Is the World on the Brink of Nuclear Armageddon?

Since Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration last month, sales of dystopian fiction have soared. Novels that have flown off the shelf, or recently made it into Amazon’s top ten best-selling books chart, include George Orwell’s 1984, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Huxley’s Brave New World. The resurgent interest in fiction that depicts a bleak totalitarian and authoritarian society reflects the fact that we are now living in a much more volatile and dangerous world. I do not think it is scaremongering to say that in recent years humanity has faced a number of catastrophic or even existential threats. From climate change and the rise in international terrorism to the prevalence of biological and chemical weapons, our capacity for warfare and destruction, and what the poet Robert Burns called ‘man’s inhumanity to man’, is self-evident.

But I believe the most pressing and immediate threat is that posed by the arsenals of nuclear weapons that have been stockpiled by the nuclear-armed states of the world who take false refuge in the Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine (MAD). In light of President Trump’s comments about nuclear weapons, last month atomic scientists in Chicago moved the hands on the Doomsday Clock to the closest it has been to midnight for sixty four years. Midnight represents global nuclear war.

With the ushering in of what some are already calling The New World Order, there are currently several flashpoints across the globe which could trigger a nuclear war. With a realignment in U.S.-Russian relations and Trump’s commitment to NATO in question, if Putin were to invade one or more of the Baltic States the situation could easily escalate and potentially trigger a nuclear strike. Russia itself is preparing for nuclear conflict. In October last year, the Russian government launched a nationwide nuclear training exercise with forty million people. It also unveiled Russia’s latest ‘super-nuke’, aptly dubbed ‘Satan 2’, which has the power to wipe out most of Britain, Northern France, the Netherlands and Belgium in a single strike. This month Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian air force to prepare for a ‘time of war’.

Other potential geo-political flashpoints include North Korea and the Pakistan/Indian dispute over Kashmir.  A few days ago, in violation of United Nations resolutions, North Korea successfully test-fired a new type of medium to long-range ballistic missile. Kim-Jong-Un, supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, has warned the West that he will soon have nuclear weapons capable of targeting the U.S. Whether this is true or not, it seems highly likely that North Korea already has the capacity to put a nuclear warhead on a short to medium range missile which would be in easy striking distance of South Korea or Japan. This, in turn, increases the risk of nuclear proliferation in the region.

When I was seventeen years old, I became a member of The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (C.N.D) and joined a march in central London in support of disarming the country of nuclear weapons. I remember the banner I made that summer in the back garden. Two words in bright red paint summed up the nihilism and despair I felt at living in a world that had not learnt the lessons from Hiroshima and Nagasaki: ‘Nuclear Suicide’. I also remember when I first heard those haunting words, taken from the Bhagavad Gita, and spoken by theoretical physicist, Oppenheimer, after the world’s first atomic bomb was detonated:

‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’

A few years later, whilst at Exeter university in the early nineties, I read Only Fear Dies, a book written by Australian author and spiritual teacher, Barry Long. Whenever I hear one of Trump’s alt-right cronies attempt to deceive and confuse the general public with post-truth ‘alternative facts’, I am reminded of Long’s prediction:

           ‘Everyone thought the news was the report of events; now the reports themselves became news. And the actual events even started to lag behind the latest reports of them. Emotion triggered by the latest media reports created the final explosive event. The communication of nuclear missiles as the latest news was instantaneous.

            It was the last news.’

This was written in 1984. But, unlike Long, although I think nuclear conflict at some point is likely, I do not think it is inevitable. I believe in humanity’s ability to find solutions to intransigent problems. Despite the tumultuous task ahead, we cannot remain helpless and hopeless about the situation. As the great parliamentarian Edmund Burke once said:

            ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’

       As technology executives in Silicon Valley invest in million dollar nuclear bunkers, the rest of us can battle the mentality that has given rise to this madness. Instead of pressing our very own red buttons at the ballot box, we can ensure that we vote with integrity and emotional intelligence. As hedge-fund managers prepare for the Apocalypse by investing in airstrips and farms in New Zealand, we can invest in our own future, and the future of generations to come, by supporting an international treaty in New York to ban all nuclear weapons. If the time comes, we can take to the streets or participate in other forms of civil disobedience. In our interactions with each other, whether digital or face-to-face, we can be guided, unlike those who peddle alternative facts, by truth. And because truth is aligned to that which is good, we will be guided by love.

