Potter: the author and the actor

I stumbled on a very informative discussion between JK Rowling and Daniel Radcliffe about the Harry Potter films. I was fascinated by the relationship between the two which is very hard to classify. There is genuine concern and interest on the part of each of them for the other. Both are still immersed in the story and common memories, but they don’t make us feel like outsiders looking in. I appreciated the self confidence of Radcliffe, his articulateness, and his overflowing enthusiasm and the candour and relaxedness of JK Rowling.

‘Lies’ photos tell

The ‘lies’  photos tell…. Read more about it on Secret Paths Artworks.

The gender of clothes

17 year-old Alex published a photo of a t-shirt on Tumblr that proclaimed: Clothes have no gender (1). Underneath Alex wrote, anyone of any gender identity should be able to wear whatever they want without facing discrimination. The statement is not so much about whether clothes ‘have’ a gender or not, but rather whether you can pick and chose to suit your taste or your deeper feelings of identity without being discriminated against. In fact, the justified indignation of victims of social constraints, if not harassment, about the way they dress, is a confirmation of the important role of clothes in gender. Clothing conventions are often explicitly used to enforce gender compliance. If you were born in a girl’s body but feel you are a boy, then the girl’s clothes your mother or father insist you wear are a way of forcing you to comply to someone else’s idea of your gender. That said, the original t-shirted statement, as it stands, is misleading if not incorrect. If any objects still retain and dictate gender, it is clothes (2).

So what do I mean by gender? An integral part of the person’s identity, gender is an individual set of images, ideas and personal theories that go to make up how the person feels in relation to the male-female divide. Talking of divide is misleading, as it gives the impression of a positioning between two poles, but the personal edifice that is gender may be much less straight forward and more flexible. It necessarily relates to a wider social system (tacitly) agreed on between people and institutions which is anchored in language, behaviour and objects, above all clothes. This relationship between the individual gender and the social norms can be a source of great tension if not suffering. Such a vision of gender as constructed by the individual in relation to wider social conventions is a relatively recent development.

Clothes are markers of gender

Clothes are eminently impregnated with gender, even those that purport to be neuter. In a society largely built on a binary division: male/ female, clothes stand out as the major markers of ‘gender’. This is less so in the case of women who can more readily dress in men’s clothes without causing a stir. But in most Western societies men wearing skirts or dresses, not to mention bras and panties, are seen as weird if not dangerous and threatening. That clothes are vehicles of gender explains why people who crossdress, like Peter in my novels Boy & Girl and In Search of Lost Girls, go to such lengths to wear feminine or masculine clothes when society would force them to do otherwise. Something of the ‘gender’ carried by the clothes wears off on them, a sort of metaphorical fairy dust, that contributes to form their own gender and identity.

The threat that individuals perceive in people not adhering to gender related norms in clothing probably partly stems from confusing sex, sexuality and gender. But the perceived threat ma y also comes from a profound fear of confusion and ambiguity which could well reflect back to deep-seated uncertainty or anxiety about one’s own gender identity. The inherent need to be explicit is anchored in language. Is it Mr. or Mrs. or Miss or Ms? Gender can be anchored in language differently depending on the language as I discovered when I tried to translate a small part of Boy & Girl into French. In English you can say ‘his skirt’ or ‘her skirt’ and it is clear in the first case that the boy has a skirt, causing raised eyebrows. Translated into French that becomes ‘sa jupe’ where the ‘sa’ says nothing of the sex (or gender) of the person whose skirt it is. More generally, most language is an either/or system when it comes to gender. There is no convenient alternative beyond ‘his’ or ‘her’.

Making a show of gender

The choice of clothing thus contributes to the construction of gender of an individual. However not all choices are visible or ostentatious. Not all choices are meant to be communicated to others. Even if the plain black panties a man is wearing under his trousers are identical to the underpants of a man, the fact that they were intended for a girl or a woman can be important in how he feels about himself.

For some people making a show is important. One of the apparent incongruities of many of those crossdressing males who post pictures of themselves on the internet is that they ostentatiously dress in what society sees as female attire, all lace and pastels and curves, yet, at the same time, exhibit their swollen maleness, clearly stimulated by dressing up. Naively one might imagine they proclaim that they are on both sides of the gender fence. In fact, I suspect this raises a different question, that of the relationship between clothes and sexuality, rather than gender.

I once saw a short YouTube video by a charming transgirl (3) who was quite the contrary to flamboyance and exhibitionism. Soberly dressed in a long-armed t-shirt with little makeup and her hair tied up in mini pigtails, she explained that for most boys who dressed as girls it was what they had between their legs that was most important for them, whereas, for her, and here she pointed a downward index finger to a place on her body off screen, she hated what she had between her legs. “I wanna get rid of it,” she said. Clearly for those people she was talking about, dressing up as a girl has more to do with sexual stimulation than gender.

