Sunday, 21 June 2015

Obstacle Race

We are approaching the season of school sports days.  I disliked them when I was a school pupil and did my duty when I was a teacher.  I hated the ridiculous nature of running in competition against anyone or anything other than a clock.  Teachers leave an indelible imprint on our lives.  Some of those marks are beautiful tattoos we wear with pride and fond memories, others are ugly brands we do our best to cover up, ignore and hope to forget.  Sadly some of those uglier memories just won't go away.  

Of course many memories of our teachers concern humorous events.  I have to wonder whether present generations of children will carry with them such a range of memories about their teachers into their own futures.  Successive government interference and reform has for decades aimed to turn teachers into functionaries "delivering" a prescribed curriculum.  A set number of subjects with a statutory list of elements that must be covered and squeezed into a week.  Each Secretary of State for Education after Kenneth Baker has felt the need to make a mark of their own on the nation's children by messing about with the curriculum (again), claiming they will reduce the burden on teachers.  All they do is move the deck chairs around on the deck of a ship that is sinking under the weight of its own  administration.  I shudder when I think of the shelf space that had to be built to house the government-sponsored folders of papers and instructions relating to my own subject of music, all of which was scrapped within very few years.  This was happening in every subject area in every school in the country.  Every teacher had a set of folders for every subject.  When the documents changed skips were filled.  It has been one of the most pointless wastes of educational resources and goodwill.

But back to teachers.  Thankfully I still see some extraordinary people who seem to have that magic something that makes the class zing with excitement, purpose and confidence.  I see some teachers who are struggling, but doing their best.  Most teachers fall somewhere between.  They nearly all end up frustrated and exhausted by being tasked with the impossible.  Recent pronouncements from the present Education Secretary do not bode well.  More blame to come, I fear.

I wonder what the present system would have made of my teachers?  From my infant school days I can only really remember Mrs Cherasse, whose name no one could spell and we all sat round our table discussing it and considering the options.  Inexplicably, Garry's contribution was to tell us to look under the table as he exposed himself.  It was funny to start with, but we got wise and he got bored.  I only give Mrs Sharrasse's name so the reader gets the idea of the challenge this conundrum presented.  Beth's mum used to address all letters to "Dear Madam".  Easy when you know.  

I can remember more from my junior school days.  In first year juniors (now called Year 3, of course) I had Miss H who was a lovely older lady I remember mostly for spellings and for introducing me to the recorder.  I didn't learn to read notation with her, but I enjoyed playing the instrument.  One day she called me and the other boy in the class with the same name to come to her desk to announce sotto voce that we had come "top of the class", he in arithmetic and me in English.  I didn't know what it meant, but it sounded good.  I never managed that trick again, but to be honest I really didn't aspire to it either.  Years later I had a part-time job selling local newspaper subscriptions door to door and one evening she opened a door.  It was lovely to see her again.  I reminded her of the "top of the class" incident and what could she say, but, "Oh, well done!"  It didn't help her overcome her bewilderment as she clearly didn't remember me at all.

The following year I had Miss K, a tall and very correct lady from Scotland whose accent I never managed to fathom.  I spent much of that year in confusion, especially one afternoon when I suffered a string burn at the hands of my best friend (the one I mention in my song, "Pansy Potter").  I was incredulous that she would suggest I put soup on it.  I checked several times.  
"No, soup." 
"You mean soup?"  
"No I said, 'soup'"
In an attempt to break the deadlock I tried a different tack, "Where do I get soup from, Miss?"
"From the toilet, of course!"

I sat down with my hand still stinging painfully and absolutely none the wiser.
"You twit," BF said helpfully, "she was telling you to put soap on it."
I didn't learn much that year, except that a change of best friend was in order.  I wasn't used to getting into the number of scrapes which his hyperactive exuberance inspired.  My new BF was a perfect match and we were inseparable for the rest of my time at that school (or would have been, had it not been for the dreaded Mrs W).  I lost him for a few decades but found him again a few years ago.  He's a professional golfer in Germany now.

Mrs W. was an inspirational teacher.  She inspired fear and despair in roughly equal measures.  She was like a Ring Wraith and in some manifestation of prescience was actually from New Zealand.  Her accent was also quite difficult to understand at times, but one only ever asked questions once.  It was a brave or foolhardy person who ever asked for repetition or clarification.  Had I read any Dante by the age of nine I might have easily visualised a sign over the door to our class-in-a-hut declaring, "ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE", in appropriately wiggly writing.  Our desks were in paired rows each pair populated by one boy and one girl.  I didn't want to sit next to a girl and certainly not Lynn.  I wanted to sit next to NBF.  Lynn was noisy, she always made strange vocalisations when she was concentrating and it was really off-putting, but she could do a good pigeon walk with a pecking head.  I practised the head thing myself, later combining it most effectively with crossed-eyes and fish-mouth.  Mrs W. ruled with a voice of thunder, a tongue of steel and a grasp of sarcasm that could strip the rust off an Austin A40.  I was scared of her and even Doug and Dinsdale Piranha would have been no match.  She was a deadly shot with a piece of chalk and rumour was that sometimes she would throw a blackboard rubber if she got really cross.  I developed nervous stomach aches and spent a lot of time away from school that year.  Towards the end of that year my family moved, so my father could be closer to London to his work, much to my delight.  I changed junior schools.  In my new school I was in Mrs. T's class for a term before moving up Mr. H. for my final year in primary school.  It was during this final year that the Obstacle Race occurred.  It was also the year when I was made to play football for the school team for the first and only time and where I was all but concussed by receiving the heavy, muddy, wet, leather football full in the face twice within minutes.  I saw something similar happen to a boy a few weeks ago.  He was escorted off the pitch and given magic ice-pack treatment and his parents told to keep an eye on him.  Maybe we really were tougher in those days.  That year was also the year I fell in love with the new member of staff, Mr P., who was the teacher of the class next door and taught music.  He quickly discovered my interest in music and nurtured it in a most generous way.  I shall doubtless mention him again sometime.

