What If James Bond Fucked Men? Sex, Violence And Genre In London Spy

Moderate spoilers for episodes one and two.

Twenty-five minutes into London Spy’s first episode, two men have sex. The Daily Mail wasn’t pleased about this, tutting that ‘a viewer complained of a graphic gay sex scene which included nudity’, only to be ignored. (The fact the series airs post-watershed, when naughty things are known to be broadcast, is treated as a technicality.) You’d think most sex scenes featured nudity, indeed that fucking with clothes on might have more power to scandalise, but then is this is gay sex—depraved and disordered, in the Mail’s eyes, unless it’s a brown person saying so.

Today’s conservatives have nothing, heavens no, against the gays—they’d just prefer not to be reminded they’re anatomically correct. The novelty of lifelike queer characters is such that realism feels unrealistic: it must be due to a quota, the Telegraph suggests, that in all of spy fiction, one queer lead role now exists. Whether despite or because of the number of gay historical spies, espionage is a fiercely heterosexual genre, and after half a century of straight secret agents in dinner jackets getting laid, the fury London Spy’s premiere drew with one sex scene shows just how overdue it is. This never happened to the other guy. Continue reading “What If James Bond Fucked Men? Sex, Violence And Genre In London Spy”

What If James Bond Fucked Men? Sex, Violence And Genre In London Spy

The Rights Of Muslims Don’t Rest On Islam Being Sacrosanct

Based on a Facebook status.

After this week’s attacks, it seems some people do know what to say. First there are those who say the right response to massacres in Paris, Baghdad and Beirut is to shoot Muslims in their nearest towns, who are no doubt discussing how and when to attack mosques; some declare their intent to rejoin the armed forces where they are, while politicians say the same words their predecessors did last time round, which fed paranoid, racist fears and helped give birth to the Islamic State now bombing them. How much has changed these fourteen years, and how little.

Then there are those who see Muslims threatened and step in to defend Islam’s honour, claiming its true teachings could never inspire violence. We hear a lot about the true versions of religions — true Christianity, it’s said, never breeds homophobia — though they rarely seem to have had historical traction. The argument goes that no faith causes problems, only its corruption by people, politics and power — as if religions would be harmless if only they weren’t part of human societies. There it goes again, the True Faith being corrupted by a realistic social context.

It’s got a lot of slogans, this approach. There’s the statement bombings reflect extremism, not religion, as if can’t be both; the statement fighters for ISIL aren’t ‘real’ Muslims, whatever a real Muslim is; that since most aren’t killers, religion can’t be relevant; that those claiming responsibility for Paris and Baghdad aren’t motivated by their faith despite saying so, and would only ‘find another excuse’ if they didn’t believe in God. For many progressives, the only response to attacks on Muslims is that ISIL has ‘nothing to do with’ Islam, fundamentalism nothing to do with religion. Continue reading “The Rights Of Muslims Don’t Rest On Islam Being Sacrosanct”

The Rights Of Muslims Don’t Rest On Islam Being Sacrosanct

The Rights Of Muslims Don’t Rest On Islam Being Sacrosanct

Based on a Facebook status.

After this week’s attacks, it seems some people do know what to say. First there are those who say the right response to massacres in Paris, Baghdad and Beirut is to shoot Muslims in their nearest towns, who are no doubt discussing how and when to attack mosques; some declare their intent to rejoin the armed forces where they are, while politicians say the same words their predecessors did last time round, which fed paranoid, racist fears and helped give birth to the Islamic State now bombing them. How much has changed these fourteen years, and how little.

Then there are those who see Muslims threatened and step in to defend Islam’s honour, claiming its true teachings could never inspire violence. We hear a lot about the true versions of religions — true Christianity, it’s said, never breeds homophobia — though they rarely seem to have had historical traction. The argument goes that no faith causes problems, only its corruption by people, politics and power — as if religions would be harmless if only they weren’t part of human societies. There it goes again, the True Faith being corrupted by a realistic social context.

