Sunday, March 27, 2022


It is unfortunate that, whenever I have talked here about transgender rights, it is usually because something bad has happened: the Roman Catholic church publishes its own guidance [link], rancour during a consultation over the UK’s Gender Recognition Act [link], how being trans isn’t postmodern because of Mr Potato Head [link], or how trans rights are being used as a weapon in the culture wars [link]. Even when I have talked about being trans myself, it was in relation to how the headache of applying for a Gender Recognition Certificate in the UK was preferable to waiting for the process to become easier [link].

My occasional return to this subject, one where the question of whether trans people should be able to self-identify in their correct gender, without needing the legal process I went through, has been treated like a dog whistle for so long that everyone can hear it, is like sticking a pin in a particular moment in time and saying, “wow, people are just the worst, aren’t they?” The whistle has been blown multiple times in the last week that I thought I should just keep a record of what happened here, so when I return to this some time later, I hope I can say that things became better from here, because they could not get any worse.

On Sunday 20th March, the “Sunday Times” columnist Camilla Long wrote, on page 25 of the main paper, that the victory of trans female swimmer Lia Thomas, in an American college swimming championship race – or, in her terms, a “hulking man-bodied swimmer” – would make you ask “where on earth are we as a culture... Yes, yes, I know she was within the rules, but if these are the rules, they obviously suck. Instead of protecting trans people, they open them up to ridicule and accusations of cheating.” 

Reading the last paragraph in a British newspaper made me feel sick: “It ends up feeling as if the very act of being trans is designed to mock and goad women: a brazen act of public humiliation. Is that really what Thomas was aiming for?” Whether Long actually believes that or not, knowing that someone could make that sort of deduction is clearly not the fault of Lia Thomas, or Caster Semenya for that matter. I only know about both people in how others have spoken about them, or projected their thoughts onto them. Women’s sport is only the latest battleground in the culture wars.

Meanwhile, on Saturday 19th March, the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss MP, made a speech a the Conservative Party’s Spring Conference in Blackpool, against the background of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine: “We should be proud of our country, and our long standing commitment to freedom and democracy. Now is the time to end the culture of self-doubt. The constant self-questioning and introspection. The ludicrous debates about language, statues and pronouns. Our history – warts and all – makes us what we are today.”

I recall one of the first things to go when the Soviet Union collapsed was the statues. Bringing up certain debates, however “warty” they are, in order to say they are “ludicrous” only energises them.

On Thursday 24th March, former comedy writer Graham Linehan claimed that he has been “cancelled” both from public life, and from his marriage, by trans rights activists and former friends, by appearing on Stephen Nolan’s TV talk show on BBC One Northern Ireland, a story picked up and relayed by many newspapers and websites. Linehan, who was so against trans people being able to self-identify themselves in law that he was permanently suspended from Twitter for being enough of a nuisance to diminish the experience of using the service for people, said, “The one thing about this that keeps me going is that I know I'm right. Sometimes something is so wrong that you have to say something and if I didn't say something I'd go mad.”

Then there is J.K. Rowling, for no discussion of trans rights can happen without the most powerful person in the room being present, until someone more powerful than them compares themselves to you: on Friday 25thMarch, Vladimir Putin compared the cultural “cancellation” of Russia, due to the actions of their “special military operation” in Ukraine, to how Rowling has been “cancelled” for her views on trans self-identification. Apparently Rowling does believe trans people should be protected, but it is not often mentioned in media reporting, or by herself in particular, as nuance is often lost in arguments. 

Putin’s statement felt like the ceiling in the trans rights debate might have been reached. I didn’t plan on writing about the ongoing conflict in Ukraine until after it had ended, as the moral outrage that led to the withdrawal of Western business and consumer products and brands from Russia, without intervention from Western governments, is something that will eventually be worth discussing – it is a kind of cancel culture that everyone has seemingly supported. However, “critiques of Western cancel culture are possibly not best made by those currently slaughtering civilians for the crime of resistance, or who jail and poison their critics,” as Rowling said, on Twitter, in response to Putin.

