Carol, a good film, a great read

Incredible. Don’t you feel a bit silly when you sort of half see a film between shifts in the kitchen and think I must read that book? I know I do, because it seems as if you are being led by advertisers to the slaughter but because of Christmas preparations I missed half of Carol on the TV and I couldn’t work out whether or not it had a happy ending as it was all a bit vague. I saw enough to be interested, so I ordered the book. Was I in for a treat! I wouldn’t go so far as to say I like the Georgian style of writing, that is very quaint and too long-winded for me, but my taste usually lands somewhere between Steinbeck and Hemingway. What makes Patricia Highsmith’s writing so special is that amongst her overt simplicity a beautifully descriptive phrase will come out of nowhere. I am thinking of phrases like “her short fair hair that made Therese think of perfume held to a light”. The writing style is so simple that this book can speak to anyone; it is beautiful at times, stark and brutal at others, but always evocative.

I wish I had found this book when I was nineteen. That was an age at which the world had not changed so much as to make it seem an old fashioned story. Today everything goes and yet people are still unhappy. There are those who will never understand this level of repression and for them I am glad; there are others who still suffer under it and I never want them to be forgotten. The past interests me because our lives are not long enough to learn from experience and still know everything good that love has to offer. Two quotes hit my Twitter feed this morning:

“Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood.” – Hellen Keller and “Your days are numbered. Use them to throw open the windows of your soul to the sun.” – Marcus Aurelius

Both of those sum it up beautifully. Today young people are often (but not always) out and proud and it is probably hard to empathise with the level of restrained passion and yearning in this novel but Patricia Highsmith’s characterisation is so good you can’t but feel every nuance along with them, every last bit of yearning, every pang of disappointment. It is a beautiful story and a terrifying one therefore when their happiness so quickly turns into an ordeal of persecution. In the book, you see Therese is less of an innocent, Carol is less of a seducer and both are tormented by circumstances they cannot hope to control. Carol’s sacrifice and bravery is so much clearer than in the film too, Therese’s pain and coming to terms with the loss of her first true love is still there but she hurts others as much as she is hurt by them. Richard is a brute. We don’t see much of this in the film and the ending is far less optimistic. I often prefer the book to the film, but I was grateful for the film because it led me to an unforgettable read that had me up all night.

This is not just a book for those interested in LGBT rights or lesbian romance because it has a very clear truth at its heart. One that all adults know. There is nothing quite like falling in love. It overwhelms you totally and the rush of endorphins is unbelievable. That is probably why so many people are addicted to love of course and continually searching for “The One”. They never find “The One” because harsh reality and even sexual satisfaction itself can take the shine right off that first rush of overwhelming tenderness and desire and yet sometimes, just sometimes, if you can live through the pain and the sheer ordinariness of life, a deeper and stronger affection is born. That is the happiest ending of all and in Carol you live through these characters and feel every emotion they do which makes the ending just perfect in its optimism.

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I wrote last week about the pigeon holes we assign to ourselves as readers and as writers and how these make it difficult to assign genre at times. Since then, I put out a new LGBT story I had been working on for some time. Coming Home for Christmas is a sweet lesbian romance on the surface but it is also story about wasted years, old attitudes and a time that is probably better consigned to history. Its heroine, Rebel, is ironically far from being a rebel in real life. I can see young women getting quite angry about her behaviour towards Laura and I am not sure how sympathetic she will be to anyone under a certain age. I thought the best thing to do is let Rebel speak for herself:

