LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now
A Gender Conundrum -
Dr Peter Holmes (aka Pippa)
and Elfriede Holmes
Date of photography: 8th Febriary 2018
As a conventional, older man, Peter still pursues extraordinary projects, gaining Europe-wide recognition for his design and manufacture of long-lost musical instruments. But Peter also has a female persona, ‘Pippa’, and while he thinks of himself as ‘transgendered’, she might refer to herself as ‘transsexual’. ‘Pippa’ is also the stage name adopted by this talented and adventurous spirit who, at 78, still performs with the colourful Trans-Siberian March Band. Hypothesising about Peter’s ability to choose not to be transexual would be absurd, of course; it is unquestionably not a matter of so-called ‘lifestyle choice’. Peter knows who he is, though mostly he is unable to be who he really is, a woman. He adds: “I grew up in a mining town, very macho, very rigid in its views, where any deviation from conventional gender roles was unacceptable. That is my background and that is what I have internalised, it became very much a part of me. I fight it, of course, but that is where I’m coming from. The struggle never quite ends though; the elephant is always in the room.”
Having kindly agreed to be part of the second project in my London Trilogy, Outsiders in London; Are you one, too? Dr Peter Holmes ( also known as Pippa) is no stranger to me - his unique contribution to that project continues to be accessible online via the following link: http://www.outsidersinlondon.org/16-pippa.html
When Outsiders in London; Are you one, too? was exhibited, Peter’s portrait had a gallery label that described this remarkable man so well that I reproduce it here in full, with some slight updating only:
Five years have flown by since our last meeting and, while many changes have taken place, I feel that much remains the same too. I have therefore taken the liberty of re-using a substantial part of the text of the original 2013 interview, but with one substantive difference: on this occasion, I had the privilege of meeting Peter’s wife, Elfriede, whom I met in their comfortable home in north-west London. There, in the garden, stands a large, octagonal outhouse; this is Peter’s workshop and it seemed appropriate for the couple to be photographed there.
In the selected image, Peter is holding a carnyx (also spelt, ‘karnyx’). This beautiful instrument, painstakingly recreated in the very workshop where we all stood, is just one of many long-lost instruments that Peter has fabricated here. The carnyx is an Iron Age instrument, found all over Europe, including in Great Britain, with some exceptional examples having been found in France and northern Italy. The bell of the carnyx almost always takes on the shape of an animal head, sometimes a boar, sometimes a dragon, sometimes even a serpent: Peter observes: “We know from the illustrations and reliefs on Roman coins, that this instrument was held vertically but we don’t know exactly how it was played. This particular instrument, the one I made, is not a faithful copy of a historic carnyx but a composite: the head is derived from an Avignon instrument, the ears from a southern Italian one, and the main part is derived from an example found in southern France. I have used modern materials, of course, whereas the originals would have been made of bronze. The one thing that was missing was the all-important mouthpiece, for none seemed to have survived from the Iron Age, until last year that is, when one was discovered in Lincolnshire, so I made a copy of that.”
Peter was born to poor, working-class parents in Kilburn, Derbyshire, during the early part of the Second World War, perhaps not the most propitious time to start out in life. Similarly, he might have been better off with a father who could have been more present in the home but being a labourer and working in factories meant that he was little different from almost all the other men around who worked ‘down pit’. When, towards the end of his working life, Peter’s father became a bus conductor, he did at least get to travel! Local male culture focussed on the pub and even though Peter’s father had been to grammar school on a scholarship (he had to leave when his father was killed in France in 1916) he nonetheless fitted into that established pattern. Peter’s mother, who had had a difficult childhood, with a problematic father, and who now had a difficult marriage, was generally inclined to mistrust men.
Peter had two sisters, one older and one younger, and their lives were just as tough as the lives of most of the people in the community; a little more of their father around and a bit more money might have helped. With his mother generally holding three jobs to keep the family afloat, any parental presence was scarce. He felt that his sisters had got the hang of their family dynamic rather better than he had, as they both succeeded in getting themselves ‘adopted’ by other families in the neighbourhood, where they spent a lot of their time. And home was a very female society: with his mother, his two sisters and an aunt all living in their small house, Peter was often the only male around (his uncle was away, serving with the RAF in Palestine). “My mother’s attitude to men,” said Peter, “almost certainly had a great effect on my developing psyche. I began to share my mother’s very negative image of men and this made me feel an outsider in our very female household, even at an early age. I seemed to be a member of the wrong, and detested, sex.”
