Saturday 23 April 2011

Other Peoples' Things

Mum’s boots: brown leather creeping up
my bare calf, heel thrown at an odd angle
forcing my foot to slant, to curve;

John’s Swiss Army Knife, to cut
the nascent hairs, springing
from my big toe, from my arms;

someone else’s lighter,
the first time I used one
to singe them to the root

(at the first laser session,
years later, the smell
of burning hair was Proustian);

other womens’ fingers,
painting the nails
of my left hand;

you, applying the blusher,
the eyeshadow, your make-up
your swimsuit, your bra:

their words: queer.
Tranny. Fag. ‘I’m a
little poof’,

sang down the Metro
by a boy who didn’t like
my velvet jacket.

New poem. Inspired by Monkfish Productions' new 'Hand Me Down' themed project, and also by this horrific fucking story (very severe TRIGGER WARNING, I can't bring myself to watch the footage).
We discover who we are in private. And too many of us are forced to stay who we are in private because we fear this kind of violence, and the indifference - in some cases the amusement - it provokes in the people who should protect us. Fuck that.

Saturday 16 April 2011

Bad News is Not News (where transphobia's involved)

I mentioned a few posts back that this blog has gradually turned into a kind of Trans Comedy Watch, ever alert for examples of transphobia falling out of the lazy mouths of cissupremacist comedians. This week, however, has witnessed a major episode of 'comic' transphobia about which I have yet to shoot my mouth off, due to me being shagged out from running around like a blue-arsed fly working on the You Didn't Win campaign, your honour.

However, on the grounds that I seem to have made the task of nailing transphobic comedy bastards in this blog a glitter-coated millstone about my neck, it behoves this blog to turn its divinely mascara'd eyes in the direction of one Russell Howard. This 13-year-old comedian and child prodigy, who first came to public attention on Mock the Week, the show which forces Dara O'Briain to slum it with much lazier comedians for half an hour each week in return for a regular paycheck from Auntie Beeb, has this week...hold on, I'm being handed a note...what, really? Have you checked this? He is?

I'm sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but it appears Russell Howard is not in fact a prepubescent, he merely looks like one. He is, however, a transphobic little piece of work, as the following youtube clip - for which a serious trigger warning is in effect - shows.

After being alerted to this blatant piece of bigotry by trans journalist Paris Lees (who blogs at Last of the Clean Bohemians), I, like many others, fired off an email of complaint to the BBC. You can see the text of their reply at my tumblr.

You can also see the reply that trans man Big Daddy Keltik got over at his tumblr. Notice anything familiar?

And we're not the only ones. Pretty much everyone else who's complained to the BBC has got the same stock reply, trying to argue that a sketch about kathoey stewardesses on a Thai airline is somehow 'not a sketch about trans people' and is 'in the tradition of Kenny Everett and Les Dawson'. You can see a detailed dissection of that line of bullshit in the press release from Trans Media Watch.

The BBC have removed the offending episode from the iPlayer, as per their policy of only leaving content up on it for a week, leaving only an inoffensive clip of a different routine from the show. Doubtless they're hoping that this story will go away. That, just like every other time they've made a joke about trans people, the fuss will die down and they'll get away with it.

But it won't. Not this time. Pink News have covered the story, and a general sense has crystallised in the trans community that enough is enough. Why should we stand by and take it when egregious, grinning little scumbags make jokes about how we're so disgusting we make people want to vomit?

This is dehumanisation. This is what Nazis do: make jokes about how the Other is so sickening that the only response decent people can have is horror and revulsion. And this is not what an organisation like the BBC - which has a public service remit to respect all the people of Britain, especially the most vulnerable of us - should be doing. And it is past time they were reminded of that, and started to act on that remit.

This time, we are not going away. This time, we are not giving up. This time, Auntie Beeb and her special little comedy children do not get to get away with it. The BBC and Russell Howard must apologise properly for their disgusting behaviour, and the BBC must start living up to the commitments it should honour as a public service broadcaster in an increasingly diverse society, instead of acting as if, where trans people are concerned, it's still the 1970s.

The naming of poets is a serious matter

'So why is it called Johns Hopkins?' I asked the poet who was hosting me on a trip to Baltimore as we drove past the town's famed university. 'Was it some kind of historical spelling error?'

My associate then explained that it wasn't: Johns with an s really was the name of the historical figure the university was named after. It's an incident that's always stuck in my mind, because something about Johns rather than John as a name makes it much more memorable. Names have always fascinated me: when your surname is Fish you don't have much choice about that. The inevitable ribbing on the playground will see to that.

