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.

The Watchmaker's Wife

On the fractured coast of Penobscot Bay, where the forests of New England surrender to the grim, grey north Atlantic, Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker came ashore and built a house that faced east, towards the ghettoes and the war. As soon as the roof was on and the chimney unfurled its smoky calligraphy across the wide, clear sky, Mr Kerchelskis walked down the steep and stony hill to the town of Stockton Springs, where he found a cosy inn and carefully selected the very first whiskey of his life. He drank slowly, standing up and facing east, his pale eyes focused on the spot beyond a foggy window where the sun would tend to rise.

This was where Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker was standing when Mildred McNamara found him, nursing his whiskey with the same dreamy detachment that her face displayed when she nursed the shattered wrecks of men at Stockton Springs’ Nursing Home for Disabled Ex-servicemen. Mildred had grown all her life in the loamy soils of coastal Maine, the descendant of Scotch-Irish immigrants who had come here to catch fish, cut timber and practice their Puritanism unencumbered, men and women who feared nothing but God and perished by the dozen in sunken trawlers and under fallen trunks, until the famously cheerful Mildred McNamara was the very last of their line: a homely, pink-cheeked girl with eyes that diverged slightly from one another so that she seemed to look around the world rather than directly at it. But even though Mildred’s drifting eyes divorced the image of the world from the world itself, they also possessed an almost supernatural ability to see its silver linings. Mildred’s optimism was born of her amnesia: she knew not the smallest detail of how her ancestors had suffered, nor the depth of the pain experienced by those who survived the tragedies that dominoed through the generations that preceded her. Mildred would live her entire life without ever knowing that she was the last daughter of twelve dead families.

Mildred McNamara saw silver everywhere. Indeed, it was by a quirk of geography and timing that the young nurse’s first view of her future husband was of his silver lining, for just as she entered the cosy inn where Mr Kerchelskis was acquainting his palate with the tang of whiskey, the lighthouse at Heron Neck flashed its dazzling beam through the east-facing window, obliterating the features of Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker and leaving only an angelic impression of a man so lean and lithe that he left plenty of room for strangers to hang their own ideas upon him. For Mildred McNamara it was a case of love at first blinding; none of the faceless ex-soldiers she had tried and failed to fall in love with could have quite matched the featurelessness of Mr Kerchelskis that evening, and she realised in that instant that none of them could ever have been wounded enough to earn the affections that this silhouetted stranger had just inspired.

On the same day that Adolf Hitler fired a piece of metal into the roof of his own mouth, Mildred McNamara and Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker wrapped metal around each other’s bodies: for him, a ring all the way from New York City, gloriously gold and new; for her, a watch – for what else could a watchmaker give to his bride? – made from the parts of watches worn by his mother and grandmother, each removed from their original owner’s wrist before tattoos were written there instead. The church’s throng of white lilies all died as Mildred McNmara walked down the aisle, and as the organist played, a hymn book or two fell fatally wounded in the trenches between the dark oak pews – but the only living Mrs Kerchelskis saw nothing but her own face, veiled and smiling in her husband’s eyes.

Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker carried his wife up the steep and stony hill to the house he had built, facing east towards the motherland and the past. He deposited her in the kitchen and spoke in an English that was too flawless and formal to ever be a mother tongue:

‘My love, my sweet delight,’ said Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker, ‘Happiness will be your sole task in this house. Do not trouble yourself with cooking and cleaning, for your hands are too precious for such menial tasks, your spirit too bright and gay to be rubbed away against washboards and burnt layer by layer by caustic detergents’ – but even as he spoke, the unhappy shadow of a small boy moved in the corner of the watchmaker’s eye, his face streaked with fresh tears, an empty jam jar in his hand as he moved towards the last carriage of a crowded train. Mr Kerchelskis paused, and blinked, and then continued – ‘However, if you wish, you may also occupy your time with the production of fruit preserves to pass the time before our first child is ready for the world.’

‘Oh darling, my darling! What a wonderful idea!’ trilled the watchmaker’s wife, unclasping her wedding watch, which she folded in a silk handkerchief and placed on a high shelf, far from harm’s way, and prepared to set to work.

