Monday 16 May 2022

What He Said Was Not the Truth, Was Never the Truth and Will Never Be the Truth

December 1986

Dusk had come early that afternoon and by the time of the church’s Evensong Service, all that could be seen outside the windows was black night. The church’s windows only reflected darkness, not even vague shapes or movement within it. In the time before the service began, I sat in my pew and stared at those dark night windows.

It was called The Youth Service. Once a month, the church’s Young People’s Fellowship was allowed to take part in the Evensong Service, though not the church’s big Sunday morning Eucharist Service. We, the young people, were allowed to lead the service’s music, even choose some of it, read the lessons and lead the prayers, even perform a short dramatic sketch, but we weren’t allowed to choose the service’s theme and we were certainly not allowed to preach the sermon. At twenty, I was still classed as a “youth” at church and was a member of the Young People’s Fellowship. I was sitting in the pew, waiting for that month’s Youth Service to begin. Two of us were going to perform a short sketch about where the kingdom of God actually was. Back then, my writing was very Christian and focused much more on Christianity’s message than any attempt to create realistic characters and situations and then to explore themes through them.

The high point of the Evensong Service was the sermon; the whole liturgy of the service seemed to lead up to it. That Sunday, the church’s curate was preaching. He was a middle-aged family man who took a very literal view of the Bible and that Sunday he had chosen a very topical subject for his sermon. The previous week, James Anderton, the chief constable of Manchester police, the neighbouring city, had said that people with HIV/AIDS were "swirling in a human cesspit of their own making" (1). The curate chose this as his sermon topic that evening.

In the sermon James Anderton was called a prophet of God and the curate applauded him for what he said. He said Anderton was standing up for the truth and that AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuals. He told the congregation that homosexuals were a sin and now God was enacting his judgement on them. He said that people chose to be homosexual and therefore chose to turn away from God and they deserved AIDS.

I sat in my pew, wishing I was a million miles away from there. His words felt as if they were a direct attack on me. He was telling me that I wasn’t wanted there and that I was going straight to hell just for being who I was. It was as if his anger and hatred was directed straight at me. I was being told I wasn’t welcome there even when I was still deeply in the closet. No one there knew I was gay, not even the curate the night he preached that sermon. I barely knew it, I had certainly not acted on my sexuality, I had not kissed another man, not even held another man’s hand back then.

James Anderton was a divisive figure, even in 1986. Before his bigoted statements on people with HIV/AIDS, he had been called “God’s Copper” (2), and it was deserved. In 1987, he called for homosexuality to be criminalised again. He said, “The law of the land allows consenting adult homosexuals to engage in sexual practises which I think should be criminal offences. Sodomy between males is an abhorrent offence, condemned by the word of God, and ought to be against the criminal law.” (3) He also encouraged his police officers to patrol the Canal Street area of Manchester, the heart of the city’s gay village even then, to stalk its dark alleys and arrest any men caught in the merest clinch (4). There were also allegations that Manchester police used a colour-coding system to identify anyone homosexual in their files (5).

Anderton wasn’t just homophobic, he also had far right-wing views that he happily allowed to influence his role as chief constable. He openly stated the elected Labour politicians, who were running Manchester’s council, were part of a left-wing conspiracy to destroy British democracy (6). In late 1977, Anderton secretly met with a National Front leader to ensure that the far-right group could hold marches in Manchester without the risk of counter protests, when other cities had banned marches by the National Front. He allowed the marches to happen as long as their routes were kept secret beforehand (7). In 1987, he called for the corporal punishment for criminals until they begged for mercy (8) and he also called for the castration of rapists (9).

Anderton saw himself as having “a direct line to God” (10) and therefore being a prophet of God (11). He claimed that God was calling him to speak out on moral issues, therefore implying that his views could not be questioned because they came directly from God. (I have met this attitude many times in my life and always found it extremely worrying and even dangerous because it always seems to be used to justify extremist views.)

