Carry on, Jeeves – a book review

Carry on, Jeeves – a book review

Wotcher, lovely people!

So this is the first in what will hopefully turn into a series of book/movie/tv series reviews. I’m thinking this could be a good exercise for me while giving you entertainment suggestions for your lazy Sunday afternoons. Win-win, right? Right! So let’s start. This is an oldie. I wrote this as part of my Master’s degree, back in 2013, but don’t you know, I think it holds up pretty nicely. I hope it’s as fun to read as it was to write.

Enjoy! Or not. You do you.


 

When endeavouring to comment upon the work of Mr P.G. Wodehouse, one must wander around the superlative shop with an eye out for discount offers. Now I don’t want to seem over-enthusiastic or anything, but I will go so far as to say that there is a decent chance the chap might be the most talented wordsmith I have ever had the good fortune to read. He’s got it, don’t you know.

Should you chance to open the collection of short stories titled Carry On, Jeeves, the first in a remarkable series, you will meet characters so alive with clumsiness and colourful expressions that they will have you spout out nonsense like “this guy is so improbably absurd that he must be real”. Bertie Wooster will entertain you with some delightful anecdotes from his eccentric life, all of which involve a “kind of darkish sort of respectful Johnnie” of a manservant called Jeeves, who quietly shuffles into his life one day and just as quietly takes over the household. About Jeeves, what can I say? The first thing you learn about him is that “the man’s a genius”. These credentials make him the person to ask when, say, you want to get rid of a manuscript you stole, or need to make a young lady understand that your friend is desperately smitten. Jeeves will always come up with a cunning plan to solve the whole thing, and still manage to get his way every single time. If Jeeves doesn’t like your tie, then by Jove you’ll have thrown it away by the end of the week.

Now Mr Wooster, in his own words “an optimist” and “all for rational enjoyment and so forth”, is the ideal narrator. He will have you laughing your lungs out without even trying to make any jokes. In fact, he probably wouldn’t understand why you are not taking him seriously. He will address you directly with a clear “you know” and yet never will you feel like his voice is forced upon you, nor will these addresses ever get in the way of the story moving forward. For Carry On, Jeeves is first and foremost an utterly enjoyable read.

When I picked it up to write a few words about it, I found I could not put it down, although I’d already read it and, in fact, knew it inside out and upside down. P.G. Wodehouse has this way of sucking you in and keeping you hooked. And I don’t mean in a suspense-y Dan Brown-y way. You keep reading because of the writing (as it should be with every book, let’s just put that out there). If you’ve read as much as four books – well, let’s say five, one doesn’t like to boast – you will know a master storyteller when you see one. It doesn’t take an amazing, knows-all-Proust-by-heart-and-in-French-too, reader to recognize that Mr Wodehouse knows what he’s doing. Every story feels controlled from the first word to the last, neatly tied up in a simple but solid little knot. And on top of all that, it’s dashed clever. There is a good chance that reading Wodehouse will improve your vocabulary. Looking for a new way to call your auntie? How about “old flesh and blood”? Or maybe you want to compliment your friends on their superior intellect? Try “from the collar upward you stand alone”. I guarantee you will make an impression.

What I mean to say is: how often do you find light reading that’s also great literature?

When you consider just how cheap the good old Penguin edition is – and even when you don’t consider it, come to that – there is really no excuse for you not to have Jeeves on your bookshelf. Believe me, he is the kind of man you want around the house.

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Character creation: basics

It is my belief, but not mine alone, that a story’s most important advocates are its characters. The fictitious people make the fictitious world, so let us take a look at the basics of character building.

There should be a good reason for the presence of each and every one of your characters. A character can serve a multitude of purposes. Maybe he is holding back vital information. Maybe her story arc mirrors the protagonist’s for contrast. Maybe he will try to help but end up causing trouble.

Which brings us to guideline number two. Nobody is perfect. Perfect is boring, and happy people don’t make for good stories. Make your characters human. The best flaws are relevant to the story. A randomly near-sighted character is not as interesting as one who needs to win an archery competition. What if your leader has a beta personality? What if your soldier can’t stand the sight of blood?

However, there is a fine line between “she’s an idiot, I want to kick her” and “I’ll read something else”. In the first instance, the reader is still engaged. Do not allow your audience to give up on the protagonist. It’s okay to be an idiot if you’re brave. It’s okay to be snarky if you have a good heart. Walk the line.

With these very basic tips at your disposal, go forth, my friend, and remember: a good character can save a bad plot. A good plot cannot save a bad character.

