Book Review: What it feels like for a girl, by paris lees

BAHAHAHA HA HAH AH AHHA HAA HAHA (can’t breathe)

Lees made the brave decision to write his very first book in dialect. I understand Lees had two editors at Penguin, neither of whom were brave enough to tell him that it’s a pile of shite. What he has written would simply be savaged in a creative writing workshop, it is nowhere near readable.

You don’t know me

On the very first page, Lees wants us to know in his memoir of ‘what it feels like to be a girl’ that this involves leering out of his window at drunken men as they urinate outside his home. Why his house in particular, you might ask? Well, Lees wants us to know that he likes toilet-y things and this is a recurring theme.

Byron is called Byron, but not because his family are literary or anything, but because Lord Byron was a local. Byron spends his time thinking about the real Byron which must explain the Trainspotting-style verbiage.

We’re introduced to Gaz, Byron’s dad, who lifts weights, baits badgers and finds ‘things that have fallen off the backs of lorries’. He fights men in pubs, he womanises but he always says ‘Education is the key ter the world’. (Surely, that should be ‘key ter world’?)

You See the Trouble with Me

We learn that Gaz knocks him about and calls him a ‘fucking poof’. Mum has carpet underlay, which no one else has, that’s how deprived the community is (a bit like Albert Square where no one owns a washing machine).

In the first really eye popping piece of action, Byron has a leaky radiator that Gaz accuses Byron of causing by throwing darts and slaps him. The entirely bizarre accusation isn’t really explained. Is Gaz a drunk or a lunatic? What kind of reflection does this provoke in Byron? Fear? Frustration? No.

Who the fuck has darts these days?

page 9

Smack My Bitch Up

In which Lees goes head first into some pretty hard hitting Clockwork Orange style ultra violence. Proper horror show. No, really.

He sees Jamie Draper and Pork Chop ‘halfway down the field’, but then ‘as I turn into the alleyway they’re just stood as the other end, waitin’. Will a woman with a pram comin’ past save him? It’s almost as if he’s passing through different dimensions in an Escher nightmare.

Byron is verbally abused and beaten up by Draper and Pork Chop and his face forced into the ground, his baseball hat thrown into the dog shit. But the woman with the pram comes back and the two boys run away after putting the dog shit hat back firmly on his head.

(Women saving men from violence is a strong theme amongst the trans slebs.)

Flat Beat

Actioned packed chapter this one.

We learn that little Byron has to go and live with Gaz, rather than Mam, because ‘Mam cun’ control me anymore’. More tales of poverty with Mam include having to sleep on a mattress on the floor, eating Pot Noodles and Primula cheese, but then Mam goes to live in Turkey (I suppose bedframes are cheaper over there).

Gaz wants to know why he didn’t beat up Draper and Pork Chop, but Byron can’t say anything. Just at that moment Byron looks over to the TV ‘they’re showin’ these two skyscrapers wi’ smoke comin’ out ’em’. Byron thinks a plane might have flown into them but Mam and Gaz are oblivious and discussing the relative qualities of Gaz’s sperm and Mam’s juices and who is responsible for making Byron a ‘poof’. That’s right, 9/11 is actually about Lees.

Gaz is mad that Byron won’t have fist fights and the scene ends with Gaz pulverising Byron with the taunt ‘What ya gonna do if someone hits ya?’ Byron reflects that he is going to miss the Fresh Prince of Bel Air (in what is about the thousandth TV programme reference so far and we are only on page 19). Presumably Lees forgot that all normal programming was stopped for about 72 hours after the World Trade Centre terrorist attack, so wouldn’t have seen it anyway.

Scream If You Wanna Go Faster

Byron decides he isn’t going to be beat up no more in an epiphany which lasts approximately a paragraph.

Coz if I’m not normal, I can be – an’ do- whatever I want. An’ what I want – what I really, really want –

pg 21

Is a zig-a-zig-aaaah.

Sing It Back

We learn that Byron is 13 years old and wants to move out at 16 and live in London and be like Samantha from ‘Sex an’ the City’. Gaz has taken the family dog badger baiting and the dog is covered in cuts and shaking. Gritty stuff. The incident is never mentioned again. He could have at least had the dog die of heartbreak.

Don’t Call Me Baby

In which Byron has sex with a 40 year old man in the men’s toilets. Lees describes this, thus: ‘You’ll never guess worrav had for ma birthday.’ Byron is wearing his school uniform. Soon Byron is accepting money for it and getting known locally by the regulars. Then he meets Winston, a black dreadlocked man, who is working for a client looking for a boy like Byron.

