Tag Archives: interview

Graham Taylor: City slicker, ballet lover

Graham Taylor, who has died aged 72, is the single nicest famous person I have ever interviewed. I met him in a City boardroom, where he was doing risk analysis for somebody who was about to buy a football club. It was a pretty unlikely location, but the conversation was even odder. Taylor had just given a talk to Dance East about leadership, and we were there to talk about ballet.

I had no great expectations of the encounter, but I’ve never forgotten it. There was, from the start, a complete lack of front mixed with gentle humour. “People think I’m retired from football,” he said. “But I haven’t. I’ve just retired from football management and that ought to please them enough.”

As he talked about ballet, something else came through, a genuine love and admiration for dancing that he expressed in completely unguarded fashion, something that seemed so strange and wonderful for a man of his age and background. I’ll always remember one quote he delivered, for the way he spoke as much as what he said. It came with a naivety or openness that was rather beautiful. “I’m no expert,” he said. “But Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo at Covent Garden, when they dance in Romeo And Juliet, I would deny anybody, anybody, to tell me they don’t know what passionate unbridled love is. I’m not saying I shed any tears, but boy was I close.”

He talked thoughtfully about the differences and similarities between ballet and football, offering his perspective as a player, manager and fan. He was decent, interesting and normal, but what was most remarkable given his previous experiences with the press was that there was none of the usual sense of distancing performance you get in interviews, whether it’s with a film star in a hotel suite or a caramelised peanut seller being vox popped on Oxford Street. Everybody is always aware they are being interviewed, and they always react ever so slightly to the situation, almost placing themselves outside the experience as if they were observing and monitoring their own responses. This separation of reality and performance can be fractional, but it’s happened with everybody I’ve ever interviewed, even close friends. It’s an entirely natural defence mechanism, and one that I have grown so used to I notice it only subconsciously.

Taylor, astonishingly for a man who had been treated so viciously by journalists in the past, had none of this. There was no distance, no performance, no separation, no judgement. It was just him.

After the interview, he walked with me to the nearest station rather than waiting for me to disappear as pretty much any other interviewees would do. Again, it was a simple moment of niceness I’ve never forgotten. We talked about Didier Drogba all the way to Blackfriars station, before heading our separate ways on the District Line.

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“I loved the brutality of it”: Suede and London

I wrote about Suede for the current issue of Uncut. This was something of a revelation for me, as I was able to remind myself how excited I was when I first heard Suede – I remember playing “Animal Nitrate” over and over again in my bedroom, thinking that I’d finally discovered a band I loved as much as The Smiths. Before interviewing the band, I went to see them play at the Roundhouse and all of that old energy was still there, and I was just as thrilled as I had been at 16.

One angle covered in wide-ranging interviews with Brett Anderson, Mat Osman and Neil Codling was the importance of London to the Suede aesthetic – this was a band that even renamed themselves The London Suede, albeit under duress, for their American releases.

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When the band were formed, Osman and Anderson shared a flat on Hilever Road in White City “on the border with Notting Hill – bohemia one way, estates the other,” Osman said, and Suede’s music came to occupy this very same sort of space, the sort of London written about by Patrick Hamilton, Dylan Thomas, Gerald Kersh and Roger Westerby in those novels about outsiders arriving in London and being instantly swallowed by vice and excitement. Doing something similar around this time was the TV version of Hanif Kureishi’s Buddha Of Suburbia, with a soundtrack by David Bowie – the combination of Suede and Kureishi is what led me to Bowie.

“London was a place where you can be what you want,” says Codling. “You can disappear, you can embrace any subculture, you can reinvent yourself and glamour is a possibility inherent in that.”

Anderson didn’t deny any of this. “I romanticised what London was,” he said. “I lived in a bit of a film fantasy. I loved the brutality of it, the loneliness and the hardness of it all. I really responded to that. But this is what we were living. I was part of this world I was writing about. I’ve always tried to find the romance in any situation I’ve been in and that happened to be the situation I was in. I’ve always loved art that deals with the prosaic. The Smiths aesthetic, I found that very powerful, ‘the riches of the poor’. There’s beauty in the brutality.”

