Part One

Back from my travels. Jet-lag more or less out of my system. What a strange journey it has been. Let me tell you how it came about.

Book Fair and Opera House

It all began some months ago when my friend David Tang invited me to the Hong Kong Book Fair. He made the offer dazzlingly tempting. There is no one and nothing in Hong Kong David doesn’t know and he and his wife Lucy are legendary hosts. Nonetheless, so sunk in commitments and so guilt-laden in my work obsession am I that I strongly considered giving the event the go-by. The same week, however, I was asked by the Sydney Opera House if I might consider doing an “evening” there. I don’t really have “an evening” so I reckoned I would probably add this request too to my list of reluctant declinings-declinations-declinements. A sudden realisation, however, gave me pause and stayed my hand from sending the “Thanks, but no thanks” emails. I have been commissioned by the BBC to present a five part series on language: provisional title Planet Word. The series aims to look at where language came from, how it works in us, how we use it, how it varies around the world, how much it constrains/fosters thought – examining all kinds of issues from the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis to taboo and transgression by way of oratory, poetry, insult, pedantry, dysphasia and the myriad astonishing things language invokes and provokes in us.

It would be quite unthinkable to make a programme on language without looking towards Chinese, of course. The diversity and uniqueness of the aboriginal languages of Australia and the speed of their tragic fall to extinction is something we would need to investigate too, not to mention the journey our language, English, made as it took root in Australian soil. So perhaps I could massacre a whole flock of birds with just two stones? Go to Hong Kong along with the series producer/director John Paul Davidson (who made my documentaries around America and one of the Last Chance to See films too), hire a local crew and shoot footage, pieces-to-camera and interviews relating to the Chinese languages before dropping down to Australia where, after the Sydney Opera House show we could film in and around New South Wales. I would even be saving the BBC money as my flights would all be taken care of by the organisers of the HKBF and the Sydney Opera House event. Saving the BBC money is, of course, the dearest wish of my bosom. I think of little else.

Nothing quite turns out as you expect it to. On the Planet Word front, David Tang and John Paul between them somehow managed to track down Zhou Youguang, the deviser of pinyin, in his 105th year and the oldest and probably the most influential (perhaps second after Tim Berners-Lee) human I have ever met. What is extraordinary is that this was his first ever TV interview. As the individual most responsible for allowing Mandarin Chinese to be transcripted into the Roman alphabet (giving us “Beijing”, for example and “Mao Zedong” instrad of the old Wade-Giles formulations, “Peking” and “Mao Tse Tung”) he could reasonably be called one of the most important linguists who ever lived. He hardly knew it when he was working on his system, of course, but it would prove crucial as a bridge between China and the rest of the world, allowing texting, typing, computing and all the excitements of the modern age to work in Putonghua or Mandarin Chinese.

In the meantime, the Sydney Opera House night sold out very quickly, largely due to the enthusiasm of loyal Australian Twitter followers. It was very gratifying but meant that the opera house asked if I might do a second night. This then led, thanks to the age old rivalry between the two cities, to pressure in the form of a “Come to Melbourne, Stephen” Facebook page, urging me to do a show in that city too. Once again Twitter worked its magic and a second show had to be slotted in. All around these performances John Paul and I managed to film as much as we could of aboriginal languages, surf slang (thanks to Kathy Lette) , Kath and Kim suburban talk, Australian political discourse and much else besides.

How Many Twitter Followers Does It Take To Fill the … ?

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Much to my surprise I so enjoyed the Sydney and Melbourne events that I agreed to perform a one man show next month at the Royal Albert Hall in London. I have MC-ed, hosted, guested and otherwise infested that noble venue many times over the last quarter century, but never have I done a whole evening on my own. I am excited. Very excited. Excited in much the way an aristocrat in a tumbril must have been excited as they rattled over the cobblestones towards the Place de la Concorde on their way to face the Paris mob and the fond final attentions of Madame la Guillotine. Heigh ho. You only live once. Tickets, should you be minded to come along, can be found here and here. Beware of touts and unofficial sites. Apologies for booking fees and prices and all the other issues that are out of my hands. That is just how these things are done. I believe if you turn up at the Albert Hall itself you can avoid any such charges, but that brings me to another point. Why London?

