Saturday 12 March 2016

If We Value Education, Rhodes Must Fall

One morning in 1986, Themba Plaatjie made a quick dash home from school for a peanut butter sandwich. His mother remembers him spreading the peanut butter on the bread and then - like distracted children the world over - he dashed out again, leaving the dirty knife lying on the counter. The next thing his mother heard was ‘uThemba, uThemba, nank’uThemba bamdubule!’ - ‘This is Themba! This is Themba! They have shot Themba!’

Themba Plaatjie was eleven-years-old when he was murdered by a white policeman in apartheid South Africa. There is a terrible poignancy in the fact that it was on his way back to school that the little boy was slain, because Themba is just one of tens of millions of black African children whose education was denied them by a system that even used the Bible to justify their subjugation: 'You shall never cease being slaves, both hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God' (Joshua 9:23). 

Like Themba, many hundreds of black children had their education denied in the most callous manner possible - their own murder. Another of those children was Hector Pieterson, the first of 176 killed during the Soweto uprising in 1976, when black high school children protested against Afrikaans becoming the main language of instruction in their schools. Sam Nzima's photograph of Hector being carried - his school uniform covered in blood, his screaming sister running alongside - was seen all over the world and galvanised the antiapartheid movement like few other images. 

Hector Pieterson in the arms of his friend Mbuyisa Makhubu, with Hector's sister Antoinette on the left.
Most black children had their education denied in quieter, but no less insidious, ways: underfunded schools, a lack of textbooks, badly trained teachers, the necessity to work to support their families rather than indulge in the luxury of sitting in a classroom. This is what the history of education looks like for black South Africans: it is a history fraught with brutality, shot through with cruelty, and drenched with blood.

But there is another side to the story of education in South Africa, and that part of the story lines the walls of the study in my parents’ house: their degree certificates from Rhodes University, a small but prestigious institution in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. In the same year that Hector Pieterson was butchered, my white parents graduated from a university named after Cecil Rhodes, a man who thought that people like Themba and Hector were less than fully human: 'I contend that [the British] are the finest race in the world,' he wrote, 'And that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.' As Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, Rhodes limited the amount of land that black Africans could legally own and simultaneously increased the property qualifications to be allowed to vote, setting up a disenfranchisement of black South Africans that would last until 1994.

I am an indirect but enormous beneficiary of Rhodes’ policies. I have grown up with all the advantages that come from having educated parents: the economic rewards of skilled work, and all the more subtle benefits of being able to negotiate a path through the complexities of the world. My parents’ education is not unrelated to the stories of Hector Pieterson and Themba Plaatjie: it is an education that was paid for by the punishing labour of black miners in Rhodes’ diamond mines; it is an education that rests heavily on the graves of those two boys and countless others like them.

In her book ‘A Human Being Died that Night’, the South African psychologist and Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Pumla Gobodo-Madikezela tells the story of Themba Plaatjie, and discusses the psychological phenomenon of ‘lived trauma’. Those of us who have not experienced the kind of intense trauma suffered by Themba Plaatjie’s family often think of trauma as an historical event, as if the murder of a loved one is something that is looked back on and remembered. But for those who experience trauma, Gobodo-Madikezela explains that the trauma does not end with the event that creates it: it stays in the present, following those left behind like a shadow until they reach their own end. 

When Themba’s mother, Mrs Plaatjie, relates the story of her son’s murder to Gobodo-Madikezela, she drifts back and forth between past and present tenses: “He ran out… He is still chewing his bread… Now I am dazed…” When she describes the first moment she saw her son with no life left in his body, the sentence she uses is, “Here is my son” - as if the boy’s body is in front of her at that moment, a mark on her retinas that will never wash away. In the mind of his mother, Themba Plaatjie wasn’t only murdered in 1986: he is being murdered still.

Those who defend Rhodes’ statues argue that he is a part of history, that we should not erase the past, however morally bankrupt it may look with the benefit of hindsight. The flaw in this idea lies in that word ‘history’ - because what many black South Africans involved in the #RhodesMustFall campaign tell us is that Cecil Rhodes’ ideas are not history, they are lived trauma for millions of African people. It is a kind of damage that is present every time a black African watches a white person get a better job and a better home because they are better educated; it is there every time a black African walks past the statue of a man who ruthlessly denied the humanity of her ancestors. Rhodes' defenders claim that we will forget how terrible he was if we don't have statues to remind us, but black Africans are no more likely to forget what Rhodes stood for than Mrs Plaatjie is likely to forget that her child was shot dead on his way to school.

Protests against the statue of Rhodes at the University of Cape Town.

As a beneficiary of Cecil Rhodes’ white supremacist ideas, I cannot be grateful to him for the benefits he gave to my family because they were never his to give. Rhodes was nothing but a thief: he stole land, he stole diamonds, and he stole human potential. I also know that however great his contribution to universities in Britain and South Africa, it is greatly outweighed by the crimes he committed against education, for even if his scholarships last for a thousand years they will never educate more than the millions of black Africans whose acquisition of knowledge was made completely impossible by the kind of ideas that he invented, supported, and inspired. 

An enemy of education like Cecil Rhodes has no business being immortalised in the grounds of the world’s best universities, and it is in the pursuit of real education - the kind of education, like that delivered by Pumla Gobodo-Madikezela, which expands our empathy and deepens our understanding of the lives of others - that I hope we will come to see that preserving the legacy of a dead white racist is not worth the tiniest hair on the head of the smallest black schoolchild in Africa. If we are to erect statues in our institutions of learning, they should be of the likes of Themba Plaatjie and Hector Pieterson - for it is from them, not Cecil Rhodes, that we still have the most to learn.

Thursday 18 February 2016

To the Woman Who Wanted to Photograph Our First Kiss

Halfway through our evening at the Hemingway pub in Hackney, you leaned over from the next table and asked if we were on a date. You were very drunk, and briefly alone; the stranger you had found on the street and brought into the pub with you had temporarily hidden himself in the loo (perhaps he had had a premonition?).

When we told you that yes, we were on our second date, you squealed with the delight of a ten-year-old with their nose pressed against the pet-shop window and told us how cute that was. That word 'cute' - the first thing that made me uneasy.

