The Hidden Case Of Ewan Forbes -Zoe Playdon (Bloomsbury 2021)

This is the first book by LGBT+ activist and human rights specialist and Emeritus Professor of Medical Humanities at University of London Zoe Playdon.  This is an author with an impressive CV and this book comes out of a five year research project which she only had the time to begin after retirement.

It’s both a simple story of basic human rights and an incredibly complex web of legal ramifications which attempts to put into context society’s treatment of individuals who do not belong in the gender to which they were assigned at birth and tracks how much of society’s response to trans people has developed from a court case from 1968, the details of which were hidden from the public.  The author states;

“Most people are unaware that until the late 1960s trans people lived in complete legal equality with everyone else.  Ewan was the reason that changed.”

Ewan Forbes Semphill was an unassuming figure to have caused such a seismic shift in attitudes.  A religious man, born in 1912, a gifted and popular local doctor in the small Scottish community where he lived, he liked dancing and was happily married.  Ewan, however, was born the Hon. Elizabeth Forbes-Semphill, a member of one of Scotland’s distinguished families and whose father had the dual titles of a baronetcy and a barony (he was the 8th Baronet Forbes of Craigievar and the 17th Lord Semphill).

The child became known as Benjie and had a very outdoorsy existence made miserable when forced to don dresses and pose as the “Hon. Elizabeth”.  With money, prestige and a supportive mother came the opportunity to tour Europe and receive revolutionary new treatments and Benjie became Ewan.  His gender was reassigned and an action which would surprise many who battled in later decades to achieve this, his birth certificate was changed without that much fuss.

Ewan slipped easily into the life he wanted to follow and that might have been it if the concept of primogeniture did not raise its ugly head.  With titles succeeding along the male line Ewan’s right to succession was challenged by a cousin he had barely met who forced a court-case to get Ewan to prove he was male who had been wrongly assigned to a female gender at birth.

It is an extraordinary tale of a man who just wanted to get on with his life but became inevitably and continually swept up in developments even though he lived largely under the radar.  I found this clash of the simplicity of Ewan’s life as a Highlands doctor against the whole maelstrom of long-lasting legal ramifications not easy to read.  There were so many big issues going on here that I found it hard occasionally to maintain focus in this format.  Perhaps it was too ambitious to condense a five year research project into one book for the general reader who may be grappling with these concepts of gender and sexual identity for the first time.  It is a demanding work but at the heart of it is this one man who probably never saw his life as extraordinary.

The actual tale of Ewan Forbes I loved.  His hidden case did have me lost at times but the author does bring it back to contemplate the legacy of the case and the gap that still exists in terms of trans rights and the ongoing threats to the existence of trans men and women.  There is some hope with greater acceptance, and strong following and support for a new wave of activists as well as Joe Biden’s pledge to improve matters in the US, following shocking policies from the Trump administration as well as the gradual removal of long-lasting practices which contravened basic human rights, in both US, UK and world-wide, even in places we might consider “enlightened”.

I do think just a little tweaking would have made this work a little more accessible and would have got it the wider audience it deserves but it is a sobering, thought-provoking and at times quite extraordinary read.

The Hidden Case Of Ewan Forbes was published by Bloomsbury on 11th November 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Long Call – Ann Cleeves (2019)

This is the first Ann Cleeves novel I’ve read, despite having watched every episode of “Vera” which features her characters and is adapted from her series of 9 novels and 1 novella featuring Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope, beautifully played by Brenda Blethyn.  I also had neither watched any of her other acclaimed tv adaptation, “Shetland” nor read any of those 8 novels, 1 Quick Read and 1 associated non-fiction work, but I have always wanted to.  There’s also two earlier series of novels featuring George and Molly Palmer-Jones (8 titles) and Inspector Ramsay (6 titles) so it is pretty incredible that I hadn’t got round to this prolific British author’s work.

This novel is an obvious staring place- a brand new series, “Two Rivers”, and one which has been recommended to me a number of times.  I’ve also seen it on lists of titles with positive LGBTQ+ representation embodied here in main character Detective Matthew Venn.  Set in coastal North Devon, which Cleeves has conveyed very effectively through her writing, Venn is embarking on married life with husband Jonathan following years of estrangement from his Christian Fundamentalist family who rejected him and his lifestyle.  Ostracised from the community he grew up amongst he has returned to the area to live and work.  Jonathan runs a community arts centre and when a body which turns up on the beach close to their home proves to be a volunteer from The Woodyard, Venn knows he has to tread carefully to avoid conflict of interests.

