October 27th, 2015


The Gwlad Archipelago

I don't know whether my move to Cardiff was a catalyst, but my mother's Welshness (very much sotto voce during my childhood) has found increasingly resonant voice recently. The other day she surprised me by singing the Welsh national anthem (in Welsh) - perfectly, as far as I was able to judge. I'd never heard her do that at any time in the previous half century.

Perhaps it's only natural that she thinks about her childhood, and wants to pass on what she can of it. A couple of days ago she said, apropos of nothing, "Whenever my father served Fray Bentos corned beef from a tin, he would always say, 'Have a slice of Harriet Lane.'" Apparently Harriet Lane had been a murder victim, and referring to tinned meat in this way was a piece of naval slang my grandfather had picked up in the navy at the start of the twentieth century.

"But hang on," said I. "I heard exactly the same story about Fanny Adams. Can they both have been dismembered murder victims whose remains were made the basis of a grim joke about navy rations? It doesn't seem very likely."

However, it turns out to be true. Seven years after young Fanny Adams was butchered in a Hampshire field in 1867, Harriet Lane was murdered and cut into "manageable pieces" by her lover (and father of her children) in Mile End. I don't know whether Harriet and Fanny's names coexisted in the Navy, perhaps in different services (my grandfather was in the merchant navy before WWI), or whether it was a case of Fanny's being supplanted by a later victim. It's odd, though, in a grisly way.

Later the same evening she asked, "What's all this about Germaine Greer? I watched her on Newsnight last night and she looked quite mad."

I explained about Greer's history in this regard, and for my mother's education and amusement read her this choice quotation from The Whole Woman, which shows Greer at the aphelion of her eccentric orbit of rationality:

"There is a witness to the transsexual's script, a witness who is never consulted. She is the person who built the transsexual's body of her own flesh and brought it up as her son or daughter, the transsexual's worst enemy, his/her mother. Whatever else it is gender reassignment is an exorcism of the mother. When a man decides to spend his life impersonating his mother (like Norman Bates in Psycho) it is as if he murders her and gets away with it, proving at a stroke that there was nothing to her."

"What a dumbass!" said my mother. (Actually, that wasn't the word she used, but I'm translating it into American for reasons of decency.) She laughed like a crone, and I like a crone-in-training. And of course the situation does have its absurd aspect, especially when you see someone like that invited to give a distinguished lecture on 'Women and Power' at one's own university - an institution that boasts of itself as a safe and welcoming place for LGBT+ staff and students that will "in no way condone discriminatory comments of any kind”.

And then you read about Tara Hudson, the 26-year old transgender woman who has just been sent to an all-male prison less than a mile from my house. And you remember that Greer's "You're really a man" poison has real effects on real, vulnerable people.