If you pride yourself on being liberal there comes a time when the biggest elephant you have ever seen will walk across your living room, out into the hall, into the kitchen and then simply refuse to leave. It will stamp its foot until your whole house shakes and threatens to cave in around you. You will try to ignore it and for a while it will sit and pout but it is doing more than sulk. Have you ever tried not to see it? The more you try, the more visible it becomes and the bigger it grows. In fact, there is no escaping that elephant even if you are a conservative by nature because it is an elephant that attempts to turn the tables on its trainer whatever their political views.

Who is the trainer? The trainer is YOU. The elephant wants to be invited to dinner. It wants to sit down with your family and friends and eat you out of house and home. It wants to trample on your goodwill and turn your comfortable values into one steaming mess of elephant dung and it does so by constantly reinforcing the idea that you can’t be one thing if you are to actively embrace another. The elephant in the room is born out of the nature of the herd and its need to agree on all things for the sake of survival. It looks innocent enough, but it wants to suppress sensible discussions and once it has destroyed your tidy living room and broken down your door it invites its nasty friends in to pillage your world.

The elephant in the room

So who is that elephant anyway? The easiest way I can describe it is by its actions and effects on otherwise reasonable human beings. The elephant will claim to be tolerant of something meaningful to you, such as being LGBTQIA. Then it will say:
“If you are L, you shouldn’t like B or T. If you are B, you must be confused or dishonest. If you are T you are not a real person. If you are A you have to be in the closet.”
Or it may say:
“You cannot possibly believe in God if you are any of the above,” or “there is no such thing as a practicing homosexual Christian.”
The elephant will bring its great weight to bear on issues of human rights and try to make you forget one colossal abuse of human rights by saying the once abused race are now even worse abusers of yet another race. The truth of the matter is that two wrongs never cancel each other out but the elephant does not want you to see that truth, the elephant wants to divide so that those less reasonable can more easily take power.
The elephant lives on a diet of maxims and manifestos. It thrives on causing division and chews up real people so they can more easily be used as cannon fodder to fight battles that benefit nobody except those who profit financially from violence and warfare. It claims to be tolerant but is actually very intolerant, it claims to be peaceful but invites conflict at every turn even in the name of peace.
So next time you are entertaining guests or enjoying the company of like-minded friends at the local ale-house and one of them invites the elephant in what will you do?

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The battle of Culloden lies at the very heart of A Crofter’s Tale , literally as well as metaphorically. It is a vital plot driver and takes up a whole chapter of the novel. Why is this? When writing the novel, I was torn between giving too much detail (history) and too little (romance). For some romance writers it might have been enough to give a paragraph or two’s description of the carnage and Robbie’s escape and to ignore the various political and personal dramas that actually destroyed the Jacobites. It is very easy to blame the Duke of Cumberland’s brutality or the inept leadership of Charles Edward Stuart too. That is fairly standard.

The reality is much more complex though. This disaster would not have happened had the Prince trusted his most senior general, Lord George Murray, and it would not have happened had negative political manipulation not been going on in the background. I believe the defeat at Culloden was a natural result of plotting and power play behind the scenes and for this reason, using dialogue and quotes from the time, I have shown it in A Crofter’s Tale . Rejecting Lord George Murray’s advice ultimately led to the massacre and the atrocities that followed. In my opinion Culloden need not have happened at all and, even if it did have to happen, there were serious but avoidable errors in choosing the field of battle and preparing for Cumberland’s forces. The American people have given us the best possible word for it: Culloden was a clusterfuck.

If you have ever stood on Culloden Moor and experienced the emptiness of the place or visited the visitors’ centre and seen the battle brought to life in front of your eyes you will understand that dilemma. This was the one event that turned the 1745 rebellion into a tragedy that brought about genocide in the highlands and lives on in the hearts and minds of anyone with Scots ancestry. I agonised for months over this chapter, how much to give and how much to withhold and if I erred on the side of history rather than romance I apologise now. Time will tell.

