Thursday, 9 October 2014

Elderly drug-dealers, monsters, a Brownskirt, a psychopath and an heir to Virginia Woolf

"The Polari First Book Prize is for a first book which explores the LGBT experience and is open to any work of poetry, prose, fiction or non-fiction published in the UK in English within the twelve months of the deadline for submissions. Self-published works in both print and digital formats are eligible for submission."

So it was with antici...pation [again!] that John-John, Paul, Jim, little Tony, Wayne, Emma, Jayne, Lexi, Val, Simon, Bryanne, Anni, Lauren and a horde of other keen readers thronged to the rather posh venue of the Purcell Room in the Southbank Centre for the gala evening to announce the winner of the Prize. Mr Paul Burston, as nervous as a first-time Dad, was, as ever, Master of Ceremonies, and artfully steered us to welcome our readers to the centre of a much larger stage than is normal for our intimate event.

Absolute sweetheart and Polari regular Justin David had the unenviable task of being first to take the stage in front of that vast, echoey hall, to open the show. However he confidently leapt straight into a passage from his début novella, titled The Pharmacist; the tale of amateur photographer Billy and his growing entanglement (with less-than-fatherly motives, one is led to suspect) with his eccentric, mysterious elderly neighbour Albert, and his unlikely and rather surprising way of supplementing his income:
"...he's gripped by this debonair gentleman. Billy disregards the transaction he thought might have taken place. It's the old man he's interested in. He must live locally. Billy's seen him at least three times before, here on this street. Unmistakeable. When the old man walks, trailing rich aromatic smoke from his pipe, he holds himself taut and regal. This graceful image of a man is enough to spark Billy's interest for unconventional behaviour, and he manages a couple of good shots of the man, amid his photographs of the flowers.

From his place in the sunlight, he observed the old man doff his hat and say goodbye to the flower seller, punctuated by a flourish of his hand.

Look at that, thinks Billy. The flair, the twirl - he loves that the man doesn't conform to any normal code of behaviour. Swanning swiftly through the crowds of fashionably dressed people carrying freakishly cut flowers, the old gentleman disappears round the corner into Laburnum Road. Billy follows quickly to see if he can get another shot to take back to the studio. The old man fascinates him and he wonders if he may have found new subject. The gentleman heads down the east-end street towards the Victorian maisonettes where Billy lives. It's a great surprise to him to see the old man take a key from his pocket and slip into the communal entrance of his building; Billy's building. 'Oh my God!' Billy can't help saying out loud, before reaching the front door. 'He lives upstairs.'
All rather enthralling, we thought...

Trapeze artist, aerial acrobat and award-winning author - and another familiar face from Polari - Mr Will Davis was up next with a very odd short story indeed, all about a neurotic and distinctly un-monster-like giant sea monster, titled I Eat People(!) Quirky, funny and completely off-the-wall - one of his early works, it was long-listed for the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize 2012/13, yet remains unpublished. Instead, here's a little potted video all about the man himself:


All twirling and quirky literary thoughts were rudely brushed aside in a thrice, however, when the grandiose stage was invaded once more by the Dame-Judi-obsessed and self-proclaimed "Poet-in-residence at the 197 bus stop", Barbara Brownskirt, with her "menstrual fuelled words". Poems, actually. Well, sort of. More like rants, really:

Unstoppable as always, she progressed through several classics from her as-yet-unpublished eighteen volumes of poetry, much to the delight of the audience. We congratulated the lovely Karen MacLeod (for it is indeed she) later for making us once again roar with laughter, and for being possibly the first person to say "vagina" on stage at the Purcell Room.

After the break and a little smoke'n'drink-fuelled promenade on the Thameside terrace of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, it was time to reclaim our seats and on with the show!

Mari Hannah is a class act. Winner of the Polari First Book Prize in 2013 for her first novel The Murder Wall, she's certainly a prolific writer - she's already published her fourth book (all featuring the lady lesbian DCI Kate Daniels), with a fifth apparently on its way.

