in many forms of ‘legitimate’ sport as well. The guard is a jiu-jitsu basic; boxers’ shining bodies clinch; track athletes race each other in what the rest of us call underwear. There is an erotic charge in watching bodies strive against each other, however they do so. In one of Mazur’s pictures, a wrestler leans over the body of her opponent, her hand almost caressing the prone woman’s face, lips close enough to whisper in her ear. The whole thing looks post-coital.

When some gallery-goers, shocked at what they saw as the obscenity of Francis Bacon’s 1954 work Two Figures in the Grass, appealed to a policeman to have it removed, the law officer replied ‘Why? It’s just two fellows wrestling in the grass.’ I like to imagine he smirked when he said that, challenging the prudes to provide an alternative interpretation. Honi soit qui mal y pense.

Being Bacon, the subject is buggery, we’re tempted to say. But in fact, being Bacon, the subject is ambiguity – we see one body mount the other but are they fighting, fucking, fondling, fellating? We can’t know. Bacon liked to mix his sex with violence: watch Love is the Devil. He had his lovers beat him up, and loved to stand so close to the ring at boxing bouts that blood would stain his face. Bacon called love two people destroying each other. When asked to explain whether his paintings picture acts of sex or acts of violence one wonders, sometimes, if he’d be aware of the difference.

That there is a difference is something we must often assert. Excepting professional performers (themselves practitioners of a craft historically associated with sexual deviancy), for most of us, fighting and fucking represent the most intense times we will spend at close quarters with another human being: even the most prolific hugger must admit that a friendly squeeze of the shoulders lacks the intensity of pitched battle or animal rutting. But where to draw the line? Sex can be aggressive; when two technicians fight, the hold which makes one tap might be executed almost tenderly. Which act is violence?

In my novella Incidents of Trespass, there is a moment when the protagonist, Ruby Street, is raped by another woman. Her rapist orders Ruby to jerk off in front of her, and Ruby collaborates, but in order to do so she finds herself having to resort to her fantasies of a different order of intimate violence, imagining various tough women beating on her rapist. But Ruby’s fantasies of strife are masochistic: she identifies most with the victim, not the aggressor.  For her, this is perhaps the worst part of the ordeal: that she is forced to recruit her dreams of one kind of erotic violence in the service of another. Or, rather, in the service of a violence which is sexual but unerotic. Rape may involve the sexual organs but it isn’t making love. A rapist might punch you in the face, as Ruby’s does, but it isn’t a fight.

It’s not a fight, sure, but you can still lose.

Fights have referees. Even ‘catfighting’ videos, in which women tussle in their underwear in living rooms, supposedly privately, are watched over by a camera operator at the very least, who can stop things if they get too heated. Producers take pains to ensure their workers aren’t injured. Fights can be stopped. Referees in the bedroom might be one way of enforcing consent culture, but I suspect few would take such a modest proposal all that seriously (and anyway, refs can be bought). The ‘real fight’ videos that litter YouTube and Worldstar are far from private. For better or worse, there are bystanders. They might film. They might intervene. But they’re there.

By contrast, unless we’re orgiasts, when we wind up having sex with someone else we’re usually alone, except for them. Alone, and naked, with a person that we can’t be sure we trust. There’s a reason it took Judith to kill Holofernes: she could get close enough to do it. In the bedroom, no-one is on hand to remind participants to protect themselves at all times. Indeed, the opportunity to spend time with another without having to protect ourselves is part of the appeal. The risk, too.

Some of us take it further, that’s all. It’s not enough to know that we don’t have to keep our guard up: we like not being able to, knowing our partners will give us back that control when we ask. We enjoy feeling helpless safely. And that’s why we need them, the tough girls. The beautiful monsters. The women who could crush us, if they wanted to. They might not be conventionally pretty, but so what? They have what we want: big thighs. Musclefat. Take-no-shit expressions. Bodies confident in their ability to take on other bodies, and to best them. That beats pretty any day. 

