Wednesday, 15 February 2017

The Great White Bat of Aragometh

I've been off ill for the past few days, and have spent my time huddled under a blanket on the sofa doing exactly what any gentleman should do when his toddler is at nursery and his squeamish husband is out at work: binge watching schlocky horror movies on Netflix. Watching all these demons and tortured spirits parading on screen got me thinking about the ghosts of my own childhood: the Ghost of Darkness and the Ghost of Light.

I think my brother introduced me to the Ghost of Darkness when I was about six years old, when we still shared a bedroom. He explained with the patience of an elder sibling that the Ghost would come into your room late at night, and should he find you still awake he would kill you. I asked, of course, how late 'late' was, and it seemed the definition was 'when the central heating switches off'.

I'd thus lie in bed wide-eyed until 8.30pm, when the clunk of the boiler switching off would resonate through the room and my parents would switch off the landing light. Plunged into darkness, there would follow the clunk-clunk-clunk of the radiators cooling down, and my mind of course raced to the assumption it was the Ghost of Darkness rapping his claws against the window.

Hauling the blankets over your head was a clear sign you were faking sleep -- my brother had so kindly explained -- so one instead had to lie perfectly still, face exposed for the Ghost's inspection, eyes kept shut but not too firmly, lest he sense any weakness and pounce.

My brother was not scared at all, as he assured me he enjoyed the protection of the Ghost of Light. Of course, I had never seen the Ghost of Light so could not rely on such defenses.

I would say my brother was being some sort of dick, but I imagine he just wanted to get me to go to sleep at night and stop bugging him with chatter. I am just as guilty now anyway, as ten years later in order to get my toddler cousin Alexander to walk home a bit faster at dusk I introduced the tale of the Great White Bat of Aragometh, a giant beast which comes out at night and swoops down to seize young children with its claws and drag them deep underground to feed. 

Sure we got home on time, but two years later he was still concerned about that bloody great white bat.

My Life as a 13 Year Old Cannibalistic Serial Killer

Next week I'll be visiting my old middle school to attend a parent forum where the school will be seeking feedback on sex and gender education. It set me thinking back to the sort of gender education I received at the school almost three decades ago - in particular how they helped me come to terms with and understand my homosexuality - and I realised that in actual fact we didn't discuss sexuality at all. Not one bit of it.

In fact, it took two decades of life before I was able to talk to anyone about this stuff. Longtime readers of this blog will know that I first came to understand I was gay while watching a rerun of George & Mildred at nine years old, but I didn't then actually get an opportunity to speak about my sexuality with another human being until I was about 19 or 20. Sure, there were other gay people at school (I now learn), but like me they were all hiding so far below the horizon we couldn't even find each other.

It's hard to imagine in these liberal times, but back when I was thirteen there wasn't a single popular gay role model in western culture. My brother was  outraged at suggestions Frederick Mercury might be gay even as the latter lay dying of AIDs. Boy George meanwhile demonstrated such a level of gender fluidity there was still some debate in my household whether he was a boy or a girl, and the thin end of the tolerance wedge that was Julian Clary was still a year or two away. And Hollywood Montrose? We genuinely just assumed he was a woman.

Although it seemed association with homosexuality would effectively be career death for any celebrity, there was one small class of person whose homosexuality was still readily discussed in detail: the queer cannibalistic serial killer. Bumbling along through life one day I happened to glance at a copy of a monthly murder history magazine in the local newsagents, and quickly saw the featured killer of the month - Dennis Nilson - had been a gay man who preyed on other men.

Finally! I thought... a chance to learn about my kind.

I pored over that magazine for weeks, taking in every detail of Nilson's personal history and psyche ... yet never really certain which details were part of the universal homosexual experience, and which were unique to queer cannibalistic serial killers. Loneliness and mild self-loathing, for sure. Picking up young men in a club, sounds good. Wanking them off in a filthy bed, okay. Strangling them with the telephone wire ... getting into dodgy territory there. Storing the young man's head in the fridge ... well that just sounds unhygienic. Reading the details I began to think there might be a good reason homosexuals were so vilified.