I don’t know if you’re in the habit of inviting yourself to join straight couples on their second date, and gushing about how adorable they are, but your manner and the things you said lead me to presume that it is an intrusion you save for gay people. I recognised the tone of what you were saying very quickly – you seemed to think that two men having a romantic drink together is like a pretty little water-colour, a tableau of two-dimensional, compliant, sexless beings who represent nothing but subservient sidekicks or bitching partners. Our polite requests to be left alone were met with sarcasm or naked rudeness, which then reverted in the next instant to patronising drivel. It was an unpleasant and deeply unwelcome reminder that even in twenty-first century London there are still occasions that I am not treated in the same way as other people.

There was an aggressive edge to a lot of what you said. As you babbled drunkenly about how good we looked together, and brutally critiqued our skin, our hair, and our clothes, you had the kind of teeth-bearing smile that seethes with danger, like the over-friendly cat that can suddenly switch and scratch. It was clear that your focus was on how we looked, as individuals and as a couple, and not on what we thought or how we felt. You told us that you worked in publishing; you and I disagreed briefly but passionately about the difference between the protagonist and the narrator of a story (you insisted there was no difference; I defined each term, and then you stuck by your line that the words were synonymous, so I let it go). You asked for a summary of the book I am writing, and I gave you a quick overview of a chapter I long ago decided not to write. Instinct told me that my true story would not be safe in your hands.

You told us that you were a fan of stories, that you felt lucky to have a job that allowed you to read and to travel; and then suddenly, upon discovering that our dates had gone well, that we liked each other and that we had not yet kissed, you asked us to do just that.

For you.

So that you could take a photograph.

Dear Woman Who Wanted To Photograph Our First Kiss: your request was extremely disrespectful and I experienced it as an act of oppression.

I know that you like stories, but I never found out whether that includes films. If it does, you may know that the director Spike Lee has identified the trope in American cinema of the Magical Negro, a black character with mystical powers who helps the white (usually male) hero to achieve his goals. You will be familiar with many magical negroes, though you may never have been aware of the subtle damage that they do: Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg) in ‘Ghost’, Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding (Morgan Freeman) in 'The Shawshank Redemption', and John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) in 'The Green Mile'. These characters limit the role of black people: they are convenient archetypes, props, assistants – in effect, they are what black people have so long fought to liberate themselves from being: they are the obedient servants of white masters. While characters like Othello and Celie from 'The Color Purple' are angry, passionate and complex (just like real people), the Magical Negro is a humble, obsequious cardboard cut-out whose mission is not to fulfil their own desires, but to help the white hero to fulfil his.

The trope of the Magical Negro is a form of oppression that is only made more insidious by its pretended benevolence. These black characters are reduced in a way that is more subtle but more dangerous than economic or political disempowerment: they are reduced in their emotional status. Through slow, invisible attrition what is breached is the personhood of every black person who lives in the same society as this trope. The Magical Negro is designed to appeal to the delicate sensitivities of a white audience that can only accept black characters who are wholesome and altruistic; not for them the quiet resistance of Rosa Parks, the uncomfortable indignation of Desmond Tutu or the unconquerable dignity of Nelson Mandela. We are told that a good black person is mild-mannered, lacking in complexity and unpleasant or challenging emotions. She or he is self-sacrificing and malleable to the will of a white master.

Just as we have the Magical Negro, our cultural lives are also burdened by the Magical Homo: the sparkling, glittering, bitchy gay man who props up our (usually) heterosexual female heroine until such a time as her knight rolls into town on his shining white steed. The Magical Homo trope is more commonly known as the Gay Best Friend, like the Daily Mail columnist Amanda Platell’s Gay Best Friend Andrew Pierce, who she describes resigning from a job on her behalf (‘with a little flounce’) and delighting her with his ‘wonderful, bitchy, gossipy streak’. It is the Gay Best Friend doll briefly offered for sale by Tesco’s, which was apparently ‘ready to give you fashion advice, tell you if your bum looks big and bitch about everyone who doesn't wear Jimmy Choos’. The Magical Homo is at work every time the idea is promoted that a gay man is good at nothing but fashion advice and hurting people’s feelings. Like the Magical Negro, this form of oppression is only made more dangerous by its cloak of well-meaning; it reduces gay men and refigures us as the emotional servants of heterosexual women.

The homophobe is not only the violent monster who bludgeons a gay man to death as he walks down the street, it is also every single person who uses a gay person’s sexuality to reduce our status and place limits on our lives. These attacks are not always overt; at times they arrive heavily disguised as compliments or kindness. They include the woman who told me that she was surprised how ‘butch’ my voice sounded. It is the man at a house party who tried to shake my hand for ‘not acting that way’. It is the obsessive ex-colleague who repeatedly sent me messages begging to be my ‘fag hag’. It is the church that will marry my brother but, apparently as an act of pure love, will not accord me the same ceremony. It is the woman in the pub who views my second dates and my first kisses as spectacles of entertainment.

Dear Woman Who Wanted To Photograph Our First Kiss: gay people do not exist to serve the needs of straight people. Real gay men were not created merely to sacrifice ourselves for women like Amanda Platell; real gay women were not made as a challenge for straight men to conquer and convert. Gay people are varied, complex and complete human beings, just like you. When we fall in love it is with the same excitement and trepidation as you; when our hearts break it is every bit as terrible and total as your heartbreaks; when our lovers are dying we also want nothing more than to hold them tenderly in our arms, and when we grieve it is with exactly the same bleak and wrenching agony as any grief that you have ever felt. Dear Woman Who Wanted to Photograph Our First Kiss, your denial of our dignity is closer than you realise to the attitudes of our greatest oppressors: I refer not to those who have destroyed and desecrated our bodies or excluded us from our societies, nor those who have restricted us with their laws and hounded us with their superstitions, but those people who have pronounced – with casual but catastrophic disdain – that our feelings are simply worth less than theirs; that the love we feel is not real love.

