Monday, 31 October 2011

The Guardian and the Prince of Wales

Today the Guardian ran a number of related stories including their lead one "Princes Charles has been offered a veto over 12 government bills since 2005.  The cries of outrage resounded from my Twitter timeline.

The thrust of the article is clear.  The Guardian has described Prince Charles many a time as the "Meddling Prince" over the last five years and also uses this today in a related article.  Here is a private citizen, using "secretive constitutional loopholes" to stick his nose into matters that he has no right to. More than that, he has actually been using these powers to prevent democracy from functioning properly.  He has been doing this by holding up or vetoing laws that would otherwise have been passed by our elected representatives - and *our* government has offered him this!  Andrew George MP is quoted saying "Most people will be astonished to learn that [the Prince of Wales] appears to have in effect powers of veto over the government."  The article also uses the words "overstepping his constitutional role by lobbying ministers directly".

Bloody hell - no wonder people are concerned - didn't we have a Civil War over this type of thing before?!

Let's Pick it Apart

Except... when you read the article carefully you can pick this all apart and realise the Guardian is chucking quite a lot of mud around here, some of which is not actually connected and none of which is backed up by any evidence.

The first point to note is that the issue of lobbying ministers (for which absolutely no evidence is given here) is quite distinct to the issue of the Prince of Wales's "power of consent" to certain specific pieces of legislation.  The Guardian has deliberately muddled the two and thrown them in together to create the picture it wants the reader to come away with.

Next, any level of critical reading of the piece shows that the allegation of having "a power of veto over the government" is not in fact some general power over the business of government as is implied; in fact it is limited to a dozen government bills that the "Guardian investigation" has revealed.  The piece mentions the Prince's "pet concerns" of traditional architecture and the environment, but does not provide any evidence that the power of consent was in fact related to them.

Then we come to ever such a critical point.  Daniel Greenberg, a lawyer at Berwins is quoted as saying "It is something of a nuclear-button option that everybody knows he is not likely to push".... Ahh - so in fact this power of veto has never been used?  I didn't read this piece like that at first.  What with Andrew George MP's strident words I had the distinct impression the Prince was stopping laws going through on a regular basis - perhaps a dozen times in recent years, if you just skim read the article.

In fact the allegation (from the director of Republic) is that because this power exists it *may* give the Prince the power of leverage.  Reread and note the plentiful use of mays/mights throughout the entire article.  The Guardian gives us no proof in any way that the Prince has been seeking to influence matters through the threat of veto (the actual use of which would of course cause a massive constitutional crisis) - it's left to the reader effectively to assume there's no smoke without fire.  He *must* have done so, pretty much.

Mind Games

Now for the tone of the article.  We kick off with a great picture of the Prince.  Remember the nice pictures of Vincent Tabak used in the press before he was found guilty?  And then how they changed overnight because a murderer couldn't possibly be portrayed as an ordinary smiling man?  Yep, here we have the most unflattering image of the angry Meddling Prince that we can dredge up.  Minor point, but it sits with the headline in creating a particular impression the paper wishes to create.  All sectors of the Press, of course, do this continually.

The use of the words "secretive" and "loopholes" scares us as readers.  We all know what loopholes are - they are things that clever lawyers use to get undeserving guilty privileged clients off things they have done.  The language is emotive and absolutely deliberate.  We also have the use of "multi-millionaire Prince" in the related article to get some class and wealth envy going.  These are pretty crude tools.

Anyway, how secret are these loopholes though and how ever did the Guardian discover them then?  Well, let's try looking at Hansard.  Yes, do a search on "" (many thanks @MrsTrevithick who takes a very different viewpoint on me to this whole subject) and up they all pop - each and every completely publicly available record of the Prince (along with the Queen) consenting to their prerogatives and interests being put at the disposal of Parliament.  The language is absurd "the Prince commands" etc- but it's not sinister, it's traditional; and multiple entries in Hansard isn't exactly my definition of "secretive".

Hmm.  Okay then, what of the fact that the Guardian says "Since 2005, minister from six departments have sought the Prince of Wales' consent to draft bills on everything from road safety to gambling and the London Olympics".  Is this some kind of new power?  The fact that 2005 is quoted gave me that impression.  The print version of the story went further along this line: it suggested that "ancient powers have been invoked" - the clear implication is to me that somehow these old powers had been discovered and resurrected.  The Guardian goes on "Neither the Government nor Clarence House will reveal exactly why he was asked to grant consent to a such a wide range of laws".  This is looking like a massive stitch-up and the government is in on it: ministers have handed over powers to Prince Charles in some secret deal to take away from their own power.  Except why would they do that?  Why would Labour and then the Conservatives have "offered" Prince Charles the power of veto over laws voluntarily?  Common sense tells me we're being led up the garden path again here.

If you're prepared to continue digging around the Guardian actually provides a link to another story (by themselves).   And here it all is: since the creation of the Duchy of Cornwall, back in 1337, the Prince of Wales's consent has been sought on laws that affect his personal interests as the holder of the estate.  The piece actually explains there that the Monarch and Prince's consents are required as a matter of parliamentary procedure and this is fundamentally different from royal assent to a Bill.  So this is nothing new.  It's in fact been here for almost 700 years.  It's not personal to the "Meddling Prince", Charles Windsor.  Each and every Prince of Wales has in fact provided such consents as a standard and regular matter of course (or not) down over the centuries.  Nor is it limited to him; the monarch also evidently routinely provides such consents, yet the Guardian has not chosen to suggest the Queen is somehow acting improperly - just Charles.

I'm not clear if this is a standard exercise of Royal Prerogative (I'm not a constitutional lawyer and I'm having my doubts about the Guardian's certain obvious lack of objectivity here) but if it is, I do know that since the 19th century this has in practice been vested in ministers, and specifically the prime minister.  It's a theoretical historical power that is never exercised by the monarch.  Should this power exist?  Almost certainly not, but this is a much wider subject for proper debate - not the misleading, personal warfare the Guardian is engaging in.

A Giant Load of Shit-Slinging

So where do we come to?  I really believe this is a monumental example of the Guardian driving its own agenda.  I would love to know why it decided to run this as its lead story today and wonder why (given years of similar attacks on Prince Charles) its editor or proprietors have this intense personal dislike of the Prince.  This isn't a news story.  It is a deliberately misleading, innuendo laden, crude piece of propaganda.  I suspect there is some pretty strong reason why the Guardian has it in for him, but we're certainly not going to find it out from them.

Did you see the Express last week?  There was a piece on Thursday that followed Chancellor Merkel's extraordinary, historic speech to the Bundestag.  Dr Merkel said that the EU had guaranteed peace in Europe for 50 years (a widespread view amongst Germans) and that if the Euro fell, the EU fell with it.  She warned that another 50 years' peace could not be guaranteed without the EU and that because of Germany's historic failings it had a special responsibility to reach in its pocket and do everything it could to prevent this.  After the death of well over 6 million of their citizens, the destruction of their cities, the blood of tens of millions on their hands, and 40 years of division, most Germans have a terror of War that we can not relate to.  This was powerful language indeed from a modern day German Chancellor in the Reichstag building and not deployed lightly.  The Express took this and chose to go with the headline "Germany Warns of War in Europe".  It carefully, deliberately, selectively and utterly misleadingly threw something out there and left it to its own readers to run with it knowing the reaction.  Here's a selection of the results:

The Guardian did pretty much the same today, but in a more sophisticated way, with a liberal lefty audience.  The effect was the same.  My timeline had comments in it such as "Doesn't Charles know what happened the last time a Royal tried this?" and "Unbefuckinglievable!" - we had cries of anger and outrage reacting to a story, that was in fact a different story, that had been dishonestly made and not proven in any way.

