Tuesday 23 July 2013

Lesbians in the lounge and my cervical cancer scare

Glasgow is a beautiful place and was European City of Culture in 1991.
I just want to say from the off that I will in no way now, or ever, make light of cervical cancer and the women who suffer from this dread malady.
It is no joke and as you will see if you stick this post out to the end it was no joke for me either.
To get there we not only have to go all round the houses, but across the world as well, on the journey we meet courageous Johnny, a gay stockbroker, Johnny's marvellous mother, Margaret, his fractious father, Bill, Johnny's friend John Turner the protestant priest, one of his, John Turner's, female clients and Nicole and Jenny, two lesbians I shared a house with.
So fix your tray table back and put your seat in the upright position as we fly to Glasgow, Scotland and get things moving.
The residents of Possilpark had to go to great
lengths to get the landlord to
 turn the central heating on.
In the northern summer of 1993 I was living in Glasgow, once again I was Trying To Be A Writer and as usual, failing stupendously.
Glasgow has a fearsome reputation for street crime and urban decay, but I never had a problem in my whole time there, and I worked for a newspaper in the worst slum in Glasgow, Possilpark.
I found the people there couldn't have been nicer to me and particularly my friend Neil's family.
He introduced me to his cousin Johnny, his aunt, Margaret and uncle, Bill.
And when I say they couldn't have been nicer, this meant that whenever I was hungry or cold I would infest their couch till they gave me some food.
Johnny worked for a charcoal-suited, chestnut-panelled brokerage house and told me that he had to keep his homosexuality a secret at work as he strongly suspected he would be fired.
The movie Philadelphia hadn't yet come out (it would be released while I was living there) and at the time all over the world gays like Johnny had to live a double life, out to his family, but buttoned-down and straight at work.
I came to admire his courage greatly.
Any slip of the tongue at work, "I went out to that club, He Man's on the weekend", for instance, could lead to a sacking.
So Johnny became my first male gay friend, my first gay friends, of either sex, though were Nicole and Jenny.
Nicole, Dik-dik was her nickname, and Jenny were superfit rowers.
They had both been selected for the World Championships the previous year and lived together in Sydney's inner west.
I used my cuckoo-like abilities to move in with them.
I needed somewhere to doss for a couple of months before flying out for Asia and then the UK with Neil.
So I showed up to the flat one day while Dik was at work and told Jenny that Dik had said it was all right for me to use the couch for a couple of months.
Then, when Dik got home from work and Jenny was out rowing to Brisbane or wherever she went on her training, I told Dik that I had dropped in and Jenny had said it was OK to doss till my flight left.
Divide and rule, it's pretty easy.
By the time they had talked about it I was rusted onto the couch watching The Simpsons.
It was a very learning experience for me as Nicole and Jenny broke my Bathurst-based homophobia, I learned that a) gay people are real and b) they are ordinary folk with hopes and dreams and c) they don't have green skin and five heads.
Life in Bathurst tended to make one believe that gays were akin to aliens.
The experience that most remember of that time was this.
One summer Tuesday I went home at 2.15 to find Dik (she was a highly-skilled physiotherapist), dressed in shorts and t-shirt, rubbing oil into a nude Jenny in the living room.
I stepped through the door to be confronted by what I have subsequently learned is the holy grail of male heterosexual fantasies.
But here's the thing, my major concern was that one of my sitcoms, Roseanne, came on at 3pm and I wouldn't be able to watch.
So I changed my shoes and jogged down to the local olympic pool and did my laps.
I did do 40 instead of my usual 20, as well as ran five k to get there and back, so maybe the sexual overtones had got to me after all.
And before you ask, as Neil did with his tongue hanging down to his knees, I don't have any pictures of that incident, nor any of Nicole and Jenny, nude or otherwise.
So with my homophobia receding I became friends with Johnny and, as with all my friends, began to moan about my childhood.
Once Johnny learned that when I began moaning that was it for the next four hours, he said, "perhaps you should speak with my friend John Turner. He works as a counsellor."
Johnny did this as a friend, but mostly so he didn't have to listen to me for another four hour moaning session.
So he arranged a meeting for me with John Turner, we met at Johnny's flat during the working day and I quickly added another to the Courage Hall of Fame.
And to explain the back story of why, here's a potted history lesson.
In 1916 the Irish were revolting.
The country rose up against the hated London rule of their country and declared an independent Ireland.
However the northernmost province, Ulster, heavily populated with protestants came against the new union and asked (demanded) that they still be ruled by London, and thus Ulster became Northern Ireland.
This lead to the troubles and the rise of the IRA (catholic) and various protestant para-military groups to counter them.
The Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) were two of the more prominent.
This religious animosity quickly spilled across the Irsih Sea to Glasgow (you can see from the map that Glasgow is nearly as
