Last night I made Indian food at home for friends. A convivial evening. The weather has been spectacular this week. The religious parades a little lacklustre, they don’t compare with the magisterial opulence of the spanish equivalent. Yet, even though I don’t believe in christianity, I bow my head before those who do.
This morning the apartment is scented with cassia, cardamom, coriander…
Last week the rains were gratefully upon us.
The sky is dove gray, the cloud ombréd into anthracite onto the horizon. Spring storms are coming. Gulls wheeling over the Rio Gilao. The swifts are no longer screaming, they are hiding in their mud and saliva nests under the eves. The deluge comes, polishing the cobbles. Parasols flap and drip onto miserable tourists. An inescapable torrent. I may have left the window open.
I am unpacking my unhealthy, enmeshed relationship with women. I am the one… I have consistently had unhealthy relationships with women. I am the one. Ending in dismay, disloyalty, disappointment. I could make a million excuses but I am the one. Whether it is George or Samia, rich or poor, bright or not… they open the door to their misery and like a fool, I rush in.
I wanted to save my mother. I couldn’t. I was powerless. I wasn’t enough. I lay in bed listening to the screams. I couldn’t save her. I was just a boy! What could I do? In my teens I ended up resenting her because she couldn’t save herself. Nor us. I know my brothers were terribly wounded. They sabotaged their father’s funeral.
Truth never picks a side.
A famous friend is crying hard about the pressure of fame, success. She is crying because she hates talk shows, she hates the publicity grind. She is bleating and moaning, the hard rain is falling. It is difficult to listen, knowing just how they reaped the rewards of the entertainment industry. I am full of judgement until I admit I’ve been there myself, equally indulgent. I’ve written about it, the loneliness of success.
If I believe my creative gifts are god given, yet… when the universe delivers I wonder: am I deserving? ‘No, you are not.‘ I hear the voice in my head so clearly, speaking to me using my voice. ‘You are an imposter, you’ll always be an imposter.’
Remember that night? The night in question, that night, that great night… leaving the theatre deafened by applause, even though I had many who would have congratulated me I had no one to call. I was completely alone, enduring the discomfort of the moment, so fearful, I wanted to call my mother but that door was closed to me. I felt so fragile, it was impossible to enjoy my success. The intensity of the moment was nothing I had experienced before. It was so overwhelming I ran away, I fought it off. I am only deserving of punishment. I have stripped myself of every opportunity presented me. I have sabotaged each and every gift. I have behaved like a lunatic.
Ana, Samia, Donna, Eleanor, Georgina, Hilary. A longer list exists… I am sure. Women I wanted to save, save from husbands, boredom, grief, family, loneliness. When will I ever learn? Maybe this is the moment? I am the one? It always ends up the same way, even when I have set the boundaries, considered my motives, written the contract. The outcome is always the same: RESENTMENT.
Ana calls me her husband, George wants to marry me, Donna is furious when I tell her friends I am gay. Samia meets me in Paris for what? She woefully reminds me how old she is. What became of them?
Drawn to their helplessness, tiny Ana lost on her huge sofa, penniless. Donna consumed by her hoard, piss and shit saved in plastic bags, Samia shamed by her menopause. Georgina’s body wrecked by Parkinson’s, her bank accounts raped by her daughter. I have learned, just now. This day. Unless those who have becomes victims to circumstance take hold of their own lives no one can help them. What could I do? I was just a boy! I can momentarily drag her out of poverty, over the shingle to the restaurant in the wheelchair… but I cannot will them to live, to stop making the same mistakes.
By consorting with a woman and her shame, I can only fail. Those who saw me wrecked by grief must never lay eyes on me ever again. When ‘saved’ what do we need with our saviour? If incapable of saving, we slip into the oily, cold water of failure. Like Jack from Rose.
Men I know sharing how they drank and used drugs like heroes: they drank like Travis Bickle, snorted like Scarface, loved like Nick Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. Their cinematic memories, their euphoric recall is so often vulgar and self-aggrandising. If I drank like a character in a movie? I am Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Baby Jane Hudson. King baby. Writing a letter to daddy. Knocking back the bourbon, controlling the outcome, taking hostages.
Looking in the mirror. Crying. Drowning in self pity.
Thank God I cast myself in another movie. The movie I am living right now. Am I happy because of the therapy or the anti depressants? I am luxuriating in the moment. I love my things. The temperature is perfect. I do not wish to shut the door on my past but, thank god, I am not my story. My story, the story of casual violence and hopelessness merely gave me excuses to behave badly. ‘If you had my story you too would be a monster’, that is the lie we tell ourselves. Without my story I have no excuse. I am the one.
My mother ended up saving herself. She has the life she wants. I respect and accept that. It has taken decades of reflection to own my part. It was a process aided by the voices of so many willing to share their truth. Faith overcomes fear. I know, no matter what, I will be ok.
Last Monday, adding to my general health woes, I woke at 2am with a strange and persistent pain in my upper belly. Pains I assumed were something to do with the polyps they removed from my colon during a colonoscopy the previous week or maybe the MRI the day before establishing the size of a tumour on my remaining adrenal gland.
On Monday at 9am I had a meeting in Canterbury with a mental health professional. I left the house in Whitstable at 7.30am. I couldn’t find a way of alleviating the discomfort. I sat on the loo. I sat in the car an hour early for my appointment, pain overwhelming me. I called the NHS help line. I was advised to take paracetamol and call my doctor in a day if things hadn’t improved.
An hour later I was on my back in an ambulance, a morphine drip in my arm. A mid line, not a cannula, they couldn’t find a vein. My blood pressure slumped. Three hours later, after vomiting a pint of yellow bile, I was taken into theatre, the anaesthetic a welcome relief. Not just for the immediate pain but all the pain, anguish and discomfort I had suffered this past year. I sank into the big black and just before I drifted away I thought to myself, perhaps for the first time ever, I wouldn’t mind if I never woke up.
I did not care about anything I previously cared about. I did not care about the welfare of the Little Dog. I did not care about my property. I wanted at that moment to slip away on a gurney in a grim Margate hospital. Margate on my death certificate. That was that.
I woke up in the Cheerful Sparrow, a ward of six men. All of them dishevelled, jaundiced, overweight. The man to my left entertaining a family of obese relatives. His eleven year old daughter the size of a small car. Her young face perched on a ledge of processed lard. To my right, a packet of ochre liquid stapled to his huge belly, a gruff male antagonized an ancient desiccated traveller laying opposite us. Confused by vascular dementia he called out in the night. Calling for long dead relatives. Calling for his dog.
At 5pm the following day Robin arrived in his Range Rover, driving me home to Whitstable. I slipped into his gracious car, black leather and reclining seats, protected from the smell of rotting cabbage Thanet seems unable to shake. Wearing imaginary dark glasses and a velvet wrap, feeling like Grace Kelly after the horrors of the Cheerful Sparrow Ward at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Margate.
Three days later my possessions arrived from the USA by hauler Bishop’s Move. As one might imagine… this was neither as simple nor as stress free as I wanted. However, it was one step further away from Tivoli NY and for that I am truly grateful. Bishop’s Move have a lot to answer for but we are just beginning to literally and figuratively unpack their disaster.
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This past week, since my body waged war on me, I’ve been shown such kindness from friends I’ve known all my life. Cared for, fed by, driven to, held. I don’t need to remind you but if this had happened in the USA I would have been presented with a huge bill when I left the hospital and then my kindly Tivoli neighbours would have picked the pearls off my decaying body.
Which reminds me of the day my forty-something Tivoli neighbour Christopher Murphy (Village of Tivoli Trustee) fell off his bike directly in front of my house whilst performing stunts for his adolescent sons. Falling badly onto boiling hot tarmac where he lay until I found him. His hatred of gay people (or me) so profound he would not let me help him off the hot street. Schadenfreude prevailed. I looked down at him squirming like an injured possum until his equally sour wife arrived to help his sorry ass.
Lucy Ferry killed herself. A shot-gun in an Irish village. Her ‘beloved’ dogs present. Her death opening the door to a whole world of grief. In drawing rooms all over London, Palladian homes in the West Country, cottages in Norfolk… pearls were clutched, brows furrowed.
The moment I heard the terrible news I called Simon Finch. We gasped in horror. Oh no. No. There was nothing more to say. Lucy Ferry/Birley née Helmore was dead.
I met Lucy with Isabella Blow. Mischievous Isabella, she’d say, “Lucy only married Bryan to save the Helmore family house.” By the time I met Lucy she was already separated from Bryan. We had tea often at that saved Kensington home. A short walk from where I lived on Adam and Eve Mews. “Oh, hello.” She looked a little confused. As if my visit had slipped her mind, as if life were happening to her rather than being fully present. That sweet smile.
Sometimes the younger of her four boys were in the house, rattling around upstairs, but we sat on our own. She didn’t have to be Lucy Ferry with me. She was just another addict talking it through. Another bozo on the bus… as they used to say at AA/NA meetings in Hudson NY. Just one addict helping another, working the steps. Even so, she was never a great believer in God… but I bet she called out for him just before she pulled the trigger.
