However, prejudice against homosexuals wasn’t the only type of prejudice that was around at that time. “No blacks, no dogs, no Irish” was a sign that was common in the windows of British boarding houses during the 1950s and 60s and many otherwise respectable organisations, institutions and businesses operated a colour bar and sometimes a gender bar.
Because homosexuals were forced by the law to keep their sexuality secret a gay bar (sorry) wasn't feasible but to be found to be gay was enough to get you dismissed from the Armed Forces and some other places of employment and that remained the case for a long time even after decriminalisation.
As late as the 1990s it took campaigns such as "the pink pound" to convince financial services companies, including banks and building societies, to offer their products to gay couples.
It’s unimaginable that such prejudice could have existed such a short time ago, yet there are many that can tell you that it still exists today. I’ll be returning to that a little later in this blog, but for the moment I’ll concentrate on this book, Sweet Mungo by Meriel Brooke.
The book tells the story of the life of Mungo Warner from his early years until his mid-twenties. It starts off in 1950s Chester with Mungo confined to the dark of a cellar by his domineering, bullying father, for some minor childish misdemeanour. His only comfort is his dog, Gyp, who is being similarly punished. The story then follows Mungo through his childhood at choir school, his adolescence and into his adulthood and his chosen career in the theatre.
Throughout his developing years Mungo’s relationship with his father is fraught, to say the least. His father is a bully and his mother is cowed down by him, able to do little to ease Mungo’s suffering. An adolescent adventure finds Mungo in a rather louche nightclub frequented, but not exclusively, by gay people. When his father, a prominent surgeon, finds out he sends Mungo to see a colleague, a psychiatrist, to be administered some rather unpleasant aversion therapy. When Mungo decides to pursue a career in the theatre, albeit backstage, his father disowns him.
One of the problems that Mungo has is that he is very attractive. Meriel Brooke uses the term pretty rather than handsome. He becomes a target for attention not just from girls but also from boys, especially an older boy named Hilary. The confusion in Mungo’s mind is palpable and is a major theme throughout the story, especially as he is attracted to Hilary in return.
To say more about what happens would be to spoil the story for the reader, but what I can tell you is that Mungo’s life doesn’t become any easier, in terms of his confusion, as he grows older.
I have only awarded four stars to a story that might be worth five, and there are two reasons for this.
Firstly, in many ways, Meriel Brooke makes the rest if Mungo's life is too easy for him. Whatever he decides to do turns out well for him and this reduces the tension within the story. When he decides to get work in the theatre he is given a job almost on the nod. When he applies to join the Royal Shakespeare Company his audition is successful even though he has had no formal training as an actor. When he contacts a film producer looking for work he just happens to have a leading role as yet uncast and for which Mungo is ideally suited. I felt that it would have added to Mungo’s internal struggle for him to have to have also had to deal with a few more external struggles. Life just isn’t that easy, there are things we can’t control and plans don’t work out just because we want them to.
The other problem I had was a low level of emotional engagement in the story at some points. There are at least two incidents described in the book which would have had severe traumatic effects on Mungo and I didn’t really feel that trauma. They happened. He got over it. End of. There is an incident early in his life in particular that would have left some severe worries in Mungo’s mind and possibly have affected his future choices. Today, assuming Mungo’s assailant was still alive, it could even have seen Mungo making a complaint to the police about an historic sex crime.
Notwithstanding those issues this is an interesting story and one that many readers may be familiar with on a personal level. Overall it is well told and well-paced, with likeable characters and a couple of interesting plot twists. When describing Mungo’s experiences in the theatre Meriel Brooke artfully drops the names of contemporary actors into the plot, which helps to make it feel more authentic, as do her descriptions of Chester and its environs. In the end I really did feel for Mungo and hoped that he would make the right decisions, the ones that would make him really happy.
The dictionary definition of prejudice is ‘a preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience’. In other words you can be prejudiced against a person or group of people without knowing anything about them or even having met them.
Most people who are prejudiced don’t believe themselves to be so, partly because of that little bit of the definition that mentions ‘reason’. They will always be able to give you a reason for their prejudice, very often taken from some book or from a speech by someone they admire. In reality prejudice is something that is passed on through family and peer groups as much as anything. It is unusual for someone to hold a prejudice if their parents and/or friends don't hold it as well.
One of the favourite lines Johnny Speight would give to his fictional bigot Alf Garnet was ‘It stands to reason, dunnit!”. It appears that so long as you have a reason then it isn't prejudice, at least in some people's minds.
One of the many clues that you are talking to a prejudiced person is when they start a sentence with “I’m not a racist, but….” or “I’m not prejudiced, but…..” or similar.
