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

Why It’s Crazy To Have A ‘Black History Month’

The following words were written in 1960 by Gilbert Nompozolo, a black South African who lived his last years in the crushing grip of the apartheid regime:

“The rulers must know that we are all God’s children; but we are thrown into prison with our wives and children. I do not know where the Municipal authorities here come from, but one thing I know is, that to them a black man is no better than a wild beast to be chased about and flung into a police van. The Municipal authorities arrest men on their death beds. I saw the way these raids are carried out only this Tuesday – the police barging into people’s houses, looking into every corner, even under the beds – looking for supposed ‘illegal entrants’ into the area. How would you [white people] feel if you were forced to leave your children behind? And yet you force us to leave our children, orphans, while we still live.”

On 6th May that year Gilbert had been arrested under the Emergency Regulations put in place after the Sharpeville massacre for not having a permit to live in the ‘proclaimed’ (for whites) area of Wellington, a town 45 miles from Cape Town. He was then sent to Roeland Street jail in Cape Town, where he was beaten with a stick before being transported 600 miles to the port city of East London, a journey that took three days, during which he had to sit on a hard wooden seat, shackled to another prisoner, and was given only bread and water. He was then sent to Butterworth, the town where he was born, but because he owned no land and had no family in the area, he was told he couldn’t stay there either. When the warder of the prison in Butterworth checked Gilbert’s reference book he discovered that Gilbert had once paid his poll tax in Clanwilliam, a town 150 miles north of Cape Town, which was still ‘unproclaimed’. Gilbert knew it would do no good for him to explain that he had never even been to Clanwilliam, but had simply arranged for a friend to pay his tax there while he was working 45 miles away in a small fishing village. Gilbert accepted the train ticket to Clanwilliam, but when the train passed back through Wellington he disembarked and sought help from the Black Sash, a charity run by a group of white women that offered assistance to black people who were struggling against the draconian Pass Laws (the laws decreed that black people had to carry a Pass Book at all times to prove that they had a legal right to be in a particular area). Several members of the Black Sash took Gilbert to see the local Registering Officer, Mr van Lill. Upon inspecting Gilbert’s papers, Mr van Lill said that it would probably do him no good to travel to Clanwilliam, because it was a largely ‘coloured’ (mixed race) area and it was unlikely that he would be allowed to live there. Instead, van Lill recommended that Gilbert travel to Wolseley, a town just a few miles from Wellington; the registering officer even agreed to give Gilbert’s wife Maude temporary permission to stay in Wellington until her husband was properly settled at Wolseley. But two days later, Gilbert was back in Wellington. He had been told that he couldn’t stay in Wolseley for more than 72 hours, the statutory length of stay for a black person visiting an area where they had no permit to remain.

And so Gilbert Nompozolo was not legally allowed to live anywhere in the country in which he was born.


Gilbert Nompozolo in 1960 Anna Pearce


You won’t find Gilbert Nompozolo’s story in any history textbook, nor is it tucked away in dusty newspaper archives or burned into a crackly old piece of newsreel. History is a narrative usually told by the powerful about themselves, and for men and women like Gilbert Nompozolo – poor, uneducated, disenfranchised – to be erased from the annals of history is a final and permanent affront to their dignity. Fifty years after he was criminalised simply for existing, and even though it contains many important lessons – about the application of law, the purpose of appeals processes and the cost to human lives of merciless bureaucracy –Gilbert’s story is almost completely forgotten.

I only know the name Gilbert Nompozolo because one of the Black Sash members who decided to help him was my grandmother, Anna Pearce. Anna kept a careful record of Gilbert’s case and others like it, which was finally typed up by my aunt Michele in 2004, and self-published under the title ‘A Permit to Live’. Although the book was never taken up by a commercial publisher, copies were given to the South African Library and the Institute for Race Relations, and after Anna died in 2013, my uncle Matthew gave a copy of the book to each of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

‘A Permit to Live’ was difficult for me to read, for two reasons. Firstly, there is the sheer inhumanity with which my fellow South Africans were treated. In exhaustive detail, Anna relates the Kafka-esque insanity that swept through the lives of ordinary people, splitting families, destroying livelihoods and sweeping the entire histories of decent women and men away in a great roiling torrent of pass books, police raids, bewildering laws, intimidation, prison cells and beatings. In the introduction, Anna includes extracts from a pamphlet called ‘This is Apartheid’, written in 1959 by Leslie Rubin, which gives a clear sense of apartheid’s madness:

“An African who was born in a town and lived there continuously for fifty years, but then left to reside elsewhere for any period, even two weeks, is not entitled, as of right, to return to the town where he was born and to remain there for more than 72 hours. If he does, he is guilty of a criminal office punishable by a fine not exceeding £10 or, in default, imprisonment not exceeding two months, unless he has obtained a permit to do so. (Native (Urban Areas Consolidation) Act no. 25 of 1945 as amended Section 10 (1) (a).)”

The cruelty of apartheid is often conveyed solely through its most photogenic crimes: townships burning as police vans hurtle through; the brutal murders of Steve Biko, Hector Pieterson, Dulcie September and the Cradock Four. But we should not forget that some of apartheid’s greatest crimes were quietly perpetrated by its bureaucrats, who implemented a psychopathic system of rules and regulations that paid no respect to the humanity of the majority of South Africa’s citizens. The notorious Pass Laws decreed that a black person could be stopped at any time by the police to have their Pass checked; the police could even enter a person’s home, at any time of the day or night, without a warrant, to check their documents. Desmond Tutu has recounted how his father, as an educated black man, was exempt from carrying a Pass, and so was spared the humiliation of being stopped by the police to have his Pass checked. Instead, he carried a Pass Exemption, and would frequently be stopped by the police to check that he was carrying his Pass Exemption explaining why he didn’t have to carry a Pass. It seemed to be a law designed not to maintain order but to destroy the human spirit.

The second reason I found ‘A Permit to Live’ difficult to read is more personal. In terms of its representation of reality, the act of writing is a lot like the act of dreaming: it may seem to reveal a facsimile of the real world, a multidimensional universe of depth, complexity and things existent but un-shown, but in truth it is only ever a facsimile of the writer’s mind. As in a dream, every ‘person’ in a piece of writing is really a version of the writer, and they are only there to serve the writer’s purpose. This second story – the story of the storyteller – might not be particularly obvious when we read a piece of writing by someone we don’t know, but when the reader knows the writer intimately, and is familiar with their history, their motivations, their beliefs, values and ideals, it is almost impossible to read what they write as anything but a palimpsest, with the truth of the narrative refracted through the truth of the writer’s life. That is why, as I read the story of Gilbert Nompozolo, I found myself not only moved by what happened to him, but also haunted by a second, quieter story, but one that also brims with frustration, alienation and poignancy: the story of my grandmother.


Members of the Black Sash (l to r): Doria Struben, Meg Hogan, Anna Pearce, Stella Lavis Anna Pearce

Anna Pearce knew how it felt to be rootless. As a child, her parents lived in South Africa while Anna attended a boarding school in England. She once told me that she had made the 6000 mile journey by ship sixteen times while she was growing up. Maybe she got used to life as a small girl on a big ship, I don’t know; even if she had, there must have been the first time she’d gone down to the dock with her parents, and then left without them, and that wrenching memory must have stayed with her. It’s tempting to think that it was those early experiences that made Anna identify with the plight of homeless Africans like Gilbert; but for the new-immigrant white population of South Africa, a sense of being far from home would have been commonplace, and Anna was by no means the only white South African child who was sent away to boarding school. If suffering was all that was needed for empathy to grow, apartheid would never have happened. There must have been something else, some inborn trait, that made my grandmother fight against a system that was designed to benefit people like her.

The first place to search for the cause of Anna’s activism is in my own memory. Of course I have no idea what she was like in the 1960s, but I do know that for as long as I knew her, she was often a difficult person to relate to. She was certainly a very creative woman (she studied art in Cape Town and during World War II joined the British intelligence services, building the models of the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe dams that were used to plan the bombings featured in ‘The Dam Busters’), but as she grew older her creativity seemed to lose its anchor, and her ideas began to proliferate and metastasize out of control. Her earlier inventions, like her solar cooker ‘The Wonderbox’, worked well and had practical applications; but later obsessions (a drink, best described as kind of watery marmalade, that was supposed to rival Coca Cola; an unproven AIDS ‘cure’ called mariandina) did little more than suck up her time and energy without producing anything useful. She accumulated unconventional friends who tried to take advantage of her, and wrote several books about her various projects, printing hundreds of copies of each of them, which then lay moldering in an upstairs bedroom.

