Holiday Cheese Blogging

As is my wont, I bought a large quantity of top quality cheese to see me through the holiday season. Some of it you will be familiar with from my past posts: Stichelton and Gorwydd Caerphilly. The Gorwydd, by the way, finished 11th in this year’s World Cheese Awards, which pleases me greatly. But there are others that deserve a mention.

This year’s goat’s cheese is Ragstone, made by the folks at Neal’s Yard Creamery. It comes as a fairly firm log, but will soften up with time. Mine is still firm in the centre, but quite gooey around it. It has quite a strong taste for a goat’s cheese. I’m very pleased with it.

As you’ll see from the above picture, Renegade Monk now has a splendid new steampunk-like packaging. Its taste is every bit as robust and uncompromising as usual. It gets eaten last, despite being a soft cheese.

This year’s discovery is Gallus. How could I possibly resist a cheese with that name? It is Swiss, and made by Affineur Walo who are also responsible for Red Wine Farmer. Gallus is not named after the devotees of Cybele, but rather after the Swiss town of St. Gallen. The original saint was Irish and a close companion of St. Columba. Given that he was called Gallus, I think it entirely likely that he was a eunuch. The abbey in St. Gallen is famous for having been home to St. Wiborada, the first woman to be formally canonized by the Vatican (thank you, Pope Clement II).

Sorry, I digress. The cheese is a Gruyére, and looks like it might be one of those tasteless continental cheeses we are used to. It isn’t. It has a strong, nutty taste. What’s more, it finished 7th in this year’s World Cheese Awards.

The usual warnings apply. These cheeses are made from unpasteurised milk and are not recommended for pregnant people and anyone else particularly at risk from bacteria.

Cheese Tasting in Bath

Yesterday evening I was at Toppings bookstore in Bath for an event that was both a book signing and a cheese tasting. The excuse for that was Ned Palmer’s A Cheesemonger’s History of The British Isles which is, as the title suggests, a history of Britain told through its cheeses. As you might guess, the combination of cheese and history was irresitable to me.

Palmer’s basic idea is to tell the history of British cheese as it was influenced by events in history. Cheese has a long and honourable place in the human story. The earliest evidence for cheese in the UK is at Durrington Walls, the Neolithic settlement used by the people building Stonehenge. The Romans brought their Italian cheeses to Britain because an ounce of cheese a day was part of the standard rations for a legionary. An entire legion needed a lot of cheese. From then on cheese-making in Britain was affected by a variety of historical events from the Black Death through to the Industrial Revolution and WWII.

Palmer has the gift of making history interesting for a general audience through the use of great little stories. As someone who gives a lot of history talks, I appreciate his skill in doing this. My favorite story of the night concerns the great 10th Century Welsh king, Hywel Dda (Hywel the Good), who is noted as a law giver. In ancient Welsh law divorce was legal and on the occasion of a divorce Hywel’s law code states that the wife should receive all of the cheese owned by the family. The assumption is that she was responsible for making it, and the text of the law gives some insight into the methods used.

Some of the stories are cutting edge archaeology too. When Palmer was talking about feeding the Roman Army I was reminded of this recent episode of Alice Roberts’ Digging for Britain where archaeologists from the University of Newcastle are excavating what they believe to be an Iron Age village that got rich from proving food to the Roman soldiers. That segment begins about 41 minutes in. There’s no specific mention of cheese, but they had cows and sheep so I’m pretty sure cheese was being made.

Of course there was cheese to eat too, and it helped that Palmer featured two of my favorite cheeses: Gorwydd Caerphilly and Stichelton. The cheeses were all provided by the Fine Cheese Company, which is where I buy cheese for special occasions. The Stichelton was Palmer’s choice for the 18th Century because Stilton was very much a thing back then. I had no idea that Daniel Defoe was responsible for starting the Stilton craze. Nor did I know that Stichelton is basically Olde English for Stilton. (They can’t call it Stilton because the official definition of Stilton requires it to be made from pasteurised milk.)

Palmer was unable to source the goat’s cheese he had written about in the book because the woman who made it has died. Artisan cheese-making can be like that. I still miss Llanboidy. I didn’t get the name of the substitute he had in, but it was very good. And I learned that you can always tell goat’s cheese because it is white, as compared to the ivory of sheep’s cheese and the darker colours of cow’s cheese.

