Archive for G-H

Forbidden Territory (Coto Vedado): The Memoirs of Juan Goytisolo

FT 2The author is a connoisseur of experience but not of commitment. He fantasises a lot.

In the light of current events in Catalonia, it is very relevant now. We wanted to know more about Franco’s Spain but it’s an interesting history of dissidents.

It might have been more interesting had we read some of his novels – he alludes to things and then says that he has dealt with them elsewhere, in such and such a book.

His name means “The Garden of Secrets.” At one stage, he describes himself as n extrovert but it is quite clear that his schoolboy behaviour was extremely introverted, bordering on Asperger’s Syndrome.

He one slept through a whole day, not sure whether it was 8.00 am or pm; an experience I have also had.

Spanish writers tended to censor personal failings – maybe as a result of the confessional which wipes the late clean.

The translator has done a good job at creating some evocative prose – particularly at the end of this volume. There are beautiful descriptions and he is good at putting across what a child might feel but his style is impenetrable in places. There are too many long sentences with lots of sub clauses.

Goytisolo is a ruthless critic of Spain and its upper classes and no less a ruthless critic of himself. He was struggling with the stranglehold of a family in a fallen and irrelevant aristocracy that welcomed Franco, with the emergence of his homosexuality in a culture rigidly opposed to any sign of it, to the censorship of books that were his lifeline to becoming a writer, to bad Argentine translations of American literature — so many things that say so much about Spain during that period.

He recalls a childhood that included the Civil War when his mother travelling into Barcelona and was killed by bombs from an air raid. Was it this blow or a combination of it and being molested by his grandfather that gave him such an entrenched feeling of not belonging? He shook off the influence of religion and Franco early on and eventually emigrated to France to write. He was a communist in spirit but never fully a member, became a long-time lover of a French woman despite knowing of his own latent homosexuality. Only in his 30s does he reconcile his sexuality and find a certain peace within himself.

It is in some sense very clinical, and the sense that Goytisolo may be a clinician studying Goytisolo, is emphasized by the occasional switching of tenses. Sometimes he speaks of Goytisolo in the third person, more often the second (addressing the actions of a “you” which is actually himself). In some passages this appears to be done as a way of taking a certain amount of distance from personal ownership of actions.

He deals with the complications and micropolitics surrounding the doomed journal Libération and those concerned with getting the records straight, family, relationships, consciousness-raising, and sexuality.

In 1963, Goytisolo was cited by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as the Spanish author most translated into various languages, second only to Miguel Lopez de Cervantes. Some consider De Biedma to be a worthy heir to Federico Garcia Lorca. His new approach to writing poetry, influenced by T.S. Eliot and W. H. Auden, made him bridge the gap between the old Romanticist Spanish writers and the post-Franco avant-garde movement called the Movida, which he prefigured.

It is said that Goytisolo’s theme is moral decay and in a powerfully violent prose he conveys his belief that literature should be committed to social progress. Kessel Schwartz describes him: “A disoriented victim of his own idealism …, he denounces with nightmarish intensity the system which falls so much short of the impossible paradise he once visualized….”


spinster, who looked like a guardsman according to Leopoldo, surrounded by a small band of curates and canons. They accompanied her in her life of leisure and benefited from her generous charity. In decorative lapdog role, they would come to her society gatherings, her an arm when she crossed the street and obsequiously hold her sunshade. In this way, Uncle jokingly concluded, these pious leeches inherited all her wealth when she died.

A much-handled copy of a Prayers to St. Joseph, which I just happen to have with me as I write these lines, meticulously gathers er a series of miracles in which Divine Justice fulminates indiscrimi­nately against freethinkers, blasphemers, trade unionists, Repub­licans, masturbators, and enemies of the Pope: “In one town there was an ple of Heaven taking revenge. At about midday the priest was taking holy Communion to a sick man. After leaving the church he walked in front of an inn where there were three men seated at a table. Two got up and took their hats off as they saw the most holy sacrament. The third man, rather than imitating them, began to mock them, and, as an example of his courage and wit, he blasphemed horribly against Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. Hardly had the wretched man uttered his blasphemy than he fell unconscious to the ground in the presence of his terrified companions. A doctor was called, so was the parish priest, but all to no avail: on three separate occasions the priest came to confess the dying man, but always in vain. That blasphemy was his last word on earth. He shook with horrible convulsions for ten hours; delirious, he cut his tongue with his own teeth and then expired. … Another individual who was very fond of reading immoral newspapers saw his daughter, dressed in white about to go to a neighboring village where the bishop was administering the sacrament of Confirmation; flew into such a rage that he tore off her veil, snatched away the bouquet she was carrying and shut her up in a room. After a few days a wild horse ran through the village without hurting anyone, went in the thoughtless father’s house, knocked him down, and stamped on him till he was dead.”

While the idea of the family has for years ceased to have any meaning for me, the strangeness of our surname and a purely atavistic reflex action can explain my mania for consulting the telephone directories of the cities I visit in the vague hope of happening upon a remote member of the clan. However, except for Mexico City and New York, I have never discovered any trace of distant relatives by this means.

My unhappy contribution to his second death fills me today with sadness and embarrassment. Little, very little, survives of the work of this rebel thrust by an untimely birth into a society traditionally hard on dissidents and whose harsh therapy in times of crisis would find an unfortunate complicity within the heart of his own family. His Notes poetiques, subtitled Poesia is llibertad, printed at the beginning of the century, have never reached my hands and I know nothing about them apart from the odd passing reference by his nephew, my mother’s first cousin, Professor Josep Calsamiglia. In spite of that, the few details I have to construct his history and character convert him into one of the few ancestors with whom I feel affinity and a moral closeness beyond the fortuitous, uncertain ties of blood, an affinity stained in his case with remorse and melancholy. The writing destroyed and torn to shreds by me as a child has perhaps unconsciously infected me and insi­diously emerged in all I have written and write. Whether true or not, the idea of that possible transmigration consoles me for my unredeemable action, which it transforms into a rebirth if not a gentle form of afterlife.

How could the second, hidden existence have tolerated the pedestrian, mediocre life of the first? The compromise between the two must have been real, since I can see nothing to indicate that she endured marriage and domestic life as an annoying burden. She had probably fashioned for herself an inner, spiritual life where she could take refuge through writing and reading. My father and the rest of us were no doubt the pillar of her life: but it was a life with its hiding places, havens for rest and meditation, pleasant, protective shade.

a priest came in civilian dress and, before celebrating mass and giving communion to the adults, he called me to his side and said he wished to hear me confess. Although I followed to the letter his instructions and searched out, bewildered and confused, anything that might give cause for reproach, I never conceived the idea of establishing a connection between that act and the nebulous notion of sin. I evoked or invented some theft or fib and received absolution from that man without feeling any emotion.

Ar times, with the help of the very few photos of the period, I have to reconstruct our busy day-to-day existence in those first squalid months. My brothers and I unfailingly appear badly dressed—I’m wearing castoffs—with my hair cut almost to nothing, dirty knees, in my shoes, a strange mixture of orphan and street urchin. Our status was confusing because of its ambiguous, imprecise character: were surrounded by pupils from bourgeois families but the experience, manners, and clothing of everyone else were clearly different from ours. Viladrau period—with the rather wild freedom we had got used to, a ferocious fondness for reading, a liking for solitary life, self-taught its—separated and would always separate me from the rest of my friends. Although the school life we were entering tended toward uni­formity and discipline, the centrifugal attraction of our tribal existence was more forceful and won out in the end.

I already felt the true harshness of life: their childishness, sociability, affected ways were totally incompatible with my love of solitude and wading contracted in Viladrau. Except for geography and history, in which I immediately shone to the point of correcting my teachers, at least mentally, my marks were usually average. At recess, I would retreat to some corner or hidden spot with a novel or an illustrated geography book. Efforts to make me play football always failed miserably. In the annual psychopedagogical reports they made to parents, the fathers would anxiously emphasize my isolation, lack of enthusiasm for games, disin­terest in my classmates, my furtive reading. My odd appearance, reserved character, and surliness did not help to integrate me into the class Referring to the excessively long sleeves of a jacket that was already quite old, one of these elegant, refined boys had remarked sarcastically: “You’re so young, are you already inheriting?” This comment left me with a feeling of humiliation and helplessness and intensified my misanthropy. The childish hobbies of my schoolmates, their social code, which I did not share, brought me back to my personal world: the house in Pablo Alcover,

a victim of my own timid, antisocial ways, I ingenuously sought out opportunities to astonish others with sudden demonstrations of largesse or daring. My grandmother used to leave her purse in her room while we were eating, and I would use any pretext to leave the table and casually pinch her money: first, five peseta notes; then, twenty-five peseta notes—a big amount in those days. With the fruit of my thefts, I used to walk up Calle Mayor in Sarria and go to the sweetshop that still belongs, I believe, to the Catalan poet I most admire today, the surrealist J.V. Foix. There, my grandmother’s notes were exchanged for big bags of sweets, which, once at school, I gave out condescendingly to my peers. This lavish generosity—highlighted by the fact that my own lack of pleasure in sweets kept me, scornfully, on the edge of the subsequent scramble—earned me interest and friends and flattered my feelings of vanity and revenge.

Any revelation of my religious agnosticism, Marxist ideas, sexual behavior would have been an unbearable blow to him. It would have been gratuitously cruel to lead the conversation around to any of these topics. Condemned to dis­simulation, I remained emotionally distanced from him, not worrying too much about his sad, frustrated life, mentally prepared for the time when t would disappear completely. Only after he was dead, after the unexpected meeting with him, alive, real, almost flesh and blood, the night I delirious after taking too much majoon, could I judge him more objectively.

One night, when the whole house was in darkness, I had a visitor. Grandfather, wearing his long white nightshirt, came up to the head of my bed and made himself comfortable on the edge. In a voice that was almost a whisper, he said he was going to tell me a story, but began straightaway to tickle me and cover me with kisses. I was surprised by this sudden apparition and above all by its furtive character. “Let’s play,”

Grandfather would say and, after putting out the bedside lamp by which I sometimes read before falling asleep, and which I had switched on upon hearing his footsteps, he stretched out by my side on the bed and gently slipped his hand down my pajamas until he touched my penis. His touch was upsetting but I was paralyzed by fear and confusion. I felt Grandfather leaning over my lap, first his fingers and then his lips, the viscous trickle of his saliva. When after several unending minutes he seemed to calm down and sat down again on the edge of the bed, my heart beat rapidly. What was the meaning of all this playing around? Why did he make a kind of groaning sound after fingering me? I had no answers and while the unwelcome visitor tiptoed back to the adjacent room where Grandmother was sleeping, I lay there for a while sunk in a state of anxious confusion.

The incident with grandfather and the reaction it aroused in the family certainly had a traumatic effect upon me. My father’s visceral hatred of homosexuals—Grandfather provided the nearest loathsome example—sometimes reached morbid extremes. He once related with great satis­faction to Jose Agustin—who wasted no time in repeating to me—that Mussolini ordered the summary execution of “all queers.” Although at that time I had not the slightest idea about my future sexuality, the news, rather than exciting me, filled me with unease. Of course, I thought that Grandfather’s behavior toward me was reprehensible; but  his punishment, cheerfully trumpeted around the house, awoke my sense of injustice and earned my condemnation. Mussolini’s crude therapy must have been mentioned by my father, just as a simple piece of information, in the presence of my grandfather, who accepted it without protest—as usual. His submission to other people’s judgments, his passive acceptance of his pariah state as natural, his inability to react against the attacks he continuously suffered much later provoked in me tremendous pity for him. His compulsive pederasty, shamefully hidden for decades, had been lived out as a secret tragedy: a vice condemned by the religion he believed in and the society that surrounded him Since he did not have the moral temper necessary to control it, he had no choice but to offer his head to the executioner’s axe each time he had the misfortune to give in to it and was then exposed to public pillorying. The memory of this self-contempt resulting from the scorn of others, of the shame that was accepted and transmuted into inner guilt, weighed very heavily in my decision to affirm my destiny whatever the cost, and to set everything out clearly for myself and others. When Monique published her first novel, entitled Les poissons-chats—a work that describes the love of the heroine for a homosexual—Grandfather Ricardo read it, two or three years before he died, and was terribly shocked. Luis told me how he had explained in tears that the passions explored in the book were a hateful sin, that he had suffered from them throughout his life, and that whenever he yielded to them he had most deeply offended God. The idea that I might follow in his tracks, that I too might resign myself to a miserable, broken existence was the best antidote for my doubts and hesitations when, not entirely surprisingly, I found myself in the con­tradictory position of enjoying an intense emotional relationship with Monique and discovering the physical happiness I had not felt till then with a Moroccan construction worker living temporarily in France. With wise timing, death saved my father from this final cruel blow: the rea­lization of his secret fears, perhaps his darkest forebodings, had finally been expressed in me.

My sister used to buy the film magazines of the time and to ‘d the tiresome, annoying business of describing characters, I got the of cutting out photos from them and sticking them on the pages of my exercise book with simple captions indicating their identities. This vice—the discovery and use of which would no doubt have modified the novelistic art of such conscientious authors with an eye for detail as Balzac and Galdos—allowed me to get on with the ins-and-outs of the exploration of the Amazon, which I was describing, without worrying about useless character sketches or tedious particulars. I was a most pre­cocious author of photo-novels and was also pioneering a way into that soon-to-be-fashionable world of behaviorist narrative. No commentaries or digressions—straight to the point! With a similar facility and enthusiasm, I wrote a sentimental novel about Joan of Arc and introduced some anachronisms into it. I am unsure if they were unconscious or not but they would now no doubt be greeted by the most prominent critics as examples of a daring, outspoken desire to innovate: rather than die on Bishop Cauchon’s bonfire, she died on Robespierre’s guillotine after a dramatic confrontation with him I have a much vaguer memory of my other fifteen­year-old creations: I think there was one about the French Resistance to the Nazis, another with new scenes in the life of Kit Carson, in an episode of my own making. The films shown in the two Sarria cinemas that I visited regularly with Luis were a source of second-rate ideas, characters, and settings for the proliferation of plots. Fortunately any notion of originality and plagiarism was not yet part of my personal literary baggage.

