Over the last two nights Channel 4 have shown a documentary about the demise of the Jeremy Kyle Show and the devastating effect it had on some of its participants but also some who worked on it. The focus was on the suicide of Steve Dymond but it also uncovered other suicides which could be at least partly attributable to the show.
It was a very sobering watch not just because of the Mr Dymond’s terrible death and the circumstances around it but also because of what it reminded us of what many saw as valid entertainment and in doing so showed some uncomfortable truths about the prejudices many of us still hold around class, education and those deemed by the press as ‘scroungers’ etc. The truth is if you watched an episode you were guilty of judging those that took part and I accept that of myself. Be it from what they may have worn, their level of communication skills, their behaviour on stage, even their teeth or lack of. The programme played into all the stereotypes of lower working class people often with drug problems, poor social skills and very often those not working. All designed to make the viewer feel superior and with lip service to any real compassion or empathy.
Many years ago the Vanessa show was filmed in Norwich and each Friday there would be some very loud, badly behaved people on the train on their way back up North after filming. I am guilty of sitting there feeling they were somewhat trashy and glad my journey was brief. But who I am to sit and judge? I too come from a working class background and a single parent family and I know very profoundly the effect mental health can have on people’s lives. My feeling is I was reacting emotionally to their behaviour rather than them as individuals. Similarly, all these programmes shamelessly exploit this, engineering arguments and outbursts, making people tired and emotional to make for more dramatic TV and the truth is we all fall for it on some level. But who cares for the participants once they have ‘performed’ on TV, not many is the answer.
The documentary showed how people like Steve were effectively used for ratings then sent home with their tails between their legs, sometimes like in his case an important defining relationship destroyed by a lie detector result or something said in the heat of an engineered conflict. I personally am surprised there were not more deaths or other consequences. Many of these people were vulnerable and open to exploitation and yes many were desperate to be on TV but that doesn’t make it right. We have a responsibility as a society to be kinder to each other, to listen to everyone’s voice without judgement and not to use those voices as exploitative entertainment. We can only look to ourselves and be honest about our prejudices and challenge them.
Matt Boyles, 38, is an online fitness trainer who focuses on gay, bi and trans men providing a service tailored to the individual but which is in a safe and inclusive environment where gay, bi and trans men can feel comfortable whilst working towards their fitness goals. Matt’s brand is ‘Fitter Confident You’ and it includes an emphasis on the mental health side of things understanding that gay men often feel uncomfortable in the gym and can lack confidence in both their bodies and also themselves. Matt is the embodiment of his brand. He is in great shape and comes across as intelligent, confident and well-adjusted. When we met up, he was exactly as he presents in his videos, apart from the fact he was wearing an orange top and a baby pink hoodie. He is clearly relaxed in his own skin and comfortable with his sexuality. Above all he came across as inspiring but approachable, motivated but warm. If anyone deserves success in the cut-throat arena of online fitness, he does. In our interview he talks about how he came to terms with his own sexuality and how fitness and helping other gay men has become such a passion.
Please can you tell us about your family background?
I grew up in the 80s in the Midlands with a loving, stable family. Dad was a dentist, mum helped out in the surgery. I went to school five minutes away. I have two older sisters and from how I remember it was almost idyllic, well maybe not quite. Growing up on farm as well there was loads of space and animals and you could run around the buildings and the fields and I have very happy memories of my family plus we were comfortable enough to go on a few holidays a year, which obviously is a great thing, because it just shows you a bit more of the world from an early age. Overall, I had a very happy family life growing up.
Do you think coming from a more conservative family made it more difficult to come to terms with your sexuality?
I don’t think you could correlate it directly. I don’t think I could say because of X it made it directly more difficult to come to terms with being gay. But as one of the variables, yes, having a bit more of a conservative family. Also, I went to an old private school, so that was obviously that thing of old boys, old guard style of establishment, not like Eton and Harrow level but it was a 400-year old private school. So, there are I guess there were institutions within it, in terms of things like ‘it’s rugby and everyone plays rugby’ and that was very not me.
I don’t remember specific homophobic.outbursts from family as such, I guess the occasional jibe at school, but I didn’t know I was gay then, I definitely didn’t, not to the extent of putting a label on it. Maybe I knew I was different in some way, but it was impossible to know what that meant, certainly from a young age.
You came out relatively late, why do you think this was? what was the turning point?
Partly I was just a late developer, physically, emotionally, mentally and also there was the whole ‘I’m going to pretend that I’m not gay for as long as possible, for as long as humanly possible’ and try and date girls and things like that and just ignore it but then obviously it just comes to a head. And in fact, I guess the turning point was moving to London because I’d been at University away and then come home and then realized that I wanted to leave my small town and my sisters were both living in London and I just needed to see a bit more of what life had to offer.
Another turning point was from being around other gay people and just using forums as we used to do in the early 2000s online, to find your tribe and realize that you’re not alone and you’re not weird and it’s just that you are gay and yes we are different to straight people, but not a bad different. You’re just different.
What were your early relationships like? Did they help you build your identity as a gay man?
That’s an interesting question. I don’t know about identity. My first proper relationship was actually really lovely, and we were together for about 18 months, 2004-2005 and by amazing coincidence I hadn’t seen him for 15 years since we split up, which was amicably, and then I bumped into him recently at a Park Run, which was really nice. The funny thing is if you had asked beforehand ‘how did it feel to bump into your first boyfriend after so long?’ I might have said ‘oh maybe a bit weird’, but actually in real life it was just lovely. We had a nice chat. He looked well, it was great. It was just a nice reminder of a time. He was also sort of going through the early stages of coming out and coming to terms, so we were kind of there for each other, we understood what the other was going through as well. So, it did it help my identity? I don’t know, I guess everything changes and impacts your identity at a certain level.
You originally had a career in marketing, how do you think that has informed your movement into the fitness industry?
I fell into marketing because at school I remember being told in Business Studies that I’d be good at marketing. So always in my head that was the sort of the career that I had in mind. So, I tried it and was OK at it. I didn’t mind it, but I didn’t love it particularly, but one of the companies I worked for six years, I loved the company and I loved the people. The work most of the time was quite good. So, there was nothing really pushing me away from it because I liked it there. I was paid Ok too, I’d been promoted a few times and had nice people around me. So weren’t any push factors, but there were pull factors to get me into fitness, but definitely things I learned in those sort of nine odd years of being in marketing would have helped me in transition into any career that I would have chosen next.
It taught me a lot in terms of client management, looking after my clients, client retention and just trying to ensure everything I do is of a high level, which obviously it isn’t always, because that’s life! But I try to make sure that people have a great experience working with me and I encourage them to see the bigger picture, why they’re doing it and to focus on the good stuff they will gain as opposed to the bad stuff they will leave behind.
I do a bit of copywriting for the Website, layout and design, I’m not a designer but I think I know what looks good. But in terms of specific marketing, I’ve learned a lot on the go, because you have to and I’ve even done a specific course about becoming an online trainer, which was great and helped me understand who I wanted to work with and why, and just take it from there.
how did you get into personal training as a career?
In my 20s I wasn’t that fit and healthy, and I started going to the gym because in the marketing agency I was working for we got discounted membership to a really great gym. So, I joined that and then had a few PT sessions with a PT and just started to enjoy it, my body was changing, getting stronger and fitter. I’d run a bit before and done a few triathlons, but fitness still wasn’t a major part of my life, but work at that agency became so busy that I couldn’t go to the gym in my lunch break and I didn’t have time before or after work, I was sleeping worse. And so it just sort of hit me as a lightning bolt one day ‘Why don’t you look into being a PT’ ‘maybe that would be good because that way you could you still get to mix people and you get to improve your fitness at the same time’. So, I did that without really telling anyone, certainly no one at work and just my then-boyfriend and my parents who were very against it, but I understand why, it was fear-based. Why would you give up a sensible career, a corporate career, to go and do something self-employed? But they understand now why I had to do it.
How did I get into a personal training career, just doing the exams, and studying those on the side, realizing that I liked it and the more I did it, the more I loved it, understanding how the body worked, how it all goes together, how there’s a holistic approach, to bring in the mental health side in and just wanting to step out of the 9-5 office life as well. So that was a bit of a push factor towards the end as well.
Your work as a personal trainer has largely been outside of gyms – do you think part of this is because of you being gay and it being less of a comfortable environment for gay men?
No, not me personally. When I became a PT I worked in the parks in London, for about five and a half to six years. That was because I didn’t want to work in a gym because you either get paid peanuts or you have to rent their space each month, for like a grand, and then you don’t make anything until you’ve made that grand back each month. So it was pretty much purely a financial decision as to why I worked in the park where there were fewer overheads, but this is one of the things that I hear a lot with new clients saying they just don’t feel comfortable in the gym and I have been there.
Years ago in my 20s I remember walking into a gym or any gym and just not quite knowing what to do. Thinking people are looking at me and getting on the treadmill and going home after 20 minutes and that’s obviously not a great use of your membership. So, I understand fully the whole ‘not being comfortable in the gym’ and this is something that some straight trainers get, but not all of them. Not every straight trainer is going to have the empathy, to be able to understand why that is a thing for some gay, bi or trans men and I’ve even had a straight guy say to me ‘.Oh, but surely it’s the perfect environment for gay guys’. ‘Don’t understand why they’re not happy there.’ That hits the nail on the head, you don’t understand it, because you haven’t lived it and you can’t empathize. That’s why I include options for home workouts, if people ever want to work with me, but don’t want to have a gym membership and that’s OK.
How did Fitter Confident You come about?
Three years or so ago I had seen the rise of some online trainers like Joe Wicks, Kayla Itsines, James Smith (more recently), all doing online training and really breaking through and so they all did a great job bringing the concept to market. With my face to face training I was really busy, and I was only able to help as many people as the work hours in the day. So, I wasn’t changing the world in terms of number of people I was reaching and helping. I just looked at the online things that were out there and thought maybe I can do better than that, I could personalize the plans more, I could offer more support and I can even include elements to support mental health and confidence as well. So that was the starting point.
