The Order of Things

There are many difficult aspects to learning Japanese as a native English speaker, but I think one of the hardest is word order. Japanese is a language with left-branching syntax, whereas English is most the other way round: think of the difference between "the woman who stole my jacket" and "the my-jacket-stealing woman." While the difference in pattern isn't too hard to grasp in principle, in practice when the sentences get a bit complicated it's hard to construct them properly in real time.

That's why it seems worth recording, as a mark of progress, that yesterday when I was talking to a friend on Skype and she asked me whether I'd taken a photo of the Mona Lisa when I visited the Louvre in 1986, I was able to reply that I thought the postcards on sale in the gift shop were probably clearer than any I could have taken from the back of the crowd around the painting. And I was able to do it in real time:


Picture-before-crowd-behind-taken photograph is shop-sold-postcard than clear not think.

It may not be brilliant Japanese, but the word order at least is more or less right.

Rowling's Coming-Out Essay: resources

I'm putting these links here for my own reference, but they may be of wider interest. As you can imagine, I've been following the whole Rowling situation fairly closely, and I've seen many responses to it, some good, some not so much. I thought it might be useful to curate some of the more helpful and informative ones and put them in one handy place. This list may be expanded in future (indeed, feel free to recommend additions).

Rowling's essay.

We the Mudbloods: long, heavily referenced, point-by-point refutation of Rowling's essay. NB. It's in three parts, with a link to part 2 at the end of part 1.

Video essay by a cis woman and a trans man (who are also partners). Quite user-friendly for people who aren't particularly familiar with the issues.

Video reviewing the Rowling's essay, and also discussing the ways it may or may not affect the reading experience of Harry Potter fans uncomfortable with the author's views.

Blue is a Colour, Chelsea is a Name

Longterm readers of this journal (and, let's face it, I don't have many recent ones) may remember that Suzanne Moore - author of some trenchant feminist articles that I unreservedly applaud - is, nevertheless, pretty TERFy.

Her recent article in The Guardian deploring so-called 'cancel culture' is typical of its kind. If I had infinite time I could spend a fair bit of it dissecting Moore's article. Why does she cite the recent Rowling, row, for example, without making any reference at all to JKR's views about trans women, which is what made her essay controversial? Anyone reading Moore would think that she was called out for daring to speak about her physical abuse by a cis man, rather than for her transphobia.

Again, if she really wanted to argue against cancel culture, why didn't she mention the most topical example of that phenomenon - i.e. the sacking of David Starkey from various posts (rightly in my view) for his views on slavery and his reference to 'damn blacks'? It's easy to inveigh against cancel culture when those being cancelled are advancing views you agree with. The real test of principle comes when you are forced to do a Voltaire-face, as it were, and defend the expression of views you personally find offensive. That Moore chose not to do so is telling. (Of course, there are right-wingers who are defending Starkey on the internet, using arguments very much like Moore's; however, they are groups with whom Moore would probably hate to recognise her affinity.)

I seem to have spent some time on those matters despite my best intentions. Oh well. What I really wanted to talk about was a certain phrase that Moore used:

I write this as someone who I know some would like cancelled because I continue to think biological sex exists.

You may be puzzled by this phrase, because - well, hardly anybody denies that biological sex exists, do they? Of course, some of us might say that sex is neither binary nor simple, and that chromosonal, hormonal and phenotypical varations make for a complex biological picture; but that's not to say that it doesn't exist - on the contrary. "Biological sex exists" is such a "Duh" statement that it passes almost unnoticed.

Nevertheless, it's become quite a catchphrase. When J. K. Rowling defended Maya Forstater, for example, she wrote incredulously: "Force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real? @ istandwithmaya."

The reality was, of course, nothing so fatuous. This NBC News article summarises the situation, as described by the judge in the case:

[Forstater's] contract expired in December and was not renewed; she sued in March and waited for a ruling — while continuing to make transphobic statements, including (but not limited to) a link to a piece comparing the use of proper pronouns to the date rape drug rohypnol and her commentary in defense of not using people's preferred pronouns, a defense of using transgender people's prior names in public settings, another series of statements misgendering another gender nonbinary person and another defense of her right to refuse to use the correct pronouns and to openly misgender people.

I think it's clear at this point that "biological sex is real" has become a kind of shorthand for "I'm a TERF." Although crude, it is quite powerful, inasmuch as anyone coming across it without much knowledge of or interest in the subject will find it commonsensical. For example, I encountered Moore's article via a Facebook post by a friend (whom I respect) who had commented, simply, "Excellent article". Anyone objecting will, unless they can persuade people to commit the time and emotional energy to following the arguments, sound pretty unreasonable and/or pettifogging.

