I once had an art history teacher who made a point of showing us mediocre paintings from the era being studied, as well as the great works of the period: he explained that unless you occasionally looked at the middling stuff, it became easy to overlook what makes the classics great. This is something I always remind myself of when I find a film, book or concert vaguely underwhelming.
There was no single fatal flaw to Austra’s show at the Oval Space in Bethnal Green – rather, a dozen little weaknesses undermined the whole event. This isn’t to say I had a bad night, and I don’t regret going in the least, but the whole experience was like getting a misguided present from an elderly relative – you don’t even want to admit your disappointment to yourself, but you know in your heart it wasn’t what you’d hoped for.
Bethnal Green is a strange island on the Central Line, between the glassy towers of Liverpool Street and the acronym chicken shops and bookies of Mile End. It is a pleasingly trendy area, and the crowd which was drawn out on Thursday was a friendly spectrum of hipsters. I wasn’t quite the least fashionable person in the crowd, but I suspect if I had arrived wearing Billabong I would have been thrown into the street. The venue itself is divided between a rooftop bar and an internal concert space, the former of which is a lovely place to pass a summer sunset, with a striking view over gasworks. I still haven’t become accustomed to London prices: paying £4.50 for a tin of lager was more than I was willing or able to afford, so I can’t comment on the quality of the booze, but it was a genial place simply to be. My wife and I stood happily against the balcony watching the clouds change colour and judging strangers’ haircuts.
The interior has the size, layout and ambience of a village hall. The low stage means that short people like myself have a 50-50 chances of seeing anything happening on-stage, a problem which was heightened by a lack of illumination, which kept Austra in constant gloom. However, the biggest problem was the abysmal sound quality. I’m no audiophile, and I had never really found myself paying attention the acoustics at a gig before, but it really did make some songs sound like absolute crap; I’ve been to pub-venues with better sound-systems.
We had missed the first act (Maxixe), and Blue Hawaii were performing when we entered – and they were wonderful. I had neither heard nor heard of them before I arrived, but they had great songs which they played perfectly for a live show. On record, the band have a fairly gentle, melodic sound, but that night they took on a hot, hungry, club beat. It’s hard to imagine that a couple standing next to each other playing keyboards could be so engaging, but they succeeded in every dimension. Raphaelle Standell-Preston really can sing and the music thrilled, but perhaps more important was the charisma of the pair: they genuinely seemed to be enjoying the show, and wanting you to come on the journey with them. There was a human warmth and emotion which endeared everyone watching, and I don’t imagine anyone in the audience left without a new place in their heart for Blue Hawaii.
Austra have a beautiful sound. They record pulsing, exhilarating and soulful electronica built around Katie Stelmanis operatic vocals. It is music that makes the hairs on you arms stand up, even if you’re doing the washing up, or going through your receipts. Unfortunately, it is not a style that survives bad amplification happily. The effect was that the instrumentals on each song were almost indistinguishable, and sounded faintly out of time, which really brought home how dependent Austra’s music is on Stelmanis’ voice. It is certainly an impressive one, and her stage presence was seductive (although marred by turning up half an hour late and wearing an ill advised sun hat on stage). The rest of the band were little more than smoky sillhouettes, and the performance was overwhelmingly adequate – it just lacked the emotional connection that had made Blue Hawaii so exciting. Without wanting to be unnecessarily scathing, it put me in mind of a particularly good karaoke.
The audience were split roughly between excited fans of Austra and those who had come for a night out with their friends at a trendy bar, and the reception was warm rather than wild. We cheered for Lose It and Beat and the Pulse, but as the gig progressed, a steady trickle of patrons continued to flow out the door, down the stairs and into the street. There was a shared disappointment among the punters I spoke to, but an undamaged affection for the music. I’d be sure to give Austra another shot at a different venue, and the venue a fresh visit on a different night.
There are two Tower Hamlets. The first is built of bricks and concrete, where people live, work and sleep. The second borough exists for those who have not visited, but know the place only through what they have read and what they have been told. The latter is a dark place – a corner of corruption and extremism in the centre of the capital. It is the land of Shariah Street Patrols and poverty, presided over by a boogieman: the Quetta Shura and Tammany Hall combined in the person of Lutfur Rahman. You cannot visit this place, except by indulging the imagination. I admit that when I moved to Stepney this spring, my idea of the East End had been coloured by the dire warnings and reports I had read online and in the right-wing press. I was wrong.
