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

Book review: ‘Straight Jacket’ by Matthew Todd

Straight Jacket by Matthew Todd, who edited Attitude, the UK’s best selling magazine, for many years and is the writer of the play Blowing Whistles, was released in June of this year. It is published by Bantam Press. I read the book during the summer and was seriously impressed. Straight Jacket is part memoir and part polemic. It is an incredibly well-researched book which looks at why many in the gay community often struggle with  mental illness, addictions and have a higher propensity to attempt or commit suicide. Todd’s approach is evidence-based and he uses statistics from a wide range of sources and in-depth interviews to support his argument. He is also brave enough to share a very honest and personal account of growing up gay which, for him, was accompanied with high levels of anxiety, low-self esteem and problematic alcohol use.

Straight Jacket is similar in scope to The Velvet Rage written by psychotherapist Alan Downs. Concepts such as ‘toxic shame’, cultural and internalised homophobia, and the path to a more authentic and happy self, are all dealt with here. But Straight Jacket, published only ten years later, goes even further in exploring and addressing some of the issues that concern the gay community today. Chem-sex addiction is one such issue. It has already been dealt with in hard-hitting documentary films such as Chemsex, various magazine articles, both in the mainstream media and gay press, and plays such as Five Guys Chilling. (Indeed I saw Chemsex  at the ICA when it first opened. The Q&A session was chaired by Matthew Todd.)  The issue is approached in Straight Jacket, as are many of the other issues, in a comprehensive and succinct way. Doctors, health care professionals and key figures in the gay community, including David Stuart, who runs 56 Dean Street sexual-health clinic in Soho, are interviewed and quoted. Unfortunately for the men involved,  tragic stories concerning personal use of crystal meth, GHB and methadrone in a sexual context are also to be found in this part of the book.

The devastating consequences of  growing up gay in a culture which is both covertly and overtly homophobic are laid bare in Straight Jacket. Alcohol and drug abuse, body image issues, homophobic bullying, hypersexuality or ‘sexual anorexia’, rising HIV infection rates, higher suicide and attempted suicide rates, compared with the general population, are all examined with intellectual rigor  and compassion. I was particularly interested in how Todd would cover the issue of homophobic bullying in schools, having been a school teacher myself. The relevant chapter includes the story of Anthony whose body was found two months after he hanged himself. Anthony was the victim of homophobic bullying at school and via social media.

 Personally, I am aware that some schools are beginning to tackle the problem but not nearly enough is being done. ‘Gay’ is still often used as a term of abuse in the playground and teachers who attempt to address homophobia in schools are not always given a smooth ride. When I introduced the book Jenny Lives with Martin and Eric in a school in the London borough of Tower Hamlets in an effort to confront the use of homophobic language, I was accused by the deputy head of pushing the gay rights agenda.

One of the strengths of Straight Jacket is that it will also appeal to adolescents and young adults who identify as LGBTQ. Key concepts are explained clearly and succinctly and historical overviews are often given. And despite the often traumatic territory Straight Jacket covers, there is also much hope. And it is hope that is grounded in practical advice on how to move towards a greater sense of authentic self-hood. My one criticism of this latter part of the book would be that an abstinence-based approach to addiction is perhaps recommended to the detriment of other approaches.  Although I do understand where Todd is coming from. Alcohol Anonymous (A.A), Narcotics Anonymous (N.A) and Crystal Meth Anonymous (CMA) are all programmes that are free, inclusive and, for those who stick to the programme, often highly successful.

Straight Jacket is an incredibly important contribution to the discourse on homophobia and the mental, emotional and physical well-being of members of the LGBT community. It is a book which is written with honesty and love. I would recommend this book to anyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, who may be affected in some way, or know someone who may be affected by some of the issues dealt with. Straight Jacket is a wake-up call to the gay community and a rallying cry for us all.

Matthew Todd will be reading at Paul Burston’s literary salon Polari on 25th November.

 

 

Pharmakeia – drugs

The Role of Drugs/Chems in ‘Pharmakeia’

Pharmakeia is a transgressive tale on many levels. But, these days, is it transgressive to take drugs? In many quarters, they seem so commonplace, particularly on the gay scene.  But what is relatively new in the gay community is sexualised drug use. And the specific drugs that ramp up the libido like nothing on earth – crystal meth, GHB and methadrone..

I was lucky enough to go to the opening of the documentary ‘Chemsex’ at the ICA in December. This surely is a wake-up call to the gay community as it follows several very brave gay men and their descent into sexualised drug use and drug addiction. Gay men are shown ‘slamming’ or injecting crystal meth on screen. And, in no way, did I wish to minimise the potential negative effects of some of these harder drugs by referencing them in ‘Pharmakeia’. Indeed, I am aware that many gay men, who, in the past, used other party drugs recreationally, such as ecstasy or cocaine, find themselves completely out of their depth when it comes to drugs like crystal meth/methamphetamine aka ‘Tina’ to those in the know on the gay scene.

However, for my purposes, as a novelist writing this particular story, I decided to make use of the drug crystal meth. (which initially presented some problems as crystal was not that readily available on the streets of London in 1997! – although it had made inroads in The States.) When Mahvand smokes crystal meth at the club Kaos, thereby losing his drug virginity in a full-on way, it represents a further temptation/slide into the dark underworld, which is populated by shady characters such as Daimon Mount-Stuart and the conceptual art collector/dealer, Jean-Baptiste Lebeau-Chevalier.

