My way of letting off steam!

Oh no, not opera!

How I wish I could sit down with my cultured friends and talk with confidence on any subject which crops up. I can do a certain amount on fine art and drama, and I can speak with more confidence on dance, though I must confess that without men in tights you would lose a fan.

But opera? Oh my goodness, why can’t I dig opera?
I’ve tried, and my bank account bears witness to that – I did a double take when I bought a ticket for the Sydney Opera and similarly for Verona, but, beyond the undoubted spectacle and some hummable tunes, I just don’t get it.

For me it’s all so incongruous.
Yes the occasional aria can be moving but when you have duets, quartets etc all responding to each other with different words, and sometimes singing to the audience with differing comments, then I’m inclined to respond with “could you all just shut up and speak in turn!”

Then there is the problem of language. It has to be in the original doesn’t it? Of course opera houses have tried to become user friendly by giving a blow by blow translation, though I was more amused in watching the audience looking up and down than I was by the opera itself – a sort of alternative to watching a tennis match from left to right.

Then we have the incongruity where the physique of the singers doesn’t always match the part. I happily joined in the laughter when Madame Butterfly said she was 15 – oh yes?
Or in La Boheme where the male leads didn’t look to me that they were either frozen or starving.

Of course comic opera might have been an easier way out. I tried Britten’s ‘Albert Herring’ but, in tune with Peter Cook’s comment about the Leonardo Cartoon, I didn’t find anything to laugh at.

So then, I expect I might try again, but if it’s Wagner then you will have to drag me kicking and screaming.

Keep cool, folks.

London Pride

This is my time to say how much I love London. Of all the cities in the world London is my favourite.
When I was about 10, my grandfather, took me my on my first visit. We walked down Cheapside, past St Mary le Bow as he told me that our family came from Bethnal Green and were Cockneys because they were born within the sound of Bow bells. With pride I tell you that an ex student is now the Rector of that church.
We walked up Lombard Street, the home of London banking and he explained about the bank signs outside the buildings. He forgot to tell me, as I later discovered, that my great grandfather had once been the caretaker of one of them.
It was easy to find the Monument, close by, because this was a time before today’s modern sky scrapers had been built and then it was one of the tallest structures in the city. We climbed it’s stairs to view the vast panoply around us and looked down on smelly Billingsgate Fish Market by its side.
We listened for the bell and ran when we heard it; it was the warning that Tower Bridge was being raised. What a sight it was as the ships sailed through to dock at the wharves right in the centre of the City.
Those memories of London are just a handful of the hundreds I have built up over the decades and time hasn’t dulled my love of the place.
Noel Coward wrote a song called ‘London Pride’. It’s a sentimental old piece but I was reminded of it as I took in the horrors of last night’s terrorist attack. It nevertheless captures the feeling of what London Town means to us and how that feeling could not even begin to be destroyed by the actions of so called religious people, hardly out of nappies.
Sail on, London!

 

A story for LGBT History Month 2017

At the end of class he waited for the empty room and came close. Without looking at me he said “I need to talk to you.”

“That’s fine”, I said, “Anything special?”

“Wait” he pleaded “I’ll see you later.”

I liked the end of the working day; the quietness of the place; the space to catch up and prepare; the time to breathe and unravel the pressure of those frenetic hours. I had enough to do to see me into another hour before going home.

Almost giving up on the appointment, the quiet knock on the door brought me back and, similarly quietly I said, “Come in”.

He approached, sat down, and kept silent.

“What’s up?” I said “Anything happened?”

A sound, ‘miles away’ broke the awkward silence. He leapt up, went for the door, opened it, and looked both ways. Assured that there was no one there, he same back and took his seat.

His serious voice took on an air of forcefulness. “Do you promise me that you won’t tell anyone about this conversation?” he demanded.

“Yes, ok.” I replied, fearing that I was being cornered into hearing and being secret about something quite terrible.

“I’ve been thinking so much, and I feel almost like exploding. That’s why I need to tell someone.”

“Sounds serious” I said, smiling and attempting to lighten his load in some way.

