Stop Throwing Stuff, Dude

Catching up…

Saturday November 20th.
To the Cruciform building in Gower Street for London’s Transgender Day Of Remembrance service. The main part of which is a reading of the names of people killed in transphobic attacks over the last twelve months. The list goes on and on and takes a good twenty minutes or so: most of them trans women from Brazil and Mexico. Roz Kaveney reads an excellent poem, and there’s three musical performances. The showtune-belting Mzz Kimberley sings ‘I’m A Tranny’ to the tune of Peggy Lee’s ‘I’m A Woman.’

There’s an interesting contrast between the other two singers: both are trans men (ie born female). Naechane Valentino sings soul-pop and says that since starting to take testosterone, he’s finding it harder to stay in key with his backing tracks. I hope he can get them transposed, pun not intended (which really means one enjoys the accidental pun and so leaves it in).

CN Lester, however, is a classical singer who has chosen to eschew testosterone in order to retain their trained mezzo-soprano voice. I think of the way choir boys’ careers end the moment their voice drops, while boy singers in pop music can carry on, like Michael Jackson. At the service, CN sings a heart-stopping version of Nina Simone’s ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free’.

Two lessons in language learned from this day. One is that the slang term ‘tranny’ is increasingly considered offensive to trans people. Unless you are trans yourself using it in the spirit of reclamation – like Mzz Kimberley – it’s best avoided.

The other is that some trans people do not always – as I’d assumed – use the pronouns of the gender they identify as. Instead, they’d rather be described by the proposed genderless pronouns ‘zie’, ‘hir’ and ‘s/he’, or failing that, ‘they’. CN Lester is one.

Trouble is, mainstream English hasn’t yet evolved to accommodate such words, though I’m sure it’s only a matter of time. There are a few genderless titles, like ‘doctor’ (and indeed CN Lester, being a PHD student, will soon be able to use it). But throwing ‘hir’ into a mainstream text without explanation can’t yet be done.

I’d love to be the kind of writer that helps to kick-start such changes, but here’s another problem – my own identity as a writer. I am a few steps behind the mainstream, being as I am fogeyish and fusty and arch, still using ‘lady’ when I should use ‘woman’, or ‘actress’ rather than ‘female actor’. This usage is part of my character, like my suit-wearing. And character is context.

I just hope that people realise this and do not mistake me for a default mainstream writer. Otherwise it’ll be like the time when I was asked by the hip literary venue The Book Club to take off my jacket and tie. It was clearly a policy aimed to keeping out City workers looking for a drink, but they didn’t realise that my suits are part of my dandyish look, my identity. I wondered if other suit-loving writers, say Tom Wolfe or Mark Twain, ever had the same problem. ‘Come back when you’ve got some skinny jeans on, Mr Twain!’

So, just as I cannot carry off jeans and trainers, I feel unable to join in with some popular changes in English usage. I’ve written before about my inability to use the word ‘shit’ to mean ‘stuff’ or ‘things’. That’s my hipster line drawn in the sand, right there. But I’m starting to feel like the only Englishman alive who doesn’t use it.

Three recent cases in point.

Paul Chambers, the ‘Twitter Joke Trial’ man, used it in the Tweet that saw him arrested: ‘You’ve got a week to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!’

Secondly, the video footage from the student protest at Millbank the other week. After the now-infamous fire extinguisher is seen dropped from the roof onto the police below, the protestors on the ground voice their disapproval instantly, by chanting to their colleagues on the roof, ‘STOP THROWING SHIT! STOP THROWING SHIT!’

Thirdly, David Cameron used the phrase ‘shit happens’ in a dinner speech last week, for the Spectator magazine.

All of which puts me in my increasingly old-fashioned place. When it comes to gender, politics and sexuality, I like to think I’m fairly progressive. But when it comes to language, I am more conservative than the chief Conservative.

I have a female friend who addresses everyone with the word ‘dude’. She’s British, and about 30. I once batted the term back at her in conversation, tongue very much in cheek, knowing full well how it’d sound on my lips. She nearly fell off her chair laughing.

Link: Video of CN Lester performing Dylan’s ‘Just Like A Woman’

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Stuff Happens

More and more often, a bus has waited at an empty stop for me, because the driver has spotted my frantic running and decided to be kind. Obviously they’re not obliged to do this, as it’s my fault for not being at the stop. So by way of returning the kindness, I now make a point of taking home other passengers’ litter, the kind left on seats or on the floor. Free newspapers, empty drinks bottles rolling around, that sort of thing.

I have somewhat less kind thoughts towards a group of passengers on the 134 the other Friday evening.

