Thursday, 27 November 2014

Berlin blackmail, corpses, temps, obsessive painters, a mysterious boy and the lesbian Bermuda Triangle

[Photo Justin David]

It was a somewhat depleted "gang" at this month's Polari - no Paul, John-John, Jim, Emma or Toby. Just me, Wayne, Little Tony, Simon, Bryanne, Val, Paulo, Jane, Anni and a crowd of the great and the good of the glitterati that included the legendary Bette Bourne in attendance, as our host Paul Burston proudly welcomed us to the seventh anniversary edition of "London's peerless gay literary salon" (can it really be that long? Scary).

Opening the show was Mr Ben Fergusson, writer and impresario at the Hayward Gallery on the Southbank Centre, who read for us an extract from his sinister and atmospheric first novel The Spring of Kasper Meier - a tale of blackmail, black markets and black deeds in the seedy underbelly of a post-War Berlin that had been reduced to rubble and a morass of half-lit corners, where one might stumble across a secretive bar, a suspicious character, or both. The piece he read introduced us to the story's anti-hero Kasper and his confidant bar-owner Frau Muller, and hinted at several of the sinister twists and turns that had - or were about to - unfold. A very promising start, we thought. Read an extract of the book here.

Here is Mr Fergusson talking about the book - which was also featured on BBC Radio 2's "Book Club" recently - on Celebrity Radio:

[Photo Justin David]

The ever-ebullient Alex Marwood (pen-name of Serena Mackesy, whose book The Temp was a "chick-lit" bestseller) was next to the stage, to lighten the mood somewhat. As a former journalist and columnist for The Independent, she has a knack for observation whether writing about shoes, office life or grisly necrophiliac murderers(!). And so it was that she was able to dip into her pre-Marwood world to talk about life as The Temp, and top it off with a chilling piece from her latest as Alex Marwood - Crime Writer, the semi-fictional account of a serial killer of the Dennis Nielsen type, whose neighbours in the shared house in which he lived never knew he was keeping corpses of people he murdered as companions...

Here's the lady herself, talking about the latter story The Killer Next Door:

But it was her hilarious anecdotes of how people behave towards authors at book fairs ("What do you mean, you're not Adrian McKinty?!!") and her list of office "stereotypes" in the style of fantasy characters - The Gollum, the Barbie, the Handsome Prince, the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion, and so on - that had us in stitches most of all.

Niven Govinden is no stranger to Polari, and is now on his fourth novel - which is short-listed for The Green Carnation Prize 2014. It was from his newest work All The Days And Nights - a tale of manipulation in a relationship between a dying artist and her husband John, as he sets off on a pilgrimage searching out his past in the portraits she painted of him now hanging in museums, galleries and private homes across America - that he read for us a passage. It is an intriguing construct, with even John's observations on his journey narrated second-hand by his wife back home, and an exhausting one as we tried to concentrate hard enough to keep up with who was supposed to be where, and doing what, during the narrative. Beautifully done of course, if a little difficult to follow.

Quite the opposite was the case with our third reader, Sarah Westwood, who opened the second half after the fag-n-booze top-up break. Sarah famously (notoriously) writes for Diva magazine a column titled "The Rubbish Lesbian", and her short stories are always a joy to listen to. Including this one - Lesbian sex. It's a bit like the Bermuda Triangle:
I mentioned my habit of 'fat-fingering' to a straight friend this week. She went very quiet, and then said, "Is that a lesbian thing?" What? No, it's an inability to use an iPhone thing. It made me laugh, but it also made me realise that lesbian sex is still the big question mark that remains unanswered for a lot of people. In the words of 80's songstress Toyah, "it's a mystery."

I've been asked "But how DO you have sex?" on many occasions. It seems odd, but for whatever reason many people just can't get their heads around lesbian sex. Maybe I'm just particularly flexible, but I've never found it that much of a strain.

Even before I became a lesbian, if I closed my eyes I could picture it with ease, and did, on many occasions. The image wasn't sketchy, and it didn't fade-to-black like a 1940's film when it got to the good bit. But for many people lesbian sex remains as baffling as the Bermuda Triangle - actually make that two Bermuda triangles rubbing together.

In the past when I've talked about "having sex" to some of my straight girlfriends I've noticed that their faces fail to compute. They have the look of someone reading the assembly instructions for an IKEA bedside table. It's as if they are sitting cross-legged on the floor with all the bits laid out in front of them, but they just can't picture how we'll come together.

I think it's the lack of penis that throws people; their minds are desperately grappling with the logistics of how sex is possible without one. It's hard to know what goes where; like a game of naked Twister, there are body parts swinging around, and skin slapping against skin, but they can't see the wood for the trees. Perhaps because there is no wood, or trees - only bushes?

What is it about two women having sex that's so hard to imagine? It's not as if we're aliens from planet Zorb with paint bushes for genitals. We've got all the same bits as straight women, and like them sex comes down to personal preference. There's no "one size fits all" answer.

We might have put people on the moon, but for some reason lesbian sex is one giant mental leap too far. Oh well, as long as it remains the final frontier I'll just have to keep on boldly going where no man has gone before.

[Photo Justin David]

And finally, that maestro of the English language, Neil Bartlett. We love him. An accomplished and respected writer, playwright and gay cultural historian - and OBE, no less - he exudes a magical way with words, not least in the piece he read from his newest work The Disappearance Boy, a heart-stopping passage about the panic-stricken rescue from the path of a train of a strange, mute, emotionless boy. We were gripped!

However, it was his reading of his poetic monologue from those dreadful days of loss in the AIDS era of the 1980s that had us all emotionally drained. Here he is, reading That's What Friends Are For:

I cried. I was not alone.

[Photo Justin David]

With the rush of adrenalin and emotion out of our systems, that, bar the schmoozing, was that for another month... An absolutely wonderful evening, as always.

Our next outing will be "A Very Polari Xmas" on 12th December, featuring Susie Boyt, Rosie Wilby, Yrsa Daley-Ward, VG Lee, and headliner Jonathan Harvey reading from his new novel, The Girl Who Just Appeared.

Roll on December, I say!

Polari website


  1. Brilliant! Jon, you put so much into portraying the evening accurately including capturing the atmosphere. Your blog is a real 'go to' for anyone wanting more information about the performers. VG.X

    1. You are too kind, Val. I am so looking forward to your appearance at the "Polari Xmas" bash! Jx


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