Category Archives: Opinion

Why do white people want to say that word?

A few months ago, I was having my hair cut by a barber I hadn’t been to before. The guy cutting my hair was fairly young, handsome, funny, and interesting and – more importantly – had a great idea for trying something new with my hair.

We chatted amiably while he washed my mop and got to work, until our conversation came to current affairs. This being 2017, the American president had done something stupid, and racist, and we were talking about that, and the ridiculous claims by some of Trump’s supporters that they, in fact, were victims of “reverse racism” because they couldn’t “speak out”.

“I mean,” I remember saying as he negotiated the bumps on my skull with the clippers, “that’s nonsense. What they’re accusing people of, it doesn’t exist.”

My barber let out a small yowl that I took to be agreement, before telling me, “Yeah, right. But, you know, I do think there’s one way black people can be racist against us, us white people.”

I froze for a moment. I’ve been around a long time and can usually tell when conversations are about to take a turn for the worse. I don’t mind being challenged, but I’d not expected much of a comeback, especially one like this. I had to decide whether to bite. It was obvious he wanted to tell me what this was; it was framed like an introduction. He took the clippers away from my head for a moment and looked at me in the mirror.

I bit.

“And what way is that?”

He was ready for me. He shrugged. “Well,” he began, the clippers juddering back into life, “I don’t think it’s fair how we can’t say the N-word.”

If he hadn’t been shaving my head, I probably would’ve jolted forward in shock. But with clippers against my skin, my entire body was basically Botoxed, save for my face, which I pulled into as expressive a “WTF?!” snarl as I could.

“Fair?” I exclaimed. “Why on Earth would you ever want to say that to anybody?”

He brushed his hair out of his eyes, which just moments ago had seemed beautiful and mysterious and now looked mean and pinched. With nothing behind them. “Like, when I’m singing along to a rap song, and the N-word comes up, I can’t sing it out loud.”

I cocked my head to one side in amazement as the clippers stopped. I felt a panic, like I needed to get out of there. “Is that it? Because you can’t sing along to Jay-Z or Kendrick? Can’t you just mime that word? Or better still stay something else?”

“Something else?”

I shook hair off my gown. “Yes! Anything else! ‘Brother’ works fine. ‘Baby’, even. You can’t say the N-word out loud.”
“Yeah, but I’m not saying in that way, as an insult. I’m just repeating what Jay or Kanye are saying.”

I began to feel very hot under the lights. I noticed we were now alone in the barbershop basement, which looked less friendly than it had a few minutes ago. I was trapped with half a haircut and… a hipster racist. “That word isn’t foryou,” I spluttered. “It means something else when you say it, no matter how you’re saying it. It has history, and notoriety, and intent attached to it when it comes from your mouth.”

As predictably happens when you suggest to someone their behaviour could be construed as racist, the supposed accusation of racism became a much bigger deal than the act of racism itself. He got defensive. He wasn’t racist, he said, and that would be a horrible thing to call him. In fact, he continued, most of his friends were black. He had scissors in his hands now, and was slicing through my fringe.

“OK, so if you have black friends, why would you ever want to say that word?”
“Actually, they said to me, ‘you know [NAME], you’ve known us a long time now, you can say that word around us’, and it’s cool.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“So you say it? In front of them?!”
“Yeah, they are totally fine with it. So if they don’t mind, why should anyone else?”
“But how did it come about? How did they know you wanted to say it?”
He had no answer for me. He was either lying about the whole thing – I have no idea why anyone would brag about having special permission to say the N-word, but y’know, whatever – or he knew exactly how it had come about and had the grace to be embarrassed.

This is the thing about words. If you’re in a group where everyone is on the same level, is familiar with each other, and knows their boundaries, you can get away with saying things you wouldn’t normally be able to say in public, or among strangers. But before you say these things, even with your most trusted acolytes, shouldn’t you always ask yourself whyyou want to say that word? Whether it belongs to you, or means something else when employed by you? How powerful does it become when you say it? Does it remove the power from someone else when you use it? And is that exchange of power or control for the positive or not? Because, usually, it isn’t. Is it?

I couldn’t quite let it go, and he’d nearly finished anyway. “Why do you think they said it was OK for you to use it? Do you say it a lot?” He admired his work in the mirror, tilting my head this way and that, paying as little attention to my question as you would someone asking the time or commenting on the weather.
“Yeah, uh, you know we kind of use it when we see each other, like, wassss…”
I cut in. “Please don’t say it now.”
He shrugged. “‘K. And as for why they said I could, well, we’re mates, aren’t we? We’ve known each other a long time. We respect each other.”

It wasn’t for me to say whether his friends were right or wrong to grant him permission to use the N-word; I don’t know them or their situation. The word could be meaningless to them; they might not care who uses it. There are some people who think the more common you make a word the more you remove it of all its power, but while I’m not personally convinced, I can’t speak for the experience of others.

