This evening I attended a talk at the M-Shed Museum in Bristol on that great West Country mystery, King Arthur. It was given by Professor Ronald Hutton of Bristol University who is an expert on all sorts of things, including medieval paganism and witchcraft. He’s very much my sort of historian, in that he believes in presenting facts and finds it interesting what stories people see in them.
Many of you, I am sure will be familiar with the vast swathes of scholarship surrounding the existence or lack thereof of Arthur. You will have read Gildas, Bede and Nennius, not to mention John Morris and Geoffrey Ashe. I don’t want to hash over all of that. I’m just going to concentrate on what Hutton said that was new to me.
Firstly it is a commonly held belief that Arthur was just a Welsh legend until that memorable chancer, Geoffrey of Monmouth, made up a whole load of nonsense for his History of the Kings of Britain. I’m sure Geoffrey would be delighted to accept the credit for inventing the whole Arthurian mythos, and a near-contemporary historian, William of Newburgh, accused him of as much. William was writing in around 1190, some 50 years after Geoffrey published his History.
However, contrary to William’s view, I give you the illustration above. As you can see, it clearly shows a knight named as Artus De Bretani. Other knights in the illustration are named as Galvagin and Che. They are attacking a castle in which can be found a man called Mardoc and a woman called Winlogee. The carving is on the north gate of the cathedral at Modena in Italy. It is believed to date from the early 12th Century, possibly as early as 1120, some 20 years before Geoffrey published his History.
Now obviously there is a certain amount of leeway in historical dates, but it seems pretty clear that the whole Arthur legend, including Gawain, Kay and Guinevere, was well known in Italy at roughly the same time that Geoffrey was writing his book. That suggests that he didn’t make it up but instead, as he claimed, got it from an older work that is now lost.
Fast forward now to 2016, There have been two major archaeological discoveries in Britain this year that have bearing on the Arthur legend. The first was at Tintagel, and was covered in some detail by Alice Roberts in her new series of Digging for Britain that premiered last night on the BBC. The dig at Tintagel has uncovered a major “high status” complex of buildings dating from the 5th or 6th Century. Not only were there impressive stone buildings, but there was clear evidence of extensive trading with the Mediterranean.
If the people of Cornwall were trading with Greece, for which we have good evidence, they were almost certainly trading with Byzantium. I asked Hutton about this and he reminded me that the 6th Century was a period of significant expansion of westward links thanks to a smart Emperor called Justinian, so this all makes a lot of sense. Hutton added that Procopius makes no mention of Britain save to note that it is so far away it may be the place where the souls of the dead end up. But then Procopius didn’t like Theodora and was horribly two-faced when it came to Justinian so I’m not inclined to place much trust in him.
Anyway, if the dates we have for Arthur are correct then he and Justinian were contemporaries. Which means that Guinevere, Morgan and Theodora were contemporaries. I so much want to throw them together in a book and see what happens.
Hutton also noted that the site at Tintagel was abandoned around 700, and yet Geoffrey, writing over 400 years later, knew enough about Cornish history to claim it as the place of Arthur’s birth.
Finally we move to Glastonbury. Pretty much everyone agrees that the claims by the medieval monks to have found Arthur’s tomb are fanciful. The cross on which Arthur and Guinevere’s names were inscribed had a style of writing that was unknown in the 6th Century. And the graveyard in which the monks claimed to have dug has since been excavated and found to be Saxon. Furthermore, there was no clear evidence that there was any monastery at Glastonbury in Arthurian times. The Abbey was believed to have been founded by the Saxons.
Until this week. On Monday archaeologists working on a site at Beckery near Glastonbury announced the discovery of a monastery dating from the 5th or 6th Century. It is now the oldest known monastery in Britain, displacing Iona which is late 6th Century.
There is still no clear evidence for the existence of Arthur as an historical character. But his legend is clearly older, and much more widely spread around Europe, than is generally believed. And the post-Roman civilization in 5th and 6th Century Britain is clearly much richer and more powerful than anyone thought.
I spent part of last Thursday in the Public Gallery of the House of Commons watching the first ever parliamentary debate on trans rights. For many of you this is doubtless not very exciting, but considering that trans people had no rights at all in the UK when I first transitioned it was a major step forward for me. Here’s a brief report on the day.
I should start by noting how painless it was to get in. The Parliament website warns you that it may take 1 to 2 hours to get a seat. That’s presumably on a busy day. On a Thursday in December with kids in school, tourists thin on the ground, and no high profile business the House was very quiet. The staff were very polite and helpful, and about the only complaint I could have is that the signage was somewhat confusing. At one point a sign told me that I would have to surrender my phone at the cloakroom, but in fact that wasn’t required. All that they ask is that you don’t take photographs. That’s a weird request given that the whole proceedings are televised, but there it is. Tweeting, however, is perfectly OK. Reception was a bit patchy, but I got a lot of tweeting done.