But our love is the same as yours, and our feelings are just as real: indeed, they are exactly the same feelings that you experience. It therefore follows that within the broad rainbow of gay people’s emotional lives, alongside the love and grief and joy and sadness that we feel, you should know that we also have the capacity for anger – you seemed to be surprised by this fact when I suggested that you move back to your own table and leave us to enjoy our date uninterrupted. The anger that we feel is, like our love, a deep, profound and righteous emotion. It is an anger that can - and has - wrought extraordinary change in our society. It is the undaunted anger of Harvey Milk annihilating the bigotry of John Briggs; it is the bladed indignation of Peter Tatchell decapitating Section 28, the meticulously articulated fury of Panty Bliss exposing the cowardly homophobia of RTÉ, and the uncompromising rage of Clare Balding when told AA Gill that although he may attack any aspect of her professional life, her sexuality will always be off limits as a target of ridicule. You see, gay people have come to learn, through centuries of oppression, that our anger is one of the most useful tools that we have. It is our anger that has catalysed every single painful step of the progress that we have earned for ourselves.

Dear Woman Who Wanted To Photograph Our First Kiss: I AM ANGRY. I need you to change the way that you think about people like me. I need you to recognise and respect the entirety of my personhood. I am sure that you believe yourself to be liberal and enlightened. I do not for a moment believe that you would have sworn at us for holding hands in the street, like the drunken man we encountered on our way home that night. I am sure you would agree that a gay man’s body no more belongs to a homophobe who wishes to stab or shoot him than a black man’s body belonged to the slave-owner who wished to whip him and make him work, or any more than a woman’s body belongs to the rapist who follows her home. But I need you to remember that my emotional life does not belong to you either. I am not an ornament, an accessory or an object provided for your amusement. Our first kiss was not a ‘#cutepic’ to be emblazoned across Instagram in colours that were never ours to begin with, and we were not made to be tagged on your Facebook page any more than gay people in Nazi Germany were made to be tagged with pink triangles. A first kiss is important precisely because it is a moment of intimate intensity between two people, a rush that will never be properly transcribed into words or photographs, and can only be known by being experienced. A first kiss is not a performance. It is not a piece of art or one of the stories you love to read. It is not a slice of titillation to be invaded and enjoyed and then flushed down the toilet with the bile-thickened bottle of wine you drank last night. A first kiss is real life; it is, perhaps, as real as our lives will ever be.

In the cold light of sobriety, and while I have your undivided attention, I feel I should also take a moment to settle that question of the difference between ‘narrator’ and ‘protagonist’, which seems a useful distinction to be understood by somebody who is attempting to build a career in the publishing industry. The narrator is the one who tells the story; the protagonist is the character who experiences it. In a sense, the narrator is the lens through which the story passes; but the protagonist is the engine that powers the narrative forward, and regardless of the narrator’s bias, he or she only ever owns the telling: it is the protagonist to whom the true events of the story belong.

Dear Woman Who Wanted To Photograph Our First Kiss, you may narrate a fictional version of my life, and that tale is yours to bend and twist and belittle however your heart desires; but the true story will always belong to me and the wonderful man with whom I spent that evening. I will never write down how we felt, merely so that you can feast your eyes upon our affection; and anyway, I know that no words of mine could ever do our feelings justice. But I do know that however ‘cute’ or ‘adorable’ you believe it to be, you will never come close to understanding the profundity of what passed between us. In future, if you want to know what love is, I suggest that you go home to where it waits or set out to find it in the world for yourself; never again must you attempt to steal your emotional sustenance from the richness of strangers’ hearts.

Dear Woman Who Wanted To Photograph Our First Kiss: the purpose of this letter is to give you notice that the lives of gay people – our second dates, our first kisses, our shared secrets, our public declarations and our private assurances, and all of our most treasured and intimate moments – belong to us, and only to us. In the story of our lives we must never be treated as your supporting characters. We are and must always be regarded as our own protagonists.

Emlyn Pearce
(the human-being on a second date).

Wednesday 16 September 2015

The Importance of Small Things (for Aylan Kurdi)

For a few thrilling weeks in 1987 I was best friends with a potato. His name was Peter. I was five when we met; he can’t have been older than a week. Peter came from a big paper bag in the kitchen and was selected for friendship because he was beautifully rounded, evenly-formed and smooth of skin. I gave him a carefully carved face and four toothpick limbs; he gave me a constant smile and a loyalty that was as quiet as it was dependable. My memory has faded, but I think it’s fair to say that I loved that little potato man as much as any man ever loved a child of his creation. From the day I made him, I knew I would never forget him. Indeed, I never have.

As adults it is incredibly easy to forget the special relationship that small children have with small things.  Often we are too busy to see the look of wonder on our small ones’ faces when a feather drifts in through an open window, as if carefully posted by an invisible hand; or we fail to notice the heart-shaped stone that is squeezed for such a long time in sweaty palms that tiny muscles begin to ache and cramp (but still don’t let go). Children have always found abundant magic in objects that are so small that their very existence is almost a kind of secret. But just give a three-year-old a key, a coin, a ladybird or a leaf and you will see that for small people, an object’s allure only increases the smaller it gets.

Peter didn’t last, of course. With no immune system to protect him from the ravages of bacteria, within weeks of his birth his flesh began to turn starchy and wet. His features became indistinguishable as his body lost its integrity, melted into itself, and fell away. I gave him all the treatment I could: when his toothpick arms began to crack and splinter, he quickly received transplants; I handled him as rarely and as gently as possible, sometimes with a nice clean tissue, in an attempt to preserve the fragile bond between his disintegrating skin and his pale innards. In the end, when his body began to turn green, I took him into the garden, all by myself, and laid him to rest in his family’s plot – the corner of the compost heap nearest the wattle trees. I held my tears inside. Peter wouldn’t have wanted me to cry. 