“Hi Rebel, or shall I call you Jill?”
“Jill is a pseudonym, only Laura calls me Rebel. Perhaps it might be better to call me Eleanor. It feels more relaxing.”
“Well, I am not sure I want you to relax too much, Eleanor. I have a few difficult questions to ask you.”
“I’ll survive!” She laughs. “Fire away!”
“OK! I’ll start with a tough one then. Why didn’t you pull the trigger?”
“What? I can’t believe you’d ask me that right off the bat.” She looks shocked.
“Well? Why didn’t you? You were obviously suicidal.”
“Because the gun only fired blanks of course. What would be the point, Lisa?”
“Sorry, Rebel, but I have to ask. I was told only yesterday by somebody in the know that Bruce Lee’s son was killed with a gun that fired blanks.”
“Really? Wow! You really do believe in putting a girl at ease, don’t you?”
“I’m a writer, it’s my job to get to the point quickly.”
“That’s not just quick. That’s brutal.” She is visibly shaking. “I always knew I was lucky to get through my teenage years but I didn’t know just how close I actually came…”
“Well, I am sure your readers will be glad you didn’t shoot yourself. What they would probably like to know is why you very nearly did.”
“That’s not hard. It was tough in the 1970s. Tougher than you might think. People always go on about the 1960s and the permissive society and all the new freedoms young people had but for people like me it wasn’t so rosy. Folks always talk about rock stars – glam rock, Queen and Bowie – being gay, lesbian or bisexual was a fashion with celebrities. There was a lot of parody on TV too, some of it quite cruel, but in ordinary life there was gay bashing, name calling, inequality under the law, you name it and then there was this whole thing of coming from a religious background.”
“Did you have many gay and lesbian friends back then?”
“Not that I knew of. It wasn’t something you shouted about. When I went to College I met a few students who were “out”. I thought they were incredibly brave at the time.There was discrimination going on in so many fields; the armed forces, teaching, anything with responsibility it seemed. It was tough to get a job. Despite the outrageous show biz stuff we were just ordinary kids.”
“Any element of being provincial in that?”
“Oh, I am sure you’re right. The more insignificant your hometown, the more likely these things are to be driven underground. It’s different if you live in a big city; sheer volume of numbers I suppose and with that comes bravery. I was never brave.”
“But you got through what was in effect a nervous breakdown…”
“Yes, and without treatment. I was in denial of course and I went through a phase where I would go with men just to convince myself I was straight.”
“I got that. You were married twice I see. But no kids?”
“It never happened although we did try. It’s just one of those things I suppose. I’m not too worried about being child-free though. I don’t think children should be compulsory you know.” She laughs again.
“So what brought you to tell your story now?”
“Meeting Laura again. The way I behaved towards her was cowardly and unforgivable. I am not proud of myself. I don’t know how she forgave me to be honest and all that is largely personal but I look around and see Christians, many of whom are otherwise lovely people, calling us every name under the sun and trying to take away our freedom. I wasn’t brave enough to fight for it but so many were. If I was sixteen now I don’t think anyone other than my parents would bat an eyelid. They loved me and I am sure they would have accepted me in time but the fact is that so many kids still need to be brave. They shouldn’t have to be. There are too many to this day who are thrown out or forced to conform and there are countries where love still carries the death penalty. To me, that is the real abomination in the sight of God.”
“Thank you for your time, Rebel, and thank you for your honesty.”
“No, thank you for giving me the chance to explain how it was for me back then and how it still is for some young people today.”
“So we might say you are now a Rebel with a cause?”
“Yes, I think I probably am,” she laughs.

In my novel The Wings to Fly there is a scene in which heroine Midge is hauled over the coals by her Commanding Officer for reading “an obscene book”. He is furious that she should be reading The Well of Loneliness in full view of other young female pilots where they might be corrupted. His anger is something hard to understand in a modern context. It borders on extreme over-reaction, but is representative of the public attitude towards homosexuality before the long, slow ride to acceptability began – a journey that still continues in some societies. Midge is given the book by Rose the Land Girl after their “brief encounter” and I included it in my story as a historical artifact. The Well of Loneliness plays a role in my novel – almost that of a character – because in the past it was handed to female friends as a hint that there could be something more than friendship on offer. I also thought it was about time I reviewed the book. I read it about ten years ago and found it profoundly upsetting. It is a book that, like Marmite, is either loved or despised by modern readers. Here is my take on it:

It is quite a while since I read this book and I am still trying to understand why it was banned and why the ending left me so very angry. Angry, desolate and gutted to be honest. This book is a classic of LGBT literature and, once banned, I gather it was passed from woman to woman as a clue to sexual identity rather than a simple book loan but if you are looking for erotic content you will be disappointed. It is totally devoid of explicit content and the sentence “and that night, they were not divided” was cited as the reason for the ban. Wow! How much society has changed! On the level of literature, the heightened language is full of romantic yearning and tragedic musings that will not speak to many born after, say, 1985. That is an arbitrary date of course but I think it was not until the mid 90s that the stigma went out of being LGBT for young people. For those who are older, some will still be conflicted about sexuality and gender identity issues and that is something recent reviews about this book fail to take into account. In some communities it will never be acceptable and those who escape those communities will always seem quaint to young people today.

Firstly, I didn’t mind the flowery, old-fashioned language. Just as I enjoy Shakespeare and the good old King James version rather than Eastenders and the Good News Bible, I enjoy heightened and poetic language and this book is full of it. So, spoiler number one, if you don’t like poetry, cryptic language or romanticism you are not going to like this book at all.

Secondly, if you despise anyone struggling with a gender binary you consider no longer relevant, you are going to dislike Stephen intensely. I am not sure whether Stephen is trans or butch but in all honesty I don’t think that matters. She could never be happy as a woman at a time when being female had such particular expectations of dress, manners, behaviour and so few opportunities other than marriage, spinsterhood or teaching girls. When you get angry with Stephen, remember she does not live in this modern world where, it seems, any expression of gender is valid and when the restrictions on women no longer apply.

Thirdly, the ending is sad beyond belief and if you are looking for a lesbian happy ever after you should avoid this book. Seriously. There is little point in reading a book you are unlikely to understand with an ending that is depressing beyond belief. In its defence, the ending is sadly believable. People actually DID think that way. Some sick individuals still think that is the way it should really be for gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans people and that is where The Well of Loneliness STILL has a voice and a role to play even in our permissive world. It has a role because not everyone is inclusive, even those who say they are open-minded often fail when it comes to the crunch and it is not that long since the mere mention of homosexual love would have made most people’s hackles rise.

Bearing that in mind, you SHOULD read this book, if only to understand how the mildest allusion to sexuality could instigate a ban. You should read this book and wonder how the author could bear to live at a time when this discrimination was completely normal. You should read this book to remind yourself that in places the battle for acceptance has not yet been won and that nobody should ever be complacent about the changes that have taken place since the book ban was lifted.

Benjamin and the Frog. Hmmm… Sounds like a children’s story doesn’t it? Well it isn’t, having recovered from a really sleepless night and an exciting day in The Out, I thought I would tell you all about my meeting with poet, Benjamin Zephaniah at Blackfriars Arts Centre in Boston, and a meeting with a little frog the night before.

I was very excited that I was going to read my poetry to Benjamin Zephaniah. He is someone Colin and I worshipped from afar in the 1980s, those heady days of alternative cabaret and comedy. Tadpole and Co majored in disasters set to jazz and poetry, such as Herculaneum and the Titanic. These were surprisingly popular considering they were in very bad taste. Those days in the mid-eighties were brief but happy times brought to a premature end by the surge in interest in samba bands and the desertion of our percussionist, Richard Bett, aka Riccardo Thunderfingers. He was the only man I have ever met who was capable of sustaining a rhythm on congas whilst simultaneously being thousands of people going down with a ship or getting buried by volcanic ash.

Yes, we certainly did some crazy back stuff then. We performed music and poetry in gigs and literature festivals from Hastings to Edinburgh. Some of it was even quite good but it was the comedic disasters that earned us our Yorkshire bookings, courtesy of Wild Willie, and the opportunity to share the stage with such worthies as Henry Normal and Jo Brand. We never performed with Ben, but he was “Up there!” and when the opportunity came to meet him at Boston, read some serious poetry and discuss it we leaped at the chance.

The night before recording the interview I couldn’t sleep. I was nervous, excited and in that terrible place where the more you try to sleep the less likely it is to come. Add to that an annoying tune that kept running through my head courtesy of an advert on TV… you get the picture. Eventually I must have dozed off and about three thirty to four in the morning I was woken by a cat coughing. Now, when said cat is a Himalayan and there is a history of heart murmurs in the breed you worry, so I got up to check on him.