Matthew and Jonathan are well-established as characters with the policeman’s background giving a depth which could last for many cases.  His team, Jen Rafferty and Ross May also both have lots of potential.

There’s a lot going on in this novel and I very much liked that.  I felt, away from the crime, a community of memorable characters had been created and I felt part of their lives, which is an unusual experience for me within the crime fiction genre where I tend to feel less connected with characters’ lives. 

This is a strong opening title for a new series and with the second “The Heron’s Song” due to arrive on September 2nd 2021 whilst the paperback edition of this is still selling well I’d heartily recommend seeking this out.

The Long Call was published in September 2019 by Macmillan. The Pan paperback edition is also available.

God’s Own Country (2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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With the wind howling around the house in full throes of a storm the other night I fancied watching something which would match the bleakness going on outside.  I have seen this film before and it left a great impression.  I bought it on DVD just before Christmas but with a cat ensconced on my lap it was easier to watch it on Netflix.  It is also on the BFI Player where I viewed it the first time and where it was one of the most streamed films of 2018.

Set during an early springtime lambing season in a farm on the Yorkshire Moors, main character John Saxby (an outstanding Josh O’Connor most recently seen as Marius in the BBC adaptation of “Les Miserables”) is getting by through getting drunk each night and spending the day hung over and uncommunicative towards grandmother played by Gemma Jones and his ailing father, played by Ian Hart, who himself is reluctant to give up the running of the farm and vents this frustration onto his son. A young Romanian is brought in to help out with the lambing and sparks ignite between him and John.

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Josh O’Connor and Alex Secareanu

This is a love story but one carried out in the bleak harshness of the environment.  The two camp out on the Fells to be near to the sheep in a section reminiscent of “Brokeback Mountain” but this is a more stronger, more convincing film.  It also feels more grounded in reality, certainly for British audiences,  than a film that  tended to overshadow it in 2017, “Call Me By Your Name“.  The reason this works so well is largely through the dynamics between the two men, John, barely able to express himself or feelings other than lust and anger yet crippled by loneliness and Gheorghe thrust into this brittle set-up and accepting of everything because it is better than he had experienced at home.  You can certainly appreciate the appeal of the migrant worker played by Alec Secareanu and the hope that he brings with him.  It’s understandable how he can enrich the lot of those around him.

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It’s pretty much a four-hander and the performances are all excellent.  As John’s father’s health deteriorates Ian Hart’s performance becomes almost painful to watch and if asked to choose a career best performance from the ex-Duchess of Duke Street Gemma Jones between this and her excellent work on BBC TV’s “Spooks” I’d have to opt for the sublime, understated portrayal here.

 

Co-stars Ian Hart and Gemma Jones

True, this film might not be for everyone.  Some of the everyday scenes of life on the farm are brutal and challenging and there’s a couple of steamy sex scenes which may shock but are well within the context of the piece as shown by its 15 Rating (if they felt in anyway gratuitous I’m sure the rating would have been upped to 18).  It’s moving, satisfying and believably scripted.  It was written and directed by Francis Lee, whose sheer belief in his debut film is evident in every shot.  However, it is the performances that will stay with me, which definitely makes this a five star film for me.

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The stars with writer/director Francis Lee

God’s Own Country won the world crime directing award at the American Sundance Festival and garned a host of nominations worldwide.  Although Josh O’ Connor was singled out most often for acting awards, each of the four performances were up for awards.  In 2018 it was nominated for 7 Baftas of which it won Best British Independent Film with Josh O’Connor beating fellow nominee Alex Secareanu as Best Actor.  It also picked up gongs at the British Independent Film Festival, Chicago Film Festival, Edinburgh Festival, Empire Awards, Evening Standard Awards (where it won Best Film and Best Supporting Actress for Gemma Jones) amongst others including awards which highlighted the film’s LGBT+ issues.

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God’s Own Country was released in 2017 and is currently available on DVD.  It is also   available on Netflix as part of the subscription and can be rented on the BFI player