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Wednesday 1 November 2023



This was a chapter in my 2016 collection of twenty-six essays, The Best I Can Do. It is available in paperback  from Amazon and

Macadamised                              Trevor Pateman

It’s always rained a lot in the United Kingdom and now it rains even more. When I am sidestepping pavement puddles and driving along main roads sheeted with water, I keep thinking about the fact that civilisations in decline forget how to use - or cannot be bothered to use - the technologies which once made them great. Think of what happened to Britain when the Romans left and it was immediately as if central heating technology had never been invented: according to Winston Churchill in A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Britain knew neither central heating nor hot baths for 1500 years, the people shivering and smelly.

In school, and quite young, we did the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions. We learnt about advances in civil engineering which introduced an era of road improvement and we knew the names of Thomas Telford (1757-1834) and John Macadam (1756 - 1836), both Scotsmen. The latter gave us the word “Tarmac”, shortened from “Tarmacadam”. I can still remember the diagrams, though I don't have the exercise books any more. The basic idea was something like this: you built up the road with small stones and at the same time you cambered the road, so that water ran to the sides where it could be drained into ditches. Then you applied tar to the surface. Unlike the old mud roads, the Macadamised road would remain passable in the wettest weather. In the context of growth of industry and trade, and until railways became widespread, it was an innovation of direct benefit to business which helps explain why Macadam’s ideas were taken up. In towns, those ideas had the same advantage: water from cambered streets would flow towards gutters and from there would be channeled into drains. As a final flourish of civic pride and common sense, pavements could be gently sloped so that they too drained into the gutters.

All this we have forgotten.

In towns, our roads and pavements are dug up endlessly by utility firms and councils. They employ the same firms: Bodger and Sons, Bodger and Daughters, Bodger and Bodger. None of them have heard of road cambering or water runoff. Or if they have, they don't want to know. They want the money. Not so many years ago, cumbersome council vehicles dropped great nozzles into street drains to suck out leaves and other debris and thus ensure that the drains were fit for purpose. Now we have privatised drains and no cumbersome vehicles. Drains are blocked: when it rains, the water may run towards the drains but there it simply overflows and spreads out into those great ponds of water which buses drive through.

On the main roads and motorways, large private companies extract from the Exchequer millions for maintenance. But Bodger and Bodger Plc has never heard of cambering or storm water drains or ditches and, if it has, it doesn't want to know. It wants to lay tarmac at however-many-million pounds a mile and move on.

This is a civilisation in decline. Even the business imperative has weakened and road haulage companies rely on the sturdiness of their foreign-made vehicles rather than the sturdiness of British roads to get goods quickly from A to B.




There is another way of looking at this kind of failure to do things which could be done and would benefit everyone. It is structural rather than historical. It starts from paradoxical observations such as this: Everyone uses pavements but, nonetheless, pavements are badly maintained. How come?

A small majority of citizens vote in British general elections but only a minority in local elections. You can win in local elections by getting just a few of your on-hand special interest groups to turn out for you. Pavement users are just not a special interest group and promising better pavements just isn't going to motivate a non-voter to go and vote. Nor is it going to switch a Tory or a Labour vote. It’s nothing to get passionate about unlike whatever is the local passion evoker – the most common one, the threat of more house building. Local politicians support new house building at their peril.

Because there are no votes in pavements, there is no money for pavements. They have no advocates. They aren’t slices of a cake you can fight over. That's the problem. Well-maintained pavements aren't the stuff of advocacy politics. No one group is going to get better off from better pavements. Everyone is. And no one is an advocate for everyone: read a batch of Opinion pieces in The Guardian – there are many – and they are about who should be getting a bigger slice of this or that cake, a bigger place in the sun. No one is going to pay you or encourage you to represent a common interest or even write opinion pieces about it. If one day better pavements arrive, everyone benefits regardless. No one has to contribute to get them.

Politicians - the professional political class with their own interests in shares of the cake - know that the route to power lies through assembling the voting support of enough sectional groups. In Britain, that mostly means people over 60 and what are always called by the one-word name, ordinaryhardworkingfamilies - the sort of people temporarily encumbered with children but looking forward to the day when they too will be over 60.

Pavements are not an issue but child care costs and pension benefits are. They are slices of the cake. Politicians make promises about these things, often engaging in competitive bidding. That could end up being costly, so sometimes they try a different strategy, appealing to sectional groups who won't be a burden on the Budget. It doesn't cost much to appeal to those wanting fox hunting bans (Labour) or gay marriages (Conservative). There's just the risk that you lose more votes than you gain.

But if you promise Better Pavements you are trying to appeal to everyone and Everyone is not a winning coalition. Pavements aren't adversarial enough, just painful when you trip over. Remember Winston Churchill: 1500 years without hot baths and central heating. Don’t expect pavement improvements any time soon.


Further Reading: 

Thomas Codrington, The Maintenance of Macadamised Roads. Second edition. E & F N Spon, London 1892.

Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Harvard University Press 1965


Monday 3 April 2023

How to Get into Oxford 1863 style


It’s surprising what you sometimes find inside old envelopes. Here the Reverend Dr W G Henderson, Headmaster of Leeds Grammar School from 1862 to 1884, writes to the father of a pupil. The school year has ended and Dr Henderson is already taking a break on the Kent coast at Walmer. But he is also sending out bills:

My dear Sir,

I send you your sons [the apostrophe does appear to be missing] accounts for the past half year. His general conduct is quite satisfactory, with the exception of the old want of energy. I did not hear whether he had made up his mind about going to Oxford. If he resolves to go I will write in August & get his name put down.

I beg my kind regards to Mrs. Barstow & am

My dear sir

Very faithfully yours

W G Henderson

Dr Henderson has a Wikipedia page as “William Henderson (Priest)” which tells me that he was - among other distinctions - a Fellow of Magdalen College Oxford and so his recommendation would count.

The charm of this letter is that if young Barstow decides he wants to go then Dr Henderson will “put his name down” and he will go and Barstow Senior will have got good value for the school fees he has paid. Whether even the formality of an admissions interview was required, I do not know.

But did Barstow go up to Oxford?

The Barstow name is not common in Oxford's records of its alumni(only three in the period 1715-1886) but a John Smithson Barstow, son of a John Barstow, [the envelope is addressed to a J Barstow] born in Yorkshire [Leeds is in Yorkshire] attended the Queen’s College, matriculating on 20 April 1866, aged 20. [I think that’s rather old for the period; maybe something to do with “want of energy”]. He obtained a B.A. and M.A. though at what seems a leisurely pace - the records just state “1873” and in 1876 Barstow junior became a vicar of the Church of England as Oxford's graduates often did and still do. It looks like his father put some money into the Lincolnshire parish where he was first appointed, but I guess that is another story for someone else to research.

