Sunday, 29 January 2017

A steam room tsunami, missing ceili dancers, visual poetry, a run through London and a unicorn

[photo: Justin David]

It was the first outing for "London's peerless gay literary salon" Polari - proudly entering its tenth year in business - on Friday and John-John and I duly joined a whole host of familiar regulars in the audience (including Emma, Toby, sexy Lexi, Val Lee, Suzie Feay, Karen McLeod, Anya Nyx and the rest) to welcome it in.

[photo: Justin David]

Host Paul Burston - whose own latest novel, the mystery crime thriller The Black Path was published in the autumn - teased us with the suggestion that something "very special indeed" was planned for the tenth anniversary, then proudly introduced the evening's impressive line-up...

[photo: Justin David]

...opening with the lovely Chris Chalmers - another regular attendee and fêted author, "long-listed" for the Polari First Book Prize in 2013. For us, he read from his latest novel Light From Other Windows, an intriguing tale of how a family's secrets unravel in the wake of the dramatic death of the youngest son in a tsunami that swamps Tenerife. The boy had kept a meticulous blog that painfully exposes his insights into the character of each and every one of them, and shockingly reveals that he had a few secrets of his own.

In order to save us from the full trauma so early in the evening, Mr Chalmers focused in on one of the family members, gay Jem, a gym-bunny and - it would seem - less-than-faithful boyfriend, as he is tempted by the (low-hanging) fruit of another in the steam-room of a posh hotel. Phew!

[photo: Justin David]

Dampening our ardour after that little fantasy session was the task that fell to Ann Mann (who, as I observed when she last read for us back at Xmas 2013, was one of the original members of The George Mitchell Singers - aka The Black & White Minstrels - and stalwart of BBC broadcasting) gave us a rather intriguing snippet from her new book Arcanum. A mystery of dramatic proportions, the tale revolves around the disappearance without trace of an entire coach-load of Irish folk dancers, interwoven with the ghosts and superstitions, premonitions and magic that permeate the history of the Emerald Isle.

[photo: Justin David]

How does one follow so many layers of mystery? With an audio-visual extravaganza, of course! For every poem Mr Nathan Evans (for it was he) read from the anthology Threads, he displayed an accompanying visual by the ever-lovely Justin David (also our "official photographer" for the night) - some of them quite hilarious. The poems he read for us explored life, domesticity, observations on urban living and relationships - and here he is reading a couple at the book's launch in the autumn:

Grabbing the chance during the break for a drink and a fag and a bit of a catch-up on all the gossip, it was soon time to resume our seats for a brace of top-notch readers.

[photo: Justin David]

First up, the superb Rosie Garland (aka "Rosie Lugosi"), author of the darkly gothic novels The Palace of Curiosities and Vixen - and with another The Night Brother on its way, it's a wonder she has found the time to write poetry as well. However, an anthology of her own poetry As in Judy is out now - and, from the poems she read for us, it will be brilliant!

How about the dreams of a young tomboy?
When You Grow Up
At night, she leaps and does not land. Spreads her arms and soars
above the fenced and neatly weeded garden. Her dreams
are practice sessions where she lifts cars, sees through walls, fights

dragons. She is a pirate captain, a queen, a horse. She is neither girl
nor boy: the distinctions are irrelevant when her small body encompasses
male and female, human, beast. A turbulent child figure-heading

the prow of her beaked ship, she buckles on armour, rescues
princesses from spinning wheels and charming princes,
fearless of the shapes beneath the bed. Too soon

she hears the call: Breakfast! Now! Blinks this world into focus.
Hushes battle cries, sets her teeth against the summons
to dolls, dresses, a future sweet with happy-ever- afters

and you’ll change. You’ll see. She sheathes her sword
between the pages of her book. Every bedtime her mother tucks in
the sheet of husband, marriage, children: tucks it in tight.
Or in complete contrast - a unicorn?

Even our estimable headliner Stella Duffy OBE was full of enthusiasm for Ms Garland's performance. Praise, indeed, from the author of fourteen novels, fifty short stories, ten plays and numerous articles; co-director of the Fun Palaces campaign for wider participation in all forms of arts and culture; and winner (twice) of the Stonewall Writer of the Year award.

She also congratulated Paul on the longevity of Polari - with a dire warning to the assembled audience to treasure it and never to take such things for granted (referring to events across the pond): "rights can so easily be taken away in an instant".

[photo: Justin David]

Ms Duffy's newest work is the historical novel London Lies Beneath - based on the true tragic story of the boys of the 2nd Walworth Scout troop, who drowned off Leysdown on 4 August 1912. However, it from was the optimistic early section of the book that Stella read for us, as the exuberant boys run all the way from Trafalgar Square back home [and if you so wish, you can follow the route yourself]:
These lads want to go out, yes, see the world, but they want to come home as well. London is home.

London, but not this London, up town London. Home is the other side of the river. That's Big Ben ringing out the hour and so the three boys have their task - ready, set, go. Running now, along the Strand, dodging trams and carriages, swiftly round the copper who doesn't want dirty lads from the wrong side of the river running along his patch, doesn't trust them as far as he could throw them. A quick stop at St Mary le Strand, once round the church as they promised they always will, it would be cheating just to turn the corner to the river, then fast over Waterloo Bridge to the south, to home. Real London, the London that is beneath. Beneath the fancy shops of the north side, beneath the big white houses with their bells and whistles and servants upstairs and downstairs and in my lady's chamber, beneath the lower lip of the river that swells full and rich with the tide, shrinking back to mud flats and dirty docks twice a day. Proper London, that's where our boy lived. Lived. Where he and his friends and their families lived, happily enough, scraping out a living but only just, crammed in tight one against the other, spreading out only on high days and holidays and then just for a day trip on the tram, back to the hearth come night, and the hearth cold unless they could scrape up a coin for the coal...

...Nearly there lads, nearly home. A swift sprint down Newington Butts, well and truly breathless by Draper Street, under the train lines, finally, finally, here's Heygate with the big synagogue standing at a diagonal on the corner, then the Cuming and the library, now the dog-leg that is Larcom Street. And here they are, home. Home. Red faces, chests pumping, bare legs stinging in the wind. Not quite three miles and they've done it in under half an hour if the Town Hall clock is right. Course it is, this is the Walworth clock, course it's right. Slap on the back, punch to the arm. Good mate, good lad.
Read in Ms Duffy's inimitable style, we were as breathless as "the lads" by the end. We love listening to her almost as much as we love reading her work.

[photo: Justin David]

And that was it - with only the "curtain call", the applause and our usual round of schmoozing with chums, it was time for the pub!

Our next outing is an LGBT History Month special on 24th February - featuring readings from Tim Murphy, Dr Sebastian Buckle, Leon Craig, Suzi Feay ...and Paul Burston himself!


Viva Polari!


  1. Sounds like you had a fabulous evening. I know you always looked forward to this literary evening.

    1. It always comes up trumps, dear - and yes, I do rather look forward to it. Polari is celebrating ten years, and I've been a regular for nine of them... Jx


Please leave a message - I value your comments!