Imagine the absurdity of two openly gay, married, middle aged, middle class men escaping the liberal sanctuary of anonymous London to relocate to a Muslim country. I chronicled our exploits with the mad, the sad, the bad and the glad in a blog for the whole world to ignore. Then came the book which became a critically acclaimed best seller. Its success opened out a whole new career for me, firstly as an author, and now as a publisher. Who'd have thought it? Certainly not me.
In June 2012, we ended our Anatolian affair and paddled back to Britain on the evening tide, washing up in Norwich, a surprising city in eastern England. I’m sometimes nostalgic for our encounters with the hopeless, the hapless and, yes, the happy go lucky. They gave me an unexpected tale to tell and for this I thank them. Act Two, Turkey Street, is out now in print and digital editions.
We’ve just celebrated our eleventh wedding anniversary – steel according to some traditions – so I bought Liam a metal whistle to use when he’s trying to bring me to heel – good luck with that one! We revelled in some style with a spot of lunch at Bishop’s – one of Norwich’s best eateries – all posh nosh and fine wine. Afterwards, we staggered up St Andrew’s Hill for digestifs at The Cosy Club – one of the city’s swankiest drinking dens – fashioned from the Victorian grandeur of the old NatWest bank on London Street. There is nothing particularly cosy about the lavish interior. More style over substance we thought.
As well as our legs-eleven anniversary, it was also thirteen years since we first met after work in a gay bar just off Trafalgar Square in old London Town. Our eyes met across the crowd of boozing suits and bewildered tourists. Liam reeled me in with a double gin. And that, as they say, was that. The number thirteen may be unlucky for some, but definitely not for me.
Sir Ian Mckellen, star of stage, screen and gay bar, turns 80 this year. To celebrate this remarkable milestone, he’s trolling round the country on a nationwide tour of theatres big and small, illustrious and humble. The boards don’t come more illustrious than the Old Vic in London or more humble than the 300-seater Maddermarket Theatre here in old Norwich Town. It was to the Maddermarket we trolled to catch his one-man show.
And what a show he put on – from Gandalf to Shakespeare via Gerard Manley Hopkins and TS Eliot, all sprinkled with intimate memoir and gossipy anecdotes – like spending the evening with your favourite uncle, the one with a racy past and funny tales to tell. Wise, witty and utterly charming, Sir Ian (or Serena as he’s affectionately known to the brethren) doesn’t hide his light or sexuality under a bushel. He’s very matter of fact about both – modest about his immense talent and a ‘so what?’ attitude about his love life. How he can drop into character, instantly recalling long, complex soliloquies from the Bard is beyond me. His campy, high-pitched Juliet was pure joy.
There are many wonderful stories about Serena but perhaps my favourite is the time he arrived in Singapore to roll out his King Lear. Man-on-man hanky-panky was (and still is) illegal in the city state where the punishment is the cane and up to two years in Sing Sing. He was being interviewed on breakfast TV and asked the host where he might find a gay bar. I suspect one or two viewers choked on their muesli.
I don’t usually plug books here in pansyland, especially those I’ve published. I try and keep work and life separate as I’m bound not to be impartial. But, I’m making an exception with our latest release – This Messy Mobile Life by the fragrant Mariam Ottimofiore. Why? Because Mariam is one of the nicest authors I’ve worked with and it’s a cracking read – full of humility and wisdom as Mariam tries to navigate through the messy multi-cultural maze that is her family life. Believe me, not all writers I rub up against are as agreeable. I bite my tongue (mostly) as the business keeps us from the workhouse.
Do your family dinners happen in more than one language? Do you celebrate Christmas and Eid? Do you and your family feel at home in more than one country? If so, then you may be a MOLA Family and yes, this multicultural, multilingual, mobile life can get a little ‘messy’.
Normally at the gym I’m encircled by beefy blokes in tattoos and tight togs getting down and sweaty with weights and pulleys, squats and presses – an orgy of exertion. Only the high-octane musak drowns out the clanging and grunts. This week, though, was different. An elderly couple – in their seventies I guessed – ambled to the row of exercise bikes which are my torture implements of choice. While I watched from a discreet distance, he helped her onto a seat, carefully placed her dainty feet on the pedals, tightened the restraints, pressed the button and selected a mild resistance for her workout. She began cycling while he rested on an adjacent bike, holding her handbag. After about ten minutes, he helped her from the bike and they toddled off together, arm-in-arm. No words were spoken. It was as if they were one. I was incredibly touched by the scene. Let’s hope Liam and I will be the same in years to come.
Once upon a time a long time ago, a pretty girl from a small Ulster town was swept off her feet by a dashing young squaddie in a smart uniform and a devilish twinkle in his eye. Army life on the move quickly followed with babies dropped in married quarters here and there – Ireland, Germany, Malaysia, England, Malaysia (again). Sadly, her military man died young – way too young – and the pretty girl soldiered on alone as a single mother. She recently turned ninety and we had a bit of a do. Apart from being a little mutton and frail, Thursday’s child has still far to go. As they say in the Emerald Isle…
The older the fiddle, the sweeter the tune.
I inherited my Father’s devilish twinkle. I just hope I’ve inherited my Mother’s genes.
On one of our rare visits to the home counties, my sister-in-law fished out an ancient, long-forgotten photo of me from a biscuit tin she keeps under the stairs. I’m guessing I was about 14. I look older, I think. I matured young – so young, in fact, that at the tender age of 12 I used my Dad’s razor to shave my legs in the bath. No, not because I fancied slipping on my sister’s tights (just in case you were wondering) but because I was embarrassed. Most of my contemporaries at school hardly had a short and curly between them.
The backdrop to the image is a perfect picture of naff seventies-chic. Our south London parlour was a riot of clashing colours and patterns – orange floral flock wallpaper, red faux-velvet curtains, an orange and brown three piece suite in synthetic wool and a swirly carpet in reds, blues and greens. It made my old girl proud. Nowadays, it would make everyone else feel nauseous.
As for me, what are those goggles about? And the shocking locks? They had a will all of their own until tamed by creeping male pattern baldness. Still, I was cute – even if I do say so myself – with raging hormones, a 26-inch waist and cheekbones that could slice cheese. Happy days. The grim, buttoned-up decade never held me back. And what was my chopper doing behind that sofa? Now that would be telling.
Come Valentine’s Day, romantically-minded Liam likes to put on a show and the show in question was the Calendar Girls musical at the Theatre Royal, Norwich. And what a show it was too. Adapted from the 2003 film, it’s based on the real-life story of a group of middle-aged Yorkshire lasses from the local Women’s Institute who bare all in a naughty calendar. The husband of one of the racy ladies had died from cancer and the modest aim was to raise enough cash to buy a new sofa for the relatives’ room at their local hospital. The plucky troop battled against their own considerable anxieties and stiff resistance from their local chairlady, horrified as she was that the squeaky-clean, jam and Jerusalem reputation of the WI would be badly sullied. Eventually though, the ladies triumphed. The calendar was a runaway international success and it, and the sequels, have so far raised over £2 million for Leukaemia research. And the ladies bought the sofa. I call that a result.
The musical version, with a score by Gary Barlow from Take That, is emotional without being soppy, tuneful, uplifting, joyous and very, very funny. The touring cast of well-knowns and less well-knowns really know how to belt out a song or two. Like us, the audience lapped it up and gave a standing ovation at the end. For some, though, it was all too much. The lady next to Liam sobbed the whole way through. Cancer, as we all know, is a serious business.
For a taste, here’s the trailer (from the West End production)