It’s got a lot of slogans, this approach. There’s the statement bombings reflect extremism, not religion, as if can’t be both; the statement fighters for ISIL aren’t ‘real’ Muslims, whatever a real Muslim is; that since most aren’t killers, religion can’t be relevant; that those claiming responsibility for Paris and Baghdad aren’t motivated by their faith despite saying so, and would only ‘find another excuse’ if they didn’t believe in God. For many progressives, the only response to attacks on Muslims is that ISIL has ‘nothing to do with’ Islam, fundamentalism nothing to do with religion. Continue reading “The Rights Of Muslims Don’t Rest On Islam Being Sacrosanct”

The Rights Of Muslims Don’t Rest On Islam Being Sacrosanct

Paris/Baghdad/Beirut, November 2015

When guns go off, people fall silent. Some fall silently.

Silence takes many forms. There is the silence of the dead, that of the living who see death, and in between, that silent half-second when gunshots are first heard.

There is the numbness that comes after shock, the turning-off of news and silencing of radios. There is being at a loss for words, the silence of all speech sounding too loud.

There is the silence of commemoration and the silence of censure; sometimes these are the same. There is the silence that falls over streets where demonstrations have been banned.

There are the enforced silences of a war on terror, unspoken thoughts and words that render them unspeakable: heroes, hatred, extremist, PATRIOT. There is the indescribable nausea of a new one.

There is that silent, tired thirst in me for no more gods, governments or guns. There is the silence of knowing now is no time for certainties. There is my silent longing for them back.

There is the silence I wish for with every new atrocity mentioned, the relative silence of media about those further from my door, my silence on the ones I couldn’t stand to hear of. There is the silent shame of realising that was a choice, the silent listening I should have done.

More guns are going to go off. I hope by then, I will know what to say.

Paris/Baghdad/Beirut, November 2015

Inside Out: Nine Hours Homeless On The Streets Of London

There’s nothing like carrying everything you own to make snails seem nobler. It’s 3am, and having put my life into a rucksack weeks ago, I’m plodding homelessly across London without a place to crash. Pints of coffee are catching up with me, and unlike a snail, I don’t have the option of seeping fluid as I go. There are toilets, I realise, back at Charing Cross, but because I hate u-turns more than being illogical, I decide I’m bound to bump into some. I know I’ll regret it even as I make up my mind, and sure enough, by 4.30, my kidneys are in full revolt.

They’re unexpectedly fraught, public loos. I don’t have cause to think about them much, but toilets are where police target queer men, where trans people are beaten and harassed, where forgetting wheelchair users becomes a conscious choice. Not long ago they were segregated by race and class , and it’s only recently, here and there, that they’ve been gender specific. (Ladies’ rooms, Soraya Chemaly notes, are still designed for men.) Public toilets I learn tonight, are also being hit by austerity.

Over the last decade, half the country’s conveniences have shut, with one in seven of those in service in 2010 gone by 2013, sacrificed by impoverished councils. By the new year, 600 more are expected to have closed. It recently emerged that due to London’s shortage and contracts denying them breaks, drivers for private taxi firm Uber are forced to carry spare bottles. Like them, I’m finding there’s nowhere to stop: signs at Victoria point to an all night loo nearby, only for notices to say the building shut at six. Whatever cut caused this, it must have happened recently.

London’s streets are meant to be paved with filth  –  the reports about Uber even declare the capital awash with piss. What’s striking is, it’s not. This isn’t Paris, whose roads are hosed down every morning, or subsiding Berlin, under siege from its own sewage. For miles, traipsing down empty roads, not so much as a crisp packet blows by. London at this hour is a vacuum, sterile and quiet as the grave, and somewhere in the contours of my spine, this bothers me.

Read more at Novara.

Inside Out: Nine Hours Homeless On The Streets Of London

Why I Still Need The Atheist Movement

It’s Halloween, and I’ve come as myself. Fifteen, perhaps even ten years ago, this was the worst night of the year — the night I hid in the living room while Mum was at work, curled up out of sight below the window, praying on a loop. When I was younger, I believed Satan was everywhere — believed he whispered to me in the night, haunted our house and worked via my dad; believed he possessed me when I was eight; believed that on this night, his unknowing unservants came to our door. Today, as an atheist, Halloween is my Christmas, rite of all once-forbidden things.

We’ve got our monsters, atheists. In the media our public faces are racists, warmongsters and men to whom sexual harassment allegations cling like a stench. Online, our community is riddled with sexism, right wing politics and abuse. I’m sorry that’s the case, and as a result of saying so, I’ve been called any number of slurs and four letter words, been threatened and had my address published. (Female, trans and non-white friends’ harassment is much worse.) And yet I’d take this community over my former religious one in a heartbeat. I make that choice on a constant basis.

Every so often, some friend or other from the atheist SJ scene will post that they can no longer stand it round here — that movement atheism now is simply too toxic, that belief matters less than politics, and that they’d rather work with progressive believers than vile atheists. I can’t say I blame them — I’ve seen too many good people driven from this community — and yet I can’t help noticing: the trend, consistently, is that the friends who say this didn’t grow up religious. For them, inhabiting atheist space has always been a choice. For apostates like me, it’s frequently a need.

I need an atheist community — need space to speak frankly about my own abuse, find others who went through similar things and give voice to what I experienced. Like many apostates, I need a movement that affirms my anger as valid and doesn’t confuse it with the pubescent bile of the Dawkbros. I need a community that doesn’t respond to depression with prayer, to kink and queerness with polite non-acknowledgement at best, hostility at worst, to sex and poverty with vain moralism — and for me, that means a secular one. I can’t leave atheism: I have nowhere else to go.

Continue reading “Why I Still Need The Atheist Movement”

Why I Still Need The Atheist Movement

The Doubt: What I Learned From Rape Jokes, And When I Wonder If It’s Foolish To Assume The Best

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I used to think I understood rape jokes—then I moved in with someone who laughed at his own. F was young, white and angry at the world, and I met him after he advertised a room. The two of us talked for an hour or two, during which time he spoke more than I did, with the eagerness of a child desperate to make friends but unsure how. Like me F was addicted to TV: the fourth season of Game of Thrones had been the best, I said, except one character being raped despite her pleas and attempts to break free. ‘Come on,’ he said, all jocular. ‘She deserves it.’

It didn’t take my flatmate’s views long to become clear. His favourite authors included Charles Bukowski, who he told me ‘treated women like shit’ (there was no ‘but’), and I once spied Russell Brand’s Booky Wook on his table. My last landlady, he declared, had been a ‘nasty fucking dry old cunt’, and our female flatmate (a ‘silly little girl’) was acting ‘like a total bitch’ when they fell out. He hadn’t had a problem coming onto her—‘I only let girls move in because I want to fuck them,’ F told me once. He was a misogynist, he agreed, but felt he treated his women well.

I took the room looking on the bright side. The flat was comfy, the location neat, the prospect of searching elsewhere uninviting, and F’s response hadn’t been bad when I mentioned I blogged on a feminist site. Living with him wouldn’t, I thought, be the end of the world, and for me it wasn’t. Still, there were doubts. F laughed about his excitement when women online had rape fantasies, not quite sounding as if he knew where fantasy ended. Was rape so bad, he asked another time, quickly assuring me he was kidding. I’m not certain he’d have said so had I shaken my head.

I don’t know if I lived with a rapist, or someone who’d have liked to be. None of these incidents proves anything, but what if that was the idea? Was F, I wonder now, scoping me out the way queer kids scope out their mum and dad, as I’d scoped him out with mention of feminists? Did he laugh about rape because it amused him, or because what might be a joke is always plausibly deniable, like a sexual advance veiled as an invitation for coffee? One’s instinct is to award the benefit of the doubt, but maybe that’s the point.