Anderton’s statements and behaviour didn’t go unchallenged. After his bigoted comments about people with HIV/AIDS and his claim to be God’s prophet, in January 1987 Manchester Council called for his resignation (5). The council leader wrote to then Home Secretary Douglas Hurd, calling for Anderton’s behaviour and his handling of Manchester’s police force to be formally investigated and him to be reprimanded (12). Other chief constables said Anderton was “bringing ridicule” onto the police service (12). Anderton ignored the call for his resignation, which is not surprising, but recently it has emerged that he was being protected by Margaret Thatcher’s government and Thatcher herself (12). In response to calls to restrain Anderton’s public announcements, her private secretary wrote to Douglas Hurd stating, "The Prime Minister has commented that it would be outrageous if the Chief Constable [Anderton] were required to seek clearance for all his public speaking engagements." (12) Thatcher also stopped any enquiry into Anderton’s behaviour, saying he shouldn’t be stopped from speaking publicly at non-policing events (13). She protected him.

In December 1986, I didn’t know of most of this, but I had heard Anderton making his statement on people with HIV/AIDS. His words were incredibly harsh and lacking in any compassion or concern; he actually seemed happy in his condemnation. How could he be speaking God’s will when there was no compassion to his words? Even though it was only 1986, I had taken a lot of time to read and learn about AIDS, though on my own and in secret, and nowhere could I see the facts of AIDS reflected in Anderton’s words.

Sitting in that church pew, I felt so beaten down and depressed. This was what the curate felt about me and now he was condemning me to hell, even though he didn’t know it was me he was specifically condemning. I had joined that church as a safe place, a place where I could be myself, a place where I was known as myself, not solely as my parents’ child, a place where I was wanted and could belong. I had been wrong. This wasn’t a safe place; this was a dangerous place of condemnation and hatred. I wasn’t wanted there. I felt sick and afraid. I didn’t know what to do.

It was a relief when the sermon was over, the end of the service rapidly approaching, but I couldn’t unhear those words. James Anderton, with all his hatred and bigotry, had been identified as prophet of God, the curate publicly stating that all his words were the truth. The words of that sermon told me so much—I wasn’t welcome there and neither was I safe, but where else could I go?

After the service I made some quick excuses and left the church early, I couldn’t risk hearing people say how much they agreed with that sermon. I had to leave that building and hurry out into the dark December night. But hurrying home still didn’t nullify that sermon, didn’t silence its words in my mind.

When I reached home, I found my father in a very chatty mood. My mother was out visiting a friend that evening and he wanted someone to talk to, but I just wanted to be silent. He started asking me how the service had been but got quickly tired with my monosyllabic and vague answers. I claimed I wasn’t feeling well and retreated to the solitude and safety of my bedroom. How could I tell my father what had happened? I could barely admit it to myself and to tell him would have involved, in some way, telling him I was gay, and back then that was an impossible task.

Even as I heard that sermon, I knew its words were untrue, but the prejudice and hatred behind it was all too real. My greatest regret from that evening was that I didn’t just stand up and walk out of the church as soon as I realised what that sermon was about, silently announcing my opposition to all of its hatred rather than condoning it with my silent presence. But that was far too big of a thing to ask of myself back then, too much to force on my very closeted self. But hindsight is still a wonderful thing…

(The photograph illustrating this essay is not a picture of the church where this took place)


Monday 9 May 2022

Eight Book Reviews


As we approach the summer, here are some of my book reviews to help you find something new to read, or an old favourite to return to.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Dystopian novels are popular now and a lot of them have been published in the last few years, but this is one of the early ones of the genre and is still disturbingly original.

Faggots by Larry Kramer

Larry Kramer’s novel, first published in 1978 and is still controversial today.

Living Confidently with HIV by Liz Shaw

Self-help books continue to be popular, but this one is original and very informative.