The sad thing is that as a gay child I had to go to great lengths to disguise why I was so interested in this story, so I had to subscribe to the entire murder history magazine series just to create the illusion it was the murders I was interested in, not the man-fucking. There was literally a greater fear in those days that ones child might be gay than they might be unnaturally obsessed with serial killers. To maintain this cover, I ended up learning a lot about Doctor Crippin, Ted Bundy and others of their ilk. My dad even told my hairdresser about the magazines, and she exclaimed "What sort of sicko reads that sort of thing?" and I hung my head, cheeks burning with shame but also pleased my real secret was buried behind this cover.

I can confirm now, after forty years of being a gay male, that wanking off young men before strangling, dismembering, boiling and eating them in fact plays an extremely small role in the overall life of the modern homosexual. We are a much more culturally varied race these days. Things were perhaps simpler in Nilson's day, but I do so prefer things as they are.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

A Country Boy's First Trip To The City

I remained a rather lonely misanthrope throughout the first year of university, and it was only as the year was drawing to a close that I began to hang out more with the likes of Olivia and Ted. Somehow Ted and I ended up agreeing to go to Paris on holiday together during the 1995 summer vacation (I say somehow, but I think he invited everyone in the room - including his girlfriend - and I was the only one to say yes). It thus became necessary to make My First Trip To London As An Adult. 

I took the coach from Leeds down to London, which is a miserable and long journey, and arrived at Victoria coach station completely overwhelmed by its size and complexity. I was at that stage a country boy who still considered Cambridge to be large and exciting, so suddenly finding myself in such a vast metropolis felt like I'd landed on Coruscant. 

I was to spend the evening at Punam's house, and was thus required to make the rather ordinary tube journey from Victoria to Finchley Central. This sounds pretty easy these days, but I recall walking down the steps underground to regard the tube system for the very first time and wondering whether or not it would just be easier to turn around and go straight back home. 

Acquiring a ticket was a serious mystery. Back then the machines were giant black mechanical monsters rather than touch screen computers, and you had to know stuff like how many zones you wanted to travel through and pull the appropriate lever, oil the grommet and crank the gears. I didn't even know what a zone was. Working out which colour line I needed was even more complex; there are literally a number of different tube lines in London. It also hadn't occurred to me that there would be trains travelling in each direction, and so rather than heading north I soon found myself at one point passing through Brixton. As the only thing I knew at that time about Brixton was it's role in the London riots, I felt a bit out of my depth.

After finally meeting up with Punam - who admitted she should have probably picked me up from Victoria, but had forgotten I was new to this sort of thing (this sort of thing presumably being modern life) - she took me into town to show me the highlights. We saw Big Ben, which was of course shorter than I'd expected, and then somehow later found ourselves on Oxford Street, where we explored Hamleys. 

It didn't take long for Punam to realise how uncomfortable I was riding on all of the escalators. We only had one escalator in my home town, at the Presto supermarket, and they never had it turned it on. Punam thus took me to John Lewis so I could spend a half hour practising mounting and dismounting the escalators there (a very wise choice, as John Lewis has escalators with a short warm up area before they actually turn into stairs, making it an ideal test ground). We also ate some food in the basement of Oxford Street Plaza, which at the time felt amazingly sophisticated, but looking back with the wisdom of an extra 22 years I now know to be a cheap and chavvy place I wouldn't ever think visit. 

Eventually we went back to Punam's house and met her parents, who were very jolly and spoke very little English (at least, in front of me). I recall Punam's mum was especially keen that I enjoy my visit, and at one point insisted I put my feet up on the coffee table. I was very comfortable as I was and said there was really no need, but so eager was she to be a good host that she physically took hold of my legs and lifted them onto the coffee table for me. I thus had to sit there for an hour, eating my noodle dinner, with my legs awkwardly and painfully propped up on the coffee table, to avoid causing offence.