There are some serious questions about the position of the Royals in our constitution.  I will happily argue them out with a republican and I respect entirely the logic of their position.  No one would come up with this system today.  I'm told by @Mousehole1 that if you die intestate and without heirs in Cornwall your estate passes to the Duchy of Cornwall.  That's bonkers: I completely agree - but it's nothing to do with this Guardian piece.  There is also a serious issue in all this about wealthy, powerful people lobbying and the need to have all of such activity properly above board.  That is by no means limited to the Prince of Wales and again this article is not in fact about that.  There are questions as to why a consent (however formal) is required as a matter of parliamentary procedure - yes, let's talk about that rationally and sensibly, examine whether it is in any way affecting the business of government, and abolish it if there is reason to.

What the Guardian is not doing is conducting an evidence based, objective campaign calling for the abolition of the Monarchy.  It is running a personal vendetta against the person of the present Prince and I really am not prepared to respect that or run with it myself.  Above all, once again this whole subject is proof to me that we really must be critical of things we read in the papers.

UPDATE: The BBC is now running this story as a result of the fuss caused by the Guardian.  It is doing so in a far more balanced way and I believe both Clarence House and 10 Downing Street's statements fully back up what I'm asserting.  Note this in particular: "This is not about seeking the personal views of the Prince but rather it is a long-standing convention in relation to the Duchy of Cornwall, which would have applied equally to his predecessors."  There are some interesting and important constitutional issues to be discussed here; the Guardian has fallen over itself with its bias and thereby failed to present them in a way that facilitates proper debate.

Sunday, 30 October 2011


To capture the true soul of a thing is an eternal challenge, one that has plagued the human race for ages, or since at least we made the disconnect between ourselves and the natural world. We attempt in fantastic ways to represent the living experience in sand, in stone, in metal, on paper, in words and music and song, with the help of silicon and the billions of transistors that feed each gadget we've come to rely on. Still, in all of our search and creation we can never quite capture the essence of what it feels like to be alive in this world. Great artists die heartbroken, because their time is done, and the ever-elusive muses have left them with parched mouths and aged, grasping fingers, still restlessly twitching with that lifetime ache to recreate the essence of the heart of the Universe. But the Great Goddess takes back what she generously grants, and we succumb once more to the deep dark warmth of her, satisfied with a life well lived, or not.

I struggled for over a month to find a fitting image for this 600th post. Some few readers made suggestions but none seemed to do personal justice to this seven year long happy accident of a tribute to a city I love so much. Finally, it dawned on me that the only appropriate thing was to pay homage to the craft I've been granted by having this final post honor the Great Mother, here in her aspect as Pomona, Goddess of Fruitful Abundance, and pray that she will grace us all with her love and care during our time here on her Planet Earth. And we, in turn, will care for this city, this island, as the least we can do in humble homage.

Thank you all for the past seven years. It's been a great run, but when the love of craft and of merely creating for it's own sake becomes ego-bound, a thing that happens to so many of us in this for-profit, monetizing landscape, it's time to return again to the source. I'm very proud of what I've done, but only because I'm not a photographer. I'm just a girl with a tiny compact camera who points it at what makes her happy, and who writes what makes her heart sing. I'll step out of the race and let this site stand, and be a completed thing.  

Respectfully yours,
Maria Alva

Saturday, 29 October 2011

2000 years of Architecture with € Notes

When I'm taking my groups of Americans around Europe (Click here if you haven't read my evangelical enthusiasm for this part time job of mine!) one of the things I love to do is explain 2000 years of European architecture, art, history, politics and religion in 15 minutes... with the aid of Euro bank notes.  Okay, that might be overstating it a *bit* but if you want a very rough and ready overview, read on!

The Whole Spread

So I love Euro banknotes (and coins, but that's a whole other story) and wonder how many people know what they depict.  I don't want my students just wandering round saying "wow, everything's so old" - I want them looking at buildings and realising that styles don't exist in a vacuum.  They're intricately linked to what is going on in Europe at the time.


Let's kick off with the 5 Euro.  The banknotes always depict an archway or window on one side, and a bridge on the other.  The structures are representative - they don't show a particular national building.  That is reserved for each country's own coins if they wish.  So what's the oldest still existing architectural style of building in Europe?  We need to head down south for it - it's of course the architecture of Greece and Rome

Classical Architecture

Look at the design: it's a familiar "classical" archway.  On the back we have something that looks a lot like a Roman viaduct.  We're obviously talking about broadly 2000 years ago and many of these buildings are now ruins, and are can be found located in southern Europe.  We have wonders like the Colosseum in Rome; the Arena of Nîmes; the peerless Acropolis in Athens.  There are of course however classical buildings and ruins in Northern Europe too - although the Romans did not penetrate much north of the Danube or east of the Rhine.


Of course "Antiquity" ends.  The marauding Germanic tribes descend on Rome and after several sackings put an end to the dying empire in 476.  There follows a period known as the Dark Ages (*cue bad jokes about people bumping into each other with candles*)  Nothing much is built, there's not a great deal of surviving culture as people wander to and fro across the continent, mingling and settling in new places.

Then, broadly around 800 or so we have a new style of architecture.  Except it's not particularly original: it's a simpler, less grand form of building than the Romans did.  It looks vaguely similar though, and for this reason we call it Romanesque architecture.  We can see it on the 10 Euro note.  The lack of complexity of the style is as a direct result of the political situation in Europe; we're coming out a period of intense turmoil and even whilst these buildings are being constructed there are still invasions from the North from the Vikings.

Romanesque Architecture

The arch looks familiar, no?  There's just one thing to note: there are semi-circular round arches, often one inside another.  There isn't too much Romanesque architecture around: you can find the odd church dotted here and there.  They tend to be quite small and basic, with massive heavy walls, small windows and they are fairly simple in style.  They are therefore quite easy to spot where they've survived: Lisbon Cathedral is a great example of a very large one in fact.  In Britain Romanesque architecture is normally called "Norman" whereas everywhere else it is "Romanesque".


NOW we're talking though.  A clever Frenchman, Abbot Suger (also known as "Sugar", but only to his closest friends) became the chief patron and adopter of a brand new style of architecture in the 12th century.  This is "Gothic" architecture, the great style of the so-called Middle Ages which broadly last until around 1500.  It is represented on the 20 Euro note.

Gothic Architecture

For Gothic Architecture, think tall and pointy.  It's mainly seen in churches: we are building upwards to the Glory of God.  A brilliant new invention, flying buttresses, allow the roof to be supported without the massive heavy walls of Romanesque structures.  Instead we can put in wider aisles, and large windows often filled with beautiful stained glass.  Gargoyles often complete the picture.

There are splendid Gothic churches and cathedrals across Europe.  Think of Salisbury Cathedral in England, Cologne Cathedral in Germany, or the breath-taking Cathedral at Chartres with its intense blue windows.  Perhaps the most spectacular of the lot is Notre Dame in Paris with its outrageous flying buttresses.  Many of these churches take upwards of 150 years to complete: one end is one variety of Gothic, and by the time you get to the other end the particular style of Gothic has changed.  St Vitus cathedral in Prague took an amazing 600 years to complete (they had a bit of an extended Staropramen/Becherovka break in the middle, it must be admitted)


When we hit 1500 we run into the two big R's.  Actually the first R started quite a lot earlier than that in Italy: it's the Renaissance.  It takes quite a long time, however, to reach the other parts of Europe.  Renaissance of course means "rebirth" - the people of the time begin dismissing the "blind belief" of the Middle Ages and look instead to rational explanations and science to try to work out how the universe works.

