Tuesday, 7 June 2011

An Englishman, An Irishman and A Gay Walk Into A Bar...

Someone told me a joke today, which I'm not going to repeat it.  It didn't make me laugh.  It shouldn't make you laugh, either, but I'm not going to test it.  It was an offensive joke.  It was a joke about AIDS.  It perpetuated the old bullshit that AIDS is a gay disease. Anyway, as I said, it's not something I am going to repeat here and it was actually pretty sickening, both in and of itself and because the person who told it to me knows that I am openly, proudly gay and still thought I might find it funny.

We've come a long way, haven't we?  I never could have dreamed, 20 years ago, that there would be laws in place that would make homophobia a crime.  The idea of that was unthinkable when I was 20 years old.  And sometimes I secretly miss those days - I miss having something to rail against and I miss being an outsider in some ways.  Then I pull myself together and remember that the benefits by far outweigh the disadvantages.  In reality, it fills me with joy that my younger friends don't have the same kind of challenges that I had.  That they are free to be themselves and that the law protects their right to do that.  For the most part we have it good.  I would be pretty comfortable walking down the street hand in hand with a boyfriend, for example (except in Chorley - I probably wouldn't want to do that in Chorley).

But that joke today reminded me that homophobia really hasn't gone away.  Not by a long chalk.  In the same way that I still hear racist and sexist jokes, I still hear homophobic ones.  And people shrug it off (even other gay people) by using the line that it's only a bit of fun.  What harm can it do?  Well, quite a lot, actually.  Because it means that those attitudes are still out there and they're still being aired in a way that is lighthearted and in some way acceptable.  So we've come a long way - but we still have a way to go.

There are many things that give me hope - but two have stood out for me this year.  And, unbelievably, they're both American and they're both profoundly mainstream.  Glee.  And Gaga.

Glee absolutely astounds me.  The issues that it tackles would never have been tackled by a US show aimed at teenagers even five years ago.  Glee's message is clear - no matter what your race, your sexuality, your disability, you have the absolute right to live your life free of persecution or prejudice.  It's not subtle about that.  It can't afford to be.

Gaga is blatantly the same.  The lyrics to Born This Way are practically the Glee manifesto.  And, for reasons to do with the times we live in, it's probably the most profoundly and effectively political piece of music since Bob Dylan wrote Blowin' In The Wind, a song which had a real and concrete impact on the civil rights movement in America.

True - a lot of late 70s punk music was exhilaratingly political.  But Thatcher and Reagan still got in.   There was some great left wing music in the 80s, too - but it didn't stop the coalmines here and the shipyards here and in the US from closing down one by one.  It was rage music - some of it was very, very good rage music - but it achieved very little.

Love them or hate them, Glee and Gaga have come along just at the right time.  Obama is up for re-election in 2 years or so time.  If he wins that second term, that's when he'll start to do all the things he couldn't do when he had getting re-elected to worry about.  Not only that, but I believe the main senate elections will be happening then too.  Gaga won't be like Madonna - draping herself in the American flag for Rock The Vote, urging the kids to get out there and have their voices heard, whatever that voice is.  No - Gaga will be telling them that they should be voting for the politicians that support gay marriage, healthcare reforms, equality laws.

And those 14 or 15 year olds who, 2 years ago, fell in love with Gaga and Glee are 16 now.  Which means that they will be voting for the first time in 2 years.  The prospect of that terrifies politicians an awful lot.  You won't be seeing quite so many GOD HATES FAGS types winning quite so much support.  And surely that's a good thing!

It remains to be seen if I'm right, of course.  I hope I am.  But in the meantime - no gay jokes, please.  Except the one about 9 out of 10 gays.  I like that one.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

The Sunken Cathedral

The man in the picture above is not the man who made me want to play the piano when I was six.  The man who made me want to play the piano when I was six was Benny from ABBA because I thought the piano introduction to Mamma Mia was the raddest thing I'd ever heard.  The man in the picture above is Claude Achille Debussy - he's the man who makes me want to play the piano again, now that I'm 40!

