My Dad’s Lawyer

At my mom’s 80th birthday, I ended up sitting next to my Dad’s old lawyer, let’s call him Uncle Kasra, an Indian-Canadian man of Farsi background with a beautiful wife and two dynamic daughters, who we saw from time to time when we were growing up. Kasra has a rich voice, slightly foreign, it’s not that there’s an accent, it’s that there’s a melody to it, charming and engaging that was unlike other Canadian voices that I knew.

He told a funny story. A woman had owned a dress shop in my father’s building, below his offices. It had flooded. He and his business partner, who we treated as family, and know as Uncle George, sat face to face with Kasra. ‘How much damage was there?’. But they wouldn’t say. Or rather danced around the truth. Finally, he forced it out of them. It had caused considerable damage. She sued them.

There seems to have been no discussion on some assessment of damage and offering to fairly pay for it. Business for Dad was often a game. It was a game to figure out how to pay less taxes, if there were ways to beat the system. His favourite phrase, written at the base of a small statue of a bespectacled man with lawyerly hair curls, was: Sue the Bastards.

In the court proceedings, the woman apparently decided to cosy up to Kasra. She thought she could ‘wiggle-waggle’ her way into a better position. But why would Kasra ever betray his clients for a bit of that? He played along, and gave her information. She fired her lawyer! Why would she do that? She obviously that that she had an inside track with Kasra and would come out on top. The case continued. Kasra delayed the proceedings as much as possible.

After two years, he was pleased to inform her: the time limit for her claim was no longer valid.

Could she call her old lawyer?

Of course.

She called the lawyer that she had fired nearly two years before who informed her: after two years, her claim was no longer valid.

If she had kept her lawyer and not tried to get more and more funds, she would have received five, maybe seven thousand dollars. Instead, she got nothing.

Completely true, Kasra told me.

It’s a lovely fable. Portraying my father and his business partner as slightly mischievous children. A wanton woman failing in her attempts to use feminine guiles in the service of greed. The authority of law. The collusion of men. The friendship of men.

I couldn’t resist telling this anecdote first, and another, that Dad used to pack bottles of alcohol into his briefcase and bring it out at business lunches, doesn’t have enough detail to spin out further. But the more weighty anecdote I heard was about how they met.

He was introduced to my father in 1967 while working at a law firm. The other lawyers warned him: this one doesn’t pay his bills. Get a deposit up front.

That’s what Kasra then requested of my father, who then raised hell with Kasra’s boss, who managed to placate both sides and say, let’s do this as an act of faith among all of us.

But what Kasra discovered was something else: it was not that my father did not pay his bills, it was that he would only pay his bills if happy.

And with Kasra, happy he was. After Kasra sent an invoice to Dad, he received a phone call, father’s infamous low gruff voice barking at him. ‘It’s about your invoice,’ he said.

What had he done? Kasra was frightened, this intimidating man who had a bad reputation with the other lawyers.

‘You’re charging too little,’ my father told him. ‘I won’t pay until you charge more.’

‘He made me,’ Kasra told me. Since Dad was always suing someone or being sued, he brought lots of business to Kasra. But more, whenever a client would come into my father’s notary business, or to do a real estate deal, Dad would say, ‘You have McGillicuddy as a lawyer? Why would you do that? I have the best lawyer in town. Kasra is who you need to see.’

The only coda that I’ll add to this tale is that in my teenage years and into my young adulthood, I suddenly discovered the many prejudices the world had against South Asians. In Vancouver, racism against the Sikh community was strong. In other locations, there were broad brushstrokes drawn about various Indian immigrants as poor or untrustworthy.

It was always a strange shock to me. I realise in retrospect that I was surprised not just by the plain stupidity of prejudice. It was that through Uncle Kasra and his family, I’d actually gotten an opposite stereotype. I grew up believing thought that all Indians would be as sophisticated, charming and intelligent as Uncle Kasra, recounter of stories, friend of my father.