These guys admire the thought, art and architecture of the Classical Age.  They actually coin the term "Middle Ages" as a derogatory way of referring to the bit between the two periods of civilisation: Antiquity and Now (i.e. the 1500s).  The archetypal Renaissance Man is Leonardo da Vinci: a painter, sculptor, mathematician, scientist, inventor and writer.  Bet he was a right annoying sod to have as a dinner party guest.

Renaissance Architecture

Look at the 50 Euro note.  Does the style look familiar?  Yes, this is becoming a bit dull. It reminds us, not surprisingly, of the architecture of Greece, and even more particularly, Rome.  It's actually an absolutely conscious copying of the Classical style, with an emphasis on symmetry, geometry, proportion and a direct copying of the classical order of columns for example.  THE Renaissance city in Europe is Florence, but this architecture can be found all across the continent.  It takes until the mid 1600s to reach somewhere like Turku in Finland, by which time it has pretty much finished in Italy.

How do we recognise a Renaissance building?  Well, the columns are a give away, as is the symmetry and lack of fanciful decoration that Gothic buildings tend to have.  If it looks vaguely Roman in style but is in really good shape, chances are it's from the Renaissance.  It's had less time to become a ruin.


How about the second R then?  This is the Reformation, which kicks off with a vengeance (after some earlier mumblings) with Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses - complaints - about the Roman Catholic Church to a pretty insignificant church door in Wittenberg in northern Germany.  An invention by another German, Guttenberg, makes this unimportant event a revolution: the moveable printing press means the ideas about reforming the Church spread across Europe like wildfire.

What's this got to do with architecture?  Well not much, initially.  Protestant Churches are stripped of their finery - the emphasis is on the word of God - Luther has translated the Bible for the first time into German and people can hear and understand themselves what the book has to say.  The pulpit is the important place in a Protestant church - let's whitewash all over the colourful Gothic paintings and strip the altars of their gold.  The important thing to do is listen, not be distracted.

Baroque Architecture

Broadly much of Northern Europe has become Protestant: the movement has been very successful.  The South remains mainly Catholic.  Where the Protestants have swung to simplicity, the Catholics now go exactly the opposite way.  Let's show people what Heaven on Earth can look like.  Let's decorate our churches fancifully, with gold, with glitz!  We demand angels, beautiful paintings, magnificent altars.  This is the Counter-Reformation - and when the Catholic German Emperor becomes involves this becomes the Empire Strikes Back (is there no end to my bad jokes?)

This new style of architecture is Baroque.  It's bold, it's bling and it's on the €100 bank note. It's not just about a style of building either; we're talking a feast for the senses.  When you enter a Baroque church you will SEE the beauty; you will HEAR the new Baroque music; you will SMELL the incense.  It's a feast for the senses.  It is taking you out of your miserable hard mortal life and showing you what promises the Church can offer you - if you remain with the faith.  There will be a huge dome towering above you in a Baroque church: the circular form is typical of the style.

Baroque architecture is intimately linked to the Catholic faith, so you will find much of it in Italy, Austria, Southern Germany, France, Spain - and it's not just Church architecture - palaces are decorated in the same heavy, ornate style.  We don't see quite so much of it in Britain.  St Paul's Cathedral is our best example: and it apparently was kept under scaffolding until the end, because the shock of seeing such a Catholic structure in London caused a scandal.  Its highpoint is during the 1600s.  Castle Howard in Yorkshire is a splendid non-religious example of the style.  Late Baroque is called "Rococo" and it lasts through into the 1700s.  It's getting even more silly and gaudy by this stage.


The 19th century, or Victorian Age, is pretty pants for new architectural styles.  I guess people are too busy building up either their overseas or continental empires (countries such as Spain and Portugal have already been busy exporting Baroque architecture to the New World with the help of the Jesuits).  They are also rapidly industrialising and society is changing.  In Europe we have no new proper styles of architecture throughout this period - instead we have "Historicism".

A drive around central Vienna is a perfect example of what is being built in the Historic Style.  We have a neo-Gothic town hall - the idea is that the middle class citizens of the Low Countries had a great deal of autonomy in the Middle Ages.  It's therefore a good thing to copy this style to show this isn't about the aristocracy or royalty ruling.  It looks just like a building from 1300: but it's over 500 years later.  It's "new-Gothic" (just like our own Houses of Parliament in London).  We see the Assisi Kirche: a massive neo-Romanesque structure, built in 1898, in a style that's been dead for 700 years.   The Austrian parliament building looks like a Greek temple: Athena stands with her back to it: it is pure neo-Classical: a direct copy of a style 2000 years old.  We also have neo-Renaissance and neo-Baroque mansions, hotels and public buildings dotted around the Ring.

Art Nouveau Architecture

For crying out loud, no wonder people get bored with this crap.  We've seen it all before, right?  It's not actually an architectural style - it's just copying old stuff - so we're definitely not going to give it its own bank note.  We need something new, different.  In Vienna a group of artists (Klimt foremost amongst them) "secede" - they object so strongly to the historicism around them that they form their own breakaway movement.  A style of architecture develops that is playful and inspired by nature.  Plants and flowers are often used to decorate these new building facades, as are curved lines.

It's more than just a style of architecture: it's a philosophy, an art - a reaction against the stodge.  It has its heyday from 1890 to 1910.  There are beautiful, curious, wonderful Art Nouveau (literally "new art") buildings all over Europe.  In Britain some wonderful examples are found in Glasgow.  There are also some great art nouveau touches inside Liberty's in London.


We pass on through Art Deco in the 1920s and 1930s (a more mathematical, geometric style of design and architecture that is not shown on the notes) and on to the architecture of today.  We are talking glass and steel.  Whether this is a uniform style or not is a good question, but the 500 Euro note is a serious bit of kit.  It's a massive note, designed in particular for Germans, who eschew credit cards and cheques.  They like to pay in cash, even for something like a car.  If you buy a £20,000 car in England you'd need 400 x £50 notes.  The same €23,000 car in Germany could be bought with just 46 of these big pink whoppers.  On the French Autoroutes they have signs warning no €200 or €500 are accepted at toll booths: not in French or English, but only in German!

Modern Architecture

There's not too much to be said about the style of the architecture other than there are, in my opinion, some absolutely superb beautiful examples of it (I *love* the Gherkin in London) and I'd quite happily knock down the Shard before they stick the last piece of North Korean lookalike glass on it (yes, Google Image Search Pyongyang and it's THERE).  They say you should give all architecture a generation before you judge it - so I'm penciling in 2030 before I hire a crane and a wrecking-ball.

Quite a Journey

But there we are.  It's been quite a journey to go from the Colosseum to the Shard, but I hope you've hung in there.  As I started out saying, architecture does not ever exist in a void - it's reflective of what's going on in politics, religion, art, society at the time.  I'm no expert, but I love looking at buildings, trying to understand more about them, and I love the fact that a prop such as Euro notes can be so handy in reminding us of the story.

I hope you've enjoyed reading as much as I've enjoyed writing this!  Pictures of some of the buildings I've referred to can be found below.

Roman Arena, Nimes (€5 Classical)

Lisbon Cathedral (€10 Romanesque)

Notre Dame Cathedral Paris (€20 Gothic)

Hospital of Innocents, Florence (€50 Renaissance)

Castle Howard, Yorkshire (€100 Baroque)
Parliament Building, Vienna (Neo-Classical)

Apartment Blocks, Vienna (€200 Art Nouveau)

Swiss Re, London: the Gherkin (€500 Modern)

Monday, 24 October 2011

A Very Rude Word

I was walking in the woods today and noticed this daubed on a wall. Oh ho, ho, how funny/ shocking. Or is it? It got me thinking about this odd little 4 letter word and its strength and ability and offend.  I'm clearly not the first person to do so.  Just to reassure you, however, this blog isn't some 6th form college attempt at defending the C-word, trying to shock, or using it at every opportunity.  Please do read on!