 

Anderson told me he’s still inspired by London, often cycling the towpath from his home to West London to Camden, even if it doesn’t directly appear on the band’s new album. The excellent Night Thoughts is instead preoccupied by those unnerving concerns about children and fatherhood that keep Anderson – and myself – awake at night.

“I refute the tortured artist clichés, it’s bullshit, a lazy misunderstanding of what creativity is,” he said. “It’s not expected of authors and film-makers, Michael Haneke always seems very balance and his films are genius of discomfort. For me, a writer is finding those moments of friction, and those can occur in any existence, in any relationship, no matter how stable or content. There are always misunderstandings and moments of friction and this is what I write about.”

 

Archive: Julian Cope interview

I recently rediscovered this 2005 interview with Julian Cope from Time Out. It took place over the phone and my main recollection is that Cope went to the toilet halfway through, with the sound of his piss hitting the urinal adding a certain sonic tang to the transcription.

They say that every boy needs a hobby; over the years Julian Cope has had plenty. At first it was taking LSD on ‘Top Of The Tops’ and talking about Scott Walker. Later it was sitting beneath a tortoise shell and listening to krautrock. Now it’s playing monolithic sludge rock riffs and visiting ancient monuments. There’s no pattern, it’s just how things worked out.

But before we get into one of those ‘isn’t Julian Cope crazy?!’ mindsets, let’s clear one thing up: Cope isn’t a whacked-out, moondog, schizoid beam-chaser, or even a ga-ga, freaked-up, attention-seeking acid-eater, he’s just a lot more interesting (and, crucially, interested) than most rock stars. Let the man himself explain, as he prepares for his Friday night gig at the Royal Festival Hall: ‘Playing the role of Julian Cope means I can hide behind what Julian Cope is supposed to be. People always say, “You’re a lot more normal than I thought you would be”, and I say, “Yeah, but if I was as weird as you thought, I wouldn’t be able to achieve fucking anything”. The whole point is that it’s the subject matter that’s weird, not the person behind it.’

These days such achievements are often literary – particularly best-selling books on standing stones (The Modern Antiquarian and The Megalithic European). But Cope continues to record. His latest is Citizen Cain’d, an epic, guitar-shredding study of alienation and monotheism that is heavily informed by travels in Iran and stupidly heavy rock ’n’ roll.

‘We’ve all got an inner moron,’ he explains. ‘And rock ’n’ roll entertains your inner moron, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be smart as well. I thought it would be great to take garage rock and fuse it with genuinely amazing guitar. American punk bands always struck me as being better because they were great musicians playing down. One of the reasons I work with Doggen is that he’s one of the best guitarists I’ve ever heard. He’s amazing. But it’s context, I never put him in a good context. I’m never going to make him look like Eddie Van Halen if he’s got to come out of the swamp.’

Talking of swamp, support on Friday is from San Francisco’s Comets On Fire, quality purveyors of cosmic sludge, who are playing their first UK show. Cope has been a fan for a while. ‘The great thing about Comets is they very much know where they’re coming from. When I first got in touch with Ethan Miller (Comets main guy) I was saying, “Man, you’re totally Roky Erickson meets John Fogerty with Hawkwind backing”, and he said “Shit man, in my dreams that’s where we are”. But it’s not in their dreams, they’re there already.’

As he enthuses about favourite bands like Speed Glue And Shinky (‘I’m a fucking cunt for a singing drummer’) and Monoshock (‘They’re really vile. Like a sewer Stooges’), it’s clear that Cope is totally into this stuff. And when Cope gets into something, it normally gets into print. ‘I’m writing a book that’s just called ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll’, but it has the most portentous subtitle in the world. I can’t even remember it. On the back we’re going to have a massive question mark and underneath say “Who will entertain your moron?”’

Will this be written in his trademark stream-of-consciousness style? ‘Actually, I’m probably no more stream of consciousness than Robert Graves, I’m just fucking great at giving that impression. One thing I do is write what I want to say, then I go into an internet translator and turn it into German, turn the German into French and then the French back into English, and then pick out the nuggets. It ends up sounding like Faust lyrics. I’m happy that secret being leaked: the people who hear it and don’t take it seriously won’t learn anything, and the people that know wisdom is everywhere will take it on board and start doing it. Part of my job is to reveal other ways. I’m trying to be a facilitator rather than somebody who hides behind a cloak of mystery.’