Finally, on Wednesday 23rd March, in response to a question on young people experiencing gender distress, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the following: “This is one of those issues that the whole House is coming to realise requires extreme sensitivity, tact, love and care. We must recognise that when people want to make a transition in their lives, they should be treated with the maximum possible generosity and respect. We have systems in this country that allow that and have done for a long time, and we should be very proud of that, but I want to say in addition that I think, when it comes to distinguishing between a man and a woman, the basic facts of biology remain overwhelmingly important.” As much as the first part of that statement was needed, the last part was what made the headlines.

One day, I will run a thread between all the pins I have placed over time, and see what picture it makes.

Sunday, March 20, 2022


“Have you been able to get a good start on your new day yet so far? Thank goodness for letting me see you all the way back around here. I did not have any questions at the first time this week, so hopefully this will help you out for me. Good luck on the next update and I appreciate it letting me have it done.”

I think my phone is bored.

The above paragraph was written using only the predictive text function on my phone, based entirely upon the words I have entered previously, and what words my phone thinks I will use again. 

When I use my phone to write something, it is only to write text messages to say I have done something, that I need someone to do something, or to say I will see someone later. I found myself writing my diary on it when 2022 started, but writing that longhand feels more appropriate to me.

“Thank goodness I have just a few of those who work for the next couple of hours before they turn left. Know how much it turned into the last time you got it? Very nice thank you. So I’ll send you the link to your account tomorrow and then I can see what it looks like for the next week of February or November.”

I am being given either “thank”, “I” or “have” as my starting word, no matter how many times I start a sentence – my previous choices do not change them. I also tried typing a word by entering the letter “f”, and it was suggested I enter “g” instead.

“Thank goodness I have just a few of those who work for the next couple of hours before they turn left. Know how much it turned into the last time you got it? Very nice thank you. So I’ll send you the link to your account tomorrow and then I can see what it looks like for the next week of February or November.”

I am not sure I should be impressed: no matter the choice made in the next word to pick, my writing style has either been exposed as banal by machine learning, or rendered so. My choice of words to construct a sentence are constrained only by those I have used, so I either need to read a dictionary to audition new words, or type the text of William S. Burroughs’s novel “Naked Lunch” into my phone – that’ll teach it a lesson.

“Good luck with your help today and I hope you have received an amazing feeling that we will continue to be happy with the time of our own family. Hi there I hope you’re doing good with your work schedule today for you all the afternoon and thank goodness you have had been more productive today than usual, but it will take me too many times for the rest of the week.”

My starting words have now changed to “I”, “Hi” and “Hello”. My phone is either sentient, or I am using it as a ouija board. Good bye.

Sunday, March 13, 2022


I use the word “fine” a lot. I like that it can be used both to indicate something is better than good, but also merely satisfactory, almost sarcastically so: “And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth, and to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was fine.”

For me, I have become conscious enough of how often I say “fine” that I felt compelled to look up its meaning to check I was using it correctly: having done that, it appears to be as pliant a word for use as a descriptor as “jigger” is to describe tools, measurements and people.

Outside of describing fine lines, cutting it fine, or fining someone for breaking the law, “fine” describes qualities that look impressive, or merely good, but of a level enough to say something about it. When you have to say something, this may be the point when it becomes easy to use a one-syllable word to bridge a gap of silence. You can “fine” when you want to agree, or when you don’t want to say anything more. It definitely sounds better than saying “good” especially as, if you collect comic books, “fine” is a better condition than even “very good”, although no-one would use “near mint” when grading their interactions with someone.

What I realised is that “fine” is an adverb as well as a noun, because adverbs qualify a verb if placed after it, rather than replacing it – it’s fine, it works fine, that’s fine, I’m fine. It pleases me, it works well, it’s satisfactory, it’s fine... and that’s an end to it, just like the Latin verb “finire” intended.

