We are in a slightly odd position with Skin Deep, in that it is subject to an application to the University of Potsdam in New York State for an opera writing competition. The Dean of Music there, Dr Joshua Miller, set up a biennial competition in memory of his late husband, Dominic J Pellicciotti, an ardent opera fan.
The competition is for operas dealing with "themes related to social justice, diversity, equality and/or inclusion". Such a brief is to my knowledge unique in the world of serious music and opera, which is largely seen as 'pure', in some way. When I saw it on Facebook, my heart leapt.
So, we have put in an application to develop Skin Deep. Though it was originally conceived within our brief of a maximum of seven performers/musicians, it is one of several which could benefit from greater resources (Quarantine, and The Jewels are the others).
We chose to put in for Skin Deep because (a) it was less developed than the others and had as yet no music; (b) we thought that the story of the Admiral Duncan bombing would resonate with those who had had to deal with the Orlando massacre, in a country where mass slaughter of innocent people by lonely deranged gunmen seems endemic.
The deadline for decision by the judges was to be the end of April 2020, but with New York still bearing the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic in the face of appalling Presidential incompetence and ignorance, who knows when normal activities can be resumed? Maybe The Crane School of Music will cancel the whole thing this year - who could blame them?
But we are reading The Gay Century and Skin Deep in some form has to be part of it. We need to make clear that the script which is posted here is no more than an outline. There are other scenes to fill out, many changes to be made. But we have put this here because the cycle of The Gay Century needs its emotional heart for the purposes of the online readings, we are doing 28 April to 23 June 2020 [Skin Deep is on 16 June].
The following represents the script which we would work to if we didn't win the competition and stayed with the pop-up opera format. It's unfinished, but it's better than nothing.
The bombing of the Admiral Duncan on the eve of the Spring Bank Holiday in 1999 sent shock waves through the London, indeed UK, LGBT community like no other event. There had been arrests, police raids, abuse and violence before, but this was different.
Different in scale and approach. Three people killed, seventy‐four injured. The injuries, caused by 1,500 four‐inch nails, were devastating. People lost arms, legs, eyes.
The so‐called cosmetic injuries ‐ and cosmetic injuries are never cosmetic because they puncture the very sense of self ‐ caused supreme anguish beyond the physical pain. While those who were present but escaped physical injury still report, twenty years later, flashbacks and nightmares.
Different too was the whole approach of bomber David Copeland. The Admiral Duncan bombing was the third, following one in Brixton Market (Afro‐Caribbean community where forty‐eight were injured) and Brick Lane (Bangladeshi community where thirteen were injured). As never before, we felt physically connected to other minorities and their struggles.
I think it is fair to say that we would not have the brown and black bands on the modern Pride flag representing people of colour, had it not been for the Copeland bombings.
The whole idea of bombing gathering places in this way, which has become more common in the 21st century with tactics imported from on the one hand the Middle East conflicts and the Alt‐Right in America on the other, has hardened us. We now accept the intrusive armed police, the crash barriers on Waterloo Bridge. London in 2005, Manchester in 2017; the tolls were greater, but somehow the concept was now part of our psyche, in a way that it wasn’t in 1999, unless you were from Northern Ireland.
There were IRA activities in the UK too, of course, but in a strange way, at least to the LGBT population, they had seemed distant and none of our business.
Skin Deep focuses on three survivors of the bombing and the ways in which they cope with it. One is terribly injured and plunges into depression and despair. Another is filled with guilt because she wasn’t in the pub when her friend was, and she should have been.
The third, Queenie, is loosely based on the barman, later manager of the pub, David Morley, affectionately known as Sinders.
Morley showed astonishing heroism in helping during the bombing, and the patience of a saint supporting victims afterwards. And at great personal cost, suppressing his own trauma. Having survived, he was himself killed by some mindless young thugs five years later. But I emphasise this is not documentary; this is a work of fiction. It is subtitled A Song of Hope.
All my work is about redemption and the possibility of change, in some form or another. It was particularly important in Skin Deep, which is the keystone to the whole edifice which is THE GAY CENTURY. It is the penultimate opera, but 2001: Two into One is more of an epilogue, to mirror the prologue in 1900: Two Queens.
Skin Deep had to delve into the deepest recesses of despair. What, I asked, could bring somebody, Jackie, back to the land of the living having lost his looks, his job, his health, his lover? Plus, his place in a community obsessed with youth and beauty.
At one point he tries to go back to a disco he used to frequent, only to have the security staff tell him to piss off because the sight of him will upset the other customers. Lest this seem too harsh and melodramatic, I can only report that I’ve seen it happen to a friend of mine with spastic cerebral palsy at a well-known London club. In fairness, there were also places where he was welcomed.
Where then the hope? Perhaps the most touching story I came across was of a group of Bangladeshi lads who turned up at the Admiral Duncan a week after the bombing with a condolence card. They had been on their way to the East London Mosque when the Brick Lane bomb exploded. They’d been through it; they knew what it was like. Not, you might think, the group of people most immediately likely to respond in this way, but simple humanity and solidarity won through.
So too did the memory of Sinders and his example. Every year there are commemorations of the bombing in an open‐air ceremony led by Fr Simon, the delightful rector of St Anne’s Soho, the church over the road from the pub.
It’s a sad occasion, but also a coming together in solidarity where the story of Sinders, his generous life and his bravery, lives again.
2019 was the twentieth anniversary of the bombing, but for many it is as immediate as it was on 30 April 1999.
In this resilience, and its enduring memory, is a symbol perhaps of the whole story of the 20th century: the gay century.
26 August 2019
Read the Script (Music to follow)
All work is copyright of Peter Scott-Presland and Robert Ely.
Anyone interested in performing all or part of it should email firstname.lastname@example.org