I suppose the racists got there first, as ever. "I'm proud of my country" sounds pretty unobjectionable, shorn of the intolerance that often attends it.

Still, I wonder whether a leaf might not be usefully taken from this book? Is there some similarly "Duh" phrase that might stand for the other side of the debate?

I believe there is, and I propose: "Blue is a colour." From now on, I intend to insert sentences such as, "People want to silence me just because I assert that blue is a colour," into everything I write on this subject. It makes at least as much sense as "biological sex is real," after all. Nobody actually denies either statement, but beyond that, while "biological sex is real" makes an appeal to "objective fact", "blue is a colour" makes an appeal to the power of culture. Blueness is deeply cultural: one language's blue doesn't match another (the "blue" of Japanese includes much that English speakers might call "green", for example). In that sense, we might say that blueness is "nothing but a cultural construct", much as TERFs say about gender. On the other hand, blueness has a real connection to physics, and can be defined in terms of certain light frequencies. More importantly, who is going to argue seriously against the proposition that "Blue is a colour?" Anyone who did so would look at least as silly as someone accused of arguing that biological sex isn't real.

To proclaim, loud and proud, that "Blue is a colour" is to highlight the ambiguous nature of the truth-claim being advanced; it is to testify to the authenticity of lived personal experience; and it is, most importantly, to state the bleeding obvious.

"Blue is a colour." It ticks all the boxes.

A Proper Gander

Montagu Christie and Amy Butler plus cousin Jane

I came across this 1939 picture of my grandfather, aged 55 (to my eye he looks rather older - perhaps because he remained pretty much like this until his death thirty odd years later), with my grandmother to his left. On the far left of the picture is cousin Jane, one of the two sisters immortalised (if such a thing can be claimed for a book long since remaindered) in Llewelyn Powys’s Skin for Skin, as detailed here. I'm particularly pleased to have Jane as an adult, as I only had pictures of her in childhood and old age until now.

Anyway, along with the picture, my grandfather had saved a contemporaneous clipping, 'reviewing' his performance as an Esperanto propagandist ('propaganda' was his word). He was indefatigable in this activity, clocking up an average of 178 lectures a year in schools and similar places over the years 1936-39. I feel this review conveys the experience of being in his audience rather vividly.

"As Others See Us!"
Having received several conflicting accounts of this language, I entered the Hall with mixed feelings, and awaited the arrival of the lecturer, Mr. Butler.

He had a captivating appearance. He literally jumped on to the platform, and gave the table such a hearty hug that that dignified piece of furniture shuddered. He beamed on us with a truly Pickwickian smile, and began his narrative of the events that led up to his first acquaintance with Esperanto. I was fascinated with his appearance. He had a high forehead, bright glasses, and a perfectly adorable little beard that waggled as he spoke.

Next he fixed up his simple apparatus, the while he entertained us with humorous anecdotes. Then he seized a packet of envelopes in which were letters and words in various colours. It is surprising how the appearance and nature of a speaker can influence one, and this speaker had personality. I was interested in his subject, perhaps, because I grasped the fact that it saved a good deal of work, which I regarded as most important. He waxed eloquent--he waxed so eloquent that his dear little beard wiggled and waggled, his eyes flashed and sparkled, and he gesticulated to an alarming extent. The real object of his lecture was somewhat lost to me in the enchanting music of his voice. He was just finishing his talk, when the same annoying clamour that releases us from our tutors sounded over the building. It was with infinite sorrow that I arose: I shall long remember my first lesson in Esperanto.

R.D. (in a school magazine) British Esperantist, Dec. 1939

The Six Chicks' Sixth Chick's Sick

I just told this anecdote to my friend Clémentine, but thought I might leave it here too, as offering an insight into my upbringing and character...

When I was in primary school I lived in a house with a stream at the bottom of the garden. There were two mallard ducks that used to walk up to our house, and we’d often feed them bread: we called them Walter and Emily.

One day in Spring, they appeared with six fluffy little ducklings in tow, and at school that day, on being instructed to draw something in pastels, I was inspired to sketch their offspring. I have no talent at all for drawing, but this was a pretty good picture by my standards (I was about 8 at the time), and my father, an art teacher who no doubt hoped I would follow at least a little way in his footsteps, preserved it. He even had it framed, and for many years it hung just outside the downstairs toilet.

Eventually I went on, as you know, to have a simply glittering career as an academic and novelist. My father read and sometimes quite liked my books, but he would always cast a sentimental eye in the general direction of the toilet, as if to say, “What genius you had in those days!”

