June 15, 2016 by IPAlchemist
I am certainly not the first person to write a piece like this and I am sure I won’t be the last. But the events of the last few days, and especially the feelings that arose in me when attending the Vigil in Soho after the Orlando shootings, have made me want to record something about how I see what it is like to be gay. Here, now, in London, in 2016.
I write “gay” because I identify as a gay man. I also identify as part of the LGBTQI+ community, but this is specifically about my story, and I will come to the issues within our community in a moment.
Being gay puts you into a minority. We gays spring up around the country, and for many of us, like me, we don’t know any others for a long time. I heard words like “poof” in the schoolrooms tossed about like punches as clearly a bad thing, but it was a while before I had any sense of what it actually meant, and then a while more before that slow horrible realisation dawned that it possibly meant me. And, of all the people I knew, only me – no-one else seemed the same.
For quite a few years I thought my otherness was something that might change, encouraged by well-meaning interventions from people (sorry, Mother) assuring me that being interested in girls was something that was normal to develop quite late. But by the time I was 19 I realised and accepted that gay was what I was. For several years before that I had the bizarre delusion that if I “did anything about it” my sexuality would become fixed as gay, but that if I didn’t perhaps I would slowly begin to fancy the opposite sex, as I had been taught. So I finally came out at 19, had my first “adult” consensual sexual experience (still illegal at the time, mark you, as the decriminalisation only applied to those over 21), and thought that was all there was to it. I had “come out”. It was done, there was no further step to be taken. But it turns out, it’s a little bit more complicated than that.
Gay men like me are a minority virtually all the time. Most of us spend most of our time overwhelmingly surrounded by people who are not as we are. I had heard of mythical places in America where there were not only gay bars but gay establishments of all kinds so that it was possible to live in an enclave where your sexuality was normalised. That was a long way from my reality in Yorkshire, Oxford, or even London.
So what is the effect on us of being a perpetual minority? We dissemble, we protect ourselves, we are perpetually vigilant for how “safe” it is to let slip something of our true identity. We censor ourselves constantly. And we seek out, for perhaps just a few hours a week or a month, those places where we know we are safe being completely unguarded.
Although that itself carries dangers that there was no-one there to warn me about. The gay scene holds out an image of the “gay lifestyle” where everyone is impossibly attractive, glamorous, stylish, promiscuous, wealthy – works hard, parties hard, and has it all. And drinks a lot. Of course. How else are the feelings of not belonging, shame, fear of discovery, and inadequacy to be silenced? I thought I wanted the mirage of the gay lifestyle, and I thought I could have it. It was not until many years later that I discovered that the image I had been peddled was an illusion, and a destructive one at that.
But the gay scene for all its destructive qualities remains our lifeline and I still seek it out. For even now, after all the legal protections and freedoms that we have won in the UK, it is the only place where I am normal.
Some of us, paradoxically, seek solace and comfort in institutions that actually work against our self-acceptance. For example many of us embrace a religion that, however “compassionately” it may be put, tells us that our sexuality is deviant and unacceptable. Some of us consider priesthood. A few actually get ordained. But sadly I am coming to the conclusion that it is not possible to be a fully authentic self-loving gay man in most of the mainstream Christian denominations.
Another thing we do and that I regret is to define ourselves, as I see it, to the level of “minimum unacceptability”. This seems to me to be based on the idea that if we present to the potentially hostile environment around us the minimum set of things about ourselves that might be problematic, we might be safer. So “I am gay but I am straight acting.” “I can’t bear camp people”. We distance ourselves to the point of demonisation from those whose dress, behaviour, sexual practices etc might be regarded as less “acceptable” than our own. Please pick on that person, not on me. I used to. A lot. I try not to any more. I came to realise that we stand together, or not at all.
A sad result of that is that our LGBTQI+ “community” sometimes isn’t actually much of a community as we struggle to define ourselves as less unacceptable than others. Gay men are quite prone to misogyny. We can be racist too. And we are inherently no more tolerant or respectful of transgender people than anyone else. So our “community” often feels to me like a disparate group of marginalised people, huddling together uneasily for mutual protection. Because there is safety in numbers, right? I now feel rather ashamed of the privilege I have enjoyed of being basically able to choose how much of my “otherness” I want to display at any time, while over the last decade or so coming to realise that others in my tribe are not able to hide as effectively as I could and so don’t have that choice.