 

 

Six months

Six months

Sam's Words And Worlds

Six months. It’s been six months since you left me. And I have been thinking of you almost every waking moment of every day, and almost every sleeping moment of every night. The pain has not dulled. Time does not heal all wounds. That’s bullshit. Some wounds simply never heal. And this is one of them.

I don’t know what to say, except that I love you. And that I hate you sometimes, for literally dying on me. I hate you so much it feels like my blood has turned to liquid rage. And then I hate myself for hating you, because you never meant to leave me like that. It was an accident. The first thing I told you that day was that it was okay for you to go, that I wouldn’t blame you. And I meant it. But I had no idea it would be this hard…

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Stuck in Traffic

Stuck in Traffic

I’m not much of a writer, but some things are so surprising and incredible that you just have to talk about them. My adventure – and yes, I would call it an adventure – started several years ago. I say “started” because I feel the events I’m going to share with you shaped my life and will forever continue to shape it. I was twenty years old and fresh out of college. Barely was my diploma in my hands that I left the comfort of my parents’ home to travel the world. I had been planning the trip all year, an occupation that had caused my grades to drop a few points. I was going to fly to Beijing, rent a car and visit the country from there. As any young bloke who had never left his hometown, I was filled with ideas of huge landscapes, wild nature and a good deal of “making it on my own” feelings.

Upon my arrival in China, I discovered it was going to be trickier than I thought. I had been teaching myself Chinese for the past year, but actually having a conversation with someone bears little to no resemblance to reading sentences in books. I had the hardest time following when the man who rented me the car warned me against the Beijing-Tibet expressway. If I had understood better, I might have taken his advice and missed out on the most interesting and character-building experience of my life; so, in this way, I would say I was lucky my Chinese was bad.

At first, it looked like any other traffic jam. The highway at rush hour. You know that feeling you can get that you’re going to be here all night. The thing is: even when you get that feeling, you don’t actually believe you’re going to be here all night. Deep down, annoyed as you are, you know it’ll be two hours tops. At first, I thought it would be two hours tops. Time passed and then I thought it would be four hours tops. Then I thought it would be six hours tops. By the time the sun went down, we were moving about two inches every ten minutes.

And suddenly, it happened. The driver in front of me turned his engine off. That’s when I realised I hadn’t grown accustomed to the roaring as I thought I had. The roaring had stopped. I reached over to turn off my engine as well and found myself apprehending the moment when I would admit that I was actually going to be here all night after all. Instead of turning the key, I wind down my window. It had been a very hot day and the air inside the car was barely breathable.

I was busy taking in the fresh air of the evening when my eyes locked with those of the man sitting in the passenger seat of the car next to mine. He was about fifty, his face was wrinkled and very tan. He smiled. I timidly smiled back, and then returned to my steering wheel, which, I grant you, was quite useless under the circumstances. I sighed and finally turned my engine off. The silence rang in my ears for a while. I must say I just felt like crying. I cursed myself out loud for being stupid enough to think I could actually make it on my own. I was all alone in this foreign country without any clue as to how long I was stuck there and all I wanted was to be back home. I crossed my arms over the wheel and buried my face in them.

It was morning when I woke up. Very early morning, but morning nonetheless. I felt sort of numb, my neck was sore and I was starving. I was still fighting with the remains of sleep that were pulling my eyelids down when I heard a light knocking against my car door. A woman was standing there, gently smiling at me. She started speaking to me and I must say I didn’t understand a word she said.

“Sorry?” I said in English. I really didn’t feel like making an effort.

She did, however. She repeated a little slower but it was her gesture towards the front of my car that made me understand we were moving again. I nodded. She nodded.

“Thank you,” I said.

She nodded again, smiled some more and went back to her vehicle. I was able to move my car about three feet before the line stopped again.

Looking around, I saw some people getting out of their cars, so I opened my door carefully and stepped out on the tarmac. It was a surreal experience to walk on the highway. I didn’t dare leave my car – which was silly because it was pretty much like being in a parking lot – so I just stretched my legs and leaned against my car door, and almost fell through the open window. The man who’d smiled at me the day before chuckled. I blushed and looked away, trying to seem cooler than I felt.

I spotted a group of merchants slaloming between the vehicles, selling food and drink to the drivers. They must have come from a nearby village. Suddenly remembering that I was starving, I stopped a guy who was walking past me and proceeded in buying a cup of instant noodles and a bottle of water. I thought I had done a pretty good job in carrying out the transaction entirely in Chinese and was about to pay when the man that had smiled and then laughed at me stepped out of his car, took the noodles and water from my hands, gave it back to the guy and started talking very fast. I watched in a stupor as the vendor left in a hurry with my lunch.

“What’s going on?” I asked in the best Chinese I could manage.