Metrocentricity

Followers from Wales, Scotland and especially parts of northern England have asked me, mostly with exemplary patience and politeness, why I am doing this show in London and not elsewhere around the country? Well, I’m afraid it’s simply time, a commodity in which I am horribly deficient. This is not a tour but a short-notice experiment. If it goes well and people seem to enjoy it then I can think of nothing I would enjoy more than travelling around for a month or so, taking in Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and all parts of England.

Part Two While I was away…

The most terrible thing that befell was news of Christopher Hitchen‘s diagnosis of oesophageal cancer. The Hitch is one of the great figures of our age. I have had the pleasure and honour of debating with him on a number of occasions, most recently in Westminster for Intelligence Squared, where we opposed Anne Widdecombe’s motion that the Catholic Church is a force for good in the world. The way Christopher has responded, in interview and in writing, to this assault on his body, is typical of the man. My thoughts (but not prayers) are with him. The Pink List Also while I was away, The Independent on Sunday published their “Pink List”. Many tweeted to congratulate me on “achieving” No. 3 spot in this top 100 of British gay … er … icons… apparently. Well, far be it from me to be ungrateful. I’m sure it’s always nice to be mentioned admiringly, just as it is always dispiriting to be mentioned slightingly. All of you reading this (or those of you that aren’t bots or visitors from other worlds) are human and will understand why a part of me was tickled to be included.

I am sorry to say that I did not read the full list. First equal (“above” me) and pushing me into third place were rugby player Gareth Thomas and Mary “Queen of Shops” Portas which seemed splendid and fitting. Otherwise my eye flicked down to take in friends and others. I gave the whole production little time. My eye never reached the end of the article where resided a “Rogues Gallery”. It had to be pointed out to me by a friend, a dear friend and a brilliant man, Kim Harris (my first proper grown-up lover from student days as it happens) that there was something horrid lurking in the article’s basement. I have been trying to persuade Kim for ages to write a blog, for he puts things so well, far better than I do, as you will agree when you have read this extract from a letter he wrote just a few days ago and which I reproduce with his permission.

Very nice to see you ranking high on The Independent’s Pink List. Quite right too. They made one vast and vastly suggestive mistake, though. They instituted a Rogues Gallery and frogmarched Louie Spence into it. Do you know who I mean? He’s a big old lisping, nelly screamer at Pineapple Dance Studios (Sky something) whom Joe Sixpack has clasped to his bosom because he’s sweet and funny and fabulous. Brightens the day, cheers the hour. There’s another reason the public loves him, but we’ll get to that in a mo. The compilers of the List, however, hate him because – well, can’t you guess? What’s the least imaginative, least penetrating thing you could possibly say about an unreconstructed flamer? That’s right – he “perpetuates the stereotype.” Christ on a marmalade cross but that pisses me right off.

Occupying the top spot was the rugby player, Gareth Thomas, who came out (finally) last year. Well done for that, boyo, I suppose. Can’t have been easy. It usually isn’t for most people, even on the Liberal Riviera where we’re all supposed to be basking today. Now, you can see where I’m going with this, can’t you? Gareth is a “real man”. He was married to a real woman. Louie is not and was not. If only we could all disport ourselves like Gareth the straights won’t hate us whereas if we all carry on like Louie….ach, how quickly these cowardly, self-oppressed, social-climbing McCarthyites forget where they come from. If I remember rightly, the whole Gay Lib thing wasn’t engineered by “real” men at all. It wasn’t sponsored by marines or scaffolders or rugby players. It was ignited by…ah, yes: drag queens.

So, instead of getting a hate on at poor Louie, instead of frantically trying to patrol their butch and instead of gussying up their drool for Gareth into blather about bravery, these creeps should remember the Rainbow. They should remember Diversity. They should remember Tolerance. They should remember that in evincing a distaste for effeminacy they’re simply making an exhibition of their own misogyny. And they should remember that (and here’s that other reason the public likes him) Louie isn’t trying to pass. There’s nothing a straight boy hates more than an obvious fag trying to hide it. I know lists like these are mere churnalism but they’re telling nonetheless.

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Thank you, Kim. Thank you for pointing that out and thank you for putting it so very, very well.