“It is serious. I think I’m homosexual!’ His words now spoken louder and with a sense of despair.

He looked at me, his eyes seeming to suggest the imminent end of his world.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“I know. I just know it. I look at boys the way that they look at girls and I try and fight the feelings away but they won’t go. I just don’t know what to do.”

The tears flowed.

My god! How I knew what he was going through. How I knew the fear, the self hatred, the guilt, the hope that I was in a never ending dream – all of that.

He composed himself and continued “I don’t want to be homosexual. I just want to be normal like everyone else. I want to be married and have children. I want my parents to be proud of me. I just want to get rid of these feelings”

“Is it really so bad?” I tried to suggest comfortingly, while desperately trying to send out signals that I wasn’t shocked, that he was accepted, and that there was hope.

We stayed silent for a while but then the seriousness of my situation dawned on me. I wanted so much to tell him that it really was ok; that I was homosexual too; that you could be happy, fulfilled and know love; that I was in a stable relationship; and so on and so on. I wanted to pour it all out to assure him.
Instead there was a feeling of horror and it lay in the words:-
‘You must not promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’.
That’s what the law said and, perhaps even by allowing this conversation to go further I could already be breaking it. There hadn’t been any court cases as yet and I didn’t want to be part of the first.

Out of the silence I asked him if he had spoken to his parents about his feelings and what he really wanted to happen. He mentioned about going to see a psychiatrist.

I wanted to come out with all those things we could say to young people as they experience the sometimes frightening realisation of their sexual orientation. My heart went out to him and I wished I lived in a world where his acknowledgement would be a cause for celebration rather than disaster.

Eventually composed and unburdened, he left.

I did not feel good. I felt I had let him down with meaningless platitudes and ‘comforting’ words. I had let myself and my community down by my unfaithfulness. Where was my courage to proclaim that it was possible to be glad to be gay?

I don’t have a happy ending to this story except to say that a few years later, and miles away from home, I bumped into him. Having got over the surprise of our meeting I asked him how he was and he replied that he was fine, and he smiled at me, and somehow for me that smile conveyed something positive. We had no time to explore further, he went on his way and so did I. I so hope he found happiness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gay and Ageing – Now

now

My first partner had a tattoo. If you had known him you would have been surprised – it happened as the result of a drunken night out when he was doing his national service. He hated the sight of it but it was there every time he happened to look at his arm – the fact of its mere existence just wouldn’t go away. You could have tried to assure him, in good faith, that it made him look butch, but that wouldn’t have changed the situation!

Cancer is like that. Even when you’ve been told that they’ve got rid of it, the fact of it remains in your mind and it just won’t budge and, like it or not, each time you are reminded of having had it there is the added reminder that it might come back today, or tomorrow or sometime. It’s a bastard, that cancer!

Despair? Be like Shakespeare’s Richard II and ‘Lets talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs… Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings’? You can if you want to, but it doesn’t have to be like that. Here’s my take on it all.

For me the secret is to focus on the ‘now’ of existence.

At first, that meant using diversionary tactics. Letting something command your attention as a way of combatting your anxiety, and your fear of the future. That seemed a good idea to me and so off I went for a 5 week course  on,

wait for it,

on ‘Scandinavian Film and Television’. That should be good for a laugh, surely!

After a couple of weeks of viewing a world almost solely in black and white;  of concluding that Scandinavian society is wholly consumed by having to solve gruesome murders; of trying to accept that there is no valid cinema outside of Scandinavia; and of trying to convince myself that the Scandinavian welfare state is the best thing since sliced bread; I almost finally came to the conclusion that having cancer might be a viable alternative after all. However what I did learn from it all was that this activity, or any other, wasn’t actually a way of forgetting reality but was actually a valid way of living now. I discovered that learning, making, walking, singing, writing was not the alternative to having a meaningful life, or just using up time, but was actually the real stuff of living. Now I’m into researching family history and when Mr Cancer rears his ugly face he will get a gruff ‘f – off!’ because I’m too busy now!