Small causes can have large effects. This concept is illustrated by the ‘butterfly effect’. It has been said that something as small as the flutter of a butterfly’s wing can ultimately cause a typhoon halfway around the world. Alternatively we can turn a blind eye like the three monkeys who embody the principle: hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil. The choice is ours.

            Sometimes I think that, as individuals and as a species, it is not until we are pushed to the brink, that we find the strength to evolve beyond our limited viewpoints and ego. The alternative is almost too unbearable to contemplate – the potential annihilation of human civilization and the destruction of life on an unprecedented scale.

* First published in Huffington Post – (‘Huff Post Politics’)

 

 

Memoir extract: ‘Human Angel’.

In  more recent years I have experienced various premonitions, including those pertaining to the end of the world. Each time the premonition or forewarning was very much a body-based experience, an inner depth of knowing which came on unbidden and very suddenly. It is challenging enough contemplating one’s own mortality and physical demise but to experience a ‘knowing’ in the body concerning the potential annihilation of human civilization, believe me, is a frightening, bewildering and isolating experience. You just want to push it away and forget. It is beyond most people’s field of reference. Most people believe that our minds are confined to the present and to the brain and the body. I now believe we are connected to each other in more ways than we realise. A premonition is like a glimpse into how the future is likely to unfold. This doesn’t mean we can’t act to change it; a premonition is a glimpse of a probable not a fixed future.

Homophobia in the British School System

To make ends meet these days I’ve joined the ranks of Ozzie, South African and Eastern European supply teachers who prop up our beleaguered British school system. Acting work is thin on the ground and finding a publisher for my memoir Human Angel is proving more of a challenge than I had anticipated. So in late January, bleary eyed and still only partially dressed, I take the early morning call from the supply teaching agency.

‘Hi babe. Could you go down to a school in Poplar, East London today?’ says one of the agents.

I anticipate the hour long commute from Wood Green in North London. The jam-packed tube carriages and the DLR train full of bankers making their way to the investment banks in Canary Wharf. But when the agent names the actual primary school which serves the notorious Robin Hood Garden residential estate in Tower Hamlets, I take a sharp intake of breath; memories come flooding back. And not all of them good.  Nearly fifteen years ago I was on a permanent contract there teaching a class of challenging nine and ten year olds. But it’s not the idea of teaching the kids that turns my stomach.

After a few months teaching at this school back in 2002, it soon became apparent that some of the children were using the word ‘gay’ in a derogatory way. My way of addressing their ignorance was to purchase a copy of Jenny Lives with Martin and Eric, by Danish author Suanne Böshe. The story describes a few days in the life of a five-year-old named Jenny, her father Martin, and his boyfriend Eric who lives with them. (Those that remember The Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) may be familiar with the title.) The book, along with several others, stood in pride of place on my desk for the children to read if they so chose to.

Not long after I had displayed the book in my class, I was promptly escorted by the Deputy Head to the Head Teacher’s office. I was, at the time, in the middle of teaching a Maths lesson. This was clearly a matter of great urgency.

I was stunned as the Head, who I took to be liberal and open-minded, sat behind her desk, clearly agitated, and accused me of pushing the gay right’s agenda.

‘I’m a divorced woman,’ she said at one point, waving a copy of Jenny Lives With Martin and Eric in my face. ‘Do I go shoving that information down everyone’s throat?’ Her own throat was notably mottled pink with indignation and rage.

I explained my reasons behind having the book in my classroom but they fell on deaf ears. Looking back I should have probably contacted my teacher union. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. But despite it being the twenty first century, this event happened in an era before Stonewall founded their Education For All campaign to tackle homophobic bullying in schools. And Section 28, which forbade the ‘teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality,’ had not yet been repealed.

Despite being strapped for cash, I refuse to accept the day’s work that is offered by the supply teaching agency. It’s only been a few days since Donald Trump, having been inaugurated as president of the United States, deleted the LGBT page from the White House website, along with pages on civil rights and climate change. Try as I might I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between the confiscation of the book I had introduced to my class back in 2002 and the disappearance of that government website.

