Tuesday, 27 February 2007

The gay threat?

Yes, I love Belfast madly, and I could sing its praises for some time, but of course everywhere has its seamy side and one thing in particular has just slid into my view. A bit late in the day I know but I've just caught up with the University of Ulster/University of Queensland study that found the Northern Irish to be the most bigoted people in the west, if not the world.

What they hate most it seems is homosexuals, with an astonishing 36% not wanting a homosexual as a neighbour. Good grief, what is it about people fancying their own sex that gets other folk in such a sweat? Are they thieves, hijackers, mercenaries, grave-robbers? Er no, their love and affection just tends to flow towards people who look more like them. But just imagine if they lived next door, you say. Anything could happen. They might nip over the garden fence and cavort erotically on your lawn. They might seduce your pet rabbit. But phew, we've kept them out - civilisation is saved! Halleluyah!

Am I missing something here? Or is hysterical fantasy getting the upper hand?

A tangible example of what gays are up against was reported by the BBC back in December. An Ulster Unionist guest house owner, Antrim councillor Adrian Watson, declared he would feel "uncomfortable" about having gay couples in his B&B. He argued that the business was based in the family home where there were three children and his wife, a Christian, could be upset. Ken Wilkinson of the Progressive Unionist Party in Antrim reportedly told Mr Watson "You are an embarrassment as the deputy mayor".

Well, all I can say is, perhaps these folk who find gays so alarming should get out a bit and actually befriend a few of these scary characters. They might even find that in most respects they're just like you and me - sensitive human beings who only want an enjoyable life, a few good friends and a decent job. Sounds harmless enough to me....

Personally, I've known many gay men and lesbians over the years, and they've all enriched my life and opened my eyes in all sorts of ways. The very fact that they're a minority always having to negotiate with a more acceptable majority itself creates interesting perspectives and insights. As I've said before, everybody has something to teach us. And that Julian Clary - isn't he just divine??

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Sharing my life

Hello to whoever might be reading this (all two of you and the hamster).

I thought it would be interesting to share my thoughts and feelings and experiences about life as I approach my sixtieth birthday. I have spent most of my life in London but have been in Belfast for the last seven years, partly to reinvent myself as the millenium approached and partly because my partner, Jenny, whose dad was raised in Belfast, wanted to move over here.

When I first moved to Belfast from a very fashionable part of London (Islington), some people thought I was mad. They took for granted that London was culturally, economically and politically superior to anywhere else in the UK, particularly Belfast which (if they thought about the grim wastelands outside London at all) they associated only with violence, religious hatred and cultural backwardness.

Of course as anyone who lives in Belfast knows, the (rapidly declining) violence is only one dimension of the city, and alongside it is a peaceful, thriving, exuberant, creative Belfast that most of the media is ignorant of and never writes about. There is a wealth of theatre, cinema, art, music and cultural stimuli of all kinds, not to mention easy access to sea, mountains, lakes, forests and other stunning natural landscapes. The people are more lively and positive and witty than the average Londoner who seems ground down by the pressures and congestion of the English capital. Yes traffic is building up in Belfast, but it's still very easy to get around on the underused roads and the uncrowded buses.

Of course the familiar religious and political conflicts still simmer under the surface, just as racism and classism simmer in London, but they have only a limited effect on most people's daily lives. In the workplace people just get on with the job they're there to do. At social gatherings, people just want to enjoy themselves and have some 'good craic'. The peace process is now well established and there is more and more evidence of pursuit of the common good rather than tribal warfare. The locals tend to be more cynical about the future but with so many bitter experiences of the Troubles, and so much personal loss and grief, that's to be expected.

My only concern when I left London was that I would be 350 miles from my mother who was a fit and healthy 78 but might in the future need looking after. Thankfully she is still pretty healthy as she approaches 85, but ironically it is my sister Heather (57) in Cambridgeshire who needs care as she developed motor neurone disease four years ago. I'm glad she has her husband Mike and daughter Lucy to support her.

I certainly have no regrets about leaving London. I don't feel at all isolated or out in the sticks. As well as enjoying news, art and culture not just from Britain but from both parts of Ireland, people here travel extensively, partly because they have relatives in many countries but also because they are curious and adventurous. Since moving to Belfast Jenny and I have been to Italy, Canada and Australia. I hardly think about London, whose only major influence on me is its political initiatives. In fact London now seems almost as remote as Paris or Rome, while New York, just across the Atlantic, seems nearer.

At 59 I'm still pretty healthy. My sense of smell is poor and my knees are getting a bit creaky but I'm still able to climb Slieve Donard (850 metres and pretty steep) without any trouble and I would be most upset if I had to give that up. I have a fairly sensible lifestyle - I've never smoked, I don't drink much, I'm vegetarian and I get plenty of exercise. I still qualify to give blood, which I've done 28 times. I'm a fairly optimistic, adaptable soul who prefers on the whole to meet people halfway rather than dig my heels in.

I'm a diehard socialist and a Buddhist but I don't try to force my beliefs on anyone else - other people have different beliefs for good reasons and can I be sure I'm any wiser than them? Strange though how troubled my sleep always is - full of peculiar, tangled dreams about disasters and disorder. What on earth goes on in my unconscious?

I think that'll do for a start. If there's anyone out there who's got as far as this, your responses are welcome. The longer I live the more ignorant I feel and the more I believe every other person has something to teach me.