Again, living in the ‘now’ brings its own rules about status, possessions, and regarding the future and the past. It is tempting to lapse into ‘I used to be’ in one’s conversation as a way of keeping what status is left in your own stuff of living. But everyone who embraces and holds on to that approach is likely, sooner or later, to end up demeaned and by-passed. Far better to let what you are now be your reason for existence. Learn that where you are loved  and are respected by those who matter, it is for what you are now, rather than for some way back role in seemingly another world.  I acknowledge it not to be easy to live like that, but all should be warned, nothing is forever.

In the gay world, and in other world’s too, our possessions are becoming the key to what we see as the good life and, to be honest, how comfortable they do make us feel. But in pursuing them our futures have become mapped out and determined as we strive to keep and better what we have. Living in the ‘now’ takes away much of that striving as we focus simply on having enough and that being sufficient.

I want to thank Mr. Cancer for teaching me something else about living in the ‘now’. Initially I focussed on what I might not be able to do in the future; a simple phone call to a travel insurer confirmed that within a minute or so. But learning how to respond to an idea, an urge, a desire, now, without planning, foresight and not leaving it till later, is the real stuff of enjoyment and satisfaction. So keep your suitcase packed; go and catch the train to wherever; if you can afford it, get it, whatever ‘it’ may be; and let doing it now be the focus of your life.

Finally, because you are the centre of this new way of living, and your needs and your life matter most, learn also to say to others ‘not now’. With love, possibly sometimes with regret, and possibly even at the expense of other’s justifiable requests, let your ‘now’ come first. There will be moments when that rule will have to be relaxed, and perhaps even when others requests will enable you better to live better in the ‘now’, but, without others giving you the permission to do so, you have the inalienable right to smile and say ‘not now’.

So who do you think you are kidding Mr. Cancer, when you think that life is done? You have unwittingly provided a key to living which is rich beyond measure – thanks.

 

 

 

Thinking about Caravaggio

 

Over the centuries there are few painters who have portrayed human reactions so realistically as Caravaggio does. His use of light is central to all his work and in his time that was innovative, though not totally unique. His figures are real, not surprisingly so when his models had been plucked out of the streets and were required to simply to be themselves. Later they might be surprised to discover that they had been transformed into St. Peter, Judas, and even Jesus himself. These were rough trade types who knew enough of life for the experience to be deeply etched in their faces and therefore worthy of being immortalised by the artist. They are fearful, passionate, yet also simple people, used to a world where craftiness, deceit, violence and even murder were the stuff of life and their looks and reactions are uniquely used by Caravaggio to convey incidents in the Gospel story in a startlingly realistic way and amazingly he gets the situation right every time.

However in spite of such skill, personally, I have never found that his work creates any sense of religious devotion in me. I am amazed by the validity of the reactions portrayed in his work such as the look on the faces in ‘The Call of Matthew’; the face of the jailer looking at the head of the executed John the Baptist; and the responses of the disciples recognising Jesus in both of the ‘Emmaus’ paintings. Caravaggio’s patrons would surely have been well satisfied that their devotion deepened as they gazed at their purchase. But for me those feelings of devotion simply don’t happen. In the ‘Emmaus’ paintings, for exampled, as you see the disciples suddenly recognising Jesus in the breaking of bread, it might be expected that the viewer might respond in kind with such words as ‘My Lord and my God!’, but for me it is enough that the paintings are powerful in being just a portrayal of two old men shocked at their recognition of a lost friend/relative and producing the sort of response like ‘well bugger me, if it isn’t our Albert!’

The current exhibition at the National Gallery, ‘Beyond Caravaggio’ confirmed those feelings not just in the few works of his on display (there are just six, three of which could have been seen in the Gallery, free of charge, only weeks beforehand) but also in the quite worthy examples of later artists who were deeply influenced by him. I have a feeling about Caravaggio and his followers, however, that had they been painting during a more secular time in history and thus freed from the shackles of Christian patronage, that one can only begin to imagine what further wonders he and they could have produced.