We had dinner at Floriana on Beauchamp Place, pretending to be a couple, mainly her idea to annoy Bryan. Hosted by Tatler, 19 Mar 2003. The Evening Standard wrote a vile and libellous take down of yours truly after the prank. Gratifyingly, the writer of the piece (Deborah Orr told me) died painfully and suddenly a few months later. I wasn’t moved by his death, nobody remembers his name… as people remember and are moved by Lucy.
Isabella read the piece in the Standard, refusing to understand the humour. She summoned me to Prada on Bond St. I met her in the dressing room, pulling a jewelled frock over flesh-colored, boned underwear. She screamed, “What were you thinking? Lucy would never have a relationship with someone like YOU!”
“Issy! You were there. You knew it was a prank!”
“It wasn’t very funny.” She gasped as the sales associate zipped her into the gown.
The dinner at Floriana was thrown for Lee McQueen. Michael Portillo and Isabella Blow sat either side of me. Prince Michael of Greece opposite. Lucy was setting me up with Lee but we weren’t interested. We were interested in Lucy. If only gay boys had Lucy’s charm and spunk. 4 years later Isabella would drink poison and die, a year after that… Lee would hang himself.
This week Bella Freud, Jasper Conran, Patrick Kinmonth amongst so many others posted sad obituaries on Instagram. Conran, a picture of Lucy from his wedding. Kinmonth, a tiny dead bird by Craigie Aitchison. All of them wailing plaintively about their friend Lucy.
Why didn’t she call? Why was she on her own? Where were her friends? Her husband and children? Was she going to meetings? Did she have people who could help her live, make the decision to live? Obviously not.
Every addict wants to die sooner than God planned. It is a decision none want taking from us. The needle in the arm, the bottom of the glass, the cold gun.
Hamish Bowles’ piece in Vogue was mawkish and badly written. Painting pretty Lucy shaped pictures of a woman Hamish scarcely understood other than her frocks, hats and shoes. Of course, he didn’t ask why? Nobody is asking why. Is that too impertinent when you expect someone you know well to grow old? She would have made a very, very grand old lady. Rasping, funny and chic.
It’s a bit late, posting pretty black and white pictures of her on social media, Hamish.
Two weeks ago I managed to track her down. She was a little frosty, we hadn’t spoken for years. She asked if I was sober. We giggled about her brother Ed living it large at The Chateau Marmont in LA where I last saw him. We recalled the Floriana scam and the subsequent outrage. She wanted to know if I was in love. I told her about Jake and our disastrous relationship… I told her how overwhelming love can be. Crippling. I asked about her husband. There was a long, painful silence. She suddenly seemed wistful and bored. We made tentative plans to meet when she returned from her doomed vacation.
She wondered if I had ever received the green fur hat. Of course I had. Apparently, she had never received my written thanks.
Did she stop believing? Run out of dreams? Her children, dogs and husband could not convince her life was worth living. Did she stop loving dressing up, entertaining, preparing lavish dinners, being center of attention? Perhaps she saw the folly of her ways? Couldn’t align her feelings with the facts? Maybe she was drinking and convinced herself suicide a glamorous conclusion? God only knows.
I have lost more friends/acquaintances to suicide than any other disease these past 50 years. Suicide. Touching the lives of almost everyone I know. He lay on the tracks, he loaded the syringe, he hung himself from the banister, she jumped from the bridge, she blew her brains out in Ireland. They found him dead in the car park, Boxing Day. He was badly decomposed. He stole pills from the hospital. I knew all these people.
Another morning at the hospital. Another biopsy on another lump. I’m quite sweaty today. My arms hurt. The arthritis in my neck makes my arms painful, numb and tingling. The pain increases when I cough, sneeze or strain.
After the consultant I drove to Margate where I met Jonathan Viner who has famously bought the huge Margate Print Works, partially selling to Tracey Emin and others. We ate a light lunch at David Liddicot‘s cafe on Union Row. Jonathan rather sweetly paid for lunch, (£20). Of course we discussed both projects. He is unsurprisingly proprietorial about Margate. Viner, I suppose, rediscovered it and put his money where his mouth is.
He very kindly walked me around the last remaining part of the huge building still unsold. The cavernous concrete space ripe for something magnificent. We discussed Brexit, we discussed moving to Kent, we chatted briefly about Jay. He is obviously quite competitive but not in an overwhelming, American way. I told Jonathan I’d met the ghastly Margate based architect Sam Causer who has all the charm of untreated sewage.
We discussed terrible Margate landlords who want too much for their properties and he was eager to remind me I didn’t own anything in Margate… yet. I replied gently that if my idea fell through it wouldn’t be the end of the world. I learned from buying at auction… there’s always something else, next time. It’s not healthy to obsess about things. It can get you into trouble. God has a plan. I just have to listen out for it.
I’ve been going to London meetings. NA meetings. It baffles me how people stay clean. But of course… they don’t. The real addicts die. NA, divorced from Bill’s radical idea of a spiritual solution, is utterly worthless. I am irritated by NA in the UK, the group therapy, feelings laid bare. I was sharing step solution in a Chelsea meeting last week and a young woman in the meeting told me I shouldn’t talk about the steps because she found it ‘triggering’.
Meanwhile Chip, my friend in NYC, who worked a solid NA programme overdoses and dies. He was a splendid, handsome father of one. Divorced from God there was no other destiny for him. Jail. Institutions. Death.
The Whitstable Biennial opened this week. Consequently there is ‘art’ everywhere: in beech huts, coffee shops, fishmongers, gardens, St Alphage church on the high street. The art is pretty dull but the buzz around town is great. I found two gorgeous bronze figures tucked away in a shed by sculptor Mark Fuller who is without doubt a bloody genius. £80.
If my arms work I may go to Canterbury Pride this evening.
Ivan Cartwright visited me last weekend. We had lunch at Dave Brown’s then drove to Margate. He had never been. He was very impressed. Lunch with M&J at well reviewed Angela’s in Margate on Wednesday. I ate Turbot and some odd tasting greens.
Met in Soho last week with a gentleman who wants to buy my art collection, then a brief but good catch up with my producer. I bumped into Johnny and Julian outside Maison Bertaux. We drank a little coffee and I scoffed a large Mont Blanc, you know the one… with mashed up marrons glacés, meringue and cream.
I travelled from Whitstable to London on the train. It was exactly the same time to get up there as it was 40 years ago. It’s perfectly fine. The bus from Victoria to Piccadilly Circus was wonderful. Swinging past the Wellington Arch, on the upper deck, very little traffic. The trees around Green Park and Park Lane have matured beautifully. Apsley house now looks like it’s sitting in the countryside rather than a concrete island. I fell in love with London all over again. Who wouldn’t?
After lunch I took the Piccadilly line to Gloucester Place and had tea with Christophe. He looks wonderfully relaxed after his hip operation. Pain shows in the face, you know. Without the pain he looks marvellous. “Everybody says the same,” he smiled.
There was a coach from Faversham to Whitstable after 11pm but so what? A drunk man on the bus was recounting his recent arrest for knocking someone out. I had no problem with the railway. I had no problem with the buses and the tube. I’ve had no problems with the NHS. I just wish the pins and needles would stop.
I have found writing this blog almost impossible these past few months. Impossible to write the first line. I could say, ‘Margate, I’m obsessed with you.’ Or, ‘The lilacs fill the air with a sweet and heavy scent.’ I could tell you some unrelated facts, like I reported some fool to the police for a vile hate crime. Or, I have my own cup at the deli or… I’m so tired I can scarcely get through the day. My body failing, spinning out of control, my voice slurring, my head aching, my memory shot to pieces.
I wrote my will. I left everything to one person. I’m glad it’s done.
The Little Dog shivers then ravenously eats. He has a chewable heart pill at morning and dusk. He sleeps close to my leg. I spend too much time looking at my phone. Dude smells pungent… sweet and sour. I bathed him today. The water was cold. It wasn’t Malibu grooming. Even though we have hot, sunny days it hardly compares to California. He looks forlornly up at me. His perky ears all bent and fragile.
The Ross on Wye project is frustrating yet rewarding. I should have ignored the neighbours and just gotten on with the project. An exercise in Little England. Foolishly thought I should reach out to them, reach out to the fearful white people who live on the hill. The sort of people who believe everything they read on the internet. The sort of people who believe Jeremy Corbyn can’t win an election.
I’m living in a country where the press has all but given up telling the truth. Lies splashed over the broadsheets. The BBC, once believed unquestionably, now feeds off the rotting carcass of what was its esteemed impartiality. The stench is difficult to ignore.
Rudolf Brazda died in 2011. We was the last man alive to have worn the pink triangle. The pink triangle was the crude badge gay men were forced to wear in the concentration camps differentiating us from other inmates. Visible from long distances the pink triangle was used as target practice by the Nazis. LGBT inmates, considered sex criminals, were also murdered by their fellow jewish inmates. LGBT people experienced terrible persecution from the jews in the camps.
Remember these two facts (seldom admitted by Zionists) about our LGBT history.
Firstly, when we arrived at the concentration camps, LGBT people were considered nonces, disgusting sex offenders and treated as pedophiles are treated today in jails all over the world… like useless scum. Secondly, when the camps were liberated by the American and the British armed forces LGBT, inmates were not allowed to leave. They were taken from the camps directly to jail.