Once, when my children were fairly young – but old enough to read between the lines of adult conversation – I asked my father what he saw in that bloody picture. I mean, it was quite good for an eight-year-old, but really nothing special. Hadn’t I surpassed that achievement, albeit in other fields? He could be very vague when he wanted to, and replied to the effect that Isaac Newton had already made his greatest discoveries by the time he was 23 – it was a common story…

My children, ever after, teased me mercilessly about it. Every time we visited, they would rush to ‘The Six Chicks’ and exclaim, “This really ought to be a museum!” Once or twice I threatened to throw it out, but especially after my father died they said (in so many words) that to do so would be a double sacrilege, compounding iconoclasm with filial impiety. I knew this was bullshit, but it was enough to stay my hand.

And so the picture still sits in the room where I type this. I haven’t hung it on the wall – that’s the extent of my rebellion – but it leans against the skirting board, a mute reminder of the vanity of all things.

Six Chicks

The Death Eaters are in the Ministry

Rowling is of course a symptom, not a cause - but she's also a convenient stalking horse, and I'm sure the timing of this announcement is no coincidence.

This really is Clause 28 for trans people. It's stand-up-and-be-counted time: there's no fence left to sit on.

There are many aspects to Johnson's attempt to go full Viktor Orbán. I might mention, for example, that in pursuing this course Johnson (that self-proclaimed democrat) is disregarding 70% of the responses to the public consultation. But life's too short, and "Johnson is hypocrite" ranks with "Dog bites man" in the tally of unsurprising headlines, so let's cut to what, for some reason, has become the most urgent issue of our times: toilets.

For decades, trans men and women have legally used the toilets appropriate to their gender, without incident, here and in many other countries. Somehow, though, the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act, which were actually about reducing the red tape involved in legally transitioning, became mixed up in the public mind with access to toilets. (Actually, it's no mystery: it was through a concerted campaign of lies, and a public - the very people inclined to nod along to JKR - all too ready to believe them.)

So, the current proposal is a reversal of existing and long-established rights that have been exercised without issue: its only motivation is bigotry. The proposal is that only trans people who have fully transitioned (for which, read "undergone genital surgery") can use the appropriate toilets.

If it passes:

a) any woman, cis or trans, can expect to be challenged about their genitals, any time they go to a toilet - especially if they don't look "sufficiently feminine."
b) people in the process of transition will not be allowed to use a toilet at all, except in private homes. Why? Part of the current requirements for transition is that people live as their required gender for two years before they are able to access medical treatment (this is on top of the two years they probably spent waiting for an appointment in the first place). Under the proposals, these people cannot use a public toilet without breaking either a) the law or b) the terms of their medical regime, which might be seen as disqualifying them for treatment. (That's leaving aside the real physical threat faced by any trans woman using a male toilet - as opposed to the wholly imaginary threat faced by cis women using a women's toilet with a trans woman in a neighbouring cubicle.)
c) access to surgery is not equal - it was far easier to obtain for me (middle-class, steady job, articulate, of a certain age, no pre-existing health conditions) than for many less privileged people - so this is a hugely discriminatory measure.
d) Nonbinary, genderfluid and others will become non-persons.
e) Trans men (some of whom look very conventionally masculine) will presumably be forced to use women's toilets. (I say "presumably" because, as ever, the focus is on trans women.) Talk about unintended consequences!

Oh, and lest you think you can get round the issue by using unisex toilets, they are to be banned.

In a transparent ploy to separate the LGB from the T, gay conversion therapy is also to be banned. (Trans conversion therapy, by contrast, will I imagine be warmly encouraged.) Trans people have always supported LGB rights: I have no doubt that this stinking sop will be seen for what it is, and that the vast majority of LGB people will continue to reciprocate. There is in any case a huge intersection between the groups, and butch lesbians, in particular, are likely to be as adversely affected by the toilet provisions as trans people (see a) above).

Colstonic Irrigation

"History is ghastly. Nothing but misery and war and brutality. One should be glad it’s over."

Thus Clare Paling, the protagonist of Penelope Lively's Judgement Day. She is being sarcastic, and Lively ironic - for both are historians, and know better.

But I thought of that line when I heard some of the protestations against the removal of Colston's statue on the grounds that it was "erasing history." First, since we're in ironic mode, there's the rich irony that most of the bewailers had never heard of Edward Colston four days ago, despite his statue having stood in brazen pomp for 125 years; but in the few days since there has been no statue they have learned all about him. It's as if human beings invest such objects with meaning by their actions and passions - as if the removal of statuary can be more educational than statues themselves! Who knew?