And Friday? ‘Expect generic dark psychedelia. I’m really punishing the cliché. Get there early because we’re going to play two sets, one as people arrive, then after the Comets we’ll come back and do that monolithic sludge. It’s going to be a real vibe. Healthy amounts of mushrooms will be good and women should dress for the occasion.’

Charlie Cooke: Chelsea wing wizard

I recently dug up an old PC, and found this interview I conducted with former Chelsea and Scotland footballer Charlie Cooke in 2007 for Time Out.

It has become common currency for fans and players of other clubs to decry Chelsea’s lack of history, a revealing attitude that mistakes ‘history’ for ‘success’ and ‘wit’ for ‘arrogance’. Chelsea, of course, have a rich history, albeit one of spectacular underachievement and remarkable foot-shooting, of which the legendary – and much-romanticised – 1960s side is the best example. One of the geniuses of that team was Charlie Cooke, the brilliant Scottish midfielder who replaced Terry Venables in the heart of the Chelsea side and rivalled Peter Osgood for the affections of The Shed. Cooke was a combination of Pat Nevin and Joe Cole – phenomenally gifted, an extraordinary dribbler and visionary passer, but one with a prodigious work ethic. He was Chelsea’s player of the year three times – a record shared with a certain diminutive Sardinian – but only won two major trophies in his two spells at Stamford Bridge.

‘We were underachievers, and that was our own fault,’ says Cooke, on the phone from the United States where he coaches children’s soccer (‘I have to call it that’). ‘We underachieved on the big occasions – we were dreadful in the FA Cup final against Spurs in 1967, and we lost to Stoke in the League Cup final in 1972. We were out of control, wild and crazy, we egged each other on with the drinking culture. I have regrets. From this perspective, it was a lot of nonsense. At the time, you’re having fun, or you think you are, but I’m not one to say that if I had it all to live over I’d do it exactly the same. I’d be a bit smarter, more self-controlled, not so willing.’

It’s telling that Cooke’s autobiography The Bonnie Prince, lacks the drinking stories common to memoirs written by footballers from this period – that’s because Cooke, who doesn’t quite admit he was an alcoholic, can’t remember many of them (although he gets some off-page prompting from his drinking partner, Tommy Baldwin, nicknamed ‘The Sponge’ for his ability to soak up booze). Instead, Cooke gives a thoughtful account of a playing career that took him from Greenock High School to California Surf, via Aberdeen, Dundee, Chelsea and Crystal Palace.

‘I took it as an opportunity to retrace a lot of my life and find out things I’d forgotten,’ he says. ‘One of the strange things was that my sister had been doing some genealogy and the interesting thing to me – although it may be of no interest to anybody else – is that we, the Cookes, came from a long line of circus people. My umpteen great grandfather was the first person to take a big top to America. Another Cooke would ride round the ring on a horse taking off costumes of different Shakespearean characters. I come from a long line of hairy-chested women, Romanian jugglers and fat men. Entertainers, sure, but I’m not sure it’s a rich lineage – maybe a tacky one.’

Cooke also writes about his own failings as a player, showing self-reflection that’s unusual in books of this type. You rarely see footage of Cooke in action – ‘sometimes you’ll see a tiny clip of yourself and think, “that wasn’t me was it? Ach, I thought I was a better player than that!” – and rarer still a Cooke goal: he scored barely 20 in nearly 300 league games for Chelsea. Cooke’s explanation of this is interesting – ‘I allowed the headlines about my being the team schemer and midfield general to get into my head, with the result that I ignored finishing’ – showing that even positive press can have results journalists might not expect, causing players to subconsciously neglect those parts of their game that do not receive the most publicity or overdoing their strengths in the belief that this is what the public demands.

Cooke lives in America (‘I always wanted to be in the States, I married an American girl and I loved Westerns and American detective series and the blue skies of America always seems to be a place I wanted to try’), but returns to Abramovich’s Stamford Bridge more regularly now than he did under the previous regime. ‘One of the wonderful things about the takeover at Chelsea is that they invite all the old farts back, he says. ‘It had been thrown out the door before. I have no gripe about Ken Bates, that’s what he wanted, but it’s wonderful that they invite us back now, it’s lovely for me and all the guys really appreciate it. You feel the love fans still have for you and it’s fantastic.’