The word ‘eccentric’ was often used to describe Anna and her projects. It’s a double-edged adjective, with the smooth surface of a compliment – how endearing to be ‘away from the centre’, to be quirky, original, to be an independent thinker! – but a little deeper inside the three cheerful syllables there lurks an uglier, euphemistic underside: the hidden rebuke from the mainstream for the audacity of being an outsider. I know that when people called her ‘eccentric’ they weren’t always being kind; but the more difficult truth is that I know that my grandmother was not simply eccentric. She was mentally ill.

Even as I write those words, I want to take them back. My brain says that my grandmother’s illness is an important truth about her life, but the part of me that lies beyond the reach of education and rationality feels that having the kind of illness that my grandmother had is a kind of disgrace – for her, for our family, and for me. Beyond ‘eccentric’ we have many much harsher words for people like Anna – nutcase, lunatic, mental, madwoman, basket case (there are, of course, no equivalent derogatory words for heart patients or stroke victims). In fact, our family never had any gentler or more accurate words to describe her state because she was never formally diagnosed with any particular condition. Many of her characteristics suggested mania: pressured speech, racing thoughts, hyper-creativity. There were also sometimes incidences of magical thinking, superstition, obsessive behaviour and paranoia, perhaps suggesting schizoid personality disorder. Whatever label may have been attached by a medical professional, I can only say that Anna fitted one of the common legal definitions of insanity: a person who is unable to distinguish reality from fantasy. In Anna’s world, the mundane often had supernatural significance and the next extraordinary leap in human advancement was always just around the corner – and often in her hands. The definition of ‘insanity’ is a slippery thing, because if we are to define it in terms of sharing the common reality, then it relies on some form of consensus on what ‘reality’ actually is. We do not achieve ‘sanity’ just by being part of reality, but by inhabiting what most people agree to be reality. (Remember the last scene of ‘Miracle on 34th Street’, where the judge is presented with a banknote with ‘In God We Trust’ circled? He subsequently rules that because the American Federal Reserve believes in God with no empirical evidence, ordinary people may also believe in Santa Claus without evidence. Because the Establishment believes in the unbelievable, the unbelievable is legitimised. If only one little girl believes in Santa? Little girl is loco!). Our definition of ‘sanity’ is intensely democratic, and as with any democratic idea, at its most extreme the definition of sanity becomes oppressive: a tyranny of the majority, where a different view of what is real is disregarded and written off as illness.


A few years before she died, Anna was prescribed various antipsychotics, including lithium. The result was bittersweet: at the age of 89, a veil was lifted from her mind, and she arrived back in the world like a dazed time traveller, more physically fragile but also more mentally grounded than she had been for many, many years. My younger brother, Benji, recounted a conversation in which Anna had told him that she remembered how kind he had been to our other grandmother, Phyllis, when she lived with us in Johannesburg while she was ill with Parkinson’s. Anna remembered the little bell that Phyllis used to ring, and how Benji would immediately run off to help her.

Benji was astounded:

‘I had no idea Grandmother had paid any attention to my childhood!’

One of the cruellest consequences of an illness like my grandmother’s is the way it damages relationships. Emotional intimacy requires a degree of stillness between two people: space through which ideas can pass, quiet in which to listen, and time for the corridors and stairwells of a person’s inner-life to be charted and navigated. Anna’s mind was many things, but in all the time I knew her it was never, ever still.

