A murder mystery

In the aftermath of the Christchurch terrorist attack, every newspaper has been asking the same question: how did this happen?

It’s a mystery. How could anti-muslim terror occur in part of the world where Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers ran 2,981 anti-muslim articles in a single year?

Of course, Murdoch’s media empire isn’t just antipodean. He controls the likes of Fox News in the US and the Sun and the Sunday Times in the UK, all of which have played a crucial role in making racism (and anti-minority hatred generally) mainstream: for example, the Times’  columnist Melanie Philips has the dubious honour of being namechecked in the manifestos of two right-wing mass murderers, Anders Brevik (who killed 77 people in Norway) and the Christchurch murderer.

To inspire one mass slaughter is unfortunate. To inspire two…

But while Murdoch may well be the biggest offender in terms of demonising minorities, he isn’t the only one.

On Sunday, the Express asked: was the terrorist radicalised during a trip to the UK?

It’s an interesting question. Maybe he saw one of these.

The Sun and the Daily Mail fear he was radicalised by extremist content too.

On the subject of extreme content, the Mail’s website provided a direct download link to the killer’s entire manifesto. Downloading and reading it may well be an offence under the Terrorism Act. And the Mail, Sun and Mirror all broadcast extracts from the killer’s video in defiance of requests from the New Zealand police.

And of course, it’s not just newspapers. BBC’s Newsnight has played its part in the mainstreaming and promotion of far-right figures; in a sign that something is truly rotten in its editorial policy, its idea of an appropriate guest to discuss the Christchurch massacre was a spokesperson for the extreme far right group Generation Identity. GI fans include the Ku Klux Klan. And of course it’s in the dog whistles of right-wing politicians such as Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Zac Goldsmith.

I’ve written about stochastic terrorism before. Stochastic terrorism is when you don’t commit terrorist acts directly, but you create a climate that incites others to carry out violent acts. The very people claiming to be heartbroken about Christchurch are actively fuelling the hatred that caused it, and that will cause more violence in the future.

As Dani Garavelli writes in The Scotsman:

Atrocities like Friday’s represent the very worst of human nature, but they don’t take place in a vacuum. Unless those in positions of power stop normalising the far right; unless they stop appropriating the language of racists and promulgating their ideologies, they shouldn’t be surprised if they have to express more faux disbelief over more innocent victims, while continuing to abdicate responsibility for their fate.

The culture in which we swim

Thomas Page McBee regularly writes about his experiences as a trans man. On Them.us he writes about the tension between wanting to be masculine and wanting to avoid toxic masculinity, and there are some really engaging ideas in the piece.

I particularly liked this bit.

I have another body within this body — we all do. All of us have the capacity to take hormones that will turn on the genes that lay dormant inside us, unlocking a twin of sorts.

That’s something I think many cisgender people don’t realise, or think about. We’re all born with the same template, and our hormones then decide what particular bits of the recipe our bodies should follow – so for example in the womb a rush of hormones tells us whether we should grow male or female gonads; in puberty hormones tell us whether to grow breasts or beards. But the template for both sexes remains, so if you take somebody born male, suppress their testosterone and increase their estrogen then their body (and their emotions; jeez, the emotions…) will change.

Reproductive systems aside, men and women aren’t that different: the idea that there are huge biological differences between the sexes is largely based on status preservation.

Did somebody say status?

Experience of social privilege is cited often by trans men, Bridges says, as “the recognition that comes with presumptions about authority, a capacity for violence, and sometimes respect and other forms of social advantage.” He points out, powerfully, that trans women experience a much different early awareness of social transition.

Many trans men say that they experience a dramatic change in their social status when they begin presenting male; many trans women report similarly dramatic changes when they begin presenting female. The changes go in opposite directions.

“Many trans men’s early experiences with social recognition are associated with power and privilege, while many trans women’s experiences with social recognition are associated with disempowerment.”

Let that sink in for a moment, whatever your gender.

I’m still surprised by how much my status has changed since coming out. I’m taken less seriously in my personal and professional life – whether it’s a videoconference or a pub quiz, my opinions and knowledge are often and obviously considered less valid than the men’s – and I’ve become used to being treated as lesser by men in all kinds of situations where my comfort, my personal space and even my personal safety are secondary to the priorities of men that in many cases I don’t know and will never encounter again. As I’ve written before, the world is a very different place when you walk in women’s shoes.

