Castaways Choice

This is a repost of an old story that seems to have disappeared from the site.

This piece takes the form of an interview between Ellen Hammond (EH) and Rosemary Donaldson (RD).

[EH] My guest today is the former politician and civil rights campaigner Rosemary Donaldson. Welcome to the show Rosemary.

[RD] Thank you for inviting me Ellen.

[EH] You have had a very varied and incident packed life. How do you think you would survive on a Desert Island?

[RD] How big is this island?

[EH] As big as you would like it to be?

[RD] Then if it was about the size of Arran and I'd survive pretty well.

[EH] How has much has music played a part in your life?

[RD] Quite a lot actually. It all started by being dragged by my cousin Harry to the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 aged 14 had an impact on me. Seeing Jimmy Hendrix was something I will never forget. His skill with a plank of wood and a few strings was consummate.

[EH] Is he on your list of records that you would arrive on the island with?

[RD] Actually no. It was hard to leave him out but there were just so many musical influences in my life that in the end there was no room for him.

[EH] So what is your first choice?

[RD] It is a piece of Classical Music. I like a good tune or melody. In a Concerto you have a dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra. Some pieces are good but none get me going like this one, Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 3. The Deutche Gramaphon version with Klemperer Conducting. This is special to me as it was the first piece of classical music I really listened to at length. Some of the melodies are really complex.

{break for the playing of a segment of the piece}

[EH] So far we have heard about Rock Musicians like Hendrix and then Classical. Would I be right in expecting a wide range of music in your choices?

[RD] Well yes. If I am going to be stranded on an Island there is no sense in being bored with the same style of music is there?

[EH] Where did your musical education lead to then?

[RD] Everywhere and nowhere really. I listened to a lot of things including Jazz, Folk and New Orleans Blues but things conspired to get in the way of any one particular genre.

[EH] What sort of things?

[RD] Does getting married, getting a degree and starting my own company count?

[EH] laughs.

[EH] I read in your autobiography that you decided very soon after graduating that you had to start your own business. It wasn't all that clear about the reasons why you came to that conclusion?

[RD] I guess I was not much different from a lot of other graduates in that I had all these hopes for the future. My degree in Chemistry didn't really prepare me for the big bad world of commerce and business at all. I got a job with a bank on their graduate programme but I lasted about two weeks before I upped and quit. Their whole programme was based around educating me to sell financial products to people who clearly didn't need them in return for somewhere between 30% to 50% of their first years premium as commission payable to me. That just wasn't me one little bit.

[EH] Did you startup your own business then?

[RD] Not quite. I wasn't ready for anything so I got a job at a local DIY store just to provide an income. Sarah, my wife was working but then she became pregnant with our first child, Megan. The temporary job turned into a permanent one that lasted nearly three years. In the meantime in between changing nappies and feeding the baby I prepared my business plan and sorted out in my own mind how I was going to make my first million by the time I was thirty.

[EH] Did you make it?

[RD] Yes, well sort of. I sold my company for a little over sixty million pounds two days after my twenty-ninth birthday. So yes I made it with bells on but… frankly I'd had enough of making money.

[EH] What put you off making money?

[RD] I'd been in business for about a year when got rather annoyed with the financial institutions. I needed a loan of a hundred grand to finance some export orders. I'd get two and a half times that much back within three months. The money was even sitting in an escrow but none of the banks would finance the deal without stupid conditions that amounted almost to selling my first, second and third born children into servitude.

[EH] That bad?

[RD] Yes and that is the polite version. Think of what those PayDay loan companies charge in interest and then add in clauses about working until you are a Hundred and Ten just to pay off the capital let alone the interest and you get the idea of what I was up against.

[EH] How did you get the money?

[RD] I went to a betting office and put Fifty Quid on a Triple at odd of 750/1.

[EH] I take it that it came in?

[RD] You bet. So I rolled it over onto another triple the next day.

[EH] And?

[RD] It came in and I walked away with a little over Sixty Grand and enough to finance my business.