It is apparent that the erosion of human rights is now potentially part of a dangerous and volatile new world order. Here in the United Kingdom we may feel immune to some of the more overt forms of homophobia, misogyny and racism that are currently manifesting on the other side of the pond. But it wasn’t long ago that several overtly homophobic candidates stood for the election of the leadership of the Conservative Party. Remember the likes of Andrea Leadson? Or Work and Pensions Secretary Stephen Crab, who, it was discovered, had links to a ‘gay cure’ organisation, Christian Action Research and Education (CARE).

My point is that we can’t take recent progress in civil rights, and that includes LGBT rights, for granted. Neither can we accept a creeping normalisation regarding the erosion of these rights. The women’s marches across the globe last Saturday were testament to what can happen when we actively resist inequality and bigotry.

As we approach LGBT history month and also prepare to mark the 50th anniversary of the first LGBT rights legislation – the partial decriminalisation of gay sex – we need to ensure in schools that we build on the work Stonewall has achieved with its highly successful campaign against homophobic bullying. The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s idea of embedding LGBT history to the National Curriculum is also a step in the right direction but this needs backing from everyone who shares a progressive vision of education. But as for the way sex and relationship education in schools is currently taught – there is clearly massive room for improvement. Perhaps Justine Greenling, Secretary of State for Education, who announced she was gay on last year’s Gay Pride march in London, in conjunction with liberal minded educators and parents, can be part of the change that is so desperately needed in this area of the curriculum.

Children generally have no problem accepting people who identify as LGBT. In my first year of primary school teaching, I came out to a Year 6 class in Haringey. After ten minutes it was no longer news that Sir was gay. But in that particular school the backing of the Head teacher made all the difference. As for my book, Jenny Lives with Martin and Eric, what happened to it, I hear you ask; I’m still waiting for it to be returned.

(First published as featured blog post on Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/timothy-graves/homophobia-in-the-british_1_b_14394368.html

Review of ‘Candyass’ by Nick Comilla.

Candyass is Nick Comilla’s exciting coming-of-age novel, published by Arsenal Pulp Press, which charts a young man’s tumultuous love affairs  in both Montreal and New York. Arthur, the protagonist of the piece, which one cannot help but feel is a thinly disguised version of the author himself (I may be wrong!) is young, idealistic and open to what life has to offer – including many highly-charged sexual encounters! But as the narrative develops we realise that deep down, like many of us, he is really searching for a genuine and authentic connection to a significant other. But both Jeremy, his first love from his hometown of Montreal, and Jason, a good looking escort with psychopathic tendencies who he meets in New York, fall short of the connection Arthur is searching for.

        This is a story written in the first person POV and present tense which gives a real sense of immediacy and intimacy. There are several scenes of a sexually transgressive nature in this work and much promiscuity and hedonistic drug-taking. These are familiar troupes in gay fiction. However, in Comilla’s hands, they are expertly handled and given a fresh overhaul for a new generation. His keen eye and balls to tell it like it is, also cuts to the heart of the matter.

 

        The prose itself has a poetic quality which is perhaps not surprising considering Arthur is a poet, and Comilla himself completed his MFA in poetry and fiction at The New School in New York. There is a no holds barred honesty to the writing which I found refreshing; it captures something of what it is like to be a young and queer millennial. In many scenes, there is a raw, in-yer-face energy which makes for an exciting rollercoaster of a ride. At other times the writing belies a deep longing for love and intimacy. This is no more evident than in the beautifully crafted pieces of actual poetry which are peppered throughout the main narrative. Many of the poems and poetic fragments capture a romantic yearning and longing and the nostalgia for lost love:

I searched for you

where the smoke plumes

loom in a luminous light

yes, like the moon.

i like the doom

of the night. i roamed

the tombs for you.

my wallflower, candyass

pristine punk.’

        But as the story develops, both the poetry and the prose reflect a much darker aspect of human nature and human relationships. This is Arthur reflecting on his abusive relationship with Jason.

”Tells me I’m more beautiful broken. ‘I hit you but your more beautiful because of it.”

        One of the book’s strengths is how sexual encounters are dealt with. Descriptions, particularly in the early stages of Arthur’s journey, are often rooted in sensual and physical pleasure – a joyous celebration of our carnal, animal nature.  (The author does not hold back from appealing to the reader’s sense of smell – to put it mildly!) But the sex becomes much darker as Arthur embarks on an abusive relationship with Jason; sexual role play gets out of hand and escalates into physical violence and a desire, on Jason’s part, to humiliate. And we recoil with horror when Jason spikes his lover’s drink with a drug Arthur is known to have a bad reaction to. But perhaps the most disturbing part of all this is Arthur’s tendency to normalise this. Until he doesn’t. But as Arthur becomes ever more fatally attracted to his Bad Boy escort lover, and the narrative assumes a relentlessly dark momentum,  we cannot help but hope that Arthur finds a way out – for his sake and ours.

