Posted in Blog, Creative Writing, Writing

An Open Letter To Snow

I know that you’re just trying to help.
You’ve seen the way we all admire you when you arrive somewhere scenic,
lighting up the place,
smiles lined across the faces of the cooing crowd,
so you probably thought “I’ll cheer them up!”,
but honestly love,
nobody has time to stop and stare,
and nobody has time for the song and dance you demand every time you show up,
so as well meaning as you might be,
just fuck off x

Posted in Blog, Personal, politics, Pride Month 2022

Can Dartford’s First Pride Heal The Wounds Left By The Shame of Sandy Bruce-Lockhart?

After decades of keeping the LGBT+ community a secret, the town I live in is having it’s first Pride. Organised by the Orchard Theatre in partnership with Dartford Borough Council, the event is much needed, and long overdue.

I live about twenty minutes away from the tiny village I spent much of my childhood in, Horton Kirby. Just a little drive from Dartford, Horton Kirby was somewhere that I absolutely hated living. There was nothing to do, and so the fascination was gossip. Everybody wanted to know everybody’s business, and as someone harbouring a deep, dark secret, this made it the worst place in the world to live.

Casting my mind back to my childhood, when I’d spend the weekends and summer holidays listening to mixtapes full of ballads in Dartford park, tormented by the secret that lived inside my soul, I often wonder what that lonely, torn up teenager would think about Pride happening just a stones throw away from the place she used to haunt.

Every Pride month, there’s a lot of discourse about Pride having roots in protest, and Dartford, along with the rest of Kent is no stranger to LGBT+ related protests.

It all begins with the familiar tale of Section 28, a piece of legislation that banned the promotion of homosexuality, introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in the 1980’s. The damage of the legislation to LGBT+ youth was clear from the outset, with LGBT+ kids facing bullying, mental health challenges and years of struggle with accepting themselves, which is why the legislation was repealed by Tony Blair’s Labour government at the turn of the millennium.

Brave protesters who fought back against Kent’s Section 28 legislation (Image: Paul Prentice)

It was a turning point for the LGBT+ community in the UK, and represented, the beginning of the state making up for the harm caused, at last, for the LGBT+ community, unless of course, they lived in Kent.

In the early 2000’s, the Conservative controlled Kent County Council voted to introduce legislation that mimicked Section 28 and banned the promotion of homosexuality in schools managed and controlled by the local authority. The legislation insisted that children should be taught that homosexuality was not equal to heterosexuality, and that teachers should not allow children access to material or information that could give children the idea that homosexuality was positive or even normal.

Council leader at the time, Sandy Bruce-Lockhart said: “What we are saying is that we want to give reassurance to parents in Kent that the county council will not spend taxpayers’ money on purchasing material which intentionally promotes homosexuality. That is a bad use of money.” It was framed as a money issue, but the council’s actions over the next few years made it clear that it was a homophobia issue.

He later repeated this justification for the legislation in a letter to the president of The Queer Youth Alliance, David Henry, adding that the council would encourage children to lead a healthy, fulfilling and meaningful life in which they respect themselves, but for LGBT+ children who were unable to find the answers to the burning questions about themselves, that was difficult to do.

The councillor who started it all, Sandy Bruce-Lockhart (Image: The Telegraph)

Sandy Bruce-Lockhart went on to be celebrated for his contributions to politics, being made a Knight Bachelor on the New Year’s Honours List and being given a life peerage. The students that suffered under the legislation he introduced have not been so fortunate.

In 2004, the legislation was amended, now stating that heterosexual marriage was the only firm foundations for society. This was in place and having a profound and damaging effect on LGBT+ students until the Equality Act of 2010 was introduced by the UK government.

Protests began at council buildings in 2004, with older members of the LGBT+ community, including the chair of Canterbury Labour Paul Prentice joining student groups to raise their voices against the damaging legislation. I have been going to protests since I could walk, but I was not at any of the protests by LGBT+ groups against our council.

At first, I didn’t know the legislation was in place, and I wouldn’t find out until I was about sixteen. When I did, I was still far too deep in my shame spiral to actually do anything about it, but there were people, turning up to council buildings and town halls repeatedly throughout the 2000’s to stand up for kids like me, because they knew the damage that was being done in those schools.