According to German LGBT scholar Rüdiger Lautmann gay prisoners in the camp were abused and tormented not only by guards but also by other prisoners. “There was a hierarchy, from strongest to weakest,” Pierre explains. “There was no doubt that the weakest in the camps were the homosexuals, all the way on the bottom.”
When I mentioned these facts last Holocaust Memorial Day my jewish friends were outraged. They hate being reminded of these pertinent truths. They are deeply offended when gay people remind the world of our history of persecution.
Another month has passed since I last wrote.
Since then part of The Goods Shed in Canterbury burned down, my friend Susanna valiantly opening the doors and serving food the day after. M and B have gone to France leaving me alone in their house. I have filled the fridge with food. My trips to the hospital are frequent but manageable. The Margate project inches toward completion, the Ross house stalls then splutters into gear.
My routine is unshakable. I sit with the others outside the Deli on Harbour Street but only when the bitter tradesman have gone to toil. I walk the dogs on West Beech then feed them raw chicken and a little kibble. I spend a lot of time with PG and her grown up children. Last weekend we explored the magnificent gardens at Great Dixter then ate ice cream in Hastings. Every so often I drive on my own to Ross and look at the land, the undergrowth is relentless and desperate to once again consume the old stone threshing barn even the neighbours didn’t know existed.
Occasionally I dip into my old LA life and endure meetings in London with producers. Rather surprisingly I’ve been asked to direct a movie in January. We will see how that pans out. My mind is open to failure and success… if they support me I might very well make a good job of it. We sit on the roof of that club in Shoreditch and watch trim 30 something male executives dip in and out of the swimming pool. Their bodies glistening, perfectly groomed.
After a few weeks of being home in Whitstable my relations with old friends, grown frail by distance and insecurity, have strengthened and renewed. Yet, I was recently forced to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth. Even though I lived and worked in the USA for well over a decade and made friends with those immediately in my orbit… I never cared for any of them. Most of them were simply there. I didn’t care for their well-being. Nobody really cares for their neighbour in the USA. Not like we do for the folk I have known nearly 60 years. I really care about Sue at The Tea Rooms and Ronnie saving me from a parking ticket. I love walking to The Battery and drinking tea with Marilyn and John. I am passionate about Marianne, Bob and their children. We sat beside the cherry tree remembering their son Richard who vanished from the Dover/Calais ferry and is presumed dead.
Whoever it is, however fractious they are… whatever they may have said in the past, I feel a love for them that was absent from my life in the USA. I am so grateful for all of them. I am grateful for their love and their hate because that’s what LIFE is all about… a life lived fully and squarely on life’s terms.
Nor fear of deportation or student loans. Don’t let the government shut down beleaguer your special day.
Nor think of drones killing gay men on foreign shores. Not in my name.
Dream my dear, of the $160,000 surrogate baby you really can’t afford. White eggs and spermatozoa Amex paid for.
Grown in a poor brown woman whose name attorneys erased. She’ll never be known to the unborn child.
Goldman bonus spent on more Botox. Calm your troubled brow with restylane. Fill the lines they put there with relentless bullying and casual homophobia.
You weren’t looking for love. A painted finger nail emoji on your Tinder profile, hoping for a merger and acquisition. Perfect in the Pines. Helping him fuck another guy. Guiding him into the gaping hole like a stallion. Prepped and raw. Bare back monkey.
Marrying a fellow American now, you need not stress, ICE officers will not be your groomsman. Not today.
Thank Jesus Christ Almighty,
Clinton’s Defense of Marriage Act is no more.
They can not stop you, nor turn you from the hospital as your husband lays dying from a lethal Fentanyl overdose. Undetectable. No longer woke.
Found in the sauna, wearing his combat boots, multiply penetrated, cream pied, still bound and dripping, eyes open, calling out another man’s name, swaying gently in the black polyester sling.
Enjoying your honeymoon in the leather bars of Berlin.
They are deporting thousands of undocumented workers in the USA. Friends and family disappear. The cranberry bogs remain un-harvested. The schools stricken by grieving children. Police officers didn’t think it would be this way. They couldn’t put a face to the men and women Trump wanted to deport. Simple, honest people caught up in the merciless trawl. They didn’t realise their friends were breaking the law. They didn’t understand the depth of hatred their fellow citizens harboured for brown and black people.
Hackney. East London finally puts paid to the ridiculous notion I can leave my car unlocked without being burgled. Yes. I am that man. Regardless of the stolen cash, life in East London is inspiring. Like the first time you visit deep Brooklyn, you understand who millennials are and what they prioritize. Bushwick, going there with Paris McGarry and her boyfriend Tom. The streets were buzzin, the restaurants overflowing, the music bursting out of every window over the cobbled streets. Huge lofts once filed with machinery now house tech aspirants and what, I think, is the difference? Intellectual rather than mechanical industry.
Hackney has exactly the same energy. Fit, bearded men cycling through the park discussing crypto currency on their cell phones. They look insane, talking to themselves, eyes fixed on the road, avoiding my dogs who are inexplicably drawn to cycle paths. I feel alive here, which is odd as I am facing death head on right now. I am optimistic even though I feel the curtain closing about me, taking my final bow. I sit in Shorditch House all day drinking water and coffee and eating sour jelly candy. I buy boots in APC and wonder why. I mean, I don’t need anything. I am rootless, I am free.
Going to NA meetings all over the East End. I am drawn to the drama I suppose. I meet cool people and when they read about me are less eager to judge my life, my exploits whilst American addicts damn you forever. You lose your grip once and Americans watch with glee as you fall from the side of the building. Falling like a crazy base jumper. You took a risk… it didn’t pay off. Your fingers slip from the polished marble. The English addict is less determined to make you pay.
However, NA is not very productive in London. The people may be kind but the programme stinks. Swimming around in their own shit. NA isn’t group therapy. Nobody cares about your feelings. Addicts repeat their using tragedies again and again day after day. They have no solution, grasping hold of their pain, reliving the insanity, indulgently spewing over anyone who will listen. They attend endless meetings 90/90 but will not work the 12 steps. Of course, after a few months, they relapse then after another spectacular ‘rock-bottom’ claw their way back into the rooms… continuing the cycle of despair. I keep reminding myself not to slip back into bad habits. No catastrophic thinking, no indulgence. No. No. No.
I’m in Climpson’s the local coffee shop trying to write a treatment. Broadway Market. I know the fishmonger and the book seller. The baristas know my name. I’m writing a gay Fatal Attraction. Crazy older lady meets younger gay guy at AA meeting, she’s a hoarder, he takes pity on her, cleans her house, helps her with her life, she lends him money and falls in love with him… then tries to destroy him when he refuses her advances. It’s waiting to be written. This story, this slice of life upstate. Donna, you crazy witch! I took Donna to a gay party, she wasn’t impressed when I talked to the other guys. I took her to Abby Rockefeller’s farm. She wasn’t impressed when I talked to other women. I felt her eyes boring into me. We left.
The dull thud returns, at the base of my sternum. The pain wraps around my body from my stomach to the base of my back. The acid reflux, overwhelming tiredness and irritability. I had more tests. There are problems that need resolved but the doctors are too damn eager to slice into me. I already had my gall bladder and an isolated tumor on my adrenal gland removed.
The doctor is thorough and uncompromising. I revisit all the horrors of pancreatic cancer. I look at potential remedies, of which there are few. The very worst scenario is called the Whipple procedure which is also known as a pancreaticoduodenectomy, a complex operation to remove the head of the pancreas, the first part of the small intestine (duodenum), the gallbladder and the bile duct.
They say to me: these symptoms are found in women. They say, it may be malignant, it may be benign, it may be somewhere in between. The diagnosis isn’t good enough. It’s too damn vague. I lay on my bed after our long walk and fall into a deep sleep. I breathe deeply, clearing my mind of everything I think I know. I remind myself of the solution, the literature. I say, what will be will be. Divorcing myself from self-pity, dishonest or self-seeking motives.
During the day I face indecision. I may not correctly determine which course of action to take. I ask God for inspiration, an intuitive thought or decision. I relax, I don’t struggle. I’m surprised by how often the right answer comes after practicing these principles in all my affairs.
Mario Testino was a friend of ours. He had a studio in an abandoned hospital on Soho Square. Scott Crolla, Georgina Godley… and others were frequent guests. My boy friend in 1981 was Mario’s long time friend and collaborator Patrick Kinmonth.
Patrick lived in a tiny apartment in Holland Park, deliberately disheveled, dusty yet filled with beautiful object. The place was brutally cold in the winter and a furnace in the summer. Patrick, according to the artist Craigie Aitchison dobbed me in to the police when they were looking for me to ask questions about my credit card and why I hadn’t paid the bill. It was Patrick who lent me money to buy my Peter Doig and it was Patrick who encouraged me to make art. He was a vicious snob, exquisitely beautiful and at that time worked for Vogue magazine. He amused us all by mimicking Mario’s Peruvian lilt. Patrick is a deft impersonator. The problem with Patrick? Nothing ever came of his own talent. He lives with the painfully shy food photographer Tessa Traeger in the West Country. He designs opera sets for out-of-the-way operas but never became the great anything everyone thought he might become.