People like Peter, with their strong dual-gender identification, attract many descriptors, not all of them derogatory, but while Pippa might refer to herself as ‘transsexual’, Peter would rather describe himself as ‘transgendered’. However, during childhood, like all youngsters at that time, he was only aware of two gender states, male and female, nothing else. Asked if he felt there was anything unusual about his sexuality or sexual proclivities, he does remember trying on his sister’s clothes very early on, mainly in secret, but occasionally he played at dressing up with one of his sisters - nothing unusual amongst siblings, he suspects. “I was quite happy in the company of other boys and most of my friends were boys. I didn’t really have that feeling, often described by the transgendered, that I was in the ‘wrong’ body.”
Peter started infants’ school in what was a small East Midlands town, Alfreton, where his parents rented two rooms in a house, and where he lived until the age of 17, when the family broke up. He moved up to junior school, where he remained until he was 11. Like some of his friends, he passed the 11+ examination but, unlike them, he was able to take up the place at grammar school because his mother was determined that he should. “Me Mam worked extra shifts and even got another job to pay for the school uniform. She was determined that her children should have the best chance possible.” The grammar school was not unlike other rural grammar schools, largely populated by middle-class children from more affluent families who aped their ‘betters’ at public school - that was the overriding culture. In his own words, Peter says: “I never quite fitted in. My mother never went to Parents’ Evenings because she was conscious of not having clothes to go in that were sufficiently presentable. I remained in the top stream throughout my time at the school and my ability was generally well-recognised by individual teachers. I simply loved Maths and Physics.”
Peter’s examination results were not only exceptional, they were amongst the best in the county. He dreamed of teaching Physics and hoped to be able to continue into the Sixth Form so he might take the next step on to university. But this was not to be: the Headmaster made it quite clear that staying on at the grammar school was not an option for him and that some kind of trade apprenticeship was the only appropriate avenue for someone with his social background. The dear old English class system cut in with full force, obstructing his progress as it had done for a great many of those who did not already belong to the establishment. “If you were poor, all the doors remained firmly shut against you,” says Peter, “even against those who were talented and showed real promise.”
Peter was 16 when the effects of puberty cut in and he started to fancy girls, but his desire to wear women’s clothes persisted too, though this had to be done clandestinely. “I was generally a lonely boy but this secret pleasure remained with me, hidden.” At around the same time, Peter discovered Louis Armstrong and Eddie Calvert and joined a local brass band, learning to play the cornet. He discovered the musical talent and the passion for music that have stayed with him until today. “We had a smart band uniform but even then, I longed to wear the uniform of the band’s lady players - it seemed to me simply more stylish. Ironically, though I desired women’s clothes, I desired the women too.”
Of course, living in the provinces a mere decade after the War, with no books in the house and a life bounded by conventionality, there was not even a remote opportunity of discovering if his own deep desires might possibly be shared by others. From a twenty-first century viewpoint, these could be described as almost the ‘dark ages’ of information about such matters as sex, sexuality and gender. Even conventional sex was discussed only in the most hushed tones and was always cloaked in mystery, couched in ‘double speak’, or the subject of humour that was hard for the uninitiated to fathom. Peter would have to wait until many years later to discover that he was by no means alone in the world, that there were others like him who felt outwardly and in many other ways male but who harboured deep down inside the continuing desire to be women.
In his childhood, Peter played a lot with Meccano and loved construction toys of any kind, creating things out of components he found anywhere and showing a real talent for anything mechanical and three-dimensional. Having been denied the opportunity to go on to the Sixth Form, he showed his initiative and wrote to every company in Britain that made aeroplanes, seeking an apprenticeship. His endeavours bore fruit and, on leaving school, he was offered a place with a local aero-engine manufacturer, Rolls Royce, where he did a five-year engineering apprenticeship.
“Around that time, after the family break-up and while we were living with relatives, I remember staying in the house of one relative whose daughter was away and I had her room for a few weeks. The room was full of her clothes and I remember taking some of them, cycling into the countryside and, for the first time, dressing completely as a woman. It was my very first time - dressed in women’s clothes, and outside. I was 17. It was scary but it felt good. This was a difficult time for me; I had to start shaving and I had an aversion to it - I hated it for what it meant.”
The apprenticeship progressed well, work was deeply fulfilling and offered a great learning experience. At that stage, Peter started to go out dressed as a woman quite regularly, and even ventured into the city of Derby in which he now lived; either he was very convincing or just lucky, but he never seemed to encounter any major problems. “I was quite jealous of women and I felt deeply that I wanted to be one. When wearing women’s clothes, I felt happy.” At that stage, though the Pippa persona did not yet exist, Peter gradually started to recognise a female version of himself but he kept these two worlds apart. “I did have girlfriends too, when in my male persona, of course, and wearing men’s clothes. Managing to keep these two worlds apart wasn’t easy and in many ways, even now, 50 years later, there are still difficulties. If I am in the presence of people who don’t know anything about my female persona, I feel deeply that part of me remains unrecognised and is very much excluded from the company.” After some thought, Peter adds, “Being trapped in the wrong body is not quite what I feel; instead, for me, it is like not feeling completely who I really am.” While Peter is definitely a man, he deeply desires to be a woman.