The magical narrative

Many of the photos of ‘traps’ – a term used to signify men who dress as women such that they might be mistaken for women – posted on the internet have short stories attached. Here’s an example: My mom changed me into a twelve year old girl. I’m kinda scared cause I asked her to do my hair after I picked out this really cute outfit. I’m real excited, we’re goin shopping, I’m gettin some more pretty outfits and mom says it’s time for me to start wearing a bra! (4) The telling of the story combined with a picture, despite possibly having no link to real world events, are a powerful evocation of a wished-for reality. And often ‘power’ words are used like ‘twelve year old girl’, or ‘cute outfits’ or ‘wearing a bra’. These words bring ‘magic’ in the same way that clothes acting as totems also bring ‘magic’.

People post pictures of sexy, sometimes boyish girls on the Internet, add a caption saying it is a pretty boy or tell a story about how his mum or sister dressed him up, and, rather like a metaphor, the juxtaposition of the two produces something quite different, something they see as exciting, something that opens new vistas, at least for them.

The divided soul

When an object, like clothing, takes on a key role in sexual gratification the unfortunate technical term used is fetishism. I say ‘unfortunate’, because it is difficult to use the word without conjuring up related negative social judgements that tend to cloud any discussion of the subject. The word fetish has however another more archaic meaning: the worship of an inanimate object supposed to have magical powers or to be inhabited by a spirit. It is possible to relate these two meanings in an attempt to understand the phenomenon of fetishism. Let me take a round about route to explain.

The Harry Potter books popularised the notion of hallows. That’s to say, the embedding of part of one’s soul in an object in order to protect it and oneself. That was how Lord Voldemort was able to avoid death by splitting his soul into seven parts and placing those in different objects and people. Yet the very act of doing so both weakened him and made him more vulnerable. What if the inordinate desire for an inanimate object were a similar phenomenon? What if unknowingly those men who dress in female clothes give the power to the female clothes, for example, to excite them, and in doing so, give away a part of their ‘soul’.

A distinction made by the transgirl mentioned above is pertinent here. “Crossdressing gay men buy girls’ clothes, whereas trans girls (like herself) wear them.” If I can amend that slightly, many crossdressers wear female clothes because of the magic and excitement of being transformed, whereas transgirls wear girls’ clothes because that is what girls wear.

See my two novels about the adventures of a boy who dressed as a girl in secret and see how he fares in a world hostile to any ambiguity about gender or sexuality: Boy & Girl and In Search of Lost Girls.


(1) Address no longer available. Used to be at: http://managedmarauders.tumblr.com/post/123214176406/my-tshirt-because-anyone-of-any-gender-identity

(2) Ivan Illich wrote a thought-provoking but difficult book about the gender of objects amongst other things under the title: Gender (first published in 1982)

(3) It was quite a while ago and regretfully I haven’t been able to find it on YouTube.

(4) Page no longer available. Used to be at: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/510032726527392107/

When real-life settings meet fiction

One of my delights in writing Stories People Tell has been discovering how I can embed real-life places in my story and how that juxtaposition of the real and the imaginary adds power and presence to the story. Within the limits of my knowledge of the places used, I have tried to respect the confines of the contexts chosen. In addition, I found it important to select an overarching setting for the whole story which dictated the places I could use and the possible trajectories between them and which gave additional coherence to the novel.

Some caution is required, however, to make sure the depiction of such settings does not mask the story. Places, especially those that are well-known, have a power and a story of their own. If you let them come too much to the forefront they will take over and hijack your story.

Below is a short extract, depicting a visit to a psychiatric hospital. I doubt you can identify the original setting, but I have used its presence to heighten the narration.

The car swung through the wrought iron gates into the park, where a large sign announced the name and nature of the institution. The former was concealed by foliage, while the latter was plain to see, Psychiatric Hospital. The words filled Annie with panic as all her doubts came rushing back. So Alice had made up her mind that she was crazy and intended to have her locked up. In a horrible way, it all made sense. No wonder she hadn’t wanted to say where they were going.

As they wound their way under a dense canopy of trees, Annie could feel mounting resignation numb her whole being. She glanced longingly out the back window at the world beyond the gates. She was partly reassured to see that the gates did not snap shut behind them. Reaching the end of the drive, they emerged from the wood in front of a large mansion surrounded by a grassy expanse that extended as far as the eye could see. Alice parked the car at the foot of the steps to the main entrance and turned to face Annie.

