Sunday, January 31, 2016

For the beginning of the rehearsals of my "Every One"

Rehearsals start for my "Every One" tomorrow, before it opens at the Battersea Arts Centre on March 2nd.

Chris Goode, who's directing, has been researching in my blog. And he found this entry; which he thinks the cast should read, and perhaps hear spoken.

Reading it myself, I think maybe every one should have the chance to read it.

I see I wrote it when I was on the waiting list for open heart surgery. The surgeon had told me he would have to stop my heart beating in order to be able to work on it; and though I accepted his reassurances, I know it had been very much in my mind that he might not be able to get it started again.

I think I must have written this because it seemed important to have it on the record. Just in case...

Chris is a wonderfully gifted director who has assembled a fabulous cast.

Tomorrow they all start out on what will be an intense emotional journey.

So I republish now to wish them well.

"It was towards the end of June 2004 that Susie had her first attack.

She said it was like some hideous gargoyle landed on her shoulder.

Something evil, with intent to attack her.

She thought she’d brushed it off, somehow, and that the wound was slight.

We all believed her, and believed the doctors when they said that it was only a minor stroke, that she would recover from it, and that there was no reason for us not to go on holiday later that July.

And so we went, and Susie bought herself a stick, of the kind that hikers use, and walked each day up and down the beachfront to recover her strength.

It was towards the end of the holiday that she seemed to be losing it again. Or at least she got dizzy again sometimes. And couldn’t always find her way from the hotel foyer to our room.

And in August, back in Edinburgh for the Festival, I remember trying to help her negotiate the crowds on the Royal Mile with the greatest difficulty. She had lost half her peripheral vision. It had suddenly gone.

And then the headaches began.

Hideous, agonising headaches, and constant phone calls to the doctor to get stronger and stronger painkillers. That never seemed strong enough.

Until in the early hours of the Wednesday she gave a cry and I found her unconscious. Strangely spread-eagled on the bed.

And that night, in the hospital, a grave-faced doctor told me they had noticed a shadow on her brain-scan. That they would transfer her to the Western where they’d be able to take a better look.

And a doctor there told me she would have to drill a hole into the back of her skull to take a sample of what looked very like a tumour. Just so they would know for sure. The computers can tell us very precisely where it is, she explained, and they can guide us to the best possible route. But once I’m working inside the skull I’m working blind. It may happen I hit a blood vessel.

It all sounded incredibly crude. I couldn’t help but be reminded of trepanning, which they did in the Middle Ages: drilling a hole in the skull to let out the evil spirits.

By now it was Friday. Friday the 13th. They told me the operation had gone well, technically: they had located the tumour and obtained a good sample.

But the tumour they had found was of the most invasive and malignant kind. It was growing close to the brain stem, and there was no way of removing it. Most likely days, the doctor said. Possibly weeks. Gather the family.

I had to tell them. Tell Susie’s widowed mother, in her eighties, that her daughter was going to die. 

Tell my two daughters, 19 and 24 years old, that their mum was going to die. Tell myself that my life long lover and companion, who I had known for 33 years, was going to die.

Try to understand.

Although on reflection trying to understand was all a bit beside the point.

It was more a question of simply trying to cope. Cope with the endless crises that the tumour used to throw us into with what felt sometimes like deliberate malice.

The utterly unpredictable changes of awareness and personality and mood.

Keep organising the circle of astonishing kind friends who would undertake to be
with her. Because she needed someone to be with her all the time.

To keep buying the groceries, keep cooking the meals, keep doing the washing. Trying to keep the house clean. Trying to keep life going in the midst of it all.

It wasn’t just a time of grief and torment: at the beginning, especially, every new day of life felt like a gift.

There were times of wild joy and deep happiness.

But it was as if the shadow they found that night in the hospital grew larger and deeper and blacker. 

As the effort to organise the daily trip to the hospital for radiotherapy seemed to become more and more intense. Radiotherapy whose effects no-one could predict, that seemed more and more like a gesture to ward off hopelessness.

As she suddenly one night entered status epilepticus – one fit succeeding the other without any understanding of why or how they could ever be stopped.

The tumour, I read somewhere, did not so much destroy the cells of the brain itself as the connections between its various centres: and more and more her mind seemed to be like a giant wheel spinning out of connection and control.

There were days and nights too when it seemed she would never stop talking.

Until one day, just before Christmas, she fell unconscious.