While Peter qualified as an engineer, he also played trumpet quite extensively in orchestras and in several local dance bands. In those days, everybody went dancing, so the dance band playing proved to be rather lucrative, indeed more so than his day job. “Of course, I always played in my male persona, nothing else could have been contemplated then.” With the earnings he was able to save, Peter started his mother on the way to buying her own house, the first home that she could call her own.
Once more tapping into his reserves of drive and determination, Peter decided to better himself; he left the East Midlands and his old life behind him and arrived to London. With a maintenance grant to live on and no fees to pay (these were the good old days for students in higher education) he studied Geology and Physics at one of the University of London colleges. He succeeded in getting into a hall of residence, partly because he played the trumpet and the Master of the hall, who wanted to put a band together, badly needed a trumpeter. Arriving from the provinces to the London of the 1960‘s must have certainly been a life-changing experience. Peter was 23 and felt very immature in comparison with those around him. Living in a men’s hall of residence provided no opportunity for wearing women’s clothes but he did play music a lot - the opportunities for that were plentiful. He also met his wife to be, Elfriede: she had come over from Germany to improve her English and was living and working in a hall of residence nearby.
This seemed to be the right point for me to turn to Elfriede and to ask her to tell me something about her life. “Milan, I was born in Ludwigshafen, in Germany, on one side of the Rhine, with the much larger city of Mannheim on the opposite side. Initially, my father had worked for a building company but then he started his own business, supplying materials to the building trade - a builders’ merchant. I wish I could say that my childhood was a happy one, but unfortunately that was not the way it was. I went to a local girls’ school until I was 16, and I should have liked to go on to a university or even to a trade school, but that proved impossible; my mother died when I was 13, and that changed everything. I had one older sister who got married and moved out of the house, almost at the same time, so virtually overnight, I was left alone as the ‘woman of the house’, dominated by an all-controlling father. I was expected to take on all the domestic duties, even though I was still at school, and Father’s demands were relentless.”
“As you might expect, our relationship quickly deteriorated and we were in constant conflict. When my father remarried, things got even worse. At that time, in Germany, a young person was considered to be a minor until the age of 21, so I had to endure all of this until such time as I was able to obtain a passport of my own. I learned English at school so my obvious escape was to flee to London, to improve my English but primarily to secure some personal freedom. It was 1963 and I was 21. I think back on those early days with fondness, feeling that for the first time, I had some hope of living my own life, the way that I wanted. Of course, once I’d arrived here, finding myself alone in a great metropolis felt very strange, but I found Londoners to be very friendly, and that made all the difference. And I had a job, somewhere to live and, as Fate would have it, I met Peter, himself a relative newcomer to London too.”
They dated, they got married (Peter was 25 and Elfriede 23) and they are still together over 50 years later. At that time, although Peter was still conscious of his desire to wear women’s clothes, he felt that it was just something that would go away once he got married and settled down. Thus, the topic would not to come up within the marriage for many years, not until he discovered that something called ‘transgender’ actually existed and that his desires were by no means unique.
After graduating in the mid-1960’s, Peter got a job with a Canadian oil and gas company. He moved to Canada on a two-year contract, together with his new wife, Elfriede, and that was where their first son was born. Living in a new country, being a young father, enjoying a new, important and challenging job, these are the components of a story that could be told by many an ambitious, young professional man but, of course, Peter was different. The internal psychological conflict between his two personas was always with him - while it was sometimes overshadowed, it was never dormant. The new job involved being away from home, travelling and working out in the field, and that offered some opportunities for dressing up, but always behind locked doors, of course, with the curtains drawn.
When the family returned to England, they settled in London where their second son was born. Peter returned to the aerospace field, becoming Chief Development Engineer for a small firm designing and testing helicopters. After this, he worked in Electronics for two years, following which, in fulfilment of his original grammar school dream, he took up teaching - Peter taught Engineering at what was then still called a polytechnic. In 1980, he started up his own company, producing technical and computing books, and becoming the biggest independent technical publishing company in Britain at that time. This enterprise came to an abrupt end, however, when a disastrous fire destroyed the entire building in which the company was housed and the business itself literally went up in flames. Peter returned to teaching, the career he pursued until his retirement, and his engagement with the world of music continued: he ran two bands for young people.
