Babar: a retelling

July 19, 2015

Babar et les ballons

I’m reading The Novel Habits of Happiness, the latest of Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie series. In an early chapter, Isabel reads Jean de Brunhoff’s Babar to her infant son Charlie, and contemplates leaving out the bit about Babar’s mother being shot by a hunter. She then (typically) gets distracted and starts thinking about Hitler while Charlie waits for the story to continue.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of Babar. Perhaps before the books I knew Poulenc’s musical adaptation, in the tremendous orchestral version by Jean Françaix. We had the LP narrated by Peter Ustinov. This version is narrated by Jacques Brel.

When in my childhood a French-Canadian cartoon version reached British TV, I (who used to watch any old rubbish without discrimination) gave it a miss. It felt like a watered-down misrepresentation of the Babar I knew.

While I appreciate Dalhousie’s trepidation about exposing Charlie to the violent death of Babar’s mother, and while it was something that upset me as a boy, I came to appreciate the potential of violence. I would have been aged about six or seven (the same time I wrote the story about Mrs Thatcher here) when I rewrote the story with a more grisly ending. (Actually I think I just copied the first few pages of the book, got bored, and tacked a bit on to tie up the loose ends.)


In the great forest a little elephant was born. His name was Babar. His mother loved him dearly, and used to rock him to sleep with her trunk, singing to him softly the while.

Babar grew fast. Soon he was playing with the other baby elephants. He was one of the nicest of them. Look at him digging in the sand with a shell.

One day Babar was having a lovely ride on his mother’s back, when a cruel hunter hiding behind a bush shot at them. He killed Babar’s mother. The monkey hid himself, the birds flew away and Babar burst into tears. The hunter ran up to catch poor Babar. Babar was very frightened and ran away from the hunter.

After some days, tired and footsore, he came to a town. He was amazed, for it was the first time he had seen so many houses. What strange things he saw. Beautiful avenues! Motorcars and motorbuses! But what interested Babar most of all was two gentlemen he met in the street. He thought “What lovely clothes they have got! I wish I could have some too! But how can I get them?”

Suddenly he saw an extremely rich old lady and he remembered the face of the hunter. The hunter was one of his best friends! He ran and found the hunter. The hunter came and shot the old lady! Babar stole her money, bought the suit and lived happily ever after.

The Story of Babar, c. 1990

Thinking about transgender

June 14, 2015

Most of the things I write about here are trivial, but I want to write about something that has been on my mind a great deal in recent months and is genuinely important: transgender. This post has had a long gestation, and I’ve debated with myself whether to write it at all. In the past week alone there must have been hundreds of blog posts written about transgender issues, and what can an outsider like me say of value on the subject? Wittgenstein may have had a point: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. But I’m doing it anyway because if by some miracle I manage to write something vaguely considered and insightful and it gets through to just one person who hasn’t thought about these things before, it will have been worth it.

Disclaimers before I start: I’m cis. If you don’t know what that means, you’re probably cis yourself. A cisgender person is someone who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth. That’s most of us. I don’t claim to write here on behalf of anyone other than myself. I suppose if I have an imagined reader, it’s a cis person who is well disposed towards trans people but hasn’t thought about transgender in much depth. Whether you are this person or not, welcome.

In this post I will use transgender or trans as a shorthand for all non-cis people, for the sake of convenience. Bear in mind that trans men (who have lived in the past as female but now identify as male) or trans women (who have lived in the past as male but now identify as female) are not all there is. Many non-cis people identify as, for instance, non-binary, agender, genderqueer, because they don’t feel either ‘male’ or ‘female’ is a term that fits them. There’s a lot of vocab. Don’t let it put you off, you’ll get used to it very quickly.

I’m sorry this post is going to be so long and dense. As Pascal would say, I haven’t had time to make it shorter. There’s so much that needs to be said, and goodness knows I’m not the person best placed to say it, but here we go. Some discussion of transphobic attitudes follows.


