My way of letting off steam!

PART 1

Robert was born in 1822 to James Earle and Elizabeth Tyser in the Cambridge Heath area of Bethnal Green/Hackney.

Elizabeth and James had been married in St. Mary’s Whitechapel on the 26th of December 1818. It was the custom at the time to be married at Christmas.
Robert was James’ and Elizabeth’s second child, the first James Earle was born in 1821 and it must be assumed died in infancy – there is a record of him being baptised at St. John of Jerusalem, Hackney in February 1821.

Robert was baptised at the St. John of Jerusalem church, Hackney on October 20th 1822.
This church is not the same as that which currently stands there, and which was built in 1848. The title of the church comes from an old connection between the neighbourhood and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. One of the many manors that supported the work of the Order was located in Hackney.
The first church was built in 1810, and that, and the later one seem to have been very fashionable places to attend. Later clergy there were also men of means and owned land elsewhere. The medieval gate of the original priory of the Order can still be seen in Clerkenwell and is now the headquarters of the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade.
Generally James Earle was associated with the parish of St. James the Less in Bethnal Green but perhaps he saw more status in having this son baptised in Hackney.
At the time of Robert’s childhood most of Hackney consisted of land given over to market gardens and possibly this is also where James Earle worked.

Robert’s boyhood took place during a time of great social upheaval in Britain. The passing of the electoral reform act of 1832; the catholic emancipation act; the controversy over the corn laws; the abolition of slavery; and the rise of demands for more general manhood suffrage all contributed to change in the country. The eighteenth century English had a reputation as an ungovernable people and with the rapid increase of the urban population in that century and the next century this belief seemed to have been reinforced. Significantly also the land issue, with common land being more and more in the hands of the rich, led to the fact that nineteenth century emigration literature lingered over the comparative ease of acquiring land in the colonies.

Robert’s education must have taken place in Bethnal Green – a pointer to what this might have been like can be found in Hector Gavin’s ‘Sanitary Ramblings’ (1848) where he describes a room holding as many as 90 children who would congregate for their tuition for up to 3 hours a day.

Although in the 1840s the most common occupation was agriculture, life was changing and the increasing use of the term ‘town dwellers’ reflected the fact that the population was surprisingly mobile . Between 1801 and 1851 40% of people were under 15 years of age; ¾ of the working class had at least minimal reading skills; and the average worker was much better off in the 1830s than in any decade before the 1820s .
It is relevant in view of Robert’s later life that savings among families in the middle and lower classes were sufficient to enable emigration to take place.
So in this context Robert grew up but he decided not to follow his father’s occupation, as would be expected, and instead he went to sea.

Sailors generally went to sea as boys. By the time they were 16 they could be rated as seamen, and normally served at sea for another ten years, before settling down and taking a shore or local sailing job. The idea of being single, free of responsibilities and well paid would have made a career at sea obviously alluring, but the attractions could also undoubtedly wear off, and only a small percentage of men stayed on at sea, rising to be naval petty officers and merchant shipmasters.

‘When sailors disembarked from a long journey and left the dock to spend what little time and money they had in town, they were clearly distinguishable from other men by their gait. On ship, they had to learn to deal with the ship’s movement as it rolled and pitched over the waves. They gained stability by widening their stances, which gave them a distinctive bow-legged appearance, and learned to rock with the rhythm of the waves. Once the vestibular system of the inner ear (i.e. the system responsible for balance) had adjusted to the constant motion of a ship, it had a difficult time readjusting to land, meaning that when sailors returned to land, they felt off-balance because the ground was no longer moving beneath their feet and as a result, they continued to sway. Thus, sailors could be told apart from others on land by their sea-legs, which gave them a widened stance, and a swagger of sorts’.

‘Being a sailor incurred many risks. Many injuries and fatalities resulted from falls from the rigging, slips (whether onto the deck or overboard), drownings, or getting caught in a rope. Minor cuts could easily result in infections, which often went untreated and thus resulted in amputations, many of which were not successful. Several diseases – some of which resulted from deficiencies in diet – were commonplace as well. For example, scurvy – a vitamin C deficiency that causes exhaustion, pale skin, irritability, swollen gums, joint pain, and bone loss – was prevalent until the mid 18th century when James Lind discovered that fresh fruit or citrus juice could prevent scurvy. Osteomalacia (vitamin D deficiency), tetanus, and venereal diseases (gonorrhea and syphilis in particular, likely caught from time spent with prostitutes at port) were not uncommon to whaler or merchant crews either’.
‘The damp conditions aboard ship allowed viruses and bacteria to flourish; as a result, colds, pneumonia, and tuberculosis were familiar illnesses to sailors. The damp conditions and presence of food also attracted rats (which would chew through books, bedding, and even bite sleeping sailors) and insects (which would crawl into everything, especially food). These vectors of disease enhanced the pervasiveness of sickness. Poor air quality – especially below deck – caused by smoke from candles and tobacco, mold, mildew, vapors from tar and waste in the bilges, and hydrogen and carbonic acid gases from the ventilation systems, contributed to the long-term poor health of sailors who often developed permanent lung problems’.

