Books LGBTQ+

Stuck in the Middle with You is warm, wise and sad

I’ve written before about my admiration for the writer Jenny Boylan, aka Jennifer Finney Boylan: her memoir, She’s Not There, is warm, witty and often desperately sad. I didn’t realise she’d written another memoir, but when I found out about it I suspected it might also be warm, witty and desperately sad. It is.

Stuck In The Middle With You is “a memoir of parenting in three genders” and focuses on parenthood before, during and after transition as a father of babies becomes a mother of teenagers. Like She’s Not There it’s a powerful and often difficult book to read if you’ve experienced similar upheavals, and it’s very honest about the doubts and darkness that are part and parcel of being a trans parent.

I thought this, on trans people who marry before they work out who they are, was very true.


In addition to her memoir, Boylan also interviews a range of other people about parenthood. I found those sections a mixed bag; while the people Boylan interviews are all interesting in different ways, I felt the interviews detracted from the momentum of the memoir itself. Boylan’s own story and thoughts are interesting enough not to need the company, and Stuck In The Middle With You is a considered and often unbearably honest book about trying to be a good person and a good parent in often very difficult circumstances.


The Trauma Cleaner: an extraordinary book about an extraordinary woman

I’ve just finished reading The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein. It’s often a very hard read – it’s a biography of someone who cleans up crime scenes and the homes of deeply troubled people, and who’s experienced terrible things in her own life; it goes to some very dark places – but it’s an incredible piece of writing.

It was shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize last year. Here’s what the awards site says about it.

The author charts the extraordinary Sandra Pankhurst bringing order and care to the living and the dead, in her role as a trauma cleaner. A compelling story of a fascinating life, and an affirmation that, as isolated as we may feel, we are all in this together.

Sandra Pankhurst started life as an abused adopted son in a working-class family. Following marriage, fatherhood and divorce, she made the transition to living as a woman. Now, as a trauma cleaner she helps those at life’s dark extremes. In telling Sandra’s extraordinary story, Sarah Krasnostein shines a light on the complex and lasting legacies of trauma.

As The Pool wrote in its review:

Krasnostein’s writing is warm and curious. And, carefully, it draws a portrait of Pankhurst you’ll remember long after you’ve finished reading – a woman who is quietly, wonderfully triumphant while standing at the middle and centre of despair.


From the reading list

I’ve made a conscious effort to stay off Twitter outside of working hours, partly because it’s full of terrible people and primarily because it’s a waste of time I could be putting to much better use by making music and reading books. Here are a few things I’ve read in the last few weeks that I’d heartily recommend.

This Searing Light, The Sun and Everything Else, Jon Savage

An oral history of Joy Division, one of the UK’s most important bands. I thought I’d heard it all before – I’ve read lots of books about Joy Division and by members of Joy Division – but it turns out I hadn’t. The book’s a little pretentious in places, but that tends to happen with this band.

Here’s a fascinating pop anecdote: I once met the late Tony Wilson, Joy Division’s label boss and indie music legend. He told me he didn’t like my T-shirt.

The Bi-Ble, various contributors

A collection of personal essays about bisexuality. I found this absolutely fascinating, and not just because I know and admire some of the contributors.

Queer Intentions, Amelia Abraham

Part memoir, part travelogue, Queer Intentions is compelling and fascinating: Abraham travels the world to discover how LGBT+ people live and love. The book covers everything from the sass of drag conventions to the brave souls marching for Pride in very anti-LGBT+ parts of Eastern Europe. I bought this one from Category Is books, Glasgow’s very best bookshop.

Hotel World, Ali Smith

There are huge gaps in my knowledge of Scots writers – for example, I haven’t read Alastair Gray’s famous Lanark; it’s currently in the to-read pile next to the sofa – and that means Ali Smith is new to me. A friend gave me There But For The, which I loved, and then loaned me Hotel World, which I loved even more. I was in bits at the end.

Since We Fell, Dennis Lehane

It’s been a while since I devoured a big daft thriller, and this is very big and very daft. Lehane is a fantastic writer and the first half of Since We Fell is superb; the second half, while fast and gripping, gets very silly indeed. This is a gourmet cheeseburger of a book: it might be a cheeseburger, but it’s a very good cheeseburger.

Books Music

I’m a fan of Fangirls

There are two kinds of music. There is music for boys, which is good music. And there is music for girls, which is bad music.

It’s not true, of course. But it’s a sadly common belief.