close to Belfast as it, Belfast, is to Dublin) and is epitomised by the rivalry of the two largest soccer teams in Scotland, Glasgow Celtic (catholic) and Glasgow Rangers (protestant).
To say these two teams are rivals is to barely hint at the scale of the feeling between these two teams and their supporters.
Put is this way, the largest news story in Scotland after world war two, by a country mile and then some, was when Rangers signed a Catholic.
So a priest in Glasgow, of either religion, holds a much higher importance in society than in just about any other country than perhaps Italy.
I mention all this to give you an understanding that the religious divide permeated all levels of Glasgow society.
Johnny's father, Bill, is a lovely man but with one really annoying habit, he loved to start, then sustain arguments.
And one of the things he liked to argue about was religion, he was a jocular supporter of the UVF and had "Support the UVF" written in pencil on a soon to be painted wall in his kitchen.
One Sunday Johnny was home with his parents and Bill had started an argument (again).
Things went their usual way and at one point Johnny's younger brother said, "But dad, what if Johnny marries a catholic?"
Johnny remarked drily to a friend that was there, "I think he'd be rather relieved actually."
Which just shows (to me anyway) the illogicality of prejudice.
Bill spent his life railing against catholics, but in the end if Johnny had brought home a young catholic woman and announced her as his fiance, that would have been (we suspect) better than if he had shown up with a young man and reported that this was his "life partner".
But family squabbles aside this religious divide had far more serious consequences for some, and John Turner was one right in the cross-hairs.
For you see, John Turner was the only openly gay priest in Scotland.
I met John Turner at Johnny's flat while Johnny was at work and within microseconds understood what a massively powerful man I was privileged to be with.
John Turner is dead now, killed by a skidding car on an icy road in Germany, his funeral had to be miked up to allow those who couldn't get into the church to hear from outside where they formed ranks four deep.
The gay community of Scotland and the rest of us cannot quantify his importance, then or now.
As usual I ignored all this and began moaning about my own problems.
At that time my alcoholism hadn't really surfaced and my main problem was hypochondria, thinking I had a disease or injury that I didn't.
The most insane of these fears, and believe me the word insane in the current context is exact in its use, was when I was sixteen I thought I was about to die from cervical cancer.
In science class in year ten, a girl sitting behind me put up her hand and asked "is it true you can get cancer from having too much sex before your sixteen?"
Mr Cartwright, the teacher, answered, "Yes, there is some thought to that, and that's Cervical cancer, difficult to diagnose and nearly impossible to treat."
I had had my first (and only, at that time) sexual experience at the age of 15yrs and 11months, I turned green and began sweating in fear.
My mental illness was at its peak then, I now know, ten years of hiding under the bed had induced just a little anxiety in me, and it was exhibiting in hypochondria.
As I'm sure you all know, cervical cancer is a female only disorder, but the only thing I took out of the exchange between the girl and Mr Cartwright was, "cancer...sex...before 16. Yes."
I spent six months in true fear that I was going to die.
Additonally, I couldn't seek medical help because my parents had banned me from having sex.
You see if I got hurt or sick doing something allowed, mowing the lawn for instance, then I could be treated.
But my parents had point blank told me that I couldn't have sex and thus I believed that they would prefer me to die than be treated because I had broken one of their fifty gazillion rules against doing anything fun.
It was a harsh world I can tell you.
Anyway, leaving that dark mire, let's return to Johnny's well-appointed living room, and what else would you expect from a gay man's pad?
John Turner, once I had bent his ear for an hour about my hypochondria, told me an interesting story.
One of his female clients also had hypochondria.
And like me, she had spent most of her childhood listening to, and occasionally, trying to stop her parents smashing each other up.
Sometimes, John told me, she had got between them and was physically trying to hold her father's arm to stop him smashing his mother's face.
I asked John why these similar stories could lead to the same symptom, hypochondria.
John replied, "Well, it's difficult to say, but it seems to me that she sought to control her parents fighting, but couldn't. Then mentally it seemed to her that the lesson was 'I can't control my world, therefore I can't control anything, and therefore, even my own body is beyond my control.'"
And thus hypochondria.
John's client had gone through many cancer scares, all thankfully imaginary, as well as HIV.
I in my turn thought I was going to die of cervical cancer, as stated, Parkinson's disease and Tetanus.
It is of course richly ironic that the one disease I did have, anxiety disorder, was about the only one that didn't fill me with fear.
So I'll close with this story that is funny now, but deffo wasn't then.
As I've said repeatedly, to friends verbally and written here, I am not attempting to tell any of you how to be a parent, but am happy to state that I hope these stories of my parents tell you definitely how not to do it.