Shoutout to Hilary Duff for attempting to end Homophobia. Stream What Dreams Are Made Of for good grades and clear skin! (Image: Youtube)

Part of me, after years of indoctrination believed that the councillors must have been right. They were hiding homosexuality from us, because it was wrong. At the time, same sex marriage was still illegal, and there were very few visible LGBT+ role models, and barely any lesbian representation, beyond fetishised porn clips that the boys swapped with each other on their phones. Gay and Lesbian were still used as pejoratives, and the one girl I knew that came out as a lesbian was relentlessly bullied while teachers looked the other way.

There was no way for me to come out, amidst all that. Knowing about the legislation didn’t make it go away, and it didn’t erase the damage that it had already done.

Things have changed in Dartford, but things have also stayed the same. We have a gay bar now, The Huffler’s Arms, which is a wonderful and inclusive space (with amazing drinks deals!), but we also have Winners’ Chapel, just a few minutes away that was exposed for conducting gay conversion therapy by ITV News in 2018 and has claimed that gay people are controlled by the devil. They give out leaflets on the road that leads to Dartford’s one and only gay bar regularly, and it’s hard to believe that their decision to leaflet there is a coincidence.

At last, a home. (Image: The Hufflers Arms)

Council buildings fly the Pride flag in February and June but Conservative councillors are not willing to acknowledge or truly make amends for their party’s antagonistic history with the local LGBT+ community.

Kent County Council’s LGBT toolkit mentions Section 28 several times but does not acknowledge the council’s own part in continuing the legislation for a decade after it was originally repealed by the UK government.

Dartford is now having its first ever Pride, and they’ve gone all in, with a three day calendar of events, featuring performances from Drag Race UK stars Baga Chipz and River Medway, as well as Pop Idol star Gareth Gates and ITV’s Starstruck finalist Keeley Smith. Teenage me would not have been able to believe it. Adult me can’t really believe it either.

The main Pride event on Saturday July 2nd unfortunately does clash with the much bigger London Pride event, just a quick train away in the capital, but the events on other dates shouldn’t run into the same issues, and as a whole, the events happening is significant.

This is a town, still struggling to accept parts of itself. I am a woman, still struggling to accept parts of myself. After decades of trying to change myself, and present an acceptable image, it is only in the last few years that I have accepted that I am a Lesbian, and that there’s nothing I can, or even should do about it (beyond seeking a wife for the end of the world), so the town that I call home, finally showing up for me is an emotional moment.

Baga Chipz is stunning. Baga Chipz is class. KCC teaching LGBT+ kids to hate themselves is not. (Image: Dartford Pride)

Would I have hidden myself for so long if the legislation had not been in place? While other factors were part of my decision (see yesterday’s poem for details, and stan my amazing mother for being an accepting icon), I do still believe the legislation was the largest aspect, and I have spent a long time imagining how different my life would be, if I’d gone through puberty and discovered my sole attraction to women while going to school in another part of England.

I have reconnected with people that I went to school with, that are, like me, late bloomers, and have spent a long time trying to run away from who they were, primarily due to years of our schools having no choice but to hide the truth of our normality from us. We are normal. There is nothing wrong with us, but in our formative years, we were made to feel like freaks and deviants. There is a lot of pain, and a lot of anger, and I wish I knew when that would fade.

My hope is that the first Dartford Pride will be a success, and will continue year after year. I hope that it will help heal the divisions between the LGBT+ community and a local authority that played a part in sowing the seeds of self hatred in so many of us, but it’s important to be honest about the power of Pride, and how it has its limits.

Finally being able to be myself, openly, while I sip drinks and watch our home county hero River Medway is nice, and I’ll enjoy myself, as I’m sure others will, but Dartford Borough Council, along with other councils across Kent has a long way to go if they ever hope to repair the damage of their shameful homophobic history.

Posted in Blog, Creative Writing, Writing

Northlay Falls – Chapter One

Nobody comes to Northlay Falls. Nobody leaves Northlay Falls. Nobody looks into the lake. That is just how it is. We are born here. We live here. We die here, of boredom, or natural causes, whichever comes first.