‘Whaling ships had their own set of hazards, as evidenced in Moby Dick by the leg Captain Ahab lost to the whale, and Ahab’s eventual death during the pursuit and harpooning of Moby Dick (Melville)’.

‘The integration of steam machinery into ships introduced new jobs with new dangers. Firemen and coal heavers were responsible for the engines. Firemen managed the fires in the boilers that powered the ship via steam, and coal heavers filled the boilers with coal. These jobs put them in close contact with fire, scorching hot metal, and smoke; as such, common injuries involved serious burns and lung problems’ .

This provides us with the context within which Robert grew up and which also must have provided him with the stamina which was needed in his later life.
Possibly, it was while he was at sea in 1848 that his mother Elizabeth died.
In the 1851 census Robert was still listed as a mariner and, of course, by which time he had met his future wife Eliza Betty.

Eliza is recorded as being baptised on June 8th 1829, her parents were Thomas and Ann. In the church of St. Nicholas Kenilworth (In the 1851 census she is listed as 26 and the 1841 census as 16 which gives her birth year as 1825, so there was a long gap between birth and baptism and this may have been due to a rather keen priest catching up on those who hadn’t been baptised. They lived in Albion Row, Kenilworth in common with other families also involved in the comb making trade.

Kenilworth was historically an important place; its castle, ruined for some centuries, had received visits from at least 5 kings of England. It had become an important industrial centre in the early part of the nineteenth century and was known as Little Birmingham. There were two tanneries in the town and the skins of the local Warwickshire long horn cattle were used in manufacturing while the long horns of the cattle were used to make combs and beakers. In the 1841 census a number of workers gave their occupation as ‘comb maker’. (Some local historians have questioned whether the long horn cattle specifically were in fact the origins of the industry, especially since combs were also made in other parts of the country.)

At some point in the 1840s the Betty family moved from Kenilworth to Bethnal Green, we cannot be sure of the reasons for this but it is certain that the comb making industry was in decline, largely because metal ones became popular and the increase of mechanisation in producing the product would have led to unemployment. By 1851 they were living in Hammond Gardens where in 1848 Hector Strong in his book ‘Sanitary Ramblings’ describes the place as ‘a court of 7 houses with small yards in front. At the entrance to the court was a large dust and garbage heap. There was one privy serving all the houses and 1 butt to supply them all with water’. Hammond Gardens was just off the Old Bethnal Green Road, as is Essex Court where the Furnesses lived.

In 1851 Eliza is described in the census as a mattress maker, and interestingly in this same census, Thomas her father was absent and visiting in Kenilworth. His occupation remained as comb maker, which he must have pursued while living in Bethnal Green. Perhaps he went to Kenilworth to get combs in order to sell them in London.

We do not know how Robert met Eliza but the family homes were geographically close and the social life of the area with its many pubs might have enabled them to meet.
Certainly we know that on September 17th 1851 Robert married Eliza in the relatively new and large parish church of St John of Jerusalem Hackney – a rather more fashionable church than those in Bethnal Green.
Robert was listed as living in Goring Street, and interestingly not in Essex Place, and Eliza and her family were now living in Sheep Lane, Hackney, an area described in a history of Hackney as containing a number of cramped houses.
Eliza may not have been literate since in the later birth certificate of her daughter Eliza Ann she signs it with her mark.
The witnesses of the wedding were Eliza’s sister Elizabeth, her father and Robert’s brother William.
We do not know where they began their married life but in the previous May of that same year gold was discovered in Australia and that event heralded the next significant phase of Robert’s eventful life.

bethnal green map

James Earl Furness 1795 – 1876 of Bethnal Green

Baptism and Origins
James was born in about 1795, and his father Robert also a gardener, like James was to be, had James baptised in the church of St. Mary Whitechapel. This was a significant church which had been created as a chapel of ease in the 13th century, (a chapel of ease was a church building other than the parish church for the attendance of those who cannot reach the parish church conveniently). The White Chapel was painted with chalk and lime on the outside, hence its name. There were 3 St. Marys, the last one bombed in World War 2.

