Screen-age kicks

As you may have noticed, the new series of Doctor Who starts tonight. I was never a Whovian – I watched it as a child and the rebooted series never appealed to me – but thanks to my daughter I’ve rediscovered it and realised what a great show it can be.

Tonight isn’t just about the return of the show, though. It’s the first time a woman, the excellent Jodie Whittaker, has played The Doctor. For my daughter, that’s incredible: someone exactly like her (smart, funny, kick-ass and female) having the lead role in her favourite show.

Some boys moaned about “a TARDIS full of bras”, of course, because having one female lead out of thirteen is political correctness gone too far. Apparently a show about a near-immortal shape-shifting time-travelling space alien is totally realistic, but having that alien assume female form is too far-fetched.

It’s their loss: as my friend Karl Hodge writes, the Doctor is a great character. Irrespective of his, her or their pronouns.

Precious minerals and other stuff

The first time I heard John Grant, I burst into tears.

People who know me won’t find that remarkable, because I burst into tears a lot. Long before I became the hormonal mess I am today, music often made me blub. But this was unusual, because it was – terrible pun alert – blub at first sight.

I was at a gig to see Elbow, and Grant was the support. I knew nothing about him, had never heard him, and he was playing this; many of the same visuals appeared on the screens above him.

I was in bits. It’s a beautiful song (and better still live), and it’s particularly powerful if you’re LGBT.

Jon Savage describes it in this wonderful profile for Esquire:

This range of sweet and sour, deep and dark emotions set against appealing melodies is what characterises Grant as a major talent. On “Glacier”, from Pale Green Ghosts, you can hear the emotions frozen by fear and self-hatred crack into righteous anger. Grant passes through the shock of people saying things “that sting and leave you wincing” to the refrain: “Don’t you pay them fuckers as they say no never mind/ They don’t give two shits about you/ It’s the blind leading the blind

The whole thing’s well worth reading. Glacier made me an instant fan, and I’ve since been seen blubbing away at the Edinburgh Festival gigs Savage refers to in the piece.

Grant’s a fascinating musician, both from a fan’s perspective and a musician’s perspective. While his music is becoming increasingly electronic (and oh man, you have to hear the punch of Pale Green Ghosts through a massive PA system before you die) a lot of his songs are very close to 1970s soft rock of the Elton John variety, and I mean that as a huge compliment: the melodies and arrangements are masterful. I’m currently trying to learn to play Caramel, which is one of my very favourite things in the whole universe (and I’m delighted that my long-suffering piano tutor has fallen in love with it too: as I play it badly she can go to her happy place where JG plays it properly).

Here’s a live version from the BBC.

Great, isn’t it? I love pretty much everything about this song, but in particular the chord change to A flat as he sings “he hits me with tiger eyes”. It’s a staggeringly beautiful musical moment and it has me on the brink of tears every single time. If you don’t like it we can’t be friends.

I think John Grant has a lot in common with one of my other musical loves, Mark Everett from Eels, and not just because I’m learning to play Eels’ It’s A Motherfucker too.

Both men aren’t afraid of adult-oriented rock; both men write often hilarious lyrics; both men take often harrowing experiences and subjects and turn them into truly transcendent music.

I cry at Eels gigs too.

Paper tigers

Keeping up with trans-related news is a pretty depressing exercise: most of it is ill-informed or malicious, often parroting the very same “talking points” set out by viciously bigoted evangelical organisations. You can usually tune out if you see the words “cultural Marxism” (an anti-semitic far-right trope), “transgender ideology” (a phrase coined by right-wing evangelists) or “transgender lobby” (the belief that trans people are secretly being funded to the tune of millions from shadowy sources, enabling us to control the media. Not only is that one laughable, but it’s usually anti-semitic too: the source of the trans lobby’s money is usually believed to be “the Jews”).

The relentless and bigoted characterisation of trans women as dangerous is particularly galling when it comes from the likes of Rod Liddle, who accepted a police caution for allegedly punching his pregnant girlfriend in the stomach and who tends to take the side of alleged rapists. Or from Richard Littlejohn, who wrote about the murders of five sex workers in Ipswich: “in the scheme of things the deaths of these five women is no great loss.” I’d link to that piece but as so often happens with such columns, the Daily Mail has removed it from its website.

This week, there’s lots of attention being given to a very flawed, politically motivated and thoroughly debunked study of a made-up condition, rapid onset gender dysphoria. Publications as diverse as Glasgow’s Herald newspaper, whose straight, white, male, conservative columnists rail against black people, feminism and LGBT people, and The Spectator, whose straight, white, male, conservative columnists rail against black people, feminism and LGBT people, have been quick to talk about it and strangely unwilling to note that the grown-ups have pointed out that it’s an enormous crock of shite.