Not one of my teachers or masters played a role in the development of the literary tastes I have just mentioned. My reading evolved exclusively within the family, without the slightest connection with what they taught or tried to teach us at school. The idea of giving us texts of the classics to read rather than stuffing our heads with dates of births and deaths and the titles of their many works had not yet even penetrated the brains of the ignorant, small-minded priests in charge of our literature classes. The only book that deserved the honor of being read in class throughout my secondary school life was a volume of Father Coloma’s stories, in my last year with the Jesuits. We didn’t even get that at the Bonanova school: the good brothers of the Christian Doctrine referred body and soul to the learned critical judgments and proven knowledge in the subject of Guillermo Diaz Plaja. Considering the educational system we suffered, it is not surprising that my love and interest in literature derived from other sources: first, Uncle Luis’s advice and then my mother’s library. Self-taught like almost all the men and women of my generation, my culture, which was tentatively shaped, would for a long time retain the mark of the prejudices, gaps, and insufficiencies of barren, sunbaked Spain choked by the censorship and rigors of oppressive regime. It is very significant that the books I would soon upon would be almost without exception by foreign authors. I read novels that I devoured between eighteen and twenty-five either in French or in the second-rate translations that were smuggled in from Buenos Aires.

When I began to masturbate at the onset of puberty, the incredible new pleasure casually discovered on a summer’s day became one of the centers,’ if not the epicenter, of my life. This potential for enjoyment sited in my body overwhelmed at once, with raw strength, the religious or moral speeches that stigmatized it. In bed, in the bath, at Torrentb6, I regularly surrendered to respect for a material law that, for the space of a few seconds, confirmed me in my isolated, private existence, my irreducible separation from the rest of the world. However, I do not mean that traditional Catholic doctrine on sex, which was drummed into us in classrooms, confessionals, pulpits, religious manuals, made no impression on me. The idea of sin—of mortal sin with its hair-raising consequences—tortured me for several years. Dozens of times, kneeling opposite one of the local parish or church priests, I confessed my guilt and tried to reform myself. I knew full well that hours or days later that vital source of energy bursting out of me would impose its law and would imperiously destroy the fragile framework of precepts that condemned it in vain. Aware of this I escaped the reproaches of the same confessor or spiritual director by regularly changing my church and confessional in a kind of hide-and-seek, the absurdity of which was only too obvious.

It is only the content of books that attracts me, they are an object for immediate consumption: once read they get in my way and I’m happy to get rid of them provided I can buy them again whenever I may need them.

I feared, quite rightly, that wretched time in the lecture theatres might make me hate what I made for, the precious field of my future vocation and inclinations.

As bitter as crab apple: that’s how the boy defines his own region, the boy who, lying on the sand next to you, vaguely flourishes his arm toward the harsh, burnt countryside, the beach blurred by the mist, the plain, white town sunk in the lethargic depths of the siesta: ravaged, bloodless land, abandoned mines, ruined chimneys, blackish profusion of stag: evidence of past euphoria aggravating the unwelcoming impression of poverty: horizontal lives, yawning caves, calcareous desolation, ancestral stubbornness: women in mourning, prematurely worn out, laden with pitchers next to the freshet: sleepwalking peasants, strings of mules, sad, silent men peacefully sheltering under a sunshade: no change nor likelihood of change: solitude, repetition, monotony, desire to escape, to throw the dust off the soles of their shoes: emigration to Madrid, Barcelona, France, wherever: the price of a bus ticket and a suitcase with their only inheritance: their brutal life-sentence and also their hope.

A drowsy, decrepit, colonial city: police dressed in drill and wearing white tropical hats: horse-drawn carriages sway indolently: the marketplace bustles pro­miscuously: the Hotel Simon with its ancient rooms.

Discovery of rhythms, smells, voices, sweet apprenticeship in idleness: tentative exploration of the urban scene, horror and fascination intermingle, inner civil war, insoluble contradiction: plurality, alternating current: creative, spermal spark, product of a simultaneous collision: an exercise in ecstatic contemplation of a world that in another way wounds your defenseless moral sensibility.

The harsh, guttural or singsong accent of the south, through which your love for your language will perhaps mysteriously be filtered: territory conquered inch by inch, listening to the dull tones of resignation and poverty, gradual dual appre­hension of a possible belonging and of the uncertain, chance nature of the doubtful identity granted to you.

Your indifference to Spain—that incomplete, fragmentary entity, which is sometimes obtuse and pigheaded, at other times brutal and tyrannical—in whose negligent bosom you have grown, will suffer the impact of the brief fruitful trip through the region of Almeria: to your youthful tiredness with the pobre, brut, trist, dissortat native town beautifully evoked by Espriu, and to the dreams of escaping to some place in the north where the people are neta i noble, culta, rica, lliure, desvetllada i felic will be counterposed henceforth to the image of a radiant, captive landscape whose power of attraction will divert your compass and draw it toward the tormented configuration of its tracks, hills, and steppes: your first holidays with Monique, on the eve of your journey to Paris, will thus be cause for an unforeseen, fertile combination: source and subject of nostalgia, compensatory vision of a frustrated homeland, glimpse, hint, forerunner of a world that is still fantastic but already present in your mind, silent, near, lying in wait for you.

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Realms of Strife (En los Reinos de Taifa): The Memoirs of Juan Goytisolo

FT 3For Spain to join the EU, despite the latter being a capitalist club, would be a socialist move in that trade union would have to be recognised.

A lot of it is tedious name-dropping, with the exception of the long section on Genet.

The subtitle misleadingly suggest that the memoirs cover the period 1957 to 1982 in Goytisolo’s life. In fact, this volume deals almost solely with the 1960s and early 1970s, only briefly touching on later times.

Goytisolo’s approach is also different from that in Forbidden Territory. Neatly divided into longer chapters (seven of them), Goytisolo offers chunks of his life, focussing around specific events and people.

Living mainly in Paris with long-time companion Monique, Goytisolo achieved quick critical success with his first novel. Though Goytisolo mentions his books at various points, in particular to point out what life-experiences later influenced his work, he writes surprisingly little about the success and reaction to the various books, acknowledging only that his first book was the only one that was practically universally acclaimed. He is surprised by his initial success — which was indeed fairly impressive: My name appeared after Cervantes in the list of most-translated Spanish writers published under the auspices of UNESCO in an annual survey of world literary activity relating to 1963.

He acknowledges that “The phenomenon entirely omitted specific literary factors: it developed exclusively from the world of publishing.” Nevertheless, it made him a man of note in the literary world in which he then moved.

Much of Goytisolo’s early time in Paris was centred around the French publishing house, Gallimard, where Monique worked and where he also was involved in finding Spanish authors and books to translate. Goytisolo moved in illustrious literary circles, including Sartre and de Beauvoir.

Trips abroad to Cuba and later the Soviet Union are among the more significant events offered. Goytisolo remained a soft sort of Marxist, critical but supportive. He had disappointments in Cuba, but seemed genuinely taken by the Soviet Union.

Politics play a large role. One longer section on the troubles surrounding the magazine Libre may be of literary-historical interest but, to those not familiar with Spanish and Latin American literary and political concerns around 1970 and the petty (and not so petty) infighting among the various characters, it is largely baffling and boring.

Goytisolo also continues to move towards acknowledging his sexual inclinations. He and Monique (and her daughter) live together as a nice little family, but Goytisolo finds that he is irresistibly drawn to a certain type of young Arab male. He finally admits his yearnings (and that he acted on them) to Monique in a letter, most of which he prints here verbatim. Monique isn’t too shocked and they continued to live happily together, finally getting married in 1978, fourteen years after he revealed his secret lustings. (Goytisolo explains a lot regarding his sexual preferences, but it does not seem quite enough.)

There is a fair amount of introspection — especially regarding sexual preferences, but also about having children (Goytisolo adamantly refuses to have any), and his own stature and place as a writer. Though not necessarily honest, Goytisolo is certainly brutally frank, especially towards himself.

Goytisolo’s adventures in what he calls the ” Sotadic zone,” or the world of macho Arabs who swing both ways. The term seems top have been coined by Richard Burton, who asserted that there exists a geographic zone in which homosexuality (referred to by Burton as “pederasty”, at the time a synonym) is prevalent and celebrated among the indigenous inhabitants. The name derives from Sotades, a 3rd-century BC Greek poet who was the chief representative of a group of writers of obscene, and sometimes pederastic, satirical poetry.

Realms of Strife is an interesting document, though it lacks the power of the first volume of his memoirs. The shifting foci makes for a more episodic read. The details are good and well-presented, but they do not fit together to provide the big picture. Gaps remain.


As far as I am concerned, the mismatch between life and writing was not resolved till some years later, when hand-to-hand combat with the latter, the exploration of new areas of expression and conquest of sub­jective authenticity, gradually integrated the former in a universe of text: the world conceived as a book ceaselessly written and rewritten, rebel­liousness, struggle, excitement fused in life and script as I was consumed by the delights, white heat, torments of the composition of Don Julian.

Seven months later I embarked with Monique on the visit to Almeria, postponed because of Octavio Pellissa’s arrest; we left her daughter in the Valencian village of Beniarjo and paid a return visit to our friends in the pension Zamora in Garrucha. In – a small four-horsepower Renault we drove round the villages and communities of the area: Huercal Overa, Cuevas de Almanzora, Mojacar, Palomares, and Villaricos. Monique was deeply impressed by the forlorn poverty we saw: she did not share the personal motivation nor secret affinities which drew me to that land, and she was horrified by the idea of vacationing, sunbathing, enjoying life with the reptilian indifference of a Swedish blonde in a landscape that was luminous and beautiful while harsh and poverty stricken. That was the starting point for our frequent discussions of the subject: Monique would reproach me from then on for my aesthetic fascination for places, regions, and landscapes where living conditions inevitably offended anyone with a minimum of social awareness. I was more hardened than she to the spectacle of poverty and strangely attracted by human qualities and fea­tures that have been inexorably swept away by the leveling commercia­lization of progress: my attitude was indeed ambiguous

The attacks directed at a writer are very often the proof that his work exists, that it wounds the moral or aesthetic convictions of the reader-critic and, subsequently, they provoke his reaction: in short, they enter a dynamic relationship with him: you yourself see them usually as a paying of respects and, fortunately, there is no lack of professional swashbucklers: an innovative work stirs up a defensive response from those who feel threatened or under attack from its power or novelty: the phenomenon is as real today as in the day of Gongora.

The novel that avoids the easy well-trodden paths inevitably creates a tension, collides against the unformulated expectations of readers: the latter are suddenly faced with a code they are not used to, and this code poses a challenge: if that is accepted and the reader penetrates the meaning of the new artistic system, the victorious hand-to-hand combat-with the text is itself the prize: the reader’s active enjoyment.

If your books were one day welcomed with unanimous praise, that would show they had become harmless, facile, and anodyne, very quickly they would have lost their power to repel and their vitality.

an unsettling sense of alienation and detachment in respect to our milieu: a furtive awareness of being an impostor, a result of not matching up to the role you were playing; the tedium of nighttime living, only tolerable thanks to the use and abuse of alcohol. My recent political disappoint­ments and the bitter certainty that I had created a work that had perhaps satisfied my civic responsibilities but fell totally outside that dense, purifying, initiatory zone forged by literature was now joined by the sudden realization of my homosexuality and the distressing clandestine nature of relationships, which I will describe later. The combined essence of all this could be summed up in one word: weariness. Weariness with the bustle of literary publishing,- political militancy, functional writing, my ambiguous image and usurped respectability. So I felt more and more sharply and clearly the need to concentrate my physical, intellectual, and emotional energies in those areas I deemed vital and to throw all else overboard.

Journal du voleur, which a friend had lent me two years before on my first brief stay in Paris. The reading of that book had an enormous moral and literary effect on me. The author’s strange, per­sonal, fascinating style accompanied an introduction to a world totally unknown to me; something I had sensed darkly from adolescence but that my upbringing and prejudices had prevented me from verifying. I can remember the person who gave me the grubby copy of the work once pointing out an individual in his thirties, looking defiant and insolent, heading for the cafe terrace exactly, opposite ours—it was called and I think it’s still called La Pergola, next to the Mabillon metro station—and muttering knowingly: “That’s Genet’s friend.” Days later, when I returned the book, he asked me whether I had masturbated as I read it. I said I hadn’t, and he looked taken aback, a mixture of disappointment and incredulity. He said, “I did dozens of times. Every time I read it, I jerk myself off.”

I have never liked this kind of confidence and I cut short the con­versation. As Genet told me years afterwards, he found nothing more irritating than the inopportune homage to the pornographic virtues of his work: he gave no credit to the opinion of homosexuals and appreciated only the praise of those outside the ghetto described by him, who took his novels for what they were, that is, an autonomous world, a language, a voice. As for the so-called friend singled out by my initiator into the novels, it must have been Java or Rene, considering the date. “But neither of them used to go around Saint-Germain-des-Pres,” Genet observed when I mentioned the incident to him, “both of them were pimping in Montmartre or robbing queers in lavatories or in the Bois de Boulogne.

on social inequality a very similar role in the interplay of the complementary and opposites to that normally played by difference of sex, would later deepen, become sexual, as it reached out and went beyond the limits of my language and culture into the incandescent brilliance of Sir Richard Burton’s Sotadic Zone. But at that stage it represented only a strange trait perceived by some third person as a whim or eccentricity.

Monique was passionately drawn to the world of masculine friendships: to the extent that she did not feel rejected, she was attracted by my ambiguity. On the beach at Peiliscola she had once seen me tipsily caress or let myself be caressed by one of our fisherman-friends who had stretched out next to me by the side of the boats, and the spectacle really stirred her up: it didn’t go any further and I made love to her in the hotel—still smelling of him, she said—while my friends drank and dived in darkness, drunk and naked. The Sunday meals in Rueil-Malmaison went on for some months: once or twice, in response to our friends’ invitations, we invited them to the rue Poissonniere. Monique’s diary for 2 December 1956 pinpoints a detail: seventeen Spaniards in the house! Vicenta and Antonio prepared paella for everybody, and the banquet went on till very late, much to the excitement and happiness of Carole, spoiled and entertained by those nostalgic expatriates separated from wives and children.

Along with this chance invasion by Jose’s worker-friends began another, slower, more furtive, and interstitial: Vicenta’s brothers, sisters, and relatives gradually disembarked in Paris, appearing at our flat with their bags and big old suitcases. We had to help find them jobs and accommodations and, through Jadraque and Monique’s friends, we managed to salvage some of them. The fresh migrants from Beniarjo trundled leisurely along from the rue Poissonniere to the Piles bar and from there to the vast pavements of the rue de la Pompe. Sometimes, Vicenta extended the sphere of her recommendations to other villages in the region: the girl dressed in mourning who came to our flat asking after her, she’s from Benifla, Vicenta said, but she’s a good soul. After a time, we had combed the entire field of our friends and acquaintances, and closed down our free employment agency with a feeling of relief. The untimely appearances and visits became less frequent. We had been drained by those months of intense Spanification and, as we admitted to each other, laughing at the end of a particularly hectic, rowdy day, we’d about had enough of it.