The Bonnie Prince (Mainstream; £7.99).

‘I didn’t want to drop a turd on the reader’s lap’: Meeting James Ellroy

James Ellroy has a new book out, so I thought I’d republish my interview with him from 2009 when he was promoting Blood’s A Rover. I was unusually nervous before our meeting as I’d heard Ellroy was a difficult man to talk to and his memoir – My Dark Places – saw him plead a strong case for his own insanity. But all in all, it went pretty well. Ellroy seemed sad rather than difficult, although anybody can seem lonely in a Chelsea Harbour hotel on a Sunday morning. I wish I had kept the full transcription of the interview, as we also discussed, from memory, his research techniques and his plans for a new series of book, the first of which has just been published.  

Smart, stern and ramrod straight, James Ellroy sits in his Chelsea Harbour hotel room and broods about women and words. He is upright. Terse. Correct. He doesn’t quite speak the way he writes – hell, nobody speaks they way he writes, in sentences entirely unadorned with commas, adjectives or conjunctions – but his sentences are short, exact, punchy.

‘I love the English-American idiom,’ he says. ‘I love Yiddish. I love racial invective. I love alliteration. I love slang. I love profanity. And the simpler the language, the more direct, the more blunt, the better. When writers try to imitate me they always put in too many words, and none of it works.’

People try to copy Ellroy because his jazzy, rhythmic, slang-strewn pulp-prose is deceptive in its simplicity and addiction in its execution. The latest fix comes from Blood’s A Rover, the Nixonland masterpiece that completes his Underworld USA trilogy, an alternative history of conspiracy, crime and collusion that includes American Tabloid and the psychotic The Cold Six Thousand. Like its kin, Blood’s A Rover is a bloody collision of Johnny Cash, Raymond Chandler and Sam Peckinpah in which Ellroy uses three fictional male characters to explore factual events – in this case, the ascent of Richard Nixon, who joins J Edgar Hoover and Howard Hughes in the pantheon of American personalities Ellroy has slyly redrawn. ‘You’ve got to like Nixon,’ he says. ‘He;s funny, full of shit, drunk half the time. You’ve got to love a guy like that.’

Where this novel differs is in its bold ancillary characters such as Joan Klein, a femme fatale who embodies Ellroy’s tribute to a life-changing lover. ‘It’s about a boy who finds a matriarch, and that’s my story,’ he says. ‘One of the men is asked why he does what he does and he says, “So women will love me” and that’s why I write. I wrote it to honour Joan. There was a dark romanticism to the relationship, it ended badly and I will never see her again. There’s a line from The Hilliker Curse [Ellroy’s second memoir]: “I left bloodspills wherever we went.” She just cut me open.’

Joan is the book’s hinge. She is pursued by all three male characters – Wayne Tedrow Jr, a tortured ex-racist; Dwight Holly, a CIA fixer with shadowy brief and headful of grief; and Don Crutchfield, a teenage voyeur with the knack of being in the wrong place at the right time. All of them represent a part of Ellroy himself and all of them are looking for ‘salvation, redemption’, reflecting what Ellroy calls his ‘misunderstood Christian morality’. Joan brings female strength and left-wing idealism into their (and Ellroy’s) masculine right-wing world.

‘I wanted to write the story of that woman and me, and I wanted to write about symbiosis and synthesis and how the right and left need each other and how that often leads to catastrophe, because everything Joan and Dwight touch turns to shit,’ explains Ellroy.

There are other changes from past books. The prosy style is turned down a notch, the violence less gut-churning, the noir bleached a little. ‘The Cold Six Thousand was too difficult,’ he admits. ‘My ex-wife said: “Babe, it’s the most ambitious novel I have ever read, it’s 100 pages too long, it’s fucking complex, the style is too difficult and I didn’t know what the fuck was going on.” And she was right. So here you have a range of characters who are much more thoughtful, much more, in their weird way, composed and who think about shit a great deal more, so you need a more explicatory style.’

