God’s Own Country

God’s Own Country

On a complete whim, we decided on a mini tour of Yorkshire. As England’s largest traditional county by far, it was a very teeny weeny tour encompassing just Leeds, Knaresborough and Harrogate. We travelled across the flatlands to Grantham, the birthplace of Maggie Thatcher. I’ll leave you to decide whether that should be celebrated. From there, the Virgin Express sped us north to Leeds, the throbbing heart of West Yorkshire. Where once there were dark satanic mills, now there are trendy loft conversions, glass towers and a branch of Harvey Nicks.

Leeds Panorama

The handsome city has seen something of a renaissance of late and now boasts one of the most diversified economies in Britain. I’d like to tell you we were there to see the sights and take in the culture but I can’t. As soon as we’d dropped off our bags, we were off down the rough end beneath the rainbow bridge. Leeds has a small but beautifully-formed gay scene, each venue staggering distance from the next. Happy hour dribbled on all afternoon and we did indeed get to see some sights but nothing you’ll find in the tourist blurb. We eventually made it back to the hotel though I have no memory of how we got there.

Next day, button-bright, we jumped on the slow train to Knaresborough. The Guardian Newspaper describes the town as tatty and batty and the cap really fits. Perched high on the cliffs above the River Nidd and wrapped in a blanket of iridescent green, Knaresborough is famous for the railway viaduct that crosses the water. The views from the tumbledown castle are simply stunning.

The little town is also famous for its independent spirit and independent shops – the butcher, the baker, the cappuccino-maker. This is the place where madcap mattress-wheeling teams sprint around the town for no apparent reason in the annual bed race. It’s completely batty. And we do batty.

Liam and I always have an eye on the future and we wandered around the quirky streets making mental notes of the good points (many) and the bad points (few). We retired to a coffee house to debrief. The verdict? Right now, it’s top of the leader board.

The final destination on our whistle-stop tour was elegant Harrogate, which the Guardian calls hoity-toity. And so it is with its cream teas and posh nosh. I was last there for a wedding in 2004. The bride was a lovely gal from work with a well-deserved reputation for being an all round good egg. As I looked around the church at the time, I could tell who was in and who was out.

The next day it was back to good ol’ Norwich but not before I was interviewed on camera in the pouring rain by someone from the local telly asking me about local ishoos. I did explain that as I didn’t actually live in Yorkshire, my opinion counted for nowt (see, I’m already starting to speak Yorkist). He didn’t seem to mind. Hallelujah to God’s own country.

P.S. I had totally forgotten that the Harrogate bride now actually lives in Knaresborough. We could have met up for a long-overdue natter, how thick am I?

Blast from the Past

I was busying myself with morning admin when my tippy-tappying  was interrupted by an old Seventies tune on Radio 2, the summertime hit ‘Beach Baby’ by the group First Class. They were a one hit wonder and hearing the track brought adolescent memories flooding back of picking up Radio 1 on a transistor radio as I crossed the North Sea in an old Russian rust-bucket. It was the year of  the Fall of Saigon, the end of Portugal’s empire, the first Yorkshire Ripper murder, the election of the Iron Lady as Tory leader, the establishment of the ‘Turkish Federated State of North Cyprus,’ the foundation of Microsoft, the nationalisation of British Leyland and my Soviet tour in my very own Bolan curls and loon pants look. Cue the bubble gum pop and an old post from our Turkey days about my youthful misadventures. It’s worth a second recital.

Sweet Swedes and Wretched Russians

I recalled my first visit to Stockholm when I was a hormonal adolescent. The little local grammar school I attended laid on the most incredible journeys designed to broaden horizons and expand the mind. One early morning in 1975 twenty or so sweaty boys boarded  a train at Victoria Station and headed for the coast. We sailed on the morning tide to Flanders where we began our grand passage across the great North European PlainMore…

Twitter Ye Not

Erdogan1

If ever there was cast-iron evidence for limiting the number of terms in the top job, it’s the Prime Minister of Turkey’s current spat with Twitter, an unedifying squabble that makes Erdoğan look autocratic and self-serving. Is the Twitter ban on or off? Who knows? Are the tweets about Erdoğan accurate? Who knows? Twitter is in good company. Lazy censorship is the norm in Turkey. A ban on YouTube has been on and off for years. Facebook may be next. Erdoğan doesn’t like selfies. It’s all rather pointless as anyone with a little technical savvy can circumvent the ban with relative ease.

Something dangerous happens to those who sit at the big desk for too long. The seduction of power can be unhinging. Like the absolute monarchs of old, some start to think that they personify and embody the nation they’re supposed to serve and to insult them is also to insult the nation (something that is a crime in Turkey). Erdoğan doesn’t respond well to criticism and uses politically appointed judges to punish those who cross him. And it’s not just Turkey. This imperious tendency can happen even in so-called mature democracies. Think Margaret Thatcher and how she became more regal and dictatorial with every year of her reign. God knows how Her Maj coped with those weekly chit chats. Who was giving an audience to whom?

Wiser heads know when to leave the party. Take Nelson Mandela, a great example of a dignified exit and even the ever-shrewd Tony Blair knew when the game was up. Not so for our power-crazed Erdoğan. In 2011, he won an unprecedented third consecutive election making him the most popular and successful Turkish leader since Atatürk. But there was a problem. The Constitution barred him from serving a fourth term as Prime Minister and that historic victory could have been his swan song. But the wily old Erdoğan wasn’t about to let the small matter of a Constitution pension him off, he simply changed it.

In August, Turks go to the polls to choose a directly elected executive president and guess whose name will be at the top of the ballot paper? The chances are Erdoğan will win, maybe by a smaller margin, but with a majority nonetheless. I don’t expect today’s local elections to upset the political status quo either. I do expect more authoritarianism and more paranoia, a prospect that doesn’t augur well for political pluralism in Turkey. And so back to the Iron Lady. In the end, it was her own who got rid of her, not the electorate. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a lesson here for Erdoğan.

 

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Putin’s Law

Putin

With the introduction of a vaguely worded law in Russia banning the promotion of homosexuality to minors (i.e. the very mention of it will attract a sliding scale of fines and repeated violations may result in a stint in the clink), the chattering classes have called for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi on Russia’s Black Sea Coast. The idea is to give Tsar Putin and his Russian Orthodox cabal a good kick up the arse. I can’t see it amounting to much. After all, the soccer World Cup circus will be coming to town in Qatar in 2022, a gulf state with a less than sparkling record on human rights of any kind and we seem happy to do brisk business with a host of nasty little regimes around the globe. Let not conscience get in the way of the beautiful game or making a few shillings. The new Russian Law is similar in word and intent to the much-hated Section 28, enacted by the Thatcher Government in 1988 and only abolished in 2003 (now being reintroduced through the back door in some self-governing schools – along with creationism, no doubt). Section 28 was a vicious little side swipe from the Iron Lady’s handbag, tossed in to appease the swivel-eyed loons out in the shires. It was largely ineffectual in the real world and I’m hoping against hope that punitive Putin’s decree will go the same way. But then, Russia isn’t Britain.

pink triangleSo what can be done? I have huge admiration for the two Swedish athletes, Emma Green Tregaro and Moa Hjelmer, who painted their nails the colours of the rainbow while competing at this year’s World Athletics Championship in Moscow. It was a subtle rebuke but still caused quite a brouhaha. Nice one, ladies. How about Winter Olympians displaying the pink triangle (on their nails, a fake tattoo on their hands, whatever)? Personally, I think this would send a more powerful and historically resonant message. The pink triangle was the badge that gay people wore on their ragged uniforms in the death camps before the Nazis herded them into the gas chambers (just as Jews wore the Star of David and other ‘enemies’ of the state had their own emblems). Simple, effective and very televisual. Just a thought.