The church was originally called St Mary Matfelon, a name probably derived from the Hebrew word, Matfel, which signifies a woman born with a son i.e the Virgin Mary. It is significant that the second St. Mary’s had an outside pulpit from where, on occasion, the Vicar preached to Jewish parishioners in Yiddish; quite appropriate bearing in mind the large Jewish population from the mid nineteenth century.

The surname ‘Furness’ originated in the north west notably in the Furness peninsula but whereas there were many people with the surname in that area, there were refreshingly few in London in the early nineteenth century. I have details of a number of other Furnesses, especially in the East End, but so far I have not been able to definately link them as blood relatives.

James’ other forename ‘Earl’ meant warrior or nobleman and comes from the german ‘warrior king’ and which was sometimes used for servants of actual earls. It dates back to the 12th century in England.

James then followed in his father’s footsteps and became a gardener either working for and eventually taking over his father’s work or having land of his own in Bethnal Green.
In her PhD Thesis on gardening in the East End ‘Common Ground: Horticulture and the cultivation of open space in the East End 1840 – 1900’, Julia Matheson says that in 1840, when James was 45, Hackney was virtually all open land. By 1862, when James had 14 years yet to live, not much more than half the area had been built on.
Julia Matheson says that there were large areas of market gardens in Bethnal Green and points out that economic conditions were not as uniformly bleak as often portrayed.
In the census of 1840 644 men were listed as gardeners and even in 1891 there were still 423 gardeners similarly listed.

What sort of gardening did James do?

Three options are possible.
1. At the turn of the nineteenth century and for the next 30 years, Bethnal Green still had houses of the rich and famous; notably amongst these was Bishop Bonner’s Hall, the occasional residence of the Bishop of London. Bonner was the notorious bishop responsible for the burning of protestants during the reign of Mary Tudor. However even though Bonner Hall was pulled down in 1845 there were still large houses with gardens and there were institutions too which employed gardeners, though these were in decline.

2. Perhaps James was more important than that because surprisingly in Bethnal Green and in nearby Hackney there were a number of nurseries which employed quite large numbers of workers, such as Hugh Low who employed 61 men in 1851 and John Fraser, who in 1871 employed 145 men and 8 boys.
Exceptionally there was Loddiges in Hackney, which was so important that it supplied plants to Kew Gardens. Its nursery introduced 151 new plants to UK and there were also hothouses, an arboretum, and a palm house – the largest in the world. In 1830 Joseph Paxton designed a new palm house for them which became the design basis for the later Crystal Palace. Sadly, by 1852, the housing boom led to the loss of the lease for the company and inevitably the loss of the stock, which in the 1820s had 2500 species.

3. Finally there were employment opportunities in the development of the huge Victoria Park right on James’ doorstep.
Because of the dreadful poverty and overcrowded slums in parts of the area, and the huge amounts of illness and death, (even in 1856, on April 16th 1856 the priest at St. James the Less buried 14 people in one day!), it was agreed in 1840 to petition the Queen for the creation of a park for the people. The local land for this was bought through the selling off of crown land and included that surrounding Bishop Bonner’s Fields. There were also a number of market gardens which were purchased.
The resulting magnificent Victoria Park was opened in 1845 and on Good Friday that year 25000 visited it; even more on Easter Monday. The next year a lake was planned and huge areas of the park were given over to bedding plants, which, incidentally were given to the poor at the end of the season for their own gardens. So there was a huge opportunity for gardeners in this work alone.

This was therefore the environment James Earl Furness was working in.
In the edition of Lloyds Weekly on September 9th 1871 the following advertisement read ‘a pony for sale, fast trotting and its silver plated harness all going cheap and the place, 17 Essex Place’. This was James’ address and fits in with the inevitable decline of his health 5 years later and the consequent move to Providence Place where he was to die. So he must have been a market gardener and perhaps the land he farmed might have been to the east of Cambridge Heath Road, which was largely used for market gardening in 1838 and from where the gardeners took their produce for sale in Covent Garden. Another reason for the sale of the pony and its harness lies in the fact that James’ sons did not follow in their father’s profession and had already moved away from Bethnal Green.

What might James have looked like?

There were certainly no photographs of him but contemporary literature can give us some idea.

Henry Mayhew in ‘London Labour and London Poor’ describes the market gardener as follows:- the gardeners affect aprons and old straw hats. Their manner is less demonstrative and their tones less rusty and unmelodious. The navvies roar and the gardeners squeak. The gardener’s voice is meek and mild as of a gentle nature, trained to tend on fruits and flowers.