If your conception of Tower Hamlets was formed by the writings of others, you might imagine it throbbing with ethnic and religious tension. If it is, I have not seen it. There is no prejudice on show when I walk arm in arm with my wife down Whitechapel Road on a Friday night, when the street heaves from the emptying mosques. It wasn’t on show when the rest of London blazed with riots in 2011 – Tower Hamlets saw far less rioting than any comparable borough, and the rioters who came were chased off by Muslim congregations. The orange-bearded men and masked women have never given us so much as a funny look, and I felt more out of place outside the private schools and on the estates of my home town.
My wife and I have lived under many different local authorities*, and our experiences hitherto in getting, well, anything from local government has been like drawing blood from a stone. As such, we moved to a borough far poorer than any of the others, with such a worrying reputation, with a sense of foreboding. In our experience however, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets has been far more responsive, forthcoming and helpful not just than any local authority but any branch of government I’ve needed services from. The attacks on the character and the record of the mayor and council, however, seem at first to be well documented by respectable papers. But so often, when the claims are examined under brighter lights, they reveal very different stories. For example, it is often implied that Rahman was kicked out of from the Labour party for ballot stuffing and Islamism. Rather, he was automatically expelled for running for mayor against a Labour candidate, after the National Executive Committee had overruled the local party vote choosing him as candidate. They anointed the third placed candidate instead. The Electoral Commission found “no evidence” of membership abuse. The man is represented as a homophobe, but his intervention kept the gay-friendly pub at the end of my road open, and LBTH is rated by Stonewall as one of the most gay friendly employers in the country. In his own words: “I am proud that Tower Hamlets Council came sixteenth – as well as being the best London borough and the second best local authority in the UK – in the Stonewall Top 100 Employers 2012, published last week which showcases Britain’s best employers for lesbian, gay and bisexual staff. However, there is still much work to be done in overcoming homophobia.” (source). This attitude draws sharp contrast with the anti-gay records of, say, senior Conservative party ministers. The mayor is implied to be an Islamist, and in reply to that, I think this picture speaks a thousand words in reply. I leave it to the reader to decide whether to judge a man by his words and actions, or by the evidence-free allegations of his political opponents and insinuations of the right-wing press.
Why is it that the media have come to obsess over the most senior politician of ethnic minority in British history? Why has the most left-wing administration in decades been so consistently monstered? His record includes spending £3 million to protect locals from the bedroom tax, replacing EMA after it was abolished and expanding council and social housing. It is these achievements, responding to the concerns and social needs of his constituents, that win him votes, rather than any ethno-religious appeal. If Rahman was a white man, with his record of left-wing political success and his ability to rally popular support, he would be touted as a future Prime Minister. Ed Miliband would give his first born to be able to connect with voters on the same level.
This is not to say Lutfur Rahman is without sin, or the East End a land of milk and honey. I would much rather a mayor with no links to the IFE at all, and a better approach to the press, and no doubt some of the allegations of sleaze can be substantiated. The amount of rubbish in the street turns my stomach, and there is a certain lawlessness in terms of road safety. But compare Tower Hamlets to a neighbouring borough: one which is almost totally unaccountable to the people it affects, ruled by a homogeneous clique through archaic and opaque structures. The City of London Corporation is controlled through a bizarre system: business and companies are allowed to vote as if they were people, and it uses its immense wealth – or rather, its access to vast quantities of public money – for activities such as funding private schools and lobbying on behalf of the financial services industry. And yet, the average Londoner could be forgiven for being unaware of its existence, considering that the media notices the Corporation primarily to report the splendour of the Lord Mayor’s Banquet.
British people are not racists, but prejudice still sits at the back of our minds. It’s not a hatred which would drive somebody to march with the National Front or burn a cross, but something so subtle to be almost invisible until you notice it in front of you. It is the racism that causes you to jump to a conclusion, to lose the doubt and scepticism over an alarming story in a press, or which makes a completely trivial event seem shocking. In a recent example, when a former advisor to Rahman made a comment about the interminable political infighting in the Tower Hamlets Labour Party, it was quickly spun by the right wing media into a bloodcurdling threat of street violence. It allows the unconscious application of a double standard, whereby anonymous abuse from alleged supporters is proof of Islamic homophobia, but slurs in the House of Commons from the Chancellor of the Exchequer barely manage to raise eyebrows.†
It is very difficult to change people’s minds on the internet. The size, fluidity and accessibility of commentary and reportage amplify the inherent instinct of readers to seek out evidence that supports their world view and degrade or ignore that which unsettles us. I write subjectively, but I hope honestly, and it is the truth that I never imagined I could settle into a place as happily and quickly as I have here. I’ll conclude this piece with an invitation: come and visit Tower Hamlets, the real one, and compare it the one you saw in your mind..
