Stephen Fry's documentary about gay life across the globe is unexpectedly absorbing

It was his stay in St Petersburg that touched and horrified most. The reedy young activists he met were so brave – they made me think of silver birch trees in a violent ice storm – and we got a frighteningly authentic whiff of the prevailing atmosphere.

Stephen Fry: Out There

I didn’t have high hopes for Stephen Fry’s two-part documentary about gay life across the globe. There’s some part of Fry that I can’t ever quite warm to and when, early in the first film (14 October, 9pm), he went off to see Elton John and David Furnish – cue the loud crunch of tyres on sweeping gravel – my heart sank.

It may well be true that, for Fry, Elton’s decision to come out was a “game-changing moment” but I can’t believe it was for many. Elton is another person to whom it’s rather hard to warm, for all his “bravery”, for all his fundraising white-tie balls. The clue to some of my distaste on this score lies, I think, in the words “white tie”. What do Elton and Furnish represent in our culture? The word that floats unbidden into my mind is “excess”. So kill me! I’m a puritan at heart – though not, I hasten to add, a sexual one.

After this, however, things picked up. The films were moving, absorbing and often blackly funny, and all praise to Fry, who managed to stay calm during several encounters that would have left me punching the walls. In Uganda, a country where politicians still hope to legislate against homosexuality, Fry enjoyed a bizarre conversation with a pastor who muttered darkly about carrots.

“Oh, gracious!” said Fry, mildly.

“You’re not using your penis the way you should use it!” continued the pastor, upping his game. “But I’m not interested in anuses and penises,” Fry said. He then listed his preferred sexual practices, none of which involved penetration. From the tone of his voice, he might as well have been reading aloud from the menu at the Garrick Club.

Next, to the US, the home of “reparative therapy”, which seeks to “cure” gay men of their urges. In Los Angeles, Fry met Joseph Nicolosi, the psychologist who is one of the technique’s leading lights and who believes that homosexuality is the result of childhood trauma. For a while, they batted the arguments (I use the word loosely when it comes to Nicolosi) back and forth. It was all a bit desultory, and I was worried; Fry seemed to be losing heart. But then a coy look moved over his face. Taking in Nicolosi’s tanned visage, carefully trimmed beard and surprisingly dark hair, he told the good clinician that his appearance was distinctly metrosexual: he could very easily pass for a gay man. Nicolosi, silent now, looked stunned; his mouth actually fell open a little. Goal!

I’m joking around, but in fact Nicolosi’s “therapies” are at best cruel and at worst dangerous. Fry’s second film (16 October, 9pm) ventured into more upsetting territory: in Brazil, a gay person is murdered every 36 hours; in Russia, it is illegal to “promote” homosexuality, a law that has far-reaching and monstrous consequences for the parents and children of gay people (who are “promoting” homosexuality by being alive); in India, the hijras (men who, broadly speaking, identify as women) are forced to live on the outer margins of society. Fry proved a kind and thorough reporter on these matters – though I wish he had not cried so often, which I found self-indulgent.

It was his stay in St Petersburg that touched and horrified most. The reedy young activists he met were so brave – they made me think of silver birch trees in a violent ice storm – and we got a frighteningly authentic whiff of the prevailing atmosphere.

In Russia, nationalism has brought with it religious zealotry, incense seeping into the crevices of the political life, noxious as gas. Fry was granted an audience with Vitaly Milonov, a politician who has suggested that gay athletes could be arrested at next year’s Sochi Olympics. They spoke for some minutes. Milonov is training to be a priest, and kept going on about angels.

“How do you sleep at night?” asked Fry, exasperated. “I can sleep after I pray,” Milonov replied. Fry’s references to St Petersburg’s glorious past – he mentioned Tchaikovsky and Diaghilev, both of them gay – fell on deaf ears, which was hardly surprising.

I looked at Milonov, blunt as an old penknife, and tried to conjure his hinterland. I could see him lighting candles in an oniondomed church and I could see him rocking out to Deep Purple or Smokie (of Bradford, who are huge in Russia) as he drove home through snow-streaked boulevards. But I could no more picture this unthinking homunculus at the ballet than I could imagine him striding across the room and kissing Fry tenderly goodbye.

Stephen Fry outside the city parliament in St Petersburg, Russia. Image: Getty

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis