Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Ghosts, Gods, Blue Peter, Proustian brothels and a sausage on the side

After a little hiatus (thanks to the complications of this darned house move, unfortunately) it was with great excitement that I, in the company of Paul, Jim, little Tony and John-John (whose own hiatus, due to a lot of family problems, had been a bit longer than that - he hadn't been since last October!), ventured off on a gloriously hot evening yesterday (too hot in the 5th floor function room of the Royal Festival Hall, truth be told, but that's incidental) for the final summer outing for "London's premier gay literary salon" Polari.

Our host Paul Burston was bursting with energy as usual as he opened proceedings - to a packed house including Emma and Toby, Lauren Henderson aka Rebecca Chance and her coterie of "safety gays", Anni, Val, Bryanne and Simon, and assorted literati, regulars and otherwise, as well as Polari virgins" Dug (who I used to work with) and boyf Simon.

We were extremely proud that our chum, esteemed fellow blogger and "friend to the famous" (it was he to whom I am eternally grateful for arranging tickets for the Mari Wilson concert at Soho Jazz Café in January) Wayne Herbert was occupying the "first-timer slot", as our opening reader.

The audience was enraptured as he read an extract from his fabulous blog Introspections of a displaced Boulevardier, set around the minutiae of eccentric (real-life-I'm-sure) characters in North London's up-and-coming Crouch Hill district, where he lives:
‘Who’s Cyril?’ I asked.

‘Don’t you listen to a word I say Wayne? Cyril, the guy who lives in my block.’

‘Lil I promise you haven’t mentioned him before.’
Lil told so many stories it was difficult to retain the detail. They were invariably colourful, contained drama or tragedy or both. I’m not sure I’d have forgotten hearing about her other gay friends though.

‘Well anyway, he’s in his late sixties and a confirmed bachelor, or so he says.’ Lil released a mammoth cackle, ‘I wasn’t fooled. I managed to wheedle it out of him.’

I was glad I’d ordered a vegetarian breakfast, with a sausage on the side; listening to Lil on a roll was hungry work. I sliced a juicy grilled tomato and pressed it against a sliver of Halloumi. I raised the loaded fork to my mouth and looked expectantly at Lil to continue.

‘He moved in three years ago and wears yellow Marks’ trousers with floral shirts and silk scarves and I knew straight away. He’d lived in Brighton and done a flat swap.

I asked him if he watched Downton Abbey. He said he did, and then I asked who his favourite character was, and do you know who he said?’

‘No idea Lil.’
I didn’t know where our conversation was going or how many clichés we would be embracing.

‘Thomas the Under-butler.’ Lil’s response was perspicacious from her tone but I wasn’t so sure.

‘Thomas is a conniving, sly manipulator. Perhaps Cyril likes those qualities. I don’t think identifying with a character in a TV show gives certainty Lil, although the clothing you describe could tell a different story,’ I said. I started to laugh and thought I’d been funny. Lil wasn’t laughing.

‘No, Cyril is a nice chap. He’s drawn to Thomas as he hides his sexuality too.’ Lil was orating as if a University Professor. ‘And I’m certain that Thomas would be your favourite character too Mr Boulevardier.’ Lil crowed again.

‘I like the Dowager Countess. Maggie Smith has all the best lines,’ I said. In fact I liked Maggie Smith in most of her roles, ‘Tea with Mussolini’ being my favourite.

‘Exactly. That’s precisely the same,’ Lil wasn’t for turning today.

Following Wayne's triumphal debut was another newbie, Mr Vernal Scott (former Head of Equality and Diversity for Islington Council, no less; admittedly before I started work there). His seminal work God's Other Children - A London Memoir has (impressively) forewords by Lord Paul Boateng, Sir Nick Partridge and Peter Tatchell, and covers not only his nasty upbringing in a stiflingly gospel-church-y household (whose brethren had a distinctly pervy method of "excising the demons" that were associated - by them - with his coming out as gay), but also chronicles the devastation that AIDS cut through a whole generation of gorgeous and talented young men in the 80s and 90s.

Familiar - and very upsetting at points - territory, his reading really summed up an era of sadness and survival quite magnificently, I thought. I could hardly breathe by the end.

Here he is in person, talking about the book:

Providing a little (needed) light relief, next up was a familiar face to us Polari-ites - Tiffany Murray, a very entertaining woman whose readings from her memoir Diamond Star Halo enthralled us back in 2012. She's ventured into the world of fiction of late (specifically the genre of ghost stories) with her new book Sugar Hall, which tells the tale of a German-born family whose straitened circumstances force them to desert the comforts of London for a spooky old house on the Welsh borders.

Miss Murray's writing is sublime, as is evidenced by these passages. First, the wistful (and ever-so-slightly camp) cogitations of the novel's central character, the boy Dieter:
Not long ago Ma had been so glamorous.

Glamour was a word Dieter loved because he had read it in a thick-as-a-brick magazine called Vogue that Ma kept between her mattress and bedsprings at 52C Shelley House, Churchill Gardens, SW1. ‘Glamour’ was a word Dieter loved because when you said it the words made your face smile at the first ‘gla’ and then they made you blow a kiss on the ‘mour’.