One year in the mid-2000s I phoned her on her birthday and listened for nearly two hours as she told me about a friend of hers who was going to teach chess to schoolchildren inside old shipping crates when he returned from a trip in a minibus to the Mountains of the Moon in Kenya on his way to a meeting with a scientist who had a cure for AIDS and was currently battling governments and pharmaceutical companies who were conspiring to prevent his treatment from reaching the market even though I would see that things were about to change in a very serious way that would affect everything, AIDS, politics, religion, the environment, America, the former Soviet Union, food production, the way we live, heralding a new era with much more AWARENESS, more CONNECTIONS between different people and different parts of the world, a deepening UNDERSTANDING, and the COINCIDENCES we were starting to see were just the beginning…

Unable to find a way to interject, eventually I had to just hang up. Her manner was exhausting, and though I knew it wasn’t her fault, it was also infuriating. I must admit that on that occasion, and many others, I wished that my grandmother could have been a different kind of person. I would have liked to have had the sort of granny who always remembers her grandchildren’s birthdays, and asks them about school, and gives them sweeties. I would have liked a granny who hadn’t wasted so much time, money and energy on projects and inventions that never went anywhere. I have sometimes looked at other people’s cuddly grannies and felt that peculiar kind of loss: the loss of something you never actually had, and that traitorous and shameful feeling was only intensified by her death. Suddenly our relationship was set in stone, unchangeable, and it seemed there would be no more chances for things to be different. The fleeting, emotionally-connected Anna that had so surprised Benji was now gone forever.

A few months after her funeral, when the copy of ‘A Permit to Live’ was placed in my hand at a family gathering, I couldn’t wait to read it, for many different reasons. One of my biggest and most secret motives was that I wanted to see if I could find the ‘real’ Anna in its pages, the one who existed before the mania overcame her. When writing is at its best, it completely transports the reader to a different reality, and the reality I wanted to reach was the one where my grandmother was mentally balanced, healthy; where she was – to use that most awful of adjectives with which to describe a human being – normal.

***

Almost as soon as I started to read her book, a sense of Anna began to reappear in my mind, so strongly that it was almost like a physical presence. The contours of her mind, her phraseology, the texture of her personality were all there, and when I read that, like Winston Churchill, she felt that ‘some guiding hand [was] interfering’, I thought, ‘Yes! That’s typical Grandmother!’ As I read more and more of ‘A Permit to Live’, it slowly occurred to me that the calm, practical woman I had been sure I would find there did not exist at all – and I had that most wonderful kind of surprise: the kind where you find something you didn’t even know you were looking for. The woman I found was the wayward maverick I already knew – but this time, she was in a time and a place where her madness didn’t weigh her down. It liberated her.

Anna’s boundless energy is apparent in every word of her book. As quickly as obstacles were flung into the path of desperate black South Africans like Gilbert Nompozolo, Anna met them with potential solutions, moving on to try the next solution before the results of the last attempt were even returned: she suggested that Gilbert become a travelling salesman, enabling him to earn a living while never staying in an area for more than 72 hours; she took photographs of him outside dozens of pass offices to prove that he had tried to obtain a pass in many different places; she drove up and down the country talking to officials and activists and farmers’ wives in an attempt to find him a job and a home; she attempted to start a night school in an abandoned cinema; she wrote dozens of letters to newspapers, lawyers and cabinet ministers; she provided references for people who had burned their Passes in protest.

The madness of bureaucracy is that it claims to want to facilitate our lives, but really it only wants to paralyze them. It confines, controls and limits us. Apartheid was a bureaucratic dictatorship, and its rules and regulations were set up for the purpose of containing black people with no regard whatsoever for their wellbeing. It sought to stop people from moving around, to stop them from owning land, to freeze their educational aspirations, to lay before them a million examples of what they would never be. Bureaucracy is anathema to imagination and optimism. Its burning desire is to herd human beings, and in order to herd it must reduce the complexity of humanness to the simple uniformity of numbers, neat categories, boxes:
1.WHITE
2.NON-WHITE
In order to make its subjects compliant, bureaucracy depends heavily on those subjects’ own weariness. Bureaucracy wants you to become so tired and frustrated with the length of the queue at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency that you melt into a despondent puddle of obedience, and end up just going with bureaucracy’s flow to the window of whichever slack-jawed humanoid the forms decree, to pay whatever fee the humanoid demands, which you will willingly do, not because the fee is in any way fair compensation for the humanoid’s labour, but because by that time you have realised that the charge levied is in fact the price of your freedom.