You can’t do a cheese tasting in Somerset without a cheddar. Palmer chose Westcombe because it is made on the same farm that was once home to the legendary Edith Cannon who, by the age of 21, had already established a reputation as one of the best cheese-makers in Victorian England.

There’s an issue with cheddar in that the hard, crumbly, and very strong cheese that I grew up on is not the same thing that Cannon used to make. Westcombe is quite mild and softer. Much of this is a result of rationing in WWII. The Milk Marketing Board needed to ensure that cheese rations could be fairly distributed, and they encouraged the creation of hard cheeses to make this easier. Many great artisan cheeses were probably lost in the process.

Thankfully these days cheese-making is blooming in the UK. Palmer’s final example was Renegade Monk, a cheese that was recommended to me by Rosie at The Bristol Cheesemonger. It too is a Somerset cheese, but it is totally unlike cheddar. It is a lightly blue washed rind cheese that is soft and pungent with rambunctious taste. I got definite hints of aniseed towards the end. It is an aquired taste, but I’m delighted that such innovative cheese-making is happening in Somerset.

Today on Ujima – PapayaFest, Discrimination at Work, Fungi & Ellen Datlow

I did a radio show today. Here’s what went down.

I started out with a visit from my good friend Tamsin Clarke. We kept our clothes on this time. As you may recall, Tamsin is from Venezuela. She has been putting together a festival of Latinx culture called PapayaFest. It will feature Tamsin’s theatre productions and a great line-up of bands and DJs. Because Tamsin has such great topics for her plays we ended up talking about Simón Bolívar, matriarchal families and the current state of feminism in Latin America.

Next up I was joined by Karen and Erin from Bristol Law Centre. They have come up with an interesting new way of funding employment discrimination cases and they wanted to get the word out there. I was pleased to be able to point out what good work they do, and how necessary they have become because of the current government’s actions designed to make recourse to the law something that is only available to the very rich.

Guest three was my friend Esme who has got involved with mushrooms. They really are fascinating life forms, and most people have no idea how many types of fungi there are, or how crucial they are both to the ecosystem and to many modern industries. There will be a Fungus Day at Arnos Vale Cemetery on Saturday, which I’d be very tempeted to go along to if I wasn’t booked elsewhere.

And finally I ran part of the interview I did with Ellen Datlow at TitanCon. This extract includes how she got her job at Omni, what “best of the year” means, who is the only writer ever to have scared her, and why she once turned down a story by Margaret Atwood. The full interview will run in Salon Futura at the end of the month.

You can hear the whole show via Ujima’s Listen Again service here.

The playlist for this month’s show is as follows:

  • Simón Díaz – Caballo Viejo
  • WARA – Leave to Remain
  • Rodrigo y Gabriela – Hanuman
  • Elsa J – 9 to 5
  • Carlos Santana – Flor d’Luna
  • Janelle Monáe – Mushrooms & Roses
  • Sade – Nothing can come between us
  • Michael Jackson – Thriller

Worldcon #77 – Day 3

This morning, after a bit of fruitless chasing of phone companies, I took myself off to The Point to meet Scott Edelman who was on a panel there. This is how I discovered that Dublin has a rule that the Green Room is only open to programme participants during the hour before their panels. I guess they are very short of space. Being me, I blagged my way in.

Once Scott’s panel was done we headed off to his restaurant of choice, Mr. Fox, and recorded a podcast for Eating the Fantastic. Scott will post details of what we ate along with the podcast, but he has released the above photo with me and the restaurant’s signature walnut whip confectionary. Scott’s ability to find superb restaurants is legendary in the SF&F community, and rightly so.

It was a very long lunch, but not alcoholic as I had to get back to The Point to give my talk on the Prehistory of Robotics. It seemed to go down well. I was also pleased to meet a long time friend, Paul Mason, whom I haven’t seen in decades as he’s been living in Japan.

