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’)

 

 

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

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

Is There a Dark Side to Creativity?

‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.’ Pablo Picasso.

As a writer and someone who is training to be an actor, I value creativity. I generally see its bright side and think  it can bring a sense of personal fulfilment, improved mental health and an experience of ‘free-flow’ where one is in a focussed yet relaxed state of being. I feel this particularly when I am acting and in communion the with other  actors and the audience.  I feel fully alive.

According to Mazlov’s hierarchy of needs, creativity is up there at the top of that pyramid and is a path to self-actualization. Julia Cameron, author of The Artists Way would go so far as to see creativity as divine. ‘Creativity is God energy, flowing through us, shaped by us, like light flowing through a crystal prism.’ A little hippy for my taste but I get where she’s coming from! And I think, generally, as a society, we are  enchanted by creativity . For many people, creativity is a new way of finding solace in an imperfect world in which religion no longer offers such conditions. (Gammel 1946 The Twilight of Painting)

However, I have on occasion wondered whether there is a dark side to creativity. For myself, I recognise the potential for workaholicism and perfectionism when it comes to my own creative pursuits. But when one is intrinsically motivated and rewarded in creative endeavour it is difficult to know where to cut off or when the job is done. Having written my second novel, Pharmakeia, which centres around a creative temptation, I have also reflected on the moral or ethical dimension to art and creativity. I am aware that this is a huge topic but I would like to offer some of my initial thoughts on the dark side of creativity or, as some have called it, ‘negative creativity.’

Creativity and Mental Illness

I think it is fair to say that there is stereotype of the artistic genius. But is there a genuine link between creativity and mental illness? Of course ‘creativity’ is a broad concept but if we were to look at just mental health and the ‘arts’ there is some research to suggest that mental health is lowest in people who work in this field. My experience at the University of Exeter bears this out. The university counselling service was jam-packed with drama students! And of course writers such as Woolf, Plath and Hemingway committed suicide whereas artists such as Van Gogh and Goya or musicians such as Beethoven  are reported to have suffered from depression, bipolar disorder and breakdowns. But are such famous artists representative? Or is there something about  being an artist and delving into the unconscious and into areas that most people would wisely leave be? Do modern-day artists have shamanic status? And who is to say society in general is sane? As Thomas Szasz says, insanity is a sane reaction to an insane world.

Creativity and Addiction

Of course, many artists are not addicted to either drugs or alcohol. But there may be an increased likelihood of becoming an addict if one has artistic leanings. To a certain extent, artists do have an outsider status. They often challenge the status quo, go beyond convention and offer new ways of seeing things. Drugs similarly offer the user new perceptions and ways of looking at the world, particularly hallucinogenic drugs. They are also illegal which might provide an additional allure to an artist of a rebellious nature. The 27 Club is a term that refers to a number of popular musicians who died at the age of 27, often of drug or alcohol abuse. They include, of course, Jim Morrison, Cobain and Hendrix. But perhaps childhood trauma and/or the pressures of sudden fame also played their part in some of these artists early deaths.

The Creative Personality Type

‘It is the creative person we need most to fear.’ (Graham Greene)

There is some recent research that suggests creative people may be a little more dishonest, arrogant and distrustful than other members of society. One could argue for example that the criminals who committed The Great Train Robbery showed a great sense of ingenuity which is a key component of creativity. And, I guess, if one is on the margins of society, or is challenging the conventions and morality of society, one is more likely to be distrustful. And for some highly creative individuals perhaps there is a sense of going against the crowd which could lead one to become more eccentric, criminal or even pathological. The allure of darkness may even manifest in an attraction to Satanism or occult practices. Robert Mapplethorpe, for example, is well know to have dabbled in Satanism and the occult. When interviewed for a documentary about Mapplethorpe, his former lover, Jack Fritscher, said, ‘Not to put Mapplethorpe down, but Satan, to him, was not this evil monster. Satan was like a convivial playmate.’ Then there are other artists or writers like Ted Hughes, Crowley or H P Lovecraft who were similarly interested in the occult.