“Imagine how much more they’d respect you,” I wanted to say, “if you never used it at all. If you hadn’t put them in a position where, perhaps to placate you, or avoid being cast as the bad guy, they had to let you say that word. Give you the one thing – one of the very, very few things unavailable to you as a white, straight man – that you couldn’t have, just so they didn’t have to listen to you bleat on about reverse racism.”

But I didn’t say it, because he had scissors, and, as he then went on to say, it was between him and his friends, and nobody else’s business. But what about when it becomes somebody else’s business? What about when he tries the same shtick somewhere else? How is that person going to feel to see this middle-class white boy spitting out the N-word like he’s ordering a McDonald’s? So I should’ve said it. I regret it. He wasn’t exactly shy about bragging to me about what he could and couldn’t say, after all. And I was horrified he thought he could share that with me and that I’d agree. He assumed that because I was white too, I’d be an ally. Yeah mate, he was expecting me to say, you’re right; why can’t we use that word?

Because this is another thing about white people saying this word – it comes off as supreme entitlement, as that absolute fury that the playing field has, just for one solitary second, tilted ever so slightly against them. It doesn’t matter to them that the said playing field is actually already on a very steep gradient in their favour; they want to preserve every advantage for themselves. They see any slight, tiny reclamation of power and self-worth as a personal insult against them, a grab for something they have.

“But why can’t I have that? It’s mine!” they squawk, like toddlers grasping for the last biscuit in the jar as they’re left nose-to-wood with probably the only door that will ever slam in their face. They’re so used to having every single thing they desire, they even want to plunder your words, the terms you keep for yourself to make yourself feel safe or in control. They see that tiny exclusion as an infringement of their rights, all the while disregarding yours. Same as it ever was.

Incredibly, he wasn’t done yet.

“Well, you know, you’re gay, and, like, my gay mates” – truly this man’s contacts app was a Benetton-esque diversity campaign – “we say stuff like queer and fag to each other all the time. It’s just like that, isn’t it?” Another entry uncovered in the gloomy depths of his miserable personal vocabulary.

I stood up as he whipped the gown away from me. “No. It isn’t. Comparing racism and homophobia is lazy; they’re not remotely the same thing. And, I have to say…” we began the ascent back to the main shop and I paused a moment to face him. “I know some men have reclaimed that word and that’s up to them, but if anyone – anyone – called me a faggot, I’d fucking kill them. Dead.”

He took a step back. I’m small, and middle-aged, and I am not scary, but I meant every word and he knew it.

“What your friends do is their business,” I said. “But you shouldn’t say those words again, with or without them, whether you have their permission or not. They don’t belong to you.”

I did not leave a tip. He is not my barber anymore.

And this is why we need to listen to what people of colour have been saying for decades. Don’t be silent about this, or you are in danger of appearing complicit. Rock the boat. Refuse to have it. This is why you must give Pewdiepie, those pathetic white supremacists who fake “racist” attacks to stir up problems, and anybody else who doesn’t respect the force behind the things they say, a couple of words of your own.

Here are mine: Get. Fucked.

A slightly edited version of this post originally appeared in The Truth About Everything*, my regular mailout where subscribers can receive new writing by me before anyone else. It’s not a newsletter;  I never have any news. Just writing. You can sign up for it here.

Image: Twitter/Hanna Barbera/Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels

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My chopsticks anxiety hell

Every time I’m within 10 feet of a noodle, it’s the same. That creeping anxiety in anticipation of the inevitable; the resentful side-eye to the two slender wooden oppressors at my hand. Try us, they say, maybe this time you’ll finally get it right. My blood runs cold and my face flushes.

“Um, could I have a fork, please?”

If this were a saloon bar in the wild west, the piano player would stop abruptly and everyone would turn to face me. As it is, it’s a ramen restaurant in Kensington and apart from the Korean couple at the next table glancing over in curiosity that I choose to interpret as derision, nobody I’m with really cares whether I use chopsticks or not. They are used to me now.

I have tried. Many, many times. Before Google, I remember reading a guide in a magazine on how to hold chopsticks. Like a pen, apparently. I remember the diagram on the yellowing pages, with a tea stain just off to the right, which showed a cartoon finger deftly holding a set, with a small arrow to show the movement you could make. Every time, years later, as a grown adult, when I found chopsticks in my hand, I would remember that diagram. Everything about it in photographic detail: yellowing edges, tea stain, magazine, the arrow, the movement. Everything but how to hold them. I must hold my pen differently than the rest of the world. Like I ever even hold a pen these days anyway.

Around seven times out of ten, when confronted with them, I’ll pick them up anyway. I can manage to get gyoza to the plate without any major incident, although I am always self-conscious they will collapse when I pick them up and the other people I’m sharing them with will roll their eyes. Sushi, yes, just about OK, especially maki rolls. But bowls of noodles? Or broth? Oh, come on – we’ll be here all day.