The rest of the day was spent chatting to people back at the convention centre. I was very pleased to meet two talented young women who are starting to make a name for themselves in the business. The first was Molly Powell, who is the new editor at Jo Fletcher Books. She’s the person responsible for bringing This is How You Lose the Time War and Gods of Jade and Shadow to the UK. The other was Tamsyn Muir, author of Gideon the Ninth, which is by far the most talked about debut novel that I can remember. They are both lovely, and I look forward to watching their careers blossom.

I didn’t have enough energy left to go to the masquerade, so I came back to the apartment and crashed.

Tomorrow, I have nothing to do except the Hugos. Quite a lot of panels have had to turn people away, and I have taken a policy decision to give up my seat to newbies. I may go whiskey shopping.

Today on Ujima – Mexican Food, Poetry, Fiction & Renewables

Today I was in the studio at Ujima with lots of studio guests.

First up I welcomed Graham from My Burrito, a fabulous Mexican eatery in Bristol. We had a great chat about the glories of Mexican food. I was hungry by the end of it, as were Ben, my engineer, and Keziah, the studio manager. You probably will be too.

Next in the hot seat was Tom Denbigh, Bristol’s first LGBT+ Poet Laureate. I met Tom at an event that was part of Bristol Pride and loved the poem he read so I knew I had to get him on the radio. Sadly Ofcom rules about swearing on air rather limited what he could read. It’s about time the regulations caught up with everyday speech.

Guest three was Heather Child, who was no problem to interview as I had already done it last week at her book launch. We talked again about The Undoing of Arlo Knott and the various places where you can find out more about the book.

Finally I was joined by Jon Turney from Zero West to talk about local renewable energy projects.

Much of the music I played was inspired by my time doing the live coverage of Bristol Pride. The full playlist was:

  • Boney M – By the Rivers of Babylon
  • Pointer Sisters – Fire
  • Shea Freedom – Woman’s World
  • Nina – Calm Before the Storm
  • Jackson 5 – I Want You Back
  • Eddy Grant – Baby Come Back
  • Chi-Lites – Give More Power to the People
  • Boney M – Brown Girl in the Ring

You can listen to the whole show for the next few weeks via the Ujima Listen Again service.

Åcon – Part 1

Hello from the Åland Islands. I’m not exactly on holiday, because email chases me everywhere. Also I have two programme items at the con and I have the charity walk for One25 to finish. But I am doing my best to have some downtime.

Thus far there has been a lot of travel, including the now-legendary boat trip from Turku to Mariehamn. I have also done my first programme thing, which was chatting with this year’s Guest of Honour, Amal El-Mohtar, about steampunk. But mostly I see to have been walking, sleeping and eating.

One interesting development this year is that Silja Lines now have a selection of beers brewed especially for sale on the ferries. I have picked up a couple of porters to try. Also dinner this evening was at Dino’s (Achipelacon attendees may remember it as the place with portraits of dead rock stars) in part because they are one of the few places that stocks Stallhagen’s Baltic Porter.

I don’t have a lot more to add at this point except to say that This is How You Lose the Time War is brilliant and there will be a review posted soon.

Cheese Tasting: Fourme D’Ambert

On Friday I was in Bath shopping. I needed cheese and the Paxton & Whitfield shop is just across the road from Mr. B’s. I was actually looking for something like a Camembert or Brie, and ended up with an Oxford Isis, but while I was there they guys in the shop did some upselling.

The cheese they had me try was Fourme D’Ambert. It is a French blue, softer than a Stilton, and less sharp than Roquefort. I was impressed. And pleased to find out that it is a cheese whose history may stretch all the way back to the 8th Century. More details here.

More Seasonal Cheese Tasting

I promised you some more comments on my holiday cheese purchases.

First up, after due consideration, I think I still prefer the Eve over the Rollright. I think it has a much more interesting texture.

The other two I tried were flavored hard cheeses. One was Meldon from Curworthy, which uses wholegrain mustard blended with spices and garlic, sourced from Chiltern Ale brewery. It was pleasant, but not particularly special.

The other was Devon Sage, which I believe is also from Curworthy but isn’t currently listed on their website. I’m very fond of a good Sage Derby, but these days what you find in shops is normally made with bright green coloring. A proper sage cheese is much less excitable in color, and much more tasty. The Devon offering looked and tasted right, but not having a proper Derby cheese to compare it with I can’t say too much more.

