Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Like so many queens they have no shame in public

What a fantastic evening "The Lavender Library" turned out to be... Not that I would have expected anything less, with the lovely Paul Burston and Rupert Smith in charge.

Brilliantly MC-ed by The Independent's Suzi Feay, gay writers and such stars as Julian Clary, David McAlmont, Stella Duffy and Andy Bell were asked to champion the gay books and writers that had most influenced them.

Diana Souhami amusingly championed Gertrude Stein and her long, eccentric relationship with Alice B Toklas; and Stella spoke in glowing terms about another literary lesbian Patricia Highsmith and her erotic novel Carol.

Andy was impressed with the similarities between his cruisy sex life and that of Joe Orton as much as the great man's writing, comparing the infamous cottage scene which Joe recalled with such relish in his diary with his own experiences when he encountered a young J*mi Som*rv*lle on Hampstead Heath!

Julian, more characteristically, chose one of our favourites - the Mapp & Lucia stories by E.F. Benson, all stylish and witty banter and mannerisms portrayed by supposedly "straight" characters, that reveal their true gay roots to the more discerning reader.

But for me the crowning glory was Paul Burston, who chose the book that I would say influenced me the most in my life - Queens by Pickles.

A masterpiece - this is one of my favourite books! It has played such a pivotal role in my gay life, and I actually have a guilty secret to share. Visiting the hideous 1960s mausoleum that passed for a library in Newport in the early 80s, I was searching for The Naked Civil Servant by Quentin Crisp - and discovered it had been catalogued by the neo-Fascist authorities that ruled the roost in South Wales at the time in the "Sexual Deviancy" section.

Outraged (and slightly intrigued) by this awful description, I made a thorough investigation of this particular area of the teak'n'gunmetal shelving and discovered the book (Queens) was part of the collection in that category. To my everlasting shame (not really!) I stole it (well, never returned it anyhow), and its tattered and well read and re-read pages adorn my bookshelf to this day (complete with added graffiti by a sexually frustrated reader, carefully Tipp-Exed out by the librarians - how very Joe Orton!)

Published in the year I came out - 1984 - the enigmatic author of Queens must have spent years observing people as he travelled through the London gay scene. His long list of characters - the Screaming Queen, the Straight-Acting Queen, the Old Queen, the Opera Queen, The YMCA Queen, the Insidious Queen, the Clone - and the scenarios and interplay between them that he portrays - are all instantly recognisable today.

Although Paul read out his particular favourite passage from the book, I have one of my own I need to share:
"The girly queens flock to Heaven like toddlers to a sweet shop. They flounce about the place, giggling and shrieking, hands and arms flung about in a wild sign language embellishing phrases like "She Never!" and "Ooh Gloria - don't!". They like to call each other bitch and never ever stand alone.

"Once out of the pubs and set free in Heaven's wide-open spaces, they know no restraint. Lacking androgynous beauty, they daub themselves with Boots blusher and eye-liner, and bat their eyelashes like Sixties sluts... Like so many queens they have no shame in public, but can be quite suburban and prudish in private. This is always an annoying reversal and lets them in for a lot of abuse which, because they are so desperately inadequate, they enjoy...

"Although impressed by money, they are unlike rent boys, and want sex more than cash, more than stardom even. Heaven is where they hope to find love one day. Love, of course, is the same regular big cock."

I think we can identify with that - we have all met these caricatures at some stage in our lives, along with all the others in the book. I certainly can spot Pickles' "types" whenever and wherever I enter a gay bar, and have spent many an absorbing evening doing just that!

Pickles also illustrated his work with some quite grotesque sketches of grotesque people...

Queens by Pickles is a must-read book for every gay person - I cannot recommend it enough!

It is out of print but is available through Amazon Stores


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