Of seating plans, turtle doves and symphonies in watered silk – Part 5.

And so, a couple of months short of Ron and Yvonne’s tenth wedding anniversary, K and I find ourselves contemplating our first return to that same registry office on Shakespeare Street. A decade ago, with the Conservative government into its seventeenth consecutive year in power, the prospect of legally binding same-sex civil partnership registrations – in this country, within our lifetimes – would have been dismissed as laughable. From December 5th 2005, it will be a reality.

Over in the USA, insofar as I have been following the situation (which admittedly isn’t all that closely), the whole debate has been about “gay marriage”. It is to my immense relief that here in the UK, we have gone down a different route. Less controversial (and therefore less politically dangerous to introduce) – but also infinitely more acceptable to my (our) way of thinking.

We’ve never wanted a “gay wedding”. We’ve never wanted to make those kind of public vows, using somebody else’s state-sanctioned words, in such a standardised, ritualised, sentimentalised manner. For many reasons – not the least being that, as people who have always stood outside the major heterosexual paradigms, one of the great strengths of gay relationships is that we can shape them for ourselves. Not pret-a-porter, but couture, darlings.

So why are we even bothering? The clue is in the wording. We’re registering our partnership with the state – for solid, pragmatic reasons. Exemption from inheritance tax, for one thing. More importantly, we’ll have full next-of-kin status, including hospital visitation rights.

But also – and I might just be speaking for myself here – I will value the full, above-the-board legitimacy that civil partnership will confer. When I’m applying for a job, or sorting my finances out, or meeting someone in a formal capacity, then my relationship status can be calmly, smoothly, confidently expressed. All those lingering “outsider” issues – that telling someone you’re in a gay relationship within the first few seconds of meeting them is somehow over-sharing, “inappropriate for the situation”, or dangerously “political” – they will all melt away. Instantly, and for ever. Call me a bourgeois assimiliationist lackey as much as you like – remind me that, yes, it’s all very well for you, in your cosy, oh-so-perfect little relationship, but how does that change anything for single people – but I’m telling you straight: that prospect feels wonderful.

Right, so how are we going to approach the registration day itself? Ever since the day I got down on my knees (ironically) and popped the question (although it scarcely needed asking), K and I have shared the same running joke.

I want a marquee! I want a string quartet! I want matching white suits! I want us to read poetry to each other! I want two weeks in the Seychelles! I want f***ing turtle doves!

Our nightmare scenario, for sure. But if not that, then what? Do we really just grab a couple of witnesses, turn up at the pre-appointed time, sign the bits of paper, then go back to work as if nothing had happened? There’s a logic to that approach – but isn’t it a rather cold, hard logic? No sense of celebration at all? More worryingly: wouldn’t we be in danger of perpetuating our marginalised status on some level? Oh, we’re gay, so we’re not really worth it?

If there’s a happy medium, then we need to start looking for it. At the very least, it should be a good excuse for buying nice new outfits. Perhaps we could invite a few people along – a few, mind. Mish has already vowed to ambush us outside with confetti, whether we like it or not.

Incidentally, there’s at least a 50% chance that Mish’s friend and former colleague k.f. will be officiating at the registry office. Two people in central Nottingham are about to receive special training for the same-sex registrations, and he’s one of them. When I call in to place our names on the queue, I have been instructed to ask for him by name. Indeed, we’ve already shared several giddy, tipsy conversations down at The Central.

“Oh darling, I’m so THRILLED that you’ll be MARRYING us!”

“Oh darling, it will be such an HONOUR!”

Actually, I think we might be the ones passing him the freshly laundered linen handkerchief.

So if we’re inviting a few people along, then we can’t really send them straight back home again, can we? So maybe we should all go out for a nice meal afterwards? Possibly in one of the small-ish private dining rooms, in one of the good restaurants in town? You know, just to maintain the sense of occasion?

There’s also the thorny issue of our families to consider. This may astonish you, but in the whole twenty years of our relationship, my mother has never met any members of K’s family. (I know, I know. Another post, for another day.) Elephant in the room, or what?