The Gods are in a bad, bad way

Since he got dementia, Odin finds it hard to tell his ravens each from each. Huggin and Munnin, Memory and Thought. Which is which? What things does he remember, and what things are mere phantoms of his thoughts? Did he hang upon a cross to fathom knowledge even Gods weren’t meant to know, or was the cross a tree? Did he give an eye for wisdom, or lose it in a bar-room brawl? Does he ride a horse or spider? Are there elephants in Asgard? Have there always been? He really can’t be sure.

He feels like they won a great victory, some months ago. He tells the young. They laugh at him, they sneer, they wave front pages, point at phones. The pound is falling they tell Odin, Norway doesn’t want to know. We’re fucking fucked. In the old days he would have smote them for their insolence. But nowadays the thunderbolts recoil on him. He shakes. They shake their heads and move away. Perhaps one stays, to see he doesn’t bite his tongue. Perhaps an ambulance is called. Perhaps it will come quickly. But it’s Friday and most people just got paid and absent any plan for Ragnarok they’re getting pissed and fighting.

It’s a long wait, with the false god, for an ambulance. 

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Anthony Powell Predicts the Manosphere

So. I am already at work on the sequel to Incidents of Trespass, and also intermittently getting the odd poem written and continuing my curious evolution into some kind of trans female gonzo journalist obviously, but also I think I've gotten quite a lot done lately and so I can allow myself to dial it back and chill a little. And, because I am me, one of my ways of chilling has been to watch a four-part 1997 Channel 4 miniseries based on a 12 volume novel by some old dead white cis posh English bloke, because, obviously.

This is not the scene I'm writing about but it is Jenkins (James Purefoy, left) and Widmerpool (Simon Russell Beale, right) and I am a very lazy image researcher

Specifically I've been watching the adaptation of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, which can be found on All4 if you ignore its yobbish attempts to thrust its contemporary toss on you and search the drama category, in which it is alphabetically the first entry. There are a lot of things I'm enjoying about this show, but here I want to pick just one: the scene between Widmerpool (Simon Russell Beale) and Jenkins (James Purefoy) where the former recruits the latter as his assistant during the war. And specifically the fact Widmerpool tells him he has done so not because he would be 'the most efficient' - indeed, Widmerpool, who we have been shown in the preceding two episodes to be someone who is very exacting in his choice of words, says he 'had no cause to think' he might be so - but because he has let their personal ties persuade him to hire Jenkins. Not only does this illustrate the inequity of the cronyism fostered by the English Public School system, of which Powell, A., Eton & Balliol, was doubtless a beneficiary, and which point he no doubt intended the reader to infer from the scene; I find it more amusing, however, because it provides a perfect example of the behaviour soi-disant 'pick-up artists' refer to these days as 'negging' - Widmerpool tells Jenkins he probably isn't very good but he'll hire him anyway because he likes him. 

At this stage I haven't finished watching the show, but I find myself thinking two things: one, would the peacocking vaping fedora crowd be happy knowing that the best fictional demonstration of their allegedly unstoppable move is performed by a short, pudgy gay dude playing a sexually repressed, socially-climbing financial nerd? And, two: if Widmerpool asks Jenkins to make him a sandwich at some point during this episode I will laugh my ass off. 

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Incidents of Trespass

Updates have been infrequent here over the summer. That's because I spent the last couple of months working on Incidents of Trespass, my first novella. Indeed, my first long-form fictional prose of any kind. 

This story is a response to personal, national and collective trauma. A tale of life on the fringes in the days and weeks following Brexit, an exploration of the darker side of female sexuality, a meditation on power, privilege and violence. I think Incidents of Trespass, along with much of the poetry I've written lately, indicates a larger trend in my work away from polemic and exhortations directed at a presumed-hostile cis audience and into a phase of exploring and mapping the unique emotional territory and discontents of queer life and relationships. Check it out here in paperback and here on Kindle, and tell me what you think below!

