This International Women’s Day, make like your mothas from Pose and rob all the fucking museums.
I was thinking of calling this post, “I earned my ‘F’, the fuck did you do?”
There was one teacher I used to fight with, back when I was a dance student. She was also the only teacher to push me, to take me seriously as a dancer from the very beginning. I think her modality was that if a student worked hard, pushed themselves, tried to improve, then her role was to be there. This was, and remains a rare experience in more than 20 years of having teachers. The default — in academic and athletic training — is the teacher who only has eyes for beauty, for the good ones, the ones who both look the part (at that moment in time and place) and who are already accomplished. The stars. They shine bright because the teacher holds the spotlight. This teacher though, we shouted at each other in class, which I think was shocking to at least some other students, who’d maybe never even considered pushing back against abusive demands.
I don’t want to say she was abusive though; she did as she’d learned perhaps, and simply wanted to help me improve. When her pedagogy coincided with me neatly, the memory remains for me a good experience: being pushed hard, exceeding one’s self, being rewarded with a “Good!” from the hardest teacher around. I remember her holding me back between classes, those precious 15 minutes when we’d all rush to grab a snack, get changed, catch ourselves from the previous 90 minutes of ballet before the next 90 of contemporary, and making me do the same steps over and over in the vast and empty unlit studio until I got it, or at least began to get it. Giving a shit on her own time. When it didn’t coincide though, it was nasty shit that still unsettles me. I remember why we shouted at each other in front of more than 30 of my year, me at the barre, sweating, in a unitard, nowhere to hide myself, pushing back hard ’cos there was nowhere else to go. Same person. Same people.
The why occurred to me today while I was wobbling and sliding on a half-log of wood, the lower half a semicircle rolling back and forth, and me on top breathing in and raising my arms, breathing out and lowering them, working my voice, back there again, learning, being taught. Before I had to stand on that unstable log, we’d been doing the same exercises, knees ever so slightly bent, and after a year of solid cycling with almost no problems, my knee did that so familiar twinge. This shit’s supposed to be behind me. And we start standing on one leg, waggling the other, a movement I’ve done so, so many times in dance classes back to the beginning, and there’s me, fucking crying.
Yesterday, I read that Dr. Rachel McKinnon won at the 2018 UCI Masters in the track sprint. First on Helen Wyman’s Instagram, then all up in my cycling news. Then I read the pile-on. Because Rachel is a trans woman. I’m holding on to women like Wyman, and Amanda Batty, professional cyclists who stood the fuck up in the moment, and sucked up a torrent of abuse (which is why I bailed from Twitter) to defend Rachel. We’re still so close to the shit I grew up in, which Laverne Cox, when talking about those ‘bathroom bills’ said (paraphrasing here) the purpose of this is to exclude trans women from public life, to erase us.
I described myself as an ex-dancer today, in voice therapy. The why of regarding myself as that currently is to do with this exclusion; the why of my preference for training alone and solitary physicality entirely bound with this. I describe it as ‘potential bullshit’, as in minimising, or reduction of. What bullshit will I have in a dance class? From the teacher, from other students? How do I deal with the changing rooms? How do I balance my need to dance, to be physical, and my selfhood, with a ballet teacher whose life experience has been built on achieving a kind of perfect heteronormativity? I’m just here to dance, but have to drag around a sack of shit in case ‘potential bullshit’ has to be dealt with.
I started serious cycling a few years ago to improve my aerobic endurance, and to deal with those unhappy knees. Which grew immediately into a love of shredding in forests because I am a) a high-speed, high-risk bogan, and b) fucking love forests. Which grew into my currently primary ‘dance’ training, and so much more. And I do it alone because, well, see how Rachel got treated for daring to not fuck off and die. In all this, I did find new things which, you know, cloud, silver lining, etc, like Amanda Batty describing herself as an “insanely competitive, capable and angry racer”, and fuck me do I ever see myself in that, and it’s aspirational.