Your immense vitality allowed you to ride roughshod over the needs of sleep, take on the boreal rhythm of arctic nights: writing a novel or following the timetable at the publishers, reading for pleasure or out of duty, chatting at length after supper, drinking calvados in your favorite bars, going to transvestite haunts, getting drunk and making love. While you devoted the weekends to visiting Rueil-Malmaison or towns on the Normandy coast with Carole, you finished off your respective days with a tour of the cabarets on the rue de Lappe, next to the hotel where Genet was then staying, or with dinner in one of those modest Vietnamese eating-houses in the environs of the Gare de Lyon. Then night seemed young and somnambular, and you did not notice the first signs of aging and wrinkles till the early morning. Your body obeyed every caprice and decision without rejecting any, as if it were a mere appendage or instrument of your will. There was no such thing as tiredness, and you bravely fought off the impact of alcohol with Alka-Seltzer in the course of the long evenings. At that time Monique professed a real worship of queens. Guided by her cousin Frederic, you began to explore their lairs and hiding places: you sometimes went to dine at Narcisse, a restaurant where you joined in an extravagant reveillon with streamers, confetti, and hysterical shouts from a group of Spanish males decked out in mantillas and combs, as if on the lookout for the hero of Sangre y arena or some remote, improbable Escamillo; at other times, you dropped in on the dance at the Montagne de Sainte-Genevieve, where a huge, brazen queer, also from your country, performed a number of acts with a profusion of obscene gestures, propelling, whirring his tongue round as fast as an electric fan. Genet later told you that the most audacious, provocative queens he came across in his wanderings and stays in the prisons and red light districts of Europe were always Spanish. Whether beautiful repellent, pathetic or derisory, their rejection of any notion of decency, their defiance of all norms and good manners, the waggles and grimaces their laboriously recreated bodies endowed them with an exemplary moral hue. The fact that Spain forged and exported the most outrageous specimens was no product of chance: it revealed the great power of the social stigma that marked them. Their excessive response was directly related to that excessive rejection. Unlike the Sotadic Zone; where extended, diffuse bisexuality erases and removes the frontiers of illicit and becomes secretly and implicitly integrated in the marrow of society, the gravitational pull of the Hispanic canon determines existence of centrifugal, extreme, disproportionate reactions. The plentiful numbers and aggression of the queens, Genet explained to you, response to the oppressive atmosphere that shaped them: it was the of constrained official machismo, its lower, lunar, cleft face, its visage.

In the company of Frederic and Violette Leduc, who had been discharged from the sanatorium where she had been held, you the rather sordid haunts by the Gare de Lyon or Montmartre

unable to take reality by the horns, I sought refuge in militancy as if in a protective religious order: but neither Marx nor Lenin nor the working class had anything to do with my real worries. In truth, my case was quite similar to those middle-class youths who, as Octavio Paz would later write, “transformed their personal dreams and obsessions into ideological fantasies in which the end of the world takes on the paradoxical form of a proletarian revolution without a proletariat.”

My previous homosexual experiences were negative, and from the time we started to live together up to a year ago, I had no relationships with men, nor did I even contemplate one except fleetingly. Your love had inspired me with a self-confidence that I lacked, and for a long time I thought my homosexuality was a thing of the past. You attracted me physically and I felt secure in myself. Things began turning sour when  came by, when my cycles of depression and impotence started as a result of my jealousy and loss of that previous certainty—in spite of the ephemeral nature of your adventures and my conviction that you preferred me to everybody else. Consequently, I lived through some difficult years and, on the rebound, I made you suffer them too. Don’t think I attribute to you the least responsibility for what then happened: circumstances, as I see now, only contributed to showing the precariousness of my physical relationship with women. You should think rather that without you I would probably never have known a female love that was requited. There were many ups and downs, periods of calm and relapses. The jealousy got worse in my case because after the first cycle of depression I again fucked women but with difficulty, and two out of three times I was impotent. For months, as you know, I went to bed with whores from Saint-Denis until repeated failures made me bring the experiment to an end. In those circumstances, the feeling you were in love, even only transitorily, with other men was unbearable for me. I seriously contemplated suicide and loathed myself for not having the courage to go through with it. Afterwards there was Cuba, the need to hold on to something, to find another door. With_____, I reached a point of intense jealousy, depression, desire to throw everything overboard. I had no release with women and lost control of my actions: the only things I am ashamed in my life are a product of this phase; I was not responsible for myself yet was nevertheless aware of the moral degradation. Then, gradually, I had the impression I had touched rock bottom, realizing that henceforth I could not jealous of you. The day I saw Luis, I explained the situation to him and told him the only possible way out was some kind of homosexual life. It was then that spoke to you, and you mentioned the conversation to me, but I was still probing was unable to respond with any certainty.

It must be about a year ago that I started to go out with Arabs and I ne few weeks to recognize the evidence: I did recover my equilibrium and coal with you once again; but I also discovered that I was totally, definitively, vocably homosexual. From then on, as you must have realized, our relationship improved; although differently, I began to love you more than before and reached a kind of happiness that I had not attained in the past. I felt at peace, pl share life with you, to have you and Carole at my side. As you can imagine, I wanted to tell you what had happened; but our well-being seemed so fragile was afraid of undermining it. Then there was your need to leave Galli write about your mother: I wanted to support you on both fronts, not to decision that was central to your future. Despite my secret, life in 1964 was happy the year when our relations firmed up and I recovered my lost peace of mind decided to keep my silence, to help you cut loose from Paris and the to support you as you support me. I went to Saint-Tropez prepared to the new life I had discovered, content to dedicate myself to the novel, you, Carole. The months we have spent together have shown me how far I feel ly and emotionally united to both of you.  But they have also shown me I cannot do without real homosexual life. The (ambiguous) friendships I have are not enough and, although I am happy in your company, I am choked by chastity toward my own sex. In Paris I could have kept my secret without creating suspicion; in Saint-Tropez it is impossible, and if at times I wanted to go with _____, I put the idea to one side because of you, your status in the the possible scandal that could flare up, the gossip. The reality of life there rendered impossible the dual sexual life I was leading and confronted me with need to confess the truth to you fully. 1

I could not care less about what others think. Since I have been sure of my homosexuality, the only problem worrying me is in relation to you and Carole—the damaging impact that its discovery would now have on her. I am the opposite of an exhibitionist, and my sense of shame and attachment to secrecy are deeply rooted; but I am not afraid of the truth, and the few people I can rely on are you, Carole, and Luis. I told him all about this on my last trip. It remained only to tell you.

This letter explains my anxiety. I know too well what effect it will have on you, and yet I am forced to write it even with the risk. I am thirty-four, I love you, and I love Carole, I cannot live without you, I feel a boundless affection for you. What should I do? The void that life alone would be terrifies me, but I will accept it if that is what you decide. I would have wished from deep down that things could have been different, that my deviation had not happened but what I know of myself now is eating me away and, surrounded by our Saint-Tropez friends, I am suddenly aware that I am a usurper, that our friendliness is fictitious and based on deceit, that I must cast off the esteem of those who would be disgusted if they knew the truth. How often I have wanted to walk out slamming the door behind me when they were talking about me as if I were one of them, toclear off and live friendless in a country where no one understands me, in total isolation. I am obsessed by the destiny of Jean (Genet). Sometimes when I wake up at night I want to shout out. I then say to myself that this is my truth, that all the rest is fabrication, facile deceit. That if I am to do anything morally valid, I should make a clean break with everything. I am now on a knife-edge. I can suggest nothing, promise nothing at all. Your reaction fills me with anguish, but secretly I want to know. I realize I am destroying my happiness close to you, yours when you are close to me, which I feel to be so strong. I have begun the letter time and again with a timid heart. I pray you do not see it as a breakup although I am powerless if you do. I am afraid of life without you: your face, your capacity for love, your eyes, your affection. I have never been closer to anyone than I have to you.

“Which country are you from?”

“From Spain.”

“Where did you say?”


“Spain, Spain .. Whereabouts is that in the Soviet Union?”

One observation that will interest you: while European homosexuals usually reveal themselves by imitating women, here, in contrast, they take on an extra layer of exaggerated virility. That’s what attracts me to them and helps me to distinguish them without fail, since naturally there are plenty who aren’t.

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Back of the Throat – Yussef El Guindi

bott-2We chose this arising out of a discussion about Guapa by Saleem Haddad, whose author’s experience as a Muslim in America was unrealistic.

We don’t think we’ve anything to hide but what’s on your bookshelf’? in your room? Anything can be misconstrued. People can incriminate you without thinking, based anything they seize on to create and justify a belief.

The Patriot Act gave carte blanche to the authorities to override the human right to freedom and privacy. Now Europe, with its current, paranoid obsession with surveillance, desperately needs this play. What’s in your emails? A copy of everything is kept for perusal.

Shelly, the librarian is stereotyped, worrying about a rare map she’d fold duo in order to defend herself.

The women are sexually insecure and project this on to Khaleed; wondering if he is gay. The incident in the men’s room more than hints at it. Gays, like Muslims, have shared the experience of being marginalised.

 During a Nazi interrogation of suspected Jews in France, a stunning rumour begins to circulate: “They’re going to look at your penis.” Forty-five years later, not only has the offstage rumor become an onstage reality, but in Back of the Throat reality is also allegory. Our protagonist’s penis is more than merely an organ: It is a metaphor for all the privacy that Americans have lost in the aftermath of the World Trade Centre attacks on 9/11.The playwright’s instruction to ‘play it light’ doesn’t mean that we don’t feel intimidating, menacing threat from right the very beginning.

The playwright: “I wish there were more political plays,” he said. “The problem with the American theatre is it’s not addressing what’s going on.”

“Friends were questioned, friends of friends,” he said. “The Patriot Act came in, and suddenly you didn’t know what your rights were. You started hearing these stories of people getting stopped for what they were reading at airports, of the F.B.I. going to galleries and questioning the artist if the exhibit was politically charged.”

“I began to look at my apartment. What do I have in my apartment if an F.B.I. agent came in? I have books on assassins, guns, Islam, research materials, the Koran, that would identify me as interested in the Middle East. In my paranoia, I started to imagine what could happen.”


“person of interest”

“extraordinary rendition”

“When you thought I was at work. (To Carl) I should also tell you that I thought he was having an affair. I’m still not sure he wasn’t . . . . He certainly was at the computer a lot. It must have been something steamy because every time I approached him he would do something to hide the screen”

I would point to something, sand, and you would repeat it—sand.—Sea—and then you: sea.—Sky…sky.—Family…family. Airplane…airplane…America…(slight beat) And I showed you in which direction. And you said, where? And I held you up high on my shoulders… and I pointed. (Hold for a beat. Blackout)

My family worked damn hard to make this country the place it is. And if you came here to do the same, I will personally roll out the red carpet for you . . . . But if you’ve come here . . . . To take from us. Pick all the good things this country has to offer and give nothing back . . .. Then I don’t think you’re making a contribution, not at all.

“I have rights, I do have rights.”

“You hate everything that this country stands for.”

No. No, this isn’t normal. I have to tell you, Khaled, none of this is normal. Right about now I would place you a few feet outside of that category. . . . I am frankly amazed at just how abnormal everything is in your apartment. I have been growing alarmed by what we have been finding. More: I’m getting that uncomfortable feeling that there’s more to you than meets the eye and not in a good way. I wouldn’t be surprised if we were to turn on that computer and find plans for tunneling under the White House

“New information about a person suddenly makes you see that person in a different light.”

“You’re a Muslim and an Arab. Those are the bad-asses currently making life a living hell and so we’ll gravitate you and your ilk”

Yesterday the Irish and the Poles, today it’s you. Tomorrow it might be the Dutch”

One more thing: at no time should you think this is an ethnic thing. Your ethnicity has nothing to do with it other than the fact that your background happens to be the place where most of this crap is coming from. So naturally the focus is going to be on you. It’s not profiling, it’s deduction.

“I personally hate this, you know that” he says. “I hate it when I have to beat the shit out of someone because then by an act of willful horror, whose effect on my soul I can only imagine, I have to shut out everything good about me to do my job to defend and protect.”

BETH. (Interrupting.) Just everything. He never seemed to come clean about anything. Always keeping things close to his chest, like he had another life going on. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was involved. Though I can’t imagine he was high up in whatever struc­ture they have. I could admire him if he was. But he’s too weak for that. More like a wannabe. Like someone who would be quite will­ing to take instructions, if you know what I mean.

CARL. I don’t; can you explain that?

BETH. Like he knew his life was for shit and something like this would give it meaning. He had that writerly thing of never feeling solid enough about anything. Of being woozy about most things. Of course when you imagine you’re in love with someone, all their faults feel like unique traits that give them character. It’s disgusting how love can dumb you down. Anyway, what else do you want to know? So like I said, it would just make sense. He never would tell me what he was working on or what he did when he went out. He just shut me out after a while. Could you turn around, please. (Beth has finished drying her hair and now selects a dress from the closet. She will proceed to put it on. Carl turns around.) And then there was that quarrel we had soon after the attacks.

CARL. What quarrel would that be?

BETH. I almost flipped out because I thought he was actually


KHALED. That’s enough, stop, stop, this is bullshit. BARTLETT. (Consulting notebook.) That’s the word she used: “gloating.”

KHALED. I never “gloated,” that’s insane.

BARTLETT. (Consulting notebook.) She went on to say that she

felt you were almost ‑

BARTLETT/BETH. Defending them.

BETH. Praising them even.

KHALED. That’s a lie.

CARL. Are you sure about that?

BETH. It sure sounded like that to me.

KHALED. She’s twisting everything.

BETH. (To Carl.) I don’t think that would be an exaggeration.

KHALED. (To Beth.) That’s not what I meant.

BETH. (To Khaled.) That’s how it sounded.

“We’re trying to get direct feedback from the public. Especially from our target audience.”

When first I come to this country—I not know how to speak. How…even to say anything. […] I say, I must learn language that is everywhere. Language that has fallen on our heads and made us like—like children again. What is this power? […] I want to write. I want to write a book. In English. […] And one day, I say […] I might even teach it… I will teach language back. I will make them speak their own language differently. I will have them speak words they never spoke before. I will make them like children too, speaking words over and over to make sure they understand it. And soon my language will also fall on their heads. Like theirs falls on ours. Exploding in our brains ’til we can’t even dream in peace. (Slight beat.) And so they sent me … They send me. (Asfoor draws closer to Khaled. Khaled does not look at him.) And now … my tongue … it wants to rise. Soar. As it used to. It wants to take off in this new language and conjure up brilliant words. It wants to do things in English that seemed so impossible for so long. I can help you find your voice too … You’re stuck. I know you are. You’ve lost your way. I can feel it. I can help. Most of all … above all else, Khaled … I know how to inspire … I know how to inspire. (Beat. Blackout.)

