How we are gentrified, impoverished and silenced – if we allow it

Momentous change almost always begins with the courage of people taking back their own lives against the odds.

I have known my postman for more than 20 years. Conscientious and goodhumoured, he is the embodiment of public service at its best. The other day, I asked him, “Why are you standing in front of each door like a soldier on parade?”
 
“New system,” he replied. “I am no longer required simply to post the letters through the door. I have to approach every door in a certain way and put the letters through in a certain way.”
 
“Why?”
 
“Ask him.”
 
Across the street was a solemn young man, clipboard in hand, whose job was to stalk postmen and see they abided by the new rules, no doubt in preparation for privatisation. I told the stalker my postman was admirable. His face remained flat, except for a momentary flicker of confusion.
 
In Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley describes a new class conditioned to a normality that is not normal “because they are so well adjusted to our mode of existence, because their human voice has been silenced so early in their lives, that they do not even struggle or suffer or develop symptoms as the neurotic does”.
 
Surveillance is normal in the Age of Regression – as Edward Snowden revealed. Ubiquitous cameras are normal. Subverted freedoms are normal. Effective public dissent is now controlled by the police, whose intimidation is normal.
 
The traducing of noble terms such as “democracy”, “reform”, “welfare” and “public service” is normal. Prime ministers lying openly about lobbyists and war aims is normal. The export of £4bn worth of British arms, including crowd control ammunition, to the medieval state of Saudi Arabia, where apostasy is a capital crime, is normal.
 
The wilful destruction of efficient, popular public institutions such as the Royal Mail is normal. A postman is no longer a postman, going about his decent work; he is an automaton to be watched, a box to be ticked. Aldous Huxley described this regression as insane and our “perfect adjustment to that abnormal society” a sign of the madness.
 
Are we “perfectly adjusted” to all of this? No, not yet. People defend hospitals from closure, UK Uncut forces bank branches to close and six brave women climb the highest building in western Europe to show the havoc caused by the oil companies in the Arctic. There, the list begins to peter out.
 
At this year’s Manchester International Festival, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s epic Masque of Anarchy – all 91 verses written in rage at the massacre of Lancashire people protesting against poverty in 1819 – was an acclaimed piece of theatre, and utterly divorced from the world outside. In January, the Greater Manchester Poverty Commission had disclosed that 600,000 Mancunians were living in “extreme poverty” and that 1.6 million, or nearly half the population of the city, were at risk of “sliding into deeper poverty”.
 
Poverty has been gentrified. The Park Hill Estate in Sheffield was once an edifice of public housing – but unloved by many for its Le Corbusier brutalism, poor maintenance and lack of facilities. With its English Heritage Grade II listing, it has been renovated and privatised. Two-thirds of the refurbished flats, reborn as modern apartments, are selling to “professionals” such as designers, architects and a social historian. At the sales office you can buy designer mugs and cushions. This façade offers not a hint that, ravaged by the government’s “austerity” cuts, Sheffield has a social housing waiting list of 60,000.
 
Park Hill is a symbol of the two-thirds society that is Britain today. The gentrified third do well, some of them extremely well, a third struggle to get by on credit and the rest slide into poverty.
 
Although the majority of the British people are working class – whether or not they see themselves that way – a gentrified minority dominates parliament, senior management and the media. David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband are their authentic representatives. They fix the limits of political life and debate, aided by gentrified journalism and the “identity” industry. The greatest ever transfer of wealth upwards is a given. Social justice has been replaced by meaningless “fairness”.
 
While promoting this normality, the BBC rewards a senior functionary with a pay-off of almost £1m. Although it regards itself as the media equivalent of the Church of England, the corporation now has ethics comparable with those of the “security” companies G4S and Serco, which have “overcharged” on public services by tens of millions of pounds. In other countries, this is called corruption.
 
Like the fire sale of the power utilities, water and the railways, the sale of Royal Mail is to be achieved with bribery and the collaboration of the union leadership, regardless of vocal outrage. At the start of his 1983 documentary series Questions of Leadership, Ken Loach shows trade union firebrands exhorting the masses. The same men are then shown, older and florid, adorned in the ermine of the House of Lords. In the recent Queen’s Birthday Honours, the former general secretary of the TUC Brendan Barber received his knighthood.
 