 John Barstow senior is classified as a “Gent[leman]” in the Oxford records and a local Directory of the period identifies him as a farmer which is not incompatible. The Leeds Grammar School records connect a “John Smithson Barstow” to a “J Barstow Farmer”. Glancing through those records, it's clear that Leeds was a school which in the Victorian period regularly sent boys to Queen's College.

Well, after half an hour online, I conclude it likely that Dr Henderson did write his letter.


Postscript: The envelope no longer contains the tradesman's accounts rendered but their presence is indicated by the additional penny stamp added to the Penny Pink pre-stamped envelope and which was needed because the letter exceeded the half ounce weight limit for a penny letter; two pence was the next step up for letters under one ounce. 

Thursday 16 February 2023

The Ostentation of King Charles


This is an excerpt from my book The Best I Can Do (2016) available from the usual suspects and also 


Prince Charles is a year younger than me. He has been heir to the throne for so long (since 1952 in fact) that if and when he becomes King and I am still alive, I am sure I shall continue to think of him as Prince Charles. Over the years I have watched his face age and the number of medals on his full dress uniforms increase. One day it occurred to me that most of his medals are birthday badges given to him by his Mum. He is still pinning them on sixty years after most of us stopped. They infantilise him.

In Africa during the past sixty years, kleptocratic and psychopathic tyrants, backed by their old colonial masters, have lorded it over impoverished peoples using a rhetoric of visual ostentation taken unashamedly from those former colonial rulers – and not just the British. But with no Mum to award them, they have simply had to award medals to themselves, getting some lackey to pin them on until their chests attain the full splendour of which Imperial kitsch is capable. The Emperor Bokassa - every whim indulged by the governments of France (Bokassa had uranium) - is the all-time outright winner for mirror-imaging the ostentation of the European Imperial powers. His coronation in 1976 cost the dirt-poor Central African Republic more than its entire annual state budget. The images are still worth Googling. You can see a copy of Ruritania’s famous Coronation coach and surrounding Bokassa, you can see haute couture-styled flunkeys like those – all male - who still surround Imperial President Hollande.

Bokassa’s rivals have included General Idi Amin (with a taste for British military top-brass tassels), and Colonel Gadaffi (specialist in Italianate gold braid) and dozens of more forgettable bit players who have strutted and killed for a short while, all of them weighed down by this abject drive to outdo European levels of ostentation.

Added 4 September 2023: the tradition is still being upheld. Here is the leader of the recent coup in Gabon being sworn in to whatever office it is that he lays claim. Why would anyone want to dress like this and in a hot country too?

You would think it would shame Prince Charles into dressing a bit more like Nelson Mandela or maybe the Dalai Lama but, no, when it comes to keeping up appearances he is still determined to provide a role model for the next dictator up. One day, he hopes to live in a Palace where the Guards are dolled up in such a way that they could not guard a goldfish bowl and on hot days, no bare skin visible, collapse from heat exhaustion. It is both ostentation and irrationality. The tourists love it; it’s much more fun than the Zoo.

Added 4 September 2023: He is of course now King and even more keen on ostentation:

In Charles’s country, those who are likely to become his Subjects are introduced at an early age to irrational dress. The British not only do ostentatious uniform at the top; they do school uniform at the beginning. They really have a thing about it - some of it part of a long paedophilic tradition - and, if anything, it’s getting worse. Parents off their heads on Janet and John think that education from three years up is about woollen caps and blazers and the more brightly be-ribboned the better for indicating your aspirations. Colour co-ordinated knee socks, striped ties, polished shoes, pleated skirts, boaters for summer, all obsessively listed  in pages of Rules, declare that aspiration as a commitment to maintain Ruritania’s social order and its established Table of Ranks.

British schools devote a great deal of time and money to devising and enforcing their uniform rules. It can be almost a full-time job for one Deputy Headteacher and they don’t come cheap. Some parents grumble about the cost, forgetting that cost is partly what it’s about – about showing that your child is in a different class to the riff-raff child in that school (unfortunately) just down the road. It is sometimes said that school uniform makes social distinctions less visible: you will not so easily spot the poor child in the classroom. But if you work back from the sharp-elbowed one-upmanship which characterises the uniforms of rival schools, it is most unlikely that social distinctions are not still visible in one school’s classrooms. Showing off as better than someone else does not stop at the school gates.

British parents do not really find it possible to believe that there are successful countries, not plagued by juvenile delinquency or illiteracy, that manage to function without any school uniform at all. But dreadful as it may seem, they do exist, and  if you want living proof of what can be done without the benefit of school uniform, check out the Cusanus-Gymnasium, Erkelenz, a German High School in a fairly ordinary town of just 45 000 people. It doesn’t have a fancy website but you can get some idea there what the pupils look like. Normal is a word that comes to mind. Go to YouTube and – though I should give you a trigger warning that you will have to look at trai**rs - enjoy listening to the Erkelenz choir, the Oberstufenchor. They do English, of course. And lots more.  Time and money isn’t taken up with uniforms, you see. It’s one reason German education gets better results.

Meanwhile, African dictators can still look to Prince Charles as a role model. British parents will take their cues from how the child known as Prince George is got up for school.

Wednesday 15 February 2023

Two Rules of Social Life


Two rules make social life possible and endurable:

1.      You can’t always have what you want and sometimes you shouldn’t want what you want. (I will explain in a moment).

2.      A good rule is one which can be broken if circumstances demand it.

Whatever Lola Wants, Lola gets makes us smile not least because the words do make us want Lola. But not all our wants have quite so much charm about them as Lola’s. Some wants are just greedy, some are nasty (I want to see you dead). Some are reasonably upgraded to the level of Needs (I just need some money to get started again) and some get further upgraded to Rights though not always reasonably.

The language of Rights once served an excellent purpose, notably in establishing goals for international organisations. Countries signed up to Declarations of Human Rights and then found that other countries wanted to hold them to account for non-compliance. Those Declarations also gave individuals and movements access to a rhetoric in which to couch their appeals.

But the language of rights becomes useless when too many people use it to assert what are really no more than their wants, and  more or less regardless of how others might be affected. Social  media provide forums where a cacophony of voices  can shout out claims to competing and incompatible Rights. You end up thinking that they are immature rather than deprived of something. The language of Rights is totally fucked.

The possibility of co-operating with others breaks down if you don’t accept that you can’t always have what you want. In democratically organised polities, if you lose an election you are supposed to accept that you have lost - however upset you may be - and hand over to the winner. Not so Donald Trump. He is not prepared to lose; declares himself the Real Winner, the True Winner; denounces and bullies those who disagree and, in general, seeks to undermine democratic process. It would be merely pitiful if there wasn’t about a third of the American population still cheering him on and even reading the absurd Tweets. Even President Bolsonaro did not put up a serious fight against losing. That so many Americans can still back Donald Trump indicates that the USA has a really serious problem in functioning well as a society.

Part of self-discipline - unknown to Mr Trump and to millions on Twitter  - is that you recognise that something you want is not always something you should try to get  because of how others would be affected. Doing things which are illegal often falls into that category, though not always. Regardless of what the law says, you can still judge that the adverse effect on others would outweigh any good which might accrue to you from some particular action.

That thought is one which sharp-elbowed people have trouble with, starting in my country with NotInMyBackYards who don’t want new housing in their very expensive neighbourhoods, thank you very much.

More generally when we accuse people of a sense (or excessive sense) of entitlement and privilege we are in effect, saying that they are unable or unwilling to balance their own wants against those of other people. They are just Me, Me, Me people. Often it works and Me, Me, Me will get you Likes by the thousand and if you are really lucky the hundred thousand. There is not just one Donald Trump in the world; there are hundreds and thousands, some of them female, and many of whom become Celebrities because they have so,so many Followers awaiting today's new photograph. It's hilarious, really. 

So that’s the first Rule: You can’t always have what you want and you shouldn’t always want what you want.  What about the second?

Societies and most obviously big societies are governed by many thousands of rules most of which we don’t even know exist. A huge cadre of people earn their living by enforcing those rules and can really only do so if they believe that rules will fit every case. They don’t and the system isn’t working if there is no mechanism for over-riding a rule to achieve some greater good. A stickler for rules is not only a pain in the arse but someone who gets in the way of achieving better outcomes in difficult situations.

In my country a good example is provided by the way the Ministry of the Interior (the Home Office) treats people who arrive in the country illegally. I agree entirely that it does create problems: some of those entering illegally will do so because they are criminals of one kind or another and intend to pursue a criminal career; others may be agents of a foreign power intent on causing disruption (though it’s true, some of those have been welcomed with open arms including, I guess, university students acting as agents of their home country’s regime). Some need medical care and housing and all the rest and there is already a very long queue of people waiting for those things so really you should take your turn.

But the overall response is rule-obsessed, unimaginative, and hugely expensive. It is also actively and deliberately unpleasant.

An alternative approach would acknowledge that rules have been broken but would try to make the best of a bad job. A preliminary assessment might simply try to establish whether an illegally-arrived person  could go to work while awaiting a decision on their future. So you’re a doctor? Yes. Can you prove that? Yes. OK. Would you be prepared to work in some capacity in the NHS? Yes. Great, then let’s set something up.

But they’ve Broken the Rules!  Yeah, but a good rule is one which can be broken in the right circumstances and this looks like a right circumstance: this person has a medical qualification; we need people with medical qualifications; they need a job. It’s win-win.

Of course, it’s opportunistic and it doesn’t suit the bureaucratic mind. But it might achieve more overall good than current rule-bound approaches. And it would free up resources to attend to those who have arrived with  less to offer than the (stereotype) medical practitioner. But even among those with less to offer there will be fit young people who could pick fruit or build houses in NIMBY backyards. Go for it!







Tuesday 14 February 2023

India Willoughby on Brianna Ghey


 India Willoughby



Because Britain does not have Self ID, trans teenager Brianna Ghey cannot be buried as her true self. She won’t be allowed the dignity of having ‘beloved daughter’ on her gravestone. Or a correct death certificate. All because the mob oppose something they don’t understand.

2:09 AM · Feb 13, 2023·




Yesterday, one of my News feeds reproduced this Tweet ; it’s the only way I ever encounter Tweets.

Brianna Ghey was murdered a few days ago at the age of sixteen and from first accounts it would seem that she would have realised she was being killed. Her family have to live with that knowledge added to the knowledge that they have lost someone who is never going to come back. As yet, it seems that the motives (if any) of the suspects are unknown and I don’t know what is worse: to think that Brianna was murdered for a reason or for no reason at all. Her family are in what is called the glare of publicity; they have to deal with that and with the police and a post mortem and, in due course, an inquest, a funeral [which I think has to follow the inquest and cannot precede it] and  trial. It barely bears thinking about - and India Willoughby isn’t going to even attempt it. She’s streets ahead imagining the gravestone.

A gravestone? Not many people now want gravestones; it’s a very conservative choice. Maybe it would have been Brianna’s choice and maybe it will be her family’s. But both may have or have had other ideas: scattered ashes, a rose bush, a donation in memory of; some people choose nothing at all.. But India Willoughby wants a gravestone because she can then harness Brianna’s death to her own cause: “Because Britain does not have Self ID….”

I found the Tweet crudely opportunistic (but then Twitter is designed for opportunists) and, to be honest, crass and unfeeling. But it will get lots of likes from the Twitter mob for whom Brianna is not really a person at all, just an example of something else.

Performativity 101 A Guide for Students



Back in 1962 some lectures given in 1955 by a recently deceased Oxford professor,  J L Austin, were published under the title How to Do Things with Words. Austin thought that we could better understand the character of statements which interest philosophers if we paid close attention to the way words are used in different settings. He pointed to situations where just saying something in the right circumstances itself brings about a change in the way the world is. In the English marriage ceremony, if you stand before an authorised official and answer I Do when asked if you wish to marry the person standing next to you then, provided the other person does the same, the official will declare you husband and wife and from that moment you are - in the eyes of the law - husband and wife. And in some cultures, if the husband declares three times and in the right circumstances I Divorce You then that’s exactly what they do.

It sounds a bit like magic, mere words changing the state of the world: Hey Presto! The sense of magic is a bit reduced if you notice that Austin’s examples suppose an elaborate institutional setting which may have a long history, has been legally created, and from time to time gets modified (think of gay marriage). Unfortunately, you don’t end up married to your pet dog if you declare in their presence I Marry You even if the dog wags his or her tail in agreement. Your act may have personal - let’s say, metaphorical significance - but it doesn’t convince what for convenience we can call “society”. A friend might intervene and suggest that you calm down.

Austin called those uses of language which change the state of the world performative utterances or just performatives. He contrasted them with constative utterances or constantives which make claims about the way the world is but don’t change the world itself.  The Earth Orbits the Sun is a stereotype example. We can utter this as many times as we like and still the Earth and the Sun take no notice at all; they are not interested. Period.

Austin invited us to look at other kinds of utterances which belong to the performative family. Say Hello! in the right circumstances (but in this case prescribed by much looser conventions than the marriage ceremony) and you have greeted someone; there’s nothing more you have to do, though you may in fact do more, like smile or hold out your hand.