It’s a failure, isn’t it? Like most things, it’s not just that I can’t do it which bothers me – it’s the reaction from others. Men on dates, especially. I would usually avoid any chopstick-related food on a date, but you don’t want to look like a basic, uncultured goon, so if they suggested it, I would go along. I had a speech about my use of a fork prepared – which wasn’t hard as they almost always said the same thing.

“It’s an insult to the food/chef/restaurant to eat it with a fork.” The food can’t talk, the chef can’t see, the restaurant cares only that I pay and don’t phone up tomorrow complaining of food poisoning. Next.

“It’s very typically Western to refuse to learn how to use them.” I didn’t refuse, I just can’t. It doesn’t work. Same as I can’t play a piano or suck myself off. I made a valiant effort with each but sadly it just didn’t work out. The food still tastes the same.

“You’re disrespecting the culture.” I am not at a formal banquet with the Vietnamese president, I’m on a date in Viet Hoa sharing a summer roll with what appears to be the official UK representative for the boring halitosis contest. Whether I plunge a fork or a chopstick into my food is irrelevant, and the whole point of eating is you enjoy your food and you’re having a nice time, not awkwardly spearing prawns and taking three hours to trap a noodle because it looks better.

But this is a “thing”, isn’t it? It’s part of the trend for fetishising food and the way we prepare and eat it. It’s part #foodporn and part desperate search for authenticity where previously, perhaps, you had none. It’s kind of ironic the increased pressure on food to be an experience, that you not only savour but promote as part of your lifestyle, tends to remove the very thing food is supposed to give you – pleasure. And the even more bizarre thing is that the pressure comes not from ourselves, usually, but others.

Consider steak bores. We’ve all met one. You’ll be in a restaurant, in a group, and once you have spent a good 20 minutes debating whether it is okay to order the same as someone else – it is it is it is, for GOD’S sake, just eat what you like – you will order the steak and, for some reason, this decision comes under scrutiny that somehow evades presidents, CEOs and newspaper magnates. Say you want your steak “well done” – or even “medium well”, which I notice is increasingly becoming the target of a steak bore’s ire – and you leave yourself open to another 20 minutes of huffing, puffing and, quite frankly, unwelcome opinion about the way you’re about to eat your food. I even feel duty bound to point out here I have my steak “medium”, to avoid the inevitable postbag from steak bores who will walk over hot coals – that their steak will barely touch because they are real men (always men sorry) who eat their steak rare – to tell me how wrong I am.

Once, on hearing a guy say he “couldn’t understand why someone would have their steak any other way than rare”, I decided to bite. It had been a long evening and I hadn’t particularly enjoyed his company that much. I asked him why. He said something about flavour and, I think, disprespecting a chef – so much fucking STANNING for these stripey-aproned kitchen gods, eh – and also there was some murmuring about tradition or whatever, but any now he was losing me because all he was doing was parroting received opinion on steaks when really I wanted to get to this guy’s essence. I wanted go beyond that increasingly unattractive pink mouth and bulging eyes and infiltrate his DNA to find out what he personally felt about it, and why this bothered him. He would never taste this person’s well-done steak. Those who order well-done steaks do not, as far as I am aware, carry a huge sign with them telling the world they do this, so any secondhand embarrassment a steak bore would feel would be restricted to the dinner table and, wonderfully, totally unavoidable should he decide to keep his big, slack mouth buttoned.

Someone liking their food cooked in a way that is preferable to them says little more other than they know what they like, perhaps they are not keen to try new things, but largely, it has absolutely no bearing on you whatsoever, unless you manage to hide what a grotesque snob you are and progress the relationship enough that they end up cooking for you sometime. And then you can simply tell them: “I like my steak bloody, thanks”, and if they baulk then you can actually rejoice! Because they too are basics who give more than the necessary zero fucks any of us should be giving about how other people eat.

Eventually, after perhaps seven or eight minutes of this discussion, the man saw the error of his ways – or at least, he said he did; he probably just wanted me to stop interrogating him – and conceded that, yes, someone eating a different way from him was fine, because it was better they had something they liked than sit in misery, chewing raw meat because they were bullied into thinking how they ate was wrong.

There’s no problem with encouraging people to try new things. We like to play teacher and it can be a genuine source of joy to introduced another to something you adore and see them feel the same. But it depends where the idea is coming from. It’s natural that we try to find common ground, as it’s an easy way to get people to like us, but if we like to eat noodles with a fork, or a cremated steak, or prefer poached eggs to fried, or ask for gluten-free pudding, and then do not tell us we are wrong or, perish the thought, uncultured for it. The world is not your Eliza Doolittle.

Most of the world’s problems come from intolerance of one kind or another. Start small – let me eat my noodles how I please. I’ll do the same for you one day. And with the world changing and becoming more horrific and wondrous at the same time, both at lightning speed, who knows when you’ll need me on your side?

