Freak Show

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy Bloom: Am i not?

 

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

 

William: I’m here.

Billy Bloom: I’m queer.

 

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

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Best Of Iris Prize (Shorts)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Wound (2017) Inxeba (original title)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Sparsholt Affair -Alan Hollinghurst

I enjoyed this more than his previous books: maybe because it isn’t full of Tory ‘toffs’, though one in our group said it felt empty, pointless and though he’s a very good writer there are too many characters. Many chapters start with ‘HJe’ but uit can take you up to two pages to find out who ‘he’ is.

Maybe it’s because it’s the anniversary of the 1967 Act that he was asked to write something pan-generational, though he’s light on the 1960s (covered by The Line of Duty?)

There is a sense of movement from darkness (the blackouts etc.) to light – but is it a critique, rather than an endorsement, or 21st Century gay life?

Many thought that it was about one hundred pages too long: the middle section drugged. There was ‘testosterone coming out of every page for the first 150.’

He writes about death and bereavement very well.. The frame-making is beautifully described.

One member read of three times because some parts weren’t clear.

A young man looks at a red chalk drawing of a muscly torso, made years before. He registers the residual heat of homoerotic longing in this ‘ancient pornography’, but has no idea he’s looking at his own father’s flesh, captured in youth. Johnny Sparsholt is the gay son of a closeted father, David. He is growing up into relative freedom whereas his father was mired in a corruption scandal with a Tory MP and rent boys. The incident reverberates through other lives but Hollinghurst chooses not to bring this into clear focus, instead keeping it a matter of oblique glimpses and somewhat cryptic allusions.

How we view the past, and what we find in it, are questions at the heart of Alan Hollinghurst’s sixth novel; an evocation of time, loss and change, the social and sexual revolutions of the last 70 years.

Two generations of gay men in 5 interlinked sections:

section 1: about stunningly handsome, closeted David Sparsholt in 1942 WWII Oxford, England. ‘A New Man’, takes the form of a plummily written literary memoir by an Oxford contemporary of Sparsholt’s, Freddie Green, recording the young sportsman’s dazzling first appearance half-naked in a window just before blackout time, and the flutter of rivalrous longings set off in the various onlookers ogling him from Green’s rooms across the quad. Great use is made of these wartime blackouts, with much of the action occurring in a beautifully evoked pitch-black Oxford where submerged lusts bloom into furtive touches and brushes.

Sparsholt has a fiancee, Connie, and is already in trouble for the “rhythmical creaking” overheard while she was visiting. But his apparent heterosexuality only adds to his allure, especially when it transpires that he isn’t above being flattered by the admiring attentions of Green’s friends. It’s a variation on the classic erotic farce formula of virginal innocence besieged by cynical experience. Not that Sparsholt’s ultimate seducer, a sensitive aesthete named Evert Dax, is cynical in himself (he’s too ardent for that), but his success has as much to do with the awakening of mercenary tendencies in Sparsholt as it does with the gratifying of homoerotic ones, which doesn’t bode well for Sparsholt’s future.

The immediate fun of this section is largely in its reviving of a particular style of fine writing, in which the euphemism and indirectness about sexual matters still had a certain currency. It isn’t  quite pastiche, more a sort of dead-on rendition of how an old-school literatteur who also happens to be an old-school repressed homosexual (so repressed he remains comically unaware of his own infatuation with Sparsholt) might have written at that time; Henry James via Ronald Firbank, with a gravitation towards words such as “moue” and “tendresse”, lots of double entendres (“Where do you like to take her?”). There is also some complicated snobbish satire, much of it at the expense of Dax’s father, a famous but evidently awful novelist who embodies the vice that Hollinghurst’s own novels seem to despise above all others: bad art. (One enters his books nervous of being found guilty of some appalling error of taste; woe betide any admirer of Strauss reading The Line of Beauty, or of Chagall reading this one.)

sections 2-5: his gay son Johnny, living in his father’s notoriously “scandalous” shadow 1951-2012

In part two, set in 1965, Sparsholt, now a war hero and successful industrialist, has married Connie and the two have brought their son Johnny, an aspiring artist, on holiday to Cornwall (encroaching on Patrick Gale territory?) , along with his French exchange partner, Bastien. Johnny is besotted with Bastien, but the sexually precocious French boy has discovered girls  and Johnny spends his days in rebuffed longing. Another couple, the Haxbys, are also in Cornwall, and it becomes steadily apparent that a clandestine affair is going on. The section reformulates the pattern of pursuers and pursued from the first part, with Johnny in the lovelorn Dax’s role, Bastien reprising the role of freshly arrived young Adonis, a small yacht furnishing the same sexually charged atmosphere as the Oxford darkness, and so on.