Living Upstairs by Joseph Hansen

This novel is set in 1940s Hollywood, but it is about the people who never populated the Hollywood films of the time.

Postcards from the Edge by Carrie Fisher

This is Carrie Fisher’s insider novel about the ups and many downs of surviving and working in Hollywood.

Somewhere This Way

An anthology of new short stories. 

The Dressmaker by Beryl Bainbridge

Beryl Bainbridge’s novel of unhappiness and repressed passions in war time Liverpool. 

True Confessions of Margaret Hilda Roberts Aged 14¼ by Sue Townsend

Here Sue Townsend’s unique comic eye turned on the lost diaries of Margaret Hilda Roberts, long before she married Denis Thatcher.

Happy reading


Tuesday 3 May 2022

Five Days and More Days on Top


I was twelve years old when my grandmother died. My father woke me up, early that morning, and told me, “Your Gran has gone to Heaven.”

I was confused, no one had told me she was that ill, they certainly hadn’t told me she was dying. I thought that her decreasing health and physical ability was because of her great age, she had seemed so impossibly old to me back then. It was much later that I’d find out what had happened to her.

She was the only grandparent I knew. My father’s parents had died before I was born and so had my mother’s father. My gran, my mother’s mother, was the only grandparent I had. Other children at school had both sets of grandparents and would talk about them endlessly. I just had Gran, a woman who seemed so much older than the grandparents of those other kids at school. She was an old, small, white-haired woman, like a character out of children’s literature.

When I was nine, Gran came to live with us for a while. With hindsight I realise she wasn’t well, but no one told me at the time. She would sit in the armchair next to the fire in our sitting room and tell me stories of her life. Stories of her growing up in Scotland, her time “in service” in London, running a household in wartime Kendal, Cumbria. She was full of stories and I loved listening to them.

During that time, she was admitted to one of Liverpool’s hospitals. We visited her one Sunday afternoon to find that she had been moved off the main ward and was now in a side room. She told us that the ward’s sister had moved her into there when it became empty. At the time it just seemed like a nice gesture; now I know differently. As a senior staff nurse, working on a busy hospital ward, I’d move a very ill or terminally ill patient into a side room to give them some quiet and privacy.

From our home she moved into a newly built bungalow, near to my Uncle Lance and Aunty Sheila, her youngest son and his wife, in the suburbs of Derby. We would drive over there every Saturday to visit her. The bungalow was small, made from cream-colored concrete and perched on the side of a shallow hill. Being a new build, the garden was untended and raw. It was divided into two by a stone-paved path that cut through its middle. On either side of it were two strips of open soil, which were made up of large clumps of red/brown clay, many of them as large rocks. I wasn’t allowed onto this clay soil because it would stain anything that touched it bright red. Our dog, Candy, a little terrier with a love of new and different smells, wouldn’t venture onto this clay garden either, yet normally she’d spend as much time as possible sniffing out the smells on a new patch of ground. My gran had loved gardening, she and my mother would spend afternoon after afternoon tending to our garden. While she lived at that bungalow, the garden was left untended, just two open strips of clay where even weeds didn’t seem to want to grow.

It was in this bungalow that she died.

I wasn’t allowed to go to her funeral, my mother believed funerals were no place for children, so I was left at home in the care of a neighbour. This, along with not being told she was ill, made accepting my gran’s death so difficult for me. It wasn’t as if she was dead, never to be seen again, she just wasn’t there, missing from my life. It wasn’t until I was into my teens that I was able to make the connection that she was actually dead. For my mother, though, the loss of her own mother was something that she found so difficult to accept, it was so hard on her. She spent weeks and weeks off work after Gran’s funeral. I would often find her, alone in the house, silently crying to herself. I now realise her grief had become depression, but back then I was not a perceptive child.