Seven generations of my family have wasted away here, and it’s the same for everyone else I know. Nobody really knows how our ancestors got here, and nobody really cares, we’re just trapped here.

It is what it is.

It’s the ideal tourist destination, with great views, pubs, a lake to swim in, and all the picturesque cottages a tumblr blogger or budding influencer dreams of photographing, but nobody ever comes here.

Nobody goes to University. Nobody moves for work. We don’t get tourists. We don’t get Royal visits. We don’t get campaign knocks from the Prime Minister. Our member of parliament has never actually come to the village. He was parachuted in, and he won the seat, but he’s never set foot in this place. Nobody from the outside has. I don’t blame them.

It’s like time stopped and then restarted, but we got stuck. Everyone went on without us.

Nobody comes in. Nobody leaves. Nobody looks into the lake. I’m sorry if I’m repeating myself, it just gets to me. Nobody comes in. Nobody leaves. Nobody looks into the lake. I watch the rest of the world, coming and going, living their lives online or in the newspapers (sent across on boats, like all other supplies from the outside), but I’m trapped, and I never knew why, not until today.

There’s a farm, but everything grows bad. Old Mr Hithe has never been able to charm anything from the soil, so we rely on the boats bringing stuff over on the lake.

They say that the farm drove him a little mad. He knew how to plant and sow. He knew how to care for animals, but it just never worked out. The soil would scowl up at him, refusing to let anything but weeds leave its earthy embrace, and the animals would go off into the night, every single night, in a neat little line towards the lake. Sometimes, he’d be able to stop a few of them, but they’d just try again the next night, and the next, until eventually, they were all drowned.

Nobody ever knew why. Nobody has the energy to ask anymore. The animals would die, the soil would keep the crops captive, and crazy old Mr Hithe would run around the village every morning, screaming about a monster in the lake. Everyone pretends they can’t hear him, but I know now that he’s telling the truth.

The same happened to his father, and his grandfather before him. The Hithes have always been farmers, just incredibly unlucky ones.

Crazy old Mr Hithe was the last of his line. The lake saw to that. After he ran out of animals, his daughter went walking, then his wife, and finally his son. I saw him, out of the window, sobbing and pleading with them, doing his best to drag them back to the farm house, but off they went, to the lake, doomed to wash up on the shore the next morning, or, what was left of them, anyway.

Sometimes, I think crazy old Mr Hithe isn’t crazy, he is just aware, in a way that most of us can’t handle.

I haven’t even told you about the lake. There’s a lake on the far north side of the village, past the forest. People will go into the forest, and they’ll go as far as the shore, if they’re very brave, but only the bravest will go near the lake, and nobody will look directly into it.

The lake is the only way out, I’m sure of it. The sailors on the boats that bring our supplies aren’t from here. We order stuff from across the way. There’s another village on the other side, and after that, a town, and I guess, the rest of the world. The sailors come from that town. They never look down, they just keep their eyes on the cargo, or each other, never looking at the water. They know what happens if they look at the water. We all do.

Looking at the water is certain death. Nobody is sure how, because only a few have ever seen it, and they’re long gone, but it’s certain death, and it certainly isn’t pretty, or so I’ve been told, in terrified whispers.

There are things that everyone knows but pretends to be clueless about. I suppose for those on the outside, the things are less troublesome, but we all have our secrets.

Looking at the water is death. That is our secret. There’s something in there, but whatever is down there let’s the boats pass. The sailors go back and forth every few days, unharmed, and if I could just get on one of those boats, I’d be free.

I’ve tried every other way. It didn’t take me long, because there really was only one other way I could think of. There’s no trucks or cars to sneak out on, so I tried walking. That sounds simple, but it really wasn’t.

When I said that nobody leaves, I didn’t mean that people like it so much they never leave. I mean that nobody has left, because they can’t. There were rumours about people disappearing after trying to cross through the forest onto the road, and considering how often that happens without people wandering towards freedom, people have been put off from trying.

We decided we knew better. As night fell, I snuck out of the house with my brother. He had just turned eighteen, and didn’t want to follow my father down the traditional path of marrying a girl from the village and popping out babies, in between shifts at the pub.

