The Romanian – Bruce Benderson

Romanian(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

The London group discussed this so I thought I would take a look.

The book begins with places that are familiar to me – Budapest, its waterfront, the Gellert Hotel and its famous baths.

It moves to Romania, also familiar to me through a friend for whom it is fascinating.

Some descriptions are unpleasant – such as the protagonist taking pleasure from sucking a hustler’s cock while is still pungent from the pussy of its previous hire.

Some are wrong – genuflecting women in a Russian orthodox church – they may protrate but genuflection is a Western practice.

Some are typical – the situationist who sees barebacking as a protest.

There’s a moving description of boy beggars, particularly the one with no legs.

We get the atmosphere of pre-EU Romania with its dogs, thieves and hustlers. Also of the taxi drivers who rip off tourists by overcharging, which I recognised as being very similar to Cairo.

All in all, I found this book boring, a chore to get through.

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Great Expectations – Bristol Old Vic

GExpA group of us went to see this dramatised version, directed by one of our favourite authors, Neil Bartlett.

Just as Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed without a set, so was this. The intention was to let each of us have our own mental picture of what is going on, given that the words of both Shakespeare and Dickens are so descriptive.

Pip is essentially reliving and chewing over his memories – people appear and disappear owing to clever use of lighting –  so as bare minimum of props and characters (a sort of ‘chorus’) serves to bring these to life, as does amplified sounds, e.g. metal sounds of forge, anvil, money (BOV claims one of the best acoustics in the country).

The fire scene, with Miss Haversham, made the people in front of me nearly jump out of their seats. Very powerful. (Miss Haversham becomes scarier by the minute, gaining walking sticks and a reptilian appearance. Or, as the Guardian reviewer put it, ‘a malevolent white spider’

I’d forgotten how moralising and unctuous Victorians could be.

BOV is an intimate venue where actors can establish eye-contact with all in the 500-strong audience. It probably wouldn’t have suited the tastes of those in the Bath Theatre Royal.

I shall never forget the various moving doors – shall probably dream about them.

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Out There – Stephen Fry BBC2

FryAmnesty International invited those with a concern for Human Rights to blog on Wednesday 16th

 I’m not really a fan of Stephen Fry because I find him pompous, a smug know-it-all. However, this documentary got over to a popular audience what some of us have been concerned about for some time.

In Uganda, Christian pastors there preach that homosexuality can be cured. A graphic example of the tragic consequences of this view was a lesbian who was raped by her father at the age of fourteen as ‘corrective rape’ to cure of. This single ‘sexual’ experience made her pregnant (a forced abortion followed) and gave her HIV.

The pastors don’t acknowledge the notion of homosexual ‘love’ and assume that all homosexuals have anal sex. It is beyond their understanding that many don’t but have oral or intracrural sex instead. As Fry points out, they are materialistic and obsessed with penises, anuses and vaginas.

A Ugandan newspaper carried the headline: ‘How Bum Stuffing Shattered My Whopper’. The government is considering a new law that would make homosexuality a capital crime – putting gay people to death for their sexuality. The first attempt to pass this law was in 2009, egged on by two American evangelicals.

The laws against homosexuality are already draconian and prevent people from seeking treatment for STIs for fewer of being reported to the police. So gays have started their own network, ‘Icebreakers’ but the government is seeking to close it down because it is ‘against the morals of our nation.’ Leading the fight to close it is Uganda Minister of Ethics and Integrity, Fr. Simon Lokodo (another homophobic – though former RC –  priest). When Fry interviewed him, he claimed that anal sex often results in men’s backs ‘oozing with pus.’ He wasn’t worried about heterosexual rape since this was ‘natural’. His whole body language was violent – lots of finger pointing and wagging.

Farshad, a 28-year-old Iranian, told Fry how he was forced to flee his homeland for having a gay relationship and had since considered suicide.

In Los Angeles, Fry met Dan Gonzales, who had undergone reparative therapy to try and “cure” his homosexuality, only to discover that he could not simply be talked into switching his sexuality. His mother now campaigns against the harm this ‘therapy’causes. Fry met Joseph Nicolosi who aims to “resolve” such emotional conflicts. He says that the boys who see him often fail to identify with their fathers and therefore watch gay porn on the internet. Each session costs $140 and regular sessions may continue over two years. He claims that he has cured about two thirds of the patients that have come to see him, though none of his “patients” were willing to talk about the result.