Continue reading “The Doubt: What I Learned From Rape Jokes, And When I Wonder If It’s Foolish To Assume The Best”

The Doubt: What I Learned From Rape Jokes, And When I Wonder If It’s Foolish To Assume The Best

My Grandmother Used Food As A Weapon

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Since the god I believed in died, it’s my mum’s stories I’ve turned to. Her grandmother, one of the last Victorians, schooled her in Roma tradition while she was a child, and although Mum had swapped card readings for hymnbooks by the time I arrived, her touch for oral history remained. Numerous relatives, having wed and bred later than usual, died before I was born, but I met them all in bedtime stories: her father Bill, whose hair turned white when he abandoned ship in the North Sea and swam ashore; my other grandfather Silvestras, who lost a homeland to Stalin and countless shirt buttons to British beef; and my great grandmother herself, whose real name must have been Catherine but whom Mum always called Kitty. Lately, I’m remembering meals with my own grandmothers.

To understand my gran, you have to understand how she used food. Like many children born after the war, Mum spent her first holidays in the north, including by the sea. In my twenties, I heard about the aftermath of one such trip: on coming home, her mother sent her to a small boy who lived across the road, armed with a stick of rock and a smile. On unwrapping the gift, the boy found only a long and thin stone disguised with left over wrappers, and so began to cry. Loath as she was to acknowledge her older sister’s birth in a vardo, Gran was a storyteller too. Even in her nineties, fifty or sixty years later, serving the greedy boy over the street his just dessert was a favourite of hers. ‘That boy,’ Mum once replied with laser eyes, ‘was four years old.’

I’ve often wondered how Gran knew the boy was a glutton. At any rate, ‘very greedy‘ was the way he was always introduced. Not having lived with him, she could hardly have known how much he ate at mealtimes. Was it a sign of greed that he accepted a gift when she offered one, or that as a young child, he liked sweets? (In the fifties, before or shortly after rationing ended, an entire stick of rock must have been quite a prospect.) I can only think Gran had decided he looked greedy, being perhaps less of a rake than other council house kids on their street, and so needed to be punished. His sobbing done, she would insist ,the boy was given a real stick of rock. But did that make the trick more or less cruel? And if she thought he ate too much sugar in the first place, why give him more?

When Gran got married just after the war, she moved onto the road where Mum grew up, and where the two of us stayed roughly once a year. Even in her old age, Gran saw only so much of her daughter, and what interaction they had was strained. While it was a ten hour round trip, Mum’s stories make me think it was her choice to put three hundred miles between our childhoods. The Lakes, where she raised me, had been the site of other holidays, as well, she said, as her first encounter with God aged five, a happy interval in her upbringing by a man whose anger upturned furniture and a woman who heaped the blame on her. I often glimpsed a violent husband’s legacy in Gran, but nor did she seem to have been a bystander. ‘I will never understand that relationship,’ Mum told me once, voice far away.

For someone who detested greed, food was obligatory with Gran. On our visits, breakfast—tea, toast, fruit juice, butter and Oxford marmalade—was laid out every day, even though she knew very well that when Mum and I bothered with breakfast, we preferred to eat on our feet, cereal bowls in hand, and then be done with it. When Mum travelled to see her during my degree, Gran sweated over complex meals she’d been asked not to make, only to sulk when they went uneaten; when I avoided sandwich crusts aged six, she asked pointedly if I had weak teeth, and struggling with dessert meant scoldings about African children. Yet Gran was always quick to comment if she thought someone was overweight, and I can’t recall a time before Mum thought herself fat.

Gran’s recipes weren’t flash, but got results. I’ve never managed to match her pastry, but it was from her that I learnt how to work tomatoes into a quiche, and that baked spuds should be done in the oven, never microwaved. She cooked with skill, but never emotion: when she made food having been asked not to, you couldn’t say she did it for pleasure. Most goodies in her larder, it followed, came from the shops: cherry Bakewells, Blue Riband biscuits, soft scoop ice cream and assorted cakes. If you sat on her sofa long enough, these would be handed to you wordlessly between crosswords, summoned without proposal or request. I must have been five the first time I reached to take the plate and felt her iron grip on it. ‘I won’t let go,’ Gran announced to the room, ‘until he says thank you.’

