Towards Barking

With a dog you meet all sorts of new people. When we had the old dog I used to stand with him outside supermarkets while the better half shopped for food. I would be approached mainly by people on the fringes of sanity. ‘Can I touch? Does he bite?’

‘Not always,’ I would say.

Now that we have Bella I am coming round to the idea that the old dog must have encouraged these unsavoury approaches with his surly nature. A much sunnier class of people want to touch Bella. The other day we were on the Tube. It was between strikes. An attractive young woman, Italian as it turned out, was standing on the platform and got in with us. After a stop or so she turned to me and said, ‘I’m in love. Can I touch?’

Bella looked away in disgust, but I said, ‘I think she means you.’

It was a sad story in a way. The woman had been sent to England to learn the language and had left her six Jack Russells in Florence. She missed them terribly.

‘Can’t you bring them here?’ I said. ‘All that quarantine business has changed.’

‘You don’t understand. My father, he will not let me and he will not let me come back to see them until I speak English perfectly.’

Anyway she got on well with Bella. She was affectionate with her without encouraging hysteria, which was good because when Bella gets overexcited she pees herself, even on the District Line. When we got to Bow, off she went.

Between Bow and Plaistow I mused on the relations between dogs and the people in our area from the different strands of multi-ethnic London. Italians are used to terriers as pets; other cultures are different. One must be wary of generalising. Amy took to Bella on sight but when I took her through Gerrard Street the crowd parted to each side of us. Chinese people are not all the same as regards dogs any more than anyone else is.

Of course the position is reciprocal. When we had the old dog and I was still taking Russian lessons my teacher was delighted by his aggression. I was taught to say in Russian, ‘My dog is racist. He hates both black people and Jews.’ I tried to explain that this was not the case: the only black people that he barked at were postmen and in that case it was the uniform, not the man. As for Jews, the one he knew best was my Russian teacher himself and how could he trust a man who made up such stories about him? Of course, with my limited command of the language, my teacher had gone off onto some other flight of fancy before I could fashion this into a laborious sentence and deliver it.

‘Ed Miliband, he is a Jew. Is he a Jew-hating Jew?’

My teacher’s mind was a snake-pit of fears and insecurities.

Nyet,’ I said.

Just as we have to be eternally on guard against signs of racism, along of course with gender bias, in ourselves, it is essential to check for equivalent inappropriate behaviour in our pets. Bella in general takes people as she finds them, but there has been a development that has worried me. Every morning we go for a walk together in West Ham Park. We have to pass a bus stop on our way there. For some reason the seat is always occupied by modest Muslim women waiting for the opportunity to proceed on their way towards Barking. Bella is terrified of them and plunges into the gutter rather than walk anywhere near them.

I lectured her on Islamophobia. She doesn’t understand many words. ‘Walk’, ‘dinner’, ‘no’ (optional), and ‘West Ham Park’ are about it: certainly not ‘Islamophobia’. But as they told us at Battersea Home for Dogs it’s the tone of voice that counts. I tried to get into this a conviction that all people are worthy of respect, regardless of race, gender or creed. My speech positively throbbed. In return she gave me her alert look. The following morning she dived into the gutter again.

Who can tell what goes on in a dog’s head? I try to be positive about it. One thing that did occur to me is that the dresses of the Muslim women, being modest, reach down to the ground. As we approached the bus stop on the way back I noticed that the younger ones were swinging their legs but that their shoes could not be seen. If I were at ground level I reckon that, never mind racism-awareness, I would want to keep a distance from wherever the feet might be, if kicking was in progress.

Curiously there was another incident the same morning. We got to the Park and skirted the various buggied mums, tai chiers and runners. The old dog would always consider it polite to join in with runners, an act that more than once delivered a Personal Best on the runner’s part. Bella is not that interested, although one enormous lady, struggling along with her stomach waving perilously in front, visibly intrigued her more than was tactful. We got to her favourite bit of grass and she addressed herself to her morning duty. She is shy about this and has only recently been persuaded that it is all right in public, as opposed to the hall floor where she is among friends. I had gathered the result into a plastic bag, and I was carrying it towards the bin marked ‘Dog Waste’ when a crowd of mainly black schoolboys enveloped us. They were going for a run and were delighted. ‘Old white man! Dog shit! Urggh!’ they shouted, and gave us a theatrically wide berth, even though that must in some cases have endangered their chances of a Personal Best.