In the morning, Punam took me back to the tube station, showed me how to buy my ticket and gave me strict instructions on how to get to Waterloo. I thus arrived at the Eurostar terminal without any problem, and promptly bumped into Ted who had been travelling on the exact same train. 

Rick & Ted's Tres Bonnes Adventure will, I assume, be documented as a separate memory at a random point in the future.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Women I have spurned

It’s been quiet here at the Memory Project HQ thanks a recent three month trip around Australasia, however now that I’m back and my friends have harassed me at length I’ve finally got round to writing a new entry. So, as the evil twin of my tale of growing up gay in the Yorkshire countryside, here are my memories of those girls who’ve tried to be more than just friends:

My first girlfriend was a creature called Cathy McCoy, whose name is wholly unobfuscated here as I’d dearly love to be reunited with her. Cathy and I were best friends the moment we left the womb and – as I’ve noticed is common practice – our parents insisted we were sweethearts and would one day marry. For some reason we accepted this conceit and a happy few years were had living the dream: holding hands, frolicking in the garden ... actually, this is about as much as I can recall, although I do remember that we were utterly inseperable until we were about four years old and her parents moved to Darlington and I didn’t see her ever again.

That isn’t quite true. I think about a year or three later we went to visit the McCoys in Darlington, and it turned out we had nothing much in common anymore. They also lived in quite a grim house, and I sense that Mrs McCoy wasn’t married to Cathy’s father anymore. I suppose in this sense I didn’t ever see the Cathy I knew again, since instead I saw a paupered and broken version of her. Maybe I will obfuscate that name after all.

I stuck to boy friends after that – the variously queer John How and Alistair Howtown, as reported elsewhere in this blog – until I must have been about eight years old, and for some reason Alistair decided I needed a girlfriend. The relationship was formed as all relationships were back then: my friends convened with Sarah Barkur’s friends behind a curtain at the youth club disco to strike up negotiations (I seem to recall I was checking out Nicholas Cheetam’s naked body in the Home Economics room at the time – I suppose I’d forgiven him since Tiggergate), and then later the union was announced to Sarah and I without our participation.

“Okay”, I said, curious to see where this would lead. Sarah was after all a perfectly pleasant looking girl with strawberry blonde hair, and it couldn’t hurt to at least try having a girlfriend.

Regular readers might predict this wouldn’t work out well. Sarah and I had an awkward goodnight kiss, then the following morning at school (Youth Club was on a Thursday, this was all before alcohol was even invented) we acted awkwardly around each other for the first two classes, and then at breaktime Sarah sent an ambassador to my usual hanging out spot among the rocks at the back of the playground.

“Sarah is calling it off,” the diplomat explained. “Sorry, kid. Sometimes love ain’t easy.”

No indeed. That was probably my shortest ever relationship.

A few years later, when I was more comfortable with my sexuality and yet more certain of my lack of interest in the ladies, Sheila Polhammer invited me round to her house to assist with her math homework. She took me up to her room where we could concentrate on the math without disturbance from her insane Austrian father, but when we entered I was surprised to discover we would also be working without disturbance from our math homework. It was a tiny room, filled mostly with a bed.

“Sit down,” Sheila demanded, so I sat sharply down on the floor and got my math books out of my bag. “No, on the bed,” she insisted, packing my books away again.

We sat on the bed for a while, making awkward conversation. She asked me whether I was a good kisser, and I turned the question round on her by asking whether that was her four inch black and white television she had on her bedside table. This evasion tactic did not last long and Sheila moved in for a kiss. I moved about three feet back and asked quietly whether the portable television was battery operated or needed to be plugged into the wall. This was a limited coping mechanism as the room was only six feet wide and I didn’t have many more questions to ask about the specifications of her portable television. And so it continued, and so I grabbed my bag and ran out the door.