Then in ‘Sketches by Boz’ by Charles Dickens there is the description. ‘A jolly good tempered, hearty looking pair of togs, that excited our warmest regard; and we had got a fine, red faced, jovial fellow of a market gardener in them. There were his huge fat legs bulging over the togs and fitting them too tight to admit of his tucking in the loops he had pulled them on by; and his knee cords with an interval of stocking and his blue apron tucked up round his waist; and his red neckerchief and blue coat and a white hat stuck on the side of his head, and there he stood with a broad grin on his great red face. We had seen him coming up to Covent Garden in his green chaise cart with the fat tubby little horse, half a thousand times.

Mayhew suggests that there was a link between respectability and market gardening – a sign of good character and industrious habits.

Where did he live?

For most of his adult life he lived in 17 Essex Place. It is not possible to exactly pin point where this was but the marriage certificate of his daughter Ellen says that it was off the Old Bethnal Green Road. The map of 1864 Bethnal Green shows an Essex Street, so surely Essex Place was just off it. Additionally when James married for the second time in 1853 the ceremony was in St. James the Less church which is situated close to where Essex Place is thought to be. It does not necessarily mean, however, that St. James was his parish church since the priests of the 12 churches of Bethnal Green had a fairly active role in encouraging residents to marry in their church in order to make a bit of extra cash to supplement their very meagre stipends.

In the copies of Lloyds Weekly between 1866 and 1871 there are a number of advertisements offering items and services which indicate that Essex Place was a small shopping precinct and a respectable one at that. We have dried fish and milk for sale at number 4; a pony cart and harness for sale at number 6; wagons and carts for sale at number 11; an old established shop with a good trade in cake and bakings – the present people there for 3 years and now taking larger premises, living at number 13; a grinders business doing good trade with paying workshops at number 20; and reference to a fire at a beer shop – number 22.
In 1866 the shop at the corner is described as being in a populous neighbourhood. Clearly Essex Place was not in the sort of slum area we can easily find in other parts of Bethnal Green at this time.

So this was where James brought up his 9 children. Bethnal Green is where they were educated and all were literate save only one son, Charles, who signed his marriage certificate with his mark. The literacy rate for men in mid Victorian England was just over 50%.

I suggest that the children might have grown up in comparative working class affluence and from their later histories it is obvious that they had a clear sense of achievement and which they later displayed after moving away from Bethnal Green.

I imagine them taking advantage of the open spaces of Victoria Park. Even closer was the Regents Canal, which had been used for naked male bathing for some years, and which was banned in 1846. After that daily bathing was allowed in the lake in Victoria Park and Charles Paulson in his book on the Park says that in summer, and before 8 am, many thousands of men would be bathing – remember they didn’t have bathrooms at home.
In 1863 there was a successful petition for the allowing of cricket to be played on Saturdays and other days, but not on Sundays and it was from Victoria Park, in 1848, that the Chartists set out to deliver their petition to Parliament but where the torrential rain simply put so many off.

An increase in leisure time at the weekends meant that working class families could also go on picnic trips to popular places like Epping Forest or even a day’s excursion by rail to Margate or Ramsgate which left Victoria at 8 am and cost 5 shillings but without luggage.
In the 1871 James had moved to Providence Place. Perhaps he and his wife had fallen on hard times, after all he had sold his animal. Perhaps the railways had won and he had lost his lease and his livelihood or like other market gardeners he could not get sufficient produce into London faster and in great quantity. In 1862 market gardeners had been advised not to take out long leases because of the railways.

James had had a long life with a large family and love from two marriages. He died of pneumonia and heart failure on the 19th July 1876 aged 80.

 

 

 

Billy Graham

The sight of Billy Graham’s coffin lying in state in the Capitol, Washington DC and his subsequent state funeral made me feel that I wanted to write something about him.

I confess that I was a devoted ‘follower’, if that’s the right description, in the 1950s, and in those days I wouldn’t have heard a word said against him, as indeed, my parents would have ruefully confirmed.

Billy Graham began his climb to fame during a ‘crusade’, yes that was the word he used, in Los Angeles in 1947. Even in those early days he was an exceptional speaker and in the best tradition of those Christian evangelists, so beloved by Americans.

His message in Los Angeles was the typical one of most American evangelists notably that man was steeped in sin and could only attain forgiveness by taking Jesus into his heart. His authority for this was the Bible, the infallible word of God, and any sermon by Graham was always peppered with the phrase, ‘the Bible says’ – for us listeners there was no need for any other authority.

