Monday, 17 December 2012

Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty

Here is a review I did for Matthew Bourne's new Sleeping Beauty at Sadlers Wells, which I did for

With his new ballet, Matthew Bourne completes his trilogy of great Tchaikovsky ballets, which started with The Nutcracker back in 1992. This was quickly followed by his internationally acclaimed male version of Swan Lake, in 1995, but it has taken him another 17 years to tackle Tchaikovsky’s greatest ballet, Sleeping Beauty.  According to the programme notes, Bourne had struggled to come up with the perfect idea, a way of re-imagining a work associated with the pinnacle of classical ballet form and grandeur. When in Moscow with his company last spring, he was offered the chance of a private tour of Tchaikovsky’s country retreat. Bourne had been searching for inspiration for his next project and it was when standing in the composer’s bedroom, with its tiny iron bed and simple wooden table that the idea of doing Sleeping Beauty came to him.

It has certainly been worth the wait. Bourne responds to Tchaikovsky’s inspired music with his best work since Swan Lake. After the disappointment (for me anyway) of Edward Scissorhands, I had worried that he had run out of steam, but, with this re-telling of the classic fairy tale he is back on form. He is helped immeasurably of course by Tchaikovsky’s gloriously symphonic score, though I was a little disappointed at first to find that the music had been pre-recorded. Nothing can ever quite replace the frisson of a live orchestra, but I was soon so caught up in the action on stage, that I ceased to notice the absence of musicians in a pit.

I don’t want to give away too much of Bourne’s re-working of the plot, but suffice it to say he retains Carabosse, the curse and the Lilac Fairy’s moderation of death to one hundred years, only the Lilac Fairy is now Count Lilac (an enigmatic Christopher Marney), who is attended by what can only be called a group of benevolent vampires, the reasons for which become clear later in the plot. Aurora’s coming of age party takes place in 1911, so that after her 100 year sleep, we are brought right back to date. He also introduces us to Carabosse’s son, Caradoc, played by the same dancer as Carabosse herself. Deliciously malevolent as Carabosse, Ben Bunce transforms himself into a darkly evil Caraboc in one of the key portrayals of the evening. The lovers, in this version, have to work hard to find happiness, and they are superbly danced by Hannah Vassallo and Dominic North. It is in the pas de deux for these two (more than one in this version) that Bourne’s choreography finds it’s truest lyricism, a wonderful realisation of the beauty and lyricism in the score, their final duet was truly moving, an apotheosis similar to that for the lovers in Cinderella. Elsewhere Bourne’s choreography is as inventive as it was in Swan Lake, integrating waltz and more modern dance forms into the Edwardian sequences in 1911 and finding a different style and language for the final scene set in 2011. The benevolent vampires have a language all their own, which stays with them throughout the ballet.

Lez Brotherston has created wonderfully evocative sets and costumes, which span a period of 121 years. Gothic Victorian for Act I, an Edwardian palace garden for Act II, a nightmarish dream sequence for Act III and a modern club setting, all reds and blacks for Act IV. In the end though, it is Bourne’s gift for telling a story that grips the imagination, and here there are none of those annoying winking asides to the audience, that we get in The Nutcracker and (to a lesser extent) Swan Lake.  I was swept up in the drama from start to finish. Miss it at your peril. 

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Barebacking - you mean you want to use a condom?

Did I miss something? Has there been some enormous breakthrough while I wasn’t looking? Are HIV and Hep C now as easy to deal with as gonorrhoea or chlamydia? I ask because it seems everyone is barebacking these days. Honestly, it’s the new black. How do I know this? Well these days I find I have to brace myself for the inevitable look of disappointment when I bring out a condom, or even mention safe sex. Do they all know something I don’t?