I was particularly popular during the second year at university, when Darien brought an extremely inebriated Penny Porter to my room and explained patiently and with only a hint of romance that “If you want her, you can have her.” I didn’t want her.

The same year Ted, Olivia and I went on a party cruise to Ely in a long boat which powered along the Cam. We’d been invited by the indomitable Rotsy, who’d taken the starring role in our recent production of Jeeves & Wooster. On the seemingly innocent pretext of going out to see the stars, she took me out onto the front deck and planted a long kiss on my lips.

Stunned, I didn’t know what to say. So I said the first thing to come into my head.

“You taste like pasta,” I said, meaning bland and wet.

“A good thing I like pasta!” she responded, meaning rich and spicy.

We spent a long time out there, her kissing me and me using diversionary tactics such as pointing out how quickly the trees went past, and how clever it was they used parallex scrolling to create the illusion this was all happening in real life.

At the end of that term I went to Denmark and unwittingly became husband to the pig-fearing Eleanor, as previously documented.

After graduation, Zack and I went off to America for a few months to sell books door-to-door. While living in Hershey our next-door-neighbour Michelle developed something of a crush on me. Michelle was not frightened about being forward, as demonstrated by her decision to write “I want to drink your hot cum” in permanent marker on the dashboard of our car. Early one morning the three of us went to the pub because it was raining and we didn’t feel like getting wet selling books door-to-door (in Southwestern terms, going to the pub just because it was raining was second only to child sacrifice in terms of evil). As the weather cleared up in the afternoon, Michelle suggested I should go selling in Anneville, and offered to come along and give me a hand. Being too drunk to walk straight, this seemed like a very good idea.

Well, would you believe it but turning up excessively drunk to try to sell books to middle class parents in a heavily religious town in which the sale of alcohol is forbidden transpired to be a really bad idea. Halfway through one demonstration Michelle decided to grope me, pulling open my flies, and to distract my potential customers I babbled too much about their fabulous fishtank. We were kicked out of the house, but if the owners thought that was the last they’d seen of us then they were very disappointed. They discovered us about five minutes later in the middle of their lawn: me virtually passed out from drunkeness, Michelle straddled over my inert body trying to pull my clothes off and screaming at me to fuck her.

It didn’t happen, thank goodness. I suggested we go back to the pub for more booze and – after about an hour of her screaming at me to go home and fuck her in her fucking water bed – Zack finally arrived to drive me home.

We moved away from Hershey the following morning.

Friday, 25 December 2009

Saturday, 21 November 2009

My father the policeman

Lying in bed the other day, I remembered a strange occasion when my father decided that six months imprisonment and a £5,000 penalty was insufficient deterrant to prevent him from impersonating a police officer. As I recall it, he pulled his car across the front of a double decker bus to force it to stop, leapt out of the car shouting at the bus driver to stay where he was under orders of the police, stormed the bus and up the stairs and then attempted to arrest two young teenage boys.

I was a young teenage boy myself, and my embarassment at his behaviour was matched in magnitude by the boys' absolute terror at being confronted by Gene Hunt. Thankfully, the arrest did not proceed, although he did march the boys off the bus to take their details before permitting it to continue.

My dad later claimed that the boys had been throwing bricks out of the top window down onto his car. As a passenger who was sitting in the backseat, who understands something about the momentum of buses and the sealed nature of top deck front windows, I cannot now confirm this is likely.

My dad was always prone to a little road rage, although of course this was before the term 'road rage' was invented. A few years later we were in Ireland, driving from Dublin to Tipperary, and a motocyclist overtook us. My dad took this as a personal slight and accelerated, overtaking the motorcyclist in turn. He of course then did the same, until the two drivers were trapped in an insane battle of speed, accelerating through the country lanes in a determined battle to beat the other, the cyclist waving his fingers in fury and my dad consumed with anger and bellowing abuse at the wheel.