She was unconscious right through Christmas and into New Year. It seemed to everyone that this had to be the end.

It was a dreadful sad time, but it seemed right, somehow, that she should go in the house she loved among us whom she loved.

And then in early January she suddenly recovered consciousness again.

Only by now she had lost all strength in her legs and there was no way we could continue to nurse her.

She resisted going to the hospice with all her strength.

I fooled myself into thinking that they might help her there recover some of her strength so she could come home again. But she knew better; and I guess that was why she so fiercely fought going.

But in the end there was no choice. We were all beyond the limits of exhaustion.

The truly terrible thing about a brain tumour is that it turns the person you love into a total stranger.

It was a kindness for her, I suppose, in a cruel kind of way, because it shielded her, I think, from total awareness of what was happening to her.

But for us it was torment.

And those last 7 weeks in the hospice we were all torn between our desire not to lose her and our wish for the torment to end.

The nights were worse, because she was afraid and would never want me to leave her. It was like trying to settle a child who’s afraid of the dark and won’t settle: and you are tired, so very very tired, you just feel desperate for her to sleep so you can tiptoe quietly away.

And then one night she gave me a clumsy hug. I left her listening to a Burns song. “Ane fond kiss, and then we sever...”

The next morning the hospice phoned to say she was unconscious.

For several nights and days we camped in the hospice, watching her in turns.

And then one afternoon, when I was in Marks and Spencer stocking up on grapes and sandwiches, sticky buns and bottles of wine – on the provisions to help us through the long night ahead – the hospice nurse phoned me, in tears, to say she had gone.

I don’t know how you ever recover from an experience like that. Or how, after being lucky enough to love someone for most of your life, you manage to create a new life after they’ve gone.

Perhaps it’s just not possible: I am still in the process of finding out.

But what I do know is that when she comes to me in dreams, as she still does, the dreams are different. 

In the beginning, they were a torment. It was unbearable to wake up after them and remember, again, that she was gone.

But now, when she comes, and she is always young and full of joy and life, it is a comfort, somehow. 

It is as if it’s a reminder that in some ways she will always be with me: that the love we have felt, the love we truly and deeply loved, never completely leaves us. Is never completely lost and gone.

I don’t understand that, and I don’t understand the process that has made it come about.

But I do know that being able to talk about it all and cry over it all with someone who listens and is there for you without being embarrassed or heart-broken or ashamed all helps somehow.

And it is true, I think, what they say: that time can heal. And that life does, in spite of everything, still go on.

Jo Clifford. Edinburgh, Sunday, 26 August 2007.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

My Reply of the Lassies

It was an amazing privilege to speak at a Burns supper last night alongside Nicola Sturgeon, Liz Lochhead and so many amazing gifted performers and speakers.

What made it extra special was that I was asked to do the Reply of the Lassies. It’s the first time a trans woman has been asked to do this at a formal Burns Supper, as far as we know, and it was a great honour for me.

I should maybe say before I start that the very first Reply I ever did was many years ago at a Trout Supper. Trout Suppers were an amazing institution began by Jean McIntyre, a dear friend of mine who was a transwoman who wanted to create social events that would be safe and welcoming for everyone, whether cis or trans.

She loved trout fishing and we would gather in her house to eat delicious trout; one of these gatherings was an Impromptu Burns Supper at which, for the very first time, I gave the Reply.

But that was too complicated to explain to the newspapers…

The other thing I should say is that I never write down a speech before I give it. So what follows is a record of what I remembered I intended to say, and sometimes also whatI meant to but forgot to say on the night… The live stream of the whole event is online somewhere and I would heartily recommend it.

(It's here: and I'm about 2 hours 15 in]

But what I said went something like this:

“What a pleasure to be here. What an honour.

Though I must admit I’m a wee bit nervous because I have a confession to make.

And no, it’s not that i was born in England. You’d have gathered that already.

All I can say is that it happened a very long time ago and it wasn’t my fault.

And no, it’s not that, to my great regret and artistic impoverishment, I have never mistressed the guid Scots tongue.

The thing is, ladies and gentlemen, that though I have lived in Scotland for most of my life, and my late wife was Scottish, and my daughters are Scottish, and my grandson too; and though I am incredibly proud to be a Scottish theatre maker, I have still never been to a formal Burns Supper before.

Yes, this is the very first time. 

And what a place to start! I like it here. I think I might come back…

But this meant that when I was asked to do the Reply of the Lassies I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. So I had to do some research.