The last time I saw Mario and Patrick we were in LA at The Chateau Marmont. I was having dinner in the garden they were having a party in the lounge with a bunch of gorgeous boy/men models. I sat beside Patrick for a moment but I didn’t stay long. He scolded me. I made amends for some indiscretion and I left. Mario looked at me disdainfully. Patrick enjoys being on Mario’s winning team. He wrote the forward to Mario’s book and he styles the most interesting shoots. Neither of them wanted me hanging around. You’ve seen pictures of young girls on a yacht wearing bikinis, oggled by old men… this was Mario’s gay equivalent. I’d already ruined things by talking to him and Patrick, bathed in Mario’s reflected glory, wanted me gone. He looked down his aquiline nose and told me I could have made so much more of myself. Yeah, I thought… if you hadn’t worked with the establishment to destroy me. I probably could.
You know why old men put young girls on yachts? You’d think… so the girls can’t escape. No, it’s so their old men friends can’t join the party. I returned to my dinner in the garden. Soon I saw Mario, Peter Pan like… screaming and laughing down the stairs with his crew. Patrick lagging behind like a heavy train on an old dress.
I’ve never blogged about Mario. Now, within the context of the salacious revelations and accusations leading to his spectacular firing from the Conde Nast creative family I revisit my association with him. Let me say immediately, I didn’t know anything untoward was happening. I had never heard anything. The towel series he shot with models were obviously designed to get the model naked and to legitimize Mario’s pervy intentions but I never heard from models who worked with him they felt uncomfortable.
Many of those same models who worked with Mario were not so discreet about their working relationship with Bruce Weber. For over a decade or more I heard story after story from young men who had worked with Bruce and the discomfort they felt being ‘relaxed’ with his hands on their bodies, the ‘breathing exercise’ or asked to take off their shorts when they were alone with Bruce. I heard again and again about the notorious ‘private archive’ for which Bruce said he wanted their naked picture. I heard how he tantalized young men with lucrative campaigns and the promise of a life beyond their wildest dreams. I heard how he set models against each other, how within minutes of the private naked shots… would change his mind about the campaign promise he’d made, playing with them, manipulating them.
Yet, it seems, many models were perfectly happy to have their bodies used by Bruce. Yesterday I spoke to a male super model I know in NYC. Last year, after a few drinks, he described in detail how Bruce molested him, removed his underwear and had taken pictures of him naked. I asked if he was willing to come forward, speak publicly. He told me I should be ashamed of myself for suggesting he told tales on Bruce. Thus we understand how Bruce, inspiring loyalty in others, groomed them for sexual molestation.
I’ve had my run ins with Bruce over the years. I asked him to take the Dorian Gray portrait. He curtly suggested that I wasn’t the sort of person he could do business with. Oh… how the tables have turned.
Sunday. I had a late lunch in Hackney with a young gay artist. We talked about Mario and Bruce. He asked the difference between flirtation and harassment. He was worried his flirtation might be misconstrued. How would he know? Of course, one asks ones self: why doesn’t he know? He’s a bright lad but his white male privilege is so ingrained he cannot differentiate between the two. He asked if the men now making the complaints were somehow complicit. Many gay men make excuses for Bruce and Mario habitually devaluing our lives by suggesting the men who agree to work or consort with us are somehow suspect, complicit. We remain baffled by the notion of consent. They knew what they were getting themselves into.
“Consent, that’s for straight people? Women? Isn’t it?” He looks confused.
We talk about the abuse of power between men (beyond top and bottom although that too) and how our anti social behaviour and lack of morality has been largely ignored by heterosexual society firstly before equality, because straight people found it distasteful and didn’t really care. Then, after equality straight people were too embarrassed or confused to question how we lived in case they were accused of homophobia or insensitivity. Recent gay celebrity scandals have shocked many of our straight allies, realizing they don’t know anything much about their gay friends at all. Like rats we live discreet and cautious lives just a few feet from theirs, scurrying from one assignation to another.
We’ve done a great job blending in. For many years the only evidence we existed was when the police arrested, tried and sent us to jail for being gay. Cottaging. Tricking. Dressing up. Without occasional mention in the newspapers our gay lives would remain completely invisible. I broke the law simply by being alive and sexually active. Straight acting wasn’t a fetish, it was strategic and could save you from a beating or death. Ironically, this parallel life served many of us very well. As a young British gay man I enjoyed social mobility, sexual freedom and access to extraordinary financial opportunities my straight peers could only dream of. Yet, I paid the price for all of those benefits by surrendering my moral imperative.
Paris Hilton is maligned in the press for saying gay men on gay hook up apps are ‘disgusting’. Which, after being sent 50 or so asshole pics this week… one might be inclined to agree.
With equality comes responsibility. Some fought hard to enjoy marriage equality. We fought hard in the UK to have homophobic laws like section 28 overturned. In the UK these laws were ratified in Parliament and are hard to revoke. We are tentatively exploring a new moral landscape. Morals defined by heterosexuals, most gay men are unprepared for these changes and how this shift toward ‘normalcy’ may affect our lives. Simply, our lifestyle compared with that of the average heterosexual may not bear scrutiny post Weinstein and Mario, Bryan, Bruce and Kevin may just be the very tip of the iceberg.
Entitled, affluent gay white men are especially morally impoverished. Many still live secret, compartmentalized and shameful lives blighted by addiction, alcoholism and mental illness. To many straight people we may seem carefree, highly entertaining, a cause to celebrate ‘gay pride’ and drink rainbow cocktails… but, on our own with our second screens we indulge less salubrious, secret lives using hook up apps as the portal, through which many enter a dark and disgusting world of chem sex, lies, cheating and despair.
They say, everyone lies on-line. We live in lying times. Acceptable lies are now morally ring fenced. The lies most gay men tell before they come out are perfectly… acceptable. A habit we are loathed to break. Most gay men are addicted to lying. Only yesterday I met a closeted 25-year-old gay man. I asked him why he was in the closet? He described the same feelings of shame and despair I felt nearly 40 years ago. Some things never seem to change… however much I am told, ‘it doesn’t matter, nobody cares’. I explained to him why he needs to come out of the closet. He needs to stop lying. The more he lies the less respect he will have for the truth. As I mentioned in my previous blog gay men get into nasty habits around the truth and the sooner we embrace the truth the less damage is done to our morality and our integrity.
The last time I saw Mario he was skipping like a teenager down the stairs at The Chateau Marmont surrounded by beautiful teens. Like Peter Pan, a 60-year-old man unable to face the truth about his failing body and his failing ability to make good decisions. He could not stop himself grabbing them by the pussy. He is the same as Trump. Made of the same stuff. Gripped by power, fame and entitlement he understood himself to be unassailable. Nothing would ever bring him down… his legacy would glitter in perpetuity. The dream maker, the fantasist, the story-teller… the liar. Conjuring a universe of beauty, Mario forsook a life of loving relationships for an abuse of power.
Anna Wintour, who I confronted publicly about her reticence to stand up to Weber, made this statement last week.
Today, allegations have been made against Bruce Weber and Mario Testino, stories that have been hard to hear and heartbreaking to confront. Both are personal friends of mine who have made extraordinary contributions to Vogue and many other titles at Condé Nast over the years, and both have issued objections or denials to what has emerged. I believe strongly in the value of remorse and forgiveness, but I take the allegations very seriously, and we at Condé Nast have decided to put our working relationship with both photographers on hold for the foreseeable future.
Of course Anna Wintour is torn, it is hard to align what she hears and what she knows of her friends Mario and Bruce. She is rightfully appalled, but thankfully for her she doesn’t know the half of it… she merely glimpsed, briefly through the portal and into the dark heart of every gay man I know.
It’s been months since we last spoke. My harried exit from the USA only made our separation more dramatic. Those last fraught days before Abby drove me over the border. I had no time to explain, no time to say goodbye. Of course, I saw your brother in Seville but he provided scant consolation. I think about you often… and why not? We saw each other frequently. In lieu of our conversations I imagined your first experience of burning man. I wonder with a wry, affectionate grin your house filling with even more bits and pieces.
Toward the end of my time in the USA Ithink you knew just how miserable, trapped and disappointed I had become. Increasingly overwhelmed by my hatred for almost everyone except you. I wanted you to know just how relaxed I am here. It’s not Nirvana but I can travel, I can speak English to those who understand and most of all? The problems I encounter here I can deal with more than adequately. I would rather the English disappoint me than strangers from another shore.
The gays here do not confuse me with some character they’ve seen on TV. And even tho I might say I don’t want to fall in love… it’s maybe because I don’t dare love possible.
I’ve no idea if we will ever meet again. If we have anything more to say to each other but I wanted you to know how grateful I was. We had a blast. I wanted you to know that I love you very much.
My journey across Europe has been deliciously eventful. However, these past few weeks in Dorset were perhaps the most scintillating… and British.
My time on the West Dorset/East Devon border bound by upper class British convention. Rules of social engagement forged over hundreds of years by our ruling class… manners maketh the man. Rules, before my stint in the USA, I adhered to (mostly) and challenged unsuccessfully.
In the USA I learned a different social practice and without my daily dose of British self loathing I learned a very useful trick most Brits seem oblivious: Self Esteem. Consequently, revisiting the rules governing so much of our British social life has been a little disorienting because… I am Johnny Foreigner and the brits at play (and in the house of commons) behaving more like inchoate, chattering chimps than adroit conversationalist.