* East Cambs District, Kingston Borough, Cambridge City, Leeds City
† Of course, one does not excuse the other; I only want to draw attention to the tone of the coverage.
— John Milton, Paradise Lost
What remains for my generation to have faith in? What cause can we believe in, and who stands for us? We are poor – poorer than our parents were, and poorer than the generations between, but ours is poverty of both the purse and of the spirit. For we who now come of age have neither faith, nor hope, nor love remaining.
The tales that children are told create a simple picture of the world, and the blurring of the blacks and whites of that image is a process in growing up; the comforting illusions and clear moralities dissolve. But one generation is finding a bigger myth than any before. The world we were told of, in which hard work and wit would lead to success, where social democracy and capitalism promised steady progress for its citizens, has been exposed as a mirage – or perhaps a scam. The people who hold least blame for the economic mess, those who were children in the boom years, are being buried by the crash. In every corner of the economy it is the youth who are suffering. The unemployment rate for young people is 1 in 5, compared with 7.6% for the population as a whole. The spending cuts have affected 16-to-24-year-olds (who would have been aged 10 to 18 when the crisis hit) in gross disproportion. Their annual income has been cut by 28%, compared with 10% for 55-74 year olds. Home ownership is a disappearing dream: Westminster fuels a house price bubble to keep the bulk of the electorate happy, pushing prices up and out of reach for the rest: from 2001 to 2011, the average age of first time buyers jumped from 28 to35. And to reach even this wretched state, a generation pays with a lifetime in debt; rich men who received their degrees for free have forced children to choose between passing up on university education and embracing tens of thousands of pounds in loans. My debts, from a three year BSc, are well over £20,000, and appreciate at about £30 a month. I doubt I will ever be able to pay this money back, but I am still lucky: current students are set to graduate owing £50,000, with interest no longer limited to the rate of inflation.
The worst is not the unemployment, the debt, the insecurity, or the sliding living standards. The blackest cloud is the loss of hope. The belief for most is that the situation is going to take many years to improve, that the improvements will reach them last, and that there is nothing and no one left to believe in. There are no heroes, no agents of change, no party which cares about them. This isn’t apathy or disengagement. Young people know what is happening and are angry about it, but are recognising the complete disinterest of elected politicians in their lives. The distortions of British demographics (the proportion of the population in middle age well outnumbers young people of voting age) and the iniquities of First-Past-the-Post mean the youth vote is largely unnecessary to those seeking electoral victory. All the main parties espouse policies which benefit the wealthy and many at the expense of the poor and few, whether in choosing which benefits to cut or in managing the property market. Government policy on the latter is instructive. London’s soaring house prices clearly mark a bubble: property in the capital rose 9.7% in the twelve months to July, creating a situation in which most people’s homes were earning morethan theirwages. Asking prices in October climbed 10% month-on-month. No sensible person could think this sustainable, and in reality there is no reason at all why house prices should rise indefinitely. If the problem was simply demand outstripping supply (which it is in part), we could reasonably expect a resurgence in house building, yet the number of new builds is far, far below pre-crash levels.
George Osborne has come up with a wheeze intended to lift people onto the property ladder whilst keeping prices high, and he calls it “Help to Buy”. It essentially allows first time buyers to push themselves further into debt to protect house prices; the taxpayer will guarantee mortgages banks baulk at offering. Société Général strategist Albert Edwards characterised it thusly:
"Why are houses too expensive in the UK? Too much debt. So what is George Osborne’s solution for first-time buyers unable to afford housing?
"Why, arrange for a government-guaranteed scheme to burden our young people with even more debt. Why don’t we call this policy by the name it really is, namely the indentured servitude of our young people."