Also going on Twitter a few years ago and seeing and realizing the extent of how many gay, bi and trans guys were unhappy with themselves, their bodies, their community and I knew I could pass on the benefits of a bit of self-care, in the form of some exercise, maybe some meditation, maybe a bit of knowledge about nutrition as well and just wanting to be able to do something to just help that and help people feel a bit better in their own skin. So that was the starting point and it sort of just evolved from there.
You have chosen a niche within the industry? can you explain the boundaries and your reasoning around this
This goes back to a marketing point, that if you try to appeal to everyone, you appeal to no one because you don’t have a specialism and you sort of fall through the cracks and that was my approach when I was a face-to-face trainer and I met and worked with some amazing lovely people who I’m still in touch with. However, when you dial into a niche and have a specialism It just becomes a bit more apparent who you’re for, who you’re designed to work with and who’s going to benefit most from working with you.
Why do you think it is important for gay men to have a resource such as Fitter Confident You?
Because we haven’t really before I think. I created a free group as well because I was looking for somewhere like that a few years ago, a free online group for gay, bi and trans guys to talk health, fitness and mindset and LGBTQ stuff in a safe space and it didn’t seem to exist. So, I was like, I’m going to start a group and now two and a bit years later we’ve got 3,000 members which kind of blows my mind. It’s not a dating site, it’s about empowering and uplifting us all. One of my favourite phrases is ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ and that’s kind of the point of the resource, of Fitter Confident You, what I do with the training and with the free group, it’s there to just lift us all up and inspire and encourage everyone when people get involved with me, even if they just are in the group or even just seeing tweets or content. You don’t have to work with me to benefit from this.
Also, I guess, in this I don’t want to make it sound like the world is getting worse and worse. But in this increasingly divided world just having a nice safe space to be you and talk about and raise concerns and fears and ask questions in a forum away from judgment. I think is important and just a nice thing for us to be able to have.
In a PC world is it difficult to deal with any challenges around the membership of Fitter Confident You?
I get all sorts of comments on my adverts and content and there are some nice things as well, so thank you everyone who’s ever commented on it in a nice way. But there are straight guys who either hilariously tag their friends and say ‘oh you need some training because it’s hilarious to be gay isn’t it’ or I get straight guys saying ‘if I did PT saying if I did training just for straight guys, I would get shot’ and I always say it’s not just for gay, bi and trans guys but it’s been tailored for them so they’ll have a better experience. I do work with straight guys and lesbians and straight women as well. I have just tailored the program. It’s not I turn people away based on their sexuality and I also get gay guys who say things like, ‘oh, we’re no different. I don’t want to be separated, why do I need separate training’ and answer is you don’t, you just might get a bit more from this and I always make it clear the workout, nutrition etc are from my very back-to-basics science approach, so the physical elements would be the same for anyone just tailored to people’s requirements, and that it’s the other elements – the support, the empathy, the mental health stuff, the confidence – they are the bits that are more tailored for the LGBT community.
Thinking about your online persona – how carefully is this crafted?
Well, I always try to be a bit like a Labrador. Obviously, I have my downs as well. But I’ve tried to represent that online as well. Pretty much what you see is what you get. I am this upbeat because I think I’ve worked on myself and I’ve worked on how I want to be and of course there are downs and I have low energy and moods like anyone but I think because I’ve got good at looking after myself I’m good at managing my energy levels, my time, my stress. I look after myself. I don’t get ill very often but obviously I also don’t work in a 9-5 and I don’t take the tube every day so I don’t mix with as many people, which obviously helps reduce the risk of things like infection.
I’ve manoeuvred my work into giving me this time to do what I want which has been amazing. That’s a big lie they tell you when you become a personal trainer, a face-to-face trainer. You have to work mornings evenings and weekends because that’s when everyone else wants to train with you. So, it’s not until I transitioned fully into being an online trainer that I did have the freedom and flexibility to run the business and to have run my day how I wanted. I’ve diverged but my online persona is pretty similar to real life me which as you’ve met me in hopefully you can vouch for! (I very much can).
How important is mental wellbeing in the work you do?
It’s critical. I always talk about developing and looking after the inner you, as well as the outer you and it doesn’t even need to be in the form of a specific mental workout. For me building strength of body had a direct knock onto building strength of mind, but that isn’t enough. A part of what I do with my clients is coach them along the way because so many people come to me and will say if it doesn’t go right ‘I’ve failed it’s not going right or I am so far behind’ and I’m always trying to just gently encourage them to see that there is no behind and there is no failure. There’s just testing and learning, modifying to see what works, see what works best and moving on and adapting as you go. There’s not a rigid fixed way of doing it and I think that’s why it works so well because it’s not like a diet with a capital D.
I sell a 12 week and an 8 week program, but that’s because I have to package them up. So, people understand what they’re getting into. I couldn’t just sell a ‘work with me ongoing’ but they don’t just stop working after 8 or 12 weeks this because my approach is all about sensible lifestyle changes and easy to understand and stick to workouts. If you can get into a good groove of physical workouts, the mental benefits will often follow but obviously there’s no guarantees cos there is often crap going on in people’s lives and things that you can’t account for but some kind of commitment to self-care will always benefit the inner and the outer you at the same time.
Do you think there is pressure on gay men to be a certain body type – do you see it? do you feel it yourself?
Good big question. Yes, I do, and it’s mostly implied I feel as opposed to explicitly said. Still every Club poster has a really buff guy on it and obviously it’s a really thorny issue and there’s nothing wrong with some kind of aspiration, to wanting to better yourself in some regard but there’s a lot of pressure, implied pressure that you need to look this way or that way and that’s why I never talk about appearance in anything that I do and it’s also why I made a conscious decision not to use any of my body shots anymore. So, people know I’ve got a body is it good? Is it bad? It’s just a body. I’ve worked on it a bit longer because it’s my career and the industry I’m in, but you don’t need to see my nipples. From about a couple of months ago I decided to always be clothed because the last thing you need is someone else putting pressure on, even just sort of subconscious pressure on people. Everything I do I want it to be inspiring and to feel all inclusive.
The one thing I would say is, I’m not on any of the apps but I see a screengrab sometimes and people saying ‘oh this guy fat shamed me or was mean to me or said I wasn’t his type’ and then they say, ‘oh this communities got so much work to do. I blame the community’ and I think that’s a dangerous thing because it isn’t the community. It was just that one guy and I think when you write off all of us, we write off all of us at once. That’s when people sort of internalize that. It’s the easy answer but it’s the truth is that it was only that one person there and then, and maybe they were having a bad day, they were feeling mean, someone had hurt them. I’m not excusing anyone who’s mean to you but writing it off as the whole Community isn’t the answer and isn’t the truth.
So, do I think the pressure on gay men to be a certain body type? a bit. Do I feel it myself? No, and again, that’s partly because I’ve worked on myself for so long. I don’t mean physically. I mean just worked on the whole all of me. This is something else I always encourage people to do work on just getting to the point where you enjoy the process of working out and self-care and meditation and knowing what’s in your food because then it doesn’t matter what happens. If stuff does happen like your body changes or you sleep better or your clothes fit differently or your sex drive goes up that’s all a bonus but I never work out for any type of goal anymore. I do it because I enjoy the process and it’s just made the biggest difference because there’s no pressure and if stuff happens great and if it doesn’t I don’t really care because I haven’t expected it. If you expect things, you will always going to be let down, so that’s with friends and real life and everything, but and I’m big on that just sort of not expecting stuff because then I guess it’s kind of a pessimist is never disappointed but it’s ultimately true.
How can gay men deal with the wealth of imagery on social media.
Well know that it’s false, I guess don’t buy into it by believing that everyone looks like that or everyone has to be because they don’t and we don’t. Maybe just having a phrase, I sometimes say to myself ‘that’s not real’ and just sort of knowing when you see something online for whatever reason whether it’s just a friend of yours who’s put a filter on the selfie or whether it’s a really sculpted posed fitness model or whatever. It’s not real because the point is to get to that level of fitness and the body shape that fitness model has starved themselves and worked out ridiculously and not drunk water and done all these different ridiculous things and it’s only probably for the photoshoot that they look like that and then three days later, they don’t look like that. So, just know that and write on your wrist or have it tattooed on your wrist, that’s not real and look at it every day, every week just before you go on the internet. I think that’s one of the best ways to laugh at it almost and go it’s just ridiculous and it’s not real.
Do you think there was a conflict in having to use social media to promote your business where online activity can often be negative and predicated on gaining the approval of others
Yes, so this comes back to what I already mentioned about. Should I use topless pictures of me to promote my business? and I did, on and off, originally because my theory was I needed to show some level of aspiration, so people know what they’re working to and also prove that I know what I’m doing, but now I think that’s bullshit.
In November last year I was a bit low energy, bit low mood, business wasn’t as good, so not engaging with as many clients and it sort of had a downward spiral effect. So I did a 3 day digital detox, which always makes such a difference, so I deleted all the social media apps on my phone and just did everything at arm’s length and that made such a difference. I started sleeping a bit better again and realising I had the awareness that I was overly relying on just mindlessly scrolling on social media, which is what the social media apps want you to do. They are designed to suck you in, so you lose hours and hours.
Back to the question about if there is a conflict using social media. No, because I think as long as you know that it’s not real and you do it for a good motive, which is where I come from in terms of giving people useful content, answering questions that people ask me, hopefully inspiring in some way, just to get people to look after themselves, however, that suits them. I think as long as you’ve come at it from a positive point of view, I think there isn’t a conflict.
You aim your business more at the older gay man. do you think there is a difference in the attitudes and opportunities to sexuality for the different generations – is there more pressure on younger people
Probably, is my answer. Not being a 20 year old on Grindr, I don’t know. Is there a difference in the attitudes? Yes, because while we’re definitely equal on paper we’re definitely not equal in real life. And obviously young people can’t avoid the fact that there is still homophobia and the horrible attacks and awful things like that. The older gay guys grew up when it was societally ingrained even in the law with Section 28 and the non-promotion of homosexuality in schools, and also the media thinking I was okay to write about the ‘EastEnders poofs’ having a kiss and stuff like that. So, the opportunities for gay men in the 80s and 90s to absorb more negativity about who they were was much greater.
