Imagination Is The Best (Now, Go Read A Novel)

Imagination is defined as “the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses”. Or, as Ursula Le Guin put, “imagination acknowledges reality, starts from it, and returns to it to enrich it” (Making Up Stories, 2013). An idea, a hypothesis, a lyric, a harmony, a story, a poem, a thesis, a recipe, it’s as if imagination is vital to almost everything we do. Which is why, as I mentioned earlier, the new Cats movie and the current state of politics are symptomatic of a dearth of imagination. Yet, the New Stories of our times, while brilliantly critical of business-as-usual, can still end up sounding a bit old-fashioned, a little unimaginative if you will. So, I think most of us could do with stretching our imaginations a little (or a lot) and we can start with reading a novel.

Because novels come in all shapes and sizes, and many, many genres, and all these genres have a thing or two to teach us. Say, you’re one of those Silicone Valley tech-guru types offering a vision of an all-singing, all-dancing, wizz-bang future, then you’re flying in the space of science-fiction, looking to an imagined future to help inform the present. Or maybe you like harking back to the glory days of yore when England was England or even further back to a time before the Romans invaded and wiped out our pagan heritage, then you’re riding through the realm of fantasy, looking back through history and giving it your own spin. Or maybe you don’t truck with fiction and prefer to focus on the “facts”. Then let me refer you to realism, as equally fictitious as the other genres, but working just as hard to engage the imagination of the reader with concepts a little more familiar than space ships and trolls. Other popular genres for modern storytellers include dystopia – the world’s going to sh*t; uptopia – the world will be great again if we do it this way; whodunnit – who’s to blame for all this; and romance – how to fall back in love with yourself in ten easy steps. I’d say a book like Homo Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, shelved in non-fiction, manages to engage all these genres yet despite professing to have a written A Brief History of Humankind he barely mentions a single novel, no poetry either.

Ideas need the imagination because it’s the faculty that allows us to engage with them. As Ursula Le Guin put it, “Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling.” So if you want to get stylish in your telling you’re going to have to do better than a bullet point list and would do well by exercising that imagination of yours. And if you want an imaginative workout, you could start by reading a novel.

Fantasy, City, Angel, Giant, Mystical, Atmosphere

The Children’s Fire

We were standing in the stone circle of Embercombe around a small, ceremonial fire called the Children’s Fire. Based on a Native American ceremony the fire burns for all those who stand around it and is a pledge that no act henceforth shall be done in harm of the next seven generations of children. Just imagine. Imagine a culture that looks so far into the future with such wisdom and care. It was a Sunday morning and most of us had only arrived on Friday afternoon. In the short space in between we had shared meals together, harvested apples and blackberries, cooked for one another, told stories under the stars, sung songs, swam in the lake and done lots of washing up. During the ceremony we were each given a small stick to place on the fire as an offering. It was my turn. I was nervous and my heart was beating fast. I stepped towards the flames and I said, “This is for the queer kids. The ones who make it, the ones who haven’t, and the ones who are on their way.” I placed the stick on the fire and returned to my place in the circle.

It might not seem like much but being openly queer has regularly been a challenge for me, especially in places where people don’t often talk about LGBTQIA+ stuff. I never know what people will think of me and what prejudices and assumptions they might have. It’s a risk and it’s one I took at the Children’s Fire. I’m glad I did because so many queer kids haven’t made it and still so many won’t make it. We need help. And despite my nerves I was not met with hostility or resentment and the friendly people I had known those few days remained just as friendly.

I long for the day when I can arrive in a beautiful, rewilding valley and all of me is known and welcome. I long for a queerer Valley of Embers. But I know this doesn’t happen by magic (even though magic will, of course, be involved) and I know I have to do the work to help make it happen. It’s work that involves having a thick skin, as there are times when I meet ignorance and prejudice, and an open heart, able to be kind to people and meet them where they’re at. And I have met so many people at Embercombe over the years and they are all amazing. They are generous, kind, fun and adventurous, and all have their own struggles and stories. It’s not for me to judge and I try not to but I know there is still work to be done because if the Children’s Fire truly burns for all children then it burns for the queer kids, each and every one of us. I love Embercombe. A piece of my soul is buried there. I hope one day you’ll come and visit.

A Single Queer

It seems a long time ago when I wrote that post on being a single (gay) man. Back then I was busy trying to sail the seas of life when I got caught between a many-headed monster and a whirlpool. The former, the plethora of mental health problems facing gay men, and the latter, the sheer indifference towards those issues from mainstream, heteronormative society. Since then, let’s just say that the monster grabbed me in its many teeth, shook me about then flung me into the whirlpool. It was a bumpy ride and I had to hold my breath for a long time but, now, as I resurface, clinging to a bit of flotsam, I might not be able to see the sea for the waves but I am a stronger swimmer.

I think something that took me by surprise was the sheer magnitude of the problems facing the gay male community including high depression rates, high suicide rates, high levels of addiction, HIV stigma, hate crimes, prejudice, a lack of institutional support, toxic masculinity, homophobia, internalised homophobia, zilch to minimal education on sexual health, to name a few. Within this overwhelming array of problems I found my own experiences of depression, loneliness, anger, isolation and yearning. Never before had I been able to chart the co-ordinates of my unbelonging with such accuracy. It was a reckoning I never saw coming and it hurt.

Recovery was slow and involved rest, therapy, calling on family and friends for support and, better than ever before, being able to actually explain what was going on for me – having just learnt the hard way. I could finally name and explain my unbelonging. I could share its origins in my past and its continuation in my present. This allowed me to gain emotional and conceptual distance, which meant I could build a different relationship with my unbelonging rather than just get swept up in it. I spoke up for myself in a way I never had, claiming my space as a queer and gay person and man in the face of heteronormativity’s best efforts at exclusion. I could speak a word for queer suffering in the face of heterosexual privilege. I could own my pain without it owning me.

It’s been a long, old journey for me and it ain’t ending yet. I never asked to unbelong in this world quite like I do and no one ever prepared me to learn to live with the consequences. But now I know I can belong to me in ways I never have. And here I am, floating on a piece of flotsam that’s swift becoming a raft, trying my best to be me, a single queer. But not single as in unpartnered, single because there’s only one of me. And, yes, it’s regularly tough, and often people don’t learn the lessons I wish they would, but I’m tough too and learning so much more than I ever knew.

sea ocean sky wave atmosphere underwater blue hd blue water sea water crystal clear watermark under the sea big picture wind wave

The New Story Of Our Times (I’ve Got It!)

What’s that coming over the hill? Is it a monster? No, silly, it’s The New Story. From the mossy groves of land-based communities, the chthonic myths of oral storytellers, and the fiery determination of eco-activists, it is a story being pieced together sentence by sentence. Add to it the translated wisdom of many an indigenous community, throw in James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, and thank God that Earth (with a capital ‘e’) is a woman, and the sentences become paragraphs. Take the darkness and light of our souls, some lentils and the pleas for a less-populated world (with multiple options on how we de-populate our world), and the chapters gather until The New Story is at our fingertips. A story in which humanity lives sustainably and peacefully on Planet Earth.

Wow, this sounds like a great story and it’s one I’ve been keen to be a part of. I’ve done personal development courses in sustainable(ish) communities, I’ve fasted in a Welsh valley, I’ve signed online petitions to save the planet, and I’ve written many a poem about our deep connection to nature. For a long time I believed in this story, I saw Ecotopia on the horizon and I ran towards it (barefoot, naturally). I wanted to be part of the story, admiring of its prophets, and desiring of a world of so much more than this. Until a young gay man I briefly knew who also loved these stories took his own life. Until I realised that within the discussions of the Divine Feminine and the Divine Masculine there was no space for other genders – transgender, non-binary, genderqueer, questioning and beyond. Until I found the relentless sexism despite these discussions of “divine” masculinity and femininity. Until it became achingly clear how white these spaces were. Until I realised that it’s one thing to talk about (and laud) diversity of animal and plant species and quite something else to talk about diversities of gender, race, ability, class and sexuality. Yes, I was naive but I did my best to question the systems I was part of (just as the purveyors of the New Story told me to question the systems of the Old Story). It started to seem that the so-called New Story actually contained a lot of the Old Story – y’know, that one of patriarchy, power, oppression and abuse.

So I’ve come to be sceptical of anyone peddling The New Story because just as monocultures deplete earth of nutrients so monostories deplete people of their diversities. I don’t think a single story can save us (and maybe I’m being unfair to suggest that anyone is actually suggesting this) but I do think the more we gather as people with our many, many stories to hand, the more likely we’ll be able to face the monsters that really are coming over the hill. Of course I want a more sustainable and loving world and, of course, stories will inspire this change but we also need more than narratives with convenient beginnings, middles and ends, because life is so much more than a story.

Book, Open, Pages, Library, Books, Knowledge, Reading

Not Canaries In The Coal Mine But Cats

Trump is still President. Johnson is Prime Minister. The UK’s in another “record-breaking” heat wave. Mussels are being cooked in their shells on the beaches of northern California (and not by chefs). Brexit is Brexit (apparently). And now the trailer for the Cats film has been released and it’s awful. I’m no Cats fan and the musical didn’t do much for my youth but I respect my friends for whom it revolutionised their lives. They deserve better than human faces badly copied and pasted onto the bodies of real people (I mean, why not just cast good singer-dancers to play the roles, y’know, like in the musical?) set in some oddly dystopic and weirdly proportioned doll house. But the odd thing is that the rise of the demagogues and the rise of global temperatures are inextricably linked to this awful film. It would seem the canaries in the coal mine have been eaten by the cats.

For decades now Hollywood has been churning out countless remakes, reboots and cookie-cutter blockbusters for the sake of making a quick buck. The MCU Universe is now almost as big as the actual universe, the Bond franchise staggers predictably onwards and Ridley Scott foolishly decided to spray the Alien series with acid blood. It was only a matter of time before the corporate-consumer capitalism machine chewed up those alley cats and spat them back out via some grim production line. Screw originality when you can make money. Meanwhile, mainstream politics and economics offer more of the same and worse. Patriarchy’s abhorrent behaviour is lauded and venerated as proud racists and sexists take over positions of extreme power as that age-old and highly unoriginal story of greed and oppression continues to play itself out towards its dystopic conclusions. The mainstream is categorically failing to offer us anything original. Instead we get Cats.

Another Badly Drawn Gay: Love, Simon

I hate to be that blogger who comes for the friendly, gay-guy-next-door protagonist of cutesy Hollywood coming out film Love, Simon…but, fuck it, I’m gonna be that blogger. Not because the actor Nick Robinson doesn’t act his socks off as the lead role, Simon Spier, but because so much of the story and his characterisation is problematic. To catch you up on the plot, in case you missed it, Simon is gay but hasn’t told anyone, he starts up an anonymous online conversation with another gay guy called “Blue” and spends most of the film wondering who this other guy could be. En route to the reveal he dates his female best friend and really upsets her, behaves pretty questionably towards his other friends, chats with his parents a bit and, come the finale, discovers who Blue really is (then makes out with him on a Ferris wheel, cute right). In essence, it’s your classic coming out coming of age story as Simon is very worried about telling the world who he really is. He imagines it in all sorts of way, like in this fantasy, dance sequence…

What a lovely scene, right? Well, no. Because listen again to that penultimate line: “yeah, maybe not that gay.” Not that gay. What on earth is that supposed to mean? That there is spectrum of gayness and if you wear a grey t-shirt, dance quite badly and quietly have sex with your boyfriend off-screen then that’s fine. Whereas if you wear tight-fitting pink jeans, fly a rainbow flag and flounce with a limp wrist then that’s too much. Nope. There isn’t actually a spectrum of gayness but there is homophobia, lots of it, and it regularly gets internalised by gay men who grow up shamed, bullied and depressed. Simon will have experienced this homophobia and a drastic lack of support in claiming his identity and even if he never encounters verbalised or physicalised homophobia simply living in a heteronormative society will have crushed a part of his soul (I speak from experience). Hence, Simon worries about being that gay, when really I dream for him to be as flipping gay as he wants, but that’s too much for a mainstream Hollywood movie. This point is compounded when secondary character, Ethan, who is visibly queer, out, has dark skin, wears flamboyant clothing and is camp as Christmas gets bullied at school. Simon looks over and, rather than run to Ethan’s defence, instead turns to his friend and says: “I wish he wouldn’t make it so easy for them.” Oh, Simon, you have a lifetime of self-loathing to unravel and it ain’t going to get solved by kissing some guy at a funfair. In this instance, internalised homophobia is being turned on another gay man even though their shared sexuality could be a reason to bond and support one another. For more on Ethan and why he is the REAL hero of the film read this epic article by Naveen Kumar.