        Towards the end of Candyass, Jason’s drug taking eventually spirals out of control as does Arthur’s addiction to this Bad Boy (who, at times, verges on evil/a nasty piece of work). But I commend Comilla for his courage in writing with such verve and honesty about a difficult aspect of certain relationships which, for many, are frought with guilt and shame.

        My only criticism of the work would be the large section in the middle of the narrative written in French. Great for the French speaking Canadian market but for me this passage remained incomprehensible. I also found Arthur’s attraction to both Jeremy and Jason, at times, frustrating. But then again, who said that our attraction for certain people, or indeed life, can’t be frustrating? This is part of the trip and part of the fictional world Comilla has created.

        Edmund White has said that Candyass is ‘…thoughtful and skilful in dissecting the exquisite corpse of gay life today.’ Strong words indeed.

        If you like gay fiction that is beautifully written, has the feel of a memoir and deals with the darker aspects of contemporary gay life, I wholeheartedly recommend Comilla’s debut novel.

 

2016: A Year in Review – A Rainbow-coloured Perspective

 

2016. For many of us it was a year when the unthinkable became a reality. A year where – not once but twice – we woke from our slumber to find the world we knew was about to change beyond all recognition. In June Britain went to the ballot box and, by a narrow margin, voted in favour of leaving the European Union. And in October, months of a bitterly fought presidential campaign finally came to an end when a giant Wotsit in a wig was confirmed president-elect of the United States. Who could have predicted, as the CIA have now confirmed, that Russia would have attempted to rig the US presidential election in Trump’s favour, and that a right-wing demagogue and former host of a reality TV show, who ‘’grabs pussy’’ and refers to Mexicans as criminals and rapists, would become leader of the Free World? Or that Britain would risk economic prosperity, freedom of movement and its reputation as a forward-thinking, inclusive nation that celebrates cultural diversity for a xenophobic vision espoused by the likes of Nigel Farage and Michael Gove?

As we witnessed images, from the comfort of our own homes, of Trump mimicking a disabled journalist, or scenes of horrific war crimes committed in Aleppo, Syria, it was easy to think that the world had gone mad and was going to hell in a handbasket. Especially when you consider that 2016 gave us an unrelenting series of terror attacks across the globe and concepts such as ‘post-truth’ politics and ‘fake news’. It was also the year that sadly saw the likes of gender-bending artistic visionaries such as David Bowie and Prince, as well as iconic Dead or Alive singer Pete Burns, and performer Alexis Arquette, shuffle off this mortal coil. On Christmas Day George Michael died.

But despite the seismic political events that shook the world, 2016 was not all doom and gloom. We may have got Brexit, swiftly followed in some quarters by ‘Regrexit’ but London pulled it off by voting for Labour’s progressive candidate Sadiq Khan, the first Muslim mayor of any Western capital city. Khan has already proved himself as a unifying figure for London’s varied and diverse communities including the LGBT+ community. Amongst other things, he has taken a zero tolerance approach to hate crime, appointed Amy Lamé, broadcaster and queer performer, as London’s first Night Czar and has promised to invest thousands to save LGBT venues.

2016 also saw same sex marriage become legal in Greenland, Columbia and one of the last legal bastions of homophobia in the UK – The Isle of Man. In the autumn of 2016 Northern Ireland lifted its ban on gay men donating blood, and gay sex was decriminalised in Belize and the Seychelles. 2016 was also the year that, for the first time, a British heir to the throne agreed to be photographed for a gay magazine. In April Prince William appeared on the cover of the UK’s best-selling magazine, Attitude, and, in a comprehensive interview for the magazine, spoke out against homophobic bullying. There was also a rainbow-coloured victory of sorts when born-again Christian bakers, Daniel and Amy McArthur, lost their court case appeal in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, and the Bishop of Grantham become the first Anglican priest to declare that he is in a gay relationship.