A Little Bit of Luck

From this point on the story becomes more serious, but it’s still written in the same relentless chirpy voice, and indeed the above is the chapter title. He describes a situation in which two older men groom him.  It sounds a familiar story, where a much older man uses a younger man to groom a teenage boy.  There is no reflection from Lees as to whether this is good or bad, or morally neutral.  If I was going to be fair I might say that he has never had the chance to process it all. 

The intermediary groomer is 21 year old Max, who Byron falls for, and who he has his first anal sex with.   He’d been earning 10, 15 and 20 pounds a time, but after sleeping with the much older man he is rewarded with a bigger payout of about a hundred pounds. We’re told he is now able to afford an album, which doesn’t add up, given the price of an LP c. 2000 was £10.

Anyway Byron falls in love with Max, but Mam goes through his text messages and meets Max behind his back and tells him to stay away because of the age difference.   Byron is furious.

“Oh, yer ma mother now, are ya?  Coz you’ve never bin to parents evenin’, never thrown me a birthday party”

page 43

Reflecting on his 21 year old boyfriend he says:

Obviously I don’t want ‘im to get into trouble.  I mean technically he’s a paedophile, innee? 

page 44

Not just technically but actually. Again, Lees has zero facility to really reflect on his past experience.

At Night

Byron is now going to gay nightclubs and meets Lady Die, who is described as ‘transsexual’ but is only 18 years of age, so I don’t see how this can actually be true given that back then hormones and surgery were much less likely to be given to such a young person. He asks Lady Die whether he’s a man or a woman.  Die laughs and says ‘I don’t know duck.’  (Misgendering obviously didn’t hurt in the past.)

Byron learns what ‘transsexual’ means and an older man Peter takes him into his ‘Fallen Diva Project’ and tells him he’s androgynous.  Peter has:

a collection of rubber toys from McDonald’s coz he sez the smell turns ‘im on.  Lady Die sez it’s a fetish an’ he’s a paedophile, but I don’t think he is. 

page 58

In the gay clubs Byron says he is constantly asked whether he is a boy or a girl, even when he isn’t wearing make-up, and puts this down to his high voice.   

Toca’s Miracle  

Recollections like the following would be better forgotten, or if Lees really wanted to include them, he should have gone to greater effort to give context, as it just sounds like random racist insults otherwise.  

I call [Lady Die] a stupid black bitch sometimes.  She calls me a stupid white slag.  She knows I don’t mean it, though.  She knows I’m not racist.

page 63

Another Chance 

We learn that Byron, who is regularly having sex with strange men in public toilets, doesn’t ‘even feel safe walkin’ down the street in ‘ucknall’. Proof that his two editors were scared shitless of pointing out the obvious to him. This claim is made several times and is less believable with every telling.

Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love)

Byron gets another ‘boyfriend’.  David is another adult man, who takes him out in his car to the Manchester gay scene.  So far Lees has dropped hints of the forthcoming gender dysphoria revelations but makes this admission. 

[David] pulled ma pants down an’ played wi’ me while he were drivin’!  I sez, “What if a lorry passes an’ sees?”  But I liked the risk, actually.  

page 73

Not being bothered about the general public seeing his erect penis is not the gender dysphoria tale I expected, even from Lees.

He has to dump David ultimately though ‘coz he called Lady Die coloured’ in the context of a compliment.  

We can all say stupid stuff, but come on.  It’s like the N-word.  

page 78

Er, not quite.  

At the age of 7-8 he had worn tights to school.  The school phoned Mam to tell her.  Mam told Gaz.  Gaz took him to see the doctor about it.  Byron told the doctor that his earliest memory was thinking he was a girl and the doctor recommended a referral to a child psychologist, that Gaz didn’t follow through on.  

The reported behaviours of his parents don’t match up to their characterisations as uncaring and feckless. 

Needin’ U  

Byron starts ‘dating’ Peter, a man in his fifties, who works in Jessops, but buys his food from M&S and gives him envelope with £20 notes in.  Again, zero reflection from Lees.

Toxic

Liam enters the story, as an older rent boy who sets Byron up with Dean (aged 34). Dean was with Liam but is bored of him now that he is older.  Lees is the right age (i.e. underaged). At the last minute Liam suggests that instead of going through with the arranged sexual encounter with Dean, that they rob him instead, which they do.  

Touch Me

I felt bad.  But not that bad. He is, after all, a dirty fuckin’ perv. 

page 109 – Lees reflecting on the robbery that he may have been jailed for

The absolute worst part of the book comes up next. It is absolutely staggering that Penguin have published this without probing its veracity.