But although we are not at all immune to bigotry and intolerance, I would observe that most LGBTQI+ people have, because of the minority in which we find ourselves, circles of friends and companions of much greater diversity than if we had not belonged to our minority. Within our minority other boundaries are more easily transcended. We are people that otherwise would not mix.
Fear, self-protection, safety in numbers. That permeates our whole existence. Even here in London my friends tell me that in many parts of our city they don’t feel safe holding hands with their partners, despite the legal protections that we apparently enjoy. We scan, we assess, and then we decide whether it is safe to act naturally or to hide.
And so we come to the Orlando massacre. We feel shock, and sympathy for the many victims, even though they may be in another continent from us. We feel a sense of solidarity. We understand that, yet again, our community has been attacked by someone who hates us for whatever reason. Many of us who live in countries with some social acceptance and legal protections feel again just how fragile those protections are, how little they may actually protect us, and how easily they could be taken away again.
And then we observed a narrative in the media – this is not about gay people. Starting with the incident on Sky news where Owen Jones was talked down for correctly asserting that this should be seen as a homophobic hate crime, and continuing with comments on social media, people, including those we counted as our friends, were trying to erase from the narrative that it was an atrocity against LGBTQI+ people, insisting it was about “ALL PEOPLE” and that the “wider context” that it fits into is one of islamic terrorism, or perhaps US gun control. For us, the “wider context” that it fits into is the one of the long history of persecution of gay people. We began to feel that if we did not make this event part of our history, other people were going to hijack it to make it part of theirs.
Initially I thought it was only me that felt this way, but my friends who also went to Soho on Monday reported similar responses, and Douglas Robertson wrote a piece in the Independent that similarly resonated. Many of us were angry.
That is why I went to Soho on Monday, and that is why, two days later, I still feel very emotional and reconnected with some of the activism that I had when I was younger, that had recently begun to fade.
So our safe places are important. The gay scene is under threat from rising property costs, redevelopment, and technology-driven social change whereby people can arrange to meet each other online rather than having to go to a real-world venue. But we need those places and this week many of us are remembering that again. Our protections are fragile, and easily lost. Our fight is far from over.
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May 10, 2015 by IPAlchemist
Just round the corner from my hotel was a cat cafe. Yes, really. The place is crammed with custom feline furniture and moggy perches but look where this one has plonked himself. Sorry for poor picture quality due to reflections in the window but I think you get the idea. #leprocrastichat #nottakingreservationsatthemoment
So having sneaked a photo at the cat cafe I had to come in. There are loads of cats – apparently 12 in total but three lined up by me. It is adorable.
The only problem – how to stop the blighters from eating my food (as firmly instructed) while observing the equally firm instruction to “not make the cats do anything they don’t want to”. An unsolvable conundrum.
May 10, 2015 by IPAlchemist
Turns out I was too hasty in condemning the queue at Angelina. This time however, and exhausted from the Louvre and the Mont Blanc debacle, the queue is scheduled. The third suggestion from Andrew was Chartier, but he warned me of likelihood of wait since they don’t take reservations. It closes at 10 so I thought I better go straight there, even though it is only an hour since the end of Mont Blanc #2. Sure enough there were at least 30 people waiting. However, there was a table waiting for a solitary friendless soul so I jumped past all the couples, threes, and fours.
I plumped for endive salad with Roquefort, choucroute alsacienne, and some pommes frites coz they looked nice. Steered clear of tete de veau and andouillette for reasons which regular readers will understand. Order is now duly written on my tablecloth. The room is cavernous and the sound of conversation echoing. I hope they take a long time to bring my food. I am sure they won’t.
So, judging from what appears only, since I have never made it myself, choucroute alsacienne is finely shredded pickled cabbage boiled with ham and assorted charcuterie and served together with the odd boiled potato lurking therein. If you want to try it in London I highly recommend the Delauney. At Chartier it was also lovely although – as with the whole restaurant- rather more basic. I attach the now mandatory pic above. It was also quite the best value meal I have had so far. My starter of endive salad had so much Roquefort on it I can’t imagine how they can buy it, let alone sell it, for the few euros that it cost. The frites were probably ill-advised but delicious so I was replete after only the two courses.