Now, be a dear, and hand me my fork.

This post originally appeared in The Truth About Everything*, my regular mailout where subscribers can receive new writing by me before anyone else. Its not a newsletter;  I never have any news. Just writing. You can sign up for it here.

Happy birthday Madonna: please never, ever give in or “put it away”

Another year, another set of birthday candles for Madonna. She turns 59 today. For the 30 or so years Madonna has been putting the cat among the pigeons in the A-list, she’s gone from boom to bust to high to low to tasteful to tacky and everything in between – but she’s always been big.

While most of her indiscretions have been eventually forgiven – or at the very least politely ignored because, hey, it’s Madonna – the one thing Madge is never allowed to forget is one of the very few things in her life she cannot control.

There are plenty of reasons to roll your eyes at Madonna: the slow degeneration of her music material, the ever-increasing cost of tickets to see her perform live, the walking nightmare of problematic hell that is her Instagram account, but Madonna’s crime seems to be the one that most of us commit eventually, if we’re lucky. She got old.

Madonna has always delighted in challenging people’s perceptions of appropriateness. From drying her stubbly armpits in a dirty washroom in Desperately Seeking Susan and flicking herself off on a giant bed while two gay men in conical bras looked on during the Blond Ambition tour to portraying the violence of war in the withdrawn video for American Life, no taboo seemed too small for La Ciccone to overturn.

Aside from a very staid decade or so where Madonna had a misguided, but spirited, go at being a submissive wife to director Guy Ritchie, her frankness, refusal to conform and power to shock have been her lifeblood; they have kept her career ticking over and front-and-centre for over three decades, a feat few other popstars – male or female – can boast.

Almost everyone has an opinion on Madonna, and the criticisms against her stack up like building blocks in a Guinness World Record attempt to reach the moon, but, thus far, Madonna has always been able to count on at least one demographic for continued, unwavering (and some might say blinkered) support – gay men.

Back when Madonna was still young enough to make it on to the higher reaches of those all-important, horrific ‘Sexiest Women’ lists that even the most highbrow of magazines insist on publishing, her stance as an awkward, complaining outsider spoke to the gay community in a way few have managed before.

While some might argue her status as a pioneer may be exaggerated and seriously flawed, she at least gave the impression she was doing something new. She championed gay rights, spoke out in defence of her gay friends and hired gay dancers for her tours, and gay men and women lapped it up, long before ‘Mother Monster’ wobbled along in shoes shaped like an armadillo to tell everyone they were ‘born this way’.

Sex is no longer the sole property of the young. Everyone’s eyes have been opened to the idea of silver shagging. Even Hollywood, the high altar of youth and beauty, has given the nod of approval to the idea of wrinkles as sexual leads, but it seems Madonna’s brand of sexuality is strictly off-message.

While it’s no surprise heterosexual men have zero interest in seeing Madonna in her knickers – they are, after all, force-fed a whole new bevy of beauties to adore daily, all young enough to be their daughters – it’s much more disappointing to see that some of Madonna’s detractors are the very men who gave her a leg-up to her pedestal in the first place.

Trawl any so-called fan forum and you’ll see the same disparaging remarks: outrage at her supposed ‘pussy popping’, refusal to ‘grow old gracefully’ (an awful, po-faced phrase whose retirement should come much sooner than Madonna’s) and complaints that the erstwhile Material Girl is as old as their own mum. I know, right? She has birthdays! And the numbers keep going up and up!

“Ewww” said one forum member, in his late 20s, “nobody wants to see that dusty old vagina any more.”

The irony being, of course, that gay men don’t usually ever want to see a vagina, be it in the first flush of youth or swathed in mothballs.

“God, her scrawny arms are horrible,” noted another armchair model scout, “and her hands are all gnarled.”

Gay men, it seems, are now in charge of what is sexy and what is not. Despite their previous interest in women’s looks usually being limited to slagging off their clothes (another totally ridiculous notion; why the hell do women listen to us?) and cooing over their hair once they’ve finished blow-drying it, all of a sudden these guys are the go-to experts when it comes to what the world should find shaggable, even if they don’t want to do the nasty with her themselves.

The media has long been puzzling over what to do about Madonna’s refusal to put her dress back on. Since she deftly shimmied over that magic line into her 50s, actions previously deemed ‘shocking’ or ‘thought-provoking’ are now rebranded as ‘sad’, ‘desperate’ and ‘attention-seeking’, as if Madonna is in any way unique as a singer to want all eyes to be focused on her.

Vanity Fair scratched its chin over the whole topic of Madonna’s sexiness as she prepared to turn 50 in August 2008: “Madonna made her fortune selling sex–what will she sell when the thought of sex with Madonna seems like a fetish?” it mused.