The man – Bao-Zhi was his name, as I later learned – put his hand on my shoulder.

“Twenty yuans for that, it’s too expensive.” he said.

“I don’t have a choice,” I said. “I’m hungry.”

“Come eat with us.” he said.

For a moment, I thought I’d misunderstood, but the way he smiled and pushed me towards his car left little room for doubt. As much as I tried to protest, he wouldn’t have it. He introduced me to his brother Hai, his wife Dao-Ming and his daughter Jia. All of them were smiling and gladly welcomed me. We all sat next to their car and I was instantly handed a bowl of rice and an orange juice. Bao-Zhi was quite chatty. He told me pretty much everything about his life. How his mother’s birthday was coming up and they were travelling to see her, how he and his brother hadn’t seen each other in six months and they thought it would be fun to make the journey together, how Jia was on her summer break from studying economics at the Beijing University. I was intimidated and didn’t talk very much. They asked me if I was visiting China for the first time, although I think it must have come across quite clearly already. Little by little, I loosened up and started feeling more and more comfortable around them.

I ended up spending the next five days with Bao-Zhi and his family. We passed the time by playing cards, or chess. Hai was pretty good at it. I play a lot myself and never won against him. Once every two hour or so we would climb back into our cars, move forward a few inches and then get right back to our game or lunch or discussion. It was very emotional when we finally saw the end of the traffic jam. On the sixth day, we were able to move more, more often. We knew the time would come very soon when we would have to say goodbye and drive our separate ways. And indeed, by the end of that day, the traffic was almost back to normal. We pulled over on a parking lot and exchanged farewells. They gave me their address in Beijing and made me promise I would come and visit them as often as I could. I gave them my address in London and made them promise they would write. There was a lot of hugging and even a little bit of crying. Then I went on to carry my exploration of the country.

We kept in touch, Bao-Zhi and I, and even now that twenty years have passed, I still go to China every two years or so and visit him. It feels like I have another family always waiting for me at the other side of the world. Which in a way, I suppose I do.

Put down that book

Put down that book

Wotcher!

So it’s been a while, hasn’t it? How have you been? Recently settled back into my little Canadian dwelling after a long, wonderful and exhausting trip to Europe, it seems to me that this rainy day is perfect for a new blog post.

Shall we talk a bit about writing? I’d like that.

Now, I love a good book. One of my favourite activities is to wander around Waterstones and pluck random novels from the shelves. Every reader has their own little ritual for picking a book. Some will look at the blurb on the back. Some go for prize-winning works. Some get recommendations from friends. Maybe some of you like to judge them by their covers, shame on you.

Here’s my personal method, feel free to test it.

First I look at the blurb. Is it snappy? Is the plot appealing to me? Good. Then I open it at page one and read the first two or three paragraphs. If I find myself reading the whole page and then some, that book is mine!

Finally I open it somewhere in the middle and once again, read a few paragraphs. This is because the opening of a novel is not always reflective of the entirety of the writing. Is the dialogue any good? How does the style hold throughout? This is important because there are quite a few, shall we say, grammatical choices that will make me put down a book and never ever ever ever pick it up again.

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Let us review some of those, because why the hell not?

Bland narration

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There is a stereotype in the writing world that first person is for young adults. There are first person young adult novels, absolutely, of course, sure. But there is also Irvine Welsh. Present tense storytelling suffers from the same stereotype. But once again, give Irvine Welsh a try. His are some pretty fucking brilliant first person, present tense novels.

But.

More often than not you open a first person novel and it feels like the usual third person narrator is for some reason speaking in first person. You cannot, repeat, cannot approach a first person narrative in the same way you would a third person narrative. They are completely different and require two very different states of mind from the author. When you are writing in first person, your narrator isn’t some mystical entity (unless it is). It’s a person. A living, breathing human being (unless it’s not).

You need to be an actor. You are the character. You’re a fifty-year-old working-class lorry driver with a kind heart and simple style. Would you describe your partner like a painter would describe a sunset? Doubtful. You are brushing your teeth after a long day at work. Would you stop and describe your wavy dark hair and piercing green eyes in front of the bathroom mirror? No, you would not.

Besides, it is so much fun to just be a character, act like them, talk like them. Go ahead and enjoy it. If you do, there’s a good chance your readers will too.

 

Over-the-top punctuation

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Ellipsis followed by exclamation mark does not… create surprise! It is not… punchy! Mainly, it’s just… aggravating!

That is not how you create suspense in a scene. Don’t you see how it doesn’t make any sense? Suspense should build through content and emotions. This is a gimmick. Get rid of it.