The C-word is old

First off, this really is an old word.  Actually *ancient* in all likelihood.  Wikipedia cites this rather blunt advice given in the Proverbs of Hendyng (pre 1325):

"Ȝeue þi cunte to cunnig and craue affetir wedding"

(Give your c--t wisely and make (your) demands after the wedding)

The Oxford English Dictionary cites its first usage around 1230 in the context of "Gropecunt Lane", but it's much older than that.   It's likely to come from the Proto-Germanic kuntō (We are talking about 2500 years ago).  When people say "don't mind my French" in fact they should be saying "don't mind my Anglo-Saxon": most swear words in English are actually from Old English, and are therefore Germanic.  In our Germanic neighbour, Dutch, we still have the related word "kond" which is not a swear word and simply means "bottom".  This reflects a fascinating confusion akin to the British English and American English usages of "fanny".

The C-Word has survived the Viking raids, the Norman Invasion, and "polite" Victorian society.  Chaucer used it quite happily - anatomical words didn't seem to have the same stigma back then, but by Shakespeare's time it was becoming "obscene".  It's not a word taught at schools, and until recently wasn't hardly ever seen in print - its eradication from mainstream script shows that it could only have survived because people were still using in speech, sufficiently frequently, that it did not die out.  The word has literally been passed from mouth to mouth down the centuries.

It even actually disappeared from all main stream English dictionaries from 1795 to 1961.  Think about it: the C-word survived notwithstanding this fact. That's actually amazing.

Is it offensive or should it be reclaimed?

Well Germaine Greer thinks it's offensive: she said "It's one of the few remaining words in English with a genuine power to shock".  Likewise the Guardian in 2005 said it was the "most offensive word to the majority" and the Dictionary of Invective in 1991 said it was "the most heavily tabooed word of all English words."

The flip side are the now well rehearsed feminist arguments, also put forward by the likes of Greer*, that why should the "most offensive word in the English language" refer to the female genitalia?  Who has made it this way? Men.  Therefore to disempower the word it should be used as much as possible.  A "dick" is a fool; a c--t by contrast is pretty much the most offensive insult to throw at someone.  Let's take this power away from it.

We had a group of lesbian friends staying with us in Amsterdam at New Year 1998: I suggested this argument to them and still remember posh friend Henrietta shrieking and covering her ears.  By the end of the long weekend we'd used the word so many times (on purpose and jokingly) it *had* in fact ceased to have the same power.  Critically, though, this observation applied amongst us and in this limited societal context.

I've heard people say the very <sound> of the word is offensive.  It's apparently harsh and nasty.  As I touched on earlier, I'm not trying to show I'm all grown up and above petit-bourgeois norms by defending the C-word... but I do disagree with that contention.  Is "cat" or "cut" an offensive sounding word? No, of course not.  There is absolutely no such thing as an offensive sounding word: we as a society have given this word a special meaning unconnected to the actual word itself.

Context and intent are everything

Many words can be used offensively.  If you use the right spiteful, aggressive tone you can call me an "idiot" in such a way that it will hurt far more than if, say, one of my pals jokingly calls me a "daft c--t" with a laugh and a smile on their face.

My former boss is a quite frum Orthodox Jew.  A typical conversation in the office might have gone like this: "Oh Jeremy, sorry I forgot to send that email out you asked me to" .... "That's okay, Peter, you complete c--t".  The fact we were close friends and the wonderful inappropriateness of his using the word (his wife did it too) just turned the whole thing on its head.  We would write it "komplete kunt" to make it clear, I suppose, that this was our usage of the word and the not the more general one.  We had actually managed to make the C-word (or K-word!) a term of affection and humour between us.  Language is very much capable of this - but this is about a strictly specific and limited context: if we had gone around calling the trainees or the senior partner a "c--t" we'd have, quite rightly, been in serious trouble.

This understanding of and sensitivity to context is, I would argue, wholly lacking from the type of thing I set out below.  Laurie Penny (@pennyred), who is relatively well known on Twitter and blogs/writes for the New Statesman, has frequently thrown the C-word out there "to the world".  She once wrote a long blog on why it was such a great word and seems to use it to want to shock and draw attention to herself:

Note 31 people felt fit to retweet this "fascinating/profound" thought..

You may be aware that she called a writer/activist of the Third Estate group a c--t in January of this year (please click for a short explanation of the story) and this tweet followed on from it.  This was in front of around 100 people, of whom the target apparently knew around a quarter and had to work with the rest.  How would I have felt if my Mutti had been in the audience?  How would I have felt if *I* had been in the audience?  I'm not exactly a person of delicate Victorian language sensibilities - I would not otherwise be writing on this subject matter - but I'd just find that naive, coarse, unnecessary and in that context it would lower the speaker in my eyes.  I can't see how the standard feminist "disempowering argument" was PennyRed's intention: her tweet suggests she uses it very much to offend: it is about "baring her teeth".  I also find it odd she thinks men find the word offensive: my own life experience is that men are likely to use it far more often, and women are more likely to be offended by the C-word.

In any case, this blog is not intended as an attack on Penny Red.  She is obviously bright and writes some very good stuff; however this behaviour makes me think that she does have some amount of growing up to do.  She is of course not the only person who uses the C-word for effect: as we've identified: if nothing else, it can evoke strong reactions.  The above tweet and the story I mentioned are simply good illustrations of the point from someone who is "not shy" of the word.
The C-word on Twitter

In real life I'm very relaxed about using the C-word with certain friends.  They all know me well and they know that my intent is not to offend them.  I choose never use it as a term of abuse, because I think personally the misogynist undertones are pretty clear.  On Twitter, which is by definition much more public,  I deliberately do not ever use it in general tweets: I do use it every now and then, with a humorous intent, in an @message to a few people (eg @obotheclown or @hyperbolicgoat) because I'm pretty sure mutual followers of ours would not be offended given these guys' own style of "sweary" tweeting.

On a macro level I very much see the merits of the feminist "Lady Love Your C--t" argument put forward by Greer - but I am not going to change the world on a micro level by standing up in front of 100 people I did not know and using it as an insult. 

Cover your ears, Hyacinth!

You are of course perfectly entitled to use whatever language you like and we are all aware that people may well follow or unfollow us on Twitter on that basis.  I don't avoid c--t to keep followers, or from some "polite" or "prissy" Hyacinth Bucket view of language; I don't use it simply because I know a good proportion of people will find it offensive.  To misquote a legal case on the Egg-Shell Rule from English common law: "you take your audience as you find them".  Some of my followers couldn't care less, some might be mildly upset, a few would be very upset if I swore in this way.  It doesn't make me feel big or clever to evoke the 2nd and 3rd reactions.

Back to the Graffiti

To summarise the C-word is not a bad word of itself - as in any use of language, what makes it powerful or offensive is the way we decide to view it: both individually and as a society.  That changes over time and at the moment you hear the C-word more and more.  If this keeps up, it will become less powerful.  Huzzah to that... I guess?   The word has certainly been around a long time and as a former student of history of language I have a certain inherent respect for it on that basis.

I follow lots of people on Twitter who use it frequently.  Sometimes it is splendidly funny to hear someone you really don't expect coming out with it.  However, there are plenty of people who won't find it funny and will be upset.  I don't think randomly going round (intentionally or negligently) upsetting people is that great a thing.  Isn't that just common sense and the rules of basic social interaction?