In time, there would be other small things in my life: a blue marble with a white swirl inside that I found in the cleft of a tree at primary school; the two tiny china gnomes my parents had bought on their honeymoon in South Africa’s Eastern Cape; the snails’ shells I buried under a tree in a failed attempt to start a fossil factory and make my millions. When I was ten I traveled alone to the UK from South Africa to tour the country with my grandparents, and while walking on a beach in Wales I found a pebble that was as black and smooth as polished jet. I decided that I would carry that pebble with me for the rest of the trip, and eventually back to Johannesburg, as a reminder of the country where my mother’s father was born. Riding in my jacket pocket, the little pebble went with us all the way across the Irish Sea to Dublin – I made sure to squeeze him now and then to check that he was still snug as a bug – and then all the way to Galway on the west coast, before we slowly wound our way back east again towards England. But my pebble’s odyssey to the far end of Africa was suddenly curtailed as we re-crossed the Irish Sea: in a moment of reckless curiosity I threw him from the deck into the boat’s violently churning wake, and, just like that, he was gone forever. I still vividly remember the immediate and awful panic that I felt, the urge to pull him back before he had even hit the water, and the lingering guilt that instead of holding my little travelling companion tight and keeping him safe, I had condemned him to life at the bottom of a cold, dark sea. In fact, my memory of the guilt I felt is more vivid than my recollection of much of what we saw on that trip, because when we are children small objects do not merely stir our curiosity, they often become the portals through which we begin to understand our own inner lives, and our budding emotions.

The fascination that children hold for small things only makes it more strange that adults often choose objects for children that prize colour and scale over meaning, and that buckle and break before the Queen has even finished her speech – but that’s only because most of us have confused the magical interior of a child’s mind with the materialistic interior of an adult’s. If you want to give a child a present that they will love (and not merely destroy), you should give them something that will fit comfortably in the palm of their hand; something hard and durable; preferably very old and with plenty of tiny details, and then tell them exactly why it matters and that they must never lose it or let it go. You can grab a child’s attention with a piece of plastic for an hour or two, but give her a relic with a tale attached, and you will enthrall her forever.

I used to think that I had lost the ability to fall in love with small things. Adulthood is tightly packed with so many bland, gigantic, IMPORTANT things, things that barge in, all sharp elbows and shouting like drunken students at a Chinese buffet. Our cities rush and rage, our politicians demand that LESSONS WILL BE LEARNED, our banks shudder and fail, our bosses berate, our computers and smart-phones and widescreen TVs explode and crash and dazzle – and before you know it, it seems impossible to remember how exciting it was to find the hidden face in the rust on an old bicycle frame, or how relaxing it was to spend a few hours sitting cross-legged on the garden path whittling a popsicle stick. But occasionally, if we just allow a little space for contemplation, even our jaded adult attention spans can bristle and spark as if they were still brand new.

From time to time, I still go looking for small things. These days they can be harder to find – my adult eyes have been conditioned to look instead for the roar of advertising and the flicker of potential danger. It takes a concentrated effort to search instead for the spaces between, to study the edges of things. But sometimes, when my mind is at ease and the city’s drone has receded a little from the foreground, my eye for small things returns, and I am transported back to a time when a marble was a tiny world, and a potato seemed to possess a kindness all of his own making.

Three or four years ago, on a rainy Friday when I should have been at work, my friend Esther and I went looking for small things together. Our search lead us to a very specific place, where we knew that wonderful small things would be waiting: the Foundling Museum in central London, which commemorates the Foundling Hospital, a home for orphaned and abandoned children opened by Thomas Coram in 1741. The hospital doesn’t exist anymore – it moved from central London to Surrey in 1937, then to Hertfordshire, and closed in the 1950s; but a sense of what it must have been like is preserved in the museum by thousands of photographs, paintings and even video interviews with some of the last children to sleep in its dormitories.

The Foundling Museum
The suffering that the children of England had to endure during the first few centuries of the Foundling Hospital’s existence was horrific. With the Industrial Revolution beginning just twenty years after the institution opened, children weren’t the precious small things they are today: they became little more than conveniently-sized workers, with fingers small enough to unpick the tangled cotton in the dark Satanic mills of Manchester and bodies slender enough to fit deep inside the soot-clogged chimneys of London. Under-nourished and with virtually no medical care, in much of the country a child reaching adulthood was the exception rather than the rule. The Foundling Hospital’s own statistics speak volumes about the experience of children in Britain at that time: of the nearly 15,000 children presented to the hospital in the four years from 1756, only 4,400 survived to be apprenticed out.

Most of the children who ended up in the Foundling Hospital were left there by parents who loved them desperately, who wanted to keep them, but were simply unable to because of the dire circumstances of their lives. It was poverty – simple, merciless poverty – that pulled those families apart. Because the children were entrusted rather than abandoned, their parents developed an informal system of marking a child as theirs, so that they could be identified and reclaimed when – and if – the parents were able to look after them again. They did this by leaving tiny trinkets and tokens with their children as symbols of their love; the more special and unique the item, the more likely they would be able to identify their child in the future. It was these small things that caught my eye the first time I visited the Foundling Museum.

The tokens are extraordinarily varied: they include thimbles, rings, hairpins, knotted threads, even a hazelnut; and every single item represents the love that a parent felt for their child at the moment that hardship tore them from each other. One poor little chap, a baby called John who was later renamed Robin Carr, was even delivered to the hospital with his own caul (the amniotic membrane that covers a foetus), which was believed to be a lucky thing to hold onto (if probably a maggoty horror show in the summer months).

Another foundling was Elizabeth Harris, born on 6th June 1756 and brought to the Foundling Hospital by her father. Like most other parents of foundlings, Mr Harris was not giving his daughter up willingly: he was about to be transported to Australia for seven years for stealing coal. Very little is known about the Harris family or their situation – whether Elizabeth’s mother was still alive, whether she had any siblings or other family, or what desperate circumstances drove Elizabeth’s father to steal the coal that would wrench him from his child – but one thing is beyond doubt. Elizabeth Harris’ father loved his daughter, and the token he left at Thomas Coram’s hospital has outlasted the enormous tragedy of their lives and still stands as a testament to that love 270 years later. 

The token is a James II coin, rubbed smooth on one side, and carefully engraved with Elizabeth’s name and her date of birth. The inscription curves around the edge of the coin, leaving room in the centre for the depiction of a winged cherub, looking to its left and smiling slightly, its features minute but exquisitely rendered. I always wonder about the significance of the cherub – I like to think that it was intended by her father as a kind of guardian angel to guide Elizabeth in his absence. He must have thought that the token may be the only symbol of his love that his daughter would ever know. Sadly, even that small mercy was denied her. The hospital’s governors believed that unclaimed children should not be weighed down by the knowledge of their origins, and therefore not one of the tokens left there was ever handed over to the foundling for whom it was intended. Even if Elizabeth had received her token, the reunion with her father was never to be: she died of consumption long before his seven years in the penal colony were served. It seems particularly cruel that although the love that Elizabeth’s father felt for her is plain to thousands of visitors to the Foundling Hospital today, Elizabeth herself probably never laid eyes on the small engraved angel her father sent to watch over her.