Please also get rid of this!! And how about leaving this in the trash?! In fact, even a single exclamation point, used by a third person narrator, is cringe-worthy. “Then he discovered that, standing next to her, was his father!” Why are you attracting attention to yourself? You are not a character, you are not part of this story, make yourself scarce, for God’s sakes!!

Here’s a confession. I put down The Catcher in the Rye and never took it up again. Want to know why? Because it kept telling me how to pronounce every single sentence. Italics are acceptable if, and I would argue only if, the sentence could mean two different things, depending on the inflection. Otherwise, keep your italics for titles and foreign language words.

Yes, style is important. Yes, experimenting is fine. But please do make sure it actually improves the immersion. Stories are meant to be captivating, to draw you in. Aggressive punctuation pulls you out. Just do the math.

 

Forced feelings

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Okay so I’m just going to come out and say it. Twilight. The Twilight series is a great example of that, but it is not the only one.

You’ve seen this happen. The main girl and the main guy are madly in love and you can’t for the life of you figure out why. “But Gwen, love just happens, there is no why!” Shut it, stop, don’t. People who don’t have fun together, don’t laugh together, don’t share deep thoughts, don’t allow themselves to be silly in front of each other, people who don’t like each other are not in a strong forever relationship. If they hadn’t tragically and stupidly died, I would have given Romeo and Juliet about a month together. Love at first sight? Please. I think what you mean is lust at first sight. And you can’t write a good romance on lust alone. When I read about a romance, I want to be reading about a friendship.

This also goes for other feelings. Hate. Jealousy. Guilt. Shame. Don’t force your characters to feel things because you want them to. Create the believable circumstances in which they will organically come to feel the feels. They will thank you for it. Or they won’t. Don’t pressure them.

 

So here you have a nice little top three of what will make me put down a book. What are your personal pet peeves? How about sharing with the rest of the group?

Laters!

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Cosmic Dancer

Cosmic Dancer

Sam's Words And Worlds

On Sunday, June 4, 2017, I scattered your ashes. I went to the beach where we had been over five years and a half ago. I will never forget how happy you were that day. More than that, you were ecstatic. In your youth, when you were still a race horse, you used to train on the beach from time to time. There is no doubt in my mind that you loved running as fast as you could on the sand, with the waves roaring and crashing near you, the wind rushing through your mane, free as a bird.

You had galloped fast before. And you galloped fast after that. Faster than any horse I had ever known, and I have met quite a lot of them. But never did you run as fast as you did on that day. You even forgot I was there, on your back, holding…

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The Angel Amongst Us

The Angel Amongst Us

Yet another wonderful tribute. Sam, my friend, you didn’t deserve to have to grieve twice at the same time. But sometimes we don’t get what we deserve. And sometimes we don’t deserve what we get. You are handling it gracefully and selflessly, and I hope writing – so beautifully – about your departed friends brings you some level of comfort.

Sam's Words And Worlds

“He was an angel”.

This is what my father said upon learning that our beloved dog had died. And I sincerely do believe that truer words have never been spoken. Our faithful companion of fourteen years, Ullan de Royal Belgravia, died on May 15, 2017, at around 11:30pm. We took him urgently to the vet after he suffered a stroke, but we decided to let him go, for his own sake. He died in my arms, knowing that he was loved, and that he had fulfilled his purpose as a dog; that is to love with all the might of his heart, that was, quite literally, too big for his own chest.

You found your way to us by accident. When my parents went back to the kennel we had previously visited, a lovely place where the dogs were loved, they had never planned on coming home with a dog…

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7am together

7am together

The fog rolls in at 7am. At first it’s far away, vague, “what is this?” You become wary, uneasy, because it is coming towards you rather fast and from all sides. Oh dear. Before you know it, it’s all around you and you can’t see two feet in front of you. You’re not sure where you are and if you take a step in the wrong direction, you might fall off a cliff.

7am and my heart is pounding. It pulls me awake, like someone poking me and very politely reminding me that I have to be on stage in front of thousands of people in five minutes to give a speech about the socializing habits of penguins — something I’m sure I am extremely unqualified to discuss. I’m sweating and icky and uncomfortable. My chest is tight and I’m shaking inside.

It’s not the first time, of course. The first time was much scarier. By now it’s more of a bother than anything else. Not this again, I’m tired, I was hoping to sleep well tonight.

When I come back from the restroom and stumble into bed, my partner stirs. “Are you having trouble sleeping again?” In his gentlest, most caring, slightly sleepy voice. So I tell him all about the fog. I tell him it’s okay and it’ll pass eventually, but that’s not good enough for him.

“I want to help,” he says. “I want to help.”