Back to the graffiti on the wall: you know what? Meh.  I really couldn't care less if you'd written "Poo", "Faggot" or "Wibble Wibble" on that wall.  You're not offending me.  You have given me an idea to write about on my blog - but I'm not so sure that many of the older people walking round the woods with their dogs will be quite so relaxed.  It's a pretty pathetic and unnecessary thing to do to want to upset or shock them, isn't it?

[Update: many thanks to @AAEmerson for for pointing me to a recent video in which the incredibly likeable and brilliant Greer has since modified her position again, and is now celebrating the C-word as having "power".  She says she is glad the "normalisation" she called for has not happened.  It's a great watch if you have 11 minutes spare and are interested!]

Sunday, 23 October 2011


Time for a bit of a happier/fluffier blog than the last one.  I want to explain why I love camping so much.

(Almost) Born Camping

We kicked off at the earliest age.  The 'rents bought a "bungalow tent" (one of those big old frame ones) and a trailer, attached it to our Vauxhall Viva, and off we went.  My earliest memory is actually sleeping on my mother's lap in Austria as the road in front of us was washed away in one of those terrible Alpine summer storms.  It was 1973: I was two. We were on the way back from Yugoslavia.  This was quite adventurous stuff back then: we needed a special visa.

All my childhood we camped: it was cheap, it was outdoors, and my parents took us all over continental Europe.  I'd go so far as to say it was absolutely formative for me - my love of languages, history, travel, people of different cultures, all come from here. Travel changes lives: something I believe with a passion.

VW Viking

On 14 April 1978 Dad came back to Germany from London with our new "Volkswagen Viking" motor caravan.  The date is etched in my memory.  It had a pop up roof where four could sleep: downstairs there was another double bed.  We three boys had been allowed to pick the colour - what a silly decision - we went for bright screaming orange with a brown and orange tartan interior.  Hehe.  It *was* still the 70s I guess.

The first trip out with the Viking was utterly shite.  "Organised" Army Dad had made a check-list of everything that had to be packed.  We ended up in the Harz Mountains in Germany over the sodden Whitsun weekend of 1978.  Absolutely everything was closed and we'd forgotten the matches.  No way of lighting the hob, no warm food, no heat - we ended up borrowing a match from a solitary smoker in a car park.  I huddled in the pop up roof, in my little red sleeping bag, with my stuffed rabbit, eating a pot noodle.  "Matches" went to the top of the checklist for future trips.

Our beloved VW Viking. I'm at the front on the stool

We took the Viking everywhere: a 4 week tour of Italy, all the way from the north of Germany right down to Sorrento taking in Venice, Rome, Naples, Pompeii, Pisa, Florence and the Lakes.  On our various holidays we went along single lane mountain roads through the Dolomites, across to Spain, through Austria and Switzerland, and all over Holland and France with the Viking.  "Highlights" of our trips included big bro Alan shoving a fish hook through his finger in Venice and having to be rushed to hospital... and Dad burning the pies which were our supper, and throwing them in a stream somewhere close to the Rhine.  They're probably still floating somewhere in the North Sea.

Capri: great sunhats, thanks Mutti *dies of embarrassment*
I've still no idea how we packed everything in: clothes for 5 people for 4 weeks, food, a barbecue, a 6 man sized dinghy, full sized sunbeds, a huge jerry can full of petrol, outside table and chairs, an awning, fishing stuff, cuddly toys, games.... amazing! When we eventually sold the VW Viking to a British Major I literally cried.  Our trips away were an absolute highlight of my youth and I love my parents for having saved up and made all of this possible for us.

Ooooh get us: finally, a caravan!

Next we moved on to a caravan: a brand new 1982 Hobby 440T ADX.  The "T" stood for "toilet room".  That was DEAD posh.  It also had double glazing, a proper sized fridge, heating, an extractor fan, and could be used during German winters.  I was obsessed with caravans.  At the age of two I'd apparently crawled into an elderly English couple's caravan in Rimini and sat there with a vacuous big smile on my face.  (A position I still frequently assume today, though I don't obvs need a caravan as an excuse.)

Our first caravan: Hobby ADX with space for a plastic bog!

YES, caravans are naff.  I know it, okay?  I've heard all your endless complaints about being stuck behind the things in the West Country, I know it's about as socially acceptable as voting Tory or buying the Daily Mail (shock: many caravan owners do both).  But I *loved* our caravans!

German caravans are of course infinitely superior to English ones and we had four Hobbys in total: a  460T Prestige, a 535T Prestige, and a 520TQM Classic..* I even worked in the Hobby marketing office in Schleswig-Holstein in my year off before university.  It was a (somewhat tragic) dream come true for me.

Finally my parents committed treason by buying an English caravan instead - a Swift.  I spit on its dirty little aluminium memory and came pretty darn close to disowning them.  Fortunately I was living in London by this stage and the tragedy of having to see it parked in the drive was not therefore inflicted on me on a daily basis.

Mr Bean on Holiday

One day in 2002 I forced best friend Dominic to come to the Camping and Caravan Show at Earl's Court with me.  He's probably still in therapy.  Let's say he doesn't quite get this particular obsession of mine and camping isn't exactly his idea of fun.  Sitting there at the show, attracting quite a lot of attention was a brilliant new silver tear drop of a caravan: a T@B (Click on Link!).  It's was a brand new retro 1950s design, by German manufacturer Tabbert.  They are the undisputed "top end" of the caravan world (I actually noted how many of their full-sized models were at Dale Farm: if it's your home, the quality matters even more).

The interior - I'm not joking - was pure Conran: cherry wood, plain classy cream upholstery.  I bought one on the spot on my credit card.  "Hedwig" as I christened her was a perfect match for my red Mini.  (NAME DROP: Jasper Conran actually later sat inside it with me and was quite complimentary.  Another friend said it looked like a giant Ikea dustbin, but he can sod off.)

SO CUTE: my "toy sized" car and caravan combo, 2003

I am of course a massive homosexual.  Hedwig therefore was kitted out with a little DVD player, crystal classes, goose down quilt, Egyptian cotton sheets, an array of A&F clothing, WMF cutlery, Harvey Nicks washing up liquid, Cowshed toiletries, a Prada washbag... I even found a set of designer taupe melamine crockery.  We have plentiful stereotypes to uphold, naturally.

I took my little silver caravan all across the UK and the Continent - such wonderful trips.  People *actually* laughed, smiled and waved at me as I and the dog drove by looking some kind of deranged, but very happy, Mr Bean on holiday.  Did I care? :D

Oscar enjoying the view top of the Simplon Pass, 2007
A couple of years ago I completed the circle and moved back to a tent.  It's just a two man this time and looks a bit like Darth Vader from the front.  I find I can cover distance much faster than when I'm towing and it's just easier for touring.  Oscar wags his tail when he sees the tent: it's 24 hour fresh air, walks galore AND he gets to sleep squished up next to me.  It's a perfect dogcation for him.  I still insist on a goose down duvet and proper feather pillow: none of this sleeping bag nonsense.  I don't tend to cook (except veggiecues): I eat out in restaurants - the money I'm saving on hotels more than allows that.

Back to canvas! Part of a 4500 mile Euro-road trip in 2009

What's the Attraction?

So *what* is so great about this camping thing then?  I guess it's very happy memories of childhood.  It's being able to explore and move from place to place.  It's experiencing places at an absolute fraction of the cost of staying in a hotel.  It's the fresh air - there's nothing like waking up to country air, particularly under canvas.  It's the sociability - people on camp sites talk to each other in a relaxed, friendly way that they wouldn't in any other context.  It's the ability to go hiking from your "door" up in the mountains in Switzerland - or to swim in a lake in Italy that you're looking out onto from your tent.  It's incredibly informal: shorts and polo shirts are the main thing I pack when I go away.  It's the rain on the roof of the caravan or on the canvas when you're tucked up inside.

