National Theatre

It is not true that “in my weakness is my strength” or “We can be at our most powerful when we are vulnerable“. Rather, we are powerful when our vulnerability cease to matter to us, either to correct or disguise. When I delight in my vulnerability it ceases to frighten me.

Without a series of coincidences- petty ones, bus late, that sort of thing- I would not have been on the South Bank on Wednesday, or had the experiences I had. If I had realised the theatre ticket Mona was offering was for a 45 minute interview with Anthony Sher I would not have bothered. If the bus had been on time I would have had my mobile phone- ask, if you really must- and not have tried to contact her by borrowing one. First I tried in the train. The woman opposite was typing furiously on her lap-top, with precise hand-written notes; I read, “£1.6m”. She had her business face on, but was very sweet when I said “excuse me”. But her mobile had ceased to work. The man beside me had no signal, but leant me his when he caught one. We had a brief conversation about mobiles. Nearing the station, she stood up, and I noticed she was trembling.

In the National Theatre, I did not notice Mona, so keen was I to borrow a mobile. The first I asked said she had specifically switched her phone off for the theatre, and the second showed hers was on the blink. You have to take the battery out, apparently. She could not remove the SIM. Then we stared at a line crawling across the screen for an age. With no signal inside, I took the phone outside in the rain, and Mona chased after me. She had been talking “to two old women- women my age”. An hour later, she said, “I have two messages- oh, they’re from you”.

I did not ask Sher my question, about his role as a psychic transsexual. Mona’s question was that she had noticed aspects of his Falstaff in his Willy Loman, and wondered how he laid down a role before starting a new one. It is not a problem, he said, nothing he had ever even considered. She tried to ask a follow-up, speaking over the interviewer, and later was going “yeah…yeah” as if we were at a table with him, rather than in an audience. At first I was embarrassed, but before the couple in front looked round disapprovingly I had decided Mona was my friend, and I would support her. Perhaps she was not used to the strong painkillers.

Sher played Falstaff as a ruthless, homeless alcoholic. His charm was part of the complexity of the character- Shakespeare writes human beings. Sher’s comment which has hurt me was that the fantasist Loman has a strong will: I do not know what to do with my strong will, either.

Mona had tickets for the play, but not one for me- but not for that night, either, she had the day wrong. I got a ticket. I have at last embraced Disabled status, which got me a £34 discount, without needing any evidence or explanation.

Paul Cézanne - Nature morte avec pommes et pêches

Train conversations

Taking the train up, I sat next to Emma who was happy to chat. After drama school she was in a musical on Shaftesbury Avenue, and now works for Barclaycard. She rarely visits London but is going for a Sherlock convention: the actors will be there, and she will have her picture taken with “Benedict” [Cumberbatch]. Myleene Klass visited her office, and she shows me a picture of the two of them, one poised, one embarrassed but happy. I would find it interesting, but not enough actually to go.

Going North, I sat by a proud mother and her 19 year old son who had just done the London Marathon. She is head of customer relations. The man sitting by us had done ultra running, and told war stories: his main knee injury was on a 5k run in the North-East, where he had not checked out the course and there was a steep hill down just at the start of it. His knees had not warmed up. She saw her son at 12 miles, and he looked “anguished”, then at 22 miles and he looked much better. “Only four miles to go” said the man. “You were just behind Chris Evans”. People had their names on their shirts, and spectators encouraged them by name. Some had not put on vaseline: their shirts rubbed their skin, and drew blood. The exhausted son thinks his toe-nail will come off. He put his feet in his mother’s lap. “They’re sopping wet,” she said, and removed the ankle supports then rubbed them happily.

Peter, the tenant from whom H sublets, was in the house. He had been at a pipers’ meeting. I said something about crunlooers (he can’t pronounce crunluath either) then we talked of the Jacobites. They should have gone on to London, I said, knowing he would have an opinion: he says they could have taken London, but not held it. Cumberland was in Stone, Staffordshire, not knowing where the Prince was.

