On the way back from Sheffield on Thursday I couldn't face having lunch at dreary Bolton motorway services so took a detour and went to Carluccios at the Trafford Centre. I noticed a big queue of people snaking around WH Smiths. They were all clutching a copy of Cliff Richard's autobiography - and it turned out he was in the shop, signing autographs and meeting his fans. I was amazed at how many people were in the queue - you wouldn't think that Cliff would inspire so much devotion. I'm afraid I wasn't very nice, and laughed at them.
But then again, in 1981 my own mother told my father than if Cliff Richard ever asked her to run away with him, she would. She has been a Cliff Fan all her life. My father didn't seem too bothered by this revelation. And it turns out he had no need to be. Because in Cliff's new book, he talks about his "male companion", Father John McElynn who he met in 2001. They have lived together for the past seven years, and the former priest "spends most of his time looking after Cliff's properties" (which is the cutest euphemism I've ever heard for gay sex).
However, like many gay men of a certain age, unfortunately Cliff isn't able to shake off a deeply ingrained internalised homophobia, which characterises itself as annoyance that anyone would ever dare to wonder about his sexuality: "I am sick to death of the media's speculation about it. What business is it of anyone else's what any of us are as individuals? I don't think my fans would care either way."
I've heard this little lament trotted out again and again - and while on the surface it seems perfectly reasonable, I would point out that we live in a deeply homophobic world and that homphobia thrives on attitudes like the one Cliff is espousing - keep it a secret, it's nobody's business, nobody needs to know. That way gay people continue to feel that their sexuality is part of their "private life" and must be kept apart from every other aspect of their lives, utterly compartmentalised. Now if heterosexual people did the same thing, then that would be (slighty) better. But they don't. Bump into a heterosexual person and notice the ease and readiness with which they mention their husband, wife, children or liking for an opposite-sex celebrity. Heterosexual people don't need to keep their sexuality private - it's fully integrated into every aspect of their identity.
So if Cliff were to say "Look, I'm in a gay relationship," he's saying "I'm not ashamed, I'm proud." He would then help to make homosexuality just that little bit more acceptable, rather than a secret. As a celebrity, Cliff's "coming out" would make a difference - particularly as his fans are not probably from what we'd call the most radical slice of society.
I guess Cliff can't be blamed. He's a product of the society he was born in. He's over 30 years older than me - he lived through the scary pre-Wolfenden period and he's spent a long time in the public eye - for most of his early career, his assumed heterosexuality was essential to his continued success. But I hope that his half-hearted coming out is the swansong for this sort of thing. And that given 10 or so years, the whole business can be conducted with more integrity and confidence.