Mildred Kerchelskis took up her husband’s suggestion with relishes; later, a sweet slew of jams and jellies; before too long, pickles and marmalades joined the assortment of jars in the crowded pantry. Over the years that followed, tens of thousands of gooseberries, raspberries, strawberries, apples, pears, and peaches were grown on the slopes of Mr Kerchelskis’ hand-built home and met their end in Mildred’s bubbling pot; while his wife sliced and stewed and picked and pickled, Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker made watches in his little workshop at the bottom of the hill between the strawberry patch and the road to Stockton Springs. A sort of happiness took hold in the home of the watchmaker and his cheerful beloved, and only the ache of an un-conceived child prevented Mr Kerchelskis from entirely losing himself in the sugary joy that filled a thousand glass jars around their home.

In the week that a rush of fire and radiation brought down the final curtain on the Pacific theatre, bursting the eyes of 150,000 people and sending them running like bloody tears down their faces, Mildred Kerchelskis set a personal record: 150 jars of gooey strawberry jam, labelled and stacked in the corner of the coal cellar, each jar crowned with a circle of gingham cloth fixed in place with an elastic band. As pots of jam cooled on every available windowsill, and the heat of the world’s war cooled across London, Tokyo and Berlin, a colder war began, and Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker began to wonder if the frigidity of this new conflict had permeated his own body and that of his wife, for the child that played in his nightly reverie had still not been enticed into daylight.

In a fit of mourning that was partly for his unborn children and partly for the children he saw boarding those fire-breathing trains in Warsaw, Mr Kerchelskis took his wife aside and asked her when they might bring a new life into the world, a pinprick of light to shine against the bleak hinterland of his memory.

Mildred’s response was as plain and pragmatic as the string on a taut bow:

‘The problem with children,’ trilled the watchmaker’s wife as she simultaneously sliced the heads off seven little strawberries, ‘Is that they grow up. They cast their toys and carefree games aside, leave their schoolbooks to gather dust, and they go into the world, build their own lives and return only as a scavenger would, to pick at the bones of their parents’ homes, to leech from the old and infirm.’ Mildred threw the strawberry stems into the fire, where they disappeared with a satisfying hiss – ‘Why should we go into all the trouble of nursing and caring for a baby, and then the various challenges of a growing child, of giving it all of our love and our time, of feeding it my jams and jellies, only to see it outgrow our efforts, and walk down that road to Stockton Springs without even looking back to say goodbye?’

Mr Kerchelskis wanted to say that the memories of loved children are just as glorious and real as the children ever were, that they still glitter and bristle in dreams and recollection; he wanted to say that the greatest joy of raising children is precisely in the moment of setting them free, in that exhilarating instant of seeing them spread their wings and glide towards lives of their own; he even wanted to say – indeed he nearly did say – that not all children do grow up, and that children growing up never seems to be a problem when one has known children who didn’t.

But in the end, Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker said nothing. All of these words, and many more, stopped dead at his lips, froze upon on his tongue, curdled in his fearful cortex – for he loved his wife, and he knew that she loved him, and true love will always inhibit the infliction of pain. Indeed Mildred Kerchelskis, for all her blind optimism and powers of dreamy detachment, could see that the silver lining of her husband’s face had been tarnished by her careless words, and so, reeling, she spoke again, so quickly that it felt as if her ears were learning of the words at the same moment as her husband’s:

‘Now if there was a way to have children who could stay children forever, who could be preserved in their youthful ways, frozen at the point that they are most precious and beautiful... That would be a project worth pursuing.’

And so it was, after much more discussion and deliberation, and shortly before their fifteenth wedding anniversary, that Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker and his wife Mildred opened their doors to the orphans and urchins of Maine. Through an efficient little agency in Portland, they were assigned young people from every corner of the Lighthouse State – from the bustling streets of Bangor and the quiet shores of Mooselookmeguntic Lake, children unloved or abandoned, infants and teenagers whose parents were too ill or mad or dead or imprisoned to care for them, all lugged their sad suitcases along the shores of Penobscot Bay to a house that faced east, across the roaring sea to the old world.

As the sixties began to swing, the house that Mr Kerchelskisbuilt shook with the laughter of other people’s children. Boys pinged the elastic bands from Mildred’s jam jars off the walls and ceilings; girls twisted and shouted in the kitchen; the coal cellar became by turns the pod of a moon-bound shuttle and a hideout for Russian spies, and the Vietnam War broke out in the same upstairs bedroom that had once served as the Texas Schoolbook Depository.