The British, upon meeting a stranger, like any un-evolved primate seek to assert themselves over the other and on rare occasions and only when deem appropriate… defer. A British person, full ape… will never give in to money, power or prestige. They’ll give up their seat on the british bus but only to those they assess are born to sit in it.
Socially, the Brits engage a very specific modus operandi.
Firstly, they establish the worth of the other. They quickly seek to discover reasons for any shame he/she should feel for merely being alive: At Monkton Wyld Court, Simon Fairlie’s obnoxious wife Gill Baron the imperious editor of The Land Magazine, rearing up on her hind legs, reminded me I had been expelled from Monkton Wyld School even though Gill conveniently forgets both she and her clochard husband were also expelled.
Bette Bright, whilst grooming another female in the pack, wanted me to remember I had once pretended to be a Lord. Another creepy petit bourgeois reptile told me I didn’t deserve my accent. All of which would have once caused me to flinch when I lived in the UK. After so long in the USAthis British social venom fails to work as I carry more than enough antidote.
As it turns out, the critical gaze of a posh, British person is surprisingly easy to ignore. The shaming swipe effortlessly parried. The knowing laugh means nothing at all and hangs in the air like a fresh fart. Their sly, snaggle toothed grin makes the posh Brit look like they have learning difficulties. I was surprised by how often these rather crude techniques were used and how unsophisticated the most sophisticated Brit appears once you lift up his skirt and smell his unwashed cunt.
Bette Bright, married to singer and TV entertainer Suggs from the band Madness was the first Brit who wanted to remind me of my place. The very notion of one’s place is so uniquely British. As I was leaving a not so amusing Sunday lunch party in Whitstable with my friend Simon Martin, director of The Pallant Gallery, Bette sat bloated and over dressed, her fat cheeks once sweetly girlish now pock-marked and scribbled with red, broken veins. She wore green, over-sized bakelite jewelry, a large bottom impeding her journey.
I had once been very friendly with her sister Alana who died of pancreatic cancer. Attempting to make me uncomfortable she announced across the table, “Lord Anthony Rensdlesham, wasn’t it?” I was momentarily stunned as I had no cause to be reminded of that particular adventure, not for twenty years or more. Remember… I am not my story. Perhaps the best and most enduring gift AA afforded me. As Anthony Rendlesham had once been my name I was thrown into a different world. A centuries old world of sophistication, Fortuny and… Falconetti.
I asked her why she wanted to remind me of something I had lived 40 years ago. What was her aim? If her aim was to shame me… she had failed. I wondered out loud why a straight, white, affluent woman was trying to shame a gay person of color.
“How rude! ” She said.
“White fragility, white heterosexual fragility.” I replied.
She looked perplexed by my comment. “I have lots of gay friends.”
“And you learned nothing from them? Bette Bright, gay men know a great deal about reinvention… so odd you’ve not had that conversation. Didn’t you reinvent yourself Bette?”
I continued with vigor.
“Yes. Of course you did. You were born plain Anne Martin. Dull Anne. Well, dear, what’s good for the gander… is good for this goose. You may call me Lord Anthony Rendlesham.”
I swept out of the party. Leaving her spluttering into her summer pudding.
A theme emerged forcibly throughout the rest of my journey. I asked my friend the Weymouth born artist Graham Snow if he too experienced homophobia amongst the affluent, the ruling class, the petit bourgeois. He blurted out a list of ghastly things he puts up with. He is quite the most lonely person I have ever met, made more lonely by his so-called ‘friends’ who do not want the best for him.
Like Lucy Ferry making disparaging remarks about Lee McQueen’s rough east end boyfriends. Those woman kept that boy lonely. They used him, like Graham is used by unscrupulous heterosexuals. Graham, born in the 40’s, was shielded from the true horror of the most virulent hatred of the gays by his friendship with extraordinary men… like David Hockney and John Schlesinger. He has thick, thick skin after enduring years of glancing blows from the casual homophobe.
Homophobia is real and crippling and we dare not talk about it just in case it makes us vulnerable. A British aristocrat loves to mine another’s vulnerability. Reminding you he is whiter, more well-bred, more heterosexual and closer to the crown than YOU.
Perhaps I’m looking for trouble. Perhaps I’m too sensitive. Perhaps the blonde, female fitness instructor who has coffee at Dave’s Deli in Whitstable is not a homophobe but just doesn’t like me. There seems nothing worse to a recent Whitstable resident than these words: I was born here.
I am not an easy gay, I am not the kind of gay man who ignores a casual homophobic aside. If ‘Woodsy’ the window cleaner wonders why I am in Whitstable and doesn’t like it… maybe he’s scared I know a little too much about his past.
After a rather grueling tour via Swanage of Dorset’s Jurassic Coast with Graham Snow, he took me to the home of some very English sub aristocrats for dinner. Writer Jason Goodwin, son of Jocasta Innes and his very Nigella Lawson type wife. Their house was a typical English country affectation. A Christopher Gibbs pastiche thrown together with no money. Piles of rotting books, sagging sofas and a smokey fireplace. Their dogs were aggressive and needy, they want to sit on your lap then bite your hand. The food was overcooked, the conversation tepid… I sat opposite our host and a charming Italian woman Anna Orsini from the British Fashion Council and an Oxford don who loathed Jeremy Corbyn and still believed in slavery.
A forlorn, bald man sat beside the don, Matthew Rice whose wife Emma Bridgewater had recently and very abruptly left him. She had not mentioned him, he wailed, on Desert Island Disks. Apparently it is sexist to ask if she is menopausal. Now she has gone (she is not coming back) perhaps Mr Rice should bite the gay bullet. I mean… he can’t possibly be straight. Can he? Years of stenciling fowl onto earthenware might betray something of the fey in a man.
During the second course (roast lamb) shop keeper and Poundbury apologist Ben Pentreath arrived. A very British, gay handful. His simpering, tongue tied husband in tow… brutally eclipsed by Ben’s scintillating, room filling persona. Ben excused himself… they had been to another party. The dull husband threw Katie a huge bunch of vulgar dahlias. Ben had stories to tell and took charge of the table as best he could. He mocked his boss Prince Charles with an uninspired impersonation. Our host and hostess gasped and giggled like naughty Victorian children enthralled by a Zoetrope, tittering at everything the clown queen regaled.
Ben and his pretty husband live in a parsonage not far from Jason and Katie. The house has been ‘published’. They show me pictures in a magazine of Ben’s equally annoying interior. Stuck in a grim place where a potager is still essential and an escritoire ‘sublime’. More stuff. Acres of stuff. Rooms full of stuff. Stuff Poundbury bought. Stuff set against emerald walls, set against raspberry blancmange, more and more, lustre ware, vulgar dahlias… bunches and bunches of them.
After dinner I sank uncomfortably into the sofa, consumed by horse hair and damp feathers. Ben wanted to introduce me to the ‘most perfect’ man.
“I have the most perfect man for you!”
Announcing to the room I needed a boyfriend. I told him to google me. I couldn’t imagine he would want to introduce me to anyone after he had read everything there is to read about me…
“I don’t want a boyfriend,” I said.
Jason sat beside me. Looking intently. He asked why I didn’t want a boyfriend. I told him a little of my story. Unpacking the bags. I mentioned coming out at 13, he asked dismissively why it was so important to ‘come out’.
“Ask your best friend Ben,” I said. Ben balked.
Ben ditched the resting bitch face and looked quite real, momentarily. He told Jason he was 27 when he came out, when he told his brother he was gay his brother reacted very negatively. Jason was shocked. I realized these two men who claim to be best friends don’t know each other… at all.
Jason Goodwin, enjoying his casual homophobia, sneered at my sadness for all the men I knew who died of AIDS, questioning my PTSD. Jason sneered harder when I told him how the lgbt community must still fight for equality and wondered why I let cruel Section 28 affect me. Jason, like so many men of his class, thought us impudent for wanting more. Now he sits in the front row of his gay best friend’s wedding. As for Ben Pentreith, what fight did he put up? He let the rest of us do the heavy lifting. At his wedding he scarcely gave a thought to the men who sacrificed so much for his happy day.
As a deliciously uncomfortable postscript I made Ben describe how gay hook up apps like Grindr and Scruff work to the assembled crew of stodgy heterosexuals. It was gleefully entertaining. “Scruff?” They repeated disdainfully. They wrinkled their noses, fanning away the imagined smell of the word.
I met a man I had brief crush upon, He was blond and sensitive and sturdy. I didn’t make a move. I think I would have fallen in love. I bought him a bottle of gin.
Monkton Wyld. I was staying in the house of a retired Dr and his Christian wife. They were touring Australia and New Zealand. The Monkton Wyld rectory was filled with opaque plastic boxes containing a life of habitual collecting. Bits and pieces. Scraps of fabric, knitting needles, tapestry. Every room has a sofa, even the dining room. The Christian wife does not want to live anywhere other than the huge house in the country where she keeps her charming husband hostage. He wants to live in Australia near his adored kids. They’ve brought a little slice of Surrey to the vail of Monkton Wyld. Tennis courts, over planted herbaceous borders, a rockery and sweeping lawns. Their staircase and landing is painted a delightful jade color but she doesn’t like it. She wants to paint it, he doesn’t want to spend £3000. She is unhappy. They are unhappy.