The Obstacle Race.  Well the song says it all really.  I was pretty agile, used to scrambling about in bushes and good at climbing trees and had a fairly good sense of balance, but I could never thread a needle.  I stood a chance of being placed somewhere in this school sports day, because the obstacle race was fun.  What I didn't know was how devious Mrs C. (I think she was on teaching practice) was going to be in designing a race that had needle threading as one of the obstacles.  I balanced, I climbed, I scrambled, I even kicked a football, but I came to a dead stop at the needle part.  All advantages gained through my agility were lost as the eye of the needle disappeared in a confusion of splayed cotton.  I had no scissors to cut the thread and start again.  I looked up each time one of my classmates threaded the needle and charged on to the finish line.  Sports day was held up for a full five minutes while I attempted my task, although by one of those quirks of time it seemed much longer.  Mrs C. tried to convince me that it was okay to leave it and run for the finish line, but I was determined.  In the end I gave up and headed for the finish with all the excitement of a face flannel, so the next event could start.  Oh the shame of it all.

However, none of those encounters with games and sports at primary school prepared me for the horror that was to come in secondary school.  At least I never had to play football again, but this was a rugby-playing grammar school which, as I soon discovered, was much, much worse.  The three members of the P.E. staff were sadists to a man.  The one-stop treatment for any insult or injury to the dignity of a member of the department was usually a whole-class slippering.  There is something deeply disturbing about a grown man being allowed to have thirty eleven year-olds lined neatly along the length of the gym, bending to touch their toes at his command as he proceeds down the line whacking each child with a gym shoe.  No, it's worse than that.  It is and was sick and unhealthy.  It was as though each member of the department tried to outdo the others in their crude displays of machismo that frequently turned into sadistic bullying.  Once I spent three months in hospital with rheumatic fever.  When I emerged blinking in the sunlight and eventually returned to school I was under instructions not to undertake anything too strenuous.  Mr N. probably thought a slippering too risky, so one day he gave me a detention for not sweating enough after a cross-country run!  I never knew how he quantified what would have been an appropriate amount of sweat to excrete.  Mr L. replaced Mr S.  I'm pretty sure he was probably much the nicest of them all, but the department had a reputation to maintain, so he took to name-calling, ridicule and shaming  as his weapons of choice.  I remember one of his favourite things was to insult those of us who grew our hair.  He called us the "fourth-form women".  At the time, this seemed an odd strategy coming from the man who was in the process of introducing hockey to the school.  He announced to everyone in the new swimming pool changing room that my toes were deformed.  How could I not take it personally?

However, the worst of them all was Mr. S. whom Mr L. eventually replaced.  Something terrible must have happened to him to turn him into the awful human being I experienced in school.  I seriously hope he was dismissed and never allowed near another school.  Routinely, his voice was set to stun, though he could still turn it up mid-phrase if he thought a boy looked at him the wrong way.  When I was twelve my mother was taken into hospital for one of her regular visits.  During her life she worked her way routinely through the medical dictionary.  Often these experiences required surgical intervention.  How one person could have the misfortune to suffer so much ill-health I don't know.  It certainly wasn't fair. Every time she was taken into hospital I fretted.  I was very close to my mother.  I know I was preoccupied with thoughts of her when I should have been listening to Mr S.'s discourse on the finer points of doing something or other in a rugby scrum.  The next thing I became aware of was a blast of vocal invective so loud it reached hitherto unattained sound pressure levels and was accompanied by a searing pain in my head as I was dragged out of the scrum by my hair.  Then in a feat of coordination that I suppose they taught at the P.E. teacher factory he bent to put his face into mine as he continued screaming at me whilst somehow maintaining a grip in my hair and shaking me so violently I could not even hear the words he used or what he was upset about.  I was being shaken so hard my teeth rattled, I bit my tongue and I was forced to dance in order to maintain any balance at all.  Later, in the changing room I combed handfuls of hair out of my head after the obligatory mud sharing ritual known as the communal bath.  I lost hair for days afterwards.  I never found out what crime I'd committed and it is only curiosity that makes me wonder now.  It is unlikely I shall ever find myself in another rugby scrum (although maybe it's okay if I control my own fantasies, right?) so I shall never need to exercise any benefit from that bastard's corrective discipline.  He was a bully who had no business working with children.  It's a good job I don't hold grudges; if I saw him on fire I would be prepared to piss on him.

I wrote "Obstacle Race" originally as a song for children.  The ones I tried it with found it difficult, so I wrote more verses and now sing it as Marshlander.  It is one of the few of my songs I can sing to children.  I quite like that singing and playing it also requires a certain agility.

They put me down for the obstacle race
I didn't know what to do.
There were balls to kick and ropes to walk 
and a hoop I had to jump through.
But near the end of the obstacle race
There’s the thing I dread.
It was when they gave me 
A needle to thread!

A needle to thread!  A needle to thread!  
It was when they gave me a needle to thread.

The gun went bang!  I ran and ran.
It was going rather well.
I wasn’t the first, but I wasn’t the last 
But sad the truth to tell
Though I kept up the pace till the end of the race
The task that stopped me dead
Was when they gave me
A needle to thread!

A needle to thread!  A needle to thread!
It was when they gave me a needle to thread.

I don’t like sports, but it takes all sorts 
And my teacher said it’s good
To put on a brave face and run in a race
And all the children should take part for the fun,
Fresh air and sun (and the hayfever, I said).
I can jump through a hoop, but I can’t see the loop in the 
Needle to thread.