Amidst the banter and bedlam of course a little sadness would often fall into the lives of these little ones far from home, but through all those decades of temporary children Mr Kerchelskis was never quite as surprised by their differences as he was by the one thing that helped them all in their most difficult moments. Whenever a child was afflicted by a night terror or the pang of homesickness, the watchmaker would smuggle a jar of homemade jam from the tightly-packed pantry, down the garden to his workshop for watches. Some youngsters raced through their jars like hungry wolves; others would taste a morsel and then paint sticky pink beards around their faces – but however they were consumed, those delicious preserves never failed to bring a smile to a tear-streaked face or dull the pain of scraped elbows and knees. And when the time came for the children to leave their fleeting home, Mr Kerchelskis always made sure that he pressed a brand new jar of jam into their tiny hand on the platform of Stockton Springs Railway Station, for the watchmaker had promised himself that he would never again allow a small child to undertake a frightening journey with nothing to eat on the way. To this day they say you can still identify the orphans of Maine by the jars of jam they keep in their homes, every single last one still sealed, for some kinds of jam are more delicious in the memory than they could ever be in the mouth.

Mildred Kerchelskis and her sentimental husband grew old. Their bodies began to crack and creak, their voices dimmed, and a light dusting of frost on their hair gave silver linings to their faces. After fifty years, the children stopped coming – they had to, for no longer could Mr Kerchelskis’ tired old spine take the weight of a dozen daily piggy-backs, and it hurt his arthritic thumbs to launch elastic bands towards the shining moon. Besides, there was less and less jam these days, for Mrs Kerchelskis was more prone to dozing before an open fire than she was to stirring great pots and lugging sacks of fruit up to the house in wind and rain. There were times that the watchmaker envied his timeless wife, for she seemed so immune to the barbs of nostalgia. She lived only now, stopped the ache of time in its tracks, reduced and preserved, and never pondered the past nor worried about the lonely future. Things were not so easy for Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker, for his fate was to remember the smallest details of every child who had ever come up the steep and stony hill: every Gracie and Emmett, each Orville and Hilda, all the Lances and Amelies and Nathaniels and Noahs that time had swept through his life, leaving nothing but jammy fingerprints across his ticking workshop; he remembered the smell of each child’s hair, the shape of their hands, and he remembered every joke and question and observation and idea. When he was at his most pained, the watchmaker could only comfort his broken heart by reminding himself of the words that he almost said to his reluctant wife, all those years ago:

‘Children growing up never seems to be a problem when one has known children who didn’t.’

As he entered his ninetieth year, and the cloak of time began to move with greater determination in the corner of his myopic eyes, Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker decided to make a present for his wife, for a woman who lived her life outside of time, who never allowed its passage to bring her any pain at all. They say that if you know the run of New England’s broken coast, and can find the precise road to take from Stockton Springs along the windswept shore, and if you know to follow the beam of the silver-lining lighthouse at Heron’s Neck up a steep and stony path, you can find the gift that the watchmaker bequeathed to his wife on the sixtieth anniversary of their Stockton Springs wedding day.

Press your nose against the kitchen window of their homemade house and you will see Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker and his wife, Mildred, frozen in time, a look of surprise in the latter’s divergent eyes – for the present that Mr Kerchelskis made was a very special clock indeed. Lined with silver, the clock looks west, away from all its yesterdays. The face of the clock is the face of Mildred Kerchelskis, daughter of Maine and watchmaker’s wife; its hands are the hands she used to make her famous preserves: left for the minutes, right for the hours, one passing over the other like a magician steadily moving through the motions of a well-practiced trick. The bones and ligaments of Mildred’s fingers, now unburdened of their flesh, glide elegantly on a network of springs and coils, pivoting from the socket where the scent of bubbling jams once entered her delicate nose: they point to her eyes in the evening, to her cheeks in the afternoon, and to her skinless chin each morning when the sun rises over Penobscot Bay.

The alignment of the room is such that Mildred’s timeless eyes are forever on a white bowl that sits in the middle of her old kitchen table. There is no fruit in the bowl. There are no grapes, which are the fruit of friendship and celebration and may be fermented into wine; there are no peaches, which are the smooth-skinned fruit of mothers and their children, and speak of the brevity of babyhood and the sweetness of being small; there are no apples, the fruit of knowledge and wisdom that transcends superstition and shows the path to a rational life; there are no strawberries, which stand for mellifluous kisses, for the primal warmth of lips against lips and of love in difficult times; and there are certainly no hourglass pears, for Mr Kerchelskis the watchmaker preserved them all as hourglasses proper just days after he put his very last orphan on a crowded train in Stockton Springs.