My Auntie Rhona lived in a big house called The Grove.  It had loads of funny rooms and strange extensions and giant spiders and a summer house and a wood and a heron and an owl.  It was just the kind of place that would enchant any six year old.  And it had two pianos.  I used to go round there and pretend I could play them.  Eventually, I worked out what the order of the piano keyboard was and I was able to pick out a tune by ear.  By the time I was eight I had got that Mamma Mia intro down to a tee.

One of the pianos belonged to Rhona's Mother-in-Law, Mrs Airey.  I liked her a lot - she was the poshest person I knew and she was also the only person I knew who would tolerate sitting with the eight year old me and being asked proper questions about music.  I could sit with my Grandmother and listen to Handel's Messiah or Mozart's Clarinet Quintet, but when I asked Mrs Airey things like "Why are they all singing at the same time but you can understand what they're saying?" she would have an answer for me.  Her answer to that question, incidentally, is why I love The Marriage of Figaro.

One day she played me an old crackly recording of someone playing Debussy's Clair De Lune.  I couldn't speak - it moved me so much that the words literally stuck in my throat.  Breathing properly was kind of hard too.  This was a completely new musical adventure for me.  The way the notes piled upon notes upon notes upon notes and STILL managed to sound utterly delicate and beautiful.  And so I made her play me everything she had by Debussy.  None of it had any less of an effect on me.  And it was that day that she said to me "You can have my piano if you like - I'm too old.  I won't be playing it again!"

And so, 2 weeks later, I remember hiding behind the door while my Uncle John (Mrs Airey's son) and my Dad lifted that old piano off the back of a pick up truck and into our living room.  It was about an hour before I could work up the nerve to open the lid and see how out of tune it was.  But, as soon as I did, I didn't care. There was no stopping me then.  I wanted to play everything.  I would spend all my pocket money on sheet music (the first was Debussy's Suite Bergamesque, though it would be a long time before I could play anything from it), I would teach myself to play Joni Mitchell songs, Clementi Sonatinas, basically anything that could conceivably be played on the piano.  I started writing music.  I started loving the act of being a solitary man at a big wooden instrument, creating something that make the neighbours stop what they were doing and just listen.

I left home eventually and the old piano didn't come with me.  I stopped playing completely.  But when I heard old Mrs Airey had died, I put some Debussy on and had a little cry and every bit of me cried out for a piano to take my grief out on.

When I moved to Jersey I bought another piano.  I could sit at my window, looking at the sea and play Debussy to my heart's content.  And sometimes I would go deliberately on my own to the bar of the hotel where the man himself composed La Mer.   They were my secret little pilgrimages to the man whose music made me love the piano.  Eventually I sold the piano to a beautiful Swedish girl who would love it as much as I did.  And then I moved to Manchester and was pianoless again.

If I had one now - right now - I'd be teaching myself some Joanna Newsom songs.  Maybe some Gaga ones for a laugh.  But I haven't got one.  And, along with a few select things, I miss it.  So I had to write about how having a piano felt to me.  And now that I've done that I kind of wonder why.

Time to save up for some keys...

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Catsup Rash

I've got blue eyes that haven't worked properly for years, sensitive teeth, a greying beard, laughter lines, a round belly and a nose that won't stop growing.

I've danced for hours in nightclubs where the walls wouldn't stop sweating, sat still on a deck in the middle of an endless ocean where the horizon seemed utterly meaningless, marched through city streets to make my feelings known, held the hand of a dying man, sang songs I wrote myself to people who didn't know me, lost myself through drunkenness, lost myself through sobriety.

I've loved countless people, been in love with only four, kept this utterly secret from one of them.

I've done things I'm proud of that nobody knows about, admitted to things I didn't do to spare other people, I've been punished, rewarded, ignored, feted.  I've braved the quiver in my voice to speak to a room full of dignitaries, written words that practically everyone in the country has heard, written words that no-one in the world has seen.