Graham occasionally strayed into areas of social concern, such as the power of the Unions. He said that heaven was blessed with no union dues and this conservative approach led to the newspaper mogul, William Randolph Hearst, to tell his reporters to ‘puff Graham’. From that point he was virtually front page news.

Graham’s meetings hardly changed in content over the years. They were invariably held in stadiums or other buildings which could accommodate thousands. Choirs of hundreds were recruited from churches in the area and their voices created a huge emotional effect which never failed to move the congregation.

Two other men served with Graham. One, Cliff Barrows, acted as the master of ceremonies and the second, George Beverley Shea, sang solos and sometimes acted as a soloist with the choir. Barrows was not averse to serenading with his trombone, but essentially he was there to keep the service going and, of course, to make the appeal for money to offset the costs of the Crusade. I have to say that this appeal was neither heavy in its content, and certainly did not contain the indecent amount of persuasion which later evangelists were notable for.

There were two climaxes to any of Graham’s meetings. The first, of course, was his sermon, usually at least 30 minutes long, and which was both persuasive and emotional in turns. He regularly used examples of people, going through valleys of despair who recognised their need for another way, and this other way, was of course, the acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.

The sermon always concluded with ‘the appeal’. The words were always the same – ‘I want you to get out of your seats’ and people wanting to accept Jesus were told to come to the front where they would be counselled concerning their decision. Billy always said ‘if you are in a coach party, they will wait for you’.

At this point the choir, quietly sang the hymn ‘Just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me, and bidst me come to Thee. Oh Jesus Christ, I come’. And the people streamed forward in their hundreds, if not thousands. Anyone attending such meetings was left in no doubt that something highly significant was happening, here, and there was a belief that the whole world was in the process of being changed, because of Graham’s success.

Graham was now in demand to conduct crusades all over the USA and in February 1954 he took on the new challenge of his first foreign mission which took place in the Harringey arena, London. It lasted an incredible 3 months and by the end had made Graham into a national figure.

Britain in the 1950s was tailor made for Graham’s work. The country had hardly recovered from World War II and was still deprived of some basic necessities, but it was just a year after the coronation of Queen Elizabeth and people seemed to be ready to face a new future with a sense of purpose. What better time than to infuse this optimism with renewed religious commitment., especially since church attendance had risen after the war. Consequently churches of most denominations happily associated themselves with Graham’s crusade and encouraged their people to attend. If attendance were not possible they organised sound relays of the services into churches, up and down the country.
The effect of the Harringay Crusade was extraordinary. Not only was the arena filled for every meeting but it became front page news too. The local underground station soon became used to the sound of hundreds of people standing on the platforms, waiting for the trains and singing hymns at the tops of their voices.

Additionally it became known that some celebrities had also begun to attend the meetings and this had the effect of puffing Graham further. At the additional crusades in Glasgow and at Wembley Stadium the following year it was clear that most of the churches, excepting the Roman Catholics, were coming to the conclusion that Billy Graham might have become God’s messenger to the United Kingdom and this led to Archbishops, politicians and others to join him on his platform. Even the Queen had been said to be influenced by Graham and had asked to meet him. However for some newspapers there were articles suggesting that his crusades were nothing more than a religious circus.

So it was that this 13 year old in April 1954 sat in the balcony of a church in Luton and was moved sufficiently by ‘the Appeal’ to get out of his seat and go to the front. With all the naivity of adolescence and being only too aware of the internal rages of puberty it seemed to be the only answer for me and so I joined up and committed myself to Jesus, lock, stock and barrel.

From that point there was no stopping me and there were very few people who were not told about my decision and what that was going to mean for my future. Billy Graham had become my guru and I wouldn’t hear a word said against him and there were no reasons why they shouldn’t make the same decision I had made. Perhaps even the whole world would at last become Christian.

From this point, Billy Graham travelled the world. He was as famous as the Pope and the President of the USA and his words were news. Millions and millions listened to him and many of them made the journey from their seats to the front to make their decision for Christ. Yet there was no real reason why this should have been so. He was not even a theological scholar, inspite of being known as Dr. Billy Graham, and his knowledge and understanding of the world were as limited as any other person born and raised in a farmhouse in North Carolina. Indeed there were many times when he made statements seemingly obvious for a dedicated young man in the USA but less obvious to the thinking man, elsewhere in the world, whose experience of life was markedly different. On a number of occasions he had to backtrack but I do not feel that he was the uninformed bigot some have made him out to be. If your maxim is ‘the Bible says’ then for him and for so many others there was never any doubt what your moral or religious standpoint would be but sadly, eventually for me and probably for many others too, life’s decisions were not so simple and that time of ‘coming forward’ was a too simplistic approach to what being a Christian was all about.