Though nowadays most of my work revolves around risk free tantric massage, I do still escort occasionally. Whereas not so many years ago, clients looked for reassurance that everything would be safe; these days the reverse is more likely to be true. Let me give you an example. Recently I received a text from a potential client, asking about availability and prices. I gave him the required information and then he asked if I would agree to bareback. I politely responded that I don’t have bareback sex with clients under any circumstances. I got a sad face emoticon in return and assumed that was the end of it. A few minutes later the phone rang. I recognised the number but the person on the line proceeded as if we had had no previous communication. The conversation went something like this.

“Could you give me your prices, please?”
“You messaged me a couple of minutes ago, didn’t you?”
“Yes I did. When can you be free?”
Thinking that he must have reconsidered, I told him that I could see him later that afternoon.
“Just one thing though. Can we go bareback?” he asked.
“I believe I already told you that I don’t do bareback….I’m negative,” I offered by way of explanation.
“Oh, ok,” he sounded disappointed as he put down the phone.
A couple of days later this same guy called again. I recognised the voice and the number straight away. He asked again about availability and then came the inevitable, “But I want to go bareback.”
“I’ve already told you, I don’t do bareback.”
“Are you sure?” he said in the cajoling voice one might use on a child.
“Absolutely,” I said, abruptly ending the call. He hasn’t rung again, so maybe he finally got the message.

Quite often, when I tell someone I’m negative, I’ll get the response, “That’s ok then, because I am too.” So I ask when they last got tested, and how many times they’ve had bareback sex in the last 3 months. “A few,” they will say. “Then you can’t possibly know that you’re still negative,” is my response. Worst of all are those that offer more money for bareback sex. What price exactly do they put on possibly infecting me with an incurable disease, which, though it is now manageable, will be with me for the rest of my life? £50? A hundred?

Now I know that we have made great strides since the days of those early tombstone ads. I know that HIV is no longer a death sentence. I know neg/pos couples who don’t use condoms. They are even now conducting clinical trials on this very subject. I know that if you are positive, on meds, and have an undetectable viral load, then the chances of you passing on the virus are virtually nil. So, yes, I do have unprotected sex sometimes, but only with someone I know well, who, like me has regular checks and is honest about their sexual history. Admittedly there is some risk involved, but it is calculated. I am not about to play Russian roulette with a total stranger. 

However it would appear that some people are of the opinion that HIV is not really a problem anymore. After all, if they do get it, they just have to take a pill, and they’ll be fine. Would that it were that simple. As for Hep C, I doubt they even consider it.

So when did this change happen? Is my attitude so unusual? Out of my generation, I’m one of the lucky ones. I am a survivor. I lived through the dark days, when friends around me were dropping like flies. Only 10 years ago, a very good friend of mine died of AIDS, though, to be blunt, he really did die of ignorance, as the tombstone ads put it. Too frightened of a positive diagnosis to get tested, when he did find out, he had already contracted severe pneumonia, and had no immune system left to fight the disease. He was a talented and beautiful man, only in his 30s and the fact that his death was preventable made it very hard to bear.  But I understood his fear. He too came from a generation that equated HIV with death. When he died, I had never been tested either, though I had regular check-ups for everything else. His death certainly shook me up. I now always include HIV in my regular sexual health checks, even though I am fairly sure that I’m still negative. As with most diseases, early diagnosis will give you the best chances. That said, there is still no cure. You will be on medication for the rest of your life. Like diabetes, it may now be manageable, but it is definitely not like a simple case of gonorrhoea.

The term “barebacking” only came into provenance in the post AIDS generation. Before that we didn’t have a word for it, because, although we weren’t using condoms, we weren’t having bareback sex; we were just having sex. In those halcyon days sex for gay men was remarkably risk free. Why would we use condoms? It’s not as if we could get each other pregnant, and any other little nasty we might pick up could be instantly cleared up by a visit to the local clap clinic.  Heady days indeed. It took a long time and a lot of campaigning to convince gay men to change their behaviour. I remember the fear, the scary government “Don’t Die Of Ignorance” ad campaign, the stories of young men dying alone in isolation wards, attended only by the occasional nurse in the kind of protective clothing you’d normally see on people entering a nuclear plant. Not surprisingly, for a long time, I didn’t have sex at all.