The Talk.

I went to school with a marketing genius.
His name was Grant Foster and he wrote away to some address for a job lot of condoms.
Once they arrived word got out that you could buy one or more off him.
This was marketing brilliance because me and all the other pubescent boys at Kelso High had to buy one.
If you didn't, you were tacitly admitting that you were't having sex.
I wasn't getting anywhere near having sex but like most bought one to at least let it be known that the possibility was there.
So I put the condom in my wallet and then forgot all about it.
One afternoon subsequent to that I was studying at my desk and my mother came out to speak with me about something.
She noticed my wallet and said, "look at the state of this wallet, it's on its last legs."
(Those of you who read last week's blog will know that then as now the state of everything I own is deplorable, all those items quickly looking like a street man had discarded them as too shabby.)
My mother picked up my wallet and began shaking it, and everything in there fluttered or clattered down on my desk.
Amongst which was the condom which I had completely forgotten.
When I saw it land my heart went not just into my mouth but through the top of my head.
I had to frantically think of a story to explain it.
Not easy to do off the top of your head, actually not easy to do any time.
A sleeping bag for a mouse? A water proof for one finger?
My mother noticed it, picked it up and said "what's this?"
She turned it over and then the penny dropped. 
She said "OOHHH, LACHLAN!" and turned on her heel and walked away.
I sat there in true terror.
As stated above my parents had flat out banned me from having sex.
The punishment for this trangression would be major in a way that made the previous ten years of abuse look like a bedtime reading of Alice in Wonderland.
In the end it turned out to be worse than anything I could imagine.
A few days later I was studying again when my father appeared at my side.
"Your mother tells me that she found a condom in your wallet, is that true?", said my father.
"Yes-s-s-s", I said staring obliquely in his general direction through slatendecular eyes.
He then went on, but before I report the next bit of dialogue, the penny dropped for me and I realised that my father was about to give me THE TALK!
Sex, the birds and the bees.
Given the already hopeless track record of my parents, even at the time I remember thinking this ought to be f@#$$^#ing good.
My father continued, "I take it you know what venereal disease is?"
"Yes." I replied.
"And I take it you know what pregnancy is?"
"Yes," I replied as before.
He then went on, "well I don't want any of those things happening to you. So just concentrate on your  [HSC] studies and your L-plates and forget about sex."
So there you have it, the birds and the bees from Theo Barker, just don't.
And of course many of you will have picked up on the fact that a condom was the simplest and most effective method of stopping either pregnancy or venereal disease.
Logic was to that talk what fun is to cleaning a toilet.
Most of my thoughts about it as distilled and written here came of course many years afterward, at the time, like all these talks throughout history, both parties involved would have paid a large sum of money to be anywhere else on Earth to avoid the crucifying embarrassment of the situation.
So there you have it, another example of how not to be a parent.
I really hope this helps, it certainly does me to write it.

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