A needle to thread!  A needle to thread!  
I can jump through a hoop, but I can’t see the loop in the 
Needle to thread.

I’d like to think that this glaring chink in my athletic prowess
Was a lesson of sorts even though it was sports
And I normally couldn’t care less.
I was left on the track and stuck at the back
But what made me go red
Was the public humiliation of having a 
Needle to thread.

A needle to thread!  A needle to thread!
The public humiliation of having a
Needle to thread.

A final thought on sports day 
Now that I’m fully grown
For some of us it’s torture
Teacher, leave those kids alone!
I still can’t see the point of running around to get ahead,
But first prize for the barmiest obstacle goes to a 
Needle to thread.

A needle to thread!  A needle to thread!
First prize for the barmiest obstacle goes to a 
Needle to thread.

Obstacle Race ©Marshlander 2010

Saturday, 20 June 2015


It is not often I take a YouTube video as an inspiration for a song, but this video first moved me deeply a couple of years ago.  It still has its intended effect every time I watch it.  As is often the case with YouTube, one comes across some really clever videos quite unexpectedly.  I was trying to retrace what led me to this one.  I think it may have been after watching a few Stacey Dooley investigative reports that this link caught my eye - "Dancers star in hard hitting anti trafficking ad".   Dubious punctuation notwithstanding I clicked on the link and this is what I saw.

For weeks afterwards I could not let go of those images.  Like all the best stories the punchline is saved up for the end.  It is the contrast of the punchline with the assertive, almost confrontational, dance moves that makes the message so effective.  As the dance builds we perceive the women as having the power.  After initially keeping a wary distance, the men gather and are gradually lured in closer - willing participants in this game.  At the climax of the dance the women freeze and eyes drift to the written message.  Perhaps the dawning realisation of the message initiated the wilting of dozens of cocks as blood rushed back to the big brain ... assuming it wasn't all set up.  If the men were genuinely unaware their expressions show that we can be effectively confronted with some of the consequences of our choices.  I think we need to be reminded often.

I thought of my daughter, a professional dancer, and how but for an accident of circumstances it could have been her had she been born elsewhere.  She and her husband have danced professionally around the world, but what a sickening end to a dream this could have been.  She had worked towards realising her dream since the age of four when she first articulated to me her need to express herself through dance.  Dance having played an important part in my life too I was happy to support her.  As parents we needed to support her when the system challenged her perfectly rational choices - the secondary school that would not provide GCSE music, the careers "adviser" who told her to forget all this "silly dance nonsense" and think about getting a "real job".  Throughout her childhood and adolescence we took her to dance classes two or three times a week.  When we lived in a town and didn't have a car she would perch on the child seat on my bicycle and when we moved to a more rural location we would drive over a hundred miles a week to and from lessons.  Added to that were school shows in a theatre even further away along with pantomimes and summer shows.  Night after night of trekking across rural East Anglia and sitting out in December weather (August weather brought balancing compensations) waiting for her to finish.  It was hard sometimes, but never a hardship.  I loved these opportunities for communing one to one.

Watching the video I thought of the girls whose families had supported them as their dreams took shape.  Do those families know where their daughters are?  Were they in some way complicit in this tragedy?  At what point does one give up the search?  I would be utterly devastated had my daughter been lured into such a trap.  

Reading reports such as the UNICEF report by Barbara Limanowska, Trafficking In Human Beings In South Eastern Europe the situation is grim.  The trafficking of people is just one of many terrible ways our species has learned to exploit and devour itself.

As I thought about this video the song, "Mina", gradually formed.  Once I started to write it down the words came uncharacteristically quickly.  I think choosing Mina's name was the most difficult decision with regard to the text.  I wanted the song to have a wistful feel and to try to reproduce the same surprise in the listener that I experienced at the punchline to the video.  For some reason the Yiddish song,  דאַנאַ דאַנאַ (Dana Dana), from the show, Esterke, with music by Sholom Secunda came to mind.  With its English translation by Arthur Kevess and Teddi Schwartz, "Donna Donna" was a popular staple in the UK in folk clubs and on Saturday night television variety shows in the 1960s and early 1970s.  I have recordings of it by Joan Baez, Donovan and Theodore Bikel and witnessed countless floor singers in folk clubs sing it.  That was my starting point for the music of this song.  I trust that any of you who have heard the song would not have recognised this influence unprompted.  I am pretty certain that I have left no trace of the original reference and can justify it as an original work.   My early versions of the song had no chorus.  I liked the stark simplicity of having just the five simple verses with their common construction.  After singing it a few times in public that starkness was too unrelenting.  I put the two choruses in to give some space for reflection.

This is one of those songs that demanded to be written.  Having seen the video and having been confronted with the issue I could not and cannot remain silent.  Silence is complicity.

Mama held Baby Mina in her arms 
And she danced for joy and she danced for love
And gently she danced for the sky above her
She danced.  Oh how she danced.

Mina played as children played 
And she danced for joy and she danced for the thrill of the 
feel of the movement and every day still
She danced.  Oh how she danced.

She danced. She danced. She danced, oh how she danced.
The feel of the movement and every day still
She danced.  Oh how she danced.

Mina grew up and grew into her beauty
And she danced for life and she danced for joy
She danced and she glanced at a beautiful boy
She danced.  Oh how she danced.

The boy had friends who could make her a star 
And she danced for love and she danced for pride
Dreams could come true and her heart swelled inside her
She danced.  Oh how she danced.

She danced. She danced. She danced, oh how she danced!
Dreams could come true and her love swelled inside.
She danced.  Oh how she danced.