Perhaps this would be the ideal time to get everyone together at last. My mother and sister, if she’s in the country; K’s parents and sister; and a select number of well-established friends. Yes, that could all be very jolly. K might not think so, but if I begin my campaign of attrition right now

Ooh, slippery slope. Thin end of the wedge. We’ll be up to our necks in tangerine watered silk, weeping aunties and rotisserie sets before we know it. But we’re navigating uncharted water here. Maybe we need an instruction manual?

Oh dear. But I’ll bet you that some enterprising queen is pitching the idea to his agent right now.Colin & Justin‘s How To Get Hitched, anybody?

All these years, I’ve been standing on the sidelines, the perennial Detached Observer. Sometimes sneering – sometimes spinning my wheel and muttering my incantations – but most usually dabbing my eyes, raising my glass, Wishing Them Every Happiness, and tearing up the floor at the disco afterwards.

Now it’s my turn.

Of seating plans, turtle doves and symphonies in watered silk – Part 4.

However, I wouldn’t want you to get the idea that I have an automatic snooty downer on all wedding ceremonies. Far from it! For as soon as I step through that church or registry office door (provided I’ve been F**KING INVITED IN THE FIRST PLACE, that is), the cynicism falls away from my shoulders like a discarded winter coat. (Use Of Simile hem-hem.)

Oh, I can deny it all I like – but I’m a sentimental old sausage, and a perennial sucker for a happy ending. And if we’re talking happy endings, then there was never any happier than the union of… well, let’s call them Ron and Yvonne.

Yvonne had been our lodger for the thick end of two years, back in the old house in Sherwood, when it was everyone’s favourite after-hours bar and weekend crash pad, and we were the lynchpins of an exponentially expanding social clique. She was single when she moved in, and still smarting from an upsetting, unexpected break-up – and so we watched, and counselled, and encouraged, and plotted, and played Devil’s advocate, or Devil on the shoulder, or gooseberry, or Obviously Gay And Absolutely No Threat At All dancing partner…

…and cautioned, and tutted, and gasped, and passed the tissues, and shook our fists in Men They’re All Bastards outrage, and then pissed ourselves at the sheer viciousness of our wise-after-the-event, laughter-as-therapy character assassinations…

…as Yvonne gamely lurched through a couple of highly unsatisfactory (if mercifully brief) liaisons with a couple of well flaky geezers who were Just Not Worthy Of You, Darling.

Then along came Ron. The secret office crush turned clandestine fling (They Must Never Know), which swiftly turned into something a good deal more serious. Because Ron and Yvonne just fitted. It was so blindingly obvious that it was scarcely worthy of mention. No need for any speculative maybe-he’s-the-one sessions on the sofa, necking cans of Stella from the corner shop in front of The Golden Girls. Besides, Ron was round all the time.

When K and I made an offer on the new, large, stylish house, with the massive knocked-through living area (the PARTIES!), it was a given that Ron and Yvonne would move in and lodge with us. They even came along for the third viewing; for as far as we were concerned, there could be no go-ahead unless they approved.

When K and I came to our senses, and realised that the house was far too big, and in a dodgy area (hookers outside the door, three remand homes round the corner), and that actually it was the whole late-night-speakeasy syndrome that we were trying to escape from, not encourage… and after we made an offer on the much smaller, even more stylish house (beech parquet!) in the posh bit of town… we had to sit the lovebirds down, and break the news gently.

They took it very well. Ron was still living at home, and his parents were retiring back to Jamaica in a few weeks, so they could move in there for a while, then look around for a place of their own. In fact, I like to think that we gently nudged them onto the next stage.

The week we all moved, Yvonne gave us a card. Many thanks to two darling boys who have been like brothers to me, EXCEPT THAT NO BROTHERS WOULD CHUCK THEIR SISTER OUT ON THE STREET, DESTITUTE AND HOMELESS. All my love, Yvonne. xxx Yes, a gentle nudge.