Continuing this pattern of repetition with variation, part three brings back Dax, now the gay eminence of a bohemian household in the comparatively liberated London of 1974. Chance brings Johnny, at this point earning his living as an apprentice art restorer, into the household, where he duly assumes the role of flattered ingenu (“I like your trousers”). He is eager to be initiated into the mysteries of gay London but unaware of the connection between Dax and his father, and of the less than straightforward motives the men around him might have for taking him to bed. The three-day week, with its intermittent darknesses, nicely echoes the blackouts of the first part.

There is a layering of similar situations on top of each other like a series of transparencies that cumulatively portray a culture as it exists in time as well as in space, revolving the same constellation of longings and confusions, with the gradual relaxing of attitudes around sexuality operating as the principle of change.

In the 90s we get a lesbian couple’s invitation to “do a baby for us”  on into the present era of selfies, makeover TV and internet porn. Johnny, by now a successful portrait painter, carries the novel at this point. He’s a warmly sympathetic character to keep company with, whether he’s musing on portraiture, attending a funeral, suffering the indignities of a vegetarian in a carnivorous world, painting the arriviste (and viciously named) Miserden family, or finding new love at a club in autumnal middle age. An amazing amount of the passion and folly of the human comedy is woven into his modest life, all of it beautifully observed and memorably articulated.

The author:

“I wanted to create in the reader that sense of half-remembered details,”

“If you think about the Poulson scandal in the early 1970s [a property and corruption case that resulted in the resignation of the home secretary, Reginald Maudling] … the Profumo affair people remember a bit better, but actually, if we tested each other on it now, we’d probably be a bit rocky, and that was a very, very prominent scandal.”

“I can see that I keep going back to the periods when things were more difficult and clandestine, because they seem from a fictional point of view to be more rewarding.”

“It’s a funny thing; when you could openly have gay clubs after 1967, but they had all these complicated licensing laws, and one thing was that they had to serve a meal. You had to be a member, so you paid; I can remember when I first went to London gay clubs in the late 70s having to become a member, this ridiculous thing, and write down your address. And then you got this fucking salad!” (There is an additional twist of humour: Johnny’s salad includes a revolting knob of sweaty, gristly ham; he later becomes, like Hollinghurst, a committed vegetarian.)

“passing through a door, going down a staircase, into this magical other place where your desires can be made fresh”

“I did have that sense that I was very fortunate in a way, coming along just as gay lit as a genre was really coming into its own, and finding there was this whole fascinating, unexplored world to write about. But then of course that was in the wake of gay liberation and various social and political changes; and then of course the great crisis of Aids was the second stage of that – it gave gay writing a new, unanticipated subject.”

And what about now? “The distinctive purpose of gay writing, its political purpose or its novelty or its urgency have gone, and the gay world, as it changes, is perhaps not so stimulating to a fiction writer like me,” he says – although he’s careful to make clear he’s talking about his own writing rather than issuing blanket statements. “It doesn’t mean it can’t be written about.”

But Hollinghurst has never seen himself or wanted to be seen as a chronicler of gay life or “to claim to be a responsible historian of it; but of course I’m deeply interested in it and its effects on people’s lives, and the way that one’s telling a story that’s not over; it’s not a fixed thing that one’s writing about, but something that’s constantly changing.”

“I was once asked to contribute to a book of essays by writers about being only children, and actually I thought, I don’t want to examine too closely this thing which I just knew was actually rather fundamental to my psychology, to my whole being as a writer. That double sense of being an outsider, wanting to penetrate a world, but also having a sort of self-reliance that I think only children have. They’re very happy to be by themselves and quite a lot of their interesting life is happening when they’re by themselves.”

The business of ageing, he notices, has also led him to feel that in writing, “I’m constantly opening up a forgotten room in my past, as it were”. 

Portraits do interest me. I must say, when I’ve had some spare cash, I’ve found myself collecting them. Since I don’t have much space at home, they are rather small ones, and they tend to be of people I don’t know anything about, so everything is conjecture, really.