Mina left home to fly to her dream 
And she danced for life and she danced for hope.
Under a red light, strung out on dope
She danced.  Oh how she danced.

Mina ©Marshlander - 5th September 2013

Monday, 15 June 2015

Never Say Never

"It's much easier being gay these days," she asserted, "kids in schools are far more accepting."  This statement, made to me some months ago was one of those chance contributions to a discussion that left me thinking and the comment embedded itself like a morgul-blade.   If it went in deeply enough would I come to accept it?  I return to that statement often and chew on it.  I can't help myself.  Is she right?  Would she still feel the same if she walked a mile, or some days just a hundred yards, in my shoes?  

I've never dressed up for Pride before.  Norwich was P's first time, so
he decided we needed to make an effort.  He spent a couple of days
sewing ribbons and some of Esme's Buttons on things.

I move mostly in circles of the artistically inclined who have, traditionally, been more accepting of minorities.  I also spend time in schools where I still hear the word "gay" used pejoratively.  I heard it used by an angry five year-old last week.  He was being disciplined by a male teaching assistant (T.A.) who told him, "we don't used that word", which pleased me, but I am almost certain the T.A. is one of us and has a personal interest.  I am not convinced that all other adults in schools are as aware of the hurt and the damage that seemingly simple words can cause.

In childhood I was often called a "sissy".  I'll never know for sure whether I displayed overt behaviour that prompted this or whether it was nothing more than the catch-all insult amongst my generation.  Trying to think what prompted such abuse I know I felt things deeply, I cried easily, I didn't relate well to gangs of boys or, sadly, to my male cousins who engaged in far more boisterous activities. I didn't like being wet, cold or dirty.  I guess they probably didn't like it either, but they seemed not to notice it as much as I did.  I liked to dress in bright colours, while they didn't.  I loved music and dancing, which left them confused.  On the other hand organised sports and games left me cold and the joy of kicking a ball around was a complete mystery, much to my father's disappointment.  Apparently he tried often to engage his dear firstborn's interest until he was forced to accept the futility of the exercise and returned to making sure he was able to work long and hard at providing for the family's needs - earning sufficient through being employed in his three jobs.  I didn't really see much of him for some years until my brothers came on to the scene and found they had more compatible interests.  To my father's credit, he recognised my love of dancing (he was actually a keen ballroom dancer too) and enrolled me in tap dancing classes when I was three.   One of his jobs was as a tailor's cutter and he made me a pair of trousers and a bow tie for my first show from bright scarlet satin.  I was not stereotypically uncoordinated and I could throw a ball, admittedly not as well as some.  I did not have many friends who were girls and, after primary school, that was not my world at all, having only brothers in the family and almost exclusively male cousins (the female producing family members had mostly emigrated to the colonies).  I despised some of these aspects of my character and found others inconvenient, but I don't know if these are the parts of a child that were killed off in order to create a man eligible for society's approval.  Like most boys I made friends more readily with other boys.  I usually had one special friend and I do remember very powerful feelings of emotional attachment.   I became aware of something else I couldn't fathom.  These attachments often left me feeling sad that I felt a balance of commitment to the friendship was uneven.  Was this a manifestation of every child's insecurities in a deeply puzzling world or was it something else?  I also have vague memories of having more interest in the male form than in the female.

As I moved through secondary school, an all boys institution, one did not relish being called a "mo".  Why did the insult take root?  Is it because every time it was used against me I recognised at some level there was something in it?  That something was clearly not operating consciously because all I "knew" about homosexuals was that they were men, they were not nice, were not suitable company, had an insatiable craving for something unspecified and unspeakable, not to be trusted ... the list of negatives went on.  Some boys said that the popular camp comedians of the time were "mos".  I can't think of one of those old men that I thought was funny.  I certainly felt nothing in common with any of them.  At church I heard frequent diatribes from both the pulpit and in our peer group classes against the "sin" of homosexuality.  "There is no such thing as a homosexual, only the abomination of same-sex behaviour, an abhorrence in the sight of the Lord" ... "parents, if you discover that your son is caught up in same-sex sin it would be better for his eternal salvation that he have a millstone tied round his neck and he be thrown into the Great Salt Lake" ... "for any man finding himself physically attracted to another of his own sex it would be better for him that he had never been born ..."  and so on.  Years after I completed years in counselling and years after I last set foot in a Mormon chapel I can still hear those statements, even in paraphrase.   One of the last of these sorts of statements I heard delivered in church came as I approached the dawning of self-realisation and my own coming out in my late thirties.  One of my "friends" announced to the congregation in the course of a talk about something quite unrelated "... for I abhor homosexuality ...".  It seemed rather a pointless thing to share although my awareness of the concept of homophobia was still undeveloped.  Fifteen years after I had come to the conclusion that I did not share the aspirations and beliefs expected of every good Mormon I was still attending some church services.  I cannot remember a single positive image of homosexuality.  Certainly I never knowingly met another gay man at church (although I came to realise later that I had known some equally closeted Mormons) and I had no one to whom I could relate these aspects of myself.  I knew I was different, and I knew something wasn't right, but I had no clue as to what the problem was.  I put it down to the fact that I liked music that would never make it to the officially approved list of so-called "church standard" listening!  I was never going to be able to like the music of The Osmonds.  Of course, now outside the cult I can see more easily some of the preposterous lengths to which human beings can go to remain in comfortable denial.  Every time I was attacked directly through being called names, or by being beaten up (which, thankfully, did not happen often), or through implication by hearing bad comments based on insubstantial negative stereotypes I think a little of some part of me withered.  I think some of those parts died.