It could only have a disastrous end. As we reached the Tipperary city limits and the speed limit felt to 30mph, my dad hit the brakes and the cyclist went flying into the back of the car.

My dad pulled over, but this time did not impersonate a police officer. The rest of the family was petrified as of course a fist fight would be the only way to settle this, but in fact things were suddenly incredibly amicable. I think probably because it turned out they were both English, and it isn't very English to argue in public. My dad apologised if his bumper got in the cyclist's way, and the cyclist - peeling himself off the tarmac - apologised if he'd done any damage to my dad's car. They shook hands and went on their way.

The closest my dad ever got to driving a police car was after we'd had a long boozy dinner up at the Spite with Kath, Alan and Helen, when he was too drunk to realise the car alarm was still on (but not, it seems, too drunk to drive). Motoring home, the car lights started flashing and the alarm blaring at full volume, in a satisfying imitation of a police panda car. Fortunately we did not attract the attention of any real officers, otherwise he might have got to ride in a police car for real.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

My Life As The Bowl

My first experience of the theatre came in 1979, aged 3, when I featured in the Rainbow Play Group's full-length adaptation of a series of nursey rhymes. I was cast as The Bowl, to Cathy McCoy's The Spoon, and it was my task to run away with her once The Cow had jumped over The Moon. I recall having been desperate to play The Moon, and so it was with bitter resentment that I portrayed some eloping crockery.

I didn't much know what to make of the show while we were rehearsing. Growing up in rural Yorkshire I'd had no cause to visit a theatre before, so the entire concept was alien to me: the stage, the curtains, a large room full of people including my parents. It was hard to imagine what it was all for, and yet still I played my role with panache and as the crowd roared I knew I'd found my calling.

It was some years later - at primary school - that I was next invited to act, in a somewhat confused adaptation of Winnie the Pooh which included a series of non-canon characters like Snow White. I was (along with the rest of the school) desperate to play Tigger, and I recall the night before the cast was announced standing naked in front of my father during bathtime and demonstrating that I was born to the role of Tigger by jumping up and drown frenetically until he pleaded with me to stop. My only anxiety was that the part came with a skin-tight costume, including orange tights decorated with black marker, and I wasn't certain I had the legs for it.

Alas, I was eventually cast as one of the Seven Dwarves and thus relegated to a stupid costume with a bobble hat, with my only job being to stomp around bellowing 'Hi-Ho!' while all of the other characters had fun. My one time friend Nicholas Cheetam was selected to play Tigger, a role he portrayed poorly, and his betrayal drove a wedge between us. We were never friends again .

Come Middle School (aged 10), I was selected to play the much-overlooked role of 'Newspaper Delivery Boy' in an all new adaptation of the Bible's Christ Story. Mrs Rees, the director, otherwise took authenticity seriously and insisted we all black-up with dark brown foundation so we'd look more middle eastern. My task was to hide at the back of the hall and then - halfway through the second scene - stride down the middle of the aisle bellowing "Read all about it! Read all about it! Census called in Bethlehem!" before handing newspapers out to the main characters on stage, thus seamlessly providing their motivation for Scene 3.

I don't recall much more about this production than that a tall blonde girl called Samantha was required to wear a miniskirt and gossip like a harlot, a task so suited to her that she adopted the role permanently in adulthood.

I became much more shy in my later years, and carefully avoided participating in any productions at secondary school. Pelinore Says and South Pacific thus passed me by, until in the sixth form (aged 17) Timothy Brabham and I were invited to write and direct the school pantomime. We'd never written a show before - indeed, had only written some pretty dreadful comedy sketches - so we had no real idea how to tackle the task. Things were not made easier by the furry-man-mountain that was Mr Dickinson, who handed us a vague concept which effectively comprised the weak play on words that is Sleepless Beauty, and we took it from there simply by dividing the scenes up and each writing completely different plots and characters for alternate scenes.