It’s about 8pm, and the bus is heading from Euston to Camden Town. I’m on the top deck, left hand side, about five seats ahead of the back seat. Which I can hear is occupied by a group of girls, giggling and being loud and raucous in the perennial Friday Night way. Then one girl starts throwing pieces of banana peel down the aisle, getting more laughter from her friends. As all the seats face forward, it is impossible to see the throwing, just the peel.

Then she throws some directly at the head of another passenger. It’s a thirtysomething man sitting with his girlfriend, on the seats opposite and just in front of me. He ignores them.

They do it again. This time, he turns round and asks the girls to stop throwing banana peel at him. He has a foreign accent – French, possibly.

The girls shout back. ‘It wasn’t me!’ ‘I don’t even like bananas!’ Then their tone turns quickly, from unconvincing schoolgirl protest to ugly, second-hand prejudice: ‘At least we’re British, mate. At least we’re meant to be here.’

The Frenchman says, ‘You are nuzzing, you know that?’ And he turns back. His girlfriend whispers to him what I imagine is the French for ‘leave them, Marcel, they’re not worth it.’

The girls get worse.

‘What did he say to me?’ ‘Hey, YOU are nothing, more like. Yeah.’

I put my headphones on and pretend to be listening to music. I’m terrified. I’m hoping this doesn’t get out of hand. I want to intervene and tell the girls off, but I am not that sort of man. On top of which, I think of the man who was stabbed to death on the 43 a few years ago, for asking someone if they’d stop throwing chips at his girlfriend.

They throw more banana peel at the Frenchman. This time, it misses and hits the man sitting directly behind the couple. He’s thirty-ish, unshaven and bespectacled in that Owns Box Sets Of The Wire On DVD way. He turns around and glowers at the girls. English accent. Firm, threatening, every year of his age.

‘Hey. Stop throwing shit. All right? Stop throwing shit.’

‘We wasn’t.’ ‘Wasn’t me.’

The girls now sound resentful, small, put in their place. It seems to do the trick. No more banana peel.

The bus pulls into Camden, and the girls cackle their way down the aisle, down the stairs, out of our lives. I finally get a look at them. Dressed up, made up, and all of 19 or so. I was expecting 13.

The rest of the journey home, I think sadly about the Back Of The Bus dynamic, how nothing has changed since I was at school. The back seat is where loud kids go to be naughty and daring and controlling. Yet cowardly with it, because the other passengers can’t see them. I wonder if the Back Seat does something to them: the psychology of perceived power. A temptation too far. It’s like the attraction of posting anonymous abuse on the Internet.

When I am king, all the buses will have no back seat. They’ll go on into infinity.

I wonder about the girls. They’re not only playing up to an idiot cliche, but they’re too old for it. I wonder about their lives. I wonder if they’ll grow up, and when. I wonder which among them is the Main Girl, which ones are her doting deputies, and which ones are just tagging along out of fear.

I feel ashamed on behalf of the Frenchman. And I feel envious and hero-worshipping of the 6Music-y man who spoke out. Not just because he dared to turn around, stare them out and tell them off, but because he knew how just to say ‘shit’ to mean ‘stuff’, and not ‘excrement.’

It’s a usage I was blissfully unaware of until about the mid 80s, when I saw the hip film ‘Repo Man’ on video. Harry Dean Stanton’s character uses it in this way, and constantly. I remember being incredibly shocked. In fact, it upstaged the rest of the film for me. Movies are the lessons they don’t give you at school.

A few weeks ago I watched an episode of Skins, the popular UK drama. In that, Effy, a middle class, Southern English teenager is in a dream sequence. She meets a younger version of herself who won’t speak. ‘Don’t give me any of that silent shit,’ she says.

In 1985, to hear this from a British girl would have made me implode, frankly. Now it’s just used to make Effy sound like a typical teenager. So I guess it’s now official: the term has caught on.

(Typing this up, I check the OED definition. The usage is in there, but only just. It’s labelled ‘Draft Additions 2009’. Earliest known appearance, 1934, ‘Tropic of Cancer’ by Henry Miller.)

I envy how the man on the bus can speak Fluent Youth back at the girls, and that he can mean it, whereas for me it’d be hilariously out of character.

He’s like those teachers at my school who would use the occasional bit of swearing in their crowd control. A tactic that implied, ‘I may be a teacher but I too can do intimidation and slang. That’s the only two weapons you have, and I have them too, and yet I’m much older. That’s right, look scared.’

I come away from all this with a renewed respect for bus drivers, teachers, the French, and men of my age whose usage of youth slang I normally find unbecoming. Now I want a man like that on my keyring.

Before I get off the bus, I pick up the banana peel.

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