Byron reminisces about the time he was picked up by a farmer who likes him to rinse his mouth out with Listerine after he comes in his mouth.  The farmer drives him out to the countryside and Byron starts worrying that ‘he might murder me, but I kind of like the excitement’.  

He is taken to a car park in the middle of the woods and told to walk down a path littered with rubbish.  Then there are two men, one sucking the other off.  One asks the Farmer for a go with Byron. 

The Farmer went, “Go on, have a go on ‘im.”  But he were talkin’ to the man, not me.  Like he owned me.  But I liked it.  I liked it a lot.  By the end, there must’ve bin about fifteen of ‘em.  It were dark by then, but they must have known how young I was.  I’ve got no meat on me as it is, an’ this were two years ago.*  I were the centre of attention.  They were all fightin’ to be wi’ me. None of ’em were rough or owt. It were gentle. They pulled ma legs apart an’ I could feel all these hands, touchin’ me all over. The thing that sticks wi’ me the most though is that no one said a word. Like it weren’t real if we din’t say it out loud.   An’ then one of ‘em got inside me.  I din’t even see ‘is face. So I’ve bin fucked by someone an’ I wun’t know ‘im from Adam if he tapped me on the shoulder right now an’ asked for a light. It’s bad, innit?  But the worst thing is, I loved it. 

page 110

*Following the text, difficult as it is, I believe that Lees is saying he was 14 when this incident happened.

I have questions. How did they ‘fight over’ him without saying a word? When was the group decision made to behave as if it was a shiatsu massage training session, rather than a dirty gang bang? Does he have any idea that he has normalised the raping of a child? Do the editors at Penguin? Does Lees understand that people can tell when a story has been made up?

‘It’s bad, innit?’ is the constant refrain that Lees relies on time and time again, and in a way that suggests that he doesn’t really think it is.  

Synths & Strings

Byron and Die get in a car with a bunch of lads without telling them their ‘little secret’ and go clubbing in a straight bar and a fit straight guy comes onto them.

We’re gonna end up murdered one o’ these days. He were cool when we told ‘im though – he wanted us to fuck ‘im, but I’d never do that. I’m the girl.

[…]

But we were pretty wasted so I shoved the toilet brush handle up ‘im while Lady Die wanked ‘im off, an’ he ended up comin’ all over the toilet seat like a Roman friggin’ candle.

page 117

Delightful. Just remember this is the young boy who is too scared to walk down the street in his home town and who is actually campaigning in his real life for access to female-only spaces. Also, for the record, Lees will give it you up the arse.

Baby Boy

In which Byron, who we have repeatedly told is a scared of aggression and confrontation, pursues and overpowers a mugger by pinning him to the floor. We learn that he used to take boxing lessons – so much for gender non-conformity.

Byron is now going by the name Paris amongst his friends when he is prosecuted and jailed for a crime which is never fully explained. Presumably it was the robbery described earlier in the book, but it isn’t really clear.

Comfortably Numb

Lees arrives at prison and describes feeling scared and crying all the time. He has stopped shaving his legs weeks in advance in case the other inmates find out. He is put on the hospital wing by the guards, who are worried about his mental wellbeing, and then finally into a unit for vulnerable prisoners and gets a cell to himself. Lees then tells us he he told them all straightaway that he was ‘queer’ and cracks rude jokes. So much for being worried about violent visceral reactions to his sexuality.

Pure Shores

Lees shares the letter that his mother had written to him while he was inside. She says that she bumped into the boyfriend that she supposedly stopped him from seeing (Max, the 21 year old who groomed him aged 13). She also says:

Your dad came round to see us as he was worried about you and I gave him the address.

page 185

Why would Gaz, a character Lees consistently describes as wanting Byron to toughen up, be at all worried about him being in prison. It’s the perfect place to toughen up, surely? Remember, this is a man who baits badgers using the family dog.

More revealing though is the letter that Lees wrote back to his mum, telling her that he sometimes had a ‘right laugh’ with the other boys in the facility and reprimands her for not being a good enough mother.

I do feel that you do not put the same amount of effort into our relationship as you do with other areas of your life, and this is a consistent fault with our past relationship.

page 187

Where’s the dialect now, duckie? What a pompous formal tone.

One More Time

Lees gets out of the youth offending facility and gets a job in a call centre but decides, because Lady Die is earning lots more money in prostitution, that he will also do the same.

Oops (Oh My)

Lees bumps into his mother outside the Co-op and invites himself round for a cup of tea, but his mother doesn’t want him there because her new boyfriend’s daughter is in the house. Lees puts this down to him wearing mascara, but I suspect the drug-using and sleeping around is what really concerns her.