Meanwhile back in the reality-based community US psychologist Kristina Olson has been awarded a “genius” grant for her ongoing work studying the development of transgender children. Among many other interesting things about gender and inclusion her work has found that if trans kids are supported, they don’t want to kill themselves – something that many other studies have found too. As Quartz reports, Olson’s 2016 study:

found that transgender children who have openly transitioned to the gender they identify with have similar rates of depression and anxiety as cisgender children.

Of course, there’s been a pushback from right-wing media and social media: Olson avoided media interviews for eight months after online abuse.

Meanwhile, yet another study has found genetic differences between trans women and cisgender (non-trans) women.

they found a significant over-representation of four genes that are involved in processing sex hormones. This variation suggests a potential biological reason why certain people experience gender dysphoria.

Those behind the study propose that these genetic variations can affect the male brain’s ability to process androgen, meaning that the brain develops differently in a way that is less “masculine” and more “feminine,” contributing to gender dysphoria in transgender women.

This is an emerging field of research but there are already lots of solid studies that suggest there’s at least a genetic component to being trans (the field of epigenetics in particular is fascinating). I could link to reliable studies all day long. But such studies are inconvenient for the people who argue that being trans is a choice or a fad, which is why they don’t write about it.

There’s an agenda, all right. But it’s not ours.

Beauty and sadness in children’s books

One of the great joys of being a parent is reading to your children (or as is happening more and more often these days, having them read to you). There are more kids’ books to choose from than ever before, and I’m often struck by the power and beauty of them.

This, from Town Is By The Sea (Joanne Schwartz; illustrated by Sydney Smith) is glorious.

It’s a deceptively simple book set in a mining community in Nova Scotia but relevant everywhere. In it, a child talks about his day and his routines while his dad mines for coal under the sea. It’s quietly heartbreaking – the book very cleverly hints at the danger and fear of the men working underground without breaking the spell of the main narrative – and very beautiful.

Another writer I’ve come to love is Oliver Jeffers, whose children’s books are just perfectly pitched: my son’s current favourites include The Great Paper Caper, in which a bear is ruining the forest because he wants to follow in his father and grandfathers’ footsteps. I don’t want to spoil the excellent twist. My son also loves How To Catch A Star, which really evokes the way kids think, and pretty much everything else Jeffers has produced. We’re big fans.

Jeffers is probably best known for Lost And Found, a tale of a boy and a penguin that was animated for TV, but I think his best work may be The Heart And The Bottle, which I can barely think about without getting all teary.

It’s about love and loss, and it will take your breath away.

UKIP: a genuinely inclusive political party

Some people think UKIP is just a party of racists. Nope! It’s a party for bigots of every kind. Whether you hate the blacks, the gays, the muslims or the trans, UKIP is the party that’ll tell you the problem isn’t you, it’s them.

I’ve been reading the latest UKIP interim manifesto – yes, this is what my Saturday mornings are like; yes, I’m amazed I’m single too – and the whole thing is of course a horrific pile of shit. But there’s a new addition to it this year: the blatant anti-LGBT bigotry previously limited to stallholders at the UKIP conference is now official party policy.

The phrase “Cultural Marxism” is always a giveaway: it’s right-wing shorthand for “boo hoo we’re not allowed to be bigots all the time any more”. UKIP says cultural Marxism “seeks to close down discussion and alternative views, so that only one extreme left-wing ‘politically correct’ viewpoint is allowed.”

You can see their point of view. You can’t turn on Newsnight or pick up the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, The Sun or the Daily Telegraph without being subjected to nothing but one extreme left-wing politically correct viewpoint.

The proposed solutions are the usual pie of guff: repeal of all hate speech legislation and guidelines, the end of Public Space Protection orders, repeal of the Equality Act 2010, and a free golliwog and Roy Chubby Brown DVD for every pure-bred Englishman, woman and child.

In a sane world we’d just laugh at these clowns. Sadly it’s not a sane world.

When smart people are really, really stupid

The Sky News / Tommy Robinson fiasco is a good example of something that’s all too common in media: smart people being really, really stupid.

There’s an idea, oft expressed, that sunlight is the best disinfectant; that exposing terrible ideas to the harsh glare of publicity will make those terrible ideas wither and die.

Unfortunately that isn’t true.

Giving extremists a platform fuels them.

And smart people are often too stupid to realise that that’s what they’re doing: they tell us they want to have a debate, when really what we’re seeing is a performance.

They’re not providing a platform. They’re providing a stage.