Posted in Blogging, Creative Non-Fiction, Family | Leave a comment

Australian culture: the Hills Hoist

While rotating clothes lines attached to a heavy metal pole stuck in your backyard have been around in Australia since the turn of the 20th century, it was a bloke named Lance Hill who made his model in Adelaide in 1945 and then expanded production so successfully that like ‘xerox’ and ‘kleenex’, his brand name became synonymous with the rather more wordy description ‘height-adjustable rotary clothes line’.

I first heard the phrase after arriving in Australia, and it seems that the legendary Hills Hoist is much more than a way to dry clothes, but a representation of a vision of Australia itself, the backyards of the 50s and 60s, backyard BBQs, family and childhood.

Check out this lovely photo essay that I found here while looking for a free photo to post. And hopefully Hills won’t mind me copying the photo above since it helps advertise their product

Anyways, this is just to copy what Wikipedia has to say about the Hills Hoist, since it feels to me that while possibly perfectly authentic, it also feels irreverent enough that it might not stay up forever. Or with some sort of disclaimer:

The Hills Hoist is also commonly used in Australian drinking culture with the smashing game “Goon of Fortune”. Goon of Fortune combines two of Australia’s most revered creations, the Hills Hoist and cask wine. Four sacks of cask wine, more commonly referred to as “goon,” are attached to the end of each cross beam. The contestants then rotate the clothes line while chanting their favourite goon song. When the clothes line stops the closest contestant takes a long drink of the wine, 10 seconds is the norm. For the “Goon of Fortune” to be authentic there must be a combination of 3 types of cask wine: Fruity Lexia, White and Red. The fourth sack is can be either of the three however contestants prefer the saying, “Fruity Lexia makes you sexier!” and thus Fruity Lexia is the goon of choice. The winner of the game is the last one standing or the last not to vomit. A beer bong may be used in place of the usual 10 second drink if the other contestants feel that participant is failing to drink enough and therefore cheating (usually foreigners unaccustomed to Australian amounts of alcohol).

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The Current Lists: 2014 (Books, Concerts, Shows)

Aha. New organisational system for 2014…

I’ve organised the old lists into separate archival posts either by the year, or before that…

This year, I’ll just keep updating this post until it’s time to start a new post for 2015.

Concerts and Shows

  • Sarah Blasko and Appleonia, Heavenly Sounds series, January. Those women, they can sing. Hot and stuffy church venue though, a little unbearable.
  • The National, Sydney Opera House Forecourt, January. I saw them at the Enmore three years ago, a great show, and perhaps with more energy being in a smaller venue with louder volume (I understand they weren’t able to play very loudly at the Opera House what with sound restrictions). But with the crescent moon, a perfect Sydney night, the Opera House, lit in a glorious blue and then mysterious yellow behind us, a fantastic set of video projects behind them and a new album to add to their oeuvre, and I liked it even better. We were standing in a great position and there was room around to move. I was rapt.
  • Falsettos, Darlinghurst/Eternity Theatre, February. Review up on this website.
  • Sweet Charity, Hayes Theatre, February. Amazing lead actress, imaginative staging, some hit songs and some dated material.
  • The Drowsy Chaperone, Hayes Theatre, March. What a fun, silly show. And how do these small shows manage to get so much talent? The young actors graduating from WAAPA, NIDA and the likes. Is this the Glee effect or something? Ten years ago, I went to amateur productions that usually had a few better actors and some terrible ones and ho hum direction. Now, there are semi-professional shows bursting at the seams with talent, it seems every month! The two young leads here, Hilary Cole and Brett O’Neill, have such sweet voices and great acting chops. 
  • Baths, Oxford Art Factory, March.
  • Bernadette Peters, Theatre Royal, April. See review here on my website.
  • Iron & Wine, Sydney Opera House, April.
  • Strictly Ballroom, Star City, May. Wow, was this a train wreck. Not unenjoyable but has so much work to do to be a good show. 
  • Midlake, Sydney Opera House, May.
  • Nils Frahm, Sydney Opera House, May. I stumbled upon this guy through Spotify and predicted it would be a good concert. But what a concert it was. A mad piano genius, using techniques I’d never seen before, the music was engaging, beautiful, dynamic and sad, and he himself was a fun performer, in one sock (for his electronic pedals) and one shoe (for the piano pedal). Check him out if you haven’t heard of him.
  • James Vincent McMorrow, Sydney Opera House, May. I really like McMorrow’s amazing falsetto and he put on a great show. His opening act, Gossling, an Australian woman was a great discovery too.
  • Pet Shop Boys, Carriageworks, June. Superb show, great music and an intimate venue. Woohoo.
  • Lloyd Cole, the Basement, June. There were moments in the show that brought me back to the teenager that, for whatever reason, thought that ‘Lost Weekend’ and ‘Perfect Skin’ were the coolest songs ever. This juxtaposed now with the thought that poor Lloyd has been performing the same songs for 25 years and is now making jokes about his aging jowls and how audience members no longer have to check on their babysitters, because their older kids are old enough to babysit the younger ones…