Within a few years, Austin’s ideas helped in the re-shaping of linguistics as the scientific study of language. Though a distinction between syntax (structure), semantics (meaning) and pragmatics (use) has been available for a long time, pragmatics had been the Cinderella of the subject. Within maybe twenty years it became a powerhouse of new ideas, some highly technical, and which - as we say - transformed the face of the subject.

Linguists were not the only people to take an interest in performatives. Sociologists and cultural theorists  saw they might be able to transform their subjects and become famous if they could make the idea of performatives do more work than Austin had ever imagined. It seemed relatively easy: the starting point would be to show that some supposedly constative utterances were, really, just performative ones in disguise.

Suppose someone says to you, I’m a Christian. Is that constative or performative? On the constative side it looks like they are stating a fact about themselves. On the performative side they are, as we already say, professing a belief and professing a religious belief in the right circumstances seems to be at least part of what it is to have that belief. If we think (to coin an expression) constatively, then if someone says I’m a Christian and they aren’t then they are lying. But if we think performatively, then we have a different word to characterise a fake performance: they are being insincere.

In explanation of what comes next, I can only say that I think it arises from over-excitability.

Because next up comes the idea that what makes someone a Christian is not this rather elusive inner thing called belief but a whole series of acts (now to be called performative acts or simply performances) which taken together add up to that person being (or not being) a Christian. Or to slide a bit farther away from the starting point: a Christian is (just) someone who performs as a Christian, or performs the role of a Christian; there is no constative element. There is no fact of the matter. Performativity is King (or Queen).

And the next step? It’s to say that I’m a Woman is really just like I’m a Christian. It’s (just ) a set of performances; there is no fact of the matter.

And the step after that?  The Earth Orbits the Sun is an utterance in which a scientist simply performs the role of being a scientist. There is no fact of the matter; there are just scientists and the world they have (performatively) created.

By this point the idea of performance or performativity has lost any analytical or critical value because it no longer contrasts with anything else; it has itself become part of a set of performances which we might characterise as virtue-signalling, or membership-in-the-group signalling.

 As a theory it is indistinguishable from what, in the past, was called philosophical idealism, the claim that the world is (just) a world of ideas and nothing else, though in one version, it was paired with the idea of Will and the World was then a World of Will and Idea where wanting it so and thinking it so makes the world the way it is.

In the end, we have a story which tells us that there is no way out from the world of words, at least until one of the scientists’ bombs blows up the world leaving just ….

The moral of this story?

Dear Student, Because your lecturers suffer from over-excitability, it is unfortunately your job to work out what has gone wrong and identify the mistaken transitions which lead to conclusions which have taken them into la-la land and made their books pretty unreadable too.

Hint: In a technical philosophical paper included in his book Problems of the Self, the late Bernard Williams tried to clarify the idea of belief by pointing out that you cannot decide to believe. Belief happens to you or is the endpoint of some causal chain which may begin with something as simple as a perception: you see a spider on the wall and as a result come to believe that there is a spider on the wall. You have no choice in the matter. The belief is something to which you are liable, it just happens to you.




Tuesday 7 February 2023

Pet Hates


Other people’s pet hates are among most people’s pet hates. They are not things you willingly listen to, read about, or otherwise engage with. The moment we suspect that a Pet Hate is about to surface in conversation we start to prepare the manoeuvres necessary to secure a change of subject. Often enough, we can think of nothing better than headlong retreat: Sorry, I must just go and have a word with so-and-so over there in the far corner (Arm and index finger extended to maximum length).

People can be very, very attached to their pet hates rather as if they were pet dogs to be groomed and pandered to and whatever else it is that pet dog owners do. People would be lost without their pet hates. Just imagine the ill-effect on the nation’s mental health if  the Council .... FILLED IN ALL THE POTHOLES.

Those who theorise what is called Identity Politics have simply got it wrong in limiting themselves to the trinity of race, class, and gender. [Copy editor: no need to insert Holy Bible capitals there]. You may say, Speak for yourself! but I reckon that pet hates play a large part in making us who we think we are. I don’t think any identity theorists have developed a typology or studied the distribution of pet hates by race, class, and gender, or considered what might be the function of pet hates. And presumably the pet hates of one hundred years ago will not be the same as today’s, though in my country popular attachment to the bric-à-brac of Heritage may have kept some alive for a very long time. Maybe our trains have never run on time.

(Question to the Learned: What were Shakespeare’s pet hates or didn’t he have any?)

Some pet hates clearly bind us together, like The Council and The Government, and if we feel frustrated when someone launches into potholes, parking schemes, or cycle lanes - well, then that frustration  arises simply because we would love to get  in a word of our own if we only knew how.

Some pet hates are divisive, and deeply so, and that means they consolidate whatever sense we have of our own identity. In my country, Brexit opened up a whole new world of divisive pet hates which looks set to overshadow Dogs and The Daily Mail for a long time yet.

On the brighter side, pet hates which express how we feel do not need to have much of a knowledge base. Ability to articulate and enjoy them does not discriminate in favour of the well-educated. You don’t have to be a pub bore or barrack room lawyer to qualify as a pet hater.  Being strongly opinionated is quite enough.

Strongly opinionated or just opinionated? And is there anything wrong with Having Opinions? That, I put it to you, members of the jury, is an interesting question.

Asked about our identity  we are used now to talking about what we are not what we think or believe unless we give ourselves a religious identity. Speaking as an old and pale white male - I am one and I can perform the role of one with some pleasure just like all those others who go around Speaking as - there is a cultural shift I have lived through in which what you are has come to matter much more than what you think, believe, or feel, In my early 1960s boys’ grammar school, having opinions was a central part of being intellectually alive. We had opinions about everything, many of them againsts: we were against capital punishment, against apartheid, against The Bomb and we let anyone who cared to know know it.  But what we were - that was not really talked about. I can’t recall asking any class mate what his father or mother did or where they came from nor was I asked. That was a private matter; what you felt about apartheid was a public matter.

But, of course, Opinions can be tiring. So too can Facts. Sounds like we are caught between a rock and a hard place.