Thursday, 4 August 2016

What Botham Believes

'Personally, I believe that England is an island.' - Ian Botham, discussing the EU referendum

I believe

that England is an island

that Europe is a planet

that space is a country

that black hole is something you
can't say these days

that all holes matter

that Britain is a rocketship
disguised as a dropping balloon

that flags are magic

that sometimes you just don't see
another white face

that my black friends
don't secretly say I'm a racist

that women don't roll their eyes
when I say no-one loves them more than me

that there is no smoke without fire
but two sides to every tango
depending on how well I knew the accused

that we all know what 'flamboyant' means

that they would say that, wouldn't they

I believe
that England is an island

I don't believe
that global warming means the seas will rise

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

From the archives: Bashing Back on Biggins' Biphobia

As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly. I see Christopher Biggins has once more made an oaf of himself by airing his weird, icky opinions about bisexuals in public, this time via the medium of moribund Endemol reality show format Celebrity Big Brother. This is not news: the following piece was written in 2014 (for the now-defunct So So Gay) in response to a previous incident of Biggins letting it all hang out in regard to his snide opinions about sexual diversity. Of the journalistic work I've done, this is one of my favourite pieces, so I'm delighted to present it to you again - as I will whenever I hear that Biggins has made his mouth go about one of the most vulnerable parts of the queer community. 
Bad news for anyone who’s enjoyed my last few posts on here: I don’t exist, apparently! That’s the considered opinion of noted commentator on human sexuality Christopher ‘Rentaghost’ Biggins. In an interview with Britain’s top guilt-purchase magazine, The Big Issue, the former Wolverhampton’s Aladdin Pantomime star said that ‘the world is full of bisexuals’ who ‘ruin a woman’s life’ and ‘lead a double life, so how can you be a real person?’
Ontologically, this is quite the puzzler. The world is full of people who aren’t real? Has Biggins discovered the key to the Matrix? Is he The One? And, as a pansexual trans woman who’s attracted to people of all genders and none, who is this woman whose life I, along with all bisexuals, am responsible for ruining? It can’t be my ex-wife, with whom I get on quite well, to be honest. I’m pretty sure it isn’t the ex-girlfriend who came before her, either. I suppose as a trans activist I have been responsible, collectively, for stopping Julie Bindel getting some gigs, and I did perform at the Bar Wotever show where Cathy Brennan tried to claim, stood beneath a giant poster of Amy Lame’s face, that she was being thrown out of the building for being a lesbian rather than for being a massive transphobe: but I’m pretty certain that isn’t what Biggins is on about.
Okay, I’m being facetious: but is there any better response to Biggins trotting out a chestnut that’s older than one of the jokes in his pantomimes? Seriously, we’ve been here before: this is the ever-popular canard that bi people don’t exist: that at best being bi is ‘just a phase‘ and at worst we’re all just gay men and women in denial. A familiar one, that: as a trans woman I’m used to dealing with the surprisingly common assumption that the reason I take dihydrotestosterone-suppressants, constantly assault my body with a variety of hair-removal products, and am engaged in a seemingly never-ending to-and-fro between my GP and my Gender Identity Clinic, is that I want to find a way to feel more comfortable about fancying men. Which, given that my primary attraction seems to be towards feminine-identified individuals, is always something of a surprise to me.
What Biggins is doing here is projecting, basically: the behaviour he describes, gay men in denial marrying women, then having to divorce them when they realise that a wedding ring is not a magical get-out-of-gayness card, is actually something he’s done in his own life: from 1971 to 1974, Biggins was married to the Australian actress Beatrice Norbury. As Biggins himself admits, ‘I met a girl and married her because I thought that was the thing to do…I hadn’t thought it through and of course it didn’t work’. Perhaps it’s Biggins’ guilt over this failed marriage which leads him to make the category error of accusing bisexuals of ‘ruining women’s lives’.