The Tories need to protect the assets of the majority – the 64% of households where the home is owned – and they cannot win the election if the market behaves as it ought and prices drop. As The Economist observes,
"But which part of the population is best served by high house prices? Not the young who are condemed [sic] to living with their parents into their 30s or cramming themselves into shared accommodation. The middle-aged and the old benefit, and they have already landed the young with the bill for their pensions."
The Conservatives profess the credo of free markets, but their words are hollow – they are Cultural Liberals, going through the motions of the capitalist economics, whilst in their heart taking whichever craven path promises power. They meddle enthusiastically and recklessly to distort the market, but only when it is electorally vital to them. If the cost is impoverishing an entire generation, abandoning them to decades of renting, then so be it – and thus, the renting population has leapt from 1.6 million in 2001 to over 8.3 million today, with the cost of rent rising nearly five times faster than earnings and predicted to carry on rising at 5% a year til 2020. For our leaders, the nation’s economic future is irrelevant compared with winning the next election.
The government has no real interest in the votes of young people. On the contrary, they make a useful whipping boy, for despite the vast bulk of the welfare budget – 46% – being spent on pensions, the hammer has repeatedly fallen on the young: EMA, tuition fees, and most recently, the plan to cut benefits specifically for those aged under 25
. Across the political spectrum, the young are not only expected to pay the cost of cleaning up the mess but accept ownership of the hole they have been flung into.
As politicians turn their back, a generation loses faith. Just 13% of young people feel there are opportunities to influence the political scene of the United Kingdom; the majority see a cabal of school friends in cabinet and realise that without a rich family and an Oxbridge education, they will have no say in their country’s future. 81% have no trust in politicians, and they take more pride in an unelected stranger whose family lives in wealth and leisure at their expense than they do in their democratic system. There is no hope for the next life either, as religious belief has slumped, with 56% holding no religion at all. The eternal optimists of the left tell themselves and their readers that the young are awakening the marvels of socialism, and as such will swing left and back the policies they themselves have held since time immemorial. This is delusion. There remains a grim awareness of the relative economic condition of Eastern Europe and the global failure of state socialism. When asked, more agreed that the government taxes people too much and spends too much money on public services than disagreed.
Again, this is not apathy. People and angry and anguished, but frustrated and disenchanted. No national movement is able to kindle the little sparks of fury to a hot flame. Occupy LSX withered, and so too will the People’s Assembly, Left Unity and UK Uncut – they will be smothered by the same left-fringe which flows into every new movement, those time rich souls with stale ideologies. Faith in the democratic processes is eroding. 46% of young people cannot bring themselves to back any political party in the land, and British police have become grimly efficient at suppressing peaceful protests. Kettling is just repressive enough to disrupt marches and depress the participants, whilst remaining boring enough to avoid popular ire. Other schemes, like mass arresting and bailing under conditions which prevent further protests, are brilliantly engineered to neuter street action, in order to prevent the re-emergence of the likes of 2010’s tuition fees protests. It is not surprising then, that a charismatic message condemning voting as collaboration with a corrupt system resonated so sharply; it is easy to sneer at Russell Brand, but it should be remember that in Italy, another hairy comedian with a populist platform took a quarter of the vote in this year’s election*. The desire for action smoulders, finding outlets in riots on the streets and in the ascendant social justice movement online. But these valves are not enough. My generation has been scammed, forced to pick up the tab for our loose living predecessors. We are being left to suffer for a mess created in our childhood by strangers, basics standards we were promised evaporated, while commentators and politicians tut-tut, forgetting the cheap houses and free education they enjoyed. There is anger without outlet, the anger of those finding themselves in the cold and betrayed.
*I refer, of course, to Beppe Grillo and his Five Star movement
After my dad had died, I went to record his death at the Register office. To do so required various documentation, including my parents’ wedding certificate. I noticed something which surprised me on that form: my mothers condition at the time of marriage was listed as “spinster”, a word which I had always associated with lonely, elderly women. In the corresponding section for my father was written “bachelor”, and I soon discovered that in its technical sense, the word “spinster” refers simply to any woman who has not married. The stigma attached to the word had just built up over the decades like grime on a building from polluted air. It is instructive to the compare the trajectories of these two counterparts; what comes to your mind when you hear “spinster”? Barren, old, lonely? And what images are conjured by “bachelor”? Nowadays, you are more likely to hear an unattached young lady referred to as a “bachelorette” than a spinster – an artificial mimic of the male form. It’s easy to forget the way centuries of sexism has ingrained itself into our culture, language and ways of thinking. Our language is the tool we use to understand and explain the world, and I sometimes wonder about how the weaknesses, biases and distortions in English has warped my comprehension of the world and its people. Words as people use them can be completely different from their “true” meaning*, and some synonyms seem to differ only to keep the public mystified: heroin and diamorphine are identical, and the meanings of “sociopath” and “psychopath” are the same. Perhaps I am an Emerald Citizen, thinking the walls are green because I have only seen the world through tinted lenses, unable to even recognise my misunderstandings.