Bella was furious, though whether it was their casual manners towards me or her I don’t know. She caught them up and passed among them, barking and showing her teeth until the boys scattered. Their teacher caught us up. ‘Your dog is racist,’ he said, making a note in his little book.



‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.’

This phrase is regularly produced by contributors to Any Answers, their smug and querulous tones suggesting that they are the good men in question and that their mere contribution to that venerable Radio 4 forum is averting – necessarily – the triumph of evil. It is retailed as a celebrated quotation but as such is of doubtful provenance. It’s variously attributed to John F Kennedy and Edmund Burke but apparently neither originated the phrase.

It is also of course nonsense. Good men doing nothing may I suppose be necessary for the triumph of evil but it is not the only thing necessary. There are good people sniggering and looking the other way in Russia, to take one example from many, but Mr Putin bears the main responsibility for his own evil and its triumph. Many of us reproach ourselves daily for our part in the appeasement of Mr Blair at the beginning of the Century, but in the last resort the responsibility for his misdeeds is his.

This is not a mere quibble. These smug and querulous assertions, whether on Radio 4 or in what we are encouraged to call the social space, make matters worse, not better. The triumph of evil is bad enough by itself.

And what’s all this about ‘good men’? Do women who snigger and look the other way not bear their share too of the responsibility?

Anyway, the better half said something of the sort to justify picking a fight with a neighbour. This is the drug dealer to whom I have referred before. He (it is a he, like the good men doing nothing) is as yet in a small way of business. His drug dealer’s limousine has blacked-out windows but is one of the more modest of the range of small cars offered by the Kia motor company – and not new. However he is admirably hard-working. Lanky youths with bicycles come and go at all hours, collecting small packages and returning with pockets full of what appear to be bank notes.

All this would be a matter of simple local pride if it were not for the nature of the coming and going. The drug dealer’s flat, like all of them in our block, is serviced with two locks and the tenant is provided with two keys for each and two fobs for the front door to the building. These are not replaceable and in the case of the drug dealer’s flat one of the fobs has, as we later learnt, become lost.

He cannot be in his flat all the time. He has to travel around, ensuring that his product remains tip top. His is, I understand, a world where sources of supply can disappear overnight and it is essential always to have a plan B. The result of his absence is a succession of people requiring access at the front door, and when they cannot raise an occupant of the flat in question, they press our buttons indiscriminately. Sometimes there is someone in the flat but they are asleep or ‘nodding off’ as I believe it is known.

One tries to help. ‘Are you a ‘mule’?’ I say to the young men (and again it does tend to be men, notwithstanding what one might expect from, for example, the excellent Harpur & Iles detective stories, where the process of delivery of the narcotics is often entrusted to women) as their faces loom Barry Manilow-like onto the screen in my flat provided for that purpose. Depending on the apparent good faith of their response I may or may not let them into the building.

On one occasion it turned out to be the drug dealer himself, locked out of his own flat. Irritation overcame my underlying desire to be neighbourly. It was the seventh or eighth time that afternoon and I was trying to work. I replaced the phone without first pressing the ‘Enter’ button. He got in anyway – someone else obliged – but he was sufficiently irritated to stand outside my door for some minutes, where he made a sound that can only be described as howling.

This was approximately the point at which the better half took things in hand.

“Something must be done,” she said. “It’s unacceptable behaviour.”

“I don’t really care,” I said feebly. “Local colour…neighbourliness…importance of not upsetting people who habitually use knives…our lovely new car parked just outside.”

And then she said it.

“‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

“Or women,” she added.

A difficult week followed. She remonstrated with the drug dealer. She told him that his howling, whilst acceptable in strictly circumscribed conditions, for example at a Halloween party, had no place outside the door of our flat. He in turn cunningly played the race card and told the management that we were harassing him because he was black. When we passed each other on the staircase we turned away from each other with a contemptuous shrug. The better half contacted her friend George who said that if muscle was needed he was our man.

It was the drug dealer who very decently brought this unfortunate conflict to an end.

“I know it’s been difficult,” he said. “But now it’s new management. You’ll see changes. Sorry for any inconvenience.”

He told us affectingly about the lost fob, which explained everything.

“I don’t know where I can have put it,” he said. “Actually, I suspect foul play.”

I for one was happy to see amity restored before my throat was cut, and so was the better half, whilst glad to have made her point. Now, when we see the young men on their bicycles, plying the streets of Stratford with their precious restoratives, we wave to them. If only all problems with neighbours were resolved so readily. We have more serious ones elsewhere, but that’s another story.