May 10, 2015 by IPAlchemist
Having been justly castigated and reprimanded on FB by Nicolas for having settled for a profane simulacrum of the real Mont Blanc at the Cafe Richelieu in the Louvre, I have resolved to cast aside the cloying substitute and seek the incomparable original. So I have now come to the temple of the Mont Blanc, Angelina. Alas every tourist in Paris has had the same idea (who has been spreading my FB posts ?) so I am at the back of a long and apparently stationary queue.
But eventually, I get in. After even longer a waitress deigns to take my order. So finally. Et voilà. Le veritable Mont Blanc.
But then there is a problem. I noticed that the Mont Blanc at Angelina’s seemed very familiar, right down to the little chocolate widget on the top, to the one I consumed only moments before at the Louvre. Emerging into the Tuileries where there is a decent signal, judicious interwebbage reveals that the Cafe Richelieu at the Louvre is actually a branch of Angelina. So the cake that he has just scoffed is in fact identical to the one he guzzled three hours ago. This calls to mind a perennial philosophical question – can one have Too Much of a Good Thing? Based on recent experience, the answer seems to be “no”, since they were both delicious. Identically so, as it turns out…
May 10, 2015 by IPAlchemist
All timings are approximate…
Darren is both excited and nervous. Today he is finally off to the Louvre. Please pray to the little god of short queues that he will get in the same century and to the medium god of sense of direction that he will find his way out again. Do message with any suggestions as to what he should see. But please don’t say Mona Lisa. He has heard of that already.
After queuing for about an hour to get in, I followed a sign for the winged victory of samothrace that I thought pointed to the Greek statue department. I saw many Greek and Roman statues but of winged victory there was nothing. It turned out the sign was actually pointing achronologically and ageographically to the Italian painting section. So, after admiring the superb samothracean statue, I saw much Italian painting but was smitten with the Spanish, especially Zurbaran and some others de cuyo nombre no quiero recordarme (thanks Cervantes). I was then near the Mona Lisa so I joined the thronged hoardes to sneak a glimpse. By then I craved coffee and wandered for a seeming eternity to try to find a cafe that offered hope of permitted entrance and perchance a seat. The one I finally found was in the bowels of the earth with no mobile reception. FB promised that I could post offline. Which indeed I could. It did not promise me that it would then eat and erase all trace of my carefully composed words. Which indeed it did.
Making better progress – seen the two special exhibitions and particularly bowled over by Poussin. Need more restorative rest and then I will tackle Middle Ages and Egypt. In that order. After that I will probably have had enough.
Moving on dear friends your humble servant is assaying the restorative powers of the Mont Blanc – Nicolas having reminded him last night of this patissier delicacy which is as it happens extraordinarily popular in Japan. It is a cake so reimagined that it basically contains no – well – cake. Embodiments vary but they mostly contain little more than cream and sweet chestnut paste and, in today’s case, meringue.
Overheard in the Louvre – viewing through a magnifying glass a paten with an exquisite enamel central boss depicting a last supper scene with Christ and the Apostles in which bread and fish are symbolically displayed on the table. Him “what do you see” Her “a whale and some angry guys”.
So dear friends. I could do no more without a break as my eyes ached from peering at tiny mediaeval things. But I am determined to see some Egyptological stuff so I have come outside for a break. Send me your strength that I may manage another hour or so. They promised me that I can come back in with my ticket. I hope that they tell not the pies of the porky variety.
The end is in sight because even if I don’t expire the museum will close shortly. Done 19 rooms of Egyptology (one floor) and one more floor – I think 10 more rooms – to go.
So dear friends both I and the museum have expired together. It starts closing from 5.30. I think I saw the whole Egyptological part. And just when I thought my eyes could no more, I spied a hoarde of Roman silver (apparently from a villa near Vesuvius) that would not look at all out of place in my silver collection. I have no idea what to do now. Is a second restorative Mont Blanc out of the question? I knew it anyway but in 6 hours at the Louvre one can see practically nothing. I feel like the marine iguana throwing himself into the frozen ocean to grab morsels of (cultural) lichen before, nearly overwhelmed, dragging himself back to the rocks to recuperate.