At 2015’s Met Gala – itself a seven-hour love letter to bad taste, filthy lucre and vacuous celebrity – Madonna bared her arse to the baying paparazzi. Out came the usual commentators moaning Madonna had let them down, and why couldn’t she just age gracefully. Why was she trying to be young? All her former allies were present and correct, knitting at the guillotine: gay men, middle-aged women, her peers.

Remember the outcry when she appeared on stage with Canadian rapper Drake and gave him a snog?  What was that really about? The fact he didn’t know it was going to happen? Or her age? (Spoiler: it was her age.)

Madonna’s propensity for showing us what’s inside her thong has long been dismissed as an attempt to stay relevant, but if anything her knicker-flashing has led to lower returns when it comes to record sales. The much-hyped Erotica failed to ignite much reaction in the shops, except for “Ewww, she’s got a toe in her mouth”, and she was younger and tauter then. What hope for her now?

The big mistake we’re all making with Madonna is we think she’s doing this so we will find her sexy, that she wants us to desire her, envy her, find her attractive. I don’t think that’s what she’s about. As a younger star she pushed the boundaries of sexual freedom, of what it meant to be a woman unafraid to do what they liked, who weren’t in thrall to any man. Now, at 59, Madonna is making us think yet again. Why do we have to put our bodies away as we age? Who exactly makes these rules? What’s the golden moment the big switch, where one day you are still young enough to bare your flesh while the next you must hide down a well?

While my own interest in Madonna as a popstar wanes with every so-so record, the one thing I do think she’s getting right is saying an emphatic “fuck you” to the ageist brigade.

Ageing is changing. We are living longer and, despite rising obesity levels, a growing number of us are more health conscious. Frivolity and fun and, yes, sex, does not belong to the young. Our bodies are our own, to do with as we wish. I may not find her titillating, and, yes, she’s attention-seeking, but I’m so glad Madonna does what she does. I will not be defined by my age; I will decide my own destiny when it comes to getting older.  And so will Madonna. She still finds her body fascinating, and presents it as art in her stage outfits and photoshoots. Why does this confidence trouble us so? Remember how bored and downtrodden Madonna looked when she pretended to be the perfect English housewife for Guy Ritchie – do we want her back there?

How many of Madonna’s critics would be happy to walk so willingly, with head bowed, to the knackers’ yard once they hit 50 and beyond? And when they reach that era – where young people would have you believe there’s nothing but gummy smiles and osteoporosis, dicky bladders and forebodingly steep staircases – they should remember Madonna: uncompromising, unbroken, unrepentant.

Let’s hope when the naysayers approach their twilight years they still have someone close at hand to tell them they look great in their underwear, that they’re still hot and wanted. An empty bed, free of desire and passion, may as well be a grave.

More like this:
Picking Kylie’s best song? There will be blood
What Jackie Collins and The Stud taught me about the world
Give me death by skinny jeans over bootcut misery any day
Broverload – where have all the men gone?

A different version of this appeared on this blog in 2012.

Most men have had a Prince George moment

From the very first moment babies draw breath, we obsess over children’s behaviour – be it concern for their safety or searching for possible clues about their future. We observe children to find things we recognise in ourselves. Parents are quick to assign character traits to even a three-month-old baby – “he farts all day, just like his dad” – because it reassures them that the circle of life shan’t be broken, that some part of them will remain long after the sandwiches at their funeral have curled up at the edges. More troublesome markers are also exposed from this constant critiquing – violent tendencies, a selfish streak or bullying behaviour can be spotted quite early on. It’s the human equivalent of having CCTV everywhere. We’re watching for your own good; there is no reason to be alarmed. But of course that is not always the truth.

Prince William, the Duchess of Cambridge (I know royal protocol prevents it, but Princess Kate would’ve been so much more 21st century a name) and their two children have been touring Europe and, as it was for William and brother Harry, the children have been a source of fascination. I am not one for drooling over the Royals and their offspring, as I’m of the opinion that the most interesting one died in a road tunnel in Paris in 1997, but plenty of people are so, wherever they go or whatever they do, no matter how humdrum, there are photographers waiting to capture every moment.

Take away the wealth, the privilege and the predilection of his parents for dressing him like a ghost off the Titanic, Prince George is much like any other little boy growing up in the UK. And in this last week he’s found himself under the same scrutiny as scores of young boys his age, because of the way he looked in awe at what I believe was a helicopter. You have seen the picture already but here it is again because context.

I saw the picture before I saw the reaction on social media, and my first thought was “uh oh”. I thought “uh oh” because I remembered, all too clearly, what it was like to be Prince George’s age and to have every single facet of your behaviour analysed like it was some great mystery to be unravelled, as if it foretold the future. A dangerous future. To me, the picture looks like Prince George was captured kind of midway through extreme excitement. He was probably jumping up and down in glee or doing that thing children do, which is kind of a crude attempt at a squat, when they’re really happy. In short, HRH Peppa Pig was losing his shit, and rightly so. And yet I saw something that thousands of other men – most of them gay – saw too. I saw myself, and I saw the beginnings of something. I will confess, I was a little worried for him. Time has moved on and attitudes have changed since I was George’s age – 37 years, to be exact – but the crushing, double-threat chokehold of the patriarchy and toxic masculinity is still present and correct and we live in a world where your hands cupping your chin in glee or excitement would be, for a man, seen as very unusual. This is because, from an early age, men are taught that standing that way, or positioning their arms that way, is a feminine trait and this behaviour is wrong somehow and thus not available to boys.