The plot and dialogue was extremely weak to start with, but then during rehearsals Mr Dickinson insisted on inserting his own scene towards the end in which he played a fat hairy priest quoting from the Bible ("Jacob answered his mother Rebekah, 'Behold, Esau my brother is a hairy man and I am a smooth man."), which I vaguely suspect was a direct rip-off from Beyond the Fringe. The show was - ultimately - a great success, with one particularly heart-stopping scene in which the depressed jester was supposed to hang himself, and the teacher selected to play the role embraced it with such authenticity that he almost throttled himself to death with a rope hanging off the lighting rig. That got a terrific laugh.

I sat in the audience during the pantomime and had just one line to deliver during the entire performance, right at the end when Sleepless Beauty was due to marry her prince. The preist, shortly after some smooth-man/hairy-man bonus material, asked whether anyone in the audience had cause to object to the union. I was then required to bellow out, "I object. I object on the grounds that marriage is an outdated institution governed on lines which are both paternalistic and misogynistic!" (this was, you can see, comedy gold). Well, I was utterly terrified of doing any such thing, and sitting in the audience I didn't have the benefit of the adulation and adrenaline that fuelled the other performers. I thus found courage in a bottle of 'Rescue Remedy' which my mother had given me, which I sipped quietly through earlier scenes. Rescure Remedy claims to be a herbal solution to anxiety but really - in the quantities I consumed - offered its main support in the form of 70% proof industrial alcohol.

Later, while studying in Cambridge (aged 18), I entertained ideas of joining a comedy troupe such as Footlights, but the presence of such multi-skilled performers as David Mitchell and Robert Webb - combined with my own utter horror of performing - caused me to abandon this impulse. Finally, at the end of my first year, I spent a quiet weekend indoors writing a comedy play which was called, on the basis of three words chosen at random from the dictionary, Hooligan's Cows Dream.

I was quite pleased with the script, and in the second year Timothy Brabham and I formed the theatrical society JESSICA (Jolly Entertaining Show Staged In Cambridge Auditoria) in order to attract sufficient funding to put the show on at the Cambridge Play Room. This was a terrific decision as it was ultimately through this show that I made most of the university friends I now think most fondly of, most notably Olivia (who played Bob), Ted (Art Producer) and Darien (Director).

The plot concerned two people waiting in purgatory to hear whether they could enter Heaven, but who didn't realise they had already been judged and that their waiting was in fact Hell (the plot came to me while watching Satre's Huis Clos, which we sensibly flagged up in the programme in an attempt to wrong-foot the critics). It was a comedy of course, so Darien came up with the rather natty tagline of "A comedy about pain, suffering and death." He also shortened the title to Hooligan's Dream, and removed the worse excesses from the dialogue.

The show was a total hit, with most nights sold out and a substantial profit made. I was too self-conscious to watch the performance myself so I lurked in the cellar below the theatre like the Phantom of the Opera, listening to the audience laugh and clap and trying to guess which bits were so popular. When the first show concluded with cheering and applause I was so thrilled by the success that I ran out into the street whooping and raced all the way up to the Senate House, where a homeless man asked me for change and I was on such a high I gave him a full pound sterling. My mood soon fell on the Friday however when - on the way to a lecture - I picked up a copy of Varsity to read our reviews. The entire review was a direct and personal attack on me, which I considered rather unfair.

We only did one more show at Cambridge. Darien cobbled together some sketches he and some school pals had written, and we served the package as Twelve Moths (the name was chosen only after Ted had painted a poster of twelve moths). We persuaded Matt Benares to fund the entire venture on the basis of guaranteed return of 15% over one month. Of course, the show was an utter box office disaster and we lost it all.

"We didn't mean that sort of guaranteed return," we had to explain to Matt when he asked for his money. He was such a penny-pincher.