Remembering My Hat

15th February 2011

Lenses on a life

Filed under: Uncategorized — rememberingmyhat @ 16:42

An elderly relative of mine died recently and it’s made me think about the different lenses with which you can review someone’s life, and how that enables you to focus on different things.

Picture of Glasses / Spectacles - Free Pictures -

(cc) freephoto

Looking through my family member spectacles, I focus on my feelings toward her, my memories of her, my sense of the sort of person she was and her place in the complex web of emotions that makes up any family.

Wearing my historian’s glasses, I think about the times she lived in and how that illuminates my sense of the past. When I think about non-conformist working class life in the early 20th century, I picture her birth family. When I think about changing attitudes to disability, I remember her exclusion from elementary school, and hence formal education, for a relatively minor disability. When I think about the impact of the NHS, I think about her recurring hospital treatments, both pre and post-NHS, and how those treatments shaped and improved her life.

If I put on my social gerontologist’s spectacles, I feel angry and despairing about her low quality of life in her later years, even in a relatively ‘good’ care home and in a much less socially isolated context than many care home residents. I also remember what a lot I learned about being an informal carer from just a fortnight of living with her after she came out of hospital one time.

With my feminist spectacles on, I think about how her female gender intertwined with her disability and her status as ‘youngest child of large family’ to position her within the family as the one who needed looking after. I speculate about how differently this might have played out had she been born a disabled boy.

As a sociologist with a particular interest in sexuality and relationships, I think about how a working class woman came to marry a much older widower from a wealthy family. And think about how complex her class position ended up being, with not much money but some fabulous Victorian furniture.

(cc) Tom

I don’t know whether my relative is going to have an obituary published anywhere, but if she does, it will probably talk about her love of music, her decades of service as a churchwarden and organist, her employment as a physiotherapy assistant, her short but happy marriage, her love of dogs and her sense of humour.

I’m struck by how partial all these pairs of spectacles are. Each of them brings only one aspect of her life into focus.  While you can combine some of the lenses without giving yourself too much of a (theoretical) headache, they still do not even approach the rich complexity of a single, unremarkable woman’s life.

I guess that’s something of the enduring fascination to me of biographical approaches to the study of social life.


14th February 2011

20th Century Bi

Filed under: Uncategorized — rememberingmyhat @ 00:22
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On Saturday I went to a seminar at Conway Hall in London as part of LGBT History Month. It was about the history of bisexuality in the 20th century (clue’s in the name).

(cc) LGBT History Month UK

What follows is, as ever, in no sense a representative account of what was said, just some of the things that interested me.

First off, Sue George talked about bisexuality before the 1960s, nicely overviewing the familiar terrain of androgyny, the impact of the Well of Loneliness, the bohemian freedoms for a few in the 20s and 30s and in the Second World War, followed by the social clamp down of the late 40s and 50s. One thing she said that I hadn’t thought about before was that the fashions of the 20s were actually remarkable androgynous, at least from the waist up. Did the fallout from the Well of Loneliness contribute to the more gender-marked fashions of the 1930s?

She also suggested that in the 1930s and beyond there was less discursive space for women to be bisexual (or ‘ambisextrous’ as one contemporary apparently, possibly jokingly, termed it), since a woman who had sex with women became seen as a lesbian.

I also liked a quote from Tallulah Bankhead:

“My father warned me about men and booze, but he never mentioned a word about women and cocaine.”

The next speaker was Christian Klesse on the connections between bisexuality and polyamory. This talk was, to my mind, the odd-one-out of the seminar, being both much more academic and less historical than the others, but it was still interesting. I was most interested in some of the things his interviewees had said about poly. One apparently said something along the lines of ‘poly is about love, non-monogamy is about sex’. I understand the rhetorical point they were presumably making, but I don’t think I use the terms like that – I think of non-monogamy as the umbrella term and poly as a particular type of non-monogamy, alongside practices like swinging and open relationships. (My own favourite definition is still a friend’s: ‘adultery by committee’.)

(cc) tworm

He also cited someone talking about the invention of the word ‘polyamory’ (in the early 1990s) and saying that although it mixes greek and latin, the alternative ‘polyphilia’ sounded like paedophilia (it just makes me imagine a fetish for decorator’s filler). Christian pointed out the way this suggests that, even from its inception, being poly was a defensive position, highly attuned to the wider context of sexual politics.

The next speaker was supposed to be Lindsay River but unfortunately she was ill, so Sue George stood in, speaking about bi in the 1970s, mainly autobiographically, which I always like.

She talked about the way that for her David Bowie connected bisexuality with creativity, androgyny and glam rock. She said that in the early and mid 70s polymorphous perversion was cool, but by the late 70s sexual politics had become much more polarised into lesbian, gay and straight. She said that when she first went to university in 1978 it was unremarkable and fine in her friendship circles to be bi, but that by the time she left in 1981 it was pretty much impossible to have a girlfriend without being a lesbian. That reminded me of my own experiences of sexual politics at university in the late 80s and early 90s.

The final speaker was Ian Watters who gave what I’m sure he won’t mind me describing as a bitchy, partial and highly amusing account of the history of bi involvement in London Pride. He also had photographs, which I’d have loved to have been able to see better, for the fun of people-spotting.

Then there was a general discussion session, where some of the familiar topics were hashed out again. Do people need organised bi communities anymore, if sexuality has become so fluid and variable and permissive, and you can meet people and get information on the internet? Is it only middle-aged dinosaurs and politicos (I count myself as both) who still do identity politics?

Sue George said that she had noticed a change from people saying ‘I have (or want to have) poly relationships’ to making an identity statement ‘I am poly (even if currently single)’. So poly becoming something that pertains to the person rather than to a particular relationship.

Then the seminar finished and most people went to a pub with a fabulous Victorian interior (the Princess Louise) which made me feel like a character in a Sarah Waters novel.

Many thanks to Lisa Colledge and Sue George for organising the seminar.

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