Until my early teens, this too was a habit of hers, sporadic enough that I couldn’t preempt it. I never got why I was meant to say thank you before being passed the plate when every adult I’d observed did it just afterward, and it occurs to me in hindsight that since food had never been offered, just thrust at you, taking it at all was polite. Only when thirteen year old me quietly wrenched the china from her grasp did Gran desist, but in some ways the victory was hers. The entire exercise, I think, was about showing you were too rude to be trusted with a moment’s grace, just as the stick of rock had been to prove another boy greedy, and hours cooking unwanted meals were meant to prove her daughter ungrateful. Gran always needed someone to demean.

Because my other grandmother lived in a prefab too, her house was of the exact same design: on the ground floor, you could walk anticlockwise and pass through each room. As a result, my memories of eating with her play out like stage hands have redressed the set from the last scene. Her cooking was similar as well, dating from the heyday of roasts and rice pudding, but I think I preferred the things she made: salty boiled veg, cabbage better than you’d believe, dumplings and buttered potatoes cooked with mint leaves. Though she must have, I don’t recall her ever serving meat, except the only carnivorous meal I still miss, bacon and eggs with cheap English mustard, or, better still, brown sauce—something which, like the cook’s ash trays and unpronounced aitches, you never found at Gran’s.

I was fourteen, perhaps younger, the last time I saw Nan, who lived at the edge of the London sprawl. She’d have been in her mid seventies then. I don’t know whether we spoke on the phone later—only that in the summer of 06 her son, homeless after starting to hit the woman who’d replaced my mum, moved back into her house aged fifty-four. Not seeing him since has been no great despair, but often my thoughts wander to the woman I half knew, guessing whether she might still be around. Gran, ninety-three when I broke off contact, was a solid eight or nine years older, but salted veg, pork pies and fags must have evened the odds. When Nan’s husband died of a heart attack, their son apparently blamed her, and certainly he always made a point of her being fat, a fact that passed me by.

Nan’s maiden name was Ethel Robinson, more like a jazz singer’s than a housewife’s, and though Mum called her by her middle name, it’s stuck, symptom of some impulse to complete her like a half finished book. I don’t know if Nan drunk but guess she did, don’t know how she voted or which paper she read, though something tells me the Mirror; don’t know what she’d have made of having a bisexual grandson, but know she took a Soviet name in the Cold War, conceivably a sign she didn’t care what people thought. No one, however fond, saw Nan as a thinker, and she did seem at times as ignorant of children as of nutrition, but her heart managed to make up for it, and unlike Gran’s, her meals tasted of love. An ice cream cone or glass of pop sometimes meant welcome, sometimes sorry, but never obey.

In one of Mike Leigh’s plays, both of my grandmothers appear, one affected and snide, a bully and an unsuccessful snob, the other as transparently simple as she is kind. I sometimes wonder if like Angela, Nan was ever oblivious half on purpose—whether she really couldn’t see who her son was or overlooked it for the peace of mind. In any case, I’m convinced that deep down she was all right. It’s Mum’s stories of how well she and Gran got on that puzzle me—Gran, with whom nothing sweet was just dessert, who made food into a weapon and declared war at whim. Whatever she may not have known, Nan fed you because she understood children had to grow. Gran needed people she could belittle, and knew that small people were easiest.

They’re dead now, these people, to me if not altogether, and I don’t believe they’ll rise again in some far off place. If they survive, it’s in the convoy of stories that now stretches far back, past my mother and hers, then all those before and beyond, to unknown origins. There’s no reason I’m telling you of them except to keep it going, neither having nor wanting my own kids, and perhaps to serve justice of some kind on each of them: to honour Catherine, Ethel and my mum, whose histories deserve to be consumed; to tell on Bill, my dad and those like them, who fed on other people’s lives; and to bury my gran at long, long last, whose name no one will know and whose cruel trick proved all those years ago that now and then, what appears sweet belongs back in the ground.

