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Laurie Penny: A divided society

The chasm in our society is no longer between left and right, but between rich and poor.

For all the talk of one-nation Conservatism, the shadow-play of social injustice begins as soon as you step on to the train to the Tory party conference. Flinging my huge rucksack between the nearest doors just as the Birmingham train is about to pull away, I find myself moving through the low-lit hush of the first-class carriages. Wobbling through the half-empty aisles, I spot two Conservative councillors and several well-known columnists from the Times, the Guardian and the Telegraph curled comfortably in the spacious armchairs, over newspapers and coffee -- but through two sets of sliding doors are the cheaper seats.

Back here, it's stressful and there's not enough space. Standard class on the 8.50 Virgin Trains service is crowded with shift workers, students heading back to college after weekends at home -- and protesters. People from all corners of the country have given up their weekends to attend the national anti-cuts, pro-welfare demonstration convened by the Right to Work campaign and many of them are squeezed into the narrow red pens of Virgin's stock, shut off from the elbow-room of first class by a surcharge that makes all the difference. I drift off into a disturbing dream that Richard Branson is now running the welfare state, and several lurching delays later the denizens of standard class stumble out into Birmingham New Street, rumpled and irritable as only the British public can be after two hours crammed into a rolling metaphor for the state of the nation.

By noon, I am huddled in a car park under a dirty formica sky with several thousand welfare recipients, public-sector workers, local kids and union reps, getting thoroughly and miserably rained on. The press has dismissed the protest as union-led and union-run, because we now live in a world where "trade-union member" is a term of insult, but most of those I meet walking to the march assembly point are unaffiliated citizens. Kathryn, a teacher, says that this is her first protest since the Stop The War march in 2003. "It's mine, too," says Margaret, a retired social worker, who is marching alongside a gang of teenagers from local comprehensive schools. "I don't normally get involved in things like this, but this time, with these cuts, I just felt like I had to say something." "We've got to say something," agrees Kathryn. "It's better than staying quiet."

Everything's entirely quiet in the foyer of the Jury's Inn hotel where politicians and lobbyists are sipping tea in between fringe events. "It's hard to see how any protest will make much of a difference," says one Conservative MP, who refuses to be named. "Everybody knows that we have to make cuts anyway, so nobody's going to take much notice." Other delegates at the bar have heard that there's some sort of ruckus going on in the street, but the retreat into Tory bunker mentality has already begun. Despite this being the first conference in power the Conservatives have held for 14 years, the mood is far from triumphant -- at the fringe events, ministers are already on the back foot, defending the coalition's planned cuts to welfare and public services as calmly as possible.

Back at the march, a crosspatch cross section of British society is voicing its soggy dissent: pensioners grumble about the vehemence of some of the speakers while eating scotch eggs from plastic bags, and dreadlocked students share flasks of tea and foil-wrapped sandwiches with middle-aged mothers pushing prams. There's a curious sense of timelessness to the event. Some of the union reps clearly think they're back in the 1980s, and a dour close-harmony folk band is telling us all about the Hard Times of Olde England, but as the march moves off, it is led by disabled people in wheelchairs and their carers, determined to "show that we're suffering, too". At back of the folk band, moreover, is a man who everyone is trying very hard to ignore, because he is brandishing and occasionally honking through a vuvuzela, an item that seems in 2010 to have finally replaced the pitchfork as the prop of choice for the global working class attempting to annoy and terrify the bourgeoisie.

Meanwhile, just feet away inside the secure zone, behind a wall of steel cordons and police dogs, about the same number of warm, dry conference delegates are, and I'm not making this up, watching some contemporary dance. Specifically, a trio of twee pseudo-ballerinas in floaty saris from something called the Arts Conference, enacting modern interpretations of North Indian traditional dances with very serious expressions. They have been hired to twirl very slowly around the main stage before Francis Maude comes on to explain the "big society", and as he hasn't got a lot to say, they've clearly been instructed to take their time. The audience clap, polite and bewildered. Outside in the rain, the people who actually have to live in the "big society" are already howling for reprieve.

You couldn't have asked for a starker, more cliched illustration of the difference between the political elites and the rest of us if you'd given a toddler a fistful of red and blue crayons and told it to draw a picture of a divided society. The lines being drawn are wobbly and childish, but they are lines of pain and anger, and like the etchings of a traumatised child, they deserve to be paid attention to. The chasm in our society is no longer between left and right. The chasm is between rich and poor, and it's growing, dividing those members of the elite, including the liberal elite, for whom the coming cuts are an abstract if regrettable concept, and the people whose jobs and homes and families are under threat.

Most of the latter have not been able to afford the £400 accreditation process for access to the Conservative conference centre, with its finger-food receptions and winsome catered round tables to discuss whether central government should pull an awkward or merely resolved expression while tearing the heart out of the welfare state and refusing to share the financial burden amongst the wealthy. As delegates and journalists at the Demos grill nibble profiteroles and ask Greg Clark MP why he won't be slightly more forthright about shrinking the state, they seem not to have realised how much they are already resented by a good deal of ordinary people. Either that, or they simply don't care.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

A National Trust property. Photo: Getty
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The National Trust is right to bring gay history out of the closet

If you want to explore the history of Britain, you can't ignore its LGBT citizens.

