For the Love of God

For the Love of God

Come Christmas time, the patients at the surgery where Liam earns an honest crust are a generous lot. Gifts of biscuits, sweets, chocolates and the odd bottle of booze flood in. Liam comes home laden with festive fancies. We keep a few and donate the rest to St Stephen’s Church. It’s an ancient pile, founded over 900 years ago and now mostly dating from the sixteenth century. The roots might be old but the approach of the dedicated team of clerics and laypeople is bang up-to-date. Community engagement and outreach are the services of the day. Much of the nave is given over to a café which…

‘… provides an open place for people to belong, whether customers, volunteers or those experiencing tough times… the café is a place of welcome, refreshment and peace.’

St Stephens Church

It’s a Heaven-sent distraction from the hubbub outside and operates a ‘pay what you can’ policy where punters can pay the suggested price, more, less or nothing at all. The church also runs a seasonal food bank for those in need. When we dropped off the Quality Street, Fox’s luxury selection and Ferrero Rocher, I apologised for only bringing sweets and biscuits. A lady with a kindly face replied…

‘Everyone deserves something nice for Christmas, don’t they?’

It was a humbling experience. I’m not religious in the slightest but if this is what the love of God means, then long may it continue.

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.

Pride 2016

Pride 2016

The marching season is in full mince and after the slaughter in an Orlando gay club, Pride has a special resonance this year. Cutting through the noise, it now seems the carnage was the work of a closet case whose religious beliefs fried his brain. He happened to be a fundamentalist Muslim with shameful stirrings but could just as easily have been a fundamentalist Christian with the same sense of self-loathing. That’s the trouble with blind faith, those who fall from grace sometimes lose the plot. Ironically, some from the religious right don’t know who to condemn more, the man or his victims. And, the Second Amendment is a godsend to the trigger happy. Jesus wept.

My beautiful picture

On this side of the pond, London Pride was heralded by a flypast from the RAF’s Red Arrows and a rainbow flag flew over Parliament. It’s hard to imagine that happening in many capitals around the world.

Predictably, Istanbul Pride was banned again this year. To avoid the brutal oppression of 2015 when everyone was swept from the streets by tear gas and water cannon, Istanbul’s Governor gave plenty of notice. Last year, the holy month of Ramadan was the excuse. This year it was the threat from ultra-nationalist groups. Or maybe the powers that be just didn’t like it. Come the day, a few brave souls turned up anyway and were met by riot police and…well, you can guess the rest. And that was followed a couple of weeks later by an attempted military coup to ‘protect’ human rights and ‘preserve’ Turkish democracy. Since when was democracy ever preserved by soldiers in tanks? Was the coup real or not? Conspiracy theories abound but it was real enough for those who died as a result. Whatever the truth, you can bet your bottom lira life will start getting tougher and rougher for those who won’t or can’t toe the party line. Get thee to a mosque and to Hell with human rights.

Norwich Pride is on the 30th July and the only aggro expected is from a few nutters whispering hell and damnation from the wings. Even the zealous are painfully polite in these parts (as befits the ‘second kindest’ place in the kingdom, according to YouGov research). We’ll be there to wave our rainbow flags accompanied by a couple of old reprobates from the Smoke. We’re praying for a bit of sun – minus the fire and brimstone. I hear we’re to have a beer tent this year, thank the Lord: a first for Norwich Pride and a major step forward in my humble opinion. Cheers!

A happy pride season to one and all, whoever you get down on your knees for.

Photo courtesy of UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Same Sex Marriage in the UK

Scratch the surface and stupidity lies beneath. The lunatics have taken over the asylum at the Turkish Living Forum. What is the subject that’s got the bigots crawling from underneath their stones? Why gay marriage of course. All this tedious religious claptrap from tossers who take their bible like they take their software – jump to the bottom and tick the ‘I accept’ box. They are in good company – kiddie fiddling priests, the British National Party and religious fundamentalists who talk in tongues and still murder witches. Where are the forum moderators? Running for cover and hiding behind some corrupt notion of free speech.