My own opinion is that nothing is inherently good or bad, light or dark. It is our intentions or how we use things that matters. Mankind has shown immense ingenuity and creativity in the field of technology. We have the invention of the World Wide Web and nuclear power for example. Then there is the GTS satellite system that has given rise to App culture. But whether this technology is harnessed for the power of good or bad depends on the intention of politicians or other groups in society that would make use of such technology. Whether creativity is used for good or bad also depends on one’s beliefs and core values, Creativity does not exisit in a moral vacuum or beyond a historical or cultural context. I would also argue that artists do have a role to play in exposing injustice, inequality and habitual ways of seeing the world. However, perhaps past creativity can block future creative projects. As an artist, after some time and with a conventional degree of success, perhaps it is easy to fall into the trap of being formulaic and therefore conventional! And perhaps it is also easy to fall into the trap of creating from the ego rather than the Self. There is a lot to be said for getting out of the way of oneself before one creates…

Next week’s blog post will be an update on my forthcoming memoir.

Homophobia and the Orlando Terror Attack

I have decided to dedicate this week’s blog post to the terror attack and hate crime that took place at Pulse nightclub in Orlando in the early hours of Sunday morning. So far 49 people are reported to have been killed and a further 53 as injured. I’m sure I share your sentiments when I say my thoughts are with the deceased, the injured, and their friends, families and partners.

It was a deliberate act of hate and homophobia targeted against the LGBT community by an American-born citizen, Omar Mateen, who, at the time of writing, and according to the FBI, had links to Islamist jihadi groups.There has been a lot said, in response to the attack, about love, particularly in social media – all in good faith. But just like the rainbow that is a symbol that represents the gay community across the world, ‘love’ itself is made of a spectrum of colours. And one of these colours  has nothing to do with the warm, fuzzy feeling one might feel snuggled up with one’s beloved. This particular colour is about standing up against injustice, bigoty and hatred. It is this aspect of love which is motivating me to write this article. And indeed this love which inspired me to write my first novel, Homo Jihad. Sadly, it is this aspect of love which many in the LGBT community are only too familiar with, having battled against homophobia and internalised homophobia whilst growing up in a world where a large section of straight humanity still views us as disgusting, perverted and unnatural. (The Velvet Rage is an excellent book, written by an American psychotherapist which looks at the issue of toxic shame which many gay men experience as young boys.)

The individual who perpetrated this act of violence was clearly motivated by his hatred of the LGBT community. In other words he was homophobic. It has also been widely reported in the media that his father noted his son’s disgust on seeing two men kissing in Florida. Today the father reportedly said it was up to God to punish gay people. Surely, this is what is truly disgusting and offensive. Not two men holding hands or kissing in the street. Not gay people having fun in a nightclub.

But the tentacles of this hatred for LGBT people go deep. Hundreds, if not thousands of years deep. There is, in my opinion, a relationship between the Abrahamic faiths which originate in the Middle East, and homophobia. St. Paul, Leviticus, certain hadiths from the Koran etc. The passages are well known and quite repugnant so I won’t reproduce them here. But it is religious bigotry and homophobia justified in the name of God or Allah or some ‘sacred’ text or other that needs to be challenged. Humanity needs to evolve! In his excellent article for The Spectator, Homophobia is now met with the same silence given anti-Semitism,  Nick Cohen writes:

‘Religions, to use Dawkinesque language, are pre-scientific memes, and their DNA carries the hatred and blood-lusts of their time. Their authority has to be destroyed, so that they can no longer authorise murder.’

I sympathise with the above sentiment as a lot of what is written in these religious texts is defined by the culture, history and bigotry of their time. However, I still regard the essence of Christ’s teachings as a force of good in the world. And I believe Buddhism as a religion/philosophy is a time honoured tradition which has compassion and wisdom at its heart. I would not recommend throwing the baby out with the bath water! But religious extremism and homophobia need to be confronted whenever and wherever we encounter them. Which is why I feel Peter Tatchell’s response to the attack merits praise:

‘There is no room for the complacent and naïve belief the Islamist fanatics will confine their killings of gay people to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.’