But on June 12th of this year a massacre took place in Orlando, Florida, that shook the LGBT community worldwide. Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old security guard, who had previously sworn allegiance to ISIS, killed 49 people and wounded 53 others inside ‘Pulse’, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. It was a terrorist attack and hate crime against the LGBT+ community and the deadliest incident of violence against LGBT people in American history. In a show of solidarity against such hatred, vigils were held in many major Western capital cities including London. As crowds gathered outside the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho, the heart of London’s gay community, many will have sadly remembered the nail bomb attack perpetrated by a British neo-Nazi eighteen years earlier.

The massacre in Orlando was the most extreme example of hatred against the LGBT+ community in 2016 but unfortunately a massive spike in racist and homophobic hate crime was recorded in the wake of both Brexit and Trump’s presidential victory. And of course, just a week prior to the EU referendum, Jo Cox, Labour MP for Batley and Spen, was brutally murdered by a British Neo-Nazi shortly before she was due to hold a constituency surgery. The toxic language surrounding the EU referendum seems to have given credence to a xenophobic, racist and homophobic undercurrent in British society and the political fall-out has left it more divided than ever.

Artistic and creative achievements in 2016 are too numerous to mention but highlights for me include Putting Words In Your Mouth by award-winning artist Scottee. Performed at The Roundhouse in Camden, it’s a verbatim piece of theatre that explores notions of belonging, identity, and the legacy of Thatcherism. Matthew Todd’s book, Straight Jacket, which explores how homophobia and ‘gay shame’ has impacted on the mental and emotional health of many in the LGBT+ community, also surely deserves to be up there. As does the French film Theo and Hugo.

Perhaps many of us will be glad to see the back of 2016. But it’s important to differentiate between national/international events and the events in our own individual lives, many of which, hopefully, will be positive. And, as we move into 2017, we should never lose sight of the fact that each of us can and does make a difference. Although with Donald Trump moving into the White House, the possibility that Marine Le Pen will become president of France, and Britain’s future looking increasingly precarious, it goes without saying that it also pays to be ever-vigilant. Not only by what is happening around us but also inside of us. These are trying times indeed. As Freud himself said, ‘..the primitive, savage and evil impulses of mankind have not vanished in any individual.’

 

 

 

Ten Things I Wish I Could Tell My Thirty-Year-Old Self

It’s often difficult to move beyond habitual patterns of behaviour even if they are self-sabotaging or self-destructive. But surely the path to human happiness and fulfillment lies in reflecting on our past mistakes or experiences so that we can move ever closer to the goal of realising our full potential. As the year draws to a close, I find myself not only reflecting on the politically seismic national and international events of 2016, but also reflecting on the somewhat turbulent trajectory of my own life. This begs the question, if I were to meet a younger version of myself – say the man I was at thirty – what advice would I give him?

Follow the advice of Lebanese-American poet, Khalil Gibran, who says ‘beauty is not in the face; beauty is a light in the heart.’ Of course, when it comes to the dating game, physical attraction is important but charm and good looks only go so far. If they are not matched by an inner beauty which, at the very least, encompasses kindness to others and a positive outlook on life, you should definitely walk on by. And, in doing so, you will not only be honouring your own self-worth and moving closer to an even greater version of yourself, you will also be paving the way for someone you really deserve to walk into your life.

Allow yourself to be guided by life itself. Certain people who may cross your path, opportunities that may come your way unexpectedly – be open to what they can teach you. If you are too wilful, it may actually take you longer to get to where you need to go than if you enter into a more ‘receptive mode of being.’ The older I get, the more I see life in an organic, non-linear sort of way with its own cycles, patterns and occasional loops back onto itself. Be open to what psychoanalyst Carl Jung referred to as ‘synchronicity’ – those moments in life which are full of meaningful coincidence.

Do not compare your path or life journey with any other. That kind of stuff will get in the way of you living the life you were truly destined to live. In the words of Joseph Campbell, ‘follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.’

If life sends you a massive curve-ball do your utmost to ensure that it makes you rather than breaks you. How we respond to apparently negative events in our life will ultimately determine the outcome. Losing a job, a relationship, our reputation, or even all three, is tough. We can feel nailed by life. Why me? It can feel like there is no escape. But, viewed in a certain way, it can be an opportunity to reassess our situation and make different choices in the future.