[EH] Have you bet since?

[RD] No, once is enough and any more would be asking to lose heavily.

[EH] So your business thrives and in the end someone came up with an offer you couldn't refuse. What did you do after selling out?

[RD] I started my own rock band.

[EH] That's a bit of a change after running your own company. What sort of rock did you play?

[RD] Mostly what would be called 'psychodelic rock' these days.

[EH] Would that by any chance be your next choice?

[RD] Yes. I really hate the fact that most people only listen to one track off an album rather than the whole thing. Back in the seventies artists were not afraid to put together a whole album where one track ran into another or even one track would take up a whole side of the LP. My second choice would have been 'Close to Edge' by Yes. It takes up the whole of one side of the record and obviously there isn't time to play it all here today. Instead I have chosen a much shorter piece, 'And you and I' also by Yes.

{Break to hear the wonderful voice of Jon Anderson}

[EH] I take it that your band didn't last very long?

[RD] To be honest, we were awful. I can't play an instrument and I soon found out that my voice is flat and horrible.

[EH] How did that feel?

[RD] Humiliating but it brought me down to earth with a bang.

[EH] What happened next?

[RD] I started to become interested in Politics. It seemed that the government of the time was doing everything it could to kill the little person and their aspirations so I joined the Labour Party. {sigh}. My local branch didn't like me one little bit. I heard the terms 'Champagne Socialist' more than one. It was a little ironic really because at the same time one Anthony Blair was being welcomed by another branch of the party. Still, I persevered and put myself forward for selection as a potential candidate for a forthcoming by election.

[EH] What about the music in your life? What the failure of the band a blessing in disguise?

[RD] Yes and No. Yes because we were bad but No because I had time to really dig deep into a lot of music I'd missed over the years.

[EH] Did your third choice come out of this period?

[RD] Sort of in that I discovered a whole bunch of bands that originated from Canterbury in Kent. Bands like Soft Machine, Caravan, Camel and many more. My next choice is 'The Snow Goose' by Camel. A totally instrumental piece that in some ways is classical in its construction.

{Break to listen to the first part of the piece}

[EH] I can certainly see the classical influences in that part.

[RD] That got me into other bands of the period. My next piece is 'Mocking Bird' from the album, 'Early Morning Onwards' by Barclay James Harvest. I still listen to them today. Their pieces are some beautiful in their construction.

{Break to hear 'Mocking Bird'}

[EH] How did your selection as a potential MP go?

[RD] I made the shortlist but I was passed over in the final selection.

[EH] How did that feel?

[RD] Deflated and annoyed. So I redoubled my efforts and I was eventually selected as PPC for Harlow South for the 1987 General Election.

[EH] I remember interviewing you after the result had been declared that election night.

[RD] {laughs}

[RD] We have both come a long way since then.

[EH] You said that were determined to win the seat at the next election.

[RD] I did just that as I told you in 1992.

[EH] Who's doing the interviewing here?

{both of them laugh}

[EH] What about your musical influences in that period?

[RD] During that campaign one of the people helping had some fantastic music on their Walkman. Totally different from anything I'd heard before.

[EH] How different?

[RD] Well listen and see for yourself. The band was called Stackridge. The song is called 'Dora the Female Explorer'.

{Break to listen to the selection}

[EH] That was certainly different from your other choices.

[RD] Yes. A little frivolity and light. Who wouldn't smile when you hear the named of some of their songs with title like, "God Speed the Plough', 'The Man in the Bowler Hat' and 'The Last Plimsol'.

[EH] How did you get to listen to them?

[RD] It was my wife who introduced me to them. She was into folk music and used to go to the Cropredy Festival most years. In 1999, the band played there and blew her mind.

[EH] 1999 was an important year for you was it not?

[RD] I was indeed. I was becoming more and more frustrated with the government and my own problems all combined to cause a number of things to come to a head.

[EH] You separated from your wife that year. What caused it? You seemed to be a very happy family.

[RD] We were but the last thing I wanted to do was to drag my family through the next phase of my life. The press and the party were going to have a field day with my and… well we both felt that if we'd publicly separated a good time before they leave her any the children alone.

[EH] It sounds like you coming out was all planned in advance?

[RD] It was. Well sort of. Sarah knew about my other self before we got married. For many years I was able to control the periods I became my other self but with my increasing frustration with the direction the government was going after all the promises they'd made in the election I seemed to retreat into my other self more and more. In the end, Sarah gave me an ultimatum. We went off for a long weekend together to thrash things out once and for all.

[EH] What sort of things?

[RD] Mostly it was my desire to live as a woman.

[EH] But not all?

[RD] No. I had my family to consider. They had to come first and I am so lucky that Sarah understood me and my other half. Many people who are like me have real problems with their family. Some are totally disowned with even violence at times. Thankfully my children knew from an early age that their father liked to dress like their mother sometimes at home.

[EH] But never in Public?

[RD] At first no but there were times when Sarah and I would go out together and act as friends. Most of the time this happened when our children were away from home for whatever reason.

{RM sighs}

It was on one of those trips that Sarah suggested that I become the real me, the woman inside of me.

[EH] You wife suggested it?

[RD] Yes. She could see the difference in me when I became Ellen. She could see that I was happy when in my other life, I was visibly unhappy. I found it hard not to agree with her despite a lot of soul searching. The result was that we began an adventure together.

[RD] That leads me onto your next choice of record.

[EH] This was one of the easiest to make. Dark Side of the Moon is one of those seminal pieces of music that comes along every so often. It is now more than 40 years since it was first played in 1972. The version I have chosen was recorded on the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio at Brighton Dome in June 1972. I had the luck to be in the audience. The show just blew mind from the lights to the plane crashing into the back of the stage, everything. While this is a piece that deserves to be listened to from beginning to end in one go, I have chosen is 'Brain Damage'. Let me quote you a few of the lyrics.

The lunatic is in my head.
The lunatic is in my head
You raise the blade, you make the change
You re-arrange me 'til I'm sane.

For a very long time, I was that lunatic. I didn't know what or who I was. Part of me said 'you are a girl' but looking in the mirror, all I saw was a man. Could I be re-arranged until I was sane? In the end I gave up and said no they can't.

{break to listen to Brain Damage}

[RD] How long did it take for you to decide to 'come out' in the way that you did?

[EH] Not that long really. I knew that I had to tell as many people as possible at once. What better way than to make a statement in front of my peers in chamber of the House of Commons.

[RD] You said earlier that you wanted to protect your family from the worst of the press coverage.

[EH] Yes. Sarah and I agreed to publicly separate about six months before I stood up and made my now famous speech. Once the press were used to the fact that Sarah had her own life and career they might leave her alone. Our breakup did get a fair amount of coverage in the media. Then like most events they left her and my family alone. We carried on meeting wearing my Ellen persona. We felt like naughty teenagers once again staying out too late. It was exciting until one day someone took our picture and suddenly it was all over the internet. All that speculation about Sarah being a lesbian made me decide to announce my new status the following day.

[RD] That leads us to your seventh choice of record.

[EH] Led Zeppelin is one of those bands who re-wrote the rule book with their music. At first they were almost a head core blues band but they music spoke for itself and songs like 'Stairway to Heaven' have become classics enjoyed by people of all ages. The first time I heard in on the Radio being played by John Peel who simply said, 'This is from Led Zeppelin IV. Enjoy." It blew my mind. Kashmir is a much later piece but in my mind it is equally as good. The soundscape it generates in the mind is fantastic.

{Break to listen to part of Kashmir}

[RD] Can you remember the exact words you used to announce your change?

[EH] {smiles}

[EH] Yes. It is hard to forget.

"Mr Speaker, I have a personal announcement to make to the House. I would like to let it be known that from today I will henceforth be known as Ellen Hammond. I will be starting my transition to a woman right as of today. I will place a record of my formal name change into the Library of the House of Commons."