In many senses my female friend is right.  There are many ways in which being gay is "easier".  For a start we are tolerated in law.  I am no longer likely to be set up for entrapment by the police and less likely to be open to blackmail now that I am "out" and have no one from whom I need to hide.  If I choose I can marry the man I love.  Most of my large circle of friends and acquaintances accept that my feelings of attraction, devotion and commitment to my chosen partner are every bit as valid as theirs are in their own relationships and that, as in their relationships, these may be validated and cemented through sexual intimacy.

However, what I don't hear in relation to straight relationships is a constant hum of  background noise (which sometimes comes very much to the foreground) of people who feel that straight, i.e. heterosexual, relationships are by definition an aberration.  Same sex relationships may form a minority of the total number of partnerships, but that does not amount to an aberration.  It is surely more of an aspect across a range of very normal human sexual behaviours.  Same sex activity has been observed throughout the animal kingdom.  It takes a special kind of ignorance to define homosexuality is "unnatural".

Recent changes in legislation relating to equality law and the status of same-sex partnerships have increased this noise.  I think that in the context of the relative numbers of straight and minority sexual orientations in the population we hear far more homophobic dissent than we do homosexual affirmation.  This is the noise with which we grow up and which we continue to experience throughout our lives.  As we grow up we are pounded by heteronormative values, imagery and concepts.  Is it any wonder that most of us, even in these so-called enlightened times, can only come to an acceptance of our own lgbt status through having first to work through something that "isn't right" or doesn't make sense?  

So, if it is "much easier to be gay these days" it still seems to be a challenge.  The majority of the Conservative Party's MPs voted against passing the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 in opposition to the strong lead taken for equality by party leader and Prime Minister, David Cameron.  187 Tory MPs either voted against, formally abstained or simply did not bother voting as opposed to 118 that supported marriage equality.  The entire Democratic Unionist block of 8 MPs from Northern Ireland voted against marriage equality.  More surprisingly 60 Labour MPs and 13 Liberal Democrats failed to support the Act.  Even with a large enough majority to pass the Act for Royal Assent that is a significant number of influential voices who think that same sex relationships are inferior.  Add to that the continued ravings of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox hierarchies, the more conservative voices within the leadership of the so-called Anglican "Communion" the vocal orthodox, fundamentalist and conservative leaders and members of pretty much every other religion - Islam, Judaism, Hinduism - or sect, or cult including, for example, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Pentecostalists, assorted evangelicals, Scientologists as well as loud voices speaking outrageously from some minority political parties (UKIP, BNP), reactionary newspaper columnists, egoistic "self-appointed voices of the people" radio commentators and anyone who has ever been pissed on by these ideologies and that is a lot of noise and a lot of influence.  Those are just the ones in this country.  The vast majority of member countries of the Commonwealth and most of the countries of the Middle East, along with Africa and Asia have laws in place making life for glbtiqq people somewhere between unfair and fatal, while countries from the former Soviet Bloc have made life more difficult for LGBT people through changes in legislation.  Within the EU and its closest neighbours there are many voices that would like to see a change away from these more enlightened times encouraged by EU law.  America continues to export its ideologies around the world and money changes hands to further "the work" of vicious ministries of the likes of any number of American spokespeople for God (why an omnipotent being needs so many people to speak for Him has to be one of the great mysteries) including Scott Lively who is at last apparently to face trial for crimes against humanity.  The death of any person, whether committed by the mob or by the state, who has a suspected or genuine relationship with a person of their own sex in any country in the world is a voice against the freedom in the UK of gay men, lesbians and probably bisexual and transgender people to form loving liaisons that do no harm to anyone outside of their relationship.  Until the prejudice that feeds this homophobia disappears forever, life will continue to be riskier for sexual minorities everywhere.  "Easier" or "better" is simply not good enough and that is why I raise my voice in dissent.  My relationship with my lover, whom I hope will one day be my husband, harms no one.  It enriches the two of us and brings hope and pleasure to our families and friends.  The people who matter don't mind.  It makes no sense that those who have never met us feel they have a say in who we are.  I'd like to complete the neat aphorism by saying that people who mind don't matter.  Unfortunately that is not completely true when the bile such people spout has an effect far beyond the sound of their voices.

It was in response to my dear friend's well-meaning, but ultimately not fully-formed notion that it is easier to be gay these days that I composed the song "Never Say Never".  The examples to which I refer in the song are from my own personal experiences mostly occurring during the past decade.  My feeling is that if these events have taken place so recently it may be true that some things are better, but it will take a lot longer for me to feel without qualification that my relationship is just as valid and is valued the same as anyone else's.

Me .................. P
The references to being told that it was not appropriate for me to dance with P are real.  One night we attended a 19th century-style costumed ball in a hotel in the Swiss mountains. As the small chamber orchestra played for the ball in the larger of two adjoining ballrooms and we slipped into the smaller room that wasn't being used that night.  Feeling self-conscious and only guessing at the sort of response we might provoke if we danced in the public room (no straight couple would even have to give such an idea a thought!) we waltzed to the still audible strains of Strauss and Offenbach in the smaller ballroom.  A woman passed through and told us how unseemly it was for men to dance together.  I hope she does not experience apoplexy next time she unexpectedly encounters morris or tango.

In the mountains above the small town where P lives there was, for many years a lovely festival of Alpine arts, particularly featuring music and dance.  Each year we would dance almost non-stop for the best part of the weekend.  In spite of our most concerted efforts we never managed to dance together.  If we came into the set or formation as partners, two women would always come and "rescue" us from having to dance with each other.  We learned to laugh about it, but the laughter hid resentment, anger, frustration and some jealousy that everyone else was free to choose his or her partner.