I think all of us have internalized homophobia to a certain extent, for example in Australia recently, the whole country, had a vote on whether gay people should be able to get married. Like how can you not feel undermined by that, even subconsciously on some level and that ‘Barbara from the Outback’ has decided that we shouldn’t have gay marriage? Okay. Thanks Barbara.
Are you concerned about the growth in eating disorders in men
Yes, very and I guess it’s all comes back to image and body image and how we feel about ourselves and what we feel we need to do. In the last year I’ve worked with a few more guys who’ve had either bulimia or anorexia and it’s so sad how people have ended up in that situation, but I always make it clear I don’t have specific training in this area, so generally it’s people who are sort of through the other side of the worst of it and are working on it and who still have support elsewhere. I am concerned about it, my program isn’t about a diet or starving yourself or giving up anything like your favourite foods. If you do that, if you deny people things, then it lasts a week or two and then they’ll swing back the other way and binge on biscuits again, so if you give people a middle path to work with some flexible parameters either side, it just makes it so much easier and means that nothing’s ever off limits. I found it helps people with their emotional eating as well as opposed to saying no, you say okay and just work with it and sort of have that awareness that’s always key.
With your own image – how carefully is it curated and effected by your business persona
I kind of touched on that earlier. It’s very similar. I wear my heart on my sleeve. When I was feeling low for a few weeks in November I talked about that in the Group and people were very grateful that I did. I think more PT’s could be honest about their emotions because there are so many who are like #lovemylife #lovemyjob. And I just think, you don’t love your life the whole the time, you don’t love your job all the time. There’s shit you go through and stuff you deal with and just that comes down to that whole Instagram culture of ‘everything’s perfect’. ‘I’m on holiday everyday’, ‘look at me with my friends’ and just I think it’s healthier to show a bit of balance.
Generally, and genuinely I am this upbeat and I know you can’t always choose how to be and obviously I know and fully appreciate that there are things like depression, physical diseases and chemical imbalances that you have no control over. What I’m saying is if I am in a more day-to-day state of mind I can sort of choose how I respond to things, I can choose not to take things personally, I can choose to be a bit more upbeat if I want to and obviously if I want to mope, that’s cool. And that’s part of being alive and being a human and having this gamut of emotions where you can which swing between up and down but generally, because I’m doing what I love and I’m super proud of it and I love being able to work with so many awesome guys, I am up. I’m mostly an extrovert so I feed off other people’s energies. So, having chats with my clients daily, hearing how it’s going with them, really lift me up at the same time, which I’m always so grateful for.
Is there a darker side of Matt
Don’t really think so. Like I’ve got a sometimes have a dark sense of humor. And I think that’s probably my outlet but equally I do a lot of fitness, so that sort helps to get tension and stress out. Don’t look in my cellar. (I don’t have a cellar).
No, I mean there is light and dark shade sides of everyone. I occasionally I get anxiety. So, not dark but I guess it’s dark for me. Sometimes I think I was brought up to be a people pleaser and I really still adhere to that. So when people aren’t happy with what I’ve done, I want to sort it out and it always makes me stressed and anxious and I just want to some people to be happy. If people don’t want to work with me. That’s cool. I want them to go off and find someone else who does lift them up and help them look after themselves. So, I would rather have an honest discussion with someone or someone considering working with me just because it has to be right for them and has to be right for me. And I’ve said ‘no’ to people sometimes because of their situation or what they’re asking for. It’s just better for everyone to say no from the start, than to say yes and not be sure about it and then it does not work out.
Are you comfortable with your sexuality now and does this inform your relationship
Yes. I’m very comfortable now, I guess the thing is though, as gay men there’s a National Coming Out day, but ultimately for us every day is National Coming Out day because you’re always having to do so if you mention a partner or a boyfriend or a life partner or whatever, you’re always having to come out and there’s always that ‘am I safe here. Is this a safe environment for me to do so’, so that’s the one element that I think we all unfortunately have to deal with that. I have a lovely supportive group of friends and boyfriend of five and a half years and I’m very comfortable being gay and I’m very proud and that’s why I’m happy to stick my neck out and do this and sort of be even more public with what I’m doing, film hopefully supportive videos and useful content to inspire and help people realize that it’s okay. Does it inform my relationship? I don’t know. What I just try to do is live truthfully and openly. My boyfriend never wants to hold hands in public and I do but I obviously I have to respect his wishes, which is fine. Ultimately yeah. I am and my family are very supportive now.
What would you change about yourself if you could
I was gonna say be better with figures and details, but I’m actually working on that at the moment with a coach. So I’m trying to improve that and just sort of realize it’s okay to go into detail about numbers and figures and even like managing the money side of my business which as a one-man band doing everything, doing the programs, the advertising, the content, the admin, the finance – there’s a lot to manage but I love it and I’m grateful that there is a lot to manage as well. So, I get help when I can in the form of coaches and tutors and things like that to keep me accountable and keep me on track.
About my body or personality – there’s nothing I want to change I got to a point where I love myself and I’m really grateful that I can say that as well.
I looked round and was satisfied I have cleared everything, removed the evidence. You wouldn’t know what had happened a few days ago. I was ready to leave when there was a knock at the door. Thinking it might be the police I opened it cautiously. A young lady in her late teens stood there nervously smiling. I wondered how she had got through the security gates.
‘Hi, are you Paul?’ I noticed her pink Doc Martens.
‘No, sorry’ I paused and waited for her to speak but she didn’t ‘he’s not here’.
‘Oh I am sorry, I should explain I am Charlie, I have just turned up’ she held out her hand.
‘I’m Steve, his partner’ I said as I tentatively shook her hand. ‘you better come in’. I started to worry she would notice the lingering odours.
‘How do you know Paul?’
‘Well I don’t we have never met, I am his daughter’ she smiled as if I should be pleased. I wasn’t expecting that.
‘Oh, OK, let me get you a coffee’. I couldn’t possibly tell her the truth, making the drink would buy some time. ‘have you come far?’
‘Romford. I believe my dad lived there in the 90s. Hasn’t he mentioned me?’
‘Yes he did a few times’ I lied as I poured the coffee. This was news to me.
I sat next to her on the sofa and took her hand. ‘I am really sorry Charlie but your father died six months ago. It was very sudden and I didn’t know how to contact you’
She was visibly shaken and this had clearly knocked her for six. She looked smaller and less confident as if I had taken something from her. I knew I had done the right thing.
After a few minutes of quiet she asked ‘do you have a picture I could see’
‘Yes of course’. I went to the drawer and tried to find one where he wasn’t drunk or that wasn’t explicit. There was one of us at a wedding, before the bar opened. ‘Here’
She had a tear in her eye. I hugged her and started to cry. She felt warm and she reminded me of her dad. ‘he would have loved to have met you.
Looking at myself in the mirror over her shoulder I smiled. It would be better this way. He needn’t know about her visit. She would have more questions but I would be ready for them.
Martin Matthews is 46 and lives on the outskirts of Manchester. He works in an office and would appear to be an ordinary gay man. However, Martin is anything but ordinary. He has taken a fascination in leather clothing and used it to immerse himself in the Manchester Leather Scene , becoming a key figure on the scene both in terms of organising but also as a role model. Martin is not your classic Tom of Finland leather clone, quite the opposite. This has not stopped him from embracing the looks he has and owning them. He has great body confidence and a real sense of his own style. He is out and proud and through his love of leather has used his passion to help assert his identity in the world.
Can you tell us a bit about your background? And what was your
I had a happy childhood. I was brought
up the youngest of two brothers. I don’t if I’m honest remember a great deal
about my childhood. I don’t have you know, particularly fond or unfond memories
of it. We lived in South London and it was pretty uneventful. In hindsight, I’ve
never really felt like I belonged, but I wasn’t an unhappy child. I didn’t want
for anything. We had lots of holidays and great experiences. My parents are
still together. My mom didn’t work. So
yeah, overall, it was it was nice.
How did you first come out and what was the experience like?
I first came out quite late, in my mid-twenties, and I would be lying if I said it was an easy experience. I don’t think for anybody it ever is. I had met somebody and was living with him prior to coming out to my parents. I’d come out to several friends first. I never had any great kind of speeches planned or any kind of big gestures. It just sort, of happened and on the whole, it was very well received by my friends my family. I had one really negative response from someone who at the time was a very close friend whose mother reacted very badly and told me that I was not welcome anywhere near her family or house, she spat at me in the street and told me that I was akin to pigeons, which she classed as vermin. That was the only really negative experience. Everybody else was quite positive. I think people have always and will always accept me for who and what I am.
You had a bad experience with your first relationship. Do you
think this is shaped how you’ve been in future relationships?
Yes, possibly but not something that I
would say, I’d ever really thought about or considered. I did have a very bad
first relationship. I lived with somebody who was abusive and who ultimately
hospitalized me twice. He was very controlling and tried to isolate me from my
friends and family. It was a very hard time. It had a huge effect on my
confidence and led to trust issues. But I also recognize that not everybody is
like him and the there’s still a lot of good in the world and there’s a lot of
good people out there and so I don’t let that negative experience taint my
views on anybody else. So, I moved on for it from it. It took a long time. I
still harbour some very dark feelings towards him and towards that period, but
I ultimately survived it. I’m very proud of surviving it and I rebuilt my life,
things could have been very different is and I don’t regret the relationship,
it wasn’t all bad. He just wasn’t the person for me, and I’d be lying if I said
I didn’t bear him any malice because I do. But you know what, it’s in the past
and that’s where it stays.
You are a former prison officer. Can
you tell us about how it was in working in an alpha male atmosphere as a gay man?
Did it maybe, change how you felt towards straight men?