What we know about HIV transmission and treatment has come on a long way since then of course, and the fact that people with HIV can now live normal, healthy lives has obviously had a lot to do with changing attitudes; that, and the fact that many young people have never experienced the horrors of those early years.
Let’s face it though; the very word “barebacking” carries with it a sense of risk. Quite aside from the fact that sex without condoms feels much nicer (whatever anyone tries to tell you), is that inherent risk part of its attraction? And that risk is surely the raison d’etre behind the re-emergence of bareback movies in the late 1990s, as personified in films made by Treasure Island Media and Hot Desert Knights. I remember the first time I happened on one of these. I was appalled, and excited all at the same time. I even felt guilty to be watching others take risks I wasn’t prepared to take myself. In those days, all new porn very obviously used condoms. It was almost educational. I remember particularly a scene in one of Chi Chi La Rue’s “Link” movies, which featured a line of guys on hands and knees, each with a condom on his back. A single top guy went down the line, fucking each one in turn. We clearly saw him roll on a condom before fucking the first guy in the row. He would then pull out, remove the condom, then pick up the one on the next guy’s back and roll it on before fucking him. See what I mean? Horny and educational at the same time. Nowadays you’d be much more likely to see a scene with a line of tops fucking a single bottom, not a condom in sight, while the camera hones in on the semen dripping from his arse. Whereas in the old, pre AIDS movies, the guys always pulled out for the cum shot the new ones glory in the fact that guys are ejaculating inside their partner, often re-inserting their cocks to make sure we truly get the message. The danger is all part of the excitement. Now, just over 10 years later, bareback movies and studios are proliferating, and even some of the majors, who for long resisted the demand for bareback, are starting to cave in. It may have been easy for me to turn down an offer from Treasure Island a few years ago, but, with most porn companies now battling for survival against the deluge of free stuff on the net, I doubt any emerging porn stars will have that luxury in the future.

Those companies defending their decision to do bareback movies will no doubt tell you that they are only responding to demand, that what they are offering is fantasy, and that people should always make informed choices with regard to their sex lives. They have a point of course. Ultimately we are all responsible for our own health, but I know that all those years ago, when health officials were striving to get the safe sex message across, the sudden appearance of condoms in gay porn helped to change behaviour. Is it too much of a stretch to assume that the reverse could be true? Admittedly it may not be the only reason more and more people are eschewing condoms, but it could quite easily be a contributing factor.

Something else I have noticed in recent years is the way that the bareback community almost sneers at those of us who still have safe sex. Recently I came across a facebook page called simply “Bareback”. It has 13,500 likes. Let me quote from their description.

One of the first things you face when you become HIV + is the stigma and discrimination, not only from society in general but especially from the gay community itself. 
Many do not understand that the bareback community is a community where you can be free, be yourself and not be judged by the status you have. This is the reason why I created this site, here you can feel safe and not judged, and hopefully meet other people to have fun.

From time to time we get hate messages from people saying that we promote aids and diseases ... F. them! They don't get it.
An adult is responsible of his actions, you can't blame the rest.

This page can only be accessed by people 18 and over. We do not promote "bugchasers," if you are negative you should do your best to stay that way. If you are positive you are not alone, there are many like you around, all colors, all sizes, and we won't judge you.
It's important to seek professional help and stay in control

I totally understand that first paragraph. I have friends who have had to go through the pain of rejection after disclosing their status, even when having safer sex. There are still too many people out there who are completely ignorant of the disease and its method of transmission. No doubt some of these people are having unsafe sex with partners who don’t divulge their status, and yet the minute someone is honest with them, they run a mile rather than just taking the requisite precautions.