Saturday 4 February 2023

From English to British: changing self-identification in the UK


Many people who live in Denmark think of themselves as Danish, in Norway Norwegian, in Sweden Swedish. But no one living in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland thinks of themselves a United Kingdomish. A few will say they are Northern Irish but only an ironist would think to identify as Great British. United Kingdom governments for over a decade (Prime Minister Gordon Brown, a Unionist Scot, started it) have encouraged people to think of themselves as British with British passports, British nationality, a British government; they have been incredibly successful. In the 2021 UK censusmore than half of the usual resident population (54.8%, 32.7 million) chose a "British" only national identity in 2021, which is a rise of 35.8 percentage points from 19.1% (10.7 million) in 2011. The opposite trend was seen for the "English" only identity. This fell by 42.8 percentage points, from 57.7% (32.4 million) in 2011 to 14.9% (8.9 million) in 2021” (Quoted from Census online data). The 45% who did not claim British as a unique identity are spread out over those who combined it with English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, Northern Irish, Cornish, Polish, Romanian….keep going…. or selected one of those categories as their unique identity. (And spare a thought for  the half million or so illegals who didn’t get a Census form having no names or addresses and so didn’t get a chance to self-identify as anything).

This recent success of “British” is in some ways surprising: there is no national language to go with “British” - we remain English-speakers - and no football team to encourage with a Come on Britain! A United Kingdom team, not a British team, appears at the Olympics and le Royaume Uni turns up at Eurovision to score the traditional nul points. The main advantages of “British” are that it is shorter than “United Kingdomish” and rather than tracking the recent merging of two kingdoms and the even more recent military conquest of Ireland (our Donetsk and Luhansk) it harks back to indigenous First Nations, the ancient Brits of one kind or another,

The remarkable instability in self-identification shown by the ten-year shift from “English” to “British” is interesting.  I guess that the Brexit campaign had something to do with it but it may also be the case that some English people wanting to escape the stigma of flag-of-St George English nationalism and football hooliganism, attached to the Brexit cause, switched their verbal allegiance from “English” to the hopefully less-tarnished “British”.

I didn’t: on the Census form I identified as “English” and “European” - the latter, if I recall correctly, was a write-in not tick-box choice. Since I’d be delighted to see a united EU member Ireland and an independent EU member Scotland it seemed more consistent to use “English” than “British”. Wales? Well, Wales voted for Brexit and so ruled itself out from becoming EU member Wales and its future fortunes will be linked to those of England, in other words, downhill all the way.

The remarkable instability in national  self-identification re-inforces my sense that some contemporary identities will lose their current allure within a decade. Some of those students who currently affect “they” will revert to “he” or “she” when it ceases to attract Facebook Likes and they have a conventional job and a steady girlfriend/boyfriend. Some wannabe “transgender” people will admit that they have no enthusiasm for hormones or the surgeon’s knife (who could blame them?) and will settle for being good old-fashioned transvestites and good luck to them.  More likely, of course, some new fashion will come along and sweep up all the Likes available.

Thursday 26 January 2023

Transwomen and Real Women


“Transwomen are Real Women”

That was one of the formulations inscribed on a home-made placard at a recent demonstration in Scotland, carried by someone who looked the part of a student - though whether a real student or not I don’t know. Maybe they were just performing being a student and maybe that’s all there is to being a real student.

I guess that anyone with a positive IQ encountering that placard might be tempted to ask, “And, Pray, What is a Real Woman?” and I’ll briefly ask it later.

But first I want to ask something else. In an ideal world, would transwomen be indistinguishable from other women? Well, undoubtedly and for a long time now there have been Dr Frankenstein doctors who like to experiment on men and see how far they can make them indistinguishable from real women. In the 1930s the soon-to-become-an-enthusiastic-Nazi Dr Warnekros experimented on Lili Elbe/Elvenes (“The Danish Girl”) and carried on experimenting until he killed him or her.

This may be one reason why trans activists now reckon that saying you are a woman  is enough to make you one (cue undergraduate buzzword essays with “Judith Butler” and “performativity” cut and pasted). There aren’t actually that many people who want to submit to the surgeon’s knife and it’s very helpful that theorists have come along to tell you, don’t worry, there is an easier alternative:  feeling or thinking it so makes it so. Except in cases like feeling happy or thinking about the past that was once reckoned a kind of delusion which required urgent attention. Even thinking it’s time to get up does not ensure that you get up.

Unfortunately, the criterion that thinking it so makes it so does have the consequence that those half-hearted transwomen who try to cash it in are easily distinguishable from real women. They have the wrong anatomy and, often enough, along with that the wrong attitudes and demeanour as if they were men with a rather large sense of entitlement to go with the rather large penis which in Scottish law courts is standardly - and once again only yesterday - referred to as “her penis” in the course of rape cases.

A 24 January 2023 Glasgow case delivered Guilty verdicts on two separate charges brought against someone calling themself  "Isla Bryson" who committed the offences when claiming to be a man but who now is rather conveniently claiming to be a transwoman - dressed in pink, nail extensions, blonde wig - and having been sentenced was indeed sent off to the Nirvana of a women’s prison accompanied by the pink suitcase brought to court in expectation of just that custodial sentence.

[Since I wrote the first draft of this Ms Sturgeon has intervened to get Bryson transferred to a men's prison; clearly, she saw that otherwise the publicity fallout would just be too awful to contemplate. The best comment has come from the rapist’s former wife who “fell out of bed laughing” when she saw her ex-husband’s get up and dismissed it as a “scam” at the same time expressing  sympathy for real transgender people]. 

But perhaps the premiss of my thinking so far is wrong. Maybe transwomen don’t want to be indistinguishable from real women. After all, how could you then continue to demonstrate privilege and entitlement or at least draw attention to yourself? Maybe the message on the placard missed something.

Transactivists lost my support a few years ago when I looked at a photograph of Rachel McKinnon beaming on the podium as the winner of a women’s cycle race. The photograph was everywhere because the transwoman had won and the other women had come in second and third. I looked again and mentally labelled the photograph Me Tarzan, You Jane. McKinnon was smiling, having put women in their place. Had she been indistinguishable from real women there would have been no cause for the photograph which taken alone without knowledge of any backstory is enough to show that she is very much distinguishable. Take a look.

So “Transwomen are Real Women” might not be quite what it seems. Maybe it unpacks as “I am a transwoman and you will kindly treat me as I demand to be treated or else”.  At the same demonstration, another placard featured a careful drawing of a guillotine and the accompanying message that this was the way to deal with TERFS - women who for some reason (only very strange people do reasons nowadays; everyone else does rights) don’t buy into trans ideology. The word “decapitate” appeared on the placard. You can easily find a photograph on the internet and with any luck you will be able to see the person holding it.

That takes me to another point. At some early stage, I was foolish enough to feel - until Rachel MacKinnon came along - that maybe transactivists were the articulate voice of some kind of progressive movement which I should support. I was a bit doubtful, especially about the idea of self-identification written about in a longer piece  on this blog posted 24 January 2023 but dating from 2016. But transactivists don’t head a progressive movement; they lead something much more like an Alt Right movement in the delusional American mode. It’s blindingly clear that there are no coherent arguments to support their maximalist self-identification demands and so they have fairly consistently fallen back on bullying and intimidation of which the guillotine placard is just someone’s (some man’s?) fantasy version. (OK, there is always some nutter at any demonstration. But then it’s a bad idea to take a beaming selfie in front of their placard because it tends to make you look, er, complicit).