Stretching right back to the all-dayers at Rock City ten years earlier, Yvonne had loved, loved, LOVED her soul/funk: Luther Vandross, Alexander O’Neal, Freddie Jackson, Eugene Wilde, Soul II Soul, En Vogue, The Family Stand, Barry White, Earth Wind & Fire… and Oleta Adams, whose Circle Of One album had soundtracked her courtship with Ron. When she walked down the aisle of the Shakespeare Street registry office, in her stunning Dries Van Noten gown (ivory silk, with a bold yet delicate scarlet floral pattern to one side; had to sweet-talk it out of someone else’s hand, down at Harvey Nicks), there could be only one accompaniment: Oleta’s unashamedly schmaltzy, borderline preposterous, irresistably heart-melting piano-based ballad, Get Here.

You can windsurf into my life, take me up on a carpet ride,
You can make it in a big balloon, but you better make it soon.
You can reach me by caravan, cross the desert like an Arab man,
I don’t care how you get here – just get here if you can.

They put me on ghetto-blaster duty, tape all cued up, with Oleta’s Rhythm Of Life as the exit music for later. Because even if I’m good for nothing else, I can wield a mean Play button.

Walking slowly towards Ron, a few feet away at the registrar’s desk, her sister by her side (in THE! MOST! meringue-y of all puff-sleeved confections ever – but when you’re Downs Syndrome, and you’ve been excited-to-bursting for months, how could anyone possibly deny your heart’s desire?), we all knew she’d cry. Ah, bless. She’ll smudge that make-up before she’s even started.

A few minutes later, as the bride and groom signed the register, more soft music started wafting into the room. At which point, one by one, all of our friends turned to face me: big complicit smiles on their faces, thumbs aloft.

“Nice one, Mike!”

“Huh? What?”

“The music! You cheeky bugger! Brilliant!”

I listened more closely. Blimey, Engelbert Humperdinck.

Please release me, let me go
For I don’t love you anymore
To waste our lives would be a sin
Release me and let me love again

You’d think these sorts of establishments would check such things through, wouldn’t you?

And come on, people: did you really think I’d be that evil? Frankly, I’m a little put out.

More to the point: was there someone that Ron and Yvonne hadn’t invited?

Of seating plans, turtle doves and symphonies in watered silk – Part 3.

Things I wish I’d known at the age of 21: that one’s best friends at University are not necessarily going to be one’s best friends forever. There’s something subtly homogenising about the shared experiences and the particular circumstances of student life, with all of its self-referential heirarchies and self-contained parochialism. Fresh out of school – your personality still a work in progress, your life choices happily deferred for a few more years – and you’re liable to fall in with whoever you happen to be sitting next to.

Nothing wrong with that, either. Potentially, you’re open to everything and everybody, bound by few limiting pre-conceptions beyond the obvious ones (eg. it’s generally best to give a wide berth to the rugger bugger embezzlers in the residence hall bar). With the campus as a testbed for controlled experiments with your sense of self, it’s an altogether healthy stage of development. However, you should not be too surprised when, two or three years later, the shackles fall from your eyes, and you suddenly find yourself looking at these people as if for the first time, and you suddenly find yourself thinking: why am I even spending time with you?

Never mind all those earnest late night discussions, perched on each other’s beds with instant coffees and soggy spliffs, tying each other up in knots over politics, philosophy, religion, the “superficiality” of modern life, the Death of Culture, or that shit new band that all the “boring” people have suddenly got into. Never mind all those shared secrets, hopes and fears: quietly confided, loyally protected. Never mind all those nights out with the gang, fifteen people round a table, one shared mindset, batting round the in-jokes, trading the who-shagged-whos, the who-dumped-whos, the God-what-is-she-LIKEs. Because one day, you’ll be down for one of your “reunion” weekends, sitting in some crap pub round the corner from whoever you’re staying with, reminiscing about the time when so-and-so did such-and-such and wasn’t it CLASSIC… and you’ll realise, with a start and a shudder, that your shared past is all you’ll ever have, and that, actually, you’re a bit bored with all of this now.