But apartheid’s bureaucracy met its match in Anna Pearce: for it turns out that mania is the opposite of bureaucracy! Mania believes that rules were made to be broken. Mania is infinitely creative and optimistic; and it is utterly, relentlessly, shockingly inexhaustible. Like Chuck Norris, mania doesn’t sleep – it waits. When a ‘normal’ person may have advised Gilbert to simply be arrested and let the legal system swivel on its own absurdity, Anna refused to acquiesce to the wall of regulations with which they were faced. She engaged her creativity, her obsessive nature and her magical thinking in a tireless campaign to find some fragment of justice for people who were supposed to have none. There was no question of her ever giving up fighting for what she believed in. As I read page after page describing my grandmother’s various meetings and journeys and letters and projects and ideas, I couldn’t help thinking of those other grandchildren with Nice Grannies who gave them sweeties and asked them about what they did at school, and I couldn’t help feeling the most enormous pride: my grandmother wasn’t ‘nice’, she was a force of nature. When history came calling, Anna Pearce didn’t make a cup of tea and tut with disapproval, she rushed into the breach without a backwards glance.

She could be pretty damn crazy with stuff like that.

***

On 22 November 1962 two hundred black men marched through the Western Cape town of Paarl, attacking the prison and police station. Two white civilians, Rencia Vermeulen and Frans Richards, were killed when the rioters invaded houses on Loop Street, and five black people were shot dead, one by a civilian and three by the police: Godfrey Yekiso, Madodana Camagu, John Magigo and Ngenisile Siqwebo. The next day, when a group of protestors belonging to the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) marched to the police station to hand in a list of grievances, another man, Matthews Mayezana Mali, was shot dead by the police. The climate in South Africa at that time was already incredibly fraught. Just two years earlier, the government had opened fire on black protestors at Sharpeville, killing 69 and prompting the ANC to abandon the policy of nonviolent resistance that had been one of its key principles since 1912. Following the riot in Paarl there were ominous calls from the white community to ensure that not one living African should be left anywhere in the town. Given the level of fear and paranoia in the white community, a white person would have to be crazy to attempt to defend the Africans, who seemed to be rapidly reverting to their savage natures.

But it was at Judge Snyman’s Inquiry into the Paarl riots that Anna Pearce became the first white person to testify against the apartheid government in a South African court. After years of assisting black people who had fallen foul of the Pass Laws, and keeping the detailed records of their difficulties that would become ‘A Permit to Live’, she was asked to explain her theory about the cause of the riots on behalf of the defence. For three-and-a-half days Anna sat in the witness box and countered the prosecution’s contention that a group of black agitators working under the moniker ‘Poqo’, had come to the area from Tanskei (a so-called ‘homeland’ to the east of Cape Town) to cause trouble. Anna’s argument was that in fact the riots were the result of the corruption of local officials, in particular Johannes Le Roux, (Director of Bantu Administration in a black location called Mbekweni), who had already been acquitted of accepting bribes and free labour in exchange for handing out Passes at an earlier trial. According to the court records, Anna claimed that “[black men in Mbekweni] were either Le Roux men or they were not, and those who were Le Roux men were the ones who were doing well… and those who were not were the ones who were having pass trouble.”

If I ever get my hands on the keys to a time machine, my first trip will be to that Cape Town court room in the feverish South African summer of 1963. In my mind’s eye I can see a forty-year-old mother of four sitting in the witness box, clutching her precious pink folder that contained the stories of families whose lives had been completely destroyed by the cruelty of the Pass Laws. Her hair is carefully arranged in the short, neat style befitting a respectable housewife in a country where the sixties were anything but swinging; her dress conservatively cut and muted in colour, her posture slightly stooped and awkward - not necessarily because she felt daunted by the occasion, but because she sometimes felt self-conscious about being several inches taller than the average for a woman. I imagine that she sat with her hands tightly clasped, or hidden from view, because her mother had once cruelly told her to hide her large hands behind her teacup if she was meeting a prospective husband, and late in her life she would admit that it was a criticism she never really got over. Did she feel intimidated by the presence of men who were more educated than her? Did her training in art, her history of model making, suddenly seem woefully inadequate in a court of law? If only I could go back in time and whisper in her ear that history would prove her right, that her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren would always be proud of what she was about to do. I wish I could tell her not to be afraid.

