Na-na-na, can't hear you: wife or husband does not always mean the wind beneath my wings. Photo: Getty
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To cheer myself up, I think of other people’s dreadful marriages

When I encounter the words “my wife” or “my husband”, I get, in some dark moods, a choking sensation beneath the breastbone.

Alles in der Welt läßt sich ertragen,/Nür nicht eine Reihe von schönen Tagen“Oh, God, here we go again,” I hear you saying. “He’s started in German this time.” My apologies but I don’t know how to translate this into an English couplet, even though it’s been bobbing about in my head since a German lesson in 1977 or 1978. It’s by Goethe and it means, more or less, “You can put up with anything life throws at you, except for a row of beautiful days.”

I remember being sort of impressed at the time, thinking, “Yes, that’s just the kind of clever-clever thing a poet would say, but give me a row of beautiful days and let’s see how much I mind it, OK?” I also suspected, uneasily, that there may well be some truth in there. A few years later I came across Francesca’s lament in Canto V of Inferno, the one beginning, “Nessun maggior dolore . . .” – “Nothing worse than recalling happy times when you’re in the shit.” (I give you the gist.) This amplifies the signal of Goethe’s lines but at the risk of losing their paradox.

All of which is my tortuous way of saying I had a bloody good time last week and I was sad when it was over. The B arrived from Sweden on Thursday evening for my birthday, which was a couple of days later; the weather in London was perfect; I had a nice dinner with her, my daughter (who had turned up to deliver a card) and a couple of friends; no one mentioned Nigel Farage. Then the B had to leave on Monday and there was a rather poignant scene of us waving goodbye to each other, with her only dimly visible through the heavily smoked glass of the Heathrow Express and me being yelled at by not one but two platform personnel for standing too near the train. “Step back from the train, SIR!” Whether it spoiled the mood or enhanced it I am still not sure but I do remember thinking: “I’m 51 years old. I know how close I can stand to a train by now.” It certainly didn’t stop the eyes from prickling a bit and a few deep breaths being needed to steady the self, on the mile-and-a-half walk back to the Hovel.

Well, one lives and there are worse things. At least I don’t have to go around lying on dating websites about my height and age and teeth and deep misgivings about almost every area of human activity in order to attract a mate. But this living alone business is getting to me. There was an article a few weeks ago in this magazine by a woman who had one of those deeply unsettling falls when getting out of bed; luckily, her husband was there at the time and was able to help. I was deeply affected by this detail. If I had some kind of stroke or heart attack, who would know? You have to get taken to hospital rather quickly in these circumstances and even if I was in a condition to be able to use the phone, there is a good chance it would be in its regular place – that is, nestled somewhere comfy but inscrutable among the books or the bedclothes.

It’s the kind of thought that has me making a nice cup of tea to distract and console myself. Then, when I put on the radio while waiting for the kettle, I find it’s You and Yours – which is bad enough news already – telling us about yet another study that says people who live alone die younger.

Time to pull myself together. I am prey to a degree of grass-is-greenery when it comes to certain concepts and situations, to the point that my own experience is distorted or sometimes flatly ignored. So, for example, when I encounter the words “my wife” or “my husband”, I get, in some dark moods, a choking sensation beneath the breastbone, for what I hear is “my helpmeet, my lover, my lifetime companion and the wind beneath my wings”, when, as I should know, “wife” and “husband” don’t necessarily mean any of these things.

To cheer myself up I think of all the people in dreadful marriages. (One does hear about some shockers.) I make tea (checking to see it’s not time for You and Yours or Money Box Live) and exercise the mind by wondering whether, if I shaved according to the principle of lawn-mowing – one stroke up and one down – I’d end up with an interestingly striped face. I also reflect on a mind-bending piece of information I learned the other day: Nigel Farage is younger than me. So really he has no excuse.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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