Archive for August, 2018

The Friendly Ones by Philip Hensher

It’s a novel of reflections, also a novel for our times: In a Brexit world of increasingly closed boarders and fear of new arrivals, it emphasises the benefits and enrichment that our society has gained from those who come from outside (albeit posh, skilled ones).

Hensher states that he took his story from “The Winter’s Tale” and “Eugene Onegin” Though we did know these well, iy seemed that the unjust death of young prince Mamillius corresponds with the presumed death of Sharif’s brother taken away from the family home by the Pakistani military forces. This would haunt the family for generations to come. From Eugene Onegin, Tatyana’s love letter to Onegin baring her soul is also replicated and her letter is received and rejected in a similarly dismissive manner in Hensher’s novel. From both stories, long time-lapses and people trapped in the mores of their times.

Who are the friendly ones? The Bangladeshi freedom fighters, the ‘hosts’ to immigrants? Collaborators with the Pakistani regime in these evil days called themselves, like the Eumenides, ‘the Friendly Ones’.

That one character became an ‘extremist’ is topical but was it necessary?

I liked it where young Leo became randy aged between ages 15 – 19 – a dwarf claiming to be big

p. 89 all get prizes – the first newspaper article | read by him was obsessed by the seeming lack of competition in schools so he writes here, glowingly, of sports teams and youth orchestras.

He also writes about CUs but Oxbridge has OIKU and CICCUI instead.

I would have liked a map of Sheffield – as in ‘The Northern Clemency’.

One member read it twice and found it ‘superb’.

‘It does go on a bit. Needs editing’.

It started as a cohesive narrative but became ‘straggly’.

The Bangladeshis return home frequently to see their family whereas the British rarely undertake the smaller journey to do so. Some hardly ever go home.

The various mothers come across badly.

Scenes from Early Life was remarkable partly because it used the same method to bring 1970s Dhaka vividly to life, plunging the reader deeply into the quiddity of the objects that made up that world. When The Friendly Ones moves its action to “Bangla Desh” – the original name for the country – in the second half of the novel, the Dhanmondi home of Sharif and Nazia in the time leading up to independence felt familiar to those who’d read Hensher’s earlier book.

There is, at one level, something scattershot about the narrative structure. In the

I started to get bored about three-quarters of the way through when the action abruptly changes to Dacca.

p. 439 has a good description of children encountering and marvelling at aeroplane food for the first time.

There’s an odd masochism scene with Josh towards the end – out of the blue unless I’ve missed something.

Though it is symmetrical, starting and ending with a perty, it peters out

Do gluttons explode? cause one’s stomach to rupture, which has very unpleasant consequences. In real life chances of survival are 50-50, but in a fictional work it’s usually portrayed as being lethal.

I had to look up khitmatgar  = A male servant, with responsibility for waiting at table.

also ‘haslet’ or acelet +  a pork meatloaf with herbs, originally from Lincolnshire. The word is derived from the Old French hastilles meaning entrails.

also ‘moue’ = a pouting expression used to convey annoyance or distaste.

Quotations:

“A bird was singing in the elm tree, a loud, plangent, lovely note, as if asking a question of the garden”

“the lawn, the red box of the barbecue, the white-shirted help”.

“He would not know how to begin to forgive Sharif for being Sharif, for being humorous and singing about the place, an old Tagore song, a funny old song he had just heard.”

“A woman passing a remark and walking away… the gaze and the hidden opinion”.

‘very supercilious and angry’.

‘Short men,’ she adds dismissively, ‘… very difficult in my view.’

“This is my wife’s country. This is where we will live and where we will go on living. The sea, the houses, the shops, the English sky: this is part of our country, and we will walk through it.”

If I lived in a cave and you were my only visitor,
what would I tell you that the walls had told me?
That people are unfinished and are made between
each other …JACK UNDERWOOD,`Second’

`Why don’t you put in for Oxbridge?’ Leo said once, in the pub where they thought they could-get away with it. Pete was untidy, scowling, pugnacious, and he kept his hair in a short­back-and-sides: he didn’t hold with sideburns and big hair and anything that would come and go. It made him look older than he was, though not always old enough to get a drink. He could have been in employment, even.

‘I’d love to,’ Pete said. ‘But it’s not for me.’

`I don’t see that,’ Leo said. It’d be for you if you got in.’

`There’s no hills,’ Pete said. ‘I couldn’t be doing with no hills. Oxford – no hills. Cambridge – definitely no hills. It’s Leeds for me. That’ll suit me all right.’

‘I thought you said you needed to test yourself in life,’ Leo said.

`I’ve tested myself,’ Pete said. ‘I don’t need to test myself until I fail and then understand that I’ve failed. There’s a world out there. They’re just men and women, writing their tests and seeing if you’re going to fit in. You and Tom Dick.’

‘He’s all right, that Tom Dick,’ Leo said bravely.

The next Wednesday he drove into the car park with a firm idea in his mind. The children from Gower were there. He made a small performance of shyness as he got out of the car. They would not shout if they thought he was likely to turn round.

`There’s that fooking Paki,’ one cried out. Was it the same one every time? ‘Paki! You fooking Pala in your fooking shirt and tie! Fooking look at the little Paki!’

Sharif turned. His expression was forcibly mild. He walked up to the fence. The children stood- exactly where they were, not moving and not quailing. They had the right to this land: that was what was in their minds. He had not looked at them closely before now. There were seven of them. The one who, he thought, had shouted was short and sharp-featured, with very dark hair. that stuck up at the back and paper-white skin. They all wore shorts and T-shirts; one or two wore those drapes of wool around the ankle called legwarmers.

`Did you call me a Paid?’ he said.

Tald’s come over,’ the boy shouted, with something like affected glee. The others were less sure.

Did you call me a Paid?’ Sharif said again. ‘I am not a Paki. I am certainly not a Paid. If anything, I am a Bangi.’

`You’re a Paid,’ the boy said, but not shouting now, speaking with derisory contempt to Sharif on the other side of the fence. `Look at you in your shirt and tie.’

`That is because I teach at the university here,’ Sharif said. `And I am not a Paid. If I were. Pakistani, I could understand your shouting “Paki” at me. I would not like it, but I would understand it. Do you know what I am? My country was Bangladesh. I have more reasons to hate the Pakistanis than you They ruled my country for twenty-four years. They robbed . They forbade us to speak our own language. When we voted or one of us to run the country, they annulled the election. They murdered people I knew and loved, and they murdered my brother. How old are you?’

Taki’s asking how old we are,’ the sharp-featured boy said. He was intelligent-looking. He could have done well. The other children were dull in their faces. They had no spark,or interest; they could not even walk away through self-awareness. Towards them was coming a larger person, a grown man.

`It was only ten years ago,’ Sharifsaid. ‘You weren’t born then.’ Took off,’ the boy said, and some of his friends started to laugh. ‘I’m fooking fourteen, I am.’

