Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Jaclyn Smith hair, ukelele-playing lesbians and the "Cult of the Clitoris"

Another great time was had by all at Polari last night!

Paul Burston - feeling slightly confused by introducing an evening's entertainment against a backdrop of brilliant sunshine through the panoramic windows of the Festival Hall - promised us a bit of a gender-bending evening, and that is certainly how it began...

Opening the session was the diminutive "faggy genderqueer" Len Lukowska, who regaled us with a rather funny (and very real!) tale of decadent times as the new boy/girl in London:
The morning after the zombie night I overslept. I’d just started a temp job at a library on the other side of London and was meant to be there in half an hour. I had fallen asleep in all my clothes, which was lucky as I had no time to change. I opened Paco’s top drawer, rifled among the condoms and found his deodorant. Lynx Africa. I sprayed it under my armpits, put my shoes on and I was good to go. I still stank of booze.
Familiar stuff.

Next up was the eminent Brighton historian Rose Collis, who is a truly knowledgeable and fascinating writer (her Encyclopaedia of Brighton, full of facts about her beloved city - and a lot of gay history, unsurprisingly - is out now).

Among the tales she recounted was the fascinating life of one Mary Diana Dods, a close friend of Mary Shelley, who decided to fashion an entire life for herself as a man. Calling herself Walter Sholto Douglas (she was not in fact related to the family of Lord Alfred "Bosie" Sholto Douglas, however), she "married" her friend Isabella Robinson, who was pregnant, and with the help of Mary Shelley they moved to France and brought the child up together as "husband" and wife. I was gripped!

Miss Collis is also, as Paul B remarked, the first lesbian historian to read and play the ukulele at Polari! [Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehaving", if you need to know.]

However, even more fabbiness was to follow - in the shape of the magnificent Welsh transgender cognitive behavioural psychotherapist and author Alex Drummond, resplendent with Jaclyn Smith hair and Roger Whittaker beard.

Miss/Mr Drummond read us a fabulous tale of his/her adventures as a "trans-grrl" making a first visit to Newport ("New-putt", the roughest place on earth - and my home town!). A brave move indeed, and brilliantly told. His/her book Queering the Tranny is out next month, and promises to be a cracking read! Download an extract and/or pre-order your copy at: http://www.queeringthetranny.com/

In a tribute to Miss/Mr Drummond, Paul Burston also decided to "dress to impress":

After the break came a real treat - the excellent and learned Philip Hoare, biographer of the early decadent dandies Noël Coward and Stephen Tennant and all-round expert in the gay history of the early 20th century.

Introducing his book Wilde's Last Stand: Decadence, Conspiracy and the First World War, he told us the enthralling true story of the scandalous libel trial of Maud Allen vs Noel Pemberton-Billing (right-wing MP and predecessor of Mosley). From the Good Reads website:
The Billing trial's beginnings can be traced to the moment British authorities finally permitted a staging of Wilde's play Salome. American beauty Maud Allan was to dance the lead. So outraged was Noel Pemberton Billing, a member of Parliament and self-appointed guardian of family values, that he denounced Allan in the right-wing newspaper Vigilante as a member of the "Cult of the Clitoris." Billing was convinced that the "Cult of Wilde" - a catch-all for anyone guilty of degeneracy and perversion, in his eyes - had infected the land. Of that, Billing maintained, he had proof: a black book containing the names of 47,000 members of the British establishment who without doubt were members of the Cult of Wilde was in the hands of the Germans. Threat of exposure was costing England the war. Maud Allan sued Billing for libel, and the trial that followed held the world in thrall. Was there or was there not a black book? What names did it contain? The Billing trial was both hugely entertaining - never had scandal and social prominence been so deliciously juxtaposed - and deadly serious. As in Oscar Wilde's own trial in 1895 (which also took place at the Old Bailey), libel was hardly the issue; the fight was for control over the country's moral compass. In Oscar Wilde's Last Stand, biographer and historian Philip Hoare gives us the full drama of the Billing trial, gavel to gavel, and brings to life this unique, bizarre, and spell-binding event.
I can't wait to read this...

Our finale was provided by musical genius Terry Ronald (who has worked with Kylie and Dannii Minogue, Geri Halliwell and Sheena Easton!), reading from his fabulously camp first novel Becoming Nancy [Kylie described it thus: "I laughed out loud! Terry’s humour translates perfectly to the page and his book is a joy!"].

The story is set in South London in 1979, and centres around David, a 15-year-old Debbie Harry-obsessed boy growing up and coming to terms with his sexuality. The extract he read focused on David and his boyfriend Maxie as they manage to sneak into their first gay club with the help of a sassy old drag queen, and was hilarious!

Read an excellent review of Mr Ronald's book on FizzyPop! blog.

John-John, Paul, Jim and I had a wonderful time as ever! Our next "fix" will be Polari Goes Pop on 22 June, as our "peerless gay literary salon" celebrates the Meltdown Festival 2011 with James Maker, Bugger Chops aka Daniel Haynes, Sophia Blackwell, Ernesto Sarezale, Paul Hickey and Michael Alago, and promises "a very special guest". I can't wait!!

Polari at the Southbank

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