Sunday, April 06, 2003

A weekend in London (which I no longer recognise as having very much to do with the rest of the UK) to the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. As it happens during the Easter break, it's become a kind of tradition to take a few days off work, book into a nearby hotel, and watch 3-4 films a day. By the end, having seen 7 films in 2 days, I was jaded and uncomfortable. Experimental shorts were contrasted with bigger budget (usually over-seas) films. Several themes emerged: unattainable gorgeous straight men, hilarious female friends, sassy drag queens, closet-cases and men with big muscles. It all became a kind of queer milkshake swirl and I can no longer name any film I saw or distinguish one from the other.

London was as usual, a place of extremes, over-priced bad food, beautiful streets containing grand old houses - the pavements and roads full of rubbish and vomit after last night's partying, keeping my hand on my wallet most of the time, people being louder, brasher, scarier and more confident than I'm used to. I was cruised by more gay men over the weekend than I have been in the last few months. I have always had an uneasy relationship with London. I worked there one summer a few years ago, living in Camden, with a silly media-related job that meant I mixed with vaguely well-known people. I have friends who live there and I'm very aware that to them I am a weird oddity - someone who they think should live in London but stubbornly doesn't and is therefore always going to be culturally backward, unfashionable and out-of-it. And while London is exciting, I recall that when I worked there, I rarely had the money or the time to do the things I wanted to do. Instead, I prefer to visit for a couple of days, with money in my wallet and then leave before it gets too real or I adjust to the ugliness and the noise.

On the train home I read Polly Toynbee's Hard Work, about life in low-pay Britain. It's a well-written, compelling book - a natural successor to George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London. Toynbee is a journalist and comfortably middle class. In the book she takes a number of low-paid jobs - telesales, care assistant, dinner lady, cleaner etc., while living in a rough tower block, 15 minutes walk from her own home in a fashionable part of Clapham. She concludes that she found it impossible to live on such wages without having to "cheat". In my favourite part of the book, while working as a nanny, she passes Peter Mandleson - he doesn't recognise her. It says a lot about how low-paid jobs make you invisible. And a lot of it resonated - I've had a few crap jobs in my time and can sympathise with anyone who's had to wipe old lady's bottoms for less than the minimum wage. Ms Toynbee is my new heroine.

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