But there I am, wobbling on half a log, saying to my coach, “Yeah, this is really fucking with my head.” Because of shit I had to swallow, compromises I had to make, in order to both stay with dance (’cos it literally saved my life), and stay with myself, and 20 years later, that still has to be dealt with. I think there’s something in how trans, non-binary, intersex people negotiate physical training, be it dance, sport, singing, playing an instrument — all of which is highly gendered and rigorously enforced — that becomes a sort of chronic abuse and trauma. I want to differentiate this from the default abuse and trauma that pretty much every cis woman, female or feminine-identified dancer or athlete I know of has personally lived through — and all have witnessed and had to work within — which in its mildest from manifests as a bitterness and cynicism towards those early training years, those teachers, and to the practice itself, even while both abuses are indisputably part of the same situation. And another qualification: When I talked about the stars, those accomplished young dancers, I’m not criticising them as dancers or people, or the work they put in: even the ‘natural’ ones worked themselves raw and gave up so much just to be there. I’m criticising the narrative which is addicted to the success story of the naturals, or conversely that of the one who everyone said was talentless but who persevered and made it. There’s still the rest of those 30–something dancers in the studio, and all of us, including those two have their lives and training defined by these fairytale narratives.
So back to the chronic abuse and trauma then. My thinking lately is that for trans, non-binary, intersex people, living one’s selfhood is incessantly hit against by the culture, history, and methodology of training. Training often slides uneasily close to abusive, or not so healthy or good — and all those words are loaded in themselves and weapons as well as descriptors simply because of the terrain they operate in, the implicit meaning and value they are given. Me doing intervals or committing to a long session is agreeing to physical discomfort, suffering, a lot of mental and emotional anguish (of the“Please stop, this isn’t really fun” type), yet I know also it’s part of the process and I enjoy it. This is utterly different from being clad in skin-tight lycra and the associated cultural judgement (of bodies in general but specifically here female or feminine bodies, or those perceived as such) from which there is nowhere to hide, which I had in those years of dance training and potentially every time I go out on my bike. And that is different again from doing the same as a trans or non-binary or intersex person. However I might have lived the last twenty years, every time I step into a training environment, part of the process will be receiving hits for having the body I do, for living my selfhood. I walked away from dance because of this. I train alone because of this.
This turned out to be slightly more involved than anticipated. I should have known: Iain Banks is always in the details. Until starting this — and I’m still reading The Crow Road, for the maybe 3rd time — I hadn’t realised how fundamentally cars and vehicles form characters in his novels, much as landscape does, and if the landscape is up the Scottish end of town, the cars are solidly British, with rare excursions to various four-wheeled hoonage from across Europe.
I haven’t really decided how to do this, making it up as I go along, I thought to include the sentence where the car was named enough to make an educated guess at, which sometimes turned into multiple lines. Published in 1992, The Crow Road is set late–’89 to late–’90, at its most current period, with narratives in a number of periods back to just post–war. I’ve tried to match cars to the periods they were mentioned in, so no car is newer than end–’80s, and ‘old’ is 15–20 years minimum, relative to the scene’s time period. I discovered just how specific Banks was in choosing the ensemble of cars (2/3 of the way through and at least 27) when I was looking for an image of a Metro — Austin, MG, Rover, it got passed around — and found there was a period when it had no marque, it was just Metro. That’s the one he was talking about. And the Peugeot 209 isn’t, so either that’s an error, or this is Banks subtly trolling his Scottish alternate / coexisting realities again, like in Whit or The Business. In this reality, probably a 205.
That’s enough. Here are the cars of Iain Banks’ The Crow Road.
Instead I’d sold Fraud Siesta, my Car.
‘The car; it’s a Lagona Rapide Saloon’
‘Yes,’ I said, smiling a little ruefully to myself. ‘Yes, I know’
The car came screaming up the crematorium drive, leaves swirling into the air behind. It was a green Rover, and had to be doing sixty.
Everybody in the crowd outside the crematorium was watching the green 216 as it skidded to a stop, avoiding a head-on collision with the Urvill’s Bentley Eight by only a few centimetres.
The big Super Snipe growled into the car park, heeling as it turned and stopping with the passenger’s door opposite Kennith.
‘Anyway, couldn’t we take the Rover?’ Kenneth wasn’t keen on the Morgan; its stiff ride hurt his back and gave him a headache, and Fergus drove too fast in the ancient open-top. Maybe it was the sight of all that British Racing Green paint and the leather strap across the bonnet. The Rover, 3.5 though it was, seemed to calm Fergus a little.
