Another long gap between posts. I have been elsewhere – physically, spiritually and otherwise – but I have finally found some blogging time.
This is not the continuation to the On conformity thread of posts I originally planned, but it does fit into the concept to some degree, so I thought I would write about it while things were fresh in my mind. The trigger for this post was attending a concert recently in Norwich by Dave Swarbrick. Swarb, in case you don’t know, is a fantastic fiddle player with a long performing history in the British folk and folk-rock scenes. After several years of acoustic performance, including as a duo with the equally fabulous Martin Carthy, he joined Fairport Convention in 1969 just as they were becoming serious about their project to electrify British traditional music.
Having stumbled across (and loved) the music of Richard and Linda Thompson in the late seventies, I “reversed” into listening to Fairport, as Richard had been a founder member of that band. The first time I saw Swarbrick play was in 1979 during Fairport’s as it happens inaccurately titled “Farewell, Farewell” tour …
I’ve seen him many times since – at Fairport reunions, in his own (now defunct) band Whippersnapper, and in duos with Carthy and with Fairport bandmate Simon Nicol. He is a fantastic player – both technically but also because of the fantastic emotion and energy of his playing. I love hearing him, and at the recent gig he was playing as well as ever.
In more recent years, he has faced (and overcome) a number of health problems, at one stage in 1999 waking up to read his own obituary in The Daily Telegraph! Seeing him now, nearly 32 years after I first saw him, led me to reflect on where my life was at at particular times when I happened to see him perform. For all the challenges I have faced, music has been a constant source of solace, joy and affirmation.
This recent concert was the first time I have seen him entirely solo. I’ve seen him with Fairport many times, with his own band Whippersnapper, in duos with Carthy and Simon Nicol and so on. So I did reflect on the diverse life routes (i.e. his and mine) between first seeing him with Fairport in London in 1979 and seeing him in March 2011 in the Maddermarket Theatre, Norwich.
As well as loving the music of performers one might loosely defined as folk/roots musicians (we could have a long discussion about what that means) I admired many of them as people. By comparison with the often pre-packaged world of pop, it seems to me to take a lot of determination and self-possession to carve out a career focussing on music that is not generally seen as fashionable and make a go of it. In my younger days I was very drawn to these musicians who seemed, to me, to have a strong sense of confidence and of who they were – two things I lacked, struggling with my own identity. So in a way I saw them as role models, but lacked (at the time) the confidence to follow their example.
Swarb has had an eventful and occasionally wild life (hence the erroneous 1999 obituary). The focus of much of my adolescent and adult life has been internal struggle, which used to stop me taking, or at least making the most of, life opportunities. But when I went to see Swarb play last week it was the first time as Natasha, and as he played so wonderfully I could reflect with pleasure that I had finally said “yes” to life, and I am now living it the way I want to. And I am grateful for how music sustained me in those critical times and perhaps, in some profound way, saved me from giving up as I struggled with my identity.
Traditional music no longer always travels down the traditional route. In the era before electronic communication became mainstream – records, radio, television – it was handed down and modified by communities and families. That happens much less now and our relationship to it is more complicated. I’m currently reading Rob Young’s amazing book Electric Eden which explores our evolving relationship to that music (I highly recommend it). As well as being a fantastic player, Swarb has a scholarly interest in the music, which he touched on at the gig in more detail than I’ve heard him do so before, dropping interesting tidbits as he talked. For example he loves baroque music, and mentioned that the word baroque means “rough pearl”, and that the music was originally thus labelled, he suggested, as an insult. Today, of course, it’s become a term of esteem.
That language mutates is not news, of course. But I would argue that while it usually does so “naturally”, sometimes it is in the interest of those in power to impose changes in language and ideas. So listening to Swarb’s between tunes comments I was struck by how meaning can change, and how language can be liberating but also constraining.
Those who control the language of power can use it to define and limit others. Like most trans people, I have transitioned later in life. There is a complex combination of reasons for that – in the UK even though more people are seeking medical help with transition that average age at which they do so, significantly, is not shifting much.
One of the key reasons for that is “othering” by society – as I grew up I realized that the dominant view about people like me was that we were “unacceptable”, weird, freakish, outside the norm. Realizing that’s how society thinks about how you is a hard way to grow up. But another consequence of that is that authorities – particularly in our case governments and the medical establishment – have tended to want to “deal with us” by forcing us into what are seen as the “normal” categories, to make us conform, sometimes by brutal medical intervention. I will say more about this another time.
The point I wanted to finish on, on this occasion, is that the way trans (and also intersex) people are treated in western countries now is still shaped by the history of earlier conceptions of what it was to be trans, of what the best treatment should be, and of social notions of “acceptability” and the need to move trans and intersex people towards perceived “norms” – physically, medically and socially.
There are all sorts of issues here – the power of words to label and limit, the confusion of sex with gender, and of sexuality with gender expression; the initial conception of transness as a psychological illness; the conception of transness as wholly “in the head” and intersex as wholly “of the body”. Which puts psychiatrists in a dominant position for the treatment of trans people, and surgeons in the dominant position for the treament of intersex people. And also means that the medical establishment tends to think people are either trans or intersex, but cannot be both. And also that trans people want to move from one far end of the gender spectrum to the other. If people don’t fit that particular category, then as far as some medics and legislators are concerned, they don’t exist!
It seems to me that trans and intersex people need to be able to articulate their identities away from that history, and away from top-down definition by “authorities”. And also to recognize common cause with other groups in society who are oppressed or ignored. In future posts, I’ll write more about what I think needs to change.