He seemed fine, but was scrabbling around his water bowl. Then he pounced on a blanket I had hanging over a box full of stuff I really ought to sort through, donate, throw away… you know the sort of thing. I lifted the blanket and in the semi-darkness of my Pusheen nightlight, I saw what looked like a pile of poop.
“Urgh”, I said, turning the main light on, but it wasn’t poop, it was a frog! We have an empty vegetable container we use for trapping and releasing flies so I grabbed it quickly and, with the aid of a piece of card, I easily caught the sleepy looking frog.

By this time Colin was up and about and wandered into the bathroom.
“You wouldn’t believe what I just caught in my bed room,” I said.
“Just a minute,” he grumbled.
He must have been half asleep because the surprise of finding a frog in the house didn’t register. Nor did he offer to do the gentlemanly thing and put it out for me. So here I was, standing in my nightie and slippers in the twilight before dawn, trying to unlock the front door while Froggie got more and more excited and jumped up and down in his box. He was released to the water feature by the pond (I know frogs hide in there). I was surprised that he made no attempt to escape after the first hop. I guess he is a very laid back frog and in my experience frogs are not scared of people.

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Now, I have no idea how a frog came to be in my bedroom, nor do I have any idea how long he was in residence. All I know is that he certainly seemed settled under the blanket and that one of the cat water bowls showed signs of dust-bunnies and what I assumed was a frog poop right in the middle. Cue vigorous cat bowl scrubbing and changing of water… I then went back to bed and caught about three hours sleep before I had to get up for an early start and our journey to Boston where we were due to read poems and discuss immigration, Pilgrim Fathers and Boston amongst other things.

I suppose I was a bit ring-eyed and stupid for my interview with Ben. It took me a long time to relax and come out of my shell, but he is a lovely, genuine man and seemed interested in my poems and Colin’s too. When it was all over the three of us chatted for a little while about the eighties, alternative cabaret and the parallel universes we seemed to exist in. Somehow we never shared the stage with Benjamin Zephaniah back then. Hopefully when the programme comes out, we will finally get that wish.

Boston Calling airs on Radio 4 at 4-30pm on Sunday 20th August. I can’t guarantee the Tadpoles will feature, but I can promise you a good programme if you enjoy poetry, politics or Benjamin Zephaniah.

I was deliberately leaving this post for a week, post election, to allow for some clarity and time to think. In the course of that time things have changed and not for the better. A week is a long time in politics, and in that week I have come to terms rationally with my own disappointing result. It could have been worse of course but it wasn’t great. I will start there because emails and phone calls I received after showed that voters were more upset by the result than I was. You don’t fight an election to lose although you might fight it to “fly the flag” in a seat where you see little chance of success.

Bearing that in mind, when things go to plan there is always the chance of a political upset. Not so in the recent General Election. A few seats swung by a small margin between the first and second placed political parties last time round. One or two targeted seats were won by huge effort, others were lost despite it. On the wider front, analysis showed both main parties increased their share of the vote dramatically and squeezed third party, smaller parties and independents out –
resulting in hundreds, if not thousands, of lost deposits nationwide.

“Good,” say some (usually left-wing) activists. “They should shut up, or grow up and join one of the main two parties.”

“Good,” say some journalists. “It shows they are irrelevant.”

I say “Bad!” because democracy suffers the more we polarise party politics. There is no room for the Middle Way or for rational discussion. There is only “What can we do to win Murdoch’s readership?”

In Britain we have been brought up to believe consensus politics is bad and certainly coalitions have always been bad for one of the partners but many other countries cope really admirably with their hung parliaments. It filters out extreme policies and wild swings one way and then the other. It better represents democracy.