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What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell


As with the author of Guapa, the book we read in October, the author visited the city to give a talk, previous to our meeting, which once again provided us with some valuable insights to the book and the author.

The book divided opinion on this occasion, but there was no particularly enthusiastic response to it.

Perhaps unusually, a supporting character, Mitko, the protagonist’s sexual interest, provided more of a talking point than the lead character. However, whilst one member commented that they felt the lead character seemed sad by the end of the novel, another admitted to feeling very sad for Mitko by the end; that they felt sorry for him.

The dynamic between the the foreign teacher and his hustler associate, with, as one member noted, his coterie of clients, was poignant and an almost constant throughout the story. Yet it was commented that the power between the two characters remained unexplored and was notably absent in the descriptions of their sexual encounters, which lacked detail and clarity of who did what to whom.

Although their relationship was, at it’s very base a sexual and financial transaction, both characters seem inexplicably drawn to each other and their relationship is limited, by and large, to an ongoing series of transactions. One member voiced his lack of understanding of why the lead was involved with Mitko, asking “was it love or lust, or something else”? Considering the numerous suggestions of and allusions to Mitko’s violent temperament, it appears that the teacher may be attracted by the danger.

One member felt the interaction between the lead character and Mitko was interesting, but  that the main bulk of the story detracted from that part of the story, that the main narrative was perhaps a distraction to the meatier side story.

With one member proclaiming Miko to be “a blackmailing shit”, another felt they warmed to to the character as the story progressed. Another chipped in that they found Mitko to be “vile and not even attractively so”.

Our proclaimer went as far as suggesting that the character of Mitko was the cause of them not enjoying the book, or that he made the book “bad”. They added that they were “appalled” by their inability to read the novel, which he did so in fits and starts as a result.

They did however concede that there were bits of the novel that appealed, such as the bus trip taken by the teacher to a city neighbouring Sofia, for the purpose of obtaining treatment for an STI. Another noted about the trip that the hospital staff treated their patient, who was quite open about his homosexuality, like filth. There was general surprise that he would be treated in such way in 2012, when the novel was set.

The lack of a homosexual nucleus for the lead character was highlighted. In the group’s previous novel, Guapa, the protagonist and his circle of friends congregated and sought refuge in the liberal and accepting titular bar, whereas the setting of this novel contained no gay scene or any other gay characters. As such, it was felt we didn’t learn anything of the culture or politics of Bulgarian gay society; perhaps due to both lead characters being quite isolated. This was perhaps borne out of the notable sense of shame which runs through the novel.

The amount of Bulgarian the author includes in the book was raised. A member, who attended the recent talk with the author, mentioned that he was interested how the sound of the Bulgarian language appeared to non-speakers. He believed the cadences of the language couldn’t be successfully translated, so included Bulgarian in the novel to illustrate that point.

There was appreciation of the author’s distinction between ‘you’ in the formal and informal sense of the term, which added an interest to the linguistics of the book.

That the story was told in the first person was commended, as the reader never knew what the other characters thought. It was claimed that it would have been a completely different novel had it been told by an omniscient narrator. The long passages used by the author were frustrating to some, while others didn’t enjoy the writing style as a whole the author employed.

A member felt it reminded him of a Hollinghurst novel, feeling that the author was trying to convey consciousness. Another likened it to Mann’s Death in Venice.

For some members, who read the novel for the second time, felt it made more of an impression the second time around, as there was a lot in the novel which can easily be missed.

Whilst some enjoyed the novel, with one adding that not all of it was good, some felt it was very much a ‘first novel’ and not great, but they did enjoy reading it. However others felt a lot more strongly about it, with someone stating that they just didn’t care about the novel; that it failed to make him care.

The three part structure of the novel drew criticism. One member found the second part of the novel difficult to follow. But it was thought that was the author’s intention; being a very traumatic time for the lead character. Another made reference to the “list” part of the novel as “utterly boring” describing it as completely different to the other two parts of the novel. Another added that the third part of the novel was self-conscious and another described it as “something to love or loathe”.

A member who attended the talk with the author stated that the author had been interesting, but added that they don’t know what he might write next.
The title comes from Thomas Mann’s ‘Death in Venice’

Greenwell wrote the novel while teaching in Bulgaria himself, though he says the book is fiction and “the narrator is not me”.

Greenwell is unabashedly a “queer writer”, one who is interested in articulating a specifically gay experience.

Cruising has been central in my life since I was 14 years old. It was the first gay community I found in the pre-global internet in Louisville, Kentucky, where I grew up. I do think “community” is the right word for those places, which have not disappeared. When I found this cruising bathroom in Bulgaria where the novel begins, I immediately knew what it was. I barely spoke Bulgarian, but I descended into this place, and I suddenly had a complete fluency.

The latest proof of Greenwell’s genuine interest in  Bulgaria’s reality is called Mitko – an award-winning novella about the romantic relationship between two men, who meet in the bathrooms of the National Palace of Culture and travel emotionally between desire and intimidation all the way to a hotel room in the Black Sea city of Varna.

In its article, “Of LGBT, Life and Literature,” the Sofia Echo credits Greenwell’s publications with bringing much needed attention to the LGBT experience in Bulgaria and to other English-speaking audiences through various broadcasts, interviews, blog posts, and reviews

What Belongs to You really started with a place. I moved to Bulgaria in 2009 and spent four years there, teaching high school at the American College of Sofia. Bulgaria is a fascinating, beautiful, difficult country, and I fell in love with it. I think the spark of the novel came from the weird experience I kept having there of foreignness and familiarity. On the one hand, my first months in Sofia were a time of intense disorientation: I had never been to that part of the world before; I could barely speak the language; everything seemed strange to me. At the same time, though, and especially as I started meeting gay men and exploring queer communities, both online and in person, I found myself forcefully reminded of my adolescence in Kentucky in the early 1990s. This was especially true of the cruising places I found in Sofia, where all the sudden I found I could communicate fluently: all the codes I learned as a kid cruising the parks in Louisville were the same in Sofia. And when I started to talk to gay men in their thirties and forties, I found they said many of the same things that I heard gay men that age say when I was an adolescent. It seemed to me that there was a similar horizon of possibility, a similar set of assumptions about the world and what it offered.

A Grave – stream of consciousness – a very long chapter – 56 pages. The middle section, “A Grave,” is a departure both from the character of Mitko and from the style of the rest of the novel. Some news from home triggers a flood of memories and associations that the narrator experiences while he walks through the Bulgarian city where he lives. While the first and last sections are concerned with action as it unfolds.

“A Grave” came very much as a surprise. I wasn’t intending to write it—I had ideas for other things I wanted to work on. But then, one hot day when I was walking around Mladost, the part of Sofia where I lived, I was seized by a voice that demanded I follow it. I really don’t know how else to put it, and I haven’t had an experience quite like that before or since. It was a really angry, importunate energy, and I remember I went to coffee shop and started writing on the backs of receipts, on scraps of paper—on trash, really. I wrote the first draft very quickly, and it ended up being a long block paragraph, much longer in that first version than it is in the book. I stuck it in a drawer and couldn’t look at it for more than a year; it made me nauseous to think about it. Once I could look at it again, I rewrote it by hand several times, something that I didn’t do with the other sections of the book. It was really hell to write. And as I said before, it wasn’t until I was halfway through that I realized how it was responding to the story told in “Mitko” (and later continued in “Pox”), that the exploration of the narrator’s childhood was a way to try to investigate some of the weird things about him, especially in his approach to intimacy, the way he seems to disclose everything while actually hiding a great deal of himself away. I think the middle section is the part of the book where the narrator is most vulnerable and available. And I hope the block paragraph format gives a sense of the simultaneity of his memories, how he’s thrown back and forth between various times: his early childhood, his adolescence, the landscape he’s walking through and the landscape he has fled.

The only character who is fully named in the book is Mitko, and even he isn’t given a full name: Mitko is a nickname, short for Dimiter, and his family name is never disclosed. In the first scene the narrator is stripped of his own name, when we learn that Mitko can’t pronounce it, that it’s unpronounceable in Bulgarian. I wanted Mitko to be the only character in the book with a name, which felt to me like a kind of spotlight illuminating him throughout the book. Like a spotlight, it felt like a way of giving him a kind of privilege, of foregrounding him and making him the most vivid thing on the page. And, again like a spotlight, it’s also a kind of vulnerability: he’s stripped of a protection, or the semblance of a protection, other characters are afforded.

In the novel’s final section, “Pox,” the narrator has overcome some of his internal hurdles and formed a healthier relationship with a man from Portugal called R. At the same time, he can’t quite let go of Mitko — or is it that Mitko will not let go of him? Greenwell poignantly evokes the narrator’s inability to resist the draw of Mitko’s erratic neediness. Much (but not all) of the sexual charge of their relationship has dissipated for the narrator, yet a mysterious feeling of responsibility for Mitko’s increasingly grim fate remains.

wbty-2From the author, whom some of us met recently: For him, this is related to being asked repeatedly whether he would consider himself to be a “gay writer”. This, he understands, is a fraught question for many writers, who for decades have been told “if you write books centred on queer lives, where the gay guy isn’t just one strand, or a friend, then there are straight people for mainstream readers to identify with – but if a book really is centred on gay lives, you’ll be in this gay ghetto”.

But, he says, he has never accepted that – in fact, he thinks quite the reverse. “Absolutely I am a gay writer. And not only that, I want to tell gay stories about gay communities for gay readers, because I think that this incredible progress that queer people have made in things such as marriage equality have come at the cost of a mainstreaming narrative that has homogenised queer lives in a way that has sacrificed far too much and, tragically, has further marginalised the most vulnerable members of the queer community.”

He talks further about marriage equality as “really a marketing battle: it was about packaging queer lives in a way that allowed the value of those lives to be seen by people who are disgusted by queer lives” – although his point is also that this is probably an inevitable and necessary stage that any minority rights movements has to go through. Where that becomes problematic, he insists, is when those at the edge of the movement become further distanced, as when human rights campaigners “at their rallies in front of the supreme court in support of marriage equality, said, Oh trans person get off the stage.”

Ultimately, he says, “any project of liberation has to have as its goal the multiplication of legitimate models of life”.

much in the book turns on the gaps between English and Bulgarian, and in particular the word priyatel, which Mitko deploys to mean friend, boyfriend and client. Some of it is structural: while the narrator appears to control the story, and we are never granted direct access to Mitko’s consciousness, Greenwell shows enough to allow us to empathise with him. It is a novel of transactions, of inequalities, and of fine moral judgments; the narrator, it is clear, could leave Bulgaria whenever he wished, while Mitko, who becomes increasingly frail, is trapped.

Reviews by two who couldn’t attend the discussion:

 This book has been heavily trailed on the social media circles I hang around; twitter, Facebook etc of writers I tend to follow.

I found the mid-way switchback to his early life an unwelcome distraction; it was clunky and seemed to hold the story up for me. I understand that this book had originally been a novel and I suspect that this was bit stitched in. I’m not sure that worked.

I did like visceral nature of the attraction, which drew then together and continued to hold them together. I think that was a good reason, but I then felt the descriptions of the sexual attractions could have been even more visceral.

I was often asking myself how old the American was, I imagined older, but not so much older, and I’m sure the writer was trying to steer away form it just being an age thing…as there was foreigner/local,  richer/poorer, seller/buyer thing going on. He explored those things but not age, interesting decision.

As the world becomes smaller and less friendly (e.g. Russia) to westerners and especially gay men the exploration of this subject (the western gay man abroad) and his loves and losses I think are an interesting area for gay writers.

I think this was a very good first novel, better than Guapa I think.


I enjoyed the pace of this book, and the rich descriptions and vocabulary.  I went back and reread the first section I had enjoyed it so much but felt I had missed details from the first reading: I wanted to slow down and immerse myself more in the atmosphere of the book. I enjoyed the reread.

I loved the character of Mitko, and felt like he was real and present. This was unsettling by the end of the book when I realised I actually knew very little about him. We were seeing Mitko through the experience of the narrator and I felt a lot of empathy with his superficial knowledge of Mitko. The development of their relationship was fascinating and the rich writing helped me feel immersed and close to it. I felt the desire and the need to have a human connection, but how this was not going to be successful. It was a simple set up, and a complex emotional relationship that I hope you get a chance to discuss.

The book ended bleakly and with little hope. The beautiful, confident Mitko was almost at his end, the narrator was alone in a difficult foreign country, isolated from his mother and his new partner and seemingly not further on than when the book started. I saw no happy ending for him either.

SUMMARY: I loved this book: I found it a strong experience emotionally (even though the characters were not deeply emotional) and I really enjoyed the writing (I know some of you didn’t).

It wasn’t all great though:

The Bulgarian words thrown in became annoying and self-indulgent. Early on this did help establish that the narrator was struggling with the language and the culture. I would have phased out most of these after the first 1/4 of the book.

At times the descriptive and detailed writing got a bit wearing: e.g. the bus trip to the out of town hospital and the fly: Why?


I was there not as guard but as audience. I was there to see how different from me he was.”

“You disgust me, he said, do you know that, you disgust me, how could you be my son?”

“I wouldn’t answer, I wouldn’t see my father again, I wouldn’t mourn him or pour earth on him.”

Even as I descended the stairs I heard his voice, which like the rest of him
was too large for those subterranean rooms, spilling out of them as if to climb
back into the bright afternoon that, though it was mid-October, had nothing
autumnal about it; the grapes that hung ripe from vines throughout the city
burst warm still in one’s mouth.

As I knelt there, still tasting the metallic trace of sink water from his skin, I felt my anger lifting as I realized that my pleasure wasn’t lessened by his absence, that what was surely a betrayal (we had our contract, though it had never been signed, never set in words at all) had only refined our encounter, allowing him to become more vividly present to me even as I was left alone on my stained knees and allowing me, with all the freedom of fantasy, to make of him what I would.

Suddenly I was enraged for him, I felt the anger I was sure he must feel that futile anger like a dry grinding of gears. But from a distance Mitko didn’t seem to feel anything at all; these were only my own thoughts, I knew, they brought me no nearer him, this man I had in some sense loved and who had never in the years I had known him been anything but alien to me.

I understood his desire to be naked before the world, his madness, as he says, to be in contact with it. I even felt something of that desire myself, though it was nothing like madness for me, in my life lived almost always beneath the pitch of poetry, a life of inhibition and missed chances, perhaps, but also a bearable life, a life that to some extent I had chosen and continued to choose.

how helpless desire is outside its little theater of heat, how ridiculous it becomes the moment it isn’t welcomed, even if that welcome is contrived.”