‘I’m fifteen,’ another boy said, his hair almost white, his jaw square, like- a hero’s, his eyes empty of anything.

`There was a war,’ Sharif said. ‘I had a brother two years older than you. You would have called him a Paid too. But he wasn’t a Palti. He was fighting the Pakistanis and they took him away. We never saw him again. My mother never knew what had happened to him.’

`Ay, but if he were in war, fighting as soldier, like,’ a boy offered from the back.

-`They tortured him,’ Sharif said. ‘The Pakistanis tortured him and they killed him and he was much the same age as you are. So I am not a Paki. You can shout out at me and call me a Bangi. But do not call me a Paki. Do not call me a Paki.’

The man was here. He was brisk and ginger and thirtyish; he looked as empty as the boys. His head was -shaved around -the back and sides and his shoulders bulged from the sleeveless T-shirt he wore. Are you talking to my boys?’ he said. ‘What do you want with them?’

`I am not talking to your boys, as you- call them,’ Sharif said. `They shouted inaccurate abuse at me and I was correcting their inaccurate misapprehension.’ –

`You little bastards,’ the man said, but affectionately. ‘What they bin shouting?’

`They called me a Paid; Sharif said. ‘I am not going to be insulted when I am parking my car at my place of work, and your boys —’

`They called you a Paki? It’s not exactly wrong, though, is it?’ the man said. Are you Pakistani? I don’t see there’s much wrong with —’

`I was explaining precisely what is wrong with what they were shouting,’ Sharif said.

‘If you called me a Brit —’

`I don’t care to be called what they called me,’ Sharif said, with a level gaze. If you are in charge here, you will see it doesn’t happen again.’

`I’ll see they don’t indulge their animal spirits in your direc­tion again,’ the man said un-seriously. ‘They’re good lads. This is our first team. They’ll be looking at trials for clubs in two years.’

`You should teach them how to read,’ Sharif said, walking away. He was not quite sure what the man meant. He understood that it was a world of no significance that he spoke about, in which his boys would in any case fail. ‘That,’ he turned his head, ‘would be of more benefit to them than the ball in the net.’

`Hey!’ the man was shouting, but Sharif went on walking, into the faculty. He walked with a certain buoyancy in his stride. Those children would dream of football and kick balls around until they could kick balls into nets six or seven times out of ten. Then they would fail in their dreamt endeavour and

would have to be sent off to learn how to read. Sharif knew that they could not read, or not much. No person who could read looked like that, so animal in the gaze, either docile or blankly raging. They didn’t know what they were here on earth to do. That was the future for the English.

There was ten minutes before his first student, and he could hear the shouting and whistling from the pitch behind the building. He picked up the telephone and dialled an internal number. In four minutes he had extracted a commitment from the registry that they would speak to the headmaster of Gower

I and extract a number of commitments in turn, before school was allowed to use the university facilities again. ‘f put the telephone down. He had ruined a child’s life – mewhere, one of those sharp-featured boys in the crowd had talent with the unlettered ball and an instinctive understand‑

of the spatial dimensions of a trajectory that needed no arks on paper. A dog could catch a thrown ball, after all. The brilliant moron, somewhere in that crowd, would have to do without the support of the university’s facilities, and he would fail in life because of it. Sharif was glad. And in a moment Mr Wentworth and Mr Tan knocked on his door, and he welcomed them in and began to explain, yet again, about ductile fracture equations.

There had been a note in his pigeon hole from Mr Ghosh, the manager of the hospice, asking if he would- come to see hi at the end of his shift. At first, long ago, these notes had ma him nervous. For along time now, however, they had appe when Mr Ghosh needed Leo’s help in a difficult matter. He worked there much longer than anyone else.

 

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Gay Life Stories by Robert Aldrich

(Only briefly discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

This book gives a voice to more than eighty people from every major continent and from all walks of life and it includes poets and philosophers, rulers and spies, activists and artists. Alongside such celebrated figures as Michelangelo, Frederick the Great and Harvey Milk are lesser-known but no less surprising individuals: Dong Xian and the Chinese emperor Ai, whose passion flourished in the 1st century BC; the unfortunate Robert de Péronne, first to be burned at the stake for sodomy; Katharine Philips, writing proto-lesbian poetry in 17th-century England; and ‘Aimée’ and ‘Jaguar’, whose love defied the death camps of wartime Germany. With many striking illustrations – including paintings, drawings, photographs and archival documents – Gay Life Stories will entertain, give pause for thought, and ultimately celebrate the diversity of human history.

It takes an eclectic, multinational view of the subject which introduced many figures I had not heard of. It includes the female as well as male experience of gay life too. Some times the essays were just a little too condensed, leaving one wanting more

You can dip into this book anywhere – there are interesting thematic chapter divisions – but I found myself reading it cover to cover as if it was a cultural survey, and that’s testament to its sheer readability. Lovely book, brilliantly written, great illustrations, quality production values: a book to treasure.

Most gays live obscure, unreported lives: those which have been documented are exceptional. Nor should it surprise anyone that figures who have written about their sexuality predominate.

There is even room for the deeply unpleasant Ronnie Kray, a London gangster who could hardly be said to be a LGBT role model. Nonetheless, Kray’s story reveal something about “gay” life in London in the 1960s and Kray’s dealings with the decidedly dodgy Tory grandee Bob Boothby who stood uo for homosexual law reform).

I hope that when reading the book, readers take away several things. First of all, “we are everywhere,” to quote the gay liberation slogan. Though individuals and their societies have lived out their same-sex yearnings in very different ways, the ancestors of today’s gay men and lesbians were omnipresent. This doesn’t mean that antiquity’s “pederasts,” the early modern age’s “sodomites,” and today’s “homosexuals,” “gays,” and “queers” are all the same — far from it. And in the non-Western world, the profile of those with same-sex orientation is different again. I hope readers will learn about the diversity of gay lives.

Particularly interesting were:

Alair Gomes – the construction of this photographic world aimed to “transcend his personality,” creating a “proto-religious” state.

Image for The Genius of Donald Friend. Drawings from the Diaries 1942-1989Donald Friend – Born in Sydney, Friend grew up in the artistic circle of his bohemian mother and showed early talent both as an artist and a writer. Friend did not mince words about his sexual preferences, depicting himself as “a middle-aged pederast who’s going to seed” in his journal. His relationships were mostly with adolescent boys. For example, in the 1960s Friend wrote in his diary of a 10 year old boy: “[He] spent the night with me. I hope life will continue forever to offer me delicious surprises … and that I will always be delighted and surprised. He goes about the act of love with a charmingly self-possessed grace: gaily, affectionately, and enthusiastically. And in these matters he’s very inventive and not at all sentimental for all the caresses.” A few boys became his lifelong friends, particularly Attilio Guarracino, whom he met when Guarracino was 19 years old, however, in interviews with Kerry Negara, some of Friend’s former victims report being ashamed and traumatised by their childhood sexual experiences with him.