Those of you who have seen the TV coverage may be dismayed at how empty the House was for the debate. However, that was understandable. There was a by election going on that day. The LibDems had a good chance of winning (and did) so all of their people were out canvassing. Large numbers of Tories and Labour MPs were too. Ben Howlett, the Bath MP whom I had talked to at the party in the Speaker’s House the night before, said he had to ask for special permission from his party to attend the debate.
The one group of MPs with no interest in the by election were the Scottish Nationalists, and they were out in force. In fact they outnumbered the rest of the MPs. Alex Salmond joked at one point that they should be able to make use of their majority, but of course there was little substantive business to discuss.
The debate on trans rights was billed as a parliamentary first because previous discussion had been limited to specific issues. When the Gender Recognition Act was passed in 2004 MPs were only looking at the narrow issue of legal gender. Although trans people are covered by the Equality Act, there are 8 other protected characteristics that will have had more debate time when the Act was being considered.
We were getting a debate because the Women & Equalities Committee, in the form of its Chair, Maria Miller, has got fed up of government inaction on their Trans Equality Report (published in January). The purpose of the debate was to embarrass the government (ever so slightly, because Miller is a Tory) and encourage them to get on with things.
A few specific things came out of the debate, the most high profile of which is that Ms. Miller introduced a private member’s bill to amend the Equality Act so that it covers “Gender Identity” rather than “Gender Reassignment”. Because the current protected characteristic is tied to people who will have, are having or have had medical treatment, large portions of the trans community are technically uncovered by the Act. Miller’s bill would fix that loophole. The government argues that people are covered if there is a perception that they have the protected characteristic, so there is no need for a change, but that places a much greater burden of proof on those people not having any medical treatment. Also one has to wonder why the government is unwilling to make such a simple, obvious and seemingly uncontroversial change. It remains to be seen how far Ms. Miller’s bill will get.
The SNP announced that 2017 would be the Year of Trans Equality in Scotland. It is as yet unclear what this means. However, SNP speakers were far more radical in their support for trans rights than anyone else. In particular they argued for self-determination of gender, and for gender-neutral passports. Both of these are things the government has firmly rejected. As far as I know, Scotland doesn’t have the right to issue its own passports (yet). However, they do have a lot of their own laws, and a review of those to make space for non-binary people would be a very welcome thing.
For the government, Caroline Dinenage, who is the Minister with specific responsibility for LGBT+ issues, promised to publish an update on the government’s trans equality action plan in 2017. Whether this will actually happen, and if so whether there will be anything concrete in it, remains to be seen. She also noted that the government had committed to an overhaul of the Gender Recognition Act at some point. Hopefully the fact that so many MPs laid into the medical and judicial nature of a process that should be purely bureaucratic will have had some impact on government thinking.
As far as I was concerned, the best thing about the whole day was that MPs from all three of the largest parties spoke warmly and fulsomely in support of trans rights. That’s a massive change from even five years ago. I’m not very confident of actual progress on legislation, but we are now at the point where government has to make excuses for their lack of action while professing to want to make progress. That’s a huge difference, politically speaking, from dismissing the entire idea of trans rights as abhorrent.
Throughout the debate, only one MP spoke against trans rights. That was Labour’s Caroline Flint, who early in the debate tried to derail the whole thing by introducing bathroom panic. The point she tried to make was that women would be at risk from attack by men in gender-neutral toilets, so trans people could only gain rights at the expense of women. This is ridiculous on multiple grounds:
- No one is asking for all toilets to be made gender neutral;
- Many toilets are already gender neutral (Maria Miller gave aircraft as an example) and there is no major problem as a result;
- The sorts of things Flint cited as examples of potential problems are already illegal under existing laws (thank you the SNP member who made this point);
- Contrary to what Flint might believe, trans women are not indistinguishable from “men in dresses” and many of us already use women’s toilets regularly without anyone noticing or being harmed;
- Indeed, those of us with Gender Recognition Certificates already have an absolute legal right to use women’s toilets, and have had for 12 years, so it is a bit late to panic now;
- In any case, in this country, if men want to sneak into women’s toilets to commit assaults, all they have to do is dress as a cleaner;
- In any case, as Maria Miller noted, equality is not a zero sum game; giving some people rights does not mean taking them away from other people.
The last point is crucial. No one in the chamber picked up on this, but by stating that trans people could only have rights at the expense of women Flint was explicitly saying that trans people (of any type) cannot be women.
