And three things: my review of Cloverfield is here
My review of Iain M. Banks' Matter for the TLS is
MATTER by Iain M Banks (Orbit £18.99 544 pp.)
reviewed by Roz Kaveney
When a novelist carefully segregates his work by using two names, as Iain Banks does by using the Iain M Banks name for his science fiction, it is tempting to assume that he is signalling that only half of his work is in earnest. The Banks sf novels are glossy, hyperactive and full of intelligent spaceships with exuberantly silly names; much of the time they play with the material of Ruritanian romance - sword-fights and treachery and hair-breadth escapes. They are, in other words, space operas, which use material derived from thoughtful speculation about scientific possibility as a painted stage on which extravagant melodramas can be enacted. Surely, one might say, they are not as important a part of his work as the more sensitive Iain Banks novels of Scots life like 'The Crow Road'.
Yet, properly considered, several of the Iain Banks novels are more frivolous and irresponsible than the sf. 'Canal Dreams' is a variant on 'Die Hard' , with a woman cellist as action protagonist; 'Complicity' derives in part from Banks' irritation with 'American Psycho' not for its vicious social snobberies alone, but also for Easton Ellis' failure to make the novel's ultra-violence remotely plausible. A case can be made that Iain Banks is the name he uses for projects that come into his head, whereas the Iain M Banks novels in general, and the eight Culture novels in particular, are aspects of a serious argument about morality and mortality in which Banks has been involved since his teens.
These books exist somewhere in the borderland between thought experiment and wishful thinking - our lives are nasty and short, but somewhere else there is a galaxy-wide megapolitan society that lives in post-scarcity anarchism without any rules save politeness. Banks returns time and time again to the interstellar milieu of the Culture novels because he finds it congenial, even if many of his protagonists do not, and even if he finds it neccessary constantly to seek out the worm in the bud, the poison in the drink. The high seriousness of these books consists in this - this is a utopia which acknowledges that for some beings this hedonistic heaven is potentially a hell.
Several of the books, notably the diptych 'Consider Phlebas' and 'Look to Windward', take as their central characters beings - a shape-shifter, a three-armed predator - who refuse their consent, who will not be absorbed by the Culture's hedonistic niceness. The questions they raise - whether lives largely run by machine intelligences that can be seen as keeping their humanoid fellow- citizens as pets can be authentic? whether the Culture's constant missionary intrusion into the messy oppressive lives of other societies is moral ? - are real enough questions. Both tales, with their Eliot-derived titles, are genuinely tragic; we know that their heroes deserve to lose, but there is pity in it.
'Matter' takes another side in the debate - if you can live practically forever, or at least as long as you want to, what will you die for? Anaplian came from a backwater, if interesting, world where she was a surplus princess and now works for the Culture which educated and seduced her into its value system; out of gratitude, rather than imposed obligation, she works for the euphemistically named Special Circumstances division of Contact, meddling with unpleasant societies rather like her home.
Then she is notified that her father has died, and guesses that her brothers, a wastrel and a scholar, are in danger; much is made of the way she has to give up much of her weaponry and implanted abilities to travel home, into other advanced species' sphere of influence. Her home is one of those sf concepts - at once place and McGuffin - which have become known as Big Dumb Objects - a many-layered, many-habitat including artificial world of vast size and unknown origin. Her pseudo-mediaeval people were effectively deported there many centuries earlier and are fighting a war with a seceded fragment over ancient artefacts at the heart of a vast waterfall. Artefacts which, unbeknownst to humanoid warlords and their alien sponsors alike, are examples of that other literary device, the Thing We Are Not Mean To Know.
All of this is wonderful fun, as she, and her brothers, journey towards each other ticking off weird environments and beings along their way. It is also deeply serious - the rake Ferbin discovers how unimportant he has always been, how badly he has treated his servant Holse, how parochial are his dynastic concerns. In the end both the naturalized citizen and the excluded barbarian decide to fight and die for a myriad beings who have never heard of them and the values of a world which is not theirs -rarely outside sacred texts has this preparedness to save the world at one's own expense seemed so moving..