Anyway, there was cheese, it was good, and I have eaten it. I hope you had some good holiday food too.

Solstice Cheese Tasting

Because I am trying to make better use of my limited time, I did my holiday cheese shopping when I was in Bristol on Tuesday rather than make a special trip to Bath. Of course these days I have the fabulous Rosie at the Bristol Cheesemonger shop to visit, so quality cheese buying in Bristol is far less of a trek than it used to be. Two of my purchases got tried out as part of my Solstice dinner last night.

First up was Eve, a soft goat’s cheese made by White Lake Dairy in Somerset. It is washed in Somerset cider and wrapped in vine leaves. It seemed to me that goat’s cheese and vine leaves were a perfect combination for a very Dionysian Saturnalia.

The other new cheese was Rollright, from King Stone Dairy in Oxfordshire. This is a soft cow’s milk cheese washed in brine.

When it comes to visuals I think that the Rollright wins hands down. That bubbliness makes it look like a much harder cheese than it really is. The Eve, in contrast, is pale and creamy in appearance. Taste is a different matter. Normally I prefer my cheese hard, strong and tasty, so neither of these two were off to a good start. First impressions suggest that I prefer the Eve, if only because it tastes like it looks and therefore doesn’t disappoint. However, I’ll give them another try over Christmas. I also have a couple of other new cheeses to try, including a sage cheese that doesn’t come from Derbyshire. Stay tuned, cheese lovers!

Rick Stein Does Mexico

My attempts at catching up on the enormous backlog of science fiction television I’m facing have floundered somewhat because I have found a new cookery series to watch. I’m not a big fan of celebrity chefs, but I do like Rick Stein. There are several reasons for this. His restaurant is in Cornwall. He started his career focusing on fish. And of course the shows are directed by David Pritchard who also discovered the mercurial genius that was Keith Floyd. Stein has nowhere near the personality, nor capacity for alcohol, that Floyd had. However, his shows are refreshingly free of lecturing about diets, healthy eating and so on, majoring instead on simple enthusiasm for good, fresh food well cooked.

The new series, Rick Stein’s Road Trip to Mexico, obviously features Mexican cuisine. However, it started out in San Francisco because there is a tale of Greater Mexico here, before the USA took so much territory away. There is also the story of Mexico’s influence on American cuisine, and of course of the current political fuss over immigration. Safely back in England after filming, Stein can’s resist the occasional dig at the orange-faced monster.

It is the food, however, that is the rightful star of the show. I have long been of the opinion that Mexican cuisine is one of the finest in the world. The combination of chili, lime juice and coriander is irresistible. The slow-cooked meats are utterly delicious. And the burrito is one of the world’s great portable food inventions. All of which is before I get onto the subjects of cooking with chocolate, and the Margarita.

Anyway, I’m hooked. Given that the Winter Solstice holiday is the only time of the year I ever get the time to do some serious cooking, I am looking forward to trying some of Stein’s recipes. I shall sit back on my couch and imagine that I am basking in the warm Mexican sun rather than listening to the rain pour down outside.

Cheese Tasting

Yesterday I was at M-Shed in Bristol for a meeting, and I took the opportunity to visit the new Bristol Cheesemonger. Rosie Morgan (no relation) has already garnered quite a reputation for her little enterprise, and it was past time I gave it a try.

Of course it is hard to surprise me with cheese because I spend a lot of time looking for new stuff. Rosie, however, came up trumps.

First she introduced me to Cornish Gouda. Dutch friends may, of course, feel a little aggrieved by this, but I have to say that what I bought has exactly the fabulous nutty taste that you would expect. I have only tried the semi-mature thus far, and that has a great flavor. I look forward to trying the older offerings.

Her other suggestion was Renegade Monk. This is a soft blue with an ale-washed rind made in very small quantities by a little Somerset dairy. It has a great taste, but having tried some of it I think I need to leave it a few days to get the full effect. More later, I hope.

And thank you, Rosie, I will be back.

Today on Ujima – Art, Literature, Feminist SF and Vampires

Today’s show was full on culture, starting off with the fabulous Amy Powell from Bristol Art for All, an amazing organization that looks to provide cheap or free art courses that anyone can be involved in (even a total klutz like me).