Ellroy breaks up the pace with journal entries written from less testosterone-soaked perspectives, and softens the mood towards a tentatively upbeat conclusion. ‘I don’t feel bleak,’ he says. ‘It’s very much a book about romance. I didn’t want to drop a turd on the reader’s lap.’

As distinct as Ellroy’s style is his setting, a pre-70s America where powers is held by the Feds and CIA, rogue cops, Hollywood players, bent pols and the Mob. Plots are punctuated by historic events, which he uses and interprets as narrative demands. It’s a world Ellroy has made his own, but didn’t invent.

‘The three Underworld USA book were launched by Libra by Don DeLillo [a fictionalised biography of Lee Harvey Oswald] and his take that JFK was assassinated by renegade CIA guys, crazy Cuban exiles and the Mob,’ he admits. ‘Conspiracy is there, I love writing about it, I love exploring the collusive mindset and I can’t prove any of it. What it comes down to is whether it is dramatically viable and whether the human infrastructure of the big public events is believable. That’s my job. I take the ideas, the characters, the milieu, the real-life history, the real-life situations and the research fills it in. Then I lie in the dark, I think of love stories, and I brood.’

Bowie, Burroughs and the stage production of Ziggy Stardust

In December 1973, Rolling Stone journalist Craig Copetas brought together David Bowie and William S Burroughs in London for an interview. The piece was published in February 1974, around the time Burroughs returned to America, having finally had enough of the English climate and licensing laws. A wonderful photograph by Terry O’Neill captures the two icons together.

The interview itself isn’t quite as captivating. Bowie had only read one of Burroughs’ books (Nova Express), while Burroughs had only listened to two of Bowie’s songs (“Five Years” and “Starman”). This is my favourite exchange:

Burroughs: What is your inspiration for writing, is it literary?

Bowie: I don’t think so.

Burroughs: Well, I read this “Eight Line Poem” of yours and it is very reminiscent of TS Eliot.

Bowie: Never read him.

During the two-hour conversation in Bowie’s home, Bowie did most of the talking. At one point he discusses in length his plans for a theatrical or television production of Ziggy Stardust, which had been released two years before (and in June 2012 celebrates its 40th anniversary).

It’s worth repeating this section in full, as it is one of the fullest explanations of the story behind the Ziggy concept.

Bowie: Nova Express really reminded me of Ziggy Stardust, which I am going to be putting into a theatrical performance. Forty scenes are in it and it would be nice if the characters and actors learned the scenes and we all shuffled them around in a hat the afternoon of the performance and just performed it as the scenes come out. I got this all from you Bill… so it would change every night.

Burroughs: That’s a very good idea, visual cut-up in a different sequence…. Could you explain this Ziggy Stardust image of yours? From what I can see it has to do with the world being on the eve of destruction within five years.

Bowie: The time is five years to go before the end of the earth. It has been announced that the world will end because of lack of natural resources. Ziggy is in a position where all the kids have access to things that they thought they wanted. The older people have lost all touch with reality and the kids are left on their own to plunder anything. Ziggy was in a rock-and-roll band and the kids no longer want rock-and-roll. There’s no electricity to play it. Ziggy’s adviser tells him to collect news and sing it, ’cause there is no news. So Ziggy does this and there is terrible news. “All The Young Dudes” is a song about this news. It is no hymn to the youth as people thought. It is completely the opposite.

Burroughs: Where did this Ziggy idea come from, and this five-year idea? Of course, exhaustion of natural resources will not develop the end of the world. It will result in the collapse of civilization. And it will cut down the population by about three-quarters.

Bowie: Exactly. This does not cause the end of the world for Ziggy. The end comes when the infinites arrive. They really are a black hole, but I’ve made them people because it would be very hard to explain a black hole on stage.

Burroughs: Yes, a black hole on stage would be an incredible expense. And it would be a continuing performance, first eating up Shaftesbury Avenue.