Jamie said some people have huge ups and downs, and need hospitalised; some have small ups and downs, and can cope with ordinary life and work; and some have larger ups and downs and are arty types. I suppose he knows his market, I suppose we are. The course is Transforming Shadows, looking at those parts of ourselves we suppress. People tell us not to be that way, and we take it in. Some over 45 will have been told not to be that way with a slap round the head. We are all terrified of rejection, desperate for approval, so behave in the way we think will be approved. We all contain all human possibilities. We seek comfort, but all art and life comes from the edge of the comfort zone. When we are uncomfortable, we are juicy, visceral, potent. Feel! Be visible! Life is precious, and there is the Real person underneath the masks. Just as we breathe and digest without thinking of it, so we heal, mentally as well as physically.

Life continually sends us challenges, to show us our uptightness. We manipulate, control and condemn to avoid feeling. When angry, all our old anger comes out, disproportionate to the stimulus. Even if the other person is wrong, my reaction is still the product of my own life: rather than reacting I should pause and feel, then choose the action. When willing to feel, to know what (not why) the feeling is, we can heal.

He talks of “full body listening”, being present in the moment with myself, or wu wei, active non-doing.

His way of accessing the real person is by writing with the non-dominant hand.

John Lavery, Portrait of a Lady, thought to be Mrs Ralph Peto

Self-possession

So many trips to London!

On the crowded train home, I sit with two women staring at their phones, and a girl of five who sits quiet and composed, though a little bored. I smile at her, and soon get chatting to her mother. Amanda is always quiet like this, outside the house. At nursery school, she would say nothing at all, nodding or shaking her head. So Katherine, her mother, told them to ask open questions. They asked how old she is, and she held up four fingers.

Then one of the girls who work at the nursery babysat for her. The young woman was in the kitchen, and Amanda had not realised she was here. Amanda shouted out to her two teenage brothers, out in the garden, to Get Off That it’s My turn. She shouts at her brothers, no-one will believe how wild she can be, says the mother fondly- but when she is out, she is quiet.

They have just been to London to meet Katherine’s mother in law. Katherine does not like her mother in law, who wants Amanda to wear pink, and flouncy skirts. So Amanda wore a pencil skirt, to wind up her grandmother- knee length boots and a leather jacket. Amanda wears what she likes.

Amanda gets out “Mary Poppins”, a new hardback with a retro binding, and leafs through it.

I have been considering ways to tell my transsexual story, of self-acceptance. “It is a universal story”, says Katherine. I say TERFs are hostile, and she thinks feminists should be delighted with me, even if off the scale feminine. I say something of the TERF perspective, and she responds with common sense, saying I am not a threat. There are two views: patriarchy- women are oppressed; and kyriarchy, just about everyone is oppressed. She sees some sense in the former. Until the mid-eighties, a woman could not claim Invalid Care Allowance for looking after her husband, because it was just her job. A man could claim it for looking after his wife. She is indignant. She did some feminist study as part of her degree.

Her father was a chauvinist, thinking her only possible role was as a wife. She married as soon as she could, a man fifteen years older, who had been in prison twice. Only then she realised that she had married out of spite. She was divorced by twenty.

-You are as unfree if you rebel as if you conform, I say. She agrees: she gets all this stuff.

It is a universal story, self-acceptance, and Katherine, having done it, is bringing up Amanda to be self-accepting from the start. Amanda is queen at home, where she is comfortable, and prudently watches how the world works when outside, meanwhile cultivating an attractive air of mystery. She will be amazing.

Margaret Macdonald, the white rose and the red rose

Currency trader

I am half an hour early for the midnight train at St P, so go to play the piano- my whole repertoire, as I have not memorised the Fauré yet. After, on the train, a man asks me what I was playing. The jazzy one. It was The Maple Leaf Rag, I tell him, and he notes that down on his phone. He wants to learn it: I have given him a target. He does not play the piano, but thinks playing that would be wonderful.

It must be wonderful, he says, to get into- is it like a meditative state, completely absorbed in the music? Memorising the movements is a very basic brain function, found in invertebrates, but communicating the emotion directly without words is lovely; and being with the music.