Margaret Thatcher, RIP

Thatcher_cartoon_1821379c
Credit: Gerald Scarfe

Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female Prime Minister has died at the age of 87. She was not expected to become Tory top dog, nor last for long when she was first handed the keys to Number Ten. But, against the odds, she was to be the longest serving First Lord of the Treasury of the Twentieth Century. In recent years, she lived out her dotage away from public gaze as she slowly disappeared into the white fog of dementia. Even so, she still generates a lot of huff and puff from her disciples and her critics. Few people over 40 hold an apolitical view of her. Love her or loathe her, the Iron Lady was without doubt the commanding political figure of the age with bigger balls than all the men around her. Few survived a side swipe from Maggie’s handbag. I think she carried a brick in it. Over the coming weeks and months, expect to see an outpouring of adoration and bile in equal measure. The mass media will pick over the bones of Maggie’s legacy and there’ll be heated exchanges in pubs up and down the realm. Is Britain today a fairer and more equal society? I think so but this is despite the Baroness, not because of her.

World AIDS Day, RIP

World AIDS Day, RIP

A few weeks, back Liam and I watched a biopic of Kenny Everett on BBC4. ‘Best Possible Taste’ documented cuddly Kenny’s struggle to achieve personal happiness and professional recognition. The film was cleverly narrated throughout by the pantheon of Kenny’s comic creations. Kenny and his characters were brilliantly reconstructed by Oliver Lansley, who perfected Kenny’s high camp mannerisms and anarchic style. I’d forgotten just how funny and original Kenny was, and how far he pushed the boundaries. For most of his adult life Kenny was resolutely in the closet even when it was obvious to everyone (including his long-suffering wife) that he was as bent as a nine bob note. Abstinence wasn’t his game, just denial. For very good reasons, the closet was a crowded house back then. Like all of us, Kenny was entitled to his privacy and, as far as I know, he never said anything negative about gay people (unlike some of his closeted contemporaries). He came out just before the tabloids forced him out and he did so in typical OTT style. I didn’t know Kenny but I saw him occasionally, usually at the Sunday night gay gordons at the Dog and Fox in Wimbledon Village. He was always attended by fawning acolytes, as is the way for the rich and famous.

Kenny was an irrepressible one-off whose off-script ad-libbing frequently got him got him the sack. His ill-judged appearance at a Tory Party Conference where he urged delegates to “…kick Michael Foot’s* stick away,” did him no favours but he redeemed himself by telling a very rude joke about Margaret Thatcher live on Radio 2. He was instantly dismissed for the misdemeanour. Kenny died of an AIDS-related illness in 1995. He was 50. That was the same year I met John. Those who have read my book will know that he died of an AIDS-related illness in 2003. John was 36.

Today is World AIDS Day. It doesn’t get the coverage it once did. In the rich world people aren’t falling off their barstools like they used to. It was not always so. One balmy evening in the summer of 2004 I was having a drink with an old friend in the Colherne, once the grand old dame of London gay bars. I looked around.

“Just a load of old uglies in tonight,” I said.

“That’s because all the handsome ones are dead,” he replied.

Cruel and cutting or just a bald statement of fact? The truth is, most of the gay people I knew in my twenties are dead.

When AIDS first hit the headlines  the Reagan Administration across the Pond shamefully sat on its hands (well, it was divine retribution on fags and smack-heads after all) until it became blindingly obvious that, unlike Reagan, the Lord’s wrath wasn’t the least bit discriminating. Ironically, given the Thatcher Government’s abysmal record on minority rights, it was the Tories who chucked money at the problem – into research, awareness and care. From the mid-Eighties right through to the late Noughties, Britain had some of the best services for people with HIV and AIDS to be found anywhere in the world. These days, HIV is something you live with not die from (unless you have the misfortune to be born in much of Africa, but that’s another depressing story). But, AIDS is still with us, stalking the bars and the chat rooms. There is no cure, no vaccine – maybe one day but not yet. It pains me to see young people playing Russian roulette through some misguided notion that AIDS is an old queen’s disease or thinking that if they do get it, a pill a day will keep the Grim Reaper at bay. This is no way to think or to live. Heed the advice of an old pro who ducked the Reaper’s scythe by the skin of his teeth. Pick up the condoms that are still freely available in gay bars. Go dressed to the party. It may save your life.

*Michael Foot was the Leader of the Labour Party at the time and used a stick to help him walk.