Of course it was also deeply embarrassing for Labour to have one of their MPs using the same sorts of panic tactics that are favored by extreme right Republicans in the USA. Stephen Doughty, one of the South Wales Labour MPs who spoke in support of trans rights spent about an hour in quiet but animated discussion with Flint after she had been slapped down. Whatever point he was trying to make presumably didn’t get through because as I left Flint was furiously haranguing Hannah Bardell, one of the SNP members who had spoken in the debate. Later she posted a statement saying that she was in favor of trans rights but quoting Sarah Ditum in her support, which is rather like saying you are in favor of immigrants and then favorably quoting Nigel Farage.
If any women readers happen to live in Doncaster and are constituents of Ms. Flint I suggest you drop her a line and ask her to stop being so silly.
In Labour’s defense I should note that several of their MPs spoke in support of trans people and their chief spokesperson on Women and Equalities, Sarah Champion, made one of the best speeches of the debate.
So, that was an historic day. As I noted earlier, nothing concrete may come of it. But politics is very much a game of setting agendas, and that day very much put trans people’s rights on the parliamentary map.
Well, not literally of course. But there will be a talk about the case for an historical Arthur at the M-Shed on Wednesday night. It is being given by Professor Ronald Hutton of Bristol University, who is one of the big experts on prehistoric Britain. Conveniently I have to be in town for a radio show. I may see some of you at M-Shed in the evening.
The latest newsletter from The Diversity Trust has been published. As usual there is a lot of good content.
I’m delighted to see us getting into the field of easy reading training. That’s essential to so many areas of social engagement.
Our new recruit, Aaron Barnes, talks about the difficulties of getting proper medical testing when you are very obviously a man but happen to have a vagina.
Berkeley talks about issues affecting older members of the LGBT community — something that has grown in part out of the event we did in October as part of the Bristol Festival of Literature.
There’s a section on the wonderful people at SARI whom we work with on hate crime issues. Some of the stories that they tell about things that happen to trans people in Bristol are just terrifying. Much too terrifying to be put in the newsletter.
Also there’s news of a project being run by Bristol University looking at justice and gender-based violence. There’s more information about that here.
You can read the whole newsletter here.
SMOFcon is taking place this weekend in Chicago. Kevin is there, and one of the things he has been doing is videoing the Fannish Inquisition sessions.
For those not in the know, the Fannish Inquisition is that part of SMOFcon where current and future bids for Worldcon, NASFiC and SMOFcon make presentations and are interrogated by the audience of seasoned conrunners. If you are interested in attending, or voting for, future conventions, this is a very good way to get information.
Altogether there are 17 videos in the playlist. They include presentations from the Helsinki (2017) and San José (2018) Worldcons and the San Juan (2017) NASFiC. Some of the presentations are for hoax bids, because fandom is incapable of being serious all of the time. Norm Cates makes the presentation for the New Zealand in 2020 Worldcon bid by video link. Other future Worldcon bids include Dublin (2019), France (2013) and the UK (2024).
You can find all of those videos here.
This morning I popped over to Bradford-on-Avon where the canal folk were holding a floating Christmas market. (It will still be on tomorrow if you are local and want to go.) I did so because the Daily Malice‘s War on Non-Christians has made it almost impossible to buy a solstice card in a high street shop. If I want cards to send to friends and family I have to get them from small businesses. Thankfully I have the fabulous Dru Marland to rely on. The above is the card I used last year. If you like it, and want to guess which card I’m using this year, you can see more at Dru’s Etsy shop.
I also discovered SkyRavenWolf, on whose products I could spend an absolute fortune.
Every year Schools Out runs a launch event for the following year’s LGBT History Month festivities. The actual month is in February, but the launch event usually happens in November. This year, because 2017 will mark the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of male homosexuality in the UK, the launch event was held in Parliament. I was one of a small group of people lucky enough to have an invitation to an exclusive soiree in the House of the Speaker, which is inside the Palace of Westminster.
It really is the Speaker’s house, by the way. He does live there, though he wasn’t able to be in attendance that evening. As you can see from the photos, it is a rather splendid residence.
It was lovely to catch up with Stuart Milk and have a brief chat with him about the situation in the USA. I have no doubt that he and his Foundation will be doing everything they can to protect LGBT+ Americans from Trump, Pence and their ilk. I also got to have a brief chat with Ben Howlett, the MP for Bath, who told me of his plans to speak in the trans equality debate the next day.
A special hour out is due to my pal Adam Lowe who looked absolutely stunning for the evening and read a great poem. Adam tells me that he’ll shortly be shopping around a couple of science fiction novels. I know his short stuff is great and I’m looking forward to seeing what he produces in the longer form.