During the debates and campaigns for first, civil partnerships and then marriage, I met and had lengthy discussions with anti-equal-marriage lobbyists outside the House of Lords and in Trafalgar Square on several occasions.  I even braved a trip to a nearby pub with two catholic fundies to continue the discussion after their demo organised by La Manif Pour Tous and our counter demo in Trafalgar Square one rainy afternoon.  Ironically, they took me to The Coal Hole and the humour of it was not lost on them.  It was difficult to find much common ground with the young, self-loathing, gay man that one of them turned out to be.  He claimed to be gay, but I'd worked too hard and lost too much getting my head to where it had to be in order to feel healed and whole and I could do little more than listen to him and lightly suggest there might be a healthier path for him.   However, it was the fundamentistas of various traditions that were the craziest and most obnoxious.  With no evidence, but absolute assurance from God, they weren't even slightly embarrassed to tell me that they knew that I was out to convert and recruit children to the "homosexual lifestyle" (whatever that might be!) and that, for my sodomy, I would burn in hell.  I bid the believers in the god of love and the followers of the religion of peace a welcome to the twenty-first century.

We met someone P hadn't seen since a long time before I arrived on the scene.  He introduced me as his "ami".  It just slipped out, but it shows how deep goes the conditioning.  The funeral was his mother's.  I sing about her death in my song, "In Your Place".  He, his brothers and their wives were called out before the mourners during the funeral service.  I ached to hold his hand and be there with him as he stood alone and then followed the coffin out of the church while his brothers had the support of their partners .  It was a sad occasion following a sudden and unexpected death.

Everywhere we go we see straight couples holding hands and occasionally bestowing little kisses of greeting, affection and affirmation.  Any similar gesture on our part is always marred by the thought of who might be watching and what might they think, what they might do - is it safe to act like a normal couple?  Of course, those problems are mostly in our heads, but again straight couples from our same cultural backgrounds do not have to give such things even a passing thought.  It is sobering that the haters bring their homophobia to us when they bomb, knife and kick people to death in Soho ... Trafalgar Square ... Liverpool ...

Of course, things will get better still.  I have to believe that.  Never say, "Never".

I sit here and ponder.  I watch and I wait.
I know I’m in love and see you are in hate 
But the waiting seems pointless
And so I must take to the ramparts.
Throughout most of Europe and Easts near and far
And south through the deserts, do you still see the star
That brought hope to the helpless and light to the darkest of hearts.

After enduring for centuries it seems 
There’s a glimmer of hope in some realised dreams
And some people in faraway places appear to be free 
But I’ll not hold my breath again while the news plays
Another report of a death.  It seems these days
That freedom remains an illusion and will be forever.
But never say never.

I love that I love and I love to be loved
I love that you’re loved and that you are in love
But how come it seems that only you dare to declare it?
I envy to see you walk out hand-in-hand
While no one takes notice, no implied demands 
That you hide your affection behind closed doors 
Never to share it.

Have you ever been told it’s unseemly to dance 
With the love of your life as I have been in France and in Switzerland?
While here in England they’ve said to my face
That I’ll burn in hell, that I’m sick, that I’m cursed
That children aren’t safe, that I groom them and worse
Despite their delusions declaim I’m unworthy of grace.

How would you feel if, when out on the street, 
By sheer happenstance an acquaintance he meets
That, somehow, your status is changed and you’re now his “friend”.
Or, when at a funeral, the wives of his brothers
Head up the procession, you’re left with the others?
It hurts that he looks so alone as you tag on the end.

Still in present-day England convention will chafe.
I look over my shoulder to see if it’s safe
Before I reach out to take the hand of my lover.
As for a kiss of affection or greeting,
Or just affirmation, it has to be fleeting
To let him know it’s still him I want.  No other.

After enduring for centuries it seems 
There’s a glimmer of hope in some realised dreams
Some say the battle is over now we can wed. 
And yet my breath's baited and yet the news plays
Another report of a death.  It seems these days
That freedom remains an illusion and will be forever.  
But never say never.

Never Say Never ©Marshlander - 25th March 2014

Sunday, 14 June 2015

In Thora's House

In Thora's house there's a precious trove
Books and treasures hanging from the walls
The floor is piled with magic stuff
A patchwork-rendered brick and massive oak-beam record of centuries.
Sixteen wicker baskets, bags and trugs hang from a kitchen ceiling beam.
Steamrollered cookware betrays its three-dimensional origins
In proud and crazy exhibit on a wall.
A dictionary open on a desk-stand in the diner
Near the fire a pile of dictionaries frequently perused
She chases words as they tease our conversation.
When the eye adjusts more dictionaries reveal themselves in shelves and shelves
And from her swaps, twenty-six pages only are saved.
Les autres feuilles are varnished on to indifferent wooden furniture.
A literal, literary house of words,
A house of interpretations 
Where meanings
Have their own

Orange boxes brim with kindling and logs.
The clocks have all stopped
All times
All seasons

Upstairs in the guestroom
Larousse Commercial Illustré
Larousse Médical
Larousse Universal en deux volumes
Larousse Familial …
Dico!  Dico!  Dico!

Did I mention the hats?

From a box by the window look out across the narrow, narrow street
Drinking the curves of tiles on the neighbouring roof … 
Contemplating an expedition up the ladder-steep staircase
To the ancient, open hayloft
Her secret summer boudoir
Repository of deliberately forgotten objets d'art
Et les objets pas d'art – encore oublié

So much half-forbiddden promise in this half-light
Always open to another world, the street below that never knows.

Falling backwards on to the bed built out of boxes and a mattress,
Stare into heaven after the heaven of lover's games
And through the tiles contemplate the stars.

In Thora's house.

In Thora’s House © Marshlander - 25th February 2011

Of Musician Pride

I am very proud of my musical friends.  For the small part of the world we inhabit there is some prodigious talent.  Yesterday I went to see some of them perform locally in a small annual festival.