During the 1970’s, Peter’s explorations of his female self became more frequent; he discovered the Beaumont Society and even plucked up the courage to attend a few of their meetings - he was now into his 40’s.
At this point in Peter’s story, I decided to ask Elfriede when she became aware of her husband’s desire to dress in women’s clothes or perhaps even to become a woman: “Milan, I think I found him looking in the wardrobe one day, at my clothes, which I thought was a bit strange and indeed that was the time when Peter told me about his desires, confessing that he would dress as a woman whenever circumstances permitted.” I asked how she had responded to this momentous revelation: “I don’t exactly remember but I was probably traumatised - I didn’t even know that cross-dressing or transsexuality existed. I ask you, in those days, who did? There was no internet at that time and it was only later, when I had discovered articles about gender dysmorphia, that I started to read books on the subject. We lived in a sort of ‘hush hush’ period, knowing that any revelation would almost certainly attract public ridicule. Of course, it was a difficult time for both of us - we had two children by then. What was one to do? Should we stay together, or should I seek a divorce? Who was going to live where? And what would happen to the children? So, faced with all of these hard questions and seemingly insuperable difficulties, I chose the easy way out and decided to do nothing. I decided to accept Peter for who he was, for who he probably always had been, and to accept that I would in future be sharing my life both with Peter and with Pippa.”
Peter took this moment to interject: “Although, by this time, I had discussed my desires with my wife, it was all still very much clandestine but to discover that other transgender people existed was a real eye opener, and a great relief. I no longer had to live with the thought that I was the only one harbouring such conflicting feelings and the Beaumont Society gave me the opportunity to meet other people like myself. Elfriede found that period exceptionally difficult. Having discovered that I wanted to attend the Society’s meetings, her first reaction was to ask: ‘Are you gay?’ I think if I’d said ‘yes’, it might well have brought our marriage to an end. Elfriede did not see me dressed as a woman for many years after that - it had to be that way. My relationship with my wife was, and remains, the most important one in my life and I would not do anything that might cause her pain or discomfort.” Overall, this period proved a depressing one for Peter; with the passage of time, the tension inside him sometimes became almost impossible to bear. Having to lead a dual existence, having to keep things concealed from Elfriede, this just felt wrong. Eventually, she felt able to accompany him to a few of the Beaumont meetings, but the learning process was slow and uncomfortable, both for her and for Peter too. For him, the very thought of ‘coming out’ to his sons was something not even to be contemplated at that time.
I asked Elfriede about these first monthly meetings of the mostly cross-dressing Beaumont community: “Well Milan, I reached a point when I simply said to myself, ‘This is the way it is, like it or lump it.’ The first visits were strange, very strange indeed. By that time, I had come to accept Peter as ‘Pippa’ within the privacy of our four walls, but seeing my husband as Pippa in public was another thing altogether. I also found it most disturbing to see other men at the Society dressed as women, with their deep, masculine voices and their other pronounced male attributes, clearly at odds with their feminine fineries. However, what was helpful was to meet the other wives who were there with their husbands, supporting them. I will never quite forget the Beaumont’s organised trips to various provincial cities, mostly in England, where we would stay over the weekend in a hotel, taking over the entire establishment. You can imagine, I’m sure, how the locals responded, seeing groups of cross-dressing men sashaying along the high street.”
Peter added: “Yes, you are quite right: when a group of us appeared, heads would turn, but if just Elfriede and I went strolling along the street, or turned up in a tea-room, no-one ever said anything largely, I think, because they never noticed anything. This was largely down to Elfriede who helped me select clothing that was appropriate for someone my age. We looked like two middle-aged ladies, sisters perhaps, on the way to do our shopping, or just spending the afternoon together. The temptation to dress younger, to look younger, is always there, and lots of cross-dressers succumb to it, but I have learned to resist it.”
“I have considered having gender reassignment therapy,” Peter says, “but to be honest, I am now too old for it, and it would be dangerous for anyone my age. If I had known from the outset what I know now, I should not, as a younger man, have hesitated in initiating the process of ‘transition’, but having chosen to have a wife and a family, I felt that with those choices came obligations and commitments.” Peter explained his perception that, as one gets older, one builds up social patterns that create a momentum of their own and that these, combined with other motivations and circumstances, then determine the path of your life.