“…always I feel an ambivalence that spurs me first in one direction and then another, a habit that has done much damage.”

I said, come on, tasting him and tugging at his shoulders. He tried at first to put me off again, he said we could take our time, the night was long; he was counting on a place to spend that night, and no doubt had experienced hospitality withdrawn by men whose desire dissolved immediately to disgust.

He did speak of the terrible     boredom he felt in the hospital, where he was confined to a bed, without a computer or even a television for distraction, since the one mounted in his room would only play if fed constantly with coins. Nor were books or magazines a diver­sion, since he read Cyrillic with difficulty; he had left school in the seventh grade, and was more comfortable with the Latin characters used in Internet chat rooms.

But he was still detached, he kept glanc­ing at the television, and when I asked him what was wrong he just shrugged and answered that he had already had sex that afternoon, which seemed like a breach of contract, though I suppose I had no real basis for complaint.

It’s not like there were that many of them, she said, seeing the dismay I felt, I didn’t even have sex with all of them, I just liked being with them, I liked the attention. I don’t know why I cringed at her stories, when I had done so much worse at her age, having sex in parks and bathrooms, dan­gerous and indiscriminate sex; but I was troubled that her history seemed to parallel my own, that we shared what I had thought of as my own gnawing affliction. And I knew she would outgrow the satisfactions she had found, that soon she would desire other and more intense experiences, drawn forward by those appetites we share, that humiliating need that has always, even in my moments of apparent pride, run alongside my life like a snapping dog.

It would be years before my father spoke the words that finally severed the bond between us, but there were no more showers or games. Nor could I find anywhere else the closeness I had taken for granted: the friends I turned to were scared off by the need I felt for them, and soon the best I could hope for was their indifference.

“As I walked along that path,
I felt drawn from myself, elated,
struck stupidly good for a moment
by the extravagant beauty of the world.”

“I fell back from him then, I lay next to him thinking, as I had had cause to think before, of how helpless desire is outside its little theater of heat, how ridiculous it becomes the moment it isn’t welcomed, even if that welcome is contrived.”

“You can’t speak to him, he said, if you speak to him, if you give any sign to him at all, he will come back; he has to stop existing for you.”
“What would it mean to do enough, I wondered, as I had wondered before about that obligation to others that sometimes seems so clear and sometimes disappears altogether, so that now we owe nothing, anything we give is too much, and now our debt is beyond all counting.”
“He had always been alone, I thought, gazing at a world in which he had never found a place and that was now almost perfectly indifferent to him; he was incapable even of disturbing it, of making a sound it could be bothered to hear.”
“the poorly typed lines, the symbols and abbreviations of Internet chat that make such language seem so much like a process of decay. As”
“There was something in his manner of seduction, no show of desire at all; what he offered was a transaction, and again he showed no disappointment when reflexively and without hesitation I said no to him. It was the answer I had always given to such proposals (which are inevitable in the places I frequent), not out of any moral conviction but out of pride, a pride that had weakened in recent years, as I realized I was being shifted by the passage of time from one category of erotic object to another.”
“I realized that my pleasure wasn’t lessened by his absence, that what was surely a betrayal (we had our contract, though it had never been signed, never set in words at all) had only refined our encounter, allowing him to become more vividly present to me even as I was left alone on my stained knees, and allowing me, with all the freedom of fantasy, to make of him what I would.”
“He caught me and held my gaze without welcome or warmth or any hint of what we had shared, and my sense of having violated something, of having looked where I shouldn’t have faded, as I understood that this was what he wanted me to see all along, that I was there not as guard but as audience. I was there to see how different from me he was, how free of the foulness my father had shown him; and now that I had seen it, I knew our friendship had run its course.”
“But I’m your son, which was my only appeal and the last thing I would say. He made a dismissive sound, almost a laugh, and then he spoke again, with a snarling voice I had never heard before, he said The hell you are. He went on, he spoke without stopping, A faggot, he said, if I had known you would never have been born. You disgust me, he said, do you know that, you disgust me, how could you be my son? As I listened to him say these things it was as though even as I laid claim to myself I found there was nothing to claim, nothing or next to nothing, as though I were dissolving and my tears were the outward sign of that dissolution.”
“I grew up at the height of the AIDS panic, when desire and disease seemed essentially bound together, the relationship between them not something that could be managed but absolute and unchangeable, a consequence and its cause. Disease was the only story anyone ever told about men like me where I was from, and it flattened my life to a morality tale, in which I could be either chaste or condemned. Maybe that’s why, when I finally did have sex, it wasn’t so much pleasure I sought as the exhilaration of setting aside restraint, of pretending not to be afraid, a thrill of release so intense it was almost suicidal.”
“I had been sick before, of course, but this felt more than sickness, like a physical confirmation of shame.”
“That’s all care is, I thought, it’s just looking at a thing long enough, why should it be a question of scale? This seemed like a hopeful thought at first, but then it’s hard to look at things, or to look at them truly, and we can’t look at many at once, and it’s so easy to look away.”
“Sometimes we talked the whole night long, as one does only in adolescence or very early in love. I was happy, but also I felt an anxiety that gnawed at me and for which I could find no cause, that gnawed at me more deeply precisely because I could find no cause.”
“Love isn’t just a matter of looking at someone, I think now, but also of looking with them, of facing what they face.”
“As we joined the line of people getting off at the last stop before Sofia, I looked once more at the little boy, whom I felt I would never forget, though maybe it wasn’t exactly him I would remember, I thought, but the use I would make of him. I had my notes, I knew I would write a poem about him, and then it would be the poem I remembered, which would be both true and false at once, the image I made replacing the real image. Making poems was a way of loving things, I had always thought, of preserving them, of living moments twice; or more than that, it was a way of living more fully, of bestowing on experience a richer meaning. But that wasn’t what it felt like when I looked back at the boy, wanting a last glimpse of him; it felt like a loss. Whatever I could make of him would diminish him, and I wondered whether I wasn’t really turning my back on things in making them into poems, whether instead of preserving the world I was taking refuge from it.”
“… my mother reached over and laid her hand on my arm, saying that was true, … and I felt something twist in me, the motion of some unthinking thing when it is gripped too hard, and I had to resist the urge to pull away.”
“He stopped then, as if he realized he had gone too far, had leaned too hard on the fiction of our relationship and felt the false surface give way.”

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La Symphonie Pastorale and Isabelle – Andre Gide

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

A country priest takes into his home a blind orphan with the purpose of educating her, but develops a deep love for her.

The title refers to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (also known as the Pastoral Symphony) which the pastor takes Gertrude to hear. It also refers to the pastor’s own symphony with Gertrude. His wife, Amélie, resents Gertrude because the pastor dedicates more attention to Gertrude than to their five children. She tries to prompt him to a recognition of the true nature of his feelings for the young woman in his care. Her ability to “see” is contrasted with the “blindness” of the pastor in this regard and the reader is invited to judge him on his intellectual dishonesty. The pastor takes the Bible very seriously and tries to preserve Gertrude’s innocence by protecting her from the concept of sin.

Because the pastor is really the main character in Gertrude’s limited world, she feels herself to be in love with him and to some extent he has similar feelings toward her. When his eldest son Jacques, who is about the same age as Gertrude, asks to marry her the pastor becomes jealous and refuses despite the fact that Jacques is obviously in love with her.

Gertrude eventually gets an operation to repair her eyesight and, having gained the ability to see, realizes that she loves Jacques and not the pastor. However, Jacques has renounced his love for her, converted to Catholicism and become a monk. She attempts suicide by jumping into a river, but is rescued and contracts pneumonia. She realizes that the pastor is an old man, and the man she pictured when she was blind was Jacques. She tells the pastor this shortly before her death.

lsp-2Isabelle is the tale of a young man whose studies take him to the remote country home of an eccentric family, where he falls in love with a portrait of their absent daughter. As he unravels the mystery of her absence, he is forced to abandon his passionate ideal.

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Guapa by Saleem Haddad

guapaThe author of the novel recently gave a talk which some members were able to attend. This provided a valuable insight into some of the questions asked about the book during our discussion.

The name of the novel was questioned, specifically the use of the titular word in the feminine form; was it in reference to the supposed effeminacy of homosexuality? However the name was apparently imposed by the publisher, so the author’s intent is very much negligible in this instance.

The book was considered a page turner. That the author captured the naivety and directness of the Middle East was appreciated. Reference was swiftly made to one of the more humorous lines in the book, shouted out as an insult by a taxi driver; “may sixty dicks ride your mother’s pussy”. The line” the burka wasn’t a problem until the Americans got involved” was also highlighted.

The location of the novel was of interest, and some felt it could have been set in Jordan or Syria. One member questioned whether the location was non-descript in order to make it more accessible, or less alien, to an international reader, whilst another added that the ambiguity of its setting made it a more difficult read. One member suggested it was intentionally kept ambiguous for fear of reprisals, though another, who attended the talk with the author confirmed the ambiguity was in order to protect the work the author undertakes in the location. Despite this noble intent, one member felt the lack of physical setting was a real loss to the novel.

The political upheaval of the book was felt to keep coming in and out of focus, despite the novel only covering a 24 hour period. Although there was brevity in the period the main narrative covered, most of the protagonist’s life was covered by protagonist’s remembrances.

Some felt the main problem of the book was its naivety; it was felt the difficulties between the oppressive regime and the resistance wasn’t explored sufficiently and we just get the characters ‘fighting their oppressors in a gay bar’.

It was felt that Rasa focussed on trying to ‘fit’ in each environment we find him in, but that he regularly fails to. Always the ‘outsider’, he is accused of being white by an African American. The character painted himself as a victim, yet had the freedom to leave the politically volatile, repressed, homophobic environment we find him in; he even travelled to the US, perhaps only in a bid to explore a perceived sexual liberation, but chooses to return home, despite its negative impact. However, it was noted that Rasa doesn’t live a life secluded in the cosier environs of the gay bar and company of his liberal friends, but regularly travels to the less affluent parts of the city, for the purposes of both work and leisure.

One member was annoyed by the lack of Rasa’s political and sexual awareness during his time in the US. Another membered countered by stating most gay men, or indeed human beings, are not particularly politically aware.

Although Rasa’s oppressive, traditional Grandmother was recognised as of strong character, a member felt she was hideous and would have liked to have got rid of her himself. However, the lead character was considered weak or lacking depth by some, with a member questioning who ‘he’ was. Others felt he didn’t carry the story and that he was ‘wet’ The questionable depth of the characters extended to some of the other main characters, such as Nora, the owner of the bar Rasa and his liberal cohorts frequent.

It was felt that the book would have benefitted from being written from the perspective of Rasa’s friend Maj; an overtly camp, resident drag queen from the titular bar. Rasa’s reminiscences illustrate the character as never being far from trouble and how Rasa has always been the one to get him out of whichever scrape Maj gets himself into. Whilst Rasa was somewhat passive in his political and sexual identity, Maj was always overtly himself and being actively political in being so. Despite the consequences of Maj being himself, without restraint, regularly results in danger, violence and, pertinently to the main story, police intervention, Maj remains unwilling to restrain the presentation of his identity. He is therefore recognised as a stronger, more dynamic character than the lead.

“Before I met Taymour I had no reason to tell anyone anything. And then, when I had him I wanted to share my joy with the world.”

“Watching him walk to his car, I felt light as air, as if the weight that had been bearing down on me for years was gone, and I was now like everyone else.” And finally this passage: “When I returned to the bedroom I noticed his red boxer shorts on the floor by my bed. Had he forgotten them, or did he leave them there for me? I looked for my own underwear but could not find it. Surely he must have noticed, as he pulled on his gym shorts, that he was wearing not his underwear but mine. Maybe it was a message, a promise that he would be back.”
“Don’t go to the wedding.”

“I have to go. It’s eib not to go.”

“The tyranny of eib.” Maj sighs. = بنك الاستثمار الأوروبي = shame on you

“May sixty dicks dance on your mother’s pussy,” the driver barks, leaning into his horn..

“Khawal refers to effeminate men. A long time iTezlo the word referred to male belly dancers. But it’s not used for that anymore.”

“Is it used for gay?” I asked.

“What …what did you say?” he stammered.

“Don’t use that word here,” he said, eyes narrowing. He licked his lips, stood up from behind his desk, and ushered me to the door.

It was funny that both English and Arabic have so many words that explored every dimension of what I was feeling, and yet not one word that could encapsulate it all.

In my final year of high school, I discovered POLSKA­SAT. It was Omar who, in excitable whispers over the phone one day, first told me about the obscure Polish channel that you could get on the satellite if you knew the exact frequency. That Saturday night, after Teta yawned and announced she was going to bed, I waited until her snores traveled across the quiet house and then scrolled through the channels until I arrived at POLSKASAT.
To top off her wages, on Fridays Teta wore her hijab and black abaya and went to the mosque down the road to collect donations, and on Sundays she wore a crucifix and drove to the near­est town. She hid among the churchgoers, stood up and sat down when they did. She knew when to say “Kyrie Eleison,” and she even took communion. Then, as the charity box was handed out, she reached in and took her weekly stipend.

I was angry about my education, with its ancient and rigid teaching methods peppered with false truths and blatant lies, where the only goal was to make us forget how to criticize and ask challenging ques­tions.

The next evening I listened to the American president’s solemn declaration of war. I watched the footage of bombs dropping on a city that looked like my own, and realized that from now until the day I died that city would not be what it had been. It had become shorthand to describe an event. Thecountry that once existed was no more. It had changed the moment the first bomb fell through the dark sky. Before the war had even claimed its first human life, the first victim was the city itself. A concept, a history, a culture.

the hijab meant nothing until America decided it did.

Maj laughs. “By the very nature of being a religious cleric they must be delusional. Besides, Islam or not, there is a long acceptance of homosexuality by Arab society that stretches back to the pre-Islamic period. It was those prud­ish Victorians who spoiled the party.”

“And you’re wrong, Rasa,” Nora says. “When God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, it was not because of homosexuality, it was about lustful acts in general, and criminality, and general debauchery, really…”

“If I get married to a woman, which I don’t suppose will happen if I can get away with it, but if I do, then I will have children.”

He put his arm around me and I leaned back.

“What about if you were with a man, would you adopt?” I said, watching him hover above me.

“Absolutely not.” He pulled me back up in one clean swoop. “It’s unnatural.”

“It’s unnatural for two men who love each other to adopt a child? Why?”