But then I remember how infuriating she could be! The real Anna Pearce didn’t give two hoots about being in a minority of one; the real Anna Pearce did not know how to back down in an argument, and the real Anna Pearce never gave up on an idea just because somebody said she should! Time and again the prosecution sought to cast Anna as a sly enemy of the government, or hopelessly naive, or woefully idealistic. Once or twice she became confused by a line of questioning, missing a key word and having to have it explained by the judge; at other times she delivered withering rebuttals off the cuff. When the state’s advocate attempted to force her to admit that the Black Sash was a political organisation, she countered that they were in fact overtly apolitical, and supported causes that they deemed to be justified regardless of which side of the political spectrum they were on. They brought up the case of Jacob Hobeni, who could have obtained a pass to remain in Wellington if he had accepted a job offer he was given by a local farmer, and attempted to dismiss his Pass problems as being the result of his own laziness.

‘Jacob Hobeni was eighty-six-years-old,’ Anna replied. ‘He was in the Boer War!’

As a white woman, and the wife of a prominent businessman, Anna’s status in the community earned her a certain status in court. The judge addressed her with gracious respect, and she was told by a friendly policeman not to let them fluster her. There were only a couple of occasions that the atmosphere boiled over: once, outside court, when Johannes Le Roux’s wife shouted that Anna ‘should be shot’; and an occasion on the third day of cross-examination, when it was pointed out by the prosecution that the Department of Bantu Administration could remove the licence of an official like Mr Le Roux at any time, without given any reason to anyone. So if Mrs Pearce had suspected that there was corruption in the distribution of passes, why had she not gone to the police?

‘Why had I not gone to the police?’ she shot back incredulously. ‘WHY HAD I NOT GONE TO THE POLICE? If the whole of Paarl was frightened, why couldn't I be frightened too?’

These words shook me. I had become used to my grandmother as an emotionally detached person, a driven, deluded optimist, and for the first time I wondered whether, under the constant state of agitation in which she lived, there had been moments when more tender feelings like fear or sadness had managed to fight through the roar of mania in her mind. It was a reminder that alongside the real Anna was an Anna that I had totally imagined, and that imagining what my grandmother was like was not enough. The assumptions about her mindset that seemed most certain to me – that she was immune to fear, sadness and vulnerability – were in fact the most wayward.

Although the atmosphere in the court was largely civil, I imagine there was probably private disgust that an apparently respectable white lady could take the side of violent, uncontrollable blacks. Perhaps words of condemnation were subtly whispered – words like ‘shrill’ and ‘haughty’ and ‘hysterical’ – that we reserve for only the bravest of women. Later, Anna would be denounced in the press (the two biggest English language newspapers in the Cape criticised her for saying that the Paarl riots were ‘justified’, though she had almost immediately replaced the word with ‘understandable’), and would even be referred to as ‘that mad woman’ in Parliament. There were other, more insidious forms of intimidation directed at my grandparents: one morning their house in Wellington was unexpectedly raided by the security police, though they didn’t find the folder of evidence that Anna had hidden inside a secret drawer in the tallboy; on another occasion their domestic worker, Joanna, broke down during a dinner party and confessed to being a police informer. It’s no wonder that Anna was afraid: the benefits of being white in apartheid South Africa were entirely conditional on obeying its rules.

Judge Snyman’s Inquiry into the Paarl riots was a disaster for South Africa. Before the Inquiry even concluded, he released a dramatic interim report urging immediate action against the threat of terrorism from Poqo. In April 1963 a General Law Amendment Bill was passed (there was, as usual, only one dissenting voice in Parliament – Helen Suzman, the MP for the antiapartheid Progressive Party), and its contents are horribly familiar to those of us living in a post-9/11 world: under the guise of ‘fighting terrorism’, the state introduced such measures as the ability for any commissioned officer to detain - without a warrant - any person suspected of a political crime and to hold them for ninety days without access to a lawyer. In practice, people were often released after the ninety days only to be immediately re-detained for a further ninety-days. As for the Attorney General’s opinion of Anna, he submitted that the ‘Wellington housewife’ knew nothing about Poqo and had little firsthand knowledge of Mbekweni location. He declared that ‘little value’ could be attached to her evidence.