But there is also another underlying message here and on the posts on their page. They seem to be saying, “safe sex is boring so it’s great that we don’t have to bother with it anymore”. (They’re wrong of course. I know of quite a few HIV positive guys who decided to give up safe sex, and then went on to contract Hep C, which has a habit of piggybacking on HIV. The treatment for Hep C, is far worse than that for HIV, and there is no guarantee it will work. So maybe barebacking isn’t quite as risk free for HIV positive guys as they’d like to believe.) It also suggests that it is quite ok for them to turn down a prospective sexual partner on discovering that he is negative, so a kind of reverse discrimination is taking place.

From this facebook page, I followed a link to a blog called “Iblastinside”. There are lots of links to this blog from the page. The first link I clicked on took me to a post in which the writer described a casual sex encounter with a young man, who would only agree to safe sex. The utter disdain with which he treats this young man is quite shocking. He goes ahead with the sex, whilst all the time complaining about how boring it is, how little he enjoyed it, so boring that he ejaculates quite quickly  inside the guy (even though wearing a condom). After he pulls out, he glories in telling us how he pulls off the condom and then proceeds to deep finger fuck the guy using his semen from the condom as lube. The young man is in ecstasy unaware of any risk to himself, and the writer is loving every minute. He couldn’t care less about his partner. And, though he rightly says elsewhere in his blog, that it is up to all of us to take care of ourselves, that if we take risks then we must suffer the consequences, what also comes across is a total lack of interest in any of his partners, a total disregard for them as human beings. They are all just holes waiting for him to dump inside. Beyond that they have no use for him.

I assume, hope, that this blog is just fantasy, wank fodder if you like, but I confess to finding it deeply disturbing, which neatly takes me back to my original point. All those people offering extra money for bareback sex, or pestering in the hope that I will finally give in are really no better than Iblastinside. They too have a complete disregard for their partners. Yes, we should all take care of ourselves. Yes, we are all responsible for ourselves. If we take risks then we should face the outcome of our risky behaviour and not go round blaming others. On the other hand, it would be nice for me not to have to face that look of disappointment the next time I pull out a condom!

Friday, 26 October 2012

To Hell with Halloween

Everyone, it seems, loves a good party. It’s October and all the shops are full of party ideas and of course gifts, for Halloween. Maybe I’m just a killjoy, but I don’t really get very excited about it. As a child I was only peripherally aware of Halloween. Bonfire Night was the big party I used to get excited about. If I ever recognised the day at all, it would be spending it with my childhood friends, furtively reading ghost stories by torchlight, whilst listening to Mussorgsky’s “Night on the Bare Mountain”, in the hope that my mother wouldn’t come in and break up the party. All quite innocent and we’d all be safely tucked up in bed before the witching hour struck. 

In recent years, though, I’ve become increasingly aware of the proliferation of tacky ghoulish merchandise in the shops at this time of year, and I was astonished to read a few days ago that Halloween is now the second most popular family occasion in the UK behind Christmas, with parents likely to spend more than £100 on parties for their children this year. Apparently the money we spend on Halloween has soared by a massive 2,300% over the last 10 years to be worth £280 million. What on earth has precipitated this change? When did Halloween take over from Bonfire Night, a peculiarly British tradition, which celebrated the day Guy Fawkes failed in his attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament way back in 1605? When I was young, I loved Bonfire Night. Whilst our fathers went about building a bonfire out of old furniture and dead wood, our mothers would be preparing food for the feast – jacket potatoes, sausages and all manner of warming treats. The men were also responsible for the fireworks display and we, the children created the effigy of Guy Fawkes who would be ceremonially burned on the bonfire. After Christmas, Bonfire Night was the most eagerly anticipated festival of the year, for all that we didn’t get any extra school holiday. It was a big, low cost, community event.

So what happened? When did Halloween take over from Bonfire Night?
I suppose one theory would be that tripping around in a naff witch’s costume is infinitely less dangerous than burning bonfires and setting off fireworks (the Fire Service are no doubt relieved) but I have a sneaking suspicion that it has more to do with money, or rather commercialism, and where there is commercialism, you don’t have to look far to see the influence of the USA.
Halloween is absolutely huge over there, and the bigger the festival becomes, the easier it is to get people to spend vast amounts of money on things they don’t need and will no doubt throw away the following week.

