Travelling back and forth to London on Wednesday, I started dipping into Gyles Brandreth‘s selection from his diaries, Something Sensational to Read in the Train – I took the book’s title at its word, as you can see. Readers outside the UK will mostly be unaware of Brandreth, whose television persona is that of slightly genial silly ass. Both Brandreth and the much more famous Stephen Fry have cultivated slightly fluffy media personalities. In the case of Fry I feel this often undercuts the serious points he sometimes wishes to make, and also hides (perhaps) a deeper anxiety. In the case of Brandreth it seems to have been a way for him to move fairly seamlessly between many different branches of show business (including, for a time, the House of Commons as a Conservative MP), perhaps by disguising his considerable intelligence. I realize that’s a bit of a declaration to make before I read the whole book (by last night I was still reading diary entries from his schooldays) but there you go.
It is fascinating to read these rather well written deliberations about his childhood. He has been keeping a daily diary, apparently without fail, since that time. He is considerably older than me but touches repeatedly on elements of shared culture in the sixties which had a significant impact way beyond that time but which are now starting to feel somewhat out of reach. The Profumo case and That Was the Week, That Was were still cultural touchstones in the 1980s and perhaps remained in collective consciousness into the early nineties but now, like many other things he writes about, are receding into the history books and Googlespace, and away from common culture and discussion.
What we do have in common, despite the different eras of our schooling, is an experience of British private education – right the way through his schooldays in Brandreth’s case, up to the age of around 12 in mine. His school (like his family) was clearly much better connected than mine, which was a minor North London establishment, as he is able to begin name dropping remarkably early in his narrative. A production of Twelfth Night, for example, is graced by the presence of the actor Michael Hordern in the audience, as his daughter was in the year above Brandreth. So not only is he able to comment on cultural, political and historical events of the day – in many cases he has some direct connection, as well as a fairly clearly formed Conservative political outlook from an early age.
This all makes for fairly fascinating reading, as he is a generous-spirited Tory (yes, there are some – although that doesn’t mean you should vote for them). But the book thus far also touches me at a deeper level, making me reflect on the similarities and differences between our childhood. In passing, by the way, he is somewhat judgemental about April Ashley later in the book. When I picked it up, I thought “I bet there’s a reference to April Ashley somewhere”, and looking through the index found there was. There are few cultural icons of the time left unmentioned.
To set aside the differences between his childhood and mine first, in order to explain the chord some of this writing strikes with me. He comes from a relatively better off, and significantly well-connected family. Unlike me, he has a number of siblings. Instead of diverting to the state sector at 12, as I did, he attended the well-connected, and interestingly liberal co-educational public school Bedales, moving on to Oxford University and becoming President of the Oxford Union in due course. Although his career has no doubt been aided by his connectedness – his Wikipedia entry notes he was at University with Christopher Hitchens, William Waldegrave, Edwina Currie and Bill Clinton, among others – it has also been propelled by clear talents, which he is adept at both employing and often hiding from public view.
So the narrative in the book, thus far, is certainly about privilege beyond that which most of us experience, but it is also about ability, and encouragement, and social confidence. In terms of artistic/career aspirations, a clear thread running through the text is that his talents are recognized, affirmed and encouraged by teachers and parents. That is clear and unambiguous, and was clearly a factor in allowing the youthful Brandreth to thrive.
One or two teachers not withstanding, the approach from my own secondary school was much more hands-off. Ironically, although a state school, it modelled itself in some ways on an ‘idea’ of a public school, but an idea which was much more about individual striving, rather than being encouraged. If you were successful through your own effort, that was acknowledged. If you weren’t, you were written off. So when my academic performance started to go off the rails, as a consequence of marital strife between my parents and acute struggles with my gender identity, the school’s response was that I had an “attitude problem” and that the way to deal with it was to threaten me with expulsion. Confidently exploring my own abilities was not easy in that context, as I felt more and more isolated. As Linus Van Pelt once said (my favourite Peanuts quote), “There’s no heavier burden than a great potential”. My English teacher in the Sixth Form, the late Basil Edwards – a mercurial, occasionally frightening but definitely exciting and inspirational figure – saved the day somewhat. But I was struck reading Brandreth’s account, that those teenage years can seem full of possibilities with the right encouragement. Actually, post-transition, life seems like that to me now … but it has been a bit of a wait.
The other element which is liberating for him, but which became a crushing burden for me in my teens, was emerging sexuality. There is a picture of Brandreth in the book as a teenager, looking effortlessly cool and glamorous, and his teenage narrative is peppered with references to success with girls. I realize a diary reflects the biases and preoccupations of the diarist, but nonetheless in the bits I have read so far he seems to be having a good time! Earlier in the book he also mentions gay advances by one of his teachers, which he appears to cope with reasonably well. Happily I had no such experiences at my own prep school.
My adolescence felt very different. Of course I am far from alone in finding that period challenging and confusing. Most of us do I guess, and those who find a less complicated path through are likely to be attractive, confident or the sort of person who finds life straightforward (or some combination of all three). But growing awareness of transness can set up a nasty kind of feedback loop, as you start to have emerging sexual feelings which can exacerbate your internal struggle. I had very little confidence in my appearance – alternating between feeling ugly or simply invisible – but was desperate for someone to find me attractive, fixating to begin with on the most glamorous of girls who would be quite a stretch to get to go out with you even if you did feel confident. But even more terrifying – how could you ever tell a girl you were going out with that you wanted to dress like her, and look like her? That seemed impossible, and thus began the struggle to separate these two aspects of my personality – to try and find a girlfriend, and as a result, feel obliged to deny the deepest and most fundamental truth about myself, because of my isolated conviction that no-one could understand. So as my adolescence progressed, I began to live a lie, only acknowledging my feelings through secret explorations of clothes in my mother’s wardrobe, and furtive explorations of the sacred texts of childhood.
So while I am enjoying reading about Brandreth’s charmed life (and to be fair, I am sure like all of us he has experience his fair share of difficulties – he alludes to insecurities in the introduction) it is still bitter-sweet to compare his more straightforward experience of teenage life with mine. When you start hormone treatment, as all trans people will know, you experience something which resembles, in many ways, a second adolescence. And happily this one, late thought it is, is a much happier experience than the first one.