I join him, and we chat. A friend gave him the beautiful Sondergut backgammon set, a piece of suede with the points sewn on in leather, which rolls up around a zipped pocket for the dice and stones. I admire it, and propose going to a table, but he will use it first with her.

It was a wide ranging conversation. He has been reading a book, which he calls a history of the world- it would fit in your pocket, and covers certain incidents. The Black Death spread to people, he tells me, because the rats died of the cold and the fleas left them. The next chapter is on the Spanish Inquisition. Having had an exciting day and not sleeping well, I was nearly going to sleep. He mentions the two slits experiment, and we contemplate how the “atom” can go through both, or differ depending on whether it is being observed. He drops the word “metaphysics” a couple of times. He believes that under the reality we see, there is Chaos. I don’t like that thought. “Infinite possibility” perhaps, something more than is dreamed of in my philosophy-

When I said I had met an economist the day before, he said everything was based on Mathematics. “Love”, I challenged. He tried- Love depends on resources, which should be assessed mathematically.

At one point I said that if I think of being cold in the bathroom in the morning before showering, I tense up, but if I believe I can bear it for the necessary time and consciously relax, I can bear it. He says that if he immerses himself in a cold bath in the morning, just for thirty seconds, he will find himself warm for the rest of the day.

He is a currency trader. He assessed trends- he holds his hand out, palm down, and wiggles it: is the trend up, or down, sufficient to make clients money? Over whatever time period you consider, a day or a month. I thought these things were done by computer algorithms. No, he said, because the government is always trying to get one over on you, and will be able to detect and respond to the algorithms.

He does not accept Keynes. You have to pay your way, and pay your debts. You cannot live off credit. We are still living in a market bubble, he thinks.

He had a certain charm. I did not like him.

Degas, the cotton exchange

Poverty of Aspiration

Delightful conversation with Sylvia on the train. She is an academic micro-economist with a slight foreign accent, and I started us off by noticing that she was reading a paper on “poverty of aspiration”, and asking what that meant. It is the theory that the poor are so because they do not imagine they can do any better. At worst this is an excuse for the rich, a useful phrase to express that it is the fault of the poor that they are poor, they should just aspire more. But it can be an observation that at least some people might do better if they imagined they could, so that there are efforts to instil self-respect in schoolchildren, and they are taken on day trips to universities to encourage them to imagine they might go there.

-There is a crisis in Economics.
-Because of the crash and its aftermath.

Macro-economics looks at large groups, but micro-economics considers individuals, trespassing on the territory of sociology or psychology, but in a more mathematical way than those disciplines. Economics has always postulated rational actors, but we are not.

I say that I gain pleasure from altruistic behaviour. I think it is a character trait. Could such a trait evolve? she challenges. Well, yes, in my subsistence farming village of a hundred people, I am altruistic and they all love me for it.
– it is reciprocal, she agrees. But you could also have introjected it from your religious upbringing.

Yes. So we have two theories, and need to consider what observations might confirm or refute them.
-And we might consider what religious/moral beliefs are best for the good of society.

She is pleased to hear I am considering reading Thomas Piketty. It is written for the educated lay-person, she says. She recommends Esther Duflo on poverty. What do you do? I confess my personal interest in “poverty of aspiration”. I despaired. She speaks warmly. It is obvious from speaking to you that you have gifts and talents and you are attractive and able to engage. You must not despair!

