Monday, March 31, 2014


Once in a while something happens that is absolutely and without qualification good, and will be the source of enduring goodness in the future. That happened this weekend with the legalisation of gay marriage in Britain.

Gay marriage is both a reflection and an engine of a profund, and profoundly welcome, shift in social attitudes, most of which has happened in my lifetime. I’ve been able to track this shift through my work, teaching always having been a gay-friendly profession. When I began teaching in the 80s, the generation of teachers above me, those who had grown up when homosexuality was still illegal, was stuffed full of closet cases. Some of the luckier ones got away with living with a ‘lodger’ or a ‘friend’. Others, less fortunate or less brave, fought their own nature. Sometimes it was through an obsessive need for control, screaming at children for wearing the wrong kind of socks or flying into a panic if all the pencils on their desk were not pointing in the same direction. Others punished themselves with depression, or drink, or overeating; many lashed out at colleagues with bitchy, barbed character assassinations, pursued obsessive petty vendettas or humiliated children with their cruel put downs. Some let their frustrated need to love leak out onto their students by burdening them with emotional or even physical demands. All of them were a daily rebuke to the notion that there is anything remotely heroic in denying one’s sexuality. Then, in the 90s, little by little, toes started to appear out of closets; on one memorable occasion, a monument of camp nastiness and evasion walked into the Staff Room and said, ‘I’ve just been showing that Romeo and Juliet film to my class, and I must say that Leo Di Caprio is quite a cutie.’ Well, it was a start. Now, in London at least (leading the country by example as ever ...), the whole thing is completely routine. There are a number of Staff Room couples at my school, and half of them are gay. The Head Teacher announces staff’s civil partnerships (and I hope will soon do the same for marriages) in Assembly in the same breath as their straight equivalents. To my students, homophobia is as unimaginable as witch-burning.

This is not yet the case everywhere, however. Here I’m tempted to reach for Edward Heath’s formula: ‘There are people who disagree with me. They are wrong.’ But instead, let’s take the critics on their own terms. Doesn’t it undermine the institution of marriage? I’m in a heterosexual marriage but, strangely, I don’t feel an urge to leave my wife because gay people can get married. If I think about at all, it reminds me of what a good thing marriage is if more people want to do it. It is against nature. Denying the sexuality you have been given is against nature, with predictably disastrous consequences (as my examples above indicate). It is against the Church’s teaching. Here I’ll come out, and proud, as a committed, practising Catholic. The Church is right about most things, and wrong about some things. It was wrong about slavery, it was wrong about anti-semitism, it was wrong to support Franco in Spain and Mussolini in Italy and it was wrong to turn a blind eye to the Holocaust. It knows now it was wrong about those things, and please God it will know one day it was wrong about homosexuality. Being gay is not like smoking or eating chocolate biscuits, something that can be given up with a bit of effort. If a person is gay it is because God made them gay, and not to express the love that they have been given is a sin against the Creator Himself; the Church should repent of that sin. The existence of the legal institution of marriage does not guarantee the Christian virtues of fidelity, or commitment, or love, but it does greatly assist and support these virtues, and the Church should rejoice in its extension.

So this week we can be proud to be British. All credit to David Cameron, who bravely expended a lot of political capital on this issue for not much return. When Nick Clegg said if he achieved nothing else, gay marriage would make going into coalition worthwhile, he wasn’t far wrong. Britain is a better place for gay marriage, and it’s not going back. Sometimes things get better.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


I’ve never felt comfortable around the military.There was a cadet corps at my school in South London and, every Monday afternoon, the playgrounds would be filled with boys I’d spent the morning swopping football cards and shoving into the tuck shop queue with suddenly transformed into uniformed personnel, marching and drilling. If they were lucky, they got to get their hands on some weapons in the armoury concealed in the underground car park. I was having none of it. I was a conchie. I did ‘Community Service’ instead, visiting a lonely old man, and felt smugly virtuous about it in a self-righteous 70s leftie sort of way. (A friend of mine wangled an even better skive. His old man died, he didn’t tell anyone and just went home early on Mondays.) Next to being sent to boarding school, my greatest terror growing up was that I would be conscripted into the Army. The only war that overlapped with my being of military age was the Falklands, and I remember hoping that, if the whole thing escalated, my Spanish A-Level might secure me a safe desk job in Intelligence. In truth, the only people with anything to gain from my conscription would have been the enemy: averse to confrontation and competition, bored and uneasy with more than one heterosexual man at a time, and hopelessly unmechanical, I’m pretty much designed not to be a soldier.

But there is a whole world, out there, the world of the military, quite distinctive from the civilian world. Never has this world been brought home to me more powerfully and more truthfully than last week at Richmond Theatre when I saw The Two Worlds of Charlie F.

