Saturday 27 September 2008
Deborah Orr: I'm all for gay rights. I'm also for the right to use London's parks
If heterosexuals began carving up common land in every town so they could shag each other with no strings attached, no one would consider it a great idea’
Some years ago, when George Michael was arrested in a US lavatory, he found that people were surprisingly sympathetic about his sexual proclivities. Everything was laughed off, in a way that was rather cheering. It was all a sign that the population was relaxed, and that the battle for gay acceptance was being won. This week, however, Michael felt the need to apologise "for screwing up again" after he was caught with crack cocaine in an underground loo on Hampstead Heath, one that is well known to be a meeting place for gays.
Maybe it is only the drugs that Michael is apologising for. But maybe he, and some other gay men, ought to start thinking again about the way in which they conduct their sexual lives also. Until recently, there were good reasons why men met in the dark, in sheltered public spaces, in secret, to have illegal encounters, and many people felt sympathy with what was rightly seen as a desperate plight.
Now, after years of fighting for gay equality, men and women can marry others of their own gender and live happily ever after. They can pay, if they wish to, to go to clubs or spas where they know that not very discreet sex is on the agenda. They can advertise in the papers, in magazines, or on the internet. They are free to indulge in what Father Ted Crilly once called "the rough and tumble of homosexual life". But there appears to be no decline in clandestine activity.
In Stoke Newington cemetery, earlier this summer, a dance company, Nonsuch, gave a free performance at the foot of a little ruined castle. Families had gathered in the sunshine to listen to the singing and join in the dancing. The festivities flushed out another group, and a gang of sweaty, mostly leather-clad, young men stumbled out from the undergrowth to see what was going on. Two of them came over and took some pictures on their mobiles, talking loudly, so that they could be heard above the live opera.
"Look at this!" one exclaimed, in a thick foreign accent. "Only in Britain!"
I'm afraid we all felt somewhat chagrined to be considered eccentric objects of bemused pity by people who spent their Saturday afternoons monopolising graveyards so that they could have sex in them. Green space is a precious commodity in London, and it's annoying that there are so many places where one can't go. When I moaned about this to a friend, she snorted. She'd found herself rinsing human excrement out of her dog's beard, after she'd been foolish enough to walk him near the spot on Clapham Common that is the unofficial dogging zone for gay humans.
One does begin to wonder why gay men are quite so keen to retain their special status, as people who have a weird dispensation to have sex al fresco in places requisitioned as suitable for the purpose. If heterosexuals began carving up common land in every town so that they could shag each other with no strings attached, no one would consider it a great idea.
I'm all for equality, but perplexed as to why there's so little sign that it might cut both ways. Maybe old habits die hard. But maybe, some members of the gay community have obsessed about their own rights for so long now that they've forgotten that anyone else's might be deserving of respect as well.We should heed this drama's stark lessons
You have to feel sorry for that devoted band who watch 'The Wire' on FX. For them, the fifth and final series is over. But for those many of us watching on DVD, it's only just begun. Nevertheless, it is landmark shows such as this one that inspire the greatest regret about the atomisation of televisual culture.
If ever a television drama deserved to be the subject of focused, mainsteam debate, week by week, on both sides of the Atlantic, this is it. Exploring the drug-dealing culture of Baltimore, 'The Wire', pictured above, examines a number of the ways in which ruthless, highly profitable criminal activity impinges on wider society. On the front line, of course, are the police, working to a narrow agenda that much of the time they know only too well is pointless.
But also intelligently examined is the ease with which clever, ambitious dealers move into mainstream business, and buy political influence; the havoc wrought on families by drug use and the culture it fosters; and the ghastly effect it has on the education system that struggles to engage the children caught up in "the corners".
Gang culture in Britain is, thank heavens, nothing like as deeply embedded and precisely organised as it is in the US. But there is every sign that matters could develop in a similar fashion here. 'The Wire' is a warning to this country, and one that should be heeded.Our children could learn much from this trip down memory lane
It is troubling, every time one walks into the bedroom of one's seven-year-old, to see Balfour and Campbell-Bannerman crouched in a corner each, Asquith poised halfway up the step-ladder, and Lloyd George and Bonar Law peeking over the cusp of the platform bed. But that imagery, hopefully, will soon settle down, and Britain's prime ministers will only pop up when I want them to.
Like a lot of adults nowadays, I was never expected to learn long historical lists at school, and saw no reason why that situation should ever be rectified. Then I met an arresting young man called Ed Cooke, who insisted passionately that such knowledge really helped a person, and that it needn't be boring to absorb it.
To prove his point, he visited my home this week, and took me on a "memory walk" around it. After one hour and 20 minutes, and the creation of a narrative stuffed with spatial, verbal and visual clues, I'd become the sort of woman who could recite, at the drop of a jaw, every prime minister this country has ever had, and in order.
And it's not just a party piece – although I confess my thrilling new trick has already been thrust on the unsuspecting guests at one innocent party. Suddenly, all my chunks of knowledge about the history of British parliamentary democracy hang on a solid backbone. Just as one meander across a city can familiarise you with its character in a way that a thousand journeys on the Underground never can, one handy list can foster intellectual order where previously chaos reigned.
Sadly, Ed can't come round to everybody's house. But he insists that's not necessary. He's written a book, published by Penguin, and called Remember, Remember, offering vivid, silly narratives that threaten instant party recall of all US presidents and every king and queen of England and Britain. There's also a chapter that confers the ability to draw an accurate map of Europe.
The book is by no means a poor option. There's not much room in the shower, now that it houses a tattooed, dripping Viscount Melbourne, flanked by a pair of naked, shivering Robert Peels. It's downright disturbing that Disraeli and Gladstone (pictured left), alongside their evil twins, Disraeli and Gladstone, grin so manically as they lie in a row, hogging the marital bed. My house now teems with dead politicians. They lounge around, everywhere I look, like the corpses in An American Werewolf In London. There, is where the book, I'll wager, has a definite advantage over the more intimate stroll down memory lane that I was treated to.
Much has been said and written about the commodification of the female form. Much pondering has gone into speculation about the effects this may have on children. But I think my 10-year-old son has the drop on all that theory.
"Mum, how do they get women to do those things for those adverts?"
"Oh, you know, all of them. Pretty much."
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