Tramp smoking cigar

Partying

We were cuddled up on comfy chairs under duvets and blankets, while Nelson played his guitar and people sang. I sang my own song, and Nelson improvised chords for it. I had not wanted to come. I felt so miserable last Monday after a pleasant Sunday that I would almost have rather stayed in my flat, rather stay miserable than have pleasure then go back to it. I am glad I went. I feel more centred and confident than last week. I also feel the misery last Monday led to useful change. Nelson also helped me with my song: I wondered what chord to use before the final tonic, but he proposed two. I sang baritone, as it means I can hold a note:

Nick has done Essence two and a half times, walking out half way through once. He said something about me being unable to come, and I can’t think why.
-Nick, I have a prostate.
-I know what you have.
At this, his friend Julie got irritated and frustrated with him. I felt her tension. “What?” said Nick, and then started protesting, it is just his way, just his sense of humour, it is the way he talks. Neither of us could explain to him, so I asked him about his painting. He is ashamed of it. He should not be, it gives him an income, but lets him stay at home rather than going out to work. He said it looks like nothing as he works on the background of the whole, and only comes together when he adds the details at the end. Earlier, he had compared my bonny velvet dress, borrowed from Helen, to curtain material. I must ask Julie if he is like that with everyone, or just me. I liked the dress, but it was a little tight around the bust, which was uncomfortable. I can’t imagine how men cope with breast-binding before top surgery.

On the train down, I met Lilian, who is from Hong Kong, here studying Geography at university. She was reading Happiness by Design by Paul Dolan, which says that happiness is not about how we think, but how we act. She highlighted certain passages. One tends to think happiness is about attitudes such as gratitude and acceptance. He says it is about finding what we want, and doing it, and I can agree. Lilian disapproves of the democracy protests. She does not feel one person one vote should be a priority in China: it is more important to improve communications with the west of the country, so that people may find work without travelling so far to the factories in the East. Not reducing soot particles in the air, either. She has made it a point to study recent Chinese history since the war, and the sufferings of her people. I do not want to challenge her- she says people often get worked up- but do say that our particular way of encouraging different points of view lends itself to voting, here.

People started arriving about six. Best line- “I’ve done a bedroom scene with Cate Blanchett”- but he was playing a German soldier in Charlotte Gray, coming to arrest her. I feel my photographs compliment people and show a little of their character, and someone came up with this. Possibly Nick.

In demand

Pink gendering

I am growing: I write about this differently from how I would have two days ago.

I was with parents of small children discussing potty-training, general stuff. A mother notices how rigidly gendered toys are: an art easel is either pink or blue, for goodness’ sake. Why can’t it be wooden, and wood-coloured? Fortunately, — is quite happy playing with “boy’s” or “girl’s” toys. At school, another child mocked his pink shirt, and he said, “Don’t you know, real men wear pink?” Wonderful, repartee in a six year old.

On the Tube, a woman gets on with a man and a girl. The woman clutches a cuddly toy penguin, a cuddly toy Santa, and a three foot high helium balloon with a picture of Disney’s Snow White on it.  She loses grip of Snow White, and the balloon hits the ceiling. I catch her eye and grin. “Nightmare,” she says. She pulls it down and it sticks out across the aisle to her daughter, who is sitting forward in the seat despite being told to sit back: as I watch, she caresses the plasticky surface of her balloon.

The thing I would not have written, would not have admitted, is that I was staring at that balloon with great interest and a mix of emotions. I notice the full petticoats and the shape of the pose. It is a symbol for the child, but also for me.

I absolutely agree that there is more than one way to be a girl, and that heavily stereotyped and limiting roles for girls are a bad thing: but not that Pink Stinks. By all means produce wooden easels, and encourage girls to play with chemistry sets and join the school debating team; but leave Disney Princesses alone, for me and those like me.

On the train, crowded with people standing, a man explained that there was one fewer carriage than there should be. Just to make conversation, what are you doing for Christmas? His sons are joining him. He does not know what men in their thirties have in common with him: they have all these electronic devices, and he does not understand them at all. He got off, and three women got on. I stared admiringly at one, in a long-haired fake fur pelt and a narrow headband with a row of fake pearls (large and quite spherical) surrounded by glittery stuff. The woman beside me wore a Christmas red jumper with a cartoon reindeer face on it. I commented that not everyone could carry a headband like that off, but she does, beautifully. The woman in the jumper agreed. They are off on a works night out, to see the musical Matilda and have dinner. She forgot the champagne- it was in her fridge chilling and everything. I condole. What work do you do? They work in a bank- she hopes that does not bore me, she apologises. No, not at all.

I have been in jeans too long. Sod comfort and fashion, I am wearing skirts more.

Positivity

womenSo quickly it becomes normal, and will just be nice, but right now there is something magical about this display of wedding cake decorations I passed in Chester.

In Leicester station the wee boy climbed up on the seat beside me and announced “We’re going to Derby!” Hello. What will you do in Derby? “Important Things”, he said, and turned his back on me.

Derby to Crewe on a single carriage. The man sitting beside me seemed gauche and shabby, and I wondered how to start a conversation. “Do you know how far it is to Crewe?” He did not. I guessed fifty miles, Google says 50.7. He is happy enough to chat, and complains it takes over eighty minutes, with ten stops, then complains about how crowded it is at commuting time. You pay the same but do not get a seat, especially on a Friday night when the students are going home.

What do you do? He works for the NHS, as a clinical psychologist, in Stoke on Trent, which I find the most depressing place in Great Britain.

So many of his patients have psychosomatic pain, all over. I have heard doctors refer to “bodyache”. It is all in the mind. He tries to get them to do something, but about one in ten are completely negative. What do you want? They don’t know. If they would take exercise the brain would release stimulants. He tells them not just to sit at home and ruminate. men
(Oops. It is a good job he did not ask me what I do.) Some of them are very badly hurt, after losing their job, or a partner, or relatives- these things are very stressful- but it breaks them, and there is little he can do. They might have six sessions of cognitive behavioural therapy, and know nothing more at the end. One man had a deep personal hatred for Donald Trump. Why? he asked. Trump does not care what you think. Two years later, the man had got over it.

He hears all this negativity, and it rubs off on him. Being positive helps with anything: it is easier to stop smoking if you imagine what you want, rather than what you want to resist. I asked him if he thought Lumosity, which I have started, is any good, but he was equivocal.

I am apparently better than 55% of my age group on Lumosity, a good stolid result, and I console myself that only people above average would be doing it. However as you go down the ages I get better than fewer people, until in the 20s I am only better than 23% of people.

In Crewe, I met a woman I had known through a TS email support group since about 2001. We spotted each other almost immediately- few people wear dresses at noon in a railway station. I started on how depressing Stoke is, and found she was born there.

Then on to Chester, where I played the tourist.

I am away in Bath, at the Yearly Meeting Gathering of Quakers- without my computer!! I have posts scheduled, and will return here on 9 August.

Portraits

Hogarth, the lenderOn Sunday, we strolled down a quiet, civilised street: Oxford Street. There were people outside John Lewis waiting to go in. Quiet is relative- London is so laid back compared to Moscow, said the young woman on the train, and has such good transport links. She is over visiting her boyfriend, they have been together two years but this is only her second time in Swanston, which is so pretty. Moscow is crazy. Her grandparents are Muscovite. “Dos Vidanye”, I said- not до свидания with the proper accent- and she glowed: how do I know that? Oh, I picked up a few words in lots of languages, I said airily, it really pleased a Russian colleague- but I thought it meant hello, and only now find out it is goodbye.

We went to the Foundling Hospital for the Rake’s Progress: the eight Hogarth prints, and responses since. David Hockney, now a grand old man, made a series of prints in the sixties as an angry young man. The Yorkshire lad arrives in California, his blank face refusing to show he is overawed, to striking sights like rows of men with trannies at their waists, listening on headphones. In one picture he is thrown into the maw of a giant fish. Downstairs is The Vanity of Small Differences by Grayson Perry: as with Hogarth, it is all in the faces. I love Hogarth’s lender drawing up his contract with the gull.

Then in the National Portrait Gallery we saw the tiny, crowded The Great War in Portraits. Here are George V, Wilhelm II (h/t II-II) and the Austrian bloke, and a small oil of Franz Ferdinand looking smug, entitled and disdainful. Did they even on the most formal William_Orpen_-_Sir_Arthur_Currieoccasions dress like that? Here’s a photo of Gavrilo Princip looking lost, the perpetual victim. I had not taken much interest in portraits, so William Orpen was new to me. Here are rows of generals: the faces captivate me, more sensitive than I would expect. Donkeys who told men to march towards machine guns-

He’s a cheery old card, grunted Harry to Jack
as they trudged up to Arras with rifle and pack
but he did for them both with his plan of attack.