May 10, 2015 by IPAlchemist
So on Easter Day it was time for suggestion number 2 from Andrew - Ma Bourgogne. Also conveniently close to my hotel (are you seeing a pattern?). Packed but they squeezed me into a nice little corner table. Ordered safe starter of foie gras de canard but the main course is a sausage of unknown composition. I am sure it will be fine. I’ll let you know.
[A few minutes later]
So the sausage gamble paid off. Still no idea what it was made from. Except it definitely contains pistachio nuts. Oh it is called Saucisson chaud du beaujolais, but that is a new one on me. Here is a picture anyway.
A kind FB informant tells me it is pork also called “cervelas pistaché” a specialty from Lyon. And well worth it. And also, I was reliably informed by my FB observers, a much better choice than the andouillette, which I contemplated but rejected.
So tonight cheese but no dessert. (Apologies still have not managed the full four courser). A question. Why do lost french restaurants offer cheese singly rather than an assortment? Anyway I went for a new one on me. Bleu des Causses. I was hoping for something very strong but it was surprisingly mild for being both blue and goat milk. It was a massive slab. Picture attached but I suppose scale is hard to see. Of course I ate it all.
The restaurant was in the Place des Vosges, with a splendid 17th C vaulted ceiling. The whole square is surrounded with this portico and part of it forms the restaurant. Here is about half of one side – the restaurant part is the brightly lit bit at the end.
May 10, 2015 by IPAlchemist
Today, unable to decide between Notre Dame and St Sulpice, Darren is going to both – the gregorian mass at the cathedral at 10 and the solemn mass at St Sulpice at 11. Followed by the “audition” of the organ. I just about got the first piece of the audition but the second one needed some explanation from back home.
The warning outside that one should attend mass and not just come for the organ at the end was, as I was reliably previously informed, not remotely enforced.
So, for lunch I then took a punt. Just found somewhere that looked nice close to St Sulpice and came in. Time to live dangerously! Doubtless I will let you know how it goes.
Perhaps I should not have carried the living dangerously over into the actual ordering. On the daily specials was “fromage de tete”. Again please imagine the circumflex. The nice waitress confirmed that this was indeed head, a piggy one to be precise. She then helpfully said it was a kind of terrine. “Well, why not,” I thought, even though I don’t usually get on well with odd bits of animal. Bit of a mistake. It was gelatinous and cartilaginous. And is it just my imagination or does the salad look like a green head of hair? Anyway safe next course – chicken.
And now, time to compare organs – St Sulpice and Notre Dame. I should not really be doing it since I am not really an organ fiend, and I only heard a little bit of each and not playing comparable pieces. St Sulpice was lovely, multitextured and cuddled the listener with sound. At Notre Dame it was more like being slapped in the face. In a nice way. And I quite liked it. I think I would like to go back for more. The apparent complete absence of a music list however (I even asked but no joy) means I am not sure when would be good for a return visit.
There was a lot of offal on the menus in the french restaurants I have been to in Paris. Most I avoided. The fromage de tete was hardly a triumph. But it reminded me of a line from Mock the Week. Under the title “Things you never hear in France” Hugh Dennis said “This part of the animal, we just throw it away.”
Then it was time to meet up with my uncle Paul and his friend Caroll – and where better than the amazing Ladurée – the spiritual home of the macaroon.
In the meantime, I felt I had not had enough of the grande orgue at Notre Dame, and during the week they seem to use only the choir organ, so I popped back for a lovely vespers and lingered for the first half of the evening mass. Which was no less packed or solemn and choral than the morning one, although celebrated only by the auxiliary bishop of Paris and not the cardinal himself. The music was apparently identical. It was wonderful being slapped in the face by the mighty beast again. The bells were a lovely sound as well – although oddly very loud when approaching the cathedral but completely inaudible inside. Anyway, that is probably enough religion for a holiday.
May 10, 2015 by IPAlchemist
And now dear friends a word on the perils of travelling alone in Paris. When in a cafe one has finished one’s coffee and then heads to the lavatory, one naturally takes one’s valuables with one. This however signifies ineluctably to a French waiter – a breed renowned through the world for their kindness and understanding – that one is planning to scarper without paying. The said waiter therefore pursues the hapless customer into the toilets to confront him while he is still relieving himself. It’s quite annoying really.
And now dear Londoners did you think that it was only on our beloved underground that you can walk so far from the entrance to the platform that you feel that you have walked the entire distance to your destination? Not so – let me introduce you to Chatelet (you will have to imagine the circumflex accent) – its labyrinthine tunnels will have you filled with the warm glow of nostalgia for Bank-Monument. So discombobulated was your humble servant that he leapt on the train going in the wrong direction and has wasted a perfectly good ticket trying to repair the damage. Still, onwards and upwards. Back to the hotel for a preprandial rest.
On speaking French
Oh and another thing, dear friends. Several times in the last 24 hours I have been complimented on my French accent. Strangely, analogous comments on my grammar or vocabulary have not been forthcoming. #damningwithfaintpraise
The order of service booklet for Holy Week at Notre Dame says “if you do not share our faith in the living presence of Christ in the Eucharistic bread, we ask you not to join your neighbours at communion time”. Do they really mean that communion is open to all who believe in the real presence? If they mean it is restricted to Roman and Eastern Catholics only (as I would have imagined) why do they not say so?
May 10, 2015 by IPAlchemist
I received several excellent suggestions for dining from my friend Andrew (you know who you are), transmitted in real time by Facebook. Saturday lunch was at Chez Paul, conveniently located close to my hotel, and was every bit as good as promised – with a main course of rabbit stuffed with goat’s cheese and mint.
The Parisians have left for the weekend and so there are no native French speaking customers at the moment. I began my meal translating the menu from french to Spanish for the lovely couple next to me (who ordered oysters and had no idea what to do with the shallot vinegar – although to be fair they worked it out for themselves by the time the oysters came, but they did begin by attempting to spread it on bread). From a more distant table came an amusing moment at the end. No one is more sympathetic than me to the problem of French faux amis, but attempting “billet” for “bill” was never going to work really, was it?
Continuing my culinary adventures, having over indulged for lunch, a more light evening meal suggested itself – so that means fish. And shellfish. And especially oysters. So the Bar a Huitres, also conveniently close to the hotel, seemed to be the place. And this is what has come.
It was all stunning – my place setting both before and after the main attraction arrived – and the tanks containing I estimate several thousand pounds worth of assorted crustaceans. All illustrated herewith for your delight. Blurrily probably, but that’s how I see them myself.
On my last night, I did not have the energy to go far for dinner, so boringly but deliciously I came back, mainly for more oysters. Although I had resolved by this stage to post no more food shots, the lobster linguine was so beautiful I could not resist.
May 10, 2015 by IPAlchemist
On a recent trip to Paris over the Easter weekend, I recorded many highlights and thoughts from my journey on Facebook, and many of my friends were kind enough to respond with comments, suggestions and encouragement. For all of them I am producing an edited version here.
I started with a tour of the French Supreme Court (Cour de Cassation) thanks to a friend (Nicolas – he will feature later) of my friend Laurent who works there. It is a splendid building in the old Palace, and handily leads directly to the Sainte Chapelle – originally built to house the relic of the Crown of Thorns, now at Notre Dame Cathedral, and which I went beforehand to venerate, it being Good Friday and all. It was amazing to venerate the actual mediaeval relic (whatever suspicions one may have about its authenticity before that) and then see the edifice that was built to house it.
Then I went round the splendid Musee Picasso which has an astonishingly huge and comprehensive collection of his paintings. Definitely worth the 40 minutes queue in the rain.
Then back to Notre Dame for the Good Friday liturgy, which was packed and very moving, with beautifully sung music.
The next day, Holy Saturday, was one of church hopping, which was probably appropriate for the season. I started in Saint Sulpice, greatly recommended by organ friends of mine such as Mark (you know who you are), for Tenebrae. At Saint Sulpice this was a low key affair with few people but a large choir of clergy. No organ alas so I shall have to come back tomorrow. So I popped back to Notre Dame for the end of their version which started a little later. It was a little more splendid while keeping the Holy Saturday ethos. Then I dived (dove?) into the Treasury where there is much splendid tat – mostly 19th and 20th C but some ‘ancienne regime’ as well. At both establishments, Tenebrae was celebrated in the morning and by daylight – rather odd since the whole point of the symbolism of the service is that it takes place by anticipation the night before, and in the darkness, with successively extinguished candles. I am not sure what is the source of this French oddity.