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 I think 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 USA this 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.