In twenty-first century Britain, we live in very different times from Elizabeth Harris and her father. In the modern version of the Harrises' country, we endeavour to make sure that our children are properly cared for, that they have access to free healthcare and education, and that their emotional traumas are listened to and not beaten into silence. We even have the luxury of waxing lyrical about the many different ‘Golden Ages’ of childhood, when kids were apparently so much healthier and luckier and happier and better behaved than they are today – sometimes we mean the 1950s, when thousands were crippled by polio; or the 1940s, when children saw their towns flattened by bombs; or the 1970s, when sexual abuse was never spoken about; or those truly blessed children of the early nineteenth century whose government declared, in the 1819 Cotton Mills and Factory Act, that children aged 9–16 years were to be limited to 12 hours’ work per day.

Our country, for all its flaws and shortcomings, is now one in which we have the ability to educate every child, to make sure that every child has a roof over his or her head, is fully vaccinated, and has enough to eat. And yet, a dark shadow still falls across our British soul: for it seems that our present comforts have made us oblivious to the true anguish of our own history. They have made us forget what it really means to live in absolute poverty, to experience the kind of deprivation that isn’t about smaller televisions or not going on holiday, but instead speaks in toxic drinking water and never learning how to write your name.

If we could speak to Elizabeth Harris’ father as he sat huddled on that antipodes-bound boat, thinking of the daughter he had left behind with nothing but a tiny engraved coin to remember him by – and perhaps praying that one day he would make it back and find her, all grown up, still squeezing it in her aching hand – what advice would he give to the parents of twenty-first century Britain? Parents who never have to steal coal to buy food, or send their children to work for seventy-two hours a week, or have them taken by strangers to be raised, or watch them die one by one of tuberculosis, typhoid, dysentery and cholera? Perhaps he would tell them to spend more time with their children, because some small things do not stay small for long and can never be made small again. He would probably say that they should not worry if they cannot buy the biggest or most expensive presents, because an object that fits in a child’s hand – but is given from a parent’s heart – will last the test of time better than any mechanical gadget or molded piece of plastic. I’m sure he would tell us not to lament the loss of the Golden Age of childhood, because we still have time on our side and our children can live the best of all possible childhoods now, if only we adults have the desire, the energy and the imagination to make it so.

I think that Elizabeth’s father would ask us to remember that the suffering that poverty caused in his life didn’t end with his death, but simply migrated across the earth: from the factories of the East End it has found new homes in the slums of Lagos and the drought-ravaged uplands of Kenya; it is in the Afghan valleys too remote for antenatal care, and the Brazilian favelas where gunshots echo through classrooms on a daily basis. He would probably say that we should remember that economic migrants don’t come to Britain to attain wealth, but to escape poverty that can be as terrifying and deadly as any war: to make sure that their children are safe from disease, are able to be educated, can have clothes to wear and the security of three meals a day. He would surely remind us that the many British parents transported to Australia for stealing bread did not do so for the glory of possessing the bread, but for the necessity of giving it to their children to eat.

Most importantly of all, I think that Elizabeth’s father would probably say that we should learn from our children, who already know that things are most precious when they are small. As that poor man looked out across the cold, dark sea unfurling relentlessly, and eternally, between him and his daughter, hoping that the people to whom he had entrusted his daughter and her precious coin would look after them both and keep them safe, he would probably tell us exactly the same thing that a two-year-old would: when we are lucky enough to have a small thing – whether it is one of our own creation or one that someone else has lent for safe keeping – we should hold it tight, keep it safe, carry it with us, and never, ever lose it or let it go.

Sunday 15 March 2015

What Are Gay People For?

I once went missing. In that strange gap between adolescence and adulthood, when the mind’s maturity still lags behind the body’s, a friend and I disappeared for a few hours, sparking an urgent search. What happened that summer night was so strange and exciting that I am fairly certain I will still remember it when I am old and grey and unable to remember much else. It was the kind of extraordinary moment that can only burn itself into the memory at a time when the world is still new enough to seem surprising at every turn.
After our A-level exams, two friends and I had set off from Durham for the Lake District for a few days’ camping, our first real break after two years of hard work. Matthew Williams, Jess Robinson and I were massive geeks (we still are, of course, but the effect has been lessened as age has made geeks of even our coolest contemporaries). While thousands of our peers lost their virginity and picked up gonorrhoea on the vodka-soaked beaches of the Med, Matthew, Jess and I went on long walks, ate banoffee pie, discussed the books we’d read, and tried – and failed – to name all fifty American states (DELAWARE! DAMN YOU TO HELL DELAWARE!). We climbed to the top of hills and, with the freshly acquired knowledge of our Geography A-level, we discussed how the beautiful sunlit valleys before us had been carved out over thousands of years by the tremendous force of glaciers. Our friendships felt bespoke: three young people who could never be considered ‘cool’, but who had managed by sheer fluke to find a dozen or so other teenagers who thought ‘being cool’ meant knowing capital cities and the arguments for and against House of Lords reform. Reading our list of hobbies you’re probably glad you didn’t go on that holiday, but I will always be very grateful that I was there.

I knew I had an important task to perform during our few days away. With some prompting from a few members of our group who already knew, I had decided that I had to tell Jess that I was gay; after all, we were close friends and were planning to go travelling together later in our gap year; to keep such a secret from her seemed unnecessary. Anyway, I knew exactly what her reaction would be: she would say that she supported me, that it didn’t make any difference to our friendship, perhaps that she had already worked it out. But I was wrong. Her reaction was quite different.