Perhaps it is better to think in terms of acting beautifully, or creating beauty, rather than being ethical or moral. This is a more inspiring way of looking at things, especially perhaps for those of a more creative persuasion. And certainly for those of us who have been at the receiving end of moral crusading, prejudice and bigotry – all of which is often justified in the name of religion.

What we call ‘home’ is much more than a beautiful apartment with a great view. It is so much more than bricks and mortar. It is feeling comfortable in your own skin. It is discovering your passion and finding your place in the world. Above all, it is finding your people, your tribe. Although, on one level of course, we all belong to the same tribe – the human race.

When in doubt, listen to that quiet voice of conscience. It is usually right.

If you open your heart and someone won’t love you back, don’t despair or indulge in bouts of self-recrimination. Take heed of poet Dean Atta’s words of wisdom from his poem How To Love Yourself. ‘There are many reasons someone may not be able to love you that are not about you. Their reasons are not your faults. Not your reflection. Their reasons belong to them.’

Love comes in many guises. Romantic love is just one of its faces. Working in a job or a field that brings healing, inspiration, support or joy to others is a form of love. It is love in action. Love is also present when someone close to us dies before we got the opportunity to say goodbye. It is there when we honour how amazing and beautiful we really are. And it is there when we show small acts of kindness to those beyond our immediate circle of friends and family. I sometimes think that perhaps life itself is a series of lessons in what ‘love’ actually is.

Meditation is a great way to start the day. The practice of meditation also makes us gradually aware of the nature and power of our thoughts. In the words of The Buddha: ‘As the shadow follows the body, as we think, so we become.’

 

 

 

 

Cop Killer Stefano Brizzi, App Culture and Chemsex.

A reporter from the Sun newspaper recently contacted me via Facebook Messenger. Initially, his message puzzled me.

‘Would it be possible to talk to you about Stef Brizzi?’

I had no idea why a journalist from a tabloid newspaper would want to talk to me about someone I had never even heard of. I quickly googled the name Stef Brizzi. It was only then that I realised who I was dealing with – the man who was recently convicted at The Old Bailey for murdering PC Gordon Semple at his flat on a Peabody Estate in South London. I felt physically sick when I recalled some of the more grisly details of the case. How Stefano Brizzi, who was obsessed with the US hit TV drama ‘Breaking Bad’, had dismembered Semple’s body then dissolved the body parts in acid. How the neighbours had complained of a revolting smell coming from Brizzi’s flat, and how Brizzi had lost his job as a computer programmer at Morgan Stanley in Canary Wharf due to his spiralling addiction to crystal meth. But why would a reporter from the Sun want to talk to me about a man who, when he was arrested for Semple’s murder, declared that Satan had told him to do it? A man who allegedly liked satanic rituals which involved having sex over the sign of a pentagram. Did my novel Pharmakeia, a cautionary Faustian tale about sex magick and demonic possession, have anything to do with it? In a state of paranoia and confusion I replied to the tabloid reporter’s message. I asked him why he wanted to talk to me about Brizzi seeing that I didn’t know him or even met him.

‘I noticed you’re friends with him on Facebook,’ he replied. ‘Do you know him very well?’

I logged onto Facebook and sure enough there was a mug-shot of cop killer Stefano Brizzi. Unable to stomach looking at his actual profile, I immediately unfriended then blocked him. How had I allowed someone who had brutally murdered another human being then attempted to dispose of his body in the most inhumane manner possible, to become a Facebook ‘friend’? Then it suddenly hit me. The man who had committed one of the most horrific murders in British criminal history would have been privy to all my posts, photos and personal information. I felt violated. I berated myself for not having vetted Facebook friend requests more carefully. But I also realised that I was not alone in sometimes accepting friend requests on social media platforms from virtual strangers. I was also not alone in using geo-sexual networking sites like Grindr – the app Gordon Semple used – to hook up with men I had never met before.

Chemsex, a British documentary film released in December 2015, graphically portrays a world where vulnerable gay men, with issues around sex, hook up on apps like Grindr and binge for days on socially disinhibiting, libido-enhancing drugs such as crystal meth, GHB and methadrone. Brizzi was high on crystal meth when he strangled Semple to death. Crystal meth is an extremely dangerous drug and in high enough doses it is well-known for inducing paranoia, psychosis and even late-onset schizophrenia. Is this why Brizzi, when first arrested, is reported to have told detectives that:

‘on crystal meth the voice was consistent, a very clear voice said you must kill, you must kill, you must kill.’