Next up we had Amy Morse from the Bristol Festival of Literature previewing all of the fabulous events they have lined up for this year. The Festival is bookended by Bristol Horror Con (on Friday 13th, naturally) and by BristolCon (on the 28th). Of particular interest will be Stories of Strong Women – Unconventional Heroines on Friday October 20th. This features not only me, but also Lucienne Boyce, Virginia Bergin, Jean Burnett and Becky Walsh.

You can listen to the first hour of the show here.

Talking of Virginia, she was my guest for the third segment of the show. Most of the discussion focused on her latest novel, Who Runs the World, which is a YA take on the classic “world without men” trope.

And finally I welcomed Anna and Orla from the Food and Theatre Company who specialize in immersive dining events. In October they will be staging Loco Lost Boys in the tunnels beneath Temple Meads station, where the audience can enjoy a fine meal and hopefully avoid becoming a tasty snack for the local vampires.

You can listen to the second hour of the show here.

It being Black History Month, I decided to have all of the music from amazing black women who are no longer with us. We did the whole gamut from Josephine Baker to Whitney Houston. Here’s the playlist:

  • Aretha Franklin – Respect
  • Josephine Baker – Blue Skies
  • Billie Holiday – These Foolish Things
  • Big Mamma Thornton – Let Your Tears Fall Baby
  • Bessie Smith – A Good Man is Hard to Find
  • Ella Fitzgerald – Everyone’s Wrong But Me
  • Memphis Minnie – Doctor Doctor Blues
  • Whitney Houston – Love Will Save the Day

On the subject of Ujima, we are running a fundraiser for disaster relief in Dominica tomorrow night at the Watershed. It is 10:00pm – 1:00am, so not the sort of time I can be in Bristol, but if you are around please consider dropping by.

The Strange History of Hot Cross Buns

Easter is a time when all sorts of nonsense tends to get talked about religious history. For the record, the only evidence of a goddess called Eostre is a single paragraph written by the 8th century English cleric, the Venerable Bede. He does not mention rabbits, hares or eggs in connection with this supposed Anglo-Saxon deity. There are no known shrines to Eostre, no votive offerings, nothing.

Even more so, there is no known connection between Easter, Eostre and Ishtar, other than the fact that Ishtar’s main festival may well have been held in the spring.

I say that because Ishtar was, in part, a fertility goddess, and spring is the time when fertility festivals were held. In Rome the Rites of Attis, part of the cult of Cybele, were celebrated in late March. Spring is the obvious time to have a fertility festival.

One of the things that the ancients appear to have done at such festivals is make offerings of bread. These may have taken a phallic form. The most famous reference to this is an epigram by Martial

Si vis esse satur, nostrum potes esse priapum:
Ipse licet rodas inguina, purus eris.

You’ll rarely see that translated because it talks about eating a phallus. However, Martial isn’t extolling the virtues of oral sex. Rather, he’s probably he’s probably expressing the well known Roman abhorrence of that activity. The epigram is titled “priapus siligineus” which probably means “bread phallus”. Martial seems to be suggesting that, rather than engage in oral sex, it is much cleaner to eat a bread substitute.

So the Romans may have baked bread in phallic shapes (and frankly if they didn’t then bread might well be the only thing they didn’t make into phallic shapes), and these may have been associated with spring fertility festivals. I’ve found no firm evidence of this. What we do know is that this practice appears to have found its way into Christianity.

Kulichi

Exhibit one is the Russian Orthodox Easter tradition of baking Kulichi. These are tall, cylindrical breads traditionally topped with white icing. No doubt about the symbology there.

The 19th century French historian, Jacques Antoine Dulaure, reports that in the town of Saintonge phallic bread was still being baked for Easter in his lifetime.

The most obvious example comes from the Portuguese town of Amarante, but these magnificently phallic objects are now made for a festival in June, not for Easter.

The theory is that early Christian clergy could not stop people making bread for spring festivals. But they could ask them to make it in a different shape. And just for good measure they put a cross on top to prevent anything devilish going on.

You Eat Ants?