Talking about Books

The Angel, said Amy, had continued to bless their relationship.

“That of Alfredo and the woman from the train?”

I had had, incidentally, to explain about the Angel to Amy, as I had not told her about either my first encounter or my subsequent investigations.

“I haven’t seen much of Alfredo recently,” I said. “I thought he might be avoiding me. What about the settled domestic commitment?”

“This is a woman,” Amy said. “She is head teacher. She is called Lesbia Firebrace.”

The name was faintly familiar. I thought for a moment.

“No, she isn’t. Lesbia Firebrace is fictitious. She is a head teacher in the novel Two Worlds and Their Ways by I Compton Burnett. Great name, but this obsession with English literature, Amy, is getting out of hand.

“Moreover,” I said, “Lesbia Firebrace is not a lesbian, although rather a number of the members of her teaching staff appear to be.

“Furthermore,” I said, “what is the woman from the train called?”

“Ah. Alfredo don’t know. He won’t ask. Too late to ask.”

“I suppose that it would be embarrassing to ask someone their name when they have granted you the freedom of their loins in a kiosk of the West Cornwall Pasty Company.”

“Waugh,” said Amy.


I thought that, as frequently, she had said ‘Ah’.

“Waugh. Freedom of loins. J. Flyte. Waugh. ”


Brideshead Revisited.”


I said it.

“J Flyte grant C Ryder freedom of loins. Of course,” Amy said, “absolute difference kiosk of West Cornwall Pasty Company and Wodehousesque ocean liner with state room, waiting staff, storm and orphans.”

“’Wodehousian’, conventionally,” I said. “Don’t know why. But enough, please, Amy, of these literary references. It’s overpowering. They are an inappropriate accompaniment to a pleasant and lazy Sunday afternoon’s chat, with green tea, at Great Secret Miss.”

She looked hurt – as well she might. Great Secret Miss is hers, not mine, to decide what should happen there.

“New to me,” she said, “Eng. Lit., as you say. I think you are my good friend. Help me please with Eng. Lit.”

“Of course,” I said, “but please stop showing off.”

“OK. ‘Freedom of loins.’ Bad taste, I think.”

“Yes I think it is a bit overwrought. Is that really what he wrote? Not as overwrought as Orphans of the Storm, though, which is how I recall that the chapter is titled. There is a distinct feeling that Waugh once had an adventure on a Wodehousian ocean liner, about which he continued to nurse excitable memories and that he put it in his book; as the years go by the fictional bits fall off leaving the rather rude autobiographical substructure showing through. Compare Anthony Powell, where the structure never intrudes on the lives of the characters, in spite of the efforts of the Real Powellites to treat the great work as if it were an acrostic and the characters mere ciphers for people Powell had met and whom we have to track down.”

“Like Peter Quennell!”

Amy shouted this. I held up an admonitory finger.

“Yes. No show off. But why always they talk about Peter Quennell? He model for this, he model for that. Peter Quennell, who he? What he do that is interesting? Let him forget!”

I have always thought the same thing, myself.

“But ‘freedom of loins’,” Amy said. “I don’t understand. What freedom? Freedom is choice, Mrs Thatcher say. What freedom? Chose back passage sometimes?”

She had the grace to blush.

I admonished her. “You forget, perhaps,” I said, “that you are referring to a member of the English aristocracy.”

“Ah yes, I remember. Of course. J Flyte. Honourable. Probably back passage compulsory, then. Do you give people freedom of your loins?”

I sidestepped this impertinent question.

“I think it means girls. That may seem discriminatory to a reader of the present day, but I think that Waugh would have been surprised to think that C Ryder had been said to make available to J Flyte the freedom of his loins.”

Amy reflected.

“I gave freedom of my loins to court of appeal judge once. Bad mistake. Took freedom away again pretty damn quick.”

A look came onto her eye. I recognised it.

“Don’t say it!”

But she did.

“’But that was in another county, and besides, the judge is dead.’

“Hampshire,” she explained.

“Shakespeare,” she added.

“Marlowe,” I said.

We lapsed into silence.

“Little room for freedom on the floor of the kiosk of the West Cornwall Pasty Company,” I would have thought,” I said, “granted or otherwise.”

“First time, no need freedom. All hammer and tongues. Later different when they know each other.”