The case of Caitlyn Jenner seems as good a place as any to start, given how widely her transition has been documented. If it’s passed you by, she had been known as Bruce, but confirmed recently after months of prurient press speculation that she was transitioning to female, and would be going by female pronouns and the name Caitlyn. Within weeks she was on the cover of Vanity Fair. You don’t have to be interested in her as a person (and I confess I’m not, particularly) to find Caitlyn Jenner’s liberation a heartening story, but it is not a typical one, and it may be illuminating to look at the ways in which her transition differs from those of trans people not in the public eye.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, because the media are more interested in how people look than what they’re like, a lot of attention has been paid to Caitlyn’s appearance. She’s had cosmetic surgery to feminise her face, not something a lot of people would easily be able to afford even if they wanted it. That raises questions of whether her transition has been more widely accepted because she’s ‘passing’, because she’s making an effort to appear feminine. There’s a thoughtful piece on it here. Passing is a horrible word because it implies gender inauthenticity, that a trans woman is merely putting on an act. It can be hard for us as Westerners to get past the idea of our bodies determining our gender, given how rigidly gendered our society is, but it’s something we have to do if we want to understand transgender issues.

The publication of the Vanity Fair cover, this unleashing of Caitlyn Jenner on the world, may have impressed some people because of its apparent suddenness, as though one minute she was a man, the next magically transformed into a woman. No transition is this speedy in real life, and a gender transition involves a number of stages of different types. It may involve changing your name and/or pronouns, meeting doctors, getting your new gender recognised by official organisations, taking hormones, having surgery, but doesn’t inevitably involve all of them, indeed often doesn’t. A transition may be a physical thing; it’s certainly a mental one.

It’s a social one, too. It isn’t possible to tell if someone is trans by looking at them. You may know people who are transgender but haven’t come out to you, or to anyone. Does that invalidate their gender? Caitlyn Jenner may be read more often as female now that she’s changed her appearance, but was she any less of a woman before? If you have a friend you thought was male who now announces she’s female, when is the point at which the switch occurs? When she changes her pronouns? her name? when she gets rid of her facial hair? The more you think about this, the more absurd you appreciate it is. There’s no hard and fast rule, and I think some trans people would disagree with this idea, but it may be useful to think that although the outward expression of someone’s gender may change, their gender doesn’t.

I also find it helps to think of gender identity as a continuum, with male at one pole and female at the other. Most of us accept our place without questioning it, without realising it even, but those who feel the cis male or cis female pole doesn’t fit them make a journey along the continuum, not knowing necessarily where it will lead, but hoping to find the place where they belong. When I read Jackie Kay’s novel Trumpet last month, which is about a jazz musician, Joss Moody, who has lived as a man but is found on his death to have a ‘female’ body, I found myself thinking that some of the transphobic attitudes of the other characters would probably have been less intense if Joss had had gender reassignment surgery. A transition all the way from female to male, physical as well as social, so as to fit neatly into a binary gender, would have suited their small-minded way of thinking. As it is, they see his life as a lie. Whereas the real lie would have been for Joss to have continued living as a woman in spite of his knowledge that he wasn’t one.


I think one reason some people are so dismissive of the idea of transgender is that they can’t admit to themselves, perhaps haven’t even considered the possibility, that they might be wrong; because if they are wrong, then the authenticity of trans people will mean the fuss of dismantling the preconceptions and prejudices bred in them since birth by this society with its binary system of gender. Far easier to fit everyone into their little box, either male or female. Or if they want to be a transsexual, they have to do it properly so I can tell what they are. This is how I see it, so it must be as it is. The world is everything that is the case. (Oh, that’s right, throw Wittgenstein back at me, dickhead.)