BOLLEN: You actually go to auction houses and hunt around the sales?

HOLLINGHURST: Well, I became really addicted about ten years ago, when I discovered that auction houses put all their catalogs online. People get addicted to various things online. My addiction is relatively harmless.

I usually end up giving just a few little physical details, which encourage the reader to make up the character themselves. You could have a sort of Dickensian approach, where you get almost grotesquely detailed with an exaggerated sense of someone’s physical appearance. But I think for a lot of the great fictional characters, you might only know roughly how tall they are or what color their hair is, or perhaps their eyes might be rather significant. Oddly, I think it’s the lesser characters that you might describe more vividly because they only get one moment in the spotlight. But I build a lot of characters more out of what they say and perhaps the way that they say it—the mannerisms and gestures associated with speech, as well as the tones. I’ve always been interested in analyzing the way people say things and what they’re not saying or trying to conceal.

I didn’t want to write an idealized version of Oxford, like a terrible, hackneyed kind of Brideshead Revisited. Those years seemed a fascinating moment when people of different backgrounds might have just been thrust together there in a new way.

BOLLEN: Especially when you’re facing possible doom for the first time. The idea that the world is blowing up and there might not be a future could perhaps symbolize everyone’s college years, but for these characters, they can actually see the bombs dropping on the horizon.

HOLLINGHURST: Normally, as an undergraduate at Oxford, you have this sense of three or four years of a leisurely stretch ahead of you, but back then most people knew they were going to go up for probably only a year before they were going to be drafted and sent to who knew where.

“in a way [scandals] make it possible to talk about things that we wouldn’t otherwise talk about – that was one of the things about the Wilde scandal I suppose, wasn’t it? That it made a shockingly public, unambiguous statement about this thing that was otherwise not talked about in polite society.”

Quotations:

“rhythmical shadow” leaping and shrinking “across the distant ceiling”

“It was that brief time between sunset and the blackout when you could see into other people’s rooms.”

“a figure in a gleaming singlet, steadily lifting and lowering a pair of hand-weights”.

“indiscriminate darkness”

“no place for polite indecision”

“claiming the full heterosexual allowance to carry on in public”

“It is hard to do justice to old pleasures that cannot be revived—we seem half to disown our youthful selves, who loved and treasured them.”

Evert’s stroke had had two main consequences — his short-term memory was impaired, leaving him sometimes at sea in the midst of a conversation started with a clear sense of purpose and subject. He said he saw soft white squares, where facts in the form of images, or images of words, should be, pale blanks that floated on his mind’s eye like the shape of a bright window. The other effect, somehow doubly surprising, was release from worry — not only the worry that pervaded decisions and plans, but the worry that was caused by not being able to remember. This felt like a blessing, but was also, Ivan felt, a bit worrying in itself.

There was a rather oppressive need to keep him focused — on day-to-day matters, and on the looming plans for the house. Victor was tidied up now, really for good. And all the things that had been put off until he was tidied up loomed much larger. The advance for the biography was £10,000, a much smaller figure when the book was delivered than it had been when the contract was signed. The work on the house might cost ten times as much. Besides which, Evert needed a new project. A proper memoir was the obvious idea; but it could be another art book, portraits of artists he had known over fifty years. Other­wise he was going to spend every day forgetting what he’d gone out for and picking up strangers in Marks and Spencer’s.

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Release –Patrick Ness

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

Inspired by Judy Blume’s Forever, Release is one day in the life of Adam Thorn, 17. It’s a big day. . It’s a day of confrontation, running, sex, love, heartbreak, and maybe,  hope. Things go wrong.

Preacher’s son – gay, coming out.

In the interleaved story, an otherworldly Queen becomes entwined with the soul of a murdered girl, and moves through our reality, seeking answers and revenge, with a naked 7ft faun as her companion. These interwoven stories seem to be part of his style. In A Monster Calls, it was integral. Here, it doesn’t seem to be and is hard to understand, easy to skate past and ignore – for some, they will impart a sense of the extraordinary forces that might underlie the everyday; for others, they will distract from the “real” story of Adam.