Personally, I have no wish to get married in church. Unlike the hettie hypocrites who keep the chapel tills ringing with their white weddings and solemn vows that only half will keep, I won’t pretend to be religious. No priest is going to make a phoney out of me. Liam and I have a Civil Partnership. That’ll do us for now. However, I would never deny the right of others to marry whoever they choose. It’s an equalities thing.

Let’s keep a sense of proportion. The proposed law in Blighty will simply give those religious organisations (the Quakers, primarily) that want to perform a marriage ceremony for same sex couples the freedom to do so. So really, what is all the fuss about? The bigots are fighting a losing battle. Don’t want to treat me as equal? Then don’t take my taxes. The days of second-class citizenship are over. Almost.

You might also like:

Much I Do About Nothing

Gay Marriage in New York

Marriage Equality – Much I Do About Nothing

Marriage equality for same sex couples is a hot topic in the States and many other parts of Christendom right now. As the pendulum of liberal public opinion swings towards reform, the religious reactionaries advance ever more bizarre notions for opposing the right of consenting adults to choose whom they wish to marry. It’s in the Land of the Free where the debate (if debate is the word) is at its most venal. An unholy axis is scaring the horses and the old folk with talk of a disintegrating society and the fall of America. The do as I say and not as I do Catholic Church is wielding its considerable power and marshalling its congregation; right-wing American politicians seeking the highest office in the land talk of paganism and a vomiting God; and crazy pastors across the Bible belt warn of Old Testament fire and brimstone and the End of Days. These strange bedfellows all agree that it’s the thin end of the satanic wedge. What next? Pet-wedding perverts? Marriage is between one man and one woman, they say, sanctified by God for the purposes of procreation. How do they know? Because it says so in the Bible, stupid. Actually, the Bible says a lot about marriage – about forced wedlock, polygamy and concubines. It supports all of them. Bible-bashers have selective memories.

Rather than take a trip on the merry-go-round of fables and myths, it might be more illuminating to take a look at history and absorb some hard facts. Until relatively recently, marriage was primarily a property contract. In most societies, girls were the chattels of their fathers; wedlock simply transferred ownership from father to husband. There’s a clue in the word ‘lock’. Often, the contract was transacted within the extended family in order to consolidate assets or preserve clan cohesion. It was generally best to keep it within the family. At the top of the social heap, marriage was a political device to forge alliances, strengthen authority and maintain dynastic power. The rich would oil the marital wheels with generous dowries and the poor might secure a slave bride through war. Women were booty. Like goats. The consent of the unfortunate (and often underage) girl was not required. The wife could get a raw deal; the goats might be treated better. If a woman failed in her primary role to provide male progeny, she could be replaced, supplemented or worse. None of this sounds particularly honourable or pious to me. Nor has this depressing state of marital affairs been consigned to the history books. It’s alive and thriving in many primitive corners of the modern world.

The spawning argument hardly holds water either. It’s an obvious biological fact that marriage is not required to have children. People don’t suddenly become fertile because they’ve been blessed by the shaman. Breeding is like falling off a log and we’ve been at it like proverbial rabbits since our distant ancestors crawled out of the primordial soup at the dawn of time. When Fred Flintstone first clubbed Wilma over the head and dragged her by the hair into his cave to make Pebbles, he didn’t need a holier-than-thou clergyman to stick his oar in.

Just recently, on my side of the pond, a top dog collar in the Church of England jumped on the wedding bandwagon. The Archbishop of York claims that the democratically elected Parliament of Britain has no right to change the definition of marriage. I think His Grace will find that the British Parliament has the right to do as it pleases. England got rid of meddling priests when they pissed off Henry the Eighth. Hell hath no fury like a tyrant scorned. Despite what the Archbishop may think, the meaning and interpretation of abstract concepts often evolve over time through intellectual inquisition and discourse. There was a time when the Church taught us with absolute God-given certainty that the Earth was flat and sat at the centre of the Universe. Woe betide anyone who disagreed. Stoke the bonfire and burn the heretics, they used to say. Fortunately, we now know differently. We discover and we evolve. Our religious establishments would do better to concentrate their energies on addressing the problem of empty pews and unheard sermons. Ironically, the Church of England would find it far more difficult to operate without the growing number of gay vicars in its ranks.