However Graham was not a hypocrite. There was a simplicity about him which stayed over the years and protected him from falling to the obscenities which other television evangelists fell victim to. There were no scandals about the use of money; no whiff of sexual irregularities; and he remained the husband to only one wife, and happily so.
Inspite of those naive statements about social issues, at other times he was ahead of his years. He insisted on preaching to racially unsegregated audiences and he could even have been found attending meetings of the World Council of Churches, which for most others Christians, especially in the southern states of the USA, were anathema. He happily met with popes and other spiritual leaders and behaved himself in an appropriately Christian way. It is true that his statements on LGBT issues were condemnatory and did much harm to the gay community and he was just plain wrong to do so, but I believe that given time he might have listened and perhaps even understood things better. He seemed to be like that.

Billy Graham was a child of the farmhouse and to his surprise he found himself one of the world’s most famous men and to be honest he revelled in it. If there is anything which diminishes him it is the fact that he was taken in by the unmerited greatness of his stature and by the fawning of others. Every crusade was hyped as being bigger and better than they previous one. The huge numbers of people listening to him were regularly touted and the numbers coming forward proclaimed. He rejoiced in the fact that more people had heard his message than any other preacher in history. And he genuinely liked the fact that he had become the pastor and counsellor of most American presidents and he unwittingly played into their hands with his declarations about their devotion to the faith. It was unbelievable to him that Richard Nixon could have told so many lies, especially when they had prayed together and so could only respond, when confronted with the truth, that Nixon must have been controlled by the devil at that time.

Nixon was Graham’s calvary and there was a messianic sense in which he felt he was following his Saviour. He was occasionally struck down by mysterious illnesses which made him feel that he might also be a man of sorrows acquainted with diseases. In the end he was struck down by the cruellest of conditions but he survived to live a very long life. His son Franklin is following in his footsteps but does not have the charity or charisma of his father. He is rabidly homophobic and has allied himself to Donald Trump to the extent that he seems to be oblivious to the man’s many faults. Like his father, with Nixon, Franklin has declared Trump to be the man sent by God for the good of his country. Sadly, the result may be like father, like son.

 

 

So what can I tell you that is important to me?

Well it is 100% important to me to tell you that I am a 76 year old gay man who has been ‘out’ for many years and who has been an LGBT activist ever since that time when I began to be open to the world about my sexuality. And, this gay man, is happily married to Nigel, and they ‘tied the knot’ just 4 years ago.

Why did I wait so long to find Mr. Right? It wasn’t like that; Nigel is my third ‘Mr. Right’. The first one lasted almost 30 years, finally finishing with the horrors of his profound Alzheimers and him being found dead on our beach after leaving the residential home where he had been for eight years.
The second one lasted just 7 years when he succumbed to mesothelioma (an asbestos related cancer) and he sadly died too.
As I say, with a smile on my face, when I’m speaking to groups, Nigel feels kind of vulnerable as he continues the journey with me.

So that’s the first set of important things out of the way.
The next thing is that I first found a lump in my chest some 18 years ago but it turned out to be just fatty tissue, and since then I’ve been checking myself over, as and when. In December 2015 I found one again, and I didn’t need convincing that this might be something really quite serious, and so it was. A mastectomy followed, and the sentinel nodes were also removed, and I completed a course of radiotherapy in August 2016. I did not have chemotherapy.

How did I react to the news? I have to confess that after all the shit of previous years experiences, and there is more than I mentioned, I just sort of said to myself ‘well here we go again’. My husband simply said ‘that’s a shock’ and then we sat, looked at each other and quite purposely, set about working out what coping strategies we might need in order to get through this. Our friends reacted to the news with the same shock and surprise but made clear that they were going to be there for us and laughed with me when I grimly said that I might be looking for someone interested in buying just one nipple ring!

Brave eh? In truth, not a bit of it. The horrors returned every night as I tried to get to sleep and I was so grateful to have someone to hold me and calm me down and I often thought of those single people, faced with a similar diagnosis, who had no one to hold and whose thoughts like mine might range from facing the surgery to perhaps facing the end.

Together we devised our coping strategies. We would be in it together – phew! And Nigel quickly decided that his role was to provide the glass half full approach to life, as an antidote to my glass half empty attitude. Goodness, how I’ve appreciated that over the months.