Haven’t these people lived? Don’t they realise that nothing is black and white? A friend is fond of quoting St Paul: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly.’ We don’t see things clearly, only distorted through the prism of our own minds, feelings, experiences. We don’t, we can’t know anyone else’s lived experience, we can’t tell what may be going on below the surface. We ourselves have all surely had times when we’ve made an effort to hide from others something we’re dealing with inside our head. Permit yourself to think that there may be something in someone that you don’t see. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Quite apart from all that, why should transphobes feel such a vested interest, as many appear to, in denying the gender of others? The validity of theirs doesn’t make your own any less real. If you ever find yourself thinking these thoughts, ask yourself: What does it matter to me? A view sometimes encountered today is that transgender is a fad, a reflection of our overly tolerant society, that people choose to be trans because it’s fashionable. Just why anyone would choose to be a ‘gender outlaw’, to use Kate Bornstein’s phrase, when you consider what thanks they get from society for it, constantly being scrutinised and questioned and misgendered and worse, having to justify their very identity to others every day, I’ve no idea. It’s not a choice any more than sexual orientation is a choice, it’s just the way it is. If there are more trans people who are out in society today, that’s a happy sign that understanding of trans issues is increasing. There have always been trans people.

The bottom line is, no one gets to decide anyone else’s gender. Ever.

Happily, if you have a problem accepting someone’s gender, there is a solution.


You may have seen transgender awareness campaigns by groups like LGBT rights charity Stonewall. It’s only recently that Stonewall’s started to include trans people at all, and that may be because the T in LGBT is an uneasy fit. LGB is to do with sexual orientation, T is to do with gender identity. There is no correlation between the two, and trans people have as wide a range of sexual orientations as cis people do.


They mean well, but I find the ‘get over it’ campaign annoying, certainly when applied to transgender, an area where ignorance still prevails. The implication seems to be, don’t make an effort to acknowledge your prejudices and change the way you think, just accept this as a fact and move on. And it is a fact; but a far more healthy approach would be to think about it, learn about it, try to understand as far as possible what it means to be transgender, what challenges trans people face, and what the rest of us can do to help out. It all comes back to education. I’m lucky to work in a university where there are a lot of students engaged with trans awareness. Maybe there are similar campaigns near you.

Perhaps this all sounds like a lot of work, and not much fun. It’s true that you can’t become a good ally overnight (I suspect it will take a lifetime, in fact), but learning about trans stuff is one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done. I suppose my first engagement with transgender was about ten years ago when I read Jeffrey Eugenides’ engrossing novel Middlesex, which has an intersex narrator who transitions from a female to a male identity. Then, a few years ago, I read Jan Morris’s memoir about her transition, Conundrum, first published in 1974. It’s a moving and sympathetic book, dated now but still relevant. But it’s only within the past year or so, prompted by people I know coming out as trans, that I’ve explored more widely — films, TV programmes, fiction, non-fiction, comics, blogs and websites. There’s a lot out there.

There are plenty of websites offering cis people helpful resources — answers to frequently asked questions about transgender, lists of trans-related vocab, ‘Transgender 101′ as Americans would call it. This list of tips published by GLAAD is a good one. Here’s a useful piece on trans etiquette, and a list of things cis people can do to make the world a better place for trans people from the website of genderqueer musician CN Lester. A couple of pieces about life beyond the gender binary, one an interview with CN Lester, the other an article by Scout. Subscribe to RSS feeds of trans news on news websites. Follow trans people and charities on Twitter.

Most of my reading so far has focused on FTM (female-to-male) transitions, so apologies that this set of recommendations is so biased (I’m going to broaden my scope soon), but among the blogs I particularly enjoy are A Boy and Her Dog, Today I Am A Man, New Boy, Neutrois Nonsense and janitorqueer, all of them approachable regardless of your own gender. The website Genderfork is a warm and inclusive place.