JPTB rioting for austerity
I had every reason to be proud.  They have been, by far so far, the most interesting, challenging and original act at the festival.  I don't think anything today will change that.  Barring a few technical issues with a keyboard they were also on top of the game musically and played as well as I have ever seen them play.  They were met with some support, some dancing, some heckling, some incomprehension and a lot of indifference.  I have several friends playing today too and I suspect that the quality of today's musicianship will better anything that will have been played at the festival.  I suspect that today's jazz set will be treated as background by most members of the audience as has been the case in previous years.

Last weekend I went to Norwich to see another friend play a set, one of three acts that evening, in a bar.  Neil Cousin is an excellent songwriter and has a singing voice that makes me melt.  His performing style is to invite people in through the stillness of his presence and on those occasions when the audience gets it, he can conjure real magic.  Everything at this bar happens in one room, including the preparation of exotic cocktails.  The décor is unlike anywhere else I've been that wasn't 
Whilst Neil searches for CDs, Marshlander 
peers out of a biscuit tin and Björk looks on
a bric a brac warehouse, someone's house in Monmouth to which I was invited once as a teenager ... or Thora's house in France (remind me to tell you about Thora's house - edit okay done, see next blog entry, above, "In Thora's House").  The seating is a ramshackle disarrangement of retrieved, recycled, mostly battered, soft or leather sofas and armchairs with further tiered seating in the form of benches and beds built from wooden boxes around the sides of the room.  Part of the uppermost tier is used as the stage.  Everywhere one looks there is something odd.  Incongruity is set against themed junk.   Attached to the wall above the tiny stage is the huge, white, plastic head of a dinosaur displayed like a hunter's trophy.  A high shelf runs round the walls of the room whereon are displayed  arrangements of toys, photographs and other miscellanea.  One part of this shelf is devoted to figures from the television cartoon show, South Park, another to The Muppet Show.  Star Wars models march along the shelf on the wall above the dinosaur trophy overlooking the stage.  I set myself down on a high bench by a wall most of which was devoted to shelving displaying rows of old cake tins, toys and a monochrome photograph of Björk.  The wall was lined with mirrors, which added further to the weirdness in the subdued lighting.  Where the shelves and mirrors ended rather abruptly this wall was lined with black and white tiles featuring designs that reminded me of characters from Lewis Carroll.  I am sure I have seen these designs before, but I couldn't recall the when or where.  Maybe it was in a dream ... or a nightmare ... or it could have been some time in the 1970s.  Whatever impression of laisser tomber this bar had tried to create it was clear that someone had worked very hard to design a bohemian ambience.  It could have been a perfect setting for poets and songwriters to cast their magic.  Sadly it wasn't to be.

Perhaps the bar's design had done its job too well and people were attracted because it was a place to go, to be and to be seen.  On the night I went it was certainly not viewed by anyone other than other performers, as a place  to see and listen to live acoustic music.  As the room filled up the punters came in with their friends, their lives and their plans for weekend oblivion.  The starting pistol for the discourtesy was fired about halfway through the first act.  I'd seen this accomplished young female singer, songwriter, guitarist before.  She is very good and has a way of engaging the audience that I certainly don't match, but even she couldn't compete with the shrieking that broke out at the far end of the bar.  After yesterday's band performance at the festival I heard a use of the term "necking" I had not come across before, neither as a term nor even as a concept.  Apparently it means  filling up on cheaper alcohol before arriving at a drinking establishment.  After the show we had gone for a meal at an excellent Indian restaurant recommended by the festival organiser.  Sitting by the window the guitarist pointed out a girl across the street glugging from a bottle.  Had I not seen it taking place, nor experienced the comments made by an eavesdropper at the next table I would never have thought it was something people did, still less that it could be a common way of beginning an evening out.  I think the shrieker had been necking.  She was clearly experiencing a personal reality unrelated to anything happening around her.  Performances taking place on the stage were at best irrelevant and at worst an annoyance to be shouted over.  This attitude began to infect others in the audience.  A group of two older women and two young lads came through the door.  The singer asked from the stage, exercising her customary friendly banter, where they were from.  Apparently they were from Cumbria.  Perhaps they were mothers visiting sons studying at the UEA.  They bought their drinks and took seats at a small, round, four-seater table near the stage.  My feeling and experience has long been that younger audiences are inclined to be less courteous than those of my generation, so I was pleased to have this stereotype challenged except that the women began to converse with the boys at a volume and timbre that could etch glass.  It was astonishing.  Next to take up residence adjacent to the stage were a couple of hipsters.  The beard on one was an ongoing labour of love.  That clearly was the only love in the air (until the Cumbrian matriarchs eventually left and the two lads began making out with an abandon and fervour that gave me hope that the world may be changing after all - at least they had been brought up not to talk with their mouths full) because he had come to the bar to unload his relationship problems on his friend whose job was obviously to listen, sympathise and buy the next round.  My own preference for discussing deep problems is an ambience conducive to privacy and quietness, but once again I realised how out of step I am.  The bearded one's voice might have been heard in parts of Yarmouth had the wind been in the right quarter.   By this time my friend had taken his place on stage and was sharing delicate songs in his gentle baritone, an achievement not to be underestimated given the distracting wreckage of a relationship being laid bare not two metres from the headstock of his guitar.  I cast my best teacher's frowns at the hipster laundering his metaphorical smalls so publicly.  These were met with the same indifference they get in school.  Next in were three lads looking and smelling as fresh as the minute they left the bathroom after their hard day's labour on a building site, who took up residence on the bed to my other side.  I think there may have been a cultural difference.  Clearly, wherever they were from they hadn't before experienced a performance of gentle acoustic music or the songwriter's art.  They joshed, jibed and guffawed their way through my friend's set and I think what made it even worse was that I had no idea what they were talking about because I didn't  recognise the language in which they were shouting at each other.  The ambient background noise in the room rose accordingly, so that everyone could make themselves heard above the music and the shouting of everyone else.  It was hell.  I had to admire the resilience of my friend who completed his contractual forty minutes with dignity and fortitude.  How he achieved such an act of heroism given the level of opposition I do not know.  I would have lost the words, the chords, the rhythm and probably my dignity and my temper had I been in his trainers.  I knew he was struggling though.  He slows down and gets quieter when faced with an ignorant audience.  He was singing really slowly and really quietly.  We had both travelled sixty miles to get here and he wasn't getting paid.  The offer of free beer for performers was a further mockery of his good services since he was driving and unable to take advantage of the offer.  Had he not been driving free beer might have provided a welcome anaesthetic to this awful experience.