And what I discovered was, ladies, that my job is to defend us, the fairer and supposedly the weaker sex, from the stinging insults and the merciless attacks to our honour and integrity from the speaker who came before me.

That gorgeous man with the beard.

But he let us down, that Colin McCredie. Partly because he’s a thoroughly nice young man and partly because he just wouldn’t dare do otherwise.

He just said nice things about us! It’s true he did confuse things just a wee bit by talking about female frogs growing penises, and on the flimsiest of pretexts, and by getting into a terrible guddle about who was supposed to be talking to who, but men often get into a muddle and we’ve learnt to take no notice.

And besides, ladies, just look at us. What an amazing, formidable bunch we are.

Do we really need defending?

And just look who’s with us. The national Makar of Scotland and her First Minister.

(I’m just pointing this out for the benefit of the gentlemen who, as we also know, can be quite amazingly unobservant)

And does Nicola Sturgeon need defending? Does Liz Lochhead?

And that, sir was a rhetorical question. Just in case you missed it. the answer is no.

Definitely not.

So what am I supposed to be doing?

Well it occurs to me that maybe the one who needs defending is myself. Because there will be those who will say that I have no business making this speech. Because my voice is too low, or my shoulders are too broad. Or because I have the wrong kind of vagina.

I know these people. There were the ones who used to shout abuse at me whenever I went out my front door. the ones who laughed in my face and called me “it” and said vile things about me as I wasn’t there.

And they’re close cousins to the ones in other countries who persecute us, deny us our right to education and gainful employment and force us into prostitution. They’re the ones who beat us  and kill us and put us in the gravest danger whenever we show our face.

But I am fortunate to live in Scotland where I am protected by law and where the worst thing that happens to me is that gentlemen of a certain age - and I don’t know why I’m looking at you, Mr. Chairman, but I find I am - let’s say gentlemen of a certain distinction hold open doors for me. As if I couldn’t do it myself. Or carry my suitcase up or down stairs for me. And once one of these charming gentlemen even walked me across a busy road.

And of course this is lovely, but the strange thing about it is that whenever they speak to me - with certain honourable exceptions - they always do so in a condescending tone. As if I was half-witted.

The first time this happened I remember being quite angry. What is going on, I wondered, no one used to treat me like this when I lived as a man. Do I look stupid or something?

Well no. It wasn’t that I looked stupid. It was because I looked like a woman.

And it is amazing, isn’t it ladies, that so many men still need to think that they are superior beings. That they are the lords of creation.

And so they tend to get quite indignant at me because they don’t understand why I, having been born a male, and therefore a lord of creation, should so “demean” myself by choosing to live as a woman.

But the fact is I didn’t choose it. This did not happen as the result of a whim. I live as a woman because it means I am now happy in my own skin. 

And for all of us to seek to become who we truly are is a fundamental human right.

And those who deny me the title of woman are also denying me the title of human being.

And beside, ladies, our toilets are so much nicer.

I don’t know if many of you have ever been in a gents toilet. I don’t recommend it.

And I am uniquely well qualified to talk of such matters.

The thing that about men’s toilets is that they invariably smell. The thing is, ladies, and this  is undeniably odd, that one wall of a gents toilet is occupied by a kind of trough. And what men do is walk up to it and unzip their trousers - I am tempted to ask this gentleman to demonstrate but I shall not - and take out that particular part of their anatomy that apparently qualifies them to be masters of the universe. And then they point it at the trough. Now it is a very big target. And it is not that far away. So you would imagine it was difficult to miss. But yet I regret to say that miss it they almost invariably do. And so there is a most unpleasant damp patch just in front of the trough.

And that is why gents toilets invariably smell so unpleasant.

But as for ladies toilets… gentlemen you have no idea what you’re missing. Ladies toilets always smell delightful. And they are pleasantly decorated, They have nice mirrors and some of them even have a pretty chair. And lots of elegant little cubicles.

I must confess I am somewhat at a loss as to the purpose of the chair. But I imagine it is so you can wait for your friend if she is taking a little bit of extra time in her cubicle.

Because that is something else about ladies’ toilets. Gents toilets are very furtive kind of places and everyone tries to pretend there is no-one else there. They keep their eyes down and scurry out as quick as they can.

But in the ladies toilet we look each other in the eye and we smile. As you and I madam are doing now. And that is so lovely.

And it tells us something, I think, about what it is to be a man and what it is to be a woman in this world.