This isn’t just “welcome to womanhood”, because in transition you don’t just experience the world in a differently gendered way; you also experience a significant change in your own status.

If you transition from male to female in any kind of visible way you are likely to experience a loss in status; go the other way and you are likely to experience an increase in status. That change will be tempered by many things, so for example if you don’t have “passing privilege” – ie, if you are visibly trans rather than the gender you present as – then you will experience other challenges to your status, such as homophobia and transphobia. But generally speaking if you join the boy’s team you get taken more seriously, and if you join the girl’s team you don’t.


Trans men have an advantage, I’ve found, in highlighting the toxic aspects of masculine conditioning in two key ways: We tend to understand that we have a gender (privilege hasn’t rendered masculinity invisible to us), and for those of us who transition in adulthood, we are sensitive to socialization, and can therefore use that sensitivity to do the hard work of identifying and refusing the worst aspects of masculinity in our own becoming — if we choose to.

I think this is really fascinating. All too often people condemn criticism of toxic masculinity by assuming the bit being targeted is masculinity. It isn’t. The problem is the toxicity that limits the range of masculine expression and experience.

That toxicity goes hand in hand with privilege. To be a man is to have a status that women don’t. It doesn’t necessarily mean that your life is brilliant, but it does mean that your life isn’t made even harder because of your gender. If you’re not just male but straight, white, middle class and Christian, your life is not going to be made more difficult because of your sexuality, the colour of your skin, your class or your religion.

If you’re not careful, and most of us aren’t, privilege can blind you to the experiences of people who don’t have that privilege: the attitude of “I haven’t experienced it so it can’t exist” is widespread whenever the experiences of women, of LGBT people, of poor people, of people from particular ethnic or religious groups are discussed.

I’m not immune to this. As a straight, apparently cisgender man I was blind to so many of the things women and LGBT people have to deal with daily. That’s changed, of course, but even now there is privilege that blinds me: I’m still middle class and white, so I’m ignorant of the realities that people of other ethnic and religious groups experience.

McBee’s article asks a really interesting question: when you move from a lower status group to a higher status one, such as when someone assigned female at birth transitions to male, what do you do about the dominant narrative about the group you’re now a member of? Do you become one of the lads, turning a blind eye to behaviours and beliefs you know to be toxic?

For trans men who pass, like me, the visceral discomfort of that privilege can feel like a crossroads. Would I accept the dominant narrative about what being a man means, or give up what little “status” I have in this paradigm to challenge it?

McBee argues, and I agree, that trans people can help change the narrative. As he puts it, the trans man:

…can be the man he wish he’d had as a role model. He can tell the truth, and in that truth-telling, he can join the voices of a diverse and growing legion of men who refuse to conform to expectations that harm us, the planet, and everyone on it.

It won’t be easy, but it will be better. For all of us.

Monetising horror

I’m not usually affected by news events but the terrorist attacks in Christchurch had me in tears this morning.

As if the events weren’t horrific enough, the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror and The Sun have all put auto-play video from one of the terrorists’ cameras on their front page and surrounded it with adverts in a shockingly cynical attempt to make money from the dead.

And the comments sections on Breitbart – to which President Trump posted a link while the news was breaking – on Reddit and in many right-wing British newspapers are packed with people celebrating the murders and downvoting expressions of grief and empathy.

These things are connected.

As the NY Times’ Wajahat Ali wrote on Twitter:

Pay attention. Take this extremist ideology & terror threat seriously. Be wary of politicians, academics & media heads who give it a platform and spout it under the guise of “free speech” and fighting “political correctness.” Look out for each other. Love each other.

#GwiththeT: not in their name

Last year, lesbian women used the #LwiththeT hashtag to declare solidarity with trans people. Now it’s the men’s turn, with an open letter proudly labelled #GwiththeT.


In solidarity with the hashtag #LWithTheT that sprung up last summer, the outpouring of support for the #GWithTheT movement and support from all parts of LGBT communities shows that those who oppose trans equality do not represent us.

