Saturday, 22 August 2009

Stories about Gender, E. A.Markham and Squirrelising

I worked in the local community café this morning with a friend. Lots of OAPs, families, the lonely who come in for a chat, visitors who come to look round the town. It is a cheap and cheerful café and you find stories in there. The old lady who comes miles on a bus to visit the local dolls house shop because she is creating a series of houses for a family of dolls who’s back history she has created in her head and she tells me who is married to who and what they do and what they hope for their children and builds up each house according to these histories. The man who travelled on the rural bus in Cambodia with chicken on the roof rack and who had to bribe officials for a visa. Heathrow have a writer in residence now collecting stories and observations . I noticed from an article in the Guardian this morning that a woman has set herself up as a gatherer of stories at a bus station in London.

Anywhere where people have to wait and have time to talk is likely to throw up stories and the strange thing is how many ordinary people are eager to tell you stories from their life if you ask them the right questions and are prepared to listen. I am nosy, I like most people and I am interested in what makes people tick and I am never surprised by how much of the internal mechanism that drives that tick people are willing share with you. The American Story Corp project is an attempt to make recordings of people just talking about some aspect of their life. The are all going to make up a huge oral history archive for the nation. It’s worth a look at some of the stories, I have over the past couple of years listened to them on a regular basis and they have always made me revisit the concept that there is no such thing as an ordinary man or woman.

Speaking of which ,the furore about the South African athlete, Castor Semanya, is causing the ether to overheat. Is she, isn’t she? What she definitely is, is an eighteen years old having to cope with the most mishandled and public of humiliations about the nature of her sexuality. There is no doubt she was brought up as a girl, believes herself to be a girl and was doing nothing wrong in running a superb race as a woman at the World Athletics championship. What ever the outcome, we are told this is a matter of examining an extremely complex set of bio-medical variables that can be interpreted differently according to which scientist you choose to consult. So ok, let’s make a definite ruling about what is male or female so that no-one can have an unfair advantage of their extraordinary genetic make-up (in the sense of not ordinary). Perhaps Usain Bolt has been born with super fast twitch muscle tissue hence his great speed, should he therefore be seen as too ‘genetically enhanced by nature’ to be allowed to compete against other athletes who don’t have this genetic make-up? Michael Phelps, due to his extra ordinary arm reach and build gifted by nature can swim faster than others, is this fair? Ethiopian athletes born at altitude and living at altitude have a greater advantage in distance events, should they be seen as too advantaged by nature to compete. From my reading of the medical opinions that have been flying about, it seems that having ovaries, a womb and female chromosomes is not enough to say you are a woman, giving birth may not be enough to say your are a woman. How many women out there can produce a medical certificate to prove their feminine gender, a birth certificate apparently doesn’t count. Thinking back, how many of you out there as parents were asked to prove your child’s gender when registering their birth? No one asked me to prove my child was a girl, the authorities just presume we 'lay' people know the difference but apparently gender is such a complicated thing that it takes weeks of complicated tests and expert opinion on those results to determine it, yet any Tom, Dick or Harry parent can blithely register their child as male or female without consulting experts beyond the local midwife or doctor who is nowhere near qualified to assign a gender to a child on anything but the crudest of examinations ( penis, no penis). Perhaps therefore there are more people wandering around who have been incorrectly gender assigned than is ever discovered or who themselves never suspect they are anything else other than the gender their parents so blithely assigned them.

In the other gender direction I once went on an Arvon course with the late Archie Markham the wonderful Afro-Caribbean poet and writer. We kept in touch afterwards and he told me that in the sixties he had poems published in various ‘women only’ magazines using a female nom de plume, receiving once, he said, a letter from an editor saying how ‘her’ poem could only ever have been written by a woman as it so beautifully encapsulated the female experience. If you don’t know his work , here’s a link to just one of his poems I love.

On the ongoing subject of squirrels, their ubiquity is now reaching cult status because of that ground squirrel’s appearance on a couple's photograph in Canada. Now a friend has sent me a link to a Squirreliser site where you can paste that same squirrel into any photo you fancy.

It has been seen at The Last Supper, The Yalta Conference, with Obama, Putin, Ben Ladin. Squirrels don’t need this oxygen of publicity, dear reader, it will only serve to further their plans for world domination, while you are laughing you won’t notice them taking over.They are already starting blog wars.

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