Sadly this is not the first time I have seen this happen to him, or to others for that matter.  Once after an acoustic night in a pub much closer to our home bases I took his box of CDs and went round the otherwise empty bar offering them for sale to members of what seemed to be two or three groups of women on nights out, many of whom seemed to be wives and/or girlfriends of the acoustic trio that had opened the evening.  I suggested they might want to buy a CD to be able to listen to the excellent music they had just missed.  They told me I was rude.  I thought that may be evidence for truth in the saying that it takes one to know one.  I decided that night that such interventions were probably counter-productive and haven't interfered since.  He wasn't paid for his forty-five minute set that night either.  We are really on a hiding to nothing under these circumstances.  If we carry on we risk a sub-par performance, because it can be so hard to concentrate.  If we stop playing we can walk off or challenge the source of the disruption.  The outcomes of either are unpredictable.    Would I rather be seen as a prima donna or a prima donna?  I'm unlikely to be seen as a gritty hero standing up for the abused mass of musicians.

Situations like these raise a number of issues.  I explained in my previous post how much time goes into making original music.  I haven't started to record my songs yet, because I know how time-consuming that is going to be once I get started.  Getting a decent repertoire together in the first place takes years of work.  What are these issues?

Firstly I think there is a huge mismatch of expectations.  There are also different kinds of venues and performances.  Sometimes we know we are going out to play as background or simply as a noise to be shouted over.  I don't think I am referring to those occasions or the kinds of music that can be so easily dismissed.  Some people go out for the night for a laugh with their mates.  They may go to a pub or bar where they are used to doing just that.  If a landlord decides to provide entertainment on an occasional basis it is not always altruism or a dedication to the arts that provides the motive.  It is often an attempt to draw in extra custom.  The entertainment is the bait, but the entertainers' expectations (which in truth can realistically be little more than hopes) of being heard and of being valued appropriately are often not met.  Entertainment may be free at the point of delivery, but someone always ends up paying.  The honest venue owner pays the band or artist, even something is better than nothing.  The thoughtless or less scrupulous ones don't see the need to pay.  Do they honestly believe and try to convince others they do it as a service to the artist?  If so, what arrogance!  I struggle to see how  "exposure", the opportunity for the performer to "get some experience" or free beer is fair compensation for the work done or the advantages to be had by the venue.  In that case the performer pays.  He or she pays in all the ways listed previously in addition to the time, the petrol, the wear and tear on and risks to precious equipment, instruments 
One promotor's solution - cards left on the tables
insurances and nerves.  They buy new strings or drum heads for the gig, for recording and burning any CDs they might bring and for any other merchandise they might be able to put together.  And don't get me started on venues where performers are required to pay to play.  The very least a venue owner could do is to encourage an ambience where the performer could be experienced fairly - not, as a carpenter I used to work with once colourfully expressed to me, given a job to do by someone who then "defies you to do it".  Perhaps the best thing a venue owner could do is provide a separate function room for those who wish to enjoy the entertainment.  If there is no specific function room, there may be more than one bar, one of which could be for the enjoyment of performers and audience.  If , however, there is only one room on the premises the landlord then surely has a moral obligation to think the situation through.  It is not acceptable to exploit artists for the bar's own ends.  If the best the venue is able to offer is "exposure" the landlord or promoter should be willing to ensure there is an audience trained in the expectations of listening.  A compère can remind people that they are there for the music.  Some promoters post notices around the room reminding people to
be courteous to the performers.  If I am doing a performance with my ceilidh band and the audience decides it has priorities that aren't connected with the dancing I have, at least, the satisfaction of knowing that I am getting paid for the job.  It may be a hard grind, but at least I shall get something for my efforts.  If I play in a venue where money will not change hands there has to be some recognition for my work.  We performers often have quite simple requirements.  Show us that you appreciate what we are doing and we will sometimes be able to put up with almost any other form of exploitation you decide to heap upon us.

Last weekend I was phoned at two days' notice by a promotor who still had some time slots to fill for the music stage he was running at a local country fair and agricultural show.  It was not a large event.  However, a small appreciative audience that demanded three encores made it a worthwhile outing for the songs.  That the promotor was able to offer twenty quid towards petrol expenses was a gesture that was very much appreciated.  I wouldn't be able to make such earnings into a living, but it made the cake easier to swallow.  Had I been faced, as was my friend, with a room full of discourteous, noisy people and no fair trade agreement for my efforts I have no incentive to perform ... apart from that inner drive and arrogance that forces me into situations where I can be exploited.

So yes, I am VERY proud of my musical friends.  I certainly don't think we are "owed" anything for our music as a right until someone wants to take something from us - whether that be a recording or a public performance.  Sometimes I don't think it would do much harm if we had a touch more pride in ourselves.