This was never a conscious decision. I
needed a job. So, I took a job. Like all jobs there was times I enjoyed it and
times I hated it. It did present a unique set of challenges because I am and
always have been an openly gay man, and I make no apologies for my sexuality. There
were some officers who didn’t think that females should be doing the job let
alone a gay man. It didn’t deter me from doing the job to the best of my
ability. I wasn’t making any kind of
statement. It was just a job. I made some very good friends during that time. I
suppose I possibly challenged some perceptions, which can only be a good thing.
It was it wasn’t the stuff of erotic fantasies that many people think of, and yes, people still ask me now when I refer
to it if I still got my handcuffs and as I always say ‘knowing who’s been
inside them you really wouldn’t want to kind of go there’. It was a really
valuable experience for me.
You survived an IRA bomb and have also
beaten illness. Can you tell us about that and how these experiences affected
Yes, I was the age of 21 in an IRA
bomb in London at the time. There was a bombing campaign in mainland England, and
it was kind of commonplace. I came very close to a number of the big attacks
such as Victoria Station, on this particular day, it was an uneventful day and
all of a sudden there was an almighty bang. Windows blew in. We found out later that the building next door
to us had had a bomb activated in it and the second device was activated as we
were trying to be evacuated from our building. So that was pretty scary.
Initially, I think it was a huge shock but we were all thankful that it was classed as a minor bomb and something that you know, we survived and we just got on with it. It makes me incredibly thankful to be alive and even more kind of committed to living my life fully.
As for illness, about eight years ago.
I was diagnosed with skin cancer. The very mention of the word cancer tends to
kind of tend to freak everybody out, me included. Thankfully it was dealt with,
it was treated, it’s gone. It was that wasn’t a very nice experience as you can
imagine, but I’m proud to have beaten it. I can I wear the scarf with pride.
Most people can’t even see it’s on my face, but it’s very small. In fact, I’m
just back from the hospital having had another scare recently, which has proved
to be a false alarm. It’s just another of these events and these things that
are sent to try us. You just deal with it and get on with it and I suppose
afterwards you stop and think about things, and again, it’s made me appreciate
what I have and to a degree the fragility of life. Things can change very
quickly, but it also made me very mindful of getting things checked and going
to the doctor’s and looking after myself and listening to my body.
The leather scene is a big part of your life. Can you tell us how
My fascination with leather stems back
as about as far as I can remember as a child growing up in the in the 80s. I
was fascinated by pop stars television bad boys and motorbikers have always
held a special fascination for me. I used to pour over my mother’s catalogues,
looking at the pictures of men in leather. I think I was 16 when I bought my
first leather jacket and 19 when I first bought my first pair of leather pants.
Gloves have always been a huge fetish for me and I currently own about 20 pairs
including my first pair that I’ve had for about 25 years or so. I have always
worn leather, casually, I’ve always been incredibly turned on by it.
I would say in the last 10 years. It
became much more of an important part of me and kind of came out of the bedroom
and I started wearing it more often. It’s just kind of how I dress, people are
used to seeing me, you know in leather jeans, a T-shirt and either boots or
trainers. So that’s kind of where it started and then from there, I got more
involved in the leather scene, I threw myself into it and became part of the
Manchester Leatherman and ultimately part of the committee that organizes
Manchester Leatherman and Manchester Leather weekend and their events.
Why do you think leather holds such a fascination?
That’s a really interesting question
for me. It’s the look, the smell, the sound, the feel, the taste – kind of
everything about it. I mean, it’s a very kind of animalistic sort of attraction,
it’s a very potent and powerful thing. Guys look incredible in leather. It’s
very sexy. It’s very kind of primal. Yeah, it’s the connotations to bad boys
and bikers and stuff. I can’t really
give you a definitive answer because I don’t know. But yeah, I’m kind of
obsessed with leather. It’s a huge part of me and who I am, and I love it
simple as that.
Can you explain how your use of
leather is more than just a sexual fetish. Do you think other gay men treat
your certain way because they see the leather first and Martin second?
I very specifically don’t reserve
leather just for the bedroom. It’s how I dress. It’s what I wear most days. I
wear a leather jacket and boots whenever I go out. I always go out in leather
jeans and obviously if it’s a leather event I’m wearing more leather. I’ve done
some modelling associated with leather. I’ve been in a film and I’ve been in the
music video as a leather man. I’m a very proud leather man. I’m a very proud
member of Manchester Leathermen. I also got involved to kind of breakdown
stereotypes and just stop people thinking that leather men are all Tom of
Finland clones or dress in one specific way. I have lots of leather. I wear it
lots of different ways. I usually wear just a t-shirt and leather jeans, I’ve
always had a kind of slightly alternative look, so I suppose I wanted to be you
know, that different person, that different voice. I could show you don’t have
to wear a Muir Cap, leather shirt and tie. You can be much more flexible with
Do I think that other gay men treat me
a certain way because they see the love of leather first? Yes. I think people
have a perception certainly directly as a result social media. I think people
look at me and think that I’m one thing. Leather is a big part of me, but it’s
not all of me. It’s a huge interest. It’s something that I get off on,
something I find very exciting, but there is more to Martin.
I think people kind of assume that all leather men are just into kinky stuff and that’s not necessarily the case. I choose to present a very one dimensional version of me as a leather man, but there’s more to me than that and I think of anybody who spends any time getting to know me, then they would see that. You can also see from the photographs I have submitted with this interview, mean and moody etc but the reality is I smile a lot and am a big softy.
Does living in Manchester make a difference to you being able to
express your identity?
I live just outside Manchester but yes it’s already a gay friendly City apart from one incident recently. I have never had any issues as I go about my business. I am me, I make no excuses. No apologies. No allowances and I dress how I want to and yeah, never had any problems. I love Manchester. It’s a great City. It’s very friendly and has a great gay scene.
What difference does the Manchester gay community / leather
community make to how you feel?
The leather community is like family. It’s been very welcoming. I love being
involved. I enjoy it. I get a lot from it and it’s a really positive thing to
be involved with. I love seeing it grow. For example, I’ve watched the
Manchester Leatherman social events go from poorly attended with about sort of
15 -20 guys to upwards of 60 for a really big event. And it’s nice to kind of
to go into bars and stuff and people know who I am. I made a lot of friends
through it, some really good friends. So yes, I love the gay community, the
How do your family and non-gay friends feel about your life in
Well, I suppose they don’t really have
much of a choice. It’s just who I am, and people accept it. I think probably
the best example of that was my 40th birthday party where I chose to wear a
black leather kilt and majority of the guests were straight friends, from all
different walks of life. Nobody batted an eyelid. I don’t
differentiate. I don’t split my social media presence. I don’t have a separate
Facebook identity for me and the leather me. It’s all just kind of one. So,
people see it. I mean, I’m incredibly proud of some of the some of the
photographs that I’ve had taken. I have worked with some really great
photographers and I’m very proud of those. I’m very proud to share them. My
friends and family kind of just accept it as who I am. They don’t necessarily
understand it. I’m sure some of them probably think that I’m some depraved
kinky bugger. I have a huge Matt Spike photograph of myself which hangs in my
bedroom above the bed and when my parents come and stay they sleep underneath
You are single but at the same time at the heart
and soul of the Manchester leather scene – do you deliberately avoid
relationships? or do you think being on the scene make it harder to form
Yes. I am single. I’ve been single for
a while now, not through choice, bad luck, bad judgment, wrong time, wrong
place, all kinds of things. You know, maybe it’s my destiny to stay single. I
don’t know. I haven’t given up looking for Mr. Right. I’m still deep down a hopeless romantic and
there’s nothing I’d like more than to meet somebody, fall head over heels in
love and get married.
Do I deliberately avoid relationships?
That’s an interesting question? I had a conversation with a friend recently,
when he saw the question, actually said that yes you do, you deliberately hunt
out difficult relationships or long-distance relationships or complex
situations where it makes it harder for a relationship to survive. I don’t know if that’s true. But it’s an
interesting viewpoint on it. Do I think being on the scene makes it harder to
form relationships? Yes, to a degree because I think there’s a there’s a
certain kind of view, it’s all about sex or it’s promiscuous. I want to meet
somebody I can share my fetish with. I’ve had relationships with people that
aren’t into leather at all and that didn’t work for me. So yes, I would like to
meet somebody that was into it and gets it and can enjoy it with me. And
unfortunately, I think in this day and age I think you know, there’s a slight
cursing so much as that, maybe people are always looking for the next best
thing. So people are never satisfied. I’ve met some really nice guys. Just not
ever the right guy. I’ve loved, I’ve lost, and I’ve had my heart broken. I’ve
probably broken a couple of hearts, not intentionally. Certainly, but yeah, I
haven’t given up completely.
You are amazingly confident in your
body image in the photos, which you post particular on Instagram. Where does
this come from? Or is it a front?
You’ve kind of rumbled me there to a
degree. It’s a little bit of front. I have struggled with body confidence
issues for a number of years for a long time. I didn’t like what I saw in the
mirror. I’ve had issues with fluctuating weight. I have learnt to accept myself for who I am
what I am. I’d love to be, you know, a ripped Adonis of a man, but I hate going
to the gym. I like all the wrong food, I drink too much.
Particularly and certainly this year
in particular I have grown much more confident in my skin and I care much less
what other people think. I had an
experience and I met somebody who was very influential in shaping that and
taught me a lot about love and it’s taught me a lot about loving myself and this
has empowered me. I am not averse to flashing a bit of flesh on Instagram. I
you know anybody that follows me will be used to seeing my bottom. It is arguably
one of my best features. I’m a 46 year old man. I have the body of a 46 year
old man, but you know, it’s a little bit hairy. I’m a little bit overweight. Fuck
it. I don’t really care. But the flip side of that is, you know, I still do
have body confidence issues.
I’m sure you won’t mind me saying you’re not classically beautiful
in the way of say Tom Daley. So what advice would you give other men to be more
confident in their skin?
I’m sure there’s a compliment hidden
in that question somewhere. I don’t particularly think I’m especially good
looking. I know that I take a decent photograph and I make the best of myself
in the way I that dress and I know what suits me and I think I dress well. I
don’t chase trends and I don’t chase fashions and stuff. So, it’s just what you
see is what you get.