Adam, nearly 18, lives in Frome, Washington. His dad is a minister and Adam considers himself completely under his dad’s Yoke while he still lives at home. Having homophobic, conservative parents means that Adam hides most of his true self from them. He’s gay and feels about one second away from them sending him to a conversion camp at any given point in time. But he has Angela, his very best friend, and Linus, his boyfriend whom he is trying really, really hard to give himself fully to (if only he could get over his lingering love for Enzo, his crappy ex-boyfriend). He also has a boss who sexually harasses him, a seemingly perfect older brother who is about to drop a shocking revelation on the family, and doesn’t know today is also the day he learns a secret from Angela that will throw him for a loop.

All of this is happening while the ghost of a local girl recently murdered by her meth-addicted boyfriend is carrying out her own part of the story, one that involves a giant fawn, visits to familiar places, confrontations, and an unexpected path to release. In anyone else’s hands, I would probably be left thinking, Um, okay, what is this doing here? But it’s Ness. He’s brilliant. He makes these dual but mostly unrelated narratives both work exceptionally well.

‘Different than’ should be ‘different from’

Quotations:

“Adam would have to get the flowers himself.”

“Blanched blond, tall, bulky in a way that might be handsome”

“You have no idea how hard I work to love you.”

“the funnest, funniest thing two people could do together”

“And two, I know what it is to be in love, Marty.”
“No, you don’t. Teenage love isn’t love. Especially if it’s…” He stopped.
“Especially if it’s what?” Adam leaned into the truck, raised his voice. “Especially if it’s what?”

He was different than Adam, is what Adam always told himself. Adam used words. Enzo used affection, didn’t he? And he had been affectionate. If he hadn’t said the words out loud much, he’d said them over and over again with a touch, with a kiss, with sex that was hardly just going in one direction.
“Why do we have to label it?” Enzo had asked, all along, it was true. “Why can’t we just be?”
And Adam had said, “Okay.” He’d said, “Okay.” He hadn’t even tried the it’s-not-a-label-it’s-a-map thing he’d sold to Angela. Why not? Why hadn’t he? Why the hell did he just take whatever Enzo offered? Without argument or demand. Without even apparent self-respect

 

“They’re your parents. They’re meant to love you because. Never in spite.”

“Maybe hearts don’t ever stop breaking once broken.”

“It was so much easier to be loved than to have to do any of the desperate work of loving.”

“Death is not the end.”

“Never pass up the chance to be kissing someone. It’s the worst kind of regret.”

“Blame is a human concept, one of its blackest and most selfish and self-binding.”

“Little girls aren’t naturally lost,” Karen said, frowning as she scanned saucepans. “Someone makes them that way.”

“It may cost you, my Queen. It may cost you dear.”
“All the best journeys do, faun.”

“Blame is something that is shared and denied in equal measures.”

“Marty: Dad’s right about you. You got lost on your journey somewhere.
Adam: That’s what everyone says who never bothered to go on a journey in the first place.”

“If you can’t pray it away, it’s not a real problem.”

“And there. The power of a word. The power of one word. That’s where it all changes.”

“Tread carefully, Marty. I mean it. The world has completely changed around you while you weren’t looking.”

“People with really stiff morals are easier to tip over.”

“Maybe there didn’t have to be any other reasons. Maybe love made you stupid. Maybe loneliness did.”

“Raising his eyes to look directly into Linus’s face was maybe the scariest thing he’d had to do all day long, but it was only the free-falling terror that always accompanied hope.”

“Every gay has to have their years in a huge coastal city. It’s like a law.”

“They’re your parents. They’re meant to love you because. Never in spite.”

“Upset isn’t the same as the world falling apart.”

“Adam’s stomach was tumbling with how much Linus knew and how he’d found it all out (it would turn out he knew as much as nearly everyone else in the school, which was a lot, but it also turned out that – in that unreachable, possible world – most of them actually liked Adam or at least didn’t actively wish him harm, so they’d given his sorrow some space; when Adam thought about it now, it still made his head swim, still made him blush, still made him wish he could crawl under a blanket and die there forever) – but looking at Linus, he saw no malice, no gossip, saw instead someone who might actually know.”

“She can smell him now, a smudge of unwashed skin, poverty, extreme loneliness. She takes the can, still holding his hand, unrolling it, running a finger across its weathered palm.”

“Why did everyone no longer a teenager automatically dismiss any feeling you had then? Who cared if he’d grow out of it? That didn’t make it any less true in those painful and euphoric days when it was happening.”

“If she needed him, he’d be there instantly, no questions asked, and he knew she’d do the same. She was here now. They had their bulgogi. This is what a family was. Or should be.”