She sez how I live ma life’s up to me now, but that don’t mean she has to have me rubbin’ it in ‘er face. “How can ya turn around an’ say ya wanna be a woman? Ya said ya were gay.” But I only said that coz everyone told me it wasn’t possible to become a woman. An’ I believed ’em, till I saw Nadia on Big Brother.

page 217

Ready or Not

Lees explains respiratory gas exchange to us and that he did human biology at college. He had the ‘largest vital lung capacity in the class’ – fancy that! We go through the melodrama of his mum’s mum being diagnosed with lung cancer and subsequently dying.

Unfinished Sympathy

Lees shouts at his mum that she wished she had died instead of his grandmother because she called him what he wanted to be called.

Gaz turns up to give his mother some comfort following her bereavement, so typical of a man who baits badgers with the family dog.

[Gaz] were sat in the livin’ room an’ I accidentally knocked ‘is foot when I come back from the loo. I sez, “Sorry”, an’ he guz, “What for? The past four years?” It took me a moment to process it at first. An’ then I realize, he thinks I’ve bin misbehavin’ all this time!

page 231

Put Your Hands Up For Detroit

In a rare moment of reflection, Lees explains why he decides to stop describing his best friend as a ‘black bitch,’ who is one of Nottingham’s ‘most infamous slags’.

I’m not gonna call ‘er a black bitch again. Coz it’s not the same when she calls me a white slag, is it?

page 233

In massive attack of whataboutery Lees explains that black people also use racial slurs against other black people. Using ‘slags’ and ‘bitches’ seems to be just fine though.

What You Waiting For?

Lees gets into university (‘I gorran A in English!). He continues to sell sex though and we learn he is growing har hair out and getting facial hair removed by laser. He goes to his mother to tell her this and she asks how he will afford to pay for it.

“Where ya gonna get the money for that?’, but I think she knows, deep down. Who else has money for taxis all the time? […] I sez, “I don’t know worram gonna do about this, though”, an’ put ma hand on ma chest. “Coz I’m never gonna be able to afford that.” An’ d’ya know what she sez to me? She sez, “Don’t worry, we’ll find a way.”

page 237-8

Obviously the logical thing would be to save up and not spend money needlessly on taxis, drugs and nightclubs, but Lees is like a child in that he doesn’t realise we can reason this out all by ourselves.

I think at times Lees attempts to be humorous, but the writing is so poor it’s difficult to tell when something is a joke. This, I presume, is a joke.

I’m gonna find ma place in the sun. They said that on Rugrats once. I din’t know worrit meant. It must be nice feelin’ like ya belong.

page 239

You Got the Love

There must be people all over the country like me – all over the world! But ya just don’t hear from us.

page 240

Spit your coffee out time!

Lees tells us that he has started practising a posh voice because he doesn’t ‘want ’em thinkin’ I’m common’. Not much, petal, with your tales of Pot Noodle dinners.

An uncle and aunt help him bring his stuff to university and he resolves to sell sex during his time at uni. And that’s the end of the story.

Acknowledgements

We learn that his long suffering parents gave their blessing to his speak his truth.

They want me to be happy and use my voice so children like me don’t go through what I went through – and parents like them might have more information on how to support us.

page 249

He also thanks Nadia Almada of Big Brother fame, and two gender identity activists; Calpernia Addams (US based) and Christine Burns. He also tells us that he was:

absolutely terrified of making [Lady Die] the trope of the ‘magical black person’ – the mysterious Other who helps the white protagonist discover themselves.

page 252

Don’t worry Paris Lees, you didn’t come anywhere close to something like that.


Conclusion 

This book is simply terribly written.  Writing in dialect would be a challenge for an experienced writer and it says a lot about Lees’ ego. However, even if you take the dialect away, all we are left with is the relentless gossipy sniping of a man with almost zero ability for self-reflection.  It’s really hard to read. It has no narrative arc. The blurb says:

But when the comedown finally kicks in, Byron arrives at a shocking encounter that will change life forever. 

From the official blurb

I literally have no idea which shocking encounter is being referred to. Is it the gang rape scene which happens midway? It can’t be, because that is never mentioned again. Is it his nan dying? Because that happens at the end. I’m confused, and I bet whoever wrote that line just put it in to make it sound like a good read.

Here’s what I believe about Paris Lees: that he did do some prostitution but not that much (I think this, as it is presented as a danger-free experience), his parents were dysfunctional but not that dysfunctional (multiple examples given by himself), that he was picked on and known in his area for being an effeminate gay boy, but not that picked on. What does seem to be true though is that he was groomed a successive number of much older adult men, upon which he has absolutely nothing coherent to say and I don’t know what to make of that.


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