They left the house. Went away for 6 weeks. When they returned she had read all about me on the internet. I could see from her pinched lips, her sallow… indirect look. Too much of a coward to look me in the face and tell me what she really thought. Her Christianity didn’t allow her to approve of gay men. Even though she has a bisexual daughter. So she dressed up her disapproval with a shocking number of complaints about my stay at their house. The water pump had stopped working and would cost them £1,800 to put right. Some of the plants in the greenhouse had died. There was dog shit in the herbaceous borders. I had bought the wrong cat food.
There is a field at the bottom of their garden the local disliked farmer wants to sell. I hope someone buys the field and builds a big beautiful house in that field souring their perfect view. Perhaps I will.
Whilst in Dorset I took a little road trip 50 miles North to see Rachel Campbell-Johnston who was once the lover and friend of Sebastian Horsley. She is the art critic for the London Times. The final weeks of my drug use was spent with her and Sebastian. I specifically remember her vomiting out of a black cab on Kensington High St after doing reams of cocaine in 1997. The taxi driver looked so disappointed.
“What’s a pretty girl like you behaving like this.” he said.
Well, Rachel made millions from property investments (selling an old shed in Kensal Rise to Bella Freud) and bought an austere house near South Molton on Exmoor. She lives there with her daughter Katya, her mother, lurchers and two funny goats. Her marriage to my friend Jayne’s husband, Willy spectacularly failed. Their friends forced to take sides.
“Don’t talk about it!” She demanded.
I had totally forgotten she married Willy Nickerson, now she wants me to forget all over again. We reminisced about Whitstable. The Peter Cushing House. She attempted to shame me by wondering if I owned the house in Whitstable, or did it belong to someone else?
“No, it was mine.” I smiled, her icy stare not altering the temperature one jot.
“I didn’t own the house in Adam and Eve Mews.” I added, “That was my boyfriend’s.”
“Your dogs are so fucking ugly.” She said.
As if on cue one of her lurchers grabbed a huge leg of pork from the kitchen table and ran off with it. Rachel sprinted after the dog and returned with the mangled joint. She put it in the oven. “That’s what country folk do.” She said.
She remembered visiting me in Whitstable with Sebastian, Tricia and Paul Simonon from The Clash. She pointed at the bottle of wine on the kitchen table.
“We own these vineyards.”
I looked at her. Carefully. Wondering if she would ever grow up and make sense of what it might mean to be a wife and mother. She had failed so spectacularly at both.
The following day we sat with Laura and Peter Carew who I found myself liking a great deal. I reminded them I had been nominated for an academy award and gone to Sundance and opened many film festivals all over the world, which is far more than most of the wannabees we hung out with who told you they would… but never did.
“Look at his dogs,” Rachel spewed,”They are so fucking ugly.”
Although the Carew’s house is jammed with stuff like the houses of all these country people it is welcoming and warm. Lunch, a couple of chops and some salad. It suits Laura very much to have staff and land. Sheep and cattle. She’s only a decade from living on Exmoor full-time. Giving in to the lure of headscarves, tweed skirts, lambing, and driving a Landrover full tilt over the sodden moor.
I didn’t drive home the night I left Exmoor. I hanker for the sea. For Lyme Regis.
I was happy to see it. Lyme will always remind me of my first great love: Gerard Falconetti, grand son of Renee Jeanne. He played Meryl Streep’s real-time lover in the film The French Lieutenant’s Woman. He was my lover and friend, he was also the first man I knew during those heady times to die of AIDS. When the doctors told him he would die of that cruel and terrible disease he threw himself from the roof of the Tour Montparnasse.
A few delightful days in Paris and Barcelona restored my serenity. No more searing heat, the weather more temperate, heavy clouds bursting over us. The rain washing away the last of the red, Andalusian dust. Well dressed men, once again, to look at on the streets. Mary’s spare room, decorated with Honiton lace and embroidered white linen. We walk the length of Parc St Cloud with our dogs wearing gun boots and waxed jackets. The Little Dog is almost fully restored, his eye closes once again, his sagging jowl looks perfectly normal to those who do not know. One evening we helped friends of Mary move house. TV Producer Etienne Alban, recently separated from his wife and kids, moving in with his super cute… yoga instructor girlfriend. Alban and I carried a huge sofa six flights to their huge new attic apartment. After the exercise we enjoyed a wonderful dinner at The Hotel Edgar. Their boudin noir… superb.
The following day I drove from Paris to Chamonix listening to an audio recording of the novel 1984. It is a compellingly joyless book. Because I am a ditz I arrived a day early. So I booked the Hotel Isabelle and slept fitfully thinking about my time in Carmona. More specifically I dreamt about my Carmona host and friend Ana Corbero, the chatelaine of an 11 acre estate called The Pajarita nestled outside the old city walls of Carmona beneath the The Hotel Parador and the Cordoba Gate. I dreamt a huge storm roared as I looked north from Ana’s terrace toward the great plain which was once the sea. I was pointing at something. “Land ahoy!” In the dream the waves returned after a thousand years and swept over the fields of sunflowers. Sea monsters curled out of the petulant waves then crashed into the salty foam.
My time in Carmona with Ana had been stormy, her demeanor quite different from the beautiful girl I chanced upon 35 years ago.
I met Ana Corbero in 1985 or thereabouts introduced by gallerist and curator Celia Lyttleton. Ana was showing a collection of unremarkable paintings at the Albemarle Gallery. Celia introduced her as the daughter of a well-known Spanish sculptor, the girlfriend of a Lord. She was tiny… gamine, scarcely a women. Her queer and marvelous features delicately carved and flocked, her fierce and sparkling black eyes challenging those of us who dared contradict her. She demanded respect. Her flamenco gestures, her delicate collar bones. She was beautiful.
I don’t remember a great deal about the beginning of our friendship other than the first night at the gallery.
Ana had been enjoying a fractious relationship with the absurdly handsome Colin Campbell, 7th Earl Cawdor. I do not remember them visiting me in Whitstable but apparently they did. I do not remember going to Wheelers Oyster Bar and eating crab but apparently we did. I do remember Ana’s invitation to Brooklyn the following summer where I stayed in Colin’s huge apartment, the top floor of an abandoned school he and another had recently bought. It was located just over the Williamsburg Bridge. Brooklyn was very different then. Crack addicts sat on the stoop. The Puerto Rican community had not been replaced by Hasidic Jews and dumb looking hipsters. The sky at night was regularly lit by flaming, abandoned buildings. Some called these arson attacks: Jewish lightning.
The walk into Manhattan over the Williamsburg Bridge felt unnecessary. We stayed close to the apartment. Colin and I had a fairly raucous time. Even then I felt contempt for toffs but they had all the best toys so one tended to accept the invitations whenever they came. It was an eventful trip. I had a brief affair with the artist Paul Benney. I threw a bbq from the roof of Gerard Malanga’s apartment*. We were the only white people at an African-American block party and ended up in a black police captain’s humble house. He looked very uncomfortable. Years later, I understand why. White, english people badly educated about slavery or the history of black people in the USA. We must have seemed very disrespectful.
Ana and Colin’s relationship was passionate and destructive. I blamed Colin for his insensitivity toward Ana. I excused Ana her eccentricities. The last image I have of her at that time: Ana is resting serenely in a nest of pillows, she has written in pen on her forehead one word… SILENCE.
Years passed. Many years. I remembered the word scrawled on her face. Social media reintroduced us. She married Nabil Gholam an arab architect and 18 years ago they had a baby girl. Sadly, their child is badly disabled with a rare genetic disease. Against the odds, the child survives. Ana fought to make her daughter hear and see. She refused to accept the doctor’s bleak prognosis. Ana lived in Beirut during the Israeli bombardment. Breastfeeding on her balcony as the bombs fell. She adopted two more children. A boy and a girl, both Lebanese. The architect became successful. They bought apartments in London, Paris and Seville. When her grandparents who raised her died she bought the Pajarita with a small inheritance. The Pajarita, a modest finca surrounded by acres of scorched, brown earth and rock where the locals dumped their trash. Ana set to transforming this barren place with many gardeners into the paradise she and her family enjoy today.
During the years I suggested to traveling friends I knew to be in Spain… meet Ana. I sent the lazy, derivative Australian furniture designer Charles Wilson who I believed might benefit creatively from a stint in Andalusia. But Charles, another terrible drunk, ended up being thrown out of Xavier Corbero’s house in Barcelona because Ana’s step mother hated him. Charles refused to leave so Ana’s husband threatened him with gypsies (a common, vaguely racist, threat from Nabil) who would break Charles’s legs if he didn’t pack his bag and leave immediately.
I sent Jenna and Stephen Mack’s brother John Jr., son of billionaire Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack. Even though I did not know John Jr. I trusted they would be a great fit. That introduction worked out very well. Now it was my turn to meet Ana. We communicated solely by text message. After the long drive from Nice I called her and, for the first time in 35 years, I heard her voice. The deep and rasping voice of somebody who smokes too many cigarettes or talks too much… or both.
“Why do you want to see me?” She asks over the phone.
I did not have an easy answer.
