In which I review a book that I read: Tiny Pieces of Skull

Content note: This post touches on transmisogyny, rape and sex work, and contains spoilers for Tiny Pieces of Skull.

Roz Kaveney’s at-least-partially-autobiographical novel, Tiny Pieces Of Skull: Or, A Lesson In Manners, was a long time coming. It was mostly written close to the time it was set, in the late 70s, but did not see the light of day until now. Its publication in the present day, perhaps, marks a shift in attitudes creating the social conditions where such a book actually can be published.

Tiny Pieces Of Skull follows Annabelle, a recently-transitioned trans woman, through a pretty eventful period of her life in London and Chicago, including surgery, sex work, rape, drugs and crimes. With themes like this, one would expect a moralistic lecture, or at the very least a misery memoir, yet the book is anything but.

At its heart, Tiny Pieces Of Skull is a book about women and their complex inner lives. It is a story of learning and growth, and a tale of community, the little spaces carved out by the characters in a world that is against them. Terrible things happen to the characters, and it is made all the more shocking by how completely normal this is treated. Annabelle quickly understands the daily battle of survival, and it swiftly becomes almost like background noise. The title quite adequately portrays the content of the novel: Tiny Pieces Of Skull is a starkly violent phrase reflecting the 70s Chicago underground, while A Lesson In Manners describes Annabelle’s coping strategy: using her wits and charm.

Each event in the novel could form fifty thousand words in and of itself, and yet TPoS tears through everything at an alarming pace. We are barely given time to react to and process one thing, when something else happens. Blink, and you might miss something deeply important. Like the protagonist, we must adapt quickly and never get too comfortable.

While TPoS may be mostly thirty years old, I was struck by how much is still relevant to discussions happening today. Its unflinching yet non-judgmental attitudes towards being trans and being a sex worker is a masterclass in writing trans and sex worker characters: their circumstances are important, and yet it is not these things that define them–they are rounded people outside of this. While the word “trans” does not even feature in the novel, it is abundantly apparent that this shapes the characters’ experiences. Instead, the word “sister” is used, because that’s what TPoS is about: sisterhood.

Like with blood sisters, there are bonds between the women, even when they absolutely detest each other. They gossip, they bitch, they cut up faces and yet they are united against external threats: cis men–rapists and the police. They come through for one another in the face of fundamentalist Christians and men who prey on vulnerable women.

While many of the specifics in TPoS have changed over time: the spectre of the AIDS epidemic had yet to rear its head at the time it is set, so it is therefore not a threat to the characters, for example, it is still highly relevant to all women. The villains–cis men with power–remain the same to women of all circumstances even today, yet we must acknowledge that still trans women and sex workers are more at risk from this brutality.

It’s the sort of short novel you can tear through in an afternoon, but it will stay with you. Personally, I’m planning on reading it again pretty damn soon.


No, Helen Mirren, Thatcher wasn’t an “incredible role model”

Helen Mirren has said that Margaret Thatcher was a role model to young girls, because “she was a role model for a little-three-year old girl [to think] that she could become the Prime Minister of England.”

I was a little girl under Thatcher. And let it be known that I never thought that. From a very young age, Thatcher instilled me with a sense of disgust at mainstream politics, a persistent sense that they were out to ruin my life and take things from me. Thatcher took away my ability to believe I could be anything, she took away my hope of ever living stably. It’s what she did to my generation of little girls. It’s what she did to kids of all genders who grew up under her.

Us millennials are often criticised for our apathy, but we grew up thinking nothing was worth it in the face of an all-powerful system intent on keeping us in poverty or shit jobs (and all too often, both), living precariously. That was Thatcher’s fault. She started it, and we watched it metastatise as we got older. She empowered some, it’s true: those determined to destroy the lives of others. The rich, the bigots, they’re probably quite happy.

So she wasn’t so much a role model as somebody who crushed a whole host of kids like me into thinking we could never become anything, let alone Prime Minister. And even if we had dreams, what were these dreams? We could no longer be Britain’s first woman PM, because Thatcher had stolen that chance, too. We’d live in her shadow, constantly compared, and have to rebuild what was ruined, or be complicit in her destruction.

There’s a pervasive thought, and one which is absolute bollocks on scrutiny: that when a woman occupies a position of power, she is automatically doing good by being inspirational. It is an absolute nonsense. Thatcher could have been of any gender, and she still would have been a force of evil. There is little inspirational to the people who need to be inspired about seeing someone who happens to be the same gender as them ruthlessly slicing up the present and grinding the future into dust.