In the final room of the exhibition, Caravaggio’s magnificence is displayed in all its glory. What a privilege to have the loan from the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City, of his John the Baptist. The work, a large canvass, is wonderful, but again the subject is ultimately of no significance and there is no need to talk about religious responses. Instead, in this masterpiece, we are confronted by a dark, brooding, pensive, stoic, muscular young man. His head lowered slightly, and his face, in part shadow, turned slightly towards the viewer. His tangled hair over his brow, and his naked body swathed in brilliant scarlet. He is sensuous and majestic in turns and screams out to the viewer ‘dont you dare ignore me’. Just stand and take in the powerful image of this young man. By doing so you have experienced the wonder of Caravaggio and that picture alone has been worth the price of your ticket.

 

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 My talk was one of the keynote talks at the LGBTQ Health Summit in Canterbury Kent UK in September 2012

LGBT HEALTH SUMMIT

I have just 5 minutes to talk about 42 years of being gay in Kent, and I have time only to make a few stops in the journey, but I start with an important event before coming to Kent.

In 1968, for the very first time, I said to someone ‘I’m a homosexual’ (I didn’t know the word ‘gay’), and a five ton weight just fell from my shoulders, and that weight has never returned.

 In 1971 my first partner David and I went to see the manager of the Halifax in Canterbury  to apply for a joint mortgage. He was totally flummoxed by such a request and said ‘But what happens if you two split up?’  ‘Dont you ask heterosexual couples the same question?’ I asked. ‘Oh he said, I hadn’t thought of it like that’.

 In 1972 about 30 of us were the local branch of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality though we didn’t dare call ourselves that, and at our Christmas dinner called ourselves ‘The Canterbury Debating Society’. We met at the Friends Meeting House in Canterbury and at some meetings the caretaker used to cover the floor with the most pungent polish so that our eyes smarted and watered.  When I complained he said ‘if you don’t like it then you can go elsewhere and take the rest of your filthy sodomites with you’. You don’t let bigots get you down.

 In 1980 a group of us formed the East Kent Friend telephone helpline. We bought a phone installed it in the bedroom of a friend’s flat in Canterbury and activated the line every Tuesday evening. We were terrified someone would find out where we were and vandalise the flat and had been advised that technically we were not legal and that the police could arrest us for promoting indecency. But we continued and over the years of Friend it is amazing how many callers were helped because of that line.

 In the mid 1980s the terror of AIDS arrived. Deaths were described as brain tumours, or cancer or heart attacks, but deep down we knew that  AIDS was the cause of death. When in Kent, a Buddy system was created for those with the disease, refreshingly we were not short of volunteers. I pay tribute to my Buddy, Jerry, a lovely man. He was terrified of his condition being known and refused to register with a GP in Ashford where he lived, in case people got to know about him; after all some people had been burned out of their homes. I shall never forget that phone call from him one Monday at 8 when he said ‘Roger can you come over, I’ve gone blind’. Fear was endemic in those days, and at his funeral the undertakers were purposely not told of his condition; the cremation was scheduled the last of the day and the dreaded words AIDS and gay were not even whispered .

 In the 1990s gay teachers like me had Section 28 strung round our necks. For political reasons we had been forbidden to teach or say anything about homosexuality to our pupils, and I feel that I need to apologise to my gay students of those days when I did not offer the kind of support they deserved as they coped with their emerging sexuality.  Even when section 28 was repealed the leader of Kent County Council declared that Kent would have its own version! But he failed.

 From the late 1990s a brave new world came into being for us LGBT people, one I thought I would never live to see and for me it is wonderful. Civil registration, laws outlawing discrimination all have reinforced my pride at being a gay man. Sitting in a Kent LGBT/Police liaison committee chaired by a deputy chief constable who happened to have once been a pupil of mine was a strangely liberating  experience. And here having a health summit with an official welcome from the mayor of Canterbury is surely a sign that our world is changing.