There was unfinished business between Ana and me. It was not tangible, it was esoteric. I had no expectations of Ana. I simply wanted to see her face. Without the word SILENCE scrawled on it. We might have met that afternoon, had a coffee and left it at that. I would have driven north. I had no idea what to expect but I was compelled to see her, meet her again. We arranged to meet at the small apartment she rented for guests in Carmona.
“How do you like your new digs?” She said as she got out of her huge silver Mercedes.
“Stay as long as you like.”
I gave her a long hug. Her father, Xavier Corbero, had recently died. I sniffed and she thought I was crying. “I’m not crying,” I said, “I’m sniffing.” Ana was back in my life. Her face was not the same as I remembered when I last saw her. She has hidden herself on social media because, I now understood, she could not bear what age had done to her. Almost immediately she complained how old she was, how raddled. She was embarrassed by her face.
“I’ve turned into a middle-aged Swedish woman.” she said. “I hope you’re not disappointed.”
It was true. Middle aged and middle class. Her face, bloated and pale, almost anemic. Her dry hair, she insisted she wanted to dye gray, streaked with sun bleached golden locks. Her eyes were just as fiery but no longer black. There was something stone dried about her, something suspicious. I slowly recognised who she had become. The reason I felt compelled to see her? The reason why so many years ago she left something indelible in me? It was something I recognized in myself. Within a few hours my suspicions were confirmed. Ana Corbero is an alcoholic of the most desperate kind.
We walked up the small cobbled hill from the apartment to the Casa Curro Montoya… her favorite restaurant. She flamboyantly kisses the owners and lavishes us all with praise. We sat in the hot sun and drank white wine and ate greasy jamon. Immediately, without prompting, she started telling me how her marriage was over. Her husband was a liar, she said, and she didn’t know if she could stay married to him.
“He lies about his father and their relationship. I am married to a stranger.”
I was baffled why this should be reason for divorce but Ana, it turns out, is obsessed with her version of the truth. Under the parasol that dreamy afternoon I found her deeply personal over sharing electrifying. I was being inducted into a tortured world of intrigue and family drama… it felt intoxicating. She contemptuously described her adopted children, how her lazy teen son lied and failed at school. Her pre teen daughter stole and refused to respect her Mother’s authority. I ask about their eldest daughter. “Oh, her.” she mused distantly. A slight smile flickered over her face. “She’s an angel.”
I do not remember driving to the Pajarita that afternoon. I drove to her home so many times the next few weeks. It is a dusty, pot holed road to Ana’s home. Red dust gets into everything, into the car, my mouth, my heart. During my stay the sharp red rocks rip into my tyres… twice. Yet, once behind the sliding metal gates of the Pajarita… decorated with dragons and comic strip birds there is… the illusion of calm. Beyond the painted blue iron gate a forest of pepper trees, oleander and citrus. Terracotta pots filled with herbs and lilies. Vines, dripping with grapes grow over pergolas affording shade, respite from the searing heat. Down an exquisitely cobbled path the simple house reveals itself. There are huge windows covered with traditional Spanish blinds made of esparto… woven reeds. Inside, rooms of various sizes at different levels filled with stuff. Ana’s art covers the walls. Piles of art books and catalogues from Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Broken china knickknacks. Buckets of architectural salvage. Most of it inherited from her grand parents. So much stuff.
Many staff run Ana’s estate and life. Annie the housekeeper and general fixer. Three nurses look after the disabled daughter. There are gardeners and flamenco guitarists, a governess for the adopted daughter and a masseur who comes daily. On occasions Ana would marshal the staff and demand they sing songs of her own composition. They did as they were told.
Annie, a simple local woman and (it became apparent) loathed by the son… was Ana’s most trusted servant. As well as dusting, ironing and making beds Annie, Ana told me, was being groomed to write Ana’s autobiography and mix her paints whenever she started painting again. Annie would also run the restaurant whenever Ana got around to opening it. Annie, forced to kiss us all as per the ‘Andalusian way’.
I refused to kiss Ana’s staff.
“I can’t bear lies or exaggeration.” Ana says. “I am never impatient, I am never angry.”
During the first few days of my stay we find a happy routine. I have practical considerations. I apply for my Spanish residency, open a bank account and get a phone. I take the dogs to the vet in Seville. The vet is quite the most handsome man I ever met. I decide to buy a house in Carmona. They are cheap and plentiful. Ana is incredibly helpful. She introduces me to a lawyer, a realtor and makes every effort to ease me into Spanish life. We find a perfectly preserved 16th Century house near the Cordoba Gate. I need an assistant. She introduces me to Jose, her own assistant for five years but curiously tells me he is not welcome at her home.
“He needs to pull his head out of his ass.”
Why she makes the introduction to Jose is a mystery. And why is he unwelcome at the Pajarita? Jose is a good man. Friendly and helpful. I confide in Jose. I am shocked by the way Ana treats her children, the contempt she has for her husband. I rant at Jose about Ana. She believes she’s always right, she’s never wrong, the interminable interruptions at dinner so conversations between adults become utterly fruitless and frustrating. Ana interrupts with shrill, ill-informed dissent. Blighted with a remarkable lack of insight and self-awareness Ana’s inability to see her part in any dispute caused me much incredulity.
Jose smiles and listens.
“I don’t have a problem, YOU have a problem.” Ana insists.
Three days into my visit Nabil arrives with their son. They are very pleasant but I have already had my mind poisoned against them. Expecting the worse I’m surprised to find her husband kind and considerate, compensating for his wife’s excesses. He is a gentle man and every day works hard to keep his marriage alive. Nabil shows me his watch collection, explaining how he transports his wealth around the world at times of war. In the evening, when she is at her worse, Nabil makes excuses for her rapidly disintegrating behaviour.
Their son is a perfectly ordinary teenage boy. He has a girlfriend, he has thick black hair, he is interested in sport and fashion and making money trading sneakers… we went to the fashion outlet in Seville but it was closed. He was funny and charming. House hunting one morning I paid him to translate for me. He has a keen understanding of people. He could read between the lines. He enjoys his life at boarding school.
I find him in his room trying to write. Ana has asked him to imagine a fifty year life plan. He looks helpless. An absurd request the teenager knows he must fulfill. When, after several weeks, the 50 year plan arrives Ana is outraged. Why does the plan does not include Spain and by inference… her? Why should it? Ask a boy to map out the next fifty years is abuse enough. But this was just one of many abuses, her plan to punish him for not appreciating how lucky he was that she had taken the time and money to adopt him. He could never be grateful enough. She confided that she planned to take him out of the boarding school he loved and punish him for his lack of sensitivity by sending him to his paternal grandfather… who Ana hated. Nabil, when we are on our own, desperately whispers an appeal to me,
“Please help me, can you make her see sense?”
It was no use, Ana is always hell-bent on revenge, riven by some resentment for some poor sap. Ana reminded both her children how lucky they were to have her as their adopted mother. These scenes pulled straight out of the movie Mommy Dearest. But Joan Crawford, bless her tortured soul, was a saint in comparison.
We drive to Seville for lunch with John Mack Jr. who mocks Ana’s constant, inebriated interruptions. John Mack Jr has his own demons but I wanted to hear everything he had to say. I had been very close with his brother Stephen and worked with his sister Jenna. Both relationships had come to nothing. Of course John claims he knows nothing of his sister’s appalling arrogance… he is his father’s son. He knew everything. He had his own brush with addiction, a failed marriage and traumas only the son of a billionaire would understand. Stephen Mack told me once their father would say of his enemies, “I’ll make them hurt.” His father wasn’t called ‘Mack the Knife’ for no reason. Jenna was very eager for me to meet her parents but I knew it would turn out badly, getting dragged along to events I had no reason to be at. I met Mack senior, who one couldn’t help respecting, several times. I had dinner with Jenna and her father at The Mercer Hotel and again at a High Line charity event. Jenna, Stephen and John’s parents are a great team, they donate millions to charity, they delight in taking pictures of couples in the street who don’t have selfie sticks.
I knew my father was the same as John Mack. Cruel and kind in equal measure.
When I said goodbye to John Mack Jr. after lunch (he cycled off into the hot, congested Seville streets) I knew I would never meet him or any member of his family ever again.
As I grow closer to my assistant Jose it becomes apparent that he doesn’t merely dislike Ana, he hates her. He hates her with a shocking vengeance. It is painful for him to carry such hate in his heart. He warns me to think carefully about staying in Carmona, he cautions if I buy a house in Carmona I will end up hating Ana. He warns me people very close to Ana hate her. The owners of the restaurant hate her, he warns she has fallen out with everyone who lives in Carmona, accusing them of crimes and disappointments, their relationships blighted with unrealistic expectations.
Jose describes Ana’s tantrums, how she would regularly reduce him to tears with her demands and mendacity. His impersonation of her clawing at her own face demanding she wanted what she wanted… NOW! Nothing would placate her. He tried helping her but failed. He still finds it hard to forgive himself for walking away. Walking away from the children he loved and cared for.
I took the adopted girl to meet Jose. They hadn’t seen each other for years. They cried and hugged. We wandered the streets of Carmona until midnight. Jose kept thanking me for bringing her to see him. We ate ice cream and sat in the forum. When we returned to the Pajarita Ana looks quizzically at me. Taking the child to meet Jose could be construed as an act of betrayal. I apologize for bringing her home so late.