He strokes my stomach and even though I am barely aware of the touch, even though I can’t see through the fog, it makes me happy. How about that? I didn’t use to think panic attacks and joy could occur at the same time. But they can. They can and at 7am that day, they do.

7am is very early for us night owls. We may have gone to bed at 3 or 4.

He offers to make me some tea. My partner. And that’s what he does. We both get up and I sit on the couch while he goes into the kitchen and brews me a peppermint.

“Do you think you’ll be able to go back to sleep? You seem pretty awake.”

No, I won’t be able to go back to sleep. It’s too late and too early at the same time.

And then to my surprise, well, no, not surprise. It’s more like an emotional realization. And then to my emotional realization, he pours himself some cereal, turns on the PS4, and sits with me.

At 7am, both exhausted, we play games and have tea and cereal together. He could go back to sleep. It’s obvious. But he doesn’t. Willingly, he lets himself feel a bit worse so that I can feel a bit better.

That.

That is love.

The Village on the Hill

The Village on the Hill

There once was a village, and the village was built on the eastern side of a hill. The people of the village had never been to the western side, for the hill was cut from north to south by a huge chain of rock, like the protruding spine of a bent giant. The village was surrounded by fields of oats and barley and the villagers were mostly farmers. They lived from the fruit of their labour and kept to themselves as much as possible. They did not care for the world beyond the fields and the farms.

There was a girl, who lived in the village. The girl had never known her mother and father for they both had died when she was just an infant. From the beginning of her young memory, she had been living at her grandmother’s house. The girl’s grandmother was the oldest person in the village, so that she was considered the wisest one, one whose speech was always truth.

One day, the grandmother was sitting on the rocking chair in front of the fireplace, sewing a skirt for her granddaughter, and the girl came and sat next to her.

“Grandmother,” asked the girl, “what is there on the other side of the hill?”

The grandmother let out a long wheezing sigh. She had known the day would come when her little girl would grow and start wondering. She had watched the questions form on the child’s face for several days now and she had known that, soon, the questions would find their way to her lips. But curiosity is never a permanent trait. It comes with adolescence and goes with adulthood. If only the grandmother could stall long enough, the questions would vanish from the girl’s face and their quiet life would go on quietly as it always had.

“Grandmother,” asked the girl, “what is there on the other side of the hill?”

“My child, there is nothing on the other side,” said the grandmother.

The questions on the girl’s face grew stronger. Her young eyes sparkled brighter.

“But there must be something! Please, grandmother, tell me what is on the other side of the hill.”

“My child, on the other side there is a dark and deep forest.”

“Grandmother,” asked the child, “what is there in the forest?”

“My child, in the forest there are poisonous creeping weeds and savage beasts with claws and fangs, and their eyes gleaming red in the darkness.”

The girl’s eyes grew wider, but nonetheless she kept asking.

“Grandmother,” the girl asked, “what is there beyond the forest?”

“My child, beyond the forest there is a swamp that sucks all living things into its depths.”

The girl’s face turned pale, but still she asked again.

“Grandmother,” the girl asked, “what is there beyond the swamp?”

The grandmother was very old and getting weary of the questioning.

“My child,” said the grandmother, “the swamp spreads out forever. There is nothing beyond the swamp.”

“Grandmother,” said the child, “how do you know all this about the other side of the hill?”

“My mother told me about it, my child,” said the grandmother. “Just as I am now telling you.”

“But how did your mother know all this about the other side?”

“Well, my child, her mother had told her about it. Just as my mother told me about it. Just as I am now telling you.”

As another question was about to escape the girl’s lips, the old woman raised a warning finger.

“I told you all there is to know about the other side, my child. You must never try to cross the chain of rock, do you understand? There is nothing for you but danger on the other side.”

The girl fell silent and stared into the fire for a very long time, so long in fact, that when she finally tore her eyes from its fading glow, she found that it was night, and that her grandmother was sleeping in the rocking chair.

Presently the girl got up and went to the shed, and she came back with a log large enough to keep the house warm until morning, which she put in the fire. She tiptoed to the front door. There she paused with her small hand upon the handle and looked over her shoulder at the sleeping shape of her grandmother. For a moment, something caught in her throat and she thought that she would not leave. But then she was outside, closing the door behind her and looking out at the village quiet and dark.

She passed the baker’s shop, and the butcher’s, and the barber’s, and she walked in the fields for what felt like days although the sun did not come up until she was reaching the foot of the big rock chain, on the very top of the hill. There she stopped and looked up at the massive obstacle before her. She looked up until her frail neck hurt. The rocks stood tall and impenetrable, stretching a long shadow over the girl. Beyond, the sky was yellow and pink with morning light.

