You Have My Word

You Have My Word

A family ‘do’ took us cross country to Hertford, north of London – three trains there, three trains back. On the way, we changed at Cambridge – ‘the City of Perspiring Dreams’ as it’s known to the top-notch scholars who tread the hallowed precincts. Last year we took the same route and stopped off for a look around. This time we didn’t pop in – too many perspiring tourists for my liking. On the return leg, we changed at Ely, a tiny city with a vast cathedral dominating the flatlands. God’s house can be seen for miles around, demonstrating just how important He used to be to the prince, the pauper and everyone else in between. The city sits on a small patch of highish ground at the heart of the Fens, a once expansive marsh long-since tamed by dykes and ditches and drained for agriculture.

A sign at Ely station caught my eye.

I’ve had a bit of bother with my own Office package of late so it amused me. My picture-taking caught the eye of a ragged local with a lumpy face.

‘Take my picture,’ he insisted. ‘I’m famous, you know. I’ve been on the telly.’

It cost nothing to oblige him and I showed him the snapshot. He smiled and shuffled off down the platform. He may never have been on the box but at least he’s now on the blog.

As for teeny-weeny Ely with its oversized church, calmed waters and bobbing boats, it’s on the bucket list for next year.

Twas the Night Before Christmas

Twas the Night Before Christmas

It’s Christmas Eve and, after a year of sensible eating, tomorrow we’re looking forward to calorific grub (thank you M&S), artery-hardening afters, saturated snacking, a barrel of vino, and a little peace and tranquillity. The latter two seem to be rare commodities these days. Whatever Christmas means to you, may your day be merry and bright. I’ll leave you with Norwich’s festive Tunnel of Light. Unassuming by day, by night it’s a dazzling riot of twinkle and glow – a bit like me.

Tunnel of Light

The Day the Rot Set In

The Day the Rot Set In

On this day fifty years ago, the Sexual Offences Act received Royal Assent. The act partially decriminalised male homosexual acts. I say partially because the repeal only applied to rumpy bumpy between men 21 and over in England and Wales. It excluded the rest of the UK and those bastions of red-blooded machismo, the Merchant Navy and the Armed Forces. The ripe phrase ‘rum, bum and the Navy’ must have seemed even more ironic to randy sailors on a long and lonely tour of duty. By contrast, girl on girl action has never been illegal, perhaps because the (almost exclusively male) elite were rather titillated by the thought of it (well, those who weren’t fiddling with the altar boys or servicing the groom, that is). Reform-wise, the Scots didn’t join the party until 1980 and the Northern Irish brought up the rear in 1982. This may explain the over-representation of ginger queens on the pink streets of London during the seventies and eighties.

If the holier-than-thou pulpiteers, tight-arsed little Englanders, mighty-mouths down the pub or queer bashers on the streets thought the 1967 act was the one and only concession to be made, they were in a for a nasty surprise. It was a call to arms. The eighties and nineties brought the darkest days of AIDS and many hoped we’d all sashay back into our closets and die. No such luck. Despite the violence, the ridicule, the outraged press and pushy coppers in rubber gloves, a growing band of brave souls kept the rainbow flag flying higher than ever. Direct action and the outing of mitred hypocrites became rather fashionable. And it worked. One day, the walls came tumbling down and what followed was a bonfire of the prejudices.

The age of consent was reduced (first to 18 then to 16), the armed forces ban was lifted, the offence of gross indecency was repealed, Section 28* was abolished, gender re-assignment was recognised, fostering and adoption laws were liberalised, employment protection secured, civil partnerships were introduced and, by 2014, full marriage equality was realised across Britain. Then came the royal pardon for past deeds no longer illegal and, in time, so too will come the official apology.

On equal marriage, only Northern Ireland is still holding out, with some dour old dinosaurs desperately trying to hold back the tide, Canute-like. Their days in the sun are numbered, despite their last hurrah propping up Chairman May.

Rainbow Copper

The gestation of the 1967 Act was a long one. It was the Wolfenden Report of 1957 that recommended the decriminalisation of certain homosexual offences and concluded:

“…unless a deliberate attempt be made by society through the agency of the law to equate the sphere of crime with that of sin, there must remain a realm of private that is in brief, not the law’s business.”

