I was fortunate to spend my early formulative years in Southampton; a city which, probably in no small part due to it's Merchant Navy connections, was more socially liberal and laissez faire than many others of its kind. I had few concerns about "coming out" in Southampton, surrounded by a peer group who were supportive and accepting. My social life was based in and around a pub called The Grapes. It wasn't a gay bar per se more an Off Off Broadway production with a cast of hundreds, each one with a story to tell, a history to hide or a song to sing; we were, after all, our own special creation. Late nights were spent at the Magnum Club where "knock three times and ask for Lisa" would ensure you were allowed inside, whilst the drunken hens and voyeuristic straights were left in the street. It was provincial but it was fun.
Fast forward to February 2015 and an email from an angry resident who takes great exception to a councillors' newsletter praising a recent upgrade to the local railway station, including a new forecourt, additional parking and new pedestrian crossings and seating. These things apparently are not be be celebrated, as they represent a further denigration of the town which is "going down hill" due to such changes the investment in the railway station represent.
Finally I am in a taxi, dashing back to Victoria after a meeting in Portcullis House. As soon as the taxi doors lock the driver launches into a well rehearsed tirade about politics and politicians. Apparently "that Maggie Thatcher was OK, but look at what we've got running the country now." His father grew up in the East End in a two-roomed house "they had nothing but he was happy, salt of the earth..." And, of course, "that Nigel Farage is right - we need to send 'them' back and take back our country..."
This weekend Steve and I took a rare day off and drove to Oxfordshire to spend some quiet time on our narrowboat. On Friday night we drove into Oxford and finally got to watch The Imitation Game. I am fortunate to have known someone who worked with Alan Turing and was involved in the campaign to secure his pardon. The film was a romantic adaptation of the reality, but one thing was ghastly and true; his post-war breakdown and suicide was due to the brutal treatment of gay men at that time and the psychological and physical reaction to the chemical castration imposed by the courts as an alternative to imprisonment. At the end of the film the following words appeared on screen:
"Between 1950 and 1967 49,000 men were sentenced to government sanctioned
chemical castration by UK courts."
chemical castration by UK courts."
So when my group of Southampton friends get together and talk about our own "good old days" and someone inevitably says "how much more fun it used to be, with secret knocks on club doors" I will remind them that tens of thousands of men feared social opprobrium which forced them into secret lives. They must have longed for the liberty and acceptance we too easily take for granted.
Just as I replied to the railway station complainant; explaining that a Chamber of Commerce study had indicated that same newcomers, whose arrival forced the railway station to improve, are also responsible for 47% of spending in the town's thriving High Street, which would otherwise be unoccupied and in decline.
I asked him if he had ever heard of Martin Niemoller. Unsurprisingly he had not.