It was from her latest, Monument to Murder, that she read a gripping extract - flick-flakking between the edgy scenario of our heroine facing a potentially lethal encounter (alone, on a wintry Northumberland beach, site of the recent discovery of two murdered children's bodies) with a psychopath on the loose, and the book's other female lead character (prison psychologist Emily McCann, who is being stalked by said sex offender) as she returns home to find her daughter apparently missing...

It's all heart-stopping stuff. No wonder that the rights to her novels have been optioned for a future television adaptation - by none other than Stephen Fry's production company, Sprout Pictures!

Our headline reader, the wee Scottish academician and author Ali Smith ("an heir to Virginia Woolf", according to the Telegraph) must be waiting with bated breath at the moment - for on 14th October she will find out if she's "third time lucky"; having been twice previously short-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize for fiction, her novel How To Be Both is on the short-list again this year!

And it was from that very book that she read us (at breakneck speed, without losing any clarity) a most wonderful passage - just one snippet from this much-lauded "multi-layered" story that simultaneously charts the modern-day life of recently bereaved pubescent George(ina) and the 15th century fresco painter Francesco del Cossa, and how they (figmentally?) actually get to meet. In her piece, she hilariously related an account of the remarkably successful trip by young Francesco (in Ms Smith's version of this real-life character, "he" was actually born a "she") to a Florentine brothel where, rather than be "entertained" by the prostitutes, "he" ends up painting them (and, in a twist, the girls pay him for this service)... It was utterly superb. She deserves to win. Here is Ali Smith talking about the book on BBC 2's Newsnight programme this week:

Miss Smith was wildly applauded for her reading, but it wasn't over yet, folks!

And so it came to the climax of the evening's celebrations - as the very lovely panel-member Matt Cain took to the podium to make the announcement we had all been waiting for. The winner of the coveted Polari First Book Prize 2014 is Diriye Osman for his seminal Fairytales for Lost Children, an anthology of tales of "people constantly on the verge of self-revelation; these characters - young, gay and lesbian Somalis - must navigate the complexities of family, identity and the immigrant experience as they tumble towards freedom."

Mr Osman was obviously overjoyed at his success! We congratulated him (clutching the award to his chest, together with his £1000 prize money presented on stage by the hunky "Men-At-Play-type" Vincent Francois, Chair of the UK LGBT Network and Regional Head of Audit at Societé Generale) in the lobby afterwards, and he was still out-of-breath but (as always) smiling. Bless. A deserved winner.

Thus, it was all over for another glittering evening (and, in the case of the Prize, for another year) bar the schmoozing...

Our next outing will be to wish "London's premier gay literary salon" Polari a happy seventh birthday in the esteemed company of Neil Bartlett, Ben Ferguson, Sarah Bramley, Niven Govinden and Alex Marwood on 26th November. Once more - I can't wait!



  1. As ever, you have captured the essence of a very special evening. Reading your blog, watching the clips I could almost imagine I was back in the Purcell Room again. You seem so cool and relaxed and yet you miss nothing! Love it! x

    1. Thank you, my dear! It was indeed a remarkable evening. Amongst the memories, it was lovely to see you again, as ever. Jx

    2. I am amazed at Jon's re-call of the nights

    3. Once a journalist, always a journalist... Jx

  2. Dolores is a legendary woman and a wonderful old goer. x

    1. "She's an old-time ambassador
      Of sweet talking, night walking games
      And she's known in the darkest clubs
      For pushing ahead of the dames
      If she says she can do it
      Then she can do it,
      she don't make false claims
      But she's a Queen,
      and such are queens
      That your laughter
      is sucked in their brains!"

      Shame you weren't there, darling. You missed a treat. Jx

  3. A wonderful raconteur's reminiscence of a marvellous evening. And I'm sure we have more treats in store, if Miss Smith gets her way (gender-bending in the Florentine Renaissance; I'll buy it!). Thank you darling. Jim x

    1. Bless you, thanks for the comment! It was indeed a great evening - and fingers crossed for Ali Smith at the Man Booker tomorrow... Jx

  4. As relevant and accurate as always except I dont think Paul Burston was as nervous as a first time dad. He has at least had twins before!x

    1. Ah yes, we are all the Children of Polari... Jx

      PS Thanks for the comment!


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