“But here, now, again, this was more than the body, or the mind, or the personality. It wasn’t holy, that was a whole other mess, but it was something that could be touched only here.”

“But then she thinks, feels, reaches out, and knowing exactly what blame is – a human construct, one of its blackest and more selfish and self-blinding – she can find further strands of it, emanating in all directions, for blame is something that is shared but denied in equal measure.”

“an act that didn’t feel like penetration, but like combination”

“He had loved Enzo. Loved him. And who cared if it was the love of a fifteen – and then a sixteen-year-old. Why did that make any less? They were older than those two idiots in Romeo and Juliet. Why did everyone no longer a teenager automatically dismiss any feeling you had then? Who cared if he’d grow out of it? That didn’t make it any less true in those painful and euphoric days when it was happening. The truth was always now, even if you were young. Especially if you were young.”

“Physical beauty, of all the curses, was obviously the best you could get. It was still a curse though.”

“Well, Adam thought. I’ve had my mouth on his bare skin. That seemed to be effective.”

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After Queer Theory: The Limits of Sexual Politics – James Penney

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

After Queer Theory claims that queer theory has been made obsolete by the elaboration of its own logic within capitalism. James Penney argues that far from signalling the end of anti-homophobic criticism, however, the end of queer presents the occasion to rethink the relation between sexuality and politics. The question is, how straightforward can the language of sexual politics be? Is it all, as Foucault wrote, ‘an elaborate ruse designed to have us chatter endlessly about sex, all the while further tethering ourselves to the omnipotent forces of power’?

Through a critical return to Marxism and psychoanalysis (Freud and Lacan), Penney insists that the way to implant sexuality in the field of political antagonism is paradoxically to abandon the exhausted premise of a politicised sexuality.

After Queer Theory argues that it is necessary to wrest sexuality from the dead end of identity politics, opening it up to a universal emancipatory struggle beyond the reach of capitalism’s powers of commodification.

One chapter (‘The Sameness of Sexual Difference’) argues that each individual’s sexual preferences radically differ from everyone else’s. Penney wants to remind us that our idiosyncrasies should be kept in mind when linking sex with politics.  As strange as this sounds, queerness – or any sexual identity – should not be used as a starting point for political action, because otherwise we risk spreading divisive, over-militant or ‘identitarian’ sentiments. Sexual differences are ubiquitous and so ‘devoid of consequences for political thought’.

Penney examines many enlightening areas of sexual politics including perversion, sublimation, and family values

Like others of his ilk, he can’t write comprehensible English – he used adjectives as nouns., e.g.: problematic. The concluding chapter resumes where the first chapter leaves off: it examines one final thematic.

He’s certainly right that: ‘queer’ can sex up a philosophical tradition that makes for remarkably dry reading.

What planet does he inhabit when he claims: To be sure, there is no doubt that in the liberal and ‘post-oedipal’ global North, there are concrete material advantages to be gained from engaging in the queer lifestyle of which Morland and Willox speak. The queer is not only unburdened by conventional family obligations or the monogamous relationship. Also, the lifestyle values he or she embraces are inherently synchronous with the flexibility, mobility and precariousness on which contemporary capitalism so exploitatively thrives.

Some of his case studies are bizarre, though maybe I’ve lived a sheltered, vanilla life.

And what are we to make of ‘the phallus not as penis but as turd’?

However much of realty the ‘pink pound’ may be, there are young people begging on our streets after being thrown out by their parents because of their sexuality.

I had to look up: rhizomatic = an application of post-structural thought to education, it has more recently been identified as methodology for net-enabled education. In contrast to goal-directed and hierarchical theories of learning, it posits that learning is most effective when it allows participants to react to evolving circumstances, preserving lines of flight that allow a fluid and continually evolving redefinition of the task at hand

Also joissance – physical or intellectual pleasure, delight, or ecstasy

Introduction: After Queer Theory: Manifesto And Consequences
1: Currents Of Queer
2: The Universal Alternative
3: Is There A Queer Marxism?
4: Capitalism And Schizoanalysis
5: The Sameness Of Sexual Difference
6: From The Antisocial To The Immortal
Notes
Index

Quotations:

within groups such as ACT UP  familiar with then-emergent queer academic discourse, wasn’t especially conducive to the creative imagination of strategies for countering the effects of the deathly state-sanctioned public indifference to the crisis. As Sedgwick insightfully argues, this apparatus tended to produce a paranoid and abstract vision of power, which actually worked against the development of productive strategies of resistance. By emphasising the determinative impact of power over the creation ofpositive alternatives, the Foucaultian framework that worked against the negotiation of relations and alliances.

