Thursday, 26 February 2015

A late birth, Lesbians go wild in the country, Boniface, a legendary nightspot and hipsters dressed as gay lumberjacks

My first Polari of 2015 was on Monday - and it was a special one, as promised by our delightful host Paul Burston (nursing a cold), for LGBT History Month. As always, we had a great time...

First up was Mansel Stimpson, eminent film critic, co-author of Film Review, and reviewer and interviewer for What's On In London for almost 20 years. He wrote his observational "coming-out" memoir No Drum to Beat thirty years ago, yet it was only published in 2014 - and, from the extracts he read for us, sounds a fascinating step-by-step account of how the truth dawns eventually, no matter how late in life. It opens with what surely must be one of the most intriguing first lines of the lot: "I was born in Edinburgh in 1978 at the age of forty." own assertion that everything was "fine" surely carried an unintentionally sanctimonious air; besides, it was essentially false... Possibly encouraged by the fact that my companion was a friend but not a close friend, I turned the conversation to my own life and admitted the loneliness I felt as a forty-year-old virgin who had for so long assumed wrongly that the right girl would turn up one day. "In fact," I added, "I'm beginning to wonder if it's possible that I'm gay."

Having always been true to myself, there was no question of suddenly seeing myself as a different person, no release of any hidden effeminacy. What was being shaken was not my character or my appearance but the myth of the gay stereotype.
We've all been there. Mr Stimpson evidently never looked back from that momentous moment: he became actively involved with the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE), has written for Gay Times and, most happily, he is still with the partner he met 24 years ago.

Clare Lydon's story The Long Weekend had little to do with "coming-out" - her protagonists, a group of old friends all heading to the West Country for their first reunion in ten years, are all, in varying degrees, secure in their sexuality. However, the emotional entanglements and what (it is implied) may be about to happen when lies, deceptions and old passions start bubbling to the surface, could certainly make this a weekend to remember. A soap opera in the making, methinks. Speaking of (watching) soaps, here's a "day in the life" of Miss Lydon herself:

Completing the triptych of authors in the first half was the ever-charming Diriye Osman (winner of The Polari First Book Prize 2014), who read for us from his familiar and charming stories Watering the Flowers, and, of course, Shoga:
‘Is it not true? And furthermore, this business of me braiding your hair has to stop! You’re a boy not a lady-boy!’

‘You know you love me,’ I smiled, ‘besides, what’s wrong with being a lady-boy? It’s a good look.’

She pulled my hair and said, ‘Waryaa, if you grow up to be gay, walaahi I will do saar.’

‘Saar’ was a brand of Somali exorcism. The ‘possessed’ – which was code for the mentally unstable – were put through their paces. Healers would beat drums to release spirits from the possessed, who would shimmy and shake, and if they got too frisky, would face the kind of beat-down usually reserved for criminals. Such superstition has always been rife in the bush and my gran, a country gal through and through, knew its effectiveness at deterring unacceptable behaviour.

I smiled now as she flexed my follicles. My grandmother did not know that I was gay and that I’ve always loved being gay. Sure, Kenya was not exactly queer nation but my sexuality gave me joy. I was young, not so dumb and full of cum! There was no place for me in heaven but I was content munching devil’s pie here on earth.

I was seventeen and I specialized in two things: weed and sex. And there was only one person in my neighbourhood who served both those dishes on a steaming plate for me.

I loved the way Mr Osman read this, licking his lips...

After a swift break for a fag and a trip to the bar, Mr B leapt back on stage to introduce a writer who has meticulously captured the lost history of a very special gay venue indeed - the famous (notorious) London lesbian club "Gateways" [most famously featured as the backdrop for the groundbreaking film The Killing of Sister George, starring Beryl Reid, Susannah York and Coral Browne.].

The fabulously flamboyant Jill Gardiner (for it is she) has collated in her book From the Closet to the Screen: Women at the Gateways 1945-1985 more than 80 fascinating first-hand accounts from lesbians back in the 40s, 50s and 60s, on how they perceived themselves and were perceived by others, the fears and the joys and, of course, the sheer thrill of discovering the club "behind the Green Door" and the fact that there were many other women just like themselves after all...
"When I went to the Gateways [in 1944], the atmosphere was fantastic. For a start we had women from overseas coming in, because they were stationed here, so you had all sorts of different people. Very interesting, very crowded, very packed. You got sightseers, of course, coming to look at all these people. People danced, especially during that war period when they were extra-enjoying themselves". - Pat

“The old diehard crowd with the Brylcream saw us as an invasion. Their femmes had perms and clip on mumsy earrings, summer dresses and court shoes. They’d say ‘What are you ? Are you butch or femme ?’” - "Brighton Sue"
Each and every one of them was enthralling, and Ms Gardiner's tireless work in gathering and collating them is an valuable contribution to LGBT History Month, and to all our histories. Fabulous.