When I married my wife a month later, I was disappointed to learn that in 2005 the government had decreed that forms should read “single” instead. I think this case is rather instructive in how hapless authority is in tackling the nuances and complexities of language and sexual politics. Single is a dreadful choice of word to describe the unmarried. I had been in a relationship with my wife for over five years, and had always found it galling to list myself as “single” on official documentation. For one thing, it was inaccurate: I had found my other half, and our souls were steadily intertwining in a bond of love – but as far as the powers that be were concerned, I was as single as if I’d never left the house. You could have been in a loving relationship for decades, be raising children together in your shared home – but still be singles. To me this seems a rather gross devaluation of relationships outside of wedlock, and instead of taking steps to remove the stigma that is attached to women who remain unwed, authority decided to take the laziest route possible. They banished a pair of potentially useful terms, replacing them with another that perpetuates a clumsy moralism. It is for this reason that I am always relieved English has no equivalent of the Académie français†. Language belongs to its speakers, and any attempt at top-down control is doomed, and rightfully so. The unstoppable seeping of Anglic internet lingo into other languages is case in point: despite the best efforts of the Académie, almost everyone uses “e-mail” rather than the officially correct “courriel” (although the latter is so much more mellifluous I almost wish it was used in English).
When the corners of a language are sanded down like this, its defined shape and capacity for meaning slowly degrades Another example of a well intended but misguided attempt to bring equity to English focuses on the word “man”. It is a weakness of our modern language that the term stands for both the whole and a half of our species. Writers and officials in recent years have shunned phrases like “the rights of man”, or gendered job titles such as “policeman”. But even if they succeeded in making “mankind” obsolete, leaving the word referring only to males, English would still be uneven. “Man” would still be the root word – the original. The fairer sex would remain a verbal ancilla, a prefix to men. A handful of feminists use “womyn” instead – a clunky and relentlessly parodied construction. These attempts at resolving a linguistic discomfort fail to dissolve the ultimate problem: a gendered “-man” as the stem without which “wo-man” is nothing, and they leave us doomed to another generation of banal literary essays by dreary postmodernists.
However, if we look to the past, we find a rather complete and etymologically neat solution. In Old English, “man” was solely neuter, with feminine and masculine derivatives; respectively, “wyfman” (which evolved into “wife” and “woman”) and “werman”. The latter lost its prefix, and today only survives in a rather surprising context: the word “werewolf”. It makes me ponder how better these sharper tools allowed the Anglo-Saxons to understand gender; although they were probably more concerned with carving horses into hillsides‡ and fighting off marauding Danes to worry too much about it. It’s rather unlikely that we can readopt “wereman” as the noun for males (although it is no more impossible that alternative acts of linguistic engineering), but the benefits are at least worth consideration. If “man” was gender neutral, it would free the host of words which incorporate it from a gender bias. The commonplace terms for two genders would be on level pegging. And as an unexpected blessing, those who define as neither male nor female would have a noun with which to identify: “Are you a woman or a wereman?” - “Just a man, thanks”.
When I began writing this year, I made a mental vow to avoid the topics of gender and sexual politics. There are vast amounts currently being written and published in this area at the moment, and the field is so rancorous I felt it best avoided. But language and gender are two topics so large that I have been dragged into their orbit. I write only when I feel that I have something to say, even if my my daft suggestions recall a cut-price and ineloquent Joss Whedon. When an idea is rattling around my skull like a coin in a can I need to let it out. When I put pen to paper or finger to keyboard, I can lay out those concepts, and understand them in a way I cannot through mental thought alone. I shackle these ideas to the page to free my resting head from them, and to allay the anxiety that I might forget them before they have grown to fruition; when I write, I write for myself.
*A particularly alarming case is “nonplussed”, the dictionary definition of which is completely opposite to how most people understand it.