More significant than the guillotine placard are the cases like that of Professor Kathleen Stock, hounded from her post at the University of Sussex by middle-class NIMBY students [I just loved the  placard reading  “No TERFS on Our Turf”] supported by an intellectually compromised faculty and colluded in by a weak and muddled administration. The publicity alone means that Sussex will become a magnet for those who think universities should be more like theological seminaries upholding Truth, Donald Trump-style.

In all of this, women who transition to men are absent. Maybe they aren’t into asserting their privilege. Much of the time, transgender women themselves appear to be absent from all the publicity-seeking. For all I know - and I am only guessing - many of them may not be at all preoccupied with gaining access to women’s sports, rape crisis centres, not to mention the harem of women’s prisons. And even if they would like some of those things - toilets most obviously - they do see that there are problems which may or may not be easily solved. (The Toilet Question is really quite easy to solve and should be). But with friends like transgender activists, who needs enemies?

“What is a Real Woman?” Can transgender activists answer that without going round in circles? They can’t give an anatomical answer and have to give a social construct/performative answer. But that can only turn into a list of gender stereotypes associated with anatomical females who identify/perform themselves as women by wearing pink and nail extensions and so on indefinitely. Are we really meant to be convinced that to be a real woman you just have to buy a pair of high heels like, er, anatomical women often do? (And do I hear cries of  "Cultural Appropriation"? In this case.No, I don't).

What might make a performance the performance of a real woman as opposed to an unreal or delusional one? “Real” only has purchase if it contrasts with something else which is fake or pretend. as it was with those English con men who once toured the French Riviera claiming to be English aristocrats.  At one time, the transgender activist case was based on a psychiatric category called gender dysphoria. That has been abandoned for various reasons including the consequential thought that if it’s some kind of mental disorder then it needs to be taken seriously, not indulged  or accommodated at the expense of women's safety.

The anxiety which fuels feminist opposition to self-identification is very much grounded in the sense that some who claim to be transgender women just aren’t; they are faking it or pretending or have read that it’s trending and thus liable to change their minds very quickly and go back to being what they were before when it no longer produces Likes online. 

And transgender activists need quite separate explanations; why are they in such thrall  (like Oath Keepers and Proud Boys) to half-baked and  delusional ideas trickled down, I suspect, from the writings  of obscurantist professors?  Their  ideas  don't come from transgender people, do they? 



Wednesday 25 January 2023

The Statues in Trafalgar Square




Just under a hundred years ago, charting Mrs Dalloway’s progress through the streets of London, Virginia Woolf casually mentions “Havelock” in Trafalgar Square. There was no need to expand on that single word and remind us that “Havelock” is a prosaic statue of a bulky male figure, best foot forward on a plinth, the ensemble erected to remind us of Major General Sir Henry Havelock whose permanent legacy is a Narrative of the War in Afghanistan.  Today, no one - office worker or tourist - sees “Havelock” in Trafalgar Square; the monument triggers no memories and elicits no interest beyond the occasional cursory glance at the inscription on the plinth. “Havelock” has subsided to the level of the Narrative; both are now simply documents of the past, of interest to professional historians and those in Afghanistan who kept alive the oral memory of invading armies and treated the return of the British to Helmand in 2006 as just a new chapter in an old story, a spare princeling enhancing the sense of narrative continuity.


Had Virginia Woolf casually mentioned “Nelson” in Trafalgar Square there would (still) be many passers-by and tourists who would know a bit about Nelson even if no more than might be encompassed by a gloss or footnote. In that sense, “Nelson” still works as a monument which can activate a memory in a way that “Havelock” and “Napier” - also on a Trafalgar Square plinth - can’t. “Nelson” has a place in popular memory though that will eventually fade.


In 2000, as is well-known, the Mayor of London Ken Livingstone suggested that Havelock and Napier (but not Nelson) should be removed from the square. It didn’t happen and the subsequent consolidation of a notion of “Heritage” now makes it likely that the two uninspiring lumps of metal will stay put in their prime location, indefinitely.


“Heritage” is a bric-à-brac shop idea; it does not discriminate. As long as it’s over a hundred years old it’s an antique and therefore valuable - though in the case of “Heritage” it is so valuable that it is not for sale, not to be moved, and not to be improved (as owners of Grade II* listed homes will know, draughts being part of our Heritage too).


In the past, when we were busy creating “Heritage”, things were different. The Victorians always felt free to change their minds.  They erected and shortly after removed from Trafalgar Square someone called Edward Jenner - do you need a gloss? smallpox vaccine? - who went up in 1858 with Prince Albert present but was promptly moved out in 1862. I don’t know why. General Gordon - Siege of Khartoum - lasted longer. He was put up in 1888 and removed in 1943, re-surfacing ten years later. In 1948, Churchill - no gloss needed - had asked for Gordon to be put back in the Square but though he was Prime Minister in 1953, the statue did not re-appear there but on the Victoria Embankment where it remains.




In a well-known essay dating to 1940, the art historian Erwin Panofsky drew a distinction between documents and monuments since deployed in a variety of modified forms, most recently in John Guillory’s Professing Criticism (University of Chicago Press 2022). Every fragment of our cultural past which survives becomes a document (not necessarily on paper - a potsherd is a document in this sense) which can be archived and studied as we try to understand how we got to here from there. A document becomes a monument when it strikes us as having intrinsic value, worthy of some form of appreciation in which it is treated as something other than evidence for something else. From one point of view, any Renaissance painting is a document of its times; from another it may be something valued because it’s a remarkable work of art.


Statues confuse matters and are meant to. They seek to impose themselves as monuments when they often are, or become, no more than documents. Statues of Stalin or the Kims are informative and provide evidence about the character of entire regimes; that we readily understand.  Our own education, even if quite limited, will allow us to see that those statues are aesthetically and artistically not terribly interesting. Let’s be that polite.  


But the nearer we get to home, the more clouded our understanding becomes. Havelock and Napier belong in a museum or its warehouse - all museums house very much more than they ever display. Even then, they will be of limited interest - they certainly break no new ground in the history of art. If we started seriously to remove all the dead monuments we would soon run out of storage - at which point, the sensible thing is to photograph and send the thing in itself to the scrapyard, as if dealing with tombstones from defunct cemeteries.