All of the Culture novels have titles that play with words - 'Use of Weapons' for example refers both to Zak's preparedness to use any means neccessary, and the Culture's preparedness to use a man so radically flawed. 'Matter' is no exception to this - it is a secular materialist novel of redemptive sacrifice, for one thing, but also a book which takes on a number of the stock tropes, or Matters, of space opera. It is a story where the sole survivor is Ferbin's servant Holse, an earthy Leporello, Sancho Panza or Sam Gamgee. Above all, it is a book about a vast milieu in which everything is ultimately important - all of the scholar prince Oramen's learning enables him to say one word of vast significance, every stage in Ferbin and Anaplian's journeys enables a right choice at the end. This is a material world, in which everything matters.
The script on which the speech I gave at Camden LGBT History Month's Lunchtime event today is
Part of the point of writing history is to understand how we got here. Each of us individually, because the story of a community is the story of all the people of whom that community is made up. For transpeople, history has got to be the story of how transpeople as a community got here, which includes how I got here as part of that community. Because, simply by having survived almost six decades, I happen to have been around since a comparatively early stage in the existence of a trans community in a recognizable modern sense, and because I am a moderately good listener I happen to have heard quite a lot about even earlier stuff from people who were there. And that is what oral history is, after all, learning to tell stories, and learning to listen to other people.
This isn't going to be the story of my personal struggle - I am not going to stand here and talk about myself as a heroine who overcame agonies of the spirit and the body to be here today. Because actually I am just someone who got to be in some interesting places and watch some interesting things happen without doing all that much myself. If you live long enough, you accumulate times and places, so that yes, I was around Manchester in the 60s and GLF in the 70s and new Romantic clubs at the beginning of the 80s, and I served drinks in low bars in Chicago, and helped with the Parliamentary forum that negotiated the current form of the gender recognition certificate. But none of that makes me special - anyone else might have done those things.
No, what I want to talk about is all the other people in the transwoman community, whose love and support helped me survive and prosper. You can consider this my Gwyneth Paltrow gets her Oscar moment - on some other occasion, I could talk about the gay men, and the lesbians, and the transmen, and the heterosexual friends who also got me here.
But the fact of the matter is that the lives of transsexual women are largely hidden from view and not talked about enough. And people tend in particular not to talk about the trans community enough and how we look after each other, a lot of the time. Sometimes we get into silly fights with each other and people start using self-definitions to talk themselves up or put other people down, and this is all trash talking whether it uses medical language or swearwords or polari or post-modern academic jargon but none of this matters all that much when it comes to the crunch,
We have too many of the same enemies, and go through too much of the same stuff, for it to matter whether people are stealth or not, or post-op, pre-op or non-op, whether they identify unproblematically as transsexuals or think of themselves as transgender, genderqueer or something even more radical. Because one of the things most of us manage to keep track of is that people change across time and a lot of the time people don't construct their identities in absolutely the same way from decade to decade. The important thing is to be able to live with whatever damnfool things you may have said in the past.
I've been lucky - I work as a journalist and in publishing - and am visible, highly visible, and sometimes people say nice things about me, in public and on the review pages of broadsheets; and it has never mattered all that much in my life that I am a transwoman, and a lesbian, and that I had a lot of trouble with my surgery, and that I survived. A lot of the women I owe debts to are never going to get celebrated in that way, weren't as lucky as I have been.
Some of them are dead and most of them lived under the radar. Some of them lived outside the law, come to that, but that never stopped them being kind and generous; Bob Dylan said somewhere that ' to live outside the law you must be honest' and I never noticed that, but I did notice the kindness. Often, the kindness of strangers.