Books

What I’m currently reading in 2014

  • Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners (short fiction)
  • Spencer and Schenker’s The Fast Diet Recipe Book (recipes/food/health)

Read!

  • Luke Fischer’s Paths of Flight (poetry): Quiet and painterly, I’m not sure I’ve come across this voice in my forays into Australian poetry, the first-person philosopher with references to artists, philosophers and writers of old, poems mostly set in nature, travel or deep in reverie.
  • Margaret Atwood’s Postitron (episodic e-book fiction): Ah Peg. Canada’s gift to world literature doesn’t show any sign of slowing down, either in output or chutzpah. While the themes of these three short novellas cover similar territory as her other dystopic futures, they are still fun and imaginative to read, and not repetitive. It felt to me like she was having fun writing to this genre, doing mini-recaps in each one in case someone has not read all three, and then leaving us waiting… for more.
  • Camilla Gibb’s Mouthing the Words
  • Tabish Khair’s How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position. See review here on my website.
  • Alice Munro’s Dear Life

Movies

Hmm, have never kept a list of movies but… why not see how it goes?

  • The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
  • Philomena
  • American Hustle
  • Frozen
  • Dallas Buyer’s Club

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New tasty treat: Tsukemen

I love trying new food, and was intrigued by the menu item ‘Tsukemen’ at Ramen Zundo, a small Japanese restaurant tucked into the row of quick eateries on the ground floor of World Square.

I’ve tried cold soba noodles, light and delicate, that you dip into a salty broth (as introduced to me by my sister-in-law and brother) but I’ve not encountered cold ramen noodles to be dipped into a heavier, hot sauce.

Tsukemen

 

Being a sucker for Japanese curry, that’s the sauce I ordered, and the dish really was very good: chewy, fresh noodles and the thick soul-food comfort of the curry sauce.

Some dude named Jeong has given a fun recount of eating tsukemen in Japan and I loved reading that Ramen Zundo’s owners Hiroki and Masako make these delicious ramen noodles themselves:

Sally Webb in the Good Food Guide describes that ‘Hiroki, who learnt to make noodles in Japan, uses a blend of premium Australian flours to create a texture that’s silky but firm to the bite and ”catches” the soup.’

It sounds like the regular ramen here is pretty spectacular so I shall try to get back here sometime soon.

Who’s ready for ramen?

Posted in Food n' Grog, Sydney | 1 Comment

Why I Write Songs: “Red Shoes”

“Red Shoes” was written in November 2006. I’d had a rough day with a first world problem, trying to settle on my first property purchase and it made everything feel out of whack: Would it happen? When would I be able to move out of where I was living?

I remember seeing a guy with fantastic red shoes – this was long before the recent trend of crazy bright-coloured trainers – and the song came to me, pretty much right away: a cry for help (“take away my blues”) but at the same time making fun of my drama and melancholy.