When teen girls get upset at the breakup of their favourite band, we mock them. When the boys mourned Bowie, we devoted entire arts sections to their emotional pain. Kurt Cobain is deified and his widow, who wrote one of the greatest rock albums of their era, is damned. One Direction fans are silly little girls; Radiohead fans are cerebral music mavens.

This is not reserved for corners of the internet. Friends of mine have been told by supposed grown-ups that their musical taste is stupid and rubbish because they like pop. It’s music for girls! Ewwww!

I listen to a lot of music and go to a lot of gigs, and the greatest musical experiences of my life have involved listening to music for girls in the company of ecstatic female fans. There is an incredible joy to sharing a concert by The 1975 with ten thousand teenagers, dancing to Bananarama with two thousand middle-aged mums or having a soulless shed made magic by a few thousand glittery girls and a farewell show by Girls Aloud.

All of this probably explains why Hannah Ewens’ Fangirls is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in years. It’s about female fans of rock, of pop and of dance music, and it’s one of the warmest, most empathetic and fascinating books about any kind of music that you’ll read.

Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

From Beatlemania in the early 1960s to the Directioners and Beyhive of today, female music fans have long driven the objects of their affection to the dizzying heights of life-changing fame. But marginalized fan groups are never given appropriate credit. Frequently derided, their worlds and communities are self-contained and rarely investigated by cultural historians and commentators.

Yet without these people, in the past, records would have gathered dust on shelves, unsold and forgotten. Now, concerts wouldn’t sell out and revenue streams from merchandising would disappear, changing the face of the music industry as we know it.

In Fangirls: Scenes From Modern Music Culture, journalist Hannah Ewens is on a mission to give these individuals their rightful due.

What I liked about Fangirls is that it doesn’t patronise its subjects. It doesn’t make value judgements about the music the young women and non-binary people listen to; it’s about the euphoria, the camaraderie and sometimes the sadness of being a music fan.

Fandom is a powerful, extraordinary thing. It can be all-consuming, something we discover just at the time of our lives when we need to feel part of something bigger and accepting. It can help us define who we are – to this day there are particular T-shirts I can see complete strangers wearing and think, “oh yeah. One of us.” – and it can help us find friendship and connection when we’re struggling to do either in the rest of our lives. It’s a joyous and often profound thing, and Fangirls treats it as such.

Books Bullshit

The magic faraway racism tree

The always insightful Laura Waddell writes about the fury over the “banning” of Enid Blyton, in which it was rightly decided that putting a big old racist on our money wasn’t a great move in 2019.

Those who feel blood pressure rising at the idea a person or a thing might be scrutinised for its racism believe themselves to be personally and deeply maligned by a world in which other people matter, and which they have to share.

…All perspective is lost, and phone-ins pander to self-centred hysteria. Imagine if white people perpetually clinging to the past faced the societal exclusion others actually do on a day-to-day basis, rather than merely experiencing challenge to views that are anti-social and hateful?

Waddell isn’t suggesting we ban The Magic Faraway Tree (which she loved, and which my daughter loved too) or the Famous Five. But reading is hard, it seems. The first response to her on Twitter claimed that by stating that a racist was racist, she was in fact a racist.

Books LGBTQ+

Book recommendation: Love Lives Here, by Amanda Jetté Knox

I read this in a single sitting last night and cried through the whole thing.

What would you do if your child came out as trans, or if your spouse did?

What if both of those things happened?

You may know Amanda Jetté Knox from Twitter, where she’s @mavenofmayhem. In this book she writes about what happened when not one but two of her family came out: first her daughter, then her spouse.

Jetté Knox clearly has a huge heart, and she writes very movingly of what it was like for her partner to grow up living a lie even while she’s wrestling with her own feelings of loss and betrayal. She’s very honest about her fears for her daughter and later, for her partner, and she manages to find kindness even when she’s talking about utterly despicable behaviour by her peers at school and as an adult, her fellow parents.

You don’t need to be trans or love someone who’s trans to enjoy this book: at heart it’s a really well-written, warm and fascinating memoir about love and families. But if you are trans or do love someone who’s trans, it’ll probably have you blubbing like it had me.

It’s not a spoiler to say that this book has a happy ending: if you know her online you’ll already know that Jetté Knox is still married and is a strong, vocal trans ally. Sometimes love really does win.

The publisher’s page for the book is here.

Books Bullshit

When Rod Liddle is trending

The heart always skips a beat when a famous person’s name appears in Twitter’s “trending” chart. It usually means they’ve died or been implicated in sex offences. So when Rod Liddle turned up the other night, my immediate reaction was to wonder whether he’d punched another pregnant woman in the stomach. Thankfully no: he was trying to defend apparently racist columns on TV. I’m surprised he didn’t claim his column had been hacked, like he did when his account was caught posting racist bilge on a football fan forum.