The second irony is that erasing history, at least in this way, turns out to be synonymous with making it - for Sunday's events are now indelibly part of Bristol's history, to the extent that Banksy has suggested erecting a statue of the protestors pulling Colston's statue down.

History isn't a done deal. That's the lesson people are learning, along with the statistics of enslaved, the drowned, the murdered. If you don't like the history you've got, you can always make some more.

Colston Pickle

Today the statue of Edward Colston in the centre of Bristol was pulled down by Black Lives Matter protestors, and thrown into the harbour. People from outside the city may not understand the resonances of this act, other than that Colston was a slaver who bequeathed much of his wealth to the city. A lot of things in Bristol are consequently named after him, including my children’s very multicultural primary school (although that name was changed a few years ago).

Possibly you think that a statue to someone who died 300 years ago is just part of the historical fabric, and should be left as such. But the statue to Colston has been a living controversy for many years – it’s not ‘just’ history.

First, of course, it wasn’t put up on Colston’s death but almost two centuries later, in 1895 – itself a political act. At that point the plaque beneath it read: “Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city”. There was no mention of slavery at all.

Many people have argued for the removal of the statue, while others resisted. In 2018 the city agreed a compromise, suggesting wording for a new plaque that would give a fuller picture of Colston’s legacy:

Edward Colston (1636-1721) was a Bristol-born merchant, long honoured as the city’s greatest benefactor. He made vast donations to restore churches, establish schools, almshouses and various charities in Bristol and across the country.

Much of his wealth came from investments in slave trading, sugar and other slave-produced goods.

When a high official of the Royal African Company (1680-1692) (which had the monopoly on the British slave trade until 1698), he played an active role in the trafficking of over 84,000 enslaved Africans (including 12,000 children) of whom over 19,000 died on their way across the Atlantic.

As MP for Bristol (1710-1713) he worked to safeguard Bristol’s slave-trading interests. His role in the exploitation of enslaved Africans and his opposition to any form of religious or political dissent, has in recent years made him the focus of increasing controversy.

Pretty uncontroversial, you might think? But it was too harsh for the Merchant Venturers, Colston’s club, which is still a power in the city. In 2019 they commissioned a former curator of the City Museum to write a softer version:

Edward Colston (1636-1721) was a Bristol-born merchant and the city's greatest benefactor. He supported and endowed schools, almshouses, hospitals and churches in Bristol, London and elsewhere. Many of his charitable foundations survive. This statue was erected in 1895 to commemorate his philanthropy.

Some of his wealth came from investments in slave trading, sugar and other slave-produced commodities. From 1680 to 1692 he was an official of the Royal African Company, which had the monopoly of the English slave trade until 1698.

Thus, he was involved in the transportation of approximately 84,000 African men, women and children, who had been traded as slaves in West Africa, of whom 19,000 died on voyages to the Caribbean and the Americas.

Notice, among many other differences, how “trafficked” has become “transported” – as if the slaves were either a) criminals or b) passengers, rather than traded goods; while the blame for slavery has somehow been shifted to Africa itself.

All this wasn’t in the distant past, mind. It was a year ago.

The Mayor of Bristol (himself descended from enslaved Africans) unsurprisingly rejected this proposal – and there, until today, the matter rested, pending ultimate agreement on the wording.

The destruction of the statue cuts that Gordian knot. It's about time.

More Shameless Self-Promotion

The start of June sees the publication of many an academic journal, and I have a finger in three different pies this time around. First, as the editor of the quarterly, Children's Literature in Education (but that's a back-room job). Then, the latest issue of International Research in Children's Literature has a nice review of Literary Studies Deconstructed: A Polemic, which I'm very thankful for since it's been largely ignored otherwise.

And finally, my long-awaited and eagerly anticipated (if only by me) article, "Japan Reads the Cotswolds: Children's Literature, Tourism, and the Japanese Imagination," has appeared in Children's Literature, the annual of the ChLA.

Unfortunately, only the second of these is visible without a subscription to the relevant journal - but once a decorous interval has passed I will post a pre-publication version of the Cotswolds article on Academia (and also in the Cardiff Uni repository). In fact, I've ordered more offprints than I know what to do with (the minimum number was ridiculously high), so feel free to let me know if you'd like a paper copy.

Now, to my bed of laurels...

Dahl's Chickens, Home to Roost at Last

For anyone who wants to read it, my review of Roald Dahl: Wales of the Unexpected is live at the Journal of Welsh Writing in English. (Full disclosure, the editor was my head of school at the time.) The book was published in 2016, and I submitted my review in July the following year: it's just gone live. This gives me hope that Literary Studies Deconstructed too may yet garner a second review one day...