“I wonder where they go now. Alfredo’s stopped coming to our flat, and I can’t believe that Ms Firebrace, or whatever she’s really called, is very keen on their using hers, given the settled domestic commitment.”

“No, not,” said Amy. “Alfredo says Ms Firebrace very good. ‘Accommodating,’ he says. He says she will grant freedom of her loins too, maybe.”

“To him? Together?”

“That for negotiation.”

“Italians!” I said.

I wondered how these negotiations would take place if the name of one of the women was unknown to Alfredo and the other a literary pseudonym. Again we lapsed into silence. Amy looked at her watch. She gestured to one of her girls, pointing at me.

“More green tea,” she said.

Then she turned to me.

“I am very much looking forward to a further conversation with you about books,” she said, and went off into the back.

Problematizing Patriarchy Wholesale

What a week it has been for the striking of poses.

Serena Williams, who I am sure needs no help from me, is being criticised for remarks in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine about a sixteen-year-old girl who was raped. Presumably (I haven’t read the interview) these remarks were by the way, and the thrust of the interview was about tennis or fashion or the other things that make Serena Williams such a remarkable person. She is reported as saying that the girl who was raped, having been very drunk at the time, was lucky that the outcome was not worse. Ms Williams has been roundly accused of suggesting that it was the girl’s fault that she was raped. Here for instance is Eris Zion Venia Dyson:

The rape and sexual assault of women in this world has been a tactic of war and control since the beginning of time.

Our bodies politicalized [sic]. We as women are constantly guilty for being women, for being beautiful, for being afraid, for being drunk, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Search for one woman that was “asking for it” … and you’d have a snowball’s chance in hell of finding one. Williams’ statements hurt plenty of us to our core.

In other words, it is not about the girl, or even about Serena Williams, it is about the very real feelings of hurt experienced by Eris Zion Venia Dyson.

And here is Jill Filipovic, also in the Guardian:

There are few sports more popular in Americans [sic] than beating up on women. While men are disproportionately the aggressors in both physical and emotional abuse, women certainly aren’t immune from attacking our own – particularly, it seems, with words.

Two things occur to me.

The first is that that to suggest that it is foolish to put yourself in harm’s way is not at all the same as saying that the harm that results is your ‘fault’, which has been the universal assumption of the commentators. They are two entirely different things. Rape is inexcusable. Putting yourself unnecessarily in harm’s way is reckless – and that is not a moral judgment but a practical one. Both propositions are true and neither detracts from the other. By the same token, nothing excuses the police when they hurtle along the pavements in their cars, mowing down members of the public in their pursuit of wrong-doers; but to suggest that it is wise to stand well back when you hear their sirens is not, pace Ms Filipovic, ‘beating up on’ pedestrians.

Secondly, Serena Williams is not only one of the supreme sports people of our time, but she has achieved it with grace, style and a very unusual nonchalance. Her post-match interviews do not follow the usual anal and brow-furrowing analysis of the player’s own technique. It would be presumptuous of me to say if she is a positive role model for women: she is certainly a positive role model for human beings. She is entitled to some gracefulness in return.

And then we have Nigella Lawson and Charles Saatchi.

Just as the reaction of the people who were in the room when the American girl was being raped was to film the incident and put it Facebook rather than helping her, so those present when Mr Saatchi put his hands on Ms Lawson’s neck, rather than intervening, took photographs which one of them then sold to a Sunday newspaper for, apparently, £14,000. Ms Lawson has preserved a dignified silence, so we don’t know the context of what happened. Mr Saatchi has been given and accepted a police caution. You might think that the sorry affair had returned to the realm of the private and that journalists who professed solidarity with Ms Lawson would allow her the space to deal with the incident in her own very capable way unaccompanied by little shrieks from the media.

Not a bit of it. As with Serena Williams, a number of commentators have drawn their habitual conclusions about the position of women in society. Eris Zion Venia Dyson has not yet so far as I know confided her views to us, but I dare say that she would assert that this incident too was an example of a tactic of war and control since the beginning of time. People running women’s hostels have opportunistically called for more money from the government.

Most sinister have been the calls on public figures to ‘condemn’ Mr Saatchi. A few, such as Nick Clegg, have declined on the grounds that it’s not clear what happened and in any event it’s none of their business. The editor of the Standard has been urged to cancel Mr Saatchi’s column in the paper. Her refusal has been met with howls of abuse. Failed Tory MP Louise Mensch wrote: ‘”The amount of domestic violence apologism that has gone on is absolutely shocking.”