Some still get hot under the collar in matters sex and sin, stoked up by bigots from across the religious divide. The issue even hit the headlines during the recent general election. Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats and a devout Christian, was repeatedly harangued about whether he thinks gay sex is sinful. The poor man squirmed and wriggled presumably because in his heart of hearts, he probably does. After the election, he resigned because of it. I don’t normally feel sorry for politicians but even I thought it was all too much. I’m well-acquainted with oppression by the majority and it smacked of bullying. And I don’t like bullies whatever their persuasion – left, right or centre. Mr Farron’s personal religious beliefs are his own business and, to paraphrase the Virgin Queen, I have no desire to make a window into anyone’s soul. Mr Farron can think whatever he likes as long as he doesn’t move to impose those beliefs on others. And as far as I know, unlike the orange relics and meddlesome priests of the Emerald Isle, he never has.

So I celebrate the day the rot started to set in. It eventually brought the whole edifice of hypocrisy crashing down. Now we can live happily ever after. Or can we? For some in our sceptre’d isle, life is still a little bit shit – bigotry can lurk just beneath the surface and the pendulum never stops swinging. And what of rainbow life beyond our shores? You only have to look around to see how really grim things are for many – the recent roundup and torture of young men in Chechnya is a case in point. And Allah only knows which way the wind will blow now Turks have foolishly voted sweeping presidential powers to an autocrat with a messianic streak. As for Saudi Arabia and Iran, the sword and the noose are kept on standby just case anyone dares poke a toe out of the closet.

*A shameful and largely symbolic law banning the alleged ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools, as if sexuality were a choice.

Angels, Monks and the Devil’s Brew

Angels, Monks and the Devil’s Brew

Learning to speak English must be difficult enough, but learning to spell it must bring even the most dedicated student out in hives. It’s just the little game we English like to play on Johnny Foreigner. Place names can be particularly bothersome. So for the uninitiated…

Leicester is Lester, Gloucester is Gloster, Chiswick is Chizik, Warwick is Warik (unless you’re Dionne) Harwich is Haridge and Norwich is Noridge (or Naaridge if you’re from round these parts).

But there is a certain consistency to the cesters, the wicks and the wiches. Not so in Norfolk – or I should say Naarfuk. Asking a Naaridge bus driver for a ticket to Costessey or Wymondham will provoke a puzzled response. You see, it’s Caassy and Windum. Confused? You will be.

We’d learned our lesson in correct enunciation by the time we caught our bus to Wymondham, a pretty parish of 15,000 souls southwest of Norwich. June was bustin’ out all over the place along the 10 mile route. We arrived to find the place bathed in sunshine but spookily empty for a hot Saturday afternoon. Perhaps everyone was at Pilates.

The main event was the famous abbey, founded in 1107. Well, it was famous until Henry VIII got his grubby hands on it. Once a thriving Benedictine priory, it only survived complete demolition by becoming the parish church – the monks were pensioned off and the last abbot became the local vicar. Nevertheless, and despite being half the length it once was, the twin-towered abbey church remains an imposing pile, rising majestically above the pine trees. Inside, the largely Norman-period nave has a fine wooden roof studded with carved angels. We sat in the pews awhile watching the roadies setting up for an evening concert. A plot for Midsomer Murders gathered momentarily in my mind in which an angel is pushed from the roof to squash a portly mezzo-soprano as she sings something seductive from Carmen. But whodunnit? If I ever get the commission, you’ll be the first to know but suffice it to say it involves a darts match and a ladies-only night in Cromer. I decided to call the episode ‘Revenge of the Fallen Angels’. As you can tell, I got rather carried away.

Wandering round, we’d never met a friendlier or more passionate bunch of volunteers. They positively gushed with enthusiasm. Without them we wouldn’t have known about the abbey’s more eclectic secrets. I cradled the hand of an angel to pray for world peace – and a lottery win. Liam stuck his finger in the monk’s hole and made a wish. Amen to that.

We were also told about the secret tunnel that allegedly led to the nearby fourteenth century Green Dragon tavern and the ancient exit still to be found in the pub. Apparently, the naughty monks were rather fond of the Devil’s brew. It might explain all that hole filling. Naturally, we had to investigate and partake of the Devil’s brew ourselves –  purely for research purposes.