It was only as an adult, after I had trained as a nurse, that I began to find out what had happened with my gran; it was only then that my mother told me what she had found out after Gran’s death. My grandmother had stomach cancer. When she had been admitted to hospital in Liverpool, it had been for “exploratory surgery.” This was long before CT and MIR scans, and cancer tumours do not show up well on x-rays, so people would have surgery as a way of diagnosing where and how big/advanced their tumour was. When my Gran had had her exploratory surgery, they had found that the cancer was extremely advanced and had spread to other organs in her abdomen, meaning there was nothing that could be done; certainly surgery was useless, so they simply sewed her back up again.

I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know how ill she was, no one knew. My gran wasn’t told that her cancer was as advanced as it was; she certainly wasn’t told it was terminal. The decision was made by her doctors that she wouldn’t be able to cope with the knowledge that she was dying and therefore she wasn’t told. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen now, no doctor will take that God-like decision, but it still happened in my lifetime. It also meant that neither my gran nor her family had any chance to prepare for her death.

When my mother was told that her cancer was terminal, thirty years after my gran’s death, she decided not to tell anyone else. But she was able to make that decision for herself and she took it for very personal but still practical reasons. It was also a very different time. I was an adult and a trained and experienced nurse. I had been quietly watching my mother’s health decline and I had been preparing myself. I also had Martin in my life, my partner, whom I could talk to about this and he knew what I was going through. Then I found out her cancer was terminal, though by accident. My mother was prescribed new medication, a hormonal treatment, and I recognised it as a medication used in palliative care, designed to shrink a tumour to reduce the symptoms from it, but it didn’t treat or remove the tumour. It was then that I knew she hadn’t told anyone her cancer was terminal. I was in a difficult position but I was an adult and had someone I could talk to. And when she was in the hospice, at the end of her life, I had the chance to say goodbye to her and we both knew it was goodbye.

I work as a district nurse now and I look after people, in their own homes, who are at the end of their lives. I don’t have the input that palliative care nurses have; my role is very much providing the nursing care people need at the very end of their lives. This has given me an insight into how a death can and does affect the loved ones and family of someone dying.

My own experience, personal and professional, has shown me what a large and life-changing event a loved one’s death can be. But I am also a writer and my computer-like mind stores all this away to be used in my writing. Death is such a life-changing event that I cannot but write about it. But I want to write about people’s personal experience of it. I don’t want to write sensationalist or sentimental prose about the death of a loved one, I want to write about the real progress and events of it all and the way these deaths affect people.

That all said, I have just published a story, Five Days, about a child losing his mother to cancer. This child, a boy called Byron, isn’t told that his mother has cancer and that she is dying from it. It is her decision and she doesn’t let anyone else tell him what is happening. She is trying to protect him, but her actions leave Byron confused and isolated, he feels excluded from what is happening.

Though not directly based on my own experience, I did tap into my experience as a child when I was writing this; I also used my experiences as a nurse too, especially when I was told not to tell a patient’s child that their parent was dying. I wanted to explore a child’s-eye view of terminal illness. It wasn’t an easy story to write, but so often I like to challenge myself with what I write, I want to explore difficult subjects from the point of view of characters being affected by them.

This wasn’t the easiest story to write, I had to keep returning to the fact that the story is seen through the eyes of a twelve-year-old boy without the insights that an adult character could bring to this story, but I did find it a rewarding thing to write. I had written about something important to me.

I am very grateful to my writers’ group, Newham Writers’ Workshop, who gave me such helpful feedback on each chapter of this story. Writing can be such an isolated practice, and so often I don’t know if a piece of writing works or not, but getting feedback from my writers’ group has been invaluable and I have learnt so much from it.

In her will, my gran left me her rocking chair. It was an item of furniture that I had loved sitting in as a child, the sheer originality of it attracting me; all the chairs in my parents’ home stayed solidly in place, none of them rocked. As a child I would always head straight towards that chair. When I moved into the first real home of my own, my own flat, I finally had space for it and it sat in my sitting room for years. It now sits in our bedroom, in a corner almost made for it.

Happy reading,