I could not necessarily get to like and know these people, but there is a person to like and know. Then there are a couple of VCs: this man shot down an enemy plane, had to land near enemy lines, made repairs to his plane under shell fire then took off again.

Then we saw some contemporary portraits, mostly actors and entertainers though Blair was there. A man asked if Dame Kelly Holmes was a photograph. I had wondered that until I studied the mouth, which is about 7″ across: those vertical lines of reflected light confirmed they were brush strokes, though what I see in the painting is the cleverness of the technique, rather than the person. We don’t know what to make of Katherine, Duchess of Cambridge, either: a blank canvas for the subjects to project what we will.

Here is William Orpen himself:

Self-portrait, 1917

Hogarth’s verse captions move from what is continent and proper to what is disordered and vile, and from the general to the particular:

Gold thou bright son of Phoebus
Of universal intercourse
Of weeping Virtue soft redress
And blessing those who live to bless
Yet oft behold this sacred trust
The tool of avaricious lust
No longer bond of humankind
But bane of every virtuous mind
What Chaos such misuse attends
Friendship sloops to prey on friends
Health that gives relish to delight
Is wasted with the wasting night
Doubt and mistrust is thrown on Heaven
And all its power to Chance is given
Sad purchase of repentant tears
Of needless quarrels endless fears
Of hopes of moments pangs of years
Sad purchase of a tortur’d mind
To an imprisoned body join’d!

Writing a book

StandpointHow to start a conversation? The man had The New Statesman and Standpoint on the table, so I remarked “Something to irritate everyone”. Well, what do you read? Prospect and The Spectator, actually, so something the same. He is rarely home, so when he comes he reads as much as he can, to see how things are. Now, he is in Bangkok.

I find Standpoint pointlessly nasty, a lot of the time, so I have given up on it, but it did have the most beautiful photograph of a derelict factory I have ever seen: regular breaks in the ceiling receded into the distance, and puddles of oily water on the floor created an abstract of light, shade and reflection. Devoting a whole page to a single picture like that was the one way Standpoint inspired other magazines here.

There is a lot of English used in Bangkok, and he has made almost no progress with the language. Thai has its own unique alphabet, and he has not learned it. He has made much more progress with Vietnamese, which uses the Latin alphabet. I feel the same way: it is much easier to learn a language with the words written as an aid. Mobile coverage is much better there: ten miles out at sea you can get a signal, and here he loses it in rural Northants.

The Army has just declared martial law, without consulting the government. The political situation is extremely complex. The article in The Economist was mostly correct, but some matters were completely misinterpreted. The same arguments go round every few years, and most of the differences are personality based. He makes much of his income from writing, and would find it easier writing a book, in some ways, than a one page article. I am not really aware of the situation in Thailand: I would need some angle to pique my interest- “This is a situation in which democracy can go wrong”, say, to relate it to Italy or Greece
-or, perhaps, the situation here, he agrees.

Well. One good conversation. The trip is not entirely wasted. We shook hands in mutual respect and pleasure, and he went off.

Coming back, the pretty South Asian woman was willing enough to talk, but we did not get beyond the weather. The Indian elections? The Euro elections? I cannot tell if she is of Muslim or Hindu heritage, and Modi is hero or monster, bringer of the Gujerat growth spurt or the anti-Muslim riots. We chatted a little about Candy Crush saga. When I left, I said “ta-ra, namaste or salaam aleikum” and she said “salaam aleikum” back.

In the platform coffee shop, a man showed me his hockey-sticks, and I admired how light they are. He had not heard of shinty, though he knew something of the gaelic games. He is left handed, but there are no left-handed sticks, and it is only allowed to use one side of the stick. The time passes.