Bowie: Ziggy is advised in a dream by the infinites to write the coming of a starman, so he writes “Starman”, which is the first news of hope that the people have heard. So they latch on to it immediately. The starmen that he is talking about are called the infinites, and they are black-hole jumpers. Ziggy has been talking about this amazing spaceman who will be coming down to save the earth. They arrive somewhere in Greenwich Village. They don’t have a care in the world and are of no possible use to us. They just happened to stumble into our universe by black-hole jumping. Their whole life is travelling from universe to universe. In the stage show, one of them resembles Brando, another one is a Black New Yorker. I even have one called Queenie the Infinite Fox.

Now Ziggy starts to believe in all this himself and thinks himself a prophet of the future starman. He takes himself up to incredible spiritual heights and is kept alive by his disciples. When the infinites arrive, they take bits of Ziggy to make themselves real because in their original state they are anti-matter and cannot exist in our world. And they tear him to pieces on stage during the song “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”. As soon as Ziggy dies on stage the infinites take his elements and make themselves visible. It is a science fiction fantasy of today and this is what literally blew my head off when I read Nova Express, which was written in 1961. Maybe we are the Rodgers and Hammerstein of the seventies, Bill!

Burroughs: Yes, I can believe that. The parallels are definitely there, and it sounds good.

The Rodgers and Hammerstein of the 1970s never collaborated, unfortunately. You can read a full transcript of the Bowie-Burroughs interview – including discussions of German porn, Lou Reed, Andy Warhol, science fiction and Mick Jagger (‘Jagger is most certainly a mother figure. He’s not a cockadoodledoo; he’s much more like a brothel-keeper or a madame,’ says Bowie) – here.

Tony Adams on Arsène Wenger: ‘coaching isn’t his strong point’

I interviewed Tony Adams in May for BMI’s Voyager magazine, and we talked at length about Arsène Wenger, who is currently under all sorts of pressure at Arsenal.

To my surprise, Adams refuted the notion that Wenger completely transformed the football culture at Highbury. Received wisdom is that Wenger brought with him ‘European’ attitudes towards diet and fitness that revolutionised English football. Adams, though, insisted:

‘That’s a bit of an insult to the directors and dieticians that had been at Arsenal for years. We were reading books on diet in 1987, ten years before Arsène  walked into the club. Arsène came with his own ideas and strategies, and brought in an osteopath and acupuncturist. But there’s no secrets. Diet won’t change anything if you don’t have great players and I still ate fish and chips every week for the last six years under Arsène Wenger. Every Friday on Putney Bridge I went and got battered cod and a chip sandwich and sat there looking at the river.’

Adams says that ‘the coaching system is the same as it was under George Graham’ and feels Wenger’s biggest triumph was that he ‘walked into a squad of great players. The 1991 squad was the best I’ve ever played with. I’d love to have walked into a squad of players that good as a manager. He brought in everything he learnt, that’s what managers do. He’s a fantastic physiologist and psychologist, that’s where he excelled.’

Adams clearly holds Wenger in great esteem and affection, but seems to feel the pre-history of Arsenal – the terrific team put together by George Graham – has been unfairly forgotten. His comments are an attempt to place Wenger’s achievements in perspective and to understand that his success was only a continuation of what was started by Graham. Wenger is often credited with ending the drinking culture at Arsenal, but Adams says he’d already given up booze at this point and that was something else Wenger benefited from. This terrific interview in The Sunday Times about Graham and Wenger with Adams, Steve Bould, Nigel Winterburn and Lee Dixon seems to back up what Adams told me.

Adams went on to say, ‘Don’t get me wrong, I’m not having a go at Arsène Wenger. One of the gifts he’s got is that he’s a lovely human being and I respect him a great deal. But I’ve got to get it real, he coaching isn’t his strong point [Adams’s original phrase was far more damning, but he later asked for it to be toned down]. I love him dearly, he’s a fantastic physiologist but he’s not a great motivator. I’d just laugh at his attempts to gee us up, but I come from a different place, time and culture. But he got me in the best condition I could possibly get in to do my job, and for that I love him and have so much respect for him.’

It’s an interesting argument. The counter-argument is this goal, although in light of Adams’s comments it no longer looks quite so remarkable – just a triumphant and fit centre-half with a three-goal cushion running through a knackered, battered defence at the end of the season and belting the ball unscientifically past a beleaguered keeper. Total football, or just taking the piss?