Now on my first round of medication I started to search the web for forums and chat lines concerned with breast cancer. It was a relief to see that the side effects of treatment and medication I was experiencing were not specially different from what others were going through but I could have done without it. I also began a regimen to ensure recovery and to increase my physical fitness and so every other day I do a couple of miles of brisk walking and it does my neurotic mind a power of good, despite sometimes looking a hundred years old when I return. We live just a few metres from the ocean and the sights and the sounds do me a power of good. I often shout out loud ‘behold, the sea, itself’ (Walt Whitman) and, no doubt, passers by think ‘there goes that silly old man again’.

Without the walking I still feel annoyingly tired at times and there are side effects from my treatment and the consequent medication which are trying and which are probably unavoidable. I’ve been used to be extremely proactive from the start of my retirement but now I’ve had to accept a more gentle approach to living.

From the start I had decided that there was to be no doubt, both in my mind and in my contacts with all others, that this new ‘story’ was to be about a gay man with breast cancer, rather than one about a man with breast cancer who also happened to be gay. I hope you might understand the difference.

This approach didn’t begin well, however. Faced with the very new experience of being in a hospital ward and surrounded by straight male patients I amazed myself by going straight back into the closet. I even begged Nigel not to kiss me when he came to visit and I felt so guilty about it. How could I do that!

However, since then there has been no fudging of the issue. I’m not a wimp and so this new experience has to be the time when I need to say to all and sundry; to women with the condition; to health service professionals; and to anyone else, that if you intend to relate to me then you will have to engage with my sexuality as an equal feature of my experience of having breast cancer.

So for me there is a two string approach to coping with my condition and to how I would like to be supported. The first is the fact that, unexpectedly, I find myself part of another minority, one numbering just 350 per year in the UK, compared to the thousands of women, similarly afflicted. And, because, as a gay man, I know too well the value of group identity and community support, I know how much I need what I am not receiving, namely the presence and support of other men with the same condition.

Unbelievably in spite of regularly using the social media in the UK for this purpose, I have not been able to make contact even with just one man and up until only very recently I have not found the various breast cancer charities willing to be proactive in enabling such contacts.

And the second string? Inevitably that has to have a gay element to it. I am starting to give up the possibility of finding other gay men who also have the condition. Within our community contact with each other has been the life blood for our survival – we are not separatist but we like being together. For me the social and psychological benefits of finding other gay men who have breast cancer would be huge but demographically I know that it is not very likely. Thank god I have a partner. And this fact forces me back to wanting to say ‘What about those single men and women facing this challenge? Where are the organisations focussing on such people’s unique feelings and needs? When will charities and support organisations wake up to the fact that we live in a world where you can no longer assume people to be in the same kind of family relationships that we have known in the past?’

How do I view the future? Well we have decided to be more sensible and talk about the creative, and sustaining use of the ‘now’. Yes we do plan and look forward to holidays, and meeting up with friends, and doing all those things which have made our lives so rich. But the secret to our living is ensuring that for us ‘the best of times is now’. Its not easy to keep to that aim and not everyone can do it but, for us, it remains the way in which to live our lives to the best.

Good wishes to all our fellow men in the same situation. Never underestimate the psychological and social significance of your existence.

 

It was over 20 years ago when I wrote to the Alzheimers Society. I was caring for my partner David, who was severely ill with the condition, and I felt I needed to call attention to the fact that all of the Society’s publicity materials and stories seemed to assume the presence of a caring husband or wife and a supportive family as they went through this most terrible of all conditions. I wanted to say that there were carers and those with dementia out there, single, not in a family situation, and perhaps gay too.

Last year I was diagnosed with cancer – not prostate, as you might understandably assume, but breast cancer. And I have to say that over the last 18 months I have had a fair share of déjà vu experiences, not unlike the ones I had with the Alzheimers Society all those years ago. It was then and remains a matter of inclusion and equality.
On average annually there are 350 men who are diagnosed with the condition and that means, over a 5 year period, 1750 of us are likely to be surviving and coping with the effects of our treatment. I will not allow that this is a small number and of people of little consequence.

So how has it been for me? I have to admit that my initial experience of coping with the disease was positive. I was given helpful booklets targeted at men and my care was probably no different from all those thousands of women who share the same condition. I have met a lot of empathic people who did their best to support me and I am grateful.
However, in the cold light of day, I have gradually started to feel less positive about my care and more dissatisfied with how things are going.