As well all know from Disney’s Jungle Book, bears are famously omnivorous. Personally I tend to side with Bagheera over Baloo, but that’s feline solidarity for you. However, there are other creatures that eat ants. Australians, for example.

Thanks to the excellent cheese magazine, Culture, I have discovered Anthill, which is a chèvre coated in lemon myrtle leaves and ants. It achieved a top 16 placing in last year’s World Cheese Awards. Also it retails for a whopping AU$350/kilo (around US$270/kilo at current rates). My congratulations to Kris Lloyd of Woodside Cheese Wrights. Thankfully it is so expensive that I don’t feel the need to try it.

Today on Ujima – New Year, New Presenters plus Movies and Smoothies

With Paulette having retired, we need to put things in place to ensure the continuation of the Women’s Outlook show. I can’t do it myself because I have too many work commitments. But today I was delighted to welcome to the studio three women who are interested in working on the show as presenters. They are Isadora Vibes, Kamaljit Poonia and Esme Worrell. I spent the first hour getting them to introduce themselves and talk about one of their areas of experience.

Isadora is a poet and has been on the show before. She talked about the forthcoming In Between Time Festival, which looks amazing.

Kamaljit has a long career in equality and diversity work. She has been involved in the Bristol Race Manifesto project (which parallels the work Berkeley and I have been doing on an LGBT Manifesto) and she gave an update on that project.

Esme is, among other things, a stripper. We chatted about sex work, which as you will know is a topic of great interest to trans activists because so many trans women can’t make a living any other way.

You can listen to the first hour of the show here.

The second hour began with a visit from Gabriela Staniszewska who is an award-winning director of short films. She’s based in Bristol and I was delighted to find out that she specializes in science fiction and horror. We got on famously.

Finally I welcomed my friend Russell Thomas who runs the Ground and Burst cafe in Bristol that majors in smoothies. Russell is trying to get people to eat more healthily by eating fruit rather than processed sugar. I was very hungry by the time I had finished talking to him.

You can listen to the second hour of the show here.

Here’s the playlist. Obviously there was a Bowie song on it.

  • Alicia Keys – Superwoman
  • Chaka Khan – Through the Fire
  • Mariah Carey – Don’t stop
  • David Bowie – Sound and Vision
  • Diana Ross – Theme from Mahogany
  • Janelle Monae – It’s code
  • Shalamar – I can make you feel good
  • Pointer Sisters – I’m so excited

I’m not entirely sure what will be happening for the next few weeks while folks get trained up. I have some work engagements on Wednesdays that I can’t get out of. But I will definitely be back on February 15th with an LGBT History Month show.

Brief Restaurant Recommendation

I’m in Oxford. I’ll be spending all tomorrow doing training, and much of Wednesday visiting bookshops and libraries. But because we have a 9:30am start tomorrow I am staying in a hotel on expenses, which is nice.

The hotel, by the way, is a Holiday Inn on the ring road by the airport turnoff. It’s very standard, but very comfortable and the hot tub, sauna and steam room are nice.

It is, however, a long way out of town, and there’s not a lot in the way of restaurants immediately obvious. Also Berkeley hadn’t had lunch and was ravenous. So we took ourselves into town. Our new colleague, Aaron, had found a restaurant he said did good Chinese, Malaysian and Singapore cuisine. It was in Walton Street in the Jherico district. We managed to park OK not too far away and wandered up towards the restaurant. We passed several other places on the way, all of which looked nice and were fairly empty. Then we got to the place Aaron had found, and it was heaving. Fortunately they had a downstairs dining room and were able to seat us.

It was fabulous. I had beef rendang with coconut rice; Berkeley had a Szechuan lamb dish with egg fried rice; Aaron had chicken satay; and we shared some crispy duck for starters. Oh, and Berkeley had soup because ravenous. All of it was very good.

Getting back to the hotel I checked the place out on the web, and the first thing I see on their website is enthusiastic recommendations from Giles Coren and Ken Hom. Well duh!

Nice job, Aaron. And for the rest of you, should you happen to be in Oxford, a very fine place to eat is Zheng.

As a special bonus, the restaurant is indeed named after one of China’s most famous people: Admiral Zheng-He. Who was, I note, a eunuch, and therefore in many people’s view a non-binary gendered person.