In short, with the world as it is, “fine” is as much a word as anyone should really expect. Ask the “Goon Show” character Eccles to comprehend a situation, and the only possible answer is “fine, fine, fine,” and the appropriate title for Diane Williams’s 2016 collection of very short stories of discombobulating situations is “Fine Fine Fine Fine Fine” – you can’t get any better than that.

Sunday, March 6, 2022


I have thought about this question every so often, and I will be answering it in my capacity as Leigh Spence, B.A. (Hons) in Film Studies from Solent University, Southampton: what is my favourite film? 


Erm, I don’t really have one, but there are candidates for what may be my favourite film. 


This situation is borne from my taking a critical eye to absolutely everything, both in nature and by training: it was pointed out from the outside that film studies is an arts and humanities subject, and a cinema screen is as much a mirror as a blank canvas. Everything has its virtues, everything has its foibles.


There are films that serve as personal landmarks: “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” was the first film I saw at a cinema, and the “Back to the Future” trilogy (1985-90) is part of our family, right up to our seeking out the ride when it was still at Universal Studios – the real studio, not the theme park. VHS copies of Hayao Miyazaki’s “Castle in the Sky” (1986) and Disney’s “Fantasia” (1940) were present in my childhood, and I am fortunate to have been exposed to silent comedy from Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and Laurel & Hardy from early on, particularly Lloyd dangling from a building in “Safety Last!” (1923), a film I have, of course, now have on Blu-ray.


My go-to-answer for my favourite film is usually Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” (1959), having long been a fan of his careful suspense plotting, the shadows of both pictures and character, and his style and humour – I remember a lecturer once stating that, while teaching Hitchcock’s films in a film studies degree is the most obvious thing to do, like he is the Shakespeare of film, the reason why they do teach him is because he is the Shakespeare of film which, having seen “The 39 Steps”, “Rear Window”, “Vertigo” and everything inbetween, I am inclined to agree. Ernest Lehman’s script for “North by Northwest” was deliberately a combination of all of the best Hitchcock motifs to that point, working as a perfect summation of why I like them – the fact that Hitchcock then blew this apart the following year with “Psycho” the following year is another reason for loving the director’s work, but is not as representative of his entire body of work as his previous film.


An easy metric would be for me to list the films I have watched the most times, to find a favourite there. Uniquely for me, I saw Pixar’s “Wall-E” at the cinema more than once, with the Monty Python canon, “Network” (1976), and Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” (1985) sustaining multiple home viewings. However, films I don’t like – Neil Breen’s “Twisted Pair” (2015) and my personal bête noire, “Myra Breckinridge” (1969) – have required repeated viewings just to understand what happened, both in front of my eyes and behind the scenes.


It would be very easy for me to rely on lists of best films to formulate an answer, had it not been for the British Film Institute’s journal of record, “Sight and Sound”, producing a decennial “greatest films of all time” list from a poll of hundreds of directors and critics, making for the most definitive, answer for such a subjective question. The 2012 list, asking more industry people than ever, famously had Hitchcock’s lush psycho-drama “Vertigo” (1958) knocking “Citizen Kane” (1941) off the top spot for the first time since 1962. Orson Welles’s film is undeniably the greatest debut anyone has made with a film, and remains one of the best films ever made, but it also proves that you can only decide how good a film is by taking a good twenty years to think about it. The first poll, in 1952, stuck “Citizen Kane” just outside the top dozen films, and placed Vittorio De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves” at the top, released only four years earlier – the 2012 poll placed it at number 33, below “The Godfather Part II” (1974) and “Taxi Driver” (1976). People asking why no “Star Wars” film is on the list should notice that “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) and “Blade Runner” (1982) are there. That said, a new poll is due in 2022, so there is still time.


My most diplomatic answer to why I don’t really have a favourite film is because I have not seen every film. But I know my tastes: I will have had to search it out, it won’t be on a mainstream streaming service, it won’t be a genre film – unless “Hitchcockian suspense” is a genre - and it certainly won’t be “The Sound of Music” (1965), as I have done a good job of avoiding it up to now.