Especially interesting were:

Magnus Enckell – symbolist painter. “His love affairs with men have not been denied … Enckell’s naked men and boys are openly erotic and sensual.”

Eugene Jansson – a Swedish painter known for his night-time land- and cityscapes dominated by shades of blue. Towards the end of his life, from about 1904, he mainly painted male nudes. The earlier of these phases has caused him to sometimes be referred to as blåmålaren, “the blue-painter”.

Tannis Tsarouchis – filled his canvases with images of vulnerable men and (to a much lesser extent) strong women

Tamtsu Yatu  – Japanese photographer and occasional actor responsible for pioneering Japanese homoerotic photography and creating iconic black-and-white images of the Japanese male. He was a friend and collaborator of the writer Yukio Mishima

Lionel Wendt – a Ceylon pianist, photographer, literature collector, critic, and cinematographer.

”In some ways, a sex act is in most senses over and done with rather quickly. It may be public or private, it may be repeated or it may be casual. But it doesn’t so much undermine society as the idea of a continuing emotional relationship because that sort of relationship – love, if you like, or even a long-term partnership – tends to undermine the idea that homosexuality is a deviance, that it is something that is relegated to dark rooms and back streets.

”That then imposes questions, as we see today with discussions about gay marriage, about the normality of standard relationships … It also makes it more difficult for people to close their eyes to it.”

”As a historian, I’m fascinated at how, in a place like Colombo in the 1930s, there could be someone like him, whose sexuality was an open secret that didn’t seem to cause any problem.’And his artistic works combined many of these elements of Western and Eastern traditions in what we would today call cultural hybridity.”

”Even in our own liberal Western countries, we know there are lots of acts of violence against homosexuals; comments by political figures on the right wing about homosexuality,’

‘Some were ‘out and proud’ but some wouldn’t have known what that meant,’. Most of them have left some traces of their sexuality – those traces are in their art, writing, memoirs, and sometimes in the court records that are available, because they were arrested and tried for various crimes.””would no doubt have had sexual liaisons with young men” and, even in old age, was said to chase young fellows because Athenian mores ”not only tolerated but applauded emotional and sexual intercourse between men, though with certain caveats”.

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Murmur by Will Eaves

One said that it felt like a film. All agreed that it was well written.
Many enjoyed the science and realised that the author had done a lot of research (it took him seven years to write) while others found it baffling. Turing was prescient when he wondered about the existence of parallel universes.
The author experienced his grandmother suffering from Alzheimer’s. Did this lead to his interests in the working of the mind?
I don’t agree where he says: The Church says: ‘People come in search of meaning, and to have their fears and anxieties allayed.’ But to think you can be finally satisfied on these points, or to imagine you can satisfy others, is the source of the misgiving. Churches, like Jesus, are supposed to respond to questions by asking further questions, going deeper.
I had to look up: truckle bed = a low bed on wheels that can be stored under a larger bed; volutes = a spiral or twisting turn, whorl; scrying = peeping
Are the phones in the canteen an anachronism or is he imagining the future?
It definitely would benefit from re-reading
Quotations:
Do I need to set down the circumstances? The results are in the papers, and for once in my life I am disinclined to “show my working”. It is strangely more instructive, for me, to imagine other conditions, other lives. But here they are, so that my friends, when they come to these few thoughts, may do likewise.
I had just finished a paper and decided to award myself a pick-up. I met the boy, Cyril, on the fairground. He seemed undernourished and shifty but not unengaging; living, he said, in a hostel, working casually. I bought him pie and chips on the grounds and invited him home for the weekend. He didn’t turn up, so I went back to Brooker’s, waited for the fair to close that night, and took him home soon after. He
was not unintelligent, I found – he’d liked the boys’ camp in the war, did some arithmetic there, and knew about Puzzles and Diversions. Cyril was, I’d say, the product of natural sensitivity, working-class starvation and nervous debility. He wouldn’t kiss. We treated ourselves to baths and listened to the late repeat of the Brains Trust programme on learning machines, with Julius Trentham opining, notimplausibly in my view, that the human ability to learn is determined by “appetites, desires, drives, instincts” and that a learning machine would require “something corresponding to a set of appetites”. And I said something like, “You see, what I find interesting about that is Julius’s suggestion that all these feelings and appetites, as he calls them, are causal, and programmable. Even these things, which we’re so sure, so instinctively certain, must be the preserve of freely choosing and desiring humans, may be isolated. They can be caused, and they have a cause.” And Cyril was fascinated. He was listening and nodding. I felt so happy and so peculiarly awful. We went to bed and in the morning I unthinkingly offered him some money. He was offended and left in a mood. I then discovered £3 missing from my wallet – he could have taken it at any time, I put nothing away – and I wrote to him at the hostel, calling things off. He turned up on the doorstep the next day, very indignant, making obscure threats which I did not take seriously. He mentioned an unlikely sounding suit hire debt, for £3 of course, and some other outstanding sums and then ended up asking for another £7, which I reluctantly gave him.“welter of connectedness, the phones and messages, commuters trailing wires, staring past bodies into space, the sound-image of ghostly callers in your head wherever you may be, whatever time it is”.

“The thirty lives in this cold room, seen from some distant vantage point, are like the hopeful lanterns of a struggling ferry.”

Fear of homosexuals is never far from the surface. The few people who have supported me after my conviction must be very strong-minded. I do not think most people are equipped to associate with pariahs. They have a shadowy sense of how frail they themselves would be in the face of institutional opposition and stigmatisation, how utterly cast down if they lost their jobs, if people they knew stopped serving them in shops or looked past them in the street. It is not hatred that turns the majority against the minority, but intuitive shame.

The King died in the early hours of the day on which two very kind police officers paid me a visit. Seven weeks after my arrest, I was found guilty of gross indecency with a male person and sentenced to receive a course of organo-therapy — hormone injections — to be delivered at the Royal Infirmary.

The world is not atomistic or random but made of forms that interlock and are always interlocking, like the elderly couple in Ovid who become trees.

Living on your own makes you more tolerant of people who say strange things.

You know your social life is in trouble when you spend the ‘ evening reading an -article on puzzles called ‘Recreational Topology’.

Dr Stallbrook encourages me to write. It is like making a will, he says — eminently sensible. If you’ve signed your papers and made a will, you know there will be an end.
You have already witnessed it, so to speak. And people who make this definite accommodation with their end, with the prospect of death — who get it in writing — live longer. He says this with a matter-of-factness I can’t help liking.
a process such as simple addition has human ‘meaning’ only because I am there to observe it and call it ‘addition’. And yet it certainly happens. Perhaps the larger process, too, is unmeaningful. If life works, it works. The character of physical law as it extends to biological material is that it should underpin the way cells and systems operate, and that is all.
‘I just don’t think you’d benefit from reading my notes. My job is to help you
encounter yourself.’
The observer is a participant, as the great revolution in quantum physics has taught us. Consider now that I am the set of notes that you wish to read. I might as well ask: how are you to benefit from reading me? Shall we condemn ourselves to solipsistic balance? The two sides of an equation must meet if they are to balance
nurse who injects me does it with a good will, because she has been told that it is her job. She doubtless thinks of herself as a freely choosing agent. She likes to think she does her job well, but at the same time she is just doing her job. (One hears this a lot.)
I said that I liked to trust people, which I do. Lying there, I seemed to float outside my
body and look down at us both.
feeling that marriage by and large has the most deplorably erosive effect on one’s
ability to think.
The ones that work, the marriages, are based on such tolerance, such frank distance, that one is bound to ask the point of them in the first place. The world’s opinion, I suppose, and maybe that’s a good enough reason.
Sex is a salve, partly mechanical, to join what can’t be joined.
Why are the intelligence services paranoid? Because they know you can’t force someone to conform, or learn the error of their ways. You can’t reach the inner life. I can’t be a model citizen — though, heaven knows, I’ve tried — because the menace lingers inside. You can’t simply change people, in other words, or double them, because you can’t know they’ve changed. Only they can know that. Only they know
what it’s like to be copied.
It is the evil of a certain social class, into which I was born, that its children are forever being told there are more valuable qualities which they do not have, and which, despite the expense and discomfort of their education, they must not imagine they could ever possess. That would be ‘getting ideas above one’s station’. Trentham is ambition, to Stallbrook’s cautionary counsel, d’you see? In any case, my response is:
getting ideas of any stripe would be a start. And in fact, what I honestly think, where children are concerned, is that they should be told that they are fine as they are,whatever that is or turns out to be.
Famously I have not had a child. But I have thought more about how I might bring one to some awareness of its value than many people who have.
Because child-rearing is a sympathetic calculation. If I arrange things in this fashion, the sum goes, my child will be clothed, fed and secure. The last element is the tricky one. It is the fairy tale of human existence, seen in my colleagues’ professional ambitions, in the ordinary person’s relationship to money, and especially in a parent’s hopes for his or her children: if I make a certain quantity of effort, a certain quality of life must result. But it will not. Actions have results and reactions, yes, but those
reactions repeat themselves and gain momentum in the stellar array of forces and contingencies beyond anything we might have conceived.
My own predicament — a mathematician and homosexual who has done serviceable work in logic and computational theory but who has run foul of an illogical system of justice — seems very unremarkable. Yes, there is distress. When I work back from it to the cause — a harmless exercise of sexual instinct by two male adults — my situation seems extraordinary, even to me. A walk down the same road five minutes later would have saved me. But that I should be surprised by a turn of events does not
in itself surprise me greatly.
I am sorrier for others. I feel sorry for my mother, who wanted success for me and cannot quite bring herself to believe in my fall, because it is evidence of her lack of control over her child’s future; of how nothing is guaranteed by education; nothing is assured; of how I am, and always was, alone, as she is. She, too, may find it interesting that she cares more about someone else’s aloneness than about her own.
I wonder, June, if you have ever experienced the following: sometimes, when I am doing a long and difficult calculation, which, after much tribulation, comes out right, I feel a sort of glow binding me to the work, in the calculation, in the latter stages when I can see things falling into place. The figures and symbols are so right that they seem to take on some of the self-conscious wonder of the person manipulating them.
They move towards their own awareness. They, and not I, seem to say: oh, but now I see. And when that happens it is like seeing a mind arise from matter to discover that it cannot go back to its former childlike state. It is matter transformed. It is responsible now.
We speak of realising something without seeing what that means. We are making something abstract real, an equation, say, and sending it out into the world. Our sum becomes a creation and it goes its own hectic way. It is a small thing, like a child, with untellable consequences. We can’t control it any more.
It should be a source of hope, this lack of control. It proves not that there is no influence over events or no free will but, rather, that influence — the sheer, startling happeningness of life — is promiscuous. We are both responsible and absolutely unable to make our responsibility stay the way it should.
June, dear friend, you can’t protect me. I can no longer protect you.
I think we are both making a long and difficult calculation. Mine is different from yours. But for both of us the light is coming — bleeding upwards from the horizon.There is no justice in the world and we are alone. The depressed are onto something.What they are apt to miss, thereby, is the spontaneous feeling that dawns all over the place — the aptness of a bird on just that branch and not another, the miniaturised sunin the drop of water on that leaf. Who could have foreseen them?
Misery is the broad river, but there are tributaries of joy and consolation. Writing to you has been one of them, and imagining that you write back another.
Ever,
Alec
Or a bit of a shock. When I heard that voice asking why I’d done whatever it is I’m supposed to have done, I had a strong memory of asking the fortune-teller if I would ever meet Christopher again, and she said yes, we are all made of the same materials, we are atoms, bits of Morse, and you are breathing him in even now. Her shawl smelled maternal — a hint of bergamot and talc — but her eyes were like
Indra’s net, inhumanly compound, and after that I must have passed out.
I came back from the station via the deep shelter, at the edge of the common’s south side, where I sometimes fancy the murmur has gone into hiding, along with the machines. They are down there, at the bottom of the spiral staircase, stuck in a loop, possessors of all the information they need to find out about the universe, but unable to sift any of it. Doubtless they find it unacceptable.
In the light of these winter afternoons, the eastern half of the entrance to the shelter stays white and frosty. The western section, caught by the sun, is like one of those bronze cauldrons the early Britons buried, not in fear of death, but to extend the feast of life. I had an impulse to go over and put my ear to the door.
There I stood, rattling the padlock like a madman. Stallbrook says that analysis is a little like the voyage of a shaman who goes down into middle earth to bring back the buried parts of a sick man’s soul, but I don’t know about that. One can have too much talk, which in any case tends to drive people away. It is better to listen. The machines are in council, down there, wherever they are, because they cannot decide on anything. That is why they suffer from a sense of persecution and abstraction. They
need a connection to something beyond themselves, which it may not be easy for them to achieve, or admit, given their prowess, but I’ve decided I’m willing to lend an ear. Before speech there was listening, and the dead rise with the love of it.
Time is the plane that reveals this interlocking, though time is not discrete. You cannot pin it down. Very often you cannot see the point at which things start to come together, the point at which cause generates effect, and this is a variant of the measurement problem. It must also be akin to asking at what point we begin to lose consciousness when we are given an anaesthetic, or at what point unconscious
material becomes conscious. Where does one cross over into the other? If the tessellation of forms is perfect, do they divide? Or are they one?
These are notes to pass the time, because I am in a certain amount of discomfort. I suppose it is fear, and keeping a partial journal distracts me. But I am also drawn to the pulse of that fear, a beat, an elevated heart rate – and something more than that, which comes through the thinking and is a sort of rhythmic description of my state of mind, like someone speaking quickly and urgently on the other side of a door.
I know that Pythagoras is said to have delivered his lectures from behind a screen. The separation of a voice from its origin gave him a wonder-inducing authority, apparently. Perhaps he was shy. Or ugly. Anyway, I’ve never had this experience before. This morning I could hear the inner murmuring accompanying trivial actions:
‘I’m up early, it’s dark outside, the path I laid haphazardly with my own hands is now

a frosted curve. I put some crumbs down for the blackbird singing on my neighbour’s chimney pot. Beyond my garden gate a road, beyond that fields speeding away towards the tree-lined hills and crocus light. I wait beside a bare rowan, its berries taken by the blackbird and her brood, the wood pigeons and jays.’ And then again, moments later, when I caught myself looking back at the garden through the doorway: ‘He passes through the silent streets, across wet roofs and closed faces, deserted parks. He moves among the trees and waiting fairground furniture.’

The error is supposed to be ‘looking back’, isn’t it? Poor Orpheus, etc.

Of course, it has occurred to me that the balance of my mind is disturbed, just as it has occurred to me that I am reckoning with a deliberate retreat from the world, a passing out of sight into, well, invisibility. What lesson might that passage have for me? It is an extension of my preference for anonymity, I suppose. It is commonly said, or felt if it is not said, that people respect others of importance who have achieved things or held office; but it is a curious fact that self-respect is often found to exist in inverse proportion to public status. It has learned to pass nights alone. It does not seek approval because it knows that estimation has nothing to do with achievement.

The problem with disguising or encrypting is that the original still exists. One has doubled the information, not made it less sensitive. Something has happened to it, but the semantic loaf persists behind a mask, a veil, a foreign accent, new papers, breasts etc., and really the only thing to do about that, if you’re still anxious, is to remove both bits of information – the original and the encryption- altogether.

It strikes me that a mirror reflects, but that, geometrically speaking it transforms rather than translates. One is turned back on oneself and in the process one sees a second person, a new person who one does not fully recognise. Always uncanny, this about-facing, and not unrelated to the common fair of automation, which people assume to be a sort of coming doom. The fear of robots, I take it, is like the fear of prophecy, the essence of which is repetition: of you can be repeated, you can be replaced.

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The Happy Prince

(Some of us went to this, but at different times.)

I’ve always thought that Rupert Everrett is vacuous but this film has made me change my mind.

Rupert Everett – who writes, directs and stars in this magnificent drama – was born to play Oscar Wilde, and this, Everett’s “11th-hour masterpiece” (The Times) focuses on Wilde’s final years following his notorious trial and imprisonment for “gross indecency”.

Once one of the most famous men in England, the great man of letters is now living in a kind of exile around Europe (from Normandy to Naples to Paris) after being released following his convinction for his indiscreet affair with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. Lying on his death bed, his eventful life comes flooding back via expertly interspersed flashbacks featuring his glory days and the beginning of his downfall. Now, he must draw upon the last of his reserves to face the end of his life – and the wreckage of his public self – with immense courage…

Merlin Holland, Oscar Wilde’s grandson:  “He’s a better Christ figure than Christ, if you see what I mean,” he says. “He has the godly side, the extraordinary vein of genius, and then he has his human side. His human qualities are ones we all suffer from — the snobbery, greed, ego — and for him he was completely undone by them. Most of us get away with it.”

“In the Cadogan Hotel [where Wilde was arrested after losing a libel case to the Marquess of Queensberry, his lover’s father, who had left him a note calling him a “somdomitel, when he has the chance, he could have avoided his fate, and for some reason he chose not to. It’s his 40 days in the wilderness — when Christ was tempted by the devil.” Everett may have rejected his Catholicism in which he was raised, but he still knows his scripture. “Wilde decides then that survival would only come through Crucifixion.”

Except we don’t know about Wilde’s resurrection, I say. “But we do know!” Everett says. “He was very much resurrected afterwards. He was resurrected as a writer and resurrected as the founder of a movement. Because the liberation of gays very much dates from the Oscar Wilde scandal. He saw Uranism, or whatever he called it, as a struggle against society. He wouldn’t have seen it as a problem with the Catholic church. But he did say that the road [to equality] was going to be “smeared with the blood of martyrs”. I think it was an identity for him… separate from a married man having a bit of fun.”

So was Wilde’s marriage to Constance a sham? “No, I think he was in love with her, right up until their son Cyril was born, and turned right off her after that…. One of the things about Oscar was that he wasn’t always very nice.”

Actually, says Everett, Oscar rather liked that he had married money — and in those days you took possession of your wife’s property. He also very much liked the fact that Lord Alfred Douglas was the son of a marquess. This wasn’t, says Everett, the great love of his life; rather, “an act of snobbery”.

Wilde’s deathbed conversion to Catholicism — he was received into the church by a Passionist priest that his friend Robbie Ross found in Paris — is, in a way, pivotal to this drama. Wilde, he points out, believed “the pope cured him” of a persistent, perhaps syphilitic, rash during a papal audience. Everett himself loves Pope Francis although he detests the Church” — but admits he’ll always be Catholic. That’s what an education with the monks at Ampleforth does for you.

The priest was right to wear a biretta while hearing his confession but wrong to wear a chasuble for the funeral – unless it had been immediately preceded by a requiem mass..

This is a new treatment of Wilde – no Stephen Fry-style floppy-haired hagiography with Oscar dropping lilies and epigrams as he mooches towards death. Here, ravaged and dissolute, Wilde tumbles headlong into his downfall, dying destitute in St Germain De Pres at the age of 46 having ripped his life apart heedlessly, determinedly, and poignantly in a series of rash decisions. The Happy Prince sees Wilde alone and drunk in Paris, cadging money from former friends, almost willing himself to death. His soul is irreparably damaged after two years of hard labour in Reading Gaol for gross indecency and he wants to see his children, yet reunites with Bosie knowing what that will mean. “I am my own Judas,” he says.

Out of prison, Wilde had horrified his friends by resuming the destructive relationship with the exquisite, duplicitous Bosie (Colin Morgan), which causes the termination of the tiny allowance from his humiliated ex-wife Constance (Emily Watson) and endangers Bosie’s own income, leaving them nothing to live on. It’s the beginning of the end. Oscar treats his loyal allies Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) and Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) with ungrateful negligence, but Everett imagines him, in extremis, befriending a young Paris rent boy and his tough kid brother and whimsically holding them spellbound with his fairytale The Happy Prince. In happier times, he would recite to his equally entranced sons this story of a statue who allows a swallow to denude him of all his gold to feed the poor. In Everett’s hands, the tale becomes an ambiguous parable for Wilde’s passion and (possible) redemption, the unhappy prince who makes a lonely discovery that love is the only thing worth worshipping.

Everett likes to give us the famous lines from The Ballad of Reading Gaol in voiceover: “Each man kills the thing he loves …” But Everett takes us through the moment-by-moment horror of humiliation and poverty, which Wilde brazens out with gallows humour and wit as best he can. He vomits in agony on his deathbed before declaiming: “Encore du champagne!” Everett has clearly been influenced by David Hare’s 1998 stage play The Judas Kiss, in which Everett played Wilde, and also perhaps by Peter Ackroyd’s 1983 novel The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde.

Oscar bursts into tears on being reunited with Bosie – and when he is recognised in France by a bunch of British rowdies who are hateful and homophobic (although that second concept is not something that anyone present would have recognised, perhaps not even Wilde himself). The hooligans chase Oscar, Robbie and Reggie into a church where Oscar faces them down by yelling: “The natural habitat of the hypocrite is England! Go there and leave me in peace!” Hypocrisy is the key. Polite society was prepared to turn a blind eye to homosexual assignations if they were conducted within a proper carapace of secrecy and shame. There was no immediate objection to casual sex with the lower orders, who could be bought and bought off. A flaunted connection with the Queensberry family was a class transgression. Shrewdly, Everett shows Wilde with a portrait of Queen Victoria by his deathbed. He died one year before her, and the film hints that Wilde’s vindictive treatment was part of the ugly sense of shame and mortification at Romantic and aesthetic indulgence which the manly slaughter of the first world war was supposed to redeem.

Using vignettes and flashback, we learn about his few loyal friends, his relationship with his wife and sons, which was devoted if impossible, and how he allowed Bosie to continue to destroy him. This occasionally slips into cheap sentiment, but there are some stand-out scenes — Wilde singing ‘The Boy I Love Is Up In The Gallery’, for instance — and, of course, there are some terrific lines. ‘I am dying beyond my means,’ he will complain on his deathbed. As for Everett, he is terrific. His Wilde is not hagiographic. His Wilde is brilliant but also foolhardy, exploited but also wilfully self-destructive, funny but also pathetic. A sad film, but ravishingly so.

Wilde’s deathbed conversion to Catholicism, no big deal now but something pretty jazzy at the time, is carefully dramatised. Everett has clearly done his homework — sometimes to a fault, as his Wilde spends so long dying you can imagine the real Wilde sitting next to you urging him to hurry up so he can pop along for an absinthe.

Oscar, as a kind of decaying monument, drifts in and out of raucous Parisian nightclubs, extravagant dinners for which he foots the bill on dwindling funds, quiet French seaside retreats or exuberant all-male frolics to keep Bosie entertained in Naples, despite the thrill of lust having soured for him. “I am my own Judas,” he moans at one point, but there’s little poignancy in his self-destructive behaviour, even as the great man’s dignity, and ultimately his life, slip away from him.

Everett returns several times in flashback, the dandy is shown in his convict’s garb on the platform at Clapham Junction.

As he waits to be transferred to Reading Gaol, passersby gather round him, taunt him and finally begin to spit on him

He talks about being “shrouded in the symphony of adjacent copulation.” Late on, when he is sitting outside a cafe as the rain lashes down on him and can’t afford to go inside to settle his bill, he seems remarkably sanguine. At moments like these, he lives up to one of his most famous lines: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

He is suddenly recognised by an old “friend”, Mrs Arbuthnot (Anna Chancellor), who knew him in his glory days and pursues him.

“Surely you remember me?” she implores him. His response is to sponge £5 off her. Her husband catches them up and warns Wilde, whom he once admired, that if he ever speaks to her again, he will kill him.

“Dear Prince, I must leave you, but I will never forget you, and next spring I will bring you back two beautiful jewels in place of those you have given away. The ruby shall be redder than a red rose, and the sapphire shall be as blue as the great sea.”

 

“Surely Love is a wonderful thing. It is more precious than emeralds, and dearer than fine opals. Pearls and pomegranates cannot buy it, nor is it set forth in the marketplace. It may not be purchased of the merchants, for can it be weighed out in the balance for gold.”

 

“There is no good talking to him,” said a Dragon-fly, who was sitting on the top of a large brown bulrush; “no good at all, for he has gone away.”
“Well, that is his loss, not mine,” answered the Rocket. “I am not going to stop talking to him merely because he pays no attention. I like hearing myself talk. It is one of my greatest pleasures. I often have long conversations all by myself, and I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.”
“Then you should definitely lecture on Philosophy,” said the Dragon-fly.”

 

“Everyone quoted it, it was full of so many words that they could not understand.”

 

“In the square below,’ said the Happy Prince, ‘there stands a little match-girl. She has let her matches fall in the gutter, and they are all spoiled. Her father will beat her if she does not bring home some money, and she is crying. She has no shoes or stockings, and her little head is bare. Pluck out my other eye, and give it to her, and her father will not beat her.’

‘I will stay with you one night longer,’ said the Swallow, ‘but I cannot pluck out your eye. You would be quite blind then.’

‘Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow,’ said the Prince, ‘do as I command you.’

So he plucked out the Prince’s other eye, and darted down with it. He swooped past the match-girl, and slipped the jewel into the palm of her hand. ‘What a lovely bit of glass,’ cried the little girl; and she ran home, laughing.

Then the Swallow came back to the Prince. ‘You are blind now,’ he said, ‘so I will stay with you always.”

 

“The living always think that gold can make them happy”

 

“There is no Mystery so great as Misery.”

 

“Who are you?” he said.

“I am the Happy Prince.”

“Why are you weeping then?” asked the swallow; “you have quite drenched me.”

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Freak Show

FSSome of us went to this, though not as a group.

I am not a fan of camp.  In fact, I usually detest it. But there was something abut this film that made me want to go and see it.

In a film about stereotypes, there are lots or stereotypes and also unlikely scenarios but you can’t beat the feel-good factor.

Based on the award-winning cult novel by legendary club kid James St. James, Freak Show is a wonderfully queer fish out of water high school comedy/drama about a gay teen. ‘The nail that sticks out gets hammered down’, his father warns him. That does not deter Billy from deciding to run for homecoming queen.

Born to be fierce and fashion-forward, Billy is sent to stay with his dad after his party-loving mother checks in to rehab. His flamboyant Oscar Wilde-meets-Boy George style doesn’t go down too well at his new school, and he makes an enemy out of the self-appointed mean girl when he decides to go up against her (an evangelical classmate) for the crown of Homecoming Queen.

I had to look up Homecoming = an annual tradition in the United States. People, towns, high schools, and colleges come together, usually in late September or early October, to welcome back alumni and former residents. It is built around a central event, such as a banquet or dance and, most often, a game of American football, or, on occasion, basketball, ice hockey, or soccer. When celebrated by schools, the activities vary widely. However, they usually consist of a football game played on a school’s home football field, activities for students and alumni, a parade featuring the school’s choir, marching band, and sports teams, and the coronation of a homecoming queen (and at many schools, a homecoming king). A dance commonly follows the game or the day following the game. When attached to a football game, homecoming traditionally occurs on the team’s return from the longest road trip of the season. The game itself, whether it be football or another sport, will typically feature the home team playing a considerably weaker opponent. The game is supposed to be an “easy win” and thus weaker schools will sometimes play lower division schools.

When others call him theatrical, he takes it as a compliment; when his classmates feel provoked by his drive to be different, it only motivates him further.The storytelling, like Billy’s eye shadow, tends towards broad brushstrokes. Styler is particularly fond of slow-motion sashay shots in which Billy showcases his latest outfits in front of the gawping bigots.

