23 May 2024

Away with the Phaeries

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Just back from The Lake District for a week with 52 gay men on an Edward Carpenter Community gay men’s week.

Up at the ungodly hour of 5.30am on last Tuesday morning to catch the ferry to Holyhead, enroute to an Edward Carpenter Community week of gay galavanting excesses in the Lake District. Probably, the extent of my excess will be having a 2nd piece of Battenburger cake. Sigh, the excesses of yesteryear.

I set the alarm for 5.30am but I woke up from a deep sleep at 5.29am and peered blearily at the clock. A minute to go; good old brain. I was tempted to set the alarm for 6am and get another 30 minutes of sleep. Also, 6am is officially morning while 5.30am is officially night time. Getting out of bed at night time is unnatural; a crime against nature. Unless, that is, it’s to answer a call of nature which, for those of us of the spritely though creaky persuasion, is a crime in itself. Anyway, a quick cost-benefit analysis led me to accept that I’d prefer to change my mind than change my habit of enjoying a leisurely breakfast and keeping stresses to a minimum. This means not rushing. Everything was ready and packed from the night before so I just had a pot of tea, Barry’s Black Label, natch and some toast and marmalade while I read the first few pages of the Irish Times and then a quick shave and shower and the other one. I then phoned a taxi which whisked me off to the ferryport.

The ferryport, in the heart of Dublin, was like chalk to the cheese of an airport. The whole process was very low key and efficient with minimal stress. No armed robocops menacing around. 15 mins after I arrived, I was on board the Dublin Swift, a high-speed catamaran built in 2001 as a passenger and vehicle catamaran ferry. After conversion to a Maritime Prepositioning ship, the vessel was chartered by the United States Navy’s Military Sealift Command until January 2018 as WestPac Express. It was then converted for civilian use as a passenger ferry by Irish Ferries and renamed Dublin Swift, after Dean Swift, aka Jonathan Swift (30 November 1667 – 19 October 1745) who was an Anglo-Irish satirist, author, essayist, political pamphleteer (first for the Whigs, then for the Tories), poet, and Anglican cleric who became Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, hence his common sobriquet, “Dean Swift”.

I had breakfast as soon as I boarded, a full Irish heart attack on a plate. Pretty mediocre, apart from the price, which was a bit mouth-watering, unlike the food. The seating arrangement was a bit strange; either the table was too high or the chair was a bit low. The food didn’t have far to travel from plate to mouth and back down again to stomach. I gobbled it all down, quick as you like, mindful of my Irish famine gene. I then stretched out, put my hat over my face and went spark out until we arrived in Holyhead 2 hours later.

The journey to the hostel was pretty smooth until there was a bit of a kerfuffle on the train system and one of our trains was cancelled. We were decanted at Prescot and it was suggested that we find a train to Oxendale. No problem, I thought, I’m a seasoned traveller and have travelled by train through dozens of countries. I’ll find my way. Then somebody grabbed me from behind and I turned around to see one of my friends also travelling to High Close. He pointed out a group of 15 or so others who were also on their way to the event and I went and joined them. I recognised about half of them. We were then offered a rattley bus and all piled in along with a few other passengers and bussed off to Windermere station where I caught a taxi with two others to the youth hostel where the event was being hosted. We arrived at around 4.30pm and the first thing was a covid test, I passed of course.

It was quite a blast being in the company of 52 gay men on the further edges of the age continuum who were very out. Many had been involved in the struggle for gay emancipation and also activists and survivors of the AIDS plague days. I have known some of them since the 1980s.

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I reflected on the various bands of brothers I have been involved with since I put down the drink and drugs on that fateful May Bank Holiday weekend in 1982 and about how unsane and unhappy I was at that stage. I was also on the edge of insanity and slipping over that edge rapidly. A very frightening experience.

AA, the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO), the Irish Gay men’s Group at the London Lesbian and Gay Centre (LLBC) and London lighthouse Hospice for men living and dying with AIDS – later some members formed The Edward Carpenter Community because of their experiences of friendships amongst gay men – became my main support. It’s like my natural tendency, unchallenged, would be to self destruction and either death by suicide or addiction. Longterm institution was also an option. None of these appealed to me and I was desperate to find a way out but didn’t possess the energy or understanding how to do this myself. This is where these planets of positive energy and kindness pulled me out of the gravitational pull of the black star whose orbit I was trapped in and they gradually pulled me into their orbit where I learned, slowly and painfully, to become an ordinary decent human being. Most of the time. That black star still exerts a great pull but now I recognise it as Death, and inevitable. However, I’ll still resist it.

