Note: A sequel to the piece I wrote the day before A Sermon at the Funeral of Hope. Written 5 days before the Brexit vote when there was still hope.
A better day.
A haircut in Splash. I love this place for being a melting pot of cultures and sexual preferences in which the dominant language is ESL (English as a Second Language). Last time I was there the staff, whilst busy cutting hair, were also trying to work out how to say ‘Big Cock’ in as many languages as possible. Customers were helping.
That time a cute Italian straight boy (grosso cazzo) cut my hair. Like many of the cute straight boys there, he had a habit of pressing his thighs against my arms as he worked. Maybe this was conscious and he was working on a bigger tip. I like to think it was unconscious. Or rather lacking in self-consciousness. The gay lad who cut my hair this time didn’t do it – perhaps because the self-awareness that invariably comes as part of our package means that his package is off limits - we’ve kind cornered ourselves by coding all touch as sexual.
A great haircut and an uplifting experience nevertheless - even without some unselfconscious thigh touching.
Then we had some brunch at Jackson and Rye on Wardour Street. Right now brunch, like dancing, feels like a political act. Hell yes, ain’t no homophobe gonna keep me from my huevos rancheros with a side of curly fries! The waitress (Romanian) flirted with us. Not because she was blind to the very obvious fact that we were a gay couple. But because she knew flirting doesn’t need to be sexual. Sometimes it can just be fun. And it was.
From there we dropped in at work, Sweatbox, to chat to KG. KG is from Bulgaria. When he joined us about six years ago he didn’t speak a word of English. Now he virtually runs the place. And all the time he is learning. Not just the language but the culture too – especially it’s qualities of openness and tolerance. I love watching him soak up those qualities but without surrendering his brutish Bulgarian humour that he uses to flatten my more excessive British affectations. This is the man who had to put up a new sign for the toilet under which he chose to write “Everybody Poops”. Never a truer word has been said.
A good deal of our staff come from Eastern Europe. As young gay men, life was not as welcoming to them in their home countries and they often start out repeating the intolerances they have learned. They distrust black people, the disabled embarrass them. One Romanian member of staff urged me not to let another Romanian into the building because he was ‘a gypsy’.
But this rarely lasts long. I remember a London Pride when a Hungarian member of staff returned from watching the parade with tears in his eyes. “This is the first Pride I have ever been to where they haven’t thrown rocks”. Just as hatred inspires hatred, exposure to love and tolerance soon dissolves the hate inside you.
Watching these guys relax and grow and their intolerances melt away is the single greatest pleasure in owning Sweatbox which otherwise, is little more than a factory that pumps out cash, cock, cum and caca.
As an older, childless man, there is a joy in helping younger gay guys find their feet and a new sense of family in our increasingly fractured community. But when they have escaped from a less tolerant culture that joy is infinitely richer.
Off then to Boots to get some No7 moisturiser and take advantage of a hidden 3-4-2 offer thanks to an over-tanned Essex girl who also gave me a £5 off coupon and then instantly redeemed it against my purchase. All of which she did with a ‘gays and girls BFFs’ kind of a wink that I normally only get from trolley dollies.
And then next door to Vision Express to get my glasses fixed. The head-scarfed Muslim girl at the counter beamed in recognition when she saw me with my husband. It had been three weeks since we last saw her but, if modesty permits me, I must have been memorably hilarious last time because she was all smiles.
Pretty much the entire staff of Vision Express are Muslim. It’s a model of warmth, friendliness, openness and professionalism. I see the young, clearly gay, Muslim lad who works there pass Sweatbox on his way to work frequently. He doesn’t look up, a sauna-load of gay guys may be a bit much for him right now, but I’m confident he has a loving home at Vision Express.
Last time I was there, I got saddled with an Italian lad. He was very sweet but his English was not as good as he thought it was and he was trying to explain the various choices of varifocal lenses to a man who gets distracted when someone splits an infinitive.
I felt like crying out “Excuse me? Can I have a Muslim? I need someone I can understand, someone British”. I didn’t of course. Far too polite. And I’m probably squinting at the screen now as a result.
I’ve never been comfortable calling myself English. Too many vestiges of nationalism. But equally it bothers me that even second or third generation immigrants only get to be British. British is a passport status, so clinical in this instance. They’re English. For fuck’s sake they’re Londoners! They’re us.
This is so very important I think, especially when their religion teaches hate towards me. Which Islam does. But so does Christianity and Judaism. It’s just the latter two have had centuries longer learning how to exist in increasingly secular countries.
And then it was back home to relax, feel better, write this.
And to check my privilege.
I’m white, can pass for middle class, have a good income and live in Soho. That’s a LOT of privilege. I also live in one of the most civilised and secular countries in the world. I am grateful for these privileges but I do not take them for granted. I do not forget that there are people who come from places of religious indoctrination and that we must reach out to them. But reaching out does not mean turning a blind eye to dogmas of hate that conflict with our values.
Continuously proclaiming Islam is a religion of peace is of no use if you are conveniently overlooking the fact that this vision of peace has no place for gays in it. Choosing to tolerate or ignore intolerance is cowardly and simplistic and serves no-one except yourself and your sense of self-worth.
I also do not forget that there are indigenous folk out there feeling hurt, scorned and unlistened to. Which has made them very angry. And yes, they blame immigrants and Muslims whilst we tell them that they should be blaming cuts and Tories.
I don’t think blame is very useful. Understanding is better.
Whilst I don’t personally agree with the Tory economic policies, I think the problem with the largely white, male, ageing and angry working class out there in Brexitland is more deep seated than that. It’s more that slowly, over time (though certainly boosted by Thatcherism) they have seen their privilege eroded.
And when you have had something nice and then felt it taken away from you, it makes you angry: it seems unfair.
Immigrants are just the latest to erode their sense of absolute privilege. The rise in power of women, gays, people of colour have all played a part. What we consider a triumph of intersectionality, they consider a catastrophe. Add to that a global economy that means everything they had to offer can now be achieved for a fraction of the price in China and you have a once proud and dominant generational class desperate, useless, humiliated and laughed at.
The Tory cuts maybe hurting but their scornful emasculation hurts more. They may never get their privilege back but at least they should be allowed their dignity.
But today has been a good day at the end of a bad week. I have been reminded, in so many little ways, what a fucking amazing little country this is and how lucky we are to live in it.
I’m still scared of the referendum: I think it was always a mistake to give the people an X Factor style vote on something so dangerously divisive. It’s not more democratic it’s just dumb.
However, my faith in my people – people of all races, sexual preferences, genders and religious backgrounds – my faith that we can continue to strive to be better and continue to look outwardly not inwardly, that faith has returned today.
The first time I saw my country the way I had always felt it, was as recent as 2012. Danny Boyle’s opening to the Olympics made me cry with joy because finally somebody had managed to evoke the true, all –embracing joy of living here.