And there’s another very significant thing. Of course there have always been women in Burns suppers. But invariably in the kitchens. There is a record of one lady being present at the very first Burns supper and, all alone among those drunken men, the poor love must have had a wretched time. In fact she obviously did because there’s no record of her ever coming back.

But when I tried to discover who the first lady was that did the first Reply of the Ladies, I kept drawing a blank.

Mr Google couldn’t tell me. Nor could Wikipedia. Nor could all the people I asked.

So I asked the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum. And they didn’t know.

But its kind curator, Sean McGlashan, asked the Centre for Robert Burns Studies in Glasgow University. And they didn’t know.

But they asked dear Clark McGinn, who did post-graduate research on the history of Burns Suppers. And, bless him, he knew.

According to him, men spoke on behalf of women for most of the 19th century. Which strikes me as an astonishing act of presumption. And I bet they were rubbish at it.

It wasn’t until 1876 that the very first woman gave a Reply of the Lassies. It was in the New York Caledonian Club. And she didn’t speak it. She sang!

And ladies I am somewhat tempted. But i won’t.

And then there’s a long silence until 1920 when there is the first recorded Reply that was spoken. By an unnamed woman in London.

And then another long silence until 1946 when women students of Ayr Academy first began the custom that we are honouring tonight.

And we should honour those feisty young women who decided enough was enough and decided that we women should speak to the men on equal terms.

Because besides being such a lover of women, Burns was a thinker way ahead of his time and I am sure he would be dismayed to discover that so many of the societies founded in his honour should still be so backward and so reactionary in their thinking.

He would be happy to be here tonight. Happy to discover contraception is so freely available. Dear love, how much suffering that would have spared him and the women he went with.

Perhaps happier still to discover that our National poet, our Makar, is a woman. And such a magnificent poet too.

And that we have a First Minister. And that our First Minister is a woman. And one so cannily, so courageously, so fiercely and so fundamentally dedicated to the cause of equality and justice for women. Not just here but throughout the whole world.

Burns and his friends who admired the ideals of the French revolution spoke of the Tree o’ Liberty.

A tall and noble tree whose outspread branches offered shelter to all the oppressed. All of every gender and of every race who were despised, downtrodden, mocked, disparaged and silenced. A refuge in which every one was free to be themselves. And develop their talents and abilities to the benefit of the whole of humanity.

So, everyone, please stand. And ladies and gentlemen, those of every gender and those of none, here and throughout the world, let’s raise our glasses to the Tree O’ Liberty.

Glasgow, 22nd January 2016.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Twelfth night and the end of Christmas

I know it’s Twelfth Night and that I should be taking down the decorations and the tree. But I feel strangely reluctant to do so.

When I was a child I experienced everything as alive and felt so sorry for things that were broken and unwanted and being thrown away. But i don’t think it’s that. It’s not a memory of that old feeling; it’s not that i feel particularly sorry for the Christmas tree. (Though I do, a little bit…)

It’s more that I like it, in this dark time, shining its brave little lights out into the darkness.

Part of that darkness for me is my past; and all those Christmases when I felt as if I didn’t belong. Didn’t belong to my family and also, somehow, didn’t have a place in the world.

Maybe this was because my three brothers were so much bigger and older than me; or maybe it was because I always wanted girls’ toys and never dared ask for them and so was always being given things like boxing gloves or construction sets or racing cars and had to pretend to like them.

When me and my lover got together and eventually started to have children we knew that when we were small we had both suffered from a deep sense of being shamefully wrong. A feeling that in some sense we had deeply hurt and disappointed our parents and so not been worthy of love.

We knew without having to talk about it that when it came to our children we would do all we could to love them whatever. That they didn’t have to be good or clever or artistic or anything. We might get cross sometimes, but we would always love them.

I remember the story of the Three Wise Men coming to see the baby Jesus on this night with their amazing and spectacularly useless gifts. All the more precious, I imagine, because they were so useless. And instead were beautiful.

And I think of how in Spain, maybe in Portugal and Brazil too, this is the night when children are given their presents. 

Because that’s one of the things children are for us: a promise of freedom from the hurts of the past  and a new, fresh and innocent future.

And I will take the tree down tomorrow, I promise I will.

But for now I want to remember my grandson seeing this tree for the very first time, with his face lit up in awe and wonder.

And I’m feeling something like this tonight, hoping in spite of everything, as I write these words to defy the cold darkness.

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