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 bad, the sad 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, then to the wilds of Norfolk as the only gays in the village. 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.
Business has been brisk; we’ve been working late to meet immoveable deadlines and we needed a little light relief from our labours. It came in the form of camp and cheery French-language film, The Shiny Shrimps (or Les Crevettes Pailletées).
The story goes like this:
After an Olympic swimming champion at the tail-end of his career makes a homophobic remark on TV to a gay reporter, he is forced to do penance by coaching an amateur water polo team trying to make it to the Gay Games. His charges are unruly, uncompetitive and unapologetically flamboyant. It’s a tough gig but he whips them into shape. Along the way, it’s a journey of revelation and reconciliation to a soundtrack of Bonnie Tyler’s Holding Out for a Hero and Sabina’s Boys, Boys, Boys with a bit of Celine Dion chucked in for good measure.
Billed as a cross between Pride and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the film isn’t nearly as good as either and a bit lightweight pathos and politics-wise. Nevertheless, it was feel-good jolly romp at the end of a hard-slog week. Here’s the trailer…
In 2010, I handed over a king’s ransom for a set of crowns courtesy of a handsome Turkish dentist called Ufuk (yes, you’ve read it right). And since we ended our Anatolian affair in 2012, I’ve been going to a dentist regularly here in old Naaridge in an effort to preserve my Hollywood smile. It’s a modest surgery above a shop on Timberhill – very different from the swish practice Liam attends where the waiting room looks like a hotel lobby. Ramshackle it may be, but my dentist has all the right equipment and a hands-on approach. Despite my many scale and polishes, I’ve only just recently noticed the statue of a stag on top of the building. I must have passed it a thousand times so that says a lot about my powers of observation. My only defence is that, unlike the monarch of the hill, I don’t keep my head in the clouds. I did a bit of digging and the sculpture was erected in the 1890s by gun maker George Jeffries who once occupied the shop below. Presumably, it was put there to promote his deadly double-barrells, just the ticket for slaughtering these magnificent beasts in the wild. Hardly what I call a fair fight.
We’ve had an invasion of psychedelic gorillas, a parade of colourful elephants, the flight of the camp dragons and a husk of vivid hares, not mention the wacky ducks that paddle up the Wensum every year. Now big bugs are swarming all over our local shopping centre. And, really big buggers they are too, like extras from an old Hammer horror film. The kids love ’em. And who could resist the chance to clamber all over some poor giant ladybird minding her own business? With the relentless rise of online shopping, it’s a clever ploy to get parents off their computers and into the stores. Long live pester power.
Following our friendly skirmish with modern Norsemen, we decided to give the Viking Exhibition at Norwich Castle a whirl and find out a little bit more about their hell-raising forebears. I’ve no clue what kind of history kids get taught these days but when I recently asked a history student what happened in 1066, he didn’t know. Now, I’m not one who thinks it should all be about dynasties and dates, but 1066? Really? In my day, the ‘Dark Ages’ (as they used to be called) were very much part of the curriculum and the Viking era was all about rape, pillage and good King Alfred burning his cakes. The aim of the exhibition – Viking, Rediscover the Legend – is to deconstruct the blood and guts myth and tell the more complex story of raid, migration and integration.
Sadly, I was a little underwhelmed by the show – a bit sparse, exhibit-wise. But it was a welcome distraction on a very hot and sweaty afternoon. And I loved the exquisite York Helmet, the best surviving example of its type in Europe. It’s quite small. I imagine the owner, Oshere, was a bit on the short side. This may explain all that Viking aggro – small man syndrome! I know all about that. I was also struck by the size of the coinage – no bigger than modern-day pennies and easily lost down the side of a sofa. But then they didn’t have IKEA back in the dark days of the Dark Ages.
It was hotter than Havana the day a paddling of technicolor plastic ducks floated into town for the Grand Norwich Duck Race on the River Wensum – a plucky contest held every year for charity. As usual, the competition for the most outrageous outfit was fierce with the over-sized over-the-top bath tub toys lined up like a beauty pageant, vying for votes. My personal favourite was the pretty in pink flamingo impersonator. All style over substance, I suspected. The long luscious legs were more suitable for wading than for swimming. The ducks race along the short distance between St George’s and Fye Bridges. I say ‘race’ in the loosest sense of the word. It’s always more an aimless drift as the waters of the genteel Wensum flow at a lazy, almost stationary pace. We placed a small wager on some random duck. We didn’t win and retired to a local watering hole to drown our sorrows.
Recently, Liam and I were enjoying a drink at a local watering hole, entertained by a lively band of Vikings – rowdy, boisterous and very, very drunk but much less troubling than the deliciously named Sveyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark, who sacked and torched Norwich in 1004 (and went on to become the first Danish king of England). Eventually the marauding sons of Odin decided to go pillaging elsewhere. As they stumbled to the door, a hulking red-faced redhead threw Liam a broad smile. Thinking his longboat had come in, Liam started to chat and asked the man where he was from. ‘Norway’, came the reply with a proud flourish. He offered us a palmful of loose change. ‘I’m going home, I won’t need this. Give it to charity,’ he slurred. We directed him to the charity box at the bar which he managed to find, but only just. Then off he staggered down Timberhill – to catch the last longboat home, I guess. Or maybe just a flight from Stansted.
We moved to Norwich in 2012 after our four year adventure in Turkey. During this short time, the city has become busier, buzzier, more welcoming and more diverse – from Chinese students studying at the University of East Anglia and South Asians working for Aviva, to the rucksacked troupes of Spanish school kids wandering around thanks to direct flights from Spain to our very own little International airport. Tourism is on the rise, ably assisted by the merry band of volunteer ‘here to help’ street hosts handing out smiles and leaflets. We might even get a bumper crop of visitors from Vietnam – now that the CEO of Vietnam Airlines described the city as ‘irresistible’ and ‘serene’. Same-sex couples can and do walk down the street hand-in-hand and the Norwich Pride event is a firm fixture on the city’s annual social calendar.
Things aren’t perfect – far from it. The increase in rough sleeping and substance use is the most visible sign of this. Not that there’s any cash to fix the problem in the barmy blond bombshell’s big pre-election giveaway. There are very few votes in helping the homeless. And, even in liberal Norwich, small minds still exist. A case in point is the silly man who refused to drive a bus because the route number was displayed in rainbow colours. He allegedly told passengers, ‘This bus promotes homosexuality and I refuse to drive it.’ As we all know, the mere sight of a pretty rainbow can turn even the most red-blooded bloke in an instant. Just like the pealing of church bells makes us all fall to our knees to pray. He was reported to the bus company and suspended, pending an investigation. Good. I have no wish for him to lose his job but he really does need to leave this bigoted nonsense at home and get on with what he’s paid to do.