If you feel like trying a book, I’d recommend S. Bear Bergman’s anthology of anecdotal essays The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You without hesitation. It’s written from a female-to-male perspective, but its subject matter is universal, and it is full of wit and wisdom and kindness and compassion. More than any other book this one has made me realise how much, as a cis person, I have taken for granted about gender. It’s also made me aware of the glorious richness of gender identity. Gender variance isn’t something to shrink from, it’s something we can and should rejoice in. I’m also making my way slowly through this. My short-term gender reading list:


You can’t learn everything from books and websites, it’s good to talk to trans people too, but books and websites are useful resources because if you do have a trans friend then you may not wish to bombard them with questions about gender, both because you’re a nice and polite human being and because it’s wrong to imagine one individual can speak for all trans people any more than, say, a white middle-class librarian in his early thirties can speak for all cis people. There’s a wealth of experiences, so read lots of individual testimonies, not just one.


Having got to the end of this post (almost), I wonder if I still need to put the case for why it’s important to know this stuff. Well, because it’s a courtesy to the trans people you know (whether you know they’re trans or not) and to those you will know in the future. Because it gives us the wherewithal to support them if we need to (I’ve been able to contribute to conversations about gender with more confidence, and am getting bolder about stepping in when people say crass things in my presence). Because it makes us happier and better people. You might assume transphobia barely exists because you haven’t witnessed it yourself. To disabuse yourself of this notion, go to the comments section of any mainstream news story about gender (something I did with a Guardian article the other day; big mistake). It needs to be fought.

If you’re still here, thank you enormously for indulging me in spite of my shortcomings. Apologies if I’ve come across as preachy and patronising. It’s only because I care. If you take anything away from what I’ve written here, let it be this:

Someone’s gender is what they say it is.

Don’t let consideration of someone’s gender blind you to who they are. Gender isn’t the be-all and end-all. Trans people are trans, but they are also people, and they like the same things cis people like: music, pottery, reenacting the Battle of Marston Moor, etc. etc. We’re all the same, but different.

Education sets us free. Read, watch, think, talk. It’s OK to make mistakes. It’s not easy to unlearn things we have believed all our lives to be true, and it’s through making mistakes that we learn. The more I learn, the more I realise I don’t know.

Small things can make the world a better place for all of us. Pride, respect, and peace.

Transgender Pride flag


June 9, 2015


Leeds, October 22, 1827


I need not tell you that we have just had an opportunity of hearing Madame Pasta in this town, for the fact has been pretty generally learnt through the medium of the Times Newspaper; the editor of which has thought fit to imply, that the general disappointment which the singing of this lady produced in Leeds, is a proof, not of her want of attraction in a concert-room, but of our defective taste—of our barbaric ignorance. Now, sir, the diligence with which the art of music is cultivated by most classes here, is well known to all who are acquainted with the habits of this great town, though the Times may not have thought it worth while to acquire any information on the subject; and in proportion to our population, we have, I boldly assert, more good judges of music among our amateurs, than are to be found in the same class in London, where opinion is so much governed by fashion, and so little influenced by judgment.

I admit Madame Pasta’s merit on the stage, on which I have often heard her with pleasure, though I am only a dull, provincial manufacturer. Even there, however, I think she is over-rated, or, rather, over-puffed; but in a concert-room, the huskiness of her voice, and the uncertainty of her intonation, not being covered by superior acting, disappoint those whose expectations are raised too high by the inordinate, unqualified praise bestowed on her by the London press. I can further inform the Editor of the Times, that this is not only the feeling of us, the poor, stupid people of Leeds, but also of many professors who are in the habit of hearing her everywhere; and likewise of some able and impartial critics who were present at her performances in Norwich, Worcester, and Liverpool.

I am, Sir, &c.,


Giuditta Pasta (1797-1865)

Giuditta Pasta (1797-1865)

If you ever find yourself in Leeds and fancy some pasta, I can recommend Salvo’s.