Or the divisions might be more particular, and more profound. For instance, your old Uni crowd might all be living in Wandsworth, in 1987, working in advertising, buying everything (f**king EVERYTHING!) from Habitat and Next Interiors, braying about the dosh they’re bringing in, assessing everything in life in terms of its cash value (“This jacket cost me A HUNDRED POUNDS!”), all fully mortgaged and paid-up members of the Big Bang Canary Wharf Stripey Shirt And Shoulder Pads If You See Sid, Tell Him Never Had It So Good Speculate To Accumulate Property Boomer generation… while you’ve gone down the Public Sector Hair Shirt There Is Power In A Union Meat Is Murder Say No To The Cuts Benefit Night (£2 or £1 NUS/Unwaged) Barclays Bank Is A Fascist Bank 2-4-6-8 Is That Policeman Really Straight Maggie Maggie Maggie Out Out Out Sanctimonious Self-Righteousness route.

(Or, if you haven’t actually gone down that route per se, then you’re at least gazing longingly down it (aspirationally, even – oh, the irony), and wondering how you’re going to square this aspiration with all the brand new lacquered black ash furniture in your Matt Black Dreamhome.)

Or you might be in a new relationship, and meeting your new partner’s old friends, and trying to find common ground with them, but all the while thinking: what is someone like him doing with people like that? While all the while, your new partner is meeting your old friends, and quietly nursing the same thoughts, in mirror image. Sometimes, it takes the sharp focus of a new relationship to place the accumulated baggage of your life in a bracing new perspective.

Thus it was with K’s old Uni pal, and his new fiancée. Horace #2: the hippy slacker turned stockbroker, his residual stoner chuckle strikingly at odds with the rest of him. Doris #2: the tense, controlling, tight-smiled solicitor, with her John Lewis leisure wear and her series of airy, slightly gauche asides, all too obviously designed to signal her elevated financial status.

The second time they came to stay with us, I made a great play of insisting on dragging everybody off to the Midland Group arts cinema, to see the main attraction of our inaugural Lesbian & Gay Film Festival: a documentary on the life and death of the San Francisco activist and local politician, Harvey Milk. Never mind that the three of them would rather have dressed up and gone out for a few octagonal platefuls of nouvelle cuisine at the smart new eaterie of the day – I had taken it upon myself to Raise Their Consciousness. (K included; he had not long been out of the closet, and I saw it as my duty to improve him.)

It was an arresting, hard-hitting, altogether superb documentary, which could not help but fill you with righteous indignation at Milk’s tragic fate. All four of us left the cinema in a subdued, thoughtful mood. There were flyers being handed out on the door by local activists. Horace #2 and Doris #2 politely took them, and then – to my abject horror – took them out in the straight bar round the corner, in full view of the other patrons, and read them, even as the word GAY seemingly screamed off every corner of every page. Had they no thought for our comfort and safety?

Maybe my consciousness wasn’t quite as advanced as I had thought.

Anyway, it didn’t stop them excluding me from their f**king wedding.

“Maybe they’re having to be tight on numbers”, K suggested. Yeah, you know this bit.

At the reception, K checked the names on the other place settings around his table. Nobody there he knew, worse luck. The place setting opposite him bore an army officer’s rank. The place setting adjacent to the army officer said “Guest of [army officer]”.

They didn’t even know her name. But she wasn’t another bloke, so that was all right then. Nothing to make the great aunts choke on their aperitifs.

The army officer and his “guest” clearly hadn’t known each other for long. Two or three weeks, tops. Done up to the nines, but in a distinctly brassier style than the other guests, she was all simpers and giggles, clearly delighted with the social advancement which the occasion conferred.To think of it! The likes of me, hob-nobbing with stockbrokers, solicitors… and a dashing young army officer by my side! Girl, you’ve arrived!

Her face, when the army officer discreetly came out as gay to her halfway through the meal, was apparently quite a picture.

Back in Nottingham, once again with my spinning wheel and my incantations, I cackled long and hard.

That Christmas, in response to Horace and Doris #2’s jumbo-sized Super Executive Deluxe Pride Of The Mantle Shelf affair (traditional Victorian carriage in the snow: check – extra fly-leaf, in hand-tooled vellum: check – pre-printed address on the inside, with a house name instead of a common little number: check), we chose a card from our local workers-collective alternative bookshop. Sponsored by the Nicaraguan Solidarity Campaign, the drawing on its cover depicted, in some detail, innocent people being gunned down in the street by the evil CIA-backed anti-Communist insurgents.