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

I have very much enjoyed reading/listening to Neil Gaiman’s novels, including Neverwhere and The Graveyard Book. The audio version of the former being  a real gem thanks to the work of Dirk Maggs on the sound (he worked on Douglas Adams radio version of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy). But my favourite so far is The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Why? Because i find the story particularly touching. I am intrigued to hear Gaiman’s rendering of Norse Mythology in his newly published book of the same name. In a recent radio interview he spoke of adapting the legends and the fine line between respecting the original material and ‘filling in the gaps’ in a modern version. From the interview it was clear he has long had a passion for these legends and is vocal about how they have influenced his writing. The audio version of his Norse Mythology is narrated by the author himself.

Anne Bishop – Etched in Bone

For fans of fantasy writer, Anne Bishop, a new novel, Etched in Bone, in The Others series is due out on March 9th 2017. The Others novels, of which this will be the fifth, confirm the authors ability to fascinate readers with strange but engaging characters in disturbing yet surprisingly likeable worlds.

Climactic finish to Stories People Tell

I have just finished the first draft of my eleventh novel, The Stories People Tell. A hundred and twenty four thousand words written in two and a half months. Details of all my novels can be found here.

Right up to the very last chapter (the one hundredth), I had no idea how the story would finish. Amongst other things, I was surprised to discover that the climatic end was a joyous celebration of the city of London and the wide diversity of the people living there.

The Stories People Tell relates the tale of Annie, an unknown seventeen year-old schoolgirl , who gets caught up in a grass-roots gay women’s movement in their opposition to Nolan Kard, current Lord Mayor of London. A rich entrepreneur, turned politician, he is campaigning to ‘Keep London Straight’. His off-hand attitude, his tasteless humour and his widespread influence, especially within the police, are undermining the country’s longstanding institutions. Annie, who is normally shy and retiring, discovers she has far more talent than she imagined. Despite herself, she becomes the figurehead of the ‘London Whatever’ movement that rocks London and its certitudes, but in so doing, she becomes the number one target for Kard and his rogue police, not to mention his sinister gang of ghost writers

Flags fluttered in the breeze over the hotel entrance as they reached Charing Cross Station. People were leaning out the many windows to catch a first glimpse of the march, whistling and cheering as the head of the cortege swept into view. The station forecourt was packed with people none of whom seemed in any hurry to catch a train. They erupted in cheers and clapping as the first of the marchers drew level with the station.

Annie halted the march and grasped the microphone Bertie handed her. She took several steps beyond the column of people, Xenia, her faithful bodyguard, at her side. Kevin, her girlfriend, on the other. The crowd hushed. “Thank you,” she said, her amplified voice echoing back from the façade of the station and away down the Strand over the heads of the marchers. “Thank you all for such a warm welcome. It touches us deeply. We, the women, men and children of London, march to put an end to violence. The violence of words, of acts, of fists, of firearms and bombs. We oppose violence not with ever more violence, but with everyday acts of kindness, with concern for those who are poor, rejected and in ill health. It is not easy. But that is our goal. If that goal appeals to you, join us now. We are on our way to St. James’s Park where there will be speeches, but also music and dancing. You are all welcome.”

She paused a moment, the fist of her right hand cradled in the fingers of her left. “We raise our fists in salute, it is not a threat but a sign of solidarity. In those fingers held tight we embrace everyone however different they may be. Gay. Trans. Straight. Black. Yellow. White. All sorts. All colours of the rainbow. All are welcome in our London.” She raised her fist in the air. Behind her, the marchers as one saluted in their turn and with it a roar went up that rippled back down The Strand. Then hesitatingly people in the station forecourt and at the windows above, raised their fists, till a sea of raised fists greeted her.

Annie nodded as a token of recognition and returned to the march, her arm slung around Kevin’s shoulders, her heart beating fast with the emotion of the moment. Bertie raised her arm and gave the signal for them to set off towards Trafalgar Square.

The Book of Dust

Delighted to learn from the Guardian that Philip Pullman is to publish a new trilogy set in the same context and with some of the characters from his earlier trilogy, His Dark Materials. The new trilogy will be entitled The Book of Dust and the first volume is due out in October 2017. Looking forward to rediscovering more of the magic and the thought-provoking writing of Pullman.

New cover for Artworks

London Whatever! An extract.