Somebody once said to me that they thought I was cool and I disputed that, as I said when you stop trying to be cool is when you become cool, so if I’m cool that’s by accident. My advice I would give to other people is really just try to love yourself first and to accept yourself as you are, warts and all. If somebody wants you to change, then they’re not the right person for you.
Are you equally confident outside of leather or do you feel
another character emerges? Who is the real Martin?
Who is the real Martin? He’s probably
a mixture of all of the things that I present and a massive bundle of
contradictions. I feel more confident probably wearing leather because I love
it. And I know what I think I look good in it and it gives me a sense of
confidence. I can equally feel good dressed up in a suit for work. I’m not quite as confident naked but that depends
on the person I am with. There is a leather Martin, who is a persona but
anybody who knows me will tell you I’m quiet, thoughtful, sensitive, romantic.
We are all loads of things, we’re all complex individuals and I’m as complex as
the next person and as deep as the next person. So, for those that want to know
the real me, I guess they just kind of have to get to know me and find out.
How do you feel about Pride?
I love Pride. I think it’s really
important. It’s so important that we acknowledge our history. It is so important
that we acknowledge the struggle of those that have gone before us and the
fight that we still have on our hands. It’s a hugely significant event to me
I’ve taken part in. Quite a few now. I’ve done some as a leather man. I’ve done
some with the beard club that I run. I love I get such a such a huge buzz from
it. But I think that there does need to be more education around where Pride
came from and what it signifies. I especially love the smaller ones, Chester
Pride is one of my favourites.
Do you think it’s easier for young gay people now than when you
were a teenager.
Yes, very much so. Growing up I had very few gay role models. We
were really just kind of subjected to the likes of John Inman. Larry Grayson, essentially
objects of fun. I didn’t know any gay people. So, I had nobody to kind of base
it around and I grew up quite confused. Whereas I think now, you know, there’s
this there’s much more awareness and it is much more accepted. I think
youngsters and teenagers do have an easier time of it but it also has its own
challengesI think it’s just a constant thing that will evolve and I hope the
next generation on will have it easier again. I’ve never regretted being gay. I
love being gay. I love my life. It’s varied. It’s lacking in a couple of couple
of parts. But you know, we can’t have everything. My experience of being gay
has been relatively easy and hassle-free. I’ve had a couple of hate incidents
but nothing major
I am asking everyone what their fancy versions of themselves would
look like I guess you are already there or are you?
Well given that I recently undergone
something of a rather dramatic transformation in so much as that I’ve gone from
having shoulder length hair to a number one buzz crop all over which was
something I’ve been planning to do for a while.
I think I’ve grown into my looks. I’ve far happier with the way I look
now. I love my beard which is of course award-winning. I’m more happy with my
body than I’ve ever been. I like the way I dress. I know I don’t look 46. I
don’t know what 46 looks like. For a fantasy version of myself I guess I’d probably
make myself a little bit bigger, at least an inch taller, bit broader, bigger
arms. bigger legs, a bigger bum as my arse is ridiculously small. I think I’m
pretty much the Martin that I want to be, but life is a constant evolution. One
of the reasons I like to do all the photographs that I do is to document things
in that way is because it’s a constant evolution and it’s nice to be reminded
and you know, that I won’t look like this for much longer.
And you know, I’ve been very lucky. I’ve worked with some incredible photographers who shot some really great images on me. I’m pretty close to the fantasy version of me as I’d like I suppose I’ve always wanted dark hair, I’ve always wanted thick hair, I’ve always wanted wavy hair but you know you deal with what you’ve got.
Last week the BBC had a programme on ‘Who are you calling fat?’ which took a group of overweight/fat/larger people and put them in a house for a week getting them to explore their ideas and attitudes towards their weight, both their own and others. It was a diverse group of people with a couple of ladies who were evangelical about being proud of their larger bodies, owning their fat and promoting that they felt their size was at the core of their beauty. Some of the views made for uncomfortable viewing with the same ladies denying a link between obesity and diabetes and ill health. The arguments were strongly made and focused heavily on the effect that ‘fat shaming’ has on people who are carrying more weight.
I personally disagree strongly with denying the effects of obesity on health. I know from my own experience of being an 18 stone man, I am far more uncomfortable in my general health than when I have been lighter. This is easily shown when doing tasks like climbing stairs or just the amount I sweat in just walking to work every day. I would suggest to anyone who wants proof of this to put 5 bags of sugar in a rucksack and to do a task and compare it to the same task with no extra weight. I could never argue that I am as healthy as a lighter version of myself. So I agree with the contributors to the programme who were positive about making changes to their lifestyle, as they appreciated the risks they had put their health under and were taking steps to address them. However, where I do agree with the fat evangelists is how your weight can affect your mental health, in particular how other people respond to it.
As a fat man I do not need to be told I am bigger than I could be or should be. I have gained weight since my early twenties and have never really got on top of it. So I have had 30 years of snide comments and facing the general attitudes of society that judge overweight people as being either lazy or greedy or both and sometimes even worth less. My worst personal experience was at a job interview at a law firm where I was challenged about my CV which said I liked running – ‘well you clearly don’t do much of that’ was the comment I got and what was worse was the mocking tone it was delivered in. Then there are the small things like always being given chocolates for Christmas – the last thing you really want. One birthday I got five packets of biscuits from work. In these situations your heart sinks as you are being labelled and judged – no matter how subtle it is – it still hurts – for me it was more of a sigh – people seeing the fat before the person.
For me I am working to reduce my weight for once and for all and I am using a comprehensive plan to achieve this (I will be blogging about this separately). This does not mean I am ashamed of being a fat person, I am ashamed that I haven’t tackled it earlier and more consistently. Being fat doesn’t make me a bad person or a lesser person. Similarly when a slimmer version of me emerges I will not be a better person I will simply have taken more control of how I look after my body and my longer term health. It is important that people find their own way to be as healthy as they can both physically and mentally without the rest of us imposing our prejudices on them.
Ken is a 37 year old project manager for Aviva who is married to Clive and also happens to be a very good triathlete. He has spent much of his life struggling with his sexuality and his body image. Triathlons and Ironman races have helped Ken build his confidence and find more acceptance with himself. In our interview we talk about his journey and how he now wants to find other gay triathletes. If you are someone who takes part in triathlons or ironman’s and you are gay please could you take part in Ken’s poll at https://fdier.co/5qsIIJ
First, of all, could you tell
me a little bit about how you felt growing up as part of a large Catholic family?
I felt ignored but not even
intentionally. It’s not that someone is doing something that makes you ignored
it’s just that you are always fighting for attention. We used to kind of joke
‘if you shout loudest, you get heard’. So, that was always the kind of
conversation that we ended up having. All my brothers and sisters were there
were just there, so there was never a minute’s peace and quiet, so you just you
don’t get any rest. You are constantly fighting to get to be that centre of
attention to be that person who people want to talk to and that’s horrible. I
really didn’t like it.
Did you have to share a bedroom?
Yeah, I shared a bedroom till I
was about 14 or 15. We had three terraced houses that were knocked together. You know that many kids and someone’s always
going to share a room and just ended up that it was always me.
Was it because you were the fifth of eight?
Yeah, so it’s always that middle child thing.
So how did that feel at school? You said before you had difficulties
At school I was a shit, I was absolutely
horrible. I just got through middle school as that awkward kid, you know, kind
of liked but not quite fitting in. I hung around with people but I wouldn’t say
I was their friend and I don’t talk to any of them now. High school was kind of
the same. I started with the cool kids trying to be friends with them and realised
‘it’s not me’. I didn’t like it. So, I started hanging around with what you
might call like the weirdo crowd, the loser crowd but I became very quiet about
who I was, and I just wasn’t really very comfortable with it. I became very
insular. I was a pain in the ass. I got suspended twice. I just was always
getting in trouble, you know, the only attention I ever got from my parents was
just negative attention. I don’t think school was helped by the fact that my
dad died when in year 9, so I was 13 or 14 years old. Yeah, that didn’t help,
no question about it. You know that that kind of made me go even more ‘What’s
Did you feel that you’ve found
it difficult to find a role in dealing with father’s death? I guess the older
siblings would probably fill the role of supporting your mum more and perhaps
the younger ones were left a little bit?
So, the younger ones got all the
attention from mum. The next up to me, I think I was 13, he was 15, so he was
doing his GCSE’s. So, he struggled. The two above him were already out working.
The oldest one was working in nightclubs. He was sleeping all day and working at
night but the one I didn’t get on with, he tried to take on the dad role. He
felt that he was required in the house which just made him come across as an
asshole really. Nobody liked him for it, and I had real problems with him
because he tried to become that figure for me, trying to boss me around and
push me around and that didn’t help and I rebelled against it.
Were you bullied at all or
were you a bully?
I mixed with the crowd who weren’t necessarily bullies, but they were the ones who they were the ones who if there was something going on, they were always a part of it. I don’t think I was a bully but I was a dick, I was horrible to people. Yeah not because I wanted to be horrible but just because that’s what my friends were doing and I kind of was involved but it never felt right for me. Do I think I was a bully? No but I do think I was a massive idiot.
Obviously, a lot of gay men
are bullied at school whether that’s because people think they’re gay or make
that guess or whether they’re just put themselves in a group which means they
are identified as gay. I don’t know but for me, people did make that
I was just really uncomfortable
at school with everything. I didn’t like showering with the other boys after PE,
that kind of stuff or just didn’t like doing things with the other boys that were
around as it didn’t feel good. I didn’t think I was gay at the time. I didn’t
know what was going on.
So, you did have an initial coming out when you were
younger (after school). Can you tell us a bit about that?
Yes, that was probably about 17 or
18 and I’d met a couple of people in nightclubs. I was not out to many people
but very few people knew. I think the
thing for me was I didn’t hang around with gay people, I didn’t know any other
gay people. You know, I just going out. I was on the alternative scene, so I used
to go out to rock clubs and metal clubs, and that’s where I was comfortable. I
just had a really good time. There was this
guy who was literally just known as ‘Gay Will.’ One day I just went over and I spoke
to him. I thought well actually this is quite comfortable. He was easy to talk
to and he was a really nice guy and you know, we tried seeing each other for a
little while, but I just didn’t know what I was doing.