At the end of an evening sitting by the campfire, and on our way to brush our teeth, I decided to steal Jess for a few moments and get the job done. We strolled away from the campsite. I'm not sure how long we walked through the heavy darkness, but eventually we found ourselves next to a lake, glittering ever so slightly in the blackness. I can’t remember exactly what we spoke about, but I know I was beating around the bush for a while before I finally summoned the courage to say, ‘I’m gay’.

Jess’ reply blindsided me: ‘I am as likely to turn up to a reunion in twenty years’ time with a woman as with a man’.

It was the one reaction I hadn’t expected. I had been so wrapped up in my own life and my own struggles – like most eighteen-year-olds are – that I had completely missed something that had been in front of me for two years. Jess told me she had never revealed this secret to anyone else, and so what was supposed to be a quick chat before bedtime was soon becoming a long and complex conversation as Jess unburdened herself of so many years of secret keeping. We talked about the people we had fancied, our celebrity crushes (Helen Hunt –an excellent choice! – and Jesse Spencer from Neighbours, obviously) and more serious things, like how to come out at university, to the rest of our friends, and to our families. Time seemed to lose its significance; there was so much to say, and it almost felt as if this conversation was the most important thing happening anywhere in the universe.

But we were not the only people in the universe, not by a long way. You might be wondering what our dear friend Matthew was doing while all this earnest chat and secret-swapping was going on. Surely he had brushed his teeth and gone to bed, and was now lying sound asleep while his friends unravelled the complexity of their newly adult lives? Not quite. See, Matthew was too good a friend to go to sleep not knowing where his friends had gone, and after searching for a few hours on his own, he had contacted the Lake District Search and Mountain Rescue team.

Oh yes.

That’s right.

Shit was about to get very real.

Mountain Rescue explained, with extraordinary tact, that generally when an eighteen-year-old male and an eighteen-year-old female abscond from a camping trip in the middle of the night, the policy is to wait a few hours and give them time to return of their own accord before sending out a search party. This did little to quell Matthew’s concern (he probably had an inkling that midnight shenanigans were not on the agenda for me and Jess!), and so he had phoned his father.

When Jess and I returned to our tent at about 4am, there was no sign of Matthew. After finally locating a torch, we discovered a shocking note: he had gone to look for us. What should we do? Set off to look for him in turn? Or stay at the tent and wait for him to come back? Or was there some kind of Mountain Rescue organisation we should ring? Matthew would know exactly what to do, but Matthew wasn’t here anymore!

After some deliberation, we decided to set off to find our friend. We wandered for quite a while, in pitch blackness, and we became aware of how limiting the darkness could be: with no streetlights and no towns nearby, it was impossible to tell if Matthew was anywhere near us or not. We tried calling for him, but heard no response. What had been mild concern was quickly becoming the kind of intense worry that Matthew himself must have been feeling for several hours already.

Finally, walking down a lane so shrouded in darkness that even our own feet were completely invisible, we became aware of two figures walking towards us. We knew it wasn’t Matthew, who was on his own; but then as the other people moved past us something pulled us back towards them:

‘Matthew? Is that you?’

It was Matthew – thank goodness! – but it was not only Matthew. It turned out that his father, John, had been just as worried as his son about me and Jess, and at one o’clock on a weekday morning, he had climbed into his car and driven eighty miles from Durham to find us. When Jess and I realised what had happened, we obviously felt awful, and began to apologise profusely, bracing ourselves for a well-deserved lecture on how to be responsible adults. But John Williams’ reaction was the second surprising reaction of the evening: ‘As long as you’re both safe,’ he said, ‘That’s the main thing. And anyway, I will get to see a beautiful sunrise on my drive back to work.’


The best way I can think of describing what it feels like to be gay and in the closet, is that it is as if you are missing from your own life. As a closeted person moves through their world, as if in total darkness, meticulously covering their tracks, neutralising pronouns, lying about their movements, fabricating imaginary lovers who live too far away to ever appear, or not daring to speak the name of the actual lovers who exist in closets nearby, the true self is absent, locked away, pushed so far down that it is no surprise that those neglected selves sometimes never make it back to the surface.

Jess was one of the first people to come out to me, but there have been many more since that day. Some friends have come out about their sexuality, but others have made confessions about grief, or debt, or infidelity, or depression, or illness, or unrequited love. Of course I have had to come out too, and perhaps it is something that straight people sometimes don’t grasp, that coming out as gay is an endless process, like the weathering of a landscape – often the answer to the question ‘When did you come out?’ can be something like ‘Half an hour ago, to the guy who delivered the washing machine’. But I’ve promised myself that I will always come out when the situation requires; not only because I refuse to ever again go missing from my own life, but because I know that there might be others around me who are in darkness, and they may need someone with the kindness of John Williams to bring them to safety.

Coming out – revealing our true selves, including our greatest flaws and the attributes that others may perceive as our greatest flaws – is to make ourselves vulnerable. Vulnerability, in turn, is often used as a synonym for weakness, but from the image of Jesus Christ hanging bloodied and tortured on a cross, to the singer Adele crying over her lost love at the Brit Awards, we seem to be drawn to those who are able to expose their pain but also retain their strength. In fact evolutionary theory reveals that being able to display vulnerability may actually be a way of displaying strength to others.

In his epoch-defining book 'The Selfish Gene', Richard Dawkins considers vulnerability and the part it plays in one of the greatest mysteries in evolutionary theory – why, if genes are locked in constant gladiatorial combat against the genes of others, do individuals intentionally make themselves vulnerable and behave altruistically? He describes the trait of a small species of bird in which one male will typically act as a lookout for the others as they feed. Ostensibly, the individual bird gains nothing and puts himself in huge danger: he makes himself conspicuous to predators, and therefore risks his very existence – surely, this lessens the chances of him reproducing and passing on his genetic material? But Dawkins hypothesises that he is doing something else as well: he is saying to all the lady birds, ‘I am strong and powerful enough to put myself in great danger without fearing the consequences; if any predator attacks, I have the power and gumption to give him a damn good pecking’. By extension, when we as human beings reveal our vulnerability - when we come out - we are telling our detractors that a weakness is only a weakness for as long as its bearer treats it as such.


