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Wishful thinking took me to Iceland, home of the glowing grave and eternally bruised vegetable

Suzanne Moore travels to Iceland, where she finds poor coffee and depressed chefs in a long, dark night.
Icelandic dark. Photo: Halldor Kolbeins/AFP/Getty
 
Ah, Twixmas . . . those strange, formless days between Christmas and New Year, named after a chocolate bar.

Usually a time when I make a break for it. That’s how I ended up persuading the Professor to come to Iceland.

“Reykjavik! Pop stars go there,” I said.

The Professor agreed provided that two of her main passions were accommodated: good coffee and swimming.

“Yeah, loads of that!” I said.

“Why are you going at that time? It will be dark and cold,” said another friend of mine. Will Self, as it happens.

“What does he know about anything?” I thought. I promptly rang the Icelandic embassy and asked the staff to tell me it wouldn’t be dark and cold. I find there is no need for all that lengthy trudging that Will does when you can just do wishful thinking.

We arrived, in the dark; the only light was from the illuminated gravestones. This is the Icelandic way.

“I think it’s the time difference,” I said.

The Professor was unhappy: she’d been given instant coffee. The wind howled.

The famed nightlife was elusive. We sat in a bar with men who looked like Barbie’s Ken and drank extortionately priced lager.

Within a couple of days I could see little point in getting up at all. It could be 3am or 3pm. When you went outside it was freezing anyway. When you stayed in they gave you reindeer, tinned potatoes and dead lettuce. The Professor was agitated by my inertia.

I sensed her irritation when she stormed into a gay bar one night demanding a Diet Coke. They didn’t have one, and she barked, “Call yourself gay?”

Trying to lift our spirits, I booked a coach tour. We got up at 4am to look at geysers in the dark. The guides tried to get us off the coach to admire geothermically grown tomatoes.

“I don’t want to look at a fucking tomato,” screamed the Professor, swigging from a secreted stock of brandy.

Still, there was swimming to be had at the Blue Lagoon. The Professor dived in, swimming to a rock she had seen through the mist, and promptly threw herself on top of it. It turned out to be less of a rock and more of a man floating on his back.

At least one of the activities I’d promised her was available. We felt better.

But then we met the chef to the US ambassador.

“Do you know what it’s like to cook and never have fresh ingredients?” he asked.

We nodded.

“And when I order in vegetables, they’re bruised. Bruised! Can you imagine?”

We could.

“Damaged peppers. How am I expected to cope?”

The depressed chef made me realise my own sadness was just temporary. The blackness had truly entered him.

My long, dark night was in fact a minibreak of the soul. 

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth

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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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