One month ago today I began a new novel entitled Stories People Tell. I am now half way through the book and have written 55,000 words. I know numbers mean very little, but when a story flows so freely that you write over four thousand words in a day, as I did yesterday and the day before, it is an exhilarating experience. When your fingers freeze because you are out on a walk in icy cold weather and have to write down the next fragment of the story, you know something special is going on. When the only light on a moonless night on a deserted path through the forest is your iPad open to Scrivener with you hunched over it, fingers typing away, you experience the full force of stories.

It is not easy sharing an extract from the draft, but I wanted you to be able to read some of what I as First Reader have read and written. First Reader? Because I get to discover the story first. Now it is your turn. But bear in mind, there are a number of story threads in this tale and you are following just a fragment of one of them. And if you like it or it sparks thoughts, don’t hesitate to tell others about it or add your messages below.

(What you need to know: Annie is an unknown seventeen year-old schoolgirl caught up in a grass-roots movement against Nolan Kard, a rich entrepreneur, turned politician who is campaigning to ‘Keep London Straight’. His off-hand attitude, his tasteless humour and his widespread influence is undermining the capital’s longstanding  institutions. Annie, who is normally shy and retiring, becomes the figurehead of the ‘London Whatever’ movement and in this extract is attending a spontaneous rally in a park somewhere in London.)

A roar went up from the crowd as the small group parted and Annie stepped forward. Several people patted her on the shoulder. Others shouted words of encouragement. Seeing the size of the crowd from the edge of the platform took her breath away and her head began to spin. She grasped the railing and tried to suck in a deep breath. The crowd roared again like a wild but joyful beast. She raised her fist in salute and the crowd followed suit, a sea of raised fists swaying in front of her. The sight was exhilarating, but also terrifying. There was a power in this situation that she could never have imagined.

What next? The crowd fell silent and someone handed her a microphone. She stared at it unsure what to do. She had not anticipated this. She had no speech at the ready. Her mind was a blank and she struggled to keep the panic at bay. If only she’d known, she’d have asked Alice. The old Professor might have been retired, but she would have known what to say. She thought of the Prime Minister, of all his worries and what he’d told her about Kard undermining those who did the work.

She took a shaky breath, raised the mic to her mouth and spoke. “It is so easy to stand on the sidelines and sneer at those who are trying to get the work done.” She halted to catch her breath and look around the crowd, giving the words time to come. A swaying fresco of faces stared up at her, expectant. She gripped the railing even tighter, almost giving in to the vertigo. “It is so easy to mock and poke fun at the institutions on which society is built.” She felt her voice grow stronger as if she had unearthed an untapped source of energy. “It is so easy to point your finger at those who are different and say they are to blame.” The words flowed more easily now. Goodness knew from where.

She lowered her voice almost to a whisper, her lips brushing the mic. “If you are one of those who snigger at these antics, if their bad taste makes you laugh, if you would vote for the buffoon thinking he is different and will set things right, remember one thing.” She raised her voice little by little. “Driving the vision of a straighter, greater Britain is the dubious humour of a madman whose only aim is to build an empire over the ruins he leaves behind. There will be nothing great or straight in the nightmare he has in mind. There will be no freedom at the end of the road. A twisted smile may linger on your lips, but if you do not see him for what he is, whatever you are, where ever you live, who ever you know, you will stand alone, powerless, a slave to the will of a man who cares nothing about anyone or anything but himself.”

“I am reminded of the story of the emperor’s new clothes. In this version the Emperor is a would-be President.” Laughter rippled through the crowd. “He stands before us in his dirty underwear expecting us to pretend he is richly dressed.” The crowd roared with laughter. “He is mistaken. It is us that are richly dressed in all our gay colours and pretty makeup.” Some whistled, others called out ‘love you’, most just returned her smile. “He would have us all clad in grey, each of us straight-jacketed into uniform thoughts so he can feel special. No way!”

“No way!” cried the crowd.

“This afternoon, a journalist asked me why we call our movement ‘London Whatever’. I replied that rather than pointing an accusing finger at the world, ‘Whatever’ opens its arms to embrace difference. ‘Whatever’ is inclusive. Why shouldn’t girls love girls or boys love boys? Why shouldn’t gender be a question of personal choice? ‘Whatever’ celebrates the richness and diversity of the world. It hugs rather than sniggers. It is open and frank. And as part of that frankness we stand up and laugh at the bully in his dirty underwear who has this crazy idea that we should bow down to him as if he were a richly dressed President.”

Enough was enough. She lowered the microphone. The crowd erupted in cheers and stamped their feet. Before the cheers had time to die down, someone pulled out a drum and began hammering out a wild beat. Only to be joined by a pair of bongos. Another person shouldered a fiddle and added a melody to the beat. Several others took out flutes and in no time the crowd was transformed into a colourful, dancing mass.