Who knows how quickly it came to me the analogy of Dorothy clicking the heels of her ruby slippers together to take her home? It certainly makes the song more, ahem, gay.

I think it’s a sweet little song, and perfectly appropriate to be the first song in a long time to post a video of. Hopefully, another one will be forthcoming in not too long a time. I’ve wanted for ages to put up new videos of my backlog of unrecorded songs. What a difference today’s technology makes. The iPhone camera video is of so much better quality than what I used in the past. I can edit videos easily with iMovie and integrate the video  into a blog post. Easy peasy.

So, no excuses. I don’t need them to be perfect, but on the other hand, I’ll need to practise them up and… memorize them, as in previous videos, I find it terribly distracting that my eyes are switching back and forth between the lyrics and the video.

In the meantime, here are the lyrics for “Red Shoes” below.

Give me some red shoes, take away my blues
Give me a clear sky, Give me an alibi
Take away gravity, give me some levity
Give me a top hat, give me some of that
 
Whether’s it’s cheap or quite costly
I will freely share
If I took something that is not mine
I will put it back there
 
Give me some red shoes, give me a long snooze,
Give me a benediction, loan me an electrician
Grant me a safe passage, toss me a red cabbage
Give me a rough average… of your sums
 
I’ve been trying to not keep count
How many heavy days
I’ve had enough experience
To know we go through phases
 
Of how many things can go wrong
How many stones in the road
How many bends, how many curves and detours
Can this way hold?
If there are too many types of the devil,
Will my patience fold?
 
Give me some red shoes, take away my blues
Give me a clear sky, Give me an alibi
Take away gravity, give me some levity
Give me a top hat, give me some of that
 
Give me some red shoes…red shoes… red shoes…

 

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Book Review: Tabish Khair’s How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position

How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary PositionHow to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position by Tabish Khair

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A book review is never objective but when I know the person who has written it, it becomes less so. Not that I would be untruthful, exaggerate or overpraise on account of a friendship. It’s just impossible to separate the experience of reading from the friendship or the knowledge of the writer.

This felt particularly true while reading Tabish Khair’s fabulously titled How to fight Islamist terror from the missionary position. Tabish and I met at a Danish folk high school, me on a year abroad from university, and Tabish, as a journalist and writer… my memory fails me of how he also ended up in that small quirky international gathering of young people, Danes who wanted to practice their English and the stranger group, a ragtag assortment of foreigners all with some tie to or interest in Denmark or Scandinavia.

We bonded over writing, and I remember his gentle wit and intelligence and some shared bottles of red wine. Tabish fell in love and ended up staying in Denmark. I saw him a number of years after the college, and then a long break until seeing him in October of last year. It was great to reconnect, which lead to him sending me the American version of this novel. But the visit was also somewhat unsatisfying. How do you catch up over so many years, share the twists and turns of one’s life? There wasn’t enough time.

Reading this novel gave me what I’d missed. His story is of three South Asian men living in Arhus in Denmark: the narrator, a measured and thoughtful English literature professor of Pakistani origin, his good friend Ravi, with movie star looks and wealth, and their housemate Karim, also Indian, a devout Muslim and taxi driver.

Their interactions and stories tell me about South Asian men living in Denmark, about Danish society, about dating, and about understandings or misunderstandings across cultures, language and religion, wrapped expertly with marvellous storytelling and playful commentary on gender roles, politics and society.

I often read books to enter into new worlds, and the university setting of a not universally known Danish city with characters I was unfamiliar with, engaged me. Rather than the common trope of an immigrant family in the West, the men in this story are simply living their adult lives, in a culture they were not born to.

Depicting three characters extremely different from each other in culture, philosophy and belief, but who could all be stereotyped with the same brushstroke in certain circumstances, is not done heavy-handedly but makes its point. The narrative effortlessly switches between themes: a jab at ‘Eng List types’, defining tolerance, the negotiations of dating a single mother, questions of Islam, many observations of Danish culture, and the ebbs and flows of both romances and friendships.