Unfortunately, Stefano Brizzi was not the only gay killer to be convicted of murder at The Old Bailey in November. Stephen Port, a 41 year-old chef from London, was found guilty of raping and murdering four young gay men, and dumping two of their bodies in a graveyard not far from his flat in Barking, East London. However his method of murder differed from Brizzi’s. Rather than strangling his victims, he spiked their drinks with a fatal amount of the drug Gamma-Hydroxybutyrate, otherwise known as GHB, an anaesthetic which depresses the central nervous system. The exact nature of Port’s insatiable sexual appetite also differed from Brizzi’s. The jury were told that Porter had a fetish for sex with unconscious boyish-looking men. David Etheridge QC added that Port had ‘… graduated from a fetish to a fixation, from a fixation to a compulsion.’ But both Port and Brizzi made use of geo-sexual networking apps like Grindr to hook up with their victims.

I think it is fair to say that these brutal murders have shocked both the LGBT and wider community. There is currently an investigation into institutionalised homophobia with the Metropolitan Police Service due to the appalling failure to catch multiple murderer Stephen Port. But are there other lessons that can be learnt from this recent spate of murders committed by gay men against other gay men?  Personally, I think it pays to be more vigilant on social media. I, for one, will be monitoring both my Facebook and Twitter accounts more carefully in future. I also think it is important to be aware of the dangers inherent in using gay sexual networking apps like Grindr to hook up on the spur-of-the-moment with guys who may be high, hung and horny but may also harbour dark and taboo sexual fantasies or be mentally ill.

Many gay men, courtesy of Grindr or Gaydar, will be familiar with the experience of turning up at a complete stranger’s doorstep in the early hours of the morning in a state of drug-fuelled sexual excitement. But the desire to prolong the party can cloud our better judgement. The truth is we know next to nothing about the mystery man behind that gym-trained headless torso profile pic. But tragic stories of men who have been involved in the chemsex scene are beginning to emerge. They paint a dark and disturbing picture of a world where drug overdoses, sexual violence, and even the practice of ‘pozzing someone up’ (knowingly infecting someone with HIV) are commonplace. Is it worth the risk?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Turbulent Times for London’s Gay Scene

 

During the Halloween weekend I swung by The Royal Vauxhall Tavern, one of London’s oldest and much loved LGBT venues, on my way home from a friend’s wedding in Putney. Whilst a low-lying mist descended on the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens and neighbouring streets, the venue itself was rammed to the rafters with ghouls, zombies and sexy vampires.

Not only did I have a blast of a time but my little detour also served as a timely reminder of how vitally important our queer spaces are in the capital. Places like the RVT provide safe spaces where we can party and feel accepted for who we are and who we want to be with. Fortunately, thanks to the campaign to save the venue, supported in part by the likes of Sir Ian McKellan and Amy Lame, broadcaster and co-founder of the queer night Duckie, the RVT was recently designated as a Grade II listed building. But, like a lot of LGBT venues across the capital, things might have been very different.

Far too many LGBT bars and clubs have closed in recent years. Soho has seen The Green Carnation, Barcode Soho, First Out café and Madam Jo-Jo’s disappear from the map. Despite being recognised as an ‘asset of the community’ by Camden Council, the historic gay pub The Black Cap has also gone. In East London we’ve lost The Joiners Arms and The George and Dragon. In Vauxhall, which is soon to house the high security US embassy, the club Beyond and Barcode Vauxhall have both closed their doors. Cliff Joannou, who now edits Attitude, the UK’s best-selling gay magazine, estimates that 25% of LBGT venues have closed since the recession. This is a far cry from the 1990’s when there was a plethora of gay pubs and clubs in London to choose from.

Many reasons for this decline have been cited. They include sky-rocketing commercial rents and the gentrification of many parts of the capital which have seen independent businesses, creative ventures and local amenities bulldozed and turned into luxury flats. Geo-sexual networking apps such as Grindr, which have helped to fuel the chemsex epidemic, have perhaps also played their part. It may be tempting to sit at home flicking through countless profiles on your iPhone, chemed-up on a cocktail of drugs whilst waiting for some random to turn up at your doorstep. But is it as much fun as dancing the night away with friends or opening up to the potential for that chance encounter with someone you really fancy?  