Hang on, isn’t that what happens at Christmas? Indeed it is, and guess what? The modern day Santa Claus is generally believed to be the invention of Washington Irving, a nineteenth century New Yorker, who wished to create a benign figure that might help calm down riotous Christmas celebrations and refocus them on the family. Loosely based on a Dutch gift giving Sinterklaas, Santa Claus was actually a secular figure, and it is the work of various advertisers that has created the image we recognise as Santa Claus today. The English Father Christmas was not a gift giver, but rather a personification of Christmas and a Yule-tide visitor. It is only from the 1870s that he became increasingly associated with the American Santa Claus, and it is the American Santa Claus who now dominates Christmas in all those countries that celebrate it. Now I wouldn’t want to suggest that dear old Washington Irving cynically adopted the idea of a gift giving Santa Claus, in order to bolster the coffers of Macy’s, but I have no doubt Macy’s seized on Santa like manna from heaven, the actual child of heaven (Jesus) being somewhat less interesting.

In case you wondered, I hate Christmas too. What we get in the run up to Christmas is the absolute opposite of the spirit of good will, the kind of good will that permeated London, during the Olympics this year, for instance. What we do get is millions of people trailing round shops, pushing through the crowds, desperately trying to think of presents for relations they won’t see for another year. The adverts start early, exhorting us to spend! spend! spend!, as we worship the god of commercialism; and if, like me, you decide you’d rather just ignore the whole thing and go away to somewhere they don’t celebrate it, you’ll find the price of a plane ticket out of the country has quadrupled! 

Where will it end? Other minor festivals are now much bigger than they ever were. Valentine’s Day might once have been considered a bit of fun, but now it is big business. Why? Well it’s big business in the US, so why not here too? How about Easter? As children, we of course loved Easter. What child wouldn’t? All those delicious chocolate eggs, but now it seems children expect Easter gifts too. Mother’s Day was a day on which we children got our mother some flowers and maybe wrote her a card. Nowadays, woe betide the husband who doesn’t buy his wife a big present or take her out for dinner. Where America went before, it seems we follow, and I, for one, am tiring of it, as attempts to part us from our hard earned cash become ever more aggressive. I don’t want anyone to get the idea I’m some miserly old grump, who never enjoys a party and never buys anyone a gift. I enjoy a good time as much as anyone and I love giving presents. I just don’t want some American corporation telling me when I should be doing it.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Does anyone actually listen to bigots anymore?

Oh dear oh dear. It seems Lord Ken Macginnis (above) has been getting his Stonewalls and his TheGayUKs mixed up. As far as he is concerned, gay news groups, lobbying groups, pressure groups and charities are all the same  - ‘an aggressive, perverse and corrupting influence on susceptible and vulnerable young people.’ 

 Having been nominated by Stonewall for their prestigious Bigot of the Year award, he got very hot under the collar when approached by TheGayUK for a reaction to his nomination and thus re-affirmed his credentials. If you, or indeed Lord Macginnis, are not sure what a bigot is, let me enlighten you. According to Merriam-Webster a bigot is a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance. Guilty as charged, I say, but bigots, and particularly religious bigots, seem to get very upset when you point it out to them. 

We’ve been here before of course. Why only a couple of weeks ago Nick Clegg apologised to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of Westminster over claims he was prepared to call the opponents of equal marriage “bigots” in a speech at an LGBT reception. Allegedly he never actually used that word, but even if he did wouldn’t he be just saying it like it is? Bigot is exactly the right word in this context. I just wish he’d had the courage of his convictions, but he doesn’t seem to have been very good at that recently, does he? 