Did you feel conflicted about
Yeah, I did a little bit more
reading to understand about what I was going through. How to tell people the
truth, that kind of stuff. I told my best friend at the time and he was a bit
weird about it. Gradually more and more
people found out about it. I then started to feel a bit more uncomfortable
about it as I still didn’t know if it was really me. I decided to actually take
the plunge and go to a gay bar, the Castle, and I met some people there and in
particular one guy there and I went back to his that night.
I then thought I need to tell my
mum and I wanted to be honest with my family. I didn’t know how to and so
therefore I took the cowards option and left a flyer with her and didn’t say
anything. A couple of days later I said,
‘I think I am gay’. She was very unaccepting,
wasn’t really willing to accept it, didn’t want to talk about it at all. It was
brushed off. I pretty much just never mentioned it again. She had only just
started to come to terms with my dad’s death and I just don’t think she was
ready to deal with it at that time.
Do you think the reaction from
that part of your life informed how you felt about it when you were going out
and having more some negative feelings around being gay?
Yes, I did. I had a lot of I did
have negative feelings for the gay scene. I struggled with it as so many people
seemed really bitchy and that didn’t interest me. I wasn’t that type of person.
I wanted just to go out and be the people who were like me in here, just relax
and be friendly with. But it was you either bitch about someone or you’re
sleeping with someone. And I didn’t like that.
You didn’t find like-minded
No, I thought I found a couple
but then whenever I went out, I would see a different side to them and and I
felt some people were just trying to come across as really nice. But you also
kind of knew that actually you wouldn’t trust them. My feeling was they looked
at me and thought ‘What’s this one all about?’ Then they would try and turn you against other
people. That didn’t interest me at all.
You must have made a decision
at a time not to come out of work or be quite low key about it?
I don’t even think I was working
at the time. I think honestly, I was I was in a pretty bad state. I got really
ill when I was about 18/19 years old. I had a blood condition which had the same
symptoms as haemophilia. So, bruising and bleeding, really easily. Basically,
the platelet count in my blood was so low I would literally wake up in the
morning from sleeping and one side of my face would be bruised black and yellow
and if I were to go out, there was a huge risk of internal bleeding. I tried
steroids but they didn’t work and eventually they found my spleen was the issue
and instead of killing off infections it was killing off my platelets and therefore
they had to remove my spleen. Also, my
head was in a bad place, I was smoking a lot of marijuana. I was involved with
the wrong people and I was just getting myself into trouble. It was a chaotic
time. Nothing felt right for me.
And then you had a bad experience when you were beaten
So, I had been in the club in
Norwich. Some people followed me and the next thing I felt was a lump on the
back of the head. I was kicked and punched. They just left me there. I just sat
feeling sorry for myself. I took myself home and stayed in for a few days. I
was thinking how unhappy I was and uncomfortable with who I was. I literally said to myself ‘I need a break, I
need to change and I need to get out of here’. So off I went to Reading to stay
with my brother with £40 in my back pocket and a bag full of clothes. The
intention was to stay for two weeks and to get some fresh air and clear my head
a little bit. I ended up staying two years.
So, did you blame getting
beaten up on the gay scene or being gay for forcing you into this change?
Yeah if I blamed it, but I
thought it was because I was generally mixed up. And at first, I thought maybe
it’s just an escape. I can just move away from everything that’s currently
going on in my life. I think at the time I thought it was a phase. Even in
Reading I didn’t dare tell anyone, even my own blood.
So, when you were in Reading, do
you consider yourself as a gay man or was it a little bit more fluid?
I didn’t identify. I didn’t know
who I was for myself. Possibly I thought
I was bisexual category but I don’t really know what I’m doing and I’ll have
days where I’d be yes I am gay and others when I thought no I am definitely not
gay. I didn’t tell my brother so I would
go out for drinks with him. I made friends, met loads of cool people, we ended
up having a house share with a couple of other people. Then he set me up with a
girl who was pretty young. I was 21. She was 17. She was quite naive too. She
was nice enough girl and I kind of played along with it for a bit and I thought
it was a bit of an escape. I just never felt comfortable.
But is that with the benefit of hindsight or did you feel
at the time ‘this isn’t right’
I never felt that comfortable with
her. I mean don’t get me wrong. She’s a friend now and she is a lovely girl. But I think looking back she would probably
say the same, it felt a bit weird for both of us.
You then came back to Norwich and
you met your ex-wife and you got married and ended up having two children. So,
what changed that you’ve more recently decided that you wanted to go back to
being a gay man or was it all always there in the background?
It was always there in the background. When I came back to Norwich it was with the aim of clearing my head, not to meet anyone. I had gone out a lot in Reading, a lot of drinking, I think I had just burnt out a bit. When I met my ex-wife, I thought, you know, she’s really nice, she’s really friendly and we met a couple of times. It was just fun. I didn’t feel any pressure. She was she was brilliant. There was no judgment. Her family were really welcoming and I kind of just thought to myself ‘this is comfortable. This is right for me’. And I didn’t mention anything that happened in the past.
I saw her as a bit of a safe haven, a bit of a safe place, and
she was for a very very long time. She was a very much a safe place for me to
You were happy together?
Absolutely. We had our problems,
but it was a different kind of relationship and I always knew whatever my
situation I always knew I wanted kids.
I think it’s easier now for
gay people to have children than it was even seven or eight years ago when you
had your first child
Exactly. So, for me, I had that opportunity
to have to have kids and I was very happy after the birth of my first one.
Around the time of my second child I was less happy. I had some negative
feelings and therefore I did some research into the feelings I was having.
I looked online but also saw a
couple of private counsellors who helped a great deal. I used a service here in
Norwich called ‘Off the Record’ who were really good. My marriage was falling apart and I was
struggling with myself. I did a lot of running but I struggled to find time to
do any races so I was honest with My ex-wife and said I needed to take up a
hobby so I took up Thai Boxing for three years and I loved that but again I
struggled to do it timewise.
My body image for me was always a
problem. Then there was a new gym open up right by my office so I thought I can
go there at lunchtimes and my wife doesn’t need to know.
Why did you keep it a secret?
It seemed like it was easier to do
it secretly then it was to have the conversation with her about money and all
that kind of stuff. It just made sense to me. That’s all I wanted to do. So
that was what I did. Then I started to
feel better about who I was, I gained a bit more self-confidence.
Did it give you the confidence
to face up to what was going to be an inevitable break in your relationship and
who you really were?
It was difficult as it was around
the time of the baby. I began secretly looking at gay porn, but not Grindr or
anything like that. I looked on Forums and chatted to some people but there was
no chance I was ever going to meet them and so it felt safe. There was a safety
there. No-one was going to judge me. Then my ex-wife saw my search history and
so it all came to light.
(out of respect for Ken’s ex-wife
and the children we agreed we wouldn’t discuss this area of Ken’s life further)
So, after your marriage came
to an end, you did start to have some relationships with men and yeah,
eventually met Clive. When we spoke
before you said that part of the problem in meeting men and developing a
longer-term relationship was that some of them weren’t very keen once you
mentioned you had children.
Absolutely, I met some lovely
people, I’d go for drinks with and chat with but as soon as I mentioned the
children, they would just kind of disappear. I think for many gay men there is
this Peter Pan syndrome they have, particularly those on the gay scene, where
they just don’t want to grow up and they just want to just keep going out every
night. I chatted to some really nice guys, they were good looking, interesting,
had something about them but as soon as they knew about the baggage, they would
start making excuses not to meet.
Did that make you feel disillusioned about gay people
Just left me in a situation where
I didn’t know what I could do. I was stuck because I wanted to meet someone I
wanted to settle down with, but I wasn’t just going to go for anyone. I wanted
to be with someone who was going to accept that the kids are part of my life
and that’s not going to change. Then I kind of got chatting with Clive online.
At first it was very casual, ‘come round for a coffee’ sort of thing. I was
honest with him that I come with baggage and he just said ‘yes, absolutely fine’.
Do you think that is partly
because he is a bit older?
Yeah, he is a bit older than me
and I think because of his age, he just has more understanding. He’s not
interested in going out all the time or having a party every night. He is more
settled in his interests. They are very different from mine, as you can see, he
has the paintings, the Matthew Bourne ‘Swan Lake’ photograph whereas I have the
triathlon bike and pictures of the kids. He is very different to anyone I had gone out
Some people might look at us and
think we are polar opposites, I am into fitness and not that interested in food
whereas Clive loves cooking and isn’t really interested in fitness at all. But I
think that actually works really well because I think he has kept me on the
straight and narrow and at the same time I did the same with him.
Yeah, and you can both add something to each other’s
Yeah, absolutely. He’s always
said that I’ve helped him for the better and his family say ‘he’s just a much
happier person since you came on the scene’ and similarly I think he’s helped
me a lot. I’ve had to had to grow up a bit which I liked because it gave me a
chance to take a bit more responsibility about what I’m doing with my life.
You don’t think you were already grown up because you had
I think I was, but I think I was people
who would say they were but would still want to be having fun with the guys.
Not that I don’t still enjoy going out, but my focus has changed. An awesome
thing for me now is to go to the gym or to go out on my bike for three hours.
Up until about 18 months ago.
Clive used to go to church every Sunday. We used to joke I would go to the gym
and that was my religion. Obviously, my background with religion is very
different. I struggle with that horribly.
So, tell us more about the Triathlons
and Ironmans because that’s something you’ve got into from the time you were
with your ex-wife but which has developed more and more over time.
Yeah, absolutely. So, it started
with just running. I did a lot of races and then I did my first Marathon in
2013. I really enjoyed it but I struggled with the time to do it. My oldest was
still really young and so I didn’t feel I could.