Young girls are not just malleable lumps of clay, ready to be shaped by whatever rose-tinted vision is plonked in front of them. Young girls think critically. We see monsters for the monsters that we are. Little girls are cleverer than you think, and most of us drew little positive from Thatcher.


Blurred Party Lines: The dodgy attitude towards consent from the Labour Party

Content warning: This post discusses rape culture and has a dream sequence involving Robin Thicke in which consent is ignored

All I wanted to do was peek at the Labour manifesto, to see if it was awful. I’d thought the Labour website would be the best place to find it. Maybe it is there, or maybe it isn’t. I don’t know, because before I was allowed to view the site, I was presented with this choice:

Labour Thicke

Eagle-eyed readers will spot an option that is missing on this poll: the ability to say “no”. By polling standards, this is therefore a pretty crummy poll. By the standards of basic human decency, this is merely reflective of how consent is usually constructed.

Labour’s framing of the question would not sound out of place if Robin Thicke were canvassing, a red rosette fixed jauntily to his sunglasses. As you try to close the door, his slimy foot slithers in in that classic salesman tactic. Robin Thicke proffers you leaflets, red and yellow. More and more of them, and he begins to stuff them down your throat, incessantly yelling “I KNOW YOU WANT THIS”. You gag, you choke. You cannot breathe. With your fading strength, you nod assent. You tell him you will vote Labour just so he’ll go away.

Nightmares aside, this little snap survey from Labour does betray rather a problematic, yet sadly commonplace attitude towards consent. There is no such thing as a no, only a “maybe” that can be turned into a “yes”. Rape culture is everywhere, and so the idea that “no” is not an option is equally ubiquitous.

It is in the interests of maintaining rape culture to keep the ability to say no off the table. What might seem like an innocent bit of bad polling has the seedy undercurrent of rape culture allowing it to happen in the first place. Perhaps instead of a pink bus, Labour could have demonstrated an understanding of the concept of consent to attract women voters.

Disclaimer: I suspect the content of this blog will appeal to people with political affiliations which isn’t Labour, so allow me to say that as well as Labour being dripping anuses, so are the Green Party, the Tories, the Lib Dems, UKIP, TUSC and all the other tiddly trot parties, the nationalist parties of NI, Scotland and Wales, as well as Mebyon Kernow (who always get forgotten), and also the loyalist parties, and basically, if you’re in a political party, your party’s shit. So there.


Things I read this week that I found interesting

Round-up time. I’m thinking these are kind of officially becoming fortnightly, aren’t they? Anyway, I found these articles interesting and maybe you will too.

Resist! Against a Precarious Future (edited by Ray Filar)- A whole goddamn ebook, for free! A collection of essays on precarity and solutions.

The ‘transferable skills’ paradigm is cover for the creation of transferable people (Nina Power)- A look at what’s going on beneath the surface with that popular training mantra.

What the Suffragettes did for us (Anarchist Federation)- The suffragettes are always trotted out to try to guilt women into voting. Here’s why that’s bullshit.

The British State’s Willful Negligence Is Killing Immigrants in the Mediterranean (Wail Qasim)- Blame laid where blame is due for the deaths.

Letting migrants drown in the Mediterranean, is this what the Tories mean by ‘British values’? (Maya Goodfellow)- Examining the ideologies that kill.

Open Letter in Solidarity with Bahar Mustafa, Welfare and Diversity Officer, Goldsmiths. (Goldsmiths Solidarity)- The national media are lying about Bahar. Read and support the truth.

Remnants of the British Black Panther’s Lost Legacy (Bruno Bayley)- Beautiful photos and history.

This Is Fucking Vandalism, London’s History And Culture Are Being Destroyed In The Name Of Greed (johnny void)- A stark look at the state of London and development.

George Galloway’s comments on forced marriage are a dangerous abuse of power (Huma Munshi)- A forced marriage survivor takes down Galloway’s latest misogynistic nonsense.

What trans people of color fear after the Bruce Jenner media circus (Kay Ulanday Barrett)- Bruce Jenner’s coming out could have consequences for trans people of colour. Find out why.

we must unite inside her walls or we’ll crumble from within (dirgewithoutmusic)- I don’t usually do fanfic recs, but this is too fucking good (and it totally counts as feminist). Examining and defending Harry Potter fan unfavourites like Cho Chang and Pansy Parkinson, beautifully and movingly. ALL OF THE FEELS THEY ARE HERE.