Again, two things occur to me.

Charles Saatchi may have acted like a pig and a beast. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. But even if he did why are we all expected to join in a huge communal bellow of condemnation? Is there really no place in society any more for saying, ‘It’s none of my business’, or ‘That’s a shame but I’m more bothered about anthropogenic climate change’, let alone ‘I disagree’? Is our liberal metropolitan society, which we are so fond of comparing to the detriment of Islamist intolerance, to revert to that of Salem or the penultimate scene of Lord of the Flies?

Secondly: ‘our bodies politicalized’; ‘domestic violence apologism’? No one who actually cares for people who suffer talks like that.

Kettering as a State of Mind

I cannot say that the appearance of 神秘女郎 is immediately welcoming. Although the fascia has been repainted the door has not. I can’t recall whether it was newly painted when Amy took the premises a year or so ago, but it is not in a location where anything stays shiny for very long. Moreover it is shut. Sometimes it is even bolted, as when the very smelly customer was spotted walking purposefully up the street. The result is that the clientele is limited to the trusted and the apparently amusing.

I am not sure into which of the two categories I fall, but I hope to remain in at least one. Probably it is no more than that Amy likes to read occasionally of her own exploits on this site and indeed every day or so a visitor arrives solely as a result of reading about the place with alablague.

What, I thought as I passed at the door – unbolted on this occasion but nevertheless uncompromisingly shut – what Abraham Cowley, the man who originally gave us ‘great secret miss’, have made of all this chinoiserie? Did they have chinoiserie in the Seventeenth Century or were perceptions of China then limited to travellers’ tales, old copies of the Travels of Marco Polo? I had no idea. Anyway I went in.

Amy was sitting surrounded by her girls. She was explaining something to them. It was a scene not unlike the painting The Boyhood of Raleigh except that that aspiring merchant venturer would not have understood Mandarin. Two things happened as I entered the room. One of the girls, as if by prearrangement as to whose turn it was, went off to make me a cup of green tea; and the conversation mutated into English. Both were instances of that quiet courtesy that brings the customers of 神秘女郎 back again and again.

I tell a personal story, said Amy.

That’s nice, I said.

Some time ago, she said, I was interested in a boy. Can I say ‘boy’? – this was directed to me – is OK?

How young a boy? I said, to establish the nature of the issue.


My analytical powers went into overdrive. Amy’s ‘girls’ are a special case, by their own wish; so the first set of conditions that I applied was that of gender bias. Then I ran ‘boy’ through the rules for sexism tout court. I didn’t expect sensitivity as regards anthropogenic climate change but it never hurts it be sure. Finally I looked at racism: ‘boy’ (or ‘bhoy’ as they had it in the Raj) has some very sensitive overtones but they seemed remote from the present context. It depended of course on the nature of Amy’s interest, but I could always bring the discussion to an end if I felt that she was bordering on the inappropriate.

I discovered later, incidentally, that the word ‘boy’ has an asterix on the translation app, to draw attention to the possibility of its being offensive.

Go for it, I said.

Some time ago, she said, I was interested in a boy. I didn’t know is he interested in me. He was often around but he was never [she paused, fingers on the keyboard] demonstrative. One day it was late in the evening and I got him to my bed.

Was that here, Amy?

I have a vulgar curiosity about her sleeping arrangements, and indeed about that secret part of the premises beyond the public space and the private rooms but before the plumbing and the tapers.

No. This story before 神秘女郎.

Anyway, she went on. I take off clothes and he take off clothes. It is hot night. I lie on bed and hope that he will be friendly towards me.

I could not imagine anyone not wanting to be friendly towards Amy in such a state.

And was he?

No. He said, I am very cold, it is a cold night. He take his side of bed, cover with duvet, cover with counterpane folded double. He looks round the room. He takes my dressing gown. It is beautiful yellow silk. I wore it until then in order to encourage him to be friendly to me. I tied it loosely at the front. It is very beautiful dressing gown and you can see my breasts without difficulty. He said, I put this on top of counterpane – just in case.

He got under this big pile and turn to the wall. He said, I am still very cold. Then he went to sleep. He was entirely [keyboard again] inaccessible. I feel he has taken advantage from me.

That’s outrageous, I said, and I said it with feeling. Did he melt?


With the heat.

He thawed, Amy said, with a half smile. In the end.

