Wellcome Book Prize Longlist, 2019: Amateur

amateur-hardback-cover-9781786890979

Thomas Page McBee starts training as an amateur boxer after encountering an angry man on Orchard Street who accuses him of taking a photograph of his car. McBee abruptly finds himself caught up in an alpha-male showdown:

“I was taking a photo of the restaurant in front of your car,” I tried, softening my tone a bit, breaking the rules of the scene. “I want to take my girlfriend on a date there.” I remembered, at the last moment, not to add an upward lilt to the end of my thought.

I saw the flash!” he growled, beyond logic, a man committed to his part… “Give. Me. Your. Phone.”…

I marshalled the self-control to turn and walk away… “Hey!” he shouted… “Asshole!”…

I let an acidic rage bloom… colouring my tone such a ragged mess I didn’t recognise my own voice. “I. Did. Not. Take. A. Picture. Of. Your. Fucking. Car.”

He backed away with his hands up. “Okay, okay,” he mumbled. “Jesus.”

Since his transition, a subject he deals with in his first memoir, Man Alive, McBee has increasingly found himself caught up in situations like these, where he wants to break out of the pattern of toxic masculinity but finds himself instinctively conforming. He might have wanted to become a man, but what kind of man does he want to be? ‘I began this book,’ he writes, ‘because, though I could not articulate it then, I understood that I could not know why I wanted to break that man’s teeth on Orchard Street without understanding, in turn, why he wanted to break mine.’

As a trans man, McBee understands both what it means to be socialised as a woman (the ‘upward lilt’ he has to stop himself adding to the end of his sentences) and how things change once society sees you as male. Voice comes up again and again. At one point, McBee and his brother talk over his sister, Clare, with their ‘jocular camaraderie’ about boxing, even though Clare has been taking boxing classes for years. McBee doesn’t notice what has happened until his girlfriend, Jess, points it out, although to his credit, he later apologises and talks it through with Clare. He also, suddenly, gets listened to at work. ‘Six months into my transition… testosterone made my voice low. Really low. So low that I was almost impossible to hear in a loud bar… But when I did talk, people didn’t just listen; they leaned in. They kept their eyes focused on my mouth, or down at their hands, as if to rid themselves of any distraction beyond my powerful words. The first time I spoke up at a meeting… in my newly quiet baritone, I noticed that sudden, focused attention’.

It’s taken me a while to write about this book because I had such an emotional reaction to it. McBee breaks away from familiar narratives about sex and gender to tell a new kind of story about what it means to be trans, and about what it means to be a man or a woman. I’m obviously not trans, but I identified so strongly with McBee’s discomfort around gender, about his wish to be treated as a man without letting down women – and his conflict about what being ‘like a man’ really meant. It reminded me of a conversation my sister once had on Facebook, about being cat-called in the street. After recounting her unpleasant experience, she wrote about a different encounter in Bristol [shared with her permission]:

Screen Shot 2019-02-26 at 18.23.55

That’s the thing, I always want to say when I read books like McBee’s. None of us want to be a ‘darling’. We all want to be a ‘mate’, or at least I do. I admire McBee’s strength in dealing with his abusive past, in coming out as trans, and in writing so eloquently about his experiences; but I couldn’t help feeling a little unfairly jealous of him, too, as he travelled towards a place where I can never go. And even though I’m not a man, even though I don’t agree with this sort of behaviour, I could see why he wanted to break the angry man’s teeth; how hard it is to let go of privilege that feels so powerful.

Amateur is incredibly thought-provoking, carefully and precisely written, and ultimately, very moving, and it had better end up on the Wellcome shortlist; in fact, I’d love to see it win.

Thanks very much to Midas PR for sending me a free copy of Amateur for review.

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13 thoughts on “Wellcome Book Prize Longlist, 2019: Amateur

  1. That’s a fabulous anecdote from your sister – “for an instant, I was included in a different world.” When I was still living at home and my parents had friends round, I used to love participating in the complicated, philosophical, political conversations that were usually held between my dad and the male guest(s) after dinner, while my mum (who has a PhD in histry, mind you) tended to clear the table and organise dessert and so on. It really did feel like I was included in that world. And I’ve noticed that although I can still do that, it’s become slightly less easy as I get older and am more obviously a woman, instead of a precocious kid. I agree that McBee’s willingness to share his experience is actually quite envy-inducing!

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    • Interestingly, my sister and I were actually talking last night about how you become increasingly gendered once you move from being a child into being a teenage boy or girl, and even more so, once you move from being a teenager to being a man or woman. My sense is that (for white able-bodied people at any rate) the most significant social characteristic about you after the age of 18 or so stops being your age and becomes your sex.

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  2. I didn’t connect with this book in quite the way that you did, but I agree that it’s a valuable treatment of our conceptions of gender. Probably more so than Freshwater and The Trauma Cleaner, and for that reason it probably deserves to be on our and/or the official shortlist.

    (I’ve had a couple of moments when I was deeply insulted by being called ‘mate’ — this may be due to my particular cultural associations of the word with blokey behaviour and also specifically with a lower class. So when a (female!) colleague I didn’t know well persisted in calling me that during my library years, and the boiler repairman called me that instead of ‘Mrs Foster’, I really wasn’t happy.)

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    • I definitely think that it has much more to say about both gender and trans identity than The Trauma Cleaner.

      Interesting point re. mate. I don’t associate this word strongly with a particular class (unlike e.g. ‘pet’, which I get called a lot in Newcastle and quite like, but definitely see as a working-class term) or as particularly blokey, in comparison to e.g. ‘lads’. My sense is that it’s used by younger people, at least, in a quite class-neutral way. But yes, I can see why it would sound weird and a bit inappropriate coming from somebody who knows you are female. There might also be US/UK nuances here!

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      • Oh definitely, I’m sure there’s a US/UK vocabulary issue there. And I know in Australian English it’s more of a jolly, catch-all term. My husband doesn’t like being called ‘mate’ either, as he’s not a particularly blokey man!

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  3. Funnily, I’ve never really got wound up about endearments, although ‘pet’ is much nicer than ‘ducks’. Being a South Londoner, and having done my time as a bit of a ladette, my vernacular tends towards blokey acceptance anyway – more often than not, I sign off ‘Cheers!’ I was sceptical about this book, but am very keen to read it now, it sounds really interesting.

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    • I do recommend it! To be clear, I don’t care what I’m actually called, it’s that ‘different world’ that men speaking to other men get to access that bothers me.

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