tom rasmussen: what does britishness mean in 2019?
Tom Rasmussen's definition of Britishness was formed growing up gender non-conforming in the matriarchal nail salons of Lancaster.
In October of last year, we invited a series of young writers to reflect on what Britishness means to them for The Superstar Issue of i-D. From the nostalgia of home, to fears over rising rents, to the sense of displacement from the place we thought we once knew, our identity has never been more complex. So what does being British mean for a country facing its biggest shift in decades? And does it still matter? Read the full series here.
Lancaster was a matriarchy. Never has the power of women been proven more than in the smoke-stained, sticky-carpeted pubs; than in the glittering, gossiping chairs of nail salons; than at the tills at Morrisons where lads would try and always fail to steal bottles of piss-like cider. Hair piled high, lacquered so extremely you could crack a tooth on it, make-up caked on, lipstick bleeding through the wrinkled skin around a mouth carved from a lifetime of gossip. The women ran our town like a well organised mafia.
These women – from my grandmother, to my mother to the dinner lady who returned to work the day after having an eye removed – displayed power like thunder. They seemed able to work an endless week, smoke interminable Lambert & Butler blues, and keep a family of could-be disastrous men in full control, control born of both fervent fear mongering and aggressive love.
These women defied binary modes of gender and made the men who were, rightly, under their control do exactly the same. In my hometown the women wear the trousers; in my hometown the women take up the space; in my hometown the women hold court sat at the bar, telling story after story of the week just passed with more skill, more allure, than any performance you’d see on the professional theatre stages denied us there, in our windy almost-a-sea-side town.
It was by no means queer. It was often homophobic. But it was here, taking cues from these trailblazing, hard women, and the way they dominated men, that showed me there were ingenious ways to survive if you’d been dealt cards that put you to the bottom of the deck.
By watching these women, I saw every kind of possible expression of gender – whether the brilliant butches we used to party with in Manchester who’d head-butt a homophobe at a moment’s notice, or my auntie Andrea who taught me the power of sex as a weapon and wine as a lubricant for laughing at it all.
Eventually I would get a job at one of the nail salons in the centre of town. It was called A Touch of Serenity, though it was lightyears from serene. Here I would befriend clients and cosmetologists alike, and would sit, filing off and sticking on giant, weapon-like talons in repeat motion. At the time I was presenting very much as gender-questioning – big nails, dresses, long hair, high heels, walking along the pedestrian paths of town listening to Amanda Lepore as I had rocks hurled at me. It was the women of the salon – and their advice to “get on with it!” – that saved me.
For many of us we talk about finding gender non-conformism as the thing that saved our lives, and yes, being able to explore my gender in safety, to present in the ways I feel most authentic in queer spaces, to have that golden feeling of finally being understood when someone gets your pronoun right, all of this not only saved my life, but filled it with validity and power and brightness.
But before I was allowed to flourish, I first needed to find a way to survive. And the women of my hometown wrote the rulebook, passed it to me, and showed me how to put it all into action. Because while gender non-conformism saved many of our lives, it’s the thing that saved their lives too.
I don’t know how much a small town can teach you about what it means to be British: up there, where I’m from, it isn’t a representative cross-section of how brilliant, supportive, powerful, collective, radical, and diverse British people can be. Up there, life can be hard, divisions can set in. But up there, I was taught that colour finds its ways into all corners, all contexts. I was taught that the best parts of this island could be found around your third tequila and tonic, illegally smoking at the bar, finding the absolute humour in absolutely everything. When Britain today feels like it’s disintegrating, this knowledge keeps me optimistic: that people will always find humour, that people will always find a way to “get on with it.“
Photography Sam Rock