George Fox’s Teapot

It’s as if we are venerating people, particularly George Fox, Margaret Fell, and William Penn, and holding holy relics in the Friends House Library. Like what, I asked. “George Fox’s teapot? Fragments of the tree under which William Penn made his treaty with the native Americans? That’s like fragments of the True Cross.”

Well, should we keep such things? The collection is in part a record of the Society, including what we have valued in the past. It does not all have the documents archivists would now like, to show the provenance, though Quakers are truthful, understanding the temptation to exaggerate a story, so I believe Fox owned the teapot and the Friend who donated it had good reason for believing that, or s/he would not have said it was his. We have limited room, and there are interesting archives which might be more worth our attention.

I suggested selling it, and she said that would be unethical. There would be an assumption, perhaps an agreement, when it was given to preserve it and value it. Also, museums and local councils have a vast treasury of objects and documents, which might be sold to pay off temporary deficits where central government should take action and halt austerity. Public goods should not be privatised. However, we might see if another museum or public collection was willing to take it.

I will not undertake a pilgrimage to see George Fox’s teapot, or pieces of wood, or even locks of Margaret Fell’s hair. I would feel a passing interest if I were in Friends House and it were in a display case somewhere, or someone got it out to show it to Friends. I don’t know why anyone might. The head of library and archives is not a Quaker, and that is fine by me as she has particular expertise as an historian and archivist. She was travelling to see an archive of letters from a first world war conscientious objector to his parents, from prison. For all I know the letters might be a new Dietrich Bonhoffer awaiting discovery, or saying nothing which is not well known and documented elsewhere, but if we take them on we have obligations to preserve them and catalogue them, which takes space and staff time. I am happy that a non-Quaker sympathetic to Quaker values make this decision. I would even trust her discretion in disposing of some of the venerated relics, but some Quakers might object. It might be worth opening a discussion among Quakers, of what the Library’s best uses are.

Talking of tea pots: I had not heard of Benjamin Lay, a Quaker anti-slavery pioneer born in 1682. He influenced John Woolman. He could be offensive, on one occasion taking his wife’s tea set to a public place to smash it, piece by piece. He refused to sell any of it. Tea and china was expensive, and could show off wealth or status. It offended his principles of Equality. A Friend and Friends House employee was making a podcast about him. It had to be signed off by senior staff, and I question that: I would trust him to inform and entertain, and accept what he said even if it were not precisely what I might have said. There is, for me, a wide range of reasonable work which I would accept on the Quaker website, to avoid too many people labouring over it and second-guessing, just as we trust the clerk, rather than a committee, to set meeting agendas.

Truth and narrative

“True story” is an oxymoron.

I phoned the Tax Credits helpline for advisers, and got nowhere. “You’re being very condensating,” said the man I was referred to, and after half an hour my brain was so cabbaged that I knew he meant something else, but did not know the word for it. Thank you, you don’t need to say it now, I worked it out for myself later.

In the nineties I knew a man, still the most boring man I have ever met. I can’t remember his name, but it ended in an í sound, a contemptuous diminutive, Nicky or Ricky or Donny or something- anyway, he got very drunk on whisky, and ever thereafter could not drink it. He found a sip nauseating. Dismissively contemptuous, Neil said he probably had had no head for it anyway, he got drunk on a couple of glasses.

I associated those stories. “Condensating” was the moment I got nowhere with the benefits authorities, that I could not take any more. I cannot bear it. I could not bear another such conversation, it nauseates me.

Another myth. Margaret saw me as Clare for the first time, and said, “It’s as if you are acting when you’re Stephen, just you when you’re Clare”. Aha, I am a woman really, I am right to transition. The story becomes my conclusive evidence that I am right, the judgment of another person which I cling to, and take out for reassurance from time to time. It is my self-image: I know who I am, and “you’re just you when you’re Clare” is part of it.

Then about a year ago, I took off my wig and put on my cycle helmet, appearing androgynous, but continued talking, and H said “You have this lovely male energy”. Her beliefs, her politics, or her individual judgment of me need have no bearing on me, but have had. I could if I wanted call that comment on Wednesday 2 March 2016 the decisive moment

where my lies came apart
where my truth was undermined

Several times I have picked on particular dates where all changed, changed utterly for me. H has changed my view of the world. I am not sure if I have ever been entirely sure that I am a woman- I joked “I don’t know, and neither does my psychiatrist”, and said “I’m both and neither and in between”. Her word “lovely” just makes the blade sharper.

