Wednesday, 16 September 2015

A dandy, a urinal, Tiger Woman, Music Hall lesbianism and the Queen of Teen

And so, a new Autumn Season commences, with the first outing for "London's peerless gay literary salon" Polari. John-John and I were full of anticipation...

Our magnanimous host Paul Burston was particularly proud, opening proceedings, to announce the start of this year’s Polari National Tour, funded by Arts Council England - taking in venues up and down the country: Cambridge, Cardiff, Bristol, Brighton, Hertford, Liverpool, Birmingham, Nottingham, Newcastle and Bedford. Phew! At each event, Paul and partner-in-crime VG Lee will host a workshop, and one of the participants is invited to open the show - and one lucky performer (whose name unfortunately I didn't catch) from the workshop earlier in the day did just that for us. Admirable though her piece was, it was time for the advertised itinerary...

The very lovely Alex Klineberg, journalist, writer and self-described "gentleman of adventure", gave us a fascinating selection of snippets from his (unfortunately Kindle-only) memoir of his friendship with the late, great "King of the Dandies" Sebastian Horsley:
I'd assumed Sebastian would be like he was on film. Reeling off endless quips in an obnoxious fashion and generally showing off. I'd met that type before. Those who are 'always on', so to speak. Inevitably, it isn't long before one wonders if such people have an off button.

Sebastian was far more complex than that. It didn't take long to see how vulnerable he was. The quips were always flowing and he was always outrageous. But he was also a very good listener. And there was always an air of sadness that seemed to be haunting him. Stephen Fry said that the look in his eyes "stopped just shy of pleading."

When he was out and about he was always decked out in full Byronic splendour. But he could also be seen jogging through Soho early in the morning in sports wear...

Anyone who projects such an elaborate image of themselves onto the world will invite the question: "Who is the real so-and-so?" Some may be inclined to ask if the real Horsley was the made up dandy mincing through Soho, or if the haunted man in [his] final photos was the real him. But this is probably the wrong question. He was both of those people - often simultaneously.
We are extremely glad to have met (albeit briefly) the great man - reading at Polari way back in September 2008 - our very first time "at the salon" and again that December. RIP. Dear Sebastian is on Amazon.

Andrew McMillan's poetry is singular, and his deadpan delivery is perfect for it - the audience was rapt throughout. Mr McMillan in his latest anthology focuses on the body (male, of course) and all its foibles. Not least in this one, Urination:
I'm scared of bumping someone while they piss
those Mondays I'm a packhorse bags hung
swinging round the urinal bodies
and one day I know I'll knock someone
and they'll piss their legs or they'll turn slightly
and show another man their full arc
or they'll fall into their own wet puddle
cock limp and neither of us will look
or he'll look at me avoiding looking
feigning interest in the hard cream tiles
maybe it's that I dream of being bumped
knocked from my aim by a stranger
the briefest touch during the private act
the toilet is an intimacy
only shared with parents when you are young
and once again when you are older
and with lovers when say on a Sunday
morning stretching into the bathroom
you wake to the sound of stream in bowl
and go to hug the naked body
stood with its back to you
and kiss the neck
and taste the whole of the night on there
and smell the morning’s pale yellow loss
and take the whole of him in your hand
and feel the water moving through him
and knowing that this is love
the prone flesh
what we expel from the body and what we let inside

It was a complete delight to see our old friend and Polari stalwart Miss Celine Hispiche again. She concluded the first half with a rollicking set of numbers from her forthcoming cabaret production Betty May, The Musical: Tiger Woman versus The Beast. A total delight - and here is that very musical as highlighted on "Radio Gorgeous":

BETTY MAY: The Musical with Celine Hispiche Writer & Performer on RADIO GORGEOUS by Radio_Gorgeous on Mixcloud

Fab! - read more about Betty May the Musical.