Imagine seeing a monument to executed gay men and thinking literally anything other than, “how sad and poignant”. In September, the National Trust unveiled exactly such a memorial at one of their properties in Dorset. Kingston Lacy was once owned by William John Bankes, a man whose sexuality, in nineteenth century Britain, was a capital offence. The NT’s moving tribute to Lacy and so many others persecuted for being queer was deemed a “PC stunt” by the Daily Mail. Tory MP Andrew Bridgen somehow managed to find the monument “totally inappropriate”, adding that he looks to the Church for moral guidance – not the National Trust.

 But let me backtrack. I’m in the darkened vault of the Tower of London where the Crown Jewels are kept. The tour guide has just made a joke about vibrators.

The last time I was here, I was about nine and I was on a day out with my grandma. She made no mention whatsoever of sex toys. I wonder, actually, if this is the closest to this ceremonial bling a joke about vibrators has ever been made. I also wonder if there’s ever been a tour of the Tower of London where the guide – as my one did about fifteen minutes ago – has quite overtly slammed British imperialism. One thing I know for certain though: this is the first ever official LGBTQ tour of the Tower, organised by none other than Historic Royal Palaces – the charity that manages several of the UK’s grandest former homes.

 Earlier, at Traitors’ Gate, me and a tour group of about twenty people were told about Irish republican Roger Casement, who was executed, here, in 1916. Casement was dedicated to speaking out against the atrocities of imperialism, and was rumoured to be gay. But it wasn’t his alleged homosexuality that landed him in this thousand-year-old fortress-turned-prison, rather his involvement in the Easter Rising. King James I though – I later learn – was almost definitely gay or bi, having a number of “favourite” male courtiers. “Favourite” seeming to be a particularly coy seventeenth century euphemism for “gay lover”.

 The tour lasts about an hour and, although at times it seems to be slightly scraping the barrel for queer content, the pure effort of it is nothing short of heroic. The Crown Jewels section focused in on Queen Victoria, and all the anti-gay legislation introduced during her infamously prudish reign. On this tour, her freakishly tiny crown becomes a symbol of oppression rather than a cutesy royal knick-knack. Which, I can only imagine, would have the “gay agenda”-fearing monarchy groupies of middle England in a Faragean frenzy.

 This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalised (male) gay sex in England and Wales. And with the sheer number of events, like the queer Tower tour, at palaces and historic institutions – from Hampton Court to the British Library – you’d think it was the Queen’s platinum jubilee.

Now for some word association.

 “National Trust”.

 Pensioners? Fruitcake? Dust? Anarchic genderqueer hook-up joint?

 Not so much that last one? Well then, it may come as a surprise that it was the fusty old National Trust, working alongside the National Archives, that recreated a historically accurate covert 1930s London gay bar. For a couple of nights in March this year, Soho’s Freud Café was transformed into “London’s most bohemian rendezvous”, the Caravan club. In a spectacularly and appropriately theatrical evening of incense, cocktails and vintage drag queens, the NT totally nailed the “illegal den of queer iniquity” thing. This was preceded by a historic LGBTQ tour of Soho, which, like the Tower tour, didn’t gloss over the brutality of the British establishment. The Soho tour was rightfully heavy on harrowing stories about police raids on queer venues. In fact, it was through police reports collected by the National Archives that the NT was able to recreate The Caravan (which was shut down by the police in 1934).

Further north in London, another LGBTQ event hosted by the National Trust was “Sutton House Queered”. If the idea of a Tudor manor house in Hackney isn’t surreal enough, in February the grade II listed former home to aristocracy was the setting of a queer art exhibition. Think – richly wood panelled great room containing a painting of Henry VIII in full bondage gear. This was also the debut of the first gender-neutral public toilet in an NT property.

And, in a display of borderline hilarious inevitability, the Daily Mail … raised objections. “Preserve us from a National Trust that’s so achingly right-on”, quacked a Mail headline in December last year, after the NT announced its plans for a series of “Prejudice and Pride” events marking the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act. This July, the NT came under attack from the Mail, yet again, for outing late aristocrat, Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer. Ketton-Cremer left his Norfolk home to the Trust in 1969, and was supposedly outed as gay in a recent film for the “Prejudice and Pride” series. Whether or not the NT’s decision to discuss Ketton-Cremer’s sexuality was ethical, it’s a refreshing sort of controversy: the kind where an old British institution is actually quite blasé about gay sex, and the Mail goes nuts.

 Throughout this year, my inbox has been almost quite alarmingly full of press releases for queer-related events and promotions. From rainbow hummus (yes.) at the Real Greek restaurant, to “Pride at the Palace” at Hampton Court, more than ever, everyone seems to want a slice of the gay action. The Tate Britain’s “Queer British Art” exhibition, which opened in April, showcases a century (1867—1967) of sexually subversive works by LGBTQ artists. Although overwhelmingly male and posh, it’s hard to play down the importance of such a simultaneously harrowing and celebratory retrospective. In one room, A large and imposing portrait of Oscar Wilde stands right next to the actual door to his prison cell in Reading Gaol, where he was imprisoned for the absolute non-crime of “gross indecency”. Even if Britain’s cultural institutions are just playing up to a trend, a very big part of me is into it.

 In July, I went to a panel discussion organised by Opening Doors London, a charity that provides support for older LGBTQ people. A group of queer people who were adults when the Sexual Offences Act was passed spoke about what this anniversary means to them. When I asked panellist Jane Traies, the author of The Lives of Older Lesbians: Sexuality, Identity & the Life Course, what she thought about the likes of the National Trust taking on queer history, she was understandably wary of the possible faddy-ness of it all.

“It’s good, though, that history itself should come out of the closet,” she said.

                                                                                       

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