Putting up statues which add “diversity” does not solve the intrinsic problem that statues seek to impose narratives which alone they are incapable of sustaining. Proponents of “Diversity” also seek to impose their own valuations which may well not be widely shared, in which case the new statues become just like the rest, street clutter to which only dogs and pigeons are attracted. For their purposes, lumps of stone and metal are all they need. Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square is already learning that lesson.


Another lesson is simply this: a monument is something which has to be discovered; it may require some excavation before it turns into a great novel or a great painting but there comes a point when it begins to impose itself. That is something which Nelson’s Column may have achieved. But a monument is not something you can simply erect.

Trevor Pateman, 25 January 2023

Tuesday 24 January 2023

Passing for Female


Passing for Female?

This essay appeared as a chapter in my collection of essays, The Best I Can Do published in 2016 by degree zero and available in paperback at Amazon and


To my knowledge, no single or unified account of the limits and limitations of self-identification exists. Different practices prevail in different domains and reflect both fairly constant and sometimes rapidly changing perceptions of what is legitimate, what is safe, what is fair, and so on. The practices vary from one society to another, of course. The issue those practices address might be put like this: When can and should we accept someone’s own word that they are who they say they are? When can and should we accept that they are what they say they are?

I began to think about identity and self-identification partly because of a well-publicised spat at Cardiff University. In 2015, Germaine Greer, writer and celebrity, author of The Female Eunuch and other works, was invited to lecture at Cardiff.  It nearly didn’t happen because the women’s officer of the Student Union there, Rachael Melhuish, got up a petition to No Platform her:

Greer has demonstrated time and time again her misogynistic views towards trans women, including continually misgendering transwomen and denying the existence of transphobia altogether. Trans-exclusionary views should have no place in feminism or society.


As an example of her “transphobia”, Greer was notably called out for the use of the expression “ghastly parodies” to describe those whose birth sex was Male but who subsequently choose to present in society as women, either with or without surgery. Greer refuses to accept the self- presentation or, at least, some of those presentations. In contrast, Melhuish aligns herself with those who think that people should be allowed to self-identify their gender and be treated accordingly. That is in line with the policy of the National Union of Students.  How plausible is that position? It seems to me that it helps if we consider the argument in the context of other cases where identity questions arise.

Banks no longer accept that you are who you say you are or that you live where you say you live. You have to provide proof in both cases – and the banks spell out to you what kind of proof they will accept (your passport, a recent utility bill, and so on).  This is justified as an anti-fraud / anti-money laundering / anti-tax evasion measure. We are not supposed to get indignant when asked to prove that we are who we say we are, though I imagine that there was a time when people (especially those in higher social classes) would indeed have become indignant: “How dare you!”

Compare situations in which you are simply asked to declare something and that’s it. When you go into hospital you are asked to declare your religion and they just write down what you say. This will affect how your body will be handled if you die there and who will seek to visit you if you are dying. And so on. You declare and no one queries it. Thus it is that in the United Kingdom there are very many more self-declared Christians than enter Christian churches. The self-ascription “Christian” on a hospital form is for all practical purposes a negative characterisation: Well, I’m certainly not a Jew or a Muslim and I don’t want to answer “None” just in case …

But in other contexts, this casual attitude to religious self-ascription would not be tolerated. In England, school admissions provide a good example. Since the 1990s, successive governments have encouraged a greater degree of social segregation through the mechanism of “Faith Schools” which are allowed to select their pupils by the religious affiliation of their parents. However, realising that parents are only too willing to perjure themselves to get their kids into nice middle class schools, our more popular faith schools now look for proof that you are indeed of the religious persuasion that you claim. They impose religious tests. Indignation?  Not at all. Our modern parents (sociologists tell us) are more than happy to present themselves in the pews of the local Church of England or Roman Catholic church where for as long as it takes they sit smugly, ghastly parodies of religious belief.

In the UK, there are few contexts in which self-identification by race or ethnicity is asked for other than for statistical purposes – the Census, notably. We don’t have Quotas and we don’t have Exclusions. In some contexts, notably medical, the accuracy of self-identification is important: there are some genetic disorders and diseases which discriminate by race and it can be important for a doctor to know whether or not you are in a high risk group. In this case, people have self-interested reasons for making accurate self-identifications.

But in other societies, self-identification by race or ethnicity or their official ascription have long and complex histories and important consequences. Everyone is familiar with the idea of “Passing for White” which in the United States was – and maybe still is – a rational strategy for improving your life chances. If your skin is pale enough, then that opens up the possibility of passing for white and, if you decide to do that even in the knowledge that your ancestry is at least partly non-white, then you acquire immediate social advantages - but at the same time usually have to live with inner conflict and the anxiety that you may be found out. On the other side from "Passing for White", when forms of positive discrimination are introduced designed to favour disadvantaged groups then there are also possibilities of abuse and once again Tests have to be introduced to verify that you are who you say you are or what you say you are. It is not unknown for people to choose to “Pass for Black”.

But most of the time in daily life, people don't encounter many occasions when their self-identifications are challenged. Being asked for your age ID when trying to enter a club or pub is as bad as it gets and that problem, unfortunately, goes away naturally.


Now let’s go back to the Melhuish – Greer conflict. I have always understood that a man who dresses as a woman is correctly described as a transvestite and that a man who in addition has undergone hormonal treatment or surgery is usually described as a transsexual. More or less the same categorisation can be made in relation to women who present themselves as men. Neither category tells us anything about a trans person’s sexual orientation. Nor does it actually tell us much about their gender since it is not spelled out what it is to present oneself as a woman (or when the transition is made in the other direction, a man). The National Union of Students wants us to treat the presentation of self as unproblematic (“My Identity Is Not Your Business”, Resolution 106, December 2015) whereas I thought that a great deal of social theory and most feminisms from Simone de Beauvoir (at the latest) onwards were about it being extremely problematic.

Does it mean in the M to F case presenting oneself according to the local gender stereotypes of what it is to be a woman? Does it mean presenting oneself as a woman in one’s dress and the public toilets you enter? Does it mean signalling to men that they should treat you (according to the conventions in place) as a woman? And likewise, signalling the same to women – so that, for example, you can claim admission to “Women Only” meetings? Does it mean signalling to others that you feel more comfortable presenting yourself and being treated as a woman (whatever that happens to mean), pretty much regardless of how you dress, what toilets you use, what personality traits you display, and so on?

The basis of a 2015 film, David Ebershoff’s novel The Danish Girl, originally published in 2000, offers - perhaps unwittingly - answers to some of these questions. It does not stay close to the true story which inspired it, but nonetheless it allows us to see what some of the real-world issues are. A large part of the narrative is about a man, Einar, passing as a woman, Lili, in various ways, some of them morally dubious: for example, when through your dress, you misrepresent your sexual identity to someone you want to seduce or be seduced by. Whereas feminism since the 1960s has most often been about challenging conventional gendering, urging women to be more assertive and men less macho, women to be less obsessed with their appearance and men less demanding in that regard, Eberhsoff’s transgender character embraces wholly conventional gendering but simply switches sides. That appears to be the case for some contemporary real-life switchers: they accept the existing conventions on both sides, but switch allegiances.