The trouble is that the system we have and the influence of hard-hitting political journalism on the results is actually polarising our nation at a time when it badly needs to be united. This takes many forms, but the most extreme example for me this time round was the treatment of Tim Farron on television. This man, a decent and honest working class liberal Christian, has effectively now been bullied out of his leadership position simply because he is decent and honest. He did not lie about his Christianity, nor did he allow his Christian beliefs to define him but he was castigated for those beliefs. Those of us within the Liberal Democrats who identify as LGBT or allies had no issue with Tim’s Christianity but the media did.

A defining moment of journalistic nastiness was Andrew Neil’s so-called “interview”. On the proposed referendum on BREXIT terms, Farron was constantly shouted down mid answer and then blamed for running out of time. That way, the party policies were kept under wraps and a whole political party made irrelevant to those who did not know the policies. It is easy to suggest after the event that he might actually have done better to walk out saying “I thought this was an interview, not a speech by you.” It might have got him press coverage for what he wasn’t allowed to say.

I would have been disgusted by Andrew Neil’s arrogant and rude interview technique whichever leader he had turned his venom on. His approach is often boorish and I have to say extremely narcissistic. I am really so sorry that Mr Farron feels he has to leave the political stage because of this bully. I am even more sorry that there will be political activists out there in the main two parties who think it is fair game to be intolerant of religious differences. Now the same blinkered journalists are trying to make out that the election was about BREXIT; it wasn’t, for vast swathes of people it was about social justice and the Labour Party were not the only proponents of that. They just cashed in on a lot of tactical votes.

Finally, I honestly believe it is time for the BBC to move away from pretty graphics, endlessly looping sound bytes and egotistical, bullying presenters and move back towards what the licence fee we all have to pay was intended for – public SERVICE and public INFORMATION. There should be no place for the cult of “The Great I Am” in an organisation that claims to be politically neutral and every place for informed comparison of policy differences. This is happening on the internet through new apps which will, in time, make main stream journalists superfluous unless they grow up and stop showing off. Democracy is not about THEM. It is about the people.

Imagine the situation. You have a serious medical condition that holds you virtually bedridden for most of the time. It is an invisible illness that saps every ounce of your strength. You are painfully thin. Sometimes you can’t lift a fork to your mouth to eat and even if your carer does it for you you can’t swallow your food without a huge effort. You can’t have a bath without help because you no longer have the strength to get in and out unaided. You are only free from pain when you sleep and the pain stops you from sleeping. Your GP has retired. The new one doesn’t want to know.

For years you have been receiving Disability Living Allowance then with one slip of the pen you are thrown into the category of “new case” and new rules come into play. Despite the reassurances you have had in the past and old rules that the DWP stuck to for a while you now have to prove your level of disability, that you are unfit for work and deserve PIP at both levels. A “nurse” comes to assess you at home where you are so ill with a migraine that you can’t even speak, let alone answer the questions.

You are given a painkiller and it takes seven attempts to swallow it. The “nurse” notes this down as “Capable of swallowing, drank a glass of water in my presence.” Your carer, when attempting to answer questions is repeatedly shouted down and told to “Shut up and let her answer”. Every question is a trap, every answer is a minefield and you are given the very lowest benefit level possible and you are now subject to regular “assessment interviews” because of her skewed and unfair assessment.

You phone a stranger, reaching out in desperation because you can’t cope with the stress of the next interview. All that stranger can advise is that you record the interview. Let them KNOW you are recording it for your records (or for the Press perhaps). She will try and contact them to delay, rearrange or reconsider your case but has been told they will not discuss anything due to confidentiality.

This is a situation that is playing out day after day across Britain as a group of “Jobsworths” being paid to do the ugliest job possible do their best to deliver efficiency and cut benefit bills. Everyday, sick people are being driven to desperation, some contemplating suicide even, because of CAPITA’s Disability Assessments and Disability Work Assessments.

“Was this the creation of wicked Conservatives?” you might ask. No, it was the brainchild of a Labour minister but they did nothing to stop or reverse it. Somewhere in this cruel scenario that plays out like a Kafka story the people have been lost, humanity and compassion have gone out of the window, common decency is moribund if not dead. It is a scenario that probably costs more to administer than it could ever save, even if those people did not desperately need the help that a decent society should ungrudgingly provide.