On reading aloud

June 1, 2015

I have very few memories of being read to as an infant, but it definitely happened. I do remember, aged six or seven, begging my mother to abandon The Hobbit on account of its being so tedious, which she kindly did. And she must have read me Beatrix Potter and A.A. Milne and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, because I know that I knew them; only I don’t remember it. (There are exceptions.)

Children love repetition, the same stories told over and over again with the same inflection. Every night somewhere a father is reprimanded by his son because he isn’t doing the voices the way Mummy does them. Well, Mummy’s gone and you’ll just have to deal with it, he resists the urge to reply. And get used to not seeing Uncle Nigel again while you’re at it, he’s no longer welcome under this roof.

It’s important to read to your child, but by the same token it’s quite important to have some wine in the evening, and for that purpose the story tape was invented. The stories I remember best from childhood are the ones I listened to on cassette as I went to sleep, night after night. Alan Bennett’s Winnie-the-Pooh when I was younger, but particularly George’s Marvellous Medicine read by Richard Griffiths and The BFG read by Amanda Root and Jeremy Bulloch. If I read the stories now, I still hear the cadences of their voices in my head.

Playing with tapes, 3 years old

Playing with tapes, 3 years old

I made a few story tapes of my own. The first consisted of me reading out Peanuts comic strips. It must have been an odd thing to listen to without the context of the pictures. I remember reciting one strip in which Lucy puts on Charlie Brown’s T-shirt and cruelly mocks him: ‘Nobody likes me! Everybody hates me! Poor, poor me!’ I think I did it because I wanted to be able to listen to it in the car, not being able to read Peanuts while travelling on account of getting sick. Necessity is the mother of invention.


When I was six I graduated to proper stories.

Laura’s baby brother George was four weeks old when it happened.

Laura, who was seven, had very much wanted a brother or sister for a long time. It would be so nice to have someone to play with, she thought. But when George was born, she wasn’t so sure.

That’s the opening of George Speaks by Dick King-Smith, and this is me reading it.

‘… when George was born, she wasn’t so sure.’ I’d like to claim I had an innate gift for storytelling, but surely I’m parroting the way I’d heard someone else read it. I’m not fluent throughout the recording. Words I struggled with: developed, knowledge, bodily, Guinness Book of Records.

More than anything, I suspect, I liked being a presenter. While other boys were dreaming of being lorry drivers or ballet dancers, I wanted to be a DJ. Not when I was six, but the stirrings were clearly there. The end of the story:

I was fortunate that my parents provided me with a second brother shortly after my eighth birthday. I’d been too young to read to the first one, but the second was much better timed. At the age of two or three, he was old enough to understand stories but too young to be able to escape me effectively, so I had a captive audience.

I would have been about eleven when I made a tape of stories for him, read by me and underscored by appropriate classical music. The music for Quentin Blake’s Patrick, which is about a violinist, was the opening movement of Kabalevsky’s violin concerto. The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Ravel piano music; Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad (there’s a book crying out for a queer analysis, but that’s a post for another day), Holst St Paul’s Suite. It was a labour of love, I suppose, but it was also a project, which made it fun. I timed myself reading the stories before I recorded them, so that I could identify movements of an appropriate length to use as backing music.

When he was a bit older, I read him Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected as bedtime stories. I remember ‘Mrs Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat’ and ‘Galloping Foxley’. They took longer than your standard children’s book, but I didn’t have the patience to split them into separate evenings, so if we started one we persevered to the bitter end. Tom would have been about ten, tired and invariably falling asleep, so I had to increase my reading speed and become extra animated in my characterisations to make sure he didn’t drift off before the twist at the end.

I got out of the habit of reading aloud after that. There’s not much point in doing it if you don’t have someone to do it to. (That rule may apply to other things as well.) I did recently rediscover this recording of me reading, at sixteen, a bit of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, I think because I had to return it to the library and wanted a record of a few pages I’d enjoyed.

I could have made a photocopy, it occurs to me now, but I was probably in love with my own voice. It’s a crime I never went into radio, this narcissism is wasted in the library.


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