'It was never meant to be a lifetime commitment': An interview with Peter Tatchell

 
 
 
I interviewed Peter Tatchell at his house in 2008 for a piece that was intended to be the first in a series on Living London Legends but never ran. It seemed appropriate to reproduce it now in LGBT History Month. The picture is courtesy of Ralph Erle (www.ralpherlephotography.co.uk).

Peter Tatchell speaks with frightening precision. It’s the style of a man who has spent half his life being misquoted and the rest composing press releases. ‘In 1988 I organised the world’s first AIDS and human rights conferences to coincide with the World Health Organisation summit,’ he says, before the self-editing begins. ‘The pressure we exerted resulted in it adopting a declaration…  unexpectedly and unscheduled… unexpectedly adopting an unscheduled… unexpectedly adopting a previously unscheduled declaration condemning discrimination against people with HIV.’

Tatchell works as hard at getting his message across as he does at getting it right. He’s been doing this for years – ’40 years an unpaid human rights activist’, he says. ‘Yes, it is a big commitment and that’s why I’m still living in the same one-bedroom council flat in Elephant and Castle.’ Tatchell’s office is his lounge, a living space reduced by two bicycles (‘very bourgeois’) and piles of literature on human rights. On the walls are large cork noticeboards covered in leaflets and badges: ‘Whores Against Wars’, ‘Rockingham Against Racism’, ‘Lesbians Support The Miners’: niche, witty, passionate. If you planned an exhibition about half a century of human rights activism in London, it would end up looking a lot like Peter Tatchell’s living room. Indeed, some of Tatchell’s personal history is loaned to Manchester’s People’s History Museum.

But Tatchell isn’t so much of a martyr that he likes it this way. ‘The idea of being on 60k, having an office and a dozen staff is very attractive,’ he says. ‘I can’t get the funding. I’m regarded as too much of a maverick because I work both inside and outside the system. I will lobby government ministers, but I’ll also arrest presidents in the street.’

Tatchell’s devotion to human rights began as a 16-year-old in Melbourne in 1967, with the case of Ronald Ryan, an Australian prisoner who faced the death penalty when he was accused of killing a warden during an escape attempt. Tatchell mounted a passionate defence of Ryan, graffitiing walls and writing to the press. His parents were horrified.

‘My friends and family thought I was crazy. My father denounced me for defending a murderer; my mother was a bit more understanding but didn’t believe the government would send an innocent man to the gallows.’

Tatchell had been brought up in a strict Baptist household and even taught at Sunday School as a teenager, but he developed a different understanding of religion to his family.

‘My parents had no social dimension to their beliefs whatsoever. For them, Christianity was a personal matter – they never related it to issues of social justice. But I connected with Martin Luther King’s idea that Christianity was about not just how we behave personally with other individuals but how society was organised. I saw Christianity as an instrument for human and social liberation. My parents always taught me “Stand up for what you believe”. I gave up my religious beliefs at 19, but it influenced my politics and commitment to challenge oppression.’

Tatchell realised he was gay when he was 17. Homosexuality was still illegal in Australia. ‘You could be jailed and forced to undergo psychiatric treatment to ‘cure’ your homosexuality. There were no gay organisations at all, not even any switchboards or counselling services. There weren’t even any clubs, all you had was a couple of seedy bars. Most people met each other on cruising areas, which were very dangerous.’

Tatchell wanted to change that and again utilised his zeal for campaigning. He wrote letters to newspapers, initially anonymously but later under his name, and urged friends to help him set up an orginisation for gay rights. ‘They were too afraid,’ he recalls. ‘They said: “You’re crazy!You’ll get us all arrested and locked in jail, go away you stupid young boy.”‘

So he did, fleeing to London to escape the Vietnam draft. ‘It was only my intention to stay until there was an amnesty,’ he says, ‘but when I got here the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) had just been set up, I fell in love, got a good job, a nice flat – a temporary stay became permanent.’

On his second day in London, Tatchell saw a lamppost sticker advertising a GLF meeting. ‘So within a few days I attended a meeting and within a month organised my first protests.’ Already a veteran of direct action, he was ‘aghast’ at how supine the British protest movement was. ‘Australia was much more radical than Britain. Britain was pathetic,’ he says. ‘I was expecting direct action, civil disobedience, blocking of military installations – the sort of stuff we did in Australia. Even the quite radical Brits thought I was rather extreme and ran a mile at anything provocative.’