There were some unfortunate moments, such as the session with the Ugandan State Minister for Integrity and Ethics, when Fry said: “Homosexuality is fantastic. You should try it, it’s really good fun.” And I’m not sure about the phrase:’ Hollywood is the thermometer that is thrust up the anus of the world’s sensibilities.’

We are taken to Brazil, which has the largest Pride in the world yet there are daily murders including one of a fourteen-year-old who was abducted, tortured and strangled with his own T-shirt just for looking gay. His mother smells her son’s clothes and weeps: “This is all I have left of my baby.” Christians and neo-nazis are blocking attempts to bring in a law about hate crimes. It seems that we are in an age of backlash. A Christian, ironically for most of us but clearly not for him, speaks of ‘fundamentalist homosexual groups.’

Then Fry goes to Russia where homophobic violence is dismissed by the police: if someone reports it, the police send them away and don’t file the complaint. A government minister with a picture of the Russian Orthodox patriarch on his office wall talks of gays as ‘fallen angels’ – devils? This governor of St Petersburg in Russia has brought in a ban on “gay propaganda”. When Fry puts to him the story of a young lesbian woman savagely beaten up by a gang of right wing thugs he airily says: “Gay people, most of them are lying about their problems.”  He stands for ‘tradition’. Tradition, Fry asks? Torture, illiteracy, disease, the Inquisition? They are part of ‘tradition’.

So much for Christianity, And Islam? Hindu influence is more tolerant. Laws imposed by the British Raj have finally been repealed in India. As is pointed out, homosexuals aren’t interested in making other people homosexual. Yet homophobes are interested in making oother people homophobic.

Fry attempted suicide whilst making this programme. Since his material clearly got to him, we should attend to what he says.

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The First Verse, Barry McCrea

TFV(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

Is this autobiographical? Both the author and his main character went to Gonzaga High School.

I found it strange to read about a Dublin with gaydar, mobile phones and text messages, realising that any previous about Dublin was set in the past, e.g. James Joyce’s Dubliners and Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim Two Boys.

The title reminds me of Cranmer’s ‘Here beginneth the first verse of the…’ and refers to a group of students who ask questions and then pick a sentence at random from any book to hand. It isn’t unlike the Sikh practice of taking hukam or its superstitious Christian alternative using the bible. It also reminds me of ‘The Dice Man’ by Luke Rhinehart. Also of a bipolar person undergoing a manic episode where he took instructions from traffic lights to guide his day.

I am a tad rusty but some of the Latin seemed dodgy to me. However, I looked up some of the phrases and they were correct.  Mea culpa.

An accurate observation: You can’t wait to get rid of a one-night-stand. You promise them the earth then hope they’ll forget it.

Also a typical manic episode where a cash point is raided to buy more and more books without any heed of how much money is left.

The editing could have been better: the guy goes into an Irish bar in Paris, order as pint of Stella and is given Guinness. In a later bar he says he will adopt Stella and orders a pint of it.

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Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey Among Christian and Buddhist Monks – Fenton Johnson

(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)KFASJ

This book is tiresome in places. OK, he’s a gay man who has obviously been hurt by the church but he repeats stuff that has already been done and said by Tomas Merton as if he was unaware (though Merton is quoted about half way through the book). The author was born ninth of nine children into a Kentucky whiskey-making family with a strong storytelling tradition.  He is aged fifty-nine, so most of his adult life was post-Vatican 2, yet the church he describes isn’t and it is as if most of the ferment of the 1960s passed him by – but small town American life before the internet might be an excuse.

Father James Wiseman, a theologian from Catholic University: in Christian traditions some authors say all anger is wrong, to be done way with, gotten rid of. But others, chief among them Thomas Aquinas, say anger is a proper response to injustice, and the fight against injustice rises from that anger.”

Blanche Hartman, abbess of the San Francisco Zen Center: I found this question of righteous anger and injustice coming mostly from the Catholics, who have a notion in their tradition of a just war,” she said.