Here is that “Rogues Gallery” paragraph on Louie Spence, by the way:

Louie Spence Choreographer and TV star Had this been a list for the greatest reinforcers of gay stereotypes, the star of Sky 1’s car-crash reality show Pineapple Dance Studios would obviously mince it. Alas, as it stands, we can’t help but hear the clock ticking on those 15 minutes of his.

The IoS has its get-out clause prepared, of course… “And the aim [of the Pink List] ? To entertain and celebrate, infuriate and amuse. Above all, to kick-start a debate around the breakfast and lunch-table. Please let us know what you think at the bottom of the page.” But I’m sorry, that is simply not good enough. I say nothing of the sickening and now standard “oh please leave a comment, please, please, please – our advertisers would love it if you all starting flaming and trolling and filling our pages for us. Pleeeeaaase.”

Among the panelists choosing this list was Ben Summerskill, Chief Executive of StonewallStonewall, that same excellent institution that named itself after the bar in Greenwich Village where the drag-queens Kim mentions locked themselves in, fought back against police violence, intimidation and victimisation and kick-started Gay Liberation. I like Ben and admire what he and Stonewall do, but surely they must see how right Kim is? By singling out Louie Spence for lofty disapproval, by sneering at his “mincing” they are turning their back on, dissociating themselves from, insulting and demeaning a fine man and whole way of being. An authentic, strong, charming and loveable person, every bit as “courageous” as the others on the list, certainly more courageous than me, Louie deserves respect and support, not insult and derision. Do they want people like him not to count, do they see him as being guilty of a choice in his manner and his demeanour, just as homophobes everywhere accuse all gay people of choosing their sexuality and preferences? How dare they of all people dismiss a gay man in a few contemptuous, bigoted phrases because he doesn’t fit the “type” that they think a gay man should exemplify?

This isn’t about pussy-footing, or political correctness or humourless righteousness and I wouldn’t bring it into this blog if it didn’t make me so damned angry. I do not know Louie Spence, by the way, have never had the pleasure of meeting him. Dance is not my life and our world outlooks and interests are, I dare say, widely divergent, but that does not mean I cannot respect and admire him. The IoS panel who chose to scorn Louie owe him an apology, and they owe an apology to all like him

There was a time when polari and Julian and Sandy and limp-wristed mincing and winking innuendo were all that came between a certain kind of gay man and his pride, his self-respect and his ability to hold his head high in a hostile world. Read Quentin Crisp’s The Naked Civil Servant or watch John Hurt’s glorious portrayal. It is not the only way for a gay man to be, no one is saying it should be, but it is a wholly proper and acceptable manner (not to mention an often loveable and witty one) and to see it traduced with superiority by the very people who should be supporting and endorsing it sickens me. I have stood up and spoken for Stonewall and its campaigns to stop playground bullying and taunting: it is of course the effeminate and overtly camp boys (or butch girls) at school who first come in for that sort of attention, the kind of attention that alcohol and a gang mentality can turn all too readily into gay-bashing and severe violence. Is it now official Stonewall policy that only “straight-acting” gays are acceptable, that today’s Quentin Crisps and Kenneth Williams’s can count themselves as outcast from “the community”?

Bah. They should read a bit of Judith Butler and think a bit harder about gender and identity. I give up my No 3 position in the Pink List and award it to Louie Spence. Until the next time…. pip pip.

Stephen

UPDATE NEWS FLASH

It is axiomatic that panels and judges of prizes or compilers of lists always sit in conditions of utmost secrecy, but I have had private word of an element of the deliberations that tells me that maybe the deliberators weren’t to blame, but some Sindie journalist who took it upon him or her self to write the Rogues Gallery section without the deliberators’ knowledge or consent. Well, if I have done Ben Summerskill and Clare Balding and the others who helped put the list together a disservice, I am really sorry. I hope it at least teaches them never, ever to trust a newspaper, especially – and this may surprise some – one like the Independent. Good old-fashioned red tops, vulgar, brash and blaring as they may seem, are usually more honourable and straightforward in their dealings than those with pretensions to be “newspapers of record”… Oh dear now I’ve gone and made myself a whole new parcel of enemies. Heigh ho.

S xxx

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