I have been a fool, thought the girl. I will never be able to climb over the rocks. I am neither big nor strong enough. Maybe a grownup could do it, but I certainly can’t. I have been a fool. So the girl leant against the rock and cried, for it was a long way back to the village and she missed her grandmother very much. As she wept, clouds covered the sky above the hill and it started to rain. It was one of the cold rains of wintertime and soon the girl was drenched to the bone and shivering. I must find shelter somewhere, the girl thought, or I will freeze to death. With that thought, she forgot to cry and looked for a place to hide from the rain. She noticed a tear in the rock, like the entrance of a cave, some small distance away. It was almost hidden behind a curtain of thick weeds, but there it was, and the girl walked up to it. She pushed the weeds aside. They were heavy and pushed back against the girl, as if warning her to stay away. But the girl was cold and determined, so that eventually, the weeds gave way. The crack behind the weeds was quite narrow, and the ceiling low, so that a child could just fit in.

Walking through the girl stopped and marvelled, for what she had first thought to be a cave was in fact a tunnel, digging deep into the rock. This could lead to the other side, thought the girl. So she advanced with her arms outstretched towards the obscurity in front of her. Five minutes passed, and still the girl walked on. The tunnel was pitch black and nothing seemed to indicate that it would end. Five more minutes passed. More than once, the girl thought she should turn back, but every time the thought entered her mind, it was pushed right back by another. What if the other side was close? What a shame it would be to give up just before success. So the girl walked on. Five more minutes passed, and suddenly, the girl saw the tiniest hint of light, far away in the darkness. The girl laughed with relief and the pride of having come all this way on her own. She pressed on with a smile on her face. But soon, the smile faded, for as the light was getting closer, it seemed that the tunnel was shrinking and narrowing. I will suffocate before I can get to the other side, thought the girl. With every step she took, the light grew stronger, yet more inaccessible. From the other side, a breeze brushed the girl’s face and whispered in her ears. Go back, the breeze whispered. Go back. But it’s close, thought the girl. I can’t go back now. I’m almost there. I won’t go back.

And all at once, the breeze and the tunnel were gone as the girl emerged into a forest deep and so dark that she wondered for a while if night had come back already. One could barely see two feet ahead and the air between the trees was still and quiet, so that every little sound rang out like a bell toll in the silence.

In the strangeness of the forest, fear came over the girl. She thought about her grandmother’s words, about the poisonous creeping weeds and the savage beasts with claws and fangs, and their eyes glowing red in the darkness. She daren’t pick up a branch to defend herself, for fear that it would sting her and spit venom into her body.

The stillness soon became oppressing, and the little sounds of the forest shaped themselves into unseen dangers. It was a long way back to the village, and the girl missed her grandmother very much, and wished that she had never left home. So she sat down in the fallen leaves and covered her face with both her hands, for children’s monsters become less real once the eyes are shielded from them. Some time elapsed like this. Five minutes. Ten, maybe. Then a voice rang out in the silence of the forest.

“Good morning,” said the voice.

The girl looked up and standing in front of her was a boy. The boy was peering down at her with his head slightly tilted sideways and his eyes round and quizzical, much like an owl’s. At first, she was afraid of the boy, for she remembered her grandmother’s warning. But as she studied the boy, she could see neither claws nor fangs, and his eyes were bright blue, and round and quizzical like an owl’s.

“Good morning,” said the boy again, and the girl thought that he had nice manners.

“Good morning,” said the girl.

The boy grinned a toothy grin, but his teeth were normal as far as the girl could see, and his grin was friendly.

“Where do you come from?” asked the boy.

“I come from the other side of the hill,” said the girl.

The questions on the boy’s face grew stronger. He stared at the girl with suspicion in his bright blue eyes.

“That is not possible,” he said. “There is nothing on the other side of the hill.”

“But there is,” said the girl. “My village is on the other side.”

The boy was silent for a while. Then he took the girl by the hand and pulled so she would follow him.

“Come to my house,” he said.

She pulled the other way.

“But what about the swamp that sucks all living things into its depths?”

“What swamp?” said the boy.

“My grandmother told me about the swamp.”

“There is no swamp,” said the boy.

He seems to be telling the truth, thought the girl. So she followed the boy out of the forest and onto a moor that stretched all the way to the horizon. There was no sign of a swamp anywhere.

“Where is your house?” asked the girl as they walked through the moor.

“It is in a village, by the sea,” said the boy.

“The sea?” asked the girl.

“Yes,” said the boy.

The girl smiled. She had read about the sea in books, but had never seen it for real. The sea was a place of exciting adventures and she found herself walking faster, and pulling the boy behind her.