The Darkening Garden: The Exhibition

As some of you will know, The Darkening Garden is the title of John Clute’s book about horror fiction. It is now also the title of an art exhibition by Judith Clute. You can find it at the Camden Image Gallery (just round the corner from Camden Road railway station). I was there last night for the launch night party, as were many other people from the SF scene.

The exhibition looks great. I have seen a lot of Judith’s art over the past 10 years or so, but it has always been spread about the Clute flat, and often half-finished. To see a large collection of it on gallery walls was a great pleasure. Even better, people were buying it. Here’s hoping that Judith does well out of it.

After the party I went out for dinner with Farah Mendlesohn, Edward James, Liz Williams, Roz Kaveney and Dave Lally. We had been wondering where might be good in the area and Roz mentioned that she’d eaten at a Thai place just around the corner a while back. We went and looked, and it was still there, but now more Cambodian in its cuisine. Roz did some sums and realized it was 25 years ago that she last ate there, but hey, the food was great. How Roz manages this sort of trick is a great mystery to me. If you happen to be in Camden, Lemongrass has great food and is pretty good value. I had the spring chilli chicken.

I Am Cait #2.6

The latest episode of I Am Cait to screen in the UK was all about (ex-)wives. Kris Jenner put in an appearance, and awkward conversations were had.

Mostly what I want to say about this is that such issues are very personal matters between the two individuals involved, and no one should make judgements on the basis of how they would feel in such circumstances.

Having said that, Jen Richards was talking on Twitter last night about how we hear lots these days about women who say by their partners through transition, but next to nothing about men who do the same. That’s obviously partly because the media isn’t obsessed with trans men the way it is with trans women. But I suspect there’s also a lot of social expectation (and sometimes necessity) for women to stay in a marriage no matter what. And of course there is less social opprobrium attached to appearing to become lesbian than to appearing to become gay.

If you listen to the likes of Germaine Greer or Fay Weldon it is clear that they think transitioning is just another thing that very masculine men to to betray their wives. It is like having an affair, except with yourself. And if you look at the posters for The Danish Girl it is pretty obvious that it is going to be a film about a loving wife who is betrayed by her partner.

That, of course, is just another stereotype that is rarely accurate. I doubt that there are many trans women who are that callous, but equally no one is free of the charge of selfishness. Of course if you have got to the point of a choice between transition and suicide then you get called selfish no matter which course you choose.

Hopefully, in a generation or two’s time, trans people will be sufficiently socially accepted that we can all come out early on in life and all of this denial and betrayal will be a thing of the past.

On the bright side, the episode was filmed in New Orleans, a city that I love. It reminded me of a fabulous long weekend that Kevin and I spent there a few years ago, and some of the best meals of my life.

I can haz beignets nao?

Sarah Hilary Book Launch

Sarah Hilary book covers
I love seeing my writer friends doing well, and few local writers have done as well as Sarah Hilary. Her sales have been so good that her publisher has repackaged her first two books to match the new one and issued all three in hardcover. Don’t they look lovely?

Of course I wouldn’t miss one of Sarah’s book launches anyway, because they always feature fabulous food from her friend Lydia Downey. Lydia doesn’t just do Chinese food (as per that link). For last night’s launch she provided salted caramel chocolate brownies. Yum!

Anyway, thanks to Toppings for a great event. And Sarah, I am looking forward to being scared stupid by Tastes Like Fear, and to having you on my radio show sometime soon.

All That Other Stuff

Because I need to get it out of my system, I’m going to do a post about all of the other things that were wrong with the talk I walked out of at the trans history conference. Think of this as a follow-up to this post.

So what else was wrong? History, for a start. Modern gender medicine did not begin with Lili Elbe, or even Dorchen Richter who preceded her. Trans men have been having surgery a lot longer. They didn’t get phalloplasty until the late 1940s when Sir Harold Gillies and Ralph Millard invented the techniques they used on Michael Dillon. But trans men could and did have hysterectomies and mastectomies. CN Lester tells me that such operations were performed on a man in Germany in 1912, and there’s a suggestion of a similar operation in the 1890s. I wouldn’t necessarily expect people to know that, but anyone with an interest in trans history should know about Alan Hart.