Don’t believe me? Check out how everyone sits on public transport. Men with legs akimbo, like they’re in stirrups and birthing twins; women with legs together, trying to take up as little space as possible. While it might seem ridiculous and trivial to you, the way man and women sit, speak, stand and laugh is policed from the moment we can crawl or make a sound. This tiny moment, now forever frozen in time, could mean everything, or it could mean nothing. To me, the prince is showing that wonderful lack of awareness of such restrictions and toxic thinking that children enjoy up to a certain age. It shows to me that his parents and extended family may, thus far, be letting George get on with being himself – no mean feat when you are the future King – and, if he is displaying traditionally feminine traits, that they either don’t care or are assuming it will sort itself out at school, as it tends to do. I know little boys who carried round handbags and pushed prams and turned into great hulking rugby players, whose idea of being in touch with their feminine side meant not leaving the room when an advert for Tampax came on the telly. And I believe their lives are all the poorer for this reinvention, to be honest.

I’m sure I’ve had many such Prince George moments in my life, but the one I remember the most is probably the last time I was able to display these tendencies without reproach. Oh, sure, it was a running joke in my family that I was “sensitive” and “not like the other boys”. I pouted if I had to play football and I enjoyed stomping up and down my grandmother’s garden in her high heels, and hanging out laundry on the makeshift washing line she would put up for me. I had a habit – which I still do occasionally, now I come to think of it – of sitting with my elbows at my hips and my arms bent to bring my hands to my chest, like a lovesick damsel waiting for news of her lover and BELIEVE ME there wasn’t one quirk I had as a child that wasn’t commented on in some way, by adults other than my parents. I was nicknamed “Quentin” by my uncles (for Quentin Crisp in case you are too young for the reference) by the time I was 3 and children on the street would call me a “poofter”. But I was still largely shielded from it. School would wrench that protection from me and make me wake up, far too slowly unfortunately, to the harsh realities of growing up as a gay child. And here is that moment below. The morning of my first day, posing in my front garden. I was 4, and my life would never be the same again.

You may think it is strange for me to talk of being a “gay child”, but they do exist. You may equate being gay with sex, and think it impossible to be labelled as gay until you are sexually mature, or even until you make that “decision” (it isn’t a decision btw) for yourself. But gayness is much more than that. It is that “feeling you are different” from an early age, before you know even know what sex is. It is the way you behave, your thought processes, it is your very spirit. It is, of course, hard to explain because it’s more nuanced than our very binary world or my memory of it will allow and, it has to be said, those feelings of being different are not always related to being gay – trans people no doubt experience very similar stirrings they can’t quite put their finger on.

Growing up as the child who feels they are different – for no reason other than any deviation from cisgender heterosexuality is automatically labelled as such – is a confusing, continual barrage of insecurities, criticism, and anguish. As I say, most of the boys carrying around a handbag as a toddler had these eccentricities conditioned out of them as they grew up, whether it was because of peer pressure or a genuine change in desires or character, but for some, it becomes who they are. And society as a whole is only too happy to define them.

I understood the gay men who felt a rush of emotion as they saw the picture of Prince George, who saw themselves and thought his nascent “fabulousness” should be celebrated. I also understood those who were angry a child’s harmless, unconscious actions were being instantly labelled in a potentially damaging way, because despite marriage equality and supermarkets sponsoring rainbows, being LGBT is still seen as something lesser. I also got the ones who shouted them down for wanting to ignore it or cover it up, who maintained it was nothing to be ashamed of. All of them were right in their own way, and as a grown-up who spent most of his early life driving myself mad over every little thing I said and did, in case it either exposed something about me or initiated cruelty and violence toward me, I encourage the debate.

And whatever happens to Prince George in the future, I hope he remembers his big moment for the right reasons – the day on a helicopter, where he had the most fun ever. Because whether you live in a palace or a prefab, there’s always someone waiting in the wings to take that from you.

Let little boys be little boys – whatever that means and wherever it takes them.

This post originally appeared in The Truth About Everything*, my regular mailout where subscribers can receive new writing by me before anyone else. Its not a newsletter;  never have any news. Just writing. You can sign up for it here.

Image: Flickr. This version has been cropped from the original.

Now we are seven

I have always played the long game. Waiting? I’m an expert. Biding your time? First class. Despite outward appearances to people who know me well of being tempestuous and quick to (over)react, I’m actually much more patient than they realise.