Islamism as a political, fascistic ideology exists. The first step in combating this ideology is naming it. Not pretending it does not exist. Omar Mateen was a homophobe AND an Islamist who sympathised with Jihadi groups. However, some people seem to have a problem discerning between Islamism and Islam and in their ignorance and Islamophobia play directly into the hands of both Donald Trump and Isis. In the words of Peter Tatachell:

‘We must resist those who want to use this slaughter to demonise and scapegoat the Muslim community.’

We have all seen the violent, murderous face of homophobia in the devastation and loss of life caused in Orlando but I have also been shocked by the subtle and not so subtle display of homophobia in some of the media coverage of the attack. The Daily Wail didn’t even cover the worst attack on LGBT people since the Second World War on its front page. And I can only applaud The Guardian journalist, Owen Jones, for walking out of a Sky News interview. Julia Hartley Brewer, reporter for The Telegraph, and its presenter continued to downplay the fact that The Pulse nightclub in Orlanda was an LGBT venue until Jones, quite rightly, walked out. Do Jewish sites that are deliberate targets of terrorism get questioned on their basis of how Jewish they are?  The fact that homophobia here in the West is still not recognised for what it is, is clearly part of the problem.

The events in Orlando and certain media coverage of the events today have triggered certain personal experiences of homophobia. I remember being sent to Coventry by everyone on campus after I had naively come out to my room mate in the first week at Exeter University. The Headteacher of a primary school in Poplar, East London demanding to know why I had a book entitled ‘Jenny lives with Martin and Eric’ in my classroom. (It was in fact to combat homophobic bullying) I remember her words quite clearly. ‘I’m a divorced woman. I don’t go shoving that down everyone’s throat.’ She took the book I had bought with my own money and never gave it back. The time I had comforted a boyfriend on a bench in the street. He was feeling ill and we were subjected to homophobic verbal abuse. In many ways I have been lucky. I haven’t been beaten up or kicked out of my home or sent to prison or executed for my sexual orientation. In many parts of the world this still happens. Doubtless, some bigots would think this article is shoving my gay rights agenda down their throat.

I leave you with a photo of a packed Old Compton Street in Soho, where a vigil to commemorate the victims of the Orlando attack took place this evening. You can see the  Admiral Duncan pub, where seventeen years ago, three people lost their lives and dozens more were injured when a Neo-Nazi sympathiser detonated a nail bomb. We are ‘God’s gift of infinite variety in human love.’ We are the LGBT community.

soho vigil

How Meditation Can Help Enhance the Creative Writing Process

‘A mind too active is no mind at all.’ (Roethke)

I have been practicing Buddhist meditation, on-and-off, for nearly twenty years. I was introduced to two meditation practices – the ‘Mindfulness of Breathing’ and the ‘Mettabhavana’ (the cultivation of loving kindness) – at the London Buddhist Centre in Bethnal Green. I have also been on a number of Buddhist retreats here in the UK and went on a Vipassana retreat in Rajasthan, India, some years ago. And this week I attended Rigpa, the Tibetan Buddhist Centre in London to listen to two talks given by Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche.

In the last month or so, I have got back into the practice of meditating early each morning before I cycle into central London for rehearsals on Jim Knable’s play ‘Saltimbanques’. I feel calmer, have more patience and generally feel more at peace and happier. It has also given me the opportunity to reflect on how meditation can specifically help the creative writing process. Here are some of my thoughts…

1. Meditation encourages ‘divergent’ thinking. Divergent thinking, as opposed to convergent thinking, generates creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions. It occurs in a spontaneous, free-flowing, ‘non-linear’ manner. I personally find the post-meditation phase, the best time to write. I may have been puzzling over a particular character or part of the story for some time and meditation has provided the conditions that have resulted in mental clarity and that perfect gem! It’s always good to have a notepad handy!