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.

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.

…British, gay, lesbian, old, teenagers, religious, asexual… substitute whichever descriptor you find fits you best and then stop and ask why I started my post this way. That’s it, my friends, go on, take a minute, two even. Yes? Got it? It is because we pigeonhole our literature and often we pigeonhole ourselves. We file ourselves away so readily it isn’t funny.

It took me a lifetime to break out of my own little filing cabinet. So much more cramping than a closet don’t you think? I keep getting tidied away in different drawers to this day. There is only one label I own that I can’t actually see myself changing, although I attempted to in The Cougar because Berenice is who I would most like to be. Without getting into Berenice too much today, that label is human and with it comes a whole battery of conflicting and disturbing stuff, the worst of which is being mortal and therefore on borrowed time.

When I started out as a writer, I had no ambition to make money. I was just a simple bard, a poet and story teller in touch with the Seasons and the Soul, and by definition I wrote for me. I wrote about love, small love and great love, and I tied it in with the world I breathed in every day. My words reflected the beauty around me and the sheer gratitude I felt for being alive in this troubled but wonderful world. The words were exuberant and for some readers they reflected a simpler, bygone era. I was being a Romantic I now know, and I was a Romantic in an age of Anti-Romanticism so I got some well-earned stick from my critics which I wear as a badge of honour to this day.

As you get older, time diminishes. Twenty years is still twenty years – but it no longer feels like a lifetime; it feels more like a fleeting moment. The months seem like days and the days have fewer hours in them. We all should know our time here is precious and it passes ever more quickly. Add to that the little bits of wear and tear. I went from fit athlete to fat diabetic in the blink of an eye and the shock was overwhelming. At twenty, you can’t see it coming; at thirty you are still blind to it; at forty you are too busy doing whatever must be done; at fifty you start to realise most of your life is behind you. Then there was Berenice…

If I could transport my home from sunny Bracebridge Heath to the moody temperate rainforest of British Columbia; if I could walk from garden to forest in a breath; transform into any shape I chose; be young and beautiful; swim in pristine lakes whenever I wanted without feeling the cold and love with all my heart and soul I would be Berenice. She came to me in a dream and said “Tell my story” but her story belongs to us all. It is a story of love and loyalty, temptation and deliverance, conscience and awakening to love. It is a story of coming out to one’s own self, of realisation that gender is an accident, compassion is learned and love is all that matters.

I don’t want to stray too far from the opening premise of this post though. I had a long and friendly conversation with a young lesfic writer on Twitter about the dos and don’ts in the genre. It was quite enlightening. I mentioned earlier about pigeonholing ourselves and pigeonholing our literature? It keeps us in our comfort zone but here we have Berenice, bisexual, late awakener, and proud. Should I write about all her experiences? Her great love was a man, her new love a woman. Should I write in the modern way about all the sexual encounters in this story? Should I tone it down, a la Radclyffe Hall, and have no contact at all? No, that would be timid. I chose to go the D.H.Lawrence route and be straightforward and honest. All encounters are equally valid in this novel.

How do I assign a genre to The Cougar ? (Or that matter to The Wings to Fly ). In all honesty I can’t. I tried fantasy and paranormal but the lesbian and trans scenes are no go areas for the usual swords, elves and kingdoms reader. If I go LGBT I will be disappointing the M/M fans who seem to dominate the genre and if I try lesfic, even though it has a lesbian romance at its very heart, I will be upsetting those readers who don’t like to read about straight sex. Biphobia and bi-erasure are still so widespread. There is a non-con marital scene in that has disturbed some readers although I think it needs to be in so that we can understand Owen and Angela’s situation and what motivates their later actions.

It seems that I have a story that refuses to fit in anywhere and yet it is an honest story, written from an honest perspective. Perhaps you will read The Cougar and decide for yourself but only if you are prepared to be open to the desire for immortality and the notion that love is all and all is love.

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.