Prop that up against your f**king carriage clock, we tittered, daring each other to seal the envelope.

We never heard from them again.

Of seating plans, turtle doves and symphonies in watered silk – Part 2.

Unlike some weddings in the 1980s which I could mention… mention… mention…

About two years into our relationship, K received a couple of wedding invitations, separated by no more than a few months. Coincidentally, both brides and both grooms bore the same first names; let’s call them Horace and Doris.

In both cases, K and Horace had been friends for many years. In both cases, I had met the couples on several occasions. Both Horaces, and one of the Dorises, had been overnight guests of ours, more than once. All the Horaces, and all the Dorises, came from fairly prosperous backgrounds, with families who placed a big emphasis on show, and front, and positioning: the executive classes, if you will. They were the sort of people who had their Christmas cards specially printed, in the largest size available, with an extra fly-leaf of paper between the traditional Victorian cover design and the embossed greetings page. Both weddings were therefore going to be full-scale church productions. Waistcoats and cravats for the gents; puffed sleeves and peach-coloured watered silk for the ladies. Lots of great aunts. Lots of hats. Horses and carriages. Meringues and gateaux. The full works.

I think you can guess where this is going.

“Maybe they’re having to be quite tight on numbers”, K suggested, kindly.

“They’re just SCARED of having me there”, I pouted, testily. “Wouldn’t want to RUIN their big day, by having a gay couple OPENLY AND FLAGRANTLY CAVORTING with each other and frightening the horses. Or the great aunts. Didn’t like them anyway. See if I care.”

(Younger readers should bear in mind that this was around 1986 or 1987, when the unholy alliance of Thatcherism and the tabloid press was at the height of its spurious triumphalism, and the post-AIDS anti-gay backlash was picking up a serious head of steam. Gays just Weren’t Quite Nice back then. Clause 28 was just around the corner. As was Black Monday on the Stock Exchange. HAHAHA SERVES YOU RIGHT YOU TORY BASTARDS. Oh, I was quite the unreconstructed socialist in those days.)

Just to rub salt in the wound, Horace #1 also asked K to be his best man.

“So I’m just the SHAMEFUL LITTLE SECRET, am I?”, I wailed, in best Cage Aux Folles style – rather enjoying my “victim” status, although I would have died rather than admit it.

“They couldn’t even squeeze me onto Table Z, Seat 99? No, you run along! Don’t mind me! He’s YOUR FRIEND, after all; I’m just YOUR BOYFRIEND.” And so on, and so on. Supportive to the end, me.

Meanwhile, Doris #1 had firm views about how the day should progress, one particular stipulation being repeated almost to the point of obsession.

“K, you’ve got to promise me one thing. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES do we want our going-away vehicle messed up with balloons, and shaving foam, and “just married” signs, and tin cans tied to the bumper. It just looks so TATTY, and so CHEAP, and it would RUIN MY DAY if anyone did anything like that.”

Horace #1, in my considered judgement, was frankly a bit of a wimp.

(Hang on, wasn’t there an ELO song about that? Perhaps the pseudonym wasn’t drawn at random after all. The subconscious moves in mysterious ways. Or in my case, utterly predictable Rock And Pop Trivia-related ways.)

On the night before the wedding, he had become such a quivering bag of nerves that, in a novel expansion of the best man’s traditional duties, K found himself obliged to write the entire groom’s speech on his behalf. This he did without complaining, despite the lateness of the hour, the alcohol coursing through his veins, his own pre-match nerves… and, of course, his singular lack of personal empathy with the subject matter at hand. Still, what are friends for?

During the reception, K realised that he had forgotten something rather vital: his own speech, which was still in the groom’s car.

“Horace, can I borrow your keys? I’ve left my speech in your car.”

“No, you can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because you’re just looking for an excuse to sneak off and decorate the car.”

“No I’m not. I need that speech.”