Camping Des Glaciers, Verbiers. Yeah. Beat that.

Yes, I love my fancy schmanzy designer hotels too and have been to enough of them: but camping really holds an equally great attraction for me too.  I know it's not everyone's cup of tea: but for me... bring it on.

* Of course another massively great thing about caravans is playing the "spot the naff name" competition on road trips.  My top 6 of all time are:
  • the Bailey Unicorn (WTF - how does a big white box on wheels look like a unicorn?)
  • the Elddis Crusader Typhoon (actual huh?!?)
  • the Eriba Troll Manhattan (whaaaat?)
  • the Swift Challenger (bed fellow of the "Swift Conqueror")
  • the Tabbert Imperator (Flash Gordon?) 
  • and the Ace Ambassador (Ferrero Rocher :))
They must pay their marketing departments with space cakes to come up with these names, surely?

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

The Perils of Twitter

I've often commented on what a wonderful thing Twitter is.  I've also however highlighted two frauds on this blog and pointed out how they have abused the trust and friendships that are so easily formed on Twitter.  Today I received two death threats for publicising a man who has been abusive to women.


This account was set up on 2 September 2011.  The man purports to be an "upper class twit" and is seemingly jovial and friendly, if a little odd.  I was sent a couple of warnings about him from friends by direct message and thought I would follow to see what he was saying.  My interest was instantly perked when I found out he'd preemptively blocked me: we'd had zero contact and that is obviously quite an odd thing to do.  I therefore followed him (when his account was unlocked) directly on the net.
@BertieWWooster avatar

Bertie is an abusive misogynist.  He tries to befriend women (he follows several hundred) and then responds to things they say pleasantly - but is also sometimes quite pushy about asking them to follow him back.  He follows networks of young mums for example: sees who they follow and talk to and then follows himself.  He asks about husbands and boyfriends and other personal information.  His own follower account has never gone above 115, but follows over 900 himself.

At certain points he seems to "lose it".  If someone does not respond or thank him for things he flies into a long tirade and calls people (particularly women) "OIKS", "cunts" and says they are working class, or on the dole.  He also wishes women dead.  Later he deletes all the tweets - seemingly without realising that people can, and do, take screenshots.

He also likes women to follow him back so that he can DM them.  He does this sufficient quantities that he complains about being in "Twitter Jail" (the daily limit is 250 direct messages).  Some of the messages are fine: some are lewd and include pornographic links, requests for phone sex, or what a woman's favourite sexual positions are.  This does not come out of the blue: it is after a period of "grooming" where he builds up a relationship of trust and friendship.

I know of two occasions now where Bertie has telephoned women in real life and abused them down the telephone.  One was because of a link to a business included on a Twitter profile; the other was because of much more in depth stalking that led him to find out a whole set of personal information on a woman, which he then also published repeatedly online (address, telephone number, place of work, full name, photos of home from Google Streetview etc).

I have screenshots of all of the above, but obviously don't wish to publicise the names of the victims involved.  I have however provided screenshots below of abuse directed at me (below) that I think demonstrates it clearly enough. 

Other Accounts: @PFBraneStawm, @BrainyProfessor @CharlesManduca, @IagoTheParrot

I set up @SexPestWarning specifically to warn women about Bertie.  I also wanted him to know that we (a female friend on Twitter has been watching him closely as well) were on to him.  I could not tell him directly from my account - as he had blocked me - that I knew what he was up to, so I had to use this new vehicle.  It was also a handy place to set out the whole story to anyone who looked like they were falling prey to him.  Bertie locked his account at various points, then realised his numerous messages to women could not be read by them - so a bit like a vampire requiring fresh meat he had to unlock to try to attract more people in.  He is currently locked but will have to unlock if he wishes to keep up his "game".

@PFBraneStawm avatar

He then yesterday set up a new account - @PFBraneStawm (since changed to @BrainyProfessor) and used exactly the same M.O.  Today something made him "flip" and he used two other accounts @charlesmanduca* (new today) and @iagotheparrot (an older account) to hurl abuse at about 10 people.  He called me and them, for example, "vile, lifeless, psychotic, jealous, jobless living on Benefits Dykes".  He said we were under 24 hour surveillance by the FBI, said we were"lesbians with friends who are homosexuals and pedophiles who have been convicted and been in prison for more to seven to nineteen years" and added that we would be extradited to Guantanamo Bay.  He is apparently a billionaire with in excess of 1,750,000 followers on his other accounts... so can arrange all this.  Because of his friends at Microsoft all my personal details are currently being sent to every Hotmail user in the world.

* Important Note: there is a real life Charles Manduca who is a respected litigator.  The man operating the @CharlesManduca account is clearly not the real lawyer, as a) he spoke utter nonsense about defamation (amongst many other things); and b) he claimed to be at the City firm Hogan Lovells (whose logo he also misused).  Mr Manduca is no longer a partner at that firm.  I do not wish to imply that the real Mr Manduca is in *any* way connected to this Twitter abuse, other than being a victim of having his name and photograph stolen for the account.

Here is a selection - these were sent out to at least 6 people, including a top legal blogger, and were subsequently all deleted.  He has since changed the photograph on the @CharlesManduca account to mine, which he stole from my account.

Read from Bottom

Image 2
Image 3 (redacted)

 He told us he knew where we lived.  To this was then added, just to me personally, the following:

What of it all?

Well it's easy to see this man as having serious emotional or possibly mental health issues - and in that respect to have sympathy for him.  The FBI claims etc are clearly absurd and laughable.  However, stalking women, abusing them on line, phoning them up at home and at work, and making death threats are less funny.

Twitter is pretty much a "free speech zone".  If you don't like what someone is saying, you are instructed by Twitter to block them.  This is to some extent true: yes, if you find a person creepy you can unfollow and/or block them instantly.  However if someone is "grooming" you like Bertie, you may well be have been drawn in and given him the benefit of the doubt.  By the time he goes in and is really abusive, the damage is done.  Your trust is shattered, and particularly if you are in a vulnerable position it will be extremely upsetting.  Yes, you can block - but if he's become sufficiently obsessed about you that he's found out where you work or live it hardly helps you.

Twitter will broadly only intervene when a) there is a specific direct threat of violence; or b) private details are published.  It's important to note that that "Block and Report" button is ONLY for spam: Twitter is bothered about people sending out marketing links but not about people being abusive it seems.  You can report the two specific forms of misuse I mentioned by filing a ticket (go to Twitter Support) - but not on behalf of someone else.  We have been warning Twitter for almost a week of the breaching of private details - they have utterly failed to do anything about it.  I instantly reported the death threats - his account is still operative.  Twitter is clearly, in this case, completely failing to ensure a safe environment for its users by its insistence on the broadest interpretation of the American First Amendment.  Personally I find that completely shoddy.

The Police will however get involved if you are lucky enough to speak to an officer who has a sufficient understanding of how Twitter operates and the fact that a harassment offence online is every bit as real as someone "in real life".  This *is* real life, for heaven's sake and regardless of Twitter's lackadaisical approach, national law applies.  As for a death threat, again, this is a real thing and can carry a heavy custodial sentence.  I am fortunate enough to have spoken to a very bright, clued up and understanding Detective Sergeant in CID locally, whom I know through Twitter, about the whole matter.  UPDATE: see this story from the BBC (31 October 2011) if you had any doubt that online harassment can be dealt with in exactly the same way as "real life" harassment.  This story about racist abuse (3 November 2011) also shows that Twitter is not the "free speech" zone people seem to think it is.  The law applies just as much here as elsewhere.  Berties and others beware.