There may not be that much we can do to stop rising commercial rents but active campaigning to prevent the closure of much loved LGBT venues has proven, in the case of the RVT, to be effective. The homogenization and blandification of London is not a dead cert. Alternative newcomers on the scene such as the club Debbie, hosted by Sina Sparrow, or The Glory in the East End, often include avant-garde performance art, drag and cabaret as part of the night’s entertainment. And with the recent announcement that Amy Lame will be the new night tsar for London as well as the 24-hour Night Tube running every Friday and Saturday there is cause for optimism.

So, if you haven’t ventured into the gay scene for a while, dip your toe in and, like me, you may well be pleasantly surprised. You’re unlikely to bump into a hot-looking zombie or receive that once-in-a-lifetime love bite by the vampire of your dreams. After all Halloween has come and gone. But you will be doing your bit to ensure London’s gay scene does not end up on a life-support machine.

(*first published in Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/timothy-graves/turbulent-times-for-londo_b_12827034.html)

Polari’s Ninth Birthday and the End of a National Tour

There was cause for celebration at Polari, London’s award-winning LGBT literary salon, at the Southbank Centre last Friday. Dressed in top hat and tails, Paul Burston, author and journalist who curates and hosts the monthly literary event, announced on stage that not only was it Polari’s ninth birthday but that it was also the end of a third national tour funded by The Arts Council England.

This year’s Polari National Tour began in July, and included cities across England, Scotland and Wales and readings by writers from across the LGBT+ community. Playwright Jonathan Harvey, perhaps more well-known for his seminal gay play Beautiful Thing and the hit TV series Gimme Gimme Gimme, headlined at The Grand Theatre in Blackpool. Poet John McCullough, who won the Polari First Book Prize in 2011 for his collection of poems The Frost Fairs, was included in the star-studded line-up for Polari in Hove whereas Ursula Martinez, Anglo-Spanish writer and cult cabaret diva, gave a sterling performance at a venue in Cardiff.

Hailed by The New York Times as ‘London’s most theatrical salon’ and by The Huffington Post as ‘..the most exciting literary movement in London, crackling with energy, ideas and excitement’, Polari is a real success story. Each event I have attended has always been packed out and the Polari audience is always appreciative and welcoming. Just as importantly, Polari also provides a platform for showcasing established and emerging LGBT+ authors, poets and spoken-word performers. The Polari First Book Prize, held each year and awarded to a writer whose first book explores the LGBT experience, also helps to give new writers who show promise and talent a higher profile.

Last Friday’s Polari was also part of the Southbank Centre’s Being A Man (BAM) festival which celebrates boys and men and addresses the pressures of masculine identity in the twenty first century. To the backdrop of The Houses of Parliament and The London Eye, and accompanied by Paul Michaels sign language interpretation, each writer who took to the stage had their own very unique take on queer masculinity. Stuart Feather kicked off the proceedings with an extract from Blowing The Lid: Gay Liberation, Sexual Revolution and Radical Queens, a political memoir set in the 1970’s about The Gay Liberation Front. Feather gave a witty and insightful account of a radical and, at times anarchic, political organisation and, in doing so, documented an important part of gay history. Matthew Todd, former editor of Attitude magazine and author of the play Blowing Whistles, read from Straight Jacket: How To Be Gay And Happy. This timely and meticulously researched book explores how the trauma and shame of growing up gay in a homophobic society can set the conditions for poor mental and emotional health later in life. V G Lee, sporting a black feathered hat, was on top form as a consummate storyteller as she read an extract from her new novel Mr Oliver’s Object of Desire, a very funny and tender portrayal of a middle-aged man adrift in the mid-seventies. And Jake Arnott, whose work includes The Long Firm, which was adapted as a BAFTA-winning drama for BBC2, treated us to an extract from his new novel The Fatal Tree. But for me it was Dean Atta’s poems about love and identity from his debut poetry collection I Am Nobody’s Nigger that stole the show. In the words of Benjamin Zephaniah, ‘Dean Atta’s poetry is as honest as truth itself.’

The next Polari event will take place at The Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre on 27th January 2017. The line-up will include award-winning author and playwright, Stella Duffy.

‘How To Love Yourself’ by Dean Atta http://bbc.in/1PPvinZ