Saturday, 26 November 2016

Radical fairies, the state of the gay nation, jerk chicken and stuffed vine leaves, pyjamas, Edgeworth Bess and Vita Lampada

It has been a while - too long - since last I traversed the portals of the Royal Festival Hall function rooms, but last night a troupe of us (me, John-John, Paul, little Tony, Emma, Wayne et al) gathered for the last outing of "London's peerless gay literary salon" for 2016 - the ninth birthday of Polari (where does the time go? I've been a regular at this event for eight years)!

Host Paul Burston was appropriately attired in his fabulous new silk suit (from the swanky Brighton and Spitalfields tailor Gresham Blake) for the occasion, as he introduced the readers for the evening.

Opening proceedings was a genuine pioneer: founder member of the Gay Liberation Front in the UK, and stalwart of the anarchic drag troupe Bloolips (alongside our fave "Homosexual Hall of Fame"-er Miss Bette Bourne - see here, here, here and here), Mr Stuart Feather. He read a few wonderful recollections of the characters from those remarkable days of proto-revolutionary gay politics and communal living from his new memoir Blowing the Lid - Gay Liberation, Sexual Revolution and Radical Queens, and I was bewitched by it all...

There is, as is inevitable with a "limited-edition publication" such as Mr Feather's, nothing resembling an extract online, so instead here is the great man himself, with the aforementioned Ms Bourne, talking about Polari (the lingo, not the literary evening):

Next up was Mr Matthew Todd, former editor of Attitude magazine, whose insights (following Mr Feather's recollections from our cultural history) into the "state of gay society" into the here-and-now from his masterwork Straight Jacket made for some occasionally uncomfortable listening:
Culturally, homosexuality and misery have been linked so tightly by the haters over the years that they have become an offensive cliché to the point where any discussion is dismissed as prejudice. But discuss it we must.

More and more statistics reveal that LGBT people have higher levels of depression, anxiety, addiction and suicidal thoughts. The British Crime Survey 2009 showed that gay men used illicit drugs three times more than heterosexual men. It’s hardly a surprise. As therapist and author Joe Kort states so well in his book 10 Smart Things Gay Men Can Do to Improve Their Lives, what’s wrong is not our sexuality, but our experience of growing up in a society that still does not fully accept that people can be anything other than heterosexual and cisgendered (i.e. born into the physical gender you feel you are). It is the damage done to us by growing up strapped inside a cultural straitjacket - tight-fitting, one-size restraint imposed on us at birth - that leaves no room to grow. It makes no allowances for the fact that, yes, indeed, some people are different and we deserve - and need - to be supported and loved for who we are, too.
His whole reading was serious, yet not stifling in its analysis of the problems gay people still face coping with our social-media-savvy, drug-fuelled, abs-obsessed scene. There was much nodding of heads among our audience. I sincerely hope there will be many more people out there in the hedonistic "real world" who will read and learn from this book.

The very cute (with his new cropped-hair and glasses-free change of image from last time we saw him) Mr Dean Atta took to the stage to complete our triumvirate of talent for the first half. Entertaining and charming as always, he treated us to some powerful insights into life, loss, and relationships through his marvellous poetry (from his wildly popular compilation I Am Nobody's Nigger), including this one - his answer to the frequent question "where do you come from?":

I come from shepherd’s pie and Sunday roast
Jerk chicken and stuffed vine leaves
I come from travelling through my taste buds but loving where I live

I come from a home that some would call broken
I come from D.I.Y. that never got done
I come from waiting by the phone for him to call

I come from waving the white flag to loneliness
I come from the rainbow flag and the Union Jack
I come from a British passport and an ever-ready suitcase

I come from jet fuel and fresh coconut water
I come from crossing oceans to find myself
I come from deep issues and shallow solutions

I come from a limited vocabulary but an unrestricted imagination
I come from a decent education and a marvellous mother
I come from being given permission to dream but choosing to wake up instead

I come from wherever I lay my head
I come from unanswered questions and unread books
Unnoticed effort and undelivered apologies and thanks

I come from who I trust and who I have left
I come from last year and last year and I don’t notice how I’ve changed
I come from looking in the mirror and looking online to find myself

I come from stories, myths, legends and folk tales
I come from lullabies and pop songs, Hip Hop and poetry
I come from griots, grandmothers and her-story tellers

I come from published words and strangers’ smiles
I come from my own pen but I see people torn apart like paper
Each a story or poem that never made it into a book.


Speaking of fabulous, after the swift fag'n'booze break, in which I had a chance to catch up with the lovely Uli from Gay's the Word bookshop, we welcomed to the mike Polari stalwart VG (Val) Lee.

Doing her best to fit in with the "Being a Man" festival-themed evening, she read a couple of "pyjama-related" extracts from her new book Mr Oliver's Object of Desire, not least our eponymous hero's encounter with the predatory "Doreen":

As ever, a crowd-pleaser. We love her...

Our headliner for the evening was the bestselling author Mr Jake Arnott, who has a new novel The Fatal Tree out early next year - "a world of 'academies' (brothels), 'bung-nippers' (pickpockets), 'buttocks' (prostitutes) with 'Covent Garden Gout' (syphilis) being chased by 'prig-nappers' (Thief-Takers), it tells the tale of the notorious prostitute and pick pocket "Edgeworth Bess", and her escapades in the seedy underworld of 18th Century London with the gangs of ne'er-do-wells who met at Mother Clapp's Molly House. Sounds complex and deliciously intriguing, Mr Arnott's literary talents always impress - and I look forward to reading more about the terrifyingly amoral "Bess" and her motley crew when the book arrives in February.

However for us, he read a piece from his last novel, the equally mysterious House of Rumour, which wove an even more extravagantly decadent tale involving the mysterious disappearance of yet another "amoral" anti-heroine called "Pirate Jenny", and the rumoured involvement of transvestite prostitute named Vita Lampada. What actually became of all of them was about to be (literally) revealed in the middle of an encounter between a slightly-too-nosey female reporter and the book's protagonist "Jack". Exhaustingly curious...

And, on that note, with the customary curtain call and the usual round of schmoozing and "Happy New Year" wishes to all the assembled literati, that was it until - gulp - 27th January 2017. On that occasion, our erudite stars will be Stella Duffy, Rosie Garland, Nathan Evans, Chris Chalmers and Ann Mann. And I can't wait!

We love Polari.


  1. It was good to be back at Polari and see everyone. Great line-up too! As always, an amazing blog! Thanks dearie. JJx

    1. It was indeed a great send-off for the Polari season! Jx


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