I've thrown 14 years of work onto a bonfire, cast treasured possessions into the sea, given a lifelong collection of books away so I could pursue a dream, and I've let that dream go when the time was right.

I've lived on a Village Green, by a train station, at the top of a hill, in the greatest cities in the world, in hotels, in hostels, nowhere, on the beach, in an attic, with great friends, with great lovers, with only my own uncertainty for company.  I've painted walls red, blue, yellow, white, green, gold.  I've hung mirrors opposite mirrors to stand in the embrace of infinity.

I've practised a piece of music on the piano for so long that I had blisters and STILL not been happy with the result.  I've encouraged people to accept their own limitations and I've urged people to smash those same limitations.  I've been absolutely truthful to my nieces and nephews, never afraid to be myself or to teach them that behaviour that impacts negatively on other people is not cool.  I've forgiven them instantly when they haven't followed this advice.

I've wondered about God and then put him to one side.  I've loved many animals but I've never fallen into the trap of thinking they are equal to us.  I've left a job because my conscience wouldn't let me stay there anymore.

I've had chickenpox, mumps, sunburn, eczema, asthma, german measles, flu, and so much manflu.  

I've pissed a year's worth of wages up the wall and I've saved up to buy something that I knew would enrich me.  And I've given it away when it stopped enriching me.

I have as much regret as I have thankfulness.  As much shame as I have pride.  As much pain as pleasure.  As much sorrow as joy.

I felt the embrace of a beautiful woman and chosen the embrace of a beautiful man.  I've learnt that the most important thing to anyone's happiness is the ability to understand that the phrase "Never Say Never!" really matters.

I've accepted the fact that there's always someone cooler than me.  I'm only too aware that the people who can't accept that are full of sorrow and insecurity and the last thing they need is my derision.  I've come to realise that, when people hate me, that's at least as much about them as it is about me.

And things are still happening.  I'm still feeling the outlandish jolt of deep sorrow colliding headlong into soaring joy.  I'm spending time with beautiful people every day.  I'm still able to calm a hysterical friend, bring a smile to someone's face, royally piss someone right off.  I have so much to look forward to, some of which won't pan out the way I planned and some of which won't happen at all.  But I still believe that the things that pay off in the future will always outweigh the ones that got away.

And I still have the nerve to write in my diary:  "Sometimes I feel like I'm only living half a life."

Friday, 1 April 2011

It's Not Big And It's Not Clever

Eugenie Matthias (aka Redjen) was really quite famous when I was young.  She was the lead singer in The Belle Stars - probably best known now for their cover version of Iko Iko ("My Grandma and your Grandma, sitting by the fire..."), but who also wrote a truly wonderful song called Sign Of The Times (more of that later).  But Jen (because that's how I know her) went on to do something even more wonderful than adding to the Popmusic canon.  Jen became a Community Champion.

She grew up in care and she understood that young people who grow up without a family unit have special problems and needs that the rest of us probably can't understand.  So in the late 90s she teamed up with her friend, Adrian Sherwood (legendary record producer, who also grew up in care) to try to do something to help kids who were going through the same experiences that they went through.  They did it by concentrating on the world they knew - they decided to help kids express their feelings, their anger, their sadness, their hopes for the future, through music and performance.  It was a small project, but it made a big impact on the lives of a lot of young people in London.

At around this time I was working on a Government funded project called The Community Champions Fund. It's aim was to recognise the work that people were doing in their local communities and to give them financial support to get the skills to expand their projects and keep them going.  It was only worth £3 million a year, but we focussed on using our experience to give people in the voluntary sector an idea of where they could go to access bigger pots of money and how to get their hands on it.  We also ran an awards ceremony every year, recognising the contribution that really outstanding individuals had made to their communities.

Jen was one of the award winners in 2002.  I remember her stood next to the then Minister for Young People, Ivan Lewis, all flame red hair and attitude, speaking passionately about how she really cared about what she was doing and how she didn't see how she could continue doing it without the support that the Government was giving her.  