After the brief fag'n'booze break, it was time for our chum Alex Hopkins to take to the stage to announce the Polari First Book Prize 2015 shortlist:
  • Straight Expectations by Julie Bindel (Guardian Books)
  • The Gift of Looking Closely by Al Brookes (Self-published)
  • Everything Must Go by LaJohn Joseph (ITNA Press)
  • The Rental Heart by Kirsty Logan (Salt)
  • Self-portrait with The Happiness by David Tait (Smith/Doorstop books)
  • The Informant by Susan Wilkins (Pan)
According to the press release: The six shortlisted titles... capture a vivid range of perspectives, all with a bold and inspiring LGBT narrative. With authors from all over the country, it brings to light some of the most exciting and varied new voices in contemporary writing, making it one of the year’s most representative literary prize lists.


From its promotional blurb (the revue is currently on tour, following its success at the Edinburgh Festival):
All The Nice Girls’ takes an entertaining glimpse at the lives of Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney through the eyes of male impersonator Ella Shields. Starting out in Lena Ashwell’s concert parties for the troops in WW1 the young Farrar and Blaney quickly adapted their classical cello/piano act into a ‘turn’ full of repartee and physical humour.

Household names in the early 1920s Farrar and Blaney had an on and offstage partnership, singing popular love songs of the day to each other in West End Revues and living together openly. At the same time Ella Shields’ Music Hall act was in decline. ‘All The Nice Girls’ imagines her fictitious reaction to the younger pair as they live the starry life of Bright Young Things. Will their relationship survive the pressures of the age and the conflicting urges to marry and conform or to party wildly into oblivion?
This sounds like an utterly fascinating show, not least from the excerpts performed for us by Ali Child and Rosie Wakley.

I hope it comes to London soon! I want to find out more about those very "modern" ladies Gwen and Norah...

Crowned "Queen of Teen" 2014, the cherubic James Dawson is the multi award-winning author of dark teen thrillers Hollow Pike, Cruel Summer, Say Her Name and Under My Skin, as well as non-fiction works This Book is Gay and Being a Boy.

Entertainingly, he read for us some extracts from his first contemporary romance, All Of The Above, which he described thus:
"It would be neater, wouldn’t it, if this was a story about self harm or sexuality or eating disorders or ridiculously hot bass players, but it’s a story about all of them. Yeah, it’s a mess. And it’s about to get messier.”
As described on Goodreads:
When sixteen-year-old Toria Bland arrives at her new school she needs to work out who her friends are in a crazy whirl of worry, exam pressure and anxiety over fitting in. Things start looking up when Toria meets the funny and foul-mouthed Polly, who’s the coolest girl that Toria has ever seen. Polly and the rest of the ‘alternative’ kids take Toria under their wing. And that’s when she meets the irresistible Nico Mancini, lead singer of a local band – and it’s instalove at first sight! Toria likes Nico, Nico likes Toria, but then there’s Polly... love and friendship have a funny way of going round in circles.
It was absolutely brilliant - and our audience loved it - particularly one group of ladies we surmised might have been the author's 'Aunties', so enthused were they...

And with the traditional return to the stage of our entertainers for the evening, and a tumultuous ovation, it was all over for another evening.

A grand start to the new season, I'd say!

Our next outing - on 5th October - is "Polari at the Lit Fest" (London Literary Festival). Tom Rob Smith heads the bill, and readers include Juliet Jacques, Charlie Flowers, Anny Knight and Sunny Singh. The winner of The Polari First Book Prize 2015 will also be announced.

Looking forward to it already...


  1. Jon, as ever a fabulous review. I don't know how you do it but you do, capturing the mix of literature, fun and party! X

    1. Thank you, darling - "the mix of literature, fun and party" is what it is all about, and what keeps us coming along! Jx

  2. As ever, the inimitable Dolores Delargo - diva, camp icon and legendary goer - sums up the proceedings impeccably. How fabulous to have her back in attendance. With kind regards, Ms Ashley. x

    1. Such kind words from an LGBT pioneer... :-)

  3. Jealous! Here in Seattle we get single readings by a gay author only about 3 times a year. Sounds like a great party with literati.

    1. Polari is a marvellous evening's entertainment - and it celebrates its eighth year this autumn! Highly recommended if ever you find yourself in London... Jx


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