Dieter liked that. He liked it so much he once practised the word in the bathroom mirror, wearing Ma’s Siren Red lipstick.

And, as young Dieter tries to tell his mother and sister about the ghostly boy he has seen:
‘I’m not making it up. He just popped into the air, from nothing, and he stared at me and didn’t say a word, and he looked so ill, and I felt dreadfully funny all over. There is a strange boy out there.’

Dieter pointed to the bay window and the wild red gardens. He squinted; it was all too bright in the countryside and he didn’t like it. He didn’t like this house: he hated the fact it was home now. London was his place to be. By the river: Churchill Gardens.

‘He just appeared, and he wore a silver collar…’ Dieter’s voice tailed off.

Saskia latched onto these last words and snorted. ‘Don’t be silly, Dee. Boys don’t wear collars. Vicars do and dogs do.’ She glared at him and Dieter felt his fear settle, a burrowing toad. The points of the toad’s wet, sharp feet, its warty sides, all dug deep into Dieter’s belly; his breath went and he collapsed into his grandfather’s lime-green armchair.

Dust puffed.

After a break for a fag and a top-up of booze, it was time for the ever-wonderful VG (Val) Lee, one of the panel of judges, to take to the stage to announce the longlist for this year's Polari First Book Prize. The titles are:
  • I Am Nobody's Nigger by Dean Atta (Westbourne Press)
  • Stephen Dearsley’s Summer of Love by Colin Bell (Ward Wood Publishing)
  • The Girl with The Treasure Chest by VA Fearon (VIllage Books)
  • The Palace of Curiosities by Rosie Garland (Harper Collins)
  • The Falling Sky by Pippa Goldschmidt (Freight Books)
  • Petite Mort by Beatrice Hitchman (Serpent’s Tail)
  • Hainault via Newbury Park and Other Broken Tracks by Keith Jarrett (self-published)
  • The Birds That Never Flew by Margot McCuaig (ThunderPoint Publishing)
  • Fairytales for Lost Children by Diriye Osman (Team Angelica)
  • God's Other Children - A London Memoir by Vernal W. Scott (self-published)
  • The Rubbish Lesbian by Sarah Westwood (Mimwood Press)
  • Out in the Army by James Wharton (Biteback Publishing)
All very worthy, I'm sure - and the shortlist will be unveiled in September.

But next up was a big surprise! For opening the second half with an extract from her new, and as yet unpublished, historical work was none other than former Blue Peter presenter (and mother of house fave Sophie Ellis-Bexter) Miss Janet Ellis!

The piece she read was very amusing, in a creepy-sort-of-way given its subject matter, as a naive young girl in the Georgian era is given a little more of an extra-curricular anatomy lesson from her lascivious home tutor than she could have bargained for...

I look forward to reading/hearing more from the lovely Miss Ellis's new chosen career move [no clips or extracts appear to be online as yet, more's the pity].

Our headliner, however, was a real treat (again). Looking rather physically frail these days, but nonetheless with every iota of wit and subtlety fully intact, Mr Paul Bailey is a true veteran of literature. Twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize, he was awarded the EM Forster Award in 1974 and, forty years on, is still writing magnificent classics. He treated us to one of his pithy readings last year (when the combination of Celia Imrie, Fidelis Morgan and Rebecca Chance, who preceded his arrival, were a formidable act to follow), and is an all-round charming person.

He read a passage from his first solidly gay-themed masterwork The Prince's Boy , a convoluted tale of a Parisian brothel part-founded by Marcel Proust, a former "favourite boy" of a Romanian minor royal who now turns "tricks", and the randy encounters of the tale's narrator (another émigré - "Romanian by birth, French by choice, English by accident") with him, in the fantastically decadent and dangerous world just before the rise of fascism. Read an extract online.

It was utterly fabulous, and the audience rightly gave him a heartfelt ovation.

And that, unfortunately, was it - until September! [Featuring Joanna Briscoe, Colin Kelley, Carole Morin, Trudy Howson and more, apparently. I can't wait.]



  1. A great write-up, as always. Sorry to have missed it!

    1. Bless - you were missed, dear! Jx

  2. Thanks J. An exciting memoir of Polari as always. Xx

    1. I thought your reading was fab... Jx

  3. Yes all in all a splendid night out !

  4. A great night, really strong readers, loved Wayne's two stories, great comic timing.
    The icing on the cake was Dame Barbara Cartland's biography passages x

    1. Yes, I neglected to mention Mr Bailey's delightful reading of Miss Cartland - I tried to find the notorious review in the Catholic Tablet magazine that compared his writing to that of the "Patron Saint of Pinkness", but, surprise, surprise it's only available to subscribers of that sad periodical. He is (as I said to Lauren/Rebecca), a true raconteur! I could listen to him for hours... Jx

    2. and he could quite easily talk for hours too :-) x

  5. It was a great night...and a great blog as always my dear... X

    1. Thanks, sweetie - and great to have you there after all this time... Jx

  6. I really enjoyed your reading on Tuesday - thank you for that x

    1. Hi Matthew - I guess your kind comment was directed at Wayne..? Jx

    2. I've a one in five chance it was me :-) x


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