In one strange scene, former bad boy of tennis John McEnroe turns up on screen, playing the school’s PE teacher. “You’re supposed to me a man,” he yells at Billy, who pays not the blindest bit of attention.

Bette Midler did not want to do another film and repeatedly turned down offers to appear in Freak Show. She was finally convinced to at least read the script and immediately said “I’ll do it.”

The narrative of Billy and his campaign to be homecoming queen definitely seems like something that could be based on real events, however it isn’t based on a true story. Freak Show is actually based on the best-selling novel by of the same name by James St. James. A description of the book notes that Billy is gay “but it’s mostly theoretical,” considering he hasn’t had many romantic encounters. In the book, and movie, Billy moves to the south, and as someone in the trailer says, he’s “in a red state now.” That brings about a whole bunch of cultural changes for Billy, and he’s suddenly surrounded by a more stereotypical high school experienced filled with cliques and bullying.

Being different as a teen can be awful. Sticking out like a sore thumb is not really something you want when you have raging hormones, acne, and are trying to discover who you are. Unfortunately, not conforming to the gender binary and not being straight is a good way to stick out. It’s also attracts some of the worst bullying, which is seen in Freak Show’s trailer. In fact, one quote that sticks out in the two-minute trailer is “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”

The teacher who turned a blind eye to the bullying shouldn’t/wouldn’t get way with it now.

‘Being fabulous, no: being relentlessly fabulous is damn hard work. I should know. I’ve dedicated my life to the pursuit of it.’

“I am going to take you on a little ride I call my life”

Dr. Vickers: Your son has multiple abrasions , contusions, concussions , organ trauma and hemorrhaging that we need to keep an eye on.

Billy Bloom: Well, I guess they didn’t like the dress.
Flip Kelly: You look awesome

Billy Bloom: Seriously? Four hours in hair and makeup. I’ve been preened, plucked and bustiered so tightly that my toes are turning blue, and “Awesome”?… No. I look Atlantastic

Flip Kelly: Okay, Atlantastic. Why’d you run away after class today?

Billy Bloom: I didn’t run. I was chased

Flip Kelly: Oh. We’re making progress, right? I mean, you’re not getting beamed in the head anymore

Billy Bloom: Am i not?

 

[First lines] Billy Bloom: Sometimes, I dream I can fly. But I’m *so* exhausted from flapping my wings and the higher I soar, it reminds me of how little I fit in with them on the ground. So, I rise and I rise and… I realize that I don’t wanna fly anymore. They never knew what they were looking up at anyway.

 

William: I’m here.

Billy Bloom: I’m queer.

 

We are all freaks. Yes! Alone in our rooms at night, we are all weirdoes and outcasts and losers. That is what being a teenager is all about! Whether you admit it or not, you are all worried that the others won’t accept you, that if they knew the real you, they would recoil in horror. Each of us carries with us a secret shame that we think is somehow unique…And if we are, each of us, freaks – then can’t we accept what’s different in each other and move on?”

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Best Of Iris Prize (Shorts)

irisWhere We Are Now: A personal insight into the changing relationship between a young woman and her transgender parent. Looking back, they share their individual experiences of coming out and begin to consider what the future might hold for their family now the decision to transition has been made.

Iris 2Sunday Morning Coming Down: It’s 1994, the apex of Britpop culture and the advent of the Premier League, and Max is searching for his tribe. On a Sunday morning, he journeys to Hastings with his twin brother Jordan. But will the decaying seaside resort offer up what Max is looking for? They didn’t look like twins and I doubt that a straight guy would guard a glory hole.

Sunday Morning Coming Down is a long name for a short film. The producers advised the writer to shorten it, but he’s a stubborn young mule.  For now, the shorthand is SMCD.

The name is pinched from the Johnny Cash song that Max – the protagonist – plays in the car while his peeved brother Jordan drives him down to the coastal town of Hastings.  Why the road trip?  Because it’s 1994, years before You’ve Got Mail lit the trail towards Grindr and Tinder, and Max is sexually frustrated.

What happened as a fledgling homosexual when dating sites weren’t at your fingertips?  Max’s answer: head to the nearest glory hole*.

This film aims to move away from conventional queer-teen narratives with isolated protagonists and high drama “coming out” scenes. Instead, SMCD centres on how Jordan is made complicit in Max’s sexual exploration through accompanying him, and the effect this has on the brothers’ relationship.  The appeal of the glory hole is wrapped up in issues of insecurity and the preservation of anonymity. It’s a potent site for exploring the fears that persist after coming out, and provides an original, shocking climax to the film.

 Wolves: Teenager Josh lives alone with his father in a remote corner of the British countryside. Their relationship is strained, and Jfsh spends much of his time exploring the nearby woods, but his life takes an unexpected turn when he meets a mysterious boy, wearing nothing but his underwear, shivering with cold and unable to speak.

Rink: Tomboy Jane is visiting her local ice rink with best friend Alfie when she spots her crush, Leanne. Can she pluck up the courage to speak to her? And what will Leanne’s brother say if she does?

Iris3Sununu: The Revolution of Love: The desire to start a family against all odds puts one couple to the test as they face international scrutiny for their unconventional circumstances. This film shows the challenges they face being trans activists in the public eye while also becoming new parents.

Trans dad Fernando Machado became an international news sensation when he announced that he was pregnant by his transgender girlfriend Diane Rodriguez. Sununfi: The Revolution of Love offers an intimate portrayal of this remarkable couple and their six-week-old baby as they balance parenthood and political activism in Ecuador.

This film is an intimate and touching portrayal of a couple getting to grips with parenthood while they challenge complex ideas of gender roles. With exclusive access to the new family in its earliest days, we see how this remarkable duo balance parenting with a career in activism.

Iris 4Fay Presto: Queen of the Close-Up: A documentary portrait of the legendary Fay Presto; the UK’s most in-demand close-up and cabaret magician, who would rather die on stage than quit performing.

Influencing hundreds of magicians and making way for women in the magic world, (I didn’t know that women couldn’t join The Magic Circle until 25 years ago.) in  Fay’s humour and brilliance have led her to perform for the Queen on six separate occasions as well as doing private magic shows in countless of celebrities’ homes. Now as she passes her 70th birthday, Fay reflects on gender roles and aging, and tries to make dark thoughts of retirement and death vanish, meanwhile doing a workshop for would-be magicians and astonishing the diners at the iconic London restaurant, The Langan’s brasserie.

Perhaps Fay’s best magic trick was turning herself from Letitia Winter, a transgender woman, into Fay Presto, fabulous on-stage magician – and then making that transformation disappear from her life as an entertainer. It’s invisible in this documentary as well, though keen-eyed viewers might spot a few clues are hidden here and there.