Liddle is a terrible human being who writes terrible things on behalf of terrible people. And now he’s excreted another terrible book.

Is it any good? Of course it isn’t. But at least it means Fintan O’Toole can review it.

Never,” Rod Liddle writes in his jeremiad on the “betrayal” of Brexit, “have so many blameless people in this country been held in such contempt, or been subject to such vilification by an elite.” Really? Who wrote in 2014 of Britain as “a nation of broken families clamouring about their entitlements siring ill-educated and undisciplined kids unfamiliar with the concept of right and wrong”? Who described with relish “the hulking fat tattooed chavmonkey standing in the queue at Burger King”? Who characterised the British masses as inhabiting “a dumbed-down culture”, being in thrall to “the background fugue of idiocy, the moronic inferno, of celebrity fuckstories”, and spending their time “watching TV, masturbating to pornography on the internet, getting drunk”? That would be Liddle in his last book, whose title, Selfish Whining Monkeys, may just possibly have had a slight whiff of contempt and vilification.

And that’s just the opening paragraph.

Books Music

Amazing journalism about an amazing musician

Music fans of a certain age will recognise the name of Ian Penman, one of the best writers ever to work for NME (the NME of its glory days, not the shallow lifestyle brand of today). Here, the London Review of Books gets him to review two biographies of Prince. It’s an incredible article about an equally incredible story.

Even here, he glows distantly like a quasar; it’s hard to make out the lineaments of a true inner life. There is a hummingbird effect: he keeps so busy you can’t see through the blur to make any sense of why he behaves in the ways he does, or makes the decisions he does. A workaholic who writes endless songs about how much he just hangs out. A perfectionist who releases way too much sub-standard work.


“Sweaty with rage”

I haven’t linked to a good literary kicking for a while, so here’s Anna Leszkiewicz giving Bret Easton Ellis both barrels in The Guardian.

There are too many good bits to quote them all, but these are some highlights:

like a recently dumped partner ranting about their ex for 90 minutes before adding that they don’t care.

a resentful, bitter man still caught up in the heat of arguments, years after everyone else has left the restaurant.

a nonsensical, vapid book, written by a man so furiously obsessed with his right to speak that he forgets to say anything at all.


Books Music

Read it in books

My life isn’t all glamorous launches and rock concerts, you know. Sometimes I’ll stay in and read a book, usually a music one. Here are a few recent reads:

Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache: How Music Came Out by MARTIN ASTON

This is incredible. It’s the queer equivalent of Revolution In The Head, an incredibly exhaustive (592 pages!) chronicle of the history of LGBTQ musicians in modern culture.

Anything that begins with John Grant’s Glacier and segues into 1920s lesbian blues guitarists is going to win me over, and that kind of contrast is what makes the book so much fun: it’s not a dull historical tract, but a celebration of some incredible music by some equally incredible people.

It’s also a sober reminder of how much progress has happened in a very short space of time. The chapters on music in the time of the AIDS panic are particularly sobering.


I’m a big fan of Hepworth, who helped create Q Magazine, Empire and the much-missed Word magazine. This felt more like a collection of one-shot magazine features than a book, though.

The uncommon people of the title are rock stars, with Hepworth giving each of his chosen ones a chapter (or in the case of The Beatles, a few chapters). He argues that the era of the rock star is over: today, even financial traders call themselves rock stars. The book is his attempt to illustrate the rise and fall of a group of people we probably won’t see the likes of again.

It’s still interesting in places but felt a little insubstantial: perhaps the problem is that it feels aimed at the kind of people who don’t normally read rock stars’ biographies for whom the tales of Fleetwood Mac, The Who and Led Zeppelin may feel sparkling and new.


I hated this one.

I hated it because like most oral histories, the talking is mainly done by the people left behind by those who ascended to greater things – so it can be hard to concentrate over the sound of axes being ground.

I hated it because it’s terribly edited, giving very minor characters far too many column inches.

But the main problem I had with it is that I was reading it with a 2018/2019 sensibility. Reading about your supposed rock idols committing statutory rape, abusing groupies and generally acting like misogynist arseholes palls very quickly in our more enlightened age.


This promises to be the definitive biography of one of my favourite bands, and it’s well-researched with good access to most (but not all) of the band past and present.

But beware: it suffers from the rock-biog curse of pomposity, with some sections almost hilariously overwritten.

If you can get past that – and if you’re not a picky, whinging writer like me, you probably can – it’s probably as good a biog as FNM are going to get.