Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Cranes, Coward - and Carry On!

Ah, Polari! How we love it...

It was with much anticipation that we gathered last night at the Royal Festival Hall for our monthly literary "fix". For the build-up had been whetting our appetities for weeks - until Paul Burston finally told the world that his "surprise" reader was none other than that mistress of the sultry double-entendre herself, Miss Fenella Fielding!

John-John and I and our new regular Maria were joined by the lovely Tony, "Polari virgin" Ange, and her friends Emma and Toby. And having breezed past the ebullient Molly Parkin (whose magnificent presence graced Polari back in December), who was being interviewed on camera, we bagged our usual Royal Box for the evening's entertainment.

After an introduction by Paul, our opening reading was from actor-turned-writer Tim Blackwell, whose first published work - a compilation of short stories called The Bingo Caller is due on the shelves this month. Very beautiful, it was too...

Next up, the Russian poet Dmitry Kuzmin read some charming pieces on life and love that he had translated especially for the occasion. Very sweet, once you got used to the pronunciation (English is his second language after all).

Diction is no problem for our "star turn" for the evening, however! Fenella Fielding [who we last saw at the inauguration of Bette Bourne - who was in the audience last night - into the House of Homosexual Culture at the Oval House Theatre in 2008] is a camp icon, a legend in her own lifetime, and a "national treasure"! She was appearing last night as her friend the Kiwi author Michael Menzies was allegedly "too shy", despite having flown from his LA home to be there especially. But weren't we ecstatic about that?!

Mr Menzies' memoir Deeply Superficial provided Miss Fielding with the camp material she needed for such an occasion - the story of a life touched by theatricality from a very early age. Noel Coward and Marlene Dietrich were his boyhood idols - and his obsession continued throughout his life.
I proudly showed my mother the purchases I had made.

She liked Lamb’s Tales of Shakespeare: had never heard of it, but didn’t seem to mind Le Petit Prince. (“Seems charming” she said as she flicked through the pages.) Prater Violet and The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood elicited no response, but when she came to the Coward autobiography, she made a gurgling sound, clutched her pearls and quite clearly displayed disapproval.

“I don t think this is quite suitable” she said.

“But you said I could buy whatever I liked”. (It was the biggest book I had bought)

“I did” she admitted, “but...” Her voice trailed off, her mouth a moue, as if it were full of lemon juice.

Of course, this made me extremely curious and I read the Coward autobiography, gulping the words and the thoughts greedily, as if they were English Trifle (to this day, my favourite dessert), Like the character Amanda in Coward’s masterpiece play – Private Lives – I became “jagged with sophistication” at the age of twelve, and went around saying “I love you awfully. Awfully, awfully, dreadfully”.

I thought it sounded very worldly.

Reading between the lines of his book, I became aware that Coward was a homosexual (as was I). All the guilt and shame I had felt about this part of my nature, and the resultant exclusion and avoidance of straight-boyhood companions, slid from me like a snake shedding it’s skin.

After consuming Present Indicative, my sexuality never bothered me again.

I could become as beloved and famous and as successful as Coward, for his homosexuality never held him back. I was determined mine would not do so, either.

Wonderful stuff, read beautifully in that smoky, seductive voice - and we were overjoyed to meet and have our photo taken with this splendid lady!

After the break, a gossip, a fag, and more wine, we settled in for the heavyweights. Opening reader Issy Festing is actually very new to the published literary world - and her first novel The Bird Keeper has received some excellent reviews.

Set in her native Indian sub-continent (Miss Festing was born in Bengal but moved to London when she was three years old), it traces the forbidden love between Satchin, an ornithologist at Naagpur bird sanctuary, and the charming and handsome tourist Peter. From the extract she read it seems a most beautiful story, as the return of Siberian Cranes (who pair for life) to the reserve serves as an analogy for the secret love between two men in a turbulent country:
"There was stillness to the golden light so peculiar to midday when everything has true colour. The sky overhead was a cloudless azure only seen in Rajasthan. Looking forward to a light lunch and a nap, I leisurely headed back to the Observatory, all thoughts of the Englishman gone from my mind. You see, at the time I forgot about you, but unknown to me then, your image had transposed itself into the mirror of my memory only to be reflected back to me again later."

Our next reader was one we have heard before. Adam Mars-Jones first came to Polari to read from his novel Pilcrow back in 2009, and last night he was back with its sequel Cedilla. [NB both are obscure terms for punctuation or pronunciation marks.] Still following the life of the disabled gay Hindu convert anti-hero John Cromer (Mr Mars-Jones apparently plans this to be a trilogy), it is an eccentric yet endearing tale of one boy's frustration and resilience in the face of the many obstacles that life throws in his way.

Taking the literary journey to its logical conclusion, our final "headline" reader, the eminent Paul Bailey - awarded the E. M. Forster Award in 1974 and the George Orwell Prize in 1978 - read from his perhaps autobiographical tale Chapman's Odyssey. In this story the narrator ruminates on his ebbing life from a hospital bed: "a voyage of discovery that could only end with his death. He read voraciously, then judiciously, and found his writing voice by rejecting the voices of those he was tempted to impersonate." Weighty yet touching stuff, Mr Bailey is a charming and elegant reader, and his insights into a world long ago when homosexuality was an almost alien concept in society were fascinating.

A triumphal night once again!

I really thoroughly enjoyed this evening, and once more cannot wait for the next one on Monday 23 May - the line-up so far announced includes (the biographer of Stephen Tennant and Noel Coward) Philip Hoare, the gender-bending Alex Drummond, "faggy genderqueer" Len Lukowska and gay ukulele-playing writer and historian Rose Collis. Should be very camp - but nothing to beat last night!

Polari at the Southbank Centre


  1. It was indeed a great night.

    Lovely to see you, John-John & Ange and re-meet the lovely Maria (she liked my eyes) and meet Emma & Toby.

    Highlight of the night for all of us I think was Fenella Fielding's reading - I'm amazed you're able to recall the reading so well - do you have total recall dear?

    Fab night - I look forward to the next one. x

  2. I loved it so much, I committed it to memory...

    Not really, the passages I quote from Michael's and Issy's books are out there on the web, dear!

    See you at the next Polari if not before! Jx

  3. It was the most amazing evening. I can't wait to see what Paul has in store for future Polari's. J-Jx


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