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Unsung Love Song


Back when I had hair and an East German army surplus jacket and carried a record bag with me everywhere, we wrote a fanzine and released records together. Our first contact was twenty years ago this year. Twenty years since he sent me a copy of his debut 7" single, the first release on his Kitchen Records label. Twenty years since I gushed this review onto the poorly-photocopied pages of my zine, Robots and Electronic Brains:
The Fabulous Nobody, Love and the City (Kitchen) 7"
Some days I just feel like I'm getting old and other days I know it's so. Given the kick I'm getting out of the three cuts on this limited-edition 7", today must be one of the latter. Three dreamsongs of naive romance for the big city lights that could've been written for a 1930s stage play and revived for a 1940s screen adaptation starring Fred Astaire who'd do a slow soft shoe routine to the whistle solo and lean against a lampost smoking a fag for the rest.
I asked to interview him, and he agreed — but only by letter. Those were simpler times but even then paper was an oddly retro choice given that Mr. Watson had been summoned by Alexander Graham Bell over a hundred years before. Oddly retro, perhaps, but fitting.

We established a rapport with the written word and then eventually talked on the telephone too, creating a bond that led to him becoming my partner at Robots and Electronic Brains and instrumental in the production of the vinyl and CDs we gave away with it over the years. He is godfather to my daughters. He is my friend.

He is Laurence Dillon and he's written a book, Unsung Love Song published by Zuleika, about his life as a eunuch.

Laurence's testicles were surgically removed when he was still a young man, after a cancer diagnosis. Agonisingly, the tiny shred of self-respect he possessed was excised at the same time. The book, a collection of quick-shot thoughts and potted essays, gives us an insight into the person he was before the trauma of his operations, the numerous and varied pains he's suffered since, and the ways in which he has tried come to terms with both.

His writing is laden with melancholy which, despite the low regard in which he has clearly always held himself, cannot hide the essential goodness within. He opens the gates to his head wide, inviting the reader to leaf through the hinterlands of his mind. Now describing the vicarious joy of seeing two lovers hold hands or share a brief kiss, now forgiving anyone who has ever done him ill, now reflecting on the depths of his hatred for himself and his weakness for being the kind of person who lets hate into their life that way, now theorising that had he been brave enough to express his emotions earlier he could have fashioned a different outcome for himself.

Regular punctuation is provided by descriptions of eunuchs from history. Occasionally one will gain riches or power but any victory is typically Pyrrhic and the overriding sense is that societies down the ages have viewed eunuchs as people to abuse and denigrate. To castrate a man is to dominate him, to deprive him of whatever his society deems manhood to be, and to replace it with some kind of gender limbo. The parallel to Laurence's own stories is sharp and not much blunted by the fact that his castration was thought to be medically necessary.

Less regularly, there are stories of good citizens who frequent suicide hot spots in the hope of dissuading those clutching their ticket to oblivion from using it. It's shocking if not surprising when Laurence talks about his own self-destructive thoughts and actions, and saddening if not surprising to find that he feels he must be lacking in some way for not being able to step off the ledge when he finds himself standing at it.

Lawrence is my friend, yet he mentioned almost nothing from this book to me for almost the entire time that that we've know each other. It breaks my heart to know that he was living in torment, consciously suppressing his feelings with make-busy displacement activities such as running sporting clubs, and trying to fill the black emotional hole at his centre with escorts, phone sex lines, and pornography. His words are raw and true and depressing and it seems impossible not to feel enormous empathy for him, although to add another layer of awfulness to his situation he describes how he was taunted and abused by others after his operation.

What prevents the book descending into maudlin navel-gazing and self-pity is the strength Laurence shows, although doesn't credit himself with, in being able to see that energy spent that way is energy wasted. It may feel cosy, he says, being coddled by a thick blanket of resentment and spite, but those who indulge should be aware that the comfort eventually turns to restriction and then to suffocation, and eventually to the death of an outside perspective.

It's that perspective that he has somehow found his way into and, near the end of the book, he asks the reader to promise him something:
I very much wish that you will have a better life than I did, that you will not allow yourself to be a loser as I was ... I hope that I have shown you what not to do, and that you have learnt something from this sad, old eunuch. Promise me that you will not waste the opportunities for happiness that this world offers ... Please take good care of yourself.
If you're wondering what relevance Unsung Love Song has to software development, it's right there in that quote. Software is made by and for people and, while we might be fortunate not to be in such desperate straits as Laurence, for the sake of us all we should act with empathy, have internal respect, reflect on our choices and feelings, be assertive about our needs, and, yes, take good care of ourselves.
Image: Amazon

P.S. Laurence wrote a short piece for The Guardian's My Life In Sex column in 2018: The Eunuch.

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