What you have to understand is that, when I first realized that I was a transsexual, I was thin, and unhappy, and lived with my head in a book, in West Yorkshire. Books were where it started - the first transwomen I ever met were fictional characters. Though I don't think that that is the same as having been made up. Because they were so real, I assume that they were real, and someone wrote them down. So they have to be the first I thank Miss Destiny. In John Rechy's City of Night and Georgette in Last Exit to Brooklyn
Georgette in particular made me a lot more depressed about who or what I was, simply because Selby's remorselessly grimy imagination reminded me that people like me had rotten lives, and were always ultimately alone except for brutal men, that no-one would ever respect me for all the other things I was and would always treat me badly. Since every day at school at the time when I read 'Last Exit', I was getting proof of this, it was not the best book for me to have found at that time in my life. Like a lot of trans people, I was the weird kid people felt uneasy about, and so they hit me a lot to make themselves feel better. And it didn't work, so they hit me again. Yes, I really understood Last Exit.
John Rechy was a bit less of a problem, partly because you got the sense that he really had not wanted to like Miss Destiny's original and that she was a diversion from his concentration on buff hustlers in t-shirts and cut-offs, that she had charmed him against his better judgement to the point where she got a whole section of the book.
Yet, again, it was all about how she perpetually hoped for more than she got, how she was an object of amusement if not of derision, how in the end rumour had it that she went back to being a boy and got married. Now, my guess is that just after the point where Rechy knew her, she found out about hormones and started shooting them up wildly with results that may have been good or may have been bad; with luck she found a nice life somewhere where slumming gay novelists could neither celebrate her nor patronize her. Or maybe she ended up hanging out with Andy Warhol.
Even then, though, I was torn between uncertainty that I could manage that constant level of hectic flaming gaiety and the wonderful surmise that maybe I could, if I had to, if that was the only option left to me. And what those books taught me was that there was a world out there that I could maybe find and fit into, and maybe it would be OK. These books affected me and helped create my sense of who I was - but then, I also identified with mutants in science fiction and comics, and with the class-jumping heroines of Margaret Drabble novels, all things that I was reading at the same time.
There was a pub in Wakefield that had a resident drag act - Neville was not all that interested in me or my problems, - he also wasn't all that good a singer and a terrible comedian - but he was just kind enough to give me a couple of telephone numbers. In Manchester. So I rang those numbers and those telephone calls - made from a callbox into which I took a lot of change because I was thinking ahead - were my lifeline.
I spent the rest of my teens, hitching to Manchester to hang out with Sylvia and Karen and Ava. Now, this was the mid Sixties - they must have been some of the first women to get their surgeries on the National Health. I had never met anyone like them - they were blunt Manchester women, killer blondes and sultry brunettes with sharp features and a lot of eyeliner, who were whores, and proud of it, and hung out and worked out of the etched-glass and wood-panlling snugs of pubs that were not glamorous and smelled of stale crisps and old beer and cigarettes.
I can't imagine what they thought of me, but they helped me - they taught me to do my face and how to brush a wig and how to pull up a cleavage and how to be polite to the police without looking weak, - and how it was OK to snog a cop if the cop was interested rather than trying to trap you - and how to run in high heels in difficult situations and how to use those heels as weapons if you needed them. Stuff that as a teenager I really needed to know.
They were a place I could run away to from all the expectations of school and parents - Sylvia in particular, with her seven or eight dogs of various sizes, and her boyfriend who never said anything, and the plates of chips and toast and takeaway curry. It wasn't just me she looked after - I remember her trying to hide the battered wife from two doors down, and the husband and his mates breaking down the door. I slept through that except when the chihuahuas got frightened and hid in the bed where I was sleeping - I came through to breakfast next day and said 'you'll never guess what I dreamed about last night, and then looked round at saw that people had bruises on their faces.