There was a village by the sea, and the village was built on the western side of a hill. The people of the village had never been to the eastern side, for the hill was cut from north to south by a huge chain of rock, like the protruding spine of a bent giant. The villagers were mostly fishermen, and they lived from the fish they caught, keeping to themselves as much as possible. They had no care for the world beyond the moor or over the sea. But now a girl was running towards the village, hand in hand with a boy, who lived in the village, and the boy was growing curious about the world on the other side of the hill.

The boy had never known his mother and father, for they had died both during his early childhood. From the beginning of his young memory, he had been raised by his older brother. The boy’s brother was not much older than the boy, but already the questions were starting to fade from his face. Now the boy and his brother lived and worked in a lighthouse on the coast, some little distance from the centre of the village, and that is where the boy was taking the girl. He wanted the girl to tell his older brother about the other side of the hill, for he valued his brother’s opinion above all else and was curious to know what he would think of all this.

The brother was preparing lunch when the boy knocked on the door of the lighthouse.

“My brother, I found a girl in the forest, and she comes from the other side of the hill,” said the boy.

“That is impossible,” said the brother. “There is nothing on the other side of the hill.”

“But there is! Come, she is waiting for us on the beach.”

So the brother followed the boy to the beach. And the girl was there, looking out at the sea, for she had never seen it, and it was huge and beautiful under the winter sun. Seagulls were crying over the waves, sometimes diving for fish, and then coming back up, shaking beads of water from their feathers.

“Good morning,” said the brother.

The girl turned towards the pathway that led to the lighthouse.

“Good morning,” said the girl.

“My brother says that you come from the other side of the hill,” said the brother. “Is that the truth?”

“It is,” said the girl. “I live in a village with my grandmother, beyond the chain of rock.”

And she pointed a finger in the direction of the hilltop. The brother considered this for a while, and then spoke very slowly, for he still was not sure whether it was wise to believe the girl’s words.

“How did you cross the chain of rock?” he asked.

“I went through a tunnel in the rock,” said the girl.

Questions flickered back into life on the brother’s face, and he smiled.

“Come have lunch with us,” said he. “Tell us more about the other side.”

So the girl followed the boy and his brother up the pathway that led to the lighthouse. The brother laid one more plate on the table and they ate together. The girl tasted fish for the first time. She had read about fish in the same books that told stories of the sea, but she had never seen them, for there was no sea on the other side of the hill. The boy and his brother listened as she spoke of her village, of the fields and the farms, and her grandmother’s house.

In the afternoon, the boy took the girl to the town centre, and the girl thought that this was not so different from her village on the other side. There was a baker and a barber, and the villagers looked almost the same. But the air was different. It was damper and there was salt in it. Instead of meat, people sold fish on the marketplace, and the houses were of grey stones instead of red bricks and wood. The boy and the girl roamed the village and the coast until the sun was setting over the western side of the hill. With night, a shadow descended on the girl and she stopped laughing.

On the way back to the lighthouse, the boy tried to make her laugh again, or to make her speak, but she was lost in a pensive mood. The boy did not understand, and he asked his brother about it when they got back.

“Well,” said the brother. “It is quite simple. She is homesick.”

“Homesick?” asked the boy.

“She misses her village on the other side of the hill,” said the brother.

So it was decided that, the next day, the boy and his brother would accompany the girl back to the fissure in the chain of rock. With this decision, the shadow lifted from the girl and she laughed and spoke again. The boy and the girl exchanged stories of their villages for a good part of the night, and when the sun came up over the eastern side of the hill, the boy, the girl and the boy’s brother left the lighthouse.

They walked through the town centre. They passed the baker’s shop, and the fisherman’s, and the barber’s. They crossed the moor and entered the forest. The boy noticed that another shadow seemed to weigh on the girl, for she was silent again, and her face was set.

“I thought she was homesick,” said the boy to his brother. “I thought she wanted to go home.”

“She does,” said the brother. “But in order to go home, she has to leave here. That is what makes her sad.”

The boy thought about this for a while, and he was still thinking when they reached the fissure in the rock. Then the boy and his brother, and the girl, bade each other farewell. And just as the girl was about to disappear in the darkness of the tunnel, the boy had an idea.

“Wait,” said he. “What if my brother and I came to the eastern side with you? Then we could see your village and meet your grandmother.”

The girl’s face lit up, not with questions this time, but with joy. But the brother shook his head.

“I cannot get through the fissure,” said he. “I am too big. But you, little brother, you go with her. Go and see the other side of the hill before it is too late.”