Though the play bears the name of Owen Sheers, the lyrical Welsh poet and novelist, he is only the curator of the words and memories of the men and women who made the play with him. The first image of the play is of a man with a stump of a leg leaning on his crutches, talking to us. Only this isn’t a clever piece of artifice by the make up department. This is a real stump on a real man, who was blown up in Afghanistan. He’s telling his own story. Later he’s joined by two other men who have had both legs blown off. The company is a blend of professional actors and army veterans. Sometimes the joins show, but that only strengthens the manifest authenticity of the performances. There is not a story as such, more a series of scenes illustrating different aspects of army life: why and how they joined up, the rigours of basic training, the importance of letters from home, what seeing action is like, the moment they were wounded, the mental as well as the physical scars, and finally, and most importantly, how hospital becomes another version of basic training, preparing them for the toughest mission of all; re-entering civilian life as a disabled person. There is none of the ‘Help for Heroes’ sentimentalisation of the military here: they swear, use porn a lot and take an almost sexual pleasure in killing. The war can take a sometimes fatal toll on their relationships; one man speaks of waking from a nightmare to punch his girlfriend in the face. And yet they are loyal, and loving, and above all human. As Charlie F. says in his last speech: ‘There aren’t two worlds; there is only one, and you’d better believe it.’

The Two Worlds of Charlie F. makes soldiers part of our world, our one world.It’s left London now and is touring the country; but it’s worth a journey to catch it. 

Monday, March 17, 2014


With a dark serendipity (I’m sure someone somewhere suspects a conspiracy) two of the great icons of the Left, one long retired from active politics, the other still making a significant impact on Londoners’ daily lives, died in London last week. But both Tony Benn and Bob Crow were, in their different ways, relics of bygone eras.

Benn was at his height amidst the stark, binary choices of the 1980s, when the political world was riven down the middle, and the decision seemed to be between a stripped down, minimalist state protected by army and police and socialism in one country. He was accused of nearly destroying the Labour Party and of causing the split that led to the creation of the Social Democratic Party, though around that accusation there’s a whiff of ‘You forced me into having an affair by being so unreasonable’. It’s telling that most of the policies of the SDP – indeed, many of the policies of Ted Heath’s 1970 – 74 Conservative government – would be considered impossibly left wing by today’s Labour Party. Benn, though, with his pipe, his cardigan, his mugs of tea and his belief that most of the problems of the world could be solved by a good long chat, belonged also to a still earlier world, that of the earnest 1930s socialist, eager to think and plan their way out of the mess that was the world. More recently, he became an amiable grandfather, whose rambling on about his hobby horses was tolerated because of his evident kindness and good will – though only, as he pointed out, because he had become harmless.

Bob Crow, on the other hand, was right in the faces of Londoners till the last. Only a few weeks ago, he’d had them squashed onto buses or confined to their homes in front of work laptops as he brought the Tube to a standstill with his command. Headlines screamed of misery for Londoners, and reached for the inevitable figures of damage to that sacred entity to which all human concerns must be sacrificed, the economy. However, despite not even being an adult in that decade, Crow’s era was really the 1970s, when trade unionists had national power, and could show it by turning your lights off or stopping you getting your bus to school. It’s a time that is now unfailingly demonised. It’s true that, as capital and labour fought, we felt at times like the children of a dysfunctional couple, cowering at the top of the stairs looking down at them as they screamed the usual lines at each other while we wondered if our PE kit was ever going to be washed or our packed lunch made, and who was going to help us with our Maths homework? It’s arguable, though, that the relative peace and stability we have now comes, not from a reconciliation in the family, but from the absolute crushing of one partner by the other. If Mum and Dad don’t argue any more, it’s only because Mum is too terrified to say anything.

Crow was one of the few remaining trade union leaders to have achieved something of substance for his members; Tube workers are paid upwards of £50,000 a year. When bankers insist on ten or twenty times this for gambling with our money, they are to be congratulated on their energy and enterprise and must not be denied, for fear they might leave London in a huff. When their decisions deprive people not just of a few days’ commuting but of their jobs and livelihoods, then, like a battered wife, we must somehow have brought it on ourselves by being excessively demanding; the only solution is to be more submissive. But if the people who carry us to work every morning dare to assert themselves in a negotiation, they must be slapped down by insisting, as Boris Johnson would, that no strikes can take place without more than 50% of the membership voting for them. (Only 38% of Londoners voted in the 2012 election that made Boris Mayor).

One of Benn’s wiser sayings was about getting old. ‘Don’t go on about the past, don’t whinge, don’t try to manage things; just encourage people.’ Indeed, going on about the past all the time gets you nowhere (unless you are an ambitious historian). But the very fact that both Benn and Crow seemed so anachronistic is in a strange way encouraging. When, some time in the early 50s, the current generation of political and economic leaders start dying off, their obituarists will remark on how quaint all they believed in and did back in the early twenty-first century seem to us now. Which should remind us that the current neo-liberal settlement so confidently presented to us as being an inevitable law of nature is anything but. Another world is always possible, and nearly always necessary.

Monday, March 10, 2014


According to the Met Office, spring begins officially on March 1st. In London, though, it started de facto on Friday, and continued all weekend.