“I don’t know, it just is,” he said. “It’s against soci­ety.” We tripped on each other’s legs. “It’s one-two­three-turn, right?”

I nodded. “What is society though? I mean what are the rules of society?”

“It’s just against society,” he repeated, and gave me a kiss.

And so the next day I told Maj that I felt that two men should not be allowed to adopt children. I tried the argu­ment on for size and heard myself say it, just to see what it was like. To my surprise Maj agreed with me, saying that adopting children was a heteronormative performance that sought to castrate queerness.

“Maybe we should go protest.”

“Yes, yes. Great idea. Let’s go protest. Against who?” “Against everyone. Against everything.”

“Sounds good,” Maj says. “But first, maybe a drink or two at Guapa.”

guapa-2 The Long Way

The memory returns to me so vividly I feel I am back there, at 14, in the backseat of that taxi. At the time my father had been dead for 18 months, my mother had vanished the year before that, I was magically sprouting hair in places I was not expecting, and I was still sharing a bed with Teta.

I was returning from a history lesson at Maj’s house. We were both struggling with the material. Our school followed the British curriculum, which meant we had to study the history of Europe and the World Wars: the Kaiser, the Treaty of Versailles, then Churchill and Stalin. It all seemed like another universe to us, so Teta and Maj’s mother agreed to share the costs of a private tutor.

I hailed a taxi outside Maj’s house and got into the backseat, as Teta directed me to do when riding in taxis alone. The man behind the wheel was young, though I couldn’t make out his age: perhaps 18, maybe 20. He was wearing a tight red T-shirt that gripped his body. He drove without speaking. A familiar pressure inside me began to build. It was a terrible choking sensation that had been growing in the months since I lost my parents. I had no control over my destiny, and everything around me could suddenly die or run away.

I rolled down the window and pressed the back of my head against the leather seat. The crisp November air felt cold against my face, releasing the pressure somewhat. Through the streetlights, which lit up the inside of the car in recurring waves, I saw that the driver’s forearms were potholed with scars. I admired the way his T-shirt stretched tightly against his chest. His arms broke out in large goose bumps.

“Shut the window, it’s cold,” he said. I rolled up the window, feeling the choking sensation close in on me once more. I watched the muscles in the driver’s arms tighten as he shifted gears. The large veins running under his skin awoke a sensation inside me I had never felt before. I wanted to connect with him in some way, to be closer to him somehow.

“Is this your taxi?” I asked.

“My brother’s,” he said. His jaw clicked as he chewed a piece of gum. He sighed and put one arm behind the passenger seat while steering with the other. I looked at the hand resting behind the seat. His fingers were decorated with gold and silver rings. Dark black dirt was wedged underneath his fingernails. I glanced down at my own fingernails, which Doris had clipped earlier that day.

I tried to imagine what this man’s life was like, outside of this taxi. His rough accent meant he probably lived in al-Sharqiyeh, maybe in a tiny room that smelled of fried onions and cigarettes, because that’s what I imagined al-Sharqiyeh would smell like. How much did we have in common, he and I? If I knew then what I know now, I would have put our differences down to a complex algorithm of class and culture. But back then I did not know about any of that, so I stuck to what we had in common: the car we were both sitting in.

“Do you drive this taxi often?” I asked.

“One or two nights a week,” he replied, making a turn into the side street that took us off the highway and toward my new neighborhood downtown.

“Do you enjoy it?”

“Enjoy what?” His eyes flicked up to look at me through the rearview mirror. His eyes were a cool gray, almost silver. “Driving the taxi,” I said, holding his gaze as I played with the dog-eared corners of the history books on my lap.

“It’s just a job,” he said, turning back to the road. “Well what do you like doing when you’re not driving the taxi? Do you watch television?” Teta fed me on a diet of dubbed Mexican telenovelas, American television shows, and an endless stream of news. Perhaps his television set also showed those channels.

“I don’t have spare time. When I’m not driving, I work on a construction site.”

The next turn would take us to my street. I felt a sudden panic. I wanted to spend more time with this man. We were moving closer to something new and exciting. I wanted to be his friend. And not just any friend, not like Maj or Basma, but a friend who would always be around, someone I could hug and be close to. My insides were buzzing. I wanted him to keep on driving, to take me out of this sad town, far away from that empty apartment with Doris and Teta.

“Is that why you have big muscles?” I scrambled to find a way to delay our separation. He glanced at me, studied my face for a while, clicked his chewing gum. Then his lips turned to form a crooked smile.

“Come up here and sit next to me,” he said.

I hesitated. It would be eib to say no, although it also felt eib to say yes. Stuck between two eibs, I left the books in the back and climbed into the passenger seat. We drove past Teta’s apartment. He took a right into a dark street and parked the car between two large trees. He unzipped his jeans and pulled out his thing. It stood between us, hard, like an intruder to an intimate conversation. Instinctively, I reached out and grabbed it, and he let out a slight moan. I studied the thing in my hand, feeling it grow in my palm.

“Yalla,” he whispered as his eyes scanned the area. “Huh?”

“Put your mouth on it,” he said impatiently.

I swallowed and bent down. He smelled sour and hot. I put his thing in my mouth and looked up for further instructions.

“Wet your mouth, wet your mouth,” he hissed. “Your tongue is like sandpaper.”

I swallowed a few more times until my mouth was wet, and this time the process went more smoothly. He seemed happy with this and sighed. He pressed down on my neck but he remained alert, his head darting back and forth as if following a game of tennis. I was down for a few minutes when my excitement began to disappear, replaced with a strong sense of guilt that I was making a terrible mistake.

I struggled, concentrating on breathing through my nose and not gagging each time he pushed my head down. I wasn’t sure how long this would last. He groaned. My mouth filled with salty slime. The warm hand at the back of my neck disappeared.

“Get out now before someone sees,” he said, zipping his trousers up. I wiped my mouth, took my books from the backseat, and got out of the car. The man started up the engine, reversed out onto the road, and sped off.

I looked around. There was no one. The awkward feeling slowly disappeared, and the memory of what happened seemed sweeter. I stored bits of it for later: the warm hand on the back of my neck, the sour smell, the shape of his thing in my mouth. I relived those memories as I walked home. Teta looked up when I came through the door. I was terrified to face her. She always seemed to know everything. This was something she should never know. She was sitting in her nightgown, cracking roasted sunflower seeds between her teeth. On the television the news showed footage of bombs dropping on a busy neighborhood.

“You found a taxi?” she asked, picking at bits of seed lodged between her teeth.

For a moment I thought she might be able to tell just by looking at me, or that she would smell the taxi driver on my clothes and face. I swallowed hard, feeling the salty slime slide down my throat. It felt scratchy, like I was coming down with a cold.

“Yes, but he took the long way,” I said, trying to look as natural as I could. I took a deep breath. This was the first lie I had ever told Teta, and as I said this a part of me split from her forever. The gooey liquid in the back of my throat felt far away from the words coming out of my mouth. I was two people now, in two separate realities, where the rules in one were suspended and different from those in the other.

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Leaving Alexandria – R.Holloway


The member who suggested the book explained the reasons for his choice:

The author was the curate of his local church, St. Ninians, and a friend of his mother; he knew people named in the book.

Aspects of the last 120 pages were very pertinent as a gay man and as an atheist. It contained a humanity and stimulus that was incredibly moving. Particular emphasis was drawn to the passage:
“Churches do not speak; they listen. Clergy speak, unstoppably. They are ‘randy’ to change, challenge or shame people into successful living. Church buildings that stay open to all know better. They understand helplessness and the weariness of failure, and have for centuries absorbed them into the mercy of their silence. This is grace. Unearned unreserved unconditional acceptance of unchanging failure, our last failure, our dying. The unclosed church is the home of the destitute and the dead. And since we go on failing and dying, some of us will go on gravitating to these places that do not shut themselves against our need.”

Several members found the following, equally stark passage, noteworthy and intended to reference it during the meeting:

“It’s hard when you discover that the person you are is not someone you admire; not the person you want to be; not cut out to be a saint.”

But the author uses another quote, perhaps in reference to the etymology of the name ‘Adam’, as a perfect foil to that disappointment: “you can’t always expect dust to be up to the mark”.
The ‘character’ portrayed in the book polarised members, with one stating that “he really disliked him and found him superficial”, another claiming that “he liked him, but then went off him”. Whilst one member found him to be interesting, wise, thoughtful and compassionate and another had a “deep respect for him”, others found him duplicitous and untrustworthy.
This led to significant discussion about the author’s motives for his career trajectory; as a man possessed of significant doubts about his faith for most of his life. Following on from the author’s false claim of being a social worker, a member suggested the author was just a social worker in priest’s clothing. It was questioned whether the author just utilised the framework of Christianity to fulfil his humanist agenda, whether storytelling is the same as faith and whether the author was perpetuating a myth for the sake of a career. His choosing to take the position of Bishop was even considered hypocritical by some. However others suggested he drifted from one job role to another, from one fashionable doctrine to another and that he was more into the “smells and bells” of the religion than the one true word.
Whilst Holloway’s unswerving dedication to his ecclesiastical flock is evident throughout the book, questions were asked about his dedication to his familial flock and the effect the author’s humanist, communal slant on Christianity had on his wife and children. Whilst the absence of his father in his early life was referenced towards the beginning of the book, it was suggested the author’s focus on his parishioners illustrated a similar absence for his children. The notion of presence and absence is a common theme in the book.
One aspect more than one member highlighted was the author’s experience of the natural landscape around him and how the author found unity in his immediate landscape. The relationship he had with the churches, the physical buildings, in which he ministered, is also well documented; whilst he has a love the interior of Old St. Paul’s in Edinburgh, he cares little for the exterior. It is the quite the opposite with The Church of the Advent in Boston.
Although the story is presented as a chronological, autobiographical account, a member questioned why the author’s experience of National Service was only allowed one paragraph. It is however pertinent that the book is not a warts and all memoir, but specifically a memoir of the author’s faith and doubt. One can only suspect that his faith was on an even keel for that period of his life.
A majority of members commented how they wouldn’t have entertained reading the book given the choice, due to it being of an overtly Christian nature, but most agreed they were pleased to have read it. Despite our mixed feelings towards the author, it was felt refreshing he was so willing to be open about his struggles with faith and that he maintained such a progressive attitude towards homosexuality. That he was willing to sidestep centuries-old traditions with acts of open rebellion, such as marrying same-sex couples, decades before it was ‘legal’ to do so, is a case in point.
Although the inherent earnestness of the subject Faith is apparent throughout the book it does not become at all overbearing or oppressive and is regularly diluted by conversely lighter moments, such as the relaying of The Carriage Room story and the absurdity of the mitre-tossing escapade.

Additional Comments from the group:

The author preached at St. Paul’s, Clifton, in the aftermath of the Operation Spanner S&M trial and included the immortal words: ‘if you want to nail your willy to the floor that’s not my bag but I don’t see why the plods should be involved.’

Two of our group know Kelham. Two of us know the author.

One of us shares his issue about sacramental confession though it could sometimes be a positive experience, helping people to accept their sexuality rather than to fight it.

There are good descriptions of places entwined with his memories.

Phrases, often biblical allusions, are repeated throughout – sermon style.

There’s only one paragraph about his National Service. What happened?

He describes his reactions to the concelebrated masses at the Catholic Renewal Conference (it wasn’t a ‘conference’ – we didn’t get time to confer/discuss – we were lectured at from dawn to dusk) at Loughborough. I had the same thoughts at the time – like a National Socialist rally. He feels similar misgivings at the Lambeth Conference, so mischaired by George Carey (though he is more charitable than I am about ‘Uncle George’). It was this conference that rebelled against a nuanced, prepared statement about homosexuality by shrill demands and voted on hastily prepared homophobic resolutions.


I became emotionally fixated on another novice. It crept over me like sadness, more like falling in regret than falling in love. He was a year ahead of me, so I became aware of his presence only gradually. Easy to overlook, he was short, slight and almost nun-like in his demeanour. It wasn’t hard to believe that when he made the journey back to his seat from the sanctuary after communion he was genuinely oblivious to those around him. He moved quietly, economically, with short, quick steps, head tilted slightly forward, eyes downcast. The eyes were my undoing. They were large, a startlingly pale blue, fringed with long black lashes. His black hair, kept short, was wiry. But that was not the word I wanted to use. It suggested hardness, tautness, whereas he had the kind of beauty that evoked protectiveness, and a desire to shelter such delicacy from life’s storms. His skin was smooth and almost beardless, with a suggestion of light emanating from it.

I was surprised the first time I heard him speak. I expected a high voice. Instead I heard this creamy baritone that was so unexpected I wanted to hear him laugh. I can’t remember anything he ever said, but I can remember how he said it. He had none of the faux intellectuality of a lot of the other students. He didn’t think of himself as clever or bright or with anything particularly interesting to say. He was sideways and quirky in his angle on things, and there was something absolutely right about his take on people. No phoniness. Nothing posed. Utterly himself. I was bewitched by the completeness of the man, the oneness of the inner with the outer, the physical beauty that perfectly expressed his sweet and unexpected strangeness. It would be wrong to say that he did not have a man’s body, though it would be truer to say that he did not yet have a man’s body. He had the beautifully unformed body of a boy, neither soft nor hard, neither male nor female. He was a year ahead of me, yet I felt a century older. I was intensely drawn to him, yet his beauty reduced me to incoherence. For what could I do with such a feeling? It reduced everything else to emptiness. I don’t think I wanted to possess him physically, or not in any sense I understood or could express. All I wanted was to be with him or at least be near him. Actually, I wanted never to be anywhere else. Since this was impossible, my life became a kind of mourning. As the weeks passed I withdrew into dejec­tion. If I could not be with him always then I must just be by myself. Increasingly, I was. Life at Kelham was busy, but it did allow time to hang out with friends, to walk with them, share a joke, gossip. I became a ghost to all of that, wandering round the edges. When I wasn’t reading gloomy Russian novels, I took it on myself, uninvited by anyone in authority, to do extra gardening jobs in the grounds, cutting weeds, hacking at over­grown bushes, raking gravel paths, anything that used up energy, though nothing ever turned off the ache of wanting to be with him, only with him.