It told me a unique story of what my old friend Tabish has been thinking and observing over years living in Denmark and teaching at the university, with parts that felt like an in-joke for friends such as the characters’ visit to Elsinore, the location of our college, or the chapter called ‘Great Claus and Little Claus’ which is how we differentiated between the two Clauses at our college.

Reading back these paragraphs above, they don’t seem to capture how much I enjoyed the book. It really is funny and engaging but also matched with a depth and breadth of thought.

I’m curious how it will be received by others. I’d love it to be a blockbuster! But I’d guess that the setting is neither familiar enough nor exotic enough for some readers, and the big event of the book, hinted at compellingly through the novel, is not as explosive as I thought it might be. There’s a subtlety to the storytelling that may not be appreciated by readers looking for bigger bangs and cheaper thrills. Still, it’s been now published in the USA and the UK with rumours of a film version. I recommend reading the book not only to get ahead of the curve, but for the enjoyment of a wonderful novel.

Now, I think this is an appropriate time to sign off and websurf to find out what other readers think of the book. It’s a pleasure to sometimes come to a book completely fresh and then explore what chatter is out there. Excuse me.

[Postscript: very pleased to read rave reviews of the book in the Huffington Post, Slate, the New Republic and reader reviews on Goodreads.]

View all my reviews

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Bernadette Peters in Concert, Sydney, Australia

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Bernadette Peters is touring Australia and dropped by the Theatre Royal for three nights as part of her concert tour. We vascillated at first about going (revoke our show queen passports!) but grabbed seats for an additional show that was added on a Friday night (after she’d performed Wednesday and Thursday).

I remember Bernadette Peters from television as a kid, but it was after I arrived in London in the last 90s that I heard her name, spoken breathlessly by show queens. She’d returned to the stage and had particularly made a mark in Sondheim’s shows ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ and then originating the role of the Witch in ‘Into the Woods’. Aside from seeing videos, I’ve seen her twice on stage. Firstly, in an odd version of ‘Gypsy’ which  I wasn’t wild about, and was sort of bummed out that I hadn’t chosen to instead see Vanessa Williams in ‘Into the Woods’. Then, in ‘A Little Night Music’, I remember a stunning performance and finally understanding what the song ‘Send in the Clowns’ was about, both in terms of the character it was sung by as well as the emotion behind it.

Seeing her at the Theatre Royal was a bit of a thrill, and also felt like a privilege. I’ve always found this particular theatre rather downtrodden, with a strange eclectic mix of shows. It’s certainly not the Sydney Opera House. But in this context, with pretty good seats, and a small venue, it felt particularly intimate. I seem to recall the NYC theatres I saw her in before as massive…

It also felt very old-fashioned, in not a bad way, from the romantic Rogers and Hammerstein songs to the ancient musical director with fantastic thick white hair, from the drummer who was one of the Mouseketeers and the small Australian orchestra to Peters’s spectacular sparkly lavender dress that looked like it could have been on the verge of a wardrobe malfunction with a high slit right up the centre, but was far too well made for that.

I myself am hoping that I have the same energy and verve at 66 years old, though there are few people of any age that matches Peters’s va-va-voom, the famous tight red curls, sultry voice and curvaceous figure. The voice, of course, is the most important, and with such range, a bit of fun and quite a few delicate musical choices, she sang a whole range of show tunes made famous by her and others. I found ‘Johanna’ from Sweeney Todd and ‘In Buddy’s Eyes’ from Follies particularly lovely, loved her renditions of two Peter Allen songs, as well as the way she used them to connect to her audience, and ‘Send in the Clowns’ was as lovely as the first time I’d heard it from her. ‘Being Alive’ was unexpected (for me) as an encore; it was fun to hear her sing ‘Children will listen’ from Into the Woods. She’s a consummate entertainer and performer, and knows just the right amount of patter and how to connect to the audience, though the weird routine about trying to sell one of her country houses was… unappealing.