The use of methamphetamine in the novel also relates directly to the title of the book, ‘Pharmakeia’, which is a Greek word, and appears in the New Testament. It is often translated as ‘the use or administration of drugs’ / ‘witchcraft’ or ‘sorceries’. Crystal meth, is purported by some, to have a supernaturally dark side and enable the user to see ‘shadow people’ demons etc. (However, it is also well-known for inducing psychosis and even schizophrenia..) I guess it’s all about perspective!

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For my story, I tapped into the sorcery/witchcraft perspective on crystal meth because I was interested in a transgressive narrative which has the theme of temptation at its heart. In the chapter ‘Kaos’, Jean-Baptiste smokes crystal from a glass pipe, and says, ‘I like to think of this pipe as a glass portal to another world.’ He also smokes the drug, as does Mahvand, during their sex magick sessions which culminate in visions for disturbing pieces of conceptual art.

At one point in the writing process, I edited out all drug references to make the ‘magick’/fantast element more real. But then I decided I liked leaving the reader in a state of ambiguity. Is what is happening actually ‘real’ or a drug hallucination? Or a combination of the two? Towards the end of the narrative though, I hope I have given enough textual clues to enable the reader to decide which perspective is ultimately the deciding one!

I think the relationship between drugs and magic is an interesting one. In the chapter set in the nightclub, Kaos, the antagonist, Jean-Baptiste, quips, ‘I like to think that encoded in the very DNA of every drug is some kind of spell or enchantment.’ The Oxford dictionary defines magic as ‘the power of apparently influencing events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.’ In ‘Pharmakeia’, crystal meth is the doorway or portal that allows the supernatural, diabolical demonic entity of Belial to manifest. Another definition of magic/magical, according to the Oxford dictionary, is (that which has) ‘a quality of being beautiful and delightful in a way that seems remote from daily life.’ Again, in ‘Pharmakeia’, drugs (namely crystal meth) are used in sex sessions so that the characters who have consumed them can gain experience that is remote from daily life. Whether the experience can be described as ‘beautiful’ or ‘delightful’ is open to interpretation. I certainly enjoyed writing some of these passages, in part, because I could allow my imagination free reign! This is a passage, towards the end of the novel, when Mahvand and his lover, Jean-Baptiste, have just made love.

‘Mahvand collapsed on top of Jean-Baptiste quite spent, and rested his chin on his lover’s chest, which was splattered Jackson-Pollock like, with jism. He realised the magick was still at work, when JB’s throat was adance with flecks of dark light. Each one exploded in a tiny puff of smoke before giving birth to its very own pair of black, paper-thin wings. A cool breeze snuffed out the remaining candles and Mahvand witnessed a host of black butterflies make their way to the open window and towards a sickle moon in a sky now stained red by the early morning sun.’ (pg 239)

There are many parallels between ‘Pharmakeia’ and my first novel, ‘Homo Jihad’. In both stories, the main character takes drugs. But, unlike Mahvand in ‘Pharmakeia’, who, at the beginning of the narrative, is a drug virgin, David Underwood, in ‘Homo Jihad’ is a seasoned club kid who takes drugs in gay clubs in Vauxhall, London. David’s ‘jihad’ or struggle is to overcome his addiction to recreational drugs and the lifestyle that goes with it. To know whether he does or not, you’ll need to read the book! Suffice it to say the endings to both of my novels are quite different!

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My own views on drugs are nuanced and complex. I think, in some shape or form, humans have sought to alter their everyday reality and their perception of it, for thousands of years. Whether it be the shaman in the Amazon ingesting an hallucinogenic drug or Athenian citizens in Greece drinking vast quantities of wine at the festival of Dionysus. Certain hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD can enable the user to experience a sense of their own expanded consciousness – and indeed this particular drug, along with MDMA has been used in psychotherapeutic settings. (Although such drugs don’t come without side effects and can in some circumstances be dangerous)

So, in some respects, the drug experience, and whether it is positive or negative, depends on many factors. These include the context they are taken in, what drug it is, the dose, who you take it with, general state of health etc. However, all pleasurable activities, can easily turn into addictions. The negative side effects can outweigh the perceived benefits. Pleasure can turn to pain. However, I recently read, Johann Hari’s ‘Chasing the Scream’. It is a book about drug ‘addiction’ but has an interesting take on ‘addiction’. Hari argues that the old ‘pharmaceutical’ model of addiction is misleading and erroneous. The pharmaceutical model of addiction would argue that drugs literally hijack your brain and diminish your will and autonomy to such an extent that you are turned into a helpless addict. Narcotics Anonymous may work for many, but it’s premise is built on the pharmaceutical model of addiction.

In short, Hari, whose book I thoroughly recommend, proposes that much drug addiction is due to the life history and quality of life of the ‘addict’. In other words, if you have a satisfying job, partner, good friend, a good standard of living, and grew up in a family where you felt loved, and that you belonged, the chances are, if you do take drugs at some point in your life, you are less likely to become addicted than someone who does not experience these positive conditions. In some respects, you could argue that minority groups in society such as the LGBT community are more prone to issues of addiction because of the underlying conditions of inequality and injustice. Perhaps this is partly why I, as an author of gay fiction, am drawn to write about drugs and the issues surrounding them.  All the studies I have read suggest that gay men tend to take more drugs and for a longer of period of time than their heterosexual counterparts. It’s easy, but erroneous to individualise, or even stigmatise groups in society who have been marginalised, criminalised and discriminated against. If the gay community does have a problem with drugs, straight humanity needs to share some of the responsibility for this.

I leave you with a song from the Brit Pop era – Suede’s ‘The Chemistry Between Us’ I hope you enjoyed this post.