The upholstery of Fergus’s Rover was cleansed of the debris and stains associated with Verity’s birth and the car continued to serve the Urvill family for another five years or so until 1975, when it was traded in (for what Prentice thereafter would maintain was a scandalously small sum, considering that the thing ought to have been preserved as some sort of internationally-recognised shrine to Beauty) for an Aston Martin DB6.
“We got into the Fiesta; she dumped the brolly in the back.”
I kind of wished I’d sat behind Verity; I wouldn’t have seen so much of her – not even a hint of that slim, smooth face, frowning in concentration as she barrelled the big black Beemer towards the next corner – but I wouldn’t have been able to see the speedometer either.
Verity wiggled her bottom, plonked it back down, calmly braked and shifted up to fifth, dawdling along behind the green Parceline truck while she waited for it to overtake an Esso tanker.
Her battered, motley-panelled 2CV had looked out of place in Ascot Square, where I think that anything less than a two-year old Golf GTi, Peugeot 209 or Renault 5 was considered to be only just above banger status, even as a third car, let alone a second.
‘I play games’, she told me.
‘Yeah,’ she nodded, licking her lips, ‘Like Name That Tail-Light.’
‘What?’ I laughed
‘True,’ she said. ‘See that car up ahead?’
I looked at the two red lights. ‘Yeah.’
‘See how high up the lights are, not too far apart?’
‘Mm-hmm. One it’s overtaking?’
‘Horizontally divided lights; that’s an old Cortina, mark 3.’
‘Here’s a Beemer. New five series … I think, about to pass us; should have lights that slant in slightly at the bottom. ’
Verity Walker, clad in a short black dress, was dancing sinuously on the roof of Uncle Fergus’ Range Rover.
‘Ha!’ Prentice said, as the battered Cortina II drew to a stop just past them.
He helped Fergus drag the small corpse down the slope to the track, where the Land Rover was parked, and accepted a lift back to the road.
An hour or so later I saw my mother’s green Metro, just about to turn out of the drive-way of Hamish and Tone’s house.
‘Na,’ he said. The Volvo estate accelerated down the straight through the forest towards Port Ann. ‘Though maggoty meat and people with one eye did come into it at one point.’
Fiona brought the Rover to a halt behind a beaten-up Mini, standing on the gravel in front of the castle’s main entrance.
‘Isn’t that Fergus?’ he said, nodding.
‘Racing green Jag, heading north.’
‘Is that what Ferg’s driving these days?’ Rory said, rising up in his seat a little to watch the car pass.
I’ve always had this fantasy, that, after uncle Rory borrowed his flat-mate Andy’s motorbike and headed off into the sunset, he crashed somewhere, maybe coming down to Gallanach; came off the road and fell down some gully nobody’s looked into for the last ten years, or – rather more likely, I suppose – crashed into the water, and there’s a Suzuki 185 GT lying just under the waves of Lock Lomond, or Loch Long, or Loch Fyne, its rider somehow entangled in it, reduced by now to a skeleton in borrowed leathers, somewhere underwater, perhaps between here and Glasgow; and we all pass it every time we make the journey, maybe only a few tens of metres away from him, and very probably will never know.
One of my pals — graduated, employed, moving on to better things — sold me his old VW Golf, and I drove down to Lochgair most weekends, usually on a Thursday night as I didn’t have any classes on a Friday.
We took Lewis and Verity’s new soft-top XR3i — roof down, heater up full — out into the grey-pink dawn and drove through Lochgilphead and then into Gallanach and just cruised about the town, waving at the people still walking about the place and shouting Happy New Year! one and all.
I parked the Golf behind a Bristol Brigand which sat half on the gravel and half on the grass.
“What if, Frances, what if we were to read all Iain Banks’ novels again—”
“Again? Like for the 6th time? All of them?”
“Nah, just the ones set on Earth—”
“So the ones without the M.?”
“Right, and we were to—”
“Except for Transition, ’cos that was an M. one in the States, but set on Earth. A bit. And a non-M. one everywhere else.”
“Yeah, but primarily the—”
“Also The State of the Art. That’s also an M. one, and Culture. And on Earth. What about Raw Spirit? And Poems?”