Advice for Twitter Users

It cannot be stressed enough how careful you should be with your personal details.  Stalkers like Bertie look through your photo streams, those of your friends or partners, read your blog, and will look for clues about who you are and where you live.  We ALL know this - let we still do it.  It's a bit like those "Smoking Kills" labels - we're sure it won't happen to us.

One lovely woman who had been abused by Bertie by phone happily gave me her mobile number to talk about it.  I gently pointed out that perhaps she should have asked for mine and withheld her number?  As it turns out, like 9,999 other men on Twitter, I am not going to phone her back or bombard her with abusive texts - but she didn't know me from Adam at the point.

It also really does make me think about the benefits of complete anonymity.  A friend on Twitter (@grumpyhatlady) is anonymous.  I once asked her, perfectly innocently, by DM what her name was.  She said she wouldn't tell me - she had been stalked in real life as a result of the Internet [click for her blog post on this: it's excellent and so worth reading].  She has an icon of an old woman with a hat and all I know about her is that she is clever, entertaining, lives somewhere in Scotland, and has a legal background.  She's not grumpy and I don't *think* she wears a hat.  Isn't that enough?  We talk, share views, even experiences - but I don't actually need to know anything more.  She doesn't Facebook, she doesn't use FourSquare.  I'm beginning to think she's an incredibly astute individual, as much as I would actually like to see what she looks like just from normal human curiosity.

Twitter is SUCH a supportive, friendly, wonderful space.  It sickens me that there are people like Bertie around who will direct abuse, threats and make people less trusting - to the extent that they will be completely anonymous.  He is an absolute minority - and I'm hoping one who will soon end up realising that he can't get away with this.  Before his death threat and publishing private details, all we could do was spread the word by warning people off him, hoping that if they knew us, they'd believe us.  Given Twitter's lackadaisical approach and if there hasn't been a Communications Act 2003 offence, "self policing" is in effect all we are left with for other instances.

Keep safe and take care.

UPDATE: He this morning (20 October) bombarded me with a whole series of abusive messages - he knows where I live, I'm a "Pedophile" etc.  It is rather sweet he thinks anyone would think these are different people when he uses exactly the same language, spellings, idioms and threats in all of his accounts.  Here is just one page - it went on for about 20 tweets.

In addition, anyone he saw me speaking to with homophobic abuse/ swearing from the @BrainyProfessor account.  The language was in some ways comical, in other ways revolting.  I advised everyone to block/report for spam and it produced a surprising result - his account was suspended (by Twitter) almost immediately and then deleted.  There seems to be a mechanism whereby X reports of spam in Y time leads to an automatic response.  This is far better than relying upon Support who work at a snail's pace going through individual complaints.

My advice is therefore block/report for Spam and encourage your friends to do so if you see him behaving in this way again.  It is quite likely he will return with new profiles.  Over 13,000 people have now seen this blog and are aware of the way he works now.

He did continue the harassment of one woman from his @iagotheparrot account throughout today - he repeatedly published her home address and says the time has come "to pay her a visit".  Again screen shots have been taken, the Police are fully aware, and she has a crime reference to quote to make any 999 call a priority matter.

He is now claiming in these tweets that his wife and children were murdered; previously he said his 4 children died in a road crash in France.  Clearly he is a very disturbed man and were it not for his causing upset to ordinary users of Twitter, foremost women he has taken a fancy to (but then later calls "ugly dork pedophiles") I would feel a great deal of sympathy towards him.

As of the evening of October 20 there is good news: all 4 of his accounts have now been suspended or deleted. 

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Coming Out

Is it a bit passé to blog about "coming out" - surely this is a bit of a non-event and everything has been said there is to say about it?  Probs, but I'm going to blurb on a bit anyway.

First my story.  I realised I fancied guys when I was about 13 or 14.  Yup,  I even *spent my pocket money* on the Sun and had a cut out collection of Page 7 Fellas I kept hidden on top of my wardrobe.  I went through a phase of intensely hating myself for fancying men.  This may or may not have been to do with the hairstyles of guys in the 80s, it must be admitted.

At the same time I went through an arch-right wing phase (please, keep reading, I've reformed!) and in fact was once called a "fascist" at school by a teacher.  I definitely deserved it for the hideously intolerant, vile nonsense I was spouting in my confused attempts to "conform".  I was outwardly extremely homophobic, as a crude defence mechanism that of course anyone sees through nowadays.

Silly, homophobic, screwed up 16 year old Peter

I "found Jesus" when I was 19*.  I convinced myself the devil was somehow leading me astray by tempting me with hot men.  I had a minor breakdown during my first term at college about 6 months later.  I totally withdrew into myself, just did loads of academic work instead... but then one day randomly thought, this is nuts, and had sex with a guy.  It was far from an ideal "first time" scenario, but I knew this was what I actually what I wanted and who I was. 

Is that all?

"Coming out" is a weird process.  I'm white, I'm male, I'm not disabled, I'm from a materially comfortable background, I'm nominally Anglican.  I'm therefore hardly an oppressed minority.  A black child does not come down and say to his/her parents over breakfast "guess what, I'm black!"  S/he will grow up with all of the prejudices that are present in society, sadly without a choice in the matter.  By contrast, in coming out as gay most people suddenly move from a position of majority to minority, and the sometimes adverse reactions will be new to them. It's a very brave thing to do to put yourself in the way of that.

"Coming out" actually usually involves multiple stages: 1) to yourself.. generally as the hormones start raging and you realise you're "not like all the others"; 2) once you've dealt with that, and possibly been through a period of denial, to a close friend or two; 3) to a wider circle of friends; 4) to your parents.

All my college buddies were pretty much fine when I told them I was "bi" (yup, again not quite true) when I came out at 21 years old.  I was (amazingly) the only gay man out at Law School, though, out of several hundred students in my year - and I definitely experienced a limited bit of homophobia.  I was by this stage out the world in general, but not to my parents.  This is quite typical I think, certainly for back in the mid 1990s.

By 25, I was living in London, working.  My parents were in Hampshire.  I'd so successfully cut them out of my life there was, as far as I was concerned, no real or meaningful relationship left to damage.  I didn't hate them or anything: they just knew virtually nothing about the adult me, who I was, who the boyfriend was I'd just moved in with, and whom I was totally in love with.  I essentially had a 100% childish relationship with them and never told them anything about my feelings.  Just stop and think about that. How sad a state of affairs.

Utterly randomly I was feeling bored at home one afternoon and thought "what the hell - I've nothing to lose here." I picked up the phone.  Mutti's reaction was quite simply "Is that all?"  I literally could not believe it.  I had spent years convincing myself (on the basis of nothing objective) that they would cut me off, disown me, stop loving me.  I asked if she had guessed - no, she said, she had no idea.  She just thought I was very private (obviously the hiding my collection of Page 7 Fellas had worked. Thank god, considering how *embarrassing* they were in retrospect :S)


I then became convinced Dad would be different.  He was an army guy: he was bound to be homophobic.  I called back nervously the following day: Mutti had told him, at my request, and he wasn't bothered either.  Read my blog on how he reacted when I put on a dress as a little boy (click for link) and you will realise what a total tit I'd been: he was hardly going to react badly.

I sent my mother a bouquet of flowers: I'm still a bit teary realising how amazing they both were.  My Mutti actually said she was upset I didn't feel able to talk to them before and that she regretted not being able to support me as a teenager going through all this.  A few weeks later they met the boyfriend.  They adored him and he was taken into the family.  Many years later, the two of us apart, Mutti still worships the ground he walks on.

