5 things about this week (8 July 2018)

by Stephen Tall on July 8, 2018

I’ve been thinking why the current debate about gender identity — in particular the argument which hinges on whether you accept the statement “trans women are women” — is such an unpleasantly aggressive one.

Is it because so much of the public discourse happens online (a guarantee of incivility)? Is it because activists dominate the discussion, with the moderate majority steering well clear? Is it because of the pathetic name-calling that characterises the stand-off (eg, TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) — see also that other new insult, “gammon”, used to dismiss old white men)? Or the casual over-reach to label whoever’s on the opposite side of the debate as either “transphobic” or “misogynistic” in place of calm persuasion?

I reckon it’s all those, plus the fact that both groups — the trans activists who assert that those who self-declare they have changed gender should now be accorded by society their chosen status, male or female; and the feminists who argue that being born biologically female in a patriarchal society creates a different and inherently oppressed lived experience — regard themselves as true progressives.

Trans activists regularly declare themselves to be on the right side of history, allying themselves to the painfully hard-fought battle for gay equality. Feminists who disagree point out nobody is disputing the need for equal human rights for all trans people (both trans men and trans women), but maintain that natally-born women face a structural oppression that trans women born and brought up as men cannot truly understand.

It’s not a debate I want to duck. My own view is that:

  • being born biologically female means you face socio-cultural challenges the other half of us don’t and that should continue to be recognised;
  • we should treat with the utmost compassion and respect those who (for whatever reasons) feel they don’t ‘fit’ with their biological sex; and
  • no individual should face any sort of discrimination either because of the sex they were born as or how they later choose to present to the world.

Here, by the way, are a couple of articles I’ve read (among many) on this topic which have influenced my thinking: Gender is not a spectrum, Rebecca Reilly-Cooper; and Gender identity needs to be based on objective evidence rather than feelings, Debbie Hayton.


I’ve been watching pretty much nothing but the World Cup. Though England’s penalty shoot-out against Columbia I sat out on a bench on a street in Spain’s Santiago de Compostela — I couldn’t face watching a seventh championship exit, so missed out on witnessing our first World Cup penalties triumph. Our win against Sweden was a more comfortable viewing experience (though I missed Harry Maguire’s goal: I was chasing our 3 year-old in a game of monsters at the time. Peppa Pig on the iPad saw him through the second half, releasing me to watch uninterrupted.)

What’s been terrific — other than, obviously, England reaching the World Cup semi-finals for only the second time in my life — is the deserved love for manager Gareth Southgate. A thoughtful, unassuming, determined coach, it’s also an accident that he’s in the role, having been drafted hastily in following Sam Allardyce’s abrupt departure. Yet he’s now a national hero, thanks to his redemptive back-story (he missed the crucial penalty which knocked England out of Euro ’96), his meticulous preparations (including psychometric testing of his players to assess their fitness for the stress of that moment in the spotlight), and his seamless ability to inspire through stories rather than braggadachio. Here’s a snippet from the Guardian:

On Tuesday, before the game against Colombia, Gareth Southgate’s team-talk focused on the backgrounds of his players and the thing they had in common. Jordan Pickford’s back story included a loan spell for Darlington when they were relegated from the Conference, followed by a stint at Alfreton Town. Jamie Vardy has his tales from Fleetwood Town. Harry Maguire was in League One with Sheffield United. Dele Alli experienced the lower leagues with MK Dons and Harry Kane’s loan spells included Leyton Orient and Millwall. And on and on. These might be exceptionally rich men but so many of these players have worked their way up. It is not an ego-free environment, by any means, but there is also not the big-time attitude that existed in other England squads. And to say they lack hunger is, frankly, absurd.

In short, we are far more united when we work together; and that’s what Southgate is trying to coax out of his young team, to get them to achieve their best. Other leaders, please take note. Speaking of which…


It looks like we’re heading for a soft-ish Brexit. No, we’re not going to stay in the single market or the Customs Union after Brexit; instead we’ll “maintain a common rulebook for all goods” with the EU, including agricultural products; and the borders between the UK and EU will be treated as a “combined customs territory”. Spot the difference?

The Hard Brexiteers have been comprehensively outmanoeuvred by Theresa May, it seems. Not because she’s a political genius — the Chequers agreement is a reversal of the position on which she fought the 2016 election — but because they couldn’t work out an alternative, feasible plan. Because there isn’t one. Those who wanted us to Leave, and persuaded a bare majority of the country that it would be easy to do so, have found the actual task of working out what to do next to be impossible.

So we’ll do our best to continue as we are, but with a patched-up deal that’s worse than the one we currently have. Hooray for Brexit, eh?


I’ve been reading Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn — the crime novel from my holiday reading list. She’s such a good writer. I first came across her via Life After Life, one of my all-time favourite books. I then read its sort-of sequel, A God in Ruins, almost as good. I then turned to her debut, Behind The Scenes At The Museum, which is great but a bit harder going. And now I’ve started her Jackson Brodie series; ostensibly crime novels, but really they’re an excuse for penetrating investigations into fascinating characters’ inner workings. And the great thing is, I’m only half-way through her ouevre (with an eleventh novel, Transcription, due this autumn). If you haven’t yet, do so immediately.


I guess I’m not alone in regarding Paul Dacre, long-standing editor of the Daily Mail, as one rung above Satan. Yet this week, he delivered a fantastic eulogy at the memorial service for his opposite number (in pretty much every sense) at The Guardian for many years, Peter Preston. It’s well worth a read. I liked this excerpt …

… he was, quite simply, a print man. He loved that magical symbiosis of newsprint, pictures, headlines, fonts and beautiful words that at their best can make a paper a functioning part of society rather than a commentary at its edges. Inevitably, sadly, those Fleet Street skills needed for that magic symbiosis are dying in an internet age that seems to have a voracious need for free, somewhat crudely expressed, round-the-clock information and gratification. Yes, of course, journalism will survive and may one day flourish again. But it will be different.

… because it spoke to me. A child of the ’80s, I was obsessed by newspapers, in an age when they were the only form of instant mass written word communication, and had real power. Though I’m acutely aware we should be careful about nostalgising an era when newspapers got away with thin content and restrictive trade union-policed work practices which (among other things) discriminated horribly against women.

My respect for Dacre notches up a rung. We need to try harder to find the best in those we disagree with (especially when those disagreements are often a small part of the whole). There’s a lovely episode of BBC Radio 4’s Great Lives in which the formidable Scottish left-wing author Val McDermid talks about her enduring friendship with that redoutable English conservative, PD James, though they were polar opposites in their outlooks. I once suggested they’d have blocked each other if they’d only known each other through Twitter. Here’s how Val McDermid replied:

DSC08520_1PS: this is my eight and final week of shared parental leave. Back to work on Monday. I’ll try and blog about the best bits. In the meantime, here’s me and my boys enjoying our holiday in Galicia, Spain.

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