Never mind Theresa May’s “money trees”, what we have here is a screening process that probably costs more to deliver than it actually saves. We witness untold pain and suffering caused to vulnerable people. There is actual fear of the bullies (and yes they often are bullies) employed to enforce benefit cuts on people with terrible and almost totally incapacitating conditions they never chose to have. Does this make you feel proud to be British? Personally, I think politicians of both Red and Blue varieties should hang their heads in shame at this vicious travesty of justice.

Please share. Please comment if you have been treated in a similar way. Somehow we HAVE to make them leave their ivory towers at Westminster and listen.

There is a dubious mindset that winning is all, to the victor come all the spoils, that it doesn’t matter how you win so long as you do and all the world loves a winner. That way lies madness. A certain billionaire has just found to his cost that while money can buy prestige and position and incitement to hatred can win votes it can only bring a Pyrrhic victory. One billionaire is much the same as another in my book and you can’t force people to love and respect you in this life but I have to confess to feeling just a little bit sorry for this one. I’m sure it wasn’t what he was promised by his backers nor did he expect such a huge reaction against his victory. Here is a man who wants to be adored by millions and yet the streets are empty for his biggest ever moment and full of pussy power demonstrators the day after.

I am also saddened by the way some people I thought I knew have embraced a philosophy of hating those who disagree. Of course those people are not presently marching in protest. I don’t know if they would be marching had the outcome been different and I don’t think they will ever understand why millions are. To call everyone who disagrees with his method of winning or with the madness of hatred a “loser” or a “dangerous leftist” and maintain that you despise “leftists” loses sight of the fact that many of these people are not adherents of the left wing at all. They may be disillusioned conservatives, some are even Republicans; they may be Democrats who feel that what amounts to an act of treason robbed their own candidate of victory; finally, they might even be centrists appalled by unholy alliances of religion and politics on both sides.

That’s right, many of them are centrists like me; conservatives with a little “c”, liberals with a small “l”. In my country the word liberal is not yet an insult although I will happily wear the insult “Libtard” as a badge of honour because it means I reject the politics of hatred and division. We have a fine liberal tradition in Britain dating back centuries and we are justifiably proud of it. We are also proud that we have stood up to hatred and racism in the past – as the underdogs and on our own for several years I might add – and we don’t want to see the sacrifices of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents forgotten. Many of them suffered or even died to maintain Europe’s freedom from a Third Reich that thrived on hatred. We honour them for it. That does not make us “leftists” or “losers”.

I think there are so many emotionally charged issues that any incumbent lawmaker needs to address and for any one political party to lay claim to personal moral viewpoints is simply WRONG. It doesn’t happen here. Maybe it would if we were a nation of proselytising evangelicals, but we are not. We respect freedom; we do not take arms up against people whose morals we might find lacking or whose religion is different from ours. We do not take away choice from desperate women – whatever our personal views – because we know the alternative to choice is something far worse for society; criminal behaviour, neglect, death and people in abject poverty. There are a lot of things wrong in this world, but they will not be changed by screaming abuse or sanctioning violence and exclusion of whole groups of people different from ourselves in some way.

I could go on and on but I won’t because it saddens me too much to see people sinking to such depths of anger. All I ask is that we just pause for a minute and think about the refugee crisis and terrorism. Where does the money come from for terrorists? Where do the arms come from that they buy with this money? Who suffers most in any war? Who profits most from war and division? Why are there so many refugees? Why are civilians consistently being bombed? Who stirred up a hornet’s nest by declaring a war on terrorism in the first place? What is that one word that is at the root of the West’s obsession with the Middle East? Can we actually do without it? If not, why not?

I want to finish by directing you to an article written April 29th 2013 by Janice Harper Ph.D. in Psychology Today:

The Fertility and Futility of Hatred – When hatred fills our hearts, it grows, but to what end?

Please read it, whichever side of the divide you stand on. It might persuade you to drop that hot stone before it burns your hand badly…