Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Fangs, Lyons Corner House, Kiwis, a baby-doll nightie and Karen Carpenter

Hallowe'en may be still a week away, but skull jewellery, vampire chic and jet-black outfits were de rigeur at "London's peerless gay literary salon" Polari last night.

And my word, was it a packed house! To accommodate the 150 people who had bought tickets for what is definitely becoming the "must attend" monthly event in the LGBT calendar, gone was our usual "cabaret-style" table set-up in favour of more chairs - and no wonder, given the treats in store...

Ebullient hostess-with-the-mostest Paul Burston had borrowed some vampire fangs for the occasion (but soon ditched them when he realised he couldn't actually speak!), and without further ado, introduced us to our readers for the evening.

Opening the show was the first of three newbies, Lyn Guest de Swarte, a spiritualist minister by day and author of steamy lesbian literature by night. She read for us not - as we might have thought, given the theme - anything related to spirits, ghosts or ghoulies, but rather the tale of the complicated relationship between two "working girls" who also happened to be lesbians, and the (hilarious) moment when the "femme" one decides to wear her new baby-doll nightie - to the club! A fun start indeed.

Our next author making her debut was Mo Foster, who was friends with the likes of William Burroughs, performed with punk bands, and has written plays for radio in her time. Her debut novel - quite late in life - is A Blues for Shindig. [The absorbing extract she chose was read for us by her young friend Nina]:
I want some action so I move myself down to the corner house, see if I can't catch up with BB. I need some halfway decent conversation after my day. I enjoy the benefits that Joe Lyons has brought to the West End. The Coventry Street Corner House is startling in the way it fits in and complements deviant life.

It is a centre for mysteries and petty criminals. All classes and sexes trawl here from time to time. Ponces home in on likely fodder, old lecherous men after young boys and young boys from the "Meat Rack" in Piccadilly in search of rich men. Prostitutes are officially barred, but who knows what a girl is doing with her bits? Gamblers will drop in on their way home and bevvy merchants take a breather between the club and the next watering hole in Covent Garden or Spitalfields. There is never a time when you can't drink in London, but it requires a bit of ingenuity. The Corner House is a coffee shop in the morning, a Palm Court in the afternoon, restaurant in the evening and then an all night café of a superior kind. People gird their loins, ready for the next alcoholic foray or for the next bit of villainy.

It is buzzing as usual. A few hyenas and jackals lurk, with larceny in their hearts and cups of tea in their hands. They give a nice frisson of excitement to the atmosphere. I now most of them at least by sight and nod a greeting, give out a mutter from the side of my mouth, an affinity of the bent. Now and then a copper will come in but he sticks out like a sore thumb. Grasses, however, abound.

I see Billy straight away. I watch him for a few moments. He is also called BB. A Bengal Lancer of style and one to be watched. He is thin, wiry, yet not skinny; his face is in motion all the time. Eyes watching out for angles and boys, mouth ready to spurt scalding sarcasm and sharp wit, chin set hard against the world. One tough little fucker. I like his smartness, his sexiness, his style. We two reckon we're a cut above the rest. We're right, too.
Utterly brilliant - and a perfect evocation of a lost underworld in 50s London.

Closing part one of the set-list, we had a welcome return for the charming Diriye Osman, who we first saw in December 2012. His reading, from his anthology Fairytales For Lost Children, was the gentle tale of a Somalian mother's placid acceptance of her daughter's lesbianism, in a soliloquy while casting her dreams into the ocean on paper and bits of rock:
I have spent my whole life living near the coast of Bosaaso, Somalia. I don’t know any other land. While the boat beat, those who are hungry for new homes in places like London and Luxembourg, risk their lives on cargo ships, I stand firm on this soil and I tell stories. I tell stories to my daughters about kings and warrior queens, freedom-fighters and poets. I tell these stories to remind my children and myself that Somalia is fertile with history and myth. And the only seed that needs watering is our imagination.
He reads (and writes) beautifully.

After a break for a fag and a trip to the bar, it was time for another newcomer to take the stand. From her blurb: "Robyn Vinten grew up in New Zealand. She came to London in the mid 80s and forgot to leave. She has had a number of short stories published over the years. Bruceville is her third novel, but the first under her real name."

Hers was a triptych of back-stories that revolved around one rather nasty homophobic incident in the young lives of the novel's protagonists; one that, judging by all the interwoven and carefully-drawn personalities to which she introduced us, was likely to affect the rest of their lives. Intensely intriguing; we were gripped!

Trust our headliner, the fantabulosa Jonathan Harvey to provide the appropriate level of light relief.

In his own inimitable Scouser way, the genius behind such faves as Beautiful Thing, Gimme Gimme Gimme and Beautiful People read an uproarious extract from his second book [his first, All She Wants, being such a triumph when we saw him in September last year] The Confusion of Karen Carpenter.

Focusing on the meandering insecurities of our heroine - forever cursed with an embarrassing name identical to a famous individual - he drew us once again into a soap-operatic scenario whereby the eponymous Karen has her humdrum life catapulted into a turmoil of emotion by the breakdown of a relationship. And it was absolutely brilliant! I can't wait to read it (if book #1 was anything to go by, this should have me hooting on the bus again).

Here is the man himself, talking about the book:

Having gathered the readers once more to the stage for the customary ovation, that was that. I (and Paul and John-John and little Tony) had Mr Harvey kindly sign a copy of his opus, and we bade our farewells to the multifarious crowd that included the lovely Eve Ferret (whose forthcoming shows Ferret Up The Arts we are planning to see at Soho's Arts Theatre next month), the impressively uplifted) Lauren Henderson (aka Rebecca Chance), DJ Connell, William Parker, Helen Sandler, VG (Val) Lee), Bryanne McIntosh-Melville, Simon Reeves, Jayne Rogers, Anny Knight et al, and meandered off into the unseasonably warm wet night for further refreshment at Halfway to Heaven.

Another utterly stunning evening.

Roll on November's gala - the sixth anniversary of Polari and the announcement of the winner of the Polari First Book Prize 2013 - in the prestigious Purcell Room at the Southbank Centre, featuring award-winning author Charlotte Mendelson, poet Dean Atta, authors Rosie Garland and Patrick Flanery, special guest Helen Lederer (yay!) and singer Dee Chanelle.

J'adore Polari!


  1. It was yet another brilliant night, Paul Burston really excelled in the selection of readers, I know we say it every month but evenings that flow this effortlessly are I'm sure lots of hard work behind the scenes to organise.
    It was lovely seeing everyone, it does feel like an extended family xx

    1. It was particularly great to see you, my dear, and I am pleased you enjoyed yourself as much as I did! Jx

  2. Great blog Jon. Disappointed to have missed the evening.

    1. You missed a treat, dear... Jx

  3. It was a great evening. A fab lineup of writers. Thanks for putting it all so well, Jon. Dx

    1. Thanks, gorgeous! It was first-class, wasn't it? Jx

  4. So nice to read your write-up Jon. I put a video of me reading my first story 'The Nightie' on youtube under my real name lol Lyn x

    1. Thanks, Lyn! I did enjoy "The Nightie" very much and shall look up the video... Jx


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