I’d think we would be in the minority to admit that we didn’t necessarily feel touched by the performances. To me, it feels like she’s one of the most fabulous actors around and can add all of the right parts of emotions to each part of a song, a word or a note that adds up to a spectacular rendition, but the songs are performed rather than felt. But I did feel a warm fuzzy feeling with her closer, a lullaby that she’d unusually written herself.

The other conclusion I came to during the concert was that Australian audiences are rather unsophisticated. Or is it this bad all around the world? A couple behind me would start talking as soon as the applause started but wouldn’t manage to shut up again before the next song started. A chirpy woman next to S. was clearly trying not to sing aloud along with Bernadette, but couldn’t help herself. I often feel during concerts and movies like people feel they’re in their lounge rooms, chattering away with no concept that there are OTHER PEOPLE IN THE ROOM. You could drive a person crazy, indeed.

Posted in Concert, Review, Sydney, Theatre/Concert Review | Leave a comment

Perfume: Heaven

I don’t think I ever paid any attention at all to scent until my mid-twenties or later. I had a bunch of allergies, to pollens and dust, and my nose was always a bit congested. I never considered wearing a cologne though, yes, I did wear a deodorant from an appropriate age. It wasn’t until I was 27 or 28 when two things collided. I went to visit my friends Ian and Brian who were living for a while in the Bahamas, and on the way, I read Patrick Susskind’s amazing novel, Perfume. A beautifully written book that describes smells so powerful that they drive people to the most dramatic deeds: well, I would have to start inhaling sometime. Then I arrived in sunny Bahamas, and found out that aside from getting a magnificent tan, eating edible conch, and hanging with my friends, there was little to do except wander in an out of duty-free stores that sold, maybe you’ve guessed already, cologne (and alcohol).

I tried a number of them, and perhaps embarrassingly settled on one of the most common and obvious, Calvin Klein’s Obsession, which I’ve heard they’ve since changed the formula for. I still remember that rich sweet almond flavour. I rather liked it at the time.

But this post is about Heaven. Sometime after arriving in Sydney, a group of friends from the gay and lesbian choir were talking about cologne, and a woman said, ‘I know one which would be great for you. Some women use it too as a unisex fragrance, but I think it’s really beautiful and unusual.’ Being somewhat prone to wanting to be unusual, I found it, liked the scent, and bought myself a bottle of Heaven by Chopard.

Heaven

It’s strange that I can’t quite describe what I liked about it, or why I liked it so much. Once, I remember down at Darling Harbour, a woman stopped me and asked, ‘Is that Heaven?’ I was momentarily embarrassed, thinking I’d applied too much, but she said, ‘No, I absolutely love this scent.’ It was flattering.

On the very amusing website, basenotes, there are only a few reviews, 3 positive, 1 neutral and 2 negative. Both a positive and negative review say that there’s nothing else like it, and both a positive and negative review say that it’s dull. More specifically, it is described as ‘a bright, lively scent with excellent longevity and sillage’ and ‘a typical early-90s … cross between Eternity CK and Dolce & Gabbana Pour Homme’. It apparently has top notes of bergamot, lemon, rosewood and lavendar, middle notes of jasmine and cyclamen and base notes of musk, amber, cedarwood and tonka. But as I told you, I don’t have a strong sense of smell.

After my first bottle of it, I was shocked to find that it had been discontinued, and it was harder and harder to find. This bottle above was my third and last, and I bought it online for a rather inflated price, but the thing is: it didn’t smell like the previous two bottles so I don’t know if it was counterfeit or had gone ‘off’ somehow. Out of obstinate bloodymindedness, I used the whole bottle up, over the last years, even though I didn’t love the scent anymore. Throwing away the bottle feels like saying goodbye to various stages of youth as well as the need to be different, all through that blue glass haze of a bottle with indentations of angels’ wings.

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Vale Peter Ashman

This past week, we lost an extraordinary kind, generous and funny man to cancer, who played important behind-the-scenes roles in international LGBT organising and activism, in a quiet, understated life of contributing to human rights. I’d not been so conscious of the fact but with his passing, I realise I’ve had few professional mentors in my life. He was a great mentor to me, and a friend.