 

The Story of Norwich – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, Rich Man, Poor Man, Bomber Man, Thief

The Story of Norwich – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, Rich Man, Poor Man, Bomber Man, Thief

Our flat is like a weather chamber. When Mother Nature decides to throw a wobbly, we hear every eruption. So last month when Storm Doris (Doris?) huffed and puffed with 90 mph winds, we feared she’d blow the house down. We decided to abandon the microloft and seek refuge elsewhere. Usually this would be the pub but on this occasion we choose the Bridewell Museum. The Bridewell charts the civic and social history of Norwich – from its modest beginnings as a few Anglo-Saxon huts on the muddy banks of the river to the pillaging Vikings, conquering Normans, religious glory days of spires and steeples, economic salvation by Flemish refugees, a spectacular rise to become England’s second city, a slow industrial decline and the city’s renaissance as a financial centre, cultural hub and UNESCO City of Literature. It’s a ripping yarn of churches and chapels, friaries and priories, martyrs and merchants, weavers and cobblers, chocolatiers and mustard makers, fire and flood, black death and blitzkrieg. Norwich was the first British city to build social houses and the first to have them flattened by the Luftwaffe – two of the many things catching my attention as we meandered through the exhibits. And what fun we had dressing up.

If you’d like to know more, check out Norwich Museum at the Bridewell.

Afterwards we did make it to a local hostelry for a few jars. Well who am I to argue with the lady?

wincarnis-wine-tonic

And so we survived Doris’ rage in one piece. Which is more than I can say for the roof.

The Fantabulosa Fairy

Recently, apprentice clerics at an Anglican theological college in Cambridge were given permission to hold a service to commemorate LGBT history month. The Church of England still gets its collective cassock in a twist about sexuality, particularly in matters carnal and marital, so a step in the right direction you might think. Allegedly the cheeky ordinands went a tad too far for some when they held the service in Polari, a slang language of mixed origins once used in Britain by sinners on the social margins – actors (when acting was considered little better than whoring), circus types, villains, ladies of the night, and up to the seventies, gay people.

So, instead of…

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The congregation got…

Fabeness be to the Auntie, and to the Homie Chavvie, and to the Fantabulosa Fairy.

The college principal ‘hugely regretted’ the use of an unauthorised liturgy. In other words he threw a queeny fit. Personally, I think it’s much ado about nothing. It wasn’t a public service and, since the Bible has been translated many, many times down the ages from the Hebrew and Greek texts, who’s to say the Polari version is any less legitimate? A fairy tale is a fairly tale whatever language it’s in.

Polari

Polari died out when times became less buttoned-up but a few words have entered into modern parlance – naff and camp among them. It has a delicious un-PC vocabulary of wonderfully ripe terms. Here’s a few…

Basket (a man’s bulge through his clothes); bibi (bisexual); bona (good); bona nochy (a good night); bungery (pub); buvare (a drink); camp (effeminate); carts (willy); chicken (young man); cottage (a public convenience used for jollies); dilly boy (rent boy); dish (bum); eek (face); handbag (money); jubes (breasts); lallies (legs); mince (walk); naff (nasty); national handbag (welfare benefits); omi (man) omi-palone (camp queen); plate (oral sex); palone (woman); palone-omi (lesbian); remould (sex change); riah (hair) rough trade (working class sex); slap (makeup); todd (alone); tootsie trade (sex between two passive partners); trade (sex); troll (to walk about looking for sex): varda (see).

Varda the godly chickens!

My Life Abroad

Since 2011, the people at Blog Expat have been shining a little light on expatland by interviewing bloggers from city to steppe, temperate to tropical. They’ve assembled quite an archive over the years. So when I heard they were to publish an anthology of their best stories, I thought it was a good idea. And when I heard they were to include me among the chosen, I thought it was a great idea.

My Life Abroad, a Selection of Expat Stories was published in September 2016. All the participants received a complimentary copy of the book which was a generous touch. Mine dropped on the mat a few weeks back and naturally I gave it a good thumbing. No one could question the book’s scale and ambition. There are abridged versions of 55 interviews and all continents apart from Antarctica are represented. Oddly, though, the contributors are kept anonymous, presumably to protect the guilty.

Every piece is prefaced with an jokey illustration. My own story has two men in summer attire framed on one side by a Shia cleric and on the other by a woman in a burka. Of course it could be a bloke in drag. That’s the point of a burka – you can’t tell. Now, most Turks are Sunnis and I’ve seen more Saudi-style full body bags in Harrods. In my interview I wrote…

Some people show breath-taking ignorance of the Islamic world, tarring all Muslim countries with the same negative brush. No, we aren’t subject to Sharia Law. No, gay people aren’t routinely lynched by rabid mobs of mad mullahs. No, women aren’t forced into marriage as soon as they hit puberty and dressed head to toe in black poly-cotton sheets (well, not in Bodrum anyway). Turkey isn’t perfect but it isn’t Iran.

So I’m hoping the cartoon is intended to be ironic.

Despite the potential faux pas, many of the stories are fun, thoughtful and well worth buying a bookmark for.