Eighteen months ago the mantra ‘men get it too’ was sufficient to make me feel included and wanted but I have now started to ask questions about my breast cancer care. For example, why are the images related to breast cancer usually feminine ones? It doesn’t hurt to show the occasionally man; it can’t involve extra cost and if it succeeds in encouraging men to identify with the condition then that can’t fail but make us feel good; it might also encourage men, especially those with a family history of the disease to regularly check themselves for lumps.

Then again language matters and its right use can provide a feeling of inclusion. I still see phrases like ‘women with breast cancer’ when ‘people with breast cancer’or ‘women and men with breast cancer’ are fairer alternatives. If organisations and charities are able to say ‘men get it too’ then they should take an extra step by giving the simplest but also strongest impression that us men are included and are an equal part of the system.
Then let us recognise that 350 men per annum all have stories and these need to be told and be heard and should be a regular feature of all materials which charities and support organisations publish. I already know that the response will be ‘if only we could get them to do it’ but the lack of such stories will continue if the approach is simply reactive and not proactive. If we males with the condition are not good at communicating our needs then organisations need to be more proactive to help us to do so. We are equals and need to be seen to be so.

I am a fortunate man. I have a loving partner who provides the best support I could wish for and we are not afraid to talk about having cancer! I cannot tell you how liberating that experience is, and I hasten to believe that most other men might find it so. But there is also huge value in sharing with others with the same condition. When dealing with such a relatively small number, achieving person- to-person contact is not easy, though groups in the USA and Australia exist based on websites and social media. So far such contact has not been achieved in the UK and it has been suggested to me that age, non-use of the internet, and ‘embarrassment’ to talk about the condition, might impede the formation of support groups. This places the ball firmly in the court of charities and health providers who have the contacts with BC men and could be proactive in forming such groups.

Finally, and perhaps more importantly there is the issue of our treatment. I am starting to ask some fundamental questions and am discovering that fundamental answers are not always available. For example: Is female breast cancer congruent with male breast cancer? Do we have the evidence that the available medication has the same effectiveness for men and women? Do we really know why so few men succumb to the disease? And there are other questions too.

It is not encouraging for us men to be told that finding answers has to take into consideration the fact that there are so few of us and research money is short.
So it is an interesting world where we men are calling for more focus; where we men have to yell to be included; and where we die sooner than women because we are not women. It is a fact that our later diagnosis means our prognosis is worse.

On October 20th my partner and I, in common with many men all over the world, will be saying ‘think of us and support us too’ and we will be proudly wearing our t shirts which proclaim ‘Breast Cancer. Men get it too’.

https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2017/25-august/news/uk/john-bell-why-i-came-out#.WaPoc1i6zFE.twitter

Permit me to say a few words about this article.

It isn’t necessarily easy for anyone to ‘come out’ about their sexuality and when it is done it is rarely without some cost.
But fortunately we are now where we are because over the years people, sometimes with great courage, have acknowledged their sexuality and have realised that they are happier, more fulfilled, healthier and more honest when they have said publicly ‘I am gay’. Nowadays we can listen to and read the stories of those brave people who took the step and, sometimes despite persecution, knew that it was better to be ‘out’ rather than to stay ‘in’, and often such people are inspiring. All these people have paved the way for us and we should be grateful.

This article from last week’s Church Times was therefore good to read, because every ‘coming out’ should be applauded, but it only gets two cheers from me.

So, come on, John tell us more, if you will.

Are you really saying that its only recently that you realised you were gay? Or have you been hanging on for the arrival of that safe day when you could finally spill the beans? Some of us did not have the luxury of such safety.

Is it really the case that that tragic story of the Manchester school girl forced the acknowledgement out of you, or would you have stayed in the closet if you hadn’t read the story?
It surely couldn’t have been just a preacher’s device to get empathy from a potentially difficult sermon, could it? I don’t want to sound cynical.

And what sort of counselling and support have you given over the years to those who were in the same situation as you, and have there been times when you really haven’t been true to yourself? Come on, tell us the truth. Its ok, in our community we are quite big on forgiveness.

Finally, can we now expect more positive words and actions from you to combat the possibly resulting antagonism to your, in my eyes, very limited courage. You have a greater responsibility now to yourself and us, in the wider LGBT community. We look forward to hearing more from you.

Well, John, your new journey has only just begun – good luck.

The Rainbow Dementia Cafe

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=ajn401u7CFo&feature=youtu.be

Opening Doors London, that wonderful organisation for older LGBTs has embarked on a project which will provide a meeting point and support for LGBT people with dementia and their carers too.

This video launches the project and it is hoped that all dementia groups and all LGBT people will spread the message and encourage its success.

 

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