Photo by Janna Funke
The only sour note of the evening came from Anna Eagle who had the cheek to try to claim that all of the LGBT+ rights legislation passed by the Blair & Brown governments were Labour initiatives. The Gender Recognition Act was only passed after years of fighting the government in the courts, and finally getting a European court ruling in our favor. Thankfully Christine Burns, who got an OBE for her part in getting the Act passed, got to make a speech later in the evening, and she politely but firmly put the record straight.
Christine was also very candid about the current political landscape. She, like Stuart, noted how all LGBT+ rights are currently under threat in the USA, and noted that the same could happen here. “None of my life’s work is safe”, she said.
Probably the best speech of the night was made by Lord Michael Cashman. As well as being a Labour Peer and former Member of the European Parliament, he’s also an actor. He’s been in Doctor Who, but he’s most famous for his time in Eastenders during which he was one half of the first gay kiss on British television. He talked about the importance of the Human Rights Act, and the fact that human rights are intended to be universal. What little we know of the Tories’ oft-aborted attempts to replace the HRA with a “British Bill of Rights” suggests that those replacement rights will not be universal, and in some circumstances will only apply to British people. Trump’s threat to revoke the citizenship of anyone who burns the US flag is a reminder of where such selective rights can lead us.
Me with Lord Cashman
It was a splendid evening, and many thanks to Schools Out for the invitation. It’s a shame that not all of the LGBT History Month hub organizers could be there. (Missed you, Jen and Kit.) However, I did get to meet some lovely people from London museums. That led to my visit to the V&A which I wrote about yesterday, and may lead to things happening in Greenwich in the near future.
I loved this mirror, though judging from the non-Euclidian angles in the photo I may have consumed too much of The Speaker’s nice red wine by the time I took it.
Thanks to meeting some lovely people at the Speaker’s House in Parliament on Wednesday night (more of that some other time) I got to spend yesterday afternoon as a guest at the Victoria & Albert Museum. I was there to see a new exhibition titled, “You Say You Want a Revolution: Records and Rebels 1966-1970”. It really was a remarkable period in Western history. It saw the flower power movement and anti-war activism, the start of the gay rights movement and the black power movement, the burgeoning of second wave feminism, the birth of the environmentalist movement and the first Moon landing. We got a lot wrong back then, primarily because we didn’t talk to each other, but there was much right too.
As the V&A recognizes, music was key to much of what went on. Pop music was a relatively new thing, and musicians were at the forefront of many of the political movements. If you take the headphones around the exhibition you get treated to some of the finest anthems of the era along the way. Cleverly the V&A is selling an album based on the exhibition. It has no Beatles, because they are still very protective of their output, but most of the other important songs are there.
Obviously the exhibition very much caters to people like me who were kids or teenagers at the time. Nevertheless I think it is hugely important right now. We need to recapture that spirit of revolution, and this time we need to do it right.
Yesterday was quite spectacular.
First up we had the first ever debate on trans rights in the UK Parliament. (The debates on the Gender Recognition Act were limited solely to legal recognition, and were forced on an unwilling government by the European Court.) It was a huge thrill to be able to be in the public gallery of the House of Commons to watch the debate unfold. I’ll have more to say about that when I have more time, but it was a very special day. I note also that the majority of the speakers in the debate were women. Given how badly outnumbered we are in Parliament, that is quite interesting.
While I was in Parliament I heard from Juliet McKenna that the EU has thrown in the towel over VAT on digital products. Juliet has more details here, but the short version is that at some point in the next year or two digital trading by micro-businesses will be back to normal. It is worth noting that this is an issue that primarily affected women-owned and women-run businesses, and the work to sort it out was done almost entirely by women.
Finally we had the Richard Park by election. On the one hand we had a male candidate backed by the Tories and UKIP who was pro-Brexit and had run a vile campaign in trying to become Mayor of London. On the other we had a female candidate who was anti-Brexit and anti-hate. She was a LibDem but was backed by the Greens and WEP. The woman won.
If only all days could be like that. (And apologies to Farah and Edward whom I know had a very stressful day.)
Well, guess who wasn’t home for very long?
I headed off to London this morning, the main reason for which was that it is time for me to be declared sane again. The NHS, bless them, are convinced that trans people are constantly on the verge of suffering massive regret and begging to be changed back to their “real” gender. Fat chance. But I need to go through the hoops to get the medication that I need. It is also good to have regular blood tests to make sure my estrogen levels are OK. I have to pay for all of this privately.
Anyway, it seems that I am still sane and female, so I am spending the night in Camden. I have tomorrow to see people in London, and in the evening I am going to the launch party for next year’s LGBT History Month. This year it is in a little place called the Palace of Westminster. I’ve not been there before so I thought I should check it out. If it is nice I’ll take a few pictures.