Kunzru's complaints

Hari Kunzru finds alarming parallels between recent student protests in Britain and 1960s America.

In this week's New Statesman the British novelist and critic Hari Kunzru has reviewed Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman by Cathy Wilkinson. The book is a highly personal account of the left wing Weatherman movement in America, as the author was heavily involved in it herself and it was in her father's house in Manhattan that the now infamous town-house explosion occurred in 1970. Kunzru finds there are disturbing parallels between the febrile atmosphere of 1960s radical America and the student protests in present day Britain:

The present debate about kettling, the use of Forward Intelligence Teams, violent tactics and just plain thoughtless violence all had their equivalents in the militant scene of the 1960s. Contemporary organisers would do well to consult Wilkerson (and other veterans) if they wish to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. Her account of the criminal COINTELPRO operations mounted against the American new left, which went as far as political assassination of Black Panthers and prison activists, should give pause to those who believe that the policing of protest (in contemporary America) is always scrupulously apolitical. The use of agents provocateurs and the provision of "bait" for angry crowds are not new.

Kunrzu was a vocal supporter of the December student protests against the rise in tuition fees in the UK. On the day of the parliamentary vote on the increase in university fees last month, the author of My Revolutions (a novel partially set in the highly factional, politically radical atmosphere of British universities in the 1960s) demonstrated his support for the protesters on twitter: "Sending solidarity to everyone charging around London trying to defend UK education."

The novelist has also been campaigning against proposed cuts to library services across England. Kunzru commented on the proposed closure of libraries in a short, highly personal article: "I know that a public library is not the same as a book shop. It's also not the same as the internet. The child choosing a book that, for a short time, will belong to him, is learning that knowledge is his, if he wants it. He's learning that it's a right. Libraries set people free. They're not a luxury. They're not a relic. We must fight to save them."

In November 2010 Kunzru caused controversy when giving the opening speech at the European Writers' Parliament in Istanbul, by referring to Turkey's highly questionable record on human rights and free speech.

Read Hari Kunzru's full review in this week's New Statesman.

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
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The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

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