A decade and a half has now passed since our midnight confessions, and the glacier of history has continued its inexorable progress. Same-sex marriage, not allowed anywhere in 2000, is now legal in eighteen countries, from Sweden to Uruguay, Canada to South Africa; just a few days ago, there was a dramatic new development in Illinois, where same-sex marriage, which was due to begin in June, was brought forward in Cook County to 22 February, resulting in 46 couples rushing down to pick up their marriage licenses, and breaking new ground for equality in America’s fifth most populous state (which makes Illinois much more significant than, say, Delaware, which is 45th in population and therefore utterly forgettable. Delaware? More like Dela-where?).

There is so much abstract discussion of homosexuality as an issue – social, political, legal and biological – that it can seem as if we are viewing the whole thing like a coastguard looking out of a helicopter: we see the churning waves and passing tides, but sometimes it can be almost impossible to believe that there are individual human lives down there, being tossed around by the irresistible power of the water. I have sometimes felt that way as an observer of the struggle for equal marriage in the US, which is still by far the most complex struggle anywhere in the world. Through circuit courts and constitutional amendments, Supreme Court rulings, the introduction and then repeal of Proposition 8 and of the Defence of Marriage Act, popular votes won and lost and judicial rulings increasingly choosing to be on the right side of history, discriminatory laws have been chipped away, killed off, and occasionally #spoileralert resurrected like Glenn Close in 'Fatal Attraction'. As for individual people, they have sometimes seemed invisible in all of this: the women who simply want to hold their dying wives’ hands; the men who want to be fathers to their children not only in their hearts but in the eyes of the law. But history is not a single sweeping narrative, it is the accumulated stories of people just like us.

And then this week, amidst the deluge of newsprint and debate, from a distance of 4000 miles, I picked out a face I know very well, sparkling like a familiar diamond transcending the surface of this great historical glacier. There, in a TV news report from Chicago, standing in front of a clerk in Cook County, Illinois, with her fiancée standing next to her and wearing the truest and most wonderful smile I have ever seen on her face, was my old friend Jess Robinson, applying for the marriage license that will complete the ascendance that she started in a deep valley fourteen years ago. The eighteen-year-old girl who first revealed herself in such intense darkness that the expression on her face was almost completely obliterated, seemed to be illuminating the room with the light of her smile as she and the love of her life, Becka West, made history by becoming one of the first 46 same-sex couples to marry in the state of Illinois. They were making themselves vulnerable, of course – anyone they knew could see them on television, could pass judgment on their relationship – but anybody who saw them must also concede that they were revealing their strength, as individuals, and now, for the rest of their lives, as a couple. They were not afraid, why should they be? For the greatest weapon we have against fear is love. I realised that my friend has made it all the way to the top of her mountain, and there she was standing, triumphant, and able to enjoy the beautiful landscape that all her struggles have carved.

If only all the movement in this great liberation struggle had been forward: but sadly, as some countries have increasingly recognised the rights of gay people to be respected and treated equally, we have seen a frightening rise in homophobic legislation in places like Russia, India, Uganda and Nigeria, and a disgraceful failure on the part of the Australian government to follow the same path of progress as other western democracies. I hope that those of us who are lucky enough to live in countries which respect human rights do not allow our liberation to make us forget the terrible struggles that people like us still endure around the world.

Just as the progress of gay rights has been mixed over the last fourteen years, so there have been ups and downs in our group of friends too: there have been many happy weddings besides Jess and Becka’s, and, in the last few years, many beautiful children have added a fantastic new dimension to our friendship group; but there has also been loss and pain.

A few years after our Lake District adventure, and before I was ever able to thank him properly for what he did that night, John Williams died very suddenly. I will always be sad that I never had the chance to explain, from one adult to another, what his kindness meant to me and Jess that night. At a turning point in both our lives, a moment full of fear and trepidation, he would have been completely justified in giving us a lecture about being responsible adults. We expected him to; indeed we probably deserved it. Instead, and although he probably died without ever knew the exact reason for our disappearance, John’s reaction that night felt like an implicit acceptance of what Jess and I had told each other; our unexplained vanishing was met with only kindness and forgiveness.

I have tried to remember the lesson that Matthew’s dad taught us: to not leap to judgment, because the reasons for people’s mistakes may not be what they seem. I know that he would have celebrated my and Jess’coming out, because his son has remained one of our staunchest allies and most loyal friends over the last fourteen years. When Matthew and I talk about his dad, the subject of that night in the Lakes will often come up, and Matthew knows that Jess and I will always regard it as one of the greatest acts of kindness that we have ever received. What a wonderful thing to be remembered for.

All of us will endure struggles in our lives – grief, heartbreak, exclusion and loneliness will come to us each in turn – and the act of bearing terrible burdens and needing to release them is unfortunately not unique to gay people. But maybe this is part of why gay people exist. If we can find our way through the darkness of this struggle, to come out and reveal our strength through our vulnerability, we will be able to find others who have gone missing from their lives and bring them back home too. A few weeks ago, another of the wonderful lesbians in my life, my friend Charlie Atkinson, introduced me to a song about the history of the gay liberation movement by John Grant in which he sums up this idea with simple eloquence:

‘This pain 
It is a glacier moving through you
And carving out deep valleys
And creating spectacular landscapes
And nourishing the ground
With precious minerals...’

The symbol of the LGBT community is a rainbow, and yes, it might be a thing of many colours, a sign of diversity – but a rainbow is often paid for with a storm, just as the awesome erosion wrought by a glacier is the price of a beautiful valley. I am sure that if we can draw a meaning for the existence of all of these varieties of human being, it is that what matters most about our lives is not whether we create new people and perpetuate the species, as if we were merely arbitrary links in an endless biological chain; but that we are able to love and enhance the lives of the people who are already here, to be kind, to offer help when help is needed, to reveal our true selves and in so doing give others license to reveal their true selves as well. When our friends go missing we don't just go to sleep, we go out into the darkness and bring them home. It is something John Williams understood, and that he has passed on to his son; it is something that Jess and her wife know, and it is something that we would all do well to live by.

Jess and Becka, congratulations. Your marriage is of course one of the brightest moments in your lives, but it is truly one of the most wonderful moments in my life too. I am honoured and extremely proud to call you my friends – and Jess, if you turn up to our December reunion without your woman on your arm, shit is going to get really, really, really real.