2. Meditation can help with writer’s block and procrastination. After meditation, one’s mind is calmer and one seems to achieve one’s goals more effortlessly. Hindrances, such as restlessness, doubt or sleepiness will arise in any one meditation session. Overcoming such hindrances in meditation will help one overcome hindrances and difficulties in life generally and, if you are a writer, obviously in the field of creative writing.

3. Meditation will make you a better person and therefore a better writer. Compassion and the development of wisdom is at the heart of Buddhist meditation. As writers, we are, of course, dealing with the human condition. A person who is more empathic, wiser and more compassionate is better able to write about the difficult, challenging, and often traumatic situations we humans often find ourselves in. What is the point of art without much heart? Or art without much insight into the human condition?

4. In our daily lives we are saturated in narrative: films, books, gossip, newspapers etc. We are continually telling ourselves stories about our own lives. And even stories about those stories. As someone who writes stories, and tells stories as an actor, I find it refreshing, on a daily basis, to enter into a story-free zone! The spaciousness of Mind, baby! Paradoxically, I am a better story teller for it! Perhaps, in part, because meditation creates more space in your head and more awareness. A chaotic monkey-mind ,continually chattering away, is not really conducive to creating a story of any depth.

5. Meditation, particularly practiced in a Buddhist context, gives one perspective on the events in one’s life or the events one is creating in a work of fiction. I am currently working on a memoir and am finding that meditation and the Buddhist world view is helping me to see things from a more spiritual perspective.

6. Meditation can help with resistance to what Dorothy Parker calls ‘the art of applying the bum to the seat’.

7. There is a lot to be said for getting yourself ‘out of the way’ before you create anything. Buddhist mediation, slowly but surely, diminishes the power of our attachments and the clamouring voice of our own ego. Your voice, as a writer, will therefore be more aligned to what Jung refers to as the ‘Self’ and the overall vision for whatever you are writing will be greater.

8. Establishing a daily meditation practice requires discipline, particularly in the beginning. So does writing. If you meditate you are less likely to make up excuses not to write. And when you write, you are likely to be more productive.

9. Meditation can help to quieten that voice of the Inner Critic which can be so detrimental to creative writing, particularly in the early stages of a piece of work. We begin to feel more centred and confident in ourselves generally and are also therefore less likely to be adversely affected by negative criticism from others when our writing is eventually published. Or that’s the idea anyway!

10.  Meditation develops focus and concentration but in a relaxed way. This state of ‘free-flow’ is likely to continue some time after meditation – so get writing!

What I Would Have Told My Thirty Year-Old Self

I am now forty six and, feeling in a somewhat reflective and philosophical state of mind, decided to write down a few words of wisdom to an imaginary younger self. Some of the advice that follows could equally apply to me at forty ( do we actually live and learn..?) but I guess  you have to draw the line somewhere! Here goes…

1. Follow the advice of Kahlil Gibran, the Lebanese-American poet, who says: ‘Beauty is not in the face; beauty is a light in the heart.’ If I had been guided by this wisdom, I would not have chased after certain handsome and charming gay young men with emotional issues.

2. 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 for those of a more creative persuasion.

3. Allow yourself to be guided by life itself – certain people that may cross your path, opportunities that may come unexpectedly. 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.’

4.Life is not linear. Live long enough, and you will see the cycles, loops and patterns in life. Celebrate! There is beauty in this.

5.Do not compare your path or life’s journey with any other. That kind of stuff will get in the way of you living the life you truly want to live.

6. ‘Home’ is much more than a beautiful apartment with a great view. More than a certain kind of gay lifestyle. 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.

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

8. ‘Getting free’ is completely different and much more important than getting high.

9. It is better to work for little or no money at something you feel passionate about than become enslaved to a job that is killing your soul.

10. Meditation is a great way to start the day!