Don’t give me all that ‘isn’t Christmas wonderful?’ stuff. OK, if you aren’t surrounded by unwanted relatives nor, even worse, by tragedy which seems to like this month to drag you down, then it can bring happiness, but for me it has often been a grim time, and it starts dead on December 1st.
This early December Sunday was typical of so many others. Dark by 4 pm, and with a cold dankness which reaches right to your bones. At such times surely best to stay in, reach for whatever booze might be available, and fix your eyes on some dreadful TV programme; but not on this particular day.
At 5 pm, with an unvarying determination, I decided on the number of layers I needed, dressed, opened the front door, and launched myself into the darkness.
Just a few hundred yards down the road was my venue. It was a hospital, which had seen better days in its history, but which still catered for some special medical needs, and also provided a school for children who were not yet well enough to be catapulted into the challenging life of regular education. This hospital also had a secret which only a few of us were very well aware of.
I had become initiated into that secrecy not many months before in some other hospitals. Such as at the Mildmay in the East End where, before you visited, stringent checks were made on your identity and a clear mandate from the patient was needed. Or at St. Bartholomews in Smithfield, where no one seemed to know of a ward with the name I was visiting and where, once I had found it, I was intensely questioned as soon as I entered it. And, at a more local hospital where the staff nurse insisted I scrub up before entering. This secret shared with other places was the reason why I was there on this evening.
Adjacent to this hospital courtyard was a grossly oversized church. More high than wide, mostly unused, and rapidly becoming disused, I found my way in and looked around. Others had already arrived and some I recognised. We did not greet each other warmly, there was just a nod of awareness and all resumed their silent steadfast gaze towards the altar. Others were there also though not known to me. There was almost a sense of feeling brave for being there; a sense that in some situations we would not like it known that we were there or had been there; and even a feeling of danger present.
However we were clearly there to worship God and before long, a priest, well known to me and seemingly to all the others present, stood and began a service which guided our thoughts and, more especially, focused on a loss, which for many present, was acute.
The priest seemed to share our need for secrecy. It was obvious that many in the congregation were gay and his identification with us, though complete, harboured a shared secret for him too. We knew that he was doing this service officially, but gladly, because his bishop had given him the role to serve us, but for him, as for everyone involved it was clear that it had been best not to advertise the event.
We prayed, mumbled a hymn and then lit a candle for each other. Silently we named a person or people who were the reason for our presence. They were mostly men but some were women too, and all had been beautiful people, who had done nothing wrong. They had loved, and known the joy of sex, some had been drug takers, and, desperately, some had simply followed medical advice and had received a transfusion of blood, which should have had a huge skull and crossbones printed on its packaging, because it was infected.
Some of our named people were currently being cared for in the adjacent hospital, not known to the population at large why they were there, but most were now dead and others, like those in the hospital, would be sure to follow them.
The condition we were acknowledging was, of course, called AIDS and, in the west, it had become mostly associated with a person’s sexuality. Some newspapers had disgracefully called it ‘the gay plague’ and so, by implication, society had begun to be suspicious of all of us who shared this sexuality – all gay people, it was assumed, would become likely victims because of our common nature.
What had previously been a time of feeling safer about acknowledging our sexuality was now terminated because of this disease, and suspicion had taken its place. ‘Don’t even touch them’, was a maxim felt by many. Someone I know, who was gay, had a niece’s new born child abruptly taken from his arms by another relative – you never knew if there was a danger, even by touching!
And so we were forced back into ourselves. We had become more careful, more insecure, and also more suspicious of others. It was back into the closet time. But, there was an upside, we also organised; we buddied our wounded right up to the time of their departure; we fed those whose strength had sapped and could not feed themselves; we were not afraid to be numbered with them; and we made our beautiful memorial quilts as a testimony to them and as a sign of our wonderful innate creativity.
And there were also the unique victims who simply by their need for blood had been given a death sentence because their transfusion consisted of infected blood. The haemophiliacs, and those with other serious conditions now shared a common fate with those in the gay community and who, with their families, shared much of the prejudice which the media and the ignorant had stirred up. Some also developed AIDS and had to keep secret about the fate that dared not speak its name.
It is only now, too long since, that the iniquity of those times and the failures of some authorities are being exposed. They have blood on their hands and, like Lady Macbeth, cannot wash themselves clean.
So, back to our December church evening, we completed our worship and went our ways, returning to our grieving and to serving those in such dire need. It would be many years before our confidence was restored.
Times have since changed and medicine has advanced but all too many still bear the scars of others failures and behaviour.
It is time again to remember and learn and act.
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.
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.
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.