I’m still working on learning how to unmangle metaphors though.

My first contact with London Lighthouse was in 1986/7 when I was broken hearted by a hostage who escaped. Sorry, I mean a lover who left me because of my neediness and jealousy. I thought he was the one. He wasn’t but was one of many. An AA friend suggested joining a gay men’s co-counselling course run by a wonderfully kind and powerful man called Christopher Spence who had a huge house in Ladbroke Grove in posh West London. His basement was bigger than many apartments and it was there we had our groups.

Memory is a very fickle thing but I think there were about 30 or so men there. The idea behind it was to open a hospice based on best practices and a centre of excellence. Christopher had a very clever and smart idea that the people staffing and supporting it would be friends and had worked out the worst aspects of their shadow. He thought that co-counselling would be a good way to allow gay men to come together and heal from the the consequences of growing up gay in an unsupportive or hostile environment and also from the ravages of AIDS on both the body, mind and psyche of gay men. He was right. The fact of getting together and sharing strength, experience and hope caused strong bonds to form. This was especially so when people shared the hurt parts of themselves and this vulnerability and courage was respected and reciprocated. A field of friendship and love resulted.

When the Lighthouse support group was established, long before the first brick was laid for the hospice itself, we went off on weekend workshops. The only name I can remember now in Life, Death and the Challenge of AIDS. Heady stuff. I can’t remember what we discussed except that it was more process than content. The fact of being together was as important, if not more important than what we learned. 30 years later I have no memory of what we spoke about or even where the workshops were held. However, I have vivid memories of how I felt and I can still see the faces, in my mind’s eye, of people who had an impact on me. I also made a new group of friends who were gay and this complemented, but did not replace, the friendship group I had formed in Gay AA in London, my primary support group.

I remember an occasion where one of the guys I met at the co-counselling group, Leo from the north of Ireland, arranged a birthday party for me in his apartment in London somewhere. I was startled and anxious about this, such was the extent of my low self-esteem back in those days. I nearly hit the fuck-it button by getting lost. I remember thinking that they wouldn’t notice if I didn’t turn up. I finally phoned Leo, long after I was meant to arrive to let him know I would be late. He was understandably a bit annoyed but this was out of concern, not malice. I felt myself getting angry and almost said, well, fuck you, I’m outa here. I didn’t though and went to his place and had a lovely nurturing afternoon.

I met others at LL events and soon began to form a friendship band of brothers. Memory is a bit blurry here but I think the first time I went to an ECC week was in Lauriston Hall in Scotland in 1993. One of the traditions of ECC weeks was, and still is, to take a group photo and develop it in the darkroom and give us all an A4 copy. There was no digital printing in those days. I got my copy and scanned the photo to see what I looked like. With increasing alarm, I searched but couldn’t find my face. This was a confirmation of my worst fears; that I was so unimportant and irrelevant that they airbrushed me out. I kept looking with mounting desperation. I knew I was next to so-and-so and that so-and-so was in front of me but no sign of me. I kept scanning and noticed somebody I didn’t recognise. He had a huge smile on his face; more of a beam really.It was me! The kaleidoscope of narratives I had about myself didn’t contain one where the principal character smiled widely. The dominant narrative was one of doom and gloom from the womb to the tomb.This was one of those turning about in the deepest seat of the consciousness moments.

Another band of brothers I was involved with at that time, the 1990s, was in the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order based round the London Buddhist Centre in Bethnal Green in East London. They had a “gay wing” and used to hold regular gay mens’ retreats in Waterhall Retreat Centre, in Kent, I think. Once, we were on a gay men’s retreat in Padmaloka in Norwick, the main retreat centre of the Western Buddhist Order. It was there that I met up with some of the people I later met on ECC weeks. I also made several new gay friends at the London Buddhist Centre (LBC) who had no connection with ECC.