The boy felt sad, for he loved his brother very much and did not want to leave him behind. But he did want to go and see the other side of the hill. The girl watched as the boy wrapped his arms around the brother’s neck, and she thought of her grandmother.

“Go, little brother,” said the boy’s brother.

The girl saw that he was crying. She wondered if her grandmother had cried when she had noticed that she was gone. She wanted to go back and hug her grandmother and tell her of all the wonderful things she had seen on the other side of the hill.

The boy bid his brother farewell and followed the girl into the tunnel. They walked with their hands extended towards the darkness in front of them. Long minutes passed, and finally, a dot of light appeared far away. Then the tunnel seemed to shrink and narrow once more around them. The boy was scared. He thought he would run back to his brother, but the girl said not to be afraid. Then the breeze whispered into the boy’s ears. Go back, the breeze whispered. Go back. But the girl said not to listen to the breeze. So the boy did not listen.

And all at once, the breeze and the tunnel were gone. And the boy saw the farms and the fields. The girl led him through the country and, soon, he saw the village. They passed the barber’s shop, and the butcher’s, and the baker’s, and walked all the way to the grandmother’s house. The girl wrapped her arms around her grandmother’s neck. She told her about the tunnel and the other side and the boy and his brother.

“Come and have dinner with us,” said the grandmother to the boy. “Tell me all about your village on the other side.”

So the boy stayed, and he tasted meat, which he had read about in books but never seen in reality. Then, the next day, the girl took him around the village and showed him everything.

And when he went back home, he told the villagers on the western side stories of the eastern side. And the girl told the villagers on the eastern side stories of the western side. And soon, it became tradition that young people should cross the chain of rock to see the world on the other side of the hill before they grew.

Flatland

Flatland

Wotcher!

So I’ve done something recently that I never thought I’d be doing. To be honest, the back of my mind had timidely been flirting with the idea for a while, but for some not good enough reason, it had felt like too big of a thing to actually go ahead and do. It had felt like I wasn’t allowed.

I bought a chest binder.

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A chest binder is an article of clothing that often looks like a tank top or a crop top, specifically designed to flatten your chest. Like so.

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For reference, I am naturally a 32F size. That’s right. I just posted my bra size online. That’s probably a smart thing to do.

Now, why would it take me so long to get myself one of these things? Mainly because binders are traditionally used by the FTM (female to male) trans* community.

All my life I have tiptoed around the edges of transgender, never quite daring to step in. Internalized transphobia, maybe, or simply confusion. If I were completely, definitely, transgender, from one binary to the other, then maybe it wouldn’t have taken me so long, and it wouldn’t have been as daunting.

As it was, though, some part of my brain had to be told I was doing it for practical reasons. Bras my size aren’t cheap, and oftentimes don’t work as well as one would hope. A heavy chest pulls on the skin and causes pains when badly supported. With a binder, the weight would be spread out.

The other part of my brain, the one that knew there were other reasons, was scared. This was a dive head first into my trans-ness, a step off the cliff. What if I couldn’t swim? What if I couldn’t fly?

I was shaking when I clicked “confirm order”.

The binder arrived a few days ago and I was rather excited about trying it out. It’s tight, obviously, but not uncomfortable. Certainly more comfortable than high heels and mini-skirts. It’s a bit tricky to put on, a bit tricky to take off, but I seem to be managing better than some other people out there so… sorry guys. Guess I’m lucky. It also led me to notice things I had never paid attention to before. Like my left breast being just a tad bigger than the right. Ah, fun times!

The day went fine. I felt like myself. I felt comfortable. I could look down and see my feet – I have big feet!

When I took the thing off in the evening though, I experienced a slight gender shift, feeling more like the girl me, and I had a pinch of vulnerability. It felt a bit like I’d betrayed or abandoned that feminine part of me. Which is silly but I suppose it’s the lot of genderfluid people.

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I think this moment of distress came from the huge importance I had placed on the binder. Building it up in my mind, like it was something that had the power to change me. It’s not, and I don’t think it’s quite healthy – for me at least – to think of it that way. It’s just cloth. It’s comfortable and it allows me to wear shirts that were designed for male bodies. I genuinely like it. But it does nothing to impact my gender identity. You are not your clothes, surprisingly enough.

Now I’m getting used to thinking of this as just another addition to my wardrobe. Some days I’ll wear a bra, some days I’ll wear a binder. It will depend on the clothes I’ve decided to wear that day, and on my mood. It means I can now feel right and comfortable in clothes from both sides of the shop.

The most important thing is that wearing a binder does not make me any more transgender. Just like wearing a bra does not make me any less transgender. And that is quite a freeing thought, don’t you think?

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