Because a category error is what it is. I don’t know how horrible it is for a woman who believes herself to be in a heterosexual marriage to discover her husband is gay: certainly it’s never nice to feel your partner has concealed something from you, but I suspect this is very much one of those your-mileage-may-vary situations. Some women will take a revelation like that in stride, some will be devastated by it. But however painful such an experience may be, it really ought to be pointed out that ‘bisexuals’ and ‘closeted gay men who marry straight women in an attempt to conceal their true sexuality’ are not the same thing. Nope. Nuh-uh. Nah. Degree of overlap in that Venn diagram? Not a heckuva lot, to be honest.
Does this matter? Well, on one level, maybe not so much: BIGGINS WRONG ABOUT ISSUE is something of a dog-bites-man headline at this point: he criticised the ITV sitcom and McKellen/Jacobi vehicle Vicious on the grounds that it would stoke homophobia (rather than on the more formidable grounds that it was just a bit crap really), and he is a supporter of the Conservative party. More seriously, in an interview with the Gloucestershire Echo (who actually used the phrase ‘flamboyant actor’ to describe him, in 2013 – bless!) he argued that celebrities accused of rape and sexual abuse – such as, say, Max Clifford – were victims of a ‘witch hunt’, with ‘people claiming to have slept with celebrities because they think they’re likely to get money out of it.’ He went on that in his opinion ‘celebrities should be given privacy like the accusers until the accusations are proven’.
Well, you know what a bad idea I think that is – although it needs to be said that Biggins is actually advocating an even more bizarre position than Nigel Evans. Evans’ idea that all rape defendants should be granted anonymity is a staggeringly bad one – but the former Deputy Speaker is at least in favour of anonymity for all defendants, while the man who co-starred with Danny Dyer in the 2012 remake of Run for Your Wife  believes a special exception should be made only for ‘celebrities’. Civilians accused of rape would apparently still be named under the Biggins Code. Good to know.
However, celebrity opinions – as vacuous as they might be – do not actually happen in a vacuum. Biggins’ opinions about people claiming to have been raped by celebrities in the hopes of getting a big pay-out (and on what basis are they supposed to think this? Can you remember a case of someone sexually assaulted by a celeb making a huge wad of cash out of it? Because I can’t) play out against a background of rape culture; similarly, his stance that bisexuals are simply gay men in denial plays out against a culture in which bisexuals are far more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety than monosexuals, far more likely to report feeling suicidal, and also more likely to suffer from economic oppression too.
It’s not hard to work out why this is the case: not only do bisexuals experience the garden-variety homophobia all of us in the LGBT community have to put up with, we also get to deal with put-downs from monosexual gay men and lesbians who criticise us for being ‘greedy’ and ‘selfish’, for not being ‘gold-star lesbians‘. Not only do we have people from the straight world dissing us, we have people who are supposedly on our own side having a pop too!
And that’s bad enough when those opinions are coming from some drunk, bitter old queen propping up one of the local gay bars and wondering why no-one wants to have sex with a catch like him; when those opinions are amplified by the megaphone of celebrity it’s worse. I was being sarcastic about the guilt-purchase nature of the Big Issue earlier: whenever I buy the magazine (which isn’t every week because some weeks I don’t have the money to afford a magazine sold by homeless people - ha ha ha, seriously do not go into poetry, kids) I’ve always enjoyed it. But I’m glad I missed the issue with the Biggins interview, because I would have been really upset and angry to see a magazine I like and respect running a piece in which someone says people like me don’t exist and accuses us of ruining women’s lives. And – finances aside – I’m in a pretty good place right now. I’m not suicidal. But I have been, at times. And, while I’m not sure the opinions of a former Surprise, Surprise co-host would be enough to push me over the edge, they certainly wouldn’t do anything to help. Especially a couple of years ago, when I was a closeted trans person, afraid to come out because I feared what people would think.
Rather like Biggins back in the seventies, actually, when he married to try and shore up his heterosexual credibility. Fortunately, society has changed a lot since then. Things have progressed, and got better, not just for monosexual, cisgender gay people but for those of all genders, all sexualities, and none. We live in a more progressive society than we used to. And, as a man who lent his support to the celebrations of the passing of the Equal Marriage Act, Britain’s best-known panto dame no doubt likes to think that he is in the forefront of that progressive trend along with the rest of us. But – as his biphobic comments make clear – oh no, he isn’t. He’s behind us.