I didn’t know how he felt about me. He must have known about the impact he had on people, must have known that they flirted with him, that he flirted back. He never flirted with me, though sometimes when I came out of the woods in which I was brooding and approached him he would smile with delight, though I was always too awkward to stay around him for long. These inconclusive encounters were almost as painful as my long silent absences. Then, though I can’t remember how it came about, it was agreed that we would take our two weeks’ summer leave together in Cornwall, ending with a visit to his widowed mother in Plymouth. We would hitch-hike south, taking our time, stopping at bed and break­fast places along the way. It was late August, and drivers were inclined to stop for two men in cassocks. I was quietly happy just being with him. We had the kind of ease in each other’s company that allowed us to be silent when there was nothing to be said or when neither of us felt like speaking. The rosebay willowherb, flaming by the roadside, was beginning to send its seeds into the warm autumn wind. The drivers who picked us up chatted inconsequentially, asking us what religion we were. I hardly noticed. We got to Cornwall on a Saturday evening and found it hard to find a place to stay. One friendly B&B proprietor told us it would be busy everywhere in Po1p­erro that weekend, but his cousin a few miles out of town on a farm sometimes took people in. Would we like him to phone? It was a three-mile walk through lush green country­side. The farmer’s wife gave us high tea when we arrived, after showing us the room. It was the only one they had available and would we mind sharing the double bed? We accepted the arrangement and took a walk over the fields after the meal. We were supposed to wear our cassocks everywhere in public, but was this public? We left them in the room and walked in our shorts and shirts.

After the walk we decided to head for bed. It had been a tiring day, with a lot of hiking between lifts. To my surprise, he suggested that we should sleep on different sides of the top sheet. I was already under it, so he got into bed on top of it, under the blanket, thereby creating a frail yet absolute barrier between us. I was puzzled by his insistence, but didn’t question it, didn’t ask why it concerned him. I had not figured that in bed one plus one can sometimes equal one. We did not enact that arithmetic, but I sometimes wonder what would have followed had we done so All I know is that my need for his presence was not assuaged by our days together…decades later… I remembered him who was wearing it. How could I not? We spoke to each other briefly that evening before I went into silence. I discovered that he was back in England after thirty years in South Africa. He was seeking release from his vows to the Society, vows pledged under the great dome that softened the jagged silhouette I always searched for above the distant trees as the train rushed through Newark. He was another leaver. He looked tougher, more weathered, both within and without, but he was much as I remembered him We did not reminisce about the holiday we had taken together in Devon and Cornwall many summers ago. On my last evening I made my confession to him in the convent chapel. As I expected, he was gentle. He knew whereof I was made, remembered I was but dust. And as Father Stanton used to say to the poor of late nineteenth-century London from the pulpit of Saint Alban’s Holborn, ‘You can’t always expect dust to be up to the mark.’ I wasn’t up to the mark either, but I experi­enced absolution’s rush as my old companion spoke the familiar words over me. He came out to see me into my car the next morning, the morning of my departure. I was about to turn the key in the ignition when I remembered the rosebay willowherb flaming at the roadside that long ago summer. I mentioned it, recalled the vacation we had taken together.

We were in love,’ he said.

`Yes,’ I replied. A quiet disturbance threaded my mind, an invisible procession going by. ‘Can I do anything for you, help in any way?’

`A radio,’ he said. ‘I’d like a transistor radio for the flat I’m moving into.’

`Is that all I can do?’

`That’s all.’

I promised to send him one (and did) and drove off to take my vows in Edinburgh. The disturbance came with me, carrying the memory of an old disappointment.


It is often assumed that gay men are attracted to Anglo-Catholicism because of the drama of the ceremonial. Holloway delves deeper and dispels this myth in a way I’ve never heard before: there is no doubt that Anglo-Catholicism, as it evolved, became attractive to gay men, though the reasons for this are probably more theo­logically rooted than is commonly understood. The high camp aesthetic of the more florid wings of the movement was clearly attractive to a certain kind of gay sensibility, as anyone who has had to negotiate a high mass in one of the more fashionable outposts of Anglo-Catholicism will testify. This is surface attrac­tion, however, and there is usually a certain amount of self-parody going on. At a deeper level something more interesting and more moving is happening. Even in societies that have stopped persecuting homosexuals, gays remain a minority community, and minorities are always under some kind of threat from the surrounding majority, even if it is only from their curiosity about or incomprehension over their sex lives. Gays will always be outsiders in straight commu­nities, and it is their status as outsiders that draws some of them to Christianity and, in particular, to its Anglo-Catholic variant. I have known many gay priests over the years. What has moved me most about their persistence in remaining within a Church that at best only grudgingly accepts them, and at worst actively persecutes them, is their identification not with campery and high jinks in the sanctuary, but with the figure of Jesus, the great Outsider. Many of them intuit that Jesus was himself probably gay, but whether or not that was the case, there is no doubt of his appeal to the rejected and discarded in ancient Israel, an appeal that is still strong today. This meant that, at its best, Anglo-Catholicism was a form of Christianity that was hospitable to the unrespectable, to people who were not good at bringing their desires to heel, people who knew their need of mercy and forgiveness because they were never going to qualify morally for entrance into sure of the more respectable religions.


I was also ignoring the rule about not marrying the divorced in Church, another matter on which the Bishop hewed to the official line. I did not think of the divorced people who came to me as items in an abstract category called The Divorced, but as individuals with unique stories and therefore exceptions to general rules. Not that I agreed with the rule. It was the same when I performed my first gay marriage ten years later at Old St Paul’s in Edinburgh. It was obvious that I could not refuse the sincere request of Peter and Richard to hear them promise to live together till death. I heard their vows in the Lady Chapel one evening after Evensong, using the form of the Prayer Book wedding service: and it took death to separate them, thirty-seven years later. What I did not reflect on at the time was that this untroubled capacity for ignoring rules that struck me as inhumane or silly defined me as an anarchist. I am not using the word in the organised, programmatic sense normally associated with the term. I no more believe in anar­chism than I believe in any other kind of ism.


It would be wrong to give the impression that the life of a bishop, or the life of the Church for that matter, is one of constant struggle and controversy. Religion is certainly a vexa­tious subject, and it gives rise to a lot of disagreement, as the history of splits and schisms in Christianity clearly indicates. But if conflict is a constant in Christian history, so is consola­tion, and the Church’s ancient ministry of comfort to the afflicted goes a long way towards mitigating its record for discord and intolerance. Even bishops can be useful here. If not by rolling up their purple sleeves and getting themselves stuck in, certainly by identifying areas of need in their community and finding the right people to tackle them. I had already encoun­tered HIV/AIDS in Boston and seen it scything remorselessly through the gay community. I had heard the hatred the epidemic had prompted from some sections of the Christian community I had also seen other sections of the Church organise itself to respond with love to people who were HIV-positive and to those with full-blown AIDS. I had seen the crisis bring out the best and the worst in people, but it was the best that prevailed and, in the end, it silenced the taunting voices of the Christian Right. It was to prevail in Edinburgh as well.


Catching up with the press on my return to Scotland, I was surprised to see that Edinburgh had been labelled ‘The AIDS Capital of Europe’. The demography of the epidemic was different to the one in Boston, however. It was certainly taking its toll of gay men, but the biggest risk group were intravenous drug users, and dirty needles were identified as the culprits. This new twist in the story of the virus, now an irresistible combination of sex and drugs, was a delicious mix for the puritan mind to obsess about. We heard all the traditional anthems that identified HIV as God’s judgement on sin, but they were more muted than in the States, and we did not waste much energy opposing them. I was already clear that there was no point in negotiating with fundamentalists. By definition, they did not negotiate. You had to accept them as an inevitable part of the dramatis personae of the human comedy, like the old man who for years had been walking Princes Street wearing a sand­wich board announcing that The End of the World is Nigh. We didn’t argue; we organised. As was the case in the US, the medical profession was in the forefront. Soon free needle-exchanges were set up and free condoms were handed out in clinics and health centres. A hospice for the dying, Milestone House, named after an old Roman milestone found near the site, was opened in 1991 by Princess Diana, who continued to support its work till her own death.


The churches of Edinburgh across the ecumenical spectrum weren’t far behind the doctors in rising to the challenge, and a host of imaginative ventures was established. One, conceived and administered by Helen Mein, the wife of a priest in the diocese, was called Positive Help. As the label suggested, its large team of volunteers provided help and support to people with HIV and AIDS, such as driving them from Edinburgh’s most afflicted housing scheme on the north side of the capital for treatment at the City Hospital and Milestone House, miles away on the south side. Jeannie did her share of ferrying. Like many of the clergy, I gave my support to a lot of these activ­ities. I sat on committees and spoke at events, but the biggest contribution I made was to identify the unusual gifts of a woman in the diocese, whom I appointed as our chaplain to people affected by HIV/AIDS. She was an example of the hidden work of love that goes on everywhere behind Christian­ity’s bluster and posturing, and helps to redeem them. She possessed in abundance a gift I conspicuously lacked. It was the gift I had already noticed and envied in Lilias and Geoff back in our Gorbals days, the capacity to abandon their own interests and preferences and, as Hugh MacDiarmid put it in the poem I have already quoted, sink:

. . . without another care

To that dread level

of nothing but life itself.


MacDiarmid went on to describe it as the capacity for ‘mere being’, and he thought it was more common in women than in men. It is the ability to wait beside someone when the waiting is all that can be done or ought to be done. I have been too driven and purposeful in my life to be good at this, and that failure is now one of my deepest regrets. I have, of course, screwed myself up to do it when I had to. I have waited by bedsides of the sick and dying, but I have always been conscious of the meter whirring away inside my impatient soul, calling me to the next thing and the next. Jane Millard had the capacity for waiting, the ability to sink to the level of nothing but life itself, and she had it to an unimaginable degree. During the heavy early years of the epidemic in Edinburgh, before doctors developed combined drug therapies that kept people alive, AIDS as still a death sentence, and a grim one. This meant that Jane’s was a parish of the dying and the grieving. It meant waiting, again and again, beside men and women whose young Lives were being stolen from them by the virus. It took its toll on her, the way war takes its toll on soldiers who live with relentless grief. At the height of the crisis she was involved in two hundred funerals. An aspect of the art of her ministry was to craft services that gave expression to anger as well as grief. Above all, it was an art that celebrated the courage and humour of those she had accompanied to the end. Of enormous cost to her were sixty long vigils she kept by the bedsides of dying friends, as she helped them slip their moorings and drift from life. During these vigils she kept notes scribbled on the backs of envelopes or any other scraps of paper she could lay her hands on at the time. She called her scraps ‘Fragments of the Watch’. In one of our regular meetings to find out how she was coping, she told me about them, and I asked to see them. The next time we met she brought them in a plastic bag. Scraps of torn envelopes, pages from old notebooks, anything she could lay her hands on at the time to record the going out of another life. They were more moving to me than the famous `AIDS Quilt’ that was touring the world at the time. In 1987 a group in San Francisco had started the Names Project, in which three-by-six foot quilted panels, memorialising those who had died of AIDS in America, were stitched into a quilt. As the toll mounted, the quilt kept growing till it could have filled hundreds of football pitches. Part of it came to Edinburgh, and I went to see it. It was hard not to be stunned by the loss of these thousands of young lives, each represented by the tender art of the quilter. It reminded me of how hurt I felt at Old Saint Paul’s when, after leading them down the stairs and under the bridge to their final resting place, I had to come back and write the names of the dead in that heavy old book in the sacristy. Death had undone so many, and I had to write down their names. Jane’s fragments brought back that sorrow. To sift through them was to touch worlds of grief. I asked her to let me publish them, but she refused. They were sacred to her and she wanted to keep them secret. More than twenty years later, she has allowed me to include four of them here in their raw state.

How do you think dying is?

I think I will fly

Bird or plane?

Bird, eagle or something

My mind fills with passages — Isaiah, psalms, already on my way to making his service of celebration and thanksgiving.

But he is very close to death now An eye flutters open. `Going by boat,’ he says distinctly.

Upsetting my plans.

So at his service I read the story where Peter walks on the water, and Our Lord catches him, and then gets into the boat to go the rest of the journey with him . . . just to make sure he gets there.

I only had one conversation with you, and only because I knew you had been a jockey, could discern it was something about horses. Your Mum and Dad had been sent for as you had taken another clip in your laboured breathing. I wanted you to know that you could just slip away, or wait for them to arrive, so I offered a journey.

It’s a crisp summer afternoon — a real Scottish summer — and you are riding down a path in a wood. The path is covered in forest debris, and the hooves make that muted thud of a measured stride. You are bareback, and can feel the warmth of his skin against yours, feel the power from his rippling muscles in the springy step of his keen walk.

It’s up to you when you move on a pace. Remember that you are bareback and will come to the point when you are losing control, his heaving, sweaty sides like glass. If you want to wait for them, keep him back under your control.

If you are ready, let the reins go slack and get the rush from the exhilarating gallop.

At the bottom of the track is a high gate. Jumping that is your transformation. Remember you are the one to urge him on or hold him back. You are in control.

Your Mum and Dad are on their way, and can be with you as you jump that gate if that’s what you want. He’s a wonderful horse, you are well matched. Ride well.

Days from dying, he insisted that he teach me to fish, and we made a precarious journey to Flotterstone so he could talk fishy tactics. In his day, he could catch fish with his hands.

When he was dying, he began to bleed heavily from most orifices, but the nurses graciously allowed me to accompany him undisturbed by clean bedding. The warmth of the blood on his thighs became the numbness of water on wading boots as I used his teaching from those few days before to take him fishing. I had in my mind’s eye that the scooping of the fish from the water in a rainbow of droplets would be his leaving But it wasn’t like that. He began to gulp air like a fish, he became that fish, and I couldn’t put him back in the water.

She was very afraid of dying. ‘I don’t want to die. Him upstairs will get a big stick and shout at me, tell me to go to hell. I’m frightened. I don’t want to be shouted at.’

And I hugged her, bereft of anything theological to say that sounded real, and she snuggled in.

`Talk to me,’ she whimpered.

`There was a man who had two sons . . .’ and I told her the story of the prodigal son and loving father.

Will you be with me when I die? Be sure and tell me that story.’

So I did, about an hour ago, now we are waiting for the undertakers.

At the height of the American epidemic a Manhattan doctor had reminded me of Camus’ words about another plague, that `there are more things to admire in men than to despise’. Holding Jane’s ‘Fragments of the Watch’ in my hands, I wondered if Camus’ words could be applied to the Church. I tried it: there are more things to admire in the Church than to despise. Not a bad fit, I thought. Not perfect, but good enough. And people don’t always hear it. They hear the scary voices. Sadly, there seemed to be a lot of Christians who liked making the scary voices. The congregations that were growing, the ones good at evangelising, were the scary ones, the ones that spoke with absolute convic­tion about everything. Conviction sells. Did that mean that uncertain, unjudging Christianity was on the way out? Or was there something we could do about it? Was liberal evangelism an oxymoron? Can there be an evangelism of uncertainty…?

the even more contentious issue of homosexuality.