As the open letter notes:

Today’s transphobia is yesterday’s recycled homophobia. We all remember and feel the impact of the pernicious Section 28. We are reminded of Martin Niemöller’s poem “First they came for the for the…”. Gay men cannot afford to sit out this fight. Transphobic people aren’t just coming for trans rights; they’re coming for all of us.

These letters really matter. The constant barrage of anti-trans propaganda isn’t exactly great for trans people’s mental health, and all too often a couple of unrepresentative gay or lesbian people are held up to falsely claim that trans people are not welcome in the wider LGBT community. We are, overwhelmingly so, and it really helps to be reminded of that.

Update, 15/3: The letter was originally signed by 72 men. One day later it’s at 540.

Metal baby, oh metal baby…

This is Maria, who you may recognise from the 1927 sci-fi classic Metropolis. I met her at the weekend, and if you pop along to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh you can meet her too. She’s one of the attractions in the museum’s robots exhibition, which is great fun – there’s a Terminator! – and features some more practical, modern bots too. £10 for grown-ups, kids go free.

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.

You do it to yourself, and that’s what really hurts

One of the weird things about doing creative things is that your feelings oscillate wildly. One minute you’re the greatest, most talented human being who ever lived; the next, you’re in a corner weeping about how worthless you are as you set fire to your latest creations. There’s rarely any middle ground. I don’t write a song and think “hmm, that’s okay.” I imagine thousands of screaming fans – for about five minutes, and then I want to hurl myself off the Erskine Bridge for creating such a terrible piece of music.

I wonder, do people with proper jobs experience this? Do truck drivers barrel down the road bellowing “I am the king of trucks!” before the critical voices kick in and they have to park in a lay-by for a cry?

I think the answer is probably no, because being a truck driver and being creative are different things. Truck drivers may well be really creative people in their spare time, but the day job isn’t really about that.

I think part of it is because creating things from scratch is a really weird thing to do. It’s something you generally do for little or no reward (sometimes there are no rewards, just penalties: bad reviews, indifferent crowds, being broke), but the act of creating something gives you an endorphin rush. That’s where bouncing around the room wearing a cape and shouting “I am the greatest of all time!” comes from. Whether you’re composing or performing, there’s a moment when everything comes together and you feel there’s magic in the room – magic that you’ve somehow channelled into this thing you’ve created or helped to create.

And then it goes, because if it doesn’t, if you think you’ve created the very best thing that has ever been or ever will be created then there’s zero incentive to create anything else. Whereas if you conclude that everything you’ve done so far is crap, then the next thing you do has got to be better.

I think, too, there’s the gap between what we imagine and what we can play, or what we can create in other ways. The gap between what I hear in my head and what I can actually play is huge, and no matter how good my version is I can always hear how it falls short. For example, the other week my piano teacher – an incredible musician – had a go at one of my songs, and what she did with it was absolutely beautiful. I’ll never be able to play it the way she played it. In my head I’m a ballet dancer, but in real life my limbs are made of lead.

It’s a strange addiction. You spend incredible amounts of time and effort and money in the pursuit of highs that are only ever fleeting, and which are always followed by the lowest lows. And yet somehow, it’s worth it.


A good day for a SWIM

I went to the launch of SWIM yesterday. SWIM, Scottish Women Inventing Music, is a collective of women from across the music industry: performers and promoters, managers and marketers, DJs and drum techs.

It was brilliant.

The day was a mix of formal panel discussions, informal networking and the presentation of a lifetime achievement award to the fabulous and funny Janet Beat, Scottish composer and electronic music pioneer. That last bit was an unexpected highlight, both hilarious and moving.

I enjoyed the whole day. The panel discussions were thought-provoking, insightful and useful and the buzz during the breaks was palpable: so many amazing, inspiring women who do amazing, inspiring things making connections and sharing experiences.

The panels were diverse, too, and I think that’s incredibly important: many of the issues affecting women in music are intersectional, so for example the things that affect all women may be amplified or complicated for women who are also black, or gay, or older, or who have family responsibilities. It was also refreshing to see the panelists drawn not just from the rock concert industry but from club culture, folk, jazz and other genres.