Passing as a woman normally involves more than asking to be labelled a certain way. The exceptions are provided, notably, by cases – largely in the past - where birth-sex women cross-dressed as men in order to gain admission to armies, medical schools, and so on, but who did not in any way feel that they were something other than women. There were also cases where men cross-dressed as women, usually for nefarious purposes like escaping military service or gaining access to places where young females could be found who might be available for heterosexual sex.

But the most obvious cases of cross-dressing occurred (and still occur) on stage where the Pantomime Dame or the burlesque Drag Queen have for a very long time (centuries?) presented a comedy of “ghastly parodies” . Sometimes these parodies appear off stage and may have been in Germaine Greer’s mind. Would the defenders of trans people’s rights welcome a Pantomime Dame to a Women Only meeting?

That sort of question may be a way into thinking about the whole issue. If you would not admit a Pantomime Dame, my guess is that is because you think they are simply a man pretending to be a woman. Fine, it’s not really in dispute. Next question: How about an old-fashioned male - to-female transvestite who cuts a very striking figure in high heels and booming voice? Is that person more than a Pantomime Dame, but just off-stage? If so, what makes the difference?   What has to happen to qualify that person for a "Women Only" meeting? Do they just have to Pass in the way that the Dame and the old fashioned transvestite Fail, namely, the ability to Pass? And who is to make up the rules and judge who Passes?

Germaine Greer has said that "just because you lop off your dick it doesn't make you a woman". This is obviously true: men have their dicks lopped off in car crashes, industrial accidents and - most frequently - misadventures with military high explosives. Few of them breathe a sigh of relief or think "Now I can be the woman I always wanted to be". Greer is saying that even if you lose your dick as part of a self-mutilation or voluntarily undergone medical procedure, that in itself is not
 sufficient to make you a woman, not enough to get you into the "Women Only" meeting. That seems correct: you need a supporting story which explains why you did it and how it forms part of the "woman" identity you are claiming.

Rachael Melhuish is right in this: people who are gratuitously offensive to others generally deserve a put-down of some kind if we can be reasonably clear what we mean by “gratuitously offensive”. Greer has always been foul-mouthed and blunt and that is one reason she achieved iconic status as a feminist. If she thinks an argument is ridiculous, she will say so and that does not always go down well. It’s not obviously the same thing as being gratuitously offensive. It is not offensive to shred a bad argument; it is one of the things students are supposed to do.


Freudian psychoanalysis is hated only and always by those who insist that we are always who we say we are and what we say we are. I am a kind and loving person, always – and if you dispute those Facts, I will cast you into outer darkness.

But most aspects of our selves are not things we can will, and those who believe that the will can always triumph are doomed to failure. My will won't triumph over my toothache and I can’t will away primary sexual characteristics or even many of the secondary gender characteristics I have acquired. Several critics of the NUS’s recent positions use the word “fascist” or allude to it (as I have done in referencing Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 film Triumph of the Will ) in describing its politics. I think this is because of a suspicion that there is a background belief here that all of life is about resolutions, decisions and will-power. Take away the reference to Fascism and an alternative might be to call such beliefs The Anorexic Mistake. They are beliefs which cluster around the idea that we can subject our bodies and our selves entirely to control by our will power.

I realise that earlier I used examples – the Pantomine Dame, the Drag Queen - which may seem trivial, though that’s a familiar device to clarify complex issues and it sometimes works.  But in reality, from what I read, trans people have much more difficult lives than the Pantomime Dame, as do Intersex persons - who start from a different anatomical situation.

It is hard and often enough anguishing to realise that you are only going to feel more authentic, more comfortable, more desirable if you shift into a mode of self-presentation which asks other people to reclassify your gender, more or less regardless of the state of your sexual organs. But just because it’s hard does not mean that a Narrative of Suffering or a Hard Luck story on its own should open the doors to the Women Only meeting. The narrative needs to be convincing and the story true. In the UK, a 2004 Act of Parliament attempted to deal with the matter by creating a Gender Recognition Panel. It may be that the legislation will need to be modified but it seems to me unlikely we will conclude that so little is at stake that anyone can self-declare who and what they are for all purposes. Those who appear to want simple self-declaration to suffice are arguing for something which can place others at risk of harm – it has occasionally happened already that males with heterosexual interests and a tendency to violence declare themselves women to gain access to Women Only spaces.

So the stories we tell cannot always let us off the hook of other forms of accountability. Likewise, just because you may encounter hostile or dismissive reactions does not mean that you are automatically to be reckoned morally superior to those around you. You will still have your own weaknesses and unkindnesses – things which make everyone uncomfortable with themselves at one time or another, things which we would like to wish away with a “No, that’s not me”. We can never be entirely who we say we are or what we say we are. That's just one of life's unfairnesses. But at least it applies to everyone.


At the back of my mind I have this thought. The history of medicine is littered with histories of doctors doing terrible things to people, supposedly to "cure" them of this or that. Some of the medical techniques employed to re-configure sexual characteristics have been around a long time: sheikhs had eunuchs in their harems; the Vatican had castrati in its choirs (until 1913 or 1959, sources differ on the dates); German sex clinics began offering operations in the 1920s; chemical castration was around in the 1950s to punish homosexuals like Alan Turing; the major industry which services the desire for larger breasts is very well established. The range of surgeries and chemistries available continues to grow. But there is a possibility that a hundred years from now, those who by then believe themselves to be progressive and humane may regard at least some of those techniques as barbaric - even when self-chosen - and as falsely offering cures for catastrophic dilemmas which require other modes of approach.

Even now, when I read up on the history of Lili Elbe [Lili Elvenes] (1882 -1931), the so-called Danish Girl, I find myself uneasy when I discover that her fourth and final surgery, submitted to when she was 49 years old, killed her. It was carried out in Dresden and involved the unprecedented transplant of either ovaries or a uterus. It reads just too much like an irresponsible medical experiment conducted on a vulnerable person who was past normal child bearing age. Worse, it occured in a political context where medical irresponsibility was soon to achieve political sanction and encouragement. Dr Warnekros who operated on Lili in 1931 joined the Nazi party in 1933. Put into that kind of context, sex change operations at that time belong to the same world as medical experimentation on those who had not consented, to forced sterilisation and other eugenic policies which culminated in the mass killing of the mentally feeble and physically handicapped.