It concerns me that Love, Simon did so well as a movie. It won all sorts of prizes and accolades (and even got described as “groundbreaking”) even though its presentation of male homosexuality is so problematic. Which makes me wonder if the film is really for gay, white, cis men or actually just for straight people with less awareness and lower expectations. I mean, it got called the “queer Cinderella story of our time” but given my definition of queerness involves intersectionality and challenging heteronormativity, then Love, Simon is just kinda straight. And it’s a coming out story. Just that. We’ve had a gazillion coming out stories and they’re getting quite dull – I want to know how to live beyond coming out, when the people you’ve come out to have forgotten, or you have to come out again to new people, or how to make a long-term relationship work, or how to deal with having your identity regularly invalidated and/or threatened, and that moment when you realise heteronormativity and systemic homophobia is grinding your soul and community into dust (I speak from experience). I basically want to know what happens to Simon when all that internalised homophobia finally catches up with him (I bloody hope his straight friends are around to support him through that) and how he finds a happily ever after beyond.

If Your Climate Movement Ain’t Queer, I Ain’t Coming

As I am increasingly becoming aware sexuality and gender are often treated as adjuncts to the rest of life. They are acknowledged (sometimes) but often left to happen in their own private spheres away from other issues and concerns. This means LGBTQ+ folks have to deal with their stuff on their own, if they’re fortunate to be able to deal with it at all. Having done this (or constantly being in the process of doing this) they can then join the latest climate movement campaigning to save the planet. They’ll bring their glitter and their brilliance, their fierceness and their compassion, and their years of resilience in the face of hostility and indifference, and make that climate movement even more fantastic. Sadly, what is much more rare is that the climate movement is already inherently queer and welcoming of queerness. More often than not straight and cis folks just don’t know how to invite queer people into a space beyond the “it would be so lovely to have some gay people here” diversity box ticking sort of approach. Or they spend a lot of time talking about biodiversity but don’t really know how to talk about or represent diversity. And I want to see this change because climate change is queer.

Climate change is queer because many of the marginalised groups who are facing and will face the brunt of climate change are queer. Take the disproportionate number of homeless people who are LGBTQ+, in the US this counts for 40% of homeless youth even though they represent only 7% of the overall population. So many LGBTQ+ people are thrown out of their homes and forced into poverty and extremes of climate will only make their experiences worse. Climate change is queer because if we’re talking about extinction it’s important to remember that LBGTQ+ people have faced extinction before: the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, the AIDS plague of the 1980s, and in every law around the world that marginalises, criminalises and/or sentences them to death. Climate change is queer because some of the movements that fought back against these extinctions, including ACT UP, tried brilliantly (but not always successfully) to build beautiful, resilient, rebellious and loving communities who could face the injustices of the world and live well together. Climate change is queer because queers know how to organise!

Climate change is queer because queer is intersectional and climate change affects the world intersectionally. For example, “race is the biggest indicator in the US of whether you live near toxic waste.” Furthermore, it might be valiant to be arrested in protest against government inertia in the face of climate change but privilege, especially of race and class, will affect how one might experience a prison system. That’s not to say don’t get arrested for your cause but it is to say there is a pressing need to discuss privilege and intersectionality (sorry Extinction Rebellion but prison ain’t a yoga retreat). Climate change is queer because queer recognises history. The ecocidal oil & gas companies of today have their bloody roots in the rampant globalisation of neoliberal capitalism, itself made possible by the mass production birthed in the factories of the industrial revolution, itself a product of the genocidal slave trade and mass colonisation of the world by European countries, especially the UK, themselves inspired by the countries that attacked and enslaved them many centuries before. Climate change is queer because these problems have further roots in patriarchy. How a system of toxic masculinity and violent bifurcation has bred such a destructive array of gender norms: ones that see the trans community routinely attacked and ridiculed, ones that see the glorification and protection of rape culture, ones that see so many people live in fear of their own lives simply for who they fall in love with. Climate change is queer because I think the ways we’re destroying the earth are reflected in the many ways in which we’re destroying ourselves and this goes right to the heart of our very identities. We’ll need to do some serious soul searching beyond the binaries, norms and conditionings, to find the souls so many of us have lost.

Climate change is queer because I shouldn’t have to write a flipping blog post ‘justifying’ why climate change is queer just to get you to think about something that is already well documented: that queers exist and matter. In essence, climate change is queer but I’m not sure how many people acknowledge this (or even care). Don’t get me wrong, I do want to join your climate movement and I think much of it is fab. Like you, I care passionately about this planet but I want you to care passionately about queerness and intersectionality otherwise I won’t feel welcome. And if the movement isn’t welcoming of me and my queerness then what’s the fucking point?

This is me in a rainbow by a waterfall, pretty queer, huh!