Like, Mountain Rescue real.

My All Time Top 10 Reading Experiences

At the suggestion of Caroline Edwards, here are my All Time Top 10 Reading Experiences, in chronological order:

1. Colleen McCullough’s ‘The Thorn Birds’, in my parents’ bed in Johannesburg age 9. The first proper grown-up book I read, which led me to ask my mom, “When Ralph kneels in front of Mary, what does it mean when it says his penis is flackid?” 


(That was nothing compared to when she caught me reading my dad’s psychology book ‘The Bisexual Spouse’. Oh man, illicit childhood reading was The Best Ever.)

2. Sue Townsend’s ‘The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole’ on a trip across Ireland with my grandparents age 10. On ferries, in B&Bs and in the ‘nest’ my grandmother built for me in the back of the car, Adrian was my constant companion. The Adrian Mole books were my first proper introduction to the real Britain – a land of semi-detached houses, pasty faces and fruit cake rather than kings and castles (I even learned of the existence of the Falkland’s War at the same time as Adrian, who searches his map for hours before memorably discovering the islands under a crumb of the aforementioned fruitcake ‘off the coast of Argentina’). Although I didn’t realise it at the time, a year later I would be living in Adrian Mole’s Britain and for the first couple of years his account of the country in the 80s was the only reason I knew what the kids at school were talking about. It was also the first time I realised that simplicity and clarity in writing did not preclude profundity.

3. ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’, on a coach from Reading to Durham age 14. I was given the book for my birthday while staying with my Uncle Matthew and Aunt Michelle, along with Orwell’s Animal Farm. Of course I already knew the name Anne Frank, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that she wasn’t the perfect, prissy little girl I would have imagined. It was a huge lesson to me that it was actually Anne’s flaws – her stroppiness, her rebelliousness – that made her such an incredibly valuable human being, and that for a strong and creative mind there really is no such thing as confinement. A really comforting idea when you’re stuck on a National Express coach for six hours with a shockingly persistent pubescent erection that is anything but flackid.

4. John Irving’s ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’, sitting on a bench by Prebend’s Bridge in Durham age 18. Still my favourite novel, I remember being completely swept away by the ambition and warmth of Irving’s writing while sitting in my favourite place. It’s still one of two books that have made me really cry (in a snotty, gaspy sort of way) when I finished it at one o’clock in the morning, in a still house, when the last couple of sentences roared off the page and into my soul: ‘O God – please give him back! I shall keep asking You.’ Sad, sad times.

5. The Complete Works of Jane Austen, in a hotel in Jouvenceaux, northern Italy, age 18. During my gap year, and having taken a job as a night porter in a ski resort at 24 hours’ notice, I was feeling a bit lost. The wit and twists of Jane’s whole shebang got me through many long nights, interspersed with old episodes of ‘Cheers’ on satellite TV and drunken skiers returning from late night drinking sessions. When they asked what I was reading I would lie and show them a copy of Frank McCourt’s ‘Tis which I found on a train, because boys aren’t supposed to read Austen even though she’s clever and hella funny. (‘Tis is neither clever nor funny by the way.)

6. VS Ramachandran’s ‘Phantoms in the Brain’, age 20, third year of university. Recommended by a housemate who was studying psychology, this book about phantom limbs and how neuroscientists have learned about brain function by studying stroke victims goes into the category of ‘consciousness raiser’. It made me realise that the brain is the starting point for how the world seems to be, and that many difficult questions – Is there such a thing as ghosts? Why do some people have a foot fetish? – can be answered by looking in rather than looking out, setting me up for a later interest in determinism. It’s also quite an accolade that the book that had the most profound effect on me while I was studying English Literature was about science. 

7. Douglas Coupland’s ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, age 21. A book about lost youth at a time that I had just graduated and was leaving my youth behind. One of the best renderings of nostalgia I have ever read, Coupland made me mourn the passing of 1970s Vancouver even though I’d never been there. 

8. Pumla Gobodo Madikezela’s ‘A Human Being Died that Night’, in the Costa Coffee on the corner of Dean and Old Compton streets in Soho, age 29. An account of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission by a psychologist who was one of the commissioners. This book unites the best of science and fiction, by showing the power of psychology to change people’s lives. Another consciousness raiser: it brought to my attention some of the worst crimes of apartheid, the psychological mechanisms underpinning those crimes, the pernicious effects of ‘lived trauma’, and redefined forgiveness as a revolutionary act, a force for liberation. This is the second book that really made me cry, when Madikezela tells the story of a white Afrikaner whose small son was killed in a bombing carried out by the ANC. He said he was proud of his son, that he had died a martyr so that the people who killed him could be free. I still get chills thinking about that. This book made me want to be a better man.

9. Julia Donaldson’s ‘Hairy Maclary’, read aloud to my year-old nephew, Jasper, on a sofa in Manchester, age 31. Reading aloud to someone else is a glorious and dying art; the pleasure of seeing a small child’s eyes light up because of the musicality of words, without even understanding their meaning, is a reminder how deep our instinct for stories runs, and that books are, at their heart, vessels of magic; that the reader plays a huge part in creating their meaning, and that they bind people together like no other object can. Seeing Jasper rush to his pile of books and excitedly bring three or four back to be read fills me with joy, because I know that if he sticks with these funny little packages of ink and wood pulp his adventures will be endless.

10. Saul Bellow’s ‘Herzog’ and Günter Grasse’s ‘The Tin Drum’, outside Violet coffee shop in Dalston on beautiful summer afternoons in 2014. Reading these two at the same time seemed to inform my reading of both: Herzog’s neurotic Jewish protagonist, who reacts to the disintegration of his life by writing letters he never posts, gained an extra dimension alongside Grasse’s novel describing the approach of World War II through the eyes of a crazy dwarf with a piercing voice and a tin drum that he JUST. WON’T. STOP. BANGING. (Incidentally, this dwarf was apparently part of the inspiration for Owen Meany.) A lesson in how the reader’s context changes a book’s meaning, and that beautiful summer afternoons cannot be taken for granted: they can suddenly be ended either by explosions in the world, or by implosions of the self.