And finally, here’s some lessons learned about heterosexual female desire from reading.


On victim blaming and voting

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, because the UK media have been pretty quiet about it, but there’s an election next month. This week is the last week you can register to vote in it. In turn, this means we can expect left-liberals to begin trotting out a particularly insufferable and deeply unpleasant line in order to encourage voter registration.

It goes like this: women, young people, people of colour, disabled people, poor people–basically, any marginalised group you can name–are being fucked over by the government. It’s in their power to change this, if only they go out and vote!

On the face of it, it sounds like your classic harmless liberal drivel, with that fervent belief that the Vote Fairy will change everything if only the right guys get in next time. However, scratch a little deeper, and at its core is victim blaming: it’s your fault the government is doing its damndest to murder you, because you should have voted for the guys who will murder you a bit slower. You had a choice, the liberals say, and you failed to take it.

Rather charitably, I’m going to suggest this argument comes from a place of oblivious privilege rather than a malicious attempt to actually emotionally blackmail vulnerable people into feeling blamed for their fate. There are lots of reasons people don’t vote other than an understanding that absolutely none of the people vying for your vote actually have your interests at heart, or an ideological disdain for the entire sham of representative democracy.

The people who are supposedly to blame for their oppression if they don’t vote are exactly the people who face impediments to voting. Even at the point of registration, for example, trans people are experiencing disenfranchising problems. Registering to vote also requires a level of reading ability, internet access or a stamp, and the time to fill the fucking thing in.

Then there’s the hurdles at the polling station. They’re not necessarily accessible: even with legal protections, last election a lot of disabled voters were failed in very basic requirements, and this is for the bare minimal accessibility standards for people with common physical disabilities. If you have a job or childcare arrangements, it’s going to be a pain in the arse managing to get to the polling station–just because the polls are open from early until late doesn’t mean someone has a chance to go! (and don’t, at this juncture, suggest postal voting: that requires a degree of planning which simply doesn’t fit in with a lot of people’s lives)

The barriers to voting are very real, and for the people being blamed for their own oppression, if not physically insurmountable, certainly psychically so. On one side, there is the right, saying that marginalised people are to blame for their own problems because they’re not trying hard enough to lift themselves out of their oppression. On the other side, the liberal left are saying that these people are to blame for some of their problems because they’re not trying hard enough to vote themselves out of their oppression.

Disengagement is manifest in particular among the groups who have been historically shafted not just by governments, but by society. Disabled people, people of colour, women, young people, poor people, queer people have been scapegoated throughout history. They are being scapegoated once again by those with the power.

If it’s true that a government reflects the society that elected it (I’m not convinced) then this means that unpleasant attitudes towards marginalised people will be present in government for as long as they’re present in society. Of course, it isn’t true that government is like real people: government is overwhelmingly a bunch of white abled cishet men from rich backgrounds. The rest of us look at these people, a ballot card full of these freaks and see them as completely indistinguishable. Even the candidates who aren’t white abled cishet men from rich backgrounds are still toeing party lines–which are, of course, decided by people in parties who come from the same position of privilege as the government and so forth.

Inviting oppressed people to vote is all well and good, but all it achieves is an invitation to be nominally complicit in one’s own oppression. A lot of people are wise to this.

If people want to vote, of course there shouldn’t be barriers in the way, but this goes out to the people who do not and cannot: whatever happens in May is not your fault. The game is stacked, and there are people from all points on the political spectrum who are itching to blame you, because you’ve always been the scapegoat. It’s not your fault, and it never was. 


Things I read this fortnight that I found interesting

Happy Easter, readers. No, I don’t mean happy Easter from last week, it’s Easter today. Here’s some links.

Outraged About Purvi Patel Case? Four Things to Do Now (Deepa Iyer)- Purvi Patel was imprisoned for having a miscarriage. Here’s some actions you can take.

Who cares about the vulnerable when there’s a fight to manufacture? (CN Lester)- CN exposes dodgy tactics at the BBC.

Rad American Women A-B-C– Some fab illustrations of awesome women here.

We need to talk about Ivan (Sturdy Blog)- Old post, but salient again as the election is upon us: how Cameron exploits his dead child.

A Case of Cis Regret (Lola Olson)- An agender activist writes about the hormone therapy they were pressured to take.