†An organisation of forty people, each elected by the other members for life, who decide what is ‘officially’ French
‡There is a coined word to describe this practice which I think so marvellous I have to include it here: “leucippotomy”. Good luck slipping that one into conversation.
One of the biggest changes in the United Kingdom over the past decade has been the shift in public and political opinion on gay rights. At the turn of the millennium, homosexuals were the subject of onerous legislative discrimination: they could not marry, adopt, or change their legal gender. There was no protection from homophobic discrimination, and schools and teachers could not speak openly on homosexuality. The media took pride in stirring up fear and hatred of gay people: in November 1998, the Sun asked its readers from the front page “Are We Being Run by a Gay Mafia?” – the newspaper had ‘outed’ Agriculture Minister Nick Brown as gay, and ran an article insinuating that a shadowy cabal of sodomites were conspiring to influence government policy (1). To modern readers this almost sounds like a joke, but at the time more than half of British people felt that same sex relationships were wrong (2) (compared with one in five today (3)). This shift did not happen by chance, or with the changing of the seasons. Liberalism is not a force of nature, and a country’s laws can regress as easily as they can open. It took years of struggle by gay rights groups and (mostly) left wing politicians to get us where we are. What is often forgotten today -or at least, many hope is forgotten- is who and what they struggled against. Equal rights for homosexuals were won in the face of bile and bitter opposition. But those who did all they could to impede the struggle have not been cast out of our political system. Instead, these men and women run our country today, entrusted with the protection of minorities and the provision of justice, and remain at the heart of the modern Conservative Party.
William Hague was chosen to lead the Tories after their electoral wipe out at the hands of Blair in 1997. He was the first to take a stand against the new government’s reforms. At the top of New Labour’s agenda was a nasty little bit of legislation known as Section 28. Section 28 was introduced in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher’s government, after the Daily Mail had whipped up horror over left-wing local councils producing literature for schools telling children it might be OK to be brought up by two men or women. Properly referred to as Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, the clause was designed to “prohibit the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities”, and forbade “teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” (4). Nobody was ever to be arrested for breaching this law, but the effect was to prevent teachers honestly educating children about sexuality, the suppression of school LGBT societies (5), and the statutory affirmation that in Britain homosexuals were second-class citizens. Due to opposition by British Conservatives (especially in the House of Lords), it took the Labour government three attempts to repeal Section 28 (6), and William Hague stood proudly at the forefront of the forces of reaction.
In 2000s he enforced opposition amongst Tory MPs with a three-line whip*, and when frontbencher Shaun Woodward could not bring himself to defend the homophobic law, Hague sacked him. He took to the pages of the Daily Mail to trumpet his opposition to homosexuals having equal rights. Labour’s support for gay liberation, he wrote, was “wrong”, and he declared that “We will oppose the repeal of section 28… We will oppose them at every stage”. In a remarkable display of mental contortionism, he suggested that it was in fact the alternative to section 28 which was really “intolerant” (7). At Prime Ministers Questions, Hague asked Blair “When archbishops, cardinals, the Chief Rabbi, [etc., etc.] …and the vast majority of mainstream opinion in the United Kingdom believe that the Government are wrong to abolish section 28, will the right hon. Gentleman listen to them and drop the whole idea?” (8). A brave defence of the rights of the many to persecute the few.
He told parliament that the repeal efforts were not really about discrimination, but “whether the mainstream majority has the right to have its views and values respected, or whether taxpayers’ money can be commandeered by a Government who have no respect for that” (9). Hague was clearly very upset that taxpayer’s money could be spent by people who didn’t respect homophobia.
In recent months, in a strange turn of fate which illustrates the extent to which our society has shifted, Mr Hague has found himself obliged in his capacity as Foreign Secretary to criticise Russia for introducing legislation remarkably similar to that which he once supported (10). Even the language used and the justification given rings familiarly to anyone who reads the debates and newspaper articles of Britain’s recent past: the talk is of “propaganda” and the “protection of children” (11). The chill which descends on Russia should serve to remind British liberals to keep watch against the enemies of an open society.