I mention this because something important is happening in Ireland right now. It has rather been overshadowed by our own General Election, otherwise we might have heard more about it. On 22nd May the Irish will hold a referendum on whether or not to allow same sex, ie gay, marriage.
It is part of the Irish constitution that same sex marriage is not allowed, and under that constitution a referendum is required to bring about any change, rather than just an Act of Parliament as happened in Britain.
This referendum is stirring up some deep feelings and emotions, with some heated words being used on both sides of the argument. The young seem to be overwhelmingly in favour of the change while the more conservative older population tend to be against it. I don’t have to tell you where the church sits on the subject. While the Catholic church in Ireland still has quite a strong influence it isn’t nearly as strong as it was 50 years ago, especially amongst the young.
The church itself is staying quite quiet on the subject, but there is no shortage of self-appointed groups speaking on its behalf. Try these links if you want to see what I mean http://www.ionainstitute.ie/ or maybe this one http://irishcatholic.ie/sections/same-sex-marriage-debate
The Irish media are split on the subject with some newspaper, particularly the more conservative ones, taking a strong ‘no’ stance and others being more open minded. A ruling by the Irish media regulator now states that whenever there is someone interviewed on state broadcaster RTE from the ‘yes’ side of the argument then someone from the ‘no’ camp must be invited on to rebut the argument, but the ruling doesn’t apply the other way round!
My own stance is quite unequivocal. There is no equality in a society when the freedoms enjoyed by the many are denied to the few. It doesn’t matter whether it is the freedom to get married or the freedom to vote, freedom of speech or the freedom to have pink hair. Equality is what it says it is and no one has the right to say that some people are less equal than others.
For those with strong Christian beliefs the Bible has a lot to say about equality. I’m not going to quote them all here, but you can read some references for yourselves: Romans 2:11; Galatians 3:26-29; Genesis 1:27; Acts 10:34 ; Numbers 15:15
For those that would argue that those quotes don’t mention homosexuals specifically I will point out that they also omit references to a wide range of nationalities (Greeks are mentioned in a couple for some reason) and most social groups that would later adopt the Christian religion. Are we to deny them all equality because the authors of the Bible failed to give them a mention?
If you do a similar search for quotations about homosexuality you will find that the Bible has even more to say about that. My only point is that you can’t claim that one quote supports your prejudice (or reason) without conceding that another opposes it.
Interestingly, of all the Bible quotes I found that are related, directly or indirectly, to homosexuality, none are from the four gospels; the supposed teachings of Jesus. It would appear that Jesus himself either didn’t express an opinion or the gospel writers neglected to record his opinion. The quotes I was able to find are either from the Old Testament or are from the later parts of the New Testament where the Disciples and St Paul have their say. If there are any Bible scholars out there who would like to correct me on that then I am prepared to be corrected. St Paul, of course, was never short of an opinion on any subject you cared to mention.
The most significant Bible quotes for me, however, are these:
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” (John 4.19).
“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7.1)
“And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.” (Luke 6.31)
But of course I’m not a Christian and I am therefore open to accusations that I might be trying to use the Bible for my own evil purposes. This, of course, is the last line of defence for the prejudiced.
I am disappointed that this debate has created such rancour in Ireland. Anyone who knows the Irish knows that they are a tolerant nation. They’ve had to be, having had us as neighbours and occupiers.
They adopted migrants more readily than the British, perhaps because they have migrated so much themselves. Their attitude towards women has generally been more open than the British. While feminism was, at one time, a great point of debate in Britain the Irish just got on with it. They had two female Presidents in succession and there didn’t seem to be much controversy over that, or even much surprise.
Of course prejudice isn’t just about gay marriage. It’s also about nationality and the colour of a person’s skin and a person's gender. We know that there is plenty of prejudice around because groups such as the BNP and EDL couldn't exist without it, however much they may deny their bigotry. While the leaders of UKIP may claim not to be racist or xenophobic they have certainly attracted some people to their party that are.
Racist, homophobic and sexist jokes are common currency on the internet and I’ve heard a fair share in the pub. I’ve had to ‘unfriend’ people on Facebook, people I have previously held in high regard, for racist or homophobic comments they have made. I’m not even claiming to be innocent of such stuff myself, certainly in the past.
We can only hope that one day everyone will accept people for what they are on the inside, not what the colour of their skin, their gender, their religion or their sexuality is on the outside. The story of Sweet Mungo could just as easily have been about his struggle to be accepted as a black person or as a woman and it could be written about our society today, not 60 years ago. While we individually may be able to claim, truthfully, that we aren't prejudiced the fact that such prejudice still exists is our shame as a society.