Either it is liberating- yes, I am a man, I need no longer assert a falsehood that I am a woman- or terrifying and destructuring, and I try to piece together the shards of my framework, world map, understanding which lets me navigate the world. “I am a man, but transition was the best I could do,” I say. “Bad things happen to good people.”

Or I create a new narrative. “I am a trans woman”. I have the right to be this way.

Brexit and Trump, and possibly this year Fillon and AfD, change my comforting narrative, one which is probably yours too. It is a debased Whig version of history: just as the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 was a decisive moment of progress, which changed the way of doing politics in England from battles to individual murders, a clear improvement, so Obergefell v Hodges was a step into the light, which could not be reversed. A Tory version of history, that there are random events with no broader significance, is reasserted, so that Trump’s Muslim ban is not a pathetic attempt by the failing forces of reaction, but a random event of quite as much significance as Obergefell.

We need to change our stories. Since 2016, our stories have not been the Truth, but a comforting lie to help us get through the day without collapsing on the floor, screaming. The words “male energy” are a stake through their heart, as is the Muslim ban. “Do your duty, Republicans,” says the New York Times. “Prosecute him!” Trump meanwhile promises a new Muslim ban which will be less vulnerable to judicial scrutiny.

I have been reading of stories. Here’s Rachel Cusk in the NYT:

In psychoanalysis, events are reconstructed in the knowledge of their outcome: The therapeutic properties of narrative lie in its capacity to ascribe meaning to sufferings that at the time seemed to have no purpose. The liberal elite are in shock; they fall upon the notion of the victors’ regret as a palliative for their mental distress, but because the referendum result is irreversible, this narrative must adopt the form of tragedy.

And, writing of her mother

She didn’t care what she said, or rather, she exacted from words the licentious pleasures of misuse; in so doing, she took my weapon and broke it before my eyes. She made fun of me for the words I used, and I couldn’t respond by threatening her with death. I couldn’t say “I could kill you” because it wasn’t true, and in language I had staked everything on telling the truth. I have had that experience debating Creationists: I try to persuade, using truth, they simply assert their Beliefs. “It cannot be so, because of Genesis.” It was bad enough debating a blogger on the other side of the world- how much more terrifying, to face your own mother’s assertions?

Thus saith the LORD.

There is no answer to that. Tim built an impenetrable wall of language to shield him from- the truth? Or just, my understanding of the World? The defeated liberal is abashed, so less confidently assertive.

Anna Blundy, in a completely different essay- a short column not a hefty work like Rachel Cusk’s- also addressed making sense of truth with words. Language distances us from our real thoughts and feelings in an almost defensive way (the fact that it makes us feel better to have named something, perhaps is even indicative of that)… we’re trying to repackage something into a digestible form that will make the symptom of the sufferer more bearable.

Surely it is better to face the unvarnished truth? This essay says that news broadcasts and advertising alike end up telling stories… the mastery of danger, the satisfaction of desires and the ultimate restoration of morality. But here, an effort is made to lead people to believe that the story accurately depicts people and events. As a result, all end up profoundly falsifying what they portray, once again mixing faithful and manipulated images, and fact and fiction in seamless ways so that it can be hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. The attack is mitigated by the fact that the essay itself has a similarly comforting structure, where the restoration of morality is us all becoming more sceptical about the media.

It is not at all reassuring to say that I can’t bear another phone conversation with the benefits authorities. I could say, well I had hundreds before, many of them successful, or simply that I should eschew predictions of the future, which may just be paranoia, and concentrate on the actual task. I know what the task involves. Fear of what bad things will happen and how I will respond when I fail just get in the way.

This is my two thousandth post, on a blog about me, truth, trans, the world, and everything that interests me. I do it to be read, and achieve less of that than I would like. Joanna wrote a short post recommending one of mine, and I am grateful for the recommendation, because my post got more than three times the views from it, than 75% of my posts get from all sources. This is my least worthwhile goal, to see that I have had more views. Writing of Donald Trump stretches my writing, but gets fewer views, as most of my readers come from a Trans site, so I restrict my choice of subjects to get more views. Posting daily gets more views. I get a tiny dopamine hit when I see my page-view numbers have increased- nearly 198,000 views in five and a half years.