And yet, Anna had had her day in court. I imagine how her testimony must have burned in the ears of the people in that court, and perhaps played on their minds for years afterwards: that a black man had a right to live with his family! That it was the apartheid system, and not the nature of black people, that was the cause of political unrest! That, one day, Black History would really matter in South Africa.

***

If we lived in a world where history was told by only rich, educated, white, politically powerful men, I would have no choice but to believe that the Attorney General was right, and that the differences in my grandmother’s viewpoint made her insane – for the definition of insanity is of inhabiting a reality that is different from that which is generally accepted. But now we know that when Anna Pearce sat in that courtroom and described a world where black people should be free to live where they wanted, should be equal under the law, and should be citizens of their own country, she was actually exhibiting a level of foresight far superior to that of the men who so casually dismissed her. In the courtroom of an evil regime, Anna’s mania became a wonderful gift that enabled her to imagine different kinds of reality, and the one she was representing in that witness box wasn’t crazy, it just happened to be thirty years ahead of its time.

Here lies the insanity of history: for there is no objective ‘reality’ behind us, no singular and definitive record of the past, only a great contradictory quilt of different people’s versions all stitched together, with individual threads of truth, falsehood, misinterpretation, subjectivity and bias all woven so tightly around and through and over each other that telling them apart is impossible. One of the greatest threats to an accurate understanding of history is also one of the most subtle, one that lurks in the background, like a slack-jawed bureaucrat: it is our own imaginations. It is so easy to imagine a version of the past, to extrapolate something assumed and solidify it into fact – so easy to believe that a grandmother must have been an entirely different person fifty years ago, that the stories of heroism surely couldn’t correlate with the knowledge of her madness. But we only see history for what it truly is by having the courage to look at it unflinchingly in the eye, to read it in all its brutal truth and sprawling complexity. Sometimes a great deal of time and analysis must pass before we are able to look back and see that some of the lunatics were actually visionaries all along.

The purpose of Black History Month is to remind those of us who live in Euro-centric lands that people of African origin have a rich, complex and important history that is often dismissed and forgotten; but it is also, more broadly, a reminder that history belongs to all people, regardless of race, gender, wealth, status, education or even mental health. There is an African proverb that says ‘Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter’. If we never read the stories of the lions, like Gilbert Nompozolo’s devastating statement with which this article began, all of us will forever be excluded from a full understanding of the reality in which we live. If we don’t study the way that oppressive regimes like the apartheid government have used the ‘threat of terrorism’ and the guise of ‘protecting freedom’ to terrorise their citizens and take their freedom, we will walk like sheep into our own subjugation. If we dwell in ignorance of the strangest fruit that ever hung from a poplar tree, we can never understand the seismic importance of the murders of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. If we are ignorant of the chemical and biological arms race that occurred in Africa in the 1970s and 80s, we cannot fully comprehend the fear and paranoia surrounding the twenty-first century AIDS crisis. If we declare that reality is to be defined by only white people, or only rich people, or only men, then we acquire a kind of elective blindness to the way our world really is, for most of history’s actors were neither white, nor rich, nor male. If I had never been able to read my grandmother’s history as she wrote it, I would have gone through my entire life believing that she was an effective antiapartheid activist before she became mentally ill; but now I know that she was an effective antiapartheid activist because she was probably ill all along.

Celebrating Black History Month means existing inside a reality where the history of black people is meaningful, important and relevant; it is an endeavour that, at times, feels very different from the commonly understood reality; and as we know, inhabiting a reality that is at odds with the generally accepted one is how our society has chosen to define madness. However, even the most cursory reading of history will show that what we call ‘reality’ is not fixed, and the centre of human understanding, like galaxies and mountain ranges and magnetic poles, may seem immutable but in fact is always shifting, drifting, moving on – like Gilbert Nompozolo, searching tirelessly for a place to settle – and time and again we have seen the eccentric’s lonely island become the very epicentre of enlightenment, the mainland of humanity. Once upon a time, Nelson Mandela lived on an island, and Desmond Tutu was a religious extremist, and Anna Pearce was a madwoman. But this month I will be remembering an important lesson that my grandmother taught me in the months after she died: sometimes being crazy is the only way to be right.


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.