[Her reading has inspired me to feature the Gateways Club as our latest "exhibit" in the Dolores Delargo Towers Museum of Camp - read it here.]

Our headliner Christopher Fowler is always a highlight for me, whatever he chooses to speak about. His daily blog about life, London, culture and everything, is a constant joy to read, and I do. Avidly. For our delectation on Monday, he chose to address a topic very close to his (and our) hearts - what advice can we give to inspire a new, younger generation of gay writers? Here's an extract of his well thought-out advice:
The best way to write about any place or group of people is to see it from outside. Colin Wilson was 24 and living on Hampstead Heath when he wrote The Outsider in 1956. At exactly the same time Colin MacInnes was writing Absolute Beginners, taking as his subjects urban squalor, racial tension, homosexuality, drugs, anarchy, and the new decadence. Oddly enough, Noel Coward was also 24 when he wrote The Vortex, about nymphomania and drug addiction. He became London’s bad boy, upsetting the old order by being interviewed in his dressing gown and smoking what people wrongly took to be opium.

So you’d think that now, 24 year-old writers would have even more to say, wouldn’t you? Especially gay London writers.

Try Googling ‘gay London writers’. What comes up first is a group called ‘Gay London Writers’. They were formed in 1993 and stopped meeting in 2009. After that there’s a mention of the Polari literary nights, and then the Samaritans helpline. We’ve been so assimilated into the mainstream that even search engines can’t find us. We got what we wanted. Our desires were legislated, our marches turned into parties, our private places became public, our secrets became national conversation, our style was adopted by all. Last week I went into a straight bar in Islington and found myself surrounded by hipsters dressed as gay lumberjacks in checked shirts and beards. It looked like 1983 was back. The gay people had been given a number and told to go sit with everyone else. Job done.

Except that writers are still outsiders. I watch TV commercials and see housewives still discussing toilet cleaners. That world, there, with the 2.4 children and trips to Centerparcs is the alien outside world to me. It’s like watching Martians or Top Gear. Gay people can get married now. I got married. We can be sold stuff like anyone else. We’re not pariahs, we’re a socio-economic demographic. So we stopped writing about being different even though we may think differently. For gay writers London is now about inclusion, not exclusion, acceptance, not exception. So what can we write about? Well, this is where it gets interesting.

First, there’s history. Recently there was a film called Pride. I was at the Bell pub for the miners’ fundraiser, and on some of the marches, and I thought the film was incredibly accurate, but it failed at the box office. A young woman called Elise Nakhnikian writing for the hipster American magazine Slant had this to say; "It’s depressingly ordinary dreck. A Disney movie bloated with swelling music, healing hugs and hearty handshakes, suspiciously eloquent speeches, and bigotry smacked down by smug liberal pieties." Presumably Elise wasn’t old enough to be there and didn’t realise its importance, and she certainly doesn’t understand Londoners.

Pride was about gay history, even if its subject matter was censored on US posters. In the same way, a play called The Boys In The Band by Mart Crowley opened in 1968 off-Broadway and ran for over 1,000 performances. Before this no-one had ever written a play with only gay characters. It was described as a landmark piece about acceptance and self-denial, and proved groundbreaking. But as the seventies progressed it was vilified for its self-loathing attitude, particularly as it contained lines like "Show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse". The world moved on and sexual variety became just another element of urbanization. The play’s bitchy partygoers caught in the pre-liberation closet no longer reflected our lives, and the dialogue eventually wound up in an episode of The Simpsons.

Let’s skip to the 1970s. In the film version of Joe Orton’s play Loot, Hal and his lover Dennis have sex with a traffic warden in the back of a hearse in order to avoid a parking ticket. The satisfied warden says "I’ve a son your age. I’ll bring him around next time for a foursome." The scene tramples so many taboos in the space of 20 seconds it’s a wonder the film wasn’t banned, but nobody turned a hair. The line wasn’t added by Joe Orton but by Galton & Simpson, who wrote Steptoe & Son. That was a real moment of change, and it passed unheralded.

To me, it’s not the portrayal of explicit sex that’s edgy, it’s the expression of outsider thinking. Are there still unusual, original thinkers? I suspect that the peer pressure of social networks is levelling us out a bit. Originality develops in isolation. You can’t be too strange when you’re telling everyone what you’re doing all the time. Perhaps it’s just a blip. After all, Facebook, that mirror of our vanities, is already eleven years old. How do we get originality back? How can we write about our city?
Brilliant, as always. We were enthralled.

And with his wit and wisdom still ringing in our ears, it was over, and we were off into the very city that we and Mr Fowler love so dearly. For late drinkies, of course.

Next month's Polari (on 30th March) will be, by all accounts, the biggest event in the entire history of "London's peerless gay literary salon" - for our headline reader is none other than worldwide lesbian bestseller Sarah Waters! Also on the bill are the faboo David McAlmont, Eric Karl Anderson, Jan Pimblett and Stevan Alcock. This should be a corker...

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