I supported World War II but now I don’t feel as if war solves any problems — or at least that it makes more problems than it solves. My in­ternal experience of righteous anger is one of duality, separation ­”I’m right, you’re wrong.” That doesn’t mean I don’t grieve over injus­tice but I can’t fix it by being right and making someone else wrong. That’s power against power. . . . This is our challenge: how to be in the presence of anger without being caught up in it, a center of peace in the presence of turmoil.

Christians have invested so much in crucifixion and martyrdom that it is refreshing to see from another perspective: The monks’ murders were fresh in the memory of the Trappist who presented their stories, and he described their deaths as any devout Catholic would see them: the culmination of the spiritual ideal in martyrdom, in imitation of Jesus. And yet what is the worth of a life? For the sake of a vow, for the sake of one’s word, does one preserve life or give it up? An American ‘Buddhist rose to point out that a Buddhist might say that the Trappists, in deciding to stay and face almost certain death, had not helped anyone and had in fact brought more evil into the world by provoking their assailants to violence.

Some of the descriptions of nature and of scenery are very well-written and evocative.

There is much wisdom: the storytell­ing Japanese Zen priest: “How does one find one’s way forward in the dark?” he asked. “By reaching out and feeling for the way, one step at a time.”

What a sensible comment on the Roman Catholic magisterium: : “My own church has been arrogant in telling God where God can speak and God will not abide that — and so I have come to understand the importance of lis­tening.” He later admits that most RCs take little notice of the hierarchy because it is so out of touch and desperate to dominate rather than to serve people in their daily lives, lives that are so much more complicated that they, with their dogmas, understand.

One remark serves to resolve the distance between Buddhism and Christianity: Blanche Hartman – You don’t go out looking for suffering, but you don’t protect yourself from suffering that comes your way. Try to get close to it and be with it — try to be still and close?’ As she spoke the image, imprinted in childhood, of Jesus crucified rose involuntarily to mind and I thought, What is the crucifixion, finally, if not a visual metaphor for Buddhism’s First Noble Truth?

All of a sudden, the book launches into the (now inevitable where the Roman Catholic Church is concerned) discussion of child abuse. The usual suspect to blame for this, celibacy, is discussed. Bravely, the author asserts that most abusers are basically good and gifted men who have been abused by the system and teachings of the church which lead to sexual repression. The Western Church has been suspicious of desire whereas spiritually mature people have seen how desire and worship all knit together and how sexuality is a form of worship and vice versa. The author goes on to contrast Augustine with John Cassian, though I don’t think he grasps the concept of grace fully.

Then, the final section rambles around as if it is going to slot in bits that haven’t been said already, though much of it HAS been said already.

Despite its ragbag of an ending, there is some sound advice in concluding: A commitment to obedience does not mean blind adherence to the pro­nouncements of authority but devoting time and effort to cultivating, then heeding my conscience, that interior and intuitive guide that I so often ig­nore. A commitment to conversion of manners does not require me to sell all and retire to the desert or to refrain from sex. It requires rather that I ac­cord the spiritual equal weight with the material, that I practice not poverty but frugality, that I recognize the power of intimacy — the power of the body — and that I inhabit that power responsibly.

A product of a sex-, money-, and power-obsessed culture, I expected that the early monastic texts would focus on celibacy as the most challeng­ing aspect of the monastic discipline; instead they focus on the endurance of being alone. Properly understood and practiced, celibacy is less about sexuality than about entering and embracing a condition of radical loneli­ness. Aloneness is the first askesis, the foundational exercise, the entryway…to the understanding of the aloneness of the soul before its fate and in that overriding fact the brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind, through God alone….’Can I forgive the Paris nurse who ordered me to leave my dying lover’s room? Can I forgive the bishops and priests and sisters and monks and ministers of Christianity who have so often been oppressed by its institu­tions, and who provided me a foundation for faith constructed of guilt, re­crimination, and abuse?…”If you fill your life with anger against the church, you’ll waste your life,” a wise priest told me. “People find it very hard to live without enemies — we have a tremendous need for enemies.” Do I have the courage to live without enemies, to look within for the sources of my anger.

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