I understood him completely. There are six pubs in this village, because that’s all we can do. Eat, exist and binge drink. It takes the edge off, I guess. Most people here aren’t smart, but they’re not dumb either. They know that they are trapped. They know that this is a strange place. They know that their lives aren’t normal. They know that every month, someone goes missing and we just don’t talk about it. I suppose the drinking is how people cope with the boredom, and the pain. It’s not like there’s anything else to do.

Ray was smart. He was the best at school by far, and he longed to go outside, to study. He could have gone somewhere like Oxford, but he was trapped, just like me, and just like me, he was sick of it.

We headed towards the south border. There wasn’t a wall to keep us in, or even a fence. Just a cheerful, weathered sign past the trees, that welcomed visitors who never came, and the scary stories we’d heard since before we could talk. We stood, hand in hand by the sign as the wind whipped around us.

Nobody leaves. I keep saying it, because it’s true. Nobody left that night either. I was afraid, but Ray was too excited at the thought of freedom to be afraid. He let go of my hand and took a step past the sign. The night was still and we both breathed a sigh of relief as he reached a hand back towards me.

And then, he was gone. It all happened so quickly, like the frantic flashes of a nightmare. Huge, dark wings descended from the trees as my brother yelped, almost drowned out by a deafening roar that seemed to surround us.

I stared up, awestruck as the creature took to the sky, my brother’s struggling body clenched between its huge jaws. It’s wings seemed endless as it circled above me, my brother’s screams faded as I saw the creature’s blood red eyes staring back at me. It didn’t speak (I suppose it couldn’t, with its mouth full), but the cold, scarlet stare told me to stay inside the bounds of the village, or else.

Frozen in place, my eyes streaming with tears, I watched the creature carry Ray, dripping with blood as the life left him, across the village, towards the lake.

I couldn’t believe what I’d just seen. I stood there for a few moments until the creature was out of sight, and then I just wandered the village until dawn.

I suppose I was in shock. I had briefly considered going to the lake, to try and find Ray, but I guess, like him, I was smart. We’d all heard the stories about the lake, and I’d seen his lifeless body, carried away in the mouth of whatever that thing was, so there was no reason, other than sentimentality to go looking for something I would never find.

I saw crazy old Mr Hithe by my Father’s pub, and he looked at me, with this incredibly sane clarity. He knew, and now, so did I. I nodded to him and carried on, walking mindlessly, like one of his sheep, or one of his children, heading to the lake, despite my earlier arguments with myself over it, but I never quite made it there.

My fiancé (his words, not mine) found me and took me back to my parents. That’s perhaps the worst thing about this shithole. Nobody comes in, so we’re all bullied and forced into arranged marriages if we can’t make it happen organically, for the sake of continuing the population. I’d honestly rather let it die out, than fuck a man, especially one as loathsome as Richard Burgess, but unfortunately for me, I won’t have a choice once my sixteenth birthday comes. I don’t have much time left. Ray had his reasons for wanting to get out, but that was mine.

My parents bundled me into the house and pushed Richard back out the door, and for a few seconds, we all just stood in silence.

“Something took Ray.” I had tried to speak but it was barely a whisper. There was more silence, and I could feel tears again. “It had wings and these red eyes and…”

My father pressed a hand to my lips.

“Well, I should go and open up.” He said with a sigh. I gaped at him, astounded as he grabbed his coat. It was like he hadn’t listened. One of his children was missing, probably dead, and it didn’t seem to phase him, at all.

“Didn’t you hear me?” I cried, rushing across the room and grabbing him by the collar. “That thing took Ray!”

“People will be wanting their drinks.” He muttered. “It’s a sunny day.” He pulled away from me. “Got to get the people their drinks.”

Without another word, he kissed my mother on the cheek and headed out the front door.

“He dined early this month.” My mother whispered, disappearing towards the kitchen. I could swear that I saw tears in her eyes, but I knew that she wouldn’t say anymore.

I stood, motionless and full of emotion that I couldn’t express. My brother was dead, and nobody seemed to care. His own parents acted as if it was another day. I couldn’t understand then, but I do now, and the things I have learned will change the world, if I can ever escape into it.

I’m going to get out, and I’m going to show you all the secrets that they’ve been hiding.

Nobody comes in. Nobody leaves. Nobody looks into the lake, but I will.