What a Week That Was

Argus title : Mr Fanshawe might call me a moaner but I’m still a fan

A friend recently asked me what it’s like being a columnist on this newspaper. “I don’t know how to answer that” I replied. “Well, what do you do in the week?” she persisted.

The truth is it’s always different, though some things remain the same. I spend time with my mother who has Alzheimer’s disease. She asks me “Have you any news?” I tell her, but she can’t remember what I say. It constantly surprises and delights me when people do remember what I’ve said or written.

The fact is I’ve had quite a good week. My daughter has been on holiday. She’s been preparing for a state examination that is going to be abolished next year. I can’t quite understand why, when it’s going to be scrapped, the government continues to demand that one last swathe of children sit it.

Perhaps it’s an exercise in obedience similar to one of those pointless tasks nuns used to be set in convents. I think it was St Teresa of Avila who set her sisters to sweeping up leaves in a howling wind. As fast as they tried to sweep the leaves into piles, the wind blew them away.

Something else I did this week – apart trying to understand my daughter’s mathematics homework and watching DVDs of the truly appalling American TV drama “One Tree Hill” – was to buy my first copy of “The Oldie”, the magazine for over 50s. Buying it is a bit of a rite of passage for us older folk (the ‘Upper Halfies’ as I like to call us). It comes at the point that you realise that your knees won’t let you squat down to reach the last tin of tomatoes in the lower kitchen cupboard, or when you catch yourself reading the Saga adverts for walk in showers.

Another ‘oldie’ to whom I spoke this week was writer Peter Avis, former Communist and now Green supporter, who divides his time between Brighton and Dieppe, where he is Director of the Chateau Museum. He is also the mastermind and organiser of ‘The Great Dieppe Trip’, an annual Autumn sortie to our French sister port by assorted communists, trade unionists, peace campaigners and Labour politicians. A great deal of eating, drinking and speechifying goes on. It’s great fun.

Peter was researching an article for a French newspaper on political attitudes in the UK. I introduced him to peace campaigner Glen Williams, who took him to the Cowley Club, in London Road. I love it there. It’s like taking a step back into the later 1960s or early 1970s, during the early days of civil rights and the women’s movement. It’s a wonderful place, offering a café and benefits advice, support and education to anyone who needs it.

I popped into the Preston Road Post Office to see Usha and Prakash Patel, who run it. I wanted to check whether they were happy with the piece I wrote about them a few weeks ago. They say they’ve had a good response, which doesn’t surprise me. It’s a popular Post Office and they, and their colleague Anne Goatcher, are very well liked.

Musically, it’s been a pretty good week. My daughter went to the Kaiser Chiefs concert and came back elated. Half of Brighton and Hove seemed to have been there, including the seediest touts and beefiest bouncers I’ve ever seen. I’m learning a new language. It seems you ‘mosh’ (jump up and down in front of the musicians) in a ‘moshing pit’.

Best of all though, was a concert of Sussex folk music at the Greys Pub, performed by the Copper family from Rottingdean. The Coppers come from a long line of farmers, agricultural workers and publicans. They say that up until the 19th century many rural Sussex families sang together. What’s different about them, according to John Copper, “is that we carried on”.

Over the generations they have safeguarded the family’s repertoire of songs. Old Bob Copper, the last patriarch of the family, died in 2004, shortly after he received an MBE for his services to music. Now his children and grandchildren carry on the tradition. They are internationally known, but are completely without vanity. For them, the songs are the thing.

The same is true for our friend Gordon Mackerron, who took us along to the concert. He’s a national expert on nuclear waste and a key adviser the government, but he’s also a singer with local choir “Naked Voices”. It was good to hear him and other people in the old public house bellowing out 2 part harmonies with the Coppers. It’s how it must have been in times past.

I’ve had good feedback to recent articles, especially the one about major developments and high rise buildings. However, I’m afraid I’ve also upset one or two people. Simon Fanshawe, whom I mentioned in my article, telephoned to berate me telling me, amongst other ruder things, that what I had written was “inaccurate” and “ill-informed”.

He called me “a moaner”, which I rather liked. I had a vision of myself flying about in the Hogwarts lavatories like ‘Moaning Myrtle’ the schoolgirl ghost who haunts the pipe work in Harry Potter novels.

There’s no doubt Simon was very cross with me, and as a consequence I was thoroughly put out with him. We were in that state of being that some English people describe as ‘aerated’(or ‘aer-iated’ as it is usually pronounced). It’s a great word, the exact meaning of which can’t be found in any dictionary I’ve seen. The closest definition I’ve found is to “put gas into a liquid” or to charge “with carbonic acid or oxygen”.

Well, there was plenty of gas and acid in our waters that day. Reputations were mentioned – as were lawyers – and we were in high dudgeon. We calmed down of course. Simon offered to give me what he called “some accurate information” and we agreed to meet for coffee.

However, I remained upset and cross. “How dare he?” I muttered. I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember why I’d bothered to call him a “good man” in my column.

However, it came back to me loud and clear that same evening. I was at my computer, idly flicking TV channels and suddenly there on screen was Simon presenting his BBC 3 programme “The Trouble… with Gay Men”. It was one of the bravest bits of television-making I have ever seen, laid back in style, humorous and quirky, but confronting head-on those aspects of conventional gay culture which reject fidelity, promote casual sex and collude with destructive sexual practices, including consensual violence and humiliation.

Simon illustrated his views by juxtaposing extremes of gay culture one to another – from bondage equipment in a gay sauna to civil partnership. It must have taken huge courage, because in so doing he risked both the ridicule and hostility of homophobes and the anger of some Gay men.

For example, in response to one particularly searching question, an interviewee replied “You’re seriously the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a straight man in a gay man’s body. There should be an operation for people like you, dear.” For a moment Simon looked cut to the quick, but he carried on.

It was courageous and it was honest. For he was asking in public the awkward questions I’ve hitherto only heard in private, about why a community which has pride in itself and, in the past, has fought so effectively against HIV/Aids, remains so focused upon forms of activity which are self-destructive, including unprotected flesh fests and use of designer drugs.

Simon interviewed gay role models as diverse as Graham Norton and Deputy Assistant Police Commissioner Brian Paddick. He filmed preparations for the civil partnership ceremony of 2 middle aged men and interviewed the parents of one of them. Like Simon, I believe in marriage – and love weddings – so I sat there with tears in my eyes, cheering them, and him, on.

Let me be clear (lest Simon or anyone else smell concession) I retract not one word of my article on planning. No doubt I will continue to challenge Simon and probably we will fall out again. However, let no one suggest that he is not an asset to the city. He makes it a better place.

So, I end the week thinking, this place is full of good things and replete with good people. It doesn’t much matter whether we were born here or are incomers, or whether we agree. What matters is that we put our hearts into being here.

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