Saturday, 18 May 2013

Murdering Phantoms (In Search Of Lost Tribes)

(With thanks to Hayley, Luke, Gareth and Pete for putting it all together.)

The day is full of such possibility when you can take a train into the heart of London. Each free day brings
with it the formations of a plan which lazily coils around your brain like an afternoon nap in the heat of summer, hazy in bliss as you work through your day.

I always have a destination in mind, and from there my experience of London stretches out into a day's worth of adventure until I have to consult the internet to make plans more concrete. Abstract concepts turn into train lines in colour.

The air of liberty and daring takes me on this day though. I only have one small thought in my head, which is to visit Bloomsbury. I haven't been in a while, and not since I moved to London proper. I've heard there's a cartoon museum there, and I love the peacefulness there, the simple evocative beauty of Russell Square with it's literary history. Bloomsbury has a genuine love of books ingrained into it's very pavements.

My online map tells me that from Euston I can walk to Bloomsbury, which makes me happier than sitting on a train for any longer than I have to. I wonder how anyone survived before mobile phones, and feel slightly wistful at the thought of the days when you would get lost, or the fact if you ran away into the city for a day nobody would be able to reach you.

I have my first payoff for having walked instead of taking a train. Once outside of Euston, the splendour of the British Library greets me, and I can't help but wander into it's courtyard, with an enormous sculpture of Newton crouching in intent study, completely ignoring me as I walk past his imposition. People sit relaxed in the cafe, and I think this is a place I will definitely visit again.

Once inside, I am a little overwhelmed at what exactly I can do here. I don't know how much it's like a normal library, and if I need some sort of membership. It's busier than I expected, and I feel like I should the library side of things to another day. There's an exhibition on propaganda but I am feeling broke, and instead stumble across a free exhibition on crime novels. This is my religion, rows and rows of rare books and first editions celebrating literature. I forget how much I love crime novels, and the fact I haven't read one in a while.

Like every teenager, I fell through phases of loving Britney Spears, The Spice Girls or Leonardo DiCaprio, but what set me apart were my intense crushes and obsessions with literary figures. At the age of ten, when everyone's sole focus was doing their best moves to Shake The Room by Will Smith, I was battling with my religious beliefs, head over heels in love with the X-Men and at the complete mercy of William Shakespeare. By the time I was thirteen years old, it was Thomas Harris and Agatha Christie I was reading by torchlight until well past my bedtime.

I make a few notes on authors I really have to read (PD James, Paul Auster, James Lee Burke) and move onto a spectacular exhibition with the many treasures the British Library has to offer. I am slightly giddy at seeing a 14th Century copy of Beowulf, ancient copies of the Bible, and Lady Jane Grey's prayerbook. It still floors me that we house such things, and that they are available so freely to be viewed and appreciated.

I carry on walking down towards King's Cross St. Pancras, and fall in love with what I think is the most beautiful building in London I have seen. The Renaissance St. Pancras Hotel is an enormous fairytale building of red brick and meticulous detail. A man behind me comments at his wife, as we both come into view at the same time and the architecture hits you across the cheek. "Now that's a hotel".

I've left my headphones at home, in a conscious effort to be present in the moment and to be an active part of life. I take delight in the little conversations I hear ("He's cute but he looks like Justin Bieber!"), and the conversations I don't. I realise I am a little lost and going in the wrong direction, and I love the sidestreet I take to get to my destination. Saturdays in London should be full to the brim, but it seems there are areas so leafy and quiet and full of peace they've almost been laid out for me. I spot small cafes and delis, and an immaculate french bakery with wrought iron chairs and tables outside. Beautiful apartments, each of them labelled "mansions" with precise mosaicwork on the front. A basement apartment where someone has taken a marble head off a statue and placed it on the sill outside, looking into their kitchen window. The front door opens to one apartment building and an impossibly beautiful blonde young woman tumbles out, entirely composed of legs stretched out in black leggings, handbag skimming on the crook of her elbow and mobile phone in the other.

Bloomsbury greets me in shock, with the Brunswick, a strange mixture of shopping centre, square, cinema and apartments straight out of the Jetsons. It is entirely at odds with the landscape, like a spaceship reneged from an eighties sci-fi film and life was built around it.

 I buy some food from a supermarket and find Russell Square, happy to see there are plenty of benches. People walk their dogs, children play in the grass, and others sit on benches reading, musing, smoking and eating. Virginia Woolf would have sat here once, contemplating life and her next set of books. There is a deep sense of awe in this, I feel her speak to me without words somehow. I am entirely at peace with the world and myself, sitting by the fountains watching people pass by and reading my book.

I wander up Marchmont Street, flowing out of my fuzziness and loving the little street, not quite as happening as Brick Lane but with so much charm and wonder of it's own. I walk into Gay's The Word, a bookshop I would love even if it wasn't gay. Small and cosy, simple yet warm in it's arrangement. It even has the old school loveliness of a creaky door to announce your arrival, and find yourself with the biggest smile from the man behind the desk.

The music is always impeccable, and today they don't disappoint with Lana Del Rey. The place is queer to the very floorboards, and I love it. In the back corner two women discuss how hard it is to be black, Christian and lesbian while I look at the secondhand books and smile to myself. This constant identity search, it never goes away. I think one day it will all click in my head and I will go "this is who I am, and that's that" but everything shifts, everything changes. I think the only thing that clicks in my head is that I am happy, and that this is my skin and this will be my skin ten years from now whatever shape it takes and that is that. The label above my head need not be there, and others can write on it what they choose.