Sylvia really looked after me, you see - not just telling me which guys in the pub were undercover police and which were just offduty. You see, she'd been an engineer, in her old life, and couldn't do that, any more, and missed it. It wasn't being a whore she minded so much as not being an engineer. So she talked to me about my future and said that I needed to pass my exams, and then that I needed to go to University, and that I shouldn't jump into things too quickly, because I was young, and had years. And things might change and I shouldn't think I had to be a whore.
I didn't drop out and I did go to University and the thing I am most grateful to Sylvia for is that she made me be sensible. We stayed in touch for a while, but things drifted, and she moved and I don't know what happened to her - I heard on the grapevine when her friend Ava died but not what she died of. It's hard enough to keep track of people now, and we didn't have Facebook in the Seventies.
There were always plenty of transwomen who weren't on the game - but back then a lot were. We've been so keen to be respectable and right on that at times we've run away from that. Obviously it was a sin and a shame that Sylvia couldn't go on being a hydraulic engineer and had to turn tricks to survive - but she had grace and strength and you can be profoundly worried about sex work as an institution into which transwomen were forced by society and by prejudice and also want to celebrate actual women who were not just victims.
So, anyway, I got through Oxford, more or less in one piece, and was doing my graduate work, and the next thing that happened was that I read about the Gay Liberation Front in London, and rang up to find out about it, and whether or not there was a place somewhere in all of this for me. The woman on the switchboard told me that I should absolutely get in touch with the TS/TV group and gave me a phone number.
The voice on the other end was American and asked me to come and see her in Shepherd's Bush, and that was how I met Rachel, a woman who has been a constant inspiration to me for almost forty years. The thing is, Rachel was a lot of the things I wanted to be - she was a writer, and she was in a relationship, and she was well on the way through her transition. She also had charisma enough to hold a group of people together for a couple of difficult years and was and is a person of real spirituality, one of the world's experts on tarot as well as a prize-winning novelist. Through Rachel and her endless hospitality, I got to go to a lot of GLF meetings at Notting Hill in All Saints Church and have a posse to go with - I also had someone with whom I consumed a lot of classic and avant garde cinema and could talk about it afterwards.
And those were amazing times, sitting in that crowded room at All Saints or that small living room on Chepstow Road and feeling part of something important. It was one of the times that there was a community that wasn't particularly divided by class or who we slept with or race or what we did for a living. Everyone was welcome - those are days I still miss and quite a few of those people are dead - beautiful Bobby and charismatic Alastair. They were golden, all of them.
This was all in that brief happy period when trans people were acceptable in the Lesbian and Gay movement before the Dennis Altmans and Robin Morgans of the world provided an ideological reason for throwing us out, reasons that for some of us, and I include myself in that, became a guilt trip that persuaded us to deny who we were, or feel bad about it. One of the things I owe Rachel is that she never judged me when I let myself be persuaded that I shouldn't be trans by women and men who thought that they had my best interests at heart. Rachel never judged me when I pulled away and was supportive when, a few years later, I accepted who I was and stopped worrying about other people's ideology. She never even said 'told you so', because she didn't need to - she had read it in my cards.
The other thing about Rachel was and is that she showed me that I could, if I wanted, find things to believe in. I had been brought up Catholic and ended up losing my faith to keep from breaking my heart. Now, I have never bought into Rachel's occult interests - they work for her but not for me - but what she showed me was that there were ways of thinking about spirituality and the ecstatic that did not exclude me for who I really was; I didn't have to agree with her to be moved by her commitment to a sense of things beyond the fields we know.
Another thing I got from her was a sense that you didn't have to give up on being an artist just because you were trans. Rachel was and is a highly regarded writer of fantasy and science fiction - she wins awards - and she taught me that I didn't have to give up on ambition or on being all the things I wanted to be.
I made another friend in the days of GLF who was my support system later on during the years that I was transitioning - Adele - who was and is also a talented artist in a very different way. She is a gifted jazz singer - she taught me to love jazz which would be enough to love her for just by itself. Also, she was the friend I went clubbing with at the end of the 1970s - we aren't as close as we used to be, but god! we used to have good times. I just wanted to stress that part of what you get from being part of a community is the fun and the stories - Adele even now does an imitation of me bullying an entire disco into standing perfectly still while I looked for my contact lense. Your friends are the guardians of your memory which includes the funny stories about who you used to be.