I might be better to write longer essays. I could develop an ability to analyse an idea in greater depth. This is not that: I have quoted undigested screeds from three essays and some of my own thoughts on truth, rather than explained the essays, created a satisfying narrative argument in my own words, and polished it. Writing around 500 words a day is good practice, but I want to edit and structure something more satisfying than these short pieces. I have published just one 2000 word article. I love Rachel Cusk’s essay- how I would love to write something like that!

I blog to tease out my understanding, as well. It is psychoanalysis for me, repackaging reality into that digestible form. So I have written how transition or surgery was the best thing I could have done, and the worst, in separate pieces, and wonder how to unite them.

St Clare


Mary had a glorious “Fuck you, I’m Queen” mentality, even when powerless and imprisoned. In 1586  at her final trial, she declared, “I am an absolute Queen”, and “My mind is not yet dejected, neither will I sink under my calamity”, of the discovery of the plot to murder Elizabeth Tudor.

Previous plots were nothing to complain of: “May I not ask my friends to help me? I have meant innocently, and if they have done wrong, they alone are to blame.” Her word as a Queen could not be challenged, and her status as Queen made all her acts innocent of wrong.

Elizabeth had a similar attitude: “I am your anointed Queen. I will never be constrained to do anything. I thank God that I am endued with such qualities that if I were turned out of the realm in my petticoats I were able to live in any place in Christendom.”

Henry, on the other hand, did not have the face to pull off his reforms by himself. He would not have tolerated his reforms being refused, but he had his Parliament enact them. So came into being the concept of the “King in Parliament” making law, which we still have. The last Bill not signed into law “La Reine le veult” was the Scottish Militia Bill in 1709. So the Monarchy lost power in exercising it.

That is the kind of detail I want from my history book. As narrative history, Tudors by Peter Ackroyd drags. many little uprisings, so many manoeuvrings, so dull. I am interested to know where the Church of England comes from. I wrote of “curtseying to the communion table” which makes no sense: the show of respect is Roman, perhaps to the consecrated host on the altar; the words “communion table” are Reformed. Elizabeth steering a middle path between the Catholics and the extreme Reform party fits our Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals today, and my wishy-washy ecumenism between them: I would worship with anyone.

There is not enough detail for the character of Wolsey or Walsingham to emerge, and little detail of the lives of the ordinary people. We learn that, just as now, the price of necessities rose, and the living standards of the common people declined. When Ackroyd says that the “Coach” came into use then, a horse-drawn vehicle for people to ride in, it feels like the first piece of fruit after eating bread and dripping for so long, but my questions of how did the rich ride before then, did they ever ride in carts except to the gallows, is not answered.

From my old Anglican chauvenism, I would like it argued that Mary Tudor and Pole were greater murderers than Henry, Edward or Elizabeth, but I do not have the detail from this book to make the comparison, though Elizabeth might have imprisoned more people, and arguably it does the country no good if a man outside it can tell the King what to do or command  the loyalty of some Englishmen.


In 1560, as the Queen of Scots was pursuing her French interests, the people of Scotland reformed their Church (with English military assistance); and so it was a Presbyterian church, with diffused, local if not democratic, church government. King James VI looked to England with envious eyes, and in 1584, aged 18, imposed bishops on the church, so as to control it. The Presbyterians held their General Assembly in Aberdeen, and James declared all who attended it traitors. For him, the law of treason concerned personal loyalty to himself, and anything which might interfere with his personal control was treasonable.

In 1689 William of Orange and his wife Mary Stuart became monarchs of Scotland, and probably William would have liked an Episcopal church too, the better to control it. However the then Bishops had nice scruples about their oaths of loyalty to James VII, and told the new King they would serve him “as far as law, reason and conscience will allow”. So he reinstated Presbyterian church government, and in the “Rabbling of the Curates” most Episcopalian ministers were turned out of their churches.

In 1745, the Episcopal church supported Prince Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart in the Jacobite uprising, leading to further legal suppression by the Hanovarians. In 1784, as the Anglican church in the United States had no bishops, and no English bishop would ordain one, Samuel Seabury came to Scotland to be ordained, and therefore the Anglican church in the US took the name Episcopal.