There are too many books, and I am feeling incredibly broke. I feel almost pained to leave without buying something, but I make a mental note of about a dozen books I will come back and buy after payday. (Abdellah Taia, Fanny And Stella, a book on Tangiers, the uncensored version of Dorian Gray and of course, my beloved Virginia). I note how the shop is not full, and I am sure they do well and I hope it is a shop well supported, but I can't help but feel a little melancholy that I am sure Soho is packed on a Saturday afternoon full of lotus eaters and this amazing shop has five of us inside it. I almost want to hug the man behind the till and thank him, but there are limits I feel, to my inside and outside voices.

I walk past the British Library and I am surprised at how quickly I reach Tottenham Court Road. The afternoon has turned sunnier now, lazy in it's demeanour and I continue my weekend tradition of picking up a few cheap comics from Forbidden Planet on Shaftesbury Avenue. From there, I am in the heart of Soho, and the Starbucks on Rupert Street has taken my affections a little. It is a great place to write and read while watching the very colourful world go by, so I trek through Old Compton Street (which is indeed busy) to reach my destination.

I've grown used to the sex shop on the corner and the half-naked posters for bars, but the men on the street with t-shirts that say "Free HIV testing" while handing out leaflets are a little jarring. The feeling persists through the day, and I can't shake my head as to why.

My initial reaction is to tell myself off. This is a great thing they are doing, raising awareness is always important and as cliché as the term has become, silence really does equal death. Yet, the feeling lingers. Something nags at me.

I've always had a stormy relationship with the gay scene, and the more I venture into it the more I realise it is a community that has become incredibly polarised. I feel like increasingly it is a community that people are rejecting outright, whereas I still feel like I stick my foot in it from time to time. The closest I came to truly "living" in it was when I worked in a gay bar, and even then I felt like some sort of Martian observing life very different to mine, or an anthropologist making tremendous discoveries.

My story is a long one, but cut short let's just say growing up my sense of identity wasn't paired with any sort of gay man. I found my home in, of all places, black women writers. Even at university when I was free to venture the big gay world and pick up copies of Gay Times, my heart and soul were healed and nurtured by Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Terry McMillan and Maya Angelou to name a few. I still find the gay world aggressive, narcissistic and full of baggage nobody is much willing to talk about. When fragile egos clash, they break, and there's an awful lot of smashed glass in gayville.

Maybe it's just me. It's not about promiscuity, that's another story entirely, but in my mind I see HIV as a human problem, not a gay one. I thought we were past the "gay cancer" stigma, and that we've realised how much we are that man in Africa, that child who caught it from his mother, and the myriad other people around the world who are bravely living with this. So I applaud the groups who try and raise awareness and offer solutions to this problem, but why is this happening in the middle of Soho? Why not Oxford Street?

Are we really addressing this as a problem that's everyone's? Have we been bitten so hard by the world outside we've just given up? I remember a girl I used to work with always joking it was her mission in life to turn a gay man. When we were planning on going to Pride one year and I jokingly told her this was her chance, she thought I was serious at balked at the idea. When I noticed how uncomfortable she looked I asked her why. "Well, you know" she said "I might catch something". This was the same girl I had been with weeks before so she could get her morning after pill, and every girl I worked with in this place used birth control for the sake of preventing birth, not disease. As in the pill and not a condom. That remains their perception.

It's not just a straight person perception, and I get it. When I went a little rebellious after my recent break-up and had a few boys return to my bed, more often than not there'd be a fleeting comment from them about "not having to use condoms if you're okay with it, I'm not bothered", followed by the small embarrassment of them creeping out as I'd inform them the evening's festivities were over. The argument always being, as they sheepishly left the building, that "you're the only person I've said that to, I just got caught up in the moment". Of course you did, I feel so special.

The line runs deep down both sides. This ghetto that has been created, where people I worked with in the gay bar refused to go anywhere "straight". This safe place we have run to, this Neverland we have. This world of normality in going to a bar and finding porn on the screen and condoms by the bar. Is this prevention or permission?

In that street corner in Soho what I see are men offering HIV tests right next to a shop with crotchless rubber underwear in the window, and a superimposed photo of Prince Harry touching himself offering happy hour drinks. Is this the ambulance that picks you up at the end of the night after you've driven drunk instead of the psychologist that tries to understand why you'd consistently drink drive in the first place? Are we putting stitches on a wound we just keep tearing up anyway?

I don't feel like I have answers, and this irks me. Part of me feels this is an aspect, a world the outsider will never understand. Part of me thinks this is a hell of our own choosing (when I split up with a boyfriend a gay friend very exasperatingly told me "you know we gay men are very promiscuous and these things will never last"). Part of me is mortified that I would walk through Soho with my mother and the question I'll get as she's faced with leather harnesses and HIV tests is "is this what you do?".

I've always seen the scene as a circus, somewhere to enjoy the show but something you should never run away with. I dislike the term "non-scene" because it is more often than not followed by "masculine straight-acting" and a lingering stench of shame. I am also not into being that fundamental, and there have been many times I have enjoyed a night out in Wonderland, mostly by never taking it seriously.

I look at the gay friends I have and know, and most of them talk little about this hypersexual life. They talk about their commutes, the films they have watched, the comics they read, the music they listen to and their days at work. Even the ones that seemed to live it when I worked at the bar, confessed at those uncomfortable Wednesday nights propped at the bar when I served as therapist and absolver of all guilt that all they wanted was to be loved. The thought of the direction love was in and the road they were taking being at complete odds pained me.

 I just feel like from Bloomsbury to Soho there's a greater distance than I previously thought.

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