“’Cos Raw Spirit is basically Complicity but real. With hooning and whisky; hooning for whisky. But no poetically deserved death.”
“Definitely Raw Spirit. Starting with The Crow Road—”
“We’re reading that now!”
“It’s not as good as The Steep Approach to Garbadale is it?”
“They all have cars though.”
“Iain was a hoon.”
“Until he wasn’t.”
“So what if we did a post of each novel, of just the cars!”
“Kinda like how we were going to do a post of each episode of Blake’s 7 of just the costumes?”
“Sounds great! Does this mean we’ll sit in front of our laptop and try to divine what each make and model of car is? For hours and hours?”
“This gonna be one of those ‘What happens if I … ?’ that turns into ‘Well, seemed like a good idea at the time’ things, innit?”
“As in ‘What happens if I blog all the cars of Iain Banks’ novels oh God this turned into so much work what have I gotten us into am I even having fun anymore why did I decide to do this again well it seemed like a good idea at the time?’”
“Track record points to yes!”
“OMG count me in!”
“We’re so good together!”
“I know, right! When do we start?”
“We already have!”
Another one of those reminders that I am a Muslim, or, One More Sort of Bi Trans Queer Muslim Immigrant Something Woman. This one especially for white Australia: We ain’t gonna be your final solution. And while we’re at it, ’cos you keep acting like you don’t know already or forgot: Always was, always will be Aboriginal land.
I just stare at this photo ’cos I almost can’t believe it. Look at my beautiful sisters.
One of the very first Iain M. Banks novels I read (I think Consider Phlebas or Excession was the first), in Naarm (Melbourne) around 2004. That edition had the cover with the Sharrow’s Monowheel on the cover, probably my favourite series of Banks’ cover artwork, that edition; this one has the burning reds and oranges of the ships of Log Jam city. Against a Dark Background is the second novel Banks wrote, or drafted, after Use of Weapons, around 17 years before it was published in 1993, the same year as Complicity, and a year before his next novel, my unwavering favourite, Feersum Endjinn.
When I was looking for the cover art, I discovered a new critical work on Banks, The Science Fiction of Iain M. Banks, edited by Nick Hubble, Esther MacCallum-Stewart, and Joseph Norman. Much joy in finding that, and ordering as soon as bookshops open. Though I suspect I’ll be a little frustrated at the artificial division between Iain with and without an M.
The morse-code finger-tapping on skin communication method makes an appearance, I think that showed up also in Feersum Endjinn and maybe The Business — one day I might make a spreadsheet of all the various recurring themes in Banks’ novels, all of them, not arbitrarily splitting fiction and science-fiction, Culture and non-Culture, M. and no M. This could even be a novel set on the same Earth as Feersum Endjinn (and so also grazing the edge of the Culture) with all the specific technology and attitudes towards it, were it not for the part where Banks describes the Golter system as isolated by a million light years in all directions from any neighbouring galaxy. It occurs to me now it still could be. The end of Feersum Endjinn sees the titular fearsome engine come into motion, slowly, gradually moving the entire solar system out and away from an encroaching interstellar dust cloud. Vast, incomprehensible, uncontrollable technology left by long-distant previous generations and cultures, just as in Against a Dark Background.
It’s a sprawling, meandering, disorientating story, traversing landscape and planets, closest to The Algebraist in structure, and the kind of hopeless loss and existential bleakness of Alastair Reynolds novels. I’ve never seen it rated highly among either pop culture discussions of Banks or critical appraisals, perhaps because it doesn’t have the seductive space opera-ness of say, Excession, or the solid maturity of his later novels like The Hydrogen Sonata. I think there’s a set of his novels, read together or in various combination, which constitute what he was really on about, but only if we ignore those forced divisions: Feersum Endjinn (obviously), The Business, Whit, Against a Dark Background, The Hydrogen Sonata, The Bridge, The Steep Approach to Garbadale, and maybe — or swapping in and out — The Algebraist, Inversions and The Crow Road. I also thought there was a way to read (or rewrite) all his novels into a single, long chronological story, but that’s just being clever.
Anyway, Against a Dark Background, one of Iain M. Banks’ underrated works of melancholy beauty.