Hart lived in Portland Oregon and underwent surgery in 1917 and 1918. He’s pretty famous in trans history circles, through I see that his Wikipedia entry now contains reference to earlier operations in Germany. I can, however, think of a reason why the presenter of this talk might want to ignore Hart. You see, Hart was a doctor himself. He wasn’t persuaded into surgery by sexologists, he prevailed upon his medical friends to do the job for him. There’s no way that Hart can be painted as an innocent victim of the medical establishment, because he prescribed his own treatment. If the point you are trying to make is that medical transition is something forced on trans people by doctors then you’ll want to bury any knowledge of Hart.

The talk very much painted Lili as a victim of doctors. It did get right that she died as a result of an operation intended to allow her to have children but she was not, as far as I know, badgered into it. She’d got herself a boyfriend and wanted to marry him and have kids. She was 49 at the time, which seems rather ambitious, but the operation wasn’t doomed because allowing trans women to get pregnant is a daft thing to do, it was doomed because no one at the time knew much about organ transplants and the problems of tissue rejection. Had the surgeons known, there’s no way they would have tried it.

In any case, the idea of trans women wanting children is not ridiculous and unnecessary. It is certainly true that you don’t need to get pregnant to make you a “real” woman, but that doesn’t mean some of us might not want to do it. If womb transplants had been on offer when I was in my teens I’d have been very keen on the possibility.

Then there is science. Most people agree that the pink brain / blue brain thing is nonsensical. Certainly it is true that, as was claimed, if you put a man’s brain and a woman’s brain side by side on a table, a trained neurologist won’t be able to tell the difference by looking at them. But then if you put two lumps of coal, one made of Carbon-12 and one of Carbon-14, on a table together a chemist won’t be able to tell the difference by looking at them either.

The vast majority of gendered brain nonsense arises from people comparing the averages of two heavily overlapping distributions, which is bad science. That doesn’t mean that subtle differences cannot exist, nor that those differences might, in certain specialist functions, make a world of difference.

It is also true that there is no proof that differences in the way that embryos develop result in a trans identity. There is, however, good evidence that the embryo goes through a variety of different growth spurts, and the time during which the brain develops is quite separate from the time during which the gendered differentiation of the body happens, so there is a possibility.

There’s also a possibility of a genetic factor, in that a large number of trans women (including myself) have a preponderance of maternal aunts (that is, a maternal grandmother who had difficulty conceiving male babies). Such apparent coincidences are often clues to a genetic explanation.

In any case, if you poo-poo the whole idea of differences in embryo development then you are effectively erasing intersex people, because they very clearly develop differently from other humans when in the womb.

I’ll certainly agree that there is no evidence of a scientific cause of trans identities. I’d also speculate the any cause that we find will be complex, and quite possibly very different depending on whether the person in question is trans-masculine, trans-feminine or non-binary. Until such time as we know more, the right thing to do is to accept people as they are, not to insist that there absolutely is or is not a scientific explanation.

On to religion now. There are people of faith who believe that God (or Satan), deliberately or accidentally had some hand in making them trans. If that works for them, all well and good. Right now it is no better than any other explanation we have. I’m not going to descend to Dawkins-esque mockery of straw man theological positions to try to discredit them. Theologians have, after all, spent an awful lot of time pondering the meaning of evil and why it exists in the world. It is rather ironic that for an illustration the presenter chose William Blake’s “The Ancient of Days”, which is not actually of God, but of Urizen, a figure who was part of Blake’s Gnostic-tinged theological explanation for the fact that God doesn’t make everything right for us.

And finally stargazy pie is not made from fish guts. I’ll admit that the heads and tails are put on the crust in part to freak out the emmets, but they are for decoration. Even if you cook whole fish into the pie, you fillet them first. It is, of course, rather delicious (and probably very good for you, being traditionally made from those oily fish that nutritionists keep badgering us to eat).

I’m perfectly happy for people to come up with whatever explanation for being trans works for them. It is a very difficult life in many ways. What I won’t tolerate is people who feel the need to delegitimize and mock everyone else’s coping strategy in order to prove that theirs is valid. And at an academic conference I won’t tolerate someone using bad history, bad science and bad theology to make such a point.