Laurie Penny, writing for Longreads:

If we deny racists a platform, they feed off the appearance of censorship, but if we give them a platform, they’ve also won by being respectfully invited into the penumbra of mainstream legitimacy. Either way, what matters to them is not debate, but airtime and attention. They have no interest in winning on the issues. Their image of a better world is one with their face on every television screen.

Look at Tommy Robinson in my previous post, happy as a pig in shit: he got on the telly and still managed to claim he was being silenced.

You see exactly the same with anti-trans bigots, homophobes and other terrible people. They don’t debate the facts because they don’t care about the facts. They don’t listen to the debate because to them it isn’t a debate. It’s an opportunity to get their message across, to reach their supporters and give the impression that extreme, bigoted beliefs aren’t so extreme and bigoted after all.

You only listen to the other guy so you can work out how to beat him, and ideally, humiliate him.

It’s a growing problem because all too often, broadcasters in particular thrive on conflict. If they have one person who believes X, because X is indisputably true, they will comb the darker corners of the internet to find someone who says X is false – often someone who is very good at sounding convincing even when they’re spouting absolute garbage. The viewer or listener is then left with the false belief that there are two sides to the story when really, there aren’t.

I’ve refused to take part in such discussions, and I know very many people who do the same. They simply won’t lend their name to the legitimisation of extremist views.

As Penny puts it, in her case with reference to Trump’s former right-hand man Steve Bannon:

Inviting someone like Steve Bannon to your conference about how to build a free and open society is a little like inviting Ronald McDonald to your convention on solving world hunger.

She argues that sunlight, far from being a disinfectant, enables some of the world’s worst people to build a brand. The rise and fall of right-wing troll Milo is a good example of that; his star rose as the column inches about him increased, but when he finally got booted off Twitter and stopped making news his career went into what I sincerely hope is terminal decline.


What stopped him was progressives collectively refusing to put up with his horseshit.

…there is a choice, and this, to my mind, is the sensible one: To refuse to dignify these people with prestigious public platforms, or to share them. To refuse to offer them airtime or engage them in public debate.

If you give people with dangerous agendas a platform, you’re not impartial. You’re complicit.

Sky news: a spectacular own goal

Sky News was very proud of its exclusive last night: an interview with former EDL leader and Nazi poster boy Tommy Robinson. Don’t do it, they were urged. All you’re doing is giving fascists the oxygen of publicity they so crave, and helping create the impression that they’re a legitimate group with legitimate concerns. He’ll use the slot to get his talking points aired and then tell his followers how he outsmarted you.

Robinson on Twitter today:

Evil man

There’s nothing I can say about this horrific, pathetic excuse for a man that isn’t expressed better by the faces of the every single woman in this photograph.

Making the world a little better

Marks & Spencer has launched a new “easy dressing” range for children. The clothes are largely identical to the rest of the retailer’s children’s clothing (there’s a school uniform section too), but there are some crucial differences. Some have been tailored to make extra room for leg or arm casts, or have pockets with concealed bits for feeding tubes. They’re made using exceptionally soft materials, the care labels are hidden to avoid irritation and a great deal of thought has gone into each time. And crucially, they don’t cost extra.

Rebecca Garner is M&S’s kidswear designer.

“Parents passionately told us that disabilities don’t define their children, so the adaptations shouldn’t define their clothes, it’s why all the products are inclusively designed and modelled closely on our main collection.

“So whilst big sister might wear a dress with sequins, the little one who wants to match but has sensory needs will have a softer glitter.”

I’m an M&S shopper anyway – as much as I like to think there’s a punk rock edge to me, I’m actually at home in M&S and Sainsbury’s – but the brand has just rocketed in my estimation. The new range is a little bit of M&S’s clothing business, but it’s a very big deal to the kids (and their parents) who’ll benefit from it.

My country too

Yesterday the Scottish Government published the initial results of its consultation on gender recognition reform. The public, including women’s groups dealing with the most vulnerable women in society, was overwhelmingly in favour of making life a little bit easier and a little more dignified for trans and non-binary people. It’s an interesting contrast to England, where the ongoing “debate” is dominated by misinformation, outright lies and scaremongering.

Today one of my friends, the filmmaker Kate Adair, shared this photograph of a public awareness campaign by One Scotland.

One Scotland is an initiative by the Scottish Government and Police Scotland to stamp out hateful abuse. Here’s another one, this time from the website.

One Scotland isn’t just about trans folks. It’s about hate crime in general. The campaign serves two important purposes. It urges the victims of abuse to report it, and it hammers home the message that such abuse has no place in our country.

It also sends LGBTQ people in Scotland a powerful message: we’re on your side.