There were other winners that stand out in my head, too:  Adam Short, who tirelessly worked to make sure that disenfranchised kids had access to people of influence, so that the decisions made in their local area reflected what they needed; The Henstridge Village Design Group, who basically said to their local council that they demanded to have a say in planning decisions that affected them and then made damn sure that they showed that they could have a constructive input; The Westhoughton Youth Project, who were a group of very young teenagers who decided that, instead of bemoaning the fact that there was nothing in their area for young people to do, they would get up off their arses and create things.

Now, it seems to me that all of these projects are precisely what David Cameron's Big Society is all about.  Here we have local people identifying a gap in statutory provision and filling it.  Not because it was going to offer them any monetary gain, but because they knew it would improve their lives, their neighbour's lives, their neighbour's neighbour's lives, and so on.

Here's the irony.  The ConDemmed government have cut off funding for projects like The Community Champions Fund in one fell swoop.  They're dismantling the regional government offices that helped us administer that money and, with their local knowledge, made sure that it went to the places where it was most needed.  They've decided its not essential.  And they can't afford to pay for non essential things because our budget deficit is only smaller than it has been for 200 of the last 250 years, when we started keeping a tally of these things.

Cameron thinks The Big Society will fill the gap.  But I'd be interested to see how he thinks that ordinary people are going to develop the wherewithal to do that without significant support from central and local government.  Local Councillors from all over England have signed a letter to DC pointing out that cutting funding to the Voluntary Sector will have precisely the opposite effect of reducing government spending - there are many essential services provided by the Voluntary Sector that will now have to be provided for by your Local Authority.  This would probably have resulted in a huge hike in your Council Tax this year if the ConDemmed hadn't enforced a freeze on it.  So the only logical result of that is that the service provided by those voluntary groups just won't be provided by anyone anymore.  And our local communities will be all the poorer for it.

This is just one reason why we should all be angry at the sweeping cuts being made by this government.  They're illogical, they're ill thought out and they're only there to serve the needs of the rich elite.

So, I won't rant anymore.  I could go on for several hours about the cuts in Arts Funding, the undue pressure that's going to be put on GPs, the utterly horrendous hike in University Tuition fees and so on.  But this isn't really intended to be a political blog.  It's just about my thoughts.  And I thought about Jen today and wondered what she is doing now.  I'm sure she is finding a way to inspire and motivate young people - it's in her nature and she can't help it.  I just wish I could feel confident that she was getting the support to do it that she so deserves.

Finally, here's how Jen inspired and motivated my when I was young.

Thursday, 24 March 2011


When I was a kid I wanted a TARDIS so bad.  First, there was this huge, ancient ornamental raspberry tree in our garden that was hollow in the middle.  I would pretend that was my TARDIS.  Then there was the big wooden box that I begged my Dad to build for me and put on the roof of the shed.  That was my TARDIS then.  And I went everywhere and everywhen (mostly to the Second World War, because I was kind of obsessed with that too!)

Thing is, when I say that I am excited that Doctor Who returns in three weeks time, there are three kinds of people:  there are those that say "Bless!" in a condescending way but mean no harm; there are those that go "SQUEE!!  I know, right?" and there are those that look at me like I am absolutely the saddest of the sad and the lowest of the low.  I find that very odd.  And this is what I want to say to them.

Along with ABBA, George Orwell, maths and Mozart, Doctor Who is a very important part of my personal history. It's one of the things that made me who I am.  It gave me my imagination and made me want to tell stories, to learn about places and times and to be on the side of everything good, fighting everything evil.  Those moments in the middle of that raspberry tree are so special to me - they remind me of me inventing scenarios and imagining ways out of them.

Did I ever hide behind the sofa?  I don't think I did.  But I did insist the phone was taken off the hook and everyone shut up while it was on.  And I remember feeling really worried all week wondering how the cliffhanger was going to be resolved.  And I still feel like that now.

Doctor Who makes me feel like a 7 year old again.  There are not enough things that do that.  So if I start waffling on about who River Song might REALLY be, about what The Silents are, about what it is that Pond knows that The Doctor doesn't, then I apologise.  But actually make no apologies.  I think it's wonderful.