When I started writing my concerns about the name became even more acute. It just never looked right at the top of a manuscript or the bottom of a poem. The trouble with Fish as a writer's surname is that it's a bit, well, unintentionally comic. Think of the baggage, the antecedents: Michael, the weatherman who failed to predict the 1987 hurricane? The lead singer of Marillion? These are not figures who are redolent of literary tradition. And the only other famous historical Fish I can think of is the child rapist and cannibal Albert Fish, and the less said about him the better.

So when I began writing I was always somewhat sensitive about this whole name business, what with being surrounded by people with good, strong proper writer's surnames like Cadwallender, Readman and Matthews.  But worse was to come, on one of my first forays on the road as a poet, when I went to the Hastings Poetry Festival. I arrived at the venue a little before the event started and was introduced to one of the other readers, a homeless guy who wrote poems for The Big Issue. When I said my name he reacted...unexpectedly, let's say.

'You're not Adam Fish!' he shouted. It took me some time to convince him that, in fact, I was entitled to that name, as he had apparently heard of another poet with exactly the same name working the circuit. We eventually compromised on the idea that there might well be another poet of that name, but there was also me, and the fact that two poets of the same name existed was clearly just one of those coinkydinks.

I never found out who the other poetic Adam Fish was, but a spot of googling led me to discover that there is, in fact, another Adam Fish who's more famous than me and is some kind of film-maker and anthropologist who, as far as I can ascertain, travels the world taking exotic drugs and doing funky yoga maneuvers. Jammy git. Clearly, when there is someone like that wandering about with your name, introducing yourself at parties is going ro be fraught with peril. I could just hear people saying 'Oh wow, that film you made about the tribe in Borneo whose culture is entirely based on eating the pituitary glands of monkeys who themselves eat hallucinogenic centipedes was amazing! Tell, me what insights did tripping for 17-hours on dried monkey-brain give you?' and imagine their crushing disappointment as I sheepishly explained that haha, no, funny story actually, I'm the poetry Adam Fish, not the one with the interesting life, sorry.

Still, it's not all bad. If there's any karmic justice then perhaps one day that guy will find himself in a beautiful house, in another part of the world, at a party with someone telling him he looks much butcher than they imagined, and asking him to 'do 'Eggshells', no, go on, do Eggshells dammit, what the fuck are you talking about that poem meant so much to me, you've changed!' One can but hope.

And none of this, by the way, was helped by the guy who spelled my name 'Adam Fisch' on an early poster for one of my gigs, apparently under the impression that my accent indicated I was some kind of North European dude. Though I have to say I quite liked 'Fisch', it had a sort of Rammstein-y quality to it.

It was pretty clear, then, that when I started writing seriously I was going to have to do something about this name business. But of course, I figured it could wait for a few years because I hadn't started writing seriously yet. Mindful of David Bowie's example, I took the view that switching monikers too early in one's career could be a problem, as it would make it easier for people to trace my embarrassing early output, and so, just as the Ziggy-to-be had stayed plain old David Jones during his time in various terrible mod bands, I decided that I would learn my craft as Mr AF, and swap to a more writerly pen-name when I felt I was good enough. (And I wasn't going to jump the gun like Bowie - if I was going to make the poetic equivalent of an Anthony Newley album, I would make damn sure to release it before I changed my name).

Well, after the past couple of years in which my writing has improved a great deal, both in creation and performance, and with the likelihood of actual book publication drawing ever closer, I decided this week that if I was going to switch to a more writerly name, then now would be the time. The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that the author bio on this blog now contains the moniker AJ McKenna, and it's this name under which I intend to write from now on. When the book is published, that's the name it'll be under; any future pieces in mags or anthologies will be signed thus as well. It's not a massive name-shift - McKenna's my mum's maiden name, and A and J are my initials - but I like the heft of the name, the rhythm, the Celtic resonance, the sense of connection to the lyrical wealth of Irish letters; the paradoxical solidity of the initialised name (think CS Lewis, PD James, H.D., AA Milne, WN Herbert, JRR Tolkien, CJ Cherryh, AJP Taylor, TS's a long and honourable tradition) which is also, of course, gender-neutral and so more in keeping with the spirit of my writing too. It just feels, in an indescribable way, more me, certainly more like the writer me, and if I'm going to get serious about my writing then I think now is the time to adopt it. And so I have.

Saturday 2 April 2011

The Curse of the Drinking Classes

This weekend I sent off a selection of poems to a publisher which might, just possibly, turn out to be my second pamphlet. If all goes well, said publication may see the light sometime in 2012, which would be exactly ten years after my first pamphlet was published. I like to keep to a tight, frenetic, some might even say punishing, publishing schedule. It's a curse.

