Leather forecast: leather men in the New York gay pride parade, 1980. Photo: Getty
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It turns out there’s more to LGBT films than sex. Sometimes

From London leather men to prostitution in American suburbia, the renamed BFI Flare offered up an eclectic programme.

A cinema with hardly any straight people in it is one of my favourite places to be. When we’re in front of a screen with something queer on it, the sense of camaraderie between us – from middle-aged old-school butch lesbians to young gay men in “I work in the media” glasses – is palpable.

The London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival was renamed BFI Flare this year to encompass other sexual identities represented in this beautifully eclectic programme. From Concussion – a film about a lesbian who gets hit on the head and decides to become a prostitute – to Age of Consent, a graphic documentary focused on London’s gay male fetish scene, this was cinematic queerness at its most flamboyant. It wasn’t all sex, though (it turns out that there’s more to LGBT films than that). Lilting is a poignant account of grief and the turbulent but tender relationship between a gay man in his thirties (played by Ben Whishaw) and his dead boyfriend’s elderly Chinese-Cambodian mother.

But back to sex. I saw Age of Consent by accident. Thinking (for some reason) that it was a documentary about the more mainstream side of the gay club scene, I was stunned and tickled to be confronted with scenes of leather-clad men doing stuff to each other’s orifices. It’s a surprisingly political film about the refusal of a particular section of the gay community to assimilate heterosexual culture and be “good gays”. An incongruously besuited Peter Tatchell outlines the legal history of gay sex, intercut with some hardcore scenes from inside the London gay leather club the Hoist.

Then there’s Concussion. In Stacie Passon’s debut, Abby Ableman is trapped in the privileged ennui of the suburban American dream. She and her lawyer wife, Kate, live in a green and affluent New York suburb, with their two young children. Abby is a high-end interior designer and is renovating a loft in Manhattan that will soon become her . . . whatever a prostitute’s version of an office is, after a nasty knock on the head during a baseball game makes her question her comfy existence. Concussion is probably the most witty lesbian drama since The Kids Are All Right (2010), though its exploration of prostitution seems naive. The darker side of the trade is hinted at when one client becomes abusive but in general it’s approached as sport for bored, middle-class women – a sort of slutty tennis club.

BFI Flare wasn’t all about sex and neither was it all about films. A highlight for me was an hour between films that I spent in the bar chatting to the 70-year-old trans woman artist Margaret Pepper and wondering whether she’s a modern-day Hogarth. I think she might be.

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

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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