I have no teaching on Friday afternoon this term so can get off early to collect my daughter from school. For the first time this year, it was a Terrace Gardens day in the rus in urbe that is Richmond-upon-Thames. Children have only to cross the road to tip out into the sloping, rambling gardens that tumble down to the river, full of trees to climb, bushes to hide behind, corners to secrete yourself. There’s a cafe halfway down with a terrace where parents can sit over a cappuccino and watch their children while they chat, read, tap on their laptops; or they can spread out on the grass below with a blanket and a picnic and watch the sun glinting off the boats on the river. Meanwhile, the children run and scramble, chase footballs, and move in and out of imaginative worlds in a perfect balance of freedom and safety. It’s pretty much paradise, above all on the first day, when, after months of rain and high winds, the sun returns like a rarely seen friend who can’t stop talking, urgently spilling all the gossip she’s been saving up all winter.

It’ll settle down, of course. The sun will be called away before long. Even in a good year, the light and warmth will become taken for granted, and in fact become a nuisance, needing to be accommodated with bottles of water, sun cream and sleepless, stifling nights. As school slips away, the vacancy of the days will start to drag, and we’ll be itching for the crisp mornings, the newness and activity of autumn. But summer won’t, in the end, outstay its welcome. That’s the genius of the temperate climate. It gives you just enough of everything, and, like a master performer, always leaves the audience wanting more.

No doubt those brought up in the tropics yearn for the reassuring security of continuous warmth, the simplicity of wardrobes empty of coats and scarves and households devoid of debate about when and how high to turn on the heating. But I’m a temperate man to my bones. The annual drama of the seasons gives a rhythm and a shape to my life, and always has done.

The other rhythm of my life, the school year, is very precisely counter-cyclical. Even as the sun was striding down the drive towards the Welcome Home banners, I spent much of last week at work beginning the process of closing down that starts every spring: setting up revision schedules, turning lessons away from learning new things and towards consolidation, bedding down, preparing for the harvest of exams, while at the same time looking ahead to the next year, planning timetables, agreeing budgets. As the trees grow heavy with foliage, one part of the school after another will peel off, as year groups leave, lessons stop, courses run to their conclusion. Finally, with the sun at its highest, the school will be awash with elegiac nostalgia and a mild, pleasurable grief as speeches are made and memories turned over in an attempt to ease the pain of departure to promotion, retirement, adult life. And on the last day the children will spill out of the gates in an inversion of the exile from Eden, into the timeless light of the long holiday.

Well, that’s how it’s supposed to be. The monsoon floods of the winter, and the sharp division between icy first half and sweltering second half of last summer, are reminders that an elegiac note is creeping now into the temperate zone itself, as the climate slips into a new, perilous phase. Let’s make the most of weekends like the last one while we can.

Monday, March 3, 2014


Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, speaking at his party’s conference, describes a journey on a rush hour train out of Charing Cross: ‘It was a stopper, going out, and we stopped at London Bridge, New Cross, Hither Green. It was not until we got past Grove Park that I could hear English being audibly spoken in the carriage. Does that make me feel slightly awkward? Yes, it does.’

Note the self-conscious anachronism of ‘stopper’, evoking the public school ‘rugger’ and ‘footer’. Note the implication of admirable English modesty in the face of noisy, bragging foreigners in ‘audibly spoken’ (how else can any language be spoken?). Note the very English passive aggressive understatement of ‘slightly awkward’ for ‘extremely angry’. Note the pretence at disinterested inquiry in the self-interviewing. Note, above all, the sense of growing relief, almost of escape from danger, the further he gets out of multicultural London, the nearer he gets to the monocultural Home Counties.

Farage’s fellow travellers who allegedly weren’t speaking English, audibly or otherwise, would have been part of the 37% of Londoners who were born overseas. It’s very likely that they were young; may well have been highly qualified; almost certainly in work, probably not well paid, but still paying tax and national insurance. They will thus have been supporting the elderly who make up the majority demographic of UKIP’s members, and whose pensions account for 47% of the welfare budget, fifteen times what goes on unemployment benefit. If Farage had felt so ‘awkward’ he’d been taken ill on the train and had been admitted to hospital, he could not have failed to notice that the people caring for him would overwhelmingly have come from that 37%; far more likely to be working in the NHS and supporting it with their taxes than filling its beds. Their children would of course attend local schools, but would thereby be giving jobs to teachers, dinner ladies, caretakers, even, if the school is bulging at the seams and needs expanding, builders. And, given that their parents must have had a considerable degree of energy and enterprise to leave their native countries and to start afresh in a sometimes unwelcoming and alien city, there’s a strong chance that those children will be highly motivated and ambitious students, brought up to make something of themselves, who will set their native English classmates a good example. In fact, the only thing Farage should feel ‘awkward’ about is the way in which London’s opportunities have robbed other countries of their brightest and best. 

After the terrorist attacks of July, 7th, 2005, posters went up around the city with this slogan: 7 million Londoners, 1 London. Exactly. Our diversity is what we have in common, what keeps us strong.  Take the train into London, not out of it, and rejoice at its enriching Babel.