And this, without a doubt, is one of the greatest pieces of music ever realised.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Raised With The Fume of Sighs

I did something I have never done before recently.  Having done it, it struck me that it was a simple, little thing that most people I know have probably already done.  And it felt good to have done it and I wondered why I have never done it before.  I sent someone an anonymous Valentines Card.  I just sent it to someone I thought was nice.  I walked into a shop and found a card that I thought was genuinely beautiful, thought for a while about what I wanted to write in it - what I wanted to say to that person, what summed up how I feel about them - and then I posted it.  And then, having done it, I forgot all about it, but felt a little bit warmer and a little bit more complete inside myself.  No big deal, you might think, but it was a small shift in behaviour that had a big impact on how I felt.

Now, I only did this because I (fairly) recently became single.  I wouldn't, of course, have done it while I had a boyfriend.  And even if I had it wouldn't have been the same - there would have been an extra level of secrecy about the whole thing that would have turned it into something not as warm, normal and pleasing as it actually was.  But that got me thinking - there are probably loads of things I haven't done whilst one of a partnership or beforehand (for various reasons) that I probably should be doing.  Or, at least, might want to do.  My list of things to do before my singlehood kicks the bucket.  

Me being me, that became an excuse to set myself a challenge.  So here, with a few stories to explain, is my Single Bucket List.

1.  Ask someone I really like out on a date, even if I think they might say "No!" - I just think this is something I should do.  It's about facing the fear and not caring about it.  I live my life with too much fear of getting it wrong, generally.  More fearlessness is needed.  I've actually made a half hearted attempt at this one already, but it doesn't count because I cheated and he ignored me because he probably thought I didn't mean it and I can't blame him!

2.  Write a good poem about someone I have a crush on.  Of course, as a teenager (and maybe a little bit beyond that, if I'm honest) I wrote a lot of gushing tosh about boys I thought I was in love with.  But all my decent poetry I reserved for things I thought were important.  Well, it's about time I reassessed what is important - about time I recognised that that lovely butterflies inside feeling you get when someone beautiful is stood next to you is one of those things that makes life bearable.  And sometimes unbearable.  Surely that's significant enough to spend time writing about it?

3.  Flirt with someone whilst entirely sober.  I know this sounds like an odd one, but I have nowhere near enough self confidence to do this normally.  Simple as that really.

4.  Wear ridiculous clothes that please me and that aren't fancy dress.  When you're in a relationship, you self edit - you come to recognise that look or tone of voice from your other half that says they don't like what you're wearing.  And you start to make choices based on your experience of that.  No more.  I can be my own stylist from now on.

5.  Say no.   Saying no sometimes feels good. I've spent years not saying it enough.  So, specifically, this is about saying no to someone if I don't feel absolutely confident that what they're proposing is right.  Usually I just go along with things.

6.  Cook someone a dinner designed specifically to seduce them.  I'm a bloody good cook - I know I am.  I would have been a Chef if my parents hadn't (rightly) told me that I wouldn't be able to cope with the hours.  I reckon I could knock anyone's socks off by what I put on the table.  I need to test this theory.

7.  Put topless pictures of myself online.  I sometimes feel like I am the only homosexual male who hasn't done this.  So I shall.

8.  Number 8 is something that is not really for public consumption.

9.  Write a love letter.  I have written soppy e-mails before but it's almost become a cliche in this post digital age that there is something special about a letter, on paper, with a stamp on it, that can't be replicated digitally.  And it's really only a cliche because it's true.  So this is something I will do.  Much later, obviously.

10.  Make a proper friendship out of talking to someone on those sites that are designed for more earthly delights.  I'm sure it's possible.  I think it's probably also desirable.  So I will make this a more important goal than anything more carnal.

So there they are.  All things I have never done and probably should.  No time limit - no censure for not achieving any of them.  

And that, Ladies and Gentles, was my "I am single and I am GREAT!" blog post!