Unfortunately, Sedgwick’s t professed inability to imagine how her intellectual concerns might relate to dass struggle and colonial history tells us all we need to know about her deepest political convictions. In particular, her inability to see any relation between her own involvement in the HIV/AIDS crisis in the United States and the obscene devastation inflicted by that same crisis, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, is deeply objectionable to say the least. In fact, one begins to wonder if Klein’s writing proves so seductive for Sedgwick not because it allows her to work through or overcome the infantile affects that haunt her, but rather because it provides a sort of intellectual alibi for wallowing in them, sheltered from any reminder that they might in part be determined by forces outside the boundaries of her own limited and very bourgeois construction of her intellectual identity. In short, Klein allows Sedgwick to take the sense data of her feelings at face value, reneging on the political and analytic responsibility to question the ideological parameters that set the terms of her experience of them.

No concerted effort was made to document the candidates’ perspectives on any other issue: gun control, education, the death penalty, taxation, foreign policy or health care (generally speaking, that is beyond the specific concerns related to HIV/AIDS and reproductive rights). Only policies obviously related to civil rights for non-heterosexual citizens were meaningfully broached. This briefest of summaries makes the leaflet’s general strategy quite patent. But the devil, as they say, is in the detail. The Agenda’s members made their endorsements on the basis of results from a questionnaire circulated to New York state queers. Questions covered ‘the following topics: comprehensive civil rights protections; protecting students from anti-gay harassment in schools; funding for our health and human service needs; anti-discrimination protections in the issuing of insurance policies; funeral and bereavement leave for same-sex partners; opposition to the state anti-gay marriage bill; No concerted effort was made to document the candidates’ perspectives on any other issue: gun control, education, the death penalty, taxation, foreign policy or health care (generally speaking, that is beyond the specific concerns related to HIV/AIDS and reproductive rights). Only policies obviously related to civil rights for non-heterosexual citizens were meaningfully broached. This briefest of summaries makes the leaflet’s general strategy quite patent. But the devil, as they say, is in the detail. The Agenda’s members made their endorsements on the basis of results from a questionnaire circulated to New York state queers. Questions covered ‘the following topics: comprehensive civil rights protections; protecting students from anti-gay harassment in schools; funding for our health and human service needs; anti-discrimination protections in the issuing of insurance policies; funeral and bereavement leave for same-sex partners; opposition to the state anti-gay marriage bill; support of multicultural curriculum in our schools; age-appropriate sex education; HIV transmission prevention and counselling for the seropositive; and recognition of our relationships through domestic partnership, civil union, and/or same-sex marriage legislation’. Bear in mind for the upcoming discussion that several topics on this list express interests that extend beyond the queer community strictly speaking, however one may wish to define it, to include the citizenry or people in general: health care, women’s reproductive rights, multicultural and sex education, in particular.

On the level of its address, however, the pamphlet presupposed a specific, clearly delimited community subtracted from the whole. The members of this community expressed the interests of an explicit `we’. The issues of health care and health insurance, for instance, were approached not as concerns that raise the general question of each and every citizen’s access to the benefits they provide, but rather as a question of ‘our’ specific needs and right to protection from discrimination.

To be perfectly explicit, the health care system’s status quo is left entirely unquestioned; the frame is limited to the ambition of preventing discrimination against queers in the system as it currently stands.

The interest of the pamphlet lies in the sort of political subject it presupposes. Scandalised, I realised that it enjoined me implicitly to vote for the fiscally conservative homosexual or queer-friendly Republican (rare, but not non-existent) in favour of capital punishment and low corporate taxes, instead of the Democrat pushing for a patients’ bill of rights and the regulation of the pharmaceutical industry, but who may have spoken out against gay marriage.

In sum, since the dawn of queer theory, non-libertarian and non-or post-liberal — not to mention explicitly Marxist — approaches to homosexuality have been extremely rare. Certainly, classical Marxism itself hasn’t helped matters. With the exception of a smattering of quite banal, decidedly unscientific, homophobic comments in their correspondence, Marx and Engels themselves were significantly unconcerned with homosexuality. The historical record shows that this oversight has since led many major Marxist strategists and theorists to the silly conclusion that homosexuality as such is objectively reactionary or bourgeois.

even in its most post-liberal strains, queer theory has been overwhelmingly confined within a narrow political horizon which fails to recognise how sexual rights and freedoms, not to mention the critique of this discourse of rights and freedoms, never appear at the top of the list of priorities of the most concretely disenfranchised the world over, queer and straight and everything in between.