Probably fifty Sundays a year I would worship in the Episcopal church until I moved to England, where I went to my local parish church. I was brought up with a peculiarly grovelling Confession:

We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickednesses, which we from time to time most grievously have committed by thought, word, and deed, against thy Divine Majesty… The rememberance of them is grievous unto us; the burden of them is intolerable…

We do not presume to come to this thy Holy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table: but thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his most sacred body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us.

That change, from the grovelling to the assertion of God within each human being, is breathtaking. But I noticed that, getting ready to go to church as a child, I was particularly unpleasant to my sister, seeking out arguable moral grounds why I was more moral than she, in order to gain points. I noticed it, and I still did it. The appearance of goodness was far more important to me than its reality. My father still worships with this 1929 Scottish liturgy, though a new form was instituted in 1982. Scots Piskies can be so conservative. I have checked the text, but I wrote most of the above quotation from memory.

We lived in this strange moral universe, continually bewailing sin even if feeling quite righteous, actually, but with a God whose “Property”, or nature, was “always to have mercy”. Always.

And yet, though now a Quaker, I still call myself a Pisky, because of such people as John Shelby Spong and Marcus J Borg- the latter’s striking arguments that a Biblical Christian is a Liberal, not Evangelical, Christian delight me. And in Scotland, Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh, and Derek Rawcliffe, former Bishop of Glasgow and Galloway, the first Anglican bishop to disclose publicly that he was gay, in 1995 (after he had retired).


“Whose property is always to have mercy”- il est son métier. I am so glad to have returned to these prayers.  The original reason I quoted them was a talk with a “Recovering Catholic”, who disparaged the grovelling as harmful. But there is a much wider moral picture here: it is true that we all fail, all the time, but forgiveness is available from the ground of our being.


“To sport with the passions and prejudices of subjects, and to subvert every law of nature and decency, were in the number of his most delicious amusements… The master of the Roman world affected to copy the dress and manners of the female sex, preferred the distaff to the sceptre, and dishonoured the principal dignities of the empire by distributing them among his numerous lovers; one of whom was publicly invested with the title and authority of the emperor’s, or as he more properly styled himself, of the empress’s husband”.

“His memory was branded with eternal infamy by the Senate; the justice of whose decree has been ratified by posterity.”

Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chapter VI.

Elagabalus, obviously, is my hero. Of course she did not affect to copy the manners of the female sex, she ceased to act male and expressed her real self as female. The strength of character needed to do this in her circumstances is exceptional. I am so glad to know of her. And I read of her in what is regarded as one of the greatest works of history ever written, where she is despised and mocked and rejected and condescended to, where the author gives his contempt and disgust full rein, and where the climax of his revulsion, the thing he finds most unbearable, is her transsexuality. Is who I am. And her portrait shows her as a man. She was just eighteen when she was murdered.

With messages like this, it is so hard to get rid of my internalised transphobia. And so I- Choose- to celebrate the strength and courage of the only reigning Empress of Rome, who had the courage to transition despite all opposition and fear and ignorance. And I celebrate the strength and courage of all of us who transition.

Do I hate Gibbon and disregard his great work because of this wrong? In his London, there were “Molly clubs” where people assigned male went and dressed as women, and gay men hung out. I went to Wikipedia to find an article on them to show you, and there was none. And so I condemn Gibbon and his work for his part in the oppression and marginalisation of me and my kind. It has value as a history of Ancient Rome and exemplar of great Enlightenment English prose- and the Oppression it embodies reduces its value. Just possibly, Gibbon could not have known better, though he was rejecting people in his own city- now, no-one has any excuse.

Picture copyright: L’imperatore romano Elagabalo (203 o 204-222 d.C). Roma, Musei capitolini. Foto di Giovanni Dall’Orto, 15-08-2000).

Strong majorities of all religious and political groups in the US favour transgender rights, I read. Found through Helen of Peel.

Here is the Theodosian Code, 9.7.6: “All persons who have the shameful custom of condemning a man’s body, acting the part of a woman’s to the sufferance of alien sex (for they appear not to be different from women), shall expiate a crime of this kind by being burned to death in the public sight of the people.” That hatred hurts: yet I read “They appear not to be different from women”- it is condemning trans women, and I exult in those women’s bravery.