When I separated from my wife and
got my own place, I decided I wanted to start cycling. I got a bike from the
Cycle to Work scheme then I went out one weekend with a group from work. I
really started to enjoy it and then I heard about a Duathlon, which is running
and cycling, so effectively a triathlon but with no swimming. I loved the
racing aspect of it, I loved the people and I just sort of got addicted to it.
I was interested in getting into swimming but didn’t know where to start then
purely by accident I got injured and I went to a physio, Josh, who happened to
be a swimming instructor as well. He got me swimming and got me enrolled in his
classes and he got me comfortable in the water. Then I thought right, I am
going to sign up to a triathlon. He
kicked my ass and helped me train. I wasn’t ready for the one I signed up for
so he helped me find a shorter one. So, I did a triathlon the April before
last. I was petrified in the water. I estimated 20 minutes for 250 metres for
the swim. I just wanted to be the last to go. The first length was a real
struggle and then the guy organising it calmed me down and helped me. When I
got out everyone cheered and I was so pleased because I had conquered it. The
bike ride was slow, but I made up time on the run. I wasn’t happy with the time
but Clive was there to watch it, friends, one of his friends. So, it was just
really nice. Everyone said to me – ‘you are a triathlete’. Three months later I
did a second one. I loved them both.
Then a friend of mine said to sign up for an Ironman, so just browsing one night, a couple of rum and cokes later I had signed up. The next morning, I thought what the hell have I done but also right I have just got to do this now. The training plan was 30 hours a week, I think it was tough for Clive, but he fully supported me. He has been amazing, I couldn’t have done it without him supporting me. So, in 15 months I went from doing a small local triathlon to doing a full ironman.
That’s pretty impressive,
isn’t it? And now your committed to it?
Yeah overly committed. I love it.
I’ve got plans to do 2 Ironmans next year and a whole lot of other races. It
gives me that mental peace of mind, it gives me that time to myself with my
thoughts where I can go out on the road on my bike. And I know that that’s my
opportunity to clear my head. It’s my
therapy. It also helps me get fit which is obviously a big thing for me. My fitness
is a very important factor. You can’t hide anything from yourself.
And it’s took off so much that
you are now identifying yourself as gay triathlete or ironman
Absolutely. Yeah, so people I
race with, everyone in the club knows me and they all know I am gay and are
fine with it. It took a while for me to get comfortable with it myself. One of
the guys in the club, Jeremy has been absolutely brilliant. Nobody else is
really asking me questions about it or not. People just kind of accept it.
That’s who I am.
You have found that you are the
only gay male triathlete that you can find?
I know of one guy in America. I
know him through Instagram and he is like me he’s very open about who he is and
that kind of stuff like and I admire him a lot. I think he’s amazing as an
athlete but he’s amazing as a person as well. I just think he’s absolutely
brilliant. He’s done some of the toughest races you could ever imagine. He has
done everything to defy the stereotype.
I think you’re amazing in the
No, I’m nowhere near right now.
He is a lot more open about his sexuality, about his training, about his past
and I’m not there.
But you are getting there.
Yeah slowly but surely I am
getting there, but I know I’m not there yet. And I know it’s going to take time
for me to get there. I joke about who I am quite a lot because actually I am
quite comfortable where I am. I did an event at end of July and I joked about with
my friend posted a picture of me and my tent as ‘Camp Ken’. I had a big pride
flag which I put up in the opening of my tent as it was Pride weekend in
Norwich. So everyone knew and I was comfortable putting the picture up on Instagram
and Facebook , cos it’s kind of tongue-in-cheek. It’s not attention-seeking.
But there is some confidence
It’s taken me a long time to get
there but now I am I am quite proud of it. As you can see my bike is Neutron
pink, It takes a very special person to pull off a pink bike and everyone
always says to me that’s exactly why you’ve got one.
I do identify myself as an LGBT
triathlete and I am just interested in finding out why other triathletes do not
identify as LGBT. I’m trying to find out
at the moment. Four percent of people
who registered for British Triathlon last year were identified themselves as
LGBTQ. I asked British Triathlon if there was a way of seeing the divide
between males and females as I have met quite a few lesbian triathletes and my
suspicion is the 4% may be heavily female. I’ve never met any other gay males
and this is what interests me. So why is that? Why is it that there aren’t that
many LGBTQ+ males who identify or who
are open about it? I would love to meet more.
There are groups on Facebook and
you find groups and you request to join then you don’t hear anything back from
three weeks. And there are there are other groups like online communities and
stuff, but I want to actually meet some people face-to-face. There was an
actual gay triathlon club in Brighton, and I don’t even think it’s still there
anymore. I just think it’s a bit of a shame there aren’t more people who you
are comfortable about it. What can we do
to make it more comfortable for people. For me it’s about the health side of
things and that’s what got me into it because of my personal issues with my
(to this end Ken has devised a questionnaire for triathletes
which is above and below – please take part or pass onto anyone you know)
So, tell us a bit more about
your issues with your body because you’re still not a hundred percent
Oh, no, not at all. Not at all
and I don’t think I ever will be a hundred percent comfortable because I always
feel that there’s something I can change, something that can be better,
something that could be fitter. I could
lose some weight from here or there
Is that more to do pure competition side now or how do
you feel when you look in the mirror?
I just don’t ever feel
comfortable when I look in the mirror. Before I before I started doing
triathlons, seriously, I was a regular gym go and I was going to the gym six
probably seven days a week. I was going every single day and I was hitting the
gym hard and I was in I was the best physical shape I’ve ever been physically.
I felt great. I felt really healthy, but I went to the gym and I always said
I’m not there yet. But there came a point where I realised I was a bit addicted
and a lot of that was around my anxiety around my body image.
I have always seen food as a
functional thing. I would eat lots and
lots but only so I could turn fat into muscle. Clive jokes that when we first
met, I had a six pack which I don’t have anymore but I think that is because I
don’t think he cares you know, he’s just happy that I am me which I really
appreciate that but inside my head, I’ve always got that paranoia. I’ve always
got that thought that I can be better. I can improve myself. I can improve how
I look. improve how I feel.
Is that for you more or for other people?
I don’t know, a lot of it is for
me to feel better for me but also I think there’s an aspect of I’d like to
think that other people look at me and look at me think ‘he knows what he’s
doing’. When I go to some races, I see other men who are absolutely shredded. You
know, there is not a lot to them, but they are pure muscle.
Do you envy that?
I do a little bit but it’s kind of more of a ‘why can’t I be
like that? ‘
Do you obsess about it?
I think you’ve got two types of people in the fitness
industry, people who just want to show off and say look at me and others who
actually want to help other people change.
Yeah and you’re in the second category.
I try to be.
Going from your social media
profiles you are not someone who posts a lot of pictures of yourself with your
top off for instance. So, there’s not a vanity there.
I always joke about having a
vanity, I joke about it with friends I’m not the kind of guy who for any excuse
to take his top off but I’m quite comfortable in my own home
How do you feel about other gay men seeing your body?
I don’t really know many other gay men anymore. I have never felt very comfortable with
Do you think you judge other people on what they look
No. No. I try not to. I try not
to judge other people on what they look like but if I find other people who have
obviously worked out then I look at them thinking ‘how did they get there’.
So you still doubt yourself and if you are putting enough
Yes, ‘what do they do differently
to me?’ So, what other stuff can I do. I now have a triathlon coach who is
really helping me. It makes me take responsibility for what I am doing. In the
small time that we’ve worked together. I’ve seen how much I’ve improved and how
much stronger I feel.
Have you got a fantasy image
of yourself, what would if you could look a certain way. What would you change?
Oh, I’d be taller. It would help make me faster.
So, it’s a performance related thing?
Yeah. I mean I watch a lot of the
Marvel movies so someone like Chris Hemsworth, you look and think ‘wow’ but
they are professional actors and have the time and resources.
You are also a natural athlete and therefore everything
is natural, you never know with those in the public eye how much is real.
I’ll take I take my training
seriously, but what I don’t do is take any supplements, it’s not for me. My
food is my functional thing. I still have a MacDonalds or Fish and Chips. You
need it now and then. Just don’t have an ice cream every day.
Is Clive the same?
He tries. He loves good food. We
went to Roger Hickman’s and we had the taster menu. He was really happy, but I
came away hungry craving a burger.
Finally, would you say you are
happy where you are with your sexuality and where you are in your life?
Yes, and no. Yes, I am where I am
now. Yes. Am I happy? It’s taken me this long to get here. Not necessarily. You
have to forgive yourself and I find that hard. I find I’m my definitely my
Does that come from Catholic guilt?
I don’t think it’s Catholic
guilt. I think it’s more just I feel like to get to where I am I have had to
tread on a few people. I don’t hate myself for it. But I’ll it’s always that in
the back of my mind and I’m not comfortable with some of the stuff I’ve had to
do to get to where I am today.
Do I think I am more comfortable
today than I was six months ago, two years ago? Yes, absolutely. So, I think
it’s a continuing journey.
I am a 51
year old gay man and so my formative years were during the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Growing up in a small Norfolk town there were no gay role models for me and the
only ones on TV were Larry Grayson and Jon Inman. There was certainly nothing
to make me feel comfortable about the feelings I was experiencing.
As far as
I knew I was the only gay at school, and I was very much in the closet. It
turns out, of course I wasn’t the only one and at least a couple of boys who
were in my year were also. One of them later said they admired me as I was so
stoic with the bullying I received. I found that quite amusing as I didn’t
announce I was gay, everyone just assumed. The language was much gentler then: ‘poof’
‘greenagay’ – no queer or faggot but it still hurt.
going into the 80’s just as I was developing my sexual identity and ready to
start experiencing things, AIDS happened, so it became even harder to come out.
This coupled with my personal situation at home meant that I felt I would never
be able to lead an open gay life. Back then I was lean, and I tried to keep up
with fashion in my own naïve working-class way, but I had no sense of being
attractive to other men or being comfortable in my own skin. I had discovered
sex, but I still put on a different Ian to the world than I would present say
in a club. It was very much a double life.
as a Scorpio I have always had a bit of a feisty side. Even though I felt
defeated, when the moment came to break free and come into the open, I just
jumped headfirst into a serious relationship and left home. Then I was simply
at 22 suddenly, an out gay man and I made no attempt to hide it and was quite
comfortable with the fact. There was no social media then so any information
about my sexuality had to come from me or by gossip.