Hague’s populist support of homophobic laws did him no good, and the Tories were duly trounced by Labour at the next election. His successor as leader of the Conservative Party, Iain Duncan Smith, has one of the worst records of any parliamentarian on gay rights. The current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has trenchantly opposed any attempt to provide equality since he was elected by the good people of Chingford in 1992. He opposed the repeal of 28 in both 2000 under Hague, and when he led the party in 2003. When Labour proposed gay adoption in 2002, he split his party by commanding them to oppose it with a three-line whip. He voted against Civil Partnerships, against the Human Fertilization and Embryology Act (which allowed lesbian couples to become mothers), and the Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations which now prevent someone being denied service because they are gay. Six times he voted to stop the age of consent being equal for homosexual and heterosexual couples (12). In 2006, after being forced out by his party members in 2003, he explained to the Sunday Telegraph that the Tories ought to focus on the family unit of “two parents and a child”. When pressed on the role of homosexual couples, he replied “I don’t think the gay stuff is anything to do with this because it’s so irrelevant … When it comes to gay couples they don’t even register on the Richter scale of how to bring up kids. We are looking at the issue of who brings up kids and the answer is it’s men and women that are the issue here.” He continued “Men and women are the ones who have the children. Gay couples have nothing to do with this at all. If you think that something like half of a per cent of Britain are gay, you are dealing with tiny numbers here.” (13). He later bleated that his remarks had been taken out of context, and that “he had not been making a value judgement”. (14)
One of the most perverse appointments of the current government was that of Theresa May to both the Home Office and to the position of Minister for Women and Equalities. Mrs May voted against gay adoption, the equalised age of consent, lesbian mothers, and the repeal of Section 28 (15). In an interview with the BBC at the time, she explained that the clause had been “necessary”, and defended it on the grounds of “protection of children”; she repeated this line four times, without ever explaining what or who it protected children from. Depressingly, May came into the role to replace different Tory, whose comments on homosexuality had seen him nudged out the job. Stonewall’s “Bigot of the Year 2006” Chris Grayling (16) had found his position untenable after being recorded explaining his view that B&Bs should be allowed to turn away gays (17). This shouldn’t have surprised anyone: Grayling had voted against letting gay couples adopt in 2003, and six years later voted to deny lesbians access to fertility treatments (18). Chris’ story has a happy ending, however: David Cameron made him Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary in 2012.
The record of David Cameron himself is mixed. Our Prime Minister has gone to lengths to modernise his party, the most visible example of this being the introduction this year of gay marriage. His past, however, is enough to make an observer question his motivations. After Shaun Woodward was sacked by William Hague, he defected to the Labour Party, vacating his Witney constituency, and leaving a gap which would be filled by David Cameron (neat, eh?). At the time, Cameron mocked Woodward in a letter to the Telegraph, asking “Did Mr Woodward order a survey of local opinion about the issue that triggered his resignation – clause 28 and the promotion of homosexuality in schools?” (19). Once in parliament, he voted against the repeal of Section 28. This was a free vote†, so no defence of party pressure can be offered here, and in any case he accused Tony Blair of “moving heaven and earth to allow the promotion of homosexuality in schools” (20). Cameron apologised for Section 28 in 2009 (21), just a year after voting to restrict access to IVF for lesbian couples (22).
My piece here has been shallow in detail and narrow in reporting. I have referred to a couple of actions by a handful of senior ministers. There is so much more which could be written on this topic; indeed, if I began on Conservative backbenchers, I could probably fill a book. But I must allow that task to pass to a writer with more time and resources than me.
How far should we contextualise a man’s actions before we judge or forgive him? Held up against the light of the 21st century, the heroes of the past whither and are found wanting. But I do not feel that the previous decade is too distant a place for us to remember. Indeed, there were Tories who stood firmly on the right side of history. The current speaker of the house, John Bercow, resigned as shadow minister rather than vote against gay adoption‡ (23), and the otherwise-ghastly Michael Gove can be seen here presenting a documentary on gay rights. I ask the reader to consider whether those who stood for homophobia when it was political acceptable have undergone a true conversion, or whether they bite their tongues in the knowledge of public opinion. Would they have undergone this change of heart had their campaigns succeeded? If these people, holding the highest offices our country can offer, could not see the righteous path a few years ago, over an issue as basic as gay rights, how can we trust them to judge the moral and political controversies of the present?
*A ‘Three-line whip’ is the most serious measure a party leader can take to ensure his underlings obey. See here for more details.