I started writing anonymously almost exactly seven years ago, on 30 June 2010, for a variety of reasons, some of them ridiculous and others important.

Me, around the time I started The Guyliner blog. It was my profile pic on Guardian Soulmates for a while.

The main, initial reason was that I was writing about going on dates and didn’t want to be identified. Simple. I was both fearful of recriminations and worried it would mean I could no longer be honest when writing up further dates – “compromise my artistic integrity”, as Madonna would say. Perhaps I would even have to stop altogether. Continue reading Now we are seven

Bravery is an option, not an obligation

It’s interesting to note that in a world where people constantly claim anyone with a conscience or a complaint is being a “special snowflake”, stoicism is still pushed as an ideal, and largely adhered to, whenever there’s a hugely terrifying incident. It’s the stiff upper lip as a call to arms, the idea that true bravery is demonstrated through unblinking forbearance and the “keep calm and carry on-ification” of modern life.

But it’s not the only way.

I understand why, after the attack on Westminster Bridge earlier this year and the recent tragedy at Manchester Arena, the message was that the best way to stop the terrorists is to carry on as if nothing has happened. There’s a lot to be said for clambering straight back on the horse once it has hurled you out into the meadow. We are, most of the time, encouraged to talk about our feelings in an effort, for example, to break down stigma surrounding mental health, and to avoid PTSD taking hold, when something happens to us personally. And yet when a large crisis occurs in which we may not be directly involved but experiencing as spectators, on the periphery of the action but the heart of the emotion, the preferred coping mechanism becomes “getting on with it”.

The language used is powerful, emotive  and inspirational. It encourages pride, it swells our chests and injects us with a kind of euphoria to keep us going, like a mildly trippy painkiller or the collective buzz of experiencing a huge happy event together. There are vigils, yes, which go some way toward helping us express our emotions, but the general message is one of being unbowed, unbeaten, resilient, strong.

But I sometimes wonder where this strength is expected to come from.

Falling to pieces is not forbidden, or shameful, but it is not encouraged. And this is a problem for those who do not find that resilience comes naturally all the time. It is not automatic. The brute strength you may have had after the death of a loved one may desert you when faced with a terrorist attack in the place you call home. You are puzzled by its absence, perhaps, wonder what you’ve done wrong. Are you weak now, in this moment that has had no tangible impact on your life, when before you have been so strong? You may start to question whether your own vulnerability is valid, whether your inability to feel anything other than tired, devastated and frightened will be interpreted as attention-seeking or having misdirected priorities.

It may be an unusual thing to say in the face of the “keep calm and carry on” collective, but it’s OK to fall apart just a little bit. To lose yourself just a little, perhaps, if that’s what you need to build yourself back up and be stronger than ever. Like an old iPod that would always work much better if you let it run down and recharged the battery, sometimes you need to let yourself get to the brink, to void yourself of all emotion, anger and fear, before you can rise again.

It’s OK if you don’t handle it well, but there is a caveat: you must not fall apart alone. The talking it through, the making sense of it all, can still happen even if you’re not quite sure what you feel or what it all means, just as long as you have somebody helping you through it.

Bravery and stoicism are kind of expected now. It’s almost like you’re not being a team player if you have a meltdown. But if you do feel despairing of the human race and desperately frightened following the attacks, that is also a perfectly valid response. Just as long as you’re not feeling it all by yourself, keeping it in. And you’re not alone, by the way – thousands will feel like you. Talk to us.

People say beautiful poetic things after events like this, and they can be magical and inspiring, but sometimes you just want to scream a barrage of F-words and say that you don’t feel OK and holy shit your head is disappearing into itself with the sheer pressure of pretending you’re all right. Stuff like that. All fine.

We watch these events happen on the news and at times feel very disconnected from them, like it’s a spectacle or a Hollywood movie. But sometimes it’s a little too close to home, or we lose someone we knew, or kind of knew, or wish we’d known, and it becomes just the right side of relatable – which is why terrorists do this, to get us to notice – and suddenly it becomes real, and so do our emotions, which can be disconcerting and confusing.

We will carry on. And that’s exactly as it should be. But “keep calm and carry on” is a slogan on a tea towel; it isn’t a law. Bravery is noble, but merely an option. We are under no obligation to behave like an indestructible  warrior. Sometimes all we can do is be ourselves.

Get on buses, go to concerts, talk to strangers. Live.  We’re all doing OK today, and we’ll do better tomorrow, and great again someday soon. However long it takes you to feel that way again is OK – it’s not a race. Eventually you’ll see the bravery was there along – it helped you be honest about your feelings.

You’ll get there. We’re with you.

Image: Jonathan Schofield

My word of 2016: Luxury

I’ve seen quite a few people choosing their words of the year. Writing words about words – how meta. Most of them have been things like “Brexit” or “privilege” or “post-truth”, but these are all terms packed with meaning; they instantly come to life, teasing out memories and experiences. They’re devastatingly evocative. My word of the year, however, is quite the opposite. It’s a word which is now lost when removed from the confines of a sentence because it has become borderline meaningless.