The Flip Side

Now the flip side.  By no means everyone reacts as my parents did.  I've heard every story from parents as great as mine to parents who have literally cut off and thrown their kids out.  A friend with a Danish father and a French mother, both educated, liberal professional people, said they wanted nothing more to do with him when he came out to them in his late 20s.  He'd been at Cambridge and was now a successful City lawyer: he was a golden boy in looks, personality, achievements - but they could not deal with his being gay. 

What does one do in that scenario?  Hurt, obviously.  Scream about how unfair it is.  No one deserves to be treated like this by their parents for simply being honest with them.  Any open-minded person would say "how could a parent *ever* behave like that to their child?" We all know this. However my question is, does it help the situation for the gay kid to be the victim and to simply be morally "right"?

When you come out, you do so with having worked through an intensely complicated, difficult set of emotions over a long space of time.  You present that your parents.  Regardless of how good or bad your relationship is you owe everything to your parents: you literally would not be here without them. If your friends react badly, you can avoid them, or move on to new ones.  The same does not apply to your parents.

You throw this potentially huge thing at them all in one go, when you've had years to digest and process it.  Of course everyone wants for them to hug you, tell you they love you, and accept you.  The simple fact is not every parent can do so - at least not straight off.

Some Advice

So what does one do?  If you are contemplating coming out, particularly to your parents, you will realise how daunting it is.  No one wants to be in my friend's position.  The possibility of losing your parents in this way is beyond terrifying.  Remember that very, very few parents do react in this way though.  There are proper guides available on the net about coming out - read them - they will offer you proper tips far better than I can.  I will just throw a few things in though from a personal perspective.

It is often said that middle class, ostensibly liberal, families take the news of a gay child the worst.  They profess to be open-minded than other groups in society, who sometimes are more casually homophobic.  However, when it comes to one of their own, the situation is often reversed.  Your nice educated middle class parents are frequently more worried about appearances than anyone else. Know that the societal pressure of "looking good" will colour and distort their reaction and this sadly has very little to do with you and the love they actually fundamentally feel.

Even my Mutti (who was so amazing) almost immediately asked me not to tell my Grandmother.  What I think was going on was she was worried about how this would reflect on her and whether her mother would think she'd "done something wrong" bringing me up.  When Omi did eventually find out she said "Oh it's genetic, I read it in a magazine".  She was in her 80s, staunchly Lutheran, a former Hitler supporter, and I was still her "Peterchen".  I guess she was at this stage simply past all this appearance nonsense that can create such pain in our society.

Give your parents time.  There is a desperate desire for them to be okay with your news immediately and to be out joining you at the next Pride (okay, perhaps not that... how embarrassing?!)   Often if other extended family members or friends do not react badly when they in turn hear the news, your parents' fears of people's reactions will diminish.  This may take months, it may take years.  Stick with it - they are your parents and it IS worth it.  In a strange way you are having to take over the role of the mature grown-up in this situation.  If they ask you not to tell your uncle or your grandma: cut them some slack.  They are very likely to change their mind with time as they become used to things.

Don't rub your gayness in their face (you can do this with your mates down G.A.Y. on a Saturday night: it's much more fun) -  and this sounds strange but above all be as forgiving to them as you would wish them to be accepting towards you.   There is *nothing* wrong with your being gay and deep down almost everyone knows this.  Almost every parent will want to love their child regardless; just be prepared to love them back too, even if they don't react as you would want them to or in the time frame you envisaged.

Don't get all morally righteous: if you expect them to love you for who you are, be prepared to love them back *unconditionally* too. Think what they means - and be it.  This can be bloody hard, but remember no one is perfect, not you, and not your Mum or Dad.  Love them for their views as much as you might disagree with them, try to understand why they're being like it, and don't be demanding about the way you expect them to be.  You can't control their reactions, but you can control the way you behave.  You can chose whether to be combative, angry, or instead try to show them that you still love <them>.

In all cases of parents reacting negatively that I know of personally, the eventual outcome has been positive.  The biggest factor in how long it takes, in my experience, is actually how the gay child behaves and how they are towards their parents after the initial bad reaction.  That sounds odd, but it is my honest experience.  The gay son or daughter may be the "hurt party" but they are the one who has to turn the situation round.  Unfair? Hugely.  The reality? In my view, yes, unfortunately.

Is it Worth It?

I'm now 40.  There is zero question to me that coming out is entirely worth it.  Before I did so, there was an appalling cost to my self-expression and to my integrity.  I lied constantly to cover up my sexuality.  I lied about where I'd been, whom I found attractive, what I'd been doing.  I believe that deceit is cancerous: once your life is so full of lies about this big important area it becomes easy to lie about other things.  The longer this goes on the more damaging it is to you.

The sheer relief of being able to say "phwoar, he's nice" or a bit more importantly to introduce your lover to your friends and family - wow, it is worth it in every way. Removing this lie gives you the opportunity to work at rebuilding your integrity and realising how deceit affects you as a person.

Yes I have had a few shit reactions - both at college and at my law firm.  So what.  People may hate me because I'm half-German, because I talk with a "posh" accent, because I support Labour, because I went to Cambridge, or because I like Glee (I jest, NO ONE could hate Glee).  I can't control people's reactions and I can't live my life trying to fit in at the cost of my own happiness and self-expression.  I'm who I am.  I didn't choose my sexuality: I had no control over it.  The only choice I had was to lie about it to varying degrees or to be myself and be honest about myself.  Yes, I could even have got married to cover it up: some still do even in 2011.

A Continual Process

Coming out is a continual process; this is often forgotten.  It is so wearisome to realise that even today many people just assume you are straight.  It is still the default setting.  I had to come out to work colleagues; every time you meet someone new you somehow have to make it clear somehow that you are attracted to your own gender.

You don't want to have to be in this position of continually coming out, but it's the way things are.  We just still have such a hetero-normative set up in our society that we have to do so.  Once your friends and above all your parents (the ones who really matter to you) are out of the way though, you obviously becoming increasingly less bothered about people's reactions.

There are of course those who say "why do gays have to make such a fuss?"  They really don't get it.  Meet any straight person, in any context, and the chances are within a few conversations they will have announced their sexuality to you probably without even having realised they've done so.  They'll mention a wife, a boyfriend, someone they fancy on X-Factor etc etc.  If you're on Twitter think about the people you talk to.  I chat with several hundred; without most of their having announced it, I must subconsciously know or have a good idea about the sexuality of a good 80% of them.

Most gay men and women aren't making a fuss; they're being themselves, in just the same way straight people have every right to be themselves.

The Good News

There is extremely good news in all of this.  If you are around 20, chances are your parents will be of an entirely different generation: aged 40-50 and much more likely to be accepting than the parents of those in my generation.  Homophobia still exists and this influences opinions, but it is far less widespread and far less socially acceptable than it was.

A barometer of this is the statistic (apologies if this not exactly correct) that if you are a gay man aged 60 in the UK today, your average age of coming out was 37.  If you are 40, you came out on average at 21.  If you are 21 today, you came out on average at 17.  People are less and less bothered about it, and there are more openly gay people in all walks of life, making it easier in turn for everyone else to be honest about themselves.

Society is changing enormously.  Be yourself - you can't after all be anything other than you are, no matter how hard you wish it.  There are a lot of people who will support you and although this may be hard in the short or even medium term, it will on reflection be the best thing you have done for yourself.

* Just to be absolutely clear I had NOT found Jesus. From my limited understanding, I don't believe any of Christ's teachings are compatible with the hate filled agenda of the religious right.  The Christians I have in my life are loving, accepting, wonderful people.  I don't share their faith, but I know from the way they are that bigotry and hatred are not part of who they are.