For an unreconstructed liberal and an unabashed secularist like me, this is a fundamental equalities issue. It’s also a love thing; and love, above all other things, is at the core of the Christian message, is it not? As far as I’m aware, no religious organisation will be forced to conduct religious ceremonies for same sex couples if they object. So, let’s just calm down and grow up.

Read all about Jack and Liam‘s life in a Muslim country

Anyone for Spare Ribs?

It is Kurban Bayram (festival of sacrifice) resulting in the mass slaughter of hapless sheep right across the entire Moslem World. The blood-letting commemorates the Old Testament parable when Abraham heard the voice of God commanding him to murder his son Isaac, a rather extreme test of devotion. Just as Abraham was about to slash the poor boy’s throat, a ram ambled by. Abraham took this to be divine intervention and sacrificed the ram instead. It occurs to me that, in this more secular age, anyone trying that now would be sectioned and hauled off to a secure unit for the delusional.

Nowadays, sheep are dressed up in drag before being dispatched by the head of the family with a sharp blade to the throat. I’m told that the slaughter of any animal by the unlicensed is illegal so it’s done on the sly in back yards and dark alleys. Given the significance of the ritual, the authorities turn a blind eye. Once butchered, the proceeds are distributed among family, friends and the deserving poor. Tariq the Toothless Caretaker came to the door and proudly presented us with a bag of bloody bones. It was a touching gesture but confirms that we are well down the pecking order just below vagrants and unmarried mothers.

Communal Crapping

Image: Thomas Depenbusch

Selçuk is a handsome town, host to a fine museum and spitting distance from the wonder that is Ephesus: world heritage site nominee and arguably one of the most impressive open air museums anywhere. And, since we were in the vicinity anyway, it would have been rude not have a look around the imposing ruins. Ephesus (or Efes to give the place its Turkish name which is also happens to be the name of Turkey’s favourite ale), was one of the most sophisticated cities of antiquity, adorned with grand civic buildings, marble-clad pavements, street lighting and home to the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Sadly, just one lonely, forlorn re-assembled pillar remains of Artemis’ once vast shrine rising up precariously from a mosquito-infested bog. What a lunatic hadn’t destroyed by torching the place, the Christians had finished off. The rest of the city is a magnificent affair and in impressively good shape after decades of excavation and partial reconstruction. We had decided to drop in at just the right time of the year. As Turkey’s second most visited attraction (after Sultanahmet – the old city – in Istanbul), Ephesus is best avoided at the height of summer when the unforgiving sun and the rag-tag of camera-toting tourists conspire to make the place Hell on Earth.

The city was of immense significance to the early Christian Church. St Paul wrote his Epistles to the Ephesians (to damn them for their debauched ways I suppose, having never read them) and the Virgin Mary is reputed to have lived out her dotage nearby. It can be reasonably argued that Christianity, as an organised religion, was born in Ephesus. Not a lot of people know that.

We hired a guide but soon wished we hadn’t. A serious academic type, he droned on about the fine and upstanding Ephesians: civilised, cultured, always kind to their slaves. We fancied the alternative history, the salacious version, where the same fine and upstanding Ephesians visited the hungry whores via the secret tunnel connecting the great library to the brothel. After the sombre tour, we paid off the guide and re-roamed the ruins unescorted. Something not to be missed is the public latrine. The Romans were particularly fond of communal crapping, artfully combining conversation with evacuation.

Having had our fill, we returned to the car and journeyed back south but were unable to resist another detour, this time to Priene. Built on a natural escarpment high above the Meander River flood plain, Priene is the most complete Hellenistic site in Turkey. Whereas Ephesus overawes with its monumental scale, Priene seduces with its intimacy and superb aspect. We loitered a while as the sun began to set over the Ege bathing the ruins in a soft warm light.

It was time to top up the tank, so we pulled into a service station. Such establishments in Turkey are a joy, belonging to a gentler age, with staff on hand to fill your tank and sponge down your dusty windows. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago when a friendly chap with a cheesy smile and handlebar moustache would fill your car as a lit fag dangled from his gob.