We will survive this outrage
What kind of poofs would we be if we ran away from Soho at the first sign of trouble?
Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Exeter, Philip Hensher was among Granta 20 Best of Young British Novelists in 2003. The author of six novels, a collection of short stories and an opera libretto, he has won numerous prizes including the Somerset Maugham Award and the Stonewall Journalist of the Year. His 2008 novel, 'The Northern Clemency', was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Commonwealth Prize. A regular presence in the British media, alongside his Wednesday column for The Independent, he writes for The Spectator and Mail on Sunday.
Monday 03 May 1999
So that was that. Anyway, they weren't going to go for Soho, everyone was saying. They were probably the sort of sad provincials - little roll of the eyes - who wouldn't connect Soho with gay culture. If they wanted to hit at gay men, we all agreed, they were more likely to have a go at Earl's Court, the "gay village" of the Seventies.
All the same, there was a distinct spirit of the Blitz about the Soho bars all week. On Thursday the current fashionable bar of choice, Rupert Street, was absolutely heaving; it took you 10 minutes to work from one end of the bar to the other.
Whether the general energetic partying represented people being brave or was just the normal energetic partying was impossible to say; it looked more as if people were loosening their throats than as if they were clenching their teeth. But it was packed. From time to time, a Tannoy announcement reminded you that there was a cloakroom here, where bags should be left; of course, it would not be sensible for a bar to suggest to its customers that a bombing campaign was very likely to be aimed against them, and the announcement remained studiously vague in its terms.
It was a usual sort of night; Soho is more or less where my gang hangs out, and, without meaning to, I bumped into half a dozen friends and acquaintances. A famous novelist, an Italian waiter, a composer, an academic, a banker, a shop assistant, a friend just back from three gruelling days looking at conditions in the Macedonian refugee camps. It's always the same, and that's why you go there. Maybe it would be nice if "the community" had somewhere to hang out other than a bar or a club, but it isn't going to happen.
So in the meantime, this is our community; this is where we go to see our friends, to walk up and down, to pick each other up, to have a laugh.
The gay community is small enough to make Old Compton Street, on a warm evening, feel like a passeggiata in a moderately large Italian city; the little celebrities of the place are pointed out, you greet your friends and your acquaintances, you stop for a beer or a coffee and make plans for later on.
The atmosphere is like this because this is where we live, and the idea that some small little minds disapprove of our admittedly somewhat rackety existences is not something that we, on the whole, find interesting or relevant. And if we read the letters page of The Daily Telegraph, or hear about Baroness Young going on and on and on about sodomising 16-year-olds, or admit the very real fear into our minds that someone, sooner or later, is going to try to blow us up, then we weigh a fear of intolerance and evil against our firm conviction that we have a right to live our lives as we choose, and a duty not to give in to that fear.
I was in Soho again on Friday afternoon, oddly; I bumped into a pianist friend and went for a beer with him, again in Rupert Street. There were already about 50 or 60 people there at 6pm. At about 6.20pm he had to leave to go to a rehearsal. I had to go home - my mate Laurent was coming round for an evening with James Bond and a six-pack on the sofa.
"All a bit worrying, this," I remember saying as we walked down Old Compton Street. "I bet you a tenner it's Golders Green this week and Earl's Court next."
We agreed, as everyone had been agreeing all week, that it was going to be Golders Green this week and Earl's Court next. And then I got on my bike, and cycled off; at about 6.25pm at a guess. If I'd looked carefully, I'd probably have seen the bomber, walking briskly through the elegantly sauntering crowds. Walking away silently, and very fast.
That's the moment where the imagination fails. To take a bomb into a bar, to put it down next to someone chatting, perhaps laughing; perhaps to look at them, and to be able to suppress the universal interest that human beings have for each other, not to wonder about their lives and feelings and thoughts. Just to put a bag down, and know that in a moment that person will be dead. The imagination will go so far, but not as far as that, and all I can see is a man walking away down the street in the evening sunshine; all that comes to mind, like consolation, is the last line of The Secret Agent. There he goes; the man who thinks he stands for what the newspapers call "the majority", who certainly agrees with Baroness Young's moral crusade, who thinks everyone should be exactly like him. There he goes, "unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men".
Of course, I don't mean to suggest for a single moment that those members of the House of Lords who were campaigning so successfully recently for the right to tell us whom we may go to bed with would be pleased to hear that homosexuals had been murdered.
But there is an undeniable continuity of thought between the disapproval and hatred voiced in the debates on the age of consent in the House of Lords and that which spoke on Old Compton Street on Friday night. Both voices assumed the unelected right to inform us that our lives are worth less than theirs; that they have the duty to protect society from our malign influence. A continuity of thought, too, between the bomber and those newspapers which, over the weekend, saw fit to dwell on the fact that heterosexuals were killed in the bombing, as though they were uncertain, until learning that fact, whether this could strictly be classified as a tragedy. We have come a long way - the Home Secretary Jack Straw's statements on the bombing struck exactly the right note of concern, unembarrassed sympathy and respect. "Homophobia" has now mysteriously and abruptly joined racism as something all reasonable people may be assumed to deplore; even the politician Alan Clark uses the expression now.
At some point, even the newspapers may stop referring to "a known gay bar" as if it were some sort of criminal haunt, talking about gay men as "gays" - a linguistic usage that offends gay men more strongly than almost anything else - and may even start to write as if they could conceivably have gay people among their readership, even on their staff.
There are not many of them left; but even a small and dwindling band of small, envious minds can take on the power to disrupt our lives. And what can we do? We can go on with our lives as they were. It is not much of a weapon, but it is all we have. I keep going back to my night in the Rupert Street bar, and the half-dozen friends I bumped into - Alan, Yusef, Will, Colin, Giovanni, Laurent - and just being quietly thankful that this time it just missed. It so happens that I didn't know anyone, as far as I am aware, who was in the Admiral Duncan pub on Friday night, so cruelly chosen because it was at the top of the alphabetical listings of gay pubs; and I have no means of knowing how many familiar faces were there. But you just have to carry on; I mean, what kind of poofs would we be if we ran away from Soho at the first sign of trouble?
And by the time you read this, Old Compton Street will be drifting back to normal; its ordinary, outrageous, important self. If you look at it, you will see what Conrad saw; a street full of men. Yes, of men.
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