Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Pride, murder in mind, Trans identity, missing children and Our Lady of the Underpass

Ah, Polari. How we (Paul, Jim, little Tony, Emma, Toby, Alex, Bryanne, Simon, Marcus, Val, Anni, Jayne and the rest) love it.

On Monday we assembled once more for the first in the new season of "London's premier gay literary salon" (after its brief break for summer hols) with excitement and relief, and as ever we were not disappointed!

Our host Paul Burston proudly congratulated Toby and Emma on their recent (theatrically public) nuptials, welcomed his hubbie Paulo and Mum-in-law Heidi to the evening, and opened proceedings with customary top-hatted aplomb.

First to the podium was another "LGBT literary face" on the London circuit, the (artistically) label-clad Trudy Howson - hostess-with-the-mostest of the long-running "Incite" poetry evenings at the Phoenix Artists' Club, and, as we found, a delightfully pithy poet in her own right. Here she is performing her classic, Pride:

Carole Morin, up next, read for us (in character as "Vivien Lash", the protagonist of her "noir"-ish novel Spying on Strange Men) a most chilling piece.

Our narrator has just received an envelope of photographs (anonymously) that detail her husband's secret affair, and now she is tempted to thoughts of murder:
Knowledge is power. Without information, I can’t get revenge. If I had an address or even a name for, let’s call her Z, I could send a dead chicken in the mail.

But I don’t. So I checked that the maid had gone, peeled off my clothes, and stepped into my bath just in time.

Our wedding picture caught my eye. There’s one in every room, spying on me.

The clarity of his complexion makes him look innocent. In movies, the villain is pockmarked. So in real life good skin has come to mean good faith. Where is he now, that boy I married? Where am I?

Angry in my pink marble bathtub plotting a murder. The bath full of rose petals picked on a moonlit night. He spat on my heart with his betrayal.

Betrayal is a cliché.

Does his romance convert me into a victim? Has he won again, beat me to it, devised his escape route? Bought her presents? Those miscellaneous expenses from shops I haven’t heard of can’t all be surprises for me.

Why would the stinky little slut send me a picture she doesn’t even look that good in? How the fuck does she even know where we live? James is so secretive he has secrets even from himself.

Maybe the ho-bag didn’t intend the picture for me? It’s a present for him. Something to remember her by? A warning? But if the envelope was for him, it would have his name on it.

When I come out of the bath, he’s home.

His heart has no home. He gets nervous when love circles him. Panics when happiness closes in. Should I laugh out loud or bite him?

"Hello Baby," he says, like nothing’s changed. He looks innocent. We are still the perfect couple. "We’re going to the Russian Riviera."
Thrilling stuff!

Collin Kelley - who last landed at Polari from Atlanta, Georgia two years ago - provided us with some much-needed light relief to conclude part 1. His poems about love, lust, growing-up and the vagaries of stupid middle America are always a joy; not least this one - The Virgin Mary Appears in a Highway Underpass:

Suitably refreshed after a fag on the moonlit Thames-side terrace, replenished drink in hand, it was time for the "second act".

But before the readers would begin, it was time for judging panel-member Suzi Feay to make an announcement - the shortlist of five for the Polari First Book Prize (which will for the first time be displayed at W.H. Smith travel outlets>:
  • I Am Nobody's Nigger by Dean Atta
  • Petite Mort by Beatrice Hitchman
  • Fairytales for Lost Children by Diriye Osman
  • God's Other Children - A London Memoir by Vernal W. Scott
  • The Rubbish Lesbian by Sarah Westwood