Luxury.

It’s not uncommon for words to become less effective when they’re used more often. Words like “literally” and “amazing” have long since been dusted off from the shelf of superlatives and dragged down into everyday pedestrian usage, but they do at least retain a certain charm. “Literally” still adds emphasis, while “amazing” has a cute, knowing sarcasm to it. “Luxury”, however, is dead. Here lies Luxury, overused into oblivion, redefined into insignificance.

Luxury used to be unattainable, left only to billionaires, the titled or characters on ’80s soaps. Alexis Carrington in Dynasty lived a life of unrivalled luxury, swathed in furs, with caviar dotted around the room next to the ashtrays, and a gloved hand proffering chilled champagne never more than three feet away.

Historically, us mere mortals in the real world have often aspired to luxury, installing sunken baths or adding conservatories to the back of our knackered terraces, buying Babycham at Christmas, but we never kidded ourselves we were living the lush life. We knew we weren’t superstars with untold riches – and once the novelty faded, we got back to circling shows to watch in the TV Times or buying Wagon Wheels. The trouble with proper luxury was that it wasn’t sustainable for ordinary folk. Real life gets in the way.

But now luxury is something else. We want it so bad we are willing to snatch whatever we can get of it. We are prepared to pretend it’s something else entirely. We are telling ourselves anything even slightly above “bog-standard”, “perfectly suitable”, “basic but functional” or “horrid but appropriate” is a luxury– it is used as a distancing word, rather than a true expression of joy.

See all those “luxury flats” developers can’t help but throw up every time a small plot of land to build on becomes free. Stand still long enough in London and you’ll come to to find an M&S Simply Food built in your knickers with seven floors of luxury apartments above. What makes these flats so luxe? Gold-plated bathrooms?  A personal lift all the way to the top? A helipad? Well, no, sadly. In this case, luxury seems to mean a built-in dishwasher, cream carpets that will fuzz up the minute they meet a sock for the first time and magnolia walls. The shower and taps will be disappointingly chrome, in B&Q’s second cheapest range, and you will share your design of tiles with every other hastily knocked-up overpriced cell from Bermondsey to Bayswater.

A quick search on the Marks and Spencer website for “luxury” is a pretty good thermometer of where the word is going. Luxury canapés include – what else – smoked salmon, that well-known inaccessible food stuffs that proles can only stare open-mouthed at, as it gleams proudly from the shelves in Tesco. A luxury dressing gown seems only to have earned its title thanks to the fact David Gandy is modelling it, and luxury candles have only an inflated price to allude to their luxe credentials.

Supermarkets have long tapped into our snob potential with their silvery-packaged Finest and Extra Special and Taste the Difference ranges, but now it’s not enough for us to merely know we have better sausages than everyone else. We want the faux-luxury experience 24/7. Fauxury, maybe? No? Maybe? No. OK.

A luxury item is now lightly aspirational and reassuringly out of reach of someone who would either use the product wrong or not appreciate it, and thus embarrass the whole concept of luxury and its devotees. On Wednesdays, Luxury wears pink. It Instagrams its starter.

Luxury as a word tells us we can expect to pay more, that the product is not quite as basic as the one £5 cheaper than it and, in the case of most pre-packed food, there’ll be an ingredient within we’re not keen on but won’t complain because we assume it’s a LUXURY ingredient that we don’t understand. The amazing thing about Luxury is that it’s not just othering to people who still buy the basic range, it feeds into our own self-loathing and paranoid that we’re hugely unsophisticated. Case in point: Christmas is coming up and many families will try an “extra special” prepared gravy or stuffing or  pigs in blankets. Don’t bother – they’ll all taste like crap and you will blame your own primitive palate instead of daring to admit that sometimes, just sometimes, things that cost more or pretend to be luxe are actually terrible.

There’s nothing wrong with formerly luxury items becoming everyday. Asparagus! Pumpkins! Mobile phones! Debt! But elevating the standard or passable to deluxe status feels like we’re being cheated.

But maybe I am giving Luxury a bad rap. Is it so wrong to strive for something a little better, your fingers hovering over the prosecco two price-points up because it has a silver label and says it was “specially selected” for the supermarket? Why shouldn’t we reach for the stars and pretend that bottle of fizz is going to be uncorked after a seven-second ride in the express lift to our penthouse? Perhaps I am wrong to want nice things we perfectly deserve to be considered normal and available to everyone, rather than a rare treat we should be throwing ourselves on the ground and thanking a merciful God for.

However.

Let’s not pretend a flat the size of a rat’s eye with a breakfast bar and no room for storage is in any way a luxury just because it has a dishwasher. A turd rolled in glitter is still just that.

Luxury – we barely knew you. Goodbye.

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