Unjust and subtly devastating though it can surely be, the kind of homophobia queer theory talks about is a quite refined form of oppression — one that develops in comparatively benign social formations, from which the more physical forms of sexualised violence, from rape to excision to the proliferating forms of torture, have ceased to police and deform sexual relations in the widest sense.” Meanwhile, in other parts of the world, homophobia becomes part and parcel of a more generalised masculine sexual violence, which perverts the entire field of sexual relations, targeting primarily the sexual expression of women. Here, in Salafist Islam for example, it’s less a question of the direct oppressive targeting of homosexuality, however prominently this features in the programme, than .a masculine-perverse protest against the very libidinal conditions of human life as such.

consider the circumstances of a ‘badly’ educated, working-class lesbian toiling away at several part-time jobs to support her family. Or those of a young, crypto-gay Iranian man contemplating a sex-change operation so he can envision a sexual relationship without either violating religious principles he may in fact hold dear, or risk execution at the hands of the state. That either of these subjects should experience a spontaneous frisson of solidarity with a bourgeois and staunchly secularist queer movement is not nearly as obvious a contention as we might wish to think.

we agreed to allow the master signifier ‘capitalism’, with its indelible tie to Marxist economic historicisation, to be replaced by another, insidiously naturalising, term: ‘the market’. We have allowed this signifier to impose itself as an objective description of a natural law, one that conveys a direct knowledge of the economic real as such.

Certainly, there’s nothing novel today in asserting a link between the proliferation of sexual identities during the twentieth century and the expansion and globalisation of capitalist relations

the absorption by consumer society or libidinal satisfaction.’

in other words, social shame accompanied the admission in polite company of an inappropriate sexual dalliance, today shame accrues if one admits to not being interested in sexual (and back then, political) transgression; if one confesses that one’s sexual experience has never quite extended to flavours beyond vanilla.

homosexuality threatened the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie because the prospect of sexual enjoyment outside the confines of the heterosexual family unit threatened to sabotage the bourgeois state’s project to assign responsibility for the provision of social services to the private sphere, organised around the unstable institution of the patriarchal nuclear family. The Victorian working-class man had no choice but to adopt the protestant work ethic because he had a wife and family to take care- of at home, knowing full well that the state would decline to take over responsibility for the family should he prove unwilling or unable to do so himself. Bluntly, if the father is busy cruising men at the public toilets, it’s not dear who’s going to be bringing home the bacon. Properly socialist pressure on the state to provide public services then threatens to emerge.

the so-called linguistic turn of semiotics and structuralism, for Morton, is a symptom of critical theory’s regression back from historical materialist analysis. The growing emphasis on language in twentieth-century thought, on the construction and deconstruction of signification or meaning, is to be understood as part and parcel of the increasing hegemony and widening globalisation of capitalist logic. Capital superimposes an obfuscating but profit-generating cloak of empty value on the material conditions of production. Analogously, linguistic, textual and discursive modes of analysis introduce a distracting emphasis on rhetoric and representation into the more concrete political and historical problem of human need’s satisfaction.

Over a century of psychoanalytic experience provides inconvenient but overwhelming evidence that even at its basest or barest, human life can only fail to limit itself to the dimension of biological or physiological need. The argument that psychoanalytic experience shows this because it’s only the bourgeoisie who ever get analysed fails, unfortunately, to convince.

Here is the basic lesson of Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1922): the essence of human life is its own excess over itself; an inhuman and immortal drive which, zombie-like, persists beyond mere biological death.’ Similarly, as Lacan argued in the aftermath of the socio-political tumult of the late 1960s, surplus value, which he translated into the neologism plus-de-jouir (surplus enjoyment), survives the socialist revolution. As impractical and politically irritating as the statement surely is, Baudrillard is entirely correct

 

The radical queer millionaire Internet pornographer who organises ‘sex-positive’ sex toy parties in his spare time (the new Tupperware?) has become one of the best emblems of contemporary capitalism.