2009, Visit to Peter at his home on Rector Street in Islington

2009, Visit to Peter at his home on Rector Street in Islington

David, who told me the news, asked how my writing is going. I told him that I answered the same question the night before at a party, where I explained that while I still get published occasionally, I’m not actively writing. Years ago, I had stories, words and a viewpoint that I wanted to get out to the world. But after being published, my drive to write fell away. Being in a happy long-term relationship and happily settled in life has also not been particularly good for my writing or music, which often came out of sadness or dissatisfaction. The tragic artist, that was me. David laughed, and said that I should live back in Brussels, where we met. It would be good for my writing – the joke being how unhappy I was when I lived there from 1994–96.

There is humour in explaining that I’m not writing and then sitting down, driven to write, for the news of Peter Ashman’s death, rather suddenly, to pancreatic cancer drives me to want to put these words out to the world.

When I moved to Brussels in 1994 to work for the International Lesbian Gay Association (ILGA), Peter, along with David and Micha, and later Chille and Tom, were the small group of people who provided me with the support to keep the office running; they kept both me and the organisation alive. Peter had been deeply involved with ILGA (I believe he was one of the founders) and he still played a quiet role in keeping it financially solvent, facilitating project funding and more. He and David had interviewed me for the job of coordinator in New York City at the ILGA conference in the summer of 1994. I remember he made a comment about Brussels which I didn’t understand at the time, but later saw that he was acknowledging it could be a difficult place to live in and like.

The mentoring that I received from Peter (and David and Micha) was not only about the history and ins and outs of ILGA, but about how to handle or avoid prickly gay and lesbian activists, how to work across cultures, how to live in Brussels and, well, how to live in general. It was my first job, my first time living overseas. I slowly learned to dress better, the components of having people over for a nice meal, how to be a good dinner guest, how to run the office by myself, work with project funding, manage a board and work with volunteers. I was twenty-five, and had no idea how young I really was.

David, Micha and Peter at Belgian Pride, 96 I think.

David, Micha and Peter at Belgian Pride, 96 I think.

Peter wasn’t really a father figure, more like a friendly uncle. From the viewpoint of a young Canadian, Peter was a wonderful English stereotype in combining reserve with dry wit. I had no particular concept at the time of what designated upper and lower British classes but thought that his warm voice and accent indicated good education and an established family, worldly and travelled. His eyes seemed to sparkle when he laughed, which was often, indicating pleasure or amusement with company, or a situation, or it seemed to me, life itself as he seemed happy with his work, the world and his place in it. He was private, unshowy and seemed to have no ego-driven need to be the centre of attention, preferring to work behind the scenes. I don’t think he would have necessarily been displeased to be the subject of a tribute such as this; but would have had the same sentiment as how I heard he’d downplayed the severity of his illness: he didn’t want a fuss made over him.

Peter was a wonderful role model as someone working for advancing human rights, not a grassroots protester but working through organisations, networking and a lot of intelligence. He was smart and strategic without seeming calculating or cunning and would delight in explaining, for example, the contrasting style of British activists in ILGA changing decisions to match a circumstance with the Nordic priorities of a deliberate and slow consensus-building.

He talked to me seriously, after only a few months at work. I had few friends and little life, so had thrown myself into work. ‘You’re no good to the movement if you burn out. You need to have a long career and not work so hard, and all the time.’ I took his words to heart, and from that age, work hard when necessary, but never overwork and value my leisure time.

He had a calm, measured and undramatic approach to work, an example that I didn’t necessarily follow in years after, but a good model to have. I’m not sure that I ever recall seeing him rattled or upset. He could certainly show sadness and concern at a situation, but always had a quiet confidence in making things work.