Under Tatchell’s influence, that changed. The GLF arranged sit-ins at pubs that refused to serve gays and lesbians; ‘zapped’ Professor Hans Eysenck, who adocated electric shock aversion therapy for homosexuals; and invaded Foyle’s on Charing Cross Road for selling books that the GLF considered to be homophobic.

‘It felt like being part of a revolution,’ recalls Tatchell. ‘Our slogan was “Gay is good” and those three words turned on their head everything people thought was true about gay people, that we were mad, bad and very, very sad. We were challenging the homophobia of millennia. The GLF were the first time in British history that thousands of people came out and marched to demand their liberation. We wanted to transform the laws, institutions and values of the whole society to liberate everyone, gay and straight, from sexophobic and puritan oppression.’

Unfortunately, many on the ‘non-aligned revolutionary left’ did not want to be liberated by homosexuals. ‘The vast majority of the left, particularly the Communists and Trotskyites, were viciously hostile to gay people,’ says Tatchell. ‘They denounced us as bourgeois degenerates and we were physically attacked.’

This partly changed in 1973, when Tatchell staged a one-man gay rights protest in East Berlin that ended with him getting interrogated by the Stasi and the bravery of which went some way towards challenging the homophobic mindset of the left. Similarly, his attempt to arrest Robert Mugabe in 1999 – ‘he was like a frightened 10-year-old boy’ – helped gain the respect of a right-wing establishment who had previously denounced him as a ‘homosexual terrorist’. The Telegraph  even recently suggested he should be given a medal.

Tatchell studied at the Polytechnic of North London and worked as a store designer. He lived in various parts of London and spent a year travelling, before settling in south London where he worked with the homeless of Waterloo and joined the Labour party. ‘Quite a few people were surprised. Alarmed! What motivated me to join was the rise of the left within the party and the moves to make it more democratic and accountable to grass roots members.’

Tatchell took his policy of direct action into party politics when he was elected secretary of the Bermondsey Labour party in 1981. One campaign saw him occupy HMS Belfast in protest at plans to build office blocks along the river front. ‘We bought a group concession in the name of the East Dulwich Tennis Club,’ he recalls, ‘and then strung huge banners from the bridge.’

Tatchell had more or less abandoned gay politics by this time, but he returned to the cause in the wake of the hugely controversial Bermondsey by-election. He says the ‘unwritten story about the Bermondsey by-election is that I was standing up against property developers for local working class communities.’ During it he was subject to homophobic abuse, much of it personal. 

‘I came to symbolise the battle in the Labour party between left and right,’ he says. ‘Those who wanted to manage capitalism and those who wanted to redistribute wealth and power. There was also the pure unvarnished homophobia of some people who didn’t like gay people and thought we were perverted and revolting. Those are the three things that came together.’

After Bermondsey, Tatchell realised that homophobic prejudice was far more widespread and vicious than he had realised. ‘That’s why I decided to put most of my energy into challenging homophobia. I had no idea it was a lifetime commitment.’

Tatchell argues that ‘women and gay people are the litmus test of whether a society is democratic and respecting human rights. We are the canaries in the mine’ and his commitment to gay rights still leads him into regular confrontations with theoretical allies as much as homophobic enemies. ‘Some on the left have savagely attacked me for pointing out oppression within minority communities,’ he says of recent run-ins concerning Islamic fundamentalists. ‘But I am defending women and gay people within those communities who have the same entitlement to human rights as the rest of us. If I ignored their suffering – that would be racist.’

Tatchell’s chosen way of life is one guaranteed to bring disappointed such are the forces stacked against him. ‘Yes, it induces a certain pessimism, but that is countered by the optimism that comes from a successful result. Somebody once described me as the patron saint of lost causes but often I manage to turn round lost causes and win them. That’s what keeps me going. my enthusiasm and inspiration comes from the many successes I’ ve had in helping individuals and contributing to successful campaigns. I’ve helped secure asylum for lots of genuine refugees and prisoners who are unjustly incarcerated – to see their joy is what keeps me going.’