One thing bothered me. I didn’t know if I knew Amy well enough to mention it. She had always been insistent on her exclusive loyalty to her husband. ‘I am married person from Kettering: no sex,’ she had always said to the court of appeal judge, when he attempted to be friendly towards her, and if he had had his way in the end it was not entirely with Amy’s consent.

I decided to risk it.

What does your husband in Kettering think about your interests in boys? I said.

Amy frowned.

Then she said two very surprising things.

The first was surprising because it went entirely against so many things that she had said with apparent sincerity before.

I was not entirely truthful with you about Kettering, she said.

The second was surprising as it indicated an approach to things that was totally at odds with the practicality, not to say lack of imagination, that had characterised almost everything that she had ever said to me before.

Kettering is a state of mind, she said.

And she would not be drawn further.

Frothing in the Blog Space

The very real hurt of the transgender community will not go away. His Holiness can be trusted, I am sure, to take a long and measured view on the matter but not the Dawn Chorus of the Unattached, who rang me spluttering with laughter. Some oligarch – they did say but I have forgotten his name – was in Cannes to attend the launch of a film that he had paid for, and fell in love with a beautiful woman. It was immediately apparent to his entourage, though not to the oligarch, that she was a hooker but what did not appear until a critical moment involving the oligarch himself alone was that she was also a member of the transgender community. The oligarch had taken the position that love was love, but she had explained that he didn’t understand, she had photographs; he had paid her some money (a lot in the context of her published rates but not in terms of his budget for the trip) and the relationship had come to an abrupt end.

I was thinking, having got the Dawn Chorus of the Unattached off the phone, about how questions of gender, especially when seen from the perspective of the straight community, turn irresistibly into questions of sex. I recalled reading a piece somewhere by a member of the male gay community. He said that he welcomed the trend by which gay men were now almost universally respected as such and treated as regular members of the human community. This had gathered pace over the last fifteen years or so in a way that would never have been predicted during, say, the Thatcher years. But he missed being able to be a screaming queen, to be an outsider, and he missed being encouraged to at best seduce and at least outrage straight men.

When I told Popes Я Us about fooling around with Brazilian transsexuals I was of course lying; I was teasing them and attempting to provoke some outrage in return. I succeeded better that I hoped. I have not met many members of the transgender community. Those that I have met have all been quiet and courteous, except one who was terrifying. They were not screaming mimis, or whatever Julie Birchill’s phrase was. But the question of negotiating some sexual accommodation between straight man and transsexual, however remote the possibility, was unmistakeably there. Furthermore, I never got the impression that their greatest ambition was to be accepted as, say, a chartered accountant and an open member of the transgender community; they were happy to compartmentalise their lives.

Unlike the great Buffy Ste-Marie:

They tell ya “Honey, you can still be an Indian
d-d-down at the ‘Y’
on Saturday nights”

She wrote that in the unregenerate 1980s. Now of course we would say:

They tell ya “Honey, you can still be a member of the Native American Community
d-d-down at the ‘Y’
on Saturday nights”

I suspect that there is much in the wonderfully on-the-one-hand–but-then-again-on-the-other hand apologia published yesterday by the Observer’s Readers’ Editor (what exactly does a readers’ editor do?). He wrote:

Concerned readers with no connection to the trans lobby felt hurt that a minority that could expect to be protected by a liberal publication was being attacked in an extremely insulting manner.

There, I suspect, we have it. Many members of the transgender community are getting on with their lives, quietly proud to have provoked Julie Birchill into wit and hysteria, and nearly all the noise is being made by ‘concerned readers with no connection to the trans lobby’, or as we might say ‘busybodies’. Certainly that is what is suggested by most of the frothing in the blog space.

Taking of the frothing in the blog space, what a wonderful word ‘transphobia’ is. Spell Check, it becomes apparent as I type, hasn’t met it before. Literally it must mean ‘fear of across’. Presumably it acknowledges that useful neologism ‘homophobia’. This does not mean, as those of us with a dusting of the Classics might have assumed, ‘fear of the same’, but ‘hatred (it’s more than ’fear’) of members of the gay community’. So ‘transphobia’ indicates ‘hatred of members of the transgender community’. Of course we need such a word, if we are to really stick it to Julie Birchill, and I am sure that when dawn breaks in Seattle on Monday some junior employee of the Microsoft company will be beetling across the yard to the computer room to update Spell Check; but I can’t help feeling that it is a shame. For years I have used the word to indicate a pathology common in the crossword community: ‘fear of across’, and now I shall have to find an alternative if I am to avoid yet again giving offence. I should have trade-marked it. Popes Я Us would have done. But hindsight is a wonderful gift…

I was musing along these lines (as the even greater Anthony Powell occasionally writes, when attempting to crowbar a bit of straight-to-camera into his story) when the phone rang again. It was an overseas call, so it must I thought be either my investment manager in Geneva or someone trying to sell me insurance for my non-existent Bosch washing machine. It was of course neither.