“I don’t believe you. You’re not having the key.”

“But I can’t make the speech without my notes.”

“You’re not having the key.”

“Horace, listen. If you don’t let me have my notes, I won’t be making any speech at all. Do I make myself clear?”

“OK, OK. But you can stay here. I’ll go and get the speech for you.”

What a pity that, on retrieving K’s speech, Horace #1 then forgot to lock the car behind him.

What a pity that, trying the car door a while later for no particular reason, K discovered this fact.

What a pity that, by this late stage in the proceedings, K’s normally plentiful supplies of goodwill had been thoroughly exhausted.

What a pity that no photographic record exists of Doris #1’s face, on being confronted with the results of K’s handiwork. (Ably assisted by various other guests, all of them more than willing to lend a hand.)

What a pity that Horace #1 and Doris #1 had seen fit to leave me back in Nottingham, with my spinning wheel and my incantations.

What a shame to read Doris #1’s terse contractual obligation of a courtesy letter, thanking the best man for helping to organise such a lovely day, “with just one exception”. (She couldn’t help herself.)

What a tragedy that the marriage lasted less than a year, before Doris #1 ran off with another man. (She couldn’t help No, too cheap. Too cruel.)

You marginalise me at your peril.

Of seating plans, turtle doves and symphonies in watered silk – Part 1.

From a distance, it looked like a simple floral pattern: a series of large circles, each ringed by a series of smaller circles. Only upon closer inspection did it reveal itself as the seating plan for my colleague’s wedding. We huddled round her desk, marvelling at the precision of it all.

“Was it all very political? Are there people that you’ve got to keep apart at all cost?”

“Yeah, a few. You know, ex-partners…”

God, the flashbacks. I was instantly reminded of the hours that K and I spent, drawing up a seating plan for my 40th birthday party. It was like a very complicated logic puzzle: one false move, and the whole structure would collapse. Ex-partners weren’t even the half of it; there were people in the same room who hadn’t spoken to each other in years. Not just the odd one or two, either; there must have been at least seven or eight potential major flashpoints to defuse. When good cliques go bad, and all that.

We were awfully proud with the finished product. One of my finest ever pieces of Excel-manship, if I may be so bold. OK, so shoving most of the married couples together (with just the one Token Gay, for seasoning) did look a leetle bit crass (*), but we were generally delighted with each table’s carefully weighted balance of common interests, and its finely tuned blend of pre-existing friendships and potential new alliances. Indeed, when speculating upon all the new social connections that might derive from this one luncheon party, we could get quite starry-eyed. Thingy and thingy: they’ve got so much in common! And thingy, two seats away: he’ll have the whole table in stitches!

Which would have been great, if the diameter of each round table hadn’t been about twice as wide as estimated. This meant that, rather in the manner of a formal court banquet, each guest could only comfortably converse with the person immediately next to them. The whole premise of our plan had been that guests could talk freely across the table, with anyone they pleased. Thus restricted, it was now revealed as woefully wide of the mark. All over the room, people were left picking at their meals in silence, as adjacent pairs of old friends went into impenetrable huddles. (Such table etiquette would never have held sway at court, but what can you do?) Alternatively, people who had met maybe once or twice before, maybe in a pub or at a party, were forced to spin out their brief acquaintance into many hours of strained chit-chat, with no reprieve in sight.

Still, at least we knew the names of all our guests, and at least we invited both halves of each couple. Unlike some weddings in the 1980s which I could mention. Ooh, I feel some unresolved bitterness coming on…

(*) Update. Our office bride-to-be, this afternoon:

“I’ve put all the gays together on the same table. Do you reckon that’s all right?”

“Of course it is. Basic rule of social engagement: in any large gathering, ALL the gay people WILL automatically seek each other out, and WILL form an Exclusive Gay Huddle in one area of the room. It’s a sort of natural process of self-ghettoisation. You can’t buck the laws of nature, so why stand in their way? Besides, you want one table to be leading all the whooping during the speeches, don’t you?”

Congratulations on your forthcoming wedding, S. Hope it all goes wonderfully for you.