How long can the British watch the uprisings across the world and do little apart from mourn the long-dead Labour Party? The Edward Snowden revelations show the infrastructure of a police state emerging in Europe, especially Britain. Yet people are more aware than ever before; and governments fear popular resistance – which is why truth-tellers are isolated, smeared and pursued.
 
Momentous change almost always begins with the courage of people taking back their own lives against the odds. There is no other way now. Direct action. Civil disobedience. Unerring. Read Shelley: “Ye are many – they are few.” And do it.
 
John Pilger’s new film, “Utopia”, will be previewed at the National Film Theatre, London, in the autumn 
The Park Hill Flats in Sheffield in 1972. Photograph: Getty Images

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

Photo: Pablo via Creative Commons
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Is Lithuania still homophobic? My girlfriend and I held hands to find out

The Lonely Planet guide warned that for gay and lesbian travelers, "small displays of public affection can provoke some nasty responses".

It’s midnight somewhere on the greyish outskirts of Vilnius, and my girlfriend has just burst out laughing. Our Uber driver starts laughing too. Nonplussed, I scan the oppressively functional Soviet-era architecture we’re driving past for literally anything funny.

Then I see them. A series of panels above the stairway to a basement bar; photos of topless blonde men with glistening six packs. This is – as is usually the case – either a tribute to the most homoerotic scenes in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, or something deliberately gay. And 99 out of 100 it’s the latter, this being no exception.

Soho Club is the most out-of-context gay venue I’ve ever seen. It sits on a poorly lit street on the edge of Lithuania’s capital, almost as if it’s been plucked out of the city centre and dumped there.

Given the staunchly Catholic and formerly communist Baltic state’s uneasy relationship with its LGBTQ community, this wouldn’t be particularly surprising.

According to the Lonely Planet guide to the Baltic States for gay and lesbian travelers, "small displays of public affection can provoke some nasty responses".

Homosexuality was only decriminalised here in 1993. And, any legislative victories aside, a 2009 poll found that attitudes amongst the population were much the same as the pre-1993 days. Eight in ten respondents considered homosexuality to be anywhere between a perversion and a disease. 

Such a gay-hostile place probably seems like an odd choice for a romantic getaway with my girlfriend, on my birthday weekend. Then again an itinerary like ours, which includes a visit to the both the Museum of the Victims of Genocide, and the Holocaust exhibition at the Jewish museum, is hardly "gondola ride in Venice" or "Eiffel Tower at sunset". This is a stark, ex-Soviet, mostly-raining introduction to being gay outside of the liberal London bubble. Which is to say: dreamy.

Having said that, Vilnius’s cobbled old town is beautiful and, compared to other more mainstream Eastern European capitals, decidedly less stag night-y. Same-sex couples, it turns out, can be drawn to a city for features other than its queer nightlife. 

On the short walk from Vilnius’s central train station to our Airbnb, we passed a mural of Donald Trump smoking a spliff and giving Vladimir Putin blowback. A definite tribute to the gay kiss between the USSR's Brezhnev and East Germany's Honecker depicted on the Berlin Wall.

It was hard to tell what this said about the area’s attitude towards queers, but it was on the side of a bar that’s blasting out Black Lips and full of Lithuanian hipsters in their twenties. Say what you like about hipsters, they are not known for gay-hate. It was difficult to imagine anyone in there giving much of a shit about our sexuality.

At the Airbnb, we were greeted by one such Lithuanian hipster. She was about 20 and seemed a little nervous speaking to us, even though her English was near fluent.

The flat – an immaculate new build – was decked out in Ikea classics. Like the bar with the homoerotic Trump/Putin mural, anywhere with a Malm just seems to radiate gay-friendliness. It’s both sterile and PC. Like the Lib Dems, or a free sachet of lube.

Our host gave us a brief lesson in how to work the flat, before saying a polite goodbye. We’d just started unpacking when there was a knock on the door. It turned out the host had done a 180.

"One last thing," she said, "Do you need an extra duvet, or are you… sharing the bed?"

OH GOD, I thought. This is it. This is the kind of shit you read about. You never do read about anything good.

"Yeah, we’re sharing," I said, feeling both – I hate to say – embarrassed about being in a same-sex relationship, and embarrassed about being embarrassed about being in a same-sex relationship.