Dominus vobiscum, said a now familiar voice.

Talk of the Devil.


Know you’re busy. Just a quick one.


His Holiness has a question.


What’s so good about jokes? You say that the desirability of Julie Birchill’s jokes trumps any right not to be offended. He asks in all humility, he says, being not only a good Christian but a German.

Has His H read the science fiction novels of E. Doc Smith? I said. I thought not. Let him do so. With E. Doc Smith, travel through hyperspace, which is impossible in terms of conventional physics, enables plot developments that could not otherwise happen. You can cross impossible distances in an instant. You can cut to the crucifixion. It’s the same with thinking and discussing, in addition of course to making us laugh. Jokes take us through hyperspace. Of course it brings risks. You may travel through hyperspace and come out in the middle of a supernova, in which case you’re dead. Or, in our case, you’re the subject of a wigging from the Observer newspaper’s Readers’ Editor.

I see. I will provide that to His Holiness translated into Italian.

Yes, or into German. The German Community is often unjustly vilified for not having a sense of humour. German will do too. And give him a copy of Triplanetary. You’ll have it in the Vatican Library. He’ll like it anyway, and he may even find material for a homily.

Thank you. And he has a comment.

Go ahead.

Tennyson. Only three memorable quotes, you say. What, he asks, and again he says that he does so in great humility, given your infinitely greater knowledge of English literature, especially in the secular space, but what, he says, about: Come into the Garden, Maud.

Memorable or what, he says.


Four, then.

Dicks in Chicks’ Clothing

The phone rang.

Popes Я Us here.

The tone of voice suggested hesitation.

Yes? I said.

Borgias. Pope Alexander. Ha ha.


It’s me!

I realised yet again how much I dislike the telephone. One’s friends and family are bad enough, but one should not in a fair society be subjected to long-distance, number-withheld calls from Roman Catholic priests.


I spoke as coldly as I could.

We thought that we had established some sort of understanding, they said.

You did?

Surely, I thought, Popes Я Us are not planning to try to convert me from the decent Anglicanism to which I was born – by phone, moreover.

No, it turned out, they weren’t.

You said, last time, Cut to the crucifixion. Meaning, we suppose, ‘Cut to the chase’, but with a religious spin to it.

Yes, I said. I’m sorry if it was an offensive remark. I’ve thought about it since. At the time I felt that it was too good a line to ignore, but later it seemed to me that it might be offensive to those for whom Christ’s passion is the defining and most deeply felt element in their world-view. On the other hand, I thought, the Gospels’ is as well-trodden a story arc as the standard Hollywood movie, so why not?

Yes, yes, said Popes Я Us.

The offensiveness or otherwise of my remark was apparently not at issue here.

We’re not offended, they said. Goodness, no. Most amusing. We have a junior canon who is investigating whether it can be adapted into Italian for one of His Holiness’s homilies. Unfortunately we have identified a possible problem. There is, you understand, a great tradition of Italian cinema, The Bicycle Thieves, the great works of Michelangelo Antonioni and Bernardo Bertolucci…

La Dolce Vita, I suggested.

Popes Я Us coughed delicately.

There is a glorious and positive tradition of anti-clericalism in Italy, they said. The Church embraces it with love. But there are limits.

Anyway, they persisted, unlike in Hollywood, it is usual for Italian films not to feature a car chase during the final thirty minutes. As a result he phrase ‘Cut to the chase’ is far less common in Italy. And so the point of your variation ‘Cut to the Crucifixion’ would be less apparent to the faithful.

The generality of the faithful, that is, they added modestly. Not to us in Vatican City. We have a well-stocked library of American DVDs and are thoroughly familiar with the culture of the New World.

Ha ha, they added.

Anyway, they said. To cut to the crucifixion …

Ha ha.