But Peter’s brilliant, talented, enterprising, adventurous mind and spirit are not designed for stagnation and decline into old age. He has raised the art of the dual existence to new heights and is to be admired for his perseverance and his ingenuity. While he lives a mostly conventional life, as a man, he continues to undertake extraordinary things with his hands and his mind: he now designs, manufactures and recreates long-lost musical instruments, a field in which he is an established expert, recognised throughout Europe. It is the unique combination of engineering skill with his love of music that allows him to break new ground and makes Peter a remarkable music archaeologist.
When I interviewed Peter five years ago, the EU-backed European Music Archeology Project (EMAP) had only just started (www.emaproject.eu). The project aimed to throw light on Europe’s ancient cultural roots from a most unusual perspective: musical, scientific and ‘sensorial’. The EMAP team consisted of archaeologists, musicologists, researchers, and makers of musical instruments, with the input of organisation and support from various European universities, museums, public bodies, music festivals, musical archives, and academies. Dr Peter Holmes was very much a part of it, in his advisory capacity, undertaking a number of lecture tours and contributing to the Project several beautifully reconstructed ancient instruments. Now nearing its conclusion, the project has staged many major exhibitions, containing over 300 musical instruments, associated objects and illustrations, including at: the Abbey of Ystad, Sweden; the Museo de la Ciencia, Valladolid, Spain; Sala Capitolare degli Agostiniani di San Marco, Tarquinia, Italy; Paphos Archeological Park, Paphos, Cyprus; the National Museum of Slovenia, Ljubljana, Slovenia; the Sala Appia, Roma, Italy; and finally, at the State Museum of Archeology, in Brandenburg, Germany. There are currently discussions afoot to extend the life of this touring exhibition or to find it a permanent home, but the final decision is yet to be made.
Dr Holmes continues to undertake his research on long-lost musical instruments, to collaborate with universities and other specialists, and to travel and lecture across Europe with his unique combination of skills, as researcher, musicologist, and practising musician, not forgetting his skills as an accomplished engineer who continues to reconstruct musical instruments that might otherwise be lost to humanity. "As I have mentioned before, for almost 20 years now, Peter has performed in his female persona, as Pippa. In recent years, he has also undertaken most of his foreign travels as Pippa, using Dr Peter Holmes’ passport, and this has resulted in a whole range of reactions from European Customs officials. I asked him why he had now decided to travel most of the time in his Pippa persona: “Milan, because I always wanted to do it! At my age, I can now say, ’What the Hell!’ When shall I do it, if not now? On the first few occasions, it was quite scary, travelling as Pippa, but by now the whole thing has become a sort of liberating experience.”
While the EMAP project is nearing its conclusion, Peter Holmes is getting ready to give a series of European lectures, no doubt travelling as Pippa once again, and this time also armed with his latest book, Trumpets and Horns of Ancient Europe. It is not just his hands that are active.…
But there is more to Peter yet: in his parallel life,’Pippa’ is an accomplished musician and performer and has played in London’s Gay Symphony Orchestra and, for the last ten years, she has been a member of the colourful Trans-Siberian March Band, pushing the boundaries in contemporary reinterpretations of traditional Balkan music. They perform all over the UK, are seen at the major UK festivals, and have toured Europe several times. Their music has been heard at national events, in a growing number of venues throughout the UK and, of course, at the Glastonbury Festival. By everyone in the band, Pippa has always been accepted as a woman and she tours as a woman.
Being asked what he considers to be the disadvantages of being a transexual, Peter says: “Never feeling part of any one community. The transgender community is probably the only exception and that is not very satisfactory; it is a community of people who are equally dissatisfied. It is like being in prison - everyone else there is a prisoner too.”
Conversely, when asked about any advantages there might be in being a transexual, Peter says: “Very few indeed. Perhaps one might be the insights one has into different relationships in society. It is also fascinating to observe how differently I am treated as Peter and as Pippa, male and female. Amusingly, I am conscious that if I sit on the London Underground as Pippa, women will sit next to me in an empty carriage and frequently engage this nice old lady in conversation; that is not the case when I travel as Peter.”
Hypothesising about Peter’s ability to choose not to be transexual would be absurd, of course; it is unquestionably not a matter of so-called ‘lifestyle choice’. Peter knows who he is, though mostly he is unable to be who he really is, a woman. Peter says: “I grew up in a mining town, very macho, very rigid in its views, where any deviation from gender roles was unacceptable. That is my background and that is what I have internalised, it became very much a part of me. I fight it, of course, but that is where I’m coming from. The struggle never quite ends; the elephant is always in the room.”
Text edited: 25th June 2018
The Beaumont Society is a national self-help body run by and for those who cross-dress or are transsexual. They can be contacted on the Web at:
Page modified: 17th FMarch 2019