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Later on, I went to live in a men’s community at the LBC. At one point, there were 13 men in the community, called Sukhavati. There were 6 straight men, 6 gay men and one bi guy. Both sides tried to convert the bi guy to their side so they would be in the majority. This was done in a spirit of high humour, of course. Gay and straight men lived together in excellent harmony.

I attended a workshop by a 79 year old American guy called Tolo who was a nomad and had been so for 15 years. He spoke about how he liquidated all his assets and possessions and travelled the world. He spoke about the psychology of being a nomad and the attitudes he had to let go of in order to pursue this lifestyle. He also spoke about the different types of travellers from the American worker who got his 2 weeks off every year and wanted to pack as much as possible into their holiday to the extent that they arrived back from holidays exhausted and with hardly any experience.

He made a distinction between actual nomads, who have no home and digital nomads who are doing this for a year or two but have a home somewhere. He also mentioned vagabonds, who are nomads with a home base but not full time. I’d be a vagabond as I travel 90 days of the year. I travel for 90 days because I get free travel insurance for 90 days on my Revolut card for free. Otherwise, it would cost a fortune as I’m over 70yo. I prefer the Irish term ‘Spailpín Fanach’ to vagabond as it’s more indigenous to my culture and heritage.

As he was talking about adventure being the goal, I reflected on the difference between a hero and warrior. The hero seeks adventure and back brain experience while the warrior seeks reflection and wisdom, or front brain engagement. He also spoke about seeking the exotic and, for him, this meant anything different.

My way of traveling is different to his. I approach a new culture with a sense of reverence and a burning desire to learn something new; to be surprised. Adventure is a byproduct and can be a distraction. But, to each his own.

Doing or being? It’s sometimes not easy to get these right. I’m so used to doing things that it can be a struggle to just be. Keep on going, part of my brain says. Stop, says another part. I listened to the latter this week and have done very little. One of the main structures of the week is people who have a skill offering workshops of other activities. This week we have activities ranging from drawing classes – with 2 naked models – to singing and dancing events. I attended a circle dancing event, a meditation and relaxation class.

The highlight was an evening event called ‘The Hot Seat’ where we put our names in a hat and all sat down. The organiser randomly chose a name from the hat and, if you wanted to, you sat in the eponymous hot seat and people in the audience asked you quickfire questions. You had the option to choose either ‘anything goes’ or ‘serious’ There was an option to list taboo subjects. The audience was encouraged to be kind. I put my name in the hat thinking the odds are that they’ll never call me. But the odds were wrong; they did call me. I was the first name out of the hat! Gulp. It was grand though and I really enjoyed the process. I chose the anything goes option with no taboo subjects and I was asked lots of personal questions. I answered them all and even got a laugh or two. Very entertaining. I did notice that the questions people asked said more about them than the answers elicited.

One of the great jewels of the week was the random meets and subsequent deep and meaningful conversations I had with many men at various times, in the kitchen, at meals, meeting in the corridor, on walks in the woods surrounding the hostel, on the benches in the veranda, in the sitting room etc. I felt I really met and communicated with people.

Incidentally, the acoustics in the dining rooms were brutal; very sharp and echoey. I’m a bit deaf in one ear and I don’t hear very well with the other one. Combine this with 3 different forms of tinnitus and some conversations were a struggle. However, most were outside meal times and were fine. Note to self: think about getting a hearing aid

On our penultimate night, we had a soiree or cabaret where people volunteered to sing, recite a poem, do an act etc. There were also small groups who collaborated on singing a song and even a small choir. There was even a drag act, naturally. The organisers were very competent and put on a very good show. I sang ‘The Stolen Child’, a Yeats poem. People gave me kind feedback and some seemed to like it. I certainly enjoyed performing it. Singing is the only opportunity I have to use my voice and not be oppressed by my broken tongue

The journey home was very smooth and uneventful. Mark, a lovely Welsh man, dropped me off at Llandudno Junction where I caught a train to Holyhead and an easy ferry journey back to Dublin. It was nice to see the coastline of Ireland gradually appear on the horizon and then become firm – a sight seen by the many waves of invaders who came, over the centuries, to pillage and plunder this beautiful island.

A few days later, as I reflect on the week, my abiding memory is a peaceful, liminal space with lots of emotional nurture and nourishment. Just what I needed.

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