Ha ha, indeed. Anyway, to cut to the crucifixion, what is all this we read in the newspapers about Julie Birchill and the transgender community? We don’t understand. We thought, dear Mr. Àlablague, that since you so clearly have your finger on the pulse of Modern Thought, you could assist us. His Holiness wishes to make the Church’s position in the matter clear but we don’t yet know what our position is.

You can call me Al, I said.

Oh! Ha ha! Ha ha! Another joke! Very funny as well! You are referencing, I think, the song of Paul Simon, the well-known Jew. We have all his CDs here in Vatican City too – or possibly just the Greatest Hits one.

I ignored this. If there is one thing worse than having your jokes ignored it is having them explained.

I summarised.

Suzanne Moore, who is an English journalist, wrote that women sometimes felt a compulsion to aspire to the artificial beauty of Brazilian transsexuals. I’m paraphrasing because I haven’t read the piece. This compulsion was unfair on women; if she didn’t use the phrase ‘real women’, that was what she implied. Anyway the Transgender Community, if there is such a thing, or elements of it, or possibly just some people who felt entitled to take on themselves the emotions of the Transgender Community, if there is such a thing, decided to express their very real feelings of hurt at her remarks.

We like Brazilian transsexuals, said Popes Я Us, interjecting. His Holiness believes that God’s love shines through their simple antics, cavorting as they do on Copacabana Beach, in a way that is absent from the more sophisticated social transactions of the metropolitan world.

Yes. And if you’re lucky and they’re feeling friendly they sometimes let you fool around in a most interesting way.

Popes Я Us chortled.

Yes, Al, yes! With us it’s choirboys!

Anyway, those who took it on themselves to object to Suzanne Moore’s remarks said that they felt offended, and particularly that they felt that they were being diminished in comparison with women born as such, whom those whose business it is to identify groups of people (or ‘communities’) that might qualify for victim status apparently refer to by the revolting word ’cisgendered’. They expressed their views intemperately.

But we thought it was all about Julie Birchill.

Indeed. Julie Birchill, who is also an English journalist, and a friend of Suzanne Moore, sprang to her defence. Julie Birchill is a very funny writer. She sometimes (her opponents would say ‘always’) sacrifices fairness in the interest of a striking phrase. She suggested that those who had taken it on themselves to be offended by Suzanne Moore’s remarks (whether the so-called Transgender Community, or elements of it, or just some people who felt entitled to take on themselves the feelings of the so-called Transgender Community) were up their arses and that when it came to having a hard time, real women (as she may even actually have said) had it much worse (she mentioned PMT) than what she called ‘dicks in chicks’ clothing’.

(‘Dicks in chicks’ clothing’. Phoar! said Popes Я Us)

It had become a vicious scramble for the top of the victimhood pole.

The fact that Julie Birchill had produced several scabrous phrases, which will now be used whenever two or three are gathered together and attempt a serious discussion on gender issues, infuriated many. Some cabinet minister wrote that what she had said was ‘bigoted vomit’ (which is a metaphorical leap too far for me) and should be sacked.

A bloody Tory!

Sort of. The editor of the paper which had published Birchill’s piece took it off the website and apologised, saying that he was passionately in favour of free speech but not right now.

And you, Al. What do you say?

So that His H can steal that too?

Probably. Ex urbe et orbe. That’s his motto.

What do I say? I think that people are entitled not to be threatened and put in fear but they have no right not to be mocked. I think a bit of mockery is good for you and it’s particularly good for self-regarding ‘communities’. The Church has thrived on it over the centuries. And even if there is a right not to be offended it is trumped by the desirability of good jokes. God save Julie Birchill is what I say. I disagree with her conclusions…

But you would defend to the death her right…

No, she can manage quite well without that. Curiously I was listening when the story broke to Neil Young, whom Julie Birchill would no doubt regard as a hapless old hippy, and his song Southern Man

Ah! Neil Young. We also have here in Vatican City…

Never mind that now. Southern Man is lazy, offensive and wrong, just like so much of what she writes, but I would hate to be deprived of it, and I would particularly hate it to be banned at the instance of some holding-on-by-their-fingertips member of the Cabinet Minister Community.

Well, said Popes Я Us, more strength to your elbow, say I (where did they learn their English?), and do you recommend that His Holiness takes that line when he next has a window for a homily?

I considered. What do I owe to His Holiness? There is a view held in the Bigoted Protestant Community, after all – passionately and sincerely held – that he is the spawn of Satan. But charity prevailed.

Best not, I said. His Holiness, transsexuals, dicks in chicks’ clothing: best avoided