Nettie, one of our regulars on the MHB Boards, wrote a fantastic review of this book, and I thought more people should see it.
My sister is frustrated, she tells me, because she feels as though she’s the only one struggling with somebody else’s transness. When she goes to her oracles of emotional support (Oprah and Dr Phil), their trans families are in some polished, effortless space where they can say polished, effortless things about their support for their trans relative or friend.
Imagine that: inarticulate struggle doesn’t play well on television. Not a lot of room for “hmm” and squirm and “I don’t really know”.
Now, two weeks spent walking in the rain … there’s a place for a lot of hmming and squirming and “I don’t really know”. Two weeks in which the rain is too loud on the hood of your anorak to hear the other person talk. Two weeks being with somebody, but mostly thinking and reminiscing rather than talking. It’s the antithesis of television.
Becoming Drusilla is as close to the antithesis of television as any book I’ve read. It’s a piece of travel writing, really. Travel writing and a bit of biographic exposition. Because Beard is a very open, clear and entertaining writer the result is a book which is a pleasure to read.
Richard Beard, the author, references Jan Morris a lot, which in a travel book-cum-biography is appropriate. The references call to mind Jan Morris’s Fisher’s Face, a biography written by a travel writer, a book which starts from a confession that the author can’t understand somebody. (Fisher’s Face is the best-written biography I’ve ever read). Morris can’t understand the sardonic facial expression in a photo of maverick Royal Navy reformer Jacky Fisher and undertakes an exploration of the subject. Beard can’t understand the gender reassignment of his friend, a Merchant Navy stoker, and likewise undertakes an exploration.
Beard and his old friend Dru Marland, back from some corrective surgery and bruised by insensitive co-workers in the engine room of a channel ferry, walk together for a couple of weeks while Beard struggles. A very muddy, uncomfortable Beard struggles with his perceptions of his friend, with his perceptions of his own gender, and with others’ perception of them as a pair.
On Marland’s behalf, Beard agonises about passability and transphobia and the potential for violence, growing protective of his old mate as they tramp the pubs and chippies of rural Wales. If they were American they’d have to drive and this would be a road book, but they’re not so they don’t and it isn’t.
Beard gives us the road as a narrative structure because he can’t find one otherwise. Dru’s real-life transition defies standard narratives, though that doesn’t stop Beard trying to shoehorn her into one, and whenever he thinks he’s succeeded she frustrates him by agreeing … “to a point”. He tries to get her to cop to the newspaper favourite: genital surgery as the defining moment. He tries to show a metamorphosis from one name to the next leading to the apotheosis of Drusilla. He, a novelist, badly wants linearity and Dru resists. Even the comparatively straightforward structure of Offa’s Dyke National Trail, a 285km path from here to there (where “there” is the decrepit coastal resort of Prestatyn), fails as they give up on Prestatyn and motor to a coastal trail that takes them along cliff-faces on a repeat pilgrimage to St David’s.
As they walk, Beard flashes back on Dru’s transition, trying to understand the woman in the cloche hat and the 15kg rucksack on the trail in front of him or in the sleeping bag beside him. Beard remembers driving in a Morris Traveller called (by Beard) Jan Morris as they visited bits of Dru’s childhood. Dru flashes back on her childhood ambition to be an RAF pilot (foiled by the cruel accident of colour-blindness), her mother’s untimely death and her father’s remarriage.
When they stop, the ruminations of the road are driven out by Beard’s preoccupation with Dru’s appearance and gender shibboleths. In country pubs Dru insists on ordering real ale in pints rather than feminine half-pints of fizzy lager. She sits where counter staff can see her and analyse her appearance. At some point, Beard dreads, somebody is going to attack them because Dru is read as a transwoman. He becomes, he says, “transphobicphobic”.
Back when Beard and Marland were two married blokes walking the trail together and sharing a little tent they were straight. Now that Marland’s a woman, and because a man and a woman walking together must form a couple, Beard finds himself queered every time Dru’s read as a queer bloke rather than a woman. Straight man suddenly queered isn’t such a comfortable person to be, and he doesn’t take it well. Beard cringes when Dru farts on the trail or wears the day-sack (one gets the impression that Beard usually associates with a rather delicate sort of woman). So queasy is he about his own gender presentation in his borrowed pink Tilley hat that Beard … grows a beard.
Beard is really wrapped around the axle about Dru Marland’s gender, which is remarkable because he far outstrips her own sometimes twitchy concerns about whether she looks girl enough for passersby on the trail. Sometimes, though Dru occasionally shops for a more feminine top, she is a blithe polished ivory figure in waterproofs leaving Beard to struggle in his confusion as she switches in and out of her “Drusilla voice” as the whim takes her.
The book isn’t about somebody becoming Drusilla — the name on Dru’s driving licence implies far more stereotypical femininity than the real woman is prepared to concede. It’s clear that Dru doesn’t become anybody different from the Cadet Flight Sergeant A.P. Marland on the book’s cover. She just stops pretending to be male which lets her set aside so much baggage (including a load of smack).
The journey here is Beard’s, and it’s not the easy glide that the polished “loved ones” on Oprah find pleases the producers. The journey is a long, wet slog on wet trails through towns where the only portable food is a Ginster’s pasty in cellophane wrapping and where condensed milk in a plastic tube is unknown.
Back then, it was Marland who was uncomfortable, and it was Beard who was comfortable. Marland hid her discomfort (as trans people do) so everyone at least appeared to be happy. Now Marland has made herself reasonably comfortable (barring some horrid treatment at the hands of her fellow-stokers in the engine room of the Pride of Bilbao) and it’s Beard who has to cope.
Beard seeks out Mr Bellringer, the cycling surgeon who yearns to get together with the Thai doctors nearly every Briton with the cash prefers to see. Bellringer, known outside this book for his ability to squeeze vaginoplasty and labiaplasty into less than three hours, rather wistfully laments that the Thais who linger long enough to construct labia minora don’t seem eager to come to meet him at conventions. Beard is so charmed (as so many are) by Mr Bellringer that he doesn’t even suggest that Bellringer wears spandex cycling shorts on the ward for the same reason that Beard grows his beard: to show that unlike his patients he’s (as we say with respect to livestock) entire.
The main character in this very well-written story is the author, Beard. Beard struggles with his anxieties about appearing to be queer. He struggles with his anxieties about being seen with a strange-looking woman. He wants validation from the woman he’s with. He wants a trophy, and instead his old mate forces him to struggle with anxiety about being victimised as though he were trans or queer or gawdelpus a woman.
Dru’s struggle is there: she’s turned down by Richard Green, the ugly rottweiler of a gatekeeper at Charing Cross Gender Identity Centre and only later “saved … by the more mundane business of the PCT agreeing an SLA to fund the GRS at CX GIC at the end of RLE”. She’s attacked by her shipmates, she’s attacked by thugs, she’s driven away from her family by her stepmother; but she’s the supporting character here, and her struggle is largely behind her.
So I think I’ll pass this book on to my sister. This isn’t Oprah, and this isn’t Dr Phil. The makeup girl doesnt sort Dru out before the studio lights go on, and the issue isn’t resolved in 44 minutes. For some issues and some people what’s necessary is two weeks tramping the uncomfortable paths of Wales trying to remember what it meant to be dry and warm.