These are the formidable forces that see us purchase that bottle of perfume or cologne despite the fact that we know better, that we’re not quite sure we even enjoy the scent. If the old project of so-called Freudo-Marxism ever had a point to make, it was perhaps that the two agendas, viewed on this level, are one and the same. Taking the literary cue from Freud, Lacan tied the destiny of the desiring subject to the vicissitudes of the tragic genre, from the desire of the destitute Oedipus ‘never to have been born’, through Antigone’s uncompromising perseverance at the limits of ate, to Sygne de Coiffontaine’s pathetic and suicidal facial tic. This tic indexes a pure negativity, an absolute ‘no’, whose possibility is carved out by the signifier, according to Lacan, in Paul Claudel’s dramaturgical trilogy. But, as Alenka Zupana’ insightfully argues, desire also belongs to the realm of comedy, here understood as the generic mode that exposes the difference between the lofty and otherworldly ambitions of desire and the inadequate objects that fail to satisfy it. This is the desire not to desire; the desire whose aim is to sabotage its own realisation, whose modus operandi is precisely to repress the knowledge of its own impossibility.

This desire is to be distinguished from what Lacan called desire’s real — the drive, that is — which does in fact deliver satisfaction. But we can only experience this satisfaction at the ego’s expense, as a consequence of the ego’s fleeting collapse.

Beyond Freud’s pleasure principle, in other words, there lies not the nihilistic negation of any future for humanity whatsoever, but rather the emancipatory affirmation of humanity’s excess over itself, an excess that is properly eternal in nature. If there’s no future, in other words, it’s because this future is not merely already (potentially) here, but also always has been, and always will be.

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A Very English Scandal

(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

I think they should have used Michael Bloch’s book rather than John Preston’s but it’s impressive, none the less.

In 1974, Thorpe came close to becoming de facto deputy prime minister; by 1979 he came close to a lengthy jail sentence for a very serious crime: conspiracy to murder a former lover, Norman Scott.

This BBC drama makes painfully apparent, Thorpe, for all his talents and fame, charm and sincere political principles, was a basically highly selfish man who eventually damaged everyone who came into contact with him: his family, friends, boyfriends, parliamentary colleagues, the entire Liberal Party, business acquaintances, financial benefactors, alleged co-conspirators (to murder, no less), and, most grievously of all, Scott. One way or another all had cause to regret ever bumping into Jeremy.

Grant captured all of Thorpe’s superficialities well: the permanent five o’clock shadow, the expansive mannerisms, the theatrical delivery of everything from a parliamentary speech on racism to an order for drinks; the trademark Edwardian dress and natty brown trilby; the steadily thinning comb-over; the gift for mimicry; the tendency to treat politics as some sort of game (this seems to be habitual among the Old Etonians even today), and, above all, the reckless randiness of his secret life as a promiscuous homosexual.

Some have been shocked by references to Vaseline, “biting the pillow”, and a love letter ­mysteriously declaring that “Bunnies can and will go to France”.

Jeremy Thorpe died in 2014. The drama could not have been made during his lifetime for legal reasons. Thorpe could have brought a case of libel against it for portraying him as being behind the conspiracy to murder, given that he was acquitted in court and never even publicly acknowledged his homosexuality.

This mini-series seems to take it for granted that Jeremy Thorpe was guilty as charged and actually had connived to have his former lover murdered. It should be said that he was acquitted of this charge, that no further evidence was found to indicate definite guilt, that he vigorously maintained his innocence until his death in 2014 and that the script of this TV account leans heavily on the disputed witness-box account of Peter Bessell, an extremely shady character whom the police were interested in for a number of other things quite unrelated to this case. BUT new evidence seems to have come to light and they’re re-opening the case.

It revealed a society very different from our own. In some sense, Thorpe was as much as Scott a victim of his time. It was not easy to be a gay man, even in the 1970s.

Today it is still relevant -the abuse of power in sexual relationships; that consensual sex can be consensual while still deeply damaging: vulnerable people may have expectations that they will be offered protection, even love, which has never been on offer.

“Thorpe referred to Ted Heath as ‘The plum pudding around which no one has succeeded in lighting the brandy’.”

“bastards, liars, perverts, thieves, blackmailers, inbreds and arsonists”

 

“Jeremy Thorpe lives on a knife-edge of danger”

 

“Of course, you’re ruined. You know that, don’t you?”

 

“And now you must retire to consider your verdict of not guilty”.

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