Now here I
am in my fifties, two serious relationships behind me and now happily in a
third with my husband and the world for gay men has changed immensely. That’s
partly why I am interested in exploring what it means to be gay in the 21st
century, at all ages, and our relationship with our body and image. Young gay
men are able to be quite open about their sexuality from a much younger age and
much more publicly. However, I don’t think this means it is necessarily easier
for them than me and I am not convinced that prejudice is much less. It’s just
different. Now for the gay man the body itself has almost become a new battle
ground with social media flooding us with images of buff, toned men with tans
and perfect teeth, designer clothes and a Love Island lifestyle or for some gay
men a lot of content is very sexual or fetish based and not about people being
rounded individuals. This is particularly noticeable on Instagram where
image is king and the selfie rules.
struggled with my weight since my early 20s and this has undoubtedly affected
my confidence. You will rarely see a picture of me online because in my own
eyes I look gross. I have lost weight at different times and in the last few
years actually learned to love exercise, especially weight training, but even a
trip to the gym can leave me feeling deflated as most of the other guys there are
both younger and leaner and I feel maybe I am wasting my time and making a fool
of myself. This is something I have to fight, almost daily, and I am now on my
biggest break from the gym for 5 years. It’s all built around confidence.
Having grown up around serious mental illness I know mine is mostly anxiety, a
social anxiety which is hard to define but it eats away at you and feeds on
area I am interested in is how gay men view their masculinity. Although I came
across as a poof to the others at school I tried to conform, to fit in. That
becomes ingrained and difficult to change even as an adult, as even
subconsciously you are seeking acceptance. Although I believe I have a
flamboyant gene I have never had the confidence to embrace it. It’s easier to
stay conservative or boring. In some ways I see the weight training as another
way of trying to be in a tribe. It’s tricky, am I being true to myself or not? Do
I see myself as a man, a gay man or Ian or all?
revisit my own feelings over time but for now I am looking for gay men,
particularly those with a strong online following to see how the feel about
their image and how they present themselves to the world.
I am starting a new series of
posts on my blog about how gay men view themselves in terms of body image,
masculinity and how they present themselves to others either personally or
through social media. This is intended to
be a very broad subject which will look at whether things have improved over my
lifetime or whether the use of social media is actually making us view
ourselves more negatively. In the next day or two I will be writing a piece about
my own experiences and feelings and I hope to follow this up with interviews
and discussions with other’s, across a wide range of ages, experiences and body
types. If you know of anyone who may be interested in taking part please let me
know. This series is particularly aimed at gay men but I am interested to hear
from other men – email email@example.com,
twitter @woombai, Instagram @woombai. Thanks Ian
Sharon, the cockney pest control
lady had given me a lift from the council offices, and we parked halfway along
Rutherford Street. Considering we were in the heart of Westminster, all was
quiet, yellow leaves lay in the road.
‘Are you sure you don’t want me
to come in with you darlin’ it’s pretty grim you know’
‘No, you have helped more than
you could know.’ Part of me wanted her to come in but I knew I had to do this,
there was no-one else. ‘I must get going’ I told her ‘my train is at 4.’ I
glanced at her and rested my hand on her sleeve, ‘thanks.’
I entered the imposing four
storey building looking for number 29. I climbed the stairs anxiously to the
top where I found Nigel’s door. As I had got closer, I had been able to smell
Sharon’s work and now that was hitting me in the throat and added to the dread
I had inside. I tentatively put the key in the lock.
Nigel had lived in Westminster since
the early 60’s but no family had been here that I knew of, so I was opening the
door to the unknown. Nigel was a quiet, enigmatic man, intensively private but
always immaculately groomed in Prince of Wales check suits which he wore with a
selection of neutral cashmere sweaters. When he visited his mum and we were round
for tea, I would get impatient as he took so long in the bathroom. I just
wanted to get the battenburg eaten and get home for Doctor Who.
Now there was only me. I opened
the door and took a deep breath. Even the chemicals Sharon had used could not
hide the smell of Nigel, a sweet but toxic smell I already knew, like rotting
meat mixed with pineapples and cheap perfume. The first thing I noticed was he
had a worn red velvet door curtain just like his mum had. Over 40 years away
from Norfolk but in some ways still there.
I looked round the room and was
shocked how small it was. Just a single bed placed exactly in the middle and a
small amount of furniture along on wall. No TV, just a technics sound system, a
radio and one small brown chair. Crisp white Calvin Klein’s lay casually across
the back of the chair, ‘better than mine I thought’. On the other wall a large
print of a naked man which confirmed what I thought. I was pleased. I saw the
window was open and wondered if Sharon had opened it or if Nigel had weeks
The council had removed the mattress
with his body, but the bottom section of the divan was stained heavily and was
still wet. You could make out the shape of Nigel’s head where he had lain
undiscovered during the last two weeks of autumn sunshine.
The only other room was a narrow galley
kitchen where fruit flies hung around and I began to see the dead maggots and
flies which seemed to be everywhere. A baby belling oven, but no fridge, just
like his mum and a tiny bathroom. I felt sad, where was the rest?
As the nausea took hold, I made
myself get a grip and I went back to the other room to go through the drawers,
just six of them, his life in six drawers. Two had clothes, not to my taste. The third
had paperwork which I put in my bag to sort out at home, a wallet had a fifty-pound
note in which I put in my pocket. The fourth drawer had household nick knacks
of no use to me. It was the last two drawers which took my time.
Literally hundreds of West End theatre
programmes from the sixties up to now. All pristine and with a single ticket
inside of where he had sat, always stalls near the front, seemingly alone.
Ginger Rogers in ‘Mame’, Angela Lansbury in ‘Gypsy’ and so on. Then letters and
photograph albums of Nigel on holiday in places like Syria and Lebanon, some
with groups of well-heeled chic looking tourists, some with local men, mostly
younger. And letters from the British Museum thanking him for information he
had passed onto them. Then in a few slimline diaries, cryptic notes indicating
clandestine meetings with ‘Jose’ and ‘Mario’. Then trips to the doctor, then
blank pages and nothing.
I knew there would only be three
of us at the funeral, but I felt jealous and angry. I wished I had half the
life he had lived. A bitter tear fell on my cheek and I grabbed the best of what
I could into the bags I had brought, putting Nigel’s life in some cheap sports
bags. I couldn’t bear the maggots and flies anymore and decided I had to go.
I drew the curtain back on Nigel’s
life and made a decision not to go back again. I put the key through the door.
It was now pouring with rain and I
walked quickly to the end of Rutherford Street where a young homeless lad sat
in the doorway of a café. He caught my eye and smiled. ‘Any change mate?’
I took the fifty pound note out
and gave it to him ‘keep the change’ and I winked and hurried onto the coroner’s
office across the road.
Gerald stood at the window of 36
Primrose Avenue looking up at the tree outside, admiring the blaze of late
autumn colour. He deliberately looked up
and not down at the foot of the tree. Twenty-five years he had been looking out
at the majesty of the trees which lined this quiet avenue where he and his wife
He knew he had to look down just
to see if they were still there. He knew they would be. They were. An agitation
stirred within him.
Little Sophie Jackson had died in
late July on a hot day. A car had met the 5 year old on her bike outside
Gerald’s house. Now there was just the unending floral tributes which sat at
the bottom of his favourite tree.
‘I blame Princess Diana’ Gerald
said to his wife, ‘all this flower nonsense has got out of hand. It’s morbid, I
cant deal with it’
‘Gerald you must calm down, let
the family grieve’ but Jill knew he could not let it drop.
‘I am going to write her a
Jill sighed. The length of their
marriage felt all of its 38 years.
2 days later
Gerald answered a very loud knock
on the door.
‘How dare you, you nasty little
man’ Gerald looked at the short dumpy and rather angry young woman who was
shaking on his doorstep. It was Sophie’s mother.
‘Calm down Mrs Jackson’
‘Don’t you tell me to calm down.
My little girl, my precious little girl, how could you object to people
grieving. You are a monster.’ She was waving the letter in her hand, her voice
was choked and her face red.
Gerald felt a pang, of guilt or
‘Please, come in and let’s talk
about it’ he opened the door wider.
She suddenly looked smaller and
‘Please, I am sorry’ Gerald
offered a weak smile.
He went to make a cup of tea.
She had been crying when he came
back ‘I don’t understand why the flowers have upset you so much, are you
worried about the value of your house? For goodness sake my poor little girl’
she was becoming agitated again.
‘I want to explain but it’s
difficult’ Could he tell her?
‘It is only three months it is
still so raw for me’
‘How could you possibly know?’
Gerald looked at her and spoke
softly ‘I really do know.’
A calm descended and there was an
‘You have a lovely house Mr
Wilson, have you lived here long?’
’35 years and it’s Gerald please.
You are Rachel, aren’t you?’
‘Do you mind if I sit next to
‘No, of course’ she smiled.
‘This is hard for me Rachel and I
really can’t explain my feelings about the flowers maybe I was jealous. I have
always treasured the trees on this road’
‘I know’ he interrupted ‘but you
see I suffered a loss like you, 20 years ago’
‘Oh, I see’ she hesitated ‘Was it
on the road?’
‘No. I came home from work one
day and sat looking out of that window just relaxing and I just wish I hadn’t’
he voice wavered
She waited for him to carry on.
‘You see I just sat here and
waited for my wife and I will always regret it. She came home and went out the
back to get the washing in and found our son hanging in the garden shed’ he struggled
to hold it in.
Rachel bit her lip and held out
her hand. ‘I guess it was too late’
‘Yes, he had taken his own life,
he was 15. We have never worked out why’
‘I am so sorry’ she squeezed his
hand ‘I will stop laying the flowers’
‘No, please don’t’ he took her
hand ‘but maybe we could plant a tree for your Sophie’. They embraced