As with women’s ordination, there was a wild variety of opinion on the subject. This time, however, the opposition’s tone was uglier. And no canonical condom was available, no get-out-of-gaol text to help us fudge the debate. Paul had not told us in his Letter to the Galatians that in Christ there was neither gay nor straight. What references there were in the Bible to homosexuality were all hostile. Stick to the Bible and you were stuck with hatred of gays. Fundamentalists from the Bible Belt understood the logic: God hates fags. What I hadn’t expected at Lambeth 1998 was to hear so many men in purple cassocks mouthing the same sentiments with the same ugly avidity.

I turned up not expecting the Communion to support gay rights, but I did expect a reprise of the Runcie strategy and I was firmly under the impression that the new Archbishop, George Carey, intended to steer us in that direction. There would, I assumed, be passionate debate, equally passionate disagreement, and ugly things would doubtless be said; a commission would then be appointed to consider the impact on the Communion of our disagreements — to report back before the Second Coming — and the problem would roll into the high grass for a generation. Meanwhile, provinces would deal with it in ways appropriate to their own context, as they had with women’s ordination, and we would muddle through again. I turned up at the campus in Canterbury with little enthusiasm, but with no idea that it would be as grim as it turned out to be. My own reception was not encouraging. As a patron of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, I had invited the bishops to a reception in Canterbury to meet some gay Christians. I did not expect all 749 bishops to attend, but I thought we would get a representative sample. I was wrong. To be fair to him, George Carey was one of the few opponents of change to turn up. I was moved when a young man told him that it had taken more courage for him to come out to the gay community as a Christian than it had to come out as a gay man to his family and friends. The gay community’s perception of Christianity was unsurprisingly negative, given the ugly things Christians said loudly about them. He hoped the conference would help to soften that perception.

In the event, the conference made it far worse, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, probably more out of naivety than collusion, allowed the African bishops to force an unconstitutional debate on a subject that had already been prudently dealt with by an official sub-group of the conference. He presided over the rout with smiling incomprehension as the damage was done. Bishop after bishop, mainly but not exclusively from Africa, got up to denounce the wickedness and animality of lovers of their own sex. There were some valiant African oppo­nents of the coup, including the Archbishops of South and Central Africa, but it pursued its ugly course to the end. A resolution was passed by a large majority, denouncing homosexuality as a practice incompatible with scripture and refusing to legitimise the blessing of same-sex unions or the ordination of homosexuals. But it was the tone of the debate that did the real damage. One American bishop, a man with a big heart and a small body, told me that he had been physically menaced by the bishops around him whenever he had raised his hand to vote against their increasingly intemperate resolutions. Imme­diately after the rout, on a grassy knoll outside the conference hall, a Nigerian bishop attempted to cast out the demons of homosexuality from Richard Kirker, the Director of the Gay and Lesbian Christian Movement, who had bravely challenged him about what had happened. A demon was released that afternoon, but it did not come out of the brave young man being apostrophised by the African prelate. A South African woman present at the conference as a consultant, a university professor, told me that what we had just witnessed was not just about African attitudes to homosexuality; it was an imperious assertion of male control over sex. One aspect of this had always been the control of women by men, but the other had been the ancient prohibition of sodomy because of the way it undermined the idea of male dominance in the sexual act. Andrea Dworkin had addressed the problem years before.

Can sodomy become a legal form of intercourse without irredeemably compromising male power over women, that power being premised on men being entirely distinct from women in use, in function, in posture and position, in role, in ‘nature’? Or will the legalisation of sodomy mortally injure the class power of men by sanctioning a fuck in which men are treated like women; the boundaries of men’s bodies no longer being, as a matter of social policy and divine right, inviolate?’

Behind Lambeth’s contempt for gay men, there lay a deeper contempt for women themselves, because they too are incapable of the fuck in this primordial sense. Men fuck. Women get fucked. Q.E.D. That was the demon that was released that afternoon, and it will never go back whence it came. It began the unravelling of the Anglican Communion that has been gathering pace ever since, an unravelling that the saintly scholar who succeeded George Carey at Canterbury will never be able to halt.

A Nigerian bishop had been spreading the rumour at Lambeth that my support for gay liberation was because my daughters were lesbians. He made the mistake of repeating the lie to the rector of a church in Connecticut where he went to preach after the conference. The rector, who had been one of my curates in Boston, challenged him on the claim, but he insisted it was true. It would not have mattered to me and Jeannie if it had been true, but it wasn’t. What it did was fortify my sense that there was a profound sickness at the heart of so-called Biblical morality, if it could lead to such hatred and cruelty. I wanted to get in my car and come home to Scotland. Michael Peers, the Archbishop of Canada, persuaded me to stick it out to the end. We helped put together a resolution apologising to the world’s lesbian and gay Christians for what the Lambeth Conference had said about them. Out of the 749 bishops present, 182 signed it, including the Primates of Brazil, Canada, Central Africa, Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa and Wales.

Finally the conference was over, with a sting in the tail, in the form of a meeting of the Primates who were asked to stay behind to review what had happened. I had a dust-up with George Carey during that fractious hour, but at last I was free to come north again. The only sweet memory I brought away with me was throwing my mitre into the Thames.


While at Old St Paul’s in Edinburgh and against the tenets of his church, Holloway had quietly been marrying gay couples since the 1970s. In the early 1980s, when he was Rector of the Church of the Advent in Boston – where coffee hour after High Mass was, according to a local magazine, “the best place for a gay pickup in Boston” – not only had he many homosexual parishioners, but he saw at first hand the ravages caused by Aids and the courage and grace of the gay community in responding to the epidemic. To see 700 bishops at the Lambeth conference be so virulently opposed to any rethinking of the Church’s attitudes to homosexuality was, he says, “one of the most horrifying and horrible experiences of my life”. If that was what organised religion was about, he could do without it.

Your namesake, the Rev David Holloway, has described your views on homosexuality as “heretical and very serious for the Episcopal Church”. How would you answer this charge?

A: In two ways. The very use of the word heretical shows a mindset that I no longer regard as appropriate. It suggests that there is an absolutely defined and packaged truth and therefore that there is an absolutely defined and packaged untruth, namely heresy. If I’m certain of anything I’m certain of the fact that Christian theological and moral history is an evolutionary history. The ordination of women was heretical until we did it; the emancipation of the slaves was heretical until we did it; so the use of that kind of epithet is pretty meaningless. I’m much more interested in arguing the truth of the issue; whether, for example, it is appropriate for gay and lesbian people to have full Christian status and the freedom of loving in their way, I hope as responsibly and safely as the rest of us struggle to achieve – that’s the issue, and not whether it has been traditional. Clearly it hasn’t been traditional in the Church, but it has always been there, and I have known many wonderful and holy gay priests. I was brought up an Anglo-Catholic and the Anglo-Catholic tradition has undoubtedly had many gay priests. The real issue is the substantive one, about the moral status of gay and lesbian people, and not whether it’s technically heretical. The Church is always evolving into another position, and these transitions are invariably painful.

David Holloway is an intemperate kind of a person, and he’s always phoned up by the press for the standard quote whenever someone says something even mildly liberal; he’s part of that pantomime cast of characters, just as I am, except I am phoned up for the opposite kind of quote.


How could you ordain a priest who practices sodomy … isn’t that against everything you believe in?

A: Sodomy always comes up. I don’t know the sexual repertoire of the average gay person, but I’m told in fact that the prevalence of sodomy is higher among heterosexual couples than among homosexual couples, and in fact it is sometimes used as a form of birth control. That is a separate issue, however what you do with your sexual organs is not, I think, the moral question; it’s the nature of the relationship and whether it is violent or abusive. Sodomy as such need not be either; it may be an unsafe physical practice, but there is no doubt that sexuality expresses itself in all sorts of extraordinary ways, including oral sex, fellatio and cunnilingus, and one might just as easily consider those to be unnatural.

Homosexuals I know have a varied sexual repertoire, but I don’t honestly think that’s the issue. The issue is the quality of the relationship. For some reason there is a kind of fascination with other people’s sexual practices. I get lots of letters in which sodomy is written in block capitals. It’s one of those words that set people off, though as far as we know the sin of Sodom was lack of hospitality and not anal intercourse. So the answer to your question is this: for a priest to be in an established relationship with another male seems to me not to contradict the possibility of a valid and fruitful priesthood. I know many examples where this is the case. What goes on in the bedroom is a matter of private choice, provided it’s non-abusive and provided people are trying otherwise to follow the Christian ethic.

You once said: ‘There are complexities in human sexuality that it behoves us to understand and not merely to condemn.’ That is a compassionate position which a great many people would understand and sympathise with, Christian and non-Christian alike. Where does that leave you on the business of moral absolutes? Are there any moral absolutes nowadays?

A: I don’t think there are moral absolutes, and if there are any they are likely to be so general as to apply only in a very broad way. Sexual consent is an important principle, I would say almost an axiom, almost an absolute, which is why rape is always absolutely wrong. Obviously the young cannot give consent, and this makes pederasty and paedophilia tragically impossible. There can never be an allowable sexual relationship there, although it undoubtedly remains one of the mysteries of human sexuality.

But given those overarching moral principles, there is still an enormous sexual repertoire which can be mutually fulfilling and consenting, and I think that we should mind our own business and not meddle with other people’s lives. This should be the case even if we are personally repelled, as indeed I am by certain aspects of sado-masochism, for example. Mutually consenting sadomasochism, however, stops short of the heavier kind of wounding of people, and so I believe it is up to the people involved. I have no appetite at all for it myself, it’s a mystery to me, but it does seem to be a part of some people’s experience. I find it aesthetically displeasing, but that does not give me the right to try and outlaw it. There has been a lot of crucifying of people in the name of this kind of busy involvement in other people’s sexualities. I would prefer to allow freedom within an understanding of constraint and appropriateness. Between consenting adults, I do not think that you can say confidently “you can do this, but you can’t do that”

It is really up to the adults themselves.

In 1967, the Wolfenden Report’s recommendations finally became law in Britain, permitting homosexual activity between two consenting adults in private.  The Archbishop of Canterbury at the time expressed the view that while homosexuality was likely a sin, it should not be a crime.  That probably reflected my own thinking at the time.

I was eventually posted to Old St. Paul’s, an Anglo-catholic parish in Edinburgh that had a number of gay men in the congregation. In the early 1970’s, I announced there that I planned a series of sermons on sex.  I felt that this was an important subject, because like many Christians, I had struggled with feelings that my own sexuality, although heterosexual, was “dirty.”

My sermons were going to examine the troubled history and contemporary tension in the Christian Church on the topic of sex. Although the authors of the Bible apparently did not see sexual matters as a priority, it was a subject of concern to a number of later prominent Christian theologians, notably St. Augustine and St. Jerome. From their teachings emerged the notion that the holiest condition for a Christian was celibacy, and that marriage was a distant second best for good Christians. Even within marriage, according to their teaching sex was only to be for the purposes of procreation and sex for pleasure even between married persons was sinful. This doctrine remains important in the Roman Catholic Church and in part supports their requirement of priestly celibacy. Although Anglican priests are permitted to marry, I did feel I was somewhat of a spiritual failure as I could not face a life of celibacy and chose to marry instead. I believe that these Medieval Christian teachings, teachings that are very negative about sex in general, still influence the thinking of many Christians today, including their attitudes toward homosexuality.

Before I presented the sermon series, a member of the parish approached me who was a self-described “screaming queer.” An outrageously camp man, he was the most courageous man I have ever met.

He invited me to include a discussion of homosexuality in the series.  I agreed, and I did so, although it was a modest effort at the time.

Later, in the early 1970’s, this same man approached me with a friend.  He announced that they were in love and he asked me to perform a ceremony of blessing of their union in my church.  I did so.  By this time, I had moved to the view that homosexuality was not a sin, and that the love of Jesus Christ that was extended by Him to social outcasts in His lifetime, should not be denied by the Church to gays and lesbians.

I then watched the emergence of an even more disturbing trend in the Church.  The old unspoken “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gay priests, that had seemingly served us reasonably well, was supplanted by something of a witch hunt aimed at exposing gay priests and refusing them preferment.  This trend was accompanied by a regressive trend in theology, marked by a revival of kind of Biblical literalism that I had thought was no longer a force in the Anglican Church.  This literalist approach to scripture had long been dismissed as hopelessly un-historic and unscientific even when I was first studying theology years earlier.  I was dismayed when we seemed to be going theologically backwards instead of forward, but the worst was yet to come.

The nadir of these developments was the 1998 Lambeth Conference.  The Lambeth Conference, called by the Archbishop of Canterbury every ten years, brings together the Anglican bishops worldwide.  Some of us were hopeful that the 1998 conference would establish a commission to examine the theological and moral status of homosexuals in our Church, and that this might lead to a healthy dialogue and improvement in way the Church dealt with the subject.

The move to a more open position was supported by some prominent and respected bishops, including the recently retired Archbishop of Capetown, Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Laureate and probably the most respected Anglican in the world.

The search for a compromise was defeated by coalition of dissident traditionalists from the USA, Africa and Asia.  Worse, a resolution condemning homosexuality was passed.  Worst of all was the tone of the debate, which was marred by booing, hissing, and insults. One bishop likened it to a Nuremberg rally. It was the most horrible experience of my life.

I am quietly satisfied with the fact that one of the most moving acts of my episcopate was to celebrate a Mass honouring the 25th anniversary of the wedding of the two men at which I had officiated in Edinburgh in the early 1970’s. While this union of my friends is not officially recognized by church or state in Britain, it has proved to be a bonded relationship of absolute integrity.

I do not believe that homosexuality is a sin, but rather it is a natural fact, a gift from God.  I have no theological objection to marriage between two persons of the same sex. I believe that gays and lesbians are capable of forming loving and enduring relationships, which are entitled to the blessing of the Church.  Although my opinion may be a minority opinion within the Anglican faith at present, and while it is certainly not the official policy of the Anglican Church, I believe that there is an increasing number of persons of great learning and faith who agree with me.  I know that there are many Anglican priests, male and female, gay and straight, who would happily marry persons of the same sex if they were permitted to do so. In Toronto, for example, I recently spoke at Holy Trinity Anglican Church at a conference called “Loving Justice” about homosexuality and Christianity; Holy Trinity has a long tradition of outreach to and support for social justice, including equality for gays and lesbians.

I am familiar with the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches. It is a new, but legitimate Christian denomination. I not only respect its teachings on homosexuality and Christianity, I personally agree with its view that there is no inconsistency between being a good Christian and a practicing homosexual. While many traditional Christian churches might officially disagree with this position, there are many within those churches who share my belief and who view such official Church policy as outdated and wrong.



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