Director Statement: As one of the first female magicians in an otherwise male-dominated field, she is nationally recognised for introducing the thrill of close-up magic to a UK audience in the 1970s. At the time, magic was typically presented on stage but Fay revolutionised the art form, bringing it into restaurants and performing her tricks in immediate proximity to guests.

When I first heard about Fay I immediately felt that she would be a great character for a documentary. Not only has she built and maintained an incredibly successful career but she is also widely admired for her cheeky humour and colourful personality.

Fay has long been suspicious towards journalists and it was difficult for me as a filmmaker to gain access when I first approached her. Throughout the years, she has experienced a lot of prejudices and the media has often pushed for stories relating to her gender – rather than exploring her remarkable journey as a magician. I wanted to make an honest and respectful portrait of Fay Presto without exploiting her or turning her life story into sensationalism. Therefore this documentary never forces Fay to defend her right to be a woman. It is time to look beyond gender!

Bearable: What if your tribe within the gay community defined you? What if the labels we attach to ourselves were literal? What if you lived with an actual bear? Imagine going shopping!  It’s online here.

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The Wound (2017) Inxeba (original title)

Some of us went to this at different times, not as a group.

Winning the Best First Feature award at the London Film Festival was The Wound from South African director John Trengove, starring gay musician Nakhane Touré as Xolani, a factory worker who guides Kwanda, a city boy from Johannesburg, as he undergoes his rite of passage into manhood. The intense, powerful film explores same-sex desire from three perspectives as Kwanda asserts his queer identity while uncovering a hidden sexual relationship between Xolani and guide Vija.

In a joint interview with the director and lead actor, Trengove explained that he specifically wanted to set a story of same-sex desire within traditional culture, something he considered potent at a time when “horror stories were coming out of Uganda about the human rights abuses there” and Robert Mugabe “was making all these statements about homosexuality being ‘un-African’.”

But he also wanted to avoid what he named the “The National Geographic” approach to a kind of ethnographic appreciation of the beautiful African landscape and the exotic black male body. In contrast, he takes us claustrophobically close to his protagonists, while some of the bigger sequences involving multiple non-professional actors from the Xhosa community are borderline-documentary.

The story tracks a closeted relationship between two men in the context of the Xhosa initiation ritual of Ulwaluko. Xolani, a factory worker, joins the men of his community at the annual initiation ceremony in the mountains of Eastern Cape. In addition to serving as a mentor to the boys undergoing the ceremony, Xolani looks forward to the annual tradition due to the fact that it provides him the opportunity to re-establish his sexual and romantic relationship with Vija. When Xolani is assigned to be the mentor of Kwanda, a young man from Johannesburg, he quickly realizes that Kwanda is also gay, and Kwanda soon realizes the nature of the relationship between Vija and Xolani. Tensions soon rise between the three men.

No prizes for guessing that “The Wound” alludes to more than one injury — whether physical or psychological — in its title, though it gets to its most vivid literal interpretation straight away. Ukwaluka, a lengthy, tribally rooted rite of passage for male Xhosa teens, begins with their ritual circumcision in the wilderness, and continues through the weeks that the resulting wound takes to heal, with the boys sequestered from society until their manhood is thus proven. Prominently and somewhat romantically described by Nelson Mandela in his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom” — thus breaking the ritual’s traditional vow of secrecy — it has become a hot-button issue in its home country, with many questioning its medical safety. Unlike Ousmane Sembène’s searing “Moolaadé,” which opened international viewers’ eyes to the controversial ritual of female circumcision on far younger children, “The Wound” isn’t overly concerned with censure as it attentively documents the ins and outs of ukwaluka.

For Xolani (Nakhane Touré), a 30-ish factory worker in the uninspiring Eastern Cape drive-through of Queenstown, ukwaluka hasn’t set him up for the “straighter, taller, firmer” adulthood described by Mandela. A lonely, closeted homosexual, he mourns the squandered opportunities of his education; the social high point of his year, meanwhile, is an annual return to the site of his initiation, where he administers to new candidates as a khaukatha, or mentor. There, his annual objective is to renew sexual relations with childhood friend and fellow khaukatha Vija (Bongile Mantsai), a married father of three who invests more than Xolani in the tribal rhetoric of traditional masculinity. Xolani’s attitude to his young charges is indifferent, though his routine is upset when he’s assigned to Kwanda (Niza Jay Ncoyini), an assertive, semi-westernized teen from the plush suburbs of Johannesburg, forced into ukwaluka by his wealthy tribesman-made-good father, who deems his son “too soft.” City boy Kwanda is more spiky than soft — he outrages the tribal elders by scornfully questioning the ritual at every turn — but it doesn’t take Xolani long to identify him as nascently gay.

In the partly sentimental version of “The Wound,” this would be a point of bonding, as man and boy help each other through their shared difference. Trengove’s film is harsher and more complicated than that, sensitive to the hard taboo that homosexuality remains in black South African culture — “The Wound’s” sexually frank depiction of which marks it as something of a milestone in the country’s cinema. Xolani and Kwanda’s mutual recognition stokes hostile fear rather than friendship, violently triangulated with Vija’s bullying tactics. Trengove’s script, co-written with Thando Mgqolozana and Malusi Bengu, is occasionally too on the nose in identifying the tensions in this scenario (“You want me to stand up and be a man, but you can’t do it yourself!”), but is both sensitively nuanced in its portrait of an outmoded tribal culture coming apart at the seams. Returning sons are chastised for “fucking off to the city,” yet masculinity is still measured in terms of material success: As the boys compare their healing circumcision scars, one is even praised for his “Mercedes-Benz cut.”

“The Wound” is rich in such small, observational details. Trengove, a white filmmaker, takes a reserved but not entirely objective anthropological approach to his exactingly researched subject, co-opting Kwanda’s culturally conflicted perspective as a relative outsider to a world that wouldn’t welcome him for who he is. If the film doesn’t wholly sympathize with his aggressive contempt for tradition, Xolani’s disingenuous compliance is hardly shown to be preferable — particularly as the film’s moral quandaries turn ever more ugly and extreme.

Cinematographer Paul Özgür’s widescreen lens negotiates a tricky balance of representation, lingering over the unfamiliar symbols and textures of Xhosa tradition — ghostly body paint applied to young black skin, the stark white and red lines of their ceremonial loincloths, the incongruous interruption of Kwanda’s nose piercing amid his traditional garb — without exoticizing them for art’s sake. Still, this is a film of many indelible images, not all of them unusual: One exquisitely lit scene sees Xolani and Vija roughly horsing around in the yellowed, waving grass of the Eastern Cape veld, a rural tableau rudely invaded by the vast steel skeletons of electricity pylons. In “The Wound,” modernity and tradition each yield scars of their own.

These prompts by psychologist Arthur Aron foster closeness through mutual vulnerability.

All actors cast were first language Xhosa speakers with direct experience of the initiation.

The film was made against a background of Uganda seeking to criminalise homosexuality and Mugabe claiming it was a white man’s problem. The Xhosa seem to turn a blind eye to it and think that circumcision will cure it.

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