Juliet Jacques is very angry. Her account of her experiences of growing up in the wrong gender, and of transition, maltreatment and psychological stress, interspersed with her more recent encounter with radical performance artist Marina Abramović was - admittedly - a challenging thing to listen to, yet she has my ultimate admiration for her intelligent stance on the controversial topic of how trans people and gender identity are brow-beaten even more spitefully by the ultra-feminist Left than by the bullies and bigots of the Right. Just this small extract from her magnum opus on the subject published in the New Statesman earlier this year makes me shudder:
" few know any trans people, with the twin problem of family and friends being encouraged to disown them and their feeling that they have to live in stealth. Factor in a media culture that values bad-tempered slanging matches above sensitive exposition, with broadcast slots or word counts too small to allow much beyond familiar soundbites, and the problem is even worse. The tendency of publications and broadcasters towards clickbait-style questions debated by thundering bell-ends is by no means limited to trans people – witness BBC Newsnight’s jaw-dropping decision to ask ‘Is it ever OK to call women sluts?’ and invite Godfrey Bloom, a man shoved off the right-hand edge of the UK Independence Party for his views on women and ethnic minorities, to help them find a consensus. But we’re constantly forced to justify our existence, responding to questions which people aren’t conditioned to see as unreasonable: I got loads on starting transition – usually about my genitalia – but the most difficult was simply “Why?” I don’t know what caused my gender dysphoria – nature, nature or some combination: it just is, and I don’t see why I should bear the responsibility of answering it to anyone who meets or reads me.

When I was a child, I’d go to my grandmother’s house and start writing. When I picked up my pencil, she’d tell me that in her day, left-handers would be forced to write with their right hands, which seemed ridiculous to me. Luckily, those days were over and although my left-handedness is still treated as a curiosity by people who expect me to have terrible script, I can write as I wish – but sometimes I imagine how absurd, not to mention vindictive, a campaign to return to this would look, and wonder if we’ll ever reach a similar point where my transition is quietly accepted as a matter of bodily autonomy."

[For a more light-hearted, if just as honest, exploration of gender dysphoria, see yesterday's blog.]

Our headliner Joanna Briscoe - winner of the Commonwealth Betty Trask Prize (for Mothers and Other Lovers in 1994, and partner of fellow award-winning novelist Charlotte Mendelson - had the unenviable job of following that show-stopping monologue, but took to the task with aplomb, reading from her new mysterious Gothic novel Touched.

As Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian put it:
"Touched is a gripping novella, a waking nightmare in the home counties that is both erotic and claustrophobic. There's a woozy atmosphere of menace, a satirical stab at Britain's postwar commuter-belt aspirations, and an elegant, postmodern, cine-literate twist.

Rowena is the beautiful, harassed mother of five young children who has been chivvied by her husband into moving away from London to this sweet little village, a convenient half-hour drive from the capital. They have turfed Rowena's ailing mother-in-law out of her cottage, bought the one next door and are now trying to knock them through to create a family house and commuter base. But the cottage itself seems to resist this proto-yuppification. Haunted with resentment, the walls groan and bulge. Rowena's children start behaving oddly, forming a friendship with the local builder and his wife, Mr and Mrs Pollard – and then they begin to disappear. Rowena finds herself faint with desire for her handsome neighbour Gregory and begins to sense the presence of Freddie, the imaginary friend of her disturbed daughter Evangelina. Is Rowena having a breakdown – or is it something else?

...Touched would make a terrific 1960s black-and-white film."
And that is precisely how I pictured it as she was reading - a perfect story for a film adaptation (or more likely TV, for which Miss Briscoe's previous novel Sleep With Me was adapted in 2009). Spooky, indeed. We were gripped, and were left wanting to find out more.

However, with a final flourish as the assembled artists gathered for their well-deserved applause, it was not to be.

Another marvellously eclectic Polari evening was over for another month.

Next month's event, as part of the London Literature Festival, will be in the prestigious (if somewhat soulless) Purcell Room - as we start our celebration of seven years of LGBT literary fabulousness, and the winner of the Polari First Book Prize is announced. Ali Smith, Mari Hannah Will Davis, Karen Mcleod and Justin David will be on the bill - and, as ever, I can't wait!



  1. Lovely write-up! Sorry to miss this one. See you at the next one, I hope.

    1. Shame you couldn't be there, my dear! Jx


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