The selection I put together - with the working title 'Singing Motorhead in the Voice of Dolores O'Riordan' (there's a story behind that which I'll explain some other day) - concentrates, naturally enough, on trans stuff, but, in the editing, I noticed that there are a lot of poems about work, too. Which had to be left out to preserve the thematic unity of the selection I came up with, and which now have me thinking along the lines of doing another selection taking work culture as a subject. Work and trans stuff tend to be the things I bang on about most on here and in my poetry, so that would make sense. Though I'd need to write a few more work poems to get a full selection together.

Maybe it's just that work culture is much on my mind lately. Only recently I finished reading Madeleine Bunting's Willing Slaves, which I can't recommend enough. And, of course, the BBC have recently done a series, 'The British at Work', telling a story about peoples' experiences of toiling for the man in this septic isle.

You'll notice that I say 'telling a story', and refuse to go quite so far as to call the show a documentary series. That's because documentaries, well, document something. And too often, The British at Work seemed less interested in documenting peoples' working lives than in shoehorning facts and events into a narrative which ends with everybody living fulfilled working lives in the happy-clappy new milennium. A narrative in which unions got in the way of social progress and the Thatcherite desolation of large parts of the UK was a historical inevitability. Watching the eighties episode, they did pay attention to joblessness (by showing a clip of Yosser Hughes) and they covered the Wapping Printers' Strike (though this segued into discussing how lovely the new newspaper offices, and indeed other office buildings, became in the eighties), but you could've blinked and missed one of the defining workplace conflicts of the eighties, the Miners' Strike. Too bad you couldn't say the same for the endless shots of yuppie fun and fawning interviews with post-downshifted yupsters about how much stress they'd been under, the poor dears.

There's a good dissection of what's wrong with the show's narrative about work at The Blog from 20,000 Fathoms, which says pretty much everything I'd've said if I'd found the time. But today, a week after the March for the Alternative, I find the BBC's dismissiveness about workplace organisation not just offensive but completely out of touch.

Last week I marched through the streets of London with 500,000 other people, most of them drawn from the trade unions, in a show of numbers organised by the TUC. The atmosphere, the noise, the numbers were incredible. But what was just as incredible was the fact that, for the first time in what seemed like ages, peoples jobs and livelihoods were the key political issue. The Tory-led government's cuts are having a massive impact on peoples' jobs, and, despite a few highly-publicised new projects, it seems highly unlikely that the private sector can provide enough jobs for highly-qualified people like librarians, teachers, nurses or social workers when their jobs are cut.

There's no economic justification for these cuts. The Tories are making them in furtherance of a mean-minded ideology which, in some respects, chimes all too easily with the dismissive, anti-union, anti-worker, 'we've never had it so good' attitude of The British at Work. The Tory approach is about 'making it easier for businesses' by getting rid of legislation which protects workers' rights. The British at Work bolsters this approach by saying that there's no need to protect workers' rights because we're all 'doing jobs we like' in beautiful, 'hotel-like' offices, feeling fulfilled and creative and self-actualising.

How could people in such utopian working environments begrudge making life easier for our new business overlords? Resistance to managerialism in The British at Work was associated, again and again, with negativity, in the form of closed shops, racism, or, at the top end of things, bowler-hatted bankers straight out of a Monty Python sketch. Whereas the workers who donated time free of charge to the risible 'I'm backing Britain' were presented as heroic, patriotic figures, though even Kirsty Young struggled not to laugh at the campaign's official single by the dodgily-moustached fame-chaser Bruce Forsyth. Y'know, Bruce Forsyth who thinks that people should 'get a sense of humour' about racial slurs. How could you object to a campaign fronted by a class act like that?

(Of course it's unfair to single out Brucie. The 'I'm Backing Britain' campaign was also supported by such moral stalwarts as Jimmy 'I invented zero tolerance' Saville, and Robert Maxwell. With people like that 'backing' the country, one does feel amazed that we actually still exist as a nation at all.)

The reality is that in the 21st century millions of people in Britain still toil at unfulfilling jobs for wages that are a joke. 'Gold-plated pensions' only exist for bankers like Fred Goodwin, and Tory MPs who can roll out of the House of Commons and straight into a do-nothing, fat-salaried executive directorship on a company they've helped out during their time in office. Where people do jobs that are above the McJob level, they constantly face an uphill battle to make their workplaces decent places to work and spend time in, and most of the things that are good about workplaces today were only won by scaring the bejesus out of bosses.

But of course if you think of things that way, then you might find yourself objecting to the Tory agenda. And we can't have that, can we?