The following day Ana is screaming at her children, “Why don’t you bring your friends to the Pajarita?” It is obvious why… to those of us who are the children of abusive parents. There’s shame and fear around alcoholism and the unpredictability of an alcoholic parent. Neither child want their friends to meet Ana. Neither want to explain her behaviour. I saw the fear in their eyes when Ana looked as if she was going to lose her temper. The night she couldn’t make the ancient iPod work and began blaming her daughter. The panicking child wrestled with the iPod, willing it to work. Finally she managed to make it play and disaster was averted. I’m sure the little girl didn’t want to be reminded once more why she should be grateful Ana adopted her and how easily she could be sent back to the children’s home.
The daughter dances, she entertains Ana’s guests with gymnastics, endless cartwheels and overtly sexual dance moves she learns from TV shows like Glee. Playing the same track over and over. I was asked to judge endless dance routines. She was desperate to impress. Yet, however hard the child tries to please… it is never good enough.
“Hold your hands like this” Ana demands. “No! Not like that… like this.” Ana lunges beside her daughter and demonstrates what she wants to see. Ana demands we all dance. I dance for a moment then I sit down and watch the scene unfold. The dance with her daughter becomes violent, twirling the child around until finally it is no longer a dance but a fight… Ana body slams the girl onto the floor. The child is crying and Ana falls badly into the television. She mocks the child for crying, mocks her use of a hearing aid. She swears at the child and accuses her of making sexual advances to Nabil. Once, in the pool, Ana tore off the child’s bathing costume, tossing it out of the pool. Ana is laughing like a maniac, the child is pleading. I throw the costume back into the pool. Then I walk away, saving the kid the embarrassment of being seen naked. Jose, when I tell him… is not surprised. There were times when he wanted to report her to the police for child abuse. The following day Ana wonders why her back hurts so badly. I remind her but she doesn’t remember the fight. She has no recollection. How much of the time is she blacked out?
“Time for drinkypoos?” She says.
Like an infirmed english aristocrat the pronouncement comes when Nabil is at home… otherwise she’s opening bottles all day. She’s already stoned long before she starts drinking. I learned not to go near the house until she is drunk or stoned enough not to be a total bitch. Waiting for an invitation to join her. If I stayed at the Pajarita I would slip away before she woke up. When her interest in me cooled her morning emails and text messages were filled with vile insults and personal attacks. By then I was employing every technique Alanon afforded me. Let go with love, they say. Every day I let her go… with love. Soon I would have to let go of her forever.
The night Nabil left for London and Beirut I was sitting by the pool with Ana enjoying a rare, balmy evening. We spent a lot of time talking about her future, her work, galleries and retrospectives. I was convinced she was capable of making the huge changes in her life necessary for her to be recognised as an important artist. We talked about male artists who were commanding huge sums in galleries and at auction. We discussed how women artists have been impoverished by men. After meeting her disabled daughter my understanding of her work swelled. The cute sculptures of girls looking heavenward meant something. Ana has spent years working out her feelings toward her disabled daughter using her art, especially her sculpture. Her work, like so many women… unlike the work of so many men, has never been contextualized. The story is never told. “Your work is beyond the vagina.” I said. She laughed. Ana is not easily complimented. So, we concentrate on her potential. I liked mulling over future possibilities with her.
Without warning she rolled toward me and laid her head on my chest.
She said, “I find you overwhelmingly attractive. I want to grow old with you.”
At that very moment I knew our friendship was over. I shifted in my seat. If I rebuffed Ana I risked her unconscionable wrath. She repeated the words.
“I want to grow old with you.”
Finally, I affected my most affable self and said,”Oh, silly… what would Nabil say?”
She lifted her head. She was not going to be fobbed off with that.
“I don’t put my head on anyone’s chest.” She began, her voice becoming defensive. She continued speaking but I could not hear her… I was in a blind panic. I knew it was over, at that moment I knew my time around Ana had come to an end.
The following days she called me names by text (fat and old) and generally took time to insult and belittle me. She denounced me as a traitor to the Pajarita. I found myself drifting to the house knowing full well what reception I would receive. She warned me, I was no longer ‘drama free’ I was accused of bringing stress and ‘baggage’ into her life. Thankfully, her friend Alfonso and his daughter arrived. Perhaps he would grow old with her? I slipped out of the pre arranged parties to which I was tacitly expected to attend. I had no interest in being around her. It was over. Soon I was packing up the car and headed north. My time in Carmona but not Spain… had come to an end.
Ana Corbero signs all her emails or text messages with ‘Luv and Light A xxx’. It is ironic because she has a dark soul. A monster for whom no cage will ever be built… unless of course she embraces sobriety and thereby solves her chronic addiction to resentment.
*Recently I bumped into Gerard Malanga, frail and limping, in a small French cafe on Warren Street in Hudson, New York and apologised for my drunken indiscretion all those years ago. Although furious at the time he sweetly claimed not to remember the incident.
The heat is overwhelming. A blanket of scorching air thrown over the city. The dogs wilt, I pretend it’s just like Malibu but… it’s not. Southern Spain. I’m driving to Nice this week, then on to Paris and Chamonix to pick up my stuff. I managed to leave things all over the place. Ditching supurflous stuff along the way. Lightening the load. Occasionally I look at Dude and wonder if I should ditch him… poor crippled Dude. His back legs giving in, he wants to catch up but he just can’t. I can’t. I can’t leave him behind.
At 5am, I took my coffee cup and the Little Dog. We sat quietly looking out at the wide open plain, great fields of sunflowers, traffic snaking here and there. Sitting outside the Cordoba Gate. What dramas happened here? Who was allowed in and who was kept out? The two large fortified towers flanking a Roman arch were built around the 1st century A.D., with Renaissance and Neoclassical renovations. It was designed to protect and reflect the great wealth Carmona enjoyed for hundreds of years.
A man arrives with his chestnut gelding. As the horse drinks from the stone trough he drenches the beast with a plastic bucket. How welcome that trough must have been to those who arrived (for hundreds of years) on horseback over this arid plain. Waiting for the great doors to swing open, waiting outside the Cordoba gate, waiting to be let in or not.
I am going to stay the weekend in Italy with Rachel. Near Pisa. She has a donkey and two beloved cats. At night Carmona is over run with scavenging cats. Hundreds of them, like rats in New York. They are too confident to be scared by me or the Little Dog even though he makes an occasional and pathetic attempt at charging them. Their backs arch, they hiss and show their claws. He stops a couple of feet away and makes his strange whimper.
Last night my friend Jose and I explored the ancient part of the city. At 10.30 it was still very hot. Then suddenly the wind comes from Cadiz, from the ocean… 60 miles away. You can taste the salt. We turn a corner and the welcome breeze fills our shirts and closes our eyes.
We were chronicling abandoned houses, with or with out se vende signs written on them. Taking note of the location of each. “Everything is for sale in Spain.” The realtor says. There are palaces and broken shacks, old towers and ancient islamic, crenelated walls formerly part of the old city fortification that crash into very ordinary houses and quite by accident these medieval battlements, parapets and mouldings are consumed and preserved.
Everything in Spain is for sale. They see me coming: the friend of the rich celebrity. The price of everything jumps $40k. They show me the same houses they showed other friends two years ago. Unlocking ancient doors, we wander through huge homes once occupied by many families. There are slim balconies, stone steps leading to terraces looking down on secret courtyards. There is pigeon shit and kittens mewing in every room in every house we saw. Abandoned lives: a simple chair, a faience pot, a richly embroidered matador’s jacket hanging on the wall. Left behind, like my luggage in Paris and Chamonix.
Jose asks me why I want to live in Carmona. They asked me about Tivoli and Malibu before. Why does anyone want to live anywhere? I don’t know. I could live anywhere and nowhere. I am transient. I am free of possession or need for possessions. I go where I am safe. It is safe here. I lived in so much fear in the USA. Fear of being caught without my papers. Fear of the state. I was not rich or powerful enough not to live in fear.
We wake at 4.30am. We siesta after lunch. The streets fill, the shops and bars open after 9pm. During the day Dude will not leave my friend, he hides under their garden furniture. I keep the dogs out of the heat as much as I can. The Little Dog is gradually (slowly) recovering from his facial paralysis. He’s still very droopy but he’s coping. He’s doing the best he can. I’m doing the best I can. I am covered with sweat and dust. My nose is crusty, my eyes exhausted. I am recovering my optimism.
Since leaving the USA I am not plagued with ideas of death, with dark thoughts, with hopelessness. I am not hurting myself by investing in old traumas. Not here. I don’t want to die. Not where there has been so much life for hundreds of thousands of years. I am a smear soon to be forgotten. My unpopular views on social media but dust. It’s incumbent on me to stay alive. To rejoice. America makes a man vulnerable. It destroys ones trust in humanity. I came to loathe so many people in the USA but I hated gay white men more than any other. They are vile and crude. They espouse ideas of love and acceptance but practiced hate and exclusivity.
Today we are having lunch in Seville with Spanish gays. I am excited. The gay men I meet here are so generous. They touch my shoulder, they embrace me warmly. At first I shrank from their kindness. I learned not to trust white gay men. But, I’ve warmed to them here. They understand. They understand what horrors I endured in the USA.