My Grandmother Used Food As A Weapon

My atheism isn’t joyful or meaningful. Thank fuck for that

Something like once a year, I spend a night wanting nothing but to curl up and die. It’s not that I think of killing myself, though way back it did come to that – just that those nights, under what feels like the crushing weight of conscious thought, I long not to exist. Some hungry pit in my chest drains all colour from the world, refusing to swallow the rest of me, and being awake hurts. Social contact becomes like prodding a cracked rib, everyday tasks an uphill slog: I sit for what feels like an age trying to find the will to tie my shoes, fall apart making tea. These are, I’m acutely aware, insane things to find hard – because I am insane.

At twenty-four, the dark spells come and go quickly. When the worst hit, I fight the urge to smash myself to bits – to skin my knuckles on the wall, claw at my forearms, beat my head against the window pane till either cracks – but nowadays those fits of self-loathing happen years apart. (The last, in April, was my first since university.) Most days I’m fine, and it feels like yesterday the urge to self-destruct lasted months rather than hours. I was ten when I first wanted to die, fourteen when I decided how, fifteen on first attempting it. Nine years and counting without incident, it seems to me, is a good run.

For the short time I took them on the quiet, antidepressants only did so much, but atheism has helped me no end. You might expect me to report that as a churchgoer, being called a sinner in a hopeless world did my head in; actually, hope was the problem. As a believer in the risen Christ, it can be hard not to feel ashamed of existential gloom, as if the grace of salvation has bypassed you through some fault of your own. There must, I felt, be some turmoil in my soul if being saved didn’t make me feel any less wretched, some failure in my faith that warranted further self-punishment. As an atheist, I feel differently. Continue reading “My atheism isn’t joyful or meaningful. Thank fuck for that”

My atheism isn’t joyful or meaningful. Thank fuck for that

Support the Burning Bridges Blog Network

If you’ve hung around on this network long enough, you’ve probably bumped into certain regulars.

  • Sally Strange is a feminist, environmentalist and journalist in the original sense.
  • Alex and Ania write about (among other things) skepticism, ethnicity and disability.
  • Dori Mooneyham’s blog is about gender, pop culture and being a trans lesbian.
  • Dirty Nerdy has depression and writes about it, as well as being queer.
  • Angie Jackson is an antitheist raised in a cult who live-tweeted her abortion in 2010.

You may also know Sunflower Punk, who’s a homeless single parent ‘from NYC by way of Puerto Rico’, and Kassiane, who tackles ableism and neurodivergence.

These are seven formidable members of our community, who – by and large, like this community – combine a take-no-prisoners atheism with fierce, compassionate social advocacy, an approach we don’t see enough. Now they’re doing something exciting, and setting up their own site. Writes Sally:

This past winter was rough for me and many of my friends. I was fired from my last job essentially in retaliation for whistleblowing, though I was not in fact the whistleblower. I was commiserating with my friends, many of whom also experience poverty on a regular basis, thanks to being laid off, single parenthood, escaping abusive relationships, disabilities and chronic illness, mental health issues, and societal bigotries such as racism, trans-antagonism, and misogyny. We all write regularly and have many other talents and skills, and we were wishing that we could translate our regular output on social media and our private blogs into regular revenue which, if not sufficient to pay the rent, would at least help tide us over during the rough times. And so the idea of Burning Bridges was formed.

The name comes from the idea of lighting your way with the bridges you burn, rather than fearing the flames. And maybe next time using a better, less flammable design, if a bridge is really what [you] want. We want Burning Bridges, the blog and the publishing company, to further the trend of marginalized people gaining a voice through the horizontal structure of the Internet.

I want to see this project succeed. The Indiegogo campaign is at just under $500 (15 percent of the way to its goal) with three more days to go: while they’ve already raised the minimum needed to launch the site, there’s still a way to go. Thankfully, crowdfunders like this often get a late surge just before the deadline – so if you can, chip in or spread the word.

We need more secular writing with a social context. Let’s help make it happen.

Support the Burning Bridges Blog Network