He also extended friendship to a young Canadian while in Brussels. I think I might have amused him with my naivety. He shared extremely fine wine with me at the occasional dinner party, and I introduced him to my parents over dinner when they visited me in Belgium (We dined at In T’Spinnekopke. My Dad is taking the photo as he’s not in it).

Introducing my friends in Brussels to my parents in 1996

Introducing my friends in Brussels to my parents in 1996

When I was ready to leave Brussels, after just over two years, I decided to move to London. In the generous offer that he made to me, I always felt there was not only his natural concern and generosity but a recognition of the challenge I’d had living in Brussels in a difficult job. ‘I’ve a house in London, and it would be wonderful if you could live there. I’d stay occasionally, and sometimes my friends would stay in the extra room, but I like having someone I know live there.’ He helped me transport my life in Brussels in the back of a station wagon to his home in Rector Street, a cute two-floor house in Islington. For two years, I had the cheapest rent of anyone I knew with the most space. At the end of my time in London, the money that I’d saved from this generous favour gave me the leeway to head to Australia and look for work with a financial cushion.

This theme of generosity and care is probably what I’ll remember most of Peter. It was on what he’d built his career and volunteer work, in the broad sense in his professional and volunteer work with gay and lesbian rights, with human rights, working beyond national boundaries at both an international and European level. But of course, what I noticed was at the personal level. Years after I left Brussels, when we’d catch up, he’d tell me about winding up his work with the European Human Rights Foundation. I remember his clear concern and priority was that each staff member would be OK, whether in a new job or on the right pathway. He would tell me about each of them, as if he’d been put in charge of their care. I remember that he was often taking care of people, though with advice, guidance and a gentle push rather than a handout. We were made a family of sorts, those graced by his caring.

I last saw Peter about five years ago on a visit through London in 2009. He was glad to see me happy and settled and basically grown up. I was happy to see him in his Rector Street home, which had been nicely renovated, to hear about him in a happy relationship with Poramate and that he was happily living in London doing consulting work. I’m happy we took the photo above on that visit. After that, I think we exchanged only a few emails; life these years has less news and less to report.

Peter really was an important influence in my life and I think of him with warmth and much gratitude. His passing allows me to reflect on a pivotal time in my life and the guidance and kindness that he showed during it. My condolences to Poramate and Peter’s family, and all of his friends in our shared sadness. Farewell, Peter, and thank you.

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Book Review: Camilla Gibb’s Mouthing the Words

Mouthing the WordsMouthing the Words by Camilla Gibb

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Funny. I’ve had a couple of books that are taking me ages to read. But I found a copy of Camilla Gibb’s Mouthing the Words in a crazy op shop on Redfern Street (for one dollar…), was intrigued and finished it in two days. Published in 2002, at a time when I was paying attention to new voices in Canadian fiction, I remember hearing good things about the book… so have been meaning to read it now for over a decade.

I enjoyed it. The best thing about the book is Thelma, spiky and funny and traumatised, the main character, and I did enjoy following her journey from childhood to adulthood. I liked the sense of movement, growth and possibility while not understating what she’d been through and the affects of her childhood sexual abuse.

It is a relatively slim book, and I found the characterizations of the minor characters a bit undeveloped. I wanted for them to be a bit more rounded or interesting; yet, perhaps it was a reflection of how the narrator related to the world too: at a distance. I was worried that some of the tropes of childhood sexual abuse were too familiar: anorexia, multiple personalities, a character who is abrasive as defence. I also nearly shouted at the page that with so much evidence of the abuse that no one except the narrator would mouth the words, and deal directly with what happened to her. It’s in the backdrop that the abusive father is sent away, is possibly jailed, is kept away from the daughter… but keeps coming back. That other people know what happened but can’t seem to say anything or provide support.

But the character of Thelma kept on becoming more original and interesting throughout the book: I was engaged with the way she started to form friendships and look into her sexuality and step outwards into the world. Meanwhile, the terrible effects of the abuse and society and her family’s inability to provide support or address the issue seem like they could be terribly true and I have the feeling this book will be staying with me for a while.



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