There is another group of my friends that I learned that from as well as a couple of other things. Thirty years ago when I was transitioning, I was working as a volunteer at Liberty, and had a licensed squat in Dalston that I got from a housing association. And between hanging out with Adele in Billy's in Soho and dealing with the case of a young transwoman who was being subjected to double punishment by being deprived of her hormone shots while she was in jail for fishing for fur coats with unravelled coat hangers out of shop window ventilators that had been left open, I ended up taking responsibility for a bunch of younger women with doubtful morals but a whole load of style.
Now, I had had some bad things happen to me over the years, but what Alexis and Scarlet and Glo taught me was that I had actually had it quite soft - I mean, I hadn't had a Turkish father trying to whip it out of me with barbed wire and I hadn't been warned out of Northern Ireland by relatives who were paramilitaries, and I hadn't got relatives in the Soho police whose friends would arrest me just for walking down the street in a disrespectful manner. I learned that - what with relatives who were not actually crazy, and an Oxford education, and accent, I had this thing called privilege and it was there to be used, not just for me but for other people.
So I spent a couple of years going bail for people and giving evidence of police perjury and just giving people a roof over their heads, and I learned that you don't have to put very much of your own energy into people to help them a bit. The fact that I shared my rather good free housing situation meant that Scarlett and Glo put aside money from their jobs in clubs that would otherwise have gone on rent and paid for their surgery, and Scarlett realize that she wanted to have a degree too and went off and did Psychology A-Level and then went to California and did her degree there.
And part of the point of that household was that we had each other's backs - we were living just round the corner from Ridley Road Market in Dalston, which was not, let's face it, the ideal place for a commune full of transwomen, but was a better place for four - and sometimes seven - of us than it would have been for just me. I learned some important lessons about visibility - which included that you can get away with quite a lot if you are stylish about it and also something like what the Roman emperor said 'let them hate me so long as they fear me'.
And the person who can tell the best stories about those days isn't me, because a lot of those couple of years went missing when I had a few too many general anaesthetics - it's Alexis, because she is the person I know who is best at learning languages just by listening, and, because she listens really well, does imitations of all of her friends that are more like her channeling their brains than any kind of comedy routine. Which is especially weird when she is doing friends who are dead. Like I said, we are the guardians of each other's memories.
The dumb way of looking at the Colveston Crescent days would be that I was reliving the stuff from a decade earlier and using helping Alexis and Scarlett and Glo as a way of paying back the debts I couldn't pay to Sylvia and Ava. Dumb, because while that is part of the truth, it was a different time and I was a different person and the two groups were not at all like each other. There were possibilities open for Alexis and Scarlett that just weren't there for the others - things change across time and that changes how people are.
Part of what I am trying to say is that trans people are everywhere and come in all shapes and sizes - and colours too. That was one of the things I learned in Chicago when I lived there for a few months and hung out with the African-American transwoman that I shared a shift with when I was working bar. It was what I learned from Kate, who taught me most of what I know about psychoanalytic theory and argued with me about it for hours on the phone, and the other Kate, who taught me that the important thing is just that you are never mean to people. It is what I've learned from Susan, who is putting together our history as professionally as anyone ever has.
That's the thing about living in a community - you learn that everyone is worth treasuring, not just the people in your community - but you learn that from sharing with people you know best. The thing about community is that it is like family - you don't get to pick it. Some transwomen are my friends as well - most of the people I've mentioned were - but that is not the point; I knew them because of what they were as well as who they were and the incredible courage and grace with which they lived their lives. Some of my friends lived quiet lives in stealth, and some of them were out and proud and flaming on the streets But they all were, they all are, my brave strong beautiful sisters.