"OK, cool. No questions!" said the host, before disappearing into the afternoon at the speed of sound.

"No questions," I repeated, "Hmm."

Just to be clear, no, this wasn’t exactly a hate crime. I’m also reluctant to judge a 20-year-old from a very religious country for – well – judging us. And anyway, maybe "no questions" meant "no judgment". Who am I to… judge?

We’d been in Lithuania for about an hour before my girlfriend and I decided to really test the water and hold hands in the street. Mostly, we were starting to wonder if we were being xenophobic by assuming Lithuanians were probably homophobic.

This, I suppose, is the point at which bigotry really starts to eat itself. Unfortunately though, almost the moment we held hands, a group of...shaven headed individuals, who wouldn’t look out of place in a modern day pogrom, walked past, staring us down as if we’d stopped there for a spot of mid-street fisting.

I made brief eye contact with one of them as I let go of my girlfriend’s hand as fast as a bottle of water at airport security.

"Oh," I said to her, when – as far as we knew – Vilnius’s only out homophobes were at a safe distance. "Yeah…" she said.

There are parts of the world – Uganda, Russia and, most recently, Chechnya –  where both socially and legislatively speaking, things are actually getting worse for queer people. But, the overarching narrative is "it gets better". Visiting anywhere with less good attitudes towards The Gays than I’m used to feels like a step back in time.

I wonder, in terms of acceptance of, say, two women holding hands, which decade in London is reflected in 2017 Vilnius. The 80s? The 70s? I’ve only been gay in London since 1989. And back then – as far as I know – I wasn’t a particularly dykey baby. 

So began a weekend-long game of political PDA. We walked through the cobbled streets of the old town, admiring baroque churches and wondering if we were allowed to be a couple near them.

Without a strict set of rules, every stranger’s glance is open to interpretation. My interpretation being, "Let’s just not make a scene, OK?", my girlfriend’s interpretation being, "Stop being paranoid and xenophobic. No one cares."

In the evening, as we sat in a busy restaurant eating zeppelins (remarkably dense Lithuanian potato dumplings, not airships) we spotted – lo and behold – what we (homophobically?) thought might be another gay couple.

Two men in their twenties stood waiting for a table. They had professionally shaped eyebrows. One of them had earrings. In Nineties terms, they were gay as fuck. At a dumpling joint in Vilnius, at ten at night, who the hell knows? And, more to the point, why the hell should they care? Well, when your relationship has been reduced – via queer invisibility – to a handholding battle, you’re kind of desperate to find another same-sex couple.

"Are they…" I said.

"They must be," she said.

"Should we…?"

"NO."

I’m not even too sure what I was asking we "should" do (speak to them? Buy them drinks? Demand a gay tour of Vilnius?), or why I was shut down without finishing my sentence. Whatever we should or shouldn’t have done, we didn’t.

But back to Soho Club. The car stops and we leave behind our bewildered and slightly too amused Uber driver. Tentatively, as if approaching an ancient Egyptian tomb by lamplight, we walk down the stairs past the muscle man panels.

The complete silence – not even interrupted by passing traffic – doesn’t exactly say "buzzing" or… "Soho". Inevitably, almost, the bar is closed. In fact, it’s arguably the most closed bar I’ve ever seen. We’ve turned up, ready to party with Lithuania’s finest gays, at a giant lead box. What’s more, we look around us and realise we’ve strayed into Murder Town.

On our way to the nearest bus stop, we pass a life-size fiberglass cow devoid of any explanation, and a lit-up poster that looks startlingly like an ad for dead babies. The streets get wider and desolate-er until we’re at a petrol station, holding hands out of pure fear. On my part at least. If this is Vilnius’s gay scene, I’d like to give it some kudos at least for quite strongly resembling a David Lynch film.

Having somehow not been sawn into pieces and turned into outsider art, we find ourselves back at Vilnius airport the next day. While idly internetting on her phone, my girlfriend notices our Airbnb host has reviewed us as guests.

"Leonore and her friend are very friendly people!" she wrote.

In all fairness, I have shared beds in Airbnbs with friends. And whether or not someone is tiptoeing around my sexuality like a puddle of something that may or may not be wee, it’s always nice to be considered friendly. And to have "friends".

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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