An Intersectional Feminist against Imperial Feminism (Julie Hall)- Against white saviours. An important read.

What They Really Mean When They Say They’re Not a Feminist (Ronnie Ritchie)- Comic illustrating what’s really going on.

Everything The Police Said About Walter Scott’s Death Before A Video Showed What Really Happened (Judd Legum)- Documenting the lies. Never trust a copper.

Ferguson officials’ racist emails released– More police racism exposed.

Why being ‘overweight’ means you live longer: The way scientists twist the facts (Malcolm Kendrick)- Hugely important article, highlighting the hidden bits in science.

Actual harm (UnCommon Sense)- What the transmisogynist bigot feminists claim to be “just debate” leads to real world harm. Here’s just one way.

And finally, here’s The Rock lipsynching Taylor Swift and it is absolutely delightful.


Tory “volunteer leave” is absolute bollocks and largely unhelpful to charities

Like everyone else, I can’t fucking avoid all this election waffle. It would be nice if, like during the World Cup, news websites had a way of hiding this big event, because almost everything I see annoys the piss out of me.

Today, it’s the Tories rebranding their “Big Society” wiffle with a promise to require large employers to allow workers paid leave to do volunteering. Three days of volunteering leave!

*record scratch*

Three days a year.

Anybody who has worked at a charity will recognise that this is almost entirely unhelpful to how charities work, and the sort of volunteers charities tend to need. I have worked at small charities and have volunteered in the past, and I can see numerous holes in what is being proposed.

Regular volunteers are crucial to how charities operate. Three days a year is nowhere near enough for many of the tasks charities require from volunteers. Regular, reliable volunteers are the lifeblood of the kind of small charity that cannot afford an employee to perform the work that keeps an organisation ticking over. Volunteers are often needed for the less-than-glamorous, time-consuming tasks like updating databases, stuffing envelopes, and so on. This is stuff which paid staff could do themselves, but then they would never get round to doing their actual jobs. It would be ideal if this sort of work was paid, but charities cannot afford it, and I don’t see the government leaping to subsidise this crucial labour.

Volunteers need to be trained. Regular volunteers are better for charities, because, even with clerical office work, the volunteers need to know the ropes. Every organisation functions differently, and just because a volunteer is a wizard with a particular CRM, doesn’t mean they’ll know how one particular charity formats their data. For volunteers delivering a service (Rape Crisis and the Samaritans spring to mind), the training is at an even higher level. Even if just for an event, volunteers need to know their stuff because they’re representing the charity or cause. A level of training is absolutely essential, and of course this is time- and resource-intensive. Under these three-day-a-year Tory proposals, what would happen would be volunteers would receive their training and then just swan off into the sunset with a sense of warm fuzzies.

Volunteers require a whole bundle of paperwork. It’s difficult having volunteers. While charities may vary in their volunteer policies, having a volunteer generates at least a small degree of labour pays off if they stick around. Everyone requires some sort of record of volunteers, but also some charities might require volunteers undergo a DBS check, for example. I have a sneaking suspicion the Tory proposals would generate yet more paperwork for charities, given that I am sure employers will only grant leave for volunteering with documentation that an employee is actually volunteering at a specific place.

Even for big events, it would be nice to have regulars. I get that this proposal isn’t for the type of volunteering desperately needed by small charities. I get that it’s so a load of employees from big businesses can turn up and smile in photos after planting a tree or whatnot. Here’s the thing: a lot of small charities already have people to do that: regular volunteers. The relationship of trust with a regular volunteer is great for small charities, as you know they’re not going to say or do anything terrible when the cameras are pointed at them. Somebody who has only donated three days has not had the time to build this relationship, and there would be this anxiety hanging over the whole thing.

In short, the whole thing is better for employers (who can feel good about letting their employees go off and volunteer) and potential volunteers rather than charities. For the tiny charities who need volunteers the most, these proposals would create a massive headache with little benefit.

Disclaimer: I suspect the content of this blog will appeal to people with political affiliations which aren’t the Tories, so allow me to say that as well as the Tories being dripping anuses, so are the Green Party, Labour, the Lib Dems, UKIP, TUSC and all the other tiddly trot parties, the nationalist parties of NI, Scotland and Wales, as well as Mebyon Kernow (who always get forgotten), and also the loyalist parties, and basically, if you’re in a political party, your party’s shit. So there.


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