Proper Places

In our house there’s a book of the Ugly Duckling, a pared down and revised version of the Hans Christian Andersen tale, and reading through it with the youngster a while back I could not help but notice the disturbing racial undertones in this particular telling. In the book, the ugly duckling is considered ugly by all the other ducks, and all the animals on the pond, causing commotion on the pond, and it’s only when the ugly duckling has been positively identified as a swan that the pond returns to calm. The moral of the story in this particular telling is that there is a natural order, with each person occupying a particular place within that order, and this order should not be disturbed.

One individual who had a vision of the natural order of different races was South African statesman Jan Smuts, one of the founding figures of the United Nations. During Smuts’s premiership, as Mark Mazower’s No Enchanted Palace recounts, segregationist settlement restrictions were introduced, laying the foundation for the future apartheid regime – ‘Smuts convinced himself, if not everyone else, that these measures left blacks as well as whites better off: each had “their proper place” and both had “their human rights”‘. Furthermore, Smuts, who claimed that South Africa was a “little epic of European civilisation on a dark continent” claimed to “love and respect the whole human family, irrespective of colour or race”.

In today’s Irish Times, Sarah Carey deals with the “unbelievably inappropriate” remarks of Colm Tóibín, which she considers “just too coarse for Sunday morning radio”.

Puzzle of why some get away with crass talk – The Irish Times – Wed, Jan 13, 2010

The first thing he did was joke about Kirk McCambley. He remarked on how Kirk “had presented himself” and said if “he’d opened a coffee shop near me I’d go and have a frappachino there”. Tóibín also said if he had a choice between going home with Peter Robinson “who seems to work very hard” and going out with Kirk, then “he’d go out with Kirk”. Finucane added: “You think you would?” and laughed in a knowing, bawdy tone that confirmed she’d heard the same thing I did: the flirty innuendo in his voice.

Now, the whole Robinson thing is ripe for parody and I’m more than capable of appreciating the humorous side of sex, but I was cringing. Surely remarks by a 55-year-old gay man about a 21-year-old straight guy on RTÉ radio that failed to rise above “Oh you would, would ya?” are just too coarse for Sunday morning radio? And what does he mean about how Kirk “presented himself”?

When I heard about two days later than everyone else last week that Iris Robinson had been having an affair, I imagined it had been with someone who looked like DUP MP David Simpson. And then I saw the pictures of Kirk McCambley, whose name, considering his image, is somehow entirely appropriate to the tale. If Flaubert had based Madame Bovary in 21st century Northern Ireland, Léon Dupuis would have been given the name Kirk McCambley. Kirk, of course, meaning “church”, and like Rouen cathedral, a church has a spire. The name would connote the intermingling of religious rectitude and sexual desire. And Star Trek. All beside the point, which was to note that Kirk McCambley is a handsome fellow indeed, and if I had been married to Peter Robinson, I might well have done the same. Fortunately, it turned out that I never married Peter Robinson, neither heterosexually nor homosexually. But if I had, well, as Bobby Womack said, I can understand it.

Anyway, I get the impression that if the writer had given free rein to her descriptive capacity, she’d be asking why Colm Tóibín, practically decrepit but undimmed in lechery, should be let cast his queer eye (McCambley is, after all, in Carey’s terms, a ‘straight guy’) over the immaculately heterosexual buff young stud Mr McCambley. She is claiming that gay men in their fifties shouldn’t be allowed to make mildly salacious comments about straight men in their twenties on Sunday morning radio because scarcely anyone would stand for straight men in their fifties making salacious comments about women (no specific sexuality is mentioned) in their twenties. And yet if it had been Peter and not Iris with whom Mr McCambley had been meeting for rumpy pumpy, Tóibín’s comments would not have given rise to her opinion piece, since there is nothing particularly unusual about a young gay man associating with a much older one. And if Mr McCambley had been the subject of a gay affair, and a 55-year-old straight woman had chosen to comment in the same mildly salacious terms as Tóibín, there would have been no opinion piece either. What stings for the writer is the idea of an older gay man beholding a younger straight man in terms of sexual attraction, as though ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ were entirely distinct species and the product of inviolable natural laws. That is, what gay people get up to among themselves is their own business, but we can’t be having their desires encroaching on our straight world. They have “their proper place”, as Smuts might put it.

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2 Responses to “Proper Places”


  1. 1 coc January 14, 2010 at 10:54 pm

    Religious rectitude. That’s an interesting word, rectitude, isn’t it?

    It would certainly explain the strained rictus so frequently plastered across Iris’ face.

  2. 2 Hugh Green January 15, 2010 at 9:22 am

    I am so not going to click on that thing in work.


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