 And where do we go now? Well it is obvious that issues about our status, security, health and well being remain and it remains true that the price of our freedom must be eternal vigilance. Laws do not quickly change hearts and minds. This Summit addresses many concerns except, may I say, in one respect insufficiently. Recent research about Kent suggests that 100% of us LGBT people will die! Did you know? Also there are more of us over 65 than 16 or under and so the LGBT community is getting older like the population at large and we have important and unique needs too. I still believe in the idea of community, for us LGBT people, and that must involve respect, concern and care for all whatever the age.

 Significantly, in his book ‘You’re Looking Very Well – The Surprising Nature of Getting Old’  Lewis Wolpert  gives evidence that younger people who have a negative view of old age actually die younger.  So please be a community and care for us oldies too – you might gain a few more years as a result.

I wish the summit well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yesterday a squirrel sat in the road who, as I trundled towards him, was clearly daring me to do the ultimate thing and run him over. I didn’t. I stopped.  We looked at each other and then he ran, victoriously onto the bank.

On two separate Thursdays, I passed schools where I saw 16 and 18 year olds in clearly carefully considered clothes, together or sometimes stoically alone, walking the pathways to the entrance lobbies to receive their examination results. From one school there emerged a boy, with the most incredible smile on his face. There’s no feeling like success, is there?

And so everyday, for three weeks, my drive to Canterbury has consisted of different and memorable experiences which have had the delightful effect of diverting me from the tedium of the journey. A journey which ended invariably in the same parking spot, and  a short walk to my destination. Yes, you guessed it. Its the Oncology Department. ‘Cancers R Us’!

On my first visit there was a huge feeling of dread as I pushed open the doors to this new and forbidding world, but there was also a  defiant, sort of gladiatorial feeling in me too, wanting me to shout, ‘those of us about to die, salute you!’.

It was all unnecessary. Where were the harridan receptionists who I was prepared to suggest lent me their broomsticks? Where was the endless waiting? Where were the situations to complain about?  What were these people thought they were doing with their friendly welcomes? Their smiles? Their bowls of Quality Street chocolates.  And the gentle apology that my appointment tomorrow might be just 5 minutes later than scheduled? Whatever next! This was all too disarming for words.

I took my seat. Got out my trusty ipad and prepared to achieve a thorough reading of my downloaded newspaper. No such luck. My name was called before I had got through the headlines. That’s not good enough! What do hospitals think they are doing taking away an old man’s right to read the whole of his newspaper before his daily treatment begins!

This department, like so many, is staffed by the United Nations. Mostly young; friendly and helpful; and desperate to pronounce my name correctly too, though sometimes failing badly. But I felt safe.

I put on the gown specially provided for my radiotherapy. Not exactly Armani, and more like 1950s clothing for breastfeeding women, but, hey, rainbow tops will surely come, one day!

I looked around and took it in. This was surely the sort of place where Frankenstein did his business. Where wires would be stuck to my body. Where there would be whirrings, and electrical shortings, and with thunder and lightning to go with them. Where, as a result, my body would be so full of nuclear fission that I would glow in the dark. Where my partner would be able to stick wires on me in order to boil a kettle.

Some pulling of me then took place until I was clearly in the correct position. Some inaudible numbers spoken and agreed upon. A brief look at my body and then the words, ‘Be back soon’. My God! Was I, semi naked, laying in a vulnerable, not to say S & M like posture, going to be there until they were back from lunch?

I lay there but soon it all started. The machine trundle into action. It did a 180 degree journey around me and part of it, while above me, moved in a circular fashion too. There were different noises, a green light and, it made me think, given a different situation and mindset, there were all the makings of a pretty demanding theme park ride too. But in fact, the situation was a doddle. The staff returned, made sure I was dressed properly for my public, and sent away with the words ‘See you tomorrow’.

Last Thursday, after 3 weeks, the receptionist took my attendance sheet. Smiled. Drew a tick on it; put a smiley face below it;  wrote 10/10 for attendance on the sheet and I went on my merry way. Has it worked? Am I free? Who knows. But I know that they have tried, and will continue to try, and what I am required to do in response is to grasp each day and to live it. Focussing my life not on the ‘then’, or the ‘when’ but the ‘now’

Not a bad maxim for all of us, eh?.

 

 

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