†A free vote is where party members are allowed to vote however they wish (see here)
‡ A genuinely remarkable and probably genuine conversion from the man who, in 1987, called Lambeth council’s plan to put gay literature in children’s homes “sinister and evil” (24)
1) The Sun, 9th November 1994
7) The Daily Mail, 26th January 2000 – “A Matter for Your Consciences”
13) The Sunday Telgraph, 10th December 2006
I was thinking about The Two Towers film, specifically this scene. You know the one: “Looks like meat’s back on the menu, boys!”
It’s a marvellous piece of cinema, but something really bothered me about it. Not that Orcs were prepared to cannibalise their recently beheaded comrade – but that Orcs have menus.
This leads to some interesting implications. Firstly, Orcs, and presumably Middle Earth in general, has restaurants; you don’t have menu’s without places to eat out, after all. A menu implies a choice of dishes (they’re celebrating being allowed to choose meat, instead of “maggoty bread”, which in itself implies Orc bakeries, a pretty strange idea).
Are there Orc waiters? “Would you recommend the Leg of Halfling, or the gobli au vin?”. Is there a set menu? Do Orcs go out on fancy dates? Do Orcs tip well?
So many unanswered questions.
It’s like being haunted. I put it out of my mind, but when I glimpse his ghost, echoing off a word or memory, the floor drops away beneath me. My dad died two months ago. It’s not like I imagined, and no book or film had given me any sense of the horror and mundanity of bereavement. Life and its end has no story to tell, and there are no climactic scenes. What I have experienced is almost too big for me to understand, and I can only comprehend it by examining a little part at a time, or by looking at the dents and reflections left on the people around me. My world has changed, and can never be restored, but I am still waiting for my conscious self to realise. I know my dad is dead – I watched him decline, saw his empty body which had failed him, and I laid him down in the living earth – but on a day-to-day basis it feels no more true than the other monstrous facts of reality. I know, for example, that I will live my entire life on a tiny speck of dust hurtling around a minute spark in the howling emptiness of space, and that this life will be as a moment, a margin of error in the unending stretch of history; but as far as my sanity is concerned, my personal sphere is the universe, and likewise my dad cannot possibly have left me forever.
I think I need this mental dislocation, at least on the average weekday. It keeps me functioning, continent, conversational, turning up to work. But the grief stays, skulking at the back of my skull. When I let my thoughts go unanchored in the dark hours, it drifts forwards, and I become leaden with the monstrosity of his death. In the day time, grief catches me unawares. Some thought or image – my father’s number as I browse my phone book, or the memory of him struggling to tune his banjo – will snag on my thoughts, and hoist some fragment of the past months to the fore. Have you ever slipped in the swimming pool, misjudged the depth, and found yourself floundering, for a moment blinded by panic? I feel like a drowning man, choking for air, needing to be calm or to sink into despair. When I was at primary school, I cried at the least provocation, and was naturally bullied for it. As an adult, I still bear a fear of crying in public, so in these moments I generally stiffen and fall silent (silence, pallor, rigor). Alone, or with my wife, I break down in a hysterical wailing storm that would probably astonish most of the people who know me.
I don’t know how to deal with this grief. Nobody can prepare you for the loss of a parent. In a way, I am not sure that I want to get over it: I will never see my father again, and already it is becoming harder to remember him as a real, raw human being. The sorrow of losing him helps me feel closer to a man I will never touch again. As far as our parents are concerned we are always children; we assume they are immortal, that there will always be another chance to see them, to spend the time we think we have, to be a family. And then reality looms, and we see them stripped to their fragile humanity. We realise that our chances were limited, that we have overdrawn our allowance of time together, that the last chance you missed was the last chance you will ever have. This is the ultimate shock of death: it is the absolute finality.
I’m a small person, trying to deal with something far bigger than my understanding. I worry that I am not dealing with my family’s loss, and I worry that I keep digging up a dead man as bait for sympathy, boring people with my anguish. All I can do is be grateful for the man my father was, and the years I had him in my life, and to hope than I can be a reflection of him.
Occasionally I’ll reading on the internet, and I’ll realise that someone I had always associated with black and white photographs, with old books and films, someone who I had assumed had passed from this world into the history books, is still alive. People like Kirk Douglas, Willie Mays, Pete Seeger, Fats Domino and Lauren Bacall, who seem almost mythical, like their voices would crackle like faded recordings when they spoke, who would flicker in black and white if you laid eyes on them, suddenly shift into reality. It’s a surreal moment.