[RD] What happened then?

[EH] At first there was silence and then a few members cheered and one or two even whistled at me. The speaker was forced to call the house to order.

But that was a beginning and I got many offers of support from a good few female members. Sadly a couple of my own party objected to my use of the women's lavatories and the Master at Arms had to make a ruling on the matter. He supported my use of the women's facilities. The bad news was that my local party started de-selection proceedings against me.

[RD] Did the Prime Minister and the Government in general support you?

[EH] That's the worst part. They just sat on the fence looking at public opinion for guidance. In the end, I took the 'Chiltern Hundreds'[1] and resigned my seat and retreated into the background.

[RD] How long did that last?

[EH] Once the initial press interest died down, I got on with trying to live my life as Ellen. I moved back in with Sarah and our children. It was all hunky dory for a little over eight months. Around the time of the General Election, a TV company asked me to be a commentator on election night. I refused but that didn't stop several others from asking the same thing.

We decided to get away from the country during the election but that ended up even worse. The Italian immigration decided that my passport was a fake an I ended up getting arrested at Rome Airport. It took us two days to sort things out but the press had another field day. We got home the day before the election pursued by a posse of press. Suffice to say that I was front-page news again much to the annoyance of my former political comrades.

They didn't like me hogging the headlines again so they retaliated by getting all sorts of stories about me into the press. At the time no one could prove anything of course but as with every rumour there is an element of truth in the story. That makes it all the more believable.

[RD] Now you are regarded very differently. How did this come about?

[EH] It came about totally by accident actually. One of my critics suddenly found themselves in a situation where their son decided he wanted to be a woman. After a lot of conflict with his son he came to me for help, his tail between his legs. At first I declined but in the end I agreed to help. When I explained to my former friend that it really came from within and was not something you can help he started to understand some of the issues his son was going through and he suggested that I start a charity that would provide help for parents in a similar situation to himself. This person is one of the biggest contributors to the charity even to this day. His son is now his daughter and now works for the charity as a counsellor.

[RD] For your final choice of record you have almost gone back to a classical theme. Why is this?

[EH] Emerson Lake and Palmer were three very well known musicians, before they got together to make music. As with the Nice before them their leader Keith Emerson was not afraid to take classical and other well known pieces and rock them up a bit. Pictures at an Exhibition is one of those. They take the theme of the music and elaborate on it. At the time it came out it had many critics but it is one of my favourite albums.

{Break to listen to part of the record}

[RD] You have a bible and the complete works of Shakespeare. What book would you also take with you?

[EH] At first I thought I should take something meaty like War and Peace. I once tried to read it but could never get past the first chapter. Then I thought about Heinlein's 'Stranger in a Strange Land' after all, the desert island would a strange land to me but in the end I settled a Science Fiction story called 'Flash Gordon'. I know that it might not be regarded as classic literature but I know that when I read it, I would remember the film and the fantastic music from Queen. In effect, I'd get a ninth album for free.

[RD] That is an imaginative choice. What would you take as your one luxury item?

[EH] A left handed potato peeler. This way I can sort peel any local fruit or root vegetables.

[RD] I think that we can allow that as it won't help you escape the island.

[RD] Thank you.

[Authors Notes]
It does not take a genius to recognise that the format of this Interview is identical to that of the BBC Radio Programme 'Desert Island Discs' which has been running since 29th January 1942 which probably makes it the world's longest running factual Radio programme.


'Dora the Female Explorer' on YouTube

Tracks chosen.
1) Beethoven - Piano Concerto No 3
2) Yes - And you and I
3) Camel - Snow Goose
4) Barclay James Harvest - Mocking bird
5) Stackridge - Dora The Female Explorer
6) Pink Floyd - Dark side of the Moon
7) Led Zeppelin - Kashmir
8) Emerson Lake and Palmer - Pictures at an Exhibition.

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