It is certainly looking as if the church and its various representatives are losing the battle over gay marriage, and, as they do so, their attacks on the gay community have become ever more virulent and ever more ridiculous. Only recently, the Christian Institute came up with the not  very Christian statement that, as we only represented a very small percentage of the population,  we didn’t deserve the same human rights. The great thing is that the more outlandish their arguments become, the less likely it is that anybody, except their small band of blinkered followers, will take them seriously. Really, I am beginning to hope that it won’t be long before the church is so completely marginalised, that we will at last live in a secular country and the church will be completely separate from the state. What business has this outmoded institution meddling in the private lives of people who don’t believe in their teachings?

So, why be outraged or offended by what Lord Macginnis has to say? He is a dinosaur, one of the last of a dying breed. He’s already been expelled from his own political party. It’s not surprising that the more marginalised he and his cronies become, the louder they will scream, but is anybody really listening anymore?

Monday, 16 July 2012

The Devil is alive and His name is God

It’s the Vatican that’s to blame. Nobody who lives in the UK can fail to have noticed that we are in the middle of the coldest and wettest summer since records began. Half way through July and we have already had three times more than the national average for the month. Indeed, since I came back from Cape Town at the end of May, I think it has rained every single day. If it hasn’t, it certainly feels that way. According to Sir David Attenborough, who knows a thing or two about such matters, it is caused by arctic ice caps melting into the jet stream, the culprit being climate change. Sir David has no doubt that we, the human race, are responsible for it, and he is of the opinion that the main cause is the huge rise in world population, which has more than doubled, from 2.5 billion in 1950 to nearly seven billion now. He believes the profound effects of this rapid growth on humans and the environment are unsustainable and that the matter needs to be addressed urgently before nature takes its own action.

 "We cannot continue to deny the problem. People have pushed aside the question of population sustainability and not considered it because it is too awkward, embarrassing and difficult. But we have to talk about it. The only ray of hope I can see – and it's not much – is that wherever women are put in control of their lives, both politically and socially; where medical facilities allow them to deal with birth control and where their husbands allow them to make those decisions, birth rate falls. Women don't want to have 12 kids of whom nine will die."

Sir David doesn’t spell it out, but most of the women who are having 12 kids are in third world countries, and are being told by their Catholic priest that the only form of birth control they are allowed to use is abstinence (try telling that to their husbands when they come home drunk on a Saturday night). So it is not too much of a stretch to come to the conclusion that actually it’s the Vatican who is to blame for this dramatic increase in population, and considering the Pope is His representative on earth, then it must be God himself, who is to blame for this Goddam awful weather! 

Then, taking this analogy a little further, I began to wonder why God would be going to such pains to destroy this world he took such pains to create. Now everyone knows the Devil is the master of disguise. He has variously been called Satan, Lucifer, Nick Shadow, Old Nick, Mephistopheles and no doubt many other names, whereas God is usually just called God or the Almighty. In the constant battle between Heaven and Hell, what if God had lost? What if God had been captured and locked up by Old Nick, who was now masquerading as God, and the Pope has been taking orders all this time from the wrong guy? Think about it. The Vatican decides to protect paedophile priests, whilst demonising the poor victims of their evil deeds. Pure Satan. The Pope excommunicates a doctor and a mother, who aborted the baby of an eleven year old girl, who had been repeatedly raped and abused by her father. Yep. Gotta be the work of Satan. Women are forced into servitude by men all over the world, not able to take control of their own bodies, forced to have child after child, often at a cost to both their health and that of their children. Surely that’s Satan again. And why does the Vatican hate us gays so much? Presumably because, largely, we don’t have children, and could be Nature’s way of restoring the balance. Now surely God would be happy with anything that helped save the planet, whereas Satan is probably rubbing his hands in glee.

No I’m convinced of it. The devil is alive and well and doing his utmost to destroy the world, whilst God is locked up in chains somewhere powerless to do anything about it.

Friday, 13 July 2012

A Big Fat Greek Wedding - and some thoughts on gay marriage.