I don’t think I’ve experienced anything like it, and I went away with a head full of ideas and a bag full of flyers and business cards pointing me towards new music (I haven’t checked them all out yet but if they’re as good as the first artist I’ve listened to, Rosie Bans, my ears are in for a really great day).

And on a personal level, this really mattered. From the website:

when stating ‘women’ or ‘female’ this includes all people who identify as female.

SWIM is a diverse, inclusive organisation, and it welcomes non-binary people and trans women. It’s hard to overstate how important that feels, to be in a space that actively welcomes you, where you’re actively made to feel part of the family. I may have shed a tear or two.

Enough about me. SWIM has the potential to be an incredibly positive force in the music business, whether you’re a musician or a technician, a plugger or a promoter. If you’re interested in finding out more, becoming a member or volunteering, you can find everything you need on the SWIM website.

A privileged position

It’s International Women’s Day today. As someone who’s played for both teams, transitioning has been a major eye-opener: when you’re living life in the body of a straight, white, middle-class man you don’t realise how privileged you are.

Privilege doesn’t necessarily mean you have an easy life. But it means that your life is not made more difficult because of a particular group you belong to. For example, if you’re straight and cisgender you don’t have to deal with the abuse and discrimination LGBTQ people experience. If you’re white, you don’t encounter structural racism. And if you’re a man, you don’t experience the world in the same way women do.

IWD isn’t about picking on men. It’s about recognising that the world is still an unfair place. From reproductive rights to the justice system, in education and employment, in the public sphere and on social media, in healthcare and in the home, the world is a different and often worse place for many women. IWD is about raising awareness of that, and of inspiring people to change it.

Today, some men on the internet will be shouting “Yeah, but when is international men’s day?” The answer, of course, is 19 November. But the real answer is that every day is international men’s day.

We always come back to the ones we love

This rather poor quality photo is from October 1998, long before decent digital cameras or smartphones. It was taken on stage at Glasgow’s legendary Barrowland, where my band had been picked as the local support for Mansun. I’m the skinny guy in the middle of the shot (lead guitarist Mark Clinton, now of The Lonely Souls, is in the foreground and bassist Chris Warden is just visible behind me), and I’m playing my favourite guitar.

I’ve owned quite a few guitars, but my Telecaster was always my favourite. It cost a ridiculous amount of money when I bought it back in the mid-90s, but I got my money’s worth: I played it on stages and in studios for years, and I’ve still got it today. It hasn’t been played for a very long time, though, because other guitars have competed for my affection: the beautiful but ridiculously big Epiphone Riviera I got for my 40th, the wonderfully quirky Fender Marauder I do most of my songwriting on, the Fender Stratocaster I rehearse with and the pointy Epiphone Explorer I play when I want to, er, play something pointy.

There are other reasons. I didn’t play it because there was something wrong with the pickup switch, so it could only make its most screeching sounds – something Telecasters are brilliant at, but which you don’t want all the time any more than you’d want to eat steak for every meal – and I didn’t want to spend money getting it fixed because I was always broke.

And I didn’t play it because it’s part of my past, which I don’t always want to think about.

But it was, and is, a beautiful guitar. So the other night I decided to get it out of its case.

It was a strange feeling because I genuinely haven’t looked at it, let alone touched it, for years. The catches on the case were stiff with rust, the case itself covered with access all areas passes for gigs so long ago I can barely remember the venue, never mind the gig. But the guitar itself was just as it was the last time I played it. It was even in tune.

It’s really, really weird to pick up a guitar that you haven’t played for years when you used to play it all the time, to feel the weight of it, the tension of the strings, the way the strap feels on your shoulder, the height of it, the way it fits in your hands. All of the things you got used to over time, all of the things your other guitars don’t have. It’s like getting into your own bed when you’ve been staying somewhere else: the beds do the same job, but only one of them is yours.

It turns out that the problem was so simple to fix that even I could fix it, so I did. And I plugged it in, and I played it, and heard that sound, the sound only a Telecaster makes, the sound only my Telecaster and my fingers make.

And I realised that while I like all of my guitars, there’s only one that I ever loved.