A couple of weekends ago I attended the wedding of my cousin’s daughter in Thessaloniki. The Greeks certainly know how to celebrate and this was, in every sense, a joyous and joyful occasion. Having left behind a grey, cold London at some unearthly hour on the Friday morning, the mood changed the minute our plane touched down on the sun drenched tarmac of Thessaloniki Airport. I had travelled with my brother and his wife, who were staying at the Makedonia Palace, and I was to join my mother, who was staying at my aunt’s, all of us within walking distance of the famous White Tower and close to the church where Christina and her husband were to be married. As the ceremony was not due to take place till 7pm, after a quick drink at my brother’s hotel, I made for my aunt’s to get some sleep before what would inevitably be a very long night.

The movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding was aptly named, I can tell you. From the moment we pulled up outside the church, it was evident it was going to be just that. Unlike at a typical English wedding, where guests are ushered into the church and into designated pews, the majority of the guests were milling around outside, laughing, greeting one another, and awaiting the arrival of the bride and groom. It still being rather hot, and my 89 year old mother and 91 year old aunt being in need of a seat, we entered the cool of the beautifully decorated church, the hush inside contrasting with the noisy cacophony of chatter and traffic outside. There were few other people inside, though occasionally someone would come in to check all was in readiness, before darting back out into the sunshine to await the happy couple. Inside the church we were alerted to their arrival by the sound of cheering and applause from outside, and then all of a sudden, the bride and groom led the throng into the church, he dark and handsome in a charcoal suit and crisp white shirt, and she stunningly beautiful and radiantly smiling in a white silk full skirted dress, with a short train. Indeed Christina’s incandescent smile scarcely left her face throughout the service. I doubt I have ever seen a more beautiful, more completely happy bride in all my life, and that includes Kate Middleton!
Now one might think that the Greek Orthodox Church is very high and formal, but there is absolutely nothing of the staid formality of a Church of England service, with its written script and responses. There is no real altar as such, just a small table for the various accoutrements of the weddings, the bridal crowns that the bride and groom exchange, the wine etc. The congregation mostly just gathered round the central group of bride and groom, parents, best woman (the groom had a best woman, his sister, rather than a best man), and bridesmaids, whilst the priest conducted the service. In fact nobody else speaks during the service, which was all conducted in Greek, so I couldn’t really understand what was going on. The couple drank wine and exchanged rings (three times, presumably symbolic of father son and holy ghost), then the best woman crossed their hands three times, before the priest placed two Stefana bridal crowns, joined by a single ribbon, onto their heads. These symbolise the glory and honour that is being bestwoed on them by God, and the ribbon symblises their unity. The best woman crossed these three times too, before the priest led bride and groom and best woman around the table in a circle, also three times. This is apparently called the Dance of Isaiah, and typifies eternity, an expression of joy and with this the bridal party signify their pledge to preserve this holy bond, until it is broken by death. This also signified the end of the ceremony, the guests pelted the couple with rice, and with that the bridal procession moved outside where they formally greeted their guests, presenting each with a traditional Greek boubouniera, sugar almonds, wrapped in lace and tied with a ribbon, a team of photographers, who had been in attendance since we arrived at the church, filming and photographing everything that happened. Guests then departed for the reception, whilst the bride and groom were driven to the beach for more photographs.

As we were more or less the last to leave the church, we were also amongst the last to arrive at the reception, a taverna with seating out in the open, everything beautifully decorated with white candles, flowers and muslin. I’d say there were around 300 guests, all at tables surrounding a large dance floor, a DJ sitting in the covered area at the far end. A buffet of cold starters and hot main courses was delicious and plentiful; as was the wine, but at this point we were a rather subdued group. Eventually, though, the happy couple arrived and the whole atmosphere of the occasion changed; the couple’s happiness so palpable that it infected the whole place. Suddenly this disparate group of people had a focus. The young couple led the dancing, first in traditional Greek dances, and then eventually more modern Western style, until it was impossible not to get up and join in. Everyone, young and old, was dancing, and, if my mother’s legs no longer allowed her to get up and dance, her eyes and smile showed that she too was still dancing. “My legs won’t let me, but I am dancing inside with every fibre of my being,” she shouted to me, and certainly it was a long time since I had seen her so happy herself. Christina’s mother, my cousin’s wife, Sophie, told me that Christina had planned every part of the ceremony down to the finest detail. This was her and her husband, Panayotis’s day, and she wanted everyone to share in their happiness. Even at 3 in the morning, with the hem of her dress torn, and her hair coming loose, she looked as radiant when as she had when she entered the church at 7pm, and, though we left exhausted at that point, she apparently continued dancing and partying with her husband and friends till 5.30am!

Watching the two of them dancing together, holding each other tightly and looking into each other’s eyes, I felt honoured to be included in their happiness and their love. Momentarily, a feeling of sadness came over me. Will I ever feel again what these two young people so evidently feel for each other? But then I remembered something else. If I did meet the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, if I too wanted to share with everyone my happiness and my commitment to that other person, would I be able to do it in quite the same way? Unfortunately there are still plenty of people around who would not want me to, and are actively involved in actually preventing me from doing so. Why, only a couple of weeks ago a young, recently married couple had very publicly gone to 10 Downing Street, to present the Prime Minister with a petition against marriage for single sex couples. What they quite clearly, and smugly, were saying is, “You can’t have this. You can’t have what we have. You are not worthy of it.” Is it any wonder they were the subject of hate mongering and nasty messages? I don’t condone the hate messages they received, but I understand them. What did they really expect?  

What has emerged in the last few weeks is that some, not all, religions are determined to deny us equality, to deny us the chance to love, and to commit to the person we love. At one point I read somewhere that the Catholic Church was suggesting an alliance between them, Muslims and Orthodox Jews to fight plans for the legalisation of civil marriage for same sex partners. Clearly, they hate us even more than they hate each other. Apparently if we are allowed to marry, it will mean the end of civilisation as we know it. Given their idea of civilisation, maybe that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

With David Cameron and many key members of the Coalition Government throwing their weight behind the argument for full gay marriage, what has emerged is a battle between Church and State, regardless of the fact that the present law will not allow religious organisations to perform same sex marriages anyway. The Church of England, which is itself divided on this issue, has been leading the onslaught, closely followed by the Roman Catholics, with the Vatican, of course, standing firmly behind them. This seems to me more than a mite ironic. The Church of England was founded on a battle between Church and State some 470 years ago, when Henry VIII separated the Church of England from the Catholic Church of Rome, who, in turn, excommunicated him. Henry made himself Supreme Head of the Church, and the Church of England subsequently became the established church of the United Kingdom. I don’t want to delve too deeply into history, but one of the threats that the present C of E is using against the government is that it will disestablish itself from the State. That is good news indeed. Apparently only about 2% of the UK population regularly attends church on a Sunday. Why should an institution that commands such a small following be granted a say in the running of the country? It has no business meddling in matters of State, which is what the whole gay marriage issue is.

The government should not be deflected from their purpose to give equal marriage rights, because it is the right thing to do, and religions should not be allowed to deny us the happiness they bestow so eagerly on two people of the opposite sex. When it finally becomes law, and they lose their battle, I hope that it will also eventually become law for religious institutions to be able to carry out gay weddings, if they wish to do so. Then we will have true equality, for that, after all, is what this is all about. Whether you agree with the institution of marriage or not, we should all be able to celebrate and share with the world the commitment we make to another person, whether that person is of the same sex or not.

I believe that in twenty years from now, maybe even ten, people will look back on this time and wonder what all the fuss was about. Even now, a younger generation don't really get it. For my nephew and niece, and all the friends I meet through them, gay marriage isn't even an issue. They don't understand